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Regarded as a prog metal classic, Dream Theater's Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory is now 20 years old

ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Jul 13 2019 03:41PM


Prog 100
Prog 100

2019 marks 10 years of Prog magazine and as I write this, the 100th edition has been landing on the doormats of subscribers. A cricketing analogy seems appropriate for progressive rock while we’re waiting for the final of the Cricket World Cup, the long-form strategy of 5-day Test matches coming closest of any sport to embody the ethos of prog; the innings looked to be over as Team Rock, publishers of Prog, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock were plunged into administration in December 2016 only to be declared not out, saved by original owners Future Publishing in early January 2017 who bought the titles for a reputed £800,000 (having sold them for £10.2m to Team Rock in 2013.) The most heart-warming part of this story was that British metal band Orange Goblin raised over £70,000 through a Just Giving page for staff who were made redundant, put out of work without any severance pay just before Christmas; an illustration of the importance of the magazines to the musicians and the fans.


BBC Four - Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements
BBC Four - Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements

Though it had never left my radar, prog as a genre resurfaced in the mainstream media in January 2009 with the BBC Four series Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements following a series of false starts, one of which was the Virgin/EMI 3CD ‘The Best Prog Album in the World... Ever’, somewhat cynically released in time for Fathers’ Day in 2003. Not too long after the initial airing of that BBC Four series the first edition of Classic Rock Presents Prog hit the newsstands, intended at the planning stage as a quarterly publication but quickly becoming bimonthly due to its instant success. I can’t remember from which newsagent I bought my copy of that first issue but I assumed it was a one-off until I came across issue 2 (June 2009) Prog’s Avant Garde Old and New in Real Groovy records in Christchurch, NZ while on holiday in August 2009; my collection is devoid of the third and fourth editions, and also number 16, the issue published immediately before I set up a subscription.

In what could be seen as confirmation that prog was once more acceptable to discuss outside of dungeons or shady pub back-rooms, Alexis Petridis penned an article for The Guardian newspaper in July 2010, the week before the re-formed ELP headlined the High Voltage festival in London’s Victoria Park that reported on, with some surprise, the resurgence of prog https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/jul/22/prog-rock-genesis-rush-mostly-autumn

Petridis interviewed Prog magazine editor Jerry Ewing and revealed a healthy circulation of 22,000 copies per issue which at the time was half the circulation for the long-established NME.


Go back to go forward - Alexis Petridis in The Guardian
Go back to go forward - Alexis Petridis in The Guardian

Serendipitously, Ewing had chosen exactly the right time to launch the magazine; the third wave of prog that began in the mid 90s, itself a testament to the quality of the music, was going from strength to strength and exerting ever greater influence, and a vinyl revival had begun a couple of years before. Progressive rock may not have been truly fashionable but was nevertheless massively successful in the 70s, shipping millions of vinyl albums, where part of the pleasure of the prog experience was absorbing the images, lyrics and technical information on the gatefold sleeve. I believe that more than any other the genre, the vinyl LP is associated with progressive rock. A measure of this success is that some bands were effectively exiled from the UK by the government’s tax regime; when Labour took power in 1974 the top rate of income tax was increased from 75% to 83% and the surcharge on investment tax took the top rate on investment income up to 98%, rates that applied to 750,000 people with incomes over £20,000 per year, including the best-selling prog bands like Yes, ELP and Jethro Tull.

Prog 01
Prog 01

It was obvious that there was no way that a periodical dedicated to progressive rock could last long by only reporting on the music produced between 1969 and 1978, or even by appending on the era of neo-prog. I don’t read every article and I’m sometimes disappointed that what I consider an important event isn’t picked up by the editorial team, prompting me to fire off a disgruntled letter (or two.) I’m still of the opinion that there’s insufficient coverage of classic rock progressivo Italiano, although new material from PFM in 2017 and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso this year addresses this to some extent, but I was sure that 2013’s Le Porte del Domani by La Maschera di Cera, a conceptual follow-up to the acknowledged classic of Progressivo Italiano, Felona e Sorona by Le Orme surely deserved a mention, especially as La Maschera di Cera, like Le Orme before them, issued an English-language version of the album. However, the magazine manages to meet the requirements of unreconstructed 70s prog-philes whilst still managing to preserve a place in the competitive periodicals market by representing a spectrum that takes in progressive-minded metal, electronica, folk, jazz and ambient and though stable mate Classic Rock magazine might contain some content overlap of less-niche prog-associated acts like Pink Floyd, there are so many bands that they miss entirely, because they are neither the next big thing nor filling stadia. I’ve recently witnessed a tendency for general music journalism to reference progressive traits, in Muse for example, as handy epithets to confer a description that a group doesn’t simply follow the ordinary; this creates a space apart from conventional publications for a magazine devoted to prog.



Letter to Prog, May 2013
Letter to Prog, May 2013

With 100 editions in ten years, the frequency of Prog nicely balances new and freshly reappraised copy, with novel material provided by a cohort of younger musicians who can reflect on the music played by their parents and fusing this with other music that has been around for less time. This brings a new perspective to the genre, one of the reasons, I believe, that prog rock found a new respectability in the 90s and the secret of the third wave’s longevity. I’ve previously griped about prog metal but it is unlikely that there would have been a third wave if there had been no assimilation of a progressive ethos into metal. Catalysed by a shared heritage that cherished technical ability, prog metal began to arise in different parts of the world, most notably Scandinavia and the USA. This renewed interest in (or alternatively, a reduction in hostility towards) prog allowed the resurrection of King Crimson, who still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP in 1994. The double trio incarnation of Crimson revisited some of the ideas abruptly curtailed in 1974, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends and even touring with Tool in 2001.


There will always be debates about what constitutes prog rock, which nicely plays into the success of Prog magazine, tapping into any genre that cross-pollinates with prog. The Bloody Well Write letters page may contain missives from unreconstructed 70’s progressive rock fans declaring they will no longer subscribe to the publication but there are far more letters pointing out what a good job the Prog team are doing. That the magazine is now 10 years and 100 editions old is testament to their efforts. I’m happy to subscribe to Prog; Without it I’d have been too reluctant to give Anglo-Finnish Wigwam a chance and I’d never have discovered the excellent Zappa-like Supersister (from the Netherlands) or the amazing Yak who have no guitarist but sound like Steve Hackett.

I’m looking forward to the next 100 editions in the next 10 years.


Postscript

Though electronic media has played a part in the demise of the printed word, the best strategy seems to be balancing both forms of medium. I read Armando Gallo’s early Genesis biography I Know What I Like on a Samsung tablet and found it deeply unsatisfying but I am aware that one of the secrets to commercial success is to mix formats. So hats off to Prog magazine getting the balance right and keeping going, seemingly from strength to strength in a fiercely competitive environment.

I was both amused and surprised to see free copies of the NME available outside Whitechapel station when I started to work in the East End in 2015. Sporting an image of Taylor Swift, with a prominent yellow bubble appearing like a peeling sticker announcing MUSIC FILM STYLE, I realised that like other freebies handed out at transport hubs the print edition of the NME had become nothing more than a listings magazine, finally succumbing to what I always thought was their unspoken ethos that style was more important than the music. The print edition of the NME closed down in 2018.

Paul Stump's words could not have been wiser: the music’s all that matters


Credit: Jordan Hughes/NME
Credit: Jordan Hughes/NME

Post-postscript

For my part, I have learned to accept prog metal as a valid and valued sub-genre



Prog metal - Prog 12 December 2010
Prog metal - Prog 12 December 2010







By ProgBlog, Jul 19 2015 07:03PM

Oktober are comprised of Gary Bennett (basses, guitars, keyboards), David Speight (drums, percussion) and Molnár Kinga (vocals). Their origins hark back to 2007 when drummer Speight was playing with Peter Banks’ improvisation group Harmony in Diversity, who were invited to play at a Hungarian prog festival; also on the bill were Netherlands band Flamborough Head and Yesterdays, a Hungarian band based in Cluj Napoca, in the Transylvanian region of Romania and featuring Kinga on vocals. Speight was acquainted with Gary Bennett through symphonic prog band Yak but when the pair were involved in a collaborative effort on a record for Southend-on-Sea based hi-fi company Rega, Speight suggested Kinga as a vocalist for the project because she would be able to handle the complex arrangements associated with the prog take on the tracks they’d selected.

Bennett continued to work on original material with Kinga when she was back in Transylvania, sharing mp3 files over the internet. By 2011 the songs were ready for the addition of the drum tracks. The vocals were recorded in the UK in 2013 and the entire album was completed, mixed and mastered in December 2014; Sandcastles (2015) is the end result and it’s an album of well-crafted, beautiful melodic music carefully presented with some poignant (uncredited) photography from Bennett and his partner Fiona and one photo, ice skating, taken by Bennett’s father in 1986.

This isn’t really prog but it certainly has sonic links with prog. At just under 32 minutes and containing six songs it could have come from the early progressivo Italiano stable where a band’s recorded output was often notoriously brief. I’m struggling to pigeonhole the music but I shouldn’t really try because it’s best to let the music speak for itself; labels are only marketing tools, after all. Lyrically, the content is reflective and descriptive, taking in supernatural phenomenon and myriad aspects of the natural world. Throughout, Kinga’s voice is clear and strong and is reminiscent of Annie Haslam from Renaissance or, perhaps closer still, Amy Darby from Thieves’ Kitchen. Another comparison with Renaissance would be shared natural imagery as Betty Thatcher’s words included word pictures of icy pools and curling leaves; I’d go as far as suggesting that Bennett’s lyrics stray into classic Yes territory with his use of ‘green language’.

There’s a general progression over the CD of increasing complexity, where the later tracks are more layered than on the earlier tracks. Opening song Other People’s Parties is almost exclusively Bennett on acoustic guitar and Kinga singing though it’s here that we first get a glimpse of one of Bennett’s influences with a short burst of electric guitar that calls to mind the clean, compressed and EQ’d sound used by Mike Oldfield. This song is a joint Bennett – Kinga composition, the remainder of the album was written entirely by Bennett.

The shortest track on the CD, Don’t Stop is more up tempo and introduces a short riff on one of the multi-tracked guitars during the first two verses before another splash of Oldfield-like lead. The contemplative Dust and Rain is analogous to Genesis’ Blood on the Rooftops with some clever word-play over classical guitar, something that Steve Hackett would cover over his solo career. Lost and Found gets a traditional Irish folk song treatment, Bennett having played in a ceilidh band, and Oktober are joined by guest musicians Mick Graves on fiddle and Fez Powell on bodhran - Graves’ violin was produced by premier London violin maker Richard Duke and dates from around 1780. In this song Kinga delivers some neat call and response vocals and her harmonies remind me of Canterbury-scene backing vocalists The Northettes.

The opening section of Sleepers Awake is a fantastic riff reminiscent of Songs from the Wood era Jethro Tull and features a bouzouki, custom-made from an old 12 string guitar. The scan of the last two lines of verse two is a clever piece of lyricism, like Steve Hackett’s Tigermoth from Spectral Mornings. There’s more evidence of keyboards on this, the longest track, and there’s a nice ambient percussion section before a repeat of the bouzouki phrase and a reprise of the third verse from preceding track Lost and Found. In very prog fashion, there’s a neat segue into final track Sandcastles; taken together these two tracks could almost be a 13 minute long mini-suite because musically they’re approaching prog territory. Sandcastles features more Oldfield-like lead guitar but it’s the structure of the song that makes it stand out; after a fairly conventional verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus there’s a short syncopated section with the kick drum on every beat overlain with a concise guitar solo that fades (too) rapidly to seashore noises. This ends with a haunting verse that doesn’t appear in the lyrics, rather like a hidden song: Sing me to sleep underneath weeping willows / Wild fragrant roses are still in full bloom / I need to be gone by the first chill of autumn / My old friend the west wind is calling me home. These last two tracks are without a doubt my favourites and when Kinga sings the ‘rolling white horses’ line in the first chorus of Sandcastles it gives me involuntary goose bumps.

Bennett himself suggested that it would be disingenuous to call the album prog, but as both he and Speight are lifelong progressive rock fanatics, specifically citing Yes and Genesis, it’s hardly surprising that prog influences shine through and it’s evident from their respective techniques on guitars and drums that they really know their art. It was their belief that there was sufficient prog element in the songs to appeal to fans of the genre and I find it difficult to disagree. The songs may range from singer-songwriter introspection to electric folk but they defy being catalogued. Not having a target audience could be detrimental but, if Oktober get the break they deserve, Sandcastles, with its general theme of the ephemeral nature of things, has the power to speak to a wide range of people. I know I like it and I know there’s an audience out there.

Copies of the album can be ordered on ebay: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Sandcastles-Oktober-/291512162629 or by contacting the band at www.facebook.com/oktobertheband



Yak

By ProgBlog, Jun 7 2015 12:37PM

I was one of those who put in a pre-order for Quest for the Stones, Yak’s long awaited follow-up to the sublime Journey of the Yak and, despite a last minute hold-up from the CD manufacturer that delayed its delivery to Martin Morgan, keyboard player and keeper of the Yak flame, it arrived in the same week that we’d been promised, landing on my door mat last Friday.

How could I not like Yak? This is keyboard-led instrumental progressive rock par excellence that references Tolkien and CS Lewis and has been endorsed by Steve Hackett. I first saw adverts for Journey of the Yak in Prog magazine and ordered my copy after hearing portions of a couple of selections from the yaksongs.com website, donating £10 to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary in return for the CD (a second pressing dated November 2009) and then spreading the word as best I could, buying a copy for my brother Richard and encouraging friends Jim Knipe and Neil Jellis to give them a listen. Jim managed to pick up a copy from one of the many record and CD stands at Prog Résiste in Belgium last year.

The trio of Morgan, Dave Speight (drums) and Gary Bennett (bass) produce a melodic blend of prog that occupies the same territory as Steve Hackett, Genesis just before the departure of Hackett, Camel and Danger Money conformation UK. To those readers who haven’t heard any Yak, suggesting that a keyboard trio sounds like Steve Hackett may appear far-fetched but Morgan employs a synthesizer patch that genuinely sounds like Hackett’s portamento guitar.

Quest for the Stones carries on where Journey of the Yak left off though the six longish tracks that featured on Journey have been replaced by two long-form compositions, Quest for the Stones at a couple of seconds short of 24 minutes and Veil of Aeternum which lasts over 19 minutes. Veil of Aeternum is a play on words on Aeternum vale (Latin: farewell forever) and there is a very strong stylistic link between the two albums. The music on Quest is instantly recognisable as being Yak. The blend of old and new keyboard technology gives some haunting Mellotron sounds and some classic synth and organ tones; there’s slightly less organ on the new album but the technique and attack still remind me of Eddie Jobson. The inclusion of more piano, enhanced by the cover artwork, gives an overall feel of a piece of late 19th Century or early 20th Century Romantic music, quintessentially English, where melodic motifs line up in succession and the pastoral impression is further bolstered by natural sounds at the end of the title track.

Although there aren’t many quiet interludes, variation comes through multiple changes of tempo and there are even a couple of passages in 7/4 time. Morgan adds keyboard saxophone to his sonic armoury and Gary Bennett, who is solid and mostly understated throughout, adds some funky bass lines. It goes without saying that the drumming of Dave Speight, former band mate of Enid alumnus Nick May in symphonic prog outfit Whimwise, is absolutely perfect so it comes across as a bit of a surprise that the three musicians only get together for a few days once every six years or so to record an album.

The title track on the new release revisits another familiar Yak theme, another reason why they’re my kind of band: ley lines. (There’s another Yak release from October 2005, a live jam called Does Your Yak Bite? that includes the piece Leylines of Yak; a very long time ago I wrote a short story for my school magazine called Flux Lines Deep in Dunnerdale about a ley line in the Duddon Valley on the outskirts of the Lake District. The sleeve notes for the new album refer to finding a significant monolith, the Easedale Yakstone in Langdale.)

There’s yet another association between the live jam CD and Quest for the Stones that relates to the rather exquisite pre-Raphaelite style cover painting by Laura Knight that depicts an Arthurian hero on a quest for The Stones astride his trusty yak but close by, hiding behind a tree, there’s a strange, stripy rabbit-like creature, Tog, from the BBC children’s series Pogles’ Wood made by Oliver Postgate’s Smallfilms between 1966 and 1968. Tog, formerly a stuffed toy brought to life by magic in a battle to defeat the Witch (a character who appears in series forerunner The Pogles), is given a credit on the back of the CD for co-owning the copyright to the recording; Does Your Yak Bite? includes a track called The Battle of Pogles Wood.

The sense of humour displayed in the sleeve notes has historic precedence. Prog bands may have been derided for being serious about their music but Pythonesque absurdity made its way onto releases by bands like Hatfield and the North and Michael Palin actually wrote the back sleeve notes for Do They Hurt? by Brand X. Take note, NME, humour and serious musicianship are not mutually exclusive.

The excellent, bucolic Quest for the Stones can be obtained from the Yak website www.yaksongs.com and, like that for its predecessor (which can still be bought from the website) the purchase is actually a donation to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary. If you love melodic, instrumental prog featuring lots of keyboards, I’d recommend you make that donation: you get a brilliant album in return. Winner!



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