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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, Jan 29 2017 08:18PM

One of my Christmas presents was Yes is the Answer and other Prog Rock Tales edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell. I’d added it to my wish list within the previous month, seduced by the very fitting looking cover (a watercolour illustration by Nathan Popp in the style of Roger Dean’s crash-landed and colonised mountains from Yessongs) together with some four and five star reviews on Amazon.com, there being no reviews, at that time, posted on the UK site. Though there wasn’t a great deal to be gleaned from the reviewer comments, the publicity quotation sounded promising: Progressive rock is maligned and misunderstood. Critics hate it. Hipsters scoff at it. Yes is the Answer is a pointed rebuke to the prog-haters, the first literary collection devoted to the sub-genre. Featuring acclaimed novelists Rick Moody, Wesley Stace, Seth Greenland, Charles Bock, and Joe Meno, as well as musicians Nathan Larson, and Peter Case, Yes is the Answer is a book that dares to reclaim prog-rock as a subject worthy of serious consideration.


Yes is the Answer
Yes is the Answer

The book is a collection of short essays by respected journalists, writers and musicians, each relating a personal progressive rock story in an almost ProgBlog-like manner, only I’m rather ignorant of US writers. It‘s a slim volume which fits the hand nicely and the quality of the paper used for the dust jacket is very pleasing. However, the standard of writing plummets immediately after a rather brilliant opening disclaimer: Some of the essays in this book are prolix and self-indulgent. These are essays about Prog Rock. This is as it should be.


It’s not that I think it has limited literary merit; I instantly disagreed with the opinion of Weingarten in his introduction that the progressive rock fan fraternity frowned upon the exponents of jazz fusion because of their propensity for ‘noodling’ and that fusion adherents were sad for their obsessive appreciation of the instruments used to make the music. On the contrary, Brand X were a successful jazz fusion act who were fully appreciated by the prog rock crowd and, speaking as someone who came into progressive rock fairly early on, long before peak-prog or the rise of punk, part of the attraction for me was the ability to obsess over the instrumentation, because without the technological advancements the music would never have been created. I'm responsible for reproducing the console of a mini-Moog on my desk at school when I was 13 and later, when I first started work after university, spent a lunchtime in a local music shop playing a Mellotron 400D. I'm sure many would agree with me that the best album sleeves are those which list the make and model of all the equipment used to make the record.

I know that there have been factual inaccuracies in my blogs pointed out by readers, but my pieces are mostly opinions, streams of consciousness posted without any proof-reading. When I come across an unchecked fact in a publication (Jerry Lucky repeatedly calling David Gilmour ‘David Gilmore’ in his 20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock, new copies of which are selling for £68 on Amazon in the UK, or Dave Ling writing in Prog magazine that the opening chords of Watcher of the Skies were played on organ, for example) it offends my sensibility.


20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky
20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky

Imagine my indignation when the first article, Here Comes the Knife by Seth Greenland states that Rondo (by The Nice) is on Ars Longa Vita Brevis. No, it’s on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. Why hasn’t anyone picked this up before it went to the printers? This lack of attention to detail is un-prog but it soon becomes clear that many of the contributors discovered this music at the tail-end of the golden period or later, that the majority of them have not remained fully committed to the genre and that their views have more often than not been forged under the influence of mostly soft but occasionally hard drugs. There’s no doubt that marijuana was the recreational substance of choice for some of the artists but many eschewed drugs either through ascetic lifestyle choice or because of the technical difficulties of playing a piece made ingestion unwise. The book highlights the American experience which is very different from the UK where progressive rock developed; traditionally, rock ‘n’ roll has been romanticised in a very Hollywood way as a rite of passage, a time of teenage rebellion. Progressive rock didn’t really fit into this scheme, because the exponents were attempting to legitimise their form of rock music, with Keith Emerson building bridges between the worlds of classical and rock and all of them were looking at other idioms to expand their musical vocabulary. This is what they exported and a small number of them did well in the US, the music and underlying philosophy chiming with a nascent ecological movement and a general feeling of hope. There were only a few proper progressive rock acts from North America during the golden era (Happy the Man and Fireballet spring to mind, those being bands with albums in my collection, but I think what I’ve heard of Starcastle who received air play on Alan Freeman’s radio show in the UK might also include them in that small club) and it wasn't until the resurgence of prog in the mid-90s that there was any significant American input. Even then, this latest phase had its roots in metal and was sort of retro-fitted to the original. The short biography after each essay reveals a dearth of specialist music magazine contributors; if you like short, personal stories about coming-of-age presented in a sex and drugs and rock and roll context, you may like this book and the high-scoring reviews from Amazon US make perfect sense. However, there's nothing analytical or even enlightening about progressive rock within the pages; it's not actually about the music but about the individual contributors who at some stage in their emotional development have come across prog.

One of the articles is by British author Nick Coleman who was an NME journalist and has written a well regarded autobiography The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss after suffering sudden neurosensory hearing loss – totally devastating when your livelihood revolves around music. Though progressive rock evidently played a major part in his youth, his essay Hung Up on these Silver Strings (a line from the song Axe Victim) concerns Be Bop Deluxe. Be Bop Deluxe isn’t prog but fit in to the closely-associated Art-rock sub-genre. A vehicle for the talents of Bill Nelson, the band was favoured by prog fans and dutifully, though I don’t own any of their studio releases, I bought a copy of Live! In the Air Age in lieu of a ‘best of’ album.


Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe
Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe

Part of the attraction for me was that Nelson was a northerner, forgiven for being from the wrong side of the Pennines, from Wakefield. The follow-up band Red Noise created an interest within my circle, possibly because they played Leeds University where my brother Tony and another of my associates were studying medicine but I wasn’t too impressed by Furniture Music, not really liking the shorter songs or the electronics. However, I did go to see Bill Nelson performing The Invisibility Exhibition at the Dominion Theatre in March 1973, an enjoyable gig where Nelson played guitar, synthesizer and percussion to backing video from 1950s art films. Shortly after that I purchased a copy of his solo album Quit Dreaming and get on the Beam, written as a second Red Noise album but held back by EMI because they didn’t like it. This is an album of clever electro pop but I had been under the impression that it came with a free LP called Sounding the Ritual Echo (Atmospheres for Dreaming), a basic, home recording straying into ambient electronic territory, and that’s what I was really interested in.


Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition
Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition

Nelson may have been the recipient of Prog magazine's Visionary award in 2015 but I still regard him as an exponent of Art-rock. Another Art-rocker, who has had a much heavier involvement with prog, is Brian Eno; these are the only two representatives of this form in my collection. From his Roxy Music beginnings, Eno branched out into progressive pop territory and collaborated with a wide range of prog luminaries on his accessible solo albums. This directly led to involvement with Genesis on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and he also assisted on the Mainstream album Quiet Sun with former band-mate Phil Manzanera. His experimentation with tape loops and twin Revox tape recorders in collaboration with Robert Fripp for the ground-breaking (No Pussyfooting) began before the release of Here Come the Warm Jets and though dismissed at the time, it is now rightly regarded as a seminal piece of music. What makes Eno stand out is his way of thinking; from the bed-stricken origins of Discreet Music to the entire ambient genre where his modus operandi, subscribing to systems that once set into motion require little or no further input from Eno himself and divulged in the sleeve notes of Discreet Music, still hold true to his output today, neatly exemplified by his Bloom iPhone app. Musical collaborations and pathfinding aside, Eno was appointed the youth affairs adviser for the Liberal Democrats in 2007, at the age of 59. He’s also interviewed Yanis Varoufakis for The Guardian and caused something of a stir last week when a Guardian interview with him ran under the headline “We’ve been in decline for 40 years – Trump is a chance to rethink”; he was obliged to clarify that he thinks Donald Trump is a complete disaster.


Prog and Art-rock obviously have a degree of crossover but the latter has always been more respected by mainstream media. Part of this is inherent re-invention along the lines of fashion, whereas prog is deemed to have ossified, like a lumbering dinosaur without an original thought in its head, being wiped out by the brash, brightly burning punks. Prog resurfaced and, since the mid 1990s has been going pretty strong. That books like Yes is the Answer are being published is testament to its longevity.

By ProgBlog, Apr 17 2016 11:22PM

Yesterday was Record Store Day, the ninth year that it’s been running, an event to advertise your local record store, wherever you live in the world. Some of the comments I’ve seen on social media suggest that there are a lot of vinyl fans who don't subscribe and though I’m very much in favour of Jo(e) Public getting off their backside and going out into the high street to support the local record store, the concept smacks of the promotion of non-events like Halloween, mother’s day and father’s day and in any case, you should be patronising all the local shops in your area and make at least weekly visits to the local vinyl emporium. Croydon used to have a good selection of stores selling vinyl but now there are only two in the town centre that I can think of: HMV with its limited range of popular albums; and 101 Records which has a wide, varied but chaotic selection of second hand LPs and singles. Addiscombe, the bit of Croydon where I live, used to have two or three stores with Woolworth and Addiscombe Music Centre selling new records and The Vinyl Resting Place selling second hand records, books and memorabilia. The global economic crash saw the end of Woolworth (it became a Sainsbury’s Local); the tiny Addiscombe Music Centre was pulled down when trams returned to Croydon just before the current millennium; and the Vinyl Resting Place closed down after a series of unforeseen climatological events and the knock-on effects of global terrorism coupled with the inexorable rise of eBay. The owner Barbara Day told the Croydon Guardian: "I think record stores can still come back, maybe not in our lifetime, but we are hoping that people will get bored of the internet and go back to these shops.” She might be please to hear that a new record store has opened up in Addiscombe, DnR Vinyl, that I’ve yet to step inside – it specialises in UK garage classics, grime, dubstep and bassline – so there’s little chance of me picking up the new Höstsonaten album Symphony #1 Cupid and Psyche from there but I still hope that they are successful and that their appearance indicates an upturn in the fortunes of the local economy. It’s good to see new stores opening up in Addiscombe; it makes a change from charity shops and bookmakers. Though I walked right past Fopp in Shaftesbury Avenue yesterday, I didn’t go in. I was thinking about the economy, or more specifically an alternative economy as I was taking part in The People’s Assembly March for Heath, Houses, Jobs and Education from University College Hospital in Gower Street to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell gave a short speech during which he outlined what an incoming Labour government would do regarding the NHS (no privatisation), housing (building council homes for fair rent, not for private sale), ensuring the survival of the UK steel industry by nationalisation, if necessary, and supporting overworked teachers. Quite rousing stuff! I also like the way he’s been listening to Yanis Varoufakis who has convinced McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn that remaining in the EU, bringing about the necessary changes from within, is better than Brexit. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of McDonnell but more so after he made some complimentary comments about a speech I gave at a rally in support of the NHS in 2012.


Back in Addiscombe, DnR is next to musical instrument shop Tuga Sounds, another recent addition to the local retail landscape. I popped into Tuga last year to enquire about a Washburn Taurus T14 bass because I’d seen they had a Washburn six string for sale and at the time I believed that I’d have more time to dedicate to music during my semi-retirement. I own a Hohner B2A, a headless, almost bodiless bass bought in 1987 when they were quite trendy but I saw reviews of the fantastic looking T14, T24 and T25 models and thought that adding to my guitar collection, rather than replacing the Hohner, was not an unreasonable thing to do. A lengthy discussion with the store owner made me doubt the wisdom of acquiring a 5 string bass, an instrument that is quite prevalent in progressive rock, because he said he always reached for his four string bass. I was thinking of going for the lighter (and cheaper T14) but I’m tempted to go for the T24...

Dedicating more time to playing, writing and recording music would have been justification to buy another bass and I have followed music long enough to have seen some of my guitar heroes collect and utilise a range of different guitars. The first player of multiple guitars I came across was Steve Howe with his collection displayed in the Fragile (1971) booklet. There are 14 guitars visible, plus a violin/viola, a banjo and something I can’t identify.


According to the man himself in an interview that appears in the current edition of Prog magazine, the collection is now of the order of 100 guitars. His use of different guitar styles, one of the defining features of Yes music, is reason enough to have this variety where he is able to choose the instrument most appropriate for the sound required in a particular piece. Brother Tony used to have a post-Bruford Yes poster that was displayed on our bedroom wall and Howe features with the guitar I most associate with his work, the Gibson ES 175 D, a feeling reinforced by the picture on the inner gatefold of The Yes Album (1971) where the instrument can also be seen and on the cover of his first solo album Beginnings (1975). It goes without saying that this doesn’t tell the whole story. On side two of Close to the Edge (1972) he also uses 12 string acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitar, bringing a full symphonic range to the guitar parts. I don’t know but it sounds to me as though his use of instruments on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) closely matches those used on Close to the Edge; Gates of Delirium from Relayer (1974) has a harsher sound and this is partly down to his use of a 1955 Fender Telecaster. I think that there are strong hints of jazz rock on that album so I’d also expect his ES 175 to feature, being more of a jazz instrument. We expect progressive rock keyboard players to use multiple instruments on one track but it’s more unusual to see a guitarist swap instruments. Howe’s live performances with Yes feature frequent changes within one song and he’s come up with some innovative ways to carry this off without dropping a note, most notably the guitar fixed to a stand that gets wheeled out for And You And I.


Using different effects pedals and studio multitracking allow different guitar parts to come through on record and listing all the equipment used by a band in the sleeve notes was integral to my appreciation for progressive rock. Howe doesn’t list the guitars used on Beginnings but does, by track, on The Steve Howe Album (1979.) Though some of the albums I own hint at a number of different guitars used, it seems that it’s only Howe who lists instruments by track, though Mike Oldfield does kind of list his guitars (and other instruments) though not by manufacturer or model, on Tubular Bells (1973) and Ommadawn (1975). This is in contrast to keyboard players who list their instruments in minutiae. Other players may have collections of instruments but I believe it’s Howe who best demonstrates the value of owning a number of guitars, for both studio work and live performance.








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