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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, May 13 2019 10:31PM

I have a soft spot for the Barrett-era Floyd, where the psychedelic whimsy found on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is tinged with a darker edge, and for those of us who weren’t able to see this version of the band play live, there are recorded hints of Pink Floyd as sonic pioneers in Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive – the vanguard of space rock. Having bought Relics around the same time as acquiring Dark Side of the Moon, my next Floyd purchase, within a week of its release, was A Nice Pair. I may have heard bootlegs of Atom Heart, Meddle and Dark Side but at that time I was more familiar with their earlier oeuvre and as much entranced by the gatefold sleeve of A Nice Pair and Nick Mason’s architectural sketch for the cover of Relics as I was of Dark Side’s prisms.


A Nice Pair
A Nice Pair

By the time I first got to see the Floyd play live they’d dropped almost all intimation of their progressive rock sound even though the scope and realisation of The Wall shows was totally incredible. The 1988 Momentary Lapse of Reason show I saw at Wembley Stadium concentrated on Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, The Wall and their current release and while 1994’s Division Bell tour included dates where they played One of These Days or Astronomy Domine, it was only the former that featured on the leg of the tour when I got to see them on October 14th, the earliest piece of music that I’d seen them play.


I went to see early-Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa who played at Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre in May 2004 because, being a proponent of music in local venues, I thought it would have been churlish to miss it. Ultimately, I came away disappointed and vowed never to watch a tribute band ever again. This was a bit unfair on the group, who weren’t bad musicians and rather than play the material note-perfect, which is possibly what I was expecting having never attended a gig like that before, they improvised around the song themes which was entirely in keeping with live early Pink Floyd; I wasn’t too sure about the vocals which didn’t sound like any of the original members but it may have been the inclusion of songs like If and San Tropez in the set that most concerned me, straying from my personal viewpoint as to what conformed to ‘early’ Floyd, despite playing undisputed classics like Astronomy Domine, Careful with that Axe Eugene, A Saucerful of Secrets, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, One of These Days, Echoes and finishing with Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. They even had an appropriate ‘liquid light show’ to provide an accurate reminder of the period.



(Early) Pink Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa, Croydon May 2004
(Early) Pink Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa, Croydon May 2004

I stupidly turned down the opportunity to see Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets on their opening tour, unwilling to join the on-line ticket queue and pay what I thought was rather a lot of money to stand and watch a band that included an ex-member of Spandau Ballet. I reconsidered for the current leg of the tour, reasoning that £50 for a seat at the Roundhouse wasn’t too bad and the chance to see one original band member performing this material was actually too good to miss. I must have become aware of the Chalk Farm Roundhouse from browsing music weeklies in the mid 70s but it’s unlikely I made the connection to the Pink Floyd story until sometime later, including its significance to the beginnings of UK counterculture; the first cultural use of the Roundhouse was as the venue for the launch party of the International Times (IT) in October 1966, a multi-media all-night rave and happening billed as a ‘pop-op-costume-masque-drag ball’, featuring performances from Pink Floyd and Soft Machine plus screenings of films and poetry readings; the Roundhouse and early Floyd are intrinsically connected.


poster for International Times launch party
poster for International Times launch party

Built between 1846-7 for the London and North Western Railway by Branson & Gwyther as a building for turning round railway engines, the Roundhouse has been recognised as a notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture and was listed in 1954, amended to Grade II* in January 1999, then declared a National Heritage Site in 2010. 24 cast-iron Doric columns arranged around the original locomotive spaces support a conical slate roof and the columns are braced with a framework of curved ribs, imbuing the internal space with a distinctive industrial Victoriana. The recent refurbishment respects the structure while making it fit for purpose as an events venue – it was my ‘venue of the year’ in the 2018 Prog magazine readers’ poll.


The Roundhouse, May 2019
The Roundhouse, May 2019

I have mixed feelings about the gig. On the one hand I was pleased to be there to see Nick Mason’s ensemble in that particular setting because of its historical rock and sociological relevance; on the other I was seated in a better position than for the Portico Quartet performance last year but I thought the sound was not nearly as good, and it didn’t appear to have been too good on the main floor either, demonstrated by loud crowd murmurings when Mason was making an inaudible announcement between songs; at times it was difficult to hear Dom Beken’s keyboards, an essential part of the early Floyd sound. I also thought they weren’t very tight as a unit even though Mason’s drumming sounded as good as I’d ever heard it. I was possibly expecting a tone of naivety in the vocals, but neither guitarist Gary Kemp or Lee Harris, nor bassist Guy Pratt did wonderment and this detracted from the earliest songs. That’s not to say I disapproved of the treatment of See Emily Play or Lucifer Sam and I fully appreciated their version of Vegetable Man, written by Barrett in 1967 and originally scheduled as a B side to putative single Scream Thy Last Scream which was never released; it was finally officially put out on The Early Years (1965-1972) in 2016. It may actually have been the brevity of the majority of pieces they played that I found too strange to handle, along with the interpretation of ‘early’ Pink Floyd. My favourites from the evening tended to be longer material; opener Interstellar Overdrive, Astronomy Domine, One of These Days, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, A Saucerful of Secrets, the excerpt from Atom Heart Mother; what I wasn’t too keen on, and I have to stress this is personal opinion, was the inclusion of If from Atom Heart Mother which bookended the title track, Fearless from Meddle and the Obscured by Clouds songs, all of which are low down in my listening priority and, as the writing partnership between Gilmour and Wright evolved and Waters was developing a distinct style, don’t conform to what I would describe as early-sounding.


Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19
Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19

Ticket for Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19
Ticket for Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19

Apart from providing Floyd enthusiasts with material that’s unlikely to be played by any current or former member of Pink Floyd ever again, Mason is currently presenting a nine-part series for BBC radio: A History of Music and Technology, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w27vq4h7 Produced in association with the Open University, it’s something on which his role in Pink Floyd has bestowed the appropriate qualifications. He also has an excellent voice for radio and the programme, which charts a history of the innovations which have shaped popular music, should be compulsory listening for anyone into prog. Episode 1: The Story of Sound Recording related the attempts to capture sound, from an oral tradition to Edison’s phonograph and it’s replacement by the gramophone, from vinyl to magnetic tape and eventually the CD, driven by cost and convenience rather than the quality of the technology. Episode 2: Electronic Music Pioneers may have covered some of the material from Robert Berry’s The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2016), a quest to find today’s musical futurists, but I found it totally fascinating; Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium from 1896 which is not only believed to be the first electromechanical musical instrument but it could also be considered to be the precursor of streaming, sending a signal through wires which were translated into music through large paper cones acting as a form of primitive loudspeaker. There was some good coverage of the Theremin, an instrument that may have defined science fiction soundtracks but still features in the current prog scene. The ondes Martenot (1928) came about when Maurice Martenot exploited the overlap in tones generated by military oscillators, producing a cello-like sound. The instrument he devised was touted around European conservatoires and features in over 100 classical music compositions; George Jenny’s ondioline was a cheaper version of the ondes Martenot which began production in Paris around 1940 and became destined for a more commercial market thanks to the talents of former medical student Jean Jacques Perrey who released the seminal Prelude au Sommeil in 1958, allegedly as a form of sonic tranquilizer for patients in mental hospitals; the hymnal music incorporated minimalist motifs that were later developed by Philip Glass and Terry Riley and could be considered the first ambient music.




Touching on musique concrète and tape manipulation, on Raymond Scott’s automatic music machines which played sequences of differently arranged patterns, the programme reminded us that though we might think electronic music is relatively recent, it’s now well over 100 years since the first electronic instruments appeared. The next episodes cover the electric guitar and the Hammond organ. Well worth a listen.








By ProgBlog, Feb 4 2019 10:27PM

Whether by conscious choice or directed drift, the latter part of 2018 saw me adopt what the media are calling ‘flexitarianism’. My son had started out on this road towards the end of last year but quickly shifted to a full vegan diet and when he’s invited to dinner, I prepare vegan food for the whole family.


Not yet prepared to give up meat entirely, this casual vegetarianism is an attempt to reduce my carbon footprint by taking a more environmentally sustainable approach to what I eat by consuming less meat. For someone who shuns almost all fast food (I eat supermarket pizza, occasionally go to pizza restaurants, I might have takeaway fish and chips once every couple of months or buy-in an Indian takeaway perhaps twice a year) and is entirely happy in the kitchen, it’s not as onerous as many might imagine. If statistics are to be believed, 26% of Millennials are either vegan or vegetarian and supermarkets, eager to maintain market share, have been quick to produce suitable ranges of ready-to-cook vegan dishes; the fad has also been matched by the availability of varied recipes. I mostly cook from scratch which means it’s fortunate that the Co-op, our nearest supermarket, is one of the better outlets for identifying vegan produce but it’s equally handy that Coughlans, our local bakery chain, has an extensive range of vegan cakes. My first visit to Coughlans with the specific aim of buying an appropriate treat for my son involved an almost conspiratorial approach from another customer, a young woman who asked me if I was vegan like her and her young son; I fear she was a little disappointed with my truthful response that I hadn’t increased the number of vegans in Addiscombe. Rather than go the full extreme, I attempt to eat a balanced diet and if my comparative zoology lectures taught me anything when I was a student, we have the ideal dentition for an omnivorous diet, although I admire anyone who chooses to go vegan for ethical reasons. The recent family skiing holiday to Bardonecchia showed how well veganism has spread; I needn’t have feared that we weren’t going to find suitable foodstuffs to cook on the two hotplates and small oven that served as our apartment kitchenette – Carrefour (which has a supermarket near-monopoly in the resort) carried a wide range of alternatives, including one awarded a ‘product of the year’, for our vegan skier.




The best known examples of prog vegetarians are Yes. It’s well documented that in the early 70s all the members of the band bar Rick Wakeman, along with many of their road crew, stopped eating meat, initially influenced by producer Eddie Offord who was already into health foods. This chimes with the cosmic image of Jon Anderson, the man primarily responsible for the band’s mystically-themed lyrics and concepts which include recurring motifs of environmentalism, pacifism and pantheism. Anderson let his vegetarianism slip, though in a 2006 interview with Howard Stern he spoke of maintaining a healthy diet. In fact it was Steve Howe who was the first of the band to stop eating meat and continues to maintain this stance; In the January 1992 edition of Vegetarian Times he related that the group was in New York during the 1972 Fragile tour when he ordered his last chicken dinner but was unable to eat it.



I’m not sure what the musical equivalent of flexitarianism is, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve allowed myself to be exposed to genres other than symphonic prog and progressivo Italiano, from a Philip Glass CD received as a Christmas present to the protest folk-psyche of Twilight Fields who invited me to listen to their forthcoming release Songs from the Age of Ruin which featured in a recent ProgBlog DISCovery post (their track Prologue: The Ruined City is included on the covermount CD of Prog 95). The lesson is clear, although it’s unlikely to have any environmental impact: it’s good to listen to a wide spectrum of musical genres.




Compared to last year, live prog has not yet featured heavily in my schedule for 2019 but the two events I have attended were not run-of-the-mill gigs. A last-minute decision to see London-based electronica musician Amané Suganami (who performs under the stage name Amane) at Camden Assembly for an event tagged as ‘the spirit of Brian Eno’ was my first ever prog date and the first time I’d gone to a gig with my wife since Chris Rea at Wembley Arena in December 1988! Strictly sticking to Eno’s ambient music with interpretations of Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (with Harold Budd); Ambient 3: Day of Radiance (Laraaji, produced by Eno) and Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, of which I only recognised An Ending (Ascent) from the latter, this was an enjoyable, well-attended event with a distinctly un-prog demographic, spoiled only by the suggested start time of 7pm – doors were at 7.30 and the performance began at 8pm.



The second event wasn’t really a gig and it wasn’t strictly live; it was Steve Hackett’s At the Edge of Light album preview held at the Everyman cinema in Crystal Palace, a run-through of the record in 5.1 surround sound four days before the official release, organised by Prog Magazine and Inside Out records. I ‘won’ tickets by sending Prog a selfie, holding a copy of Prog 94 with Steve Hackett on the cover, taken in my dining room (photos of the magazine taken in newsagents were disallowed!) I’d been to two King Crimson playbacks in the mid-late 90s for the releases of the Epitaph box set and The Night Watch CDs, both unmissable because they were relatively small gatherings of like-minded fans and featured the assembly of the musicians responsible for the performances but which also included fascinating side events: the offering of home-made cakes (I baked a date and walnut loaf); a Mellotron display; and John Wetton performing a solo acoustic version of Book of Saturday. An even more exclusive gathering, the At the Edge of Light playback was a chance to hear the latest Steve Hackett release before the general public and had the distinct advantage of being held on my doorstep, a short 410 bus journey from home.



When I lived in Crystal Palace/Upper Norwood the former Rialto Cinema, opened in 1928, was being used as a bingo hall. The cinema had shown its last film in 1968 and Gala Bingo, in a restructuring exercise following diminishing profits and questionable financial viability partly blamed on the 2007 ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, closed the premises sometime around 2009. It was bought by Kingsway International Christian Centre but they failed to gain planning permission for change of use to an evangelical church partly because the development would result in the loss of an important leisure venue, deemed to be "harmful to the social, cultural and economic characteristics of the area." Repurposing as a church also incurred opposition from an active local group, founded in 2010, who campaigned to return the prominent Art Deco building to its original function and so, with the building listed as an asset of social value (ASV) ensuring KICC had no prospect of planning approval, they decided to sell up in 2017.

The building has been lovingly restored and given a new lease of life by Everyman, with the original main auditorium divided up to form four screens. Screen 4, the venue for the playback, seats 75 on plush two-seater sofas and provided a warm, intimate setting for the event. I had wondered why Hackett and the record label had chosen Everyman Crystal Palace but Steve Hackett’s live film Wuthering Nights: Live in Birmingham was given a screening at Everyman King’s Cross on 15th Jan 2018, prior to its official release eleven days later; Marillion’s 2017 Royal Albert Hall concert film was screened at Everyman cinemas around the country in March 2018 prior to the release of the DVD/Blu-ray for home consumption; and Steven Wilson held a pre-release screening of Home Invasion at Everyman King’s Cross last October. There’s a rumour that someone high up in the Everyman organisation is partial to prog...


It’s unclear how many ordinary punters were present, not industry insiders from Inside Out music or Prog magazine or members of the Hackett family (Steve’s wife, Jo; brother and collaborator John; their mother; aunt Betty) but regardless of status we were all treated to a signed card from Steve and some Green & Black’s chocolate. Prog magazine editor Jerry Ewing commenced proceedings with a short introduction, declaring At the Edge of Light the best offering from Hackett for 20 years; he handed over the mic to Hackett who thanked quite a few people present and said a little bit about the music and the guest musicians, and then we settled down to listen.


Having already watched three available YouTube videos and being fully aware of Hackett’s diverse styles through building up a comprehensive library of his recorded output, I wasn’t surprised by any of the material. It’s a natural successor to Night Siren though with a more cohesive sound despite the eclectic mix and, as Ewing suggested, probably his best album for many years. The fact that it’s not all-out prog is one of the album’s strengths, the eclecticism providing an almost commercial level of accessibility but without being ‘commercial’. My least favourite track was Underground Railroad although I do love the story of the inspiration behind the song. It was written following a visit to Wilmington, Delaware, where he found out about the network that helped slaves escape in pre-Civil War America, spearheaded by people like Harriet Tubman; it’s just that I’m not a great fan of the Blues or, however well it’s played, harmonica.

I thought that there were a number of highlights; from the brief opening tune Fallen Walls and Pedestals with its archetypal guitar sound to the prog mini-epic Those Golden Wings to the three numbers forming a kind of suite closing the album, Descent which channels Holst or King Crimson, Conflict, and Peace but the overall quality of song writing on the album is really high, including the infectious prog-pop of The Hungry Years! At times I was reminded of Cured-era Hackett which I think has a distinct overall sound. On completion of the album presentation he remained in the auditorium and chatted to the attendees, graciously posing for selfies with fans.



More than just the music, I admire Hackett’s viewpoint, expressed in both Prog 94 and in his explanation for the album’s title. He described the thread linking the songs as different interpretations of the contrast between light and dark, expressed at its most basic on Beasts in Our Time as good versus evil, but also the more mystical interplay of dark and light magically combining in cultures such as that which provides the heartbeat of India (Shadow and Flame). In summary, Hackett takes a hopeful stance: “In these dangerous times, deep shadows feel even sharper than usual and we find ourselves standing at the edge of light. Ultimately, this album embraces the need for all musical forms and cultures to connect and celebrate the wonder of unity in this divided world."


I think it’s time for us all to go culturally flexitarian.









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.

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