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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

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, Aug 28 2017 09:13PM

The sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed that on Wednesday last week (August 23rd), Gentle Giant were inducted into Portsmouth Guildhall’s ‘Wall of Fame’. The Guildhall, originally the Town Hall, was renamed after Portsmouth gained city status in 1926. The neoclassical building was severely damaged during the Second World War but restored, with much of the original detail missing, and reopened in 1959 with standing space for an audience of 2500 in the largest performance space. The Wall of Fame is a recent feature, introduced in 2014 to honour (mainly) local artists who have achieved great success. Gentle Giant join artists like Mark King of Level 42 (originally from the Isle of Wight); local boy Mick Jones, who formed Foreigner with Ian McDonald; another local boy Spike Edney, probably most famous for his live work with Queen; and Steve Hackett, voted on by fans in recognition of his amazing musical career who was inducted in May this year.


The Shulman family originally hailed from Glasgow but set up home in Portsmouth in 1948 after the father of the yet-to-be Gentle Giants had been posted there during the war. The three Shulman brothers Phil, Derek and Ray first formed Simon Dupree and the Big Sound along with Eric Hine (keyboards), Pete O’Flaherty (bass) and Tony Ransley (drums) in 1966 and had a hit in 1967 with Kites, originally a ballad written by Lee Pockriss and Hal Hackady which the band were quite unhappy with, insisting it wasn’t in their chosen musical idiom. They eventually recorded a version at the insistence of their manager John King, in psychedelic style featuring a variety of odd studio instruments in Abbey Road, including Mellotron and a wind machine; they even got an actress friend to recite some Chinese during a spoken interlude and, to their surprise, the single did very well, ultimately peaking at no. 8 in the charts. Simon Dupree and the Big Sound had no further success but evolved into Gentle Giant in 1970 when the Shulmans recruited Kerry Minnear (keyboards), Gary Green (guitar) and Martin Smith (drums.)

The first Gentle Giant album I heard was In a Glass House (1973) and the first I bought, in an effort to hear as much of their material as possible, was Playing the Fool – The Official Live (1977) on cassette. It was obvious from a very early stage that GG were highly accomplished musicians playing incredibly complex material and it wasn’t until I heard Free Hand (1975), premiered on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show, that I realised they could also really rock without compromising their identity. At that stage, GG being a band that I looked out for, I had no idea of their relative lack of commercial success. What I heard of The Missing Piece (1977) indicated a major change, and not a good one. The Sight & Sound in Concert performance, filmed at London’s Golders Green Hippodrome on January 5th 1978 and shown on BBC TV a couple of weeks later was a must watch occasion, but Two Weeks in Spain and Betcha Thought we Couldn’t Do It were major disappointments. I started to build up a full collection of GG in the 80s and in the mid 90s, when progressive rock was slightly less vilified than it had been for almost 20 years and when the nascent internet was mostly accessed for academic purposes, I signed up to a couple of web-based forums: Elephant Talk for all things Crimson and On Reflection, the internet discussion list for GG fans; it was a revelation to read fans’ thoughts and anecdotes. There’s no doubt that the band deserve their place in the Portsmouth Guildhall Wall of Fame.


Gentle Giant inducted in The Wall of Fame
Gentle Giant inducted in The Wall of Fame

photo from http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/leisure/news/15494134.Gentle_Giant_inducted_into_Wall_of_Fame/#gallery0


London obviously exerts a pull on musicians and in the late 60s and early 70s the sheer mass of opportunity, the music papers, the range of clubs, the presence of record labels, recording studios and publishing firms was enough to make most artists gravitate towards the capital. Perhaps more important than any of those things was the presence of sufficient numbers of punters willing to listen to something which offered more than ephemeral pop; Pink Floyd may have had roots in Cambridge but it was London which formed the base for their success. In the very early days, their reception outside of the capital was frequently hostile and it’s 'Pink Floyd London' stamped on their banks of WEM speakers, clearly visible during the Echoes part 1 footage from Live at Pompeii, not 'Pink Floyd Cambridge'. Similarly, Floyd contemporaries Soft Machine may have formed in Canterbury and been responsible for an entire prog sub-genre, but they also migrated 100km along the route of Watling Street in search of fame and fortune. That doesn’t mean that the south coast of England was unimportant for progressive rock; an hour’s drive west of Portsmouth is Bournemouth, half an hour’s drive inland from Bournemouth is Wimborne and 10km due west of Bournemouth is Poole. This relatively small area is where Michael and Peter Giles, Robert Fripp, Greg Lake, Gordon Haskell, John Wetton, Richard Palmer-James and Andy Summers all began playing.


Pink Floyd of London - Live at Pompeii
Pink Floyd of London - Live at Pompeii

Over the last few weeks I’ve been to a number of towns on the south coast, lured by a combination of a bracing sea breeze and the prospect of browsing through second-hand records in both favourite and new haunts. One of the reasons for progressive rock musicians having a connection to the south coast can be detected in the architecture of the seaside towns which is another reason for getting on a train south from East Croydon station; the inter-war suggestion that swimming provided universal health benefits resulted in something of a seaside boom, coinciding with a penchant for streamlined art deco apartment blocks, hotels and public buildings, and the upturn in visitor numbers meant that there had to be provision of suitable entertainment; dance halls and dance bands. Likewise, when armed forces were barracked in the dockyards at Portsmouth or at one of the RAF radar stations, they needed an outlet for R&R. Both Robert Fripp in Bournemouth and Keith Emerson in Worthing played in hotel- and dance bands where the predominant genre was jazz; the young Emerson even played piano for a local dance class, covering a variety of styles and playing a range of tempos, all excellent experience for the future combination of rock, jazz and classical music exemplified by prog.


Seaside art deco: De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill
Seaside art deco: De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Our trip to Worthing wasn’t entirely successful. This was the most westerly of the towns visited recently and was intended to be a reconnaissance mission. I’d identified a couple of independent record stores, along with an HMV in the Montague shopping centre but the condition of the interesting records in the flea market on Montague Parade wasn’t brilliant and after thinking about replacing my sold off copy of Barclay James Harvest Live (1974) for £4, I decided against it. Next stop was Music Mania in West Buildings but this was closed until the end of August for holidays. I did manage to find a copy of Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975) by Synergy, aka Larry Fast, for £2.99 in Oxfam. It was very breezy on the beach but at least the architecture was good: the brutalist Grafton car park, given a colourful makeover by street artist Ricky Also, and the 1930s art deco flats of Stoke Abbott Court, even though their restoration wasn’t in keeping with their original, aerodynamic form.


Grafton car park, Worthing
Grafton car park, Worthing

Brighton is just brilliant. On our most recent trip I picked up an original copy of Tubular Bells for £5.50, David Bedford’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), Pink Floyd's Obscured by Clouds (1972) and the rather obscure US electronic album Zygoat (1974) by Burt Alcantara under the name of Zygoat. These were all from Snoopers Paradise in North Laine; I then popped into Across the Tracks and bought a new copy of Stranded (1970) by Edwards Hands.


A short way east along the A27 is Lewes, and though it’s not costal, the river Ouse is tidal. Octave Music has now closed down but Union Music Store and Si’s Sounds are both worth looking around. Si’s was closed on the day of our visit and I was tempted by some unsold record store day bargains in Union, but not tempted enough. Lewes has a number of antique shops and I managed to locate David Sylvian’s double LP Gone to Earth (1986) which to some degree presages the Sylvian-Fripp collaboration in 1993, plus Phallus Dei (1969) by Amon Düül II, Moraz-Bruford Flags (1985), Barclay James Harvest Time Honoured Ghosts (1975), and the surprisingly good Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas. The architecture in Lewes is very interesting and one of the most recent additions, a concrete and glass 5 bedroom house clad in Cor-Ten steel set on the banks of the Ouse on the site of an old workshop, is really special.


Union Music Store, Lewes
Union Music Store, Lewes

Most recent on the list of coastal visits was Hastings. Again, I’d identified suitable record shops to visit but the duration of the train journey, a little over 100 minutes each way, restricted our time for wandering around. It’s been some considerable time since I was last there and in the intervening years the town has been used as an overspill for London boroughs facing a housing crisis, shifting the pressure from the capital to local services in East Sussex. However, that’s not what we witnessed. The relative ease of the commute to central London and the laid-back vibe appears to have encouraged a degree of regeneration. The beach was empty and very clean; the pier has been redeveloped and shortlisted for the 2017 Sterling prize; George Street is like a short stretch of Brighton’s Laines with some unique gift shops, independent coffee bars, antique shops and best of all, Atlas Sound Records, which hadn’t been on my list. The cash-only shop acted as an outlet for at least three sellers who travelled the world to find suitable vinyl. I came away with Rakes Progress by Scafell Pike (1974) – folk rather than prog, but for £5 its Lake District name and the fact I’d only ever seen it twice before, once around the time of its release in Kelly’s Records, Barrow, and much more recently in a market stall in Vicenza, Italy, meant I had to buy it. I also picked up Midnight Mushrumps (1974) by Gryphon and Mass in F Minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes, a piece of gothic psychedelia that I’d only got in mp3 format, converted from a home taping of my brother’s copy of the LP back in the late 70s. I was encouraged to return because I was told that the stock had a good turnover.

Bob’s Records was on my list, in the basement of an antique shop in High Street; disorganised but reasonably well-priced and mostly in very good condition, there were bits of memorabilia for display like the framed cover of In the Land of Grey and Pink for £7 and three laminated back-stage passes for Pink Floyd concerts presented in a frame at £40. I bought a copy of the last Colosseum II album War Dance (1977). In another of Hastings’ antique shops I saw a framed Pink Floyd at Hastings Pier poster on sale for £20 and as far as I can make out, they only ever played in Hastings on one occasion, Saturday 20th January 1968, just before Dave Gilmour was invited to join the band, and I’m not sure if the article was genuine.


Atlas Sound Records, Hastings
Atlas Sound Records, Hastings

I think the atmosphere of some of the towns on the south coast is accurately captured by the melancholy of Exiles (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, 1973); those responsible for the track’s writing credits, Cross, Fripp and Palmer-James all had a history linking them to the south coast, as did vocalist/bassist Wetton (Cross was from the Plymouth area.) The contrast of a parochial existence with the glamour, real or superficial, found in cities around the world resonates today: Worthing town centre has certainly seen better days and the empty public spaces in Eastbourne are equally sad; Bexhill would be nowhere without the De La Warr pavilion and the towns seem to cling on to the remnants of a faded glory. Fortunately there are places like Brighton and Lewes, and now Hastings, where there’s a positive vibe... ...and good record shops.







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