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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, May 1 2016 08:47PM

Though Get ‘em out by Friday (from Foxtrot by Genesis, 1972) was a piece of social commentary directed at unscrupulous private landlords in the UK during the 60s and 70s, it has once again become relevant as a majority of the population in their 20s and 30s are becoming priced out of the housing market, making them the so-called ‘generation rent’. It’s been estimated that almost 60% of those under 40 years old will be privately renting by 2025 so it’s hardly surprising that the London Mayoral election next week is being billed as a referendum on housing. All the candidates are claiming they understand the requirement to build new homes, coming up with a wide range of different reasons for the shortage, and all promising action to address the problem which was identified by a recent YouGov poll as the most important political concern for people in the capital.


Genesis used the real-life Peter Rachman as the inspiration for the scoundrel of the piece, the man who used a technique euphemistically known as ‘winkling’ to remove tenants from properties, a combination of threats and inducements then filling the properties with new tenants paying a higher rent. This gives us the Foxtrot character Mark Hall, also known as The Winkler (c.f. the lyrics: “The Winkler called again, he came here this morning with four hundred pounds and a photograph of the place he has found...” and later “sadly since last time we spoke we’ve had to raise the rent again, just a bit.”) The modern villains are Dame Shirley Porter and Margaret Thatcher and their successors who have eroded the supply of public housing stock by forcing councils to sell off properties to long-standing tenants at reduced cost without replacing homes in the pool. The Housing and Planning Bill 2015-2016 has just had its third reading in the House of Lords and will go before MPs on the 3rd May to consider amendments proposed by the Upper House before becoming an Act of Parliament. In a nutshell, the Bill concerns housing, estate agents, rent charges, planning and compulsory purchase and has been slated for its unfairness, resulting in a string of defeats in the second chamber inflicted by peers on both benches who succeeded in wringing out a number of important concessions, including stopping the proposed ending of lifetime tenancies in social housing.

The Conservatives also planned to extend the Thatcher policy of ‘right to buy’ to tenants in accommodation provided by housing associations in an outrageous attack on the provision of all forms of social housing, a mistake which caused righteous fury and further highlighted the crisis in provision of all forms of affordable homes. If selling off municipal housing without replacing it was intended to be the pinnacle of the union between the individual and free market principles, it ended up as one of the most glaring examples of market failure in post-war history, a misplaced ideology that was designed to boost the number of homeowners who, armed with their shares from public utility and building society sell-offs, would become life-long Tory voters. In reality, ownership of shares by individuals in British companies slumped from a pre-Thatcher 40% to about 12% in 2014 which reveals the implosion of the vision of a share-owning democracy. The requirement of the newly privatised industries to compete in the free market, without the government subsidies loathed by the free-market economists, had a devastating effect on the UK manufacturing base and revenue from the North Sea oil industry had to be diverted from the exchequer to redundancy settlements and social security payouts.

In 1979 a third of all homes were rented from the state but this proportion has halved. 71% of households were owner-occupiers at its peak in 2003 but this has declined to around 65%, and 18% of households rent from the private sector. Witnessing my son attempt to find a suitable place to live has been a bit of an eye-opener. He has a good job in central London and after a long search found a place to rent in a shared house in Bethnal Green, his experience illustrating the competition for decent accommodation. Though country-wide, the housing crisis is most acute in London where the developments seem to be designed to attract foreign investment and the government exacerbates the problem by embracing buy-to-let landlords. I have a problem with both these policies because they aren’t helping those in need of housing and also fuel an unsustainable economy; this is the same dogma that created the global financial meltdown in 2008 and for some unfathomable reason the majority of westerners continue to believe in this failed economic model.

I was fairly late getting into Genesis and Get ‘em out by Friday was one of the first tracks I heard, on Genesis Live (1973). For a long time I preferred the versions on Live to their studio counterparts, a tribute to the excellent playing at Leicester and Manchester and a well balanced recording. On reflection, there’s a much harder edge to the tracks on Foxtrot compare to their earlier material. They stick to writing about mythical characters on Get ‘em out but set the story in the present and (at the time) the near future of 2012, in addition carrying on with the multi-voice narrative that first appeared on Nursery Cryme (1971) that lends a ‘play for the day’ vibe. The obvious social commentary is a new thread which was continued on the subsequent album Selling England by the Pound (1973) which also includes mini-plays, a tradition that is revisited on Robbery, Assault and Battery from A Trick of the Tail (1976) and All in a Mouse’s Night from Wind and Wuthering (1976); apart from highlighting the evils of ruthless landlords there’s also a dig at corporate culture, Styx Enterprises and United Blacksprings International, out for a quick profit at the expense of tenants, and even the honours system that has rewarded corrupt business people. I like Gabriel’s use of the Styx imagery, the border to the Underworld.

Paul Whitehead depicts a concrete building on the gatefold sleeve that could be Harlow New Town’s Market Square though when talking about the cover painting he has said that the ‘Holiday Inn-style hotel’ was his way of illustrating to the band that they needed to get used to staying in anonymous places like that as he felt they were just about to become famous. The first phase of the Harlow New Town development was called Mark Hall North; Gabriel’s protagonist The Winkler is called Mark Hall. I’d like to think that Gabriel hadn’t succumbed to the tired old trope that New Towns were ‘concrete jungles’ and symbols of dystopian futures. When the lyrics were penned in 1972, Harlow Town had expanded from a population of 4500 to over 78000 and the proposed limit of 60000 was increased to 90000 in 1966 without any increase in the designated development area. Early residents of the New Towns tended to be very appreciative of the facilities in their new homes (“a block of flats with central heating...”) and Harlow Town was designed to create communities, with ‘neighbourhood centres’ including an array of shops, a pub, a library, schools, a church and a small industrial area. It may be that Gabriel’s vision of the future, with the Orwellian-sounding Genetic Control, was inspired by the apparent accelerated rise in population and modernist architect Sir Frederick Gibberd’s ten-storey 'the Lawn' (built 1951), a building often referred to as the first tower block in Britain (“...did you recognise your block across the square, over there?”)


Market Square, Harlow New Town (photo by Andrea Klettner, used with permission)
Market Square, Harlow New Town (photo by Andrea Klettner, used with permission)


The Lawn, Harlow New Town (photo by Daryl Page, used with permission)
The Lawn, Harlow New Town (photo by Daryl Page, used with permission)

As a result of the chronic housing shortage, home ownership is out of reach for many and 9m people now rent. If, as predicted by one report, half of the UK population is going to be renting privately in a generation and almost a third of private rented properties in England don't meet the government's own standard for decent homes, it’s quite evident that our rental market is broken. The spectre of Peter Rachman still haunts the private rental market. Statistics provided by housing charity Shelter show that 136,485 renters in England are at the mercy of rogue landlords. These are landlords who apply cardboard to broken windows instead of replacing the glass and don’t care that water is pouring through a light fitting in your child’s bedroom, content to pocket the rent while their tenants live in danger and squalor.

For critics who think progressive rock is no longer relevant, listen to Get ‘em out by Friday and think again.








By ProgBlog, Jan 24 2016 10:07PM



With Steven Wilson’s London gig rapidly approaching it seems like a good time to reflect on my relationship with his music. Though my collection cannot be said to contain a surfeit of Wilson-related material, partly due to my ambivalence towards Porcupine Tree, it can’t be denied that his output covers a wide stylistic range largely owing to the trait of possessing a collaborative nature. I own his two most recent ‘solo’ efforts, The Raven that Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) along with Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007). I’ve also been loaned Lightbulb Sun (Porcupine Tree, 2000); Wilson’s solo material Grace for Drowning (2011), Get All You Deserve (2012), Catalogue Preserve Amass (2012); his project with Mikael Akerfeldt Storm Corrosion (2012); and Bass Communion albums Continuum (2005) and Continuum Vol.2 (2007).

I was first prompted to see him live at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2013 by friend Neil Jellis and I acceded on the strength of Raven; he’d assembled some supremely able musicians and produced an album that ticked all the right golden era of prog boxes but still retained an element of contemporary music. There’s a moment in Luminol where I can determine Siberian Khatru that reveals Wilson’s deep appreciation of classic prog but it goes further than this. His use of analogue sounds doesn’t simply conjure images of gatefold sleeves, long hair and flares and dirty university refectory floors, it gives the music a depth and warmth. Wilson is of course a highly respected producer and many of the classic 70s reissues have been placed in his extremely capable hands for a remix because of his respect for the original music and his undoubted talent at tweaking out some of the instrumentation that has been buried in the mix of the original recording; something he achieves without harming the balance of the music due to his mastery of nuances.

Raven is an excellent album throughout and the performance at the Albert Hall did not disappoint, from the opening video to the final bow, the music, the musicianship and the presentation were flawless. Presentation is obviously very important to Wilson for, like his 70s heroes, he has forged long-standing artistic partnerships with Lasse Hoile, Hajo Mueller and Jess Cope that (forgive me for sounding pretentious) create the visuals for the Wilson brand, such is their importance to the integrity of the production; even something as simple as a transparent veil draped down from the lighting gantry to the front of the stage produces a quite startling effect and this attention to detail, linking music, album art and stage presentation first emerged with the prog acts Wilson was listening to in the early 70s.



When I first heard Hand.Cannot.Erase I was a bit disappointed, not because I considered the album as a retrograde step though I had wanted more of a ‘son of Raven’, rather that the mix of styles on the one disc, electronica, industrial, post-rock and out-and-out prog, didn’t really include enough classic-style prog for my taste. Further listening has mellowed my opinion: It’s a very well constructed album but I still regard it less favourably than Raven. The playing is as good as ever and there is an outstanding guest performance by Ninet Tayeb but I think it’s more difficult to portray invisibility in a world dominated by social media that inspired the album as a musical concept compared to the very straightforward alternative ghost stories of Raven. Raven also features more sax and flute, courtesy of Theo Travis. To an extent, Hand covers some of the same territory that informed Fear of a Blank Planet, the social isolation caused by technology but, to his credit, Wilson explores a very different sonic landscape in his more recent release. This sort of fits in with the characters of the protagonists on the two albums, a male teenager in Blank Planet with its distorted guitar-driven riffs and Hand’s young professional woman.

The live performance at the Troxy in London in March 2015 was basically the Hand.Cannot.Erase. album, played in its entirety (apart from Transience) in running order, interspersed with tracks from his back catalogue that Wilson felt fitted in with the idea of isolation and loss. Seeing the band perform the piece live helped me appreciate the music more, despite the atmosphere in the Troxy being less welcoming than at the Albert Hall; from my seat in the circle, I had the constant distraction of the light and noise from the bar, like in the upper circle at the over-rated Shepherd’s Bush Empire. However, experiencing the album live meant I was better able to relate Ancestral to the song introduced as Wreckage at the Albert Hall in 2013, a piece that had been announced as a work in progress and which had different titles throughout the Raven tour. Another personal highlight was the extended First Regret, with the clever video of concrete apartment blocks that have (mistakenly) become inextricably associated with the breakdown of society; concrete jungles and problem estates.

The addition of two Royal Albert Hall dates at the end of 2015 meant I was once again invited to go along. When I signed up to the proposal I thought that I could only manage one night because of work commitments and so Neil got me a ticket just for the second evening. It transpired that to get the full experience you did need to be there for both gigs, which had subtly different set-lists. Guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minnemann were unable to make this leg of the tour and were deputised by Dave Kilminster and Craig Blundell respectively and over the two nights there were a series of special guests, including Guthrie Govan. The set list had relaxed from the album format and included a number of tracks I was unfamiliar with. This meant that I felt at something of a disadvantage compared to my fellow audients and though I witnessed an incredible show, I have to admit a little disappointment at the inclusion of what seemed like an unhealthy dose of Porcupine Tree; it’s almost as though I was crashing a party, not knowing the host but the feeling was partly offset by the gift of a personalised T–shirt from Neil – We have got the Perfect Life.

I’m looking forward to the performance on Wednesday. Hammersmith is a good, comfortable rock venue. I’d just like more of Raven and Hand.Cannot.Erase.






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