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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, Aug 20 2017 11:24AM

I’ve recently introduced a ‘playlist’ feature to the ProgBlog homepage and rather than a straightforward list I’ve produced a GIF, made up from photos taken of the albums as I’ve been playing them. I used to tweet pictures of whatever I was ‘now playing’, influenced by the posts of some of those that I follow, including 140 characters (or less) describing what I think about the music on that record; for a couple of months in 2015 I did post a list of my weekly indulgences, because I’d seen playlists on websites including Steven Wilson’s official site where there’s also an archive of what he’s been listening to, referred to as ‘Headphone Dust’ http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/playlist-archive/ . My GIF is intended as a way of presenting my listening habits in a manner more interesting than a simple list and still illustrating the width of the progressive rock genre.


ProgBlog playlists from 2015
ProgBlog playlists from 2015

I’m vaguely wary of the idea of a playlist because I see it as a device to prop-up the music business, linked to streaming services. The release of the mp3 codec by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1993 was to facilitate rapid transmission and immediate access of audio files between different points on the planet and, inadvertently or otherwise, it proved very easy to copy and share. From the ‘home taping is killing music’ panic which began in 1981, when the industry really wasn’t that large (but which was about to gear up and become truly global) and the uproar over the introduction of Napster in 1999, music corporations have consistently stifled creativity and creamed off massive profits from their artists. At the beginning of this decade, recession, falling CD sales and piracy all seemed to spell doom and gloom for the record labels but last year saw a reversal of fortune, driven by streaming services exemplified by Spotify, Deezer, Apple and Amazon. It’s been reported that around 30% of Warner’s £2.66bn revenue for 2016 came from streaming. I’ve just finished reading Robert Barry’s excellent The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017) who points out that the idea of a ‘celestial jukebox’ (in essence, a remote server sending music to everyone with a suitable hand-held device for accessing the service) first aired by Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein in his 1994 article Copyright’s Highway, allowed the ‘record oligopoly’ to convert from supplying goods to on-line services and creating a landlord – renter relationship. The one-off Napster payment has given way to subscription which, it has been predicted, could double or triple the size of the music industry; the tech firms also seem to be doing fairly well from this model - there are 90 million people signed up to streaming services worldwide.


The Music of the Future by Robert Barry
The Music of the Future by Robert Barry

A couple of fairly recent articles in The Guardian, one in July and one earlier this week, highlight some worrying issues with streaming. Industry insiders such as Paul Smernicki, former head of digital at Universal Records, speak in terms of business models and commodity rather than music as an art form, proposing that the numbers of people streaming indicates that music has never been more popular, where the value of reliability, convenience and accessibility to an enormous catalogue of songs for a small cost now make illegal downloading almost redundant, encouraging people to invest in the service. He doesn’t go on to say that while a paid-for download or a physical copy of some music only generates revenue once, streaming rewards the music company over and over again and it’s only a tiny amount, between $0.006 and $0.0084 which goes to the artist for each play of a song; it’s being sold to us as ‘choice’ and in our inimitable consumerist manner we believe the glossy images and accept what the industry says. Unfortunately, a shift to streaming has the effect of discouraging experimental music while enriching already big stars, with the pursuit of Adele by Sony creating a parallel with the other-world Premier League transfer market. Both the majors and indie labels are incorporating streaming playlists as the thrust of their marketing strategy, tying in music to consumption and lifestyle habits.


It’s a successful strategy. There’s a huge market for streaming playlists because the public is increasingly engaging with the service to find their music, so that the streaming companies themselves have invested in the creation of their own playlists which theoretically, might help less well-known artists if part of their remit is identify new music to champion. This part of the tech company – music business relationship appears roughly symbiotic, where the business now uses streaming pluggers pushing for songs, and the range of artists on offer can define the streaming service and help it to attract more subscribers. In reality, the record labels are favouring music that is known to provide the greatest revenue and the tech companies are getting the greater benefit. Barry explains that Spotify (for example) is doing what tech companies do, gathering data, in much the same way as Facebook and Google and Amazon do. The playlists are created with the help of sophisticated collaborative filtering systems where your preferences are matched with the preferences of everyone else on a database and you're constantly badgered into 'liking' and responding to posts, so you get specific recommendations. This doesn’t work very well for me because I hold a deep disdain for advertising and anyway, a very large proportion of people who like the same music as me also like Rush...


While the latest Guardian article suggested that the album could be under threat from streamed playlists, as artists are tempted to ignore the format and concentrate on rolling playlists instead, the Alexis Petridis piece from July concerned reports of ‘fake’ artists used to pad out popular playlists, paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines, mostly unchallenging instrumental music for relaxation, avoiding royalty payments. Spotify denied the charge, which would have far-reaching implications for genuine artists, but the stories continued, citing theories relating to quality control, and a tussle for power between service and industry.


I don’t use a streaming service and have no desire to do so but the music business couldn’t care less as the development of voice-activated speakers means we can ask Apple, Google and Amazon avatars to choose some music for a specific mood at a specific time. The playlists I put together in 2015 differ slightly from those now appearing as video on my Twitter and Facebook pages and on the ProgBlog website; in 2015 I was commuting from East Croydon to London Bridge, a nominal journey of 17 minutes, during which I would read my Guardian and, like many other commuters/consumers, listen to my portable mp3 player to shut out incessant high frequency beats, predominantly hi-hat, emanating from the earbud headphones of my fellow travellers. For the past four years or so, the railway lines south of the capital have been increasingly congested as major redevelopment has been carried out at London Bridge, making it impossible to predict the duration of any single journey (industrial action by two rail unions didn’t help but they get my sympathy as they stood up to management pressure to relax safety regulations, opposing the introduction of driver-only trains) and therefore making playlist selection difficult; an unwritten rule was that you couldn’t leave the train mid-track.


The recent playlists have been compiled from listening to albums, mostly LPs but some CDs and, on one occasion a download of demo tracks by new Italian prog band Melting Clock. The commonality between the two sets of playlists is that I listen to the album in full, in running order. That’s obviously essential for something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway where there’s a linear narrative but it’s not strictly necessary for every single concept album. It might be irritating to mix the tracks around on Dark Side of the Moon because the album is designed with specific segues but would the world end if we played the different sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans out of order? It would certainly wind me up! I’m not a fan of the shuffle function on music players and as much as I admire Sid Smith’s eclectic podcast Postcards from the Yellow Room http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk which has genuine breadth, it’s essentially a sampler for the now generation, whereas I prefer to make time to submerge myself in the entire album.


playtime
playtime

It’s quite clear why the record oligopoly likes streaming and I find it hard to envisage what future developments might come along, if there’s ever to be another threat to the industry. I don’t believe that there’s any immediate risk to the album from streaming as long as genres like prog retain a degree of popularity, simply because the grand themes of progressive rock were developed across the LP format, continued during the CD era and as yet there’s no sign of that historic link being broken. The current fad for all things vinyl may not last but while it does, there’s no better feeling than holding the edges of a new release on heavyweight vinyl between your palms, placing it carefully on the turntable and getting ready to devote your time, in 20 minute chunks, to uninterrupted listening.







By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2014 03:33PM

It's mid December and I'm in Bah! Humbug mode. The endless incitement to consume that began gearing up in October is now reaching fever pitch and I’m feeling bad that I feel bad about the whole season. It's not that I don't like giving but I prefer not to be bullied into becoming a slave to this celebration of the unnecessary and shallow. 40 years ago, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock, there was a tug between those promoting commercialisation of Christmas and traditionalists pushing their views on religious significance. In a socio-political context, this was the height of the cold war and the ideological battle was being fought over consumer goods as much as the race to over-stock with nuclear arms; the West was fighting dirty, their propaganda directed at housewives, seducing them with a wide range of appliances and products on supermarket shelves that they were obviously unable to live without. The East failed to deliver promised social equality as money was poured into the military-industrial complex rather than into basics. Despite, or rather because of planned obsolescence, the West won the day; power to the consumer! Power to consume!

I'm not religious but I accept that some people ascribe meaning to this time of year although their belief is being trampled by the out-of-control machine dedicated to profit. My seasonal preference predates the Christian hijacking of Saturnalia, back to the pagan solstice; one where we simply recognise the end of a solar cycle without resorting to over-indulgence in food and alcohol. What do I wish for at this time of year? Peace on earth (yes, really!) and much stronger regulation of the food, drink and advertising industries.

Much of progressive rock owes a debt to church music. In In My Own Time, Kim Dancha’s authorised biography, John Wetton spoke of his use of chordal structures based on the harmony and counterpoint found in church music, citing the influence of his elder brother Robert who became a church organist of some accomplishment; Steve Hackett has acknowledged the influence of church music on Genesis material; and Jan Akkermann has referred to Eruption (from Moving Waves) as “patched-up church-y ideas, sacral stuff” describing that he made “blues out of those neoclassical church-like harmonies.” Chris Squire was a choir boy at St Andrew’s, Kingsbury and has spoken of the influence of church and choral music on his writing; though largely hidden within his co-written Yes-epics, the song-form on Squire’s solo album Fish out of Water is steeped in ecclesiastical influences, where he’s helped out by former school friend and band mate Andrew Pryce Jackman on keyboards and enlists the help of Barry Rose, the sub-organist from St Paul’s cathedral who plays pipe organ.

The cultural significance of the church within progressive rock has been thoroughly covered by academic authors such as Bill Martin and Edward Macan. The genre is peppered with references to liturgy, from the straightforward Credo by Refugee to the psychedelic retelling of Revelations by both Aphrodite’s Child (666) and Genesis (Supper’s Ready.) Perhaps the most overt church music albums are Mass in F minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes and the first album by Italy’s Latte e Miele, Passio Secundum Mattheum (1972). Mass in F minor was not really a full Electric Prunes album and it’s not really prog. The music was written by David Axelrod and he felt he had to draft in other musicians from Canadian group The Collectors to complete the project, a mix of acid rock guitar and Gregorian chants, sung in Latin and Greek. It’s a strange mix but somehow it works really well. Some critics have labelled Latte e Miele as an ELP clone, partly because of their keyboards/guitar/percussionist line up and partly because they include a Bach quotation that appears almost note-for-note and with the same feeling on The Three Fates (Clotho) from ELP’s first album. Such criticism is grossly unfair because 16-year old drummer Alfio Vitanza also adds flute, contributing to a pastoral feel that conjures up suggestions of early Genesis; I’d argue that the inclusion of Mellotron and string synth are the antithesis of ELP. It should be seen as a brave move for a first album and is rightly regarded as being something of a minor RPI classic.

That a band formed in a British public school should display influences from the church is hardly surprising. What is slightly more unexpected is that young musicians, absorbing blues, jazz and rock influences from the US, music born of repression and rebellion, should also exhibit a debt to music that, on reflection, reflects a deeply authoritarian way of life. I suppose it’s only symphonic prog, where the prevalent form is European art music, which truly fits this picture. These musicians grew up in a post-war society where religion played an important role in providing spiritual solace in the years following the massive loss of life and wanton destruction. This thinking was challenged by the pointless wars that occurred in faraway countries throughout the 60s and 70s and by the ideals of the counterculture when prog followed the trail of The Beatles and looked eastwards. These outside influences and experiences were revelatory; this wasn’t a clash of cultures because individuals were actively seeking alternatives to Western consumerism, leading to the dawn of the understanding that other belief systems were equally valid. The end result was that the prevailing church music, largely based on catholic and protestant doctrines, lost its religious baggage and became spiritual. On Aqualung, Jethro Tull play out a rejection of organised religion and on The Only Way from Tarkus (which describes itself as a hymn), ELP appear to take a humanist stance: “People are stirred, moved by the word/Kneel at the shrine, deceived by the wine/How was the earth conceived? Infinite space/Is there such a place? You must believe in the human race” and “Don’t be afraid, man is man made”.

During the 70s the church organ became an instrument of the prog keyboard player. Rick Wakeman played the organ at St Giles’, Cripplegate, part of London’s Barbican complex on The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the organ at St Martin’s, Vevey, Switzerland that was used on Going for the One and the solo album Criminal Record, an album that was something of a return to form; Keith Emerson uses St Mark’s church organ on Tarkus; Rick van der Linden plays the organ in the church of Maasluis (near Rotterdam) on the eponymous first Trace album and the organ of St Bavo’s church in Haarlem on the second album, Birds; on Hamburger Concerto Thijs van Leer plays the organ of St Mary the Virgin, Barnes (the album was recorded at Olympic Sound studios in Barnes.) Hamburger Concerto includes the track La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and when I was presented with the opportunity to visit Strasbourg for a scientific meeting, I took time out to visit the cathedral which is suitably impressive; a gothic masterpiece rising from the cobbles of a fairly densely hemmed-in square.

I like church architecture and the space they contain from a mathematical point of view. I like church music but I disassociate it from worship. Aldo Tagliapietra of Le Orme described how, during La Serenissima, there use to be two choirs in the basilica di San Marco, one on either side of the congregation, singing in stereo. Prog has absorbed bits and pieces of the form and few overt references to a specific god remain. The search for enlightenment, which runs throughout many prog compositions, doesn’t come across as religious; it’s head music which requires conscious engagement without the requirement for religious baggage. That’s something to think about if you receive any progressive rock as a present this Christmas.

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