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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Dec 18 2016 09:32PM

After the death of Greg Lake and a subsequent marathon session of listening to very early King Crimson and ELP albums I’ve not really had much opportunity to listen to music over the past week, my leisure time being taken up with two home games for Crystal Palace, a variety of reunions and a work Christmas party. Not being someone who rejoices in either the religious or commercial nature of Christmas, I find it a bit of a challenge when it comes to interacting with those that do get into the Christmas spirit. One of my gripes is the radio at work which is either tuned to a station broadcasting non-stop Christmas singles, other than Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas which I wouldn’t actually mind hearing, or tuned into something with more edge playing more contemporary chart rubbish; another is the seasonal TV programming which invariably excludes me from being part of the stereotypical family and which becomes ever more tired each year; and another is the general encouragement to eat and drink too much.

The idea of a reunion is to catch up with old friends but it’s difficult to communicate effectively in a crowded pub where the televised sport competes with the piped music. Having said that, en route to the work Christmas meal, we stopped off at Turner’s Old Star in Wapping where the vanguard were able to drink, talk and play pool for over an hour with only a couple of locals in attendance. This turned out to be the calm before the storm as the meal was held at Tobacco Dock and we were a small group amongst around 1000 other revellers. The live band seemed very professional but they weren’t likely to play anything remotely interesting or challenging, unlike the entertainment at the gala dinner for an American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Dallas in 1995 where the band were unable to perform the King Crimson I requested but did play some Talking Heads as compensation. When I was a student I occasionally used to take a pair of cushioned over-ear headphones to discos (only if they were held at my hall of residence – I wouldn’t have wanted to lug them all over south London) which was done primarily to indicate my disapproval of the music but also to partially reduce the volume; putting in a pair of in-ear headphones at the Tobacco Dock party was rather pointless, such was the overwhelming din coming from the disco.


Turner's Old Star
Turner's Old Star

The little music I have managed to play for my personal pleasure in the past week includes King Crimson’s Red (1974). I’d seen a tweet about the album and made a mental note that it was something I should make a point of listening to again. Red was one of the Crimson LPs I’d sold to a second hand record store when I got a copy of the original issue of the CD, but that has been replaced with the mighty Road to Red box set. It was also one of the first Crimson albums I’d heard, a copy was owned by a friend from across the road in Infield Park in my youth. Along with the heavy prog of the title track and the soaring Starless which has gone on to inspire a host of other works with its killer melody line, Providence is a track which I found particularly inspiring; at the time of the album’s release I didn’t have a clue that this was a live improvisation, despite the rather truncated ending, but the structure formed the basis of a composition by my late school - early university group where, dependent on our rehearsal space, we would utilise found objects like bicycle wheels and door keys. I think Fallen Angel and One More Red Nightmare point the way to John Wetton’s future musical course but both are carried off with distinct aplomb and fit in with the feel of the entire album. The most recent version of Starless I’ve heard was by the David Cross Band at The Lexington earlier this year which rivalled the three drummers King Crimson version (Hackney Empire, September 8th 2015) in terms of excellence.


The Road to Red
The Road to Red

Next on my list was the debut self-titled album by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (1972). Desperate to find some Banco, my first purchase was the sub-standard Donna Plautilla (released 1989) which I didn’t have on my list but it was the only Banco album available from a store in Treviso when I visited in 2005. Donna Plautilla is a compilation of pre-1972 material which doesn’t really fit the progressive Italiano tag, unlike the excellent first album. My current version of the album is a (2012) 40th anniversary 2CD edition where the second disc contains previously unreleased tracks Poilifonia, Tentazione and Padre Nostro and live versions of R.I.P, Metamorfosi and Traccia recorded in 2012.

The original album is one of the classics of the genre and, thanks to the vocals of Francesco Di Giacomo, truly operatic. I’d always associated the Banco sound with ELP because of the predominance of organ and piano, provided by the Nocenzi brothers Vittorio and Gianni respectively, but this time I was struck by the similarity to Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in March 1972. There may not be very much flute on Banco del Mutuo Soccorso but the stop-start nature of the music, plus the organ/piano which also feature heavily in TAAB (one of the main reasons I really like that album) sound as though they could all have come from the same sessions. Tull were undoubtedly a major influence on the early Italian prog acts but it’s hard to imagine Banco having time to rearrange their material to sound more like Jethro Tull in the two months that elapsed between the availability of the two records.


Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition

Though I didn’t get much time to myself I did manage to squeeze in, over two days, the DVD of The Golden Compass (2007), the somewhat unsatisfying cinematic adaptation of Philip Pullman’s brilliant Northern Lights. I can’t work out if it was the characterisation which was off, despite thinking that Nicole Kidman might actually make a suitable Mrs Coulter, or if it was just Disneyfication, stripping away all the darkness and complexity of the novel. As with all fantasy books, the film version relied heavily on CGI, mostly successfully but sometimes less so. I found the stage version of the Pullman trilogy (His Dark Materials, an adaptation by Nicholas Wright) which had a couple of seasons at the National Theatre more in keeping with the original work despite the necessary condensing, with an ingenious depiction of the daemons. The arctic setting made it an appropriate season to watch the film but I hadn’t realised, until I was distracted and left the credits running, that Kate Bush sang her own composition Lyra at the end of the film. I must have been walking out of the cinema as this began playing and missed it but apparently it was a commission which utilises the Magdalen College choir, a nice Oxford-related fact, and it is a genuinely beautiful song.

My inability to enjoy Christmas is becoming hardened with every passing year but I see decorations and other Yule-related paraphernalia go on sale in October and, apart from a couple of recent Decembers when we had a healthy sprinkling of snow even in the south east, the country has been subjected to some record-breaking flooding. Isn’t it supposed to snow at Christmas? We all know about the chances for peace on earth... I may find it hard to find any decent music being broadcast at this time of year but it’s incomprehensible that a large proportion of the human race has an inability to even consider working together for the common good, whether it’s finding a meaningful accord on climate change, cancelling third-world debt, halting the civil war in Syria or ending violence against women.

Merry Christmas?









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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