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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 28 2019 09:11PM



20 years of Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory

It’s entirely coincidental that the cover of the latest Prog magazine (issue 101) should feature the cover artwork from 1999’s Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater when I finally decide to blog about prog metal. The idea for the blog has been floating around for nearly four months, prompted by an influx of requests to review albums that are covered by the prog metal umbrella. Metropolis pt.2 was integral to my thought process, having been suggested to me back in April that it was a prime example of the sub-genre where Dream Theater had reached the apex of their creativity and inspiration, with a great depth in the song writing, some 14 years after they had originally formed and with two different personnel from those in the original line-up, one of whom was Jordan Rudess on keyboards, recording an album with the band for the first time. Evidently, the advice I received was both pertinent and accurate, otherwise why would there still be sufficient interest in the album for Dream Theater tour it in its entirety on its 20th anniversary and why would Prog devote so many pages to it?


Heavy rock, heavy metal or prog?

Going back further in time, along with most other commentators of the period I made a distinction between heavy rock, Deep Purple, for example, and music created by the progressive groups of prog’s golden era, though King Crimson, rightly or wrongly lumped into the prog camp, were hurtling towards their first interregnum with the clever but undeniably heavy material that surfaced on Red (1974), a polished production that should be heard in the context of their live performances over the preceding year, later to surface on USA (1975) and even more fully documented on The Road to Red (2013).

The distinction between the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), a term coined when punk and new wave were fading by Sounds’ Geoff Barton in May 1979 and prog acts subjected to scrutiny in an ever-more commercial musical environment, was even more pronounced. However, NWOBHM inherited some of the do-it-yourself punk ethos that also featured in the make-up of nascent neo-prog bands, marking a convergence in thinking, if not in style.


Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal
Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal

The birth of prog metal

Around the same time as neo-prog was becoming established in the UK, a US prog metal scene was developing where the influences featured metal bands, including examples from NWOBHM, along with the well-established Rush. Fates Warning formed in 1982 and released their first album Night on Bröcken in 1984; Majesty, which became Dream Theater, was formed in 1985; Shadow Gallery (as Sorcerer) formed in 1985; Crimson Glory, following two changes of name, released their eponymously-titled debut album in 1986 and the follow-up, Transcendence (1988) is regarded as a prog metal classic.

Prog underwent resurgence during the mid-90s, catalysed by this assimilation of the progressive ethos into metal. Away from the US, the Scandinavians melded their take on metal with analogue retro-keyboard sounds, creating dark, sometimes stark prog that acted as a soundtrack for the folklore of Norway and Sweden. Anekdoten’s debut Vemod (1993) has been accurately described as sounding like King Crimson had they not disbanded in 1974. Although predominantly instrumental and heavy, with copious doom-laden Mellotron, the lyrics stand out as intelligent and call to mind Richard Palmer-James. The melancholy feel is enhanced by the addition of cello; at times the guitar is like the angular playing of Steve Howe on Fragile and the bass style owes a heavy debt to John Wetton. Did the success of Vemod’s release provide the impetus to reform King Crimson as a double trio conformation in 1994, with its nod to the Red-era? If so, Fripp and co. still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP but as far as the fan-base was concerned, they were ready for any new material. This incarnation of Crimson picked up from where the 70’s Crimson left off, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends, an alignment that continued with the subsequent studio releases The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and The Power to Believe (2003) which get progressively darker (though there always moments of optimism), heavier and technical. On balance, I’d call Thrak (1994) heavy prog but by the time they reached the third Crimson interregnum they were almost certainly prog metal, devoid of symphonic prog flourishes.


ProgBlog and prog metal

I’ve just been reminded that Steven Wilson, in an interview a few years ago, decried a lack of variation in metal and its limited musical vocabulary, suggesting that over-familiarity with the sound of was reducing its power. Wilson’s words appeared before I had ever been asked to review any prog metal but I still had a general feeling, one that might open me up to accusations of musical snobbery, that prog metal had a tendency towards being metal with progressive flourishes bolted on and that it was all a bit same-y. Up to the point two years ago when I was asked to review Radiant Memory (2017) by Process of Illumination, an instrumental band from Texas, the closest I’d got to sitting down and attentively listening to prog metal was either Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) or Sign of the Crow (2016) by the David Cross Band. The former, I’d suggest, contains more of the perceived prog metal tropes whereas there’s a ‘metal edge’ that runs deep in the latter. Cross’ heavy credentials date back to his tenure in King Crimson where he was fighting to be heard over band mates who were increasingly moving into proto-prog metal territory. I also own three studio albums by Peruvians Flor de Loto: Imperio de Cristal (2011); Volver a nacer (2012); and Nuevo Mesias (2014), and the self-titled debut from Il Bacio della Medusa (2004) – all of which can be described as hard-edged prog, which is why I bought them, but which display inspiration from metal. My favourite from this cohort by some distance is Sign of the Crow.

Radiant Memory took me by surprise, but the absence of vocals made it easier to review. I wouldn’t really class the album as straightforward prog metal and, to be fair to the band, they accurately state that their music is ‘an ambitious blend of progressive rock, instrumental music and metal.’ Their playing is of a high standard and there’s a lot of variation on the album thanks to a good guitar/keyboards balance. I was also wrong-footed by The Last Cell, the stage name of Jean-Marc Perc. Perc began playing the guitar at age nine, culminating in a Music degree from university in Vienna. He combines interesting-interval djent and tasteful shredding, all carried out with outstanding technical dexterity. The five-track EP Nautilus (2018) and 2019’s Continental Drift may contain archetypal examples of shredding and djent styles but he also adds delicate picked acoustic guitar – the music is highly melodic and he’s not averse to incorporate jazz-phrasing, demonstrating an innate musicality.

There is an obvious stylistic spectrum even within prog metal, so despite my disdain for Opeth, I have to admit that Heritage (2011) is growing on me. Part of what Wilson, who mixed the album, described as a trilogy (the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album from 2011 Grace for Drowning), Heritage was Opeth’s first full departure from the band’s metal roots and dispensed with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion. Its appeal lies in its variation. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano but the album references all the sounds of classic 70s prog, with Mellotron, rewarding organ and plenty of electric piano. There are tricky time signatures, knotty guitar riffs and sensitive playing amongst the crunchy power chords. Should the album’s category be changed from prog metal to prog? It doesn’t really matter, though Slither, a tribute to Ronnie James Dio who died during the time the record was being made, is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade.



Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'
Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'

Dream Theater define prog metal

So was Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory a ground-breaking moment for prog metal, and do I like it? For someone listening to the record for the first time, 20 years on from its release makes it difficult to ascribe how innovative it was. By 1999 ‘prog’ and ‘progressive rock’ had begun to attract less invective - Radiohead released OK Computer in 1997 and while everyone seemed to accept it was brilliant and pushed boundaries, the band themselves denied it but the public began to use the p-word and Radiohead in the same sentence. Metropolis pt.2 certainly doesn’t conform to my idea of metal and there are a number of aspects that have been borrowed from prog. The opening section with the hypnotherapist is pure Roger Waters and the album is replete with Floyd-like sound effects inter-track segues. If prog had remained a dirty word, it’s unlikely that the storyline, shifting between different events through time and marked out by lyrics denoted in different fonts, would have been so readily accepted. I’m not a great fan of LaBrie’s vocals which I find occasionally shaky and certainly no better than average which is a shame, because they are essential to the story-telling, and I do find the lyrics a little trite. On the other hand, it’s impossible to criticise the musicianship and there’s a sublime section that reminds me of Zappa’s Hot Rats. There’s a delightful ‘throw everything at it’ approach that conforms to prog stereotypes, meaning that if this was to be the gold-standard or the epitome of prog metal, I’d probably go along with it.


I believe it’s predominantly the links to metal that have allowed the prog genre to thrive and though there are obviously other musical forms that continue to impact and shape progressive music, the blurring of distinction between aspects of prog and metal, whether or not originality has been compromised, has facilitated the integration of metal into the prog genre. For my part I recognise the importance of this association, and at the level of listener I can appreciate the technicality involved in the playing.

Even though I think there’s very little that’s inspiring in the prog metal world at the moment, reporting on prog metal is still important and as I’m still not entirely convinced by the genre and still a novice, ProgBlog now has a dedicated specialist, Stefano Amadei, to write about developments in the world 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, Apr 10 2019 09:29PM

As the rest of the world watches, the UK plays out a real-time tragicomedy that the actors know is going to cause severe damage to services and the economy but, like the slow-mo approach to the cliff edge, seem incapable of taking appropriate action to avert the impending disaster. I flew to Bologna on the day of the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU (I had tickets to see Ian Anderson on the Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary tour) and fellow passengers laughed at our choice of dates and the confusion we’d have encountered if parliament had approved the Prime Minister’s deal. I was in Genoa the previous weekend where, over dinner with Italian friends, I was asked what on earth we, the UK, were doing. Brexit makes watching televised parliamentary business like watching an episode of The Office; excruciating but compulsive viewing.


Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19
Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19

Exiting the European Union is an act of wanton self-harm regardless of whatever anyone says about ‘respecting the will of the people’ or ‘give us what we voted for’ but unfortunately the genie has been released from the bottle and conflicting desires following the 52:48 split have used up our wishes to poison debate with hatred and accusations of treachery, fuelled by the personal ambitions of a few die-hards and financed by shadowy figures running insidious Facebook advertising campaigns. As it stands, Theresa May has at last extended an invitation to Jeremy Corbyn to work out some compromise on getting the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 passed, having had her preferred deal, what she regards as the only deal, rejected by the House of Commons three times; we’ve also had a series of indicative votes, seeking out a consensus for a resolution, none of which has commanded any majority in the House. Judging from reports of the current state of affairs it seems that she’s asking Labour to compromise and not shifting her own red lines.


I voted to remain in the 2016 referendum but if we are forced out of the EU, any deal must protect workers’ rights; the environment; the Good Friday Agreement; the rights of UK citizens living within the EU and EU citizens in the UK; food and manufacturing standards; and businesses importing and exporting between the UK and the EU; in other words a soft-Brexit with some form of customs union. One potential model has been coined ‘Norway plus’. Norway, along with Liechtenstein and Iceland, are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). Norway plus, which was proposed towards the end of 2018, would consist of membership of EFTA and membership of the EEA, combined with a separate customs union with the EU to create a trade relationship similar to that between the EU and its member states today. The one potential drawback cited by critics is that the UK would have to abide by EU regulations without any political representation in the EU's bodies, though it encompasses an idealised wish list for a soft Brexit.


I’ve always been intrigued by Norway, from Scandinavian mythology to physical geography lessons during my schooldays in the early 70s. Unlike the UK, who did exactly the opposite with money from North Sea Oil extraction, the Norwegian government created two sovereign wealth funds. One of these was for reinvesting surplus revenue back into global stocks, shares and assets and the other, the smaller Government Pension Fund Norway, invested in Norwegian and some Scandinavian businesses, acting like a national insurance scheme. Norway featured heavily in the second of my Interrail travels, where 10 days were spent exploring the country from Oslo up to Narvik, well inside the Arctic Circle and the farthest north I’ve ever travelled, 68o28’ N.

This trip coincided with campaigning for the 1983 Norwegian local elections, so university friend and fellow traveller Nick Hodgetts and I hung around with the Norsk Arbeiderparti (who had a band on stage singing about social democracy) and the Greens on our first afternoon in Oslo. I really enjoyed Norway; the people, the landscape, the towns and cities, picking redcurrants for a free night and breakfast at Åndalsnes Youth Hostel, and though the trains were frequently crowded, the travel was enjoyable, too. The journey up to Narvik was by bus, having unsuccessfully attempted to hitch a ride from Fauske. The road trip was just over 5 hours long, hugging the coastline and crossing two fjords by ferry. I described it as ‘cosmic’ in my diary, driving along quiet, unlit roads, climbing out of valleys and descending towards the head of a fjord with the mountains darker than the night sky. Just after midnight on the walk from Narvik bus station to the railway station, a casual glance towards the firmament revealed a constantly changing green shadow, fading, growing, shifting and finally dissipating; the aurora borealis clearly visible above the glow of the city lights.


Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983
Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983

We managed to see a number of free live music performances and though one of the last concerts I attended in the UK before setting off on my northern Europe trip was Pendragon, Solstice and The Enid at the Ace, Brixton on May 11th, an indication that neo-prog had truly arrived (partially thanks to being embraced by Kerrang!) it was striking that throughout the country the predominant musical style and associated fashion was heavy metal, though it was almost impossible not to hear Mike Oldfield’s Moonlit Shadow or Irene Cara’s Flashdance being played on the radio (or some cassette player.)

Whereas I’d started listening to Sweden’s Bo Hansson in the mid 70s and began buying Finnish prog in the mid 00s, I hadn’t actually paid any attention to music from Norway. A couple of years after my Norwegian trip, a-ha became the country’s top musical export with uplifting pop, though the trio themselves were irked that music critics couldn’t see beneath the shiny surface of their songs where the application of classical theory and a rich harmonic language made them mini-symphonic masterpieces straight out of the book of prog. Also around that time, the Norwegian love-affair with heavy metal evolved into Norwegian black metal, a sub-genre that peaked in popularity in the early 90s and was considered to rival Swedish death metal. I remain unconvinced that Sweden’s Opeth should fall under the prog banner despite prog flourishes amongst what I still hear as death metal and I that have been and am equally dismissive of black metal groups from Norway that have adopted prog stylistic leanings. However, when the third wave of progressive rock surfaced in Sweden and the USA in the early 90s, if it wasn’t quite metal with prog sensibilities it could certainly be classed as material close to the sound of Red-era Crimson; heavy prog but not prog metal.


My first taste of Norwegian prog was a set from Arabs in Aspic at the 2017 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa. Not knowing what to expect, I was nevertheless impressed with their brand of prog which though biased towards the heavy end of the spectrum, contained sufficient melody, variation and surprises to suit someone more accustomed to symphonic prog. They sang and communicated to the almost exclusively Italian crowd in excellent English, reminding us that we were united by progressive rock. They also formed the backing band for the Saturday headliner, space-rock legend Nik Turner.


Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017
Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017

When I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files I used to take it around Europe as a reference when I went into record stores until it became worn and fragile. This was also the source of my first interest in Anekdoten and Änglagård, expanding my knowledge of Swedish prog. The book was eventually replaced with Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook, a more complete and up-to-date volume with a set of different album sleeves presented in full colour. One of those depicted was Wobbler’s debut Hinterland (2005) which, I’m ashamed to say, I paid absolutely no attention to.


Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook
Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook

I’m pretty sure I saw adverts for Rites at Dawn around the time of its release in 2011 but it was From Silence to Somewhere (2017) that finally hooked me. One of the people I follow on Twitter had raved about it when she got her copy but at the time I didn’t follow up the recommendation. Some time early in 2018 I’d been browsing on Bandcamp and somehow ended up on the Karisma Records page which linked to the band, where I ended up listening to it, was blown away by it and bought a copy on vinyl. Hinterland (on vinyl) and Rites at Dawn (CD) followed and since then I’ve bought Hinterland and From Silence to Somewhere as presents for my brothers. I’ve also just ordered a remastered CD of Afterglow (2009) as a present to myself. The music sounds like early 70s symphonic prog, largely thanks to a keyboard set-up that would not have been unfamiliar to Rick Wakeman while recording Fragile, and trebly Rickenbacker bass. It’s a full sound, well structured, expertly played and nicely produced. Wobbler certainly aren’t afraid to stretch themselves with lengthy compositions, all of which could attract the criticism that they’re merely regurgitating music from 45 years ago rather than progressing, but the band started out playing music that they liked without worrying about where they would be pigeonholed. I like it, too. I like it very much.


The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)
The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)

It was while I was selecting a CD of Hinterland for my brother that I came across Jordsjø, another band allied to Karisma Records and after checking the reviews, bought Jord. There are some similarities with Wobbler but in the main they play prog with a large dose of Scandinavian folk. It reminds of the An Invitation EP by Amber Foil, not only in the palette, but the feel of the music which evokes unidentifiable forces dwelling in some dark forest. I’m a big fan of the flute on the album which adds to the folk feeling but the last track is something very different, though equally good – an electronica outing that could easily have been composed by Tangerine Dream in the mid 70s.


Jord by Jordsjø
Jord by Jordsjø

So if the UK is to leave the EU, and the leaders of EU countries are discussing this as I type, I’m going with Norway...




By ProgBlog, Apr 9 2018 10:38PM

Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milan 23 March



Next stop: Milan. I attended the 2017 Z-Fest and apart from choosing a hotel miles from the club so that the taxi driver was unhappy to let me out of his cab because he wasn’t convinced that there was actually an event being held there and then not being able to communicate with a taxi firm to get me back to the hotel after it had finished, it was a successful venture. 2017 had something of an ‘experimental’ vibe, with the jazzy Zaal (standing in for Christadoro, a Zuffanti co-venture who released an album in February that year) and headliners Finisterre, who of all the Zuffanti projects seem to me the group who best represent boundary-pushing. That show also featured the Zuffanti-produced Cellar Noise, playing through their excellent symphonic prog debut Alight (2017) and wowing the crowd with an excellent rendition of Genesis’ The Knife as an encore. The whole band was present for this year’s Z-Fest, getting ready to embark upon their first concert outside of Europe, in Canada, and they told me the material they were writing for their forthcoming album was going to be a bit heavier than on Alight but still recognisably Cellar Noise. Z-Fest 2018 was dubbed ‘the symphonic edition’ headlined by Höstsonaten, who are without doubt the most symphonic of Zuffanti’s many sidelines and compared by the man himself to The Enid, so it was quite appropriate that former Enid vocalist Joe Payne had been invited to open proceedings, with the other slots allotted to Isproject, a prog/post rock duo augmented by Zuffanti associates, taking their place in the proceedings by virtue of releasing a fine, symphonic concept album The Archinauts (2017) produced by Zuffanti, and to Heather Findlay, the vocalist for Mostly Autumn from 1996 until 2010.



This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!
This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!

I’d last seen Joe Payne performing with The Enid at HRH 4 in North Wales and before that at the Resonance Festival at the Bedford Arms in Balham. On both occasions it was clear that he had an excellent voice but in my opinion the theatrical presentation came across as West End musical rather than rock, and certainly not progressive rock. I got to the club as the man reinvented as 'That Joe Payne' was finishing his sound check, thanks to a combination of the efficiency of the Milan metro and the performer not realising that the doors had actually opened. Following a short interlude during which the sound engineers played a selection of classic prog, including Siberian Khatru, Easy Money and Free Hand, Payne took to the stage again and explained that he would only be conversing in English and that this was his first ever solo performance, though it wasn’t his first post-Enid show; earlier in March he’d performed at The Picturedome in Northampton with a select backing group.

His performance was relatively brief, consisting of two (long-form) songs he’d contributed to from The Enid’s Invicta (2012) One and the Many and Who Created Me? plus both sides of his new single I need a Change/Moonlit Love. Confiding in the audience that he was a bit rusty and Who Created Me? was the most challenging thing he’d had to play on piano, he also admitted, mid song, that he’d forgotten how the piece went, then courageously continued. I thought he excelled in this format, solo voice and piano and, without the full bombast of his former band to compete with for kitsch, it completely changed my opinion of his singing; that he’s got a great voice is beyond question – he proved that it works in a rock context.


That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano
That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano

Isproject were next up, Ivan Santovito (who had a slight problem with the keyboard patches on his Mac before they got going) and Ilenia Salvemini, who after a couple of tracks as a duo were joined on stage by core members of Höstsonaten: Paolo Tixi; Marcella Arganese; Daniele Sollo; and Martin Grice.

Their inclusion at this symphonic Z-Fest was fully warranted. The music alternates between a post-Waters Floydian sweeping cinematic sound, melodies and instrumentation that recall classic 70s Italian prog, and a few guitar-driven moments that hint of prog-metal. The proggiest moments were the lead synthesizer lines over full band backing where a relative lack of layers evoked the early 70s sound; there was also plenty of delicate piano which contributed to the symphonic feel. Apart from playing the keyboards, Santovito handled a good portion of the vocals, sung in English, while most of the time Salvemini was responsible for providing harmony vocals or singing as a duet. The performance wasn’t quite faultless, with Salvemini occasionally demonstrating an unfortunate lack of stagecraft, generating low-level feedback by exposing her mic, held by her side when she wasn’t singing, to her monitor. This slightly naive behaviour didn’t affect the way I thought about the music and I visited the merchandise stand following their slot and bought a copy of The Archinauts on CD; I’m pleased I did, because Zuffanti’s production is beautifully clear and the symphonic nature of the music shines through.


Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito
Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito

I don’t own any Mostly Autumn or Heather Findlay music other than a live version of Evergreen that featured on the free CD that came with one of the early Prog magazines concentrating on prog-folk. Her time in Mostly Autumn has helped her amass a good following and since leaving them in 2010 she’s fronted her own band, collaborated with some of the biggest names in the prog world (including Ian Anderson and John Wetton) and, in 2016 formed Mantra Vega with Dave Kerzner, pulling in a number of Mostly Autumn alumni, creating what many branded a ‘supergroup’. However, this set was just Findlay accompanying herself singing with acoustic guitar, delving into a rich past of folk/symphonic tunes of which I recognised only one: Evergreen. Her voice on some of the recordings I’ve heard has a frail, ethereal quality, like a Yorkshire Stevie Nicks but live she had a good strong voice that reminded me of Sonja Kristina on some of the more song-based Curved Air material. She also communicated entirely in English and told the crowd that, like Joe Payne, this was her first ever solo gig.


Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!
Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!

I’d just missed out seeing Höstsonaten performing Symphony No.1 Cupid and Psyche in 2016 so I wasn’t going to miss the 2018 Z-Fest; this was the band I’d really come to see and they did not disappoint. I may have originally heard about them in 2007-8 when I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files but my first exposure to their music was at the 2014 Prog Résiste festival where the Z Band performed an array of pieces from a variety of projects including the superb Rainsuite from Winterthrough, a sumptuous example of modern symphonic prog, prompting me to visit their merchandise stand following the performance to buy the CD/DVD of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Alive in Theatre (2013). It was on a visit to Galleria del Disco, Firenze, in the subway passages underneath the main station later in 2014 that I got my hands on an AMS CD reissue of Winterthrough, and in 2016 I pre-ordered my copy of Symphony N.1 Cupid & Psyche (on pink vinyl) through Bandcamp.



The current Höstsonaten line-up of Zuffanti (bass, acoustic guitar and bass pedals), Luca Scherani (keyboards), Marcella Arganese (electric guitar), Daniele Sollo (bass) and Paolo Tixi (drums) was supplemented for the occasion by Martin Grice on sax and flute, Joanne Roan on flute, Alice Nappi on violin, and Gaetano Galli on oboe, providing a genuine symphonic dimension; Grice was part of the Z Band and Roan has appeared on a number of Höstsonaten records.

Zuffanti’s introduction was interrupted by remedial work on Scherani’s laptop (after Scherani had helped Ivan Santovito at the start of the Isproject set) but this was swiftly resolved and they began with a medley of Season Cycle tracks, Entering the Halls of Winter, The Edge of Summer and Toward the Sea. We were also treated to a large slice of 2016’s Symphony N.1, an album where Zuffanti had written the music but took a step back from much of the playing and allowed the partnership with Scherani, who arranged the piece for orchestra, to shine. I thought the evening couldn’t get any better but they next embarked upon Ancient Mariner in all its dramatic glory. I’d notice Joe Payne move a mic stand to the front of the stage between the Heather Findlay and Höstsonaten sets, so I had a pretty good idea that he’d be joining them for something, and he took on the role of the mariner really well. Sadly I had to leave to catch a bus back to my hotel during Part 3, but there’s a YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61N3h2qCPfk that goes some way to compensating for me missing out on Part 4 which features outstanding vocals from both Payne and Findlay.



Though the crowd was really supportive of all the acts, the club wasn’t full and with tickets at only €10, it’s something of a surprise that Zuffanti persists in hosting the event each year. However he does it, promoting his protégés, revisiting some exquisite music of his own and this year bringing UK artists to Milan, I’m glad he does. This was my second year and, like last year, it was really special. La Maschera di Cera next year?














By ProgBlog, Sep 12 2017 08:35AM

In an uncertain world, it’s very easy to surround yourself with the familiar, anchored to comforts which, for whatever reason, confer a sense of safety and reassurance. I’d like to think that I look upon on life as something of an adventure, searching for slightly unusual or enriching experiences. One of these was eight years ago, when my wife, son and I took advantage of close family living in New Zealand and embarked upon a two-week long tour of the country spanning the southern hemisphere transition of winter into spring, August to September. On my fiftieth birthday, a couple of days before we were due to return to the UK, Daryl and I jumped from the Auckland Sky Tower (and got the lift back up to do it again.)

This base-jump by wire is completely safe but when you’re weighed beforehand to calculate the forces required for deceleration and your harness is checked by a second individual, your mind does tend to stray towards irrationality: You’re falling from 192m and reach speeds of 85km/h. It’s an incredible thrill and it’s all over in around 10 seconds; on the second go we were encouraged to begin by falling off backwards!


Auckland's Sky Tower
Auckland's Sky Tower

Rationalising and calculating risk, as well as knowing your own physical limits are essential if you’re attempting something which appears dangerous. A long time ago I used to rock climb, nothing spectacular but involving both risk from the activity itself and also from the relative isolation should something untoward happen, this being long before the advent of mobile phones. A walking accident in the winter of 1976, slipping on snow while descending an improvised route from Great Gable in the Lake District as the weather deteriorated to such an extent that it was genuinely unsafe to continue, battered my confidence. I slipped, tumbled and fell about 120m down a scree slop where the pitch was such that there were plenty of rocks sticking up out of the snow cover. It’s remarkable that I didn’t break any bones but I did spend a couple of nights in hospital for observation because I’d lost consciousness at some stage during my ungainly descent. The A&E personnel thought I’d been involved on a motorcycle crash; it was common for local youths to buy motorbikes with their first pay check and almost as common for them to be involved in a serious incident within the following week. I suspect it’s the isolation that concerns me because it didn’t cause me to be afraid of heights; it does make South Side of the Sky resonate it little bit more. I’m just a bit more careful when I approach something potentially hazardous and more critical of the risks and benefits.


South Side of the Sky
South Side of the Sky

Endorphins, named so because they’re natural, morphine-like molecules (endo- means ‘from within’), are produced in the pituitary gland and hypothalamus. Their main function is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals but they also have a positive, euphoric effect; they are released in large quantities during pleasurable moments such as during extreme sports, during sex (especially during orgasm), eating chocolate, and when we listen to good music.

When it comes to prog, I tend to play safe and listen to albums from the ‘golden era’, preferring symphonic prog, keyboard-layered with its roots in classical music and jazz. The modern stuff that I like, possibly best exemplified by the current crop of Italian bands like Il Tempio delle Clessidre, Panther & C., Cellar Noise and Melting Clock, and also ESP from the UK, play music which has a grounding in classic progressive rock of the 70s. Along with jazz rock (last week’s playlist includes Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia (1978) and Deep End (1976) by Isotope on original vinyl), jazz and some classical music, this is basically my comfort zone. I do own some Magma releases, the classics Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh (1973) and Köhntarkösz (1974) on CD plus what I thought might be the most accessible LP Attahk (1978), which I bought first sometime in the early 80s; I still find all three hard going. My older brother Tony also tries to keep me on my toes. Though our tastes overlap to a considerable extent he likes some rather uncompromising modern jazz and bought me Louis Sclavis’ L'imparfait des langues (2007) for my birthday 10 years ago. The music, originally commissioned for a performance in Monaco in 2005 cancelled at short notice due to the death of Prince Rainier III, was a deliberate attempt to challenge Sclavis’ compositional habits, using players from different backgrounds with whom he’d not worked before. The album was recorded in one day.


Magma collection
Magma collection

More recently I’ve been extending the boundaries of what I’ll listen to. I’m not particularly a fan of Hawkwind but I did like some of Robert Calvert’s ideas (I was really disappointed that his stage adaptation of Hype was cancelled within a week of opening – as I stood outside the theatre’s closed doors) and I finally got hold of a copy of Quark Strangeness and Charm (1977) on vinyl, even though it’s outside my normal listening habits. I’ve previously been dismissive of Roger Waters’ solo efforts having seen his The Wall and The Final Cut follow-up The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking in concert and owned a bootleg recording of the LP on C-90 which I wasn’t over-enamoured with. I thought the music descended from the widescreen of mid-period Floyd to narrow-focus, basic rock built around a riff that sounded as though it came direct from The Wall. However, I bought a copy of Is this the life we really want? because of the sentiment, knowing that Waters is a master of concepts and believes in superlative production values, left in the extremely capable hands of Nigel Godrich on this latest release. I also procured the quirky folk-prog-world music re-release of Syd Arthur’s On An On (2012) which is beautifully written and played, but not what might have been expected of me!



Having recently become semi-retired again seems to have loosened some of my listening inhibitions and whereas I’d look at an album in my youth, without hearing it in its entirety and rating it highly, I’d never own it. I’m now more open to recommendation and even experimentation, buying albums which I probably should have owned many years ago without listening to them beforehand. Sometimes I’m disappointed. So what? Yet there’s still one genre that I’ve not fully embraced, prog metal, though I’m coming round to see the blurring of distinction between the prog and the metal, even accepting an invitation to review the latest release by Texan heavy prog/prog metal outfit Process of Illumination (see my album review of Radiant Memory here.) I was lent a copy of Opeth’s Heritage (2011) by friend and Steven Wilson fan Neil Jellis because it forms part of what Wilson, who engineered the album, described as a trilogy, the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album Grace for Drowning (2011). Heritage contains some decent music, the first full departure from the band’s metal roots and fortunately dispenses with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of the frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion I associate with metal. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano exercise and The Devil’s Orchard, like much of the rest of the album references the sounds of 70s prog – the organ work is quite rewarding, there’s plenty of electric piano and there are some tricky guitar riffs. The introduction to I feel the Dark could almost be Jethro Tull then roughly half way through the track it switches with the introduction of slow, crunchy power chords which in turn give way to some Mellotron. It never goes overtly ambient but I think I detect the Steven Wilson influence. Slither is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade. Nepenthe and Häxprocess display the players' sensitivity with good use of electric piano and some adventurous rhythmic patterns. Famine has flute, effects, gentle piano chords (c.f. Heritage) and gives way to fast guitar and Hammond. So what’s not to like? I think it’s an admirable effort with decent pitch, tempo and instrumental variation and you can’t fault the playing or the production; it just doesn’t grab me. Similarly I was recommended some Il Bacio della Medusa and bought the Black Widow records re-release of the eponymous debut (BWR, 2006) and bought a number of CDs by Peruvian prog band Flor de Loto when I was in Lima, only to be disappointed by the heavy edge – it wasn’t what I was expecting from either band. I’ve also got a download of The Gift of Anxiety (2013) by Sylvium and the Sky Architect CD A Dying Man’s Hymn (2011) neither of which are awful, start to finish metal by any stretch of the imagination but equally, neither is particularly inspiring.


Perhaps the greatest insult of all to my former listening habits was my recent acquisition of Kansas' Point of Know Return (1977) which I'm almost reluctant to admit I quite like. It's hardly up there with the greats but it's a decent effort, bought second-hand on spec. My comfort zone may be expanding but the more metal you get with your prog metal, the more reluctant I am to push those boundaries further. I’ll stick to the proto-prog metal of Red, thank you.


Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas
Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas






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