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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Jan 16 2018 08:52PM

I’m just back from a couple of days skiing in Chamonix, what I hope will turn out to be a warm-up event to a full week somewhere else later in the year. The town itself is very pleasant and though I’ve skied in the area three times before, we’ve always been based a little higher up the valley in Argentière and whereas we’d previously driven down to the resort, this time we flew to Geneva and took a transfer from there. We’d drive through Chamonix at the beginning and end of holidays and to get to some of the ski areas, scattered from just south of the town up to Balme at the head of the valley; we’ve even stopped there to see a screening of the second of the Lord of the Rings films, The Two Towers in English. So for the first time since our inaugural trip in March 2000, I managed to get a feel for the place, somewhere I’d read about in climbing accounts by Don Whillans, Joe Brown and Dougal Haston when I was a youth and somewhere I felt I knew well enough to base one of my O Level English Language exam essays.


Chamonix
Chamonix

I’m pretty sure there has been a lot of change since I read mountaineering books in the mid-70s, a time when young rock climbers used to name routes after prog tracks: The Gates of Delirium grade E4 (6a), described by UK Climbing as ‘magnificent’, Relayer (another E4) and Close to the Edge E3 (5c) are all climbs on Raven Crag, Thirlmere, in the Lake District and there’s also a Gates of Delirium in Yosemite; Genesis are represented by Hairless Heart, a grade E5 (5c) slab climb on Froggatt Edge in Derbyshire first ascended, solo, by John Allen in 1975 but there are others. There’s a thread from 2012, now closed down, on the UK Climbing site which asked why “an unnaturally high proportion of route names reference Pink Floyd, other dubious prog rock, or Tolkien.” The one sensible answer suggested that prog coincided with an explosion of new routes, though I did like the response “What's wrong with Prog rock? Or J.R.R. Tolkien? Many people have been inspired by the writings of Tolkien and the music of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Yes etc. The fact is that both tend to ramble on a bit, but are ultimately rewarding in the end.” The erection of a new sports hall at my school included a short, under-used climbing wall and along with a couple of others I was allowed to climb during PE lessons. Access to Lake District routes in Coniston and Langdale was facilitated by Honda 550, with me sitting pillion and carrying the gear but I wasn’t nearly as good at climbing as I’d hoped. However, progressive rock and rock climbing seemed intrinsically linked as I flicked through Crags and High magazines listening to Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on the radio, ticking off another prog-inspired route name.



I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.
I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.

I didn’t expect to see any record shops in Val d’Isère but I did think there might have been one in Chamonix, with its population of around 9000, a little less than that of Auray where I bought my first Ange CD Le Cimetière des Arlequins (from 1973.) Unfortunately there weren’t any so apart from listening to Semiramis’ Frazz Live (2017) on my mp3 player, the only music I got to hear was piped from restaurants and on one occasion, a truly awful singer-guitarist at the Irish Coffee bar across the road from our hotel. I don’t have much winter- or snow related music in my collection; I own a copy of Rick Wakeman’s White Rock (1977), the soundtrack to the official film of the 1976 Innsbruck winter Olympics and regard it as a return to form after Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. My favourite track is Lax’x and my next favourite is the definitive prog track on the album, Ice Run but there are a number of snippets of music used in the film that form a sonic link between the different Olympic disciplines that don’t appear on album tracks, some of which are very Yes-sounding. The album’s instrumentation of keyboards, percussion and choral backing provides an effective, coherent narrative that works well for both audio and cinematic formats, linked by the melodic ‘searching for gold’ keyboard motif. I really like Wakeman’s full use of a range of keyboards and think it’s that which makes the album stand out from its immediate predecessors; there’s a much broader range of tonality, even though there’s no guitar or bass guitar.


Wakeman was an integral part of the band for Fragile (1971), as Yes came close to perfection. Roundabout, with its imagery of mountains that ‘come out of the sky’ from ‘in and around the lake’ could represent somewhere like the Lake District or the Swiss Alps but this doesn’t necessarily suggest winter, unlike the lyrics to the angular, driving and somewhat overlooked South Side of the Sky with its message that natural forces can be brutal. It’s ironic that White Rock was recorded in Wembley but when Wakeman rejoined Yes in late 1976, the band had decamped to Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland to record Going for the One (1977), where Wakeman subsequently recorded 1977’s Criminal Record.

ELP were another band who combined a tax-break with recording in Montreux for parts of Works Volume 1 (1977) and though Fanfare for the Common Man wouldn’t normally fit into a ‘winter’ category, the video for the truncated version released as a single which reached no.2 in the UK charts was filmed in the futuristic Montreal Olympic Stadium (where they were rehearsing for the Works tour in a basement car park) after Greg Lake emerged from rehearsals for a breath of fresh air and was immediately struck by the vision of the snow-covered arena.


Another apt piece of music that I own is Winterthrough (2005) by Höstsonaten, part of a season-themed set of luscious melodic symphonic Italian prog albums. The standout track is Rainsuite which also featured in Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band set list; it’s made up of a number of linked melodies which I think puts it in the Focus or Camel bracket. Camel had their own winter-related mini-epic Ice from I Can See Your House from Here (1979) which I hummed to myself on the skiing trip as we visited an ice cave carved into the Mer de Glace. Both the ice cave and the track have a stately beauty; witnessing Camel play the track live when they were promoting the album and the experience of being inside a glacier had a similar awe-inspiring effect on me.



The story of Fang in White Mountain, my second favourite Trespass (1970) track after The Knife, is an obvious snow-related story but is One for the Vine from Wind and Wuthering (1976), enough of a winter- or snow and ice themed song to count in my list? One of the songs being played at a restaurant where we stopped for a late morning chocolat chaud certainly doesn’t fit into the list but it did force me to reconsider my opinion of reggae. I’m obviously aware of the significance of Bob Marley who, after the demise of The Wailers in 1974 relocated to England and, with music infused with spirituality, became not only a multi-million selling artist and also came to symbolise Jamaican culture and identity, letting a ray of Caribbean sunshine into the world, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to reggae. What I heard that morning at Les Houches, played at decent volume through Bose speakers seemed like a long single track, divided into subsections rather like prog. A quick Shazam app search revealed that part of the song was Rastafari Leads the Way by Lutan Fyah and I suspect that the music was a Warrior Musick production Think Twice Riddim, featuring a host of different artists with an amazing, positive vibe; a rejection of violence and a call to rethink a way of life which chimed with the ethos of progressive rock. The sun was shining, the snow conditions were perfect and I was skiing some long and some challenging runs with my family, and a little bit of reggae made it even better.



Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches
Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches






By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2016 03:34PM

April 1976. Forty years ago. This was late summer-early autumn in the progressive rock golden era timeline though none of us knew it at the time; it was also in the middle of the major player hiatus and consequently there were only three significant releases that month which, on reflection, may have been an indication of change in the musical landscape. During this period I had limited cash for buying albums, though my part-time job delivering the Cancer and Polio Research Fund News Letter to households around the Infield and Hawcoat wards of Barrow could sometimes result in a substantial tip if the recipient won a respectable sum on one of the bingo cards that were sold with the newsletter. Back then I was still catching up with previous releases by a range of prog bands and it wasn’t until a few years later that I acquired the cream of the April 1976 crop: Moonmadness by Camel, Interview by Gentle Giant and Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator.

There isn’t too much common ground between the three albums with Camel’s efforts moving from symphonic prog towards a jazz-tinged melodic prog, Gentle Giant providing their usual eclectic mix of styles, albeit with a distinct rockier feel than some of their earlier work that equates to an increased degree of accessibility, and Van der Graaf Generator’s second release from the stabilised second generation four piece which I believe represents the creative pinnacle of their career, more composed (in both senses of the word) than the albums of the 70 – 72 incarnation and Godbluff (1975) with some of Hammill’s best lyrics and exploration of philosophy.


Moonmadness hardly needs any introduction. The last release by the original line-up, this was a deliberate move by the band to create something other than ‘son of Snow Goose’, and the result was an album loosely held together with the concept that each of the main tracks represented a member of the band: Chord Change is keyboard player Pete Bardens; Another Night is bassist Doug Ferguson; Air Born is guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is drummer Andy Ward. The album title comes from a pun on Lunar Sea and there are other references to the moon throughout the album, from lyrics on Another Night to the title of the concise opening track Aristillus, a prominent impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium. This song features Andy Ward reciting ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’ (a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus.)

All the preceding Camel albums contained songs of a uniformly high standard and Snow Goose stands out as a major composition that never dips in quality. The band was finding its feet with the eponymous debut and got more confident, and heavier, with Mirage (1974). Moonmadness returns to the song format but the quality has notched up a level and though on balance I probably prefer Snow Goose, its successor rates very highly with Lunar Sea remaining one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. Though most evident on Lunar Sea which features alternating lead guitar and keyboard lines, the entire album has a very satisfactory balance and neither Bardens nor Latimer comes out as particularly dominant, with the lead musicians giving each other ample space to conjure those beautiful, melodic lines. The rhythm section also performs admirably; I’ve always been a fan of Andy Ward’s drumming but Doug Ferguson, if we had to choose the weakest contributor, provides really solid bass throughout and positively bubbles on Lunar Sea.

Interview could almost act as a statement of Gentle Giant’s career up to that point. The subject matter concerns some well-trodden Giant subject material, concerning aspects of the music business, with another look at a roadie’s perspective but there was supposed to be a concept behind the whole project, the crassness of the interview process to publicise the output of a band. There are clips of an imaginary interview: “how would you describe your music?” Unfortunately the concept falls a little flat, without any real conviction and the interviewer is Phil Sutcliffe, one of the only journalists to genuinely appreciate the band.

Musically, the title track which opens the album continues from where 1975’s Free Hand left off. It’s clever, rocky and accessible, a style that continues on the original LP side 2 opener Another Show. Empty City is more gentle and reflective but it’s only in the first half of final track I Lost My Head, that the band show off their acoustic, medieval chops, then conclude with a muscular, rocking section that is also featured on the live set Playing the Fool (1977); I think this is probably the most satisfactory track on the album. The one departure from the previous Giant musical direction comes in the form of the proto reggae of Give it Back which reminds me of Dreadlock Holiday, the most memorable single from 10cc’s Bloody Tourists (1978.) Though there are a number of parallels with Free Hand, the production on Interview allows a good deal of space between the instruments that almost adds a feeling of sparseness. Gentle Giant remain one of the only progressive rock bands I never got to see, even outside of the golden era but at least their music seems to have reached a wider audience than that attained during the 70s.


When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.
When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.

There’s a sort of roughness to the production of the early 70s VdGG albums, with the surprise possible exception of H to He, which suits the music. Godbluff is also fairly raw in contrast to Still Life which comes across as though the band have spent as much time as they needed to produce the record. It sounds well rehearsed and controlled so that even when the band lets rip it almost feels as though they’ve got something in reserve. Not that Still Life could truly be described as polished in the sense of being over-produced; the anthemic Pilgrims and the full-on La Rossa were written during the Godbluff sessions so that in effect the band only required three pieces to complete the album, arriving at the hymn-like title track, the relatively calm My Room (Waiting for Wonderland) where the lyrics really grabbed me: “Searching for diamonds in a sulphur mine...” and the deep, epically structured Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End. The band employed some simple and effective devices during the recording with the aim of stirring the listeners’ emotions, including delaying the introduction of the drums (and horns) on the track Still Life and using single-track vocals on My Room, where there’s also some fine bass work from Banton. The cover photo by Paul Brierley adds to the impression that considerable thought went into the making of the album. A chance find in a magazine, the image is of electrical discharge from a Van der Graaf generator though I’ve always felt that it had the appearance of mineralisation or a treated photograph of a fossil fern, a reference to still life. The Paul Whitehead sleeves may have been iconic but Still Life is class. It’s not an easy album to listen to, coming across more of an aural assault and I still don’t think my brother Tony gets it, even though he was the one that got me into progressive rock in the first place. I think it’s a brilliant work, one of the best pieces of music to emerge from the whole of 1976 and probably the most adventurous; Van der Graaf Generator didn’t really know how to play safe!






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