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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, 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, Mar 5 2017 11:00PM

ProgBlog wasn’t posted last week due to the annual skiing holiday, this year undertaken by only two Pages, father and son. Booking a skiing trip inevitably involves a degree of chance, including will the weather be good for skiing and will there be sufficient snow to last the full week. There are other unknowns, too, such as the quality of the accommodation if, like us, you resort hop from year-to-year to experience different places.

Planning the trip normally relies on synchronising three diaries and taking into account Crystal Palace FC home fixtures, gig bookings and avoiding both UK and French/Italian/Austrian school holidays and everything has to be completed before the end of the financial year – for one of us working in local government finance.

We used to drive to the French Alps but for the last 10 years or so we’ve booked with a high street tour operator. Driving was fun. You could take whatever you needed and, as the family has similar musical tastes, turn the journey into one long progressive rock show. I downsized my car in 2008 and went without a car between 2012 and 2013 before getting an even smaller car which has effectively ruled out self-drive. Also, even when we set out on a Friday evening and stayed overnight at a budget hotel in northern France, the section of road approaching the Geneva turn-off first became a crawl and then a solid line of steel and aluminium, so now we fly.

Given the good-natured family relationship, built on a love of prog and a love of skiing, choosing a suitable destination ought to be easy but we do tend to book fairly late. With Google searches notching up the price of a holiday (unless you delete your Chrome browsing history) the choice is facilitated through a multitude of browsing tabs directed to different tour operators and TripAdvisor reviews. The range of reviews on offer needs to be carefully dissected and put into context. Some people like to ski and party and therefore just need somewhere basic to rest; some like home comforts and will criticise the noise from the street outside as revellers (see above) return to their rooms at 3am. We like something large enough to spread out a little and though we’re used to self-catering, we’re equally happy to be catered for... ...as long as it’s not a chalet!

This year I went back to Val d’Isère, having been there previously in 2003. This was my son’s first visit but I knew that he’d find enough skiing because the area is huge. We had been tempted by the cheaper Tignes as a lift pass combines both Tignes and Val d’Isère, at least partly because of the architecture but the accommodation was some way down the valley and was therefore a less attractive proposition. We booked an apartment in Alpina Lodge, very close to the central lift hub of the village, and were pleased to find it a good-sized suite intended to accommodate 6-8 people. I don't know if this was a post- EU referendum effect associated with the devaluation of Sterling compared to the Euro but Val d’Isère is a resort traditionally associated with the British and though English probably remained the dominant language in resort, the flight out from Gatwick was not full. However, I was quite happy to be put up in a space big enough for eight and I'd never been in self-catering accommodation of this standard before; there was a mezzanine bedroom, there were two bathrooms and even the cooker had four rings! Whereas I'm used to packing out my ski bag with cleaning materials and toilet rolls, Alpina Lodge was run on hotel lines with a mid-week clean, a plentiful supply of towels and complimentary toiletries. Luxury!

The wifi in the rooms was not brilliant but we were able to download films onto a tablet to watch after cooking and eating. We ate out on two nights; the first was at Flash Pizza, a recommendation by the Crystal rep. You'd expect ski reps to know the cheapest places to drink in resort but you might not be interested in their choice of restaurant. However, Flash Pizza turned out to be a tiny, cosy and friendly restaurant with a good choice of pizzas and though it would have been best to book, we managed to get seats at the bar after having to wait only 5 minutes. I had a Bailletta (tomato, mozzarella, goat’s cheese, walnuts and honey) which came perfectly baked; a thin crust on the well-done part of the spectrum and at €13 for a pizza 33cm diameter, the price for Val d'Isère was very reasonable. The ultimate recommendation came from the chef at one of the more established restaurants in the village – our intended destination for the last evening - who arrived to pick up his takeaway on his night off and stayed for a glass of wine and a chat. We didn’t get to eat at the Taverna d’Alsace because once again, we failed to book a table. Not booking a restaurant for the final evening of a skiing trip is madness, something we’ve done (or not done) on other trips. Fortunately, we could see another restaurant from the front door and made our way through the snow to La Casserole. A board outside indicated there was no break in service so fitting in two people at 6pm was not a problem.

La Casserole served local fare and the specialities, not surprisingly, were casseroles. The beef in my casserole, cooked in a local red wine, was presented in large chunks which melted in your mouth; genuinely lovely, filling home-cooked food. We also chose to indulge in dessert, both choosing a massive crème brûleé flavoured with vanilla, a hint of lime and bourbon and served in a special dish: A dessert to die for.



The first two days of skiing we undertaken in excellent conditions – clear blue skies and the occasional cloud and firm snow. Sadly, conditions on days 3, 4 and 5 included some of the worst mountain weather I’ve experienced where blizzards and flat light made progress very difficult. My poor eyesight means I’ve been known to fall over backwards from standing still when I’ve not been able to see features on the piste. We did manage to do some skiing on each of those days but in my case it was a genuine struggle.


Day 6 dawned bright and we set off for the furthest point in the area, the Aiguilles Percee beyond Tignes. This is a rock wall with needle-like features and an amazing quirk of geology, a natural arch in the rock which looks like some sort of cosmic space-time portal, accessible with a minor off-piste excursion. A full day ended with reduced light and strong winds, blowing away powder from the ungroomed pistes; a successful venture despite the reduced time on the slopes.



Downtime during the day when we were unable to get onto the mountains was spent preparing a postcard story, listening to music on my mp3 player, and going in search of coffee. The spread of independent coffee shops in the UK is taken for granted but, outside of Italy, mainland Europe is lagging behind and for those of us who rely on a good roast bean nicely prepared, the alternatives are rarely worth bothering with.

Fortunately for us, we found Arctic Cafe which does mountain energy foods, smoothies and organic coffee which was as good as anything you'd get in Shoreditch; a really well prepared espresso shot that we sought out every day and twice during the morning we were waiting for our transfer out of resort.


Ski playlist:

A Saucerful of Secrets – Pink Floyd

Fragile – Yes

In ogni luogo – Finisterre

Equatorial Array – Gareth Page

Invention of Knowledge – Anderson-Stolt

La Coscienza di Zeno - La Coscienza di Zeno

Meddle – Pink Floyd

Red - King Crimson










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