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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 17 2016 07:56PM

I’ve barely touched upon the fourth music playback format, cassette tape (and I’m not going to mention the short-lived 8 track!) but guest blogger Richard Page hinted at this, a time before CDs when the domination of vinyl was slipping. The compact cassette was immensely portable, sparking the invention of the Sony Walkman and hundreds of imitations and allowing drivers to choose their own music rather than being subjected to a limited range of radio stations with their playlists of narrow choice. During the period, the mid 80s, I was attempting to get enough money together to get a mortgage so I did extra work for the Anthony Nolan laboratories, then based at St Mary Abbots Hospital in Kensington, and took my wife’s genuine Sony Walkman to listen to music of my choice while I sat at a microscope and read HLA typing plates.

Driving off to Crystal Palace National Sports Centre to play squash last weekend with a CD I’d burned of the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii soundtrack, I realised my current car has a radio and a USB port but no CD player. Since learning to drive relatively late in life at the age of 26, my wife and I have got through a number of automobiles, buying new or with delivery mileage and simply budgeting to keep each for an average of three years before selling them on. Our first car bought together was a 1986 Ford Fiesta that only had a radio. The husband of a work colleague who worked in a car audio shop fitted a (high end) removable radio cassette player that lasted into the next car, a new shaped Fiesta with a joystick device that allowed you to pan around the speakers embedded in the upholstery. I normally took public transport to get to work but used the car for on call and later, to drive to Brunel University every couple of weeks when I was doing my part time MSc in Applied Immunology. I’d got hold of Mainstream (1975) by Quiet Sun, the eponymous GTR album (1986) and Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), all on vinyl and taped them specifically for the journeys between Croydon and Uxbridge. Mainstream is an incredible album that seems to have missed out on the big time; mainstream it is not and for further discussions see my blog post http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/Mainstream-(originally-posted-3-3-14)/7811326.The sound on GTR has dated but I still like the songs, even though this isn't really prog whereas Momentary Lapse is prog, cinematic, daring and true to the spirit of early-mid 70s Floyd.

The final days of my relationship with cassette tape unravelled on an out of hours car journey to work, just outside Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park football ground when I was playing Trey Gunn’s The Third Star (1996). I’d bought the CD for my brother Tony and he repaid the favour by sending me a tape which decided to fade away to silence in the player even though it had been recorded on what was considered to be a decent quality Maxell C90. At this stage I had sold off my original Technics deck that had served me for the last year at university, through the damp of a sequence of basement flats and the rigours of an on-stage appearance as the sound source for three gigs I played in 1984. It’s strange how cyclical fashion can be. That silver-finished piece of hi-fi, originally chosen for its beautifully damped ejection mechanism and the ability to cope with ‘metal’ tapes, was replaced by a Technics RS B106 cassette deck, finished in black, in the late 80s; my new system is largely silver. I also bought myself a high-end Aiwa walkman-like player and two hefty miniature HD speakers from a mall in Saudi Arabia when I was seconded to Jeddah for six weeks in 1992 so that I didn’t get prog-withdrawal. I bought the double cassette Yes anthology Yes Story (1992) from the same store and picked up some locally compiled tapes from elsewhere in the souk, including a best of early Marillion that was frequently aired in the hire-car (christened ‘the mobile lecture theatre’ for its outrageous size) that had been made available to my colleague, Consultant transplant surgeon Geoff Koffman.



Technics RS B106 cassette deck
Technics RS B106 cassette deck

I never owned many pre-recorded cassettes though the bargain bin of the Tooting branch of Woolworth allowed me to expand my music collection with some more obscure prog and jazz: TONTOs Expanding Headband’s Zero Time (1971) and Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (1976) plus some of the more usual fare (McDonald and Giles, Steve Hackett, Caravan, Colosseum II, Greenslade) for knock down prices. There was even a stage where I owned more Gentle Giant on cassette than I did on any other format. To a greater extent my tape collection comprised albums recorded from vinyl lent to me by friends and family. Preferred manufacturers were TDK, BASF and Maxell and I tried to buy a quality above the basic, like the TDK AD. I was also happy to put together what would later be called ‘mix tapes’ for others, including recordings for a couple of women students at Goldsmiths’, Sue Aspinall who was into classic prog and Jo Dziuba who was more interested in Afterglow type Genesis.

There aren’t many albums that I home-recorded that I haven’t subsequently bought on another format. One that didn’t make it into my collection was Ian Anderson’s Walk into Light (1983) lent to me by my friend Jim – we were big Tull fans at the time – but I thought the material rather sub-standard and my recording was discarded years ago. Other albums took a considerable time for me to own, sometimes through lack of availability: I eventually got Bruford’s One of a Kind (1979) when Winterfold Records started up in 2005, having only had access to a taped copy for 25 years and bought The Third Star from Red Eye Records in Sydney in 2012, the first time I’d seen it in a shop since buying it for Tony. One of the very few albums that I taped but never bought myself is psychedelic masterpiece Mass in F Minor by The Electric Prunes (1968). The original disc belonged to Tony and my cassette recording dated from the late 70s. Like with most of my tapes, in an exercise to preserve the music, I burned this to CD when home-burning software became standard on PCs. I now have the album transferred to my mp3 player.

Warning notices that ‘home taping is killing music’ appeared on the inner sleeves of LPs in the mid 80s to be ignored by everyone. I’ve thought about this and, though I understand that it reduces royalty payments to artists, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a deep irony in record companies putting out a statement like that when it’s unscrupulous managers and the labels themselves that have controlled the income of musicians. What is really killing music is the trend towards conformity, the predictability of manufactured product and insidious influence. This may make merged global entertainment businesses attractive to shareholders but it makes for a less diverse musical scene; the requirement for financial control stifles creativity. In the end the message boils down to ‘home taping is reducing shareholder dividend.’




Home taping is killing music. I don't think so
Home taping is killing music. I don't think so

A more recent example would be the issues over illegal downloads where control over output was ceded to the consumer and the cry from the labels was the same. Then Apple plonks a largely unwanted U2 album onto the devices of everyone with their iTunes software...

Home taping didn’t harm progressive rock and prog itself has prospered in recent years through the adaptation of alternative business models where the artists retain the copyright to their material and funding for new ventures is independent of the majors. The pound, euro and dollar of the fan go to the artists through crowdsourcing and album sales, with multiple platforms available to promote and provide examples of music. Let’s hope that home taping went some way to help kill off the old way of doing music business.




By ProgBlog, Oct 5 2015 10:00PM

I’ve got a cold. I started to feel a little ill on Wednesday and wondered if I should indulge in my usual Wednesday squash evening at the National Sports Centre, Crystal Palace, but as I’d dragged my squash kit into work I thought I’d give it a go and see how I got on. As it turned out I won some games and I lost some but I felt better for doing a bit of exercise. I was very interested to read that members of Pink Floyd used to prefer to play squash rather than going to the studio during the Wish You Were Here sessions in 1974 but putting together a follow-up to Dark Side of the Moon was proving difficult. Strains in personal relationships and professional tensions within the band had surfaced and the direction of the group was unclear and of course none of this was helped by a souring relationship with the media; the NME journalist Nick Kent being particularly unkind. Squash is not only a fantastic cardio workout, it also helps to relieve tension and pent-up frustrations. It’s been suggested that David Gilmour and Nick Mason became rather fond of the squash court and their relationship improved as a consequence – I can personally vouch for the de-stressing effects of regular squash as someone who a couple of years ago played up to six times a week – I was left feeling much more able to cope with whatever life could throw at me, physically and mentally reenergised. However, it’s also addictive (thanks, endorphins); I had to change my working hours to allow for a 45 minute session of squash at lunchtimes and I was unreasonably frustrated when either a planned opponent or I myself couldn’t make a game. Working in a hospital meant that, not infrequently, somebody would have to attend to urgent work (there were a group of around five of us who regularly took over the two courts at Guy’s, helped by me taking on the role of time sheet monitor.)

Squash has been put on the backburner of late despite a flurry of league games in the final days of my semi-retirement. Now back working full time at the Royal London Hospital I’m reduced to Wednesday evenings and the odd league match at weekends. I received an invite to play last Tuesday (September 29th) but had a more pressing engagement, Steven Wilson’s second night at the Royal Albert Hall. Having been quite blown away by the Raven that Refused to Sing show at the Albert Hall in October 2013 and in March this year, at the Hand.Cannot.Erase performance at London’s Troxy, I was only too happy to sign up to one of the gigs on this two-night tour postscript. Leading the party was friend and Wilson aficionado Neil Jellis, who not only organised some great seats, but provided his own bespoke tour T-shirts. Neil had been in the front row on the first night, in front of Wilson’s keyboard and in direct line with Craig Blundell’s kick drum and, as the two dates were billed to have different sets and different guests, had also got tickets for the second show, to which I tagged along. Having heard Neil effuse enthusiastically about the first night, I was anticipating a great performance and I wasn’t disappointed.

We wandered into the auditorium after Matt Berry, the support act, had begun his set with the rather spacey Medicine and I have to admit that not being much of a TV person, I had no idea who Berry was, other than I’d seen something in Prog magazine about him. It must have been rather daunting to open for Steven Wilson but Berry’s band did an admirable job.

When Steven Wilson’s band took to the stage, one by one, it became gradually clear to Neil that the first number was the rather heavy No Twilight within the Courts of the Sun from his first solo album Insurgentes, a track I’m not over-familiar with, likewise with the next Porcupine Tree song, a much more melodic/symphonic-lite Shesmovedon from Lightbulb Sun. I’d not seen Blundell play before (sitting in for previous incumbent Marco Minnemann) and though I’d witnessed the talents of Dave Kilminster on a number of previous occasions, none of them were as Wilson’s guitarist. From our seats, level with the stage and only a few seats away from Nick Beggs who was positioned to the left of the band (from an audience perspective) it was easy to observe the technique of each of the musicians; only Adam Holzman was partially obscured by his keyboards. The first guest of the evening was Ninet Tayeb. She’d also sung the previous night and took on all vocal duties for Routine, putting in a stunning performance. I was once again in unknown territory with the next two songs, Open Car and Don’t Hate Me, the latter coming across as quite proggy and the film to accompany the piece, of light snow falling in London was classic Lasse Hoile; Home Invasion featured Beggs on keyboard and Guthrie Govan as special guest guitarist which segued into Regret #9 with a brilliant Moog solo from Holzman. Theo Travis was then introduced and the band continued with Drive Home, personal favourite Sectarian and the haunting Insurgentes with its watery visuals that remind me of punting on the Isis. The set was completed with more from Grace for Drowning, No Part of Me and a truncated but still epic Raider II.

There were two encores, featuring three songs; Porcupine Tree’s Dark Matter after which the band left the stage but returned, after a bit of adjustment to the drums for Lazarus, with special guest Gavin Harrison, fresh from touring with King Crimson and easily remembering his old part, finally ending with another song I’d not heard before, The Sound of Muzak.

The sound (thanks to Ian Bond) was balanced and clear, even where we were seated on the extreme left and the presentation, as ever, was consummately professional. Wilson has a brilliant rapport with his audience, teasing those that hadn’t attended the first night and explaining how he was extending an introduction to make the correct pedal setting for his guitar. There was no veil on this night, though there had been on the 28th and if I have to make one complaint, it’s that the programme was the same as that sold during the spring leg of the tour, even though the two shows were more varied, more special, and the musicians had changed subtly.

All in all the occasion lived up to its hype: 4 hours of amazing music over the two nights. On reflection, I should have signed up for both shows, but I already have a ticket for January 2016...



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