By ProgBlog, Apr 3 2016 06:21PM

As I begin to type I’m listening to Seconds Out, bought from Cob Records in Porthmadog during the HRH Prog 4 trip. This is relevant because on the return journey from Wales we (from now on to be referred to as 'The Committee') discussed the provenance of the bands performing at the festival, resolving to come up with either a scientifically derived formula (The Committee, at that stage, was comprised of scientists) or to autocratically pronounce whether a piece of music conformed to our naturally correct definition of progressive rock. Jim later went on to suggest that there could be two lists within the catalogue, so that Genesis would be included as a prog band, but their album Genesis (1983) wouldn’t make the list of progressive rock albums; the first tenet is that post-Hackett Genesis albums are not prog, so I’m listening to the last Genesis prog album.

The problem of hitting upon a comprehensive and logical catalogue has been documented in all books about the genre as well as played out on the letters pages of Prog magazine. Apart from perhaps Math Rock or some JS Bach, music is emotive and emotions are not controlled by logic, so though there can be some convention by which the definition is set, these rules are inherently fluid. There is a degree of agreement between most of the authors of the earliest academic or serious works on the subject, Bill Martin, Edward Macan and Paul Stump but their studies primarily relate to what Martin calls ‘the golden era’ of progressive rock (1968 – 1978), a time when there weren’t so many groups, albums or different genres; the advent of neo-prog in the early-mid 80s but more so the Lazarus-like emergence in the early-mid 90s really complicates the field as divergent influences and a propensity for the music business to come up with ever more labels to package their charges. I don’t believe that the original defining traits of prog can now be applied to exponents of the genre, because alongside virtuoso performances, ‘stretching out’ whether by improvisation or structured development including passages of divergent dynamics to create long-form compositions, the utilisation of technology to produce innovative sounds and the adoption of more thoughtful, often literary or philosophical themes that demanded some form of intellectual engagement with the audience, so called ‘head music’, was the absorption of multiple influences of musical style, central to which was the importance of European art music.

The jettisoning of blues-based American influences and the belief that a form of rock that borrowed from classical music could bridge the divide between high culture and popular culture were catalysts in the formation of progressive rock. Though the title wasn’t applied to music at the time (I called it 'techno-rock', to highlight the importance of the [mostly] keyboard technology and the technical dexterity required to play the music), progressive was an appropriate term because it was a musical form that seemed to actively push at boundaries. Keith Emerson hints at this in the sleeve notes to the proto-prog Five Bridges album and Emerson himself was one of the main bridges between the two schools, writing a piano concerto and continuing to play blues riffs during piano solos.

I think that politics and sociology also played an important part in the formation of the progressive rock movement, where the hippie ideals of the late 60s were carried on by musicians; 70s prog was generally positive, inclusive and questioning, all qualities that constitute a progressive form of politics, and some of the musicians explored what at the time were considered niche interests like vegetarianism. The progressive rock movement was incredibly successful, due in part to the ‘college circuit’ as higher education was opened up to more of the population in the 60s and student unions began to take responsibility for booking acts, bringing groups and their target audience together. When I was applying to universities in the late 70s, I placed considerable importance on the ability of a campus to attract bands though by the time I went to uni punk had come and largely gone.

Some commentators and musicians have suggested that playing the greatest hits from your 70s heyday is not progressive and that to live up to the term there has to be evidence of progression, a continual development. The Committee briefly discussed the use of the terms progressive rock and prog and maybe it’s best to apply the phrase ‘progressive rock’ to the music produced between 1968 and 1978 where there was a genuine direction of progress, strictly encapsulating a particular musical form within a specific time period. This leaves us with ‘prog’ which covers both progressive rock and idioms that used progressive rock as a blueprint: neo-prog and the music produced in the resurgent period from the early 90s to the present day. Prog is able to borrow from more sources, has some remarkable technology both in terms of the instruments and software available for recording, such that file sharing allows musicians to contribute to a recording remotely and their contribution slotted in without ever physically getting together with their collaborators, but while still boasting a healthy number of practitioners with amazing technique, the virtual studio allows less dextrous exponents to shine, ensuring that successful prog is more about concepts than mere execution, otherwise music-making would be reduced to an almost mathematical process devoid of emotion; there is even a new set of socio-political factors from which to choose a grand theme that will allow prog to remain relevant, rather than just looking back to the 70s for inspiration, including burning issues like the continuation of wars, the mass migration of peoples displaced by war, austerity and its flip side, the enrichment of the very few, the impact of globalisation, and the urgency of the need to accept and combat climate change. These concepts could be described under one banner: the Anthropocene era.

It goes without saying that original progressive rock is included under the prog umbrella but it’s the relationship between prog and progressive rock that is critical to the definition of prog; although progressive rock elements appear in other contemporary genres, the degree to which this music conforms to the principles of ‘golden era’ are crucial to whether or not the music is prog. This is where objectivity ends and subjectivity begins, so, with the terminology sorted out, it’s time for The Committee to compile the lists...

By ProgBlog, Aug 23 2015 09:38PM

August in the south eastern corner of the UK has been quite poor in terms of weather this year, with unseasonal downpours following a series of Atlantic depressions that have tracked across the country. This weekend we experienced a ‘Spanish plume’, a condition that arises from a large southwards dip in the high altitude jet stream that developed to the west of Europe that in turn encouraged a deep southerly wind flow that pushed hot and humid air from Portugal and Spain north and north-east into northern Europe, including to us the UK. Temperatures at Selhurst Park for Crystal Palace vs. Aston Villa peaked at over 30oC prompting the first water breaks in a Premier League fixture. With a cold front from the Atlantic over the north of the UK and unstable, hot air pushing up from the south or south west, there was the potential for heavy thunderstorms where the two weather systems met; strong winds associated with the jet stream help organise thunderstorms and play a part in their severity. This latest forecast came with a degree of uncertainty, something that’s become increasingly prevalent in our televised weather bulletins where over the last couple of weeks the prediction for the next day has inevitably proved to be inaccurate.

It seems that the British like talking about the weather. It serves as a common topic when individuals are thrust into a situation where it’s uncomfortable not to talk. It helps that UK weather so changeable and unpredictable, part of the beauty of living in a temperate marine climate; it also gives us the right to moan. As a youth in the North West I became used to rain. The relief rainfall that was a major feature of the western Lake District didn’t really affect Barrow very much but moisture-laden air from the Atlantic had a habit of dampening our plans one way or another. I was very much at home when I stayed in Seattle for a week in 2002 where there were a number of dedicated, accurate weather channels on the TV.

Weather may seem a bit prosaic as a topic for prog but weather and the British go together like tea and crumpets. After a childhood in Barrow I feel as though I’ve got fifty words for rain... In fact, the water cycle and our understanding of the principles of weather processes, such as drought, flood or monsoon, is very much the stuff of prog. Furthermore, the ability of humankind to distort weather patterns through extracting and burning hydrocarbons and the detrimental effect of pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is something that the adherents of the counterculture warned us about; the origins of the progressive rock movement had strong links to environmental groups. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that there’s no definitive album about the physical geography of weather or its myriad facets, just a straightforward interpretation.

Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch (1979) may come closest to revisiting the old hippie theme of global environmental disaster and a form of gloom pervades the entire album. Largely referred to as the third and final part of the Tull folk-rock phase, when I listened to the album recently I didn’t think there was much folk to detect; there’s a reference to pre-Christian themes (on Dun Ringill) which might fit the tag but it’s more an association of convenience, marking the last of the stable Tull line-ups. Stormwatch uses the concept of a storm as both metaphor and as literal description, picking up from a theme in the title track of Heavy Horses (1978) where Ian Anderson predicts that the magnificent beasts will be required once more when the oil has run out; North Sea Oil recognises the commodity as a quick fix for the economy and one that wasn’t going to last. Dark Ages and Something’s on the Move hint at energy shortages and long, cold winters and subsequent rioting while Flying Dutchman bemoans our inability as a nation to accept immigrants. In a recent Prog magazine interview, Anderson admitted to being politically left of centre; Stormwatch was released in September 1979 at the tail end of the first era of progressive rock; the political and social landscape was changing with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister four months earlier as she commenced the dismantlement of the state and used burgeoning oil revenues to fuel her rewards for the selfish (North Sea oil had come on stream in 1975.) The dark mood of the album was no doubt partly down to the illness of bassist John Glascock who died two months after its release, having only played on three of the tracks. Though the (David Palmer) penned track Elegy was written for Palmer’s father, at the time the only section remaining of the Anderson/Palmer/Barre ballet The Water’s Edge, I felt it also served as a tribute to Glascock.

Camel’s Rain Dances (1977) isn’t weather-related. The short, melodic instrumental title track that closes the album doesn’t call to mind rain but merely reprises the beautiful, melodic opener, First Light and could be called anything because the album doesn’t have any cohesive concept; at least the title track from Gryphon’s Raindance (1975) which begins and ends with the sounds of rain and thunder has a keyboard backing under the main melody line that is reminiscent of flowing water and the album’s cover depicts the effects of playing the record.

The strong Red Rain from Peter Gabriel’s So (1986) is supposed to have been inspired by a terrifying dream. Some ascribe the imagery to acid rainfall (Gabriel is well known for his environmental concerns, appearing at the People's Climate March in London last September) but it seems to me to be about the nightmare of genocide; a number of African nations were in the throes of civil war in the early – mid 80s including Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Rain is represented on this track by hi-hat, played by ex-Curved Air drummer Stewart Copeland. More up-to-date, Anathema’s prog metal-lite Weather Systems (2012) is full of nice melodic touches and contains some interesting sonic experimentation and passages that remind me of Porcupine Tree but despite its title, the album only uses weather as a metaphor for events during a life.

I think some band should attempt a concept album based on the science of meteorology, whether it’s a series of interpretations of particular examples (think Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII.) Fabio Zuffanti’s Hostsonaten project covers some of this ground on the excellent symphonic prog Winterthrough (2008) with tracks called Snowstorm and Rainsuite but I still believe classic British prog bands missed out on an easy topic with a captive audience.

By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 12:14PM

Many parts of the UK are currently under water, as a series of low pressure systems cross the Atlantic and pass over our islands. As a youth living on the coast in the north west of England I was used to relief rainfall as moist south westerly winds met the mountains of the Lake District. The past three weeks have been something else – frontal systems that have poured rainfall on already sodden land, swelling rivers that have subsequently burst their banks. We’ve had high tides and strong winds, too, causing widespread coastal flooding. This devastation has affected thousands of people and though the UK is a developed country with resources to mitigate the worst effects of natural disasters (compared to a country like Bangladesh, for instance) each event has an effect at a personal level.

Rivers frequently feature in prog; they are often used as a metaphor for life and for change. Peter Sinfield’s lyrics for PFM’s River of Life (from Photos of Ghosts) and the words of Gentle Giant’s River (Octopus) share some common imagery. Sinfield’s words remind me of Finnegan’s Wake: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay...

However, Sinfield doesn’t simply describe the natural phenomenon of the course of a river, though he does include these physical properties. He refers to the use of the river by man and comments on progress, a simple environmental message that mankind pollutes. There’s a stark contrast between the language used to describe the source of the river: “Search and seep / Hollow stone / Issue and flow / Virgin stream / Meander free” and the approach to the end of the journey: “Ships and barges / Dark rusty hearts / Feed cranes along your banks. / Waste and poison / cloy where once men drank. / Forget the pain / From rain to rain...

Gentle Giant indicate irreversible change and though they too hint at peril: “Trust the shallow virgin stream / Danger wild, beware the deeper it becomes” the language remains romantic throughout and in-keeping with physical geography.

The meaning of Firth of Fifth (from Selling England by the Pound by Genesis) is best left to individual interpretation by listeners. There’s allusion to the early Genesis staples of mythology (Neptune, the Sirens, Undines) but this isn’t allegory (c.f. Cinema Show, from the same album) and it’s not straight forward narrative (c.f. The Fountain of Salmacis, from Nursery Cryme.) It’s more of a “verbal landscape painting” (in the words of Edward Macan) and, as such, with its contrast of natural imagery (the domain of Neptune) and the more ugly man-made landscape (highlighted by the line “like a cancer growth...”) it encourages each listener to select their own meaning. Genesis may have been less spiritual, less cosmic than Yes but the lyrics of Firth of Fifth suggests to me a developed resistance to natural beauty in mankind, and though progress isn’t mentioned, there’s an inference to indifference towards natural beauty – a kind of closed mind. Most Genesis aficionados seem to regard Firth of Fifth as lyrically weak but it’s of little importance; the song is consistently regarded as being in the top three Genesis songs of all time thanks to the toccata-like piano introduction and the build-up to Steve Hackett’s guitar solo. I think it’s a mini-epic and it’s a highlight of Steve Hackett solo shows. Talking of Yes, the lyrics of Close to the Edge repeatedly recall ‘the river’ and the inner album sleeve reinforces the imagery. Cited as being inspired by Herman Hesse’s Siddartha which concerns a spiritual journey of self-discovery, it may be that the river is being used as a metaphor for an agent of change.

There are a few references to rivers on A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the Pink Floyd come-back album following the departure of Roger Waters. Sometimes criticised as a sub-standard Dave Gilmour solo album, I think this was a return to form, though it needed the support of some very able musicians. These references begin on the opening track Signs of Life with the rowing sound effects and reappear in the lyrics of the final song, Sorrow. Like Peter Sinfield, Gilmour uses the Joyce-sounding line “River roll”. Whereas Signs of Life depend on water (the river), Sorrow uses the river as a metaphor for the irrevocable passage of time.

What seems to me to be a purely descriptive lyric is found on Grand Canyon Suite by the often overlooked and totally under-rated Refugee. The music is grand and epic, as befits a natural marvel of the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. Patrick Moraz uses a wide range of sounds to invoke the essence of this geological feature but Lee Jackson’s lyrics remind us that the canyon has been formed by a river, “the mighty Colorado.” In geological terms, the river is a destructive force and the music reflects the power and majesty of the river and the canyon. As a tourist attraction, the river could be regarded as being a creative force.

There are a couple of ‘biblical’ flood songs. Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes the Flood (the best version of which I believe is on Robert Fripp’s solo album Exposure) and Van der Graaf Generator’s After the Flood from The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other. In each of these songs, the flood waters bring about huge change and Mankind is wiped out in the VdGG song. There’s no prescience in Gabriel’s song, or any moralizing despite the tale of destruction on a biblical scale. Peter Hammill, on the other hand, seems to have glimpsed an environmental disaster that has been precipitated by human activity (“humanity stumbles”) and the ice melts causing the water to rise. Whereas Peter Sinfield showed ecological concerns about pollution, Hammill has taken man-made climate change to its inevitable conclusion – the extinction of all life on earth.

Prog for me has always concerned ecological awareness. The worship of commodity and the rise of neo-liberal economics and the pursuit of greed, the short-termism of the wealthy 1% who pull levers to protect their own interests without any thought for future generations; these are all responsible for climate change and form a powerful lobby of climate change denial. Floods are becoming an ever-increasing threat to not just the UK, but to millions of people in low-lying lands around the world. It’s time for the 99% to overcome the influence of the super-rich and music, prog, can be a vehicle to help make the change.

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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.

The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...

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