Mainstream (originally posted 3/3/14)
By ProgBlog, Mar 23 2014 11:40PM
Phil Manzanera’s pre-Roxy Music band produced one album three years after their demise. Quiet Sun would release Mainstream in 1975, squeezing in recording sessions between the sessions for Manzanera’s solo album Diamond Head. Mainstream it is not. My vinyl copy is an Editions EG release (EGED 4) that I bought new sometime in the mid 80s – the original imprint was on Island’s budget HELP label – and I got the 2011 remastered and expanded CD version on Manzanera’s own Expression records in December last year.
As I held the sleeve in my hands in the shop, it seemed to me that this was a mature band. I was obviously familiar with Manzanera’s work with Roxy Music and some of his Brian Eno collaborations and I was also familiar with the work of bassist Bill MacCormick because I was the proud owner of the first, eponymous Matching Mole record. MacCormick was the link to the ‘Canterbury’ tag that is attached to the band, a good friend of Wyatt and other members of Soft Machine circa 1970, though unknown to me at the time, Charles Hayward also strung together a career that incorporated former Soft Machine personnel. I bought the rather demanding Numero D’Vol, a Hugh Hopper/Charles Hayward CD, from the indoor market in Canterbury in February 2007.
As you’d imagine with production involving Manzanera, the sound on Mainstream is clear (as clear as it can be with an abundance of fuzz bass) but it’s the intelligent song writing that really stands out, with all members of the band contributing. This was way ahead of its time when it was originally conceived in the early 70s and was still very challenging when it was eventually recorded and released in 1975. It was still fresh when I bought my copy ten years later when compared to the music around at the time. It’s not classic Canterbury in the style of Caravan or Soft Machine; the material isn’t melody driven or twee and it’s quite different from the guitar-era of the Softs from Bundles onwards; it’s not like Robert Wyatt solo material though maybe it has some affinity with the experimental side of Matching Mole. It’s high-paced and somehow exudes a sense of urgency. I like it because it’s progressive and it’s different.
This brings me back to the ‘what’s prog and what’s not’ debate. Much of what these days is classified as prog seems to me to be either Metal or well-crafted AOR, mainstream. I try to listen to new releases and have recently tried out Lifesigns and Dimensionaut by Sound of Contact. There’s no denying the ability of the musicians on these releases but even with extended track length, they tend to be song-based rather than composition-based. Both feature some nice keyboard sounds and some nice hooks. This, however, is as good as it gets. To my ears they’re over-produced and, as a result, seem not quite sterile, just featureless; trapped in the song-based format that was a feature of the distinctly average 80s Genesis. The tracks I’ve heard by Big Big Train fall into the same trap, though admittedly there is more contrast (a bit like very early Genesis?) which makes them more interesting. Sylvium’s The Gift of Anxiety is modern Metal and it’s become abundantly clear that modern Metal turns to prog trills when it’s searching for wider acceptance – from Tool to Dream Theater to Opeth to countless others. On the first listen to Tale of the Golden King by Psychedelic Ensemble I thought I’d discovered a modern act that was worthy of the tag ‘prog’. On the subsequent listen I was slightly disappointed. Again, there’s a wide range of high-quality keyboard sounds and the mix of more pastoral pieces, reminiscent of Gryphon or Gentle Giant with more strident material makes it stand apart from Lifesigns and Sound of Contact. The material is more conceptual and less song-based but I get the feeling this is pastiche, though it is quite enjoyable; Lifesigns and Dimensionaut are at best listenable and inoffensive. In contrast to this rather bland music, there’s The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories, which is genuinely interesting and justly deserves the epithet ‘prog’. It’s rather interesting to note that there’s a link between Steven Wilson’s collaborators on this album and the below-par Lifesigns, but then the genre is littered with sub-standard solo albums, even from major players, and other inappropriate ventures.
So is progressive rock being diluted down, both in spirit and in content? Put bluntly, does the genre have to evolve to survive in the modern world, or should the progressive rock movement remain in aspic, preserved as it was in 1978?
I find myself in both camps. I believe that prog ran for a decade, from 1968 to 1978 where it ended. Only music made since that ‘golden era’ that incorporates the values (and sometimes excesses) of that 70s form should be classed as prog (which conveniently includes Raven) and other music, falling outside of this rather narrow definition, should be classified according to where it fits in the alternative musical spectrum: metal; jazz rock; AOR. We’re all responsible for accepting these tags, which however ill-fitting they may be due to the myriad of different musical forms, are still of use as general descriptors. This neatly brings me on to marketing. Genre classification works in favour of the marketing machine where product and image are both equally important and combine to generate so-called marketability, though there are still substantial portions of the music industry which don’t conform to this form of packaging. When the industry tried to control prog acts, the standards dropped in an attempt to resolve their intrinsic musical values with a more commercial sound and the movement failed.
Of course music needs to evolve, but that doesn’t mean that principles have to be abandoned. This evolution may take any of a number of possible forms, from instrument technology to the relationship between artist and fan. I think that reinvention (think 1980s King Crimson) is far better than sliding into the mainstream and, as Steven Wilson has shown, it’s not inappropriate to produce a modern album that owes so much to the past.