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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Oct 29 2017 11:16PM

Something strange is going on in my local area. I’ve been around at home most evenings for the past two weeks and the fireworks associated with Diwali or the approaching Guy Fawkes Night have not featured at all. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from my neighbourhood, the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Addiscombe, from celebrating the victory of knowledge over ignorance but I wonder if burning money on brief flashes of coloured light and a banging noise has been abandoned this year, along with a misplaced acceptance of austerity as the Bank of England strongly hints of a rise in the interest rate.


A witch hunt is never a good idea
A witch hunt is never a good idea

Maybe I’m just going around with my eyes closed but it seems there’s also less visible evidence of US-style Halloween advertising. I’d like to think that this is a rejection of commercialisation and whereas encouraging the purchase of pumpkins is quite acceptable, it would be best if they were consumed as a seasonal fruit rather than discarding perfectly edible portions and turning them into Jack-o’-lanterns. Our local Co-op doesn’t appear to be stocking them this year but whether that’s because the harvest has been affected by adverse weather conditions in Suffolk or the store has finally employed someone who understands that there’s an unacceptable level of food wastage at the beginning of November (from either an economic or moral point of view), I’ll never know. The store is selling a limited range of Halloween-themed confectionary but even this involves some self-assembly, with scary monster forming components included with a packet of gingerbread biscuits. Perhaps because it’s expected or easy, my Saturday edition of The Guardian included a couple of Halloween items, the most interesting of which was in the Review section where a handful of writers were invited to put a spin on the traditional ghost story with tales set in English Heritage properties and Mark Haddon set his in the York cold war bunker; cold war bunkers were the theme of my son’s MSc thesis for his Historic Conservation course and as a youth I used to illicitly visit the civil defence bunker at Abbot’s Wood in Barrow-in-Furness.


Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill
Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill

Thinking back to my youth, Halloween wasn’t really an important fixture on the calendar and when you were old enough to look as though you were old enough to buy fireworks you could visit the local newsagent for an array of items which, if used incorrectly, could (and did) result in life-changing injuries; our fireworks were utilised on Halloween for some ridiculous purposes which we deluded ourselves into thinking were scientific investigation, like attaching bangers to rocks and dropping them in drains to produce a plume of water. Bonfire night used to be more of a social fixture, though after university (my hall of residence used to put on a party and firework display with professional pyrotechnics and I was responsible for the advertising posters which hung from the balcony of the refectory at Goldsmiths’) it became clear that subscribing to these things was not only uninteresting but an unnecessary expense.


Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978
Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978

Halloween customs have been influenced by Celtic folklore and beliefs and some are likely to have pagan roots, linked to the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or Parentalia, the festival of the dead. Its origins are most typically associated with the Celtic festivals of Samhain (Old Irish for ‘summer's end’), Calan Gaeaf (‘first day of winter’) in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, celebrated on 31st October and 1st November to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was believed that the boundary between the world of the living and the spirits overlapped at this time, allowing the Aos Sí (spirits or fairies) to enter our world. Respected and feared, the Aos Sí were appeased with offerings of food and drink or part of the crop at Samhain to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, a belief of ancient origins common to many cultures; throughout Ireland and Britain, the household festivities included rituals and fortune-telling games incorporating seasonal fare, apple bobbing and roasting nuts. Bonfires were also part of the rituals where flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have cleansing or protective powers.


In a tradition that goes back at least to the 16th century, the festivities of the Celtic communities of the British Isles included mumming and guising, dressing up as the Aos Sí, going from house-to-house in costume, reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. Also believed to be a protection from the souls of the dead, it’s likely that this behaviour is responsible for dressing up and trick-or-treating, the term ‘trick or treat’ first emerging in 1927. Throughout the centuries the power of the Church has enabled it to subvert and appropriate festivals from other, older customs and though we might sneer at a culture which believes that there are times during the year when the boundary between the spirit world and our world is less fixed, is it much different from the belief that there’s a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church Triumphant) and the living (the Church militant)? The difference is that the Church has used faith and superstition to impose a doctrine designed to preserve its own power.


Halloween fits into this narrative as an illustration of the monsters subsequently subdued by an adherence to the liturgy of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day; a story designed to frighten us should we stray from the path of righteousness. In his Guardian piece, Haddon suggests that much of literary fiction, not only ghost stories, explores a deep anxiety about how we come to terms with our own mortality. So do we like to be scared, and does this translate into other art forms? I used to watch Hammer horror films after returning from an evening in the pub when I was a student (The Devil Rides Out from 1968 was a favourite) but that was because they were ridiculous; Hollywood horror was very big in the early 80s but it became derivative and it wasn’t until The Blair Witch Project (1999) where fear of the unknown was used to generate heightened tension, reinvented the horror genre.

A recent Twitter thread and an older Progressive Archives forum topic concerned ‘frightening’ music and though we might class King Crimson’s The Devil’s Triangle or some early Van der Graaf Generator (White Hammer, Man-Erg, Lemmings) as disturbing, I think the crux of both discussion points was horror. The rise of the Fundamentalist Right in the USA makes heavy metal the genre easiest to associate with horror, because of their insistence that pro-Satanic subliminal messages were revealed when Slayer and Judas Priest records were played backwards. Backmasking, as it is known, was popularised by The Beatles on Revolver and even Pink Floyd didn’t escape accusations of inappropriately brainwashing youths through the technique. More likely, the satanic imagery used by Slayer was simply adopted for commercial reasons, and the Iron Maiden mascot Eddie, depicted as controlling the devil like a marionette on the cover of The Number of the Beast may have caused outrage amongst the Moral Majority but the resultant public burning of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue generated huge publicity.


The first prog-horror link I came across was the use of the Tubular Bells overture in The Exorcist (1974) which I watched at a screening in Leeds long before I was 18, visiting my brother who was studying medicine at the University. What I missed out on for many years, not actively researching Italian prog until 2005, were the cult classic gialli films of Dario Argento, with Profundo Rosso (1975) considered to be the best giallo film ever made. I’ve now seen Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin twice, the first time at the beginning of 2014 where they performed tracks from all their classic soundtracks: Profundo Rosso; Suspiria; Roller; Zombi; Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark; Tenebrae; and Non Ho Sonno. A year later I saw them perform the Profundo Rosso soundtrack live to a screening of the film at the Barbican and though the film itself may be critically acclaimed, it’s too psychedelic to be frightening, however good the music. It was hard to work out whether the audience at either of these performances was predominantly there for the cinematic or the prog- association. I was there for the latter but I think I may have been in a minority.



With roots in folklore, ghost stories and the supernatural should suit progressive rock but I can’t think of too many examples where this has been the case. Psychedelic prog-folk band Comus (named after Milton’s pagan sorcerer-king) channel a pagan vibe on First Utterance (1971) with material covering rape, murder, mental illness and sacrifice, and the music itself which varies from conveying primal malevolence to quiet, pastoral beauty, recalls the spirit of a independent horror film. I suspect that the best ghost-story album is Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing and Other Stories from 2013. You’d think the excellent Gustav Mahler-inspired Halloween by Pulsar (1977) should feature but the title was used because the band liked the beauty of the word and the way it evoked childhood, magic, fairy-tales and the imaginary, themes which are suggested in the music and lyrics.


Halloween by Pulsar
Halloween by Pulsar

According to a 2006 survey, the British hate Halloween and over half of British homeowners turn off their lights and pretend not to be home. 2017 looks like being a great deal worse for advocates of this celebration sponsored by confectioners and I know I won’t be answering the door to anyone on Tuesday evening. However, much more memorable than Halloween or the gunpowder plot is that Saturday 28th October is the anniversary of me seeing Yes for the first time, having been in London for less than a month....









By ProgBlog, Apr 17 2016 11:22PM

Yesterday was Record Store Day, the ninth year that it’s been running, an event to advertise your local record store, wherever you live in the world. Some of the comments I’ve seen on social media suggest that there are a lot of vinyl fans who don't subscribe and though I’m very much in favour of Jo(e) Public getting off their backside and going out into the high street to support the local record store, the concept smacks of the promotion of non-events like Halloween, mother’s day and father’s day and in any case, you should be patronising all the local shops in your area and make at least weekly visits to the local vinyl emporium. Croydon used to have a good selection of stores selling vinyl but now there are only two in the town centre that I can think of: HMV with its limited range of popular albums; and 101 Records which has a wide, varied but chaotic selection of second hand LPs and singles. Addiscombe, the bit of Croydon where I live, used to have two or three stores with Woolworth and Addiscombe Music Centre selling new records and The Vinyl Resting Place selling second hand records, books and memorabilia. The global economic crash saw the end of Woolworth (it became a Sainsbury’s Local); the tiny Addiscombe Music Centre was pulled down when trams returned to Croydon just before the current millennium; and the Vinyl Resting Place closed down after a series of unforeseen climatological events and the knock-on effects of global terrorism coupled with the inexorable rise of eBay. The owner Barbara Day told the Croydon Guardian: "I think record stores can still come back, maybe not in our lifetime, but we are hoping that people will get bored of the internet and go back to these shops.” She might be please to hear that a new record store has opened up in Addiscombe, DnR Vinyl, that I’ve yet to step inside – it specialises in UK garage classics, grime, dubstep and bassline – so there’s little chance of me picking up the new Höstsonaten album Symphony #1 Cupid and Psyche from there but I still hope that they are successful and that their appearance indicates an upturn in the fortunes of the local economy. It’s good to see new stores opening up in Addiscombe; it makes a change from charity shops and bookmakers. Though I walked right past Fopp in Shaftesbury Avenue yesterday, I didn’t go in. I was thinking about the economy, or more specifically an alternative economy as I was taking part in The People’s Assembly March for Heath, Houses, Jobs and Education from University College Hospital in Gower Street to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell gave a short speech during which he outlined what an incoming Labour government would do regarding the NHS (no privatisation), housing (building council homes for fair rent, not for private sale), ensuring the survival of the UK steel industry by nationalisation, if necessary, and supporting overworked teachers. Quite rousing stuff! I also like the way he’s been listening to Yanis Varoufakis who has convinced McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn that remaining in the EU, bringing about the necessary changes from within, is better than Brexit. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of McDonnell but more so after he made some complimentary comments about a speech I gave at a rally in support of the NHS in 2012.


Back in Addiscombe, DnR is next to musical instrument shop Tuga Sounds, another recent addition to the local retail landscape. I popped into Tuga last year to enquire about a Washburn Taurus T14 bass because I’d seen they had a Washburn six string for sale and at the time I believed that I’d have more time to dedicate to music during my semi-retirement. I own a Hohner B2A, a headless, almost bodiless bass bought in 1987 when they were quite trendy but I saw reviews of the fantastic looking T14, T24 and T25 models and thought that adding to my guitar collection, rather than replacing the Hohner, was not an unreasonable thing to do. A lengthy discussion with the store owner made me doubt the wisdom of acquiring a 5 string bass, an instrument that is quite prevalent in progressive rock, because he said he always reached for his four string bass. I was thinking of going for the lighter (and cheaper T14) but I’m tempted to go for the T24...

Dedicating more time to playing, writing and recording music would have been justification to buy another bass and I have followed music long enough to have seen some of my guitar heroes collect and utilise a range of different guitars. The first player of multiple guitars I came across was Steve Howe with his collection displayed in the Fragile (1971) booklet. There are 14 guitars visible, plus a violin/viola, a banjo and something I can’t identify.


According to the man himself in an interview that appears in the current edition of Prog magazine, the collection is now of the order of 100 guitars. His use of different guitar styles, one of the defining features of Yes music, is reason enough to have this variety where he is able to choose the instrument most appropriate for the sound required in a particular piece. Brother Tony used to have a post-Bruford Yes poster that was displayed on our bedroom wall and Howe features with the guitar I most associate with his work, the Gibson ES 175 D, a feeling reinforced by the picture on the inner gatefold of The Yes Album (1971) where the instrument can also be seen and on the cover of his first solo album Beginnings (1975). It goes without saying that this doesn’t tell the whole story. On side two of Close to the Edge (1972) he also uses 12 string acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitar, bringing a full symphonic range to the guitar parts. I don’t know but it sounds to me as though his use of instruments on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) closely matches those used on Close to the Edge; Gates of Delirium from Relayer (1974) has a harsher sound and this is partly down to his use of a 1955 Fender Telecaster. I think that there are strong hints of jazz rock on that album so I’d also expect his ES 175 to feature, being more of a jazz instrument. We expect progressive rock keyboard players to use multiple instruments on one track but it’s more unusual to see a guitarist swap instruments. Howe’s live performances with Yes feature frequent changes within one song and he’s come up with some innovative ways to carry this off without dropping a note, most notably the guitar fixed to a stand that gets wheeled out for And You And I.


Using different effects pedals and studio multitracking allow different guitar parts to come through on record and listing all the equipment used by a band in the sleeve notes was integral to my appreciation for progressive rock. Howe doesn’t list the guitars used on Beginnings but does, by track, on The Steve Howe Album (1979.) Though some of the albums I own hint at a number of different guitars used, it seems that it’s only Howe who lists instruments by track, though Mike Oldfield does kind of list his guitars (and other instruments) though not by manufacturer or model, on Tubular Bells (1973) and Ommadawn (1975). This is in contrast to keyboard players who list their instruments in minutiae. Other players may have collections of instruments but I believe it’s Howe who best demonstrates the value of owning a number of guitars, for both studio work and live performance.








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