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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, Jul 13 2019 03:41PM


Prog 100
Prog 100

2019 marks 10 years of Prog magazine and as I write this, the 100th edition has been landing on the doormats of subscribers. A cricketing analogy seems appropriate for progressive rock while we’re waiting for the final of the Cricket World Cup, the long-form strategy of 5-day Test matches coming closest of any sport to embody the ethos of prog; the innings looked to be over as Team Rock, publishers of Prog, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock were plunged into administration in December 2016 only to be declared not out, saved by original owners Future Publishing in early January 2017 who bought the titles for a reputed £800,000 (having sold them for £10.2m to Team Rock in 2013.) The most heart-warming part of this story was that British metal band Orange Goblin raised over £70,000 through a Just Giving page for staff who were made redundant, put out of work without any severance pay just before Christmas; an illustration of the importance of the magazines to the musicians and the fans.


BBC Four - Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements
BBC Four - Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements

Though it had never left my radar, prog as a genre resurfaced in the mainstream media in January 2009 with the BBC Four series Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements following a series of false starts, one of which was the Virgin/EMI 3CD ‘The Best Prog Album in the World... Ever’, somewhat cynically released in time for Fathers’ Day in 2003. Not too long after the initial airing of that BBC Four series the first edition of Classic Rock Presents Prog hit the newsstands, intended at the planning stage as a quarterly publication but quickly becoming bimonthly due to its instant success. I can’t remember from which newsagent I bought my copy of that first issue but I assumed it was a one-off until I came across issue 2 (June 2009) Prog’s Avant Garde Old and New in Real Groovy records in Christchurch, NZ while on holiday in August 2009; my collection is devoid of the third and fourth editions, and also number 16, the issue published immediately before I set up a subscription.

In what could be seen as confirmation that prog was once more acceptable to discuss outside of dungeons or shady pub back-rooms, Alexis Petridis penned an article for The Guardian newspaper in July 2010, the week before the re-formed ELP headlined the High Voltage festival in London’s Victoria Park that reported on, with some surprise, the resurgence of prog https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/jul/22/prog-rock-genesis-rush-mostly-autumn

Petridis interviewed Prog magazine editor Jerry Ewing and revealed a healthy circulation of 22,000 copies per issue which at the time was half the circulation for the long-established NME.


Go back to go forward - Alexis Petridis in The Guardian
Go back to go forward - Alexis Petridis in The Guardian

Serendipitously, Ewing had chosen exactly the right time to launch the magazine; the third wave of prog that began in the mid 90s, itself a testament to the quality of the music, was going from strength to strength and exerting ever greater influence, and a vinyl revival had begun a couple of years before. Progressive rock may not have been truly fashionable but was nevertheless massively successful in the 70s, shipping millions of vinyl albums, where part of the pleasure of the prog experience was absorbing the images, lyrics and technical information on the gatefold sleeve. I believe that more than any other the genre, the vinyl LP is associated with progressive rock. A measure of this success is that some bands were effectively exiled from the UK by the government’s tax regime; when Labour took power in 1974 the top rate of income tax was increased from 75% to 83% and the surcharge on investment tax took the top rate on investment income up to 98%, rates that applied to 750,000 people with incomes over £20,000 per year, including the best-selling prog bands like Yes, ELP and Jethro Tull.

Prog 01
Prog 01

It was obvious that there was no way that a periodical dedicated to progressive rock could last long by only reporting on the music produced between 1969 and 1978, or even by appending on the era of neo-prog. I don’t read every article and I’m sometimes disappointed that what I consider an important event isn’t picked up by the editorial team, prompting me to fire off a disgruntled letter (or two.) I’m still of the opinion that there’s insufficient coverage of classic rock progressivo Italiano, although new material from PFM in 2017 and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso this year addresses this to some extent, but I was sure that 2013’s Le Porte del Domani by La Maschera di Cera, a conceptual follow-up to the acknowledged classic of Progressivo Italiano, Felona e Sorona by Le Orme surely deserved a mention, especially as La Maschera di Cera, like Le Orme before them, issued an English-language version of the album. However, the magazine manages to meet the requirements of unreconstructed 70s prog-philes whilst still managing to preserve a place in the competitive periodicals market by representing a spectrum that takes in progressive-minded metal, electronica, folk, jazz and ambient and though stable mate Classic Rock magazine might contain some content overlap of less-niche prog-associated acts like Pink Floyd, there are so many bands that they miss entirely, because they are neither the next big thing nor filling stadia. I’ve recently witnessed a tendency for general music journalism to reference progressive traits, in Muse for example, as handy epithets to confer a description that a group doesn’t simply follow the ordinary; this creates a space apart from conventional publications for a magazine devoted to prog.



Letter to Prog, May 2013
Letter to Prog, May 2013

With 100 editions in ten years, the frequency of Prog nicely balances new and freshly reappraised copy, with novel material provided by a cohort of younger musicians who can reflect on the music played by their parents and fusing this with other music that has been around for less time. This brings a new perspective to the genre, one of the reasons, I believe, that prog rock found a new respectability in the 90s and the secret of the third wave’s longevity. I’ve previously griped about prog metal but it is unlikely that there would have been a third wave if there had been no assimilation of a progressive ethos into metal. Catalysed by a shared heritage that cherished technical ability, prog metal began to arise in different parts of the world, most notably Scandinavia and the USA. This renewed interest in (or alternatively, a reduction in hostility towards) prog allowed the resurrection of King Crimson, who still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP in 1994. The double trio incarnation of Crimson revisited some of the ideas abruptly curtailed in 1974, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends and even touring with Tool in 2001.


There will always be debates about what constitutes prog rock, which nicely plays into the success of Prog magazine, tapping into any genre that cross-pollinates with prog. The Bloody Well Write letters page may contain missives from unreconstructed 70’s progressive rock fans declaring they will no longer subscribe to the publication but there are far more letters pointing out what a good job the Prog team are doing. That the magazine is now 10 years and 100 editions old is testament to their efforts. I’m happy to subscribe to Prog; Without it I’d have been too reluctant to give Anglo-Finnish Wigwam a chance and I’d never have discovered the excellent Zappa-like Supersister (from the Netherlands) or the amazing Yak who have no guitarist but sound like Steve Hackett.

I’m looking forward to the next 100 editions in the next 10 years.


Postscript

Though electronic media has played a part in the demise of the printed word, the best strategy seems to be balancing both forms of medium. I read Armando Gallo’s early Genesis biography I Know What I Like on a Samsung tablet and found it deeply unsatisfying but I am aware that one of the secrets to commercial success is to mix formats. So hats off to Prog magazine getting the balance right and keeping going, seemingly from strength to strength in a fiercely competitive environment.

I was both amused and surprised to see free copies of the NME available outside Whitechapel station when I started to work in the East End in 2015. Sporting an image of Taylor Swift, with a prominent yellow bubble appearing like a peeling sticker announcing MUSIC FILM STYLE, I realised that like other freebies handed out at transport hubs the print edition of the NME had become nothing more than a listings magazine, finally succumbing to what I always thought was their unspoken ethos that style was more important than the music. The print edition of the NME closed down in 2018.

Paul Stump's words could not have been wiser: the music’s all that matters


Credit: Jordan Hughes/NME
Credit: Jordan Hughes/NME

Post-postscript

For my part, I have learned to accept prog metal as a valid and valued sub-genre



Prog metal - Prog 12 December 2010
Prog metal - Prog 12 December 2010







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, Dec 20 2015 10:05PM

Shortly before I left South Newbarns junior school (former pupil: Liverpool FC and England legend Emlyn ‘Crazy Horse’ Hughes) I was called to see the Head Teacher and was told that I didn’t read enough; I ‘m not sure how he knew because I always did well in reading tests but I took his criticism on board and embarked upon a literary marathon. I think I’d previously been more interested in seeing how things worked, a practical or visual viewpoint backed up by technical descriptions rather than prose. Some of the first examples of children’s literature that I managed to get my hands on were the Narnia books by CS Lewis. This form of fantasy fired my imagination and, though I’m fully aware of the allegorical nature of the books which goes against my atheist principles, I still regard them highly. I was impressed that Steve Hackett should include the track Narnia on his second solo album Please Don’t Touch (1978) which, in keeping with the cover illustration by Kim Poor, lends a nostalgic air. From CS Lewis to JRR Tolkien isn’t too much of a leap, being friends and fellow Oxford dons and though The Hobbit wasn’t really challenging, the cartography and the runes interested me deeply. When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in the form of the three hardback books, borrowed from Barrow library, it rapidly became obvious that there was an incredible depth to the story telling, clues to which could be found in the appendices at the end of The Return of the King. I wasn’t ashamed to attempt to learn Elvish, written and spoken, along with some other school friends. Tolkien was widely read by the counterculture generation who saw the works as anti-war, anti-materialistic and in tune with nascent environmentalism, so it’s hardly surprising that prog bands should jump on the bandwagon: Camel with their pre-Snow Goose mini-epic Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider from Mirage (1974) and Barclay James Harvest with Galadriel from Once Again (1971). Critics of prog often dismiss it as fey music about dragons and elves and the two genres, fantasy writing and progressive rock are now very much seen as being synonymous by authors of popular culture. At the Time of Olias of Sunhillow (1976), Jon Anderson owned an Old English Sheepdog called Bilbo and in 1972 Bo Hansson released a complete album Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings. Hansson’s subsequent work was inspired by other authors I was discovering: Alan Garner and Richard Adams. Following Watership Down (1972) and the rather less enjoyable Shardik (1974) Adams based his third novel, The Plague Dogs (1977), in the Lake District. Alf Wainwright contributed maps and the illustration for the cover but of equal interest was the site of an accident at the beginning of the book, a zebra crossing on Abbey Road, Barrow-in-Furness. Alan Garner is still one of my favourite authors and my adolescence coincided with one of his best known books, Red Shift (1973) where the modern day protagonist Tom listens to music through headphones:

“...When I get

Cross track,

I’ll be real soon.

Sweet is the morning, green is the rush

And all my loving is far away.

The stars are changed, and

When I get

Cross track, I’ll be

Real soon.”

Perhaps it’s because the book coincided with the golden age of progressive rock that I’ve always felt that this piece of imaginary song writing was inspired by prog rather than any other genre though I have absolutely no proof that this is the case. I think the words could be interpreted as ‘green language’ and associate them with the spectrum that incorporates Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972) and Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973); Garner’s Cheshire has parallels with Hardy’s Wessex where customs, folklore and dialect are important to the plot. Is it too much to suggest that Lewis Carroll has influenced prog?


Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label
Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label

The Charisma Records label changed from a pink scroll to the John Tenniel depiction of the Mad Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the Syd Barrett whimsy, psychedelia rather than prog per se, is indebted to Carroll alongside Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Kenneth Grahame. Garner invokes Carroll’s word square to turn communication between Red Shift’s Tom and Jan into code and an example appears at the back of the book. When I was 13 or 14, my brother Tony and I cracked the code and sent our interpretation to Garner via his publisher, possibly the first people to do so. I still have a copy of Alan Garner’s reply, written on a postcard featuring a black and white photograph of the Horsehead Nebula taken at Jodrell Bank, close to Garner’s home, commending us on our efforts. I equate ciphers with prog, seeking to find meaning in words or symbols and can’t believe that there are too many 70s prog fans who weren’t intrigued by Kit Williams’ Masquerade (1979). I’m also informed by my friend and electronica aficionado Neil Jellis that the planetarium at Jodrell Bank used to be a venue for UK electronica gigs. How cosmic is that?


Postcard of the Horsehead nebula
Postcard of the Horsehead nebula

I now read more books relating to music than I do novels. I’m not a fan of lists but I own copies of Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files (4th edition, 1998), his Progressive Rock Handbook (2008), bought as an updated version of Files, and his 20th Century Rock and Roll: Progressive Rock (2000) which is a book of the 50 most influential progressive rock albums of all time. Though largely an A - Z catalogue of bands, including brief descriptions and a strict discography, both Files and Handbook include an introductory discussion about prog but that’s not why I bought them. As early examples of books that promoted the genre, I used them to identify potential additions to my collection and they didn’t just sit on my bookshelves, their slightly dog-eared appearance is down to being carried around to record shops in the UK and elsewhere as reference manuals; the country of origin listing being particularly important.

The resurgence of, or detoxification of progressive rock in the mid 90s allowed authors to once more write about prog without being pilloried. Edward Macan’s Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (1997), Paul Stump’s The Music’s All That Matters (1997) and Bill Martin’s Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (1996) and Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-78 (1997) were all attempts to address the shortage of critical material about the genre, not simple biographies that had been available before (Yes Perpetual Change by David Watkinson, 2001; Close to the Edge, the story of Yes by Chris Welch, 1999), looking at the genre from musicological, sociological and philosophical perspectives, putting it in context of how, when, where and why. A series of essays edited by Kevin Holm-Hudson published as Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001) continued the academic approach and set a new standard of analytical writing. Though not a major fan of biography as a literary genre, I make an exception for some prog musicians such as Bill Bruford. His The Autobiography (2009) was a book that I could hardly put down, setting itself apart by avoiding a straightforward chronological narrative and using a series of ‘frequently asked questions’ to begin each chapter. I also like to read the stories behind my favourite bands. Paul Stump attempted a book on Gentle Giant, Acquiring the Taste (2005) that I enjoyed although three Amazon reviewers derided it for being too verbose, factually incorrect and over-reliant on pre-existing sources; Sid Smith did an incredible job with In the Court of King Crimson (2001) and Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart produced the excellent Van der Graaf Generator - The Book (2005).

I’m not jealous of Will Romano, loving his Mountains Come Out of the Sky (2010) because of the inclusion of a chapter of Italian prog, the first concise history of the sub-genre I’d seen, but his Prog Rock FAQ (2015) covers material that I thought I was the first person to commit to text in this blog! A series of interviews and an interesting theory about the origin of prog reveal his journalist credentials but I don’t always agree with his analysis or opinions. Finally, I need to learn Italian so I can fully appreciate a couple of Progressivo Italiano books...




Prog books
Prog books


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