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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, Aug 28 2019 09:11PM



20 years of Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory

It’s entirely coincidental that the cover of the latest Prog magazine (issue 101) should feature the cover artwork from 1999’s Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater when I finally decide to blog about prog metal. The idea for the blog has been floating around for nearly four months, prompted by an influx of requests to review albums that are covered by the prog metal umbrella. Metropolis pt.2 was integral to my thought process, having been suggested to me back in April that it was a prime example of the sub-genre where Dream Theater had reached the apex of their creativity and inspiration, with a great depth in the song writing, some 14 years after they had originally formed and with two different personnel from those in the original line-up, one of whom was Jordan Rudess on keyboards, recording an album with the band for the first time. Evidently, the advice I received was both pertinent and accurate, otherwise why would there still be sufficient interest in the album for Dream Theater tour it in its entirety on its 20th anniversary and why would Prog devote so many pages to it?


Heavy rock, heavy metal or prog?

Going back further in time, along with most other commentators of the period I made a distinction between heavy rock, Deep Purple, for example, and music created by the progressive groups of prog’s golden era, though King Crimson, rightly or wrongly lumped into the prog camp, were hurtling towards their first interregnum with the clever but undeniably heavy material that surfaced on Red (1974), a polished production that should be heard in the context of their live performances over the preceding year, later to surface on USA (1975) and even more fully documented on The Road to Red (2013).

The distinction between the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), a term coined when punk and new wave were fading by Sounds’ Geoff Barton in May 1979 and prog acts subjected to scrutiny in an ever-more commercial musical environment, was even more pronounced. However, NWOBHM inherited some of the do-it-yourself punk ethos that also featured in the make-up of nascent neo-prog bands, marking a convergence in thinking, if not in style.


Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal
Red by King Crimson - proto-prog metal

The birth of prog metal

Around the same time as neo-prog was becoming established in the UK, a US prog metal scene was developing where the influences featured metal bands, including examples from NWOBHM, along with the well-established Rush. Fates Warning formed in 1982 and released their first album Night on Bröcken in 1984; Majesty, which became Dream Theater, was formed in 1985; Shadow Gallery (as Sorcerer) formed in 1985; Crimson Glory, following two changes of name, released their eponymously-titled debut album in 1986 and the follow-up, Transcendence (1988) is regarded as a prog metal classic.

Prog underwent resurgence during the mid-90s, catalysed by this assimilation of the progressive ethos into metal. Away from the US, the Scandinavians melded their take on metal with analogue retro-keyboard sounds, creating dark, sometimes stark prog that acted as a soundtrack for the folklore of Norway and Sweden. Anekdoten’s debut Vemod (1993) has been accurately described as sounding like King Crimson had they not disbanded in 1974. Although predominantly instrumental and heavy, with copious doom-laden Mellotron, the lyrics stand out as intelligent and call to mind Richard Palmer-James. The melancholy feel is enhanced by the addition of cello; at times the guitar is like the angular playing of Steve Howe on Fragile and the bass style owes a heavy debt to John Wetton. Did the success of Vemod’s release provide the impetus to reform King Crimson as a double trio conformation in 1994, with its nod to the Red-era? If so, Fripp and co. still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP but as far as the fan-base was concerned, they were ready for any new material. This incarnation of Crimson picked up from where the 70’s Crimson left off, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends, an alignment that continued with the subsequent studio releases The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and The Power to Believe (2003) which get progressively darker (though there always moments of optimism), heavier and technical. On balance, I’d call Thrak (1994) heavy prog but by the time they reached the third Crimson interregnum they were almost certainly prog metal, devoid of symphonic prog flourishes.


ProgBlog and prog metal

I’ve just been reminded that Steven Wilson, in an interview a few years ago, decried a lack of variation in metal and its limited musical vocabulary, suggesting that over-familiarity with the sound of was reducing its power. Wilson’s words appeared before I had ever been asked to review any prog metal but I still had a general feeling, one that might open me up to accusations of musical snobbery, that prog metal had a tendency towards being metal with progressive flourishes bolted on and that it was all a bit same-y. Up to the point two years ago when I was asked to review Radiant Memory (2017) by Process of Illumination, an instrumental band from Texas, the closest I’d got to sitting down and attentively listening to prog metal was either Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) or Sign of the Crow (2016) by the David Cross Band. The former, I’d suggest, contains more of the perceived prog metal tropes whereas there’s a ‘metal edge’ that runs deep in the latter. Cross’ heavy credentials date back to his tenure in King Crimson where he was fighting to be heard over band mates who were increasingly moving into proto-prog metal territory. I also own three studio albums by Peruvians Flor de Loto: Imperio de Cristal (2011); Volver a nacer (2012); and Nuevo Mesias (2014), and the self-titled debut from Il Bacio della Medusa (2004) – all of which can be described as hard-edged prog, which is why I bought them, but which display inspiration from metal. My favourite from this cohort by some distance is Sign of the Crow.

Radiant Memory took me by surprise, but the absence of vocals made it easier to review. I wouldn’t really class the album as straightforward prog metal and, to be fair to the band, they accurately state that their music is ‘an ambitious blend of progressive rock, instrumental music and metal.’ Their playing is of a high standard and there’s a lot of variation on the album thanks to a good guitar/keyboards balance. I was also wrong-footed by The Last Cell, the stage name of Jean-Marc Perc. Perc began playing the guitar at age nine, culminating in a Music degree from university in Vienna. He combines interesting-interval djent and tasteful shredding, all carried out with outstanding technical dexterity. The five-track EP Nautilus (2018) and 2019’s Continental Drift may contain archetypal examples of shredding and djent styles but he also adds delicate picked acoustic guitar – the music is highly melodic and he’s not averse to incorporate jazz-phrasing, demonstrating an innate musicality.

There is an obvious stylistic spectrum even within prog metal, so despite my disdain for Opeth, I have to admit that Heritage (2011) is growing on me. Part of what Wilson, who mixed the album, described as a trilogy (the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album from 2011 Grace for Drowning), Heritage was Opeth’s first full departure from the band’s metal roots and dispensed with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion. Its appeal lies in its variation. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano but the album references all the sounds of classic 70s prog, with Mellotron, rewarding organ and plenty of electric piano. There are tricky time signatures, knotty guitar riffs and sensitive playing amongst the crunchy power chords. Should the album’s category be changed from prog metal to prog? It doesn’t really matter, though Slither, a tribute to Ronnie James Dio who died during the time the record was being made, is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade.



Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'
Prog metal and prog 'with a metal edge'

Dream Theater define prog metal

So was Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory a ground-breaking moment for prog metal, and do I like it? For someone listening to the record for the first time, 20 years on from its release makes it difficult to ascribe how innovative it was. By 1999 ‘prog’ and ‘progressive rock’ had begun to attract less invective - Radiohead released OK Computer in 1997 and while everyone seemed to accept it was brilliant and pushed boundaries, the band themselves denied it but the public began to use the p-word and Radiohead in the same sentence. Metropolis pt.2 certainly doesn’t conform to my idea of metal and there are a number of aspects that have been borrowed from prog. The opening section with the hypnotherapist is pure Roger Waters and the album is replete with Floyd-like sound effects inter-track segues. If prog had remained a dirty word, it’s unlikely that the storyline, shifting between different events through time and marked out by lyrics denoted in different fonts, would have been so readily accepted. I’m not a great fan of LaBrie’s vocals which I find occasionally shaky and certainly no better than average which is a shame, because they are essential to the story-telling, and I do find the lyrics a little trite. On the other hand, it’s impossible to criticise the musicianship and there’s a sublime section that reminds me of Zappa’s Hot Rats. There’s a delightful ‘throw everything at it’ approach that conforms to prog stereotypes, meaning that if this was to be the gold-standard or the epitome of prog metal, I’d probably go along with it.


I believe it’s predominantly the links to metal that have allowed the prog genre to thrive and though there are obviously other musical forms that continue to impact and shape progressive music, the blurring of distinction between aspects of prog and metal, whether or not originality has been compromised, has facilitated the integration of metal into the prog genre. For my part I recognise the importance of this association, and at the level of listener I can appreciate the technicality involved in the playing.

Even though I think there’s very little that’s inspiring in the prog metal world at the moment, reporting on prog metal is still important and as I’m still not entirely convinced by the genre and still a novice, ProgBlog now has a dedicated specialist, Stefano Amadei, to write about developments in the world of prog metal






By ProgBlog, Mar 12 2018 10:28PM

The small group of family and friends that share my interest in prog can all trace their appreciation of the genre to the golden age. I grew up with almost all of them and most are regular gig companions but I was still blown away by their response when asked to submit their nine ‘life changing’ albums. Some just provided me with a list, one a list with bullet points and the remainder of the submissions were roughly along the same lines as my selection last week, including explanatory notes. My guidelines were deliberately woolly but included the following points: to list the nine albums that had the most significant impact on their lives, or were at least associated with significant events in their lives; to provide a short summary of their choice should they wish to do so; and to compile their choices before I revealed my own list, published the blog last week.

These are their 9 albums:



The albums are arranged in chronological order of their release. Thick as a Brick I didn't discover until about 1975 but is the best Tull, saw IA perform it in Newcastle a few years ago along with TAAB2. Close to the Edge is the best Yes and any prog album and one of my earliest discoveries. The Dark Side of the Moon still sets the bar and was another of my early favourites. Refugee is still Patrick Moraz's finest work along with Relayer. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is another early find and remains brilliant. Red runs close with In the Court of... as the best Crimson album but I chose it as it features Bill B. I got Harbour of Tears last year on holiday in Krakow and is as good as any Camel album. Dust and Dreams and Rajaz both from the 90s are also up there with their best work. AD 2010 I got on holiday in Sienna which was a great holiday made even better by this find and I have been seeking out other recent post-2000 PFM albums which are really good. Rattle that Lock is DG's best solo effort and compares favourably with any Floyd. I was very tempted to include a Water's Edge album for personal reasons but probably not prog enough! Number 10 would have been Aerie Faerie Nonsense by The Enid.

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Days of Future Passed

A linked piece (concept) with varied writers and instrumentalists contributing to a fine album supported by a full orchestra, it was one the first pieces of progressive music I heard. Having grown up in a house where classical music was enjoyed by my dad, it was as if ' pop ' music was going somewhere and albums were works in themselves.

Argus

Loved the music, harmonizing guitars, lyrics and extended progressive middle sections. Although Wishbone Ash have a rocky sound at times, it had sustenance in its tracks and delivered open lengthy pieces.

Music Inspired by The Snow Goose

Had read the book and someone lent me the album. Hooked and to this day I enjoy it as much as ever. The sounds and progression! A great work.

Tubular Bells

One man's concept album or was it? But life was never the same after hearing this and subsequent albums were certainly more fluid and impressionistic. It was different!

Nursery Cryme

Ahh, Genesis. Perhaps the one band I committed to wholly. This really was 'fantastic' music, story-telling, picturesque, album after album but it started for me with Nursery Cryme in the mid 70s.

Tales from Topographic Oceans

Of all the YES albums, I came to this first! Fascinated by the other worldliness of its sounds, by the album sleeve and its escapist, visionary nature. You travel with the music.

Brain Salad Surgery

I had a friend who had Pictures at an Exhibition (I knew the classical work) and had enjoyed it, then this. Big, brash, funny and a moment of sublime love (or so it seemed to a teenage girl). Played my dad Jerusalem over a cup of tea. Even my sister (not her usual stuff) played it ...well, some of it. You had to be in the mood to go through all the three movements of Karn Evil 9 but it anchors me to a time and place.

Meddle

I'd had an amazing first listen to Dark Side of the Moon; lights out, candles lit, a group of us listening in an attic bedroom but it was Meddle that I returned to in 1975 as a soundscape when revising for my O Levels. Experimental, varied influence, perhaps no real concept but some tremendous pieces. A favourite to this day.

The Condensed 21st century Guide to King Crimson 1969-2003

Essential inclusion for me and with thanks to [ProgBlog]. I had heard In the Court of the Crimson King at parties (the lads in a room wowing at whatever) but it is, criminally, only in relatively recent times that I've immersed myself in KC as a unit and this collection is stunning. This may has enhanced my prog listening. Am still on that journey.

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The albums represent: 1st single purchased; 1st album purchased; 1st prog album I heard; 1st gig attended; 1st album heard at Uni; 1st CD purchased; 1st double album purchased; favourite prog album; favourite prog track; favourite album cover; favourite album; favourite non-prog album; album with the most versions in my collection (vinyl, half-speed remastered vinyl, hi-res 24 bit download, CD, picture disc CD); album I play the most often (but not necessarily my favourite)

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Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon

The very first album I bought, second hand from Paul Thompson for £3.50 in 1980, mint condition with the posters and stickers. What a way to start your music listening career! The first album being prog-related set a tone for the music I got into in the immediate years following, and a lifetime of listening beyond that.

Jethro Tull – Repeat the Best of Jethro Tull Vol.2

A 14th birthday present from [ProgBlog] and Bill Burford. Having struggled a little at first with the Songs from the Wood album this pulled me in hook, line and sinker. Several years of Tull obsession followed. A very good compilation from the classic Tull prog years.

Martin Stephenson & The Daintees – Gladsome Humour & Blue

“Who?” you may ask. A former carpet fitter from Washington, Tyne & Wear, that’s who. Rather like Dark Side, an album written by a man with immense maturity for his tender years. Heart melting stuff bought second hand at the record shop in the Newcastle University student union. Martin’s almost a shaman character, who shunned the majors for a simple life doing music his way, which he still does to this day from the Highlands of Scotland.

Johnny Cash – American III Solitary Man

Early 2000s, I’d heard Folsom Prison and thought it was quite quirky, so bought this on the hop for a fiver at Fopp. The (on the face of it) bizarre collaboration of hip hop producer Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash produced heavily stylised recordings that turned ok originals into probably the most dramatic music I’ve ever heard.

Various Artists – The Best of Blue Note Vol.1

Introduced me to the world of Blue Note, and very heavily influenced the next ten years of listening and purchasing. Included the Donald Byrd version of Cristo Redentor, a beautifully pure trumpet tune with eerie backing “woos” (not words as such) from a gospel choir. A song which will be played at my funeral. Included other future faves like Horace Silver and Art Blakey.

Genesis – Live

Bought this for a pound off John Carrott, when he was selling his albums. Played to death then replaced on CD. Played very frequently to this day, and I keep hoping they’’ issue an expanded version one day. Five songs, all great, but side 2 with The Musical Box and The Knife is surely one of the greatest sides of music ever issued.

Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

A 1974 compilation bought at Hitsville in Newcastle. Poetry meets jazz meets funk meets politics meets human rights. A pioneer of rap from the late 60s, but with really strong messages, from the very raw at the start to really sophisticated pieces near the end.

Various Artists – First Time I Met The Blues

I’d started seeing some live roots music, then picked up this Chess compilation, which led me to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chicago blues that had come from the fields originally, very raw black music, the punk of its day.

Various Artists – Blue Brazil

A Blue Note compilation of very melodic Brazilian jazzy numbers, laced with fantastic rhythms and beautiful voices. Strange because none of the music had been released on Blue Note originally. Set off another investigation into rhythmic music from other countries that picked up some things I already liked including funk rhythms and jazz, Afro-centric music, and pulled at my own South American heritage (albeit much more interesting music than the native stuff from Chile and most of South America).

I know these compilations are cheating a bit, but they’re random purchases that opened doors.

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A Nice Pair – Pink Floyd.

This release of the first two Floyd albums was my real initiation into music that was to become ‘mine’. Although I had heard my brother playing albums in his bedroom in the early 1970’s it wasn’t until I was played A Saucerful of Secrets in a music lesson at school that I began discovering music outside the charts. I will forever be thankful to that teacher, Mr Peter Nurse.

Evening Star – Fripp & Eno.

I first heard this when visiting my brothers flat. The music had an otherworldly quality that resonated with me and indeed still does.

Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield.

This is an album I remember hearing my brother play and it became one of the first albums I bought, the first was actually Hergest Ridge also by Oldfield. However, if I hadn’t heard this album as much as I did I’d never have bought Hergest Ridge. It’s not my favourite Oldfield album, that remains Ommadawn, but without it, a love of instrumental music may never have been forged.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Rick Wakeman

This one album sparked my love of electronic keyboards and synthesisers. I was introduced to it by a friend called Richard Key who used to give me lifts when we went to fishing matches. One day on our return he invited me in to hear this album and I was hooked. Much was to follow from that day.

Close to the Edge – Yes

Having discovered Mr Wakeman it didn’t take long to discover Yes. This remains the quintessential progressive rock album to me and the best that Yes released. Other individual Yes songs may have come close, The Revealing Science of God, Gates of Delirium, Awaken, Starship Trooper and Heart of the Sunrise immediately spring to mind but this album had it all in just three songs.

The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

This is another album that isn’t my favourite from the band, that would be Wish You Were Here, but when I first got the album, bought as a Xmas present on cassette, I played it to death. I’ve since had the album on vinyl and CD (4 times) and I never tire of it.

Phaedra – Tangerine Dream

I believe I first heard this album in the ‘Tracks’ record shop in Royston where I grew up. The guys in the shop were beginning to suggest albums to me knowing my interest in electronic keyboard based music and the decision to purchase was immediate when I heard the sequencer kick in. This has been a really important album for me and gets played at least once a month even now. It may not be as technically proficient as subsequent albums but it retains a distinct charm all of its own.

Oxygene – Jean Michel Jarre

This was another of those albums that just had to be bought once I’d heard the single from the album, Oxygene IV. This was really accessible electronic music which couldn’t be said so easily of Tangerine Dream. I’ve followed Jarre’s career ever since. He’s released some real duds in the last 40 years but Oxygene is an electronic music classic and is another of those albums that I still get real enjoyment out of listening to.

Deadwing – Porcupine Tree

This was my introduction to both Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson who has since become a very important musical personality in my listening. Strangely, I only started to find out about the group when I discovered that Robert Fripp would be the support artist on the second UK leg of the Deadwing tour. As I wanted to see Fripp performing his soundscapes live I thought I’d find out more about the group he was supporting. I’d be a lot richer now if I hadn’t bothered but I’m so glad I did. I now have nearly every album that Steven Wilson has released either with Porcupine Tree, as a solo artist, with Blackfield, Bass Communion or No-Man. Tickets for four gigs on the upcoming UK tour might give an indication of how important his music is to me

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Yes - Close to the Edge

Yes - Relayer

King Crimson - Larks' Tongues in Aspic

King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black

ELP - Trilogy

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue

Miles Davis - Star People

Camel - Music Inspired by The Snow Goose

Focus - Best of Focus

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Probably think of some album I'd rather include but can't check record collection. All oldies, number 1 has remained so since age 14, the others might move about a bit

1) Close to the Edge

2) Larks' Tongues in Aspic

3) Fragile

4) Tales from Topographic Oceans

5) Starless and Bible Black

6) Nice

7) The Dark Side of the Moon

8) Pictures at an Exhibition

9) The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

_______________________________

The group of respondents, including me, have an age range of 47 – 61; the mean age is 56 and the median age is 58. Six of the group spent their formative years in a relatively close-knit community, separated by only a very few houses and three of the six are closely related; one is from the Birmingham area, one from a small town in Hertfordshire and one from Leeds. More importantly, the musical tastes of this cohort don’t appear to have changed during the intervening years. With the exception of one respondent, all were teenagers at a time when progressive rock was a recognised and commercially successful genre, though competition from other musical styles was fairly restricted to outright pop (appealing to the predominantly pre-pubescent), blues-based rock, glam-rock and soul; my household was filled with a wide spectrum of jazz and at least one household featured a range of classical music. The oft-observed gender imbalance of prog fandom is evident here, with only one of the eight being female.


What comes across that respondents were discovering music which has informed their choice; most have stuck with the music of their teens but there is an element of tastes branching out. The influence of older siblings and friends is also clear, so that both Close to the Edge and The Dark Side of the Moon albums feature heavily but different examples of works by ELP, Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes, five of the leading exponents of prog, are scattered throughout the lists, potentially indicating personal preference for one of a band’s albums over another. The degree of homogeneity between respondents is further demonstrated by Camel, Focus, Jethro Tull, Mike Oldfield, PFM and Tangerine Dream all appearing in more than one list.

There’s also an indication that some of the choices aren’t the favourite albums by a band, though they still appear in the list. My personal choice wouldn’t all be in my favourite nine albums as I prefer Hamburger Concerto to Focus 3, Refugee’s self-titled LP from 1974 would be in my top five and however good Starless and Bible Black may be, I like In the Court of the Crimson King, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Red and USA even more. I looked upon each choice as a gateway to further discovery so that I couldn’t include Refugee or Snow Goose or any Genesis.


Thanks to everyone I asked for their nine albums for their illuminating replies – you know who you are.










By ProgBlog, Jun 28 2017 08:50AM

There’s a great deal to be said for being open-minded, the willingness to try different things, because it’s a wide world and being able to see someone else’s point of view helps us to build bridges and overcome divisions in society. Past experience invariably influences present and future choices, for either good or bad, but forming impressions of the widest possible range of stimuli is most likely to be a positive force. Genetics obviously plays a role in how we react to events but the molecular mechanisms are nothing when compared to environmental impact: Jazz was the predominant musical form in the house I grew up in but after hearing Close to the Edge I quickly found friends who liked the same sort of music and whether or not I was still happy to listen to my father’s jazz recordings, being of an age where you could choose to buy whichever records you wanted was a crucial part of adolescence.



Practitioners of progressive rock, appropriating bits and pieces from a multitude of sources, should really be regarded as exemplars of open-mindedness and, in keeping with the lofty ideals of the late 60s and early 70s, they took it upon themselves to end the cultural hegemony of the upper and middle classes through popularising classical music by amalgamating it with rock and jazz and other idioms. Progressive rock wasideally placed to carry out this change as it was by-and-large looked upon as a movement promulgated by the middle class with exponents such as the Charterhouse alumni making up Genesis being an exception at one end of the social scale, and Jon Anderson from Lancashire mill town Accrington at the other end of the ladder. This emancipation of the romantic European musical form was in keeping with the countercultural zeitgeist and could be viewed as reaching out to disparate tribes by embracing differences.

I jumped from not being interested in rock music to being intrigued by Roxy Music to being a dedicated prog-head in just a couple of months. I carried on watching Top of the Pops and remained friends with school mates who liked Slade or T Rex but around the age of 13 or 14 and certainly by 15, most people were forming a distinction between pop and rock and leaving pop behind though there were musicians I had begun to admire who used the pop idiom for one reason or another; Robert Wyatt with I’m a Believer springs to mind... At the height of the golden era of progressive rock bands still eschewed singles but by 1976, following the hiatus in studio recording by a number of the big-league players, the music industry had become more hard-nosed and the labels required their acts to generate money by writing hit singles. Adjusting to produce something specifically for this market may have been tricky enough if you were used to taking ten minutes or more to get your ideas across to the listener but the difficulty was exacerbated by a far more sophisticated competition.



The announcement of the forthcoming Steven Wilson album To the Bone has been greeted with keen anticipation from fans. As much as I like Hand.Cannot.Erase I got into Wilson’s music via the rebooted 70s prog of The Raven that Refused to Sing, rather than the more narrow sound of Porcupine Tree. H.C.E strays from the original progressive rock blueprint and takes in electronica and post-rock and the result is another great record, but it’s not really prog. This is simply an observation and, in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t matter but with videos available for three tracks from To the Bone, it can be seen as part of a trajectory towards what Wilson himself describes as ‘progressive pop’. While this refusal to stand still is in principle a good thing, the (give or take) five minute length of the previewed tracks doesn’t provide enough scope for development, although there is the promise of 9’20 of Detonation. From the examples available to the general public and from comments he’s posted on his website, it seems that the territory he’s now occupying is similar to that of more of the music he liked as a youth; Peter Gabriel’s So, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, and Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love, pop music which had a degree of depth. I’m a recent convert to Hounds of Love for The Ninth Wave suite which makes up the entire second side of the original LP though I’ve followed her career with interest since she first hit the airwaves with Wuthering Heights in 1978. Like Wilson, I also appreciate the Kate Bush – Peter Gabriel partnership probably best known for Don’t Give Up but which started six years earlier on No Self Control from Peter Gabriel III, a far more prog-sounding track; Bush and Gabriel also shared an interest in sonic innovation and were at the vanguard of the Fairlight CMI revolution. It could be argued that Gabriel’s solo output wasn’t really prog but it is undeniable that his method, if not all of his songs, conform to the overall prog scheme.


Wilson’s musical taste is suitably diverse, as indicated by his playlists and the two-song singles that were compiled for his 2014 album Cover Version; six original pieces paired with six cover versions of songs by Alanis Morissette, Abba, The Cure, Momus, Prince and Donovan (though The Unquiet Grave is a 15th Century folk song interpreted by Wilson.) He was even sporting an Abba T-shirt when I saw him on the second of the two Royal Albert Hall gigs in September 2015 though I can’t think of any redeeming features of Sweden’s number one musical export.



The nearest I get to a guilty musical pleasure is sharing record storage space with my wife’s Fleetwood Mac, Marvin Gaye, Meatloaf, Robert Palmer, Chris Rea, Simon and Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen – she has her own CD storage - and though I often have to grit my teeth when I buy her music as a present, it’s somewhat unfair on her that she gets streams of prog-related recommendations. Fortunately, Susan occasionally finds something she likes which might fit into the ‘progressive pop’ category, such as Gotye’s Making Mirrors or S. Carey’s chamber-pop Range of Light.

There was a time when I owned Anita Ward’s 45 rpm single Ring My Bell and although it features early syndrum and I can still sing along with it, this was never intended as a serious purchase; after suggesting I was going to buy it, I had to go along with the joke but it did only cost 50p. I have a pristine copy of Bryan Ferry’s Boys and Girls (Our Price, £5.29) bought along with Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles which were released two days apart in June 1985, neither of which fits in particularly well with the rest of my collection though David Gilmour ad Tony Levin feature alongside Ferry and Sting quotes from Prokofiev on Russians. It’s interesting to note that the drums on both albums are performed by Omar Hakim which fits in very nicely with Sting’s jazz-lite and might have been responsible for some subliminal appreciation of Boys and Girls.



Another pop-rock album which sits between my Endless River and Storia di un Minuto LPs is Every Breath You Take: The Singles, part of my leaving present from my first workplace but which was sanctioned by me. I didn’t like the early Police material but two-thirds of the group had decent prog connections (Stewart Copeland – Curved Air; Andy Summers – Dantalian’s Chariot; Soft Machine; Robert Fripp) and the songs on later albums Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity showed a high degree of sophistication. The first CD I bought was actually Nothing Like the Sun but Richer Sounds wasn’t really a place to buy recorded music – I just needed a CD to play on my newly acquired Yamaha CD player – and Sting was the least offensive artist available. I’ve still got it.



No one should have any guilt about the music in their collection. We buy and listen to the music we like, however broad or narrow our predilections. I applaud the broad-minded, but when it comes to music, my collection hardly encompasses anything other than progressive rock (in its myriad forms), jazz and a bit of classical; my taste is somewhat narrow.










By ProgBlog, Jan 31 2016 10:18PM

The Steven Wilson gig did not disappoint. It helped that I had a front row seat, pretty much centre stage (courtesy of Neil with his hyper-quick responses when booking opened) and though Craig Blundell was obscured behind his drum kit, this was a view as good as it gets. Being so close to the stage had the slight disadvantage of not getting the best sound balance; the mixing desk was at the back of the stalls so I imagine that was where you’d experience the perfect listening environment. Ian Bond, veteran front-of-house sound man did a pretty good job for the front row, too, because the only difficulties we had with the sound were a rather quiet Adam Holzman Moog and some indistinct bass, though the latter may have been a venue-wide problem because Nick Beggs was making full use of a range of 5 string instruments; needless to say Wilson’s guitar, from his Bad Cat amp and cabinet placed directly in front of us, was crystal clear. It was satisfying that they played the entire Hand.Cannot.Erase, including the short Transience which had been omitted from the UK shows following the album’s release. After the intermission we were treated to a range of other Wilson material from Porcupine Tree to Storm Corrosion (the dark, haunting but brilliant Drag Ropes) plus, as a tribute to the recently departed David Bowie, Space Oddity which was filmed on a series of Go Pro cameras. There was also an outing for half of his new album 41/2, a collection of five songs that didn’t quite make it on to either Raven or H.C.E, not because of a perceived lack of quality, rather that they didn’t quite fit in with the feel of those albums, plus a reworked Don’t Hate Me, originally recorded by Porcupine Tree that appeared on Stupid Dream (1999). Theo Travis supplied flute and saxophone for the original release and his contribution was covered by keyboards and guitar when the piece was played live. The 41/2 version includes Travis plus singer Ninet Tayeb and live, without Travis but with its trippy Floyd-inspired lengthy spaced-out middle section, was one of the highlights of the evening. Tayeb, who was guest vocalist on a number of songs, is such an incredible talent she’s still able to add an extra dimension to the stellar-quality line-up of the Steven Wilson band. It seemed somehow appropriate that she should sing on Don’t Hate Me which utilised eastern scales.



Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016
Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016

During an interview for The Pedal Show before the Bristol gig a couple of days earlier, Wilson described himself as approaching the sound from a producer’s perspective, hinting that his musical ability wasn’t perhaps in the same class as his band. This could be cited as an example of classic English reserve, for Wilson is an undoubted talent, but I’ve heard this statement before, in the same context, from Italian bassist Fabio Zuffanti. There are quite a number of parallels between Wilson and Zuffanti though apart from in his native Italy, Zuffanti has not really been recognised as a major force in modern progressive rock.

I saw Zuffanti and his Z band when Jim Knipe and I attended the Prog Résiste convention in Soignies in April 2014, showcasing his latest solo effort La Quarta Vittima but also playing songs from a back catalogue of 20 years in the music business; extracts from the Soignies performance are available to view on YouTube (Rainsuite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6Dlf3HmzAc is a good example.) It was at the post-performance interview, fortunately carried out in English, that someone suggested a parallel with Steven Wilson and Zuffanti, in a self-depreciating manner, suggested that he wasn’t in the same calibre as his band-mates. What he revealed at this interview were his thoughts on his musical projects. He suggested that if Quarta Vittima was going to be compared to Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (which had been released a few months before, and which Zuffanti obviously felt was the pinnacle of Wilson’s output at that time, Höstsonaten were the equivalent of the Enid, with a very symphonic palette. Though Porcupine Tree was on hiatus at the time, the inference was that PT was the primary vehicle for Wilson’s music, rather like La Maschera di Cera was for Zuffanti.



Though I was aware of other Zuffanti projects, at the beginning of 2014 I only had Maschera di Cera albums and the first Finisterre album (Finisterre, 1995). I’d bought LuxAde (2006) for £6 from Beanos second-hand store in February 2009, without listening to it, based on the instrumentation and the fact it was produced by PFM drummer Franz di Cioccio. I hadn’t appreciated that this was a band revisiting the Orpheus saga (c.f. Focus and Eruption) but it remains one of the best buys I’ve ever made; when I got home and checked my Progressive Rock Files, even before listening to it, it was evident that I had acquired something special. I wasn’t disappointed because the recording is as close as you can get to classic 70s Italian prog; analogue instrumentation including some excellent fuzz bass, symphonic scope and operatic vocals, all executed with consummate skill. I was so impressed I began looking for Maschera di Cera albums on every subsequent trip to Italy but for some reason I couldn’t locate any and finally plumped for a download of their second album Il Grande Labirinto (2003) from Amazon in 2010, describing it in an Amazon review as a Fragile to the Close to the Edge of LuxAde (some of the details turned out to be not quite right!):


“...Il Grande Labirinto is their second album, and with no Italian trip scheduled for a while, I had to indulge in the mp3 download. (When I'm next in Italy I'm going to seek out and buy the CD for myself and two prog-minded brothers.) This release is slightly less musically mature than Lux Ade - kind of like the relationship between Fragile and Close to the Edge - almost perfect but not quite.

The musical territory is classic 70s Italian prog. PFM are an obvious comparison, though La Maschera di Cera are less jazz-influenced. Some of the keyboard trills sound like early Genesis, and there's a Wakeman-sounding synth line or two. My favourite passage is the final section of the 22 minute 37 second long Il Viaggio Nell'oceano Capovolto Parte 2 (Voyager to the Inverted Ocean) that builds up from a haunting gentle woodwind melody that reminds me of Islands-era King Crimson.

Did anyone think prog was dead? Think again, and invest in this great album.”


As soon as I’d heard the band were going to do a companion piece to Felona e Sorona (1973) by Le Orme, entitled Le Porte del Domani (2013) released in both Italian and English versions (The Gates of Tomorrow), I had to buy both mixes; the Italian version was my album of the year.

I hadn’t really formed an opinion about the music of Finisterre other than I liked it and it seemed not quite fully formed. Tracks seemed to be truncated mid-flow which left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. I bought In Limine (1996) when I went to the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014 where Zuffanti, in his home city of Genoa, was wandering around chatting to friends and fans on the first day. The title track of that album was one of the pieces played by the Z band in Soignies. I bought In ogni luogo (1998) and La Meccanica Naturale (2005), both in cardboard gatefold sleeves from Galleria del Disco in Florence later in 2014 and have now come to the conclusion that Finisterre was a band for trying out ideas. Back in Soignies I bought both La Quarta Vittima and Höstsonaten’s live version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2013) from Zuffanti’s merchandise stand and then also from the same shop in Florence, Höstsonaten’s Winterthrough (2005.) It’s true that Höstsonaten are symphonic; the music is layered and melodic and Ancient Mariner, performed with dancers, was a modern opera.

There was no full concert recording of the Z band so late in 2014 Zuffanti and his collaborators recorded the material they’d been playing during their live set, live in the studio, releasing Il Mondo Che Era Mio at the end of the year. My copy was bought early in 2015 and it is a faithful reproduction of the Z band live experience, a mixture of dynamics, strong melodies and classic-sounding instrumentation.

Last year I spent a family long weekend in Milan and came across the excellent Rossetti Records, and amongst my haul I bought Il giorno sottile (2001), by the rather obscure Zuffanti project Quadraphonic. This represents Zuffanti at his most experimental, producing an interesting and challenging album of industrial music and electronica, heavily reliant on loops, which at times is bleak though it does retain the memory of melody.

Zuffanti seems to be at the centre of the vast Genoa prog scene. When Francesca Francesca Zanetta, guitarist with Unreal City, was interviewed after their performance at the Riviera Prog Festival, she thanked Zuffanti for helping the band (he produced their debut album La Crudeltà Di Aprile, 2013) and another band he seems to have helped, who also appeared at the same festival, were Il Tempio delle Clessidre and most recently he’s collaborated with keyboard player Stefano Agnini from La Coscienza di Zeno, a band who played at both Soignies and at the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014. This project, under the title of La Curva di Lesmo, features a cast of the new wave of Italian prog and the music ranges from out and out symphonic prog to some traditional-sounding Italain music, taking in folk and electronica on the way. I bought a heavyweight white vinyl copy to play on my new Rega RP3 and the cover, by legendary artist Guido Crepax, harks back to Nuda (1972) by Garybaldi, in a similar manner to Maschera di Cera using artwork by Lanfranco for Le Porte del Domani, after Le Orme’s cover for Felona e Sorona, an album also released in English with lyrics by Peter Hammill.



Zuffanti shares with Wilson an appreciation for the origins of the genre (including a love of Mellotron) but they also choose to work with a range of other musicians which informs their style, seeking out different avenues for their talents. Wilson is now a global star; I’m just waiting for Zuffanti to get the full recognition he deserves.







By ProgBlog, Jan 24 2016 10:07PM



With Steven Wilson’s London gig rapidly approaching it seems like a good time to reflect on my relationship with his music. Though my collection cannot be said to contain a surfeit of Wilson-related material, partly due to my ambivalence towards Porcupine Tree, it can’t be denied that his output covers a wide stylistic range largely owing to the trait of possessing a collaborative nature. I own his two most recent ‘solo’ efforts, The Raven that Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) along with Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007). I’ve also been loaned Lightbulb Sun (Porcupine Tree, 2000); Wilson’s solo material Grace for Drowning (2011), Get All You Deserve (2012), Catalogue Preserve Amass (2012); his project with Mikael Akerfeldt Storm Corrosion (2012); and Bass Communion albums Continuum (2005) and Continuum Vol.2 (2007).

I was first prompted to see him live at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2013 by friend Neil Jellis and I acceded on the strength of Raven; he’d assembled some supremely able musicians and produced an album that ticked all the right golden era of prog boxes but still retained an element of contemporary music. There’s a moment in Luminol where I can determine Siberian Khatru that reveals Wilson’s deep appreciation of classic prog but it goes further than this. His use of analogue sounds doesn’t simply conjure images of gatefold sleeves, long hair and flares and dirty university refectory floors, it gives the music a depth and warmth. Wilson is of course a highly respected producer and many of the classic 70s reissues have been placed in his extremely capable hands for a remix because of his respect for the original music and his undoubted talent at tweaking out some of the instrumentation that has been buried in the mix of the original recording; something he achieves without harming the balance of the music due to his mastery of nuances.

Raven is an excellent album throughout and the performance at the Albert Hall did not disappoint, from the opening video to the final bow, the music, the musicianship and the presentation were flawless. Presentation is obviously very important to Wilson for, like his 70s heroes, he has forged long-standing artistic partnerships with Lasse Hoile, Hajo Mueller and Jess Cope that (forgive me for sounding pretentious) create the visuals for the Wilson brand, such is their importance to the integrity of the production; even something as simple as a transparent veil draped down from the lighting gantry to the front of the stage produces a quite startling effect and this attention to detail, linking music, album art and stage presentation first emerged with the prog acts Wilson was listening to in the early 70s.



When I first heard Hand.Cannot.Erase I was a bit disappointed, not because I considered the album as a retrograde step though I had wanted more of a ‘son of Raven’, rather that the mix of styles on the one disc, electronica, industrial, post-rock and out-and-out prog, didn’t really include enough classic-style prog for my taste. Further listening has mellowed my opinion: It’s a very well constructed album but I still regard it less favourably than Raven. The playing is as good as ever and there is an outstanding guest performance by Ninet Tayeb but I think it’s more difficult to portray invisibility in a world dominated by social media that inspired the album as a musical concept compared to the very straightforward alternative ghost stories of Raven. Raven also features more sax and flute, courtesy of Theo Travis. To an extent, Hand covers some of the same territory that informed Fear of a Blank Planet, the social isolation caused by technology but, to his credit, Wilson explores a very different sonic landscape in his more recent release. This sort of fits in with the characters of the protagonists on the two albums, a male teenager in Blank Planet with its distorted guitar-driven riffs and Hand’s young professional woman.

The live performance at the Troxy in London in March 2015 was basically the Hand.Cannot.Erase. album, played in its entirety (apart from Transience) in running order, interspersed with tracks from his back catalogue that Wilson felt fitted in with the idea of isolation and loss. Seeing the band perform the piece live helped me appreciate the music more, despite the atmosphere in the Troxy being less welcoming than at the Albert Hall; from my seat in the circle, I had the constant distraction of the light and noise from the bar, like in the upper circle at the over-rated Shepherd’s Bush Empire. However, experiencing the album live meant I was better able to relate Ancestral to the song introduced as Wreckage at the Albert Hall in 2013, a piece that had been announced as a work in progress and which had different titles throughout the Raven tour. Another personal highlight was the extended First Regret, with the clever video of concrete apartment blocks that have (mistakenly) become inextricably associated with the breakdown of society; concrete jungles and problem estates.

The addition of two Royal Albert Hall dates at the end of 2015 meant I was once again invited to go along. When I signed up to the proposal I thought that I could only manage one night because of work commitments and so Neil got me a ticket just for the second evening. It transpired that to get the full experience you did need to be there for both gigs, which had subtly different set-lists. Guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minnemann were unable to make this leg of the tour and were deputised by Dave Kilminster and Craig Blundell respectively and over the two nights there were a series of special guests, including Guthrie Govan. The set list had relaxed from the album format and included a number of tracks I was unfamiliar with. This meant that I felt at something of a disadvantage compared to my fellow audients and though I witnessed an incredible show, I have to admit a little disappointment at the inclusion of what seemed like an unhealthy dose of Porcupine Tree; it’s almost as though I was crashing a party, not knowing the host but the feeling was partly offset by the gift of a personalised T–shirt from Neil – We have got the Perfect Life.

I’m looking forward to the performance on Wednesday. Hammersmith is a good, comfortable rock venue. I’d just like more of Raven and Hand.Cannot.Erase.






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