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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, Dec 25 2018 10:15PM

There were a couple of articles in the Guardian newspaper earlier this month (December 8th, 2018) that hinted of prog. The first was a piece by Alexis Petridis in The Guide listings supplement ‘I hate playing this song’: When rock stars go disco www.theguardian.com/music/2018/dec/08/noel-gallagher-rod-stewart-beach-boys-when-rock-stars-go-disco which was prompted by Noel Gallagher’s recent announcement that his next album would have a ‘70’s disco feel’ but developed into a history of rock musicians who attempted to harness the commercial benefits of the disco genre, some of whom created deeply regrettable releases when they should have known better. From a prog perspective, the article cites a version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue recorded for Rick Wakeman’s 1979 double LP Rhapsodies and Jethro Tull’s Warm Sporran, an instrumental from 1979’s Stormwatch released as a single backed with the David Palmer-penned Elegy, the only other instrumental on the album. The inclusion of Warm Sporran by Petridis is a little controversial when you consider some of the other contenders who didn’t make his list; yes, there are moments where you can detect a beat that might not seem out of place at a late 70’s disco but the composition is overwhelming a piece of folk rock, simply infused with a little bit of funk. This is one of the tracks where Ian Anderson plays bass, John Glascock having stepped down from involvement in recording due to deteriorating health even though he’d only just returned to the fold after his initial illness. It’s clear that drummer Barrie Barlow and Anderson formed a cohesive rhythm section, unsurprisingly not too dissimilar to the Barlow-Glascock pairing, but Barlow has suggested that Anderson recorded his bass parts too loud. Despite its autumn release, the front cover image of a hooded and mitted Ian Anderson figure sporting a snow-flecked beard, together with the badly drawn polar bear on the rear has always suggested to me that Stormwatch is a ‘winter’ album, so somehow its mention in an article in December seems quite fitting.



Giving a song the title of Warm Sporran also seems to imply winter, as protection (for something) against the cold. In my opinion the rhythmic diversity of Warm Sporran separates it from disco music although I don’t believe that same can be said of Another Brick in the Wall (part 2), absent from Petridis’ article but which, according to Gilmour, was turned into a disco single by Bob Ezrin after the producer had suggested that the band check out what was happening in clubs. Despite misgivings, describing Pink Floyd as a band that didn’t release singles, they recorded a version of Another Brick in the Wall with a four-to-the-bar bass drum part which was subsequently edited into a hit, reaching the number 1 spot in the UK singles chart almost exactly 39 years ago. The members of Pink Floyd are unlikely to regret the recording of Another Brick in the Wall but I have always felt, however good Waters’ concept, the music had declined in standard from a peak of the Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here eras to something that was no longer progressive rock; a result of a less collaborative approach to writing.

Ignoring glaring omissions and forgiving inappropriate inclusions, Petridis’ coverage of Rhapsodies is fully warranted. Following the progressive rock of solo albums White Rock and Criminal Record (both released 1977) and Tormato (1978) with Yes, Wakeman remained in Switzerland and put together Rhapsodies, produced by Tony Visconti, before band rehearsals for a follow-up to Tormato began (and ended with Wakeman and Jon Anderson leaving.) One of my friends bought it at the time of its release when I heard it in its entirety for the first and only time. Wakeman has said that A&M exerted considerable influence over the content and imposed Visconti as an external producer. Fortunately, Wakeman and Visconti got on well but the range of styles covered on the LP created something of a mess. On reflection, the album is full of Wakeman humour and amazing playing, albeit with a more uniform sonic palette than on his earlier solo material; anyone who has witnessed a Wakeman one-man show mixing music with his raconteur persona will understand the genesis of Rhapsodies. However, I’ve found it difficult to get beyond the cover of the album and as much as I like subtle or subversive comedy, I prefer my prog to be serious. The disco beat Rhapsody in Blue, included on the wishes of his record company and arranged by Visconti might be a joke but it’s certainly lost on me; I suppose that the album cover is also fitting for an article about music appearing in December.


The other Guardian article was Lyric poetry by the novelist David Mitchell which appeared in the Review supplement, about his ‘decades of Kate Bush fandom and the songs that have been the soundtrack to 'his life and work’. I read this with interest because when Bush hit the airwaves in January 1978 with Wuthering Heights, it was immediately obvious she stood apart from the usual suspects you’d hear on UK pop radio stations or see on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops and I immediately became a fan. There were a number of intriguing things about her, from the Emily Brontë literary reference which I’d thought was a progressive rock trait, to the story of her ‘discovery’ by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, and her performance of Wuthering Heights on TV was certainly something of a revelation. At the time, the sobriquets ‘sophistipop’ and ‘pop-prog’ had not been coined but that was the style she was developing. My dose of Kate Bush was delivered via the jukeboxes of the pubs we used to frequent; one that is indelibly etched in my memory was at the New Commercial Inn at Newton, a brisk half hour walk from home via the ascent of Yarlside, a site of former haematite mining littered with industrial relics and pock-marked with collapsed shaft entrances. Other hazards included cow pats but the effort was rewarded with well-kept beer, a log fire in winter, and Wuthering Heights.


When I moved to London to study at Goldsmiths’ College later that year, Kate Bush was in residence at 44 Wickham Road, Brockley, which happened to be very close to one of Goldsmiths’ halls of residence. I moved out of halls in my third year, sharing a flat with my friend Jim and a friend from my Barrow school days, Eric Whitton, who owned the three Kate Bush albums available at the time: The Kick Inside, Lionheart and Never for Ever. My first Kate Bush album was The Whole Story, a compilation from 1986 which covered the essential singles including my personal favourite Breathing, largely for John Giblin’s brilliant fretless bass (I was listening to a lot of Brand X at the time) although the video for the song was totally captivating and the anti-nuclear war message was something that I related to. Bush herself described the song as her ‘little symphony’ and I’ve always admired the way it was constructed, borrowing a page from the Pink Floyd song-writing book and getting label-mate Roy Harper to help out, adding spoken words from the UK government’s Protect and Survive public information leaflet. With a running time of 5’ 30” on Never for Ever (the single was a little shorter), this might not be her longest song but it certainly pushed the boundaries of conventional pop. Apparently I have a first pressing of The Whole Story, indicated by the stated release date of Wuthering Heights which it cites on the inner gatefold as being November 4th 1977, when it was actually James and the Cold Gun, originally selected as Bush’s first single which had been scheduled to be released on that date. Wuthering Heights, Bush’s preferred initial release, finally came out on January 20th 1978.


Along with sometime collaborator Peter Gabriel she was a prime exponent of the Fairlight CMI, marking her out as an innovator. In fact, every release held something of interest and, as David Mitchell suggests in the Guardian article, her lyrics have become progressively more mature and the imagery more challenging. It’s not really surprising that she gets associated with prog with her choice of collaborators and approach to music but as the first woman to have a self-penned song reach number one in the UK singles chart and later the first female solo artist to top the UK album charts, with Never for Ever, she was genuinely progressive and has acted as an inspiration for a number of women in the current prog scene. The length of time between album releases was something of a concern for some of her fans, especially John Mendelssohn, whose 2004 novel Waiting for Kate Bush mixed real-life and fiction, screwed up some facts and was comprehensively panned by amateur critics. I read some of the book when I was thinking of buying it as a present but I’d encourage anyone tempted to leave it well alone.



I didn’t actually buy any Kate Bush albums after The Whole Story until the early 90s, when I was in Jersey on a family holiday and picked up The Sensual World (1989) on CD. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to buy second-hand copies of the original releases on vinyl, having also bought downloads of both The Kick Inside and The Hounds of Love in 2014.


Thanks to The Guardian, Alexis Petridis and David Mitchell for providing some prog- and prog-related coverage.











By ProgBlog, Sep 4 2017 10:23PM

I’ve just watched the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi/adventure film The Running Man which, when it begins, is set in 2017, jumping to 2019 after Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger’s character) is framed, and imprisoned for a mass murder of innocent civilians. Based on a Stephen King novel published under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman (with the Bachman borrowed from Canadian rockers Bachman Turner Overdrive) the 2017 of the future hints at the 2017 of today: “By 2017 the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A Police State, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the State and a sadistic game show called ‘The Running Man’ has become the most popular program in history. All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground” but it’s the plot relating to editing video footage, the use of ‘fake news’ to manipulate the masses, along with the quest for ratings, which most resemble our present. It’s quite incredible that two actors from the film, Schwarzenegger himself and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura (who plays Captain Freedom) would make the shift from entertainer to politician: Schwarzenegger was the Republican governor of California for two terms from 2003 and Ventura was the Reform Party candidate and elected governor of Minnesota in 1999, deciding not to stand for re-election in 2003; current POTUS Donald Trump has no previous political experience but he has featured in the reality TV business.

The Running Man also serves as a vehicle for the acting talents (!) of Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac) and Dweezil Zappa, who happens to be playing 50 Years of Frank in the UK over the next month. Stephen King’s novel was written three years before Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the two books share that near-future (our present) dystopian world-view.



The Running Man and Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa
The Running Man and Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa

We live in worrying times. The very recent planned detonation of a hydrogen bomb, ten times more powerful than the previous device tested and allegedly capable of deployment by one of their ICBMs which have also been tested with alarming frequency in recent weeks in response to joint military manoeuvres by the South Koreans and the US, represents a disturbing testosterone-fuelled escalation towards a potential devastating conflict between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and almost all of the rest of the world. Whereas I personally wasn’t worried by the Cold War stand-off between the US and its allies and the Communist Bloc, even though my youth was spent living in a potential target for Soviet missiles and I moved to London, an obvious target, just before the Thatcher-Reagan years; a period when bullish rhetoric was backed by American-controlled cruise missiles sited on UK soil and of Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense [sic] Initiative. However, the behaviour of Trump on the one hand and Kim Jong-un on the other, two megalomaniacs who simply refuse to back down, is an increasing cause for concern.

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock is currently set at two and a half minutes to midnight, indicating that the probability of global catastrophe is very high, the highest it has been since 1953 when the US decided to pursue the development of the Hydrogen bomb. Throughout 2016 and 2015, the clock stood at three minutes to the hour, the closest to midnight since the early 1980s; this year the danger is even greater. My lack of concern during the 80s was partly due to my belief that the USSR economy, ploughing ever more resources into the military-industrial complex and away from the staples needed by the ordinary people was unsustainable, though there was always the possibility of initiating a strike by accident. I attended CND rallies and laughed at the ridiculous Civil Defence plans for a nuclear attack on the UK, its forced public dissemination five months after it had been ‘officially’ released in January 1980 following an investigation by the (pre-Murdoch) Times newspaper. In March 1984 David Gilmour released his second solo album About Face which included the jaunty and ironic Cruise, featuring innumerable puns about atomic warfare and fading out with a cod reggae groove. My current anxiety is fuelled by the actions of a paranoid dictator in North Korea who ignores the basic rights and requirements of his people and a clueless, populist, not-particularly-successful-businessman-turned-TV-personality who wouldn’t know diplomacy if he had to shake it by the hand.



Dave Gilmour, Hammersmith Odeon 30.04.84
Dave Gilmour, Hammersmith Odeon 30.04.84

If there is going to be a future despite Trump’s best endeavours to scupper it through either total war or climate change denial, what is prog going to look like? In 2017 we have the benefit of being able to look back at almost 50 years of prog, but is reflecting on the changes in both the music itself and the industry since Sgt Pepper’s, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Days of Future Passed any help in imagining future-prog?

I propose that we define prog rock along temporal lines to provide an indication of general stylistic attributes. If we restrict the term ‘progressive rock’ to music produced between 1969 (the year of In the Court of the Crimson King) and 1978, which equates to the so-called ‘golden era’, there were a couple of years beforehand where blues-based rock and psychedelia began to push at the boundaries of conventional popular music which we could call proto-progressive, append neo-prog (early-mid 80s) which combined progressive rock traits with an almost punk attitude, and further append the early 90s prog revival which has gone from strength to strength and flourishes today; to avoid any arguments over semantics and how ‘progressive’ implies continuous development, these four ages, plus future-prog should be scrutinised under the overarching umbrella of ‘prog’.


It’s quite remarkable that prog should be as strong as it currently appears. If the original proto-prog and progressive rock success was down to the baby boomer generation, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that our children are maintaining the continued interest. However, this is not necessarily always the case. My son may recognise classic progressive rock and buy me prog but I couldn’t get him to learn an instrument or get serious about the genre! At least part of the driver for prog was a series of technological advances from the 60s onwards and innovators like Robert Moog who took these ideas and turned them to practical, musical uses, though there have been some duds. I’ve never been happy with the sound of the string synthesizer, seen as a reliable alternative to the unwieldy Mellotron, but which had an equally short life cycle. The Elka Rhapsody was produced in Italy between 1975 and 1980 and became something of a favourite, despite what I’d describe as a thin sound; even my band used one in 1979-80, before our keyboard player John Carrott bought himself a Juno 6 and the band dissolved. Perhaps the biggest offender was the Solina String Ensemble before the Prophet 5 and Yamaha DX7 polyphonic synthesizers came along to make the string synth redundant. Fortunately, after a number of hiccoughs Mellotron are going strong and it’s virtually impossible to go to a prog gig in Italy without seeing a Mellotron on stage. However, there are two mellotron companies: Mellotron run by Markus Resch in Sweden who own the brand name and produce the Mk 6 and digital M4000D model, and Streetly Electronics, the original UK manufacturers of the Mellotron who produce the M4000. The accurate digital reproduction of 70s analogue sounds is a feature of much of the current keyboard-based prog and while appearing retrograde, it’s the culmination of technological advancement to achieve the widest range of sounds without compromising portability. This refinement is hardly a major leap forwards compared to the pace of change within the recording side of the business. Digital recording and file sharing have facilitated a near revolution in record production, so that The Invention of Knowledge (2016) was made over a two-year period without Jon Anderson and Roine Stolt meeting up, apart from for a Los Angeles photo shoot; Anderson sent his vocals from the US to Stolt in Sweden, where the instruments were recorded with other musicians.


Anderson-Stolt - The Invention of Knowledge (2016)
Anderson-Stolt - The Invention of Knowledge (2016)

This lack of a geographical centre of the movement is associated with the prog revival and it’s a very good thing. Progressive rock wouldn’t have emerged without the political and social changes experienced by the UK in the 60s, quickly exported to our continental European neighbours who had both similar and their own unique conditions for developing the genre. Some of the original proto-prog and progressive rock philosophy remains and has been applied to some of the woes of the modern world: Steven Wilson’s latest release To the Bone (2017) covers topics like the divisiveness of President Trump and his notion that truth isn’t always the truth, the everyday lives of refugees, terrorists and religious fundamentalists; Roger Waters also wades into current affairs and Trump on Is This the Life We Really Want? in a continuation of a thread running from Animals (1977).


Roger Waters - Is this the life we really want (2017)
Roger Waters - Is this the life we really want (2017)

But what of the future? Is the recycling of classic progressive rock sounds and the return of vinyl a step into tomorrow? Is the cause helped by the remnants of original acts touring their old material? I suspect that the genre is time-limited and we’re currently approaching the twilight of a second ‘golden age’ though through recorded media it has the chance to live on.

There’s nothing wrong with playing the greatest hits from your back catalogue because that’s what bands of all eras and all genres have done; if the creative spark has gone then continue to please audiences with old favourites and let newcomers, the next generation of prog rockers, reinterpret the idiom in whatever way they can. Prog has used a myriad of diverse influences to create wonderful, amazing, challenging music and whether good or bad, there will be plenty of unimagined future legends to inspire the prog musician.



Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images








By ProgBlog, Aug 7 2016 10:01PM

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the first ever use of a nuclear weapon, one of only two times nuclear arms have been utilised in conflict when Little Boy (a reference to Franklin D Roosevelt who was president at the time of the inception of the Manhattan Project, the US atom bomb program) was dropped by the American B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, chosen because it was one of the main supply depots for the Japanese army. The device was over 2,000 times more powerful than the largest bomb used up to that time and devastated an area of 13 km2, destroying over 60% of the buildings in the city and, at the time recorded as killing 118,661 civilians. Later estimates suggested the final death toll was up to 140,000 (from a population of 350,000 including military personnel and those who subsequently died from radiation.) Many would also suffer from long-term sickness and disability. Three days later, the US dropped a second, bigger atomic bomb, Fat Man (a reference to Winston Churchill) on Nagasaki. Nearly 74,000 were killed and a similar number injured and though this was a more powerful device, the geography of the region restricted the level of destruction to a little less than 7 km2. The Japanese were effectively left with no choice and surrendered to the Allies on 14 August 1945.

The threat of all-out nuclear war can only be exacerbated by the unwillingness of members of the nuclear club to dismantle their arsenals. I may have grown up in the town most associated with building the vessels that carry Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent but ever since my school days when I became politically aware, I’ve believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament. A 2014 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) listed nine nations possessing nuclear weapons In order of acquisition: the United States; Russia; United Kingdom; France; China; India; Pakistan; Israel; North Korea. They have approximately 16,300 weapons between them. All, apart from Israel, are known to have successfully detonated a nuclear device but it is the first five which are considered to be ‘nuclear-weapon states’ (NWS) under the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) whilst India, Pakistan and North Korea obtained their weapons after the NPT; North Korea did become a signatory but withdrew in 2003. Israel maintains a policy of deliberate ambiguity regarding its atomic weapons program but is estimated to have approximately 80 nuclear warheads. South Africa developed nuclear weapons but disassembled its arsenal before joining the NPT. The SALT talks resulted in some decommissioning but while any weapons exist, there’s a potential to use them. The fall of communism has given way to a dangerous nationalism in Eastern Europe and the posturing by the North Korean oligarchy can only raise tensions. At least sense prevailed over the Iranian nuclear program, though the possibility of President Trump reversing the US/Iranian accord is rather worrying.

On the flip side there’s also the peaceful use of nuclear power, the creation of clean energy from Uranium or Plutonium, plus some pretty toxic waste that hangs around for a very, very, very long time. Also as a schoolboy, I doodled imaginary nuclear power stations and, as a sixth former studying physics, stood on top of the reactor at Sellafield during a site visit (when it was still called Windscale.) At that time tests were being carried out to vitrify the nuclear waste, which would have revolutionised storage of spent nuclear fuel. Sellafield was the site of the UK’s worst nuclear accident in 1957 when a fire broke out in a reactor chimney and the surrounding countryside was contaminated with radioactivity. Amazingly, the Infield Park Gang had access to a long wheelbase Land Rover, driven by the father of a neighbour, which dropped us off at local beaches for a day during the summer holidays. Roan Head was a favourite destination, largely because of the extensive sand dune system and though we were aware of the presence of effluent in the water it didn’t stop us swimming, joking that the presence of radioactivity in the Irish Sea was sufficient to neutralise any number of bacteria.


Roan Head
Roan Head

Last week the UK government continued to procrastinate over the construction of Hinkley Point C which has been dogged by a string of controversies, not least of which is the untested design. Without heading down the nuclear waste debate, I’m equally concerned about the requirement for Chinese money and the unit price of electricity negotiated with the French company EDF who will be running the plant which almost everyone agrees is a poor deal for consumers. However, neither the delay in making a decision nor the government’s energy policy of supporting fracking and removing subsidies on renewable generation, surprises me in the least.

I can’t think of any prog albums that are about nuclear power though Steve Rothery’s haunting, atmospheric and melodic The Ghosts of Pripyat (2015) deals with a post-Chernobyl landscape. His main band Marillion released Radiation in 2008 but the reference there, in the song Under the Sun, a track that sounds more like indie rock with some good organ bursts, is global warming. The best song on that album is the lengthy A Few Words for the Dead which features a more experimental sound and approach, coming across more thought provoking with both eastern and middle-eastern sounds before an anthemic section just after half way through the song preceding a decent guitar solo. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark may not be prog but their anti-war song Enola Gay (from Organisation, 1980) is an undisputed classic. It cites three references to the Hiroshima attack, Enola Gay (the aeroplane), Little Boy and the time of the bomb drop, 08:15:

“It's eight fifteen

And that's the time that it's always been

We got your message on the radio

Conditions normal and you're coming home

Enola Gay

Is mother proud of little boy today”

An OMD precursor band, The Id, according to OMD founder Andy McCluskey, was a “bunch of teenagers playing art-school rock that was on the proggy side. We had a brief flirtation with Yes and Pink Floyd.” Former Gong bassist Mike Howlett produced Messages, Enola Gay and Souvenir for OMD after Dindisc boss Carol Wilson insisted they have an outside producer for their third single, the first two having not done very well and sounding somewhat thin. Howlett was Wilson’s boyfriend.


Roger Waters was born into a family with strong left-wing views and his mother was a involved with CND. Two Suns in the Sunset from the last Waters-era Floyd albums The Final Cut (1983), released at the height of the cold war this track spells out the end of the human race in nuclear annihilation, the final track of his final cut with the band, the ultimate anti-war album. A lighter anti-nuclear arms song was released by Waters’ erstwhile colleague David Gilmour on his second solo album About Face (1984). The track Cruise refers to American Cruise missiles which were based at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire, arriving in November 1983. There are two versions of the chorus but the first includes the line “Saving our children, saving our land” which reflects the women-only nature of the peace camp at Greenham, an important facet because the women were using their identity as mothers to legitimise the protest against the nuclear missiles for the safety of their children and future generations. Meanwhile, Gilmour protégé Kate Bush was also singing about the aftermath of nuclear conflict with the single Breathing which would appear as a more lengthy version on Never for Ever (1980.) This track has a further Floydian link, as the spoken words, taken from Protect and Survive, the hopelessly ineffectual official government instruction booklet for civilians in the event of a nuclear strike, “How to make your home and your family as safe as possible” are recited by Roy Harper. I love this track; the video was pretty epic but the brilliant fretless bass, provided by John Giblin, gives me goose bumps. On a non-progressive rock aside, Sting’s first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985) features Russians and whereas the album is predominantly soft-jazz, Russians borrows from Prokofiev and addresses the cold war standoff, using clever lyrical references to the atomic bomb.



It may not be the longest track on the eponymous Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album (1989) and to an extent it’s a bit of an oddity, but Birthright is not just a great sounding song with some beautiful Steve Howe guitar, it evokes vast, barely populated areas of Australia and captures the huge disservice to the Aboriginal people when the British government tested its first atomic weapon in Woomera, in 1954. The test was Britain flexing its muscle in an era when the British Empire was crumbling. This loss of global influence has continued and though there are a number of successful global British brands, our European referendum earlier this summer reflects a desire by 52% of the population to go back to the glory days of Empire. I’m only surprised by so-called progressives who want to retain nuclear weapons. They’re ridiculously expensive, they’re not independent and their deterrent value only increases when you’re willing to have the blood of millions of innocent people on your hands. Nuclear weapons? No thank you.







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