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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, Aug 29 2018 09:27PM

Dave Stewart’s keyboard playing has graced a number of iconic and important albums in the progressive rock canon, from the proto-prog psychedelia of his early bands Uriel and Egg to the studio trio and one live recording from Bruford, releases fitting somewhere between progressive rock and jazz classifications, marking his time as an integral part of a band producing interesting music while the golden age of progressive rock faded into industry-influenced AOR. Looking back on his personal influences which included Jimi Hendrix, Keith Emerson, Cream and Mont Campbell, any leanings towards jazz within Hatfield and the North, National Health or Bruford came from his erstwhile bandmates and, by association, the Canterbury tag that seems to have been applied to his music.


The first Dave Stewart album I owned was a cut-price Caroline Records pressing of The Civil Surface by Egg, recorded and released two years after the demise of the group and after the Hatfield’s eponymous debut in 1974, when Stewart suggested an Egg reunion to Simon Draper of Virgin Records. I was influenced by the marketing, i.e. selling an album cheap, and by the fact they were a keyboard-trio, having started to listen to The Nice and ELP in 1972 but, in common with a number of people who have commented on a Progarchives thread, I didn’t really get it at the time and eventually sold it to a school friend who collected anything musically related to Bill Bruford; The Civil Surface also featured Barbara Gaskin as one of the Northettes along with Amanda Parsons and Ann Rosenthal, who had provided some beautiful vocals on Hatfield and the North and I can safely say that I now get it!

The next time I came across Stewart’s work was in fact on Bruford’s Feels Good to Me (1978), a release my circle of friends had been looking forward to with fevered anticipation and one that didn’t disappoint. Bruford had worked with Stewart during the formative years of National Health and called on the keyboard player not only for his playing skills but also his ‘reasonably advanced harmonic advice’. Stewart would gain three co-writing credits on the album which was released one month before the debut from National Health, with the sophomore release Of Queues and Cures coming out ten months later in December 1978.



I began to retrospectively acquire National Health and Hatfield and the North LPs during my final year at university and even when I began to trade-in vinyl for CDs in the late 80s I hung on to them, eventually adding CD versions of selected titles to my collection when I found them in second-hand shops, or in the case of Of Queues and Cures, bought a new, re-released copy on Esoteric Records in 2009. One of my most treasured albums is a vinyl copy of DS al Coda, bought from an Our Price store in Charing Cross Road sometime, I now believe, having previously written that I bought it in the early 90s, that I added it to my collection in the mid-80s and strangely, possibly as a result of some temporal-fold effect, my copy of Hatfield and the North, bought in Virgin Records in 1982, is an Italian pressing!


Stewart quit National Health, his own band, after Of Queues and Cures because the majority of the other musicians were interested in pursuing a more improvised approach. Then when Bruford (the group) was effectively shut down by their management in July 1980, disclosing an £11000 deficit following what seemed to have been a successful tour of the US and suggesting that the drummer could work off the loss by joining a new band with Robert Fripp, Stewart formed a band called Rapid Eye Movement with close associates Pip Pyle, Rick Biddulph and Jakko Jakszyk. I distinctly remember the announcement about the formation of this group in the music press, but subsequently becoming very confused when attempting to research its history during the early days of the internet, only managing to find links to the American group REM. What little documentation has since emerged indicates that Rapid Eye Movement did play some live dates (according to Jakszyk, some poor quality recordings of French gigs survive) but they never recorded an album.


It came of something of a surprise that Stewart’s next move was into the world of pop though his discovery of the Prophet 5 while working with Bruford must have helped him to catch the early 80’s synthesizer pop zeitgeist; watching him perform on Top of the Pops in 1981 having arranged the Jimmy Ruffin soul classic What Becomes of the Brokenhearted for ex-Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone, sporting a Public Image Limited T-shirt while punk hair crossed in front of the camera might sound as though it would give your average prog fan nightmares but the arrangement actually features a fairly proggy middle section and there’s even some Canterbury-like organ work. Peaking at number 13 in the UK singles chart, the experiment obviously paid off and set the course for his future career: writing his unique brand of adult pop; arranging classics; and arranging strings for some very well known contemporary prog acts including a number of Steven Wilson projects and Anathema. Better still, the Stewart-Gaskin follow-up which was released in August 1981, a cover version of the Gluck-Gold-Weiner-Gottleib 1963 teen lament It's My Party, not only reached number 1 in the UK and Germany, it remained in the UK top spot for four weeks, preventing the novelty Birdie Song from topping the charts.

The one and only Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin album I own is The Big Idea. This was bought second-hand from Real Groovy in Christchurch, New Zealand for NZD 7.95 in 2009 but I was an early subscriber to the couple’s email newsletter making it possible to follow their artistic endeavours and which included interactive posts on their compositions and referenced Stewart’s writing for the US Keyboard magazine.



When I received the announcement that they were going to play somewhere in London, the venue being dependent on the response from the email subscribers, to coincide with the planned release of a new album I indicated that I was intending to attend, though the email was sent early in the year and I had absolutely no idea if I was going to be able to go. When t became obvious I was going to be in the country, wasn’t going to be on call and could easily access the venue, Bush Hall, I recruited a friend, Jim Knipe and signed up; after all, they don’t play very many concerts and I’m quite enamoured with Stewart’s music. I’ve only seen him play once before, with Bruford at The Venue on 5th May 1980, a double-header performance along with Brand X, which was excellent (and is now included in the Bruford CD box set Seems Like a Lifetime Ago.)


I may have not expected a prog gig but I was a little nonplussed by other members of the audience who, judging by their choice of T-shirts (Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House; Zappa’s Hot Rats; Larks’ Tongues in Aspic; Led Zepellin) were all prog aficionados. I guess I didn’t know quite what sort of audience to expect because the Stewart Gaskin newsletter quite clearly indicates that the group, augmented by stellar drummer and long-term associate Gavin Harrison plus emerging talent Beren Matthews on guitar, play pop. It also transpired that despite a penchant for prog-related clothing, a number of people preferred Jim’s Schrödinger’s Cat is Dead/Alive T-shirt so their openness to things other than prog was a positive sign.

The evening was split into two sets with a lengthy interval when we were encouraged to go and buy beer. Stewart acted as compere, eliciting details of the audience’s nationalities (Finland, Sweden, Spain were mentioned and I’m pretty sure there was a Japanese gentleman standing in front of us) while resetting patches on his keyboards. He’d asked his old school friend Anthony Vinall (co-author of Copious Notes, the story of Uriel and Egg) to perform lighting duties, but Vinall had suggested his son could sub for him which resulted in a terrible joke about lumiere et son. The music was more proggy than I’d imagined thanks to Stewart’s arrangements and choice of keyboard sounds. I only recognised two songs, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, a Billy Bragg song covered on The Big Idea, and Walking the Dog, a very brief excerpt of which is included on National Health’s Missing Pieces, but even though I wasn’t familiar with the other songs, I liked the continued saga of Henry and James (from the track of the same name on 1988’s Up from the Dark) called Wings on their Heels, which I assume is featured on the forthcoming release Star Clocks; another new track was inspired by their bathroom floor following a bout of illness! Star Clocks should have been available for the gig but Stewart hinted that the perfectionist in him had managed to delay its printing.




Barbara Gaskin still has an excellent voice although there were times when it was a little low in the mix. Stewart used keyboard patches to add Gaskin’s own backing vocals which were very effective, similar to sections of It’s My Party, and Matthews added some backing vocals. I found it quite difficult to work out Matthew’s guitar lines because he appeared to be strumming rhythm while impressive lead guitar sounds emanated from the keyboards but this provided a simple demonstration why Stewart and Gaskin were so much better than the thin synth-pop acts of the early 80s: Not only could Stewart actually play keyboards, his arrangements were brilliantly layered, giving a full, orchestrated sound. The one thing lacking, considering the pedigree of keyboard player and drummer, was something in an odd time signature.



Public transport had been dissolving in heavy early evening rain so we left early and missed any encores. It might not have been prog, but it was still worth the trip, even in heavy rain. The description of the duo on their website isn’t far off the mark: one of the UK’s most respected, innovative and intelligent pop acts; I’d like to add, and excellent hosts.





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