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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, Feb 5 2017 07:20PM

I bought myself a bass guitar shortly after my 18th birthday, a sunburst finish Fender Precision copy with no manufacturer’s details. I was aware that there were hundreds of budding guitarists of my age, all with a head start over me, so I chose four strings instead of six, reasoning it would be easier to get into a band as a dedicated bassist. By this stage, with five years of listening to progressive rock under my belt, I’d also worked out what sort of bassist I’d like to be; I’d figured out there was a small cohort of what I called ‘classic English rock bassists’ who didn’t necessarily have the flash of their fusion counterparts but, despite the difference of rock idioms in which they operated, had a distinct harmonic style which suited their particular genre. Chris Squire’s bass work stood out; Martin Turner’s playing was perfect for the twin guitar approach of Wishbone Ash, propelling them to the verge of prog; Paul McCartney may have been highly regarded for his song writing but his bass was very inventive if somewhat understated; John Entwistle first used the high treble style that influenced Squire; and John Wetton.

My first bass
My first bass

I’d missed out on Wetton’s early career in Mogul Thrash and Family and my introduction to his playing was in 1974, hearing The Great Deceiver played on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show when Starless and Bible Black was released. A few months later a friend bought the outstanding Red (1974) and my brother Tony bought the ground-breaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973). As my appreciation for King Crimson increased, it became obvious that the bass and vocals of John Wetton were an integral part of the sound of the incarnation of King Crimson that convened in 1972, unbelievably forceful and inventive. It wasn’t until I found a copy of USA (1975) in the record store local to my hall of residence at the end of the decade that I began to understand the power of the group in a live setting; Asbury Park is probably my favourite Crimson improvisation. All this was without realising that the bulk of Starless and Bible Black and Providence from Red were live tracks but the Night Watch playback and CD in 1997 put everything into context, further clarified by the superb Great Deceiver box set where not only the alchemy of David Singleton but also the diary notes and reflections of Fripp, Cross and John Wetton allowed the awesome sound of the band in full tilt to be fully appreciated.


Wetton-era King Crimson LPs
Wetton-era King Crimson LPs

Wetton-era King Crimson box sets
Wetton-era King Crimson box sets

Following the demise of Crimson, I regarded Wetton’s move to Uriah Heep as a retrograde step, though his later move to Wishbone Ash for Number the Brave (1981) was of note, as I harboured a begrudging regard for the Ash. It just wasn’t of enough interest to make me go out and buy the album though I did think that Wetton’s bass playing was suited to the early Wishbone Ash style; restricting his song writing was evidently too much for him to take. As for the Roxy Music and Brian Ferry band period, I was never really interested in post-Siren Roxy. The touring arrangement with Roxy started before King Crimson officially ceased to exist, a temporary measure before Crimson was due to get back to touring. With shared management it was easy to help out friends (reciprocated on USA where Eddie Jobson provided violin overdubs) and helping to formulate Wetton’s next band.

The seemingly unlikely collaboration between Wetton, Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman could have been amazing but the collapse of that project resulted in the formation of supergroup UK. Their eponymous debut (1978) was a slick progressive album with leanings towards jazz rock and quite different from long-standing progressive acts and newer groups like England. The song writing was mature with a coherent sound, as though the individuals were all treated as equals and were all pulling in the same direction. That meant it came as something of a shock when Bruford and Holdsworth departed, the former being replaced by an unknown (to me) Terry Bozzio and the guitarist not being replaced at all.


UK albums
UK albums

I didn’t manage to get to see the original quartet but I did manage to see the pared-down Danger Money incarnation of the band at Imperial College, their only British appearance before shooting off on tour to support Jethro Tull. As good as this gig was, my enthusiasm was tempered by the feeling that the band was under-rehearsed. Danger Money (1979) was a stylistic nod to the earlier progressive era but the balance present on the debut had gone, ushering in a radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse-chorus direction with shorter numbers like Caesar’s Palace Blues and Nothing to Lose, the latter released as a single. Despite the more commercial slant there are some classic prog moments, especially the Jobson organ work. The evocative Rendezvous 6:02, another outstanding but understated song, is one of my favourite Wetton tracks and I think his vocals would be the best they’d get

.

Caught in the Crossfire
Caught in the Crossfire

Wetton’s Jack-Knife project resulted in I Wish You Would (1979), an album recorded in Munich over 10 days. This was a reunion with Richard Palmer-James and covered material that the two played together in Tetrad. More a demonstration of his remarkable versatility, it included Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and Eyesight to the Blind and a self-penned song called Mustang Momma - hardly challenging for the players or listeners. Presented in an awful cover, I gave my copy away to a charity shop. I have kept Wetton’s first solo album, Caught in the Crossfire (1980) where, despite a guest appearance by Martin Barre, the content is well removed from progressive rock; the track When Will You Realize? was apparently cited by Eddie Jobson as the song most responsible for the demise of UK.

The formation of Asia, Wetton getting back together with prog luminaries promised so much but I have to admit being disappointed with the end product. I wasn’t aware that he was deliberately choosing to depart from the band members’ pasts and eschew long instrumentals in favour of short songs, an approach that runs counter to my love of long-form. I dutifully bought the first three albums when they came out, Asia (1982), Alpha (1983) and Astra (1985) and even bought the compilation on CD Then and Now in 1990. I was pleased that the venture was successful though I was perturbed that Steve Howe appeared to have been ejected from the band after Alpha and was unable to work out why Wetton also left, to be replaced, briefly and somewhat ironically, by Greg Lake.


Asia albums and the 12" single The Smile has left Your Eyes
Asia albums and the 12" single The Smile has left Your Eyes

Towards the end of the 90s I went to see John Wetton with his band on three occasions, at the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, in Croydon and in Bromley. I didn’t really know what to expect but I thought his re-emergence, with progressive rock no longer a dirty word, was something to follow. I was able to track his progress over a couple of years from the quality of playing of the music that made up the set list, a mixture of Crimson, UK, Asia and solo songs, watching the evolution of the band. I wasn’t over-impressed with guitarist Billy Liesgang though drummer Tom Lang was good; these two were eventually replaced by Dave Kilminster and Steve Christey (ex-Jadis) respectively. Martin Orford was a constant and consistent presence on keyboards. A major highlight was in September 1997 when I saw him along with other members of the 72-74 King Crimson for the Night Watch playback at London’s Hotel Intercontinental. He performed a solo acoustic version of Book of Saturday and signed copies of the double CD at the end of the event. Sadly, mine was stolen from the boot of a taxi in Miami in 2003.

In 1998 I began subscribing to ARkANGEL, the official John Wetton ‘infomagazine’, a labour of love put together with a cheap word processing package by Gary Carter and it was through this fanzine that I discovered a host of Wetton solo material, adding Battle Lines (1994), Chasing the Deer (1998), Arkangel (1998), Hazy Monet (1998), Live at the Sun Plaza Tokyo 1999 (2000) and Sinister (2001) to the copy of Akustika (1995) I’d bought from the merchandise stand at the Astoria gig. The vast majority of this is well-produced AOR but there are some stand-out tracks like The Circle of St Giles and E-Scape and I enjoy all of Chasing the Deer. I also invested in a copy of the authorised Wetton biography, My Own Time by Kim Dancha, which is a bit short on detail and concludes in 1997.


ARkANGEL - The John Wetton infomagazine
ARkANGEL - The John Wetton infomagazine


John Wetton CD collection
John Wetton CD collection

Qango were a short-lived band that attempted to recreate the highs of prog. Alongside Wetton on bass and vocals were Carl Palmer on drums, John Young on keyboards and Dave Kilminster on guitar. I saw them play at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon, using material from Asia and ELP, plus Wetton favourite All Along the Watchtower. They released a live album (Live in the Hood, 2000) but sadly, plans for a studio album were abandoned.


Qango played Croydon in May 2000
Qango played Croydon in May 2000

I managed to catch a re-formed UK at Under the Bridge in May 2012, a great venue with the right level of intimacy, somehow just right for the return of a premier-league prog act. The performance included more than just material from the two studio albums, notably Starless, Jobson’s favourite King Crimson song. Wetton and Jobson were joined on stage Alex Machacek who beautifully recreated the Holdsworth guitar licks and Gary Husband was an inspired choice to fill in on drums. It seemed to me that Wetton’s voice was a little strained at times but these moments were neatly covered with some effective echo; he managed to keep in tune throughout and hit the higher notes. I’m delighted I got to see the show.


UK at Under the Bridge, May 2012
UK at Under the Bridge, May 2012

John Wetton was one of the reasons I picked up the bass guitar. I followed his career from true prog great (the King Crimson improvisations) to polished AOR and though it’s his time with Crimson and UK that remain a highlight for me, all his work, the collaborations and the ‘solo’ material are all very much respected. Wetton’s death is another huge loss to the prog world.


John Wetton b. 12th June 1949 d. January 31st 2017

By ProgBlog, May 31 2015 09:06AM

This month marks the the 10th anniversary of the live reunion of Van der Graaf Generator (Friday 6th May 2005.) I’d heard about the event a couple of weeks beforehand but when I checked for availability, the Royal Festival Hall had sold out. Fortunately, one of my work colleagues was something of an expert at getting seats for prestigious concerts with high public demand and advised me that the press were often allocated a job lot of tickets that they didn’t always use and that I should check for returns about 24 hours before the show. I ‘phoned the box office two days beforehand and to my surprise and delight, managed to secure my attendance.

I think it’s fair to say that Van der Graaf Generator are an acquired taste. From being intrigued by the track White Hammer from The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other that I first heard on the Charisma Keyboards sampler LP in 1974 which I found to be an intense, almost frightening piece of music about the Spanish Inquisition, of all things, I’ve been a big fan. As much as I liked The Fountain of Salmacis, the Genesis offering on that album, it was the sheer force of VdGG that impressed me, blowing the twee Genesis track into the dust. Older brother Tony recently thought that he should see what the fuss was about and I directed him to Pawn Hearts as a good representation of the Mark I incarnation and Godbluff from the 1975 formation. He wasn’t over impressed and I think that VdGG inspires adoration and dislike in equal measure. That John Lydon should go on records as being a fan is quite amazing.

Apart from some powerful music, one of the things that I like about VdGG is Peter Hammill’s use of words. There can’t be any other lyricist who utilises the lexicon in the same way, something I put down to his education; from Jesuit public school to studying Liberal Studies in Science at Manchester University. There’s an immense range of material covered that reflected my interest in science and science fiction plus some deeper, philosophical thinking.

Commercially, VdGG were something of a second-division band. They may have been nurtured by Charisma Records owner Tony Stratton-Smith but they didn’t really get too much coverage in the music press at the time. However, I do remember being impressed by the photography on adverts for World Record in Melody Maker when the album was released in 1976 and it was only much, much later that I discovered that they had been successful in Italy.

It wasn’t until 1981 that I bought my first VdGG album, Still Life, from the Streatham branch of WH Smith. I had a choice between that and Godbluff but chose Still Life because I could see the lyrics on the back of the sleeve which looked interesting. I then randomly completed my collection, on vinyl and on cassette, whenever the opportunity presented itself. I included the out-take LP Time Vaults in my collection but I didn’t buy any of the compilation albums until I started to switch from vinyl to CD. I also embarked upon the acquisition of Peter Hammill solo albums, beginning with The Future Now and pH7 (both in a sale from Streatham WH Smith.) I went to see a solo performance by Hammill at the Bloomsbury Theatre in Camden on July 26th 1984 and was so impressed that I went to his show the next night, armed with a camera. I went to the first show not really knowing what to expect; it turned out to be almost entirely solo material but he did include Last Frame from the Van der Graaf album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. I seem to recall that, despite playing consecutive nights at the same venue, he still subtly adjusted the set list.

Though I remained reluctant to spend a lot of money on music, I bought the King Crimson 4CD box set The Great Deceiver in when it was released in 1992, thinking that it might represent a decent investment (it worked out at about £14.50 per CD.) When I came across 4CD The Box (2000) on a trip home to Barrow, with its remastered tracks and bonus material from BBC sessions and some unreleased live recordings, it seemed to me that VdGG were having something of a renaissance and I bought it without over-thinking. On reflection, this heralded the remastered 2005 releases and in the mean time, the band had remained friends and even played together at birthday parties. Shortly before the reunion gig they released their first CD of new studio material, Present (April 2005) since the Van der Graaf line-up released The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome in 1977. There used to be a record shop on the north east side of London Bridge, close to Guy’s Hospital, where I went to buy my copy so I’d know any new material that they were due to play.

The reunion gig was the best gig I’ve ever attended. The Royal Festival Hall is comfortable and has amazing acoustics and my seat was in row H of the front stalls, a little way to the left of centre. The choice of material couldn’t really be bettered; I imagine that the assembled audience (from 27 different countries), including me, were really there to hear some old classics but the two new songs that were performed, Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert, were seamlessly integrated into a set comprising the best of VdGG, captured for posterity on the brilliant subsequent release Real Time (2007). The power of the quartet was almost overwhelming; the Hugh Banton bass pedals with their low-frequency punch, the manic horns (and double horns) from David Jackson, Guy Evans’ fluid drums and the urgent vocals from Hammill, delivered with unbrlievable feeling. I loved it all, even though I felt pinned to my chair by a brutal, sonic blitzkrieg. Part of the reason for this reunion was that the band members tended to see each other mainly at the funerals of friends and former roadies and, as Hammill had himself suffered a heart attack in 2003, if they were ever going to play together again, Hammill suggested that it seemed like a good time to start. Under these circumstances, his performance was truly outstanding but the whole band was on incredible form. I didn’t think I’d ever hear VdGG music played live by the original ensemble and I think that’s why it was such a special occasion. Later in 2005 Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart released their excellent Van der Graaf Generator The Book, an in-depth biography of the band that concludes with the 2005 reunion. I had pre-ordered my copy (which cost around £20) but it is no longer available. Second-hand copies on Amazon sell for around £150.

I subsequently went to see the band, sans David Jackson at the Barbican during the Trisector tour in 2007 and again at the Barbican in June 2013; losing the horn player made the performances more unbalanced, raw and awkward and when in full flow the band seemed to be teetering on the ragged edge, dangerous and brilliant. On the latter occasion I thought the 64 year old Hammill looked slightly frail, but he proved he could still belt out songs and Hugh Banton somehow managed to mitigate the loss of saxophone and flute.

I was sorely tempted to attend an intimate evening with VdGG at Metropolis Studios in December 2010, part of a series of gigs by so-called ‘rock legends’. In the end I didn’t feel I could justify the cost and have had to make do with a DVD filmed at the event. I still have some reservations about the post-2005 material even though Hammill’s writing is as clever as ever; I remain stuck in the past and a fan of long-form VdGG flights of fancy.


Postscript:

I saw David Jackson perform with David Cross at The Bedford Arms last week and, in such an intimate venue it became clear how innovative he is. I wasn’t disappointed to see him bedecked his leather cap as he not only played saxes, flute and whistles, he also used the saxophone keys as a form of percussion instrument.



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