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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, Nov 1 2015 10:16PM

I went to a The Guardian Masterclass event a couple of weeks ago, How to self release your own music, hosted by Ian Ramage and Ann Harrison, to get some information and inspiration for putting out my own CDs. These events, mostly held in The Guardian offices in Kings Place, part of the regenerated King’s Cross area, are well organised and well attended by individuals with a range of interests relating to the topic, and sensibly priced. The first Masterclass I attended, in an attempt to broaden the reach of this blog, was How to write a successful blog. There were 100 delegates with a spectrum of abilities from those with little understanding of blogging to those who were interested in more efficiently monetising their efforts, with me somewhere in the middle; I learned enough to start a Twitter account and since then ProgBlog appears to have gone from strength to strength. Though not as popular, the audience for How to self release your own music was comprised mostly of musicians but there was at least one person who ran a recording studio; the presenters seemed a little surprised that there was no one from the music industry. Apart from being a music fan, Ramage’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music had been built up from rising through the ranks and working at a number of companies including Polydor, Warners, EMI, and Sony. Harrison was there to cover the legal aspects; a qualified lawyer, she has worked with household names and has her own legal consultancy, Harrisons Entertainment Law Limited and is the author of Music, The Business (Virgin Books) that was plugged on a number of occasions. The two speakers had a good rapport and overall, I was very pleased I’d attended. After discussing performing rights it became very clear why the Yes Union tour was such a nightmare for the musicians – I recall it wasn’t too bad for those of us the audience and I enjoyed most of the music played by the two versions of Yes although some band politics were still evident.

Another topic that was touched upon was the role of the producer who could be someone who booked the studio or had some degree of creative input. This came to mind when my last Walkman ceased to function, playing Tormato. Wakeman’s keyboards have no substance, lacking both bass and sparkle and White’s snare drum tone has no snap, as though the final production stages were rushed or the band was not given any control over the final sound, even though Yes are credited as producers – Brian Lane has a credit for ‘executive producer’ and I find it hard to believe, after the excellent sound and mix on their previous albums, that they can have been happy with the dull, compressed finished product. The sleeve design by Hipgnosis was certainly contentious; originally intended to be called Yes Tor, fitting in with some of the material on the record, the title was changed following dissatisfaction with the artwork which prompted someone, either Wakeman or Aubrey Powell, to throw a tomato at the cover. Steve Howe, who came up with the Yes Tor idea has been described as unhappy by this turn of events and I side with him. There’s something cosmic about divining (even though I think it’s nonsense) and Yes ideas were indisputably cosmic; linking the second highest point in Devon to a possible beacon for UFOs seemed a reasonable concept (even if it too was unscientific and beyond reason), not fully realised. My least favourite track is Release Release which features some double tracking on the drums to give them a fuller sound and the noise of a crowd. No. Bad idea.

Eddy Offord had worked with the band on some of the original ideas for Tormato but is not credited. Having been the recording engineer for Time and a Word (1970), an album produced by Tony Colton, Offord and the group co-produced the sequence of albums from The Yes Album (1971) to Relayer (1974), a sequence that many consider to epitomise not only the best of Yes but a considerable proportion of the golden era of progressive rock. The clarity of instrumentation on Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972) are testament to an incredible working relationship. Offord was also hired as a recording engineer for the early Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums, their eponymous debut from 1970, Tarkus (1971), the live Pictures at an Exhibition (1971) and Trilogy (1972), where production duties were in the hands of Greg Lake. Offord did not help out on Brain Salad Surgery (1973) where are I find the sound clear but biased towards the treble. Chris Kimsey (who was famous for his work with the Rolling Stones) and Geoff Young shared engineering duties on Brain Salad; Offord was immortalised in the song Are You Ready Eddy? which appears on Tarkus, a track I tend to skip..; Yes put Offord's photo on the back cover of Close to the Edge. A quick check through my albums reveals that Offord changed from 'Eddie' to 'Eddy' some time in 1971, between Tarkus and Pictures at an Exhibition and between The Yes Album and Fragile.

If the classic Yes sound is partly due to input from Offord, what about other bands from that period? King Crimson were self-produced because they weren’t happy with Moody Blues collaborator Tony Clarke, (Giles Giles and Fripp released The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp on Decca’s Deram label in 1968, the Moody’s pre-Threshold stable), one of the reasons why Lake went on to produce ELP. In the early years Charisma Records label mates Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator (and Rare Bird and Lindisfarne) were produced by John Anthony. This wasn’t an act of control by the label, which generally ceded all creative control to the bands themselves, it was a collaborative approach where the ideals of producer Anthony fitted in with both Stratton-Smith’s sensibilities and the ideology of the groups. The compositions of both Van der Graaf and Genesis matured rapidly under this guidance, until VdGG split in 1972 and self-produced when they reformed with a trilogy of sonically well balanced albums, Godbluff (1975), Still Life (1976) and World Record (1976.) Foxtrot (1972) was produced by David Hitchcock and demonstrated a harder edge than Nursery Cryme (1971.) Hitchcock had worked extensively with Caravan and would go on to produce Camel’s Mirage (1974) and Music Inspired by The Snow Goose (1975.) Genesis would utilise the experience of John Burns for subsequent releases Selling England by the Pound (1973) and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) and then form a creative relationship with David Hentschel for post-Gabriel albums A Trick of the Tail (1976) to Duke (1980.) The jazzy Camel albums Moonmadness (1976) and Rain Dances (1977) were co-produced with Rhett Davies.

I’m a big fan of Mike Vernon’s work with Focus, another producer who demonstrates that collaborative working gives the best results. Like Yes in the Eddy Offord years, there’s a particular quality that demonstrates the care taken over the music but also reveals a distinct sonic signature. When Yes changed their sound and image for 90125 (1983), it was to fit in with a more commercial music industry; the business had changed and self-production was frowned upon because it represented a loss of control by the record label. I think that the forced abandonment of cooperative principles, shared ideas and ideals was part of the grand design of the industry; record deals were harder to come by and relinquishing control of at least part of the process was a price that almost all bands had to pay. Pink Floyd were one exception; having self produced since More (1969), albeit with executive production by Norman Smith until Meddle (1971), they had enough clout to continue to call the shots. I believe the leverage applied by the record label was in most cases a destructive force, stifling creativity and narrowing the types of music that were available to listen to. Thankfully, the new wave of prog has managed to break free of the rule of the majors and though new acts aren’t likely to get rich without compromising their principles, there’s a strong relationship between the musicians and producers that mimics the ethos of 70s prog.



By ProgBlog, Feb 8 2015 06:37PM

There’s a column in Prog magazine called Locus Focus, written by rock gazetteer David Roberts (author of Rock Atlas) which has the by-line “puts prog on the map”. The notion of highlighting a geographical location associated with some musical iconography appeals to me. I appreciate that a rock atlas is able to transcend the artificial boundaries of genre (think of The Smiths and Salford Lads Club or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at 23 Heddon Street, London W1) but the idea seems somehow related to prog for reasons possibly associated with my early academic path and an insatiable appetite for poring over maps.

Yes Tor is an obvious choice for a prog-related geolocation but there are some more obscure sites that equally fit the bill. I’m sure I remember a section in Roger Dean’s Views where he was describing the inspiration for the watery world depicted inside the gatefold of Close to the Edge that included a photo of a small mountain tarn. I seem to recall that he was describing this tarn as being on the top of a mountain ridge and, for whatever reason, I associated this with the picturesque and entirely unexpected tarns on Haystacks in the western Lake District fells; sadly, I’m no longer able to refer to my copy of Views, bought on its publication in 1975, because over the next few years I removed pages to adorn my bedroom walls.

The formation of these tarns, the so-called summit tarn, Innominate Tarn and Blackbeck Tarn is a feature of the Buttermere-Ennerdale watershed as it passes the rocky protuberance of Great Round How and is restricted to a narrow ridge, craggy and precipitous on the Buttermere side. Alfred Wainwright has drawn a picture of the summit tarn, which doesn’t have a name, in his Western Fells (book seven of his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells) that looks very much as I remember it from a long time ago; the problem of having made a career in London is that I don’t get to do very much Lakeland fell walking anymore. It’s rather paradoxical that the second highest of these natural water features goes under the name of Innominate Tarn and of the three, this is the most magical with an indented rocky shore and a line of tiny islets. If Haystacks didn’t inspire Dean’s Close to the Edge cover, it appears as though it may have informed the cover of Steve Howe’s first solo album Beginnings with the rocky ‘islands’ protruding from the water.

The first time I noticed the Locus Focus column one album immediately sprung to mind: Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. Hergest Ridge is an elongated hill running from Kington in Herefordshire to Gladestry in Powys in a roughly NE – SW orientation, traversing the border between England and Wales. The summit of the hill is on the English side and stands 426m above sea level, rising 158m above the surrounding landscape; the Offa’s Dyke long distance footpath runs along the ridge. Following the success of Tubular Bells, Oldfield retreated to The Beacon, his house on Bradnor Hill, near Kington. The area obviously inspired him; not only was his sophomore effort titled Hergest Ridge but his third album Ommadawn, recorded at The Beacon, is appended by the short song On Horseback and contains the lyric “If you feel a little glum / To Hergest Ridge you should come”.

My copy of Hergest Ridge dates from 1975 and was bought for me for some ridiculous price; either 75p or 99p by friend Bill Burford who had seen cheap copies in WH Smith in Blackpool or somewhere like that. By the mid-late 70s I’d kind of grown out of Tubular Bells and sold my copy to the sister of classmate Eamonn Quinn. I wasn’t a great fan of side two and, at the time, didn’t appreciate the value of keeping hold of vinyl or the importance and longevity of the piece. It’s strange that I kept my Hergest Ridge but I’m pleased that I did because when I listened to it recently I thought it was a lush, symphonic piece. I’ve still got my original Ommadawn and I invested in Tubular Bells and Tubular Bells II on CD. Based on a review by my brother Richard, I bought a cheap copy of Crises on CD when I was in Padova at the end of last year but I still think that Oldfield’s best album is Hergest Ridge, specifically the original mix; the 2010 edit is unbalanced to my ears as some of the sounds that contribute to the pastoral sweep are sullied by encroaching instruments brought out higher in the mix.

Whereas Tubular Bells owes a debt to the minimalists and Ommadawn, with its pipes and African drums, seems to have fully embraced world music influences, Hergest Ridge occupies more than just a place in the sonic continuum. In some respects it’s a ‘son of’ Tubular Bells and in some respects it preludes the Celtic vibe that is evident on its successor but the thematic development of Hergest Ridge is much more rewarding and continues over the two sides of the album; Tubular Bells is an album of two distinct parts, with side two coming across as a rather hurried composition and as a consequence is far less satisfying. Whole Earth band mate and composer David Bedford lent Oldfield a copy of Delius’ tone poem Brigg Fair before the recording of his first album and though Tubular Bells doesn’t really conform to the romantic symphonic style, Hergest Ridge comes much closer. Oldfield utilised the talents of Bedford to conduct a string section and choir and though it’s not evident how much Bedford was responsible for the orchestration, I can’t believe he didn’t have some influence and input. The album also features guest oboe players Lindsay Cooper and June Whiting plus trumpet from Ted Hobart. This extra instrumentation adds a distinct symphonic flavour that fits together far more seamlessly than the vertical arrangements of its predecessor and though no piece of romantic music lasts anywhere near 40 minutes, Hergest Ridge mimics the rhapsodic structure with pastoral themes, variation and development that characterise Sibelius and Vaughan Williams.

Perhaps as a result of Oldfield’s retreat from the public eye, some critics have suggested that Hergest Ridge encapsulates the mid 70s middle-class hippie vibe; the macrobiotic lifestyle, real ale and flowery names for the children, something cartoonist Posy Simmons loved to lampoon. I think that he’s crafted an album that demonstrates his care and passion for music; it may not be as groundbreaking as Tubular Bells but it’s been carefully assembled and perfectly reflects the majesty of wild, open countryside. Not bad for 75p!



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