ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Jul 3 2020 07:42PM

By this time of the year in 2019, even with a slow start, I’d seen ten gigs and attended Steve Hackett’s The Edge of Light playback, hosted by the man himself. So far this year I’ve been to two and there’s little hope of adding many more to the tally until the autumn unless travel restrictions from and to the UK are lifted within the next couple of weeks: the Porto Antico Prog Fest is due to take place on July 11th.


It’s good to see Covid-19 lockdown restriction eased where the infection and death rates have dropped to low double figures or lower, provided there are sustainable test, track and trace schemes in place, but the UK isn’t one of them. The economy is being put before lives and it appears to be the same economic model that we were running before the pandemic, based on consumer spending rather than taking the opportunity to green our services and industries. For an all too brief period almost everyone could benefit from improved air quality but rather than applying anti-pollution conditions on loans to industries to tide them over until the crisis had passed, we’ve just returned to business as usual. If someone was candid enough to admit the true reason why opening up car showrooms was one of the first restrictions to be lifted I’d admire them for their honesty but point out that giant factory car parks filled with new petrol- and diesel-engine vehicles is an indication of a huge crisis in the automotive industry, not least because the manufacturers have made more cars than they can shift, and that there is a tangible nervousness in the UK’s £75bn car loan market, where 6.5m vehicles have been financed through leasing deals with monthly payments that are already proving unaffordable for individuals laid-off as a result of the coronavirus situation leaving Britain’s car market resting on billions of pounds of consumer debt.


Physical distancing to reduce the spread of infection has always seemed like a good idea (unless you’re on the right of the Conservative party) but one of the obvious downsides is that keeping a band, the road crew and the entire audience 2 metres apart is incompatible with a sustainable live music industry. The inaugural Music By Numbers report, an economic study by UK Music and its members published in November 2019, revealed that the live music sector made a contribution of £1.1bn to the UK economy in 2018, up 10% from £991m in 2017, and the overall employment in the music industry was at an all-time high of 190,935 so it’s clear that live music, as part of the entertainment and hospitality sector and the last piece of the economy to open, is missed not only by me.


In the absence of live events, there are always live recordings to listen to. I’ve used live albums as an introduction to a number of bands: Barclay James Harvest Live (1974); Genesis Live (1973); Gentle Giant Playing the Fool – the Official Live (1977); Be Bop Deluxe Live! in the Air Age (1977), allowing me to become better acquainted with an artist’s back catalogue. In a similar manner to my preference for buying a group’s albums in their home city, I make an effort to buy concert performances of gigs I’ve attended, should they become available, because it feels as though there’s a stronger bond between myself and the music. So as a lockdown exercise, notwithstanding my presence or absence at a particular concert slated for subsequent release, I thought that I’d examine what makes a great live album, illustrated by a list of my top 10. Factors like recording quality, essential for conveying the musical content; the material present on the release, providing an accurate representation of the band up to the time of the performance; and the relationship between the performers and the audience.


Yes - Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015)


Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two
Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been truly happy with the sound quality. It has so much going for it – the triple gatefold with a series of some of the best Roger Dean illustrations for the band, explaining the narrative begun on Fragile (1971); it captures Yes at their creative peak, despite falling between two classic line-ups, covering all the essential songs that were instrumental in getting them to that point; and the musicians have clearly gelled for the performances, interacting well and playing brilliantly. So when the tapes that made up the source material for Yessongs were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be even stricter than the content of some of the King Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, all presented in a sonically accurate manner.



King Crimson - USA (1975)


USA (three different versions)
USA (three different versions)

Robert Fripp was able to beat the bootleggers, maintain an income stream and remain relevant in a cutthroat industry by releasing archive live material through official DGM channels and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Great Deceiver (1992), The Road to Red (2013) and Starless (2014) box sets, plus the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 – a cut-out from my local store Elpees in Bexley, and it remained something of a treasured possession even after I bought the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition (2004) on CD, and subsequently invested in the 40th Anniversary expanded edition on vinyl. I used to blast USA out of my room at university, posing at the window with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM – I now have the entire piece on the 40th anniversary vinyl edition.



Mahavishnu Orchestra - Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973)


Between Nothingness and Eternity
Between Nothingness and Eternity

Between Nothingness and Eternity represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album. The quality of the recording, from the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, New York on August 18th 1973 is exceptionally good and the material, eventually given a studio release as part of The Lost Trident Sessions (1999), saw the band tilting towards the rock spectrum from their jazz-rock axis, a progressive rock direction. There’s a qualitative difference between Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1972) but the intensity was upped even further on Between Nothingness and Eternity. The CD liner notes from The Lost Trident Sessions suggest that tensions were running high between band members, compounded by constant touring, but the decision to release a live album rather than the slated third studio album, taken because there was no consensus over whether the studio recordings were complete or required overdubs, meant that Between Nothingness and Eternity captured the band, in the words of Jan Hammer, as ‘working on all 12 cylinders.’



The Official Live Gentle Giant - Playing the Fool (1977)


The Official Live Gentle Giant Playing the Fool
The Official Live Gentle Giant Playing the Fool

Playing the Fool is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette, my first Gentle Giant album. I’d heard In a Glass House (1973) not long after its release when my brother borrowed it from a friend, and was totally impressed by the title track from Free Hand (1975) when that was played on the radio by Alan Freeman – and frequently gawped at the cover of Playing the Fool when browsing in record stores, so I’m unsure why I never bought one of their albums, unless it was (for a prog band) the brevity of the individual songs, until I saw the Playing the Fool cassette at a price I couldn’t resist. I’m also not sure why I bought it on tape, a medium I’ve never particularly favoured, when I’d previously been entranced by what appeared to me as an intricate, complex constellation, the band’s tour route, on the inside of the gatefold sleeve. When I eventually took the plunge, Gentle Giant albums were an uncommon sight in shops, apart from Giant Steps – The First Five Years (1975), a 2LP compilation of the Vertigo produced records which came close to what I was after – but obviously didn’t contain anything from the Chrysalis-issued Free Hand. The arrangements on Playing the Fool are exquisite and the band were at their creative peak, gaining widespread appreciation in the US and mainland Europe but barely registering attention in their native UK. This is only album I’ve ever owned on cassette, CD and vinyl.



Van der Graaf Generator – Real Time (2007)


Real Time
Real Time

Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... and I can tell him because I was there: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. It was a great gig and is a great live recording of the gig. Van der Graaf’s Vital (1978) is wild and raw, capturing the group in flux between the departures of Hugh Banton and David Jackson and splitting up; the post-Jackson VdGG gigs from this millennium have also been a band that seems to be teetering on the edge of chaos but somehow, the Festival Hall performance in May 2005 contained and channelled a sonic energy that felt like it was pinning me to my seat. The recently released Live at Rockpalast (2020), recorded at the end of the 2005 tour from the Leverkusen jazz festival is another impressive album, but with a truncated set compared to Real Time it lacks the emotional clout of the inaugural performance of the reformed band, even though I have the 3LP set.



Five more live albums for lockdown will appear in part 2

By ProgBlog, Jun 23 2020 09:27PM


The ProgBlog Diary

A list of recent past, present and future happenings in the prog world


Like in April’s diary, all May additions to the ProgBlog collection were ordered online using Bandcamp and Burning Shed because of the continuing lockdown and the classification of (physical) record shops as non-essential. However, the UK government, wisely or otherwise allowed ‘non-essential’ shops to open from Monday 15th June and at the end of that week I donned a bespoke face mask and took the short tram journey to Beckenham’s Wanted Records. The list of purchases therefore spans May and half of June and reflects that I am not only trying to kick start the local economy but also attempting to do my bit to preserve small, grass-roots venues (see https://joquail.bandcamp.com/album/the-parodos-cairn): Il Velo del Riflessi (vinyl) - Quel che disse il Tuono; Music of Our Times (CD) – Gary Husband & Markus Reuter; Cambrium–Music for Protozoa (CD) – Stephen Parsick; From Within (v) – Anekdoten; Gravity (v) – Anekdoten; The Rome Pro(g)ject I (v) - The Rome Pro(g)ject; ~ (download) – Iamthemorning; The Experience (v) – Laviàntica; Clessidra (CD) – Laviàntica; Il Paese del Tramonto (CD) - Unreal City; The Parodos Cairn (d) - Jo Quail; The Lights in the Aisle Will Guide You (v) – Hooffoot; Zopp (CD) – Zopp; Until They Feel the Sun (CD) – Moon Letters; The ReconstruKction of Light (v) – King Crimson; Instructions for Angels (v) – David Bedford; Stationary Traveller (v) – Camel; Sunbirds (v) – Sunbirds; USA 40th anniversary edition, v) – King Crimson



Coming up

There’s still no date for the UK entertainment industry to reopen but Italy is ready. The 2020 Porto Antico Prog Fest, featuring progressivo Italiano legends Balletto di Bronzo, supported by local Genoa bands Il Segno del Comando and Jus Primae Noctis, will take place on Saturday 11th July from 7pm at the Piazza delle Feste, Genoa








By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2019 09:43PM

I’d just gone to buy myself a beer during a break between bands at the 2017 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa when Alessandro Bosca, the bassist from Melting Clock who had just completed their set, also arrived at the drink stand. I introduced myself and told him how much I’d enjoyed their performance, indicating that I’d be writing a review article of the Prog Fest for the blog and Alessandro asked me if I’d like to hear some studio-quality demos of their songs. He passed on my details to Stefano Amadei, acting manager and one of the band’s two guitarists, who sent me files for four tracks, describing them as ‘something we recorded in only two days to present ourselves to venues’. I’d been impressed by their live appearance (their live debut) but the demos L'occhio dello Sciacallo, Antares, Sono Luce and Strade Affollate, all aired at the gig, were beautifully produced and allowed me to fully appreciate their song-craft and playing, even replicating the tingling sensation provoked by Emanuela Vedana’s vocals on Antares. Listening to the download, I was reminded of mid 70's Renaissance: melodic, symphonic and well constructed, though Melting Clock were more complex and had an audible Mediterranean influence. When I told Stefano he was flattered, but said they had only recently discovered Renaissance when some of their friends had made the same connection.


Melting Clock, Porto Antico Prog Fest 2017
Melting Clock, Porto Antico Prog Fest 2017

The origins of Melting Clock can be traced back to the Department of Physics at the University of Genoa in 2001. Stefano explained to me that the original objectives of a small group of friends was to have fun making music, describing the attempts of the fledgling group to play covers from the bands they loved but ‘were so bad that we were off beat on the various section of the songs’. This prompted Alessandro to apply the Italian slang ‘ci sciogliamo il tempo’ (‘we are melting our time’), meaning that they were forgetting or loosing the rhythmand beat, while sparking the connection with the melting clocks in Salvador Dali's 1931 masterpiece The Persistence of Memory that some have suggested was inspired by Einstein's theory of General Relativity. According to Stefano they adopted the moniker Melting Clock as a private joke: a comment on their musical skills and a pretentious link to the nerdy background (Stefano’s description) of the line up at the time.


Four of the original line-up remain: brothers Sandro and Stefano Amadei (keyboards and voice, and guitars respectively); Alessandro Bosca (bass); and Francesco Fiorito (drums), while the current sextet is completed by Simone Caffè (guitars) and Emanuela Vedana (vocals). It surprised me that their coherent, largely symphonic style should result from a wide range of influences because Francesco and Stefano are metal-heads, Simone is a David Gilmour fan, and Sandro listens to Scandinavian jazz, though he has played with Daedalus, a Genoese prog-metal band alongside Fabio Gremo of Il Tempio delle Clessidre, and was a huge fan of Jordan Rudess, lending Rudess his Kurzweil K2600 when the Dream Theater keyboard player was on holiday in Italy and agreed to perform for the Italian Dreamers. The influence of contemporary acts like Porcupine Tree, Riverside, Opeth and Ayreon that the band say have shaped the direction of their sound is tempered by a critical understanding of the cultural significance of the music that came out of Italy in the 70s along with an appreciation of classic UK progressive rock; accompanying them to a gig reveals the depth of their knowledge of Italian prog, and each time I’ve seen them play, they’ve included a classic-prog cover in the set.


Melting Clock at La Claque, Genoa 11/11/2017
Melting Clock at La Claque, Genoa 11/11/2017

It would be fair to say that Genoa, or more broadly Liguria, played a key role in the rise of rock progressivo italiano and in my opinion, Melting Clock have the ability to take on the role of RPI standard-bearers for the entire country. Rubbing shoulders with the city’s original prog musicians and the bands that have more recently come to prominence, Stefano says that the members of Melting Clock are dismissive of any boundary imposed through generational differences. An indication that their music has the potential for broad appeal is the decision of Black Widow Records to allow the band to produce a limited 2LP edition, in purple vinyl, of the debut album. Black Widow co-owner Massimo Gasperini may have thought long and hard about the vinyl release when the band had enough material for three sides of an LP but a cover medley of King Crimson tracks 21st Century Schizoid Man, In the Court of the Crimson King and Starless, first aired to great response during a gig at Genoa’s L’Angelo Azzurro club in March 2019, would provide the material for side four. That performance had been rearranged and I missed the show, not arriving in Genoa until the following week, when I was treated to a band rehearsal where they ran through the entire set from the performance and, warned of a surprise inclusion to the set list, was absolutely blown away by the medley Alla Corte del Re Cremisi, artfully segued together and enhanced by violin from Hanako Tsushima.



Melting Clock rehearsal 21/3/2019
Melting Clock rehearsal 21/3/2019

When I met up with the whole band at the 2018 Porto Antico Prog Fest, we had a lengthy discussion about the merits of singing in their native tongue, unanimously agreeing that it was preferable for a rock progressivo Italiano outfit to sing in Italian. It was clear that they also understood overcoming the language barrier was likely to make their music accessible to the wider public and were considering, at least on one of the formats for their forthcoming debut, to include a bonus track of original music with lyrics translated and sung in English to expand their appeal or perhaps, like veteran local group and Black Widow Records stable mate Il Cerchio d’Oro on their 2008 album Il Viaggio di Colombo, include English translations of the Italian lyrics; what we get in both CD and vinyl editions of Destinazioni is a full English translation of the song words by Emanuela and Stefano providing an interpretation for non-Italian speakers. The Italian singing is expressive and poetic and at times almost operatic; the translations reveal an impressionistic flair that reminds me of Peter Sinfield’s best work – much of it for PFM.

I was also asked my opinion of the proposed album artwork which had divided opinion amongst the members. Initially thinking that the cover, painted by their friend Matteo Anselmo, didn’t accurately reflect the genre, I began to change my opinion because the depiction of the young woman at the bus stop waiting for a boat links the music, especially Antares and title track Destinazioni to Genoa; Stefano later confessed how he feels connected to the sea at a performance of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an admission that caused me no surprise as he’d grown up on the Ligurian coast and something I could empathise with, having spent my formative years in a shipbuilding town in the north west of England.


Destinazioni
Destinazioni

Not only has the material has matured since the original demo and the original live performances, the compositions are thematically linked by the representation of different aspects of a journey. Though the music is largely credited to Simone and Sandro, with a good proportion of the lyrics provided by Emanuela, the process of structuring each piece is dependent on rhythmic arrangement by Francesco and Alessandro and colour and mood supplied by Stefano. Having originally begun recording the album in November 2018, the time spent in Studio MAIA under the direction of Andrea Torretta was used wisely, settling on the most satisfying arrangements that capture the drama of each individual story. Stefano explained that he wasn’t interested in music that he found unchallenging, describing their style as being characterised by evocative and engaging sounds which belie the compositional complexity, drawing in the listener, which reflects how I felt when I first heard them in 2017.


Album opener Caleidoscopio was an excellent choice as a first single because it’s archetypal, condensing Melting Clock into a shade less than eight and a half minutes. It’s incredibly well-structured, built up from short phrases emphasised with distorted guitar yet despite its intricacy, the multiple instrumental layers are all clear and distinct and floating above is Emanuela’s gorgeous vocal melody. There are tempo and metrical changes and a fast organ solo but generally the lyrics express reflection, representing an inner journey.

I always look forward to meeting up with the band because we share an appreciation for many of the same things and conversation inevitably turns to music, books, and politics. Banalmente is a political song, played in a recognisable Melting Clock idiom attacking those who don’t question, preferring not to know or hold any responsibility for any atrocity carried out on the orders of others, along the lines of John Stuart Mill’s ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.’ The references to ‘sand covered in blood where corpses are lying in the sun’ followed by ‘digging our trench to defend the high season party’ bring to mind the fate of refugees who have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean and landed on Italian territory, a journey of desperation and hope that sadly too often ends in tragedy. There’s poignancy in Sandro’s particularly effective baritone during this piece.

Like a number of rock progressivo bands celebrating their Mediterranean roots before them, Melting Clock employ Middle Eastern scales and rhythm patterns on a couple of sections of Vetro which enhance the feeling of imprisonment and suffocation spelled out by the lyrics inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian classic We. A song of different moods, the brief cinematic opening is followed by bright acoustic guitar which gives way to the eastern Mediterranean flavour and the start of the vocals. During the singing, which has a story-telling quality, Emanuela holds the melody while the instrumental backing is largely rhythmical (guest percussion is provided by Fabrizio Salvini) though there’s quite a lot going on with guitar and keyboards adding splashes of colour in the background. Following the last verse there’s a bright synthesizer line before a reprise of the acoustic guitar and eastern theme which precedes a piano flourish ending. I was present when this was first aired at a gig – it was one of the last compositions written for the album - where Sandro said he had been concerned about both the technical requirements of performing the piece (the verse is in 19/16 time) and its reception. I can report that not only did the music flow well but that it was really appreciated by the audience.

Strade Affollate was brought to the band by Simone. The acoustic guitar takes something of a lead but it’s obviously gone through the Melting Clock arranging machine. The understated piano that enters during the second verse and the Hammond-like organ arising during the middle eight enhance the melody as the layers build up, with restrained distorted guitar appearing in the third verse. This is a song of hope after the confinement of Vetro and partly because of its message and partly from the way it’s structured, it’s probably the most accessible track on the album, capable of bridging into more mainstream genres.


Melting Clock set list, L'Angelo Azzurro 9/3/2018
Melting Clock set list, L'Angelo Azzurro 9/3/2018




L’Occhio dello Sciacallo is another political song written by Sandro. Lasting less than three minutes and translating as The Jackal’s Eye it’s a short exhortation decrying corporate culture. The abrasive guitar introduction actually gives away to a pleasant melody where Emanuela and Sandro sing call-and response vocals. The drudgery is represented by drumming on the lower kit (though Francesco does use a limited amount of cymbal) and there’s an excellently executed cello solo provided by Stefano Cabrera.

The band is particularly proud of Antares, the first song they wrote for Melting Clock. It also happens to be a personal favourite of mine because it’s structured like a classic early Camel song, with amazing melodies and contrapuntal keyboard and guitar lines. This is another track that links to Genoa and the sea, so it’s not surprising that it begins with sea sound effects. Another composition that relies on building upon short phrases (c.f. Lunar Sea by Camel), it’s enhanced by Mellotron-like washes and contrapuntal synthesizer lines and some excellent twin lead guitar work, plus flute played by Fabrizio Salvini and cello played by Stefano Cabrera. Sandro shares some of the vocal duties but its Emanuela’s wordless vocals leading up to the dramatic denouement that steal the show, generating the physical signs of frisson, the pilomotor reflex and goosebumps.

Sono Luce has a lengthy instrumental introduction, arranged differently from the first time I heard it. This was the song where Alessandro’s playing first caught my attention, prompting me to seriously consider buying myself a 5-string bass. Even though there’s a Gilmour inspired guitar solo (it was written by Simone) the overall sound is less classic prog and more neo-prog with a delicacy to the piano and brightness to the guitars, giving a feeling of hope. The title (Made of Light) and lyrics are suggestive of a journey towards enlightenment but they still reference the sea and the shore.


The title track is something of a departure from the other melodic-symphonic tracks and it’s cleverly presaged by the short late-Floydian or early Marillion instrumental Quello che Rimane… It’s here that we get a better feel for individual influences in what is a notch or two up on the challenging stakes, both for the performers and the listener on the longest track on the album. Destinazioni is substantially heavier than anything else the band has done and begins with a nod to King Crimson and Dream Theater prog-metal while managing to stay adventurous throughout. Less reliant on stand-out melodies, it involves a lot of changes of style without breaks or segues, from fast and heavy to stately, from reflective to angular and aggressive, providing a metaphor for the cyclical nature of time. It conforms more to a classic prog template with accurate patches of analogue keyboards sitting well with the updated sound, exemplified by another fast organ run from Sandro but perhaps best illustrated with a few bars of guitar and keyboards that sound like Gabriel-era Genesis which appear toward the conclusion of the song, the most obvious incorporation of a classic prog influence.

Massimo Gasperini sanctioned the release of the double vinyl format with the medley Alla Corte del Re Cremisi taking up side four. These are pretty faithful recreations of the original King Crimson material, down to the Wetton bass trills on Starless and the role of David Cross covered brilliantly by Hanako on 21st Century Schizoid Man. Massimo has overseen some of the brightest names in contemporary Italian prog and hints at great things for Melting Clock, telling me that he enjoys seeing the band’s excitement about their own music. I also think they have a bright future, provided what is really a quite stunning debut gets attention beyond Genoa and Croydon.

What began as a chance encounter in 2017 has turned into a good friendship. I’ll be watching Melting Clock’s future journey very closely.


Destinazioni by Melting Clock, my album of 2019, is available from Black Widow Records BWR 224





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, 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







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