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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, 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, Feb 25 2019 09:36PM

My first visit to Amsterdam was as a 20 year old, the first stop on a month-long journey around western Europe by train with university friend Nick Hodgetts, where we attempted to find examples of the cactus Lophophora williamsii on the barges tied up along the canals – archetypal botany student behaviour or an unconscious nod towards Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) from the Focus debut album In and Out of Focus – botanical gardens frequently featured in our itinerary as though we were in some sort of competition to tick off the most jardin botanique in a short time. Perhaps the most striking memory is being caught up in a housing riot, a tale related to a family friend on my second visit to the city earlier this month. What Nick and I witnessed was a flare-up of the Vondelstraat Riots which began on 29th February 1980 and lasted for four days, prompted by the eviction of large numbers of squatters from a building on the corner of Vondelstraat and Eerste Constantijn Huygensstraat. A second episode of violent street protest coincided with the coronation of Queen Beatrix on 30 April and other, smaller outbreaks occurred in August, September and December and into 1981 and 1982. What we saw, quite close up, was a running battle between riot police and youths wearing crash helmets for both disguise and protection from tear gas armed with baseball bats; the police had a strategic advantage as they manoeuvred their barge-mounted water cannon along the canals, so Nick and I retired to an area of safety.


Amsterdam, August 1980
Amsterdam, August 1980

The 24 hours spent in the city in 1980 was perhaps not as much of an eye-opener as you might imagine, even though the basic hotel where we stayed (the Schreierstoren Hotel, named after the 15th century tower which formed part of the medieval city walls, but apparently no longer present at least under that name) was in the middle of the red light district; the area in front of Amsterdam Centraal involved numerous approaches from individuals enquiring if we’d like to buy drugs but my first day in central London as a fresher a couple of years before was no different and, unlike the seedier Soho, Amsterdam’s Walletjes didn’t really have a threatening atmosphere, possibly because it was bright and sunny, appearing more open-to-all touristy.


The opportunity to return, long overdue after an almost 39 year absence, came about as a consequence of FOMO. My wife had visited the city with friends just before Christmas and based on her description of the architecture and various cultural attractions, together with my belief that there was a rich seam of Dutch progressive rock to be found in Amsterdam’s legendary vinyl record shop scene, I signed up for a two-night exploratory weekday visit, with Susan entrusted to act as some form of guide.

Amsterdam isn’t a big city so we didn’t need to be based in a particular location. We chose the museum quarter where there was a suitably comfortable NH hotel in easy reach of Centraal station by a number 24 tram, and because I’d expressed a desire to visit the Rijksmuseum, specifically for its King Crimson connection. Travelling by Eurostar meant there would be no restriction on baggage allowance so I did some forward planning, cross-referencing reviews of prog bands from the Netherlands, compiled a wish list, and packed two canvas bags for vinyl purchases.



Though we had an early start (the 08.16 from St Pancras International, a direct service to Amsterdam) we encountered a problem somewhere between Belgium and Holland and had to be diverted onto a local service route, reaching Amsterdam Centraal 83 minutes late and desperate for a coffee. Despite the delay, we met up with the family friend at a bar near the Opera House at the scheduled rendezvous time and had a pretty awful coffee. Fortunately, our hotel bordered the Pijp district, a bohemian area characterised by Middle Eastern eateries, artisanal craft shops, old school pubs and cafés where, after checking in to the NH and dropping off our luggage, we came across the exceptionally good Locals Coffee on our way to the first of the record shop stops.

Situated on a corner plot, Locals Coffee has a double aspect through large windows, making it bright and airy. The interior was clean and unfussy with contemporary decor; the counter, channelling Rem Koolhaas’ Fondazione Prada in Milano, is a thing of beauty! Even before stepping inside I was attracted by the sign in the door 'baristas wanted', suggesting that they were serious about coffee. It's really not easy to find a decent espresso-based coffee in mainland Europe outside of Italy but the friendly and helpful staff were all trained to a high standard and produced consistent high quality espressos and cappuccinos. They use Italian roasted beans (Buscaglione of Rome), and their model of espresso machine was the one I was trained on. We made it our local coffee shop, stopping in a couple of times each day, taking time to sample the cakes (excellent) and the pancakes (ditto!)



The local record store, Record Mania (Ferdinand Bolstraat 30) turned out to be another great find where, over two visits I ticked off the top two albums on my hit-list, Glory of the Inner Force (1975) and Beyond Expression (1976) by Finch along with more from my list: Marks (Alquin, 1972); At the Rainbow (Focus, 1973); Royal Bed Bouncer (Kayak, 1975); To the Highest Bidder (Supersister, 1971); plus a couple not on my list which I couldn’t resist, Introspection 2 by Thijs van Leer (1975) because it was in perfect condition, in the €2 bin, and In a Glass House by Gentle Giant (1973), which I’ve wanted on vinyl for some time. This really is a must-visit for anyone into music; well-stocked, friendly and helpful.

There wasn’t much time to seek out other stores before closing time but I did manage to rootle through the bins in Record Palace (Weteringschans 33A) as the owner was bringing in his stock from the pavement for the night. Opened in 1988 and considered to be the vinyl shop of Amsterdam, the Netherlands rock section was quite small but there was a section dedicated to progressivo Italiano which contained a few albums I was tempted by. Feeling a little under pressure as the clock edged towards 6pm, I came out empty-handed, the Supersister compilation being in too poor condition to warrant purchase.


Record Mania, Amsterdam
Record Mania, Amsterdam

As with all our family city breaks, the trip had to include activities for everyone so the next morning, following a hotel buffet breakfast and a coffee at Locals, we made our way towards Anne Frank House starting from the south-westerly edge of the Museumplein with another King Crimson reference, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, past the modern art Stedelijk museum and the Van Gogh museum (saved for another trip), past the Rijksmuseum (saved for later), and past the not-yet-open Second Life Music (Prinsengracht 366). Tickets for Anne Frank House are timed and are only obtained online, though this wasn’t clear from our 2019 guidebook or leaflets from the I Amsterdam tourist information; we had (incorrectly) assumed that getting tickets on the door for a pre-lunchtime visit on a Tuesday in early February was going to be simple and straightforward, so our plan for the day was adapted according to circumstance. Watery sunlight had begun to break through the cloud so we took the opportunity to be real tourists, crossing the IJ by ferry and ascending the A’DAM tower to the Lookout and the Over the Edge swing. This formed one of the a modern architecture sessions of the visit – the former Toren Overhoeks was a modernist icon designed by Arthur Staal (completed in 1971) and the regeneration of the Overhoeks district now includes the angular EYE Film Institute (Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, 2012), a building that rather fittingly appears to be in motion.



We were attempting to take in as much of the city as possible by foot, and as I didn’t have any recollection of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest building, founded in the early 13th century, I considered it a must-see. It’s located in the red light district which, thanks to the efforts of the city council who direct visitors to museums and bars and other attractions, appeared quite sanitised. With time getting on and the Begijnhof, the next stop on the agenda beckoning, I skipped Redlight Records (Oudekerksplein 26) but found Records and Books (Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 371), a shop that had been on my list, closed. To compensate I was allowed to visit Waxwell Records (Gasthuismolensteeg 8) which I’d also singled out as a potential cornucopia for prog, and it was. I came out with another Dutch classic Mountain Queen (Alquin, 1973) and added to my UK-centric vinyl collection with Free Hand (Gentle Giant, 1975); Out in the Sun (Patrick Moraz, 1977); Sorcerer OST (Tangerine Dream, 1977); and World Record (Van der Graaf Generator, 1976). I’d recommend it for its range of stock and the helpfulness of the staff.



I made a lightning visit to the Rijksmuseum on Wednesday morning, arriving not long after opening and beating the crowds. The building, originally designed by Pierre Cuypers in the late 19th century underwent modern but sympathetic redevelopment by Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz alongside French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and restoration architect Van Hoogevest, between 2003 and 2013. With an ‘All the Rembrandts’ exhibition opening two days later, the museum was in the final stages of preparation but the painting I’d gone to see, Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642), was accessible. It's rightly a world-famous canvas but most importantly from a prog point of view, a track from King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black, originally recorded in the Concertgebouw but largely over-dubbed because of a malfunction with David Cross’ Mellotron during the live performance.



Day three was also a modern architecture day, specifically featuring Renzo Piano’s NEMO Science Museum (opened 1997) which provided panoramas of the city from its rooftop. The return to the hotel to pick up our luggage was planned to include some gift shopping and, on the same canal-side street, Second Life Music. This was too cluttered for my liking and though there was a section for Netherlands rock, most categories were randomly scattered and, due to the piles of records, sometimes inaccessible. It would be nice to recommend the shop but the two members of staff behind the counter were both deep in conversation with a customer or friend so that it was difficult to speak to them or get served. I took a punt on Ton Scherpenzeel’s Le Carnaval des Animaux (1978), in perfect condition, for €7.


And so our rather successful Amsterdam trip ended. While in Waxwell discussing the remarkable number of record shops in the city, I was informed that the population of Amsterdam is a little over 820000 people, with numbers swelled by tourists (6.7 million foreign hotel-booked tourists in 2017) and that there might be some people who would say there were too many record shops... Not me. I’ve still got the early Kayak albums to look out for and, if it ever resurfaces, Present from Nancy by Supersister. I’ll be back.







By ProgBlog, Nov 6 2018 12:59PM

While I’m not particularly enamoured with the Dorset seaside resort, having landed at Bournemouth International airport twice within a few hours after separate runway problems at Gatwick caused my BA flight home from Genova in August last year to be diverted, then unceremoniously kicked off the plane when the pilot announced the flight had been cancelled and left to our own devices to find our own way back to either Gatwick or home (in my case Croydon), the only opportunity to get to see King Crimson play in the UK this year happened to be in Bournemouth, because I’d neglected to organise tickets for the London Palladium gigs before they sold out.



Crimson manager David Singleton is one of the few people I’ve read who has remarked upon the geographical significance of the first Crimson gig on the current leg of the Meltdown tour, describing the event as having “a particular poignancy as the return to Bournemouth felt slightly like a ‘coming home’ for King Crimson”, explaining for those without an appreciation of the band’s history that King Crimson precursor Giles, Giles and Fripp was originally a Bournemouth group, as indeed was Greg Lake’s pre-Crimson outfit The Gods, the pair having taken guitar lessons from Don Strike whose shop is still located in Westbourne Parade. Though Singleton also went on to reveal that the band stayed at the Royal Bath Hotel where a teenage Robert Fripp had apparently played a few gigs, and suggested that the interior decor had not changed during the intervening years, he didn’t mention the John Wetton-Richard Palmer-James connection, also crucial to the early Crimson story.


I went down to see Crimson with my friend Jim and, having decided that returning to the south London commuter belt that same evening was not the best course of action, booked overnight accommodation at the Royal Exeter Hotel, a five minute walk away from the venue at the Bournemouth Pavilion. Our hotel was formerly the first house built in Bournemouth, by Captain Lewis Tregonwell, in 1810 which retains some original features but has been upgraded to 21st century standards.



Having left Ashtead with what seemed like plenty of time for a gig scheduled for 7.30pm, we discovered that roadworks on the A31 and A338 were enough to jeopardise our plans; we ate in the hotel for expediency but still missed the opening percussion barrage, under that title of Drumsons Turn Back the Tide for the evening, and Neurotica, held outside the auditorium until the piece had ended.

The set list turned out to be very similar to that we’d witnessed in Lucca back in July, only without the tracks from In the Wake of Poseidon and I thought that the familiarity with the material that made up the set, despite a break of three months between Venice at the end of July and this Bournemouth performance, allowed them to play with a similar level of intensity that we’d seen at the Lucca Summer Festival, the penultimate city on the mainland Europe leg of their tour.

Despite a good sound in the open-air Piazza Napoleone, the stage was quite a way to our left which made it difficult to decide whether to strain to see the band or simply look straight ahead at close-ups of individual members on a big screen. The Pavilion Theatre didn’t have any of those problems; seated in row V on the left-hand side of the stalls (capacity 1012), the raked floor allowed a good view of the band. It almost goes without saying that the sound was fantastic – and notices in the foyer informed us the show was being filmed. Crimson rely entirely on their music; there are no props and the one concession they make to theatricality is gradually bathing the whole ensemble in red light during Starless, a reference to a spine-tingling moment of resonance during the last ever performance by the 1974 incarnation of the band as they played the track in Central Park, New York.


Waiting for Crimson, Piazza Napoleone, Lucca 25 July 2018
Waiting for Crimson, Piazza Napoleone, Lucca 25 July 2018

It may have simply been my perception but I thought that Mel Collins was allowed something of a free rein during the Lucca gig compared to more restrained playing at Bournemouth however, in what may have been a nod to the band’s history in the south coast resort, added a snatch of a big band style melody during a short improvisation.

I’m really pleased with Collins’ participation in this version of the band because it allows a closer interpretation of the early material to the originals, where the excerpts from the Lizard suite and Islands come across as excellent examples of symphonic progressive rock. The interaction between the three drummers is spectacular and fits in seamlessly with whatever the band are playing but the inclusion of Bill Rieflin as a dedicated keyboard player rather than as a percussionist who adds keyboards, the role now taken by Jeremy Stacey, helps to fill out the symphonic sound which is further enhanced when Fripp also adds keys. This is where having two guitarists helps with the pre-Discipline era compositions; the interlocking parts of Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk on the track Discipline is an obvious example where you can’t play the track without two guitars but Fripp’s role in the current line-up includes both the definitive spray guitar and providing classic Mellotron lines. Stacey described this in Prog magazine (Prog 92) as an illustration how the band did things properly and didn’t cheat but I’ve started to wonder when critics of groups of the first wave of progressive rock who play ‘greatest hits’ sets are going to start taking pot-shots at this band. It’s been reported that there’s already a degree of sniping at Jakszyk’s singing circulating on social media (I personally quite like his voice and really can’t visualise too many other vocalists handling the songs from the first album; I’m also rather fond of his re-imagined lyrics to Easy Money with is dig at the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crash); it may be that history is sort of repeating itself because Adrian Belew came in for some intense criticism on Elephant Talk when electronic fan forums were just taking off.


Despite breaks between 1974 and 1981, 1984 and 1994, then 2008 and 2014 Crimson, like many of the original acts from the late 60s – early 70s, have a rich source of material to select from when compiling a live set, but last put out an album’s worth of new material back in 2003 with The Power to Believe. What the three-drummer septet/octet has done in the four years of its existence as a touring band, is tap into early material that had never previously been played at concerts, whether because of short-lived formations or the lack of the full instrumentation in a line-up to do a piece of music justice. The structure of something like the Lizard suite, something I can’t imagine I’d have ever heard played live before this incarnation, doesn’t necessarily constrain the ability to extemporise but the era of the grand improvisational pieces ended in the 70s. There’s also a suspicion that the group is playing to a wider demographic than on any previous occasion but this wasn’t particularly evident from my seat towards the back of the stalls in the Pavilion Theatre where the audience was pretty much as you’d expect for a group that formed in 1969 that is rightly or wrongly inextricably linked to the progressive rock genre. On the other hand, the concert can’t have failed to delight any of the original fan base who were present with its mix of favourites and the previously never-heard-live, or anyone being inducted into the world of Crimson with an amazing display of musicianship in a performance that lasted around two and a half hours.


I’d rate the gig very highly, on a par with the first time I saw a three-drummer manifestation in September 2015 at the Hackney Empire and with Lucca in July, each being memorable for different reasons. Maybe Bournemouth isn’t too bad, after all.


The full set list was:


Drumsons Turn Back the Tide

Neurotica

Indiscipline

Moonchild

In the Court of the Crimson King

Discipline

One More Red Nightmare

Red

Islands

Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (1)

Meltdown

Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (2)

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 5


(Interval)


Drumsons Turn on the World

Cirkus

Bolero-Dawn Song-Skirmish-Lament

Epitaph

Easy Money

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 2

Starless


(Encore) 21st Century Schizoid Man








By ProgBlog, Jul 22 2018 05:05PM

Taking their name from the 1873 extended poem Une Saison en Enfer by Arthur Rimbaud, dramatised in the 1971 film Una Stagione all’Inferno, a French-Italian production directed by Nelo Risi which tells the life and death of Rimbaud and his troubled relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine, Una Stagione all'Inferno were formed in 1997 by Fabio Nicolazzo, a guitarist from Genoa's gothic rock scene and the classically trained pianist Laura Menighetti. Augmented by bassist Diego Banchero from Genovese prog band Il Segno del Comando, original Il Segno del Comando drummer Carlo Opisso and Francesco Scariti, they released their interpretation of the theme tune to 70s Italian TV mini-series L'amaro caso della Baronessa di Carini, renaming it La ballata di Carini, which was included on the soundtrack compilation E tu vivrai nel terrore released on the Black Widow Records label in 1998. The band had originally intended to write a concept album based on the show but disagreements within the band led to a rejection of the idea, and put the group on hold.



Nicolazzo and Menighetti reformed the band with new members in 2011 and, undeterred by the difficulties posed by complex concepts, decided to write a piece of music based on Il Mostro di Firenze (The Monster of Florence) which was eventually released in spring 2018 on Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 676). Il Mostro di Firenze is the name commonly applied by the Italian media for a series of eight double murders that took place between 1968 and 1985 in the province of Florence. Law enforcement departments conducted a number of investigations into the cases over the course of several years; the victims were young couples who parked or camped in countryside areas in the vicinity of Florence during the new moon, killed using a variety of weapons including a .22 calibre gun and a knife. There appeared to be a sexual element to the murders because the sex organs were cut out from the bodies of some of the female victims. After an innocent man was convicted, the killer struck again and eventually the authorities concluded that the murders were not committed by a single person but by a group of at least four perpetrators the so-called ‘Picnic Comrades’ who were later caught and convicted.

This release falls very neatly into the category of dark prog, something I didn’t know existed until I got chatting to the proprietors of Genova’s Black Widow Records shop. The shop itself is named after the original purveyors of dark prog, the UK’s Black Widow, a favourite of Massimo Gasperini. Black Widow’s debut Sacrifice from 1970 is considered a prog classic, possibly due to the controversy stoked by the media surrounding the inclusion of occult themes, absent on subsequent releases, although they were quite innovative for a band with heavy rock leanings (c.f. Black Sabbath) with flute, sax and clarinet supplementing the usual rock instrumentation. Massimo explained that they ticked all the right boxes for a rock band: a powerful and hypnotic sound; gothic in nature; a spectacular live show. I think that the flute and clarinet add a folk element, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Massimo also adds Comus to his list of dark prog bands, along with Atomic Rooster, Audience, Beggars Opera, Bram Stoker, Dr. Z, High Tide, Indian Summer, Kingdom Come (and other Arthur Brown projects) and Quatermass. These groups represent the early period of progressive rock and, as far as the British incarnation goes, that might be part of the defining feature as there are often psychedelic and more blues-based influences; he’s even willing to suggest that some Hawkwind, the first two King Crimson albums and the 68-76 incarnations of Van der Graaf Generator are dark enough to fit the description. The inclusion of flute is considered an important instrument in the genre, along with up-front guitar and Mellotron but the demonic band name King Crimson and some of the dark themes of Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator, like Necromancer from The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969) and White Hammer from The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other (1970) are surely sufficient to warrant an inclusion.



The ProgBlog selection of UK dark prog
The ProgBlog selection of UK dark prog

Though there are worldwide examples like Akasha (Norway), some material by Amon Düül (Germany), some Ange (France), Coven (USA), some Magma (France), Morte Macabre (Sweden), Univers Zero (Belgium), the examples that are most true to form are Italian, from both the classic period in the 70s and the present, and this is where Black Widow Records excel; not only do they have a great reputation for seeking out classics for re-issue, involving getting approval from the bands themselves for a re-release and working out who owns the phonographic rights, but also nurturing new talent.


Turin-based Abiogenesi released their self-titled debut in 1995, incorporating a blend of 70’s hard rock and a more melodic, modern symphonic prog sound. The main songwriter of the quartet, which has undergone a few personnel changes over the years, is guitarist and vocalist Toni d'Urso, who was influenced by groups as diverse as Black Widow and Camel and who drafted in guest musicians (including Clive Jones from Black Widow) to help create their particular brand of dark prog.

Jacula (possibly from the Latin word meaning ‘short, fervent prayer’) were formed in Milan 1968 by the charismatic singer and guitarist Antonio Bartoccetti along with electronic music pioneer Doris Norton (as Fiamma dello Spirito) and keyboard player Charles Tiring. They recorded their debut album In cauda semper stat venenum in 1969 which had a private pressing of only 310 copies but was never distributed, remaining unpublished until the updated 2001 edition on Black Widow Records; their first record to appear on the shelves was 1972’s Tardo pede in magiam versus. The songs featured Norton’s ethereal voice and Latin texts, funereal organ and dark, disturbing sounds conveying esoteric themes and though classed as prog, they were considered apart from the mainstream. Adding drummer Albert Goodman to the line-up, they became Antonius Rex in 1974 and released the album Zora in 1977 which was closer to other Italian prog bands around at that time. The gothic album sleeve imagery adds to the dark prog tag.

Devil Doll, made up of band members from Venice and Ljubljana, Slovenia were influenced by Jacula and old silent horror films. They released five studio albums between 1989 and 1996 but disbanded in 1997; reviewers use adjectives like ‘stark’ and ‘challenging’ to describe their music.


Malombra were one of the first of the new wave of Italian dark prog bands, hailing from Genoa and releasing their eponymous debut on the Black Widow Records label in 1993, only a year after the record label was founded. Described by one critic as ‘a baroque Devil Doll’, they took their name from a book subsequently made into a film, the debut gothic novel by Antonio Fogazzaro from 1881, set close to Lake Como. It was first turned into a 1917 silent movie and remade in 1942 by Mario Soldati. Around the time of their second album Our Lady of the Bones (released 1996), vocalist Mercy teamed up with Diego Banchero, a friend from her former band Zess, to form Il Segno del Comando whose name is another literary reference from the Giuseppe D’Agata book which became a highly regarded Italian TV giallo-fantasy mini-series in 1971.

Possibly the most well-known and successful dark prog protagonists are Goblin, who rose to fame on the back of the critically acclaimed 1975 giallo film Profundo Rosso. The soundtrack, originally put together in ten days after Claudio Simonetti’s band Cherry Five was asked to step in following a disagreement between director Dario Argento and original composer Giorgio Gaslini, has sold over a million copies. Cherry Five were influenced by King Crimson and Genesis and played extended compositions on the jazzy side of prog, though their underrated eponymous debut included tracks called Country Grave-Yard [sic] and The Swan is a Murderer; they changed their name to Goblin to fit in with the horror genre, in keeping with the material they were providing music for and went on to provide the score for other Argento films, Suspiria, Phenomena, Zombi and Tenebre. It’s interesting that Death Dies from Profundo Rosso sounds as though it was inspired by the bass guitar figure leading up to Vivian Stanshall listing the instruments used on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and that the overture of Tubular Bells was used in classic horror film The Exorcist.



Il Mostro di Firenze is a worthy addition to this sub-genre. With a line up comprising Nicolazzo on guitars and vocals, Menighetti on keyboards and vocals, Roberto Tiranti and Pier Gonella from Italian prog metal band Labÿrinth playing bass and guitar respectively, Marco Biggi on drums, Paolo Firpo on sax, Kim Schiffo on cello, Laura Sillitti on violin and Daniele Guerci on viola, the band have created a dark symphonic soundtrack to the story, telling the tale from the new moon when the murders took place, to the full moon, linked by clever pieces of musique concrete like checking the action of a handgun and placing it in a zipped bag.

The use of the chamber ensemble adds to the cinematic sweep of the songs but the mood switches to oppression and terror with a simple device originally employed by Goblin, the nursery-rhyme like melody picked out on percussive instruments and taken up in wordless song by the ‘murderer’. The 10 minute instrumental Plenilunio with its false ending is the highlight, quoting from Chopin, nicely structured with emotive piano and plaintive guitar, but the album abounds with great instrumentation and playing. The one track that I’m not convinced about is Serial Killer Rock which, though brief, is stylistically at odds with the other material but, on balance, the album is a really good piece of work.



Il Mostro di Firenze by Una Stagioneall'Inferno, Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 676)







By ProgBlog, Jun 11 2018 01:43PM



The resurgence of prog in the 90s was in no small part down to two seminal Swedish bands, Änglagård and Anekdoten. Änglagård’s Hybris (1992) was on my wish list for a couple of years before I managed to get hold of a reissued CD in 2014 for a sensible price from a stall at the Prog Résiste festival in Soignies, when up until that point the CD was selling for in excess of £30 on Amazon, but I first bought Anekdoten’s Vemod (1993) as a download in 2010 having read somewhere that the album sounded like King Crimson would have done had they not ‘ceased to exist’ after Red, due to their use of Mellotron; the album title, which roughly translates to ‘melancholy’, is very fitting. Wheel would have fitted very nicely on Red, especially as it includes cornet played by guest musician Pär Ekström.

I managed to see Änglagård on their first ever UK performance at the Resonance Festival later in 2014, something of a coup for the organisers of the event, and was more than impressed, subsequently being given Epilog (1995) and 2014’s Prog på Svenska - Live in Japan as presents. My wife traditionally asks if there’s any music she can get me on her annual New York trip, so on the occasion a month after buying the download, I asked her to look out for a physical copy of Vemod. Unable to locate a copy in a record store-depleted Manhattan, she phoned me from the States to tell me the bad news but that she had seen Anekdoten‘s 2009 2CD compilation Chapters and asked would I like that instead? I said yes. I then added Nucleus (1995) to my wish list and that arrived as a Christmas present in 2011. I’m attracted to the density and darkness of the music, and fully agree with the imagined post-Red King Crimson theory, so when Massimo Gasperini, the owner of Black Widow Records in Genoa contacted me to say he’d signed up Anekdoten to headline his Prog On evening at the FIM Fiera della Musica in Milan, it proved difficult to resist.




My experience of the FIM Fiera was in 2014, one of three times it was held in Genoa, where the line-up of bands for the prog stage over three days was really stellar, indicating the importance of the city for Italian prog. In 2016 and 2017 the Fiera was held in Erba (near Como) due to redevelopment of Genoa’s exhibition site and landed in Milan, at the Piazza città di Lombardia (the largest covered square in Europe) this year, with Prog On and other more formal presentations held in the adjacent Auditorium Testori.



This being a family trip, I’d identified a couple of other nearby cities to visit, to tick off more medieval squares and interesting churches, but the day of our arrival was dedicated to Milan. We wandered off towards the FIM venue via the Porta Nuova development, just to see what was around, immediately coming across the Black Widow Records stand where Massimo pointed out the one drawback with the piazza – June sunlight streaming in through the glass canopy and no shade. He then gave me a preview of the Auditorium Testori where ex-PFM guitarist Franco Mussida was giving a lecture to local schoolchildren, Cos'è davvero la Musica? (What really is music?); education in all aspects of music was a major part of the theme this year and Mussida, born in Milan in 1947, founded the CPM Music Institute in 1984, an organisation that offers 400 different programmes in music from certified instrumental courses to journalism to studio techniques.




It’s impossible to visit Black Widow Records, wherever it pops up, and not buy anything. I couldn’t say no to an LP I’d been interested in since I’d seen it had been re-issued by BTF earlier this year: a vinyl copy of Concerto delle Mente, the only release by Pholas Dactylus from 1973. I also bought re-issued vinyl copies of Museo Rosenbach’s Zarathustra (1973) and the pre-Goblin Cherry Five (1975) by Cherry Five and picked up the just-released Broken Coriolanus by Hollowscene (formerly Banaau) who were on the Prog On bill.

The day of the gig was mostly spent in Pavia, a short train journey away from Milan though I popped into Libraccio, the book and record store next to our hotel to buy Maxophone’s La Fabbrica delle Nuvole from 2017 and a Record Store Day picture disc of Tormato by Yes. We had lunch in Pavia’s Piazza della Vittoria looking out at the Broletto, the 13th Century town hall, then wandered off in search of Matrix Music only to find it had recently moved, to within 50m of where we’d had lunch, right by the cathedral. They were still unpacking and stacking when we visited and, because it’s getting ever more difficult to find progressivo Italiano that I don’t already own, I only bought a copy of King Crimson’s Live in Vienna CD from earlier this year.


Back in Milan, I set out to the FIM Fiera after a bite to eat and headed for the Black Widow stall, correctly believing that I might be able to find a copy of Vemod on vinyl but also buying the recently-released Rings of Earthly... Live CD by Ancient Veil. I couldn’t find anywhere to buy the album on-line but the band is on the Black Widow label and Black Widow were promoters of the two gigs at Genoa’s La Claque where the performances were recorded; my applause features throughout this release because I was present at both of those concerts.

While hanging around Black Widow I was introduced to another Genovese band, Fungus Family, whose music sits somewhere between the prog and psyche camps and relies on improvisation then, just as we were chatting en route to the beer tent, I bumped into Mauro Serpe and Giorgio Boleto, respectively the vocalist/flautist and bassist from Panther & C. Deep in conversation with Fungus Family about their forthcoming album and an unannounced change in running order meant that I missed some of Hollowscene’s set but what I heard was impressive – some nice Tony Banks-like synth runs and some moments of complexity akin to National Health. Prowlers, hailing from nearby Bergamo, have had a stop-start career and have been releasing music since 1994. Their Prog On performance featured songs from last year’s Navigli Riflessi but, apart from their last song which had sections in 7/4, they didn’t really conform to prog and the performance lacked dynamism. This was disappointing when you consider that in the past they recorded versions of Camel’s First Light and ELP’s The Sage for tribute albums. The contrast with La Fabbrica dell’Assoluto, on next, couldn’t have been greater. Plying their brand of heavy, high energy prog tinged with psychedelia and utilising a vast array of keyboard patches, the passion associated with RPI was forcefully clear; apart from drummer Michele Ricciardi they even dressed up in boiler suits to perform, a humorous reference to the band name. Witnessing them play live made me think of Museo Rosenbach, something I’d not really detected while listening to the record 1984: L’Ultimo uomo d’Europa. I spoke to the band at the end of the evening to congratulate them on an excellent set and, like all the other members of Italy’s prog community I’ve met, they were really easy-going and a pleasure to chat to.



Anekdoten have recently expanded to a five piece with the addition of British guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, best known for his work with Australian band The Church, but who was a guest on Anekdoten’s 2015 album Until All the Ghosts are Gone, and his playing adds even more depth to the sound. Communicating largely in English, the audience was reminded that 2018 was the 25th anniversary of Vemod so we were treated to not just a good proportion of the album, but Anna Sofi Dahlberg also played cello, something they’d not used live for some time. Though there’s a progression from foreboding, brooding dark prog to almost Radiohead-like post-rock through the albums, with each subsequent release involving a subtle change, I still prefer Vemod to the others when many commentators see Nucleus as their definitive release as it includes more mature writing than its predecessor, so I was very happy with the set list. The Rickenbacker bass, seemingly something of a staple in Scandinavian bands, provided by Jan Erik Liljeström along with the drumming of Peter Nordins are equally as important as Nicklas Barker’s angular guitar lines played over Dahlberg’s Mellotron (which was under-mixed for the first couple of songs) in defining the band’s sound. I personally prefer Liljeström’s singing to Barker’s because it complements the plaintive lyrics, much like John Wetton on Fallen Angel. Willson-Piper’s guitar provided extra density (if that’s possible) but he also helped out on percussion duties when his guitar was not required, and generally served as a source of energy propelling the ensemble onwards. My favourite moments were The Old Man and the Sea and Karelia but it was an all-round excellent performance; a major triumph for Massimo Gasperini (who was thanked by the band) and well worth the trip to Milan.



I was also very pleasantly surprised to see prog-fixer Marina Montobbio who had made the trip across from Genoa. Slipping easily between Italian, French and English she was involved in highlighting Plongée au coeur du rock progressif italien by Louis de Ny, a French book about Italian prog, and trying to persuade me to attend the 2 Days of Prog + 1 Festival in Veruno in September.

Fortunately it was only a short walk back to the hotel so I managed to get a decent night’s sleep despite an early start the next day: a trip to Bologna. This was mainly for the architecture because the record stores were all closed, and to see if it was worth a longer visit (it is.) Our flight home on Monday was late in the evening, the last flight out of Malpensa which meant we had time to explore some more. Monza was about the right distance away so we spent a full afternoon there. Though quite pleasant, I wouldn’t have recommended anyone making a special trip there if we hadn’t visited Carillon Dischi. A fifteen minute walk away from the centre under humid June skies, Carillon is another of the brilliant record shops that you find in small Italian cities; walls lined with classic rock and prog posters, plenty of vinyl and CDs including some rarities, a good range of memorabilia, plus a friendly, helpful and knowledgeable owner, Massimo. Browsing was restricted by train times, otherwise I’d have listened to some first US tour live King Crimson, I bought Un Biglietto del Tram by Storm Six (1975), something I’ve been after for a few months and an In the Court of the Crimson King T-shirt. I’d return to Milan any time and Monza really isn't out of the way...









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