By Beppe Colli
Apr. 10, 2013
These days, it's practically inevitable for one to come to the conclusion
that there is a (mini) revival of "Progressive" going on (from
now on, for brevity's sake, I'll use the tag "Prog" - and no,
I won't even try to define the term, since, as it happens with countless
entities, the meaning of "Prog" is self-evidently, perfectly
clear... till one tries to define it). Signals are out there, starting
with those newsstands windows where names - not to mention those sartorial
faux pas! - that one never thought one would see again are beautifully
displayed in all their (past) glory; there are also countless re-releases,
of course, which most of the time appear in the guise of elegant, exhaustive,
and definitely not cheap, multi-format (plus fat book) boxes. It's quite
bizarre to see the
"screaming face" from King Crimson's first album screaming again
from those newsstands windows. And there's also the mag with the line that
"All about Thick As A Brick!" prominently displayed on its cover.
Well, what year is it?
Now, I think, is the right time to define
the context that makes all this practically feasible, money-wise. Today's
(meager) sales, in fact, make it possible for many niche phenomena to exist,
this being true of both music magazines and record (re)releases, though
they present features at the opposite ends of the spectrum (a fact which,
as we'll see in a minute or two, makes for a quite paradoxical outcome):
magazines have to be produced on the cheap, since their projected sales
are scant, and their life brief; while the opposite is true of most boxes,
where the planned investment can only be called "respectable":
here the "limited edition" concept (with an eye towards eBay)
makes it possible for record companies to ask for
There's also a background of a peculiar kind
that we have to take into consideration. Since nowadays we don't really
believe in progress anymore, magazines are free to choose to look backwards
without running the risk of being called passé. And since nowadays "old
music" can also mean The Smiths and The Jam, past horizons become
so confused that one can have both Julius Caesar and Napoleon having dinner
sitting at the same table. The fact of "tags" being
"elastic" obviously helps, hence for this month "Classic Rock" can
be said to stand for "a temporal dimension" - and so, Jethro Tull,
and The Doors - while for next month it could stand for "a style, an
attitude" - and so, say, Muse. This is the type of menu we call
"à la carte", which leaves one's hands perfectly free.
More and more often I see men and machines eliminate gas stations from
the center of town. I asked a worker (who was in his early fifties) about
this, and he replied that net profits from the sale of gas are so small
for those people who get a license to run those stations that unless they
also have the physical space to install a car wash or a bar it's impossible
for them to survive. "Just like those newsstands", he added, "which
in earlier times sold toys, DVDs and CDs, and which now only sell newspapers
and magazines for a cheap profit - and have you seen any young people buying
this stuff lately?", he said, while turning his gaze towards the newsstand
where the window screamed "All about Thick As A Brick". Then
"That rough feel of paper under one's fingers is obviously normal for
people like you and me, but for a young person, well, maybe it feels weird."
Let's not mince words here: nowadays even magazines like Mojo make
mistakes in their photo captions, or can't tell that among the members
of the group there are famous "friends and relatives".
And there's also the usual problem: thirty-year
olds don't know what they're talking about, sixty-year olds are tired of
being asked to write about Aqualung once again, and so they lazily write
the same old things. Given the chance, protagonists would greatly prefer
to change the subject, avoiding all those topics that by now they remember
almost nothing about, but have (to pretend) to remember for obvious financial
reasons. Many cuttings from the era feature many wrong things. All in all,
quite shoddy work for such an illustrious event such a big box!
With a bit more work, it wouldn't be too
hard to come up with things like: "And so Aqualung sounds quite
"stiff", since the new bass player, who played mostly riffs and
figures, didn't really gel, when paired with a drummer who, on the group's
first three albums, had such as good rapport with a bass player who was a
lot more agile, and quite skilled, harmony-wise. Things will greatly improve
on Thick As A Brick, where a new drummer, which worked with a feel for the
"pulse", will play "around" those "stiff" bass
Instead, we're back to those usual (anti)religious
topics when it comes to Aqualung, and to the old and tired Gerald Bostock
affair when it comes to Thick As A Brick (no mention, of course, of the
flute being filtered through a VCS3!). But this stuff is already on Wikipedia
- and who would ever pay for things that can be read for free elsewhere?
(Sometimes one has the feeling that Wikipedia is exactly where the writer
got those information.)
If there's somebody who had a part in getting this (mini)
"Prog" revival under way, his name is Steven Wilson.
A musician of some renown, both as a solo
artist and as a member of Porcupine Tree, Wilson showed obvious stylistic
affinities which enabled him to work with great competence while getting
the trust of those who had originally invented and produced that music
he worked on for those re-releases.
It's only through his work that a part of
"Prog Heritage" has appeared on the market in a more
"modern" guise, thanks to his re-mixing work, which goes well beyond
the stage we call re-mastering.
It goes without saying that, once one has
the multi-tracks at one's disposal, the options become almost limitless:
hi-rez, 5.1., vinyl - plus that big book, and the box - all become valid
options. Hence, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, EL&P, Caravan, with more
I'm afraid that for now we'll have to leave
aside the whole topic of whether this procedure has brought us aesthetically
successful fruits. There's only one question now for us to answer: Has
"specialized press" been up to the task when it comes to giving
readers the proper amount of information when it comes to those new re-releases
curated by Steven Wilson?
I have to say that the answer is a resounding
"no", the press going on in their usual "business as usual"
mode: brief interviews with the usual suspects, the same old stories behind
the original album, a few pictures, and so on.
To really know what's inside those boxes
one has no choice but to access those Forums on the Web where reliable
information appear. A few quirks and clicks were discussed, also manufacturing
defects, weird choices, and - in one case, at least - something even Wilson
did not know about. One is pleased to notice that - till they are convinced
to do otherwise by some comments that could be filed under "excessively
brutal" - producers and engineers don't avoid those places. Which
is the case of Steven Wilson, whose sincere surprise at reading about such
strange features of his mastered output makes the usual magazine fare even
With the exception of a couple of very long interviews of the
"definitive" type (one of them being available on the Web), it
appears to me that the most recent solo album by Steven Wilson, The Raven
That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), has not received a great amount
of attention (can't say if this is due to a quality judgment, or to magazines
regarding said album as something of a "niche" nature, and so outside
the scope of said magazines). I had a look at Metacritic, didn't find much;
while a Google search for reviews in Italian language showed me the usual
gallery of horrors.
The weird thing about this album, to me,
is that listeners who already know the originals, so to speak, will consider
this new work as being almost a mash-up. Which is quite weird, given the
fact that nowadays we usually encounter the act of quoting via the act
of sampling. Here, instead, quoting - as in "a reference to a specific
climate" - has both "style" and "sound" connotations,
but via a new performance on a new instrument.
So one is confronted with "Ian Anderson's
flute" playing on "Gentle Giant's Hammond", then turning
into "Mel Collins's flute on King Crimson's Happy Family in that passage
when Keith Tippett's piano is heavily featured".
And so we encounter things such as
"Keith Emerson's piano on Take A Pebble", "the Hammond mic'ed
on the bass spectrum of the Leslie on Gentle Giant's Octopus", "John
Wetton's vocals on Book Of Saturday", "Chris Squire's bass on Yes's
Fragile", "those acoustic with capo" of Jethro Tull in their
"Prog" phase, a chord progression not too far from Comfortably
Numb, the "sepulchral" bass figure from White Hammer by Van Der
Graaf Generator, King Crimson's Mellotron (for real!, it being the instrument
featured on the group's first album), and so on.
Those who are not aware of the past of this
music will have to make a wild guess.
As it's widely known, Steven Wilson asked renown engineer and producer
Alan Parsons to engineer The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories).
(In the album's liner notes Parsons is also listed as Associate Producer.)
There are many fine sounds on the album, such as the Minimoog that appears
all over the album, also in a solo on the track The Holy Drinker (though
it sounds "authentic", and it's quite recognizable, it's a
"modern" kind of Minimoog: a Voyager); and the excellent Fender
Rhodes through a ring modulator which is featured in the opening track, Luminol
(Adam Holzman being the keyboard player on the album).
The money invested in recording this album
(which I suppose to be a larger sum than the expected sales), the decision
to record the music in a large space, where musicians could perform
"live" (the string section - whose parts were arranged by a familiar
name: Dave Stewart - was recorded in U.K.), and Parsons's expected brilliance
when it comes to engineering, all contribute to something that could be called
It goes without saying that the dynamic range
of the music featured on the CD - which, when compared to past recordings
in this "genre", cannot be defined as being extraordinary - is
absolutely gorgeous when compared with the one that's typical of today's
releases. The funny thing is that this dimension is nowadays totally absent
in the discussion about music in the majority of magazines: neither hyper-compressed
CDs nor recordings of laudable musical richness are mentioned as such.
So, once again, I'll have to wonder out loud about what kind of devices
are being employed to listen to the music writers tell their readers about.
As we all know, one day "Prog" died. The preferred popular
version is that plebs got tired of people like Rick Wakeman and his cape,
and they revolted against the status quo. But this is a story that doesn't
hold water, and never did, otherwise people's "friendly fire" would
have spared fantastic but far from solvent groups such as Hatfield And
Instead, the death of "Prog"
signals the start of a deep divorce between complexity and crowds.
The aforementioned Dave Stewart had talked
about a couple of bad points that were typical of "Prog" (briefly:
something to do with timbre, and the type of rhythmic complexity), and
in the 80s he acted upon his beliefs, recording a series of very fine albums
with vocalist Barbara Gaskin (among them, I'll mention As Far As Dreams
Can Go and The Big Idea), which at the time were maybe not understood,
nor appreciated, enough.
But I have to say that when I happen to read
those threads about "The best "Prog" groups of the last
twenty years" I don't have the impression that there are many fantastic
groups ready to be discovered as soon as a new audience with longer attention
spans start listening for real. I'm also struck by the almost complete
disappearance of "jazz" as an influence, whereas one can find
such things as ambient, techno, lotsa metal, and even Radiohead (today's
Pink Floyd?), something which to me speaks volumes about the real place
of jazz in younger people's lives.
There are many things that are held against "Prog", one of
them being its "lack of irony", and its heavy dose of apparent
intellectual work. This is not something that's only the exclusive province
"Prog", as it's demonstrated by this quote from a review of Steely
Dan's Aja by Michael Duffy which appeared on Dec. 1, 1977 on US biweekly
Rolling Stone (sorry, no issue #):
"Aja will continue to fuel the argument
by rock purists that Steely Dan's music is soulless, and by its calculated
nature antithetical to what rock should be." (...) "What underlies
Steely Dan's music - and may, with this album, be showing its limitations
- is its extreme intellectual self-consciousness, both in music and lyrics."
As it's widely known, "Prog" greatly prized clarity, starting
with listening conditions. Those who, at the time of the album's original
release, saw the picture of Pink Floyd's instrumentation which appeared
on the back cover of the album titled Ummagumma, noticed those red letters
appearing on the group's P.A. columns: WEM. A name one had already seen
in those pictures from the Rolling Stones' free concert in Hyde Park in
July, and from those pictures taken at the Blind Faith's debut concert
in Hyde Park, the previous month. Also, the previous year, on the cover
of Jethro Tull's debut album, This Was.
Pink Floyd were maybe those who most tried
to encourage progress in the field of amplification in a live setting,
when it comes to listening clarity and innovative techniques such as quad.
Wouldn't it be nice to have somebody tell this long tale? Done: Mark Cunningham's
series, which appeared in the monthly Sound On Stage starting with issue
number 5, March 1997, under the title: Welcome To The Machine - The Story
Of Pink Floyd's Live Sound. (Just do a search.)
When it comes to "Prog", those album covers by the studio
Hipgnosis are bound to be mentioned, more than once. There are quite a
few books dealing with the story of the studio's ouput in the days of their
"classic period", the most recent (that I know of) being the one
by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell which appeared under the title For
The Love Of Vinyl - The Album Art Of Hipgnosis, published by Picturebox,
Now I'm going to quote from the contribution
of Graphic Designer and Artist Paula Scher, written about the world-famous
cover of the Pink Floyd album titled Atom Heart Mother, which appears on
pp. 128-130 of the aforementioned volume:
"I would be inspired by this magic for
the next 30 years. I would remember that it was possible to create icons
and enigmas for things that sell en masse. I would remember that it was
possible to create something that could engage and inspire all kinds of
people without compromise and without cynicism. And everyday, I would try
again to make my own version of that spectacular cow. I'm still trying."
© Beppe Colli 2013
| Apr. 10, 2013