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 says "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 "extravagant" prices.

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 he said: "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 parts."

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 the "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 to come.

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 the "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 more insipid.

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 "hyper realistic".

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 The North.

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 of "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, in 2008.

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

CloudsandClocks.net | Apr. 10, 2013