A year in the life
By ProgBlog, Dec 24 2017 12:17AM
2017 isn’t quite over but there will be a short break for ProgBlog over the Christmas period. As I type there are almost 900000 hits on the website, many of which might not be from individuals who stayed to browse but in the 45 months since the site was founded, the trickle of visitors per month has shot up, accelerating from a total of 174000 at the beginning of 2016 thanks in part to my adoption of twitter and a dedicated Facebook page, a strategy suggested by the hosts of a Guardian Masterclass in how to promote your website.
It can’t be denied that substantial proportion of music bought in the early to mid 70s, the so-called ‘golden age’ of the genre, was progressive rock, so prog wasn’t really niche because it produced some very successful acts though an observer of musical trends over the past 50 years might not think so. Fast forward to 2017 and proof that progressive rock is regarded as mainstream (or at least present and recognisable as something distinct) comes in the guise of BBC TV family quiz show Pointless series 17, episode 10, where the final round is about prog! Yet it’s hard to explain the resurgence of a musical form which attracted such vitriol at the end of the 70s, despite the fact that Prog magazine, after something of a scare this time last year, is once again thriving and obviously serving a large fan-base, and across in mainland Europe, the Prog Italia title seems to be doing well and publisher DeAgostini, in conjunction with the magazine, has started to reissue a massive series of classic progressivo Italiano records on 180g vinyl which are available from newsstands. So why exactly is prog currently in vogue when it’s not really commercial and therefore not attractive to major labels, and the struggle for bands to get heard above the competition is far more difficult now than it ever was in the 70s?
I don’t think the answer lies in 2017 but it was a year when trends seems to coalesce and were picked up by the media. This is certainly true of the vinyl revival story, despite the rise in sales commencing in 2014, if not a couple of years earlier and though vinyl isn’t restricted to prog albums, classic prog is linked to the popularity of the LP and even CD box sets now come laden with facsimiles of original sized album artwork and other goodies. Talking about the music helps enormously, whether in print like Prog magazine, via social media (where the prog community behaves more civilly than almost any other group), or at one of the increasing number of occasions where the fans are able to approach and interact with musicians face-to-face. However sad, it’s a fact that the protagonists are dying and though 2017 might have seemed less tragic in terms of numbers of recognised musicians who passed away compared to 2016, all we’re left with is the irreplaceable sonic legacy of John Wetton (who inspired me to take up the bass), Phil Miller and Allan Holdsworth. But their deaths got us talking, too. National newspaper The Guardian printed obituaries of Miller and Holdsworth and the Daily Telegraph carried an obituary of John Wetton; it is only right that we celebrate their music. As far as mainstream print media goes, I try to keep tabs on the number of mentions in The Guardian concerning progressive rock and it’s more than you might realise, from crossword clues to film reviews!
From a purely personal point of view, over the latter part of the year I’ve learned to test my boundaries a bit more. This has proved somewhat challenging because I’m someone who doesn’t use music as a backdrop to other activities as I like time to concentrate on what’s being played. On a number of occasions I’ve been asked to review (or at least listen to) some new music, which has come in a range of styles. I’m exceedingly grateful that my judgment is valued enough for complete strangers to contact me and take this as a vindication of my opinions aired via the blog and associated bits of social media. I’m sure that a graphical representation of my particular tastes would result in a normal distribution curve but the wide spectrum that makes up prog means that some of this material was going to be right up my street and some was less likely to appeal. For anyone who has sent me links to their music, please be patient; I think that the promotion of prog music is a worthwhile pursuit and I will get around to writing about it however, I do have a daytime job which sometimes carries on out-of-hours.
The point is that once I’ve agreed to give something a listen, I can’t just play it in the background while I’m doing the ironing or reading my daily newspaper and then come up with an opinion, I have to really listen and pick out moments which I like and explain why I like it. I approached Process of Illumination’s Radiant Memory with a degree of trepidation because when I read their influences I genuinely thought it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. After repeated listens I could really appreciate the guitar and keyboard interactions and maybe they did have a metal edge, but they also had a good ear for a melody and mixed adventurous complexity with ambient washes. On the other hand, An Invitation by Amber Foil sounded and looked like a slice of 70’s prog and got me hooked instantly, and then proceeded to pull me deeper into a dark and vaguely disturbing storyline; though only an EP, An Invitation is my album of the year. Dam Kat’s Alawn mixes Kate Bush with Pink Floyd and Steven Wilson and adds a dash of traditional Breton music and the result is very pleasing, so I’m glad that I was invited to listen to it; the music of Dublin’s Groundburst was new to me, despite a back catalogue of EPs stretching back 10 years, with their latest EP Triad frequenting ground shared between prog and math rock, and though a full-length album due to be released next year will include much of their devilish complexity, it’s also rumoured that lengthier tracks will allow for more symphonic development; Seattle-based Gaillion are another band I’d describe as outside my old comfort zone with a more concise approach but I can’t help but admire their musicianship and rhythmic invention on their latest CD Renewal and Release; Servants of Science from Brighton and Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate from London have both covered exceptionally deep concepts on The Swan Song and Broken but Still Standing respectively, the former about an astronaut witnessing the end of the earth from space, and the latter following the story of human evolution from the last universal common ancestor to conflict and finally symbiosis with artificial intelligence. Both are cinematic but The Swan Song tends towards haunting alt-rock and Broken but Still Standing is more in the mould of Floydian soundscapes, aided by really gorgeous flute. Both are well worth seeking out.
2017 saw me manage multiple trips to Italy where I witnessed the first ever gig by the much admired Ancient Veil, in their home city, and became one of only a couple of hundred people to see the first two performances by Melting Clock. This young Genovese band may not have released an album yet but their symphonic prog is brilliantly structured and possesses an enviable accessibility, so I’m pretty sure they’re going to do well. Another young band who did release their first album was Milan’s Cellar Noise with Alight. This harks back to classic 70s Italian prog, even though it’s sung in English and the concept is based around stations on London Underground. I caught their show at Milan’s Legend Club, part of the Z-Fest, and bought the CD immediately after they’d completed their set. I actually took in two major prog festivals over the course of the Italian summer; the Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genova and Progressivamente in Rome. The former was an international affair organised by Black Widow Records where Melting Clock debuted, and the totally free Progressivamente festival, held over five nights, featured established bands (including some which had recently reformed), presenting an unmissable opportunity to catch up on incredible music from the last 45 years. The last trip to Genova included a night at La Claque where Ancient Veil played unplugged; Melting Clock played gig no. 2 and wowed the crowd; and Phoenix Again demonstrated their quality with a brand of jazzy/heavy/symphonic/complex prog. I stayed in the city for a couple of extra days because PFM were performing at the Teatro Carol Felice and I’d managed to get a ticket.
I don’t really speak Italian so I’m indebted to all the people I met to discuss prog for kindly resorting to converse in English. This list includes a whole host of musicians from Melting Clock, Panther & C, Phoenix Again and Ingranaggi della Valle, the friendly and knowledgeable staff from Black Widow Records, promoter Marina Montobbio, and audience members at the gigs like Vincenzo Praturlon and the cousin of Semiramis bassist Ivo Mileto. Part of the attraction of Italy is seeking out record stores in the different cities, where once again communication was in English, otherwise we couldn’t have had any sort of sensible conversation. Guidance and expert advice from Genova’s Black Widow comes as part of the package but new shops were discovered in Como (Frigerio Dischi, Alta Fedità); Savona (Jocks Team); and Rome (Elastic Rock, Millerrecords).
Wandering around record stores in the south east has been a major feature of the latter part of the year. There’s a shop just around the corner of my road which I recently discovered sells second-hand vinyl but the best find is a short tram journey away, Wanted Music in Beckenham where proprietor Adriaan Neervoort keeps a wide stock of prog and electronica, in great condition and at market rates. I’ve discovered it’s often worth popping into charity shops where amongst the James Last and battered classical LPs you might find the odd gem for £1 or £2, like my French version of the Chariots of Fire soundtrack and the Synergy album Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra. Then there are the flea markets...
I attended a few gigs on UK soil, the most anticipated of which was Anderson Rabin Wakeman who I went to see in Brighton, but the highlight of the year was the Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum, an in-depth historical perspective of the band using their music and a wide range of personal and band artefacts, providing a must-see experience for any Floyd fan.
That’s 2017 in a nutshell; good bits and low points. It demonstrated that prog is still going strong and I’ve already got some events lined up for next year... Prog on!