By ProgBlog, Oct 18 2015 10:09PM

Back in 1972, when I started listening to progressive rock and Focus 3 was circulating between brother Tony’s friends, I didn’t make any distinction between groups of different nationalities. From a starting point of Close to the Edge and spreading out to early ELP via the collected works of The Nice, Focus were one of the first bands that I heard and they simply fitted into the spectrum of music that I liked; jazz, classical, early music, blended in with rock instrumentation. The inclusion of flute also made an impression on me and I’m a strong advocate of the instrument in prog. There was a short period in very early 1973 where I’d turn on my small medium wave radio with its single earpiece and tune in to Radio Luxembourg (208m) and the first song I’d hear would be Sylvia. This short, melodic piece is something of a classic and though prog bands tended not to be interested in chart-topping singles, it ended up being Focus’ biggest international hit. I didn’t buy Focus 3 until 1976 (it seemed to me to be quite expensive, even for a double album) but Tony bought Moving Waves (1971) not long after we’d discovered the band and we bought Hamburger Concerto (1974) at the time it was released. Taken as a whole, I think I prefer Hamburger over Moving Waves, probably because of the more varied instrumentation. The two long-form compositions, Eruption and Hamburger Concerto are both brilliant examples of the genre; on Moving Waves the tracks on side one highlight the band’s influences but on Hamburger the tracks are all much more like full-on prog, including a Hocus Pocus reprise in the equally bonkers Harem Scarem. Focus 3 contained the epic Anonymous II running at over 26 minutes but even at this early stage in my understanding of music, I thought that it sounded like a studio jam that pushed the boundaries of taste with the extended bass and drum solos. However, such was my appreciation for Focus, they were one of the very first groups I went to see play live. Unfortunately, Jan Akkerman had left the band and guitar duties were taken up by Philip Catherine so I found the performance a bit disappointing; added to that was the fact that I wasn’t too familiar with the current material (from Mother Focus, 1975) and what I had heard wasn’t too much like Hamburger or anything prior to that. On reflection, Hamburger was a high point and it wasn’t until Focus 9 (2006) when Thijs van Leer was once more reunited with classic-Focus period drummer Pierre van der Linden that I thought them sufficiently progressive enough to afford them another chance. The first time I saw the reformed Focus was at Chislehurst’s Beaverwood Club in October 2010 and they were brilliant. Van Leer has never taken himself too seriously but still managed to produce some incredible music. This performance mixed the early, classic material with some up-to-date songs such as the humorous Aya-Yuppie-Hippie-Yee which fitted in neatly with the 70s music. Bobby Jacobs (bass) was a constant from the original reformed line-up from 2002 but guitarist Niels van der Steenhoven and Pierre van der Linden were new recruits. Van der Steenhoven handled the original Akkerman guitar parts beautifully. Prog mate Gina Franchetti accompanied me to this gig – she was something of a Beaverwood Club regular – and happily engaged van Leer in conversation after the show, where he revealed a love for Italian food.

My next exposure to prog from the Netherlands was seeing Trace on BBC TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, performing Gaillarde from their first, eponymous album Trace (1974.) Having only previously seen Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson with large, multi-keyboard rigs, I was stunned by Rick van der Linden’s keyboards. I noted, though, that he was an ARP synthesizer man, without a Moog in sight. Based on the third movement of JS Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major (BWV 971) and a traditional Polish dance, Gaillarde is more Emerson than Wakeman, predominantly organ-driven, a classical interpretation performed by a trio. Self-taught bassist Jaap van Eik plays neat contrapuntal lines and ex-Focus drummer (playing his transparent Perspex kit on the Whistle Test) lays down jazz patterns, sometimes at breakneck speed. There’s a drum solo on the album (The Lost Past) which calls to mind the drum solo at the end of Eruption (Endless Road) from Moving Waves, but it somehow seems to fit the Trace album better, sandwiched between two parts of the haunting A Memory, a song based on a traditional Swedish piece of music. My copy of Trace was bought in 1975 and remains one of my favourite albums. The follow-up album, Birds was released in 1975, this time incorporating more van der Linden penned pieces and featuring ex-Darryl Way’s Wolf drummer Ian Mosley, Way was a guest on the album playing violins on Opus 1065, another Trace interpretation of JS Bach. My copy, the cover of which was damaged during storage sometime in the last 20 years, was bought from the Leeds University record store on a trip to see Rick Wakeman playing in the uni refectory in May 1976. Like classic Focus albums, Birds contains a multi-section suite which takes up the entire second side of the LP.

I’ve since supplemented my vinyl with CDs and also picked up a copy of The White Ladies (1976) that I saw in Dublin a couple of years ago. Though ascribed to Trace, The White Ladies is Rick van der Linden and his former Ekseption colleagues. I first heard about Ekseption, a pre- and post-Trace band, in around 2004 when I subscribed to a Rick van der Linden internet newsletter that was run by his wife Inez. During this time he was suffering from some of the major complications of diabetes, requiring eye surgery and, if memory serves correctly, needing a pancreas transplant; he died in January 2006 from complications following a stroke. I bought a second-hand copy of what fans regard as the best Ekseption album, Beggar Julia’s Time Trip (1969) for £8 from Beanos and identified portions that van der Linden would recycle for Trace, most notably Bach’s Italian Concerto. Though somewhat experimental it is a good example of fusing rock and the classics, with a bit of jazz thrown in. Whereas Focus and Trace are indistinguishable from British prog, Julia comes across as being different, Continental European, a facet I attribute to the spoken words by Linda van Dyck. It’s still an enjoyable album so I snapped up a CD of Ekseption 3 (1970) / Trinity (1973) when I saw it in a record store in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2009, neither of which has the same quality of composition as Julia throughout.

I was alerted to Supersister by Prog magazine and now own To the Highest Bidder (1971) and Iskander (1973.) This music is fairly complex, with Highest Bidder hinting at Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (from 1969.) The lyrics may be a bit throwaway but the music and musicianship is outstanding.

My most recent foray into prog from the Netherlands has been another time trip. I bought Earth and Fire’s Song of the Marching Children (1971) at the same time I bought The White Ladies in Dublin and though it’s not musically challenging, it’s in the same league as early Ekseption; I was also given a CD of the remastered first Earth and Fire album (1970), with the Roger Dean cover, as a birthday present this year which is really proto-prog.

I’ve made a distinction between British prog and that of other countries because I think there are stylistic variations based on local cultures and would suggest that most Italian bands have a distinct flavour that allows them to be grouped together in their own sub-genre. It may be because I got to hear Focus and Trace in the early 70s that I don’t think there’s much difference between Dutch prog and UK prog but whether or not there are differences, Focus and Trace have produced some of the best progressive rock, ever.

By ProgBlog, Jul 13 2014 01:00PM

I’ve been lucky enough to play around on a Mellotron but I didn’t have the foresight to buy the beast. I tend to regard the Tron (as aficionados apparently prefer to call it) as one of the two instruments that define prog. Though not strictly true, it did form an integral part of the sound of most symphonic prog bands that were around during the ‘golden era’, whether adding strings, flute or choir. The other instrument that has a very strong association with progressive rock is the mini-Moog.

As a youth I used to scour the music press and album sleeves for information about instruments; I understood that Chris Squire’s use of the Rickenbacker, for instance, was a key part of the sound of Yes but at the time it was something that not many rock bassists were using. My research into the mini-Moog and the Mellotron followed these lines. I remember a competition in (I think) the NME to ‘win a £400 Moog’, illustrated with a picture of Keith Emerson that clearly showed the instrument’s controls. The competition had a simple multiple choice question and the tie-breaker was a ‘describe the music of ELP in 20 words’. I submitted a pithy verse that didn’t win. The inside sleeve of Six Wives was another frequently referenced insight into keyboard instruments and the probable source of my earliest understanding of the Mellotron, with Wakeman’s two 400-Ds used for brass, strings and flute, and vocals, sound effects and vibes respectively. What I found incredibly neat was the way that a mini-Moog would sit on top of a Mellotron, as though the two instruments were made for each other. As multiple keyboard usage became the norm, this was a frequently observed set-up.

The versatility of the mini-Moog and, to a lesser extent, the VCS3 and the ARP Odyssey or ARP 2600, encouraged bands to embrace synthesizers. Whereas a Moog was a lead instrument, putting the keyboard player on the same footing as the guitarist and marking the beginning of the era of the keyboard wizard, the Mellotron was an instrument that allowed a band to enhance their overall musical presence; it was simply too clunky and mechanical to be used as an instrument for solos. This shift of emphasis from vocalist/guitarist dominance, evident in almost all straightforward rock bands, was one of the democratic facets of progressive rock; promoting a greater equality which in turn allowed more influences and subsequently, more musical possibilities.

The ARP synthesizers (after Alan Robert Pearlman) don’t seem to have been as extensively used as Moogs, though they did have notable proponents such as Tony Banks.

It’s not strictly true that the Mellotron was only used for symphonic or choral fills; after all, the nature of the beast was as a sampler, based on recordings of any manner of instrument or sound effect committed to tapes. It’s possible to discern Mellotron sounds from the real thing and I find that part of the attraction. The flute tone is one of the best known sounds and its haunting quality is what sets it apart from the woodwind; there’s an ethereal element to it that defines the mid-70s Tangerine Dream and this sound is also used to great effect by the 72-74 incarnation of King Crimson in their improvisational flights (on Providence, for example) and on Drum Folk by Greenslade. As much as I like Crimson’s doom-laden Mellotron chords I think I prefer it used for melody lines. Having sad that, the Cross-era Crimson were hardly a keyboard band and used their two Mellotrons quite differently from most bands because of the quantity of improvised material they played. Trio, from Starless and Bible Black, is an almost fragile piece, where Robert Fripp plays delicate Mellotron in response to David Cross’ plaintive violin. This track, an improvisation from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw gig of November 23rd 1973, stands out because Bill Bruford didn’t touch his drum kit and he’s credited, quite rightly in my opinion, as a composer; his decision not to add anything to the piece really enhances what must be the most sensitive track Crimson have ever recorded. Cross, in a chapter in Nick Awde’s excellent book Mellotron, describes how Crimson used to abuse their machines by jamming the selector between two settings and Trio may be an example of this, where the sound seems to hover between flute and strings.

It was Fripp who most fully documented the lack of reliability of the Mellotron during tours, especially to destinations with different mains voltages. Reliability issues, coupled with its intrinsic mass meant that many exponents ditched their Mellotrons when more portable and more reliable string synthesizers started to appear in the mid 70s. I think it’s interesting that the decline of the use of Mellotron coincides with the end of the first wave of progressive rock and, conversely, the rise and subsequent critical reacceptance of prog in the early 90s was spearheaded by bands that appreciated the analogue sounds of the bands from the 70s, such as Ånglagard and Finisterre. 1976 seems to have been a turning point; the sleeve notes of Wind and Wuthering reveal Tony Banks played both Mellotron and Roland string synthesizer, and I regard Wind and Wuthering as the last of the progressive Genesis albums.

I feel rather dismissive towards the string synth. The sound was thin and, compared to the Mellotron, lacked warmth and timbre but it also had an unforeseen economic effect. When Mellotronics went bankrupt in 1978, manufacturer Streetly Electronics were no longer allowed to use the trademark name Mellotron and had to rename the M400 model they were producing at the time the ‘Novatron’. Rick Wakeman invested heavily and unsuccessfully into a cassette-based version and his Birotron features on a handful of albums, most notably his 1977 release Criminal Record.

Mellotron restoration was featured at a King Crimson playback event in London in the late 90s and there are Mellotron conventions; I attended MelloFest 2 at the Luminaire in 2009, featuring (amongst others) Robert Webb from England and Martin Orford. The future is looking more rosy for the Mellotron. The resurgence of prog has dragged the instrument back into the sonic requirements of bands that want a fuller sound, which includes old exponents and a younger generation of musicians who appreciate the possibilities of one of the instruments that defined prog.

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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.

The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...

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