By ProgBlog, Dec 11 2016 08:03PM
It’s interesting to see how progressive rock faces the future. One of my latest gig attendances was for newcomer act ESP launching their debut CD Invisible Din, though the combined pedigree of the performers both on the new album and those playing live hardly warrants the ‘newcomer’ tag. ESP performed an updated symphonic prog rock which acknowledged some of the most influential movers from the first wave of prog but still managed to sound relevant and contemporary, not unlike some of the newer Italian bands, expressive and almost operatic. The stylistic contrast with Lazuli, who I witnessed at London’s Borderline last week could hardly have been greater. Lazuli have been around since 1998 and are well known and respected in their native France and around mainland Europe but have not had very much exposure in the UK, despite wowing crowds at Summers End in 2011 and 2013. Their music falls within the prog sphere but it is closer to the Peter Gabriel end of the spectrum, more akin to world music, especially their take on North African sounds and scales. Somewhat surprisingly given the heavy edge to much of their material and subject matter which includes a message supporting the cause to end violence against women and an indictment of the rise of the right-wing in France, it has an infectious joyfulness. Lazuli first came to my notice when I saw them at the Prog Résiste festival in Belgium in 2014 and it was quite obvious they were not only unique but that they had a devoted following on the continent so I wrote to Prog magazine to tell readers to make sure they went to see them when they next played in the UK. It’s likely that Lazuli will get a live review in the next edition of the magazine but ESP, who did have a Prog Italia journalist and photographer in attendance, have had neither an album nor live review.
From the recent to the beginning
If we accept that the progressive rock genre started in 1969 it’s hardly surprising that, given there have been 46 intervening years, a number of the main protagonists should no longer be with us. The prog world has once more been rocked by the death of one of the most important members of the prog family, Greg Lake, who succumbed to cancer earlier this week.
Lake’s influence can’t be underestimated. As a member of the first incarnation of King Crimson, it could be argued that he was one of the five young men at the vanguard of the movement, the coalescence of a musical idiom which was served fully formed as the LP In the Court of the Crimson King but also, according to music journalists and critics, a perpetrator of excess and pretentiousness, one of a handful of individuals responsible for the downfall of the genre at the end of the 70s. I first heard him on the self-titled ELP debut which I originally picked up because I was interested in Keith Emerson’s career development following the demise of The Nice. Emerson, Lake & Palmer remains one of my favourite albums, where despite my adoration of Emerson’s previous musical vehicle, there’s a noticeable qualitative improvement and cohesiveness on the first ELP album. This can be partly ascribed to the nature of the Nice albums, where The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) was really psychedelia and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) a mixture of psychedelia and proto-prog; these two albums are entirely studio efforts but suffer from poor production. The subsequent three albums Nice (1969), Five Bridges (1970) and Elegy (1971) all contain a mix of studio and live tracks. Although, in my opinion, Emerson Lake & Palmer is dominated by Emerson, in recognition of the status of the bassist and the drummer, both having come from successful bands, the contribution of Lake and Palmer is essential to the sound and feel of the album. Lake’s crystal clear voice was key to the sound of the first Crimson LP and made ELP far more accessible than The Nice, where Lee Jackson took on main vocal duties. Though all members of the band seemed happy with adaptations of classical pieces I’d always credited Emerson as the main proponent, balanced with the acoustic sensibility of Lake. Take a Pebble ticks all the right boxes for me by virtue of the amazing piano and the ensemble playing and if I’m honest I could live without the solo acoustic sections. Lucky Man is a different kettle of fish, where Emerson’s Moog is simply the icing on a near-perfect song. His experience with King Crimson coupled with reluctance from Emerson and Palmer to get involved meant that record production duties became the responsibility of Lake; the result is a well-balanced sound on the majority of the tracks tough I find The Three Fates a bit muddy. It’s clear that there were personality clashes between Lake and Emerson and initial splits over the direction of Tarkus (1971) seemed quite serious. Fortunately, Lake got on board and the Tarkus suite has become one of my most admired ELP long-form pieces, but there’s a lack of consistency on side two. Trilogy (1972) suffers from a similar fate, where the longer tracks are brilliant but there’s an abundance of shorter, throw-away music.
I suspect the mix of the serious, multi-part compositions and the short, not necessarily progressive rock songs was part of the reason for ELP’s success, where they could attract both the prog crowd and more adventurous rock ‘n’ rollers. I also think that the approach of ELP helped to bridge the gap between popular and classical music, introducing a new generation to the delights of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Bach but also opening our eyes to Copland and Ginastera. Brain Salad Surgery (1973) was a more consistent album but the production was thin and biased towards the treble. The triple live Welcome Back My Friends... (1974) may have been a triumph but the years spent touring, putting on huge shows with equipment unloaded from three articulated lorries, became another stick with which to beat the band as the music industry was changing in their absence; ELP’s excess was in stark contrast to the pared back ideology and sounds of punk. Even I wondered about Lake’s ‘plutonium’ bike mentioned in one of the music papers! All of this meant that the pretentiously-titled Works Vol.1 (1977) was hardly likely to be greeted with open arms by the critics. The band material was good but I thought it was spoiled by Emerson’s predilection for the Yamaha GX-1. I loved his Piano Concerto but much of the writing on the Lake and Palmer sides wasn’t really up to scratch and as a whole, the double LP was a bit like Fragile taken to extreme.
After Works Vol.1 I gave up on ELP, foregoing Works Vol.2 and Love Beach and not realising the three protagonists had toured in 1992 having reformed for Black Moon. The live album recorded at the Royal Albert Hall captures the band back on form and I wish I’d paid more attention to listing magazines at the time. I went to see Greg Lake at the Fairfield Halls in 2005, based on the mooted set list and was very pleasantly surprised. His voice wasn’t as clear as it had been 30 years previously but his band performed admirable versions of ELP and King Crimson numbers.
I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010 on the 40th anniversary of their debut album which featured prominently. Despite a couple of minor problems they were totally amazing and I’m really pleased to have been there because it turned out to be their last ever gig.
I’m not a fan of the 45rpm single but, like many prog fans, I have a soft spot for Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas – Lake and Sinfield at their concise best with a bit of Prokofiev thrown in. Lake is likely to be remembered for this single more than his contribution to progressive rock but he was there at the beginning of prog and shaped those early years with his choirboy voice, deft bass and acoustic songs. His death marks another major loss to the prog world.
Greg Lake b. 10th November 1947 d. 7th December 2016