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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2016 03:34PM

April 1976. Forty years ago. This was late summer-early autumn in the progressive rock golden era timeline though none of us knew it at the time; it was also in the middle of the major player hiatus and consequently there were only three significant releases that month which, on reflection, may have been an indication of change in the musical landscape. During this period I had limited cash for buying albums, though my part-time job delivering the Cancer and Polio Research Fund News Letter to households around the Infield and Hawcoat wards of Barrow could sometimes result in a substantial tip if the recipient won a respectable sum on one of the bingo cards that were sold with the newsletter. Back then I was still catching up with previous releases by a range of prog bands and it wasn’t until a few years later that I acquired the cream of the April 1976 crop: Moonmadness by Camel, Interview by Gentle Giant and Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator.

There isn’t too much common ground between the three albums with Camel’s efforts moving from symphonic prog towards a jazz-tinged melodic prog, Gentle Giant providing their usual eclectic mix of styles, albeit with a distinct rockier feel than some of their earlier work that equates to an increased degree of accessibility, and Van der Graaf Generator’s second release from the stabilised second generation four piece which I believe represents the creative pinnacle of their career, more composed (in both senses of the word) than the albums of the 70 – 72 incarnation and Godbluff (1975) with some of Hammill’s best lyrics and exploration of philosophy.


Moonmadness hardly needs any introduction. The last release by the original line-up, this was a deliberate move by the band to create something other than ‘son of Snow Goose’, and the result was an album loosely held together with the concept that each of the main tracks represented a member of the band: Chord Change is keyboard player Pete Bardens; Another Night is bassist Doug Ferguson; Air Born is guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is drummer Andy Ward. The album title comes from a pun on Lunar Sea and there are other references to the moon throughout the album, from lyrics on Another Night to the title of the concise opening track Aristillus, a prominent impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium. This song features Andy Ward reciting ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’ (a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus.)

All the preceding Camel albums contained songs of a uniformly high standard and Snow Goose stands out as a major composition that never dips in quality. The band was finding its feet with the eponymous debut and got more confident, and heavier, with Mirage (1974). Moonmadness returns to the song format but the quality has notched up a level and though on balance I probably prefer Snow Goose, its successor rates very highly with Lunar Sea remaining one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. Though most evident on Lunar Sea which features alternating lead guitar and keyboard lines, the entire album has a very satisfactory balance and neither Bardens nor Latimer comes out as particularly dominant, with the lead musicians giving each other ample space to conjure those beautiful, melodic lines. The rhythm section also performs admirably; I’ve always been a fan of Andy Ward’s drumming but Doug Ferguson, if we had to choose the weakest contributor, provides really solid bass throughout and positively bubbles on Lunar Sea.

Interview could almost act as a statement of Gentle Giant’s career up to that point. The subject matter concerns some well-trodden Giant subject material, concerning aspects of the music business, with another look at a roadie’s perspective but there was supposed to be a concept behind the whole project, the crassness of the interview process to publicise the output of a band. There are clips of an imaginary interview: “how would you describe your music?” Unfortunately the concept falls a little flat, without any real conviction and the interviewer is Phil Sutcliffe, one of the only journalists to genuinely appreciate the band.

Musically, the title track which opens the album continues from where 1975’s Free Hand left off. It’s clever, rocky and accessible, a style that continues on the original LP side 2 opener Another Show. Empty City is more gentle and reflective but it’s only in the first half of final track I Lost My Head, that the band show off their acoustic, medieval chops, then conclude with a muscular, rocking section that is also featured on the live set Playing the Fool (1977); I think this is probably the most satisfactory track on the album. The one departure from the previous Giant musical direction comes in the form of the proto reggae of Give it Back which reminds me of Dreadlock Holiday, the most memorable single from 10cc’s Bloody Tourists (1978.) Though there are a number of parallels with Free Hand, the production on Interview allows a good deal of space between the instruments that almost adds a feeling of sparseness. Gentle Giant remain one of the only progressive rock bands I never got to see, even outside of the golden era but at least their music seems to have reached a wider audience than that attained during the 70s.


When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.
When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.

There’s a sort of roughness to the production of the early 70s VdGG albums, with the surprise possible exception of H to He, which suits the music. Godbluff is also fairly raw in contrast to Still Life which comes across as though the band have spent as much time as they needed to produce the record. It sounds well rehearsed and controlled so that even when the band lets rip it almost feels as though they’ve got something in reserve. Not that Still Life could truly be described as polished in the sense of being over-produced; the anthemic Pilgrims and the full-on La Rossa were written during the Godbluff sessions so that in effect the band only required three pieces to complete the album, arriving at the hymn-like title track, the relatively calm My Room (Waiting for Wonderland) where the lyrics really grabbed me: “Searching for diamonds in a sulphur mine...” and the deep, epically structured Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End. The band employed some simple and effective devices during the recording with the aim of stirring the listeners’ emotions, including delaying the introduction of the drums (and horns) on the track Still Life and using single-track vocals on My Room, where there’s also some fine bass work from Banton. The cover photo by Paul Brierley adds to the impression that considerable thought went into the making of the album. A chance find in a magazine, the image is of electrical discharge from a Van der Graaf generator though I’ve always felt that it had the appearance of mineralisation or a treated photograph of a fossil fern, a reference to still life. The Paul Whitehead sleeves may have been iconic but Still Life is class. It’s not an easy album to listen to, coming across more of an aural assault and I still don’t think my brother Tony gets it, even though he was the one that got me into progressive rock in the first place. I think it’s a brilliant work, one of the best pieces of music to emerge from the whole of 1976 and probably the most adventurous; Van der Graaf Generator didn’t really know how to play safe!






By ProgBlog, Aug 5 2015 09:10PM

The skies over Croydon last Friday night (31/7/15) were cloud-free and, despite the light pollution from the streets, the ‘blue moon’ was really clear. I’m something of a fan of astronomy and as a youth members of the Infield Park Gang (IPG) would venture off to watch meteor showers from the vantage point of a local school playground, lying down so that the town’s sodium streetlights were obscured by the surrounding trees, or heading off to the ruins of nearby Furness Abbey, nestled in the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade where the night skies were so dark it could be quite hazardous walking up Manor Road in the direction of Yarlside; we used to frequent The New Commercial in Newton (now The Village Inn) at the top end of the derelict iron ore mine workings, a free house where the beer was excellent and the juke box contained a reasonable selection of prog and prog-lite, possibly where I first heard Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush.

The term ‘blue moon’ is a bit of a misnomer and a bit confusing. The moon reflects the sun and appears yellow-white as normal but the name, which had been documented well over 100 years before the popular definition ascribed by amateur astronomer James Hugh Pruett in 1946 was simplified to indicate the second full moon in a calendar month. The lunar cycle of 29.5 days means that Pruett’s blue moons occur seven times every 19 years; the original name derives from the Native American Algonquin, who gave names to all full moons throughout the year and introduced the Blue Moon, the fourth full moon in a single season, as a way of maintaining their lunar-calendar month alignment. So is an event described as ‘once in a blue moon’ rare? With an occurrence of once every 2.7 years they are certainly infrequent...

The moon is highly symbolic with multiple meanings and interpretations, primarily based on observations of its regular cycle; the brightness of the full moon waning to complete darkness at the new moon and waxing again to the full moon. At a very basic level the constant regular appearance, growth and subsequent disappearance can be interpreted as a symbol of life, death and rebirth. The reflectivity of the moon – the albedo (as in Albedo 0.39 by Vangelis, the reflectivity of the earth in 1976 when the album was released) – averages at 0.12 due to the changes of brightness linked to different lunar phases and gives rise to the notion of the moon as a mirror that reflects the mystery and fear within our souls.

The common association of the moon with femininity comes about because lunar cycles were thought to mirror the life of a woman, a representative of the Triple Goddess; her three incarnations of maiden, mother, and crone were matched with the lunar phases of new, full, and old so that the complete triad of goddesses is symbolised in the changing face of the moon. Another reason that the changing moon is particularly associated with women is because the regular lunar cycle closely matches the menstrual cycle. The English word month is derived from the Anglo-Saxon monath, from mona, the moon; menses is from the Latin mensis, meaning month. This once more brings to mind Kate Bush who not only injected literacy into the pop world but featured a song about menstruation, Strange Phenomena, on her debut album The Kick Inside (1978). The space rock of early Gong, most notably Camembert Electrique (1971) which features the so-called space whisper of Gilli Smyth strikes me as feminine, if we’re allowed to attach gender to music, an opinion possibly influenced by the inclusion of the track Selene - the Greek goddess of the moon; also, the influence of Gong on Steve Hillage, even after he’d left the band in December 1975 along with girlfriend Miquette Giraudy, may have been partially responsible for Lunar Musick Suite (from L, 1976.)

With the plethora of possible interpretations, the moon makes a number of appearances in the prog canon, from the straightforward interpretation of the moon landings on Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), a documentary film that was originally shown without narration, simply featuring footage of the Apollo space missions with Eno’s predominantly dark ambient soundtrack, to the moon as a symbol of reflected self in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon where every day pressures can lead to madness. Eno has indicated his album is intended to be an exploration of space travel, not some kind of adventure film soundtrack and I think the moods he successfully creates somehow tap into the idea of expanding the human experience, something that has acted as an inspiration for some of my own ambient music (Lunar Surface Magnetic Anomalies, 2013.)

Camel’s Moonmadness (1976) might not seem to be a conceptual piece of work on first hearing, certainly not in the Dark Side mould, but moon references recur throughout the album. The short first track Aristillus is named after a prominent lunar impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium and features drummer Andy Ward reciting the names ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’, the latter being a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus. The obvious moon reference is the track Lunar Sea (hence Moonmadness) which is one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. The alternating guitar and keyboard leads are understated and beautifully melodic, giving the track a great balance; the Moog tones evoke the ebb and flow of a cosmic ocean and Ward’s drumming is neat and crisp while Doug Ferguson’s bass bounces and bubbles. Even the heavy Another Night gets in a lunar reference: “Dark Clouds before my eyes / Can’t face the morning skies / Day comes a day too soon / I’m waiting for that silver moon” but Camel had set out to avoid a concept album in the style of Snow Goose after pressure from their record companies; if Moonmadness has a loose concept it’s that four of the tracks are said to represent the members of the band: Chord Change is Pete Bardens; Another Night is Doug Ferguson; Air Born is Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is Andy Ward.

Another moon link is on Mad Man Moon from Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail (1976) though I don’t think it’s really about madness or the moon, just an obsession with what others have: envy. I’ve racked my brains trying to find some link between the lyrics and the title of the song, other than in the line of the chorus, but Tony Banks sticks pretty much to drought/flood imagery. I recall Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Act 2 scene 2: “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon” but, despite the allusion to lost love, I suspect I’m way off the mark.

The moon represents mystery but the moon landings, coinciding with the rise of progressive rock, may have resolved some of the unknowns. This has encouraged prog to delve deeper into the cosmos.



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