ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Sep 14 2021 09:55PM



A year after my last attendance at a live music event, 346 days to be precise, I finally got to see bands playing again. I bought my ticket for Steve Hackett at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, my local medium sized venue, due on Monday 4th October and thought that this was going to be the first gig of 2021 but I’d totally forgotten about the rearranged and re-rearranged HRH Prog X at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire which took place over the weekend of September 4th and 5th. An indication that the country is genuinely gearing-up to what musicians, the support crews and fans hope will be business as usual was the presence of flyers at the venue, advertising another multi-band gig before I get to see Hackett – A Sunday in September at The Bedford, Balham SW12, and I’ll be heading off there too on the 19th, to see Abel Ganz, The Emerald Dawn, The Gift, IT, Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate and Tom Slater.


Business as usual? I’m not a fan of how the government has handled the Covid pandemic and I’m pretty sure that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid were delighted to announce the end of all public health restrictions in England on July 19th, in effect washing their hands of responsibility for what has turned out to be a sharp rise in Covid-related cases and concomitant hospitalisations and deaths. How much would it cost to enforce mask wearing in enclosed spaces and to maintain measures to ensure physical distancing? It was interesting to note that during the Prime Minister’s statement on Afghanistan in Parliament all but six of the Tory MPs crammed onto the government benches were without facemasks, while almost all the opposition MPs were masked and observing some degree of social distancing. This was on a day when 41192 new cases of Covid infection were recorded along with 7606 Covid patients in hospital and 45 Covid-related deaths; if this is to be the new normal, I don’t really want to be a part of it. I’d rather gigs were postponed and all those in the industry were properly supported – the furlough scheme hardly touched musicians and the industry that supports live music. A truly radical Chancellor of the Exchequer would have used the pandemic to introduce a Universal Basic Income for all.


The Covid-prevention measures in place at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire were rational and well-organised. ‘Rock The Mask’ posters were everywhere and the organisers had sensibly signed up to the use of the so-called Covid Passport. The prog-watching demographic should mostly be covered by double vaccination and I like to think that if you think about your music you’re also likely to think about the benefits of being vaccinated and maybe subscribe to the view that it’s pretty important to ensure the rest of the world gets vaccinated before we head any further down the road to the old normality. Let’s be quite clear here, as much as I’ve missed being in Italy I’m not happy about travelling while cases continue to rise in the UK and less than 30% of the world’s population is double vaccinated. The virus is still circulating and sooner or later a vaccine-avoiding variant is going to emerge unless we respond globally, and quickly. Individuals need to get a grip – write to your MP and tell them to put people before the economy. I’d be happy for a circuit-breaker if that becomes necessary, on the condition that the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Culture Secretary all acknowledge how much the UK music industry generates for the economy and ensure that no one in the business slips through the support net again if live music has to temporarily stop.


My previous HRH Prog experience (HRH Prog 4 in 2016) was something of a mixed bag. The venue was fine, especially if you were in one of the apartments rather than a mobile home, and there is a lot to see in the Welsh countryside around the Hafan y Mor site when not listening to music. However, a major complaint aired by the three travellers in the car heading home at the end of the weekend was ‘where was the prog?’ I don’t mean to get into a ‘what is prog?’ argument but the unannounced replacement of Curved Air with Purson was a major disappointment because Purson played psychedelic-tinged rock. And who ever labelled Edgar Broughton as progressive rock? On the other hand, I did enjoy Caravan, Soft Machine, Focus and Ian Anderson though I’d certainly have been more reluctant to sign up to the event back in 2020 if I’d known I was going to see the line-up as it appeared this year.


Ticking off Soft Machine in 2016 was a milestone. Without any of the original members they were still worthy of the band name, with John Marshall, Roy Babbington and John Etheridge all having served time in the outfit during the 70s when the line-up was in near constant flux. This year’s equivalent was getting to see Colosseum, a band I've not seen before on my list as a ‘must-see’. I probably heard Colosseum II before I heard any original Colosseum and my collection still only consists of the Daughter of Time compilation CD and Valentyne Suite on vinyl, so my appreciation of the band, without Jon Hiseman who died in 2018 and Dick Heckstall-Smith who died in 2004 but also missing Dave Greenslade who retired in 2015 was largely going to be based on unknowns. Long-standing guitarist and bassist Clem Clempson and Mark Clarke were present along with vocalist Chris Farlowe, accompanied by Malcolm Mortimore (ex-Gentle Giant) on drums, Kim Nishikawara on saxophones, and Nick Steed on organ. I loved the two instrumentals at the start of the set but I'm not a fan of blues-rock which unfortunately made up the majority of their material, so I was a little disappointed with the rest of the performance, even though the playing couldn't be faulted.

One useless fact I picked up was Clempson and Farlowe are fans of the venue because neither had too far to travel; Clempson lives about 200m away!



Ozric Tentacles were another band I'd not seen before and one where I'd toyed with the idea of buying one of their early albums – my local second-hand record shop had a copy of Pungent Effulgent but by the time I’d made up my mind to obtain it, someone had got there before me. Suffice to say it wasn’t quite what I was expecting and no psychoactive substances on the planet could have helped me comprehend the music even though I’d describe myself as an old hippie. I thought it lacked tonality and was a little shambolic, exemplified by former member-now guest synth player Joie Hinton who couldn’t get his keyboard rig to work.



On Sunday the first act of note was Bram Stoker, a band formed in the late 60s who would acquire a 'Progressive-Classical-Rock-Gothic-Psychedelic Rock' tag over the next three years, later categorised by Black Widow Records’ Massimo Gasperini as 'dark prog'.

This was an enjoyable set dipping into the band's past - they disbanded in 1972 and reformed in 2009 but underwent a personnel change in 2014 and again in 2019, the one constant being Tony Bronsdon on keyboards. I recognised Fast Decay, Like Autumn Now and Joust from Cold Reading (2014), a collaboration with Tony Lowe which revisits a little of the material from the debut album, and having recently read Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, dubbed 'the first Gothic novel', loved Otranto from the 2019 album No Refection.



Atomic Rooster were another band I’d wanted to see and another band where I’d thought about buying either the eponymous debut or Death Walks Behind You because of their importance in the prog canon, but I’ve always been put off by their blues roots.

Formed in 1969 after splintering from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (the preceding act at the festival, skipped for a trip into Shepherd’s Bush for something to eat), organist Vincent Crane was the only constant member of Atomic Rooster in a perpetually changing line-up until his death in 1989. His widow gave permission for the band to reform in 2016 with sometime members Pete French (vocals) and Steve Bolton (guitar), plus bassist Shug Millidge and drummer Bo Walsh, and the 2017 recruit Adrian Gautrey on organ, who managed to fill some pretty large boots. At the end of the set I was still reluctant to take a chance on one of the albums.



I hadn’t intended to listen to the Threshold performance but sat through what I thought was pretty uninspired prog metal. The bass was quite upfront, not necessarily a bad thing, but the keyboards were terribly under-mixed resulting in music lacking variation, more metal than prog despite the theatrical delivery. Johanne James’ drumstick twiddling deserves a mention because there was an awful lot of it!



The headline act was The Enid, who I’d been listening to since the mid-late 70s but didn’t get to see them play live until 1983 and witnessing The Spell premiered at the Hammersmith Odeon. I most recently saw them with Joe Payne in 2014 in Balham and 2016 at HRH Prog 4 and was disappointed on both occasions, but their performance at HRH Prog X was by far the best I've seen, including the poignant In the Region of the Winter Stars - a rearrangement of the familiar Summer Stars.



The Enid provided an excellent end to the weekend as HRH Prog X marked the beginning of a return to live prog. I’ve done my best to follow the scientific advice to minimise the spread of Covid and there was a feeling that most of the audience, certainly the others with VIP tickets on level 2 where face masks were evident if not always covering mouths and noses, took the step to normality with an appropriate degree of caution. The musicians were obviously relieved to be performing once again but I really don’t think we should rush into getting back to live events as they were up to March 2020, abandoning mitigating measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Sure, the pandemic has been dragging on for 18 months now and we’re all getting antsy but it’s a careful approach, taken by each and every one of us, which will ensure we do finally emerge from the coronavirus nightmare without losing more family, friends and musicians unnecessarily.











By ProgBlog, Jul 22 2018 05:05PM

Taking their name from the 1873 extended poem Une Saison en Enfer by Arthur Rimbaud, dramatised in the 1971 film Una Stagione all’Inferno, a French-Italian production directed by Nelo Risi which tells the life and death of Rimbaud and his troubled relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine, Una Stagione all'Inferno were formed in 1997 by Fabio Nicolazzo, a guitarist from Genoa's gothic rock scene and the classically trained pianist Laura Menighetti. Augmented by bassist Diego Banchero from Genovese prog band Il Segno del Comando, original Il Segno del Comando drummer Carlo Opisso and Francesco Scariti, they released their interpretation of the theme tune to 70s Italian TV mini-series L'amaro caso della Baronessa di Carini, renaming it La ballata di Carini, which was included on the soundtrack compilation E tu vivrai nel terrore released on the Black Widow Records label in 1998. The band had originally intended to write a concept album based on the show but disagreements within the band led to a rejection of the idea, and put the group on hold.



Nicolazzo and Menighetti reformed the band with new members in 2011 and, undeterred by the difficulties posed by complex concepts, decided to write a piece of music based on Il Mostro di Firenze (The Monster of Florence) which was eventually released in spring 2018 on Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 676). Il Mostro di Firenze is the name commonly applied by the Italian media for a series of eight double murders that took place between 1968 and 1985 in the province of Florence. Law enforcement departments conducted a number of investigations into the cases over the course of several years; the victims were young couples who parked or camped in countryside areas in the vicinity of Florence during the new moon, killed using a variety of weapons including a .22 calibre gun and a knife. There appeared to be a sexual element to the murders because the sex organs were cut out from the bodies of some of the female victims. After an innocent man was convicted, the killer struck again and eventually the authorities concluded that the murders were not committed by a single person but by a group of at least four perpetrators the so-called ‘Picnic Comrades’ who were later caught and convicted.

This release falls very neatly into the category of dark prog, something I didn’t know existed until I got chatting to the proprietors of Genova’s Black Widow Records shop. The shop itself is named after the original purveyors of dark prog, the UK’s Black Widow, a favourite of Massimo Gasperini. Black Widow’s debut Sacrifice from 1970 is considered a prog classic, possibly due to the controversy stoked by the media surrounding the inclusion of occult themes, absent on subsequent releases, although they were quite innovative for a band with heavy rock leanings (c.f. Black Sabbath) with flute, sax and clarinet supplementing the usual rock instrumentation. Massimo explained that they ticked all the right boxes for a rock band: a powerful and hypnotic sound; gothic in nature; a spectacular live show. I think that the flute and clarinet add a folk element, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Massimo also adds Comus to his list of dark prog bands, along with Atomic Rooster, Audience, Beggars Opera, Bram Stoker, Dr. Z, High Tide, Indian Summer, Kingdom Come (and other Arthur Brown projects) and Quatermass. These groups represent the early period of progressive rock and, as far as the British incarnation goes, that might be part of the defining feature as there are often psychedelic and more blues-based influences; he’s even willing to suggest that some Hawkwind, the first two King Crimson albums and the 68-76 incarnations of Van der Graaf Generator are dark enough to fit the description. The inclusion of flute is considered an important instrument in the genre, along with up-front guitar and Mellotron but the demonic band name King Crimson and some of the dark themes of Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator, like Necromancer from The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969) and White Hammer from The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other (1970) are surely sufficient to warrant an inclusion.



The ProgBlog selection of UK dark prog
The ProgBlog selection of UK dark prog

Though there are worldwide examples like Akasha (Norway), some material by Amon Düül (Germany), some Ange (France), Coven (USA), some Magma (France), Morte Macabre (Sweden), Univers Zero (Belgium), the examples that are most true to form are Italian, from both the classic period in the 70s and the present, and this is where Black Widow Records excel; not only do they have a great reputation for seeking out classics for re-issue, involving getting approval from the bands themselves for a re-release and working out who owns the phonographic rights, but also nurturing new talent.


Turin-based Abiogenesi released their self-titled debut in 1995, incorporating a blend of 70’s hard rock and a more melodic, modern symphonic prog sound. The main songwriter of the quartet, which has undergone a few personnel changes over the years, is guitarist and vocalist Toni d'Urso, who was influenced by groups as diverse as Black Widow and Camel and who drafted in guest musicians (including Clive Jones from Black Widow) to help create their particular brand of dark prog.

Jacula (possibly from the Latin word meaning ‘short, fervent prayer’) were formed in Milan 1968 by the charismatic singer and guitarist Antonio Bartoccetti along with electronic music pioneer Doris Norton (as Fiamma dello Spirito) and keyboard player Charles Tiring. They recorded their debut album In cauda semper stat venenum in 1969 which had a private pressing of only 310 copies but was never distributed, remaining unpublished until the updated 2001 edition on Black Widow Records; their first record to appear on the shelves was 1972’s Tardo pede in magiam versus. The songs featured Norton’s ethereal voice and Latin texts, funereal organ and dark, disturbing sounds conveying esoteric themes and though classed as prog, they were considered apart from the mainstream. Adding drummer Albert Goodman to the line-up, they became Antonius Rex in 1974 and released the album Zora in 1977 which was closer to other Italian prog bands around at that time. The gothic album sleeve imagery adds to the dark prog tag.

Devil Doll, made up of band members from Venice and Ljubljana, Slovenia were influenced by Jacula and old silent horror films. They released five studio albums between 1989 and 1996 but disbanded in 1997; reviewers use adjectives like ‘stark’ and ‘challenging’ to describe their music.


Malombra were one of the first of the new wave of Italian dark prog bands, hailing from Genoa and releasing their eponymous debut on the Black Widow Records label in 1993, only a year after the record label was founded. Described by one critic as ‘a baroque Devil Doll’, they took their name from a book subsequently made into a film, the debut gothic novel by Antonio Fogazzaro from 1881, set close to Lake Como. It was first turned into a 1917 silent movie and remade in 1942 by Mario Soldati. Around the time of their second album Our Lady of the Bones (released 1996), vocalist Mercy teamed up with Diego Banchero, a friend from her former band Zess, to form Il Segno del Comando whose name is another literary reference from the Giuseppe D’Agata book which became a highly regarded Italian TV giallo-fantasy mini-series in 1971.

Possibly the most well-known and successful dark prog protagonists are Goblin, who rose to fame on the back of the critically acclaimed 1975 giallo film Profundo Rosso. The soundtrack, originally put together in ten days after Claudio Simonetti’s band Cherry Five was asked to step in following a disagreement between director Dario Argento and original composer Giorgio Gaslini, has sold over a million copies. Cherry Five were influenced by King Crimson and Genesis and played extended compositions on the jazzy side of prog, though their underrated eponymous debut included tracks called Country Grave-Yard [sic] and The Swan is a Murderer; they changed their name to Goblin to fit in with the horror genre, in keeping with the material they were providing music for and went on to provide the score for other Argento films, Suspiria, Phenomena, Zombi and Tenebre. It’s interesting that Death Dies from Profundo Rosso sounds as though it was inspired by the bass guitar figure leading up to Vivian Stanshall listing the instruments used on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and that the overture of Tubular Bells was used in classic horror film The Exorcist.



Il Mostro di Firenze is a worthy addition to this sub-genre. With a line up comprising Nicolazzo on guitars and vocals, Menighetti on keyboards and vocals, Roberto Tiranti and Pier Gonella from Italian prog metal band Labÿrinth playing bass and guitar respectively, Marco Biggi on drums, Paolo Firpo on sax, Kim Schiffo on cello, Laura Sillitti on violin and Daniele Guerci on viola, the band have created a dark symphonic soundtrack to the story, telling the tale from the new moon when the murders took place, to the full moon, linked by clever pieces of musique concrete like checking the action of a handgun and placing it in a zipped bag.

The use of the chamber ensemble adds to the cinematic sweep of the songs but the mood switches to oppression and terror with a simple device originally employed by Goblin, the nursery-rhyme like melody picked out on percussive instruments and taken up in wordless song by the ‘murderer’. The 10 minute instrumental Plenilunio with its false ending is the highlight, quoting from Chopin, nicely structured with emotive piano and plaintive guitar, but the album abounds with great instrumentation and playing. The one track that I’m not convinced about is Serial Killer Rock which, though brief, is stylistically at odds with the other material but, on balance, the album is a really good piece of work.



Il Mostro di Firenze by Una Stagioneall'Inferno, Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 676)







The blogs HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican Z fest ticket BMS Brescia A Saucerful of Secrets banner

Welcome to ProgBlog

 

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...

Banco ticket 050220