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Regarded as a prog metal classic, Dream Theater's Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory is now 20 years old

ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, May 31 2019 08:50PM

Popping into a local supermarket for essentials on our return from a recent trip to Milan, the sales assistant enquired where we’d been and when informed, asked us if we’d visited ‘the designer shops’. After my first visit to the city for Expo 2015, I was unsure if I liked it, but the time spent there was primarily devoted to the Expo and a day trip out to Bergamo, which I enjoyed (and discovered the delights of the Elav brewery where, amongst their range of music-related beers, was the Progressive Barley Wine – unavailable at the time of our trip.) This time, like then, we avoided designer shops.


Elav Brewery's Progressive Barley Wine
Elav Brewery's Progressive Barley Wine

It was fortunate that we managed to walk around the roof of the magnificent duomo on that first visit, because it has been undergoing restoration work ever since. On each subsequent trip I’ve begun to feel quite at home and got to like the city more and more. The first stop after the airport is Bar Centrale in Milano Centrale station for an espresso, an institution that has attracted poor reviews on Google for the alleged expense and the rudeness of the staff. Don’t these people know that the idea is to grab a quick coffee before you go about your daily business and the baristas are simply serving the hordes of commuters as efficiently as possible? You can’t go wrong if you follow the locals: pay for your drinks (and brioche if you want a bite for breakfast) at the till before standing at the bar; if you choose to sit down the service will be less efficient and more expensive. This is not the best espresso that the city has to offer, though it came close last year when they used Lavazza beans. Unfortunately they’ve changed supplier again and I’m not such a fan of the current roast.

Second stop is La Feltrinelli, which extends over three floors within the station and provides the opportunity to browse some vinyl and to buy the latest edition of Prog Italia. There’s even a dedicated Progressive Italiana CD section, unique to this particular branch of the chain. Only after this ritual can we check in at the hotel.


La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale
La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale

We’ve stayed in three different hotels for our visits, all perfectly pleasant although only one is well situated, the NH Machiavelli close to Repubblica Metro station and only 10 minutes walk from Milano Centrale. The UNAHotels Scandinavia was a lastminute.com bargain but the closest Metro stop is Gerusalemme on the M5 line (not fully completed at the time) so an interchange was necessary for each journey. The first prog-related visit was for the 2017 Z-Fest, held at Milan’s Legend Club, a 10 minute walk from Affori Centro, close to the northernmost terminus of the M3 line while our hotel on that occasion was one stop from the northern terminus of the M1 line. I took a taxi to the venue and left before the end of the performance, catching the metro to Duomo at around 1am as the station was closing and I couldn’t get a connection. Fortunately there were taxis around the Duomo piazza to get me back to the hotel. The third trip was just passing through on a journey from Paris to Como by rail. With a few hours between arriving at Centrale and getting a train out to Como, we dropped off our bags at left luggage and killed time by walking to the duomo, by chance (we had no map so I was navigating from memory) passing the NH Machiavelli, which was to become our base for the subsequent two visits for the 2018 Z-Fest and the 2018 FIM Prog Fest; the former easily accessed by metro (and metro replacement bus on the return journey), and the latter within walking distance at the Piazza Città di Lombardia.


It turned out that the NH Machiavelli has another advantage: it’s round the corner from a branch of Libraccio, a chain of shops selling stationery, books and music. The Viale Vittorio Veneto branch is especially good for stocking AMS releases which I normally have to order over the internet from btf.it as AMS, who have a Milan contact address, don’t appear to have a physical shop. Excluding the Vittorio Veneto Libraccio, the Feltrinelli in Centrale and its large sister branch in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the only dedicated Milan record shop I had ever managed to trawl through up to this latest visit was Rossetti Records and Books (via Cesare da Sesto, 24) a specialist in second-hand music founded in 1981. On the first trip I bought three CDs: Il Giorno Sottile (2001) by the experimental Fabio Zuffanti project Quadraphonic, a bleak, interesting and challenging album of industrial music, loops and electronica that just about retains the memory of melody; the self-titled release by Dedalus (1973) which strays into jazz-rock territory; and symphonic prog Il Bianco Regno Di Dooah (2003) by Consorzio Acqua Potabile (CAP); this time I came away with an original copy of Uomo di Pezza by Le Orme (1972).


Rossetti Records and Books, Milano
Rossetti Records and Books, Milano

The weather in northern Italy over our weekend stay was pretty awful and a threatened strike by Trenitalia staff meant we couldn’t plan any excursions to nearby towns. I have considered attempting an expedition to the Marconi bakery where PFM rehearsed and appropriated their moniker, and Chiari, between Milan and Brescia remains one of the few towns in the region that we’ve yet to explore. The omission of a day trip allowed us to take in more of the attractions within the city itself: the Torre Branca observation tower in Parco Sempione; a slow walk around the Navigli district where some canals still remain; the art deco Villa Necchi Campiglio (Piero Portaluppi, 1932-35) filled with innovative design features; and the Pirelli HangarBicocca, a huge contemporary art space converted from a former locomotive factory. Along with the stops for coffee there was also an attempt to photograph the brutalist Department of Accounting at Bocconi University, but my poor navigation and a degree award ceremony put an end to that adventure; what was more successful was ticking off more of the independent record stores.

King Crimson’s Live at the Marquee, August 10, 1971 was playing in Il Discomane (Alzaia Naviglio Grande, 38) when I went in. Primarily a second-hand vinyl store, there was an interesting rarities section but nothing which grabbed my attention; I may not have bought anything but I’d certainly go back for another browse. A couple of doors down was another branch of Libraccio, split into three separate units, but they didn’t have any vinyl that I could see. Serendeepity (Corso di Porta Ticinese, 100) selling new vinyl was also a very short walk away but the ‘Progressive’ section was tiny. Vinylbrokers (Via Privata Pericle, 4) is in the Precotto district, a 20 minute walk from the Pirelli HangarBicocca and it appeared to be closed when we visited, though it wasn’t closing time. However, just as we were turning to go the owner opened up the shop and let us in. To save time I asked for the progressivo Italiano section but he told me they only sold ‘Americana’ and suggested I visit Metropolis Dischi (Via Carlo Esterle, 29). I’d recommend Vinylbrokers for being helpful and friendly, but don’t go there if you’re only looking for prog.


The real purpose of the Milan trip was to attend the FIM Fiera prog fest, organised by Black Widow Records’ Massimo Gasperini in the role of artistic director. This year the event was billed as ‘Da Vinci’s Spirit’, designed to pay tribute to the Renaissance genius on the 500th anniversary of his death. FIM director Verdiano Vera suggested that progressive rock is a musical genre that more than any other embraces Leonardo’s spirit of experimentation due to its diverse influences, unusual time signatures, tempo changes and variations in amplitude and speed, all of which nurture talent, inspiration, inventiveness and ingenuity.



The four bands appearing, Silver Key, Macchina Pneumatica, Universal Totem Orchestra and FEM provided a broad range of examples of the genre from almost straightforward symphonic prog through to neo-prog, psyche-prog and avant-prog/jazz rock, though one constant was a set of Leonardo drawings projected behind the bands providing a constant visual reminder of the link between his futuristic thinking and prog, a musical form known to push at boundaries.

Silver Key began life as a Marillion cover-band in Milan in 1992 and has undergone a number of personnel changes. Over the past seven years they have produced three albums of original neo-prog, starting with In the Land of Dreams (2012), followed up with 2015’s The Screams Empire where keyboard player Davide Manara was left as the only founding member. Current guitarist Roberto Buchicchio and bassist Ivano Tognetti joined for The Screams Empire, and vocalist Dino Procopio was introduced for the latest album Third, released in April 2019; Procopio also provided the lyrics. The band don’t have a drummer – the album credits ‘Mr Drummer’ with percussive duties but when chatting to Massimo Gasperini after their performance, Manara owned up to programming the drums. Concentrating on material from Third, the music was nicely conceived and well played, incorporating convincing-sounding drum parts, expressive guitar, solid bass, nice ambient moments, and multiple false endings. It was evident that Procopio can sing (the vocals were in English) but unfortunately he was under-mixed during the full-ensemble blows.



Silver Key
Silver Key

One of the main draws was Macchina Pneumatica who released their debut album Riflessi e Maschere on Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 680) earlier this year. It’s primarily riff-based and moderately heavy, so it comes across as being on the psyche end of the prog spectrum. I’m reminded of the dominant, driving bass and penchant for distortion of fellow countrymen MUFFX who inhabit much of the same sonic landscape and who I gave a glowing review last year for L’Ora di Tutti; the difference is MUFFX are instrumental and Macchina Pneumatica use vocals, sung by Raffaele Gigliotti with lyrics inspired by everyday life, moods and relationships. The live performance, like Silver Key before them, was dogged by an imperfect sound, with house sound engineers running on stage to adjust the bass volume. From where I was sitting, right of centre and close to the front, some distance from the mixing desk, Gigliotti’s guitar volume was a bit too low and though Carlo Giustiniani’s bass was fairly dominant, it also cuts through on the CD without adversely affecting the sound balance. I was close to keyboard player Carlo Fiore, so I could fully appreciate his synth, piano and organ work, with accurate analogue-sounding patches to recreate a 70’s vibe. Their songs sound deceptively simple but counting out Vincenzo Vitagliano’s rhythmic patterns they’re anything but straightforward and there’s sufficient variation, including melodic passages and lead synthesizer lines, to hold your attention. They’re a relatively new group, formed as a keyboard trio Atom Age Empire in Milan in 2013, renamed Nudo when guitarist/vocalist Raffaele Gigliotti joined, and finally changed to Macchina Pneumatica during the recording of Riflessi e Maschere. They are currently working on a new album.


Macchina Pneumatica
Macchina Pneumatica

I’m well acquainted with Mathematical Mother, the 2016 album by Universal Totem Orchestra; the music is dense and complex with the intensity and pace of Magma or the Mahavishnu Orchestra, especially the 1974-75 incarnation where Gayle Moran adds vocals. The operatic approach to the vocals, whether female or male chorus evokes the Wagnerian facet of Zeuhl but there’s also the exploratory jazz of Coltrane. They employ an eastern scale on the track Elogio del dubbio, all of which indicates a fearless approach to music making that epitomises prog.

I love the intricacy of the compositions and it can’t be denied that Ana Torres Fraile has a superb voice but in the live setting I felt the lead vocal impinged on the instrumental sections, especially scat vocal in the style of Cleo Laine, and Fraile too seemed to have problems with her amplification. Whereas the guitar of Daniele Valle, Yanik Lorenzo Andreatta’s bass and Fabrizio Mattuzzi’s keyboards were all spot on, the saxophone and drums, played by Fedeli Antonio and UTO G. Golin respectively, occasionally sounded a bit loose but that’s not so surprising when you’re pushing boundaries.


Universal Totem Orchestra
Universal Totem Orchestra

The FEM (Forza Elettromotrice) set seemed rather brief after UTO’s sonic bombardment, but this was the closest to symphonic prog all evening, and I felt it ended too soon. The band (Alessandro Graziano, vocals; Paolo Colombo, guitars; Alberto Citterio, keyboards; Pietro Bertoni, trombone and keyboards; Marco Buzzi, bass; and Emanuele Borsati, drums) were showcasing their 2018 album Mutazione and could have been hampered by an injury to Cittero who had his left arm in a sling, but his playing, along with the rest of the ensemble, was fluent. I felt Bertoni was a little under-used but he was furthest from me and I may not have been able to hear him clearly. What did come across was the way each song had been carefully put together; one of the numbers reminded me of Focus.


FEM
FEM

The one downside of a multi-stage or multi-disciplinary event like the FIM Fiera is that there are occasions when you want to see more than one thing at one particular time; Fabio Gremo, bassist with Il Tempio delle Clessidre, has just released a second solo album and was performing it outside in the piazza while Da Vinci’s Spirit was in full flow in the auditorium Testori. I’m a big fan of Fabio Gremo’s La Mia Voce (2013) which demonstrates his considerable classical guitar skills, but the recital of Don’t be Scared of Trying also included piano accompaniment from Sandro Amadei of Melting Clock, so I was disappointed I didn’t get to see them play. I did get to chat with Sandro and his brother Stefano when they came to take in some of the prog fest, but I didn’t get to speak to Fabio. A major plus is that Da Vinci’s Spirit, and last year’s Prog On, showcased not just incredible music, but the confirmation of a ‘prog family’ that is all-embracing in its approach and one that rejoices in differences. The concept of a prog rock festival as Da Vinci’s Spirit is perfectly apt. Thanks, Massimo Gasperini and Verdiano Vera. See you next year!


Postscript

Even if you’re not into prog, forget Milan and fashion and seek out Milan and Leonardo da Vinci. There’s a waiting list for tickets to view The Last Supper which is in the former refectory of the convent attached to Milan’s Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, but I managed to arrange tickets for the first of our 2017 trips. If you are planning on going to Milan I’d strongly recommend booking a guided tour; the refectory and Leonardo’s masterpiece form an integral part of the convent architecture which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the prog's not bad, either.


Leonardo's The Last Supper
Leonardo's The Last Supper











By ProgBlog, Feb 12 2017 10:27PM

The acceptance of and concordant renewed interest in progressive rock has allowed the development of a support industry that uses the reach of the internet for marketing. Prog was niche at the beginning of the 90s, subsumed by a massive music industry singularly interested in shareholder return, leaving the artist a small cog in a very big machine. Prog survived by utilising the available technology, aided by fans with a working knowledge of the internet and who were often an integral part of this technological revolution, who helped to set up some of the earliest band websites and fan forums.

I was fortunate to have an academic email account before the roll-out of commercial hosts and dutifully signed up to the amazing Elephant Talk and a somewhat more earnest Gentle Giant forum. The first mention of Notes from the Edge, the Yes-related internet newsletter run by Mike Tiano and Jeff Hunnicutt and YesWorld, the online Yes resource, was in the booklet for Keys to Ascension (1996) but one major development was the beginning of a dedicated progressive rock / art-rock mail order business. Not only had I begun to pick up Voiceprint newsletters at John Wetton gigs, Discpline Global Mobile (DGM) was reinventing the role of the record label with an innovative, ethical business strategy. Utilising the online presence of these sites, I was able to access some fantastic music, both recorded and as exclusive pre-release playbacks in the presence of the artists themselves.


The Epitaph playback
The Epitaph playback

If we leap forward to the present, I have become much less reliant on Amazon and way more enamoured with Burning Shed and Italy’s BTF and I’ve also started to use Bandcamp, the latter having the advantage of providing a download in addition to the physical medium. I know that Amazon provides this service but with Bandcamp you are able, should you wish, communicate directly with the musicians but whether you do or not, there’s a feeling of better connecting with the artists and consequently, as you’re not simply getting a product, a sense of reward. You're also avoiding tax avoiders


Post-Christmas has been a relatively busy period for acquisition of music for me. A trip into Croydon HMV saw me return home with sale-price vinyl copies of Wish You Were Here and Animals (just in time for its 40th anniversary) though if I’d ever imagined a return of the LP, I’d have never traded-in my original copies.



HMV shopping trip
HMV shopping trip

Browsing the progressive rock suggestions on Bandcamp I came across Awake & Dreaming the 2006 release by The Gift and, having seen them perform at the Resonance Festival in 2014 and been suitably impressed by both the music and the message, I thought that was a worthy addition to my collection. A couple of weeks after that I engaged in a Twitter conversation with Lorenzo Gervasi (Lorenzo Vas) who was the keyboards player with Milan-based Lethe. Their only album release, Nymphae (1994) is available as a download from Mellow Records via Bandcamp and proved to be another Italian prog gem. I subscribe to the BTF newsletter and I frequently get seduced into buying some of the old classics I’ve not been able to pick up on my travels around Italy. The most recent of these purchases was Vietato ai minori di 18 anni? The 1973 release from Jumbo which had been on my radar since seeing vocalist/guitarist Alvaro Fella on stage with CAP in Genova in 2014. This album leaves behind the blues influences that remained on DNA (1972) and is a more mature effort including some avant garde styling.


Awake & Dreaming by The Gift
Awake & Dreaming by The Gift

An awful week at work in January made me think about dropping everything and going on a weekend jaunt to Italy but I fought off the initial impulse and decided to plan something more sensible. There are lots of progressive rock-themed events around Italy throughout the year but a Facebook link took me to Fabio Zuffanti’s Z-Fest, which this year is going to be held at the very end of March so I decided to organise the mini-break to include some live progressivo Italiano. Held in Milan, this year’s line-up is Finisterre, Cellar Noise and Christadoro. I’m already well versed in the works of the former and I’d read about the latter, named after drummer Mox Christadoro, a man with over 30 years experience in the Italian music scene (though not all of it in Italian prog!) so I pre-ordered a copy of the album from Zuffanti’s Bandcamp page. Meanwhile, the Burning Shed newsletter proclaimed the availability of a limited–edition 2015 re-master of the first Kaipa album (Kaipa, 1975) on 180g blue vinyl, including a CD of the album with two bonus tracks. Another album I’d been following with interest, I had to order it.


Z Fest 2017
Z Fest 2017

The two albums arrived with a couple of days of each other. First was Christadoro, a project which brought together a bunch of highly proficient musicians from varied backgrounds, united by their love of progressive rock. Joining Christadoro (drums and percussion) and bassist Fabio Zuffanti, who was at least partly responsible for the idea are Pier Panzeri from Biglietto per l’Inferno (guitars), Paul ‘Ske’ Botta who I’d seen with Not a Good Sign on the first day of the Riviera Prog festival in Genova in 2014 (keyboards) and vocalist Andrea ‘Mitzi’ Dal Santo. The core band is augmented with some renowned guests including PFM’s Franco Mussida.

The concept, hinted at in a quotation from Richie Havens printed on the inner sleeve

I really sing songs that move me

I’m not in show business

I’m in the communications business

is a presentation of seven popular Italian songs written by some of the biggest names in Italy during the 70s, given a progressive rock makeover in the same way that Yes performed Simon and Garfunkel’s America. Another track Ricercare nel mare dell’Inequitudine della paura (Searching the sea of anxiety and fear) is a Franco Mussida solo acoustic guitar prelude to L’ombra della luce (The shadow of the light) by Franco Battiato and uses some unexpected musical intervals. This pair of tracks (I couldn’t detect the transition between the two) are my favourites from the album, though I’m impressed with each of the interpretations and how neatly they have been turned prog. There may not be the complexity associated with progressivo Italiano but there’s some great playing; when the needle hit the groove on the first playing I was struck by the excellent-sounding organ of L’operaio Gerolamo and the driving guitar riff. The great organ work continues on Il sosia (The Lookalike) but not until we’ve had a traditional Zuffanti motif, the reading from some text, in this instance the recital of lines from a 1971 TV series Il Segno del Comando followed by a brief jazz-rock workout before getting a little heavy-psyche. The slide guitar and laid-back tempo on L’ultimo spettacolo calls to mind Pink Floyd’s Fat Old Sun and despite an interesting instrumental break in the middle of the song and a more rocking ending, I feel this is the weakest track on the album.

Figli di... is guitar-driven heavy rock but the vocals are clear and good. There’s more dynamic range and a healthy dose of drama in the side 2 opener Lo stambecco ferito which verges on Van der Graaf Generator territory. Solo begins with a cello section provided by Zeno Gabaglio, electric piano features heavily but there’s also some good Mellotron work. Overall it’s a rewarding buy, though not straightforward prog; the band are playing songs that move them...


Christadoro - insive sleeve
Christadoro - insive sleeve

The old purchase is actually a current re-release of old material, Kaipa’s eponymous debut. In my worldwide search for forgotten masterpieces I’d come across the group but finding examples of the early material was somewhat difficult. My initial investigations were before I understood the role of Roine Stolt and before I’d seen The Flower Kings play live – a slightly disappointing performance because the music wasn’t dominated by keyboards, which I’d come to expect; this re-issue of the early Kaipa albums is a masterstroke.

Kaipa might be keyboard-driven but there’s a nice balance with the guitar, think of Camel between their debut and Moonmadness and the result is first-class symphonic progressive rock. I love the Swedish vocals in the same way Italian prog is best sung in Italian; the lead vocals, provided by keyboard player Hans Lundin, are confident and come across as poetic and naturally flowing.

It would be too simplistic to simply class the music as being like Camel or Focus, just because these are bands who play melodic symphonic prog. The major difference between Kaipa and those two bands is the bass of Tomas Eriksson, who uses a Rickenbacker to achieve a punchy, trebly tone. Camel tend not to conform to a style that incorporates church music, whereas Focus and Kaipa include medieval-sounding compositions, a feeling enhanced by the use of harpsichord. It would have been hard for them not to have been influenced by their fellow countryman Bo Hansson, the first Swedish rock star to gain acclaim outside his native land (thanks to Charisma Records) and there are passages which use heavy reverb organ and guitar producing the distant feel that pervades Hansson’s Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings. The one sound I don’t particularly like is the string synthesizer, though it’s not overused.



Kaipa by Kaipa
Kaipa by Kaipa

One intriguing comparison can be made with Australians Sebastian Hardie, another band fitting that Camel/Focus/Yes symphonic style. There’s a section where a Kaipa melody line (forgive me for not being over-familiar with the tracks on Kaipa) reminds me of Rosanna from Four Moments by Sebastian Hardie; what is interesting is that the Prog Archive reviews for the Australians are overwhelming negative, suggesting their music is too derivative and labelling them ‘cheesy’. Four Moments was released in 1976, a year after Kaipa. One reviewer has also called Kaipa ‘cheesy’ though the majority find the album pleasant but not over-complex, but still worthwhile. I’d go a little further. This is good symphonic progressive rock where the language and the local folk influences make it stand apart from so-called derivative acts which I think tend to be mostly American. It’s another gem, one that surely played a part in the Sweden-centred progressive revival of the 90s.




Two new purchases, two different eras, two enjoyable pieces of music.

By ProgBlog, Oct 25 2015 09:45PM

My Walkman is blinking at me, cycling between the home screen and the music I was last listening to on my journey home from work last Thursday, shutting myself off from the noise and the crush on the London Overground (aka the Ginger Line), Tormato by Yes. The Option and Back buttons don’t respond yet I can scroll through the different tracks on the album but when it stays on the home screen for long enough, the left, up, right and down functions don’t work. It won’t even turn off! It’s broken. At 16GB it’s not big enough to hold anywhere near my entire music collection and my life involves constant updating of the material on the player each time I acquire more music and shuffle things around. In the last couple of months I’ve been to Italy and bought more CDs than I probably should have done; bought CDs at gigs; I’ve had a birthday, which inevitably resulted in multiple CDs; and I’ve been picking up new vinyl from the internet (the English version of Felona and Sorona by Le Orme and the yet to be despatched La Curva di Lesmo by Fabio Zuffanti) plus second hand vinyl (Edgar Froese’s Aqua, 1974) from an antique shop in Crystal Palace. My last batch of CD burning was a sequence of Tangerine Dream releases, Encore (1977), the last of the Peter Baumann-era TD, Cyclone (1978) featuring Steve Jolliffe, Force Majeure (1979) which featured Klaus Krieger on drums, Tangram (1980), the first album of the Johannes Schmoelling-era, and Hyperborea (1983); the vinyl won’t be converted to mp3 until I get a new turntable. Oh, I almost forgot. BTF put out a couple of discounted CDs every week and after reading a short review of the only and eponymous LP by Paese dei Balocchi (Land of Toys) from 1972, presented in a mini gatefold sleeve for €5.99, I put in my order and I’m waiting for it to be delivered. I bought a new MP3 player yesterday, just an updated version of my old Sony, because I was happy with the balance of portability (it’s very small) and sound quality, when played through Sennheiser earphones. I find it a little strange that the new device has a time display and as BST switched to GMT in the early hours of this morning; I found it stranger that this was an electronic device that required a manual adjustment to the time.

Time is something of an abstract concept that covers both immense (astronomical) measurement and the quantum level; the second was originally defined as the fraction 1/86400 of the mean solar day but uncertainty over the exact definition of a mean solar day and irregularities in the rotation of the earth resulted in deviations from the required accuracy. In order to define the unit of time more precisely, in 1967 the 13th CGPM (Conférence générale des poids et measures – General Conference on Weights and Measures) decided to replace the definition of the second with the following: The second is the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom at a temperature of 0 Kelvin.

It’s hardly surprising that an examination of the concept of time should feature in prog, from time travel (Beggar Julia’s Time Trip by Ekseption, 1969) to the condition of mankind (Time, from Dark Side of the Moon, 1973.) It may be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that a fascination with time goes back to before the beginning of the genre when psychedelia was in ascendency: the ingestion of LSD may have been used by some to expand consciousness but one of the alleged effects of the drug was to alter the perception of time, such that minutes seemed to stretch into hours. An early psychedelic-progressive crossover was the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed (1967), a song cycle about a day in the life of an everyman.

Roger Waters took an interesting approach to time on The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (1984) where the track titles all incorporate a specific time, from 4.30 am to 5.11 am with the track length corresponding to the times indicated by the titles; a parallel with Dark Side is that Pros and Cons is a reflection on issues contributing to a mid-life crisis. I went to see Waters perform the show live in London in June 1984; I’ve never owned the album because it resembles The Wall too much for my taste and though the concept may be prog, the music (and musicians) belonged to a straightforward rock idiom. I’m not suggesting that writing songs about time are unique to progressive rock or even that time isn’t only referred to by progressive rock bands in a manner other than the prosaic (think of Counting Out Time from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,1974) or even without any context (the very short harpsichord-drenched instrumental Time from Time and Tide (1975) by Greenslade, a collection of short pieces without any over-reaching concept. Within prog, some aspect of time often forms an integral part of a piece: the iconic chiming clocks that precede the Floyd’s Time or Vangelis’ use of the speaking clock at the end of Pulstar from Albedo 0.39 (1976) - a pulsar (an abbreviation for pulsating radio star) emits electromagnetic radiation as it spins so that there is a set period between pulses at a particular observation point. This precise period means that some pulsars are as accurate as an atomic clock.

Tempus Fugit by Yes (Drama, 1980) is more narrative-descriptive than a particular concept; the music was primarily supplied by Howe, Squire and White before Trevor Horn provided the lyrics which seem to suggest, in a somewhat convoluted way, that despite the lack of Anderson and Wakeman, Drama is a Yes album. It’s interesting that Horn reprises one of my favourite pieces from Tormato, the line in RejoiceTime flies, on and on it goes” and Rejoice is in essence the second part of opening track Future Times. Though Tempus Fugit may have influenced Roger Dean’s cover art (or the other way round) there seem to be references in the song words to the inside sleeve of Tormato. Time Table from Foxtrot (1972) is a classic Genesis pun but it’s really a short reflection on the failure of mankind to learn from the mistakes of the past, a slightly less naive take on the subject than Stagnation from Trespass (1970.) I prefer the earlier song. There’s another agonising pun on Zero Time (1971) by T.O.N.T.O’s Expanding Headband where the third track is titled Timewhys. I can’t detect any cohesive theme on this particular release, though in accord with their synthesizer instrumentation, a couple of the song titles hint at futurism: Cybernaut and Jetsex.

There’s more to the relationship between prog and time, including a perceived obsession with length of track and unusual time signatures. King Crimson might be regarded as one of the leading exponents of very odd times but most prog acts have strayed from 4/4; Waters’ bass and cash-register sounds on Money are in 7/8 and flow seamlessly. Critics regard this as being clever for the sake of it, pretentious self indulgence, whereas I think that uncommon meters allow a band to incorporate interesting rhythmical ideas, rather than conforming to the chug-chug-chug-chug of four beats to the bar. Furthermore, the extended length of tracks allows for development, eschewing the somewhat narrow constraints of the three minute single, which may be a challenge of the attention span of some critics.



By ProgBlog, Sep 27 2015 09:00PM

I hate cardboard. I dislike cardboard with such a burning intensity it’s taking over my life. Let me put that in context: I hate cardboard packaging as much as I love order; record collections should be organised alphabetically by band and sub-divided by year. It’s pointless trying to organise a collection by genre when progressive rock encompasses such a broad spectrum of types from proto-prog and rock with progressive leanings through psychedelia and symphonic prog to jazz rock and RIO; my classical albums are also included within this single alphabet.

The cardboard in question is packaging for bits of flat pack furniture (which I detest with a greater passion because it means I’ve got to assemble it) and a couple of pieces of solid wood furniture that weigh around 40kg each (imagine the size of the boxes!) Add to that the box that the new TV came in, the Blu Ray player box and even the box for the aerial... The inner glow that I normally get from recycling has been extinguished by repeated treks to the local recycling facility. It’s not far to walk but they were all awkward to carry. If I were to visit a metaphorical psychiatrist’s couch, I think I’d find the built-up resentment directed at a lack of prog. The past five weeks have been chaotic in the Page household with a new front door, new double glazing, the living room and dining room being decorated throughout including a new carpet and a new fireplace; my LPs and CDs have been put into temporary storage in the back bedroom leaving a handful of accessible CDs, The Elements 2015 Tour Box that I picked up from the King Crimson gig on September 7th and birthday presents from the beginning of September – Merlin Atmos (2015) by Van der Graaf Generator; Petali di Fuoco (2010) by La Maschera di Cera; PFM's Chocolate Kings (re-issued, 2010 with a bonus CD); Earth and Fire’s debut album (1970); and Hatfield and the North Access All Areas (2015) but it’s not just the media that has been boxed up, my hi-fi is in bits waiting for some shelves to be fitted in the dining room and my record deck has been sent to a good home, leaving me waiting to visit Billy Vee Sound Systems in Lee to replace it with its bigger brother, a Rega Planar 3. I had been computer-less too, for a couple of weeks during the decorating and though it’s been set up again, I haven’t connected any peripherals. What I have done is connect my Technics VC4 hi-fi amplifier to the line out on the PC so I can sit in my Barcelona chair and listen to CDs or digital files on my headphones; plugging headphones directly into the PC won’t work because part of a 3.5 mm to 6.35 mm jack converter is stuck in the headphones socket. I think that’s an entirely reasonable explanation for my cardboard-phobia.

There is some cardboard that I like. I bought the new Blu Ray player from Richer Sounds and took the opportunity to try out some potential replacement speakers for my KEF C10s; I took along my copy of Fragile and played Roundabout on a Project Debut Carbon Esprit SB turntable fitted with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, trough a Cambridge amp and Monitor Audio Bronze BX6 speakers, then through Monitor Audio MR4 speakers. The BX6s produced a slightly clinical sound; there was good separation in the treble range but Chris Squire’s bass, though clear, lacked warmth. The MR4s were the opposite with less distinct treble and a rounded, more natural bass. It was good to open out the gatefold sleeve and not worry about cranking up the sound in the demonstration room, though the volume control on the Cambridge was a little flabby, with much turning and only gradual increase in volume. I had wondered which album to take with me to demo. It had to be something that was familiar and something that contained a wide dynamic range. I chose Fragile over Close to the Edge because CttE is more full-on than its predecessor; there aren’t many gaps in the music. I also took along Larks’ Tongues in Aspic but I’d parked on a meter and ran out of time to try out any more systems.

Returning to central Croydon and a trip to HMV, ostensibly to look at 3D Blu Ray discs, I noticed a display of Pink Floyd CDs alongside David Gilmour’s new release Rattle That Lock. I used to think HMV’s pricing of Floyd albums was prohibitively high – this was when I was looking to replace my vinyl with CDs, before their financial problems – but the full range of early Floyd CDs, in cardboard mini sleeves, was available for less than £8 each. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have a nicely packaged 20th anniversary Dark Side of the Moon box and the 1994 series of remastered and repackaged Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, Wish You Were Here and Animals I may have been more temped to buy them. I’d seen this range before, on holiday in Italy where they sell for the Euro equivalent of the Sterling price in HMV, a genuine bargain; if I couldn’t be tempted to indulge myself at that price, I wasn’t going to give in and buy them over here, however attractive their retro-look packaging. Nevertheless, if there’s a choice of jewel case or mini-album CD on a piece of music I don’t have in my collection, I’d go for the mini-album every time. My first gatefold CD sleeve was a copy of In the Court of the Crimson King and I attempted to acquire as much remastered Crimson as possible in cardboard. Italian label BTF have reissued a wide range of progressivo Italiano in cardboard sleeves and my only Japanese imports, Robert John Godfrey’s Fall of Hyperion (1973) and Things to Come (1974) by Seventh Wave are in single cardboard sleeves; I noticed a bargain range of jazz and fusion CDs in single cardboard sleeves on the counter at Red Eye Records in Sydney when I was visiting my son Daryl in 2012, and added Mysterious Traveller (1974) by Weather Report to my purchases. When he returned to the UK he brought me some Australian prog, A Tower of Silence (2012) by Anubis, in a cardboard sleeve.

Another reason I wasn’t tempted by this feast of Floyd in HMV was a 180g vinyl special edition Dark Side, crowning the display; if I’m going for cardboard sleeves, I’m going to wait until I get my new turntable and go for full size LP sleeves, reinvesting in vinyl copies. Some cardboard isn’t bad...



By ProgBlog, Jan 18 2015 09:57PM

During my school-age years, as a student in London and in the first couple of years at work following graduation, it wasn’t often that I’d buy more than one album in a day, or even a month. This was just as much to do with the availability of suitable material to buy as it was a shortage of money. There was a small amount of back catalogue that I could pick up, things I’d listened to at friends’ houses that I knew I liked that weren’t necessarily considered essential and, particularly in the late 70s and early 80s, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of new material coming through. From a personal point of view, my inability to commit to a purchase after hearing only track from a candidate album on the radio, what I would consider to be speculation, was out of the question. I’d already been scarred by gambling; when Alan Freeman played March to the Eternal City from Spartacus by Triumvirat on his Saturday radio show and based on one listening of that one track, I went out and bought the album. Musically, the whole record is pretty good, which is hardly surprising from a band frequently referred to as a ‘German ELP’, but lyrically, and there weren’t many words on March to the Eternal City, it’s rather poor. I felt a little let down.

The time between buying albums allowed us to give a newly acquired disc multiple listenings, absorbing the music and lyrical content in what could be considered a ritualised manner: the playback session with friends followed by our amateur attempts at critique; or the solo listening with headphones, frequently with all the lights turned out.

My music-buying habits have changed and I now bulk buy if there’s an opportunity to do so, such as visiting a record store when I’m on holiday. My listening habits have also changed as my domestic duties eat into personal time and an accident, many years ago, rendered the bi-folding doors that separate our living room from our dining room (where the hi-fi is situated) inoperative and useless.

A couple of CDs arrived from BTF in Italy last week: Per... un mondo di cristallo (For... a crystal world), the only album by Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno (from 1972) and Il mondo che era mio (The world that was mine) Live in Studio 2014 by Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band. Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno (Registered Return Receipt), or RRR as they became known, have a jazzy-blues feel and are predominantly acoustic; their influences include early Jethro Tull and Trespass-era Genesis and the vocals, by guitarist Luciano Regoli, are reminiscent of Il Balletto di Bronzo’s Gianni Leone. The album is based on a story by Marina Comin (who provided the lyrics) about the feelings of an astronaut who returns to Earth find a ruined planet, depicted on the inner gatefold. It’s not fully-formed RPI but it is quite enjoyable and the BTF reissue, in a cardboard gatefold CD sleeve, is a nice, faithful recreation of the original LP packaging.

For various reasons, the Z Band were unable to record themselves live and to capture the essence of the group performing, before the departure of guitarist Matteo Nahum, the band recorded a set in the studio, live but without an audience. I thoroughly enjoyed the Z Band set at Soignies last year despite not being familiar with any of the material and I thought that getting the album would be a great reminder of that day. During the question and answer session following their slot, Fabio Zuffanti was asked about the projects he was involved in, describing Höstsonaten as producing music along the lines of The Enid. They played one Höstsonaten track, Rainsuite from Winterthrough which I managed to find in Firenze last summer and, after listening to both Höstsonaten studio album and the Z Band live in the studio, I can see what he means; there’s a broad symphonic feel to Höstsonaten, long-form compositions that may be sub-divided into separate songs or ‘movements’. The Enid, despite producing albums that appeared late in the timeline for classic symphonic prog, and afterwards, when they were able to ride the shockwaves of punk with their ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude that resonated with the punks, produced symphonic suites using rock instrumentation plus the odd non-rock instrument such as trumpet and tuba, heavily influenced by romantic composers Chopin, Rachmaninov, Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

Bands that fall into the category of ‘symphonic prog’ are readily recognisable by followers of the genre; the majority of the original prog bands could be classed as ‘symphonic’ though there was considerable stylistic difference between, for example, Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, or Camel and Barclay James Harvest and though In the Court of the Crimson King is an example of the sub-genre, Crimson deviated from the idiom early in their career. This being prog, it goes without saying that the sub-genre is in fact a continuous spectrum of styles; Camel released Snow Goose and then took steps in the direction of jazz rock with Moonmadness and Rain Dances before going Canterbury with Breathless. Even Yes went from what might be considered the ultimate symphonic album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, to the jazz rock of Relayer. I think that the input of Patrick Moraz is very evident on Relayer, though he’d just come from Refugee, another band firmly rooted in the symphonic tradition. Refugee’s only studio album is a classic of the genre and, in my opinion, can be used as an example of material that conforms to more strict definition of symphonic prog. I don’t believe there are many who would disagree with the classification of the Moody Blues as symphonic prog but I’m not so certain. Days of Future Passed evidently contains some elements of prog but the song writing lacks complexity and remains predominantly blues-based and, though they’re competent musicians, there’s no indication of the band stretching out or any sign of individual virtuosity. I’d class this as proto-prog and their subsequent material, which continues in a similar vein with the Mellotron taking on the role of the orchestra, closer to straightforward rock.

Perhaps the use of a Mellotron contributes to the ‘symphonic’ tag but, thinking about King Crimson and their continued use of Mellotrons as they moved into heavy, improvised music, it may be more the way a band deployed the instrument rather than just its presence. According to Planet Mellotron, the Enid hired a Mellotron for In the Region of the Summer Stars, which appears on the final two tracks, The Last Judgment and the title track In the Region of the Summer Stars, its use restricted to supplying choir backing. I’ve always thought of the Enid as using a string synthesizer approach.

To qualify as being ‘symphonic’ a band has really to demonstrate an influence from European classical music and, perhaps more than that, produce long-form compositions with strong melodic themes and linked variations and reprise utilising a broad sonic palette, even venturing outside of the common rock instrumentation; that’s the link I detect between Höstsonaten and the Enid, a classification that might exclude some other long-standing exponents.

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