ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Jun 28 2015 10:12PM

A forty-year anniversary passed last month that I hadn’t realised until I watched my The Gates of QPR, Yes at Queens Park Rangers Stadium (volume 2) a couple of days ago – a concert recorded on the 10th May 1975 and featuring Patrick Moraz on keyboards even though there’s a picture of Rick Wakeman on the back sleeve. The set list for this DVD is really good and the sound quality is mostly good, too. It’s quite interesting to see Steve Howe using a double-neck 6 and 12 string Gibson for the opener, And You and I, whereas in the studio he used a 12 string acoustic guitar and I’m sure I’ve seen him play an acoustic instrument when I’ve seen Yes play live. There are a number of entirely reasonable practical reasons for using an electric guitar in this context which doesn’t really detract from the feel of the performance but I believe the original studio instrumentation is an important part of the make-up of symphonic progressive rock.

One of the core features of symphonic prog is the broad sonic palette utilised to produce sweeping musical visions incorporating a range of different moods. The listener’s interest is maintained by a number of devices including changes of tempo, changes of time signature, chord changes and changes in amplitude. This compositional complexity is what appeals to me because it makes the music less formulaic and more likely to capture my imagination, transcending the verse-chorus-verse-chorus of the boy-meets-girl pop song and allowing the musicians to relate long stories or explore philosophical issues. Different instruments or electronic patches, often outside the remit of mainstream popular music, don’t only add an exotic flavour but may represent a particular narrative thread; Camel’s Snow Goose uses this formula but Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, written for a children's theatre is the best example. Prokofiev invented the story and wrote the narration, constructing the music as a child's introduction to the orchestra, with each character represented by a different instrument or group of instruments: Peter by the strings, the bird by the flute, the duck by the oboe, the cat by the clarinet, the wolf by the horn section, and so on. It’s therefore hardly surprising that a number of prog luminaries, including Bill Bruford, Brian Eno and Robin Lumley, should collaborate on a rock version of the Prokofiev classic.

The main exponents of acoustic guitar passages include Yes, Genesis, Focus and PFM. I’ve not included Jethro Tull in this list because Ian Anderson’s guitar is primarily used as strummed or picked chordal blocks, intended as backing for electric guitar, keyboards, flute or a vocal melody line. I’m also not including the brilliant John McLaughlin because his playing falls within the jazz and jazz-rock contexts but, from the progressive world, Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, Jan Akkerman and Franco Mussida are all masters of their craft, allowed to display their virtuosity within a group context though their solo work often shows how different genres have influenced them. Steve Howe’s Beginnings (1975) and The Steve Howe Album (1979) feature a range of examples of the different styles that have been key to his development as a guitarist. Early Genesis featured up to three members strumming guitars and the arrival of Steve Hackett didn’t change this too drastically, though his playing over the top of 12 string guitar, like on The Return of the Giant Hogweed, (from Nursery Cryme, 1971) is far more confident than that of the undeniably talented Anthony Phillips. The first real clue to what inspired Hackett comes in the form of Horizons (from Foxtrot, 1972) and I had the good fortune to see him on his acoustic trio tour at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon in 2005 which featured most of the same set and was played by the same musicians, Hackett, his brother John (flute) and Roger King (keyboards) appearing on the box set Hungarian Horizons Live in Budapest (2002) and formed a sort of prelude to the classical covers of Tribute (2008). Jan Akkerman’s study of the lute made an important contribution to both Focus 3 (1972) and Hamburger Concerto (1974).

The rise of prog coincided with an interest in classical guitar pieces, notably concertos written by Joaquín Rodrigo and Heitor Villa-Lobos – I recall buying my sister Linda an LP of Rodrigo’s guitar concertos sometime in the mid-70s – and this fascination was cemented by the Stanley Myers piece Cavatina, played by John Williams, which defined the soundtrack of The Deer Hunter. John Williams had been involved in crossover projects in the past but along with long-term collaborators Herbie Flowers on bass and tuba and drummer Tristan Fry he formed Sky after recruiting fellow Australian guitarist Kevin Peek and former Curved Air man Francis Monkman on keyboards. I was never a fan of Sky who I considered to be prog-lite, appended to the genre by journalists and critics even as it faded. It may have been the insipid rendition of Toccata that featured on Top of the Pops in 1980 that confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for the project.

A good place to look for acoustic guitar-rich prog is Spain. As part of my preparations for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2010, I researched Spanish prog bands and record shops and, on arrival, set out to find music by Triana (regarded as the best of Spanish prog), Iceberg and Gotic. In the end I had to buy a download album by Gotic, the upbeat, instrumental Escenes (1978) which sounds like Greenslade with flute but I did manage to find two releases by Iceberg, the symphonic prog Tutankhamon (1975) and the jazz-rock Coses Nostres (1976) and the first three Triana albums El Patio (1975), Hijos del Agobio (1977) and Sombra y Luz (1979). El Patio (The Backyard) is quite accessible, setting out the Triana stall of traditional flamenco mixed with progressive rock and referencing an LSD trip. I find it interesting that almost the entire album was written by keyboard player Jesús de la Rosa rather than guitarist Eduardo Rodríguez Rodway; electric guitar and bass were provided by guest musicians. Spain was just emerging from the fascist dictatorship of General Franco when Triana were becoming established and Hijos del Agobio (Children of the Burden) is darker and more political than its forerunner but this style of music, blending flamenco and keyboard driven symphonic prog and initiated by Triana, has its own sub genre, Andalusian rock.

The trio of albums by Gordon Giltrap beginning with Visionary (1976) moved the artist away from his folk roots and, with the aid of an electric guitar and a good backing band, create some excellent prog that features a good mix of electric and acoustic-based songs. Perhaps Giltrap thought that the folk sphere limited his outlook, rather like the strictly classical guitar field when you compare it with the potential audience that listens to rock. There’s a rich vein of early, classical and romantic music that can be used as a basis for prog compositions which can challenge the player and listener alike. Symphonic prog successfully taps this repertoire providing variations in tone and volume and, possibly most importantly, a link to pastoralism.



By ProgBlog, Apr 5 2015 06:53PM

Around the time of the double trio King Crimson incarnation, Jim Knipe and I went off to see Robert Fripp performing soundscapes in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. This attendance was fairly hastily arranged because of respective work commitments such as on-call and the Saturday 9th March was deemed to be the most suitable of the potential dates on offer, Fripp being in residence at the QEH for four days from the 7th to the 10th including what was due to be a marathon session on Saturday 9th, as part of a series of events billed as ‘Now You See It’. Strangely enough, Crystal Palace were at home to Jim’s team, West Bromwich Albion that afternoon, with Palace running out winners 1-0 and legend Dougie Freedman scoring the sole goal; this predated our arrangement to attend Eagles v Baggies and Baggies v Eagles reciprocal home fixtures by some years, when West Brom and Palace are playing in the same division.

I’m a fan of Fripp’s soundscapes. I’ve got (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star, which I regard as early, lo-fi examples of guitar and tape loops which marked the beginning of Frippertronics (a term coined by Fripp’s girlfriend at the time, Joanna Walton). Though I don’t own either God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (1980) or Let the Power Fall (1981) I do have the Fripp-produced Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall, recorded in 1977 but not released until 1980 which some believe contains the first examples of proper Frippertronics. I’ve charted their evolution from the original collaborations with Eno, through solo album Exposure (1979) and the 80s incarnation of Crimson to the work with David Sylvian, The First Day and the live album Damage (both 1993), that presaged the double trio King Crimson of the 90s. The calm, dreamy Bringing Down the Light from The First Day was probably the earliest recorded example of Fripp’s modern take on the soundscape; my collection ends with the four track CD EP Pie Jesu (1997) which contains material from A Blessing of Tears and The Gates of Paradise. By this time, technology had become very reliable and instead of twin Revox tape decks and his effect pedal that I’d seen give up the ghost while playing with the League of Gentlemen at the LSE in November 1980, he was now using industry-standard TC2290 dynamic digital delay modules from TC electronics.

The late 70s and early 80s saw Fripp embarking on a number of intimate solo performances in off-beat venues, in the guise of a ‘small, mobile, intelligent unit’. This modus operandi was revisited in the mid-90s with the new technology and resulted in a series of releases that sadly aren’t currently available (though a series of more recent compilations are readily accessible); these shows were sonically and physically disparate from his playing in a group context. In Crimson he migrated out of the front line, remaining in the shadows but he was entirely out of sight when I went to see Peter Gabriel at the Liverpool Empire in April 1977 performing his first solo tour, until his introduction as ‘Dusty Rhodes’ when he appeared to take a bow. As a solo performer, whatever the ambient lighting, he was always in the spotlight and the perceived barriers between Fripp and the audience were rendered insignificant. Fripp was able to trigger loops and delays and leave his ‘stage’ from time-to-time, blurring the lines between the distinction of guitarist and listeners. On http://www.dgmlive.com/rf/index.htm?group=bleeping&bio=true Fripp writes “The Soundscape performances are part of an ongoing series which has the aim of finding ways in which intelligence and music, definition and discovery, courtesy and reciprocation may enter into the act of music for both musician and audience.”

This interaction is one reason why the music shouldn’t be simply classed as ‘ambient’ music. The ambient tag suggests the listener is passive but it is Fripp’s stated aim to seek an interaction which may then shape the course of the event; proactive music making, with Fripp and a guitar able to make a great deal of noise should he decide to do so. These aren’t sampled atmospherics, sounds from nature or even urban background chatter but a controlled, improvised, sonic narrative that may be calming, dramatic, eerie, alarming or even jagged and angular.

The ambient genre had its origins in the 70s and could be described as a musical form with an emphasis on tone, timbral quality and atmosphere rather than a traditional structure or rhythm. To this extent, ambient music ought to have an unobtrusive quality. Early pioneer Brian Eno has said that ambient music should be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; that it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. This suggests to me that ambient music is passive and so, by applying Fripp’s description of soundscapes, soundscapes are not ambient music.

‘Ambient’ somehow seems mixed up with New Age ideas, or rather there is an association between the two through a construct of the marketing industry. Fripp’s critique of the music business is well documented, largely through copious sleeve notes that have accompanied Fripp-related releases through DGM; the corporate music world relies on consumer trends that are controlled via the medium of marketing.

Soundscapes aren’t electronica, either. This is a sub-genre I associate with sequencer pulses and (predominantly) keyboard washes. Whether intended or not, programmed sequences form the basis of rhythm, and they certainly provide a sense of drive and direction which removes them from the accepted definition of ‘ambient’. Thus Tangerine Dream, synthesizer innovators of the early 70s, are allowed to be described as producing ‘atmospheric’ music but their ephemeral melody lines that interweave with snatched, developing pulsating sequences excludes them from ambientism.

It’s the unknown direction of soundscapes that I find appealing. Some of my own improvised music using a Roland synthesizer falls into calming soundscape territory, though I have a tendency to overdub ‘natural’ sounds, rainfall, wind or waves and use reverse waveforms played over the original recording to produce smooth, soothing compositions. This is very unlike Fripp (and obviously nowhere near as good) with only his guitar and effects, conjuring angels and demons in response to his audience in an intimate, live setting. Each performance is unique and if Fripp has full recordings of his recital from March 9th 1996 (the piano-inflected Sometimes God Hides that appears on The Gates of Paradise released in 1997 was taken from that appearance) I’d very much like him to consider releasing it – the memory of standing sipping bottles of Becks watching the craftsman at work is beginning to fade.



By ProgBlog, Jan 11 2015 08:19PM

I’ve just done something that on the face of it may seem to be hypocritical: I’ve filled out the Prog magazine readers’ poll for 2014. My stance on lists is that they’re lazy and how could anything as diverse as progressive rock produce a result that is in any way representative of anything. I occasionally fill out staff surveys at work because the NHS employs bullies and overpaid and under-qualified managers to run a service that really should be run by clinically qualified staff (the clue is in the ‘health’ bit); just because you may have broken your leg as a teenager and subsequently went on to manage a supermarket or a home improvement centre, or sold stocks and shares for rich idiots, it does not mean that you’re fit to run a hospital. I could have predicted what has just happened to Hinchingbrooke Hospital. I use the staff survey process to remind these people that cutting the salaries of nurses by £1700 per year during times of austerity, when housing prices and rent are spiralling out of control and rail fares shoot upwards with annual inflation-busting rises even though the service itself gets worse, is not only nasty but will lead to recruitment and retention problems, staff shortages, a demoralised workforce, a stressed-out workforce and clinical errors. This inevitably falls on deaf ears and the perpetrators of this mismanagement get rewarded in the New Year’s Honours list. Honestly. But I’m saving up each “I told you so” in the hope that it will give me cold satisfaction during my retirement.

As a youth I liked to look at the readers’ polls in (primarily) Melody Maker and (to a lesser extent) in the NME and Sounds. I’m not sure if this was an exercise in wanting to belong to the prog tribe or if it was simply checking to see if the bands I liked had received the recognition that I believed they had earned. It’s quite incredible that from 1973 to 1977, Yes were either top British band or International band or both in the Melody Maker poll and during those five years their lowest position was second. The news of their success was generally acknowledged with a large ‘thank you’ advertisement directed at their fans, accompanied by some Roger Dean artwork; I did particularly look out for members of Yes when I pored over the results though I was interested in prog acts in general. I feel that the recognition of prog bands and their members during this period, a time before the dreadful concept of celebrity, was testament to their musical ability and creative vision. It’s undeniable that the most successful of the 70s progressive rock bands shifted millions of albums and despite their penchant for a more cerebral approach to music-making, fans were evidently happy to indulge in odd time signatures, dissonance, lofty concepts and whatever else could be thrown at them in the name of high art. Whatever the reason for scrutinising the published results, the success of your favourite bands gave you bragging rights in the school playground, an important rite as punk and new wave made inroads on the musical map.

On reflection, I’m not sure why there were ‘British’ and ‘International’ sections and even more perplexed by the votes for miscellaneous instrument. The category seems quite sensible, asking the readership to vote for musicians playing instruments other than bass, drums, guitar and keyboards yet some of the responses were somewhat baffling. Reasonable votes were cast for Ian Anderson who usually ranked highly with ‘flute’ but why would Brian Eno be included in the list because he played a VCS3? I’d always classed the EMS VCS3 along with keyboards, based on my impression of the Synthi A, the VCS3 in a briefcase as used by Pink Floyd (featured in the Abbey Road studios footage of Dark Side sessions on Live at Pompeii.) If the VCS3 is classed as a miscellaneous instrument, then why not include exponents of the Mellotron or a double neck 6-string and 12-string guitar? Another common response was for Mike Oldfield who made appearances during this time for ‘everything’. However, a check of the instrumentation on Tubular Bells reveals just one instrument, the flageolet, which falls outside the remit of the other classes, being a woodwind instrument that was said to have been invented by Frenchman Sieur Juvigny in 1581.

The Prog magazine poll has been going since 2009 and adheres to a similar format to the old Melody Maker example, though there’s been a gradual evolution to the current format: Best album; best band; best male / female vocalist; best guitarist / bassist / drummer / keyboard player; and best unsigned / new act is equivalent to Melody Maker’s ‘brightest hope’. Prog also includes categories for best and worst event, best multimedia best reissue and icon. The reader’s poll allows personal choice, unlike the nominations for the annual Prog Awards where we are only able to vote for a shortlist of Prog magazine-approved candidates, and if you fail to vote for someone in one of the categories your votes don’t count. Perhaps the Prog team need a lesson in democracy!

Anyway, my votes were cast as follows, based on albums released in 2014 and acts that I saw perform live throughout the year, with the exception of Prog Woman of the Year:

Best band: Änglagård

Best album: La Quarta Vittima by Fabio Zuffanti

Best female vocalist: Sonja Kristina

Best male vocalist: Stefano 'Lupo' Galifi

Best guitarist: Steve Howe

Best bassist: Fabio Zuffanti

Best keyboard player: Agostino Macor

Best drummer: Chris Cutler

Best reissue: King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

Best multimedia: Pink Floyd, The Endless River

Best event: Prog Resiste, Soignies

Worst event: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Royal Albert Hall

Best venue: Victor Jara Cultural Centre, Soignies

Tip for 2014: Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band

Prog woman of the year: Kate Bush

Prog man of the year: Fabio Zuffanti


Prog magazine has also hosted other readers' polls, an early edition featured a ‘best albums’ poll which was repeated last year, the fifth anniversary of the magazine’s inception. Close to the Edge was second in 2009, pipped to the top position by Selling England by the Pound, but was promoted to the number one slot in 2014. I should think so! It was quite interesting to see how many albums I owned that made the top 100 (54) and relate this to the editorial remit of the publication. I did have 13 of the top 15 albums, not being at all interested in the two Rush albums that scraped in.

I also subscribed to a best Genesis track plebiscite, the results of which appeared in Prog 13 (January 2011) in the hope that my reasons for selecting my top three would get published because I spent some time thinking about it. My choices made the top three and in the correct order (3, Watcher of the Skies; 2, Firth of Fifth; 1, Supper’s Ready) but they didn’t quote me.

Even though I think publishing lists is lazy journalism, I’ll continue to submit my opinions in the hope that the editorial board takes notice of both my suggestions and my reasons. I'm not so stupid that I think they ever will.



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

 

ProgBlog's lockdown solution to a lack of live concerts - likely to be the last part of the economy to be re-started - is a list of ten of the best lives albums

 

This is the first five...

Banco ticket 050220