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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, 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, Jun 15 2014 07:13PM

As a Crystal Palace supporter I feel that I’ve got a connection to other teams involved in the current football contest that’s invading global TV screens. Eagles captain Mile Jedinak is also the captain of Australia so on Friday night I watched the Socceroos push World Cup dark horses Chile in a thrilling, end-to-end contest that ultimately led to a 1-3 defeat, though the score line did flatter the South Americans. That got me thinking about Australian prog and I’m not talking about Tame Impala.

I’ve visited Oz a couple of times, for a scientific workshop based in Melbourne in 2005 and to visit my son Daryl who got a job in Sydney after finishing his Masters degree, in 2012. By 2005 I was actively seeking indigenous prog wherever I travelled and I spent some time in Metropolis Music in Swanston Street going through a pile of CDs recommended by the staff that they thought might fit my musical taste. Though I bought a couple of CDs neither was by an Australian band – I thought the selection they’d suggested was very blues-based, more proto-prog than fully-formed prog.

Sydney, 7 years later, was a very different prospect. Daryl had discovered Red Eye Records next to the QVB and had already made a couple of purchases there which he’d shipped back to the UK as presents. He’d sent me the first Sebastian Hardie album, Four Moments and bought the second Sebastian Hardie release, Windchase, for his uncle Richard. Red Eye was the second stop for us on arrival in Sydney – the first stop was dropping off our bags at our hotel. This basement shop had an extensive ‘Australia’ section in addition to the normal genre divisions. The prog section, though smaller than some I’ve browsed, contained some interesting and unusual items; the staff, led by owner Chris Pepperell, were helpful and knowledgeable. I completed my personal Sebastian Hardie collection, picking up Windchase, the SH related release Symphinity (keyboard player Toivo Pilt and guitarist Mario Millo formed a band called Windchase), and buying the new release from the recently reformed Sebastian Hardie, Blueprint. I was also introduced to Pirana, Bakery and Tymepiece but I think all three bands fall into the proto-prog category as they moved from blues-based psychedelia to music that incorporated more adventurous elements. Of these three bands, I prefer Pirana but the Bakery sound approaches that of a Peter Banks and Tony Kaye Yes.

Sebastian Hardie has been described as “cheesy” in a Prog Archives review but I think this is unfair. They used to be a band that performed cover versions before coalescing around the line-up of Pilt, Millo and the Plavsic brothers, Peter (bass) and Alex (drums.) Still, their original music showed some very strong influences and the melodic lead guitar with organ or mellotron harmonic chord backing is very much like Focus. Their first album, Four Moments, also borrows from Yes. The sparse vocals are peppered with Jon Anderson imagery and stream of consciousness style that abounds on Tales from Topographic Oceans, which is no terrible thing. One criticism is that they take a melody and play it to death before moving on to the next melodic line. There’s a fine line between reinforcing a motif and repeating it too often and I think they just manage to stay within the boundary of taste and sense, helped by the fact that I find the music uplifting. There are moments that sound Camel-like but this may be just coincidental because Camel were only just hitting their creative heights with Snow Goose when Four Moments was released.

The second album, Windchase (1976), is a natural successor to Four Moments. The formula is the same with one side-long piece though it shows signs of developing complexity and, the rather more worrying development of a regression towards pop in Life, Love and Music.

The Plavsic brothers quit following Windchase but Pilt and Millo continued, changing the name of the band to Windchase and releasing Symphinity in 1977.

Symphinity has much more of a keyboard influence than the two preceding Sebastian Hardie albums and it has more of a jazz rock sensibility, sometimes approaching Santana territory, perhaps reflecting the tastes of Toivo Pilt. The vocals on Horsemen to Symphinity are reminiscent of the simple, meaningless but vaguely cosmic singing on the first two albums and the music is a natural progression from the symphonic prog of Sebastian Hardie. It’s the bland pop of Glad to be Alive that really detracts from the overall quality of the other material on the album. The strings are pure saccharine and the vocal harmonies could be the Osmonds. It’s surprising that the track was included because it’s so different from the other songs although the last track, Flight Call suffers from some of the same symptoms. The instrumental Gypsy, also written by Millo, is melodic prog; the anti-capitalist No Scruples was almost certainly influenced by Relayer-era Yes; the extended jam of Lamb’s Fry is a melodic jazz rock workout; the short acoustic Non Siamo Perfetti reprises a melody from Four Moments. The cover is something my wife would describe as a depiction of prog. It’s a painting by Peter Ledger of anachronistic technologies, alien artefacts and figures dressed like Romans on horseback. It calls to mind the Don Lawrence artwork for the Trigan Empire comic strip that appeared in the children’s science magazine Look and Learn. There’s also a nod to Roger Dean, with the horsemen and a coiled snake and a Mayan/alien temple.

Blueprint starts off where Sebastian Hardie left off, a melodic song sharing guitar and keyboard parts but this time with vocals reflecting on missed opportunities of the past. This is grown-up music, not necessarily always prog, similar in feel to Pink Floyd’s Division Bell, and it forms a sort of theme throughout the album. The voices have matured and the production is really clear, the instrumentation is very much in keeping with the 70s incarnation of the band but though the singing is better than thirty-plus years ago, the instrumental Vuja de is by far the best track on the album followed by the last track, Shame, which has hints of Focus.

On his return from Australia, Daryl managed to get me a copy of Clockwork Revenge by Airlord (1977) which is highly regarded by Australians, even though the band was from Wellington, New Zealand. They had to decamp to Oz to make the album and make a living and the result is akin to the relationship between England and Genesis. I also bought into Anubis, the Oz version of Porcupine Tree, seduced by the fantastic cover artwork of A Tower of Silence and the strange time signature used on the track The Passing Bell, completing a time line from the birth of Australian symphonic prog to the present day.


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