ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Oct 18 2015 10:09PM

Back in 1972, when I started listening to progressive rock and Focus 3 was circulating between brother Tony’s friends, I didn’t make any distinction between groups of different nationalities. From a starting point of Close to the Edge and spreading out to early ELP via the collected works of The Nice, Focus were one of the first bands that I heard and they simply fitted into the spectrum of music that I liked; jazz, classical, early music, blended in with rock instrumentation. The inclusion of flute also made an impression on me and I’m a strong advocate of the instrument in prog. There was a short period in very early 1973 where I’d turn on my small medium wave radio with its single earpiece and tune in to Radio Luxembourg (208m) and the first song I’d hear would be Sylvia. This short, melodic piece is something of a classic and though prog bands tended not to be interested in chart-topping singles, it ended up being Focus’ biggest international hit. I didn’t buy Focus 3 until 1976 (it seemed to me to be quite expensive, even for a double album) but Tony bought Moving Waves (1971) not long after we’d discovered the band and we bought Hamburger Concerto (1974) at the time it was released. Taken as a whole, I think I prefer Hamburger over Moving Waves, probably because of the more varied instrumentation. The two long-form compositions, Eruption and Hamburger Concerto are both brilliant examples of the genre; on Moving Waves the tracks on side one highlight the band’s influences but on Hamburger the tracks are all much more like full-on prog, including a Hocus Pocus reprise in the equally bonkers Harem Scarem. Focus 3 contained the epic Anonymous II running at over 26 minutes but even at this early stage in my understanding of music, I thought that it sounded like a studio jam that pushed the boundaries of taste with the extended bass and drum solos. However, such was my appreciation for Focus, they were one of the very first groups I went to see play live. Unfortunately, Jan Akkerman had left the band and guitar duties were taken up by Philip Catherine so I found the performance a bit disappointing; added to that was the fact that I wasn’t too familiar with the current material (from Mother Focus, 1975) and what I had heard wasn’t too much like Hamburger or anything prior to that. On reflection, Hamburger was a high point and it wasn’t until Focus 9 (2006) when Thijs van Leer was once more reunited with classic-Focus period drummer Pierre van der Linden that I thought them sufficiently progressive enough to afford them another chance. The first time I saw the reformed Focus was at Chislehurst’s Beaverwood Club in October 2010 and they were brilliant. Van Leer has never taken himself too seriously but still managed to produce some incredible music. This performance mixed the early, classic material with some up-to-date songs such as the humorous Aya-Yuppie-Hippie-Yee which fitted in neatly with the 70s music. Bobby Jacobs (bass) was a constant from the original reformed line-up from 2002 but guitarist Niels van der Steenhoven and Pierre van der Linden were new recruits. Van der Steenhoven handled the original Akkerman guitar parts beautifully. Prog mate Gina Franchetti accompanied me to this gig – she was something of a Beaverwood Club regular – and happily engaged van Leer in conversation after the show, where he revealed a love for Italian food.

My next exposure to prog from the Netherlands was seeing Trace on BBC TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, performing Gaillarde from their first, eponymous album Trace (1974.) Having only previously seen Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson with large, multi-keyboard rigs, I was stunned by Rick van der Linden’s keyboards. I noted, though, that he was an ARP synthesizer man, without a Moog in sight. Based on the third movement of JS Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major (BWV 971) and a traditional Polish dance, Gaillarde is more Emerson than Wakeman, predominantly organ-driven, a classical interpretation performed by a trio. Self-taught bassist Jaap van Eik plays neat contrapuntal lines and ex-Focus drummer (playing his transparent Perspex kit on the Whistle Test) lays down jazz patterns, sometimes at breakneck speed. There’s a drum solo on the album (The Lost Past) which calls to mind the drum solo at the end of Eruption (Endless Road) from Moving Waves, but it somehow seems to fit the Trace album better, sandwiched between two parts of the haunting A Memory, a song based on a traditional Swedish piece of music. My copy of Trace was bought in 1975 and remains one of my favourite albums. The follow-up album, Birds was released in 1975, this time incorporating more van der Linden penned pieces and featuring ex-Darryl Way’s Wolf drummer Ian Mosley, Way was a guest on the album playing violins on Opus 1065, another Trace interpretation of JS Bach. My copy, the cover of which was damaged during storage sometime in the last 20 years, was bought from the Leeds University record store on a trip to see Rick Wakeman playing in the uni refectory in May 1976. Like classic Focus albums, Birds contains a multi-section suite which takes up the entire second side of the LP.

I’ve since supplemented my vinyl with CDs and also picked up a copy of The White Ladies (1976) that I saw in Dublin a couple of years ago. Though ascribed to Trace, The White Ladies is Rick van der Linden and his former Ekseption colleagues. I first heard about Ekseption, a pre- and post-Trace band, in around 2004 when I subscribed to a Rick van der Linden internet newsletter that was run by his wife Inez. During this time he was suffering from some of the major complications of diabetes, requiring eye surgery and, if memory serves correctly, needing a pancreas transplant; he died in January 2006 from complications following a stroke. I bought a second-hand copy of what fans regard as the best Ekseption album, Beggar Julia’s Time Trip (1969) for £8 from Beanos and identified portions that van der Linden would recycle for Trace, most notably Bach’s Italian Concerto. Though somewhat experimental it is a good example of fusing rock and the classics, with a bit of jazz thrown in. Whereas Focus and Trace are indistinguishable from British prog, Julia comes across as being different, Continental European, a facet I attribute to the spoken words by Linda van Dyck. It’s still an enjoyable album so I snapped up a CD of Ekseption 3 (1970) / Trinity (1973) when I saw it in a record store in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2009, neither of which has the same quality of composition as Julia throughout.

I was alerted to Supersister by Prog magazine and now own To the Highest Bidder (1971) and Iskander (1973.) This music is fairly complex, with Highest Bidder hinting at Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (from 1969.) The lyrics may be a bit throwaway but the music and musicianship is outstanding.

My most recent foray into prog from the Netherlands has been another time trip. I bought Earth and Fire’s Song of the Marching Children (1971) at the same time I bought The White Ladies in Dublin and though it’s not musically challenging, it’s in the same league as early Ekseption; I was also given a CD of the remastered first Earth and Fire album (1970), with the Roger Dean cover, as a birthday present this year which is really proto-prog.

I’ve made a distinction between British prog and that of other countries because I think there are stylistic variations based on local cultures and would suggest that most Italian bands have a distinct flavour that allows them to be grouped together in their own sub-genre. It may be because I got to hear Focus and Trace in the early 70s that I don’t think there’s much difference between Dutch prog and UK prog but whether or not there are differences, Focus and Trace have produced some of the best progressive rock, ever.



By ProgBlog, Jun 21 2015 09:35PM

The recent Page family Milan trip involved a trip to Expo 2015 and the tickets, bought on-line with a 48 hour travel pass, included free admission to the Arts and Foods exhibition at the Triennale di Milano. This display of more than 2000 pieces of work featured a wide array of visual idioms, from models, through objects to entire room settings that revolved around the world of food, nutrition, and the way people eat together. The idea was to examine the relationship between art and the many rituals associated with eating, with special reference to how the aesthetic and functional aspects of what we eat have impacted creative expression. Though much of this was in the form of installations and painting, amongst the artefacts and Andy Warhols was a display of album sleeves, each one depicting a food theme.

The closest this piece came to including a cover from a prog artist or band were Frank Zappa’s Overnite Sensation which shows some crumbs in McDonalds packaging, a half-eaten donut and a piece of rotten fruit bearing the legend ‘Roadies Delite’; the Zappa-Captain Beefheart collaboration Bongo Fury; and an Island Records budget-priced compilation album from 1969 called Nice Enough to Eat which includes 21st Century Schizoid Man by King Crimson and We Used to Know from Stand Up by Jethro Tull. I came across this album in a Brighton flea market last week so I had a chance to get a close look at the material that was included but apart from the Crimson and Tull, the remainder wasn’t all that inspiring. Also present on the same market stall was another prog album with a food-themed cover, not present in the Milano Triennale exhibition but a record I used to have in my collection, Exotic Birds and Fruit by Procol Harum.

One obvious prog-food related band is Egg. Not only is the first album called Egg (1970) but the cover photograph by David Wedgbury shows an egg-cracking machine beautifully constructed by Peter Chapman that could have come from my old school physics laboratories. The Civil Surface (1974) also features an egg on its cover, this time strongly reminding me of the British Egg Marketing Board’s TV advertising theme, Go to Work on an Egg which began in 1957 and was certainly still running in some form when I was young. It may be that this association is entirely fabricated, possibly due to the presence of an iconic British Lion mark on the Egg that graces The Civil Surface. This was the first Egg album I possessed, a Caroline Records release that sold for around £1.50. I wasn’t too aware of the Canterbury connection at the time and subsequently sold it to my friend Bill Burford before buying it again, this time on CD, from Cover Music in Berlin in 2005. Now that I have all the Egg releases I think that it’s their best record despite Dave Stewart’s warning about the drums being too high in the mix; the recording seems much cleaner than Egg and The Polite Force (1971) and the interpretation of the compositions more mature. Some commentators have questioned the presence of the two wind quartet pieces, suggesting that they are just filler but though these aren’t being played by Egg the band, I think their inclusion is legitimate because they seem to fit with the mood of the album. Calling a record Hamburger Concerto (1974) is obviously suggestive of food and the neon-style writing used for the title fits in with the image of a US burger joint but the side long title track, based on a piece by Hamburg-born Johannes Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, is evidently a Focus pun. The track was conceived as a sequel to Eruption from Moving Waves (1971) and evidently had nothing to do with hamburgers, beginning life as Vesuvius, a portion of which appears on the odds and ends Focus album Ship of Memories (1976) as Out of Vesuvius; the six subsections Starter, Rare, Medium I, Medium II, Well Done and One for the Road make up the three movements of a concerto if you take the first four parts as the first movement comprising exposition, double exposition, development and recapitulation. Though I’m very fond of Moving Waves I prefer Hamburger because of the greater range of instrumentation and sounds, even though Jan Akkerman’s guitar is much less to the fore on the later album’s concept piece.

Gong’s Camembert Electrique (1971) could have been included in the Milan exhibition though there are only written references to cheese on the cover: the album title; ‘Cheez Pleez’ and ‘Strong and streamin mate!’ thought and speech bubbles respectively; plus the small ‘Cheese Rock’ and much larger ‘Fabriqué en Normandie’ tags. I probably bought this album when I was too young to appreciate it, but at £0.49 it was pretty irresistible. You have to remember that I took my prog very seriously and I liked my prog to be serious; the anarchic humour and Dadaist leanings were fine as long as they didn’t pretend to be progressive rock and this was more psychedelia or space rock than prog, with my favourite track being Fohat Digs Holes in Space. The title and cover of England’s Garden Shed (1977) is a play on Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade but the relative subtlety of the reference and the relative unknown status of the album meant that it would never have got a look-in at Milan. This is a late golden-era classic, easily accessible to Genesis devotees but incorporating influences from other classic prog bands without coming across as an imitation. I updated my 20th Anniversary edition with the 2005 Special Edition Booklet and CD from the England merchandise stand at last year’s Resonance Festival.

The nature of much progressive rock music, with grand themes and concepts and cover images to match, is almost the opposite to the prosaic topic of food though the Milan exhibition showed that the notion of ‘eat to live’ has been overtaken by the concept of ‘live to eat’, certainly in Western cultures; perhaps Pink Floyd should have included a track about (the popular but erroneous meaning of) Epicureanism on Dark Side of the Moon. I can’t think of any prog rock song that highlights famine in the same way that Yes penned a song relating to a global concern when they requested Don’t Kill the Whale and perhaps it’s only Genesis who highlight the arrival of rampant consumerism which they compare with an England of folk lore and conservatism (with a small ‘c’) notably its association with food, in Dancing with the Moonlit Knight and Aisle of Plenty from Selling England by the Pound (1973).



By ProgBlog, Jan 1 2015 08:13PM

It would be easy to do a prog retrospective of 2014; the festivals and other concerts, the important albums, other milestones... but I’m not going to because although I don’t mind looking at lists and comparing the thoughts of journalists (and their manipulation of source data, should they have asked for public opinion) with mine, I still regard it as lazy and relatively meritless.

On the face of it, compared to my birthday and previous Christmases, this Christmas was relatively prog-free. I did get Consorzio Acqua Potabile’s 40th anniversary edition of Il Teatro delle Ombre (The Shadow Theatre), a very nicely presented 4CD set that includes a 20th anniversary edition of ...Nei Gorghi del Tempo (In the Whirlpool of Time.) The music dates back to the 70s and I suppose it slots into a style that most closely resembles Banco del Mutuo Soccorso with the twin keyboards, though CAP are slightly less adventurous. There are multiple layers of instruments and strong vocals but I think the modern production may have taken something away from the compositions, despite the inclusion of vintage keyboards. The CD of live material, apart from the Banco-like titled Traccia Tre from 1979, ranges from the late 90s to 2011. I’d love to hear the music as it was presented in the early 70s. I also got Paper Charms, the complete BBC recordings of PFM. This 2CD+1 DVD set forms a kind of companion piece to the re-mastered, expanded Cook and captures the band at the height of their global fame. CD1, with introductions from Pete Drummond in clipped BBC tones, closely follows the track selection from the original Cook which had been released not too long before the appearance at the BBC Paris Theatre, London. The playing is exemplary and the mix is well balanced, though Drummond comes across as rather loud. There’s a fair degree of difference between the Cook version of Alta Loma 5 ‘till 9 [sic] and those on Paper Charms but the other material is similar. During one announcement, Drummond suggests that Four Holes in the Ground contains the influence of Greek music because it was the first song written by the band after half-French, half-Greek Patrick Djivas had joined the band from Area and I believe that he’s correct, even though Djivas does not get a song writing credit. The PFM box set, from my brother Richard, was accompanied by a Pink Floyd – The Wall pen which writes really neatly. My brother Andrew also got me some prog: Finneus Gauge’s One Inch of the Fall and (Bruford Levin Upper Extremities) BLUE Nights. The former had been on my wish list for a while because I’d read that the style was on the progressive side of jazz rock. I’m not a great fan of US prog (I own Day for Night by Spock’s Beard, Journey of the Dunadan by Glass Hammer and The Weirding by Astra and I’m not over impressed. I’ve also got Hot Rats which is excellent but I’m not sure that Zappa should be pigeonholed as prog. It may surprise you to find out that I’m also toying with the idea of trying out a Fireballet album.) I hadn’t picked up on the Echolyn – Finneus Gauge connection because I’ve not listened to any Echolyn but I think One Inch of the Fall is the best US prog album that I own. Laura Martin has a great, distinctive voice and the musicianship can’t be faulted. What makes it better than the other American prog is the uniform high quality of the writing; there really is no filler here and, though you can detect some Canterbury influences, it doesn’t sound like anyone else. This Canterbury influence is best exemplified by Scott McGill’s guitar work which, at times, is reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth. There’s a slight bias towards guitar (as opposed to keyboards) but that’s not a criticism. BLUE Nights, a live documentary of the Bruford Levin analogue of a King Crimson projecKt, takes the material from their studio album, which I like very much, and extends it into Crimson improvisational territory. The Chris Botti trumpet, along with Bruford’s precision drumming, puts the band in a modern jazz setting which is pulled towards progressive rock territory by David Torn’s guitar loops and effects. It’s clear that there’s a musical chemistry between the band members; they had previously appeared together on Torn’s Cloud About Mercury which covers roughly the same ground.

My main Christmas present wasn’t prog-related but it was conceptual. The now ritual pre-Christmas trip to Venice isn’t just about Rock Progressivo Italiano, it’s also about coffee. I’ve imported beans from Torrefazione Cannaregio in the past (www.torrefazionecannaergio.it) and stopping in the small shop for a morning espresso (€0.90) is an essential part of the Venetian itinerary. So, with the understanding that good coffee plays an increasingly important part of my life, Susan bought me a DeLonghi espresso machine and Daryl has provided a voucher for barista lessons. Awesome.

The one issue I have with BLUE Nights is that Tony Levin recounts in his BLUE Road Diary from the Japan Tour, April 5th: “There seem to be Starbucks in various parts of Tokyo, so decent espresso isn’t far away anywhere here.” I suppose that Starbucks tax avoidance might not have been such an issue in 1998 but it’s stretching a point to call their espresso decent! I attended the International Histocompatibility Workshop Conference in Seattle in May 2002 where the coffee was provided at no charge by Starbucks. Better coffee could be obtained outside the Washington State Convention Center [sic] at the Seattle Coffee Company (Seattle’s Best Coffee) which has apparently subsequently been subsumed by the mighty Starbucks. Having read Levin’s BLUE road diary, it’s interesting that the booklet that accompanies King Crimson's "57 Minutes Of Improvised Music" ThraKaTTaK CD contains a diagram for the ‘Crim Valet’, a portable espresso machine in a flight case with storage for cups, glasses and wine. This suggests that Levin is serious about his coffee and indeed, he used to have a page on his Papabear website called ‘Tony’s Coffee Corner’. The Crim Valet, aka Café Crim, did make it out on the road during a Crimson European tour around 1999 – 2000. Tony’s Coffee Corner also reveals that Levin owned a Gaggia which was sampled for inclusion on the track Espresso and the Bed of Nails from his World Diary album. Tony, whatever were you thinking? Starbucks, decent espresso?



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