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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, Apr 10 2016 03:34PM

April 1976. Forty years ago. This was late summer-early autumn in the progressive rock golden era timeline though none of us knew it at the time; it was also in the middle of the major player hiatus and consequently there were only three significant releases that month which, on reflection, may have been an indication of change in the musical landscape. During this period I had limited cash for buying albums, though my part-time job delivering the Cancer and Polio Research Fund News Letter to households around the Infield and Hawcoat wards of Barrow could sometimes result in a substantial tip if the recipient won a respectable sum on one of the bingo cards that were sold with the newsletter. Back then I was still catching up with previous releases by a range of prog bands and it wasn’t until a few years later that I acquired the cream of the April 1976 crop: Moonmadness by Camel, Interview by Gentle Giant and Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator.

There isn’t too much common ground between the three albums with Camel’s efforts moving from symphonic prog towards a jazz-tinged melodic prog, Gentle Giant providing their usual eclectic mix of styles, albeit with a distinct rockier feel than some of their earlier work that equates to an increased degree of accessibility, and Van der Graaf Generator’s second release from the stabilised second generation four piece which I believe represents the creative pinnacle of their career, more composed (in both senses of the word) than the albums of the 70 – 72 incarnation and Godbluff (1975) with some of Hammill’s best lyrics and exploration of philosophy.


Moonmadness hardly needs any introduction. The last release by the original line-up, this was a deliberate move by the band to create something other than ‘son of Snow Goose’, and the result was an album loosely held together with the concept that each of the main tracks represented a member of the band: Chord Change is keyboard player Pete Bardens; Another Night is bassist Doug Ferguson; Air Born is guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is drummer Andy Ward. The album title comes from a pun on Lunar Sea and there are other references to the moon throughout the album, from lyrics on Another Night to the title of the concise opening track Aristillus, a prominent impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium. This song features Andy Ward reciting ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’ (a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus.)

All the preceding Camel albums contained songs of a uniformly high standard and Snow Goose stands out as a major composition that never dips in quality. The band was finding its feet with the eponymous debut and got more confident, and heavier, with Mirage (1974). Moonmadness returns to the song format but the quality has notched up a level and though on balance I probably prefer Snow Goose, its successor rates very highly with Lunar Sea remaining one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. Though most evident on Lunar Sea which features alternating lead guitar and keyboard lines, the entire album has a very satisfactory balance and neither Bardens nor Latimer comes out as particularly dominant, with the lead musicians giving each other ample space to conjure those beautiful, melodic lines. The rhythm section also performs admirably; I’ve always been a fan of Andy Ward’s drumming but Doug Ferguson, if we had to choose the weakest contributor, provides really solid bass throughout and positively bubbles on Lunar Sea.

Interview could almost act as a statement of Gentle Giant’s career up to that point. The subject matter concerns some well-trodden Giant subject material, concerning aspects of the music business, with another look at a roadie’s perspective but there was supposed to be a concept behind the whole project, the crassness of the interview process to publicise the output of a band. There are clips of an imaginary interview: “how would you describe your music?” Unfortunately the concept falls a little flat, without any real conviction and the interviewer is Phil Sutcliffe, one of the only journalists to genuinely appreciate the band.

Musically, the title track which opens the album continues from where 1975’s Free Hand left off. It’s clever, rocky and accessible, a style that continues on the original LP side 2 opener Another Show. Empty City is more gentle and reflective but it’s only in the first half of final track I Lost My Head, that the band show off their acoustic, medieval chops, then conclude with a muscular, rocking section that is also featured on the live set Playing the Fool (1977); I think this is probably the most satisfactory track on the album. The one departure from the previous Giant musical direction comes in the form of the proto reggae of Give it Back which reminds me of Dreadlock Holiday, the most memorable single from 10cc’s Bloody Tourists (1978.) Though there are a number of parallels with Free Hand, the production on Interview allows a good deal of space between the instruments that almost adds a feeling of sparseness. Gentle Giant remain one of the only progressive rock bands I never got to see, even outside of the golden era but at least their music seems to have reached a wider audience than that attained during the 70s.


When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.
When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.

There’s a sort of roughness to the production of the early 70s VdGG albums, with the surprise possible exception of H to He, which suits the music. Godbluff is also fairly raw in contrast to Still Life which comes across as though the band have spent as much time as they needed to produce the record. It sounds well rehearsed and controlled so that even when the band lets rip it almost feels as though they’ve got something in reserve. Not that Still Life could truly be described as polished in the sense of being over-produced; the anthemic Pilgrims and the full-on La Rossa were written during the Godbluff sessions so that in effect the band only required three pieces to complete the album, arriving at the hymn-like title track, the relatively calm My Room (Waiting for Wonderland) where the lyrics really grabbed me: “Searching for diamonds in a sulphur mine...” and the deep, epically structured Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End. The band employed some simple and effective devices during the recording with the aim of stirring the listeners’ emotions, including delaying the introduction of the drums (and horns) on the track Still Life and using single-track vocals on My Room, where there’s also some fine bass work from Banton. The cover photo by Paul Brierley adds to the impression that considerable thought went into the making of the album. A chance find in a magazine, the image is of electrical discharge from a Van der Graaf generator though I’ve always felt that it had the appearance of mineralisation or a treated photograph of a fossil fern, a reference to still life. The Paul Whitehead sleeves may have been iconic but Still Life is class. It’s not an easy album to listen to, coming across more of an aural assault and I still don’t think my brother Tony gets it, even though he was the one that got me into progressive rock in the first place. I think it’s a brilliant work, one of the best pieces of music to emerge from the whole of 1976 and probably the most adventurous; Van der Graaf Generator didn’t really know how to play safe!






By ProgBlog, Mar 29 2015 07:01PM

Early in the new millennium, when progressive rock was emerging from underneath rocks and dragging itself out of slimy ponds, I discovered that Gina Franchetti, the wife of my university friend Mark Franchetti, was into prog in a fairly big way. This came as something of a surprise because I was only aware that Mark’s taste in music was very different from mine, with what I recall as being a penchant for rock ‘n’ roll of the late 50s and early 60s.

Gina’s collection was centred around reel-to-reel tapes that remained, to a greater degree, inaccessible and, in an effort to rekindle her passion for odd time signatures and Jon Anderson flights of fancy, I offered to put together a couple of CDs (the noughties equivalent of the mix tape) to cover as wide a range of classic prog as possible with a short explanation why I’d chosen the included tracks, prefaced by a brief ‘what is prog?’ Conforming to the most logical arrangement i.e. alphabetically, by band, I put together the following:

CD1. 1) Mockingbird (Barclay James Harvest); 2) First Light (Camel); 3) Virgin on the Ridiculous (Caravan); 4) Trilogy (Emerson, Lake & Palmer); 5) The Last Judgement (The Enid); 6) Anonymus (Focus); 7) The Fountain of Salmacis (Genesis); 8) On Reflection (Gentle Giant); 9) Lucifer’s Cage (Gordon Giltrap); 10) Pilgrims Progress (Greenslade); 11) Juniper Suite (Gryphon); 12) Minstrel in the Gallery (Jethro Tull)

CD2. 1) Easy Money (King Crimson); 2) 3rd Movement Pathetique (The Nice); 3) The World Became the World (PFM); 4) Time (Pink Floyd); 5) Papillion (Refugee); 6) Opus 1065 (Trace); 7) Rendezvous 6.02 (UK); 8) White Hammer (Van der Graaf Generator); 9) Arrow (Van der Graaf Generator); 10) Awaken (Yes)


Why this selection? The easy answer would be that it fitted very neatly onto two CDs. Perhaps that is the most satisfying answer, because the way you define prog has an influence on choice. I stuck to the premise that prog was largely, but not exclusively, a European phenomenon, centred in the UK; I included Focus, Trace (both from the Netherlands) and PFM (Italy) to highlight important continental influences on the genre. Another easy answer would be that these groups formed the core of my collection at the time, before I’d accrued disposable income and before I actively began to fill in the gaps; some of the recordings were transferred to digital from the original vinyl. I have a fairly conservative view of what constitutes prog (the only instance I’m ever going to be associated with that word) but progressive rock was genuinely a broad church and in the intervening period it has arguably become a lot broader; looking back at the list after ten years I think my choice stands the test of time. It’s not a ‘best of’ or my personal top 22 but I did put a great deal of effort into the selection balancing how representative each track was of each band within the constraints of an 80 minute CD.

Around this time the music industry and the marketing world had woken up to the fact that forty- and fifty somethings had significant buying power and hooked into the phenomenon of cyclical fashion. Recognising that prog had shaken off its pariah status they cynically released the first of a batch of compilation albums, triple CD The Best Prog Rock Album in the World... Ever! (complete with imitation Roger Dean cover) just in time for father’s day 2003 and Daryl dutifully bought it for me. That selection included some material that I wouldn’t class as prog (Be Bop Deluxe, Deep Purple, Electric Light Orchestra, Hawkwind, Man, Roxy Music) but the album was released by Virgin/EMI which explains why Kevin Ayers, Egg, Hatfield and the North and Steve Hillage were prominently featured. There was no King Crimson.


Barclay James Harvest were the first band I went to see outside Barrow, playing at Lancaster University on the Time Honoured Ghosts tour. On the strength of the performance, I bought the album BJH Live. Mockingbird is a quintessential BJH track, played as the encore at concerts which combines many of the elements that make up prog.

First Light is second-phase Camel but it neatly encapsulates their sense of tasteful, melodic prog. The success of Snow Goose and Moonmadness is not diminished by this relatively short track that opens Rain Dances.

Selecting a Caravan track proved quite difficult. I regard much of the Pye Hastings material as being filler unless it forms a multipart suite. Virgin on the Ridiculous had not been recorded prior to the live performance of Caravan and the New Symphonia and this is one of Hastings’ finer efforts with less of the schoolboy humour and a more symphonic feel.

Hoedown is archetypal ELP because it is one of their classical adaptations – Emerson named his son Aaron after Hoedown composer Aaron Copeland. It covers ground that had been laid out in his days with The Nice, possibly to the chagrin of Lake, whose acoustic ballads are far too throwaway for me.

I’d followed the fortunes of The Enid since their arrival on the prog scene with In the Region of the Summer Stars from 1976. Last Judgment is from this symphonic masterwork.

I shunned the popular and successful Hocus Pocus and Sylvia in favour of a more complex but no less pleasing offering from Focus, Anonymus [sic] from their first album, a track that indicated how successful they would become.

The Genesis track had to incorporate the classic line-up and I decided on The Fountain of Salmacis from Nursery Cryme because I regard it as a forgotten gem. With its mythical concept, alternating passages of pastoralism and rock sections and dramatic Mellotron, this was the first Genesis track that I remember hearing.

Gentle Giant cover a wide range of styles but I chose a track from one of their more accessible works, On Reflection, from 1975’s Free Hand. This particular song features trademark Giant vocal acrobatics and has a more medieval vibe than most other material from Free Hand (excepting Talybont) and includes plaintive recorder and delicate tuned percussion.

Folk musician Gordon Giltrap caught the zeitgeist and produced a series of folk-inflected symphonic prog albums beginning with the William Blake-inspired Visionary from 1976. Lucifer’s Cage is the rockiest of the compositions and at a little over 4 minutes is probably the longest track on the album.

Greenslade evolved from the British Blues explosion and were unusual. if not unique, for their twin keyboard player line-up and lack of a guitarist. Though the Dave Lawson lyrics are very clever, I prefer their instrumentals. Pilgrims Progress [sic] showcases the entire band but is a standout track by virtue of some chilling Mellotron.

Gryphon were comprised of former Royal College of Music students who blended medieval folk tunes, classics and pop tunes all played on unusual and early instruments. Their compositions developed in line with the spirit of progressive rock and Juniper Suite is a good example of early music goes rock.

Stand Up may have indicated the future direction of Jethro Tull but I’m not over impressed with their catalogue until Thick as a Brick. Minstrel in the Gallery is an under-rated album and the title track balances their folk leanings with some heavy prog, something that would become an accepted formula for tracks on a number of subsequent albums.

What King Crimson track should be included? Possibly the hardest choice of the project, I plumped for Easy Money because it best represented the hidden power of the band that was unleashed when the band played live.

Referring back to Keith Emerson’s predilection for interpreting classical compositions, the track for The Nice was Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Movement Pathetique, the band only version that appears on Elegy.

PFM were the first progressivo Italiano band that I heard. The World Became the World, the title track from the English language version of L'Isola Di Niente is short but perfectly formed.

The progressive phase of Pink Floyd doesn’t really last very long. Time was chosen because it incorporates the progressive features of Dark Side and has an archetypal Gilmour guitar solo.

Refugee were a very short-lived entity but their one eponymous studio album from 1974 was as good as progressive rock gets. Papillion is quirky and catchy and demonstrates how good the rhythm section of Jackson and Davison could be.

Trace were a kind of Dutch ELP, highlighting the musicianship of keyboard player Rick van der Linden. Opus 1065 is an arrangement of Bach and features Darryl Way on electric violin.

Prog’s last throw of the dice in the 70s was the supergroup UK. Though the second album Danger Money indicates the direction towards AOR following the departure of Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth, the uncomplicated Rendezvous 6:02 is a personal favourite.

I included two Van der Graaf Generator tracks because of the disparity in style before and after their split in 1972. White Hammer is a sonic assault and classic Hammill material; Arrow is pared-back and neurotic and quite different from the other material on Godbluff because of the paucity of organ, the major feature of the band throughout their career.

I had to end with Yes. Gina has accompanied members of the Page family to a number of gigs, the vast majority involving Yes or past members of the band. Awaken is an inspiring piece of music that’s deceptively accessible and one of the best prog tracks... ever.


By ProgBlog, Feb 15 2015 10:58PM

1975 might seem like the middle of the golden age of progressive rock but there weren’t too many releases by the major players. Music inspired by the Snow Goose was about to put Camel firmly on the prog map but they had come fairly late to the party. Wish You Were Here was a key release marking a high point in the Floyd canon, coming after what seemed like a prolonged hiatus and the last overtly progressive album they would do for a very long time. Though brilliant, Hatfield and the North’s The Rotters’ Club was an album that fell outside of mainstream prog but that for me was the best of the Canterbury offerings. Steve Hillage released the good but not essential Fish Rising, helped by fellow Gong members and Hatfield’s Dave Stewart, a friend and former early band mate and Caravan released what could really be described as the last decent album of their golden years, Cunning Stunts.

Gentle Giant switched record label to Chrysalis and put out the accessible and rocky Free Hand. I heard the title track on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show around the time of its release and it remains one of my favourite Gentle Giant tracks; a reformed Van der Graaf Generator emerged with the excellent Godbluff and covered familiar foreboding VdGG territory in a more measured, controlled way; Jethro Tull regaled us with the under-rated Minstrel in the Gallery; Rick Wakeman followed up the massive success of Journey to the Centre of the Earth with The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; and Steve Hackett filled the vacuum in Genesis output following the departure of Peter Gabriel by embarking on his first solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, which covered much of the ground that had been inhabited by Genesis.

1975 was the year of the Yes sabbatical with band members concentrating on solo album material. Steve Howe’s Beginnings and Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water were released within a couple of weeks of each other in the autumn and Olias of Sunhillow, Story of I and Ramshackled followed in 1976. The extended break between group albums mimicked the lay-off between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here; WYWH and Animals; and Brain Salad Surgery and Works Volume 1 and could be regarded as a period to recharge creative batteries. The closest the solo material came to resemble Yes music, certainly from a structural point of view, was probably Fish out of Water though Anderson’s Olias was possibly more spiritually in tune with Yes music and my personal favourite of the bunch. I wasn’t sure about the recreation of Roger Dean’s Fragile spaceship by Dave Roe despite recognising his artwork from Anne McCaffrey Dragonflight books which were essential reading for a 15 year-old but, in general the gatefold album sleeve worked and felt very satisfactory as a book with Anderson’s planetary eco-disaster storytelling. Many Yes fans were disappointed with the mixed bag from Alan White because it wasn’t prog and I regard Beginnings as an album for purists because, although it is thoroughly Steve Howe, it’s again too much of a varied stylistic blend.

Patrick Moraz’s Story of I was written during 1975 then recorded (at Jean Ristori’s Aquarius studio in Geneva) and released in 1976. Ristori was a former band mate of Moraz in Mainhorse, who played a largely blues-inflected proto prog and released one self-titled album in 1971. Mainhorse features a hefty dose of psychedelia and it's relatively heavy, with a lot of Hendrix- or Cream-like guitar. The songs are well-crafted but uncomplicated and the lyrics relatively throwaway and meaningless, though Peter Lockett sings quite well. The instrumental breaks remind me of Pete Banks-era Yes and there are some sections that remind me of Dutch band Supersister. There are jazzy breaks, Lockett plays some violin and Jean Ristori plays some cello but it's the organ work of Moraz that pushes the album in a prog direction, peppered with baroque references. There's even a great swinging electric piano extemporisation around a Bach theme on More Tea Vicar. Moraz’s writing style had matured by the time of Refugee and though their only studio album Refugee (1974) is primarily a vehicle for Moraz, the playing of Lee Jackson and Brian Davison brilliantly complements Moraz’s compositions which are top-notch symphonic prog, miles away from Mainhorse. Story of I references Refugee and Relayer; the pitch-bended fast moog runs are classic Moraz and the dense, complex sound has been taken from his time with Yes but I don’t know how much I like the album. I never owned the album on vinyl and didn’t get a copy until February 2012. Alan Freeman played Like a Child in Disguise when the record first came out and I was bitterly disappointed. I’d not heard of Mainhorse at that time and didn’t realise that Moraz had been asked to join Lee Jackson’s pre-Refugee band Jackson Heights, I’d only heard Refugee and Relayer and Freeman’s featured track was nowhere near as good as either of those. The lyrics (by John McBurnie, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter from Jackson Heights) seemed a bit trite and though I’d been versed in the concept of the album, it was difficult to trace the story through either the music or the lyrics. The concept was rather adventurous bearing in mind that science fiction was only just becoming mainstream in 1976; the jungle setting and the architecture of the ‘hotel’ call to mind JG Ballard and there’s even a dystopian aspect to the setting because the trials of the guests are prime-time TV viewing for the rest of the world. This voyeurism may have been inspired by the 1975 film Death Race 2000 and, like Death Race, there’s a positive ending. The ascent/escape of the two main protagonists (Symphony in the Space) is the only part of the story that fits in with the music and it appears to have been influenced by Moraz’s time with Yes. Much of the music could actually be classed as ‘world music’, such is the strength and feel of the Latin rhythms; perhaps that’s what makes me unsure about the album. The playing is exceptional and the range of styles, from classical to jazz to rock to Latin, is part of the make-up of progressive music but, in fitting with the concept, the Brazilian rhythms are overwhelming. Without other creative input or just someone suggesting that some of the ideas don’t quite work, Story of I comes across as a single-minded tour de force and coupled with the rather humdrum nature of the lyrics (when Moraz worked so well with Lee Jackson), this isn’t exactly my cup of tea; it’s not strictly prog.



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