ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Aug 23 2015 09:38PM

August in the south eastern corner of the UK has been quite poor in terms of weather this year, with unseasonal downpours following a series of Atlantic depressions that have tracked across the country. This weekend we experienced a ‘Spanish plume’, a condition that arises from a large southwards dip in the high altitude jet stream that developed to the west of Europe that in turn encouraged a deep southerly wind flow that pushed hot and humid air from Portugal and Spain north and north-east into northern Europe, including to us the UK. Temperatures at Selhurst Park for Crystal Palace vs. Aston Villa peaked at over 30oC prompting the first water breaks in a Premier League fixture. With a cold front from the Atlantic over the north of the UK and unstable, hot air pushing up from the south or south west, there was the potential for heavy thunderstorms where the two weather systems met; strong winds associated with the jet stream help organise thunderstorms and play a part in their severity. This latest forecast came with a degree of uncertainty, something that’s become increasingly prevalent in our televised weather bulletins where over the last couple of weeks the prediction for the next day has inevitably proved to be inaccurate.

It seems that the British like talking about the weather. It serves as a common topic when individuals are thrust into a situation where it’s uncomfortable not to talk. It helps that UK weather so changeable and unpredictable, part of the beauty of living in a temperate marine climate; it also gives us the right to moan. As a youth in the North West I became used to rain. The relief rainfall that was a major feature of the western Lake District didn’t really affect Barrow very much but moisture-laden air from the Atlantic had a habit of dampening our plans one way or another. I was very much at home when I stayed in Seattle for a week in 2002 where there were a number of dedicated, accurate weather channels on the TV.

Weather may seem a bit prosaic as a topic for prog but weather and the British go together like tea and crumpets. After a childhood in Barrow I feel as though I’ve got fifty words for rain... In fact, the water cycle and our understanding of the principles of weather processes, such as drought, flood or monsoon, is very much the stuff of prog. Furthermore, the ability of humankind to distort weather patterns through extracting and burning hydrocarbons and the detrimental effect of pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is something that the adherents of the counterculture warned us about; the origins of the progressive rock movement had strong links to environmental groups. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that there’s no definitive album about the physical geography of weather or its myriad facets, just a straightforward interpretation.

Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch (1979) may come closest to revisiting the old hippie theme of global environmental disaster and a form of gloom pervades the entire album. Largely referred to as the third and final part of the Tull folk-rock phase, when I listened to the album recently I didn’t think there was much folk to detect; there’s a reference to pre-Christian themes (on Dun Ringill) which might fit the tag but it’s more an association of convenience, marking the last of the stable Tull line-ups. Stormwatch uses the concept of a storm as both metaphor and as literal description, picking up from a theme in the title track of Heavy Horses (1978) where Ian Anderson predicts that the magnificent beasts will be required once more when the oil has run out; North Sea Oil recognises the commodity as a quick fix for the economy and one that wasn’t going to last. Dark Ages and Something’s on the Move hint at energy shortages and long, cold winters and subsequent rioting while Flying Dutchman bemoans our inability as a nation to accept immigrants. In a recent Prog magazine interview, Anderson admitted to being politically left of centre; Stormwatch was released in September 1979 at the tail end of the first era of progressive rock; the political and social landscape was changing with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister four months earlier as she commenced the dismantlement of the state and used burgeoning oil revenues to fuel her rewards for the selfish (North Sea oil had come on stream in 1975.) The dark mood of the album was no doubt partly down to the illness of bassist John Glascock who died two months after its release, having only played on three of the tracks. Though the (David Palmer) penned track Elegy was written for Palmer’s father, at the time the only section remaining of the Anderson/Palmer/Barre ballet The Water’s Edge, I felt it also served as a tribute to Glascock.

Camel’s Rain Dances (1977) isn’t weather-related. The short, melodic instrumental title track that closes the album doesn’t call to mind rain but merely reprises the beautiful, melodic opener, First Light and could be called anything because the album doesn’t have any cohesive concept; at least the title track from Gryphon’s Raindance (1975) which begins and ends with the sounds of rain and thunder has a keyboard backing under the main melody line that is reminiscent of flowing water and the album’s cover depicts the effects of playing the record.

The strong Red Rain from Peter Gabriel’s So (1986) is supposed to have been inspired by a terrifying dream. Some ascribe the imagery to acid rainfall (Gabriel is well known for his environmental concerns, appearing at the People's Climate March in London last September) but it seems to me to be about the nightmare of genocide; a number of African nations were in the throes of civil war in the early – mid 80s including Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Rain is represented on this track by hi-hat, played by ex-Curved Air drummer Stewart Copeland. More up-to-date, Anathema’s prog metal-lite Weather Systems (2012) is full of nice melodic touches and contains some interesting sonic experimentation and passages that remind me of Porcupine Tree but despite its title, the album only uses weather as a metaphor for events during a life.

I think some band should attempt a concept album based on the science of meteorology, whether it’s a series of interpretations of particular examples (think Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII.) Fabio Zuffanti’s Hostsonaten project covers some of this ground on the excellent symphonic prog Winterthrough (2008) with tracks called Snowstorm and Rainsuite but I still believe classic British prog bands missed out on an easy topic with a captive audience.



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.


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