ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

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

Yak

By ProgBlog, Jun 7 2015 12:37PM

I was one of those who put in a pre-order for Quest for the Stones, Yak’s long awaited follow-up to the sublime Journey of the Yak and, despite a last minute hold-up from the CD manufacturer that delayed its delivery to Martin Morgan, keyboard player and keeper of the Yak flame, it arrived in the same week that we’d been promised, landing on my door mat last Friday.

How could I not like Yak? This is keyboard-led instrumental progressive rock par excellence that references Tolkien and CS Lewis and has been endorsed by Steve Hackett. I first saw adverts for Journey of the Yak in Prog magazine and ordered my copy after hearing portions of a couple of selections from the yaksongs.com website, donating £10 to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary in return for the CD (a second pressing dated November 2009) and then spreading the word as best I could, buying a copy for my brother Richard and encouraging friends Jim Knipe and Neil Jellis to give them a listen. Jim managed to pick up a copy from one of the many record and CD stands at Prog Résiste in Belgium last year.

The trio of Morgan, Dave Speight (drums) and Gary Bennett (bass) produce a melodic blend of prog that occupies the same territory as Steve Hackett, Genesis just before the departure of Hackett, Camel and Danger Money conformation UK. To those readers who haven’t heard any Yak, suggesting that a keyboard trio sounds like Steve Hackett may appear far-fetched but Morgan employs a synthesizer patch that genuinely sounds like Hackett’s portamento guitar.

Quest for the Stones carries on where Journey of the Yak left off though the six longish tracks that featured on Journey have been replaced by two long-form compositions, Quest for the Stones at a couple of seconds short of 24 minutes and Veil of Aeternum which lasts over 19 minutes. Veil of Aeternum is a play on words on Aeternum vale (Latin: farewell forever) and there is a very strong stylistic link between the two albums. The music on Quest is instantly recognisable as being Yak. The blend of old and new keyboard technology gives some haunting Mellotron sounds and some classic synth and organ tones; there’s slightly less organ on the new album but the technique and attack still remind me of Eddie Jobson. The inclusion of more piano, enhanced by the cover artwork, gives an overall feel of a piece of late 19th Century or early 20th Century Romantic music, quintessentially English, where melodic motifs line up in succession and the pastoral impression is further bolstered by natural sounds at the end of the title track.

Although there aren’t many quiet interludes, variation comes through multiple changes of tempo and there are even a couple of passages in 7/4 time. Morgan adds keyboard saxophone to his sonic armoury and Gary Bennett, who is solid and mostly understated throughout, adds some funky bass lines. It goes without saying that the drumming of Dave Speight, former band mate of Enid alumnus Nick May in symphonic prog outfit Whimwise, is absolutely perfect so it comes across as a bit of a surprise that the three musicians only get together for a few days once every six years or so to record an album.

The title track on the new release revisits another familiar Yak theme, another reason why they’re my kind of band: ley lines. (There’s another Yak release from October 2005, a live jam called Does Your Yak Bite? that includes the piece Leylines of Yak; a very long time ago I wrote a short story for my school magazine called Flux Lines Deep in Dunnerdale about a ley line in the Duddon Valley on the outskirts of the Lake District. The sleeve notes for the new album refer to finding a significant monolith, the Easedale Yakstone in Langdale.)

There’s yet another association between the live jam CD and Quest for the Stones that relates to the rather exquisite pre-Raphaelite style cover painting by Laura Knight that depicts an Arthurian hero on a quest for The Stones astride his trusty yak but close by, hiding behind a tree, there’s a strange, stripy rabbit-like creature, Tog, from the BBC children’s series Pogles’ Wood made by Oliver Postgate’s Smallfilms between 1966 and 1968. Tog, formerly a stuffed toy brought to life by magic in a battle to defeat the Witch (a character who appears in series forerunner The Pogles), is given a credit on the back of the CD for co-owning the copyright to the recording; Does Your Yak Bite? includes a track called The Battle of Pogles Wood.

The sense of humour displayed in the sleeve notes has historic precedence. Prog bands may have been derided for being serious about their music but Pythonesque absurdity made its way onto releases by bands like Hatfield and the North and Michael Palin actually wrote the back sleeve notes for Do They Hurt? by Brand X. Take note, NME, humour and serious musicianship are not mutually exclusive.

The excellent, bucolic Quest for the Stones can be obtained from the Yak website www.yaksongs.com and, like that for its predecessor (which can still be bought from the website) the purchase is actually a donation to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary. If you love melodic, instrumental prog featuring lots of keyboards, I’d recommend you make that donation: you get a brilliant album in return. Winner!



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.



By ProgBlog, Feb 1 2015 11:42PM

The lack of availability of Jumbo (progressivo Italiano) albums forced me to buy a download of DNA, the first of their two classic albums. I’d seen vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Alvaro Fella performing with Consorzio Acqua Potabile at the Riviera Prog festival in Genova last year and despite my decision to miss the CAP set when I went off in search of food, the loose organisation meant that I actually caught a fair amount of their performance. Fella, now confined to a wheelchair, had been signing copies of Jumbo CDs all day and when I went to see if I could buy one, either DNA or Vietato al minora di 18 anni? (Prohibited to minors under 18?) from one of the many diverse CD and record stalls, there were none available. Recent trips to Tuscany and the Veneto also failed to turn up copies.

DNA represents fairly basic RPI but it’s still quite enjoyable. There’s not a great deal of variation in the keyboard with only organ and piano but, like quite a lot of progressivo Italiano, there’s a hefty dose of Ian Anderson inspired flute plus some melodic early-Crimson like flute. Fella’s vocals might be something of an acquired taste – he has a distinctive theatrical style that has hints of Alex Harvey or Roger Chapman from Family. DNA was Jumbo’s first foray into a progressive sound but there’s still a weighty reminder of their past influences, including far too much harmonica for my liking. However, Ed Ora Corri (And now you have to run) which is the second part of the 3-part composition that makes up side one of the original vinyl LP (Suite per il Sig K., a track that reflects a Kafka-like existence) is quite spacey and seems to have been at least partially inspired by Pink Floyd.

Considering the widespread employment of the instrument in Italian prog, flute isn’t really very prevalent in classic UK prog. Tull, perhaps because of their longevity are one of the bands that immediately spring to mind when you think of prog and flute though Ian Anderson’s instrumental contributions are almost exclusively flute and acoustic guitar; his guitar parts not really providing much other than rhythm or chords for backing other instruments, including his flute. Most other prog flute is provided by band members who have a different, primary role: Thijs van Leer plays keyboards; Andy Latimer plays guitar; Peter Gabriel is a vocalist.

I’ve seen Focus a few times in recent years and once in the 70s on the Mother Focus tour. Though van Leer is probably most easily recognised for his yodelling on Hocus Pocus, it’s his organ and flute work that helps to define the Focus sound (Jan Akkerman’s guitar is obviously key but that has been accurately replicated by Niels van der Steenhoven and, more recently, by Menno Gootjes.) Van Leer plays both instruments at the same time! The Camel track Supertwister from 1974’s Mirage is allegedly named after Dutch band Supersister. I can believe this tale because the two groups toured together and the Camel song does sound rather like a Supersister composition, where flute was provided by Sacha van Geest. Latimer plays a fair amount of flute on early Camel albums (from Mirage to Rain Dances) but the incorporation of ex-Crimson and current Crimson woodwind-player Mel Collins into the band, certainly for live performances, reduced Latimer’s flute playing role and when Collins ceased working with the band, which turned more commercial around the 80s, the flute all but disappeared. Peter Gabriel’s flute is predominantly used in pastoral-sounding passages; it’s delicate and sometimes seems to border on the faltering but comes to the fore in Firth of Fifth. It’s odd to think that the instrument works perfectly well on the grittier, urban-like Lamb Lies Down and solo album Peter Gabriel 1.

Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues was one of the only examples of a dedicated flautist within a band (who also undertook some lead vocal duties) and there were groups, like King Crimson, where multi-instrumentalists played saxophone, flute and keyboards. Dick Heckstall-Smith of Colosseum was a sax player who dabbled in a bit of flute but the best example of a classic British prog band where sax and flute alternate as lead instruments is Van der Graaf Generator. David Jackson stands apart in this respect; he’s a soloist on both instruments, heavily informed by Roland Kirk. The Jackson sax is undeniably an integral part of the VdGG sound, partly through his innovative use of effects, but his flute is also sublime, floating in the calm before the inevitable full-on VdGG maelstrom.

Jimmy Hastings deserves a special mention. He was the go-to flautist for a wide variety of Canterbury bands, most notably Caravan (where brother Pye plays guitar) but he also contributed to material as diverse as Bryan Ferry’s solo work and Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water. It’s the Canterbury connections that run the deepest, adding to the jazz feel of the genre and making important contributions to Hatfield and the North and National Health albums. Canterbury alumni Gong have also utilised sax/flute, originally played by Didier Malherbe and more recently by Theo Travis. Travis has recorded with Robert Fripp and is currently part of Steven Wilson’s (solo material) band.

The idea of the ‘guest’ flautist in a band spreads to Steve Hackett who has utilised the talents of both his brother John and, more recently, Rob Townsend. Flute is required for covering some of the early Genesis material but Hackett’s solo work, from Voyage of the Acolyte (1975) to Momentum (1988) with the exceptions of Highly Strung (1983) and Till We Have Faces (1984) all feature flute.

The overblowing that characterises a great deal of Jethro Tull flute was adopted by many nascent RPI bands who were shifting from Beat music to a blues-inflected progressive rock and this contrasts with the more melodic approach exemplified by the Ian McDonald-era King Crimson that influenced PFM. Flute is integral to the symphonic prog sound and for those bands without a flautist, there was always the flute setting on a Mellotron – a great sound but quite distinct from the woodwind instrument itself! It may be that the musical heritage of Italy means that a flautist is likely to be involved in a progressivo Italiano act; there certainly seem to be more groups with flute than without, unlike the 70s scene in the UK. I’m personally in favour of a broad sonic palette and I believe that flute provides an appropriate melodic medium. I intend to learn to play the instrument in my impending retirement.



By ProgBlog, Nov 30 2014 09:04PM

Bassoon player and oboist Lindsay Cooper died last year from complications associated with Multiple Sclerosis. I’m most familiar with her work with Henry Cow and other, like-minded bands that made up the Canterbury scene, notably Hatfield and the North and Egg. She was briefly in progressive-folk band Comus before they split in 1972 (I have a copy of To Keep from Crying which features Cooper’s bassoon on the title track) and it may have been this that got her a job with Henry Cow – To Keep from Crying was released on Virgin in 1974 and Leg End was also a Virgin release, recorded at their Manor Studios in 1973.) Her collaborations were multitudinous and I saw her perform at the Actual 84 Festival in London with combinations of David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Chris Cutler, Sally Potter, Phil Minton, Georgie Born and Dagmar Krause.

The performance at the Barbican on November 21st was a celebration of the music of Cooper in chronological order of the ensembles she had performed with: Henry Cow, Music for Films, News from Babel and Oh Moscow. I’d gone because it was in effect the first Henry Cow gig since their split in 1978, with the reunion of Fred Frith (guitar and bass), John Greaves (bass, vocals), Tim Hodgkinson (alto sax, organ), Chris Cutler (drums) and Dagmar Krause (vocals). The bassoon parts were covered by Michel Berckmans from Univers Zero.

The music almost defies categorisation, but the closest I can get is experimental chamber music. There’s Canterbury progressive in the mix, most audible on the first number they played, Falling Away from Western Culture which I found reassuringly familiar. There were no song introductions but Sally Potter, before she took her place on the stage, made a general announcement about only being able to present a tiny proportion of Cooper’s oeuvre and the appropriateness of the venue for Cooper’s music. The audience was fully aware of the complexity of the song writing but it was the first time I’ve ever seen a band have to stop and restart on three different tunes, Falling Away being the first. This prompted Jim Knipe, in attendance with me, to comment that the performance was along the lines of ‘genially shambolic.’ This opinion may have gained some currency from observing Cutler’s expansive drum technique and the fact that both Cutler and Frith played barefoot. The inclusion of the 36 second long Slice proved to be a bit of a test for the audience; its sudden conclusion could easily have been a pause between sections of a lengthier piece but we did applaud after a brief, awkward silence.

The band weren’t over amplified and the layers of music were quite clear, illustrating Cooper’s ability to write for a number of instruments simultaneously. Her compositional skills reflected her excellent improvisation which was based on her ability to pick out the different lines. With an (up to) 12 piece ensemble playing, her dense, complex and startlingly original compositions were given an almost fun airing, contradicting the popular image of the deeply studious and serious musicians. I was previously a bit wary of Dagmar Krause’s singing but I found her much more melodic than I remember; she came across with a controlled intensity that added to the haunting beauty of the compositions. If anything, the one musician I was slightly disappointed with was Fred Frith, who may have had some problems with his effects pedals. The performance of the Oh Moscow song-cycle (featuring Sally Potter) was joyous and theatrical; that the piece explores the cold war as political fact and emotional metaphor was given new relevance by recent events in the Caucus. This best demonstrated Cooper’s melodic side in contrast to the rhythmically complex material she wrote for Henry Cow.

The review in The Guardian described the audience as a mixture of ‘ageing revolutionaries, prog aficionados and Italian communists’ and though the hall wasn’t full, it was a very respectable turn out for a performance packaged as jazz festival event; there may even have been a few others not fitting The Guardian’s stereotype making up the numbers, just not very many. However, a few of the adjectives have been applied to me at some time or other.

Lindsay Cooper was an articulate political activist and outstanding musician and composer, bringing the bassoon from the orchestral shadows to front-stage in a rock context. This was an extraordinary evening: extraordinary musicians playing extraordinary music. Henry Cow had said they’d never reform but Chris Cutler managed to bring together an incredible number of musicians closely associated with the music of Cooper. It doesn’t matter what you call it: avant-rock, avant-jazz, or experimental chamber music, it was certainly an evening to remember.


fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time