ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Jun 14 2015 09:43PM

Two recent family trips, on the face of it quite different, to Milan and Brighton featured common ground: the search for record stores. Regular readers will know this is something of a ProgBlog obsession but planned breaks, of whatever length, require a balanced approach to cater for all the requirements of the members of the party. This means that apart from some shared interests such as architecture and exploring historic and cultural influences, I have to drag family around record shops and, on the flip side, have to suffer antique shops and flea markets and boutiques selling trinkets though flea markets do in fact offer the possibility of finding suitable recorded music, either CDs or, more frequently original vinyl.

From arriving in London with a single Boots vinyl-coated record box in October 1978 I began to accumulate what I considered to be a worthy collection of essential progressive rock.

Though I’ve never lost interest in my records, the ubiquitous nature of the CD format and its less demanding storage requirements meant that I undertook a massive format conversion beginning in the early 90s when prog bands began to resurface with new releases and record companies worked out that they could make easy money from new format re-issues. The last new releases I ever bought as LPs included Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, 90125 by Yes, Three of a Perfect Pair by King Crimson and probably last of all, A Momentary Lapse of Reason or Big Generator, none of which I would regard as classic prog apart from A Momentary Lapse; the 1981-84 incarnation of Crimson certainly wasn’t straightforward progressive rock. Peter Gabriel’s So was a leaving present from the NBTC in 1986. I did of course continue to buy second-hand vinyl during the genre’s lean years, when Croydon’s 101 Records was actually located at 101 George Street and picking up a somewhat battered Yessongs from a boot fair in Thornton Heath and a copy, even more battered, of Tempest’s eponymous first album from the Crystal Palace Antiques Market which is a warren-like flea market, just off Westow Hill. Much more recently I picked up a pristine copy of Anthony Phillip’s The Geese and the Ghost in a flea market in Lewes.

Stupidly, I also ditched some prized records as I replaced them with seductive bright, shiny compact discs. Out went Bedside Manners are Extra, In the Court of the Crimson King, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here plus some not-so-loved material like England by Amazing Blondel, itself picked up second hand from somewhere. The value wasn’t really in the music itself because I’d invested in other versions, ‘definitive’ or 20th or 30th anniversary editions with extensive additional sleeve notes but without surface noise, it was the (mostly) gatefold sleeve packaging that facilitated a comprehensive sonic and visual experience. The main beneficiary of this clear-out was Beanos of Croydon who I believed would give me a fair price for my well cared for offerings. I find it funny discovering dog-eared copies of In the Court selling for £40 in some of the shops I now frequent.

On reflection, the whole listening experience of CDs was far poorer than listening to a 12 inch piece of vinyl on a record deck: the care taken when removing the LP from the inner jacket; lowering the stylus onto the run-in grooves; sitting in an armchair with legs draped over one of the arms... This behaviour made up the soundtrack of my youth and I afforded it time and effort. When the CD format came along I was in a relationship and had full-time employment so I didn’t have the same amount of time to dedicate to the process of listening to music; on a sociological-political level those two times were also very different and I think the compact disc stands as a symbol of burgeoning consumerism, when time was wasted if it wasn’t being used to generate money.

Finding record stores in other countries, and Milan and Bergamo were no exception, is not always straightforward. Google will provide a list with addresses but the information is not always up-to-date and the restrictive internet provision of some UK mobile service providers means you can’t always use your phone to get you to the door. Last year in Pisa, one of the shops listed had changed its name and was primarily an urban stylist, with records found in a back room behind the main retail space with its shoes, shirts and trousers; in Bergamo a couple of weeks ago, the record store had moved within the previous month and, as it was almost closing time when I turned up at the old address, I had no time to locate the new premises. However, Rossetti records and books wasn’t too difficult to find and I managed to get hold of some obscure progressivo Italiano including the self-titled release by Dedalus (which strays into jazz-rock territory); the experimental Il Giorno Sottile by Fabio Zuffanti project Quadraphonic; and symphonic prog Il Bianco Regno Di Dooah by Consorzio Acqua Potabile. This last example was me sticking to the idea of buying releases by local musicians.

The Lanes in Brighton may be inhabited by local hipsters and tourists but that’s hardly surprising when you find out what’s on offer. In Shoreditch-by-sea the cafés and boutiques are right-on and trendy and full of very nice things to eat or to kit out your Kemptown renovation (Brighton Architectural Reclamation.) There’s an incredible incidence of musical instrument shops; I bought a second-hand vintage style Flange pedal from Brighton Guitars (44 Sydney Street) after trying it out with the help of singer-songwriter (and very helpful sales person) Jack Pout. We chatted a bit about prog (he quite admired Long Distance Runaround) and suggested I listen to the band If.

There are a number of flea markets (I picked up The Steve Howe Album and Imaginary Voyage by Jean-Luc Ponty for £5 each in the North Laine Antique and Flea Market, 5 Upper Gardner Street) and some epic second-hand record stores where I really could have spent more time. Across the Tracks (110 Gloucester Road) has a dedicated prog section and some records I’ve not seen for a long, long time but I just came away with Spyglass Guest by Greenslade. The labyrinthine Wax Factor (24 Trafalgar Street) also sells books and there’s even a diner-style café in a back room. The selection here is immense but its arrangement, though logical, means you have to surf through the mundane to find the gems. I picked up Steve Hillage’s L on CD and Six Pieces by The Enid on vinyl.

The Brighton trip was a semi-retirement day off. Though our house needs a lot of decorating and some renovation, retirement should provide the impetus and finances to get it sorted, to be followed by an upgrade of the hi-fi and, with a bit of luck, more time to listen to vinyl.



By ProgBlog, Apr 26 2015 09:27PM

There’s a fair amount of literature that refers to the second album by a group as the ‘sophomore’ effort. This is largely a result of American journalistic influence, the term coming from the American education system and, while any increase in the quantity of material relating to or simply discussing progressive rock is to be welcomed, I have a problem with sophomore and I’d like to register my disapproval of the term; I believe the word is an interloper.

There are many bands, especially those from the 70s progressivo Italiano scene, that only managed to release a single album but there can be a problem with a second release, in terms of critical appraisal by fans and professional music journalists, if the first album garners acclaim but the subsequent release doesn’t meet expectations. Though it’s good to diversify, in true progressive spirit, a conscious decision to avoid criticism of producing a ‘son of…’ it’s certainly not inappropriate to develop a style.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the problem occurs for both groups that developed during the late 60s and those that arrived on the scene with pre-formed expectations, like ELP. For most groups that evolved from acts that were in existence during the pre-progressive days of psychedelia and blues, Pink Floyd, The Nice, Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, 'progressive' describes the process of becoming prog itself and this journey was informed by cultural, demographic and technological changes. In this way The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, though certainly not prog rock, caused something of a stir and managed to reach no.6 in the UK album charts; the next album, A Saucerful of Secrets might have made it to no.9 but the ousting of Syd Barrett disappointed fans, critics and the group’s management. It’s no surprise that Piper and Saucerful are stylistically disparate; the overriding impression of Piper is the Barrett-penned whimsy and not the instrumentals that formed the core of their live set. Saucerful simply moved the band in the direction of space-rock and I get a sense of music organised as architecture, something that I think was a defining idiom of their far better, progressive material in later years.

I prefer Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Time and a Word to The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack and Yes respectively where there’s evidence of maturity of song writing but I have a preference for Air Conditioning over Curved Air’s Second Album because Second Album merely rehashes the same formula as on their first release. It’s my opinion that the first, fully formed prog album is In the Court of the Crimson King and, because it was a genre-defining release, anything that followed was liable to disappoint. In the Wake of Poseidon is very much in the style of In the Court but that’s no great revelation because much of the material that would go on to comprise Poseidon had already been written and road-tested by the original band members; the structure of the tracks Pictures of a City and In the Wake of Poseidon closely resemble 21st Century Schizoid Man and In the Court of the Crimson King respectively. The example of Crimson reveals another factor that needs to be taken into account: the impact of personnel changes on the direction of a group. Whereas Yes replaced members one at a time (until the joint departure of Anderson and Wakeman between Tormato and Drama) which gave the impression of a group positively seeking direction in a controlled manner, the shifting personnel involved in the very early years of King Crimson appeared as seismic changes; that In the Court and Poseidon sound closely-related is also due to the retention of key players Greg Lake and Michael Giles as guest musicians. I would class Genesis as a band who developed their style in a manner similar to Yes, and despite replacing a guitarist and a drummer at the same time, their stylistic refinement followed a smooth path, reaching maturity with Foxtrot, their fourth release; Yes reached their pinnacle with their fifth album, Close to the Edge.

ELP arrived on the scene in 1970 as individuals from known, successful groups and produced a distinct and coherent first album that still rates as one of my favourite albums of all time. Tarkus, their second album contains more developed ideas, culminating in the side long suite that gives the record its name, but it lacks the overall balance of Emerson, Lake & Palmer with two decidedly non-prog compositions, Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddy? The first supergroup, ELP had to hit the ground running or face the ignominy of artistic failure. I think their output, taken album by album up to and including Brain Salad Surgery is consistent but, within each of these records there is always some material that is below-par and unnecessary.

Mike Oldfield may have spent a number of years as a jobbing musician before stunning the world with Tubular Bells but his first solo effort was a game-changer, affecting him personally and also inadvertently helping to establish the fledgling Virgin empire. That he would release a second album was beyond doubt. Whether it could possibly be as original as Bells was a far more difficult question to answer. After selling my original vinyl copy of Tubular Bells (but later regretting it) and keeping my original Hergest Ridge LP, I’ve grown to believe that his second album is a much more satisfying effort. Of course there are similarities between the two compositions but Oldfield seems to have learned and remedied the deficiencies in Bells. Embracing the talents of his erstwhile band-mate David Bedford and expanding the instrumentation to provide a symphonic scope, Hergest Ridge conjures a sense of place, of open countryside and wilderness, something that a piece titled Tubular Bells could never do. I’ve come to this conclusion after 40 years, so perhaps it’s best not to dismiss any band’s second album as ‘more of the same’ or a ‘dramatic departure’. Both approaches, seeking a definitive style and radical departure can be equally valid as long as the goal is to further the music through increased proficiency or taking on new ideas.

On reflection, most second albums by exponents of progressive rock are of a similar standard to their first albums. There aren’t that many groups who stun the world with a brilliant debut and then go on to produce a stinker but there are plenty who follow the same formula with good results; Greenslade and Bedside Manners are Extra, Trace and Birds, Fruupp’s Future Legends and Seven Secrets. The downside to this approach became evident as the 70s moved on and prog lost favour with the media and the buying public; changes in style were dictated by the requirements of the music industry and not by the artists. One of the last great prog albums of the 70s was UK by UK; the second album which contained some good material was already showing signs of a more commercial appeal.

By ProgBlog, Apr 21 2015 07:53PM

It’s indisputable that progressive rock was a genre of grand concepts from the straightforward interpretation of classic novels (Camel’s Music Inspired by The Snow Goose, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month for example, based on Paul Gallico’s novella); the search for enlightenment (that’s my personal take on Tales from Topographic Oceans); the stresses of everyday life (Dark Side of the Moon); or allegory (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.) Though The Gift released Awake and Dreaming in 2006, a project that began in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition and which features a multi-part suite concerning the savagery of war, I find it somewhat surprising that during the golden era of prog there wasn’t an entire concept album about the horrors of warfare. I witnessed The Gift perform at the Resonance Festival in Balham last year and was impressed by Mike Morton’s musical depiction of the madness and futility of global conflict – I resigned as a member of the Labour Party because of Iraq.

Folk music was one of the keystones that enabled prog to form but in the UK, it seemed to be folk associated with tradition that informed prog, and this often tended to be dark; it was US folk that evolved into protest music because of both the inequality suffered by large numbers of the country’s own citizens and the prevailing American foreign policy from the 50s onwards. The Peace movement and the counter-culture were directly opposed to the American Dream, its imperialistic tendencies and its consumerism, and the ideals of these dissidents were imported to England when musicians, who acted as agents for change, crossed back and forth across the Atlantic. In this way John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance became an anthem of the American anti-war movement following the release of the single in 1969 by the Plastic Ono Band.

The Nice used America as a form of protest, getting banned from the Royal Albert Hall in the process, though this wasn’t about combat on foreign soil; they also included the track War and Peace on their first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack but this had started out as a tune called Silver Meter, played when Emerson was a member of the T-Bones. A live show staple, War and Peace was described by one critic as an ‘instrumental which seems to run like a hell-bound train through war inflicted landscapes.’ I sympathise with that view – the song is fairly raw and features some serious Hammond abuse and Davy O’List guitar histrionics.

When Greg Lake joined up with Keith Emerson in ELP, he brought with him some of the hippy ideals of Peter Sinfield. Though In The Court of the Crimson King isn’t an anti-war album, it comes across as anti-totalitarian and in 21st Century Schizoid Man Sinfield’s lyrics clearly point out the evils of contemporary warfare: “Innocents raped with napalm fire”. Though Lake had left Crimson before 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon he did provide the vocals for the three-part Peace, the ultimate part of which follows The Devil’s Triangle, an instrumental track based on Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War; despite a lack of an explicit condemnation of warfare, the final words on the album are “Peace is the end, like death / Of the war.” One of Lake’s defining contributions to the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album was the acoustic ballad Lucky Man that though he claimed was written when he was 12 years old, contains imagery that can only have been forged later in his life, painting a picture not just of the futility of acquiring possessions but also the stupidity of war. There are a number of oblique references to war throughout the early ELP albums; one interpretation of Tarkus is that the animal-machine hybrid represents totalitarianism, crushing culture, spirituality and freedom, and technology that has gone out of control (a subject revisited on Karn Evil 9 from Brain Salad Surgery, where Sinfield had been reunited with Lake to provide lyrical ideas.) According to William Neal, who provided the cover artwork, the name ‘Tarkus’ is an amalgamation of Tartarus (gloomy pits of darkness used for punishing angels that sinned, mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4 from the bible) and carcass, indicated by the album title written in bones on the cover. Consequently, he suggests the title track refers to the "futility of war, a man made mess with symbols of mutated destruction" but I think his explanation has been fitted in retrospect; it may reflect his painting but the music and lyrics can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Jon Anderson reprised John Lennon on I’ve Seen All Good People from The Yes Album (1971.) I’m almost ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until I saw Yes playing live that I picked up the words “All we are saying is give peace a chance” during the Anderson-penned Your Move section, some three years after I’d bought the album. My only excuse is that despite the track being a favourite of most fans, it doesn’t actually move me at all; it’s too simplistic, especially the All Good People part. I even prefer A Venture where the bass line is far from conventional. The Yes Album does in fact contain one of the most explicit anti-war songs in the progressive rock canon: Yours is no Disgrace. Jon Anderson has said that the meaning of the song is recognition that those fighting in the Vietnam war had no choice other than to fight, in effect carrying out the orders of a government with policy based on dogma. As the first track on the album it gains added importance for being the first of the long-form Yes songs.

Yes returned to the theme of war with The Gates of Delirium, the side long track from Relayer (1974). It has been said to have been inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace which both Anderson and Patrick Moraz had been reading but Anderson has simplified the concept to a battle scene with a prelude, a charge, a victory tune and a peaceful resolution leading to hope for the future; he has further suggested that it wasn’t an explanation of war or a denunciation which makes the piece more descriptive than protest. I love the aggressive feel of the composition, the crashing scrap metal and the strident guitar and keyboards which give the piece a jazz rock edge.

Maybe I’d been looking for the war concept album in the wrong place. Given the political state of Italy in the early 70s and the alignment of most progressivo Italiano with left-wing ideology, it can come as no surprise that there are a number of anti-war songs in the sub-genre, music that I’ve only recently discovered. The first Banco del Mutuo Soccorso album contains the track R.I.P Requiescant In Pace where the music and words conjure a battlefield scene, aptly summed up by author and prog reviewer Andrea Parentin as a bitter reflection of the inhumanity and uselessness of war and glory. Another feature of Italian prog is the number of bands who only ever produced one album. Tuscany based Campo di Marte took their name from a suburb of Firenze and, according to band leader, composer and guitarist Enrico Rosa that name, Field of Mars, allowed them to write lyrics about the stupidity of wars. Their only, self-titled album features a cover depicting Turkish mercenaries inflicting wounds on themselves to demonstrate their strength; the sleeve notes of the 2006 AMS remastered version inform us that the entire composition was arranged with specific purpose of pointing out ‘the absurdity of war and people’s complete impotence at the mercy of violence’. Another one-album group (another self-titled album, too!) was Alphataurus, with a release from 1973 that relates a disturbing dream of the threat of nuclear war but is balanced by the hope that we don’t have to follow that path and we can start over again. The incredible cover painting, a triple gatefold, appears to include a small homage to William Neal – a stegosaurus on caterpillar tracks.



By ProgBlog, Jan 18 2015 09:57PM

During my school-age years, as a student in London and in the first couple of years at work following graduation, it wasn’t often that I’d buy more than one album in a day, or even a month. This was just as much to do with the availability of suitable material to buy as it was a shortage of money. There was a small amount of back catalogue that I could pick up, things I’d listened to at friends’ houses that I knew I liked that weren’t necessarily considered essential and, particularly in the late 70s and early 80s, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of new material coming through. From a personal point of view, my inability to commit to a purchase after hearing only track from a candidate album on the radio, what I would consider to be speculation, was out of the question. I’d already been scarred by gambling; when Alan Freeman played March to the Eternal City from Spartacus by Triumvirat on his Saturday radio show and based on one listening of that one track, I went out and bought the album. Musically, the whole record is pretty good, which is hardly surprising from a band frequently referred to as a ‘German ELP’, but lyrically, and there weren’t many words on March to the Eternal City, it’s rather poor. I felt a little let down.

The time between buying albums allowed us to give a newly acquired disc multiple listenings, absorbing the music and lyrical content in what could be considered a ritualised manner: the playback session with friends followed by our amateur attempts at critique; or the solo listening with headphones, frequently with all the lights turned out.

My music-buying habits have changed and I now bulk buy if there’s an opportunity to do so, such as visiting a record store when I’m on holiday. My listening habits have also changed as my domestic duties eat into personal time and an accident, many years ago, rendered the bi-folding doors that separate our living room from our dining room (where the hi-fi is situated) inoperative and useless.

A couple of CDs arrived from BTF in Italy last week: Per... un mondo di cristallo (For... a crystal world), the only album by Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno (from 1972) and Il mondo che era mio (The world that was mine) Live in Studio 2014 by Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band. Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno (Registered Return Receipt), or RRR as they became known, have a jazzy-blues feel and are predominantly acoustic; their influences include early Jethro Tull and Trespass-era Genesis and the vocals, by guitarist Luciano Regoli, are reminiscent of Il Balletto di Bronzo’s Gianni Leone. The album is based on a story by Marina Comin (who provided the lyrics) about the feelings of an astronaut who returns to Earth find a ruined planet, depicted on the inner gatefold. It’s not fully-formed RPI but it is quite enjoyable and the BTF reissue, in a cardboard gatefold CD sleeve, is a nice, faithful recreation of the original LP packaging.

For various reasons, the Z Band were unable to record themselves live and to capture the essence of the group performing, before the departure of guitarist Matteo Nahum, the band recorded a set in the studio, live but without an audience. I thoroughly enjoyed the Z Band set at Soignies last year despite not being familiar with any of the material and I thought that getting the album would be a great reminder of that day. During the question and answer session following their slot, Fabio Zuffanti was asked about the projects he was involved in, describing Höstsonaten as producing music along the lines of The Enid. They played one Höstsonaten track, Rainsuite from Winterthrough which I managed to find in Firenze last summer and, after listening to both Höstsonaten studio album and the Z Band live in the studio, I can see what he means; there’s a broad symphonic feel to Höstsonaten, long-form compositions that may be sub-divided into separate songs or ‘movements’. The Enid, despite producing albums that appeared late in the timeline for classic symphonic prog, and afterwards, when they were able to ride the shockwaves of punk with their ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude that resonated with the punks, produced symphonic suites using rock instrumentation plus the odd non-rock instrument such as trumpet and tuba, heavily influenced by romantic composers Chopin, Rachmaninov, Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

Bands that fall into the category of ‘symphonic prog’ are readily recognisable by followers of the genre; the majority of the original prog bands could be classed as ‘symphonic’ though there was considerable stylistic difference between, for example, Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, or Camel and Barclay James Harvest and though In the Court of the Crimson King is an example of the sub-genre, Crimson deviated from the idiom early in their career. This being prog, it goes without saying that the sub-genre is in fact a continuous spectrum of styles; Camel released Snow Goose and then took steps in the direction of jazz rock with Moonmadness and Rain Dances before going Canterbury with Breathless. Even Yes went from what might be considered the ultimate symphonic album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, to the jazz rock of Relayer. I think that the input of Patrick Moraz is very evident on Relayer, though he’d just come from Refugee, another band firmly rooted in the symphonic tradition. Refugee’s only studio album is a classic of the genre and, in my opinion, can be used as an example of material that conforms to more strict definition of symphonic prog. I don’t believe there are many who would disagree with the classification of the Moody Blues as symphonic prog but I’m not so certain. Days of Future Passed evidently contains some elements of prog but the song writing lacks complexity and remains predominantly blues-based and, though they’re competent musicians, there’s no indication of the band stretching out or any sign of individual virtuosity. I’d class this as proto-prog and their subsequent material, which continues in a similar vein with the Mellotron taking on the role of the orchestra, closer to straightforward rock.

Perhaps the use of a Mellotron contributes to the ‘symphonic’ tag but, thinking about King Crimson and their continued use of Mellotrons as they moved into heavy, improvised music, it may be more the way a band deployed the instrument rather than just its presence. According to Planet Mellotron, the Enid hired a Mellotron for In the Region of the Summer Stars, which appears on the final two tracks, The Last Judgment and the title track In the Region of the Summer Stars, its use restricted to supplying choir backing. I’ve always thought of the Enid as using a string synthesizer approach.

To qualify as being ‘symphonic’ a band has really to demonstrate an influence from European classical music and, perhaps more than that, produce long-form compositions with strong melodic themes and linked variations and reprise utilising a broad sonic palette, even venturing outside of the common rock instrumentation; that’s the link I detect between Höstsonaten and the Enid, a classification that might exclude some other long-standing exponents.

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