ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, May 8 2016 06:52PM

The past ten years or so have been taken up to a worrying degree with expanding my collection of progressivo Italiano, such that family holidays to Italy always include time for seeking out record stores to scour for releases that remain on my ever decreasing list.

Aided to a large extent by Andrea Parentin’s excellent Rock Progressivo Italiano: A guide to Italian Progressive Rock (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2011) and the handy-sized Progressive Italiano by Alessandro Gaboli and Giovanni Ottone (Giunti, 2007), the former for the translation of the lyrics and a sense of social setting and the latter for the depiction of album sleeves and a rating system that broadly matches my opinion of the albums by the most recognised acts Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Le Orme, I've explored cities and towns for any signs of record stores. I can even make out some of what is written about the groups in Italian but it’s opportune that Parentin’s book is in English.


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My first full foray into Italian record shops was on a trip to the Veneto in 2005 when there were two stores in Venice and another a short train ride away in Treviso. In those days I was aided by Jerry Lucky’s Progressive Rock Files (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2000) when I’d scour entries for remarks like “if you’re a fan of PFM then you’ll like this” and, following up a reference to Celeste that described them as “...influenced by early King Crimson but their sound is very original. You’ll hear elements of Genesis circa Trespass and even bits of PFM’s Per un Amico. A very beautiful, symphonic pastoral result. Lots of Mellotron. One of the genre’s highly rated bands” I began to seek out their 1976 release Principe di un giorno and looked for references to Celeste in the listings. One of these was Finisterre, described as “Symphonic progressive rock with long tracks containing restrained hints of bands like Celeste or Banco. They’ve chosen to create a moody and atmospheric sound that relies more on the classical style than neo-prog. Long passages of dissonant harmonies and jazzy chord voicings”. It wasn’t until I updated to Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2008), that I heard of Höstsonaten and La Maschera di Cera and was able to fathom out the relationship between them. I began to collect Maschera di Cera CDs in 2009 and Finisterre CDs some time later but it wasn’t until 2014 that I bought my first Höstsonaten release, the CD and DVD of the live performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was experiencing a live version of Rainsuite by the Z Band that really turned me on to Höstsonaten, revealing a very symphonic progressive rock style that Fabio Zuffanti himself equated with The Enid. Zuffanti’s projects are all essential listening for fans of the original progressivo Italiano movement and though I really enjoy Maschera di Cera’s albums for their modern take on the original genre, remaining true to the spirit of the work of bands like PFM and Banco, the instrumental work by Höstsonaten comes closest to symphonic rock and the Enid comparison is well founded

I pre-ordered a copy of Symphony N. 1 – Cupid & Psyche in early April and after negotiating a redelivery to my local post office, having been out at work when the postman attempted to deliver the item, I finally got hold of the LP on Friday and listened to it for the first time yesterday. I was not disappointed.

The music was conceived by Zuffanti but he has stepped away from the limelight and is only responsible for bass pedals ‘treatments and devices’, leaving Luca Scherani from La Coscienza di Zeno and a collaborator on Zuffanti’s 2015 project La Curva di Lesmo, to handle the arrangements and orchestrations in addition to playing keyboards; guitar, bass and drums are provided by long-term Zuffanti collaborators Laura Marano, Daniele Sollo and Paolo Tixi respectively.


There are many precedents of full orchestration in progressive rock and progressivo Italiano has some very notable examples including the New Trolls’ Concerto Grosso (1971, 1976, 2007) and Contaminazione by Il Rovescio della Medaglia (1973) but enhancing the symphonic scope of Höstsonaten seems like a logical step, one that is true to the principles of progressive rock as it attempted to bridge the gap between high and popular culture. The melange of influences that inform their output, their RPI predecessors, jazz and Mediterranean folk are enhanced with inspiration from Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. I’ve thought quite hard about other orchestrated prog albums and there aren’t many that genuinely seamlessly blend the rock and the orchestral moments; the pieces by Keith Emerson with the Nice were predominantly divided into distinct sections, band then orchestra then band. There are times when Yes’ Magnification (2001) works well but this mostly comes across as orchestra instead of keyboards and has hints of Tony Cox’s imperfect arrangements on Time and a Word (1970). There are long passages of orchestral music on Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water (1975) but the most satisfying orchestrated pieces of progressive rock are Camel’s Music Inspired by the Snow Goose (1975) and Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge (1974). In terms of orchestration in progressivo Italiano, Passio Secondum Mattheum by Latte e Miele (1972) impresses, but I think that Höstsonaten have come up with one of the most balanced mixes of rock and orchestra that at times reminds me of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970) and the eponymous 1972 release by Il Paese dei Balocchi, both of which, like Cupid & Psyche, are predominantly instrumental; Laura Marano provides some epic, melodic Gilmour-like guitar lines but it’s the inclusion of classic prog keyboards, Moog, Mellotron, organ and piano which fit in so neatly with the strings and brass that bestow a sense of harmonious union between the classical and the rock instrumentation. Not surprisingly, there are refrains that hint of Höstsonaten’s previous output and it goes without saying that the execution is highly consummate.

Another important link with the foundation of the genre is the appropriation of literary myth in a manner similar to Genesis writing The Fountain of Salmacis, with Zuffanti utilising the Apuleius story Metamorphoses. A translation by author, columnist and philosopher Pee Gee Daniel, providing a synopsis of the chapters that make up the ten tracks, is included in the gatefold sleeve.

Maschera di Cera produced one of my all time favourite albums Lux Ade (2006) based on the Orpheus story but that was an entirely rock affair. With Cupid & Psyche, Zuffanti has realised his dream of creating a symphonic suite with group and orchestra that is also able to serve as the soundtrack for a ballet, in the manner of Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky. Beginning with an array of musical ideas suitable for the project, enlisting Luca Scherani to create a score for string, wind and brass instruments, the album easily succeeds in presenting a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock and the ballet based on the music of the album is expected to debut in theatres later this year under the direction of the Genoese choreographer Paola Grazz. October 22nd is already reserved in my diary.












By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2015 10:05PM

Shortly before I left South Newbarns junior school (former pupil: Liverpool FC and England legend Emlyn ‘Crazy Horse’ Hughes) I was called to see the Head Teacher and was told that I didn’t read enough; I ‘m not sure how he knew because I always did well in reading tests but I took his criticism on board and embarked upon a literary marathon. I think I’d previously been more interested in seeing how things worked, a practical or visual viewpoint backed up by technical descriptions rather than prose. Some of the first examples of children’s literature that I managed to get my hands on were the Narnia books by CS Lewis. This form of fantasy fired my imagination and, though I’m fully aware of the allegorical nature of the books which goes against my atheist principles, I still regard them highly. I was impressed that Steve Hackett should include the track Narnia on his second solo album Please Don’t Touch (1978) which, in keeping with the cover illustration by Kim Poor, lends a nostalgic air. From CS Lewis to JRR Tolkien isn’t too much of a leap, being friends and fellow Oxford dons and though The Hobbit wasn’t really challenging, the cartography and the runes interested me deeply. When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in the form of the three hardback books, borrowed from Barrow library, it rapidly became obvious that there was an incredible depth to the story telling, clues to which could be found in the appendices at the end of The Return of the King. I wasn’t ashamed to attempt to learn Elvish, written and spoken, along with some other school friends. Tolkien was widely read by the counterculture generation who saw the works as anti-war, anti-materialistic and in tune with nascent environmentalism, so it’s hardly surprising that prog bands should jump on the bandwagon: Camel with their pre-Snow Goose mini-epic Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider from Mirage (1974) and Barclay James Harvest with Galadriel from Once Again (1971). Critics of prog often dismiss it as fey music about dragons and elves and the two genres, fantasy writing and progressive rock are now very much seen as being synonymous by authors of popular culture. At the Time of Olias of Sunhillow (1976), Jon Anderson owned an Old English Sheepdog called Bilbo and in 1972 Bo Hansson released a complete album Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings. Hansson’s subsequent work was inspired by other authors I was discovering: Alan Garner and Richard Adams. Following Watership Down (1972) and the rather less enjoyable Shardik (1974) Adams based his third novel, The Plague Dogs (1977), in the Lake District. Alf Wainwright contributed maps and the illustration for the cover but of equal interest was the site of an accident at the beginning of the book, a zebra crossing on Abbey Road, Barrow-in-Furness. Alan Garner is still one of my favourite authors and my adolescence coincided with one of his best known books, Red Shift (1973) where the modern day protagonist Tom listens to music through headphones:

“...When I get

Cross track,

I’ll be real soon.

Sweet is the morning, green is the rush

And all my loving is far away.

The stars are changed, and

When I get

Cross track, I’ll be

Real soon.”

Perhaps it’s because the book coincided with the golden age of progressive rock that I’ve always felt that this piece of imaginary song writing was inspired by prog rather than any other genre though I have absolutely no proof that this is the case. I think the words could be interpreted as ‘green language’ and associate them with the spectrum that incorporates Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972) and Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973); Garner’s Cheshire has parallels with Hardy’s Wessex where customs, folklore and dialect are important to the plot. Is it too much to suggest that Lewis Carroll has influenced prog?


Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label
Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label

The Charisma Records label changed from a pink scroll to the John Tenniel depiction of the Mad Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the Syd Barrett whimsy, psychedelia rather than prog per se, is indebted to Carroll alongside Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Kenneth Grahame. Garner invokes Carroll’s word square to turn communication between Red Shift’s Tom and Jan into code and an example appears at the back of the book. When I was 13 or 14, my brother Tony and I cracked the code and sent our interpretation to Garner via his publisher, possibly the first people to do so. I still have a copy of Alan Garner’s reply, written on a postcard featuring a black and white photograph of the Horsehead Nebula taken at Jodrell Bank, close to Garner’s home, commending us on our efforts. I equate ciphers with prog, seeking to find meaning in words or symbols and can’t believe that there are too many 70s prog fans who weren’t intrigued by Kit Williams’ Masquerade (1979). I’m also informed by my friend and electronica aficionado Neil Jellis that the planetarium at Jodrell Bank used to be a venue for UK electronica gigs. How cosmic is that?


Postcard of the Horsehead nebula
Postcard of the Horsehead nebula

I now read more books relating to music than I do novels. I’m not a fan of lists but I own copies of Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files (4th edition, 1998), his Progressive Rock Handbook (2008), bought as an updated version of Files, and his 20th Century Rock and Roll: Progressive Rock (2000) which is a book of the 50 most influential progressive rock albums of all time. Though largely an A - Z catalogue of bands, including brief descriptions and a strict discography, both Files and Handbook include an introductory discussion about prog but that’s not why I bought them. As early examples of books that promoted the genre, I used them to identify potential additions to my collection and they didn’t just sit on my bookshelves, their slightly dog-eared appearance is down to being carried around to record shops in the UK and elsewhere as reference manuals; the country of origin listing being particularly important.

The resurgence of, or detoxification of progressive rock in the mid 90s allowed authors to once more write about prog without being pilloried. Edward Macan’s Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (1997), Paul Stump’s The Music’s All That Matters (1997) and Bill Martin’s Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (1996) and Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-78 (1997) were all attempts to address the shortage of critical material about the genre, not simple biographies that had been available before (Yes Perpetual Change by David Watkinson, 2001; Close to the Edge, the story of Yes by Chris Welch, 1999), looking at the genre from musicological, sociological and philosophical perspectives, putting it in context of how, when, where and why. A series of essays edited by Kevin Holm-Hudson published as Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001) continued the academic approach and set a new standard of analytical writing. Though not a major fan of biography as a literary genre, I make an exception for some prog musicians such as Bill Bruford. His The Autobiography (2009) was a book that I could hardly put down, setting itself apart by avoiding a straightforward chronological narrative and using a series of ‘frequently asked questions’ to begin each chapter. I also like to read the stories behind my favourite bands. Paul Stump attempted a book on Gentle Giant, Acquiring the Taste (2005) that I enjoyed although three Amazon reviewers derided it for being too verbose, factually incorrect and over-reliant on pre-existing sources; Sid Smith did an incredible job with In the Court of King Crimson (2001) and Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart produced the excellent Van der Graaf Generator - The Book (2005).

I’m not jealous of Will Romano, loving his Mountains Come Out of the Sky (2010) because of the inclusion of a chapter of Italian prog, the first concise history of the sub-genre I’d seen, but his Prog Rock FAQ (2015) covers material that I thought I was the first person to commit to text in this blog! A series of interviews and an interesting theory about the origin of prog reveal his journalist credentials but I don’t always agree with his analysis or opinions. Finally, I need to learn Italian so I can fully appreciate a couple of Progressivo Italiano books...




Prog books
Prog books


By ProgBlog, Sep 25 2014 07:12PM

I’ve just had a birthday and was fortunate to receive a remarkable number of prog-related presents in the form of CDs, DVD and Books.

Andy Latimer announced at Camel’s Barbican show last year that it was being filmed for release and I’m now the proud owner of that DVD, In from the Cold. The ‘big’ present was The Road to Red, which is a really well-packaged box set – I haven’t had time to listen to any of it yet. Also new to my collection were Product by Brand X, an album I’d only possessed as a home-recorded tape before, which as some really good material but also has two weak, very Phil Collins solo album-like tracks that detract from some amazing playing; a 40th anniversary Darwin! by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso that contains a CD of the album performed live in 2012; the Oliver Wakeman solo album The Three Ages of Magick featuring Steve Howe which shows the virtuoso keyboard playing has been inherited from his father to such a degree that the synth solos are indistinguishable from those performed by Wakeman senior. This has a sonic connection to his father’s New Age output and another genetic trait seems to be an inability to fully realise some of the very good musical ideas, such that some tracks come across as a little aimless. This is a criticism that has been levelled at dad Rick, too, but I think it’s partly to do with band dynamics, the what you bring to a song to make the whole better than the individual parts; Three Ages is a solo effort, not music by committee. I also got Alt, Van der Graaf Generator’s experimental offering from 2012, a vocal-less set of edits and out takes that sort of calls to mind the somewhat maligned disc 2 of Present, but I can quite imagine this being classed as jazz. I also got some classic progressivo Italiano, Searching for a Land by the New Trolls, nicely repackaged by BTF, and a more recent offering from La Torre dell’ Alchimista, their second album Neo (2007) that is true to the spirit of RPI and 70s prog in general, with lengthy multi-part songs and plenty of classic analogue instrumentation. I also got the eponymous Let Spin CD, a showcase for the both the writing and playing of the four members. This is quality modern jazz played at a high tempo with a hefty dose of improvisation. This comes in a three panel cardboard gatefold sleeve with artwork by bassist Ruth Goller. If I have a choice, I like to buy CDs with mini album sleeves rather than the universal jewel case. I also like CD books, whether they conform to similar dimensions to a jewel case (Focus X; Journey to the Centre of the Earth) or if they are more book-like (my two new BMS acquisitions; Mainstream by Quiet Sun). Whatever the format, they don’t fit in my CD storage! In the week following my birthday I received the latest CD from Bill Burford’s band, the east Cumbrian-based Water’s Edge, entitled Silent Applause. This isn’t prog but Bill, the drummer in the first band I was in, has carved a niche as an intelligent adult rock musician and Water’s Edge feature a fair proportion of poignant social commentary.

I also got some prog-related books including a signed copy of Michael Rutherford’s The Living Years. I’ve always felt that Rutherford, despite his post-Hackett Genesis lead guitar playing when Genesis had become a soft-rock band, was very much a background figure. I’ve deliberately set out to listen out for his bass parts and concluded that there’s nothing flashy about his playing; it does what it has to do and it fits in well with what the other band members are doing, whether it’s short runs or his staccato style. He’s solid but not inspiring. His writing style is rather similar and the book comes across as a kind of print version of a family tree TV programme such as BBC TV’s Who Do You Think You Are?. He did once get a speeding ticket in Texas... Actually, his 12-string work with both Genesis and with original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips forms a very fitting part of the structure, in the context of the early, pastoral songs.

I didn’t own any books specifically about ELP until I received Emerson, Lake & Palmer: The Show That Never Ends by George Forrester, Martyn Hanson and Frank Askew for my birthday. I read Keith Emerson’s Pictures of an Exhibitionist and then I gave it away; I’ve got Martyn Hanson’s Hang on to a Dream: The Story of the Nice, so I’m not expecting any great revelations but I am looking forward to getting into that... I think that I’ve got a copy of the forthcoming biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time by Marcus O’Dair, when it comes out at the end of October. I’m fascinated by Wyatt’s music and politics and, though he now appears to have attained the status of ‘national treasure’, I think that his opinions on the industry, life and music in general are totally relevant and valid.

One more new book that has just been added to my collection is Jerry Lucky’s 20th Century Rock and Roll: Progressive Rock. Apparently, and I’m sure my wife won’t mind me revealing this, the book has been spotted for £275 on Amazon but she got it, off the shelf, for £10. The seller suggested that the cover might be marked with some indentations but it really is in very good condition. I’ve used two of Lucky’s guides to progressive rock and, for the most part, they’ve been reliable indications of the quality of the music; they’ve certainly been helpful when I’ve gone off to Spain, France, Australia and even Italy to help me seek out indigenous prog.

This offering is an alphabetical list of the top 50 most influential prog bands. It expands on his history of each band in the Files and Handbook and provides his reasons why the bands are influential. Everyone is going to have their own personal preference so I’m not too worried that his choice doesn’t exactly coincide with mine – that’s one of the great things about fans of progressive rock. But I’m not sure that the text can have been proof-read because the grammar is very poor and, more worryingly, is the absence of checking of facts. Who let him publish a history of the Floyd with repeated reference to Dave Gilmore?

Pink Floyd obviously have a place in the top 50 most influential prog bands because their early material and studio mastery inspired many other bands. Gilmour’s guitar is very distinctive and they’ve made history with album chart longevity, so why the schoolboy error? That’s a hard question to answer, especially as Lucky began hosting a prog radio show, Exposure, over 35 years ago and is a renowned collector of progressive and psychedelic music. There’s a passing reference to Marc Bolen and his history of PFM, Van der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant are spoiled by what I’d regard as terrible mistakes. Apparently, John Weathers took up drumming duties for Gentle Giant in 1976 for the Interview album... What does that say about the mini-biographies of the bands I don’t know very well?

I frequently flick through his Progressive Rock Handbook (which is more up-to-date than his Files) and I’ve noticed that he sometimes refers to other people’s impression of bands. There’s no shame in that as it would be almost impossible to have examples of music from all the bands he lists; it’s just good research and I’m thankful for him suggesting that RPI band Celeste would appeal to people who like Finisterre. This has opened up a whole world of Fabio Zuffanti projects for me to seek out and enjoy.


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