ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Dec 31 2020 11:34PM

Like something out of a Hollywood apocalypse movie, 2020 descended into the stuff of nightmares during March when Sars-CoV-2 viral infections spread unconstrained around the world, and ten months later we’re still far from getting out of an unprecedented situation for our times, with Christmas marking the potential onset of a third spike of cases.

There’s no denying that most governments appeared to be putting the welfare of their citizens ahead of any other concerns in March and April. Some may have been a little slow to get off the mark but as deaths increased, huge sums of money were thrown at building, opening and equipping new hospitals, and attempting to acquire PPE for frontline staff in the other hospitals. Even Free-Market finance ministers came up with furlough schemes to protect businesses from closure and to ensure employees were ready for the return to work once the pandemic had passed. Unfortunately for those of us in the UK, there were gaping holes in the provision of protective equipment to those that needed it, there were mixed messages with policy seemingly made up on the hoof, there were no staff to run the new hospitals, local public health expertise was ignored and following the introduction of new test kits, marred by a shortage of reagents, positive contacts weren’t effectively traced by a centralised team. Politicians began to lie. They split into factions, those for or against restarting the economy before the pandemic was fully over; there was a push to get children back to school without the provision of adequate safeguards. The Free-Marketeers won the day and restrictions were lifted – before it was safe to do so.


All parts of the hospitality sector suffered but the music industry was as badly affected as any. In response, the UK government eventually put together a Culture Recovery Fund, a welcome if late move, and in the devolved nations some of the money went to individuals. In England, the money was directed at organisations and venues. John Harris, writing in The Guardian says the Musicians Union has estimated that 70% of its membership is unable to more than a quarter of their pre-pandemic work and that 87% of musicians will earn less than £20000 this year.

With no performance option, revenue has had to come from the artist’s recorded output. Unfortunately, physical sales have been declining for years and the current industry model for distribution of music is based on streaming, where the dominant platforms have been under attack for their derisory musician’s remuneration. Fortunately, prog has historically had a core of dedicated fans that seem far more willing than most to purchase an LP or CD. In fact, despite the pandemic, 2020 saw the release of some quite incredible music. Home studios and file sharing played a major part which is nothing new, but a temporary relaxation of restrictions also allowed musicians to meet up. That there has been such a quantity of quality prog is still a surprise, given the inevitable anxiety over artists’ livelihoods and their concerns for family and friends. It’s hard to believe the creative process wasn’t adversely affected by the pandemic.



ProgBlog has been in the fortuitous position to be introduced to some of these releases, much of which goes under the radar, even escaping the journalists at Prog magazine who once again have done an admirable job reporting on all aspects of prog music, even delving into the far-flung corners of interconnected sub-genres. As is traditional at this time of year, I’ve revisited submissions to ProgBlog, recommendations, releases by bands I’ve been lucky enough to get to see live in a year when there really hasn’t been a great deal of live activity, plus other gems that I’ve come across while continuing my musical research, and I’ve decided on my album of the year.

Actually, my favourite album of 2020 is jointly held by Italy’s La Maschera di Cera with S.E.I. and Norway’s Wobbler with Dwellers of the Deep. Both came out well into the latter half of the year, suggesting that at least part of the production process was carried out well into the pandemic. Compare that to another of ProgBlog’s ‘recommended’ 2020 releases, Worlds Within by Raphael Weinroth-Browne which came out in January, before almost everyone had heard of Covid-19 (more about Worlds Within can be found here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/discovery20-worlds-within/4594865353)

So what is it about S.E.I. and Dwellers of the Deep that puts them at the top of the list? By sheer coincidence my copies are both on green vinyl, but the reason it’s hard to decide which I find most enjoyable is another facet they share: they both reference 70s prog without sounding derivative. There’s a narrow line between imitating bands from the golden period of progressive rock and utilising the sonic template of those acts while sounding relevant 50 years later, and both La Maschera di Cera and Wobbler manage to sound fresh. The Italians have been playing as a unit since 2001 but S.E.I. is only their sixth album, presumably due to other musical commitments (see Zaal, below), and while the style and palette are clearly related to classic progressivo italiano bands, the writing and production easily transcends the earlier era, and the group stands out for its lack of lead guitar and lashings of idiosyncratic flute. The new album is their best yet, and a full review of S.E.I. can be found here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/la-maschera-di-cera-sei/4595073765

Wobbler came into existence in 1999, and are now on album number five. They also have a distinctive sound, propelled like a fair few other Scandinavian bands, by trebly Rickenbacker bass. Unashamed to signal their influences, there’s more than a hint of early 70s Yes in their music, lyrical themes and song titles, but they maintain their relevance with an intangible sensibility, a vaguely menacing quality that I associate with Norse myths. Dwellers of the Deep is full-on prog.


Recommended releases of 2020

Wobbler and La Maschera di Cera are both well-established acts (though Prog stubbornly refuses to write an article on La Maschera di Cera), as is another of my favourites for 2020. The Red Planet by Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble, delayed by problems ‘with the supply chain’, presumably Covid-related, was promised by Wakeman to be a 70’s keyboard-laden instrumental prog album along the lines of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. From the music to the gatefold sleeve, he delivered in full. The review can be seen here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/rick-wakeman-the-red-planet/4594979105




Rick Wakeman's The Red Planet - How prog is that?
Rick Wakeman's The Red Planet - How prog is that?

Less well known but highly recommended is the UK-Italian collaboration Zopp, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Stevenson and Leviathan drummer Andrea Moneta, whose debut Zopp from April is a natural successor to the Canterbury sounds of National Health.


Zopp by Zopp - The new sound of Canterbury
Zopp by Zopp - The new sound of Canterbury

Zaal is a prog-jazz project fronted by La Maschera di Cera keyboard player Agostino Macor. I was lucky enough to catch a rare performance by the band in 2017 where I detected Third-era Soft Machine influences but Homo Habilis, released in October incorporates a world-jazz vibe and at times reminds me of the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring Jean-Luc Ponty. I’d suggest any fan of La Maschera di Cera or Finisterre would like this album.


Zaal - Homo Habilis
Zaal - Homo Habilis

The recently-formed Quelle Che Disse il Tuonno from Milan mix well-known progressivo italiano names like guitarist Francesca Zanetta and the up-and-coming, like Niccolò Gallani and in March’s Il Velo dei Riflessi they’ve produced a mature, well-balanced modern symphonic RPI album which would appeal to anyone who likes Cellar Noise or Unreal City.


Quelle Che Disse il Tuonno - Il Velo dei Riflessi
Quelle Che Disse il Tuonno - Il Velo dei Riflessi

Mention must also go to Phenomena by ESP Project. Since launching ESP Invisible Din in 2016, Tony Lowe has steered the band through five albums of beautifully written, played and produced music, drifting from full-blown symphonic prog to post-rock. Phenomena falls mainly in the latter category but it’s exquisitely layered and an integral part of ESP canon. See the review here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/esp-project-phenomena/4595049609


The albums listed above form a very small part of the music from 2020 that I’ve been listening to, and the bands that I’ve not mentioned all deserve credit for keeping going during trying times – I’ve enjoyed your contribution, too. A couple of bands who might have been in with a shout of an appearance in this year’s list are Gryphon, whose Get out of my Father’s Car is on vinyl pre-order, and Beaten Paths by Vincenzo Ricca’s The Rome Pro(G)ject IV, another album where I’m waiting for a release on vinyl.

The pandemic may not have ended but there are signs of hope if we stick to the public health guidelines and the vaccines prove to be effective.

Anywhere there’s music, there’s hope








By ProgBlog, Jul 13 2019 03:41PM


Prog 100
Prog 100

2019 marks 10 years of Prog magazine and as I write this, the 100th edition has been landing on the doormats of subscribers. A cricketing analogy seems appropriate for progressive rock while we’re waiting for the final of the Cricket World Cup, the long-form strategy of 5-day Test matches coming closest of any sport to embody the ethos of prog; the innings looked to be over as Team Rock, publishers of Prog, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock were plunged into administration in December 2016 only to be declared not out, saved by original owners Future Publishing in early January 2017 who bought the titles for a reputed £800,000 (having sold them for £10.2m to Team Rock in 2013.) The most heart-warming part of this story was that British metal band Orange Goblin raised over £70,000 through a Just Giving page for staff who were made redundant, put out of work without any severance pay just before Christmas; an illustration of the importance of the magazines to the musicians and the fans.


BBC Four - Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements
BBC Four - Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements

Though it had never left my radar, prog as a genre resurfaced in the mainstream media in January 2009 with the BBC Four series Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements following a series of false starts, one of which was the Virgin/EMI 3CD ‘The Best Prog Album in the World... Ever’, somewhat cynically released in time for Fathers’ Day in 2003. Not too long after the initial airing of that BBC Four series the first edition of Classic Rock Presents Prog hit the newsstands, intended at the planning stage as a quarterly publication but quickly becoming bimonthly due to its instant success. I can’t remember from which newsagent I bought my copy of that first issue but I assumed it was a one-off until I came across issue 2 (June 2009) Prog’s Avant Garde Old and New in Real Groovy records in Christchurch, NZ while on holiday in August 2009; my collection is devoid of the third and fourth editions, and also number 16, the issue published immediately before I set up a subscription.

In what could be seen as confirmation that prog was once more acceptable to discuss outside of dungeons or shady pub back-rooms, Alexis Petridis penned an article for The Guardian newspaper in July 2010, the week before the re-formed ELP headlined the High Voltage festival in London’s Victoria Park that reported on, with some surprise, the resurgence of prog https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/jul/22/prog-rock-genesis-rush-mostly-autumn

Petridis interviewed Prog magazine editor Jerry Ewing and revealed a healthy circulation of 22,000 copies per issue which at the time was half the circulation for the long-established NME.


Go back to go forward - Alexis Petridis in The Guardian
Go back to go forward - Alexis Petridis in The Guardian

Serendipitously, Ewing had chosen exactly the right time to launch the magazine; the third wave of prog that began in the mid 90s, itself a testament to the quality of the music, was going from strength to strength and exerting ever greater influence, and a vinyl revival had begun a couple of years before. Progressive rock may not have been truly fashionable but was nevertheless massively successful in the 70s, shipping millions of vinyl albums, where part of the pleasure of the prog experience was absorbing the images, lyrics and technical information on the gatefold sleeve. I believe that more than any other the genre, the vinyl LP is associated with progressive rock. A measure of this success is that some bands were effectively exiled from the UK by the government’s tax regime; when Labour took power in 1974 the top rate of income tax was increased from 75% to 83% and the surcharge on investment tax took the top rate on investment income up to 98%, rates that applied to 750,000 people with incomes over £20,000 per year, including the best-selling prog bands like Yes, ELP and Jethro Tull.

Prog 01
Prog 01

It was obvious that there was no way that a periodical dedicated to progressive rock could last long by only reporting on the music produced between 1969 and 1978, or even by appending on the era of neo-prog. I don’t read every article and I’m sometimes disappointed that what I consider an important event isn’t picked up by the editorial team, prompting me to fire off a disgruntled letter (or two.) I’m still of the opinion that there’s insufficient coverage of classic rock progressivo Italiano, although new material from PFM in 2017 and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso this year addresses this to some extent, but I was sure that 2013’s Le Porte del Domani by La Maschera di Cera, a conceptual follow-up to the acknowledged classic of Progressivo Italiano, Felona e Sorona by Le Orme surely deserved a mention, especially as La Maschera di Cera, like Le Orme before them, issued an English-language version of the album. However, the magazine manages to meet the requirements of unreconstructed 70s prog-philes whilst still managing to preserve a place in the competitive periodicals market by representing a spectrum that takes in progressive-minded metal, electronica, folk, jazz and ambient and though stable mate Classic Rock magazine might contain some content overlap of less-niche prog-associated acts like Pink Floyd, there are so many bands that they miss entirely, because they are neither the next big thing nor filling stadia. I’ve recently witnessed a tendency for general music journalism to reference progressive traits, in Muse for example, as handy epithets to confer a description that a group doesn’t simply follow the ordinary; this creates a space apart from conventional publications for a magazine devoted to prog.



Letter to Prog, May 2013
Letter to Prog, May 2013

With 100 editions in ten years, the frequency of Prog nicely balances new and freshly reappraised copy, with novel material provided by a cohort of younger musicians who can reflect on the music played by their parents and fusing this with other music that has been around for less time. This brings a new perspective to the genre, one of the reasons, I believe, that prog rock found a new respectability in the 90s and the secret of the third wave’s longevity. I’ve previously griped about prog metal but it is unlikely that there would have been a third wave if there had been no assimilation of a progressive ethos into metal. Catalysed by a shared heritage that cherished technical ability, prog metal began to arise in different parts of the world, most notably Scandinavia and the USA. This renewed interest in (or alternatively, a reduction in hostility towards) prog allowed the resurrection of King Crimson, who still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP in 1994. The double trio incarnation of Crimson revisited some of the ideas abruptly curtailed in 1974, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends and even touring with Tool in 2001.


There will always be debates about what constitutes prog rock, which nicely plays into the success of Prog magazine, tapping into any genre that cross-pollinates with prog. The Bloody Well Write letters page may contain missives from unreconstructed 70’s progressive rock fans declaring they will no longer subscribe to the publication but there are far more letters pointing out what a good job the Prog team are doing. That the magazine is now 10 years and 100 editions old is testament to their efforts. I’m happy to subscribe to Prog; Without it I’d have been too reluctant to give Anglo-Finnish Wigwam a chance and I’d never have discovered the excellent Zappa-like Supersister (from the Netherlands) or the amazing Yak who have no guitarist but sound like Steve Hackett.

I’m looking forward to the next 100 editions in the next 10 years.


Postscript

Though electronic media has played a part in the demise of the printed word, the best strategy seems to be balancing both forms of medium. I read Armando Gallo’s early Genesis biography I Know What I Like on a Samsung tablet and found it deeply unsatisfying but I am aware that one of the secrets to commercial success is to mix formats. So hats off to Prog magazine getting the balance right and keeping going, seemingly from strength to strength in a fiercely competitive environment.

I was both amused and surprised to see free copies of the NME available outside Whitechapel station when I started to work in the East End in 2015. Sporting an image of Taylor Swift, with a prominent yellow bubble appearing like a peeling sticker announcing MUSIC FILM STYLE, I realised that like other freebies handed out at transport hubs the print edition of the NME had become nothing more than a listings magazine, finally succumbing to what I always thought was their unspoken ethos that style was more important than the music. The print edition of the NME closed down in 2018.

Paul Stump's words could not have been wiser: the music’s all that matters


Credit: Jordan Hughes/NME
Credit: Jordan Hughes/NME

Post-postscript

For my part, I have learned to accept prog metal as a valid and valued sub-genre



Prog metal - Prog 12 December 2010
Prog metal - Prog 12 December 2010







By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2018 03:25PM

I met up with an old school friend last week. Though we have always exchanged Christmas cards and occasional emails, usually around the time his band is about to release some new music which he will dutifully send me, I’d not seen Bill or his wife, Anna, for thirty years, the last time being at their wedding. Bill lived two doors away from me in Barrow, was in the same year at school and, as part of a tight-knit group of adolescents, we grew up liking the same music, the direction of which was set by my older brother.

I played bass and Bill played drums in a band influenced by early Pink Floyd and King Crimson until we departed for separate universities; we listened to records, analysed and discussed music and last Monday, in the Royal Oak, Borough, a pub without any form of electronic amusements where even the contactless payment facility failed to work, began making up for lost time in conversation about music over well-kept beer from Harvey’s of Lewes.



Having not long before returned from a trip to Italy, talk naturally turned to PFM, who’s Photos of Ghosts, Cook and Chocolate Kings were first obtained by Bill. I hadn’t realised that he wasn’t so much a fan of Jet Lag, despite its jazz rock leanings and his proclivity for jazz and jazz rock, or Chocolate Kings, because of Bernardo Lanzetti’s English vocals and what he suggested was a move away from the earlier band sound, with its distinctive Mediterranean feel. Favouring their post-millennium output, he also thought that Emotional Tattoos was the best thing they’d done since Photos of Ghosts. For my part, I agree that Emotional Tattoos is a step in the right direction, with a couple of tracks that do hint at their 70s prime, but I think the Mediterranean warmth that pervades their early work is largely absent. There’s less use of change in amplitude and other devices to add contrast to an individual piece of music than there used to be, less contrapuntal interplay and no flute; as much as I like Lucio Fabbri’s playing, I miss the flute when the current band play the old material. Still, based on Bill’s recommendation, I’ve just invested in a copy of Dracula from a seller on ebay, a CD I saw when I was in Rome in 2006 but failed to buy, but I’ve never seen it anywhere since.



I tend to play the English version of Emotional Tattoos because that’s the version I own on vinyl, but I listened to the Italian version (which came on CD with the 2LP) before going to see them in Genova last year. Bill and I agreed that the Italian version was better, like their 70’s material that was available in both Italian and English. I’m not trying to suggest that I don’t like PFM’s English language work as Photos of Ghosts and The World Became the World include faithful re-workings of songs from Storia di un Minuto and Per un Amico and I’m not too put out by Lanzetti’s singing; unfortunately, Peter Sinfield’s words required a more nuanced delivery than the band were capable of, though I found it pleasing, not understanding the social situation in Italy at the time, that they accepted his environmentalism and his compassionate lyrics.



The topic of Italian bands singing in English was also raised when I was talking to Melting Clock at the Porto Antico Prog Fest, who employ their native language for their original material. They also play one or two progressive rock classics during their live set, where vocalist Emanuela Vedana sings with confidence when they perform accurate renditions of Genesis’ Firth of Fifth, Time by Pink Floyd or Soon, the coda to Gates of Delirium by Yes; this not only demonstrates their understanding of prog history, but it’s also a clever device to ingratiate themselves with members of an audience who may not have heard their self-penned music. We were unanimous in agreement that it was preferable for a rock progressivo Italiano bands to sing in Italian, but they also understood that overcoming the language barrier was likely to make their music accessible to the wider public and were considering, at least on one of the formats for their forthcoming debut, to include a bonus track of original music with lyrics translated and sung in English to expand their appeal but also, like veteran local group and Black Widow Records stable mate Il Cerchio d’Oro on their 2008 album Il Viaggio di Columbo, include English translations of the Italian lyrics.



It could be argued that world-wide appreciation for the entire sub-genre of RPI was facilitated by Greg Lake, Keith Emerson and Manticore Records. PFM manager Franco Mamone passed on a tape of the group to Greg Lake who, to the surprise of the Italians, listened to and liked what he heard, and invited them to Fulham to see and hear them play. Peter Sinfield was working with ELP at the time and compared their musicianship to King Crimson (PFM performed cover versions of 21st Century Schizoid Man and Pictures of a City on their first Italian tours in 1971 and 72) and suggested that English language lyrics would make their music universally appealing, and the band agreed. Banco del Mutuo Soccorso were also signed to Manticore after Emerson had heard them play and became a huge fan. Banco (1975) was their first release for Manticore, containing one original track (in Italian) and re-workings of material from Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Io Sono Nato Libero in Italian and English, followed in 1976 by a concept album Come in un’ultima cena / As in a Last Supper released in both Italian and English.



Le Orme, another of the most successful RPI bands, also experimented with an English version of one of their highly regarded LPs with the aim of conquering the UK and US. Released on the Charisma label, Felona and Sorona had lyrics written by Peter Hammill (who was signed to Charisma), based on the concept provided by Tagliapietra, Pagliuca and Dei Rossi so that his words closely followed the original story.



In a modern twist, when La Maschera di Cera released their continuation of the Felona e Sorona story Le Porte del Domani in 2013, they also released a version in English, The Gates of Tomorrow, with a very subtle alternative mix and a less subtle variation of the album sleeve, painted by Lanfranco who had provided the original art work for Le Orme. In addition to Italian groups releasing an alternative version of an album for the English-speaking market, which spreads beyond the four acts listed above, there are examples found in my collection of groups who only sing in English (The Trip, Cellar Noise, Hollowscene); those like Banco, PFM and Osanna who have released albums with a mixture of Italian and English lyrics; and those who have released both all-Italian and all-English albums (Nuova Era with Dopo L’Infinito and Return to the Castle respectively).



The phenomenon of non-native English speakers singing in English isn’t restricted to Italy; plucking a few more examples from my collection are Tasavallan Presidentti from Finland (Wigwam don’t count because they were Anglo-Finnish); Pulsar from France (both French and English are used on Strands of the Future, 1976); Germany’s Eloy and Triumvirat; Aphrodite’s Child from Greece; Earth and Fire, Focus and Supersister from the Netherlands; Norway's Wobbler; Albion from Poland (Broken Hopes, 2007); Spain’s Iceberg (Tutankhamon, 1975, a mixture of Spanish and English); and Sweden’s Anekdoten. So what influenced these choices? Was it simply the likelihood that the music would be more universally accepted, with concomitant success, if they used English lyrics? I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward; there’s a theory that in Italy during the 70s in there was something of a backlash against groups singing in anything other than Italian when the political tension is well documented. It’s strange then that PFM should release their anti-American opus, Chocolate Kings as an English language LP but that album might give a hint why there’s a melange of native- and English languages used throughout progressive rock in mainland Europe.

The title track on Chocolate Kings spells out that the US army, an occupying force in Italy following the Second World War, became unwelcome when fascism was defeated and bribing the local populace with candy and consumer items was insufficient for them to gain the goodwill of the locals; it could even have been seen as a potential source of friction, especially with the polarisation of political viewpoints in the late 60s and 70s. American and British music arrived in Italy through major ports like Genova and with further influx from a mixture of cultures it’s not surprising that Genova has played an important role in the development of musical styles, though a crucial element was retaining some of their own heritage and identity, including a desire to sing in their own language. It could be argued that the adherence to a ‘romantic style’ also helps to explain the attraction of UK progressive rock in Italy.

A similar situation occurred in Germany, though there was a greater concentration of American armed forces. The counter-culture generation, born after the war, largely rejected Anglicised music but also opted to break from their own traditions to create their own music scene, disrespectfully dubbed Krautrock by the English-speaking media, which has since become massively influential in its own right. The more mainstream prog bands tended to develop along the lines of the space rock of early Pink Floyd although Triumvirat became something of an ELP-clone.


Progressive rock started as an British phenomenon and was absorbed an integrated by many European countries putting their own stamp on the movement, including choosing whether or not to adopt English as its official language. The eclectic mix of influences that helped to form progressive rock indicates that there was no manifesto for the genre to remain 'English', and many bands stuck to their native tongue; this enriched the scene and made it a joy for the UK and US audiences to discover something new. Sadly, globalisation means that the music industry, which once thrived on creativity, now treats artists as commodity, fulfilling the fears aired in Chocolate Kings. The trend for an increasing number of mainland European prog bands to sing in English may reflect the attitudes of the market but would anyone dispute that most fans prefer Italian bands to sing in Italian?


I personally like all non-UK bands to sing in their mother tongue because it sounds more fluent, more poetic, more passionate and more believable but it all boils down to whether or not a band feels that English lyrics best serve the purposes of their music.











By ProgBlog, Apr 9 2018 10:38PM

Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milan 23 March



Next stop: Milan. I attended the 2017 Z-Fest and apart from choosing a hotel miles from the club so that the taxi driver was unhappy to let me out of his cab because he wasn’t convinced that there was actually an event being held there and then not being able to communicate with a taxi firm to get me back to the hotel after it had finished, it was a successful venture. 2017 had something of an ‘experimental’ vibe, with the jazzy Zaal (standing in for Christadoro, a Zuffanti co-venture who released an album in February that year) and headliners Finisterre, who of all the Zuffanti projects seem to me the group who best represent boundary-pushing. That show also featured the Zuffanti-produced Cellar Noise, playing through their excellent symphonic prog debut Alight (2017) and wowing the crowd with an excellent rendition of Genesis’ The Knife as an encore. The whole band was present for this year’s Z-Fest, getting ready to embark upon their first concert outside of Europe, in Canada, and they told me the material they were writing for their forthcoming album was going to be a bit heavier than on Alight but still recognisably Cellar Noise. Z-Fest 2018 was dubbed ‘the symphonic edition’ headlined by Höstsonaten, who are without doubt the most symphonic of Zuffanti’s many sidelines and compared by the man himself to The Enid, so it was quite appropriate that former Enid vocalist Joe Payne had been invited to open proceedings, with the other slots allotted to Isproject, a prog/post rock duo augmented by Zuffanti associates, taking their place in the proceedings by virtue of releasing a fine, symphonic concept album The Archinauts (2017) produced by Zuffanti, and to Heather Findlay, the vocalist for Mostly Autumn from 1996 until 2010.



This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!
This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!

I’d last seen Joe Payne performing with The Enid at HRH 4 in North Wales and before that at the Resonance Festival at the Bedford Arms in Balham. On both occasions it was clear that he had an excellent voice but in my opinion the theatrical presentation came across as West End musical rather than rock, and certainly not progressive rock. I got to the club as the man reinvented as 'That Joe Payne' was finishing his sound check, thanks to a combination of the efficiency of the Milan metro and the performer not realising that the doors had actually opened. Following a short interlude during which the sound engineers played a selection of classic prog, including Siberian Khatru, Easy Money and Free Hand, Payne took to the stage again and explained that he would only be conversing in English and that this was his first ever solo performance, though it wasn’t his first post-Enid show; earlier in March he’d performed at The Picturedome in Northampton with a select backing group.

His performance was relatively brief, consisting of two (long-form) songs he’d contributed to from The Enid’s Invicta (2012) One and the Many and Who Created Me? plus both sides of his new single I need a Change/Moonlit Love. Confiding in the audience that he was a bit rusty and Who Created Me? was the most challenging thing he’d had to play on piano, he also admitted, mid song, that he’d forgotten how the piece went, then courageously continued. I thought he excelled in this format, solo voice and piano and, without the full bombast of his former band to compete with for kitsch, it completely changed my opinion of his singing; that he’s got a great voice is beyond question – he proved that it works in a rock context.


That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano
That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano

Isproject were next up, Ivan Santovito (who had a slight problem with the keyboard patches on his Mac before they got going) and Ilenia Salvemini, who after a couple of tracks as a duo were joined on stage by core members of Höstsonaten: Paolo Tixi; Marcella Arganese; Daniele Sollo; and Martin Grice.

Their inclusion at this symphonic Z-Fest was fully warranted. The music alternates between a post-Waters Floydian sweeping cinematic sound, melodies and instrumentation that recall classic 70s Italian prog, and a few guitar-driven moments that hint of prog-metal. The proggiest moments were the lead synthesizer lines over full band backing where a relative lack of layers evoked the early 70s sound; there was also plenty of delicate piano which contributed to the symphonic feel. Apart from playing the keyboards, Santovito handled a good portion of the vocals, sung in English, while most of the time Salvemini was responsible for providing harmony vocals or singing as a duet. The performance wasn’t quite faultless, with Salvemini occasionally demonstrating an unfortunate lack of stagecraft, generating low-level feedback by exposing her mic, held by her side when she wasn’t singing, to her monitor. This slightly naive behaviour didn’t affect the way I thought about the music and I visited the merchandise stand following their slot and bought a copy of The Archinauts on CD; I’m pleased I did, because Zuffanti’s production is beautifully clear and the symphonic nature of the music shines through.


Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito
Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito

I don’t own any Mostly Autumn or Heather Findlay music other than a live version of Evergreen that featured on the free CD that came with one of the early Prog magazines concentrating on prog-folk. Her time in Mostly Autumn has helped her amass a good following and since leaving them in 2010 she’s fronted her own band, collaborated with some of the biggest names in the prog world (including Ian Anderson and John Wetton) and, in 2016 formed Mantra Vega with Dave Kerzner, pulling in a number of Mostly Autumn alumni, creating what many branded a ‘supergroup’. However, this set was just Findlay accompanying herself singing with acoustic guitar, delving into a rich past of folk/symphonic tunes of which I recognised only one: Evergreen. Her voice on some of the recordings I’ve heard has a frail, ethereal quality, like a Yorkshire Stevie Nicks but live she had a good strong voice that reminded me of Sonja Kristina on some of the more song-based Curved Air material. She also communicated entirely in English and told the crowd that, like Joe Payne, this was her first ever solo gig.


Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!
Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!

I’d just missed out seeing Höstsonaten performing Symphony No.1 Cupid and Psyche in 2016 so I wasn’t going to miss the 2018 Z-Fest; this was the band I’d really come to see and they did not disappoint. I may have originally heard about them in 2007-8 when I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files but my first exposure to their music was at the 2014 Prog Résiste festival where the Z Band performed an array of pieces from a variety of projects including the superb Rainsuite from Winterthrough, a sumptuous example of modern symphonic prog, prompting me to visit their merchandise stand following the performance to buy the CD/DVD of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Alive in Theatre (2013). It was on a visit to Galleria del Disco, Firenze, in the subway passages underneath the main station later in 2014 that I got my hands on an AMS CD reissue of Winterthrough, and in 2016 I pre-ordered my copy of Symphony N.1 Cupid & Psyche (on pink vinyl) through Bandcamp.



The current Höstsonaten line-up of Zuffanti (bass, acoustic guitar and bass pedals), Luca Scherani (keyboards), Marcella Arganese (electric guitar), Daniele Sollo (bass) and Paolo Tixi (drums) was supplemented for the occasion by Martin Grice on sax and flute, Joanne Roan on flute, Alice Nappi on violin, and Gaetano Galli on oboe, providing a genuine symphonic dimension; Grice was part of the Z Band and Roan has appeared on a number of Höstsonaten records.

Zuffanti’s introduction was interrupted by remedial work on Scherani’s laptop (after Scherani had helped Ivan Santovito at the start of the Isproject set) but this was swiftly resolved and they began with a medley of Season Cycle tracks, Entering the Halls of Winter, The Edge of Summer and Toward the Sea. We were also treated to a large slice of 2016’s Symphony N.1, an album where Zuffanti had written the music but took a step back from much of the playing and allowed the partnership with Scherani, who arranged the piece for orchestra, to shine. I thought the evening couldn’t get any better but they next embarked upon Ancient Mariner in all its dramatic glory. I’d notice Joe Payne move a mic stand to the front of the stage between the Heather Findlay and Höstsonaten sets, so I had a pretty good idea that he’d be joining them for something, and he took on the role of the mariner really well. Sadly I had to leave to catch a bus back to my hotel during Part 3, but there’s a YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61N3h2qCPfk that goes some way to compensating for me missing out on Part 4 which features outstanding vocals from both Payne and Findlay.



Though the crowd was really supportive of all the acts, the club wasn’t full and with tickets at only €10, it’s something of a surprise that Zuffanti persists in hosting the event each year. However he does it, promoting his protégés, revisiting some exquisite music of his own and this year bringing UK artists to Milan, I’m glad he does. This was my second year and, like last year, it was really special. La Maschera di Cera next year?














By ProgBlog, Mar 6 2018 03:20PM

The Instagram and Twitter trend ‘9 albums that changed my life/mean most to me’ (#9albums) that appeared in January didn’t pass me by but its appearance on various social media platforms made me somewhat wary; as a piece of social investigation it’s an interesting topic but when internet monopolies get involved it becomes a little more sinister. I can’t be the only person in the world to get annoyed by adverts, including smart adverts, driven by clicks on Google, Facebook and Amazon. I want to make my own choices and, just because a large proportion of Yes fans might like Rush, it doesn’t mean that I do, or want to. Put another way, I’m not a lemming or a sheep and I know what I like (in my wardrobe). Why nine albums? Is it because it forms a neat 3x3 square for an Instagram photo or does the Instagram generation have an average of nine significant events in their lives? How should we define significant?


There were appearances of this question in January 2016 and 2017 but there’s evidence that the trend goes back to at least 2013. I suggest that it fits in with the New Year resolution phenomenon; a reflection on your life but one that doesn’t necessarily require any form of reappraisal or change. It’s all part of the challenge!

There don't appear to be any specific rules so I’ve arranged my nine choices chronologically by date of impact on my life. I got into prog fairly early so the chronology also fits roughly, but not exactly with the release date of the albums.


These are my personal choices:



Close to the Edge (1972) – Yes

It wouldn’t be fair to include the debut Roxy Music album, released three months prior to Close to the Edge, although Roxy were the first band to pique my interest in rock music when they appeared on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops playing Virginia Plain, because I only ever heard that single from the album. In September 1972 Close to the Edge was unlike anything I’d ever heard before and remains, in my opinion, the definitive progressive rock album and as close to musical perfection as you can get. It’s the reason I got into prog.



The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – Pink Floyd

Likely to appear in a large number of the lists compiled across the world but this was the first new Floyd album to appear after I’d set out down the road of progressive rock. Before its release I’d borrowed a couple of bootlegs from a school friend and bought Relics but this seemed like a massive leap forward. I was hooked by the whole package; not just the music and the way the whole album linked together but the stickers and posters and the prism and pyramid imagery (I studied physics at school.) I was even impressed by Roger Waters’ lyrics which came in for some criticism in the music press.



Focus 3 (1972) – Focus

I was given a small transistor radio as a present for Christmas 1972 and one of the things that always seemed to be on Radio Luxemburg around 10pm was Sylvia, released as a single by Focus in January 1973. Focus 3 was circulated amongst friends of my brother and I was struck by the flute and what I felt was a distinct branch of highly melodic prog, to which I’d later add Camel and Steve Hackett’s earlier solo works.



Birds of Fire (1973) – Mahavishnu Orchestra

Jazz was the predominate musical form in our household even after my brother and I began to buy our own records, so the fusion of jazz and rock was something quite easy to get into, having been introduced on rock radio. The fluency and attack of the guitar, drumming like I’d never heard before and the interplay between guitar, keyboards and violin was just amazing; I bought the album in 1975 and it became key to opening up the extraordinary world of jazz rock where melody was sometimes sacrificed for proficiency: Isotope, Brand X, Weather Report, Return to Forever and even mid-70s Soft Machine.




Starless and Bible Black (1974) – King Crimson

This was the first Crimson album in our household and I still regard it as a mixed bag which goes relatively unnoticed between the groundbreaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and the influential Red. I find the first side of the original LP slightly unfulfilling despite the strength of Lament and The Night Watch; side two is brilliant and demonstrates the power of the group and a sublime mastery of tension and release. This obviously kick-started a life-long fascination with King Crimson but the cover inspired me to seek out Tom Phillips’ work at the Tate when I first arrived in London and more than that, I became such a great fan of John Wetton’s bass playing that I bought myself a bass guitar on my 18th birthday.



Rubycon (1975) – Tangerine Dream

This was my introduction to electronica. One of my rules for discovering and enjoying new music was the presence of keyboards, so Tangerine Dream had something of an advantage! I bought Rubycon shortly after its release having heard and been intrigued by Phaedra in 1974 and sold on the suggestion that they were influenced by Pink Floyd. I loved the single composition format over the two sides of the LP (Rubycon part 1, Rubycon part 2) which seemed to be a Virgin Records thing, but it was the amorphous other-worldly nature of the music, transporting you somewhere alien but largely benevolent which most attracted. I still maintain it’s the best record to listen to through headphones in the dark.



Cook (1974) – Premiata Forneria Marconi

Cook has probably had the most profound effect on my life after Close to the Edge and is responsible for my appreciation of Rock Progressivo Italiano. I can’t remember exactly how PFM came across our radar but I must have seen their performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test and Alan Freeman must have played them on his Saturday afternoon radio show. Cook was the first of their records that I bought but we were also listening to Photos of Ghosts, Chocolate Kings and Jet Lag, blown away by the musicianship and intrigued by the Italian take on prog.




UK (1978) – UK

As brilliant as this album is, it’s disappointing because it marks the end of the first era of progressive rock. At the time it seemed like it marked a new beginning, a strong album with excellent tunes and great playing and incorporating, through Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford, a jazz rock sensibility. Following the demise of King Crimson, it seemed like the formidable rhythm section which drove Crimson from 1973 – 1974 had, after some wandering that added to their musical educational, found an ideal home. Of the other ostensibly prog releases that followed, only National Health produced music of a quality that could match anything from the golden age of progressive rock. Genesis were down to three members and consciously going pop; Camel, directed by their record company, had given up on epics; Yes seemed bereft of a coherent concept and put out the patchy Tormato, where poly-Moog drenches everything apart from flanged bass, and ELP produced Love Beach.


Lux Ade (2006) – La Maschera di Cera

By 2005 I had begun to fully appreciate the breadth of output from Italian prog bands operating during the golden period of progressive rock, despite rarely featuring in the UK music press at that time. 2005 was the first year of an almost unbroken series of annual pilgrimages to Italy and the first where I consciously sought out record stores in an attempt to build up a collection of classic Italian prog. Fast forward to 2008 and it was only by chance that I came across a copy of Lux Ade in Beano’s second hand record store in Croydon and, tempted by the obvious 70’s keyboard set up, production courtesy of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio, plus the fact I had a 50% discount as a ‘member’ of Beano’s, that I handed over £5 to complete the best ever speculative buy I’ve ever made. This CD opened up the Italian progressive rock scene that re-emerged in the mid 90s to me and, in a parallel to hearing Close to the Edge, the first rock album I’d ever listened to, I think that Lux Ade is the best of the current wave of Rock Progressivo Italiano albums.



I found it relatively easy to come up with the bands that made up my nine but I originally chose Moving Waves instead of Focus 3 and Red instead of Starless. I seem to recall hearing The Inner Mounting Flame before Birds of Fire, but I didn’t own the first Mahavishnu album for some time and I actually most like Between Nothingness and Eternity (which I also bought in 1975.) It seems a shame to miss out some of my favourite albums but that’s not the point of the exercise; I tried to choose titles which had the most meaning and my taste tended to expand organically, with an appreciation for The Nice opening up ELP and then Refugee. It’s not unfair to say that my predilection for music hasn’t really changed at all in the 35 years I’ve been buying records, and that includes life-affirmative events like getting married and becoming a father. My wife went through the exercise and almost instantly came up with a fairly eclectic mix that seems to have more to do with life events than mine but also reflects a constant evolution, partly spurred by the discovery of music through Shazam: Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, Let’s Get it On by Marvin Gaye, Bat out of Hell by Meat Loaf, Vienna by Ultravox, Private Eyes by Hall and Oates, Dare by The Human League, Chris Rea’s self-titled fourth album, True by Spandau Ballet and ending up with Truth Came Running, the first album by Australian singer-songwriter Mark Wilkinson, bought from the man himself as he was busking in Sydney in 2012.


I thought it might be interesting to ask a group of close friends and relatives, all with an interest in prog that was nurtured in the golden age, to come up with their nine albums. I grew up with almost all of them and most are regular gig companions; there’s no evidence that they’ve taken part in the challenge before and I didn’t stipulate that they must choose progressive rock releases. This is certainly not hard science but I thought it would be interesting to note their route into music and any divergence from core prog. Their responses, and an attempt at some analysis, will be published in the next blog...



The blogs HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican Z fest ticket BMS Brescia A Saucerful of Secrets banner

Welcome to ProgBlog

 

I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.

The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...

Banco ticket 050220