ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Jul 3 2020 07:42PM

By this time of the year in 2019, even with a slow start, I’d seen ten gigs and attended Steve Hackett’s The Edge of Light playback, hosted by the man himself. So far this year I’ve been to two and there’s little hope of adding many more to the tally until the autumn unless travel restrictions from and to the UK are lifted within the next couple of weeks: the Porto Antico Prog Fest is due to take place on July 11th.


It’s good to see Covid-19 lockdown restriction eased where the infection and death rates have dropped to low double figures or lower, provided there are sustainable test, track and trace schemes in place, but the UK isn’t one of them. The economy is being put before lives and it appears to be the same economic model that we were running before the pandemic, based on consumer spending rather than taking the opportunity to green our services and industries. For an all too brief period almost everyone could benefit from improved air quality but rather than applying anti-pollution conditions on loans to industries to tide them over until the crisis had passed, we’ve just returned to business as usual. If someone was candid enough to admit the true reason why opening up car showrooms was one of the first restrictions to be lifted I’d admire them for their honesty but point out that giant factory car parks filled with new petrol- and diesel-engine vehicles is an indication of a huge crisis in the automotive industry, not least because the manufacturers have made more cars than they can shift, and that there is a tangible nervousness in the UK’s £75bn car loan market, where 6.5m vehicles have been financed through leasing deals with monthly payments that are already proving unaffordable for individuals laid-off as a result of the coronavirus situation leaving Britain’s car market resting on billions of pounds of consumer debt.


Physical distancing to reduce the spread of infection has always seemed like a good idea (unless you’re on the right of the Conservative party) but one of the obvious downsides is that keeping a band, the road crew and the entire audience 2 metres apart is incompatible with a sustainable live music industry. The inaugural Music By Numbers report, an economic study by UK Music and its members published in November 2019, revealed that the live music sector made a contribution of £1.1bn to the UK economy in 2018, up 10% from £991m in 2017, and the overall employment in the music industry was at an all-time high of 190,935 so it’s clear that live music, as part of the entertainment and hospitality sector and the last piece of the economy to open, is missed not only by me.


In the absence of live events, there are always live recordings to listen to. I’ve used live albums as an introduction to a number of bands: Barclay James Harvest Live (1974); Genesis Live (1973); Gentle Giant Playing the Fool – the Official Live (1977); Be Bop Deluxe Live! in the Air Age (1977), allowing me to become better acquainted with an artist’s back catalogue. In a similar manner to my preference for buying a group’s albums in their home city, I make an effort to buy concert performances of gigs I’ve attended, should they become available, because it feels as though there’s a stronger bond between myself and the music. So as a lockdown exercise, notwithstanding my presence or absence at a particular concert slated for subsequent release, I thought that I’d examine what makes a great live album, illustrated by a list of my top 10. Factors like recording quality, essential for conveying the musical content; the material present on the release, providing an accurate representation of the band up to the time of the performance; and the relationship between the performers and the audience.


Yes - Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015)


Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two
Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been truly happy with the sound quality. It has so much going for it – the triple gatefold with a series of some of the best Roger Dean illustrations for the band, explaining the narrative begun on Fragile (1971); it captures Yes at their creative peak, despite falling between two classic line-ups, covering all the essential songs that were instrumental in getting them to that point; and the musicians have clearly gelled for the performances, interacting well and playing brilliantly. So when the tapes that made up the source material for Yessongs were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be even stricter than the content of some of the King Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, all presented in a sonically accurate manner.



King Crimson - USA (1975)


USA (three different versions)
USA (three different versions)

Robert Fripp was able to beat the bootleggers, maintain an income stream and remain relevant in a cutthroat industry by releasing archive live material through official DGM channels and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Great Deceiver (1992), The Road to Red (2013) and Starless (2014) box sets, plus the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 – a cut-out from my local store Elpees in Bexley, and it remained something of a treasured possession even after I bought the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition (2004) on CD, and subsequently invested in the 40th Anniversary expanded edition on vinyl. I used to blast USA out of my room at university, posing at the window with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM – I now have the entire piece on the 40th anniversary vinyl edition.



Mahavishnu Orchestra - Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973)


Between Nothingness and Eternity
Between Nothingness and Eternity

Between Nothingness and Eternity represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album. The quality of the recording, from the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, New York on August 18th 1973 is exceptionally good and the material, eventually given a studio release as part of The Lost Trident Sessions (1999), saw the band tilting towards the rock spectrum from their jazz-rock axis, a progressive rock direction. There’s a qualitative difference between Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1972) but the intensity was upped even further on Between Nothingness and Eternity. The CD liner notes from The Lost Trident Sessions suggest that tensions were running high between band members, compounded by constant touring, but the decision to release a live album rather than the slated third studio album, taken because there was no consensus over whether the studio recordings were complete or required overdubs, meant that Between Nothingness and Eternity captured the band, in the words of Jan Hammer, as ‘working on all 12 cylinders.’



The Official Live Gentle Giant - Playing the Fool (1977)


The Official Live Gentle Giant Playing the Fool
The Official Live Gentle Giant Playing the Fool

Playing the Fool is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette, my first Gentle Giant album. I’d heard In a Glass House (1973) not long after its release when my brother borrowed it from a friend, and was totally impressed by the title track from Free Hand (1975) when that was played on the radio by Alan Freeman – and frequently gawped at the cover of Playing the Fool when browsing in record stores, so I’m unsure why I never bought one of their albums, unless it was (for a prog band) the brevity of the individual songs, until I saw the Playing the Fool cassette at a price I couldn’t resist. I’m also not sure why I bought it on tape, a medium I’ve never particularly favoured, when I’d previously been entranced by what appeared to me as an intricate, complex constellation, the band’s tour route, on the inside of the gatefold sleeve. When I eventually took the plunge, Gentle Giant albums were an uncommon sight in shops, apart from Giant Steps – The First Five Years (1975), a 2LP compilation of the Vertigo produced records which came close to what I was after – but obviously didn’t contain anything from the Chrysalis-issued Free Hand. The arrangements on Playing the Fool are exquisite and the band were at their creative peak, gaining widespread appreciation in the US and mainland Europe but barely registering attention in their native UK. This is only album I’ve ever owned on cassette, CD and vinyl.



Van der Graaf Generator – Real Time (2007)


Real Time
Real Time

Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... and I can tell him because I was there: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. It was a great gig and is a great live recording of the gig. Van der Graaf’s Vital (1978) is wild and raw, capturing the group in flux between the departures of Hugh Banton and David Jackson and splitting up; the post-Jackson VdGG gigs from this millennium have also been a band that seems to be teetering on the edge of chaos but somehow, the Festival Hall performance in May 2005 contained and channelled a sonic energy that felt like it was pinning me to my seat. The recently released Live at Rockpalast (2020), recorded at the end of the 2005 tour from the Leverkusen jazz festival is another impressive album, but with a truncated set compared to Real Time it lacks the emotional clout of the inaugural performance of the reformed band, even though I have the 3LP set.



Five more live albums for lockdown will appear in part 2

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...



By ProgBlog, Jan 30 2018 05:04PM

The announcement that one of the most highly regarded Italian prog bands was playing a gig in a relatively accessible city came as a bit of a surprise. Having just flown back from skiing in Chamonix the day before a Facebook post indicated that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso were performing in Brescia in seven days time, I needed to get my act together, pronto.


Advert for BMS at Circolo Colony, Brescia
Advert for BMS at Circolo Colony, Brescia

I delayed booking until I’d had confirmation that I could take annual leave but still managed to put together a decent hotel and flight bundle with only four days before we were due to leave. We flew to Milan (there was an alternative but early flight to Verona) and had just enough time to kill to grab a coffee and a browse through the Feltrinelli shop at the station before getting a slow train to Brescia from Milano Centrale. This particular branch of La Feltrinelli has a dedicated Progressive Italiana section where I found Giro di Valzer per Domani (1975) by Arti & Mestieri on CD and, being a fan of Tilt (1974) and their more recent release Universi Paralleli (2015) (the latter acquired on vinyl in Como last spring), I really couldn’t resist buying it, along with Prog Italia no.16. Giro di Valzer per Domani leans more towards jazz-rock than prog and there are times when they play tunes you could imagine were written by the Mahavishnu Orchestra; it’s genuinely impressive stuff.


Highlights from La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale
Highlights from La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale

Brescia doesn’t have such impressive prog credentials as somewhere like Genoa, Milan or Rome although PFM’s Mauro Pagani was born in the city; Pagani was also, for a brief time, a member of classic progressivo Italiano group Dalton (from Bergamo, 53km west of Brescia) but left before their well-regarded debut album Riflessioni: Idea d'infinito (1973). Convenor of a number of musical projects, drummer and composer Gustavo Pasini used to run the Canterbury Café in the San Polo district, south east of the city centre.


Temporarily resident in the Novotel a 10 minute walk south east of Brescia railway station, we arrived on Friday evening and spent the next day exploring the city before I had to set out to the Sant’Eufemia district where BMS were playing at Circolo Colony, a club on an industrial estate or retail park. The first band on, La Stanza di Iris (Valeria Di Domenicantonio, voice and synth; Antonio Di Girolamo, guitar; and Valentino Piacentini, drums) were a bit noisy for my taste and lacked sufficient variation to really hold my interest; they describe themselves rather accurately as a ‘rock bomb that hits and stuns those who listen to us’. Second up were Hamnesia (Lorenzo Diana, guitar; Livia Montalesi, vocal, violin; Giovanni Tarantino, drums; Matteo Bartolo, keyboards; and Andrea Manno, bass guitar) who were premiering their first album Metamorphosis, available at the merchandise stand. Metamorphosis is a concept piece about a journey into human consciousness through the fears and uncertainties that paralyze it, yet at the same time provide us with an opportunity to overcome them and change ourselves through metamorphosis. This was much more to my liking, where the individual influences of the band members which appeared to include symphonic prog, classical and metal, combined to form a modern prog that included some riffing, some great soloing, some authentic analogue keyboard patches and some memorable melodic lines. The lyrics were all in English, something which may have been influenced by the English-speaking bands they profess to admire like Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree, but I prefer my Italian bands singing in their native language. Montalesi may have had monitor problems because there were a couple of occasions where I thought she drifted out of key, whereas her singing on the CD – I thought I ought to buy a copy – is assured and problem free. Hamnesia are another young Italian progressive rock band to look out for.


The actual reason I’d organised the trip was to see Banco but when the first track Metamorfosi kicked in the link between the veterans and the newcomers was eloquently spelled out. Having stood around at the back of the hall for La Stanza di Iris, then moved near to the mixing desk for Hamnesia, I stood with most of the rest of the crowd close to the stage for Banco. Without Gianni Nocenza or any of the other members from the 70s apart from Vittorio Nocenza, the sextet which now consists of Vittorio Nocenzi, keyboards, vocals; Nicola Di Già, guitar; Tony D’Alessio, vocals; Marco Capozi, bass guitar; Fabio Moresco, drums; and Filippo Marcheggiani, guitar, released a re-imagined version of Io Sono Nato Librero, titled La Libertà Difficile along with the original, as a legacy edition CD in the autumn of 2017.

La Libertà Difficile is well played and well thought out but lacks the raw energy of the 1973 release and, however good D’Alessio is, he’s not going to fill the shoes of Francesco Di Giacomo. This had been one of my concerns when I booked my ticket but to his credit, he didn’t try to emulate Di Giacomo and accompanied by Nocenzi, the singing worked very well. Unfortunately, I’d been forced to book a taxi for 11.50pm because the taxi firm couldn’t provide the service that I’d originally requested at half-past midnight, or my compromise at 00.15am so I didn’t get to hear the full set. Following Metamorfosi (from their eponymous debut in 1972) they played Cento Mani e Cento Occhi (from Darwin! 1972), Il Ragno (from Come in un'Ultima Cena, 1976), La Conquista della Posizione Eretta (from Darwin!), Canto Nomade per un Prigioniero Politico (from Io Sono Nato Librero) and then a couple of tracks I don’t have in my collection which I believe were Canto di primavera (from the 1979 album of the same name) and Paolo Pa’ (from Urgentissimo, 1980). I had to leave the club as the excellent L'Evoluzione (from Darwin!) was ending.


BMS, Circolo Colony, Brescia 20 Jan 2018
BMS, Circolo Colony, Brescia 20 Jan 2018

Though I’d been a little disconcerted by the songs I didn’t know, the playing throughout was exceptional and Nocenzi, fairly close to the beginning of the set related a tale of how much Brescia meant to the band. So, despite only getting half a set, I was glad I attended. I don’t think I can make up my mind whether I prefer the music of PFM or Banco and, having seen PFM live for the first time last year, I’ve now ticked off Banco del Mutuo Soccorso from the list. I suppose my only gripe is that the club was some way out of the city centre and even public transport, which I had been informed shut down at 1am on a Saturday, was not an easy option to take because of the nature of the journey from the club to the station. This is becoming a bit of a recurring theme: the gigs start late and at gigs in both Milan and Rome last year, the journey back to my hotel was pretty fraught unless I left early and missed part of the performance.


The city has a couple of decent second-hand record stores, Music Box and Brescia Dischi which are round the corner from each other and appear to be owned by the same person. I was tempted to buy a live BMS album from 1974 but I thought €40 was a bit too much to pay. Opposite Music Box there’s a branch of bookstore Punto Einaudi which sells classical and jazz music on CD and vinyl, and there’s also a reasonably-sized branch of La Feltrinelli on Corso Giuseppe Zanardelli where I bought three PFM-related LPs: L’Isola di Niente, Amore e non Amore (1971) by Lucio Battisti where his backing band is the original PFM line-up, and Acqua Fragile’s second album Mass-Media Stars from 1974 which features Bernardo Lanzetti, the vocalist with PFM from Chocolate Kings to Passpartù, and was produced by PFM and Claudio Fabi. Marva Jan Morrow who contributed lyrics to Jet Lag also wrote lyrics for Mass-Media Stars.



In between bouts of seeking out Italian prog, we discovered Brescia boasts some of the most impressive Roman remains I’ve ever seen, located in a UNESCO World Heritage Site complex made up from the Brixia Archaeological area and the Museo di Santa Giulia. The city was also under the control of Venice during La Serenissima, making the architectural history from Roman, through medieval to the Rationalist redevelopment of the Piazza della Vittoria to the postmodern reinvention of the Courts of Justice and the Brescia 2 district where our Novotel was situated, a fabulous eclectic mix of styles. It’s a clean, pleasant and friendly city. I’d visit it again.


Mimmo Paladino sculpture 'Ritiro' in the Brixia archaeological site
Mimmo Paladino sculpture 'Ritiro' in the Brixia archaeological site


By ProgBlog, Jul 11 2017 10:42PM

I’ve just ripped a rather large pile of my wife’s CDs to mp3 for her, nothing that remotely interests me but which does indicate the breadth of her musical tastes, according to categories ascribed by Windows Media Player: Soul and R&B; folk; electronica (not the sort that I like); country; pop; world. The selection generally dated from within the last five years and I noticed that most of the albums play for around 45 minutes with an average track length of a little over four minutes within a range of sub-three minutes to just over five. This near-standardised format would suit a release on 12” LP and though quite a few of these recent additions to her collection were originally released before the current vinyl revolution, at least one has been re-released in audiophile format and two, by the same artist, have ridden the recent vinyl wave with the one of them allegedly becoming the fastest selling LP for 20 years.



It’s well documented how progressive rock bands found the standard three minute single something of a constraint and it’s equally uncontroversial to suggest that in the late 70s, as the golden era was drawing to a close with very few exceptions, bands who were obliged to attempt to write a hit single by their label produced failures; prog relied on album sales and was a spectacular success in doing so. It’s hard enough to put together a winning formula for a hit single without attempting to include some form of coherent story or message and most of the singles in the 70s were aimed at a particular demographic, the adolescent in the early 70s and then when punk came along, older teenagers. On a sociological level this was to do with burgeoning self-awareness and searching for inclusivity; call me dumb but the tribe I ascribed to had long hair, wore flairs and suede desert boots and carried albums to and from school under our arms, as if to show the world how deep and interesting we were.


I’m not going to comment on the provenance of some, undeniably successful singles from prog-associated artists such as Greg Lake or the 1980s version of Yes and equally, I’m not thinking of edits of album tracks cut-down to favour air play but, in my opinion, the only genuine full-on hit progressive rock song of single length is Wonderous Stories by Yes which entered the UK Singles Chart at number 31 in mid-September 1977. Over the next four weeks climbed to its peak, reaching number 7 for the week of 8 October and it remained in the chart for the next five weeks. A favourite with fans and band members alike, the track somehow condenses epic Yes into 3’45, possibly because the song structure, built around a classical framework, incorporates signature features such as the harmony vocals and an uplifting vibe. It’s unclear to me how many new fans they attracted, especially in an era of punk. I didn’t buy the single in either of its formats because I owned the album but I imagine a fair number of pre-existing fans bought the special edition picture-sleeve 12” version in blue vinyl.




So what is the ideal track length, and what is the perfect album duration? As someone who began listening to music when the vinyl LP was the dominant format, I’m used to and therefore favour an album of 35 – 45 minutes of music. There are plenty of shorter length albums such as Electric Prunes’ Mass in F minor which, at 26 minutes, must be one of the shortest LPs ever, Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (just over 36 minutes), and many of the 70s progressivo Italiano releases. At the other end of the scale, Genesis had a bit of a reputation for eking out every square millimetre of the record surface with Foxtrot lasting over 51 minutes, Selling England by the Pound at over 53 minutes, Trick of the Tail at 51 minutes and Wind and Wuthering just shy of 51 minutes; [the non-prog] Duke was over 55 minutes. Progressive rock is known for its utilisation of full dynamics and the more music included on an LP means less space between grooves and a reduced dynamic range, plus the increased likelihood of damage from a worn stylus and though my Genesis records play well, the side-long title track on Autumn Grass by Continuum which lasts over 26 minutes, has reproduction problems on my current set-up, my former set-up and on the system in the shop I used to check the quality of the (second-hand) disc.

I’m very much in favour of side-long tracks and most of my favourite groups have committed one side of an album to a single piece of music; all of them have indulged in long-form, which I consider to be one of the defining qualities of prog. From the ultimate progressive rock album Close to the Edge to each of the four sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans and Gates of Delirium; Atom Heart Mother and Echoes to Eruption and Hamburger Concerto; Tarkus to A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers; Music Inspired by The Snow Goose to Nine Feet Underground; Supper’s Ready (Horizons is the prelude) to Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play; Lizard to Mumps; Rubycon to Tubular Bells; Trace’s Birds to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Dream, there are also other brilliant almost side-long tracks like Grand Canyon Suite and Credo on the only studio album by Refugee.




It’s not that I don’t like sub-five minute tracks but I just don’t think they represent the best a band can do. Anything around 10 minutes or over should give sufficient scope for development of ideas to transport the listener on a journey through the composition; there ought to be sufficient time to employ a variety of rhythmic devices, changes in amplitude and different instruments or instrumental voices.

The CD format opened up a whole new world of possibilities and prog supergroup Transatlantic managed to fill an album with a single piece of music, The Whirlwind, lasting 77 minutes. This may be an exception but the temptation to fill the available time on a CD, whether with a single track or a series of shorter tracks, is ever-present. Where should we stop? My brother Richard has specifically commented on Nad Sylvan’s 2015 solo album Courting the Widow, suggesting that as much as he likes the compositions, he finds it hard to reach the end of the album (it lasts just over 70 minutes.) I think Richard’s observation applies far more generally and that there’s no real requirement to release something over 50 minutes long. Before the 90s King Crimson came along I’ve held ‘Crimson days’ where I played all original (vinyl) releases one after the other; I’ve done the same for Yes and Pink Floyd but unless you have the time to dedicate to listening to music, there’s no point. I’m someone who believes in the importance of the album as a complete entity and that the running order described by the artist is sacrosanct yet I’m unsure if it’s the lives we lead (wake/commute/work/commute/eat/sleep/repeat) which is restricting our ability to fully connect with music or if the length of a CD album itself that we find hard to assimilate in a single sitting. Is this a generational thing affecting those of us who grew up happy to turn over an LP on the platter or is it a Page family thing? Yes magnum opus Tales from Topographic Oceans was derided for its length (amongst other things) and attracted criticism for passages regarded as ‘filler’, so would it have benefitted from a CD format, if that had been available in 1973, allowing it to be produced as a 60 minute-long piece of work? I like to think that the natural breaks afforded by changing sides and changing discs provide enough break to allow us to enjoy the full 80 minutes. Then again, as much as I enjoy Anderson/Stolt’s Invention of Knowledge which lasts around 65 minutes, I find it difficult to listen to from beginning to end on vinyl or in digital format; perhaps familiarity plays a large part and it’s not just the length of the album. I no longer have the time I once had to sit down and properly listen.




In fact there’s no perfect length of either a single track or of an album. The physical restraints of the 12” LP which allowed up to 27 minutes of music each side, has the capacity to hold music which can have any number of twists and turns, whether they’re presented as one piece or as a series of tracks. It’s not the length that counts – it’s the quality of the music itself.


By ProgBlog, Mar 26 2017 08:54PM

The latest edition of Prog magazine (Prog 75) arrived last week with a somewhat surprising cover story: The 100 Greatest Prog Anthems of All Time. Not only had I missed the call for voting but I wasn’t sure what readers were supposed to have voted for. It turns out that what they had asked for was our favourite track, and their feature was actually a list of ‘the 100 Greatest Prog Songs of all time’, also described as ‘pretty much the definitive list of prog songs old and new’. Not surprisingly, the Prog website anticipated the response to the published list; a byline predicting ‘feverish debate’.



As happy as I am to wade through a comprehensive list, knowing I’ll disagree with a good proportion of it (although in this instance I have 17 of the top 20 in my collection, just not in the same order of preference), I do think compiling lists is lazy journalism. However, I wouldn’t want to diminish the not inconsiderable task of compiling the list, as it’s likely that there were very large numbers of votes cast. The feature also includes some new insight into the making of some of the albums highlighted, such as David Cross providing background thoughts on King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic from 1973 and a decent-length interview with Steve Rothery.

My gripe isn’t with the list, although Close to the Edge should have been at number 1 instead of Supper’s Ready, not number 2, but with the magazine’s cover and headline. According to the on-line Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘anthem’ derives from old English antefn or antifne, a composition sung antiphonally, itself a derivation from late Latin antiphona (see antiphon); the alternative spelling with ‘th’ was probably adopted in the 16th century. Whereas there’s a nationalistic connotation to anthems, solemn or patriotic songs officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity, and a subtly different appropriation where a rousing or uplifting song becomes identified with a particular social grouping, political body or cause, I’m not convinced that what we now recognise as anthems have any place in progressive rock.

This may not always have been the case, as Aldo Tagliapietra, bassist from Le Orme, has described the use of ‘stereo’ choirs in the Basilica di San Marco in his native Venice. This is an example of an antiphon, a hymn or a psalm performed by two groups of singers chanting alternative sections like a call and response and whether you believe in a Christian God or not, progressive rock has roots in liturgical music.

Call and response isn’t limited to either church music or prog but forms an interesting device in narrative songs. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Genesis, with their moniker and background in Charterhouse public school (and public schools had strong church links; Charterhouse was founded by Thomas Sutton in 1611 and built on the site of the ruins of a Carthusian monastery) should employ multi-character vocal parts on a range of albums: Harold the Barrel from Nursery Cryme; Get ‘em Out by Friday (Foxtrot); The Battle of Epping Forest (Selling England by the Pound); Robbery Assault and Battery (A Trick of the Tail); and All in a Mouse’s Night (Wind and Wuthering). There are some examples where a call and the response aren’t vocal, the best of which are on Between Nothingness and Eternity by the Mahavishnu Orchestra; normally a duel, Mahavishnu use three lead instruments in fiery exchanges, interplay that hints at the difficult nature of the quest for spiritual enlightenment.



The common understanding of an anthem involves a short, distilled message, largely because this is the easiest way to get a message across, be it a patriotic call or an environmental protest. That’s not to say progressive rock can’t be used to highlight some ecological or political concern; Yes’ anti-war themes in Yours is no Disgrace and Starship Trooper and their use of ‘green language’, especially on Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans embrace counter-cultural thinking but the message isn’t clear-cut, relying on a deeper engagement with the audience. On the other hand, Don’t Kill the Whale, although still not an anthem, is a direct call to humankind to respect sentience in another species which cynics thought was simply the group jumping on an environmental band-wagon, but in fact their musical philosophy pre-dates the realisation that we were hunting whales to extinction.


An anthem has to include vocals and, in the context of pop or rock music, not only requires a structure that invokes euphoric feelings, it has to serve as something that is closely associated with a particular band. It’s a sweeping generalisation to say that minor chords are gloomy and major chords are ‘bright’ but, apart from increasing the tempo (which gives a sense of urgency or striving) it’s possible to make a chord sequence sound more rousing by opening up the chord; taking the middle note of a triad and raising it by an octave. In terms of association with a group, sticking to a pre-existing structural verse, chorus, bridge formula helps a little, as does revisiting familiar lyrical tropes, but in a world where visuals are as dominant as sounds, subscribing to a group’s visual identity is also a helping factor. A tendency towards style over substance is more rock than prog rock which is why I’d include Asia’s Heat of the Moment in the anthemic class. It just seems to me that there’s a propensity for stadium AOR and heavy rock acts to churn out this sort of music, so that wearing the patch on your cut-down denim jacket becomes an emblem of belonging, waving devil-horn hand gestures and singing along with 50000 others who have lost their own individualism to bask in the enveloping identity of the group.

As a season ticket holder of many years at Crystal Palace I can see, and I’m very wary of mob behaviour. It’s no surprise that national anthems are sung at the beginning of international matches; the sub-text is that two teams are going into battle. At league level we wear the club shirt and sing and chant club anthems in lieu of violence and, for some die-hards, the result is everything, not simply entertainment. I’m a bit intimidated by this fervour and though I always want Palace to win, playing well and demonstrating cohesiveness is nearly as important as coming away with three points. I think that immersion in the mob, whether it’s at a sporting event or at a gig is a repudiation of your individuality, whereas progressive rock is about inclusivity while retaining individualism; a realisation that different cultural influences makes more interesting music, that diversity is to be celebrated.



I suspect that the Prog editorial team simply made a poor choice of words when it came to putting together the front page of the magazine, which leaves us with the question: Are there really any prog anthems? I may go to gigs and sing to myself, sometimes with my eyes closed like some old dope, but I don’t like a singalong or to be encouraged to clap along to a piece of music because it interferes with my appreciation of what is being played. I suppose these moments get as close as anything to being anthemic but the complexity of the music normally brings audience participation to a premature close. The use of encores, playing well known and appreciated tunes, kind of fills the requirement for an anthem without necessarily being anthemic. Heat of the Moment, the culmination of John Wetton’s search for commercial success while retaining a relatively high degree of musicality would fit the bill, but stomping out verse-chorus-verse-chorus isn’t really prog.

If there was a Yes anthem it would be I’ve seen All Good People. Not surprisingly, I’m least disposed towards it out of all the songs on The Yes Album because the All Good People section comes close to straightforward rock. It remains a live favourite however, the second most played song by the band, where it frequently appears as an encore and audience clapping is encouraged. The most played tune is Roundabout which, despite the success brought about by the truncation into a radio-friendly single, chops and changes too many times to be an anthem.


The answer lies with Emerson, Lake and Palmer who covered the William Blake / Hubert Parry Jerusalem. This may seem like a return to the theme of church music, or even the idea of a national anthem but Blake has also been appropriated by a wide range of people who recognise a spirit of utopianism in his writing. Rugby fans may bellow out the hymn in an effort to galvanise their team while right-wing commentators remind them that perhaps Blake wasn’t quite as patriotic as they thought; rationalists like Dawkins and Bronowski and Marxists like EP Thompson have sided with him; he inspired Gordon Giltrap’s excellent prog-folk Visionary. His Complete Works was the first book of poetry I ever bought. It may be the Elgar’s orchestration of the hymn provides much of the uplifting feel but the ELP version, with Greg Lake’s clear voice ringing through, is a call to all followers of progressive rock.







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