ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Oct 25 2015 09:45PM

My Walkman is blinking at me, cycling between the home screen and the music I was last listening to on my journey home from work last Thursday, shutting myself off from the noise and the crush on the London Overground (aka the Ginger Line), Tormato by Yes. The Option and Back buttons don’t respond yet I can scroll through the different tracks on the album but when it stays on the home screen for long enough, the left, up, right and down functions don’t work. It won’t even turn off! It’s broken. At 16GB it’s not big enough to hold anywhere near my entire music collection and my life involves constant updating of the material on the player each time I acquire more music and shuffle things around. In the last couple of months I’ve been to Italy and bought more CDs than I probably should have done; bought CDs at gigs; I’ve had a birthday, which inevitably resulted in multiple CDs; and I’ve been picking up new vinyl from the internet (the English version of Felona and Sorona by Le Orme and the yet to be despatched La Curva di Lesmo by Fabio Zuffanti) plus second hand vinyl (Edgar Froese’s Aqua, 1974) from an antique shop in Crystal Palace. My last batch of CD burning was a sequence of Tangerine Dream releases, Encore (1977), the last of the Peter Baumann-era TD, Cyclone (1978) featuring Steve Jolliffe, Force Majeure (1979) which featured Klaus Krieger on drums, Tangram (1980), the first album of the Johannes Schmoelling-era, and Hyperborea (1983); the vinyl won’t be converted to mp3 until I get a new turntable. Oh, I almost forgot. BTF put out a couple of discounted CDs every week and after reading a short review of the only and eponymous LP by Paese dei Balocchi (Land of Toys) from 1972, presented in a mini gatefold sleeve for €5.99, I put in my order and I’m waiting for it to be delivered. I bought a new MP3 player yesterday, just an updated version of my old Sony, because I was happy with the balance of portability (it’s very small) and sound quality, when played through Sennheiser earphones. I find it a little strange that the new device has a time display and as BST switched to GMT in the early hours of this morning; I found it stranger that this was an electronic device that required a manual adjustment to the time.

Time is something of an abstract concept that covers both immense (astronomical) measurement and the quantum level; the second was originally defined as the fraction 1/86400 of the mean solar day but uncertainty over the exact definition of a mean solar day and irregularities in the rotation of the earth resulted in deviations from the required accuracy. In order to define the unit of time more precisely, in 1967 the 13th CGPM (Conférence générale des poids et measures – General Conference on Weights and Measures) decided to replace the definition of the second with the following: The second is the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom at a temperature of 0 Kelvin.

It’s hardly surprising that an examination of the concept of time should feature in prog, from time travel (Beggar Julia’s Time Trip by Ekseption, 1969) to the condition of mankind (Time, from Dark Side of the Moon, 1973.) It may be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that a fascination with time goes back to before the beginning of the genre when psychedelia was in ascendency: the ingestion of LSD may have been used by some to expand consciousness but one of the alleged effects of the drug was to alter the perception of time, such that minutes seemed to stretch into hours. An early psychedelic-progressive crossover was the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed (1967), a song cycle about a day in the life of an everyman.

Roger Waters took an interesting approach to time on The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (1984) where the track titles all incorporate a specific time, from 4.30 am to 5.11 am with the track length corresponding to the times indicated by the titles; a parallel with Dark Side is that Pros and Cons is a reflection on issues contributing to a mid-life crisis. I went to see Waters perform the show live in London in June 1984; I’ve never owned the album because it resembles The Wall too much for my taste and though the concept may be prog, the music (and musicians) belonged to a straightforward rock idiom. I’m not suggesting that writing songs about time are unique to progressive rock or even that time isn’t only referred to by progressive rock bands in a manner other than the prosaic (think of Counting Out Time from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,1974) or even without any context (the very short harpsichord-drenched instrumental Time from Time and Tide (1975) by Greenslade, a collection of short pieces without any over-reaching concept. Within prog, some aspect of time often forms an integral part of a piece: the iconic chiming clocks that precede the Floyd’s Time or Vangelis’ use of the speaking clock at the end of Pulstar from Albedo 0.39 (1976) - a pulsar (an abbreviation for pulsating radio star) emits electromagnetic radiation as it spins so that there is a set period between pulses at a particular observation point. This precise period means that some pulsars are as accurate as an atomic clock.

Tempus Fugit by Yes (Drama, 1980) is more narrative-descriptive than a particular concept; the music was primarily supplied by Howe, Squire and White before Trevor Horn provided the lyrics which seem to suggest, in a somewhat convoluted way, that despite the lack of Anderson and Wakeman, Drama is a Yes album. It’s interesting that Horn reprises one of my favourite pieces from Tormato, the line in RejoiceTime flies, on and on it goes” and Rejoice is in essence the second part of opening track Future Times. Though Tempus Fugit may have influenced Roger Dean’s cover art (or the other way round) there seem to be references in the song words to the inside sleeve of Tormato. Time Table from Foxtrot (1972) is a classic Genesis pun but it’s really a short reflection on the failure of mankind to learn from the mistakes of the past, a slightly less naive take on the subject than Stagnation from Trespass (1970.) I prefer the earlier song. There’s another agonising pun on Zero Time (1971) by T.O.N.T.O’s Expanding Headband where the third track is titled Timewhys. I can’t detect any cohesive theme on this particular release, though in accord with their synthesizer instrumentation, a couple of the song titles hint at futurism: Cybernaut and Jetsex.

There’s more to the relationship between prog and time, including a perceived obsession with length of track and unusual time signatures. King Crimson might be regarded as one of the leading exponents of very odd times but most prog acts have strayed from 4/4; Waters’ bass and cash-register sounds on Money are in 7/8 and flow seamlessly. Critics regard this as being clever for the sake of it, pretentious self indulgence, whereas I think that uncommon meters allow a band to incorporate interesting rhythmical ideas, rather than conforming to the chug-chug-chug-chug of four beats to the bar. Furthermore, the extended length of tracks allows for development, eschewing the somewhat narrow constraints of the three minute single, which may be a challenge of the attention span of some critics.



By ProgBlog, Sep 13 2015 10:15PM

I was offered, and accepted, a new job this week. There’s a redundant section at the bottom of CVs that appears on resume templates: Activities or Interests. In an effort to ensure that all candidates are treated equally, this paragraph is rightly ignored during the interview process but mine is still there and three of the items I list are ‘progressive rock’, ‘bass guitar’ and ‘architecture’.

This last listing is relatively recent and was put there because my son Daryl did an Architecture degree and I took an interest in his studies. In a curious twist, he blames his parents for setting him down that path; we must have dragged him around every National Trust and English Heritage property in the South East and many more elsewhere. Now, family holidays invariably include seeking out some example of architectural vernacular, some special building or a World Heritage site.

Architecture is one of the most visible displays of wealth. Corporations inhabit huge edifices, the super-rich live in characterless high-rise Thames view apartments and old money resides in country retreats. This is rather ironic because, according to the Architects’ Journal (AJ), architects tend to vote Labour. I think the publication itself reads like The New Statesman; last week’s edition was singing the praises of Jeremy Corbyn!

I’m particularly fond of modernist architecture which, fairly early in the twentieth century, set out in a radical new direction when Auguste Perret (1874 – 1954) began to build structures out of reinforced concrete without any ornamentation. His idea was for the exterior to reflect the inner structure, rather than hiding it, a concept of design integrity that was initially inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Based on the analysis in Music of Yes and Listening to the Future by Professor Bill Martin, I wrote a letter to Prog magazine which was published in issue 24 (March 2012) pointing out the link between progressive rock and socialism, via William Morris.

Brutalism, one of my favoured schools of architecture, has been described as an uncompromisingly modern form of architecture able to generate extreme emotions and heated debate. Characterised by large forms of often asymmetrical proportions, the use of unadorned concrete added to its misplaced reputation for suggesting a bleak, dystopian future. I think this is far from the truth and there are others who agree with me. An item on BBC Breakfast (September 8th) with architect Harriet Harriss and Joe Watson from the National Trust explored this myth; Harriss pointing out the touchy-feely nature of the buildings because of the imprint left on the concrete surfaces by the timber formers and Watson expounding the opinion that this was utopian architecture and that the NT, as an extension of their role, was going to open up these buildings for special tours. Put in context, this was a heroic architecture, with local authorities addressing the requirement for decent housing in the years following the Second World War. The planners and architects were visionaries though it would be foolish to suggest that there weren’t failures. Harriss pointed out that this was cutting-edge and that it did involve some experimentation, because of the acute need for housing; issues regarding damp are now able to be addressed and examples of the idiom preserved. The most interesting point was made by Watson, who commented that architecture indicates where political power lies in our society and illustrated this notion by naming the Church and the aristocracy, which agrees with my earlier point about architecture as a display of wealth. He believes that during the 50s and 60s there was a shift in power to the people through local councils and they responded with this heroic, sublime architecture; the accommodation provided indoor bathroom suites, defined kitchen areas, fully wired and ready for appliances, and central heating, things that tenants couldn’t previously have imagined. Harriss made the point that the National Theatre (by Denys Lasdun, 1914 – 2001) was successful because it fulfilled one of the main aims of this school of architecture, namely ending the exclusivity of the arts and making it far more accessible, opening it up to a new, wide-ranging audience. The external appearance, with its many decks that can be interpreted as a series of performance platforms, reflects the function of the building. The music that accompanied the archive footage was chosen for its dystopian feel: the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis (1982.)

The connection of this form of architecture to prog is precisely the same as Harriss pointing out why the National Theatre is a success; ending the hegemony of the rich over the arts. The seeds of progressive rock emerged during the ‘Massive’ period of Brutalism (defined by Alexander Clement as running from 1960 – 1975) when society was changing rapidly spurred on by technological innovation; the technology behind construction was changing and, in music, instrument design and recording techniques were rapidly developing. Not only did concert halls such as the Royal Festival Hall, part of the same South Bank Complex as the National Theatre and the Barbican Centre (officially opened in 1982 during the Brutalist ‘Transitional’ period) provide culture to a wider range of the population, institutions like the University of East Anglia, a famous Brutalist structure opened in 1963, were attracting a wider social range of students and it was the new Universities and Polytechnics that provided a circuit for touring nascent rock acts which contributed to the success of the genre. My first forays to see bands outside Barrow were at Lancaster University (Barclay James Harvest, 1975; Focus, 1976.)

Prog attempted to take high culture and make it accessible to the masses through the medium of rock music. European art music was critical to the success of proto-progressive acts such as The Nice, the Moody Blues and Procol Harum and these gave rise to symphonic prog bands. This form was initially praised by critics and the budding genre became accepted by some of the more forward thinking institutions; Pink Floyd played the Royal Festival Hall in April 1969 during their experimental The Man and the Journey tour. This relationship with the critics changed when some of the exponents of prog undertook massive projects that were beyond the comprehension of many and led to charges of pretentiousness and overblown self indulgence. This period of prog, the end of the ‘golden era’ coincides with a rejection of Brutalism by planners and the transition to less monumental forms, an increased use of brick and the uninspiring Neo-vernacular. As prog played out councils were reducing investment in their concrete estates, former beacons of hope for a fairer society, and the misplaced idea of the dystopian landscape took hold. It’s good that there has been a re-evaluation of progressive rock and a re-evaluation of this egalitarian architecture.


Post Script:

My local concert hall, Croydon’s Fairfield Halls (opened 1962 and based on the Royal Festival Hall) features some great acoustics and was another favoured haunt of successful prog acts during the early 70s as commuter towns developed and grew.



By ProgBlog, Feb 1 2015 11:42PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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