ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

Regarded as a prog metal classic, Dream Theater's Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory is now 20 years old

ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Oct 18 2015 10:09PM

Back in 1972, when I started listening to progressive rock and Focus 3 was circulating between brother Tony’s friends, I didn’t make any distinction between groups of different nationalities. From a starting point of Close to the Edge and spreading out to early ELP via the collected works of The Nice, Focus were one of the first bands that I heard and they simply fitted into the spectrum of music that I liked; jazz, classical, early music, blended in with rock instrumentation. The inclusion of flute also made an impression on me and I’m a strong advocate of the instrument in prog. There was a short period in very early 1973 where I’d turn on my small medium wave radio with its single earpiece and tune in to Radio Luxembourg (208m) and the first song I’d hear would be Sylvia. This short, melodic piece is something of a classic and though prog bands tended not to be interested in chart-topping singles, it ended up being Focus’ biggest international hit. I didn’t buy Focus 3 until 1976 (it seemed to me to be quite expensive, even for a double album) but Tony bought Moving Waves (1971) not long after we’d discovered the band and we bought Hamburger Concerto (1974) at the time it was released. Taken as a whole, I think I prefer Hamburger over Moving Waves, probably because of the more varied instrumentation. The two long-form compositions, Eruption and Hamburger Concerto are both brilliant examples of the genre; on Moving Waves the tracks on side one highlight the band’s influences but on Hamburger the tracks are all much more like full-on prog, including a Hocus Pocus reprise in the equally bonkers Harem Scarem. Focus 3 contained the epic Anonymous II running at over 26 minutes but even at this early stage in my understanding of music, I thought that it sounded like a studio jam that pushed the boundaries of taste with the extended bass and drum solos. However, such was my appreciation for Focus, they were one of the very first groups I went to see play live. Unfortunately, Jan Akkerman had left the band and guitar duties were taken up by Philip Catherine so I found the performance a bit disappointing; added to that was the fact that I wasn’t too familiar with the current material (from Mother Focus, 1975) and what I had heard wasn’t too much like Hamburger or anything prior to that. On reflection, Hamburger was a high point and it wasn’t until Focus 9 (2006) when Thijs van Leer was once more reunited with classic-Focus period drummer Pierre van der Linden that I thought them sufficiently progressive enough to afford them another chance. The first time I saw the reformed Focus was at Chislehurst’s Beaverwood Club in October 2010 and they were brilliant. Van Leer has never taken himself too seriously but still managed to produce some incredible music. This performance mixed the early, classic material with some up-to-date songs such as the humorous Aya-Yuppie-Hippie-Yee which fitted in neatly with the 70s music. Bobby Jacobs (bass) was a constant from the original reformed line-up from 2002 but guitarist Niels van der Steenhoven and Pierre van der Linden were new recruits. Van der Steenhoven handled the original Akkerman guitar parts beautifully. Prog mate Gina Franchetti accompanied me to this gig – she was something of a Beaverwood Club regular – and happily engaged van Leer in conversation after the show, where he revealed a love for Italian food.

My next exposure to prog from the Netherlands was seeing Trace on BBC TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, performing Gaillarde from their first, eponymous album Trace (1974.) Having only previously seen Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson with large, multi-keyboard rigs, I was stunned by Rick van der Linden’s keyboards. I noted, though, that he was an ARP synthesizer man, without a Moog in sight. Based on the third movement of JS Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major (BWV 971) and a traditional Polish dance, Gaillarde is more Emerson than Wakeman, predominantly organ-driven, a classical interpretation performed by a trio. Self-taught bassist Jaap van Eik plays neat contrapuntal lines and ex-Focus drummer (playing his transparent Perspex kit on the Whistle Test) lays down jazz patterns, sometimes at breakneck speed. There’s a drum solo on the album (The Lost Past) which calls to mind the drum solo at the end of Eruption (Endless Road) from Moving Waves, but it somehow seems to fit the Trace album better, sandwiched between two parts of the haunting A Memory, a song based on a traditional Swedish piece of music. My copy of Trace was bought in 1975 and remains one of my favourite albums. The follow-up album, Birds was released in 1975, this time incorporating more van der Linden penned pieces and featuring ex-Darryl Way’s Wolf drummer Ian Mosley, Way was a guest on the album playing violins on Opus 1065, another Trace interpretation of JS Bach. My copy, the cover of which was damaged during storage sometime in the last 20 years, was bought from the Leeds University record store on a trip to see Rick Wakeman playing in the uni refectory in May 1976. Like classic Focus albums, Birds contains a multi-section suite which takes up the entire second side of the LP.

I’ve since supplemented my vinyl with CDs and also picked up a copy of The White Ladies (1976) that I saw in Dublin a couple of years ago. Though ascribed to Trace, The White Ladies is Rick van der Linden and his former Ekseption colleagues. I first heard about Ekseption, a pre- and post-Trace band, in around 2004 when I subscribed to a Rick van der Linden internet newsletter that was run by his wife Inez. During this time he was suffering from some of the major complications of diabetes, requiring eye surgery and, if memory serves correctly, needing a pancreas transplant; he died in January 2006 from complications following a stroke. I bought a second-hand copy of what fans regard as the best Ekseption album, Beggar Julia’s Time Trip (1969) for £8 from Beanos and identified portions that van der Linden would recycle for Trace, most notably Bach’s Italian Concerto. Though somewhat experimental it is a good example of fusing rock and the classics, with a bit of jazz thrown in. Whereas Focus and Trace are indistinguishable from British prog, Julia comes across as being different, Continental European, a facet I attribute to the spoken words by Linda van Dyck. It’s still an enjoyable album so I snapped up a CD of Ekseption 3 (1970) / Trinity (1973) when I saw it in a record store in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2009, neither of which has the same quality of composition as Julia throughout.

I was alerted to Supersister by Prog magazine and now own To the Highest Bidder (1971) and Iskander (1973.) This music is fairly complex, with Highest Bidder hinting at Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (from 1969.) The lyrics may be a bit throwaway but the music and musicianship is outstanding.

My most recent foray into prog from the Netherlands has been another time trip. I bought Earth and Fire’s Song of the Marching Children (1971) at the same time I bought The White Ladies in Dublin and though it’s not musically challenging, it’s in the same league as early Ekseption; I was also given a CD of the remastered first Earth and Fire album (1970), with the Roger Dean cover, as a birthday present this year which is really proto-prog.

I’ve made a distinction between British prog and that of other countries because I think there are stylistic variations based on local cultures and would suggest that most Italian bands have a distinct flavour that allows them to be grouped together in their own sub-genre. It may be because I got to hear Focus and Trace in the early 70s that I don’t think there’s much difference between Dutch prog and UK prog but whether or not there are differences, Focus and Trace have produced some of the best progressive rock, ever.



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.



fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time