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, Feb 22 2015 10:54PM

Yesterday evening I rushed from Selhurst Park (Crystal Palace v Arsenal) to the Barbican to watch a screening of Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary, with a live score performed by the band. I first saw Goblin last year at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, where clips from Argento’s films were played behind the band on a cramped stage. On that occasion, I overheard complaints that the music wasn’t synched with the films (I’m guessing they were horror fans, not aficionados of Italian prog); they did it properly this time in the main hall of the Barbican – a good sized stage, great acoustics, comfy seating with unrestricted views wherever you sit, and a big screen. I bought my ticket just a few days before the show and somehow managed to get a prime seat, just off-centre and around mid stalls, not too far in front of the mixing desk. I actually ended up with two tickets; my payment was declined for no apparent reason and when I navigated back to restart the process, I somehow ended up reserving the seat next to the one I’d originally chosen. When the purchase confirmation came through I’d booked two seats, M42 and M43 and, not wanting to pay double for the one seat I required, I contacted the box office by ‘phone. They told me that somehow I’d booked two tickets and only paid for one, so much for complaining!

I hadn’t know quite how performing the live score would work but Claudio Simonetti revealed in an interview that there were times, the longest of which lasted about 20 minutes, when the band wasn’t required to play. During these pauses, they all sat quite still at their instruments: Simonetti at his keyboards; Titta Tani at his drums and percussion (including gong and timpani); Bruno Previtali with his guitars; and Federico Amorosi with his sunburst-finish Rickenbacker bass. I used to watch Hammer Horror films in the 1970s but I’d hardly call myself fanatical about the genre and I didn’t really know very much about the Argento films; the stills from the film set out in my 2012 reissue of Profondo Rosso soundtrack CD (bought second-hand when I was in Genova last year) didn’t really add to my understanding of the plot. The Barbican screening was dubbed into English and though I like my foreign films in their original language, with subtitles, that probably wouldn’t have worked as I shifted focus from Goblin to film and back again. Starring David Hemmings as jazz pianist Marcus Daly who befriends a psychic medium who gets murdered (he lives in the same apartment block), the film follows Daly’s investigation into a series of subsequent, related murders and culminates in a confrontation with the mysterious murderer, the mother of his alcoholic friend Carlo, in which he gets injured with a blow from a meat cleaver but manages to cause the gruesome demise of the murderer when her necklace gets caught in the grille of an old-fashioned lift. Daly calls the lift which subsequently pulls on the necklace and beheads her. This final scene, together with an earlier scene depicting the death of Carlo, provoked an outburst of laughter from the audience. It’s hard to believe that the performance was restricted to those over 18; the horror is dated and doesn’t hold much shock value. In fact, there’s a psychedelic vibe to the film; the blood looks like red paint, the narrative jumps inexplicably and the setting, presumably Turin where much of the filming took place, included some modernist architecture that reminded me of the Barbican because of the mix of residential and leisure facilities. Suspense was created by hiding the identity of the murderer and by the use of a child’s lullaby, played on a tape recorder by the murderer before she commits a crime. I’d never rated David Hemmings as much of an actor and none of the others appearing in the production were much good either but the film was critically acclaimed and became an international success. That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy the film, because I did. The soundtrack, originally put together in ten days after Simonetti’s band Cherry Five were asked to step in following a disagreement between director Argento and original composer Giorgio Gaslini, fits the idiom incredibly well. This may come as a bit of a surprise when you consider that Cherry Five were influenced by King Crimson and Genesis and played extended compositions on the jazzy side of prog, but perhaps not when you find out that tracks on the under-rated eponymous Cherry Five album include Country Grave-Yard [sic] and The Swan is a Murderer. In keeping with the nature of the material they were providing music for they changed their name to Goblin and the success of the Profondo Rosso film was replicated by the soundtrack which has sold over a million copies.

The live score stuck fairly faithfully to the original. Whereas the original recording utilised church organ and harpsichord, Simonetti reproduced the analogue sounds with great precision and his Moog playing was absolutely brilliant; however, this was a band performance and whereas at the Electric Ballroom I found the sound indistinct and the guitar somewhat lost, the sound at the Barbican was balanced and clear, including the guitar harmonics and trebly bass. I think that Mad Puppet bears more than a passing resemblance to the section on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells that leads up to Vivian Stanshall recounting the instruments used in the production; is it coincidence that part of Tubular Bells was used in horror film The Exorcist? A fair amount of the material is quite jazzy and at other times a Keith Emerson influence is evident that reminds me of ELP’s interpretation of Ginastera’s Toccata.

The performance was split with a twenty minute intermission but following the closing credit sequence the band remained on stage and played some more of their soundtrack material, Demoni, Zombi, Suspiria, Tenebre and Phenomena. This was all very well received by the audience and I even liked the version of Tenebre where I found the vocoder parts less grating than when I’d heard it last year. Suspiria, from 1977, is regarded as being the real Goblin sound where it became impossible to hear their original prog influences in the music.


It wasn’t five years since I’d last seen Goblin and it was another very enjoyable gig made even more special because of the 40 year celebrations since the release of Profondo Rosso. I almost forgot that I’d just seen Crystal Palace narrowly beaten by Arsenal...



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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...

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