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By ProgBlog, Jul 17 2016 04:39PM

Last weekend was spent based in Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic and included a day trip to Bratislava in Slovakia, less than 90 minutes away by train. I’ve been to the Czech Republic before, for a presentation at the second East-West Immunogenetics conference in Prague in 2007 and on my brief time off I managed to get to a couple of record stores, one on a late evening trip around Wenceslas Square where the rock music selection was rather poor and the other, squeezed in just before my flight home, a shop called Bontonland in the Centrum Chodov mall at the end of subway line C. Though this large, rambling store was staffed entirely by non-English speakers (my problem, not theirs) I made my request for Czech prog using an elementary phrase book and citing English examples of the genre. Despite these communication difficulties, the staff managed to produce a handful of Czech CDs and provided me with a remote to ply through the selection. I sat for about an hour listening to parts of this collection but it was predominantly blues based material that I didn’t really like or want.

I had done some research before my 2007 trip and the band Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) were foremost on my list. This group formed in the aftermath of the crushing of Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring in 1968, named after the track Plastic People on the 1967 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention album Absolutely Free. PPU were targeted by the communist authorities with punishment ranging from imprisonment to having a house burned down. Unable to perform in public, an entire underground cultural movement formed around the band during the 1970s and the sympathizers of the movement were often called máničky, indicating youths with long hair. I was unable to find any PPU releases on that particular visit but that might have been in part due to the classification of the band. Inspired by Zappa and the Velvet Underground, PPU occupy an area akin to chamber-prog, but with more riff-based music than, for example, Henry Cow.


I was aware that rock bands, including some with progressive leanings, were around in communist countries in the late 70s and early 80s. I wanted to visit the USSR in 1983, with Leningrad a short train journey from Helsinki which I visited with friend Nick Hodgetts during an Inter Rail holiday over the summer, but organising a visa while already en route was an insurmountable problem. I did get to visit East Berlin before the fall of the Wall and got shouted at by a border guard in a watch tower when I stepped over a low barrier to take a photo of the Wall from the West; I even spent my honeymoon on a two-centre holiday to the relatively ‘loose’ communist state of Yugoslavia, officially the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where I witnessed the lack of choice available to the citizens and benefitted from a currency in freefall, cashing low value travellers cheques on a daily basis. I bought a piece of original artwork and, though I looked at some CDs, these were mostly folk music so I didn’t acquire any. Having come away from honeymoon without any local music, my first Eastern European CD purchase was a second-hand copy of U Vreci Za Spavanje by Yugoslavian band Tako, bought from Beanos in Croydon, in 2005, not from behind the Iron Curtain. I’d seen this and not bought it, but returned to the shop the following week after checking my Jerry Lucky books. My CD is a Brazilian reissue of the original 1980 LP plus a couple of bonus tracks and though the recording quality is a bit poor, it’s a very enjoyable album. The opening title track begins like something from Wish You Were Here and while there are plenty of keyboards throughout the album, there’s also a good quantity of flute, making it a great piece of symphonic prog which references Camel and Steve Hackett along with early 70s Floyd.

Beanos was the source of my next Eastern Europe music purchases in April 2008, picking up two CDs by Polish band Albion, Wabiąc Cienie (2005) and Broken Hopes (2007). The former is their second release, entirely in Polish (the title translates as Luring the Shadows, and the cover picture, which is very proggy, conveys this quite nicely) and the latter, their third album is a more mature and coherent effort but sung in English. Wabiąc Cienie demonstrates good musicianship, influenced by Pink Floyd and 80s Marillion, though it comes across as being a bit too controlled, as if studio time was the most important process and, for the most part it’s unchallenging 4/4, albeit with pleasant alternating passages of guitar and multi-layered keyboards. Vocalist Katarzyna Sobkowicz-Malec has a great voice, at times hinting at frailty but always controlled and in tune. The best track is the 11 minute plus instrumental Bieg po Tęczy (Run the Rainbow) which hints at the continued direction on subsequent album Broken Hopes, incorporating the sounds of a young baby and the flapping of birds’ wings; it contains lengthy passages in 7/8 time, too. Broken Hopes strikes me as Albion’s Misplaced Childhood with a narrative that questions politics, war and religion, all suitable epic themes for a concept album which has more variation than its predecessor but still sounds far more complete and satisfying.


A work friend told me about Solaris because one of his colleagues had introduced him to this Hungarian symphonic prog outfit. I eventually found a copy of Marsbéli Krónikák in Black Widow Records in Genoa last year, my only non-Italian purchase of the trip at just €17; the current UK price is almost £50. Solaris took their name from the science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem and their album titles from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, though Lem’s first novel was called The Man from Mars. I know that Marsbéli Krónikák is generally raved about, similar to the way that Ys by Il Balletto di Bronzo is hyped as being the best progressive rock album, ever, and though it’s undeniably well-played symphonic prog with lots and lots of keyboard and flute, it doesn’t press all the right buttons for me, possibly because it’s a little bit driven by some simple riffs and I’m not at all keen on one of the bonus tracks that appears on my 1995 re-issue CD – I think the quality of the material tails off towards the end of the original album. However, I’d still rate it as pretty good. Marsbéli Krónikák II is much cheaper to get in the UK because it was released in 2014, after years of the band attempting to get back together and I was given a copy for Christmas last year. This follow-up effort is stylistically similar despite thirty tears between the original and the sequel, which again tails off in quality towards the end of the album but is, overall, a really good release.


Whereas Solaris appeared in 1980, their fellow countrymen Omega had been active in the late 60s and appeared on the prog radar with the 1975 album The Hall of Floaters in the Sky. I think this may have had an airing on Alan Freeman’s radio show but I do remember looking at the interesting sleeve art in Blackshaw’s in Barrow when it was released, thinking it was a pretty odd title, not realising that it might be a literal translation from the Hungarian. I finally bought a copy from a stall in Dalston Old Market earlier this year but, despite Omega being the most successful Hungarian band and this particular album allegedly one of their best; a mixture of symphonic prog and post-Barrett Pink Floyd space rock, I was disappointed. I’m not a fan of the lyrics or the English vocals and it’s too close to heavy rock for my taste.


And so to last weekend. I really liked Brno with its flashes of Functionalist architectural style, the Villa Stiassni and Villa Tugendhat, and the day trip to Slovakia was good, taking in a number of varied sites like St Michael’s Tower and the UFO Tower over the Danube. On our first evening in Brno we’d noticed a shop selling CDs, Indies, next to the impressive Alfa Palace, a Functionalist masterpiece, and on our last morning we made time to shop. I bought two CDs by PPU, Hovězí Porážka (Beef Slaughtering) (1984) and Obešel já polí pět (I Walked Around Five Fields) (2009), the recording of a 2003 concert with the Agon Orchestra in honour of Czech philosopher Ladislaw Klima. I also bought two CDs by prog-folk band Zrni (which I haven’t had time to listen to yet.) Then I saw Vinyl Records... I have never travelled anywhere in the world with the intention of buying vinyl, not even recent excursions to Italy, but this shop, selling both new and second hand vinyl, was the obvious place to start. The incredibly helpful staff chose a selection of Czech prog for me and then let me listen to entire sides. I picked up original copies of Sluneční hodiny (Sundial) (1981), Křídlení (1983), both by Synkopy; 33 (1981) by M.Efekt; and a non-Czech LP, Brandung by Novalis (1977). Considering how small the Czech Republic and Slovakia are, there were some incredibly talented prog bands around in the 70s and 80s. I’m grateful to both Vinyl Records and the former owners of the LPs for keeping them in such great condition and, though recording studios used by rock bands in former communist countries may have been less advanced than Western Europe or American studios, I’m impressed with the dynamic range of the recordings.

If you’re ever in the Czech Republic, spend some time in Brno. The architecture is stunning and the friendly record shops contain some absolute gems.









By ProgBlog, Mar 25 2014 09:15PM

Croydon may not be the best town on the planet but in its time it has played an important part in the history of progressive rock. I’d heard of Croydon long before I came to live here; sitting in the dining room at Infield Park in Barrow, holding the gatefold sleeve of Five Bridges by the Nice and studying the liner notes: Recorded ‘live’ at FAIRFIELD HALLS, CROYDON. October 17, 1969. 34 Years (and five days) after that concert was recorded I went to see a reformed Nice at the Fairfield Halls and it was evident that all three members of the band had fond memories of both the place and the event and they played a couple of tracks that featured on the Fives Bridges album, Country Pie and the intermezzo from the Karelia Suite. This was something of a big event for me too, because the Nice were the second band I ever got into and though Patrick Moraz had helped Lee Jackson’s singing in 1974 by transposing the key of songs to fit Jackson’s range – something that hadn’t happened in the Nice, the vocals that night seemed affected by the poignancy of the occasion.

Despite personnel changes, Caravan’s career was at its peak when they recorded what was to become Live at the Fairfield Halls 1974, though the tapes of the recording were not discovered until Decca had begun reissuing the Caravan back catalogue in 2001. Bits of the recording had appeared before, notably For Richard on the compilation album Canterbury Tales (released by Decca), and a French release on former manager Terry King’s Kingdom label, The Best of Caravan Live. The live sound on the remastered Decca release from 2002 is quite stunning. The set list was superb and the band sounded great, despite it being the debut performance for Mike Wedgwood on bass.

The fantastic acoustics of the 1800 seat Fairfield Halls wasn’t the only attraction in Croydon. It wasn’t too difficult to find good beer (The Ship, 47 High Street; The Dog and Bull, Surrey Street; The Builders Arms, Leslie Park Road were all favoured haunts) but there were also some fantastic record shops. Beanos was once the largest second hand record store in Europe and regarded as one of the best record shops in the country. It was founded in 1975 and after my arrival in the borough in 1984 I witnessed it grow and evolve up to its eventual closure in 2009. 101 Records was situated at 101 George Street until the redevelopment of East Croydon station in the early 1990s. 101 had a bit of history because it was formed after the demise of Bonaparte Records, a key part of the story of punk in Croydon. It removed to Keely Road and continues to trade. Memory Lane Records (Frith Road) is no longer in business, though it was good for second hand vinyl and CDs and another haunt, L Cloake (St Georges Walk) has been gone for a few years.

I used to spend a lot of time in record stores, often with insufficient funds to buy anything but always on the lookout for a bargain, just in case... As vinyl gave way to the CD format (I first bought a rather nice Yamaha CD player from Richer Sounds at London Bridge in 1988) I continued to play music in both formats but opted for new releases and compilations on CD. We have never particularly been a holiday-by-the-beach kind of family, tending to stick to centres of culture and architectural interest. This, coupled with work-related conferences which tend to be in large cities, has opened up the possibility of exploring record shops around the world with the intention of locating prog from the host country, though it’s only relatively recently that I’ve felt comfortable stuffing my return luggage with CDs. We have a rule: if you see something you want, buy it because you may not see it again. This rule does not necessarily help me feel better about buying music.

I’ve been to the four corners of the USA both on holiday and as a conference delegate: New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Seattle. New York has a lot of music shops where I’ve tended to buy non-native music, things that were difficult to obtain in the UK or were very much cheaper than in the UK. I was pleased to pick up Exiles by David Cross from one of the many, slightly downtrodden-looking shops on a short lease that has now long since gone. The only time I set out to buy some American prog was in 2003 on a day off from a conference in Miami Beach and I listened to a few tracks of Day for Night by Spock’s Beard before deciding to invest.

Australia boasted the excellent Sebastian Hardie but when I was in Melbourne in 2005 I couldn’t find any of their music though I was allowed to sit and listen to a pile of CDs that the staff thought might be of interest to me. This was in the rather good Metropolis Music, Swinston Street which covered a large floor area. Being able to chat to staff in English was quite helpful, even though they didn’t have what I wanted. This was not the case when I was in Prague in 2007 and visited a couple of record stores, one just off Wenceslas Square where I wandered in and wandered pretty much straight out again, and Bontonland in the Centrum Chodov mall at the end of subway line C. This was a large, rambling store and although there were major communication difficulties between the staff and myself, they brought me a handful of Czech CDs and a remote and left me plying through the selection for about an hour. Searching for Spanish prog in Barcelona didn’t present such a communication problem because I’d researched the bands and the shops and I’m not too uncomfortable attempting Spanish. Daily Records was closed when I visited, but I managed to find a good selection of Triana and Iceberg albums in the labyrinthine Revolver and Impacto.

Sometimes it’s not too difficult to find the prog music in stores. Cover Music in Berlin has a brilliant international prog section (including many German bands) and, rather like Dublin’s Tower Records, more straightforward prog acts can be found in the ‘rock’ racks. The Italian music shops can be problematical, though they’re always a joy to spend time in: I first began seriously searching for Italian prog in Venice in 2005 when there were two music shops, Discoland (on Dorsoduro) and Parole & Musica in Castello and a day trip to Treviso that year also turned up a record shop; Rome the following year was something of a revelation, though it was only a couple of years later that I was told about the highly-regarded Elastic Rock that I’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit; Galleria del Disco in the station underpass in Florence had a good Italian prog section; Vicenza has Saxophone, where the staff were appreciative of my choice of purchases, but also has an open market with a CD stall. This yielded three Area albums that I’d not seen anywhere else up to that point and the stall holder was very happy to chat to me about prog and his children who live in Clapham! Corsini Dischi in Siena was a bit of a disappointment because the owner seemed more interested in talking to a local woman rather than serve me but GAP Records in Pisa was the total opposite. Alessandro Magnani was happy to let me browse but was equally happy to talk about RPI. If I’d had more cash (they don’t accept plastic) I’d have bought more. Pisa’s Galleria del Disco is an impressive shop with a good Italian prog section so there was no need to engage the staff in any conversation.

Red Eye Records in Sydney deserves a special mention. Having failed to find any Sebastian Hardie in Melbourne, the situation was set to rights by Red Eye in Pitt Street when I went there to visit my son in 2012. Not only did they have the full set of Sebastian Hardie albums, they also had Symphinity by Windchase, the offshoot of Sebastian Hardie. Owner Chris Pepperell was a font of knowledge, walking me around the store and suggesting Australian bands. There was nothing else in the symphonic prog mould, but Dragon and Pirana are both on the progressive side of psychedelia. My son subsequently managed to get me a copy of Clockwork Revenge by Oz-based Kiwi band Airlord, an album some regard as a Genesis rip-off but it has its personal charm and is really only Genesis-influenced.


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