ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Feb 19 2017 07:51PM

The reappearance of Prog magazine, putting an end to a period of uncertainty for the staff, is most welcome and its unchanged format is very reassuring. I rarely get the chance to sit down and read it in one go so it normally takes a week or so for me to get through the articles I find interesting – no, I don’t read every word because some of the featured artists are from beyond the spectrum of my listening habits. I also have to balance Prog with other reading material: my physical copy of The Guardian which is mostly but not entirely completed on my commute to-and-from work; the occasional essay written by a colleague (Describe and discuss the categories of solid organ allograft rejection and the means by which they may be limited, and Describe the structure of MHC encoded antigens and their role in the presentation of peptides to T cells); and books received at Christmas or on birthdays. I’m currently struggling with William Morris’ News from Nowhere which, despite its socialist message and relative brevity is heavy going, meaning sessions are interspersed with getting through the prog-related literature that appeared under the Christmas tree.




I’ve already written about Yes is the Answer (and reviewed it on Amazon) but I’ve also completed Time and Some Words: The Anthology of Prog Rock Quotations 1969-1976 by Dave Thompson and just started Yes and Philosophy - The Spiritual and Philosophical Dimensions of Yes Music by Scott O’Reilly. Thompson’s quotations are frequently devoid of context or else have context imposed upon them by virtue of the chapter title; some are from author interviews and come with a degree of perspective. As much as I enjoyed reading the words of wisdom of my musical heroes, some of which I’d probably originally seen in the NME or Melody Maker in the mid 70s, the inclusion of pithy or equally, convoluted remarks from musicians I’ve never heard of and some who really aren’t progressive rock at all, ran contrary to the title. It may be that Thompson, a Brit who has lived in the US for some time who has far broader tastes than me, has simply over-estimated the true size of the genre during its first, golden period but at the risk of setting myself up in a glass house, I’m a firm believer in accuracy. There’s nothing revelatory in the book as we’ve moved on over 45 years since the first of the contributors aired an opinion which means that there’s been plenty of opportunity for their thoughts to be fully analysed in the intervening period; Thompson may have reasoned that the recent rise in prog-related publications was a good opportunity to knock out another book. It’s too early for me to say what I think about O’Reilly’s effort but the posted reviews are ambivalent or worse, the best of them criticising the typographical errors (a complaint I could raise against Thompson’s book where it appears that the grammar check has been deactivated.) I like the idea of a philosophical study of Yes, adding to the work of Bill Martin (a professor of philosophy) whose Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock has a logical, analytical approach which draws in political and sociological strands.



It’s almost as though my reading habits have been totally inverted. As a youth and during my early adulthood I read a fairly wide range of novels, from the classics to fantasy. I’ve previously written about the links between the authors I’d been reading and progressive rock but at the time there were no books about the genre. I’d only buy one of the weekly music papers if it had something about a band or artist I was interested in, so there were less than six years, from September 1972 when I first heard Close to the Edge to summer 1978, when there was any reasonable coverage of the genre; even the last two years of this period were becoming dominated by punk and new wave. I don’t read very many novels any more (the last, apart from my current tribulations with News from Nowhere, was The Vorrh by Brian Catlin) but there seems to be a new wave of literature relating to prog, of variable standard, which I am slowly amassing and authors like O’Reilly and Thompson are currently riding.

If we accept fantasy literature as a prog genre (Alan Garner, Richard Adams, JRR Tolkien), what can be said for science fiction? I have read a fair amount of SF over the years and witnessed a blurring of the boundary between SF and fantasy and though there’s an obvious association between Michael Moorcock and Hawkwind, Hawkwind’s brand of space rock was never really prog; on the other hand, William Burroughs may have had an influence on the thinking of Soft Machine but he was never really a science fiction writer. I read most of the SF classics and some, like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, appeared on my reading list because of my nascent appreciation for progressive rock. Lyrically, the song appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the novel but Heinlein’s pro-military opinions were aired by characters within the book and there’s a possibility that Anderson and Squire were responding to Heinlein’s view with their own positive outlook; Yours is no Disgrace, also from The Yes Album is an anti-war song and it’s not unreasonable to imagine members of Yes reading SF.


Rick Wakeman was an avid Jules Verne fan but was Verne’s output really science fiction. It can’t be disputed that Verne was a strong influence on the genre and he wrote about emerging technologies and incorporated the cutting-edge scientific thinking of the time. I’d accept that Verne was the grandfather of science fiction but I think his novels were basically books about exploration, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth describing an expedition but also taking readers on a journey through geological time. This suggests to me that Wakeman was not necessarily inspired by the strictly scientific aspect of the work but more by the possibilities of musical adaptation of a good story. No Earthly Connection is more new age than SF but Out There, which revisited the quest for the origins of all music after a hiatus of 26 years, does come across more as science fiction. I saw Wakeman touring both No Earthly Connection (1976) and Out There (2003) and the latter struck me as a piece of science fiction theatre, mainly because of the NASA footage and a steampunk graphical representation of the spaceship.



My favourite SF authors are JG Ballard and Ursula Le Guin, who approach the genre from very different angles. Ballard wrote about the ‘deep undercurrents’ of the present, exposing a dystopian psychogeography and his writings influenced post-punk synthesizer bands which was in tune with the feelings circulating around the concrete walkways of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. I first came across Le Guin through her Earthsea fantasy trilogy (at the time) and then got caught up in her interconnected SF worlds of the Hainish Cycle. Her almost academic anthropological writing makes her stands apart from others (her family background) but her portrayal of gender and race put her firmly in the progressive bracket. I personally think of Le Guin’s twin worlds of Anarres and Urras (from The Dispossessed) when I listen to Felona e Sorona by Le Orme but Peter Hammill’s lyrics for the English language recording Felona and Sorona suggest some form of supernatural Being holds responsibility for the two planets, a major detour from Le Guin. In fact, progressivo Italiano has a few science fiction-themed albums including Per... un Mondo di Cristallo by Raccomandata Ricevuta Ritorno (RRR) about the anguish felt by an astronaut when he finds that humankind has disappeared on his return to earth. Van der Graaf Generator acknowledge the influence of science fiction on the sleeve notes of The least we can do is wave to each other with a credit for reading matter: Asimov/Donleavy (JP Donleavy is not an SF writer!) and the epic Childhood Faith in Childhood’s End, the Hammill nod to Arthur C Clarke on Still Life where he ponders the evolutionary course of humankind.




Robots are currently very topical. There’s a great deal of current interest in artificial intelligence from poker playing computers to television series and now London’s Science Museum has opened a major Robots exhibition. One of the classic SF books was a series of short stories, published as I, Robot by Isaac Asimov with its ‘Three laws of robotics’: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Asimov may have been a successful scientist but I always thought his writing was like cowboys in outer space, and that includes his best work, the Foundation trilogy. I, Robot is actually a whodunit played out in a future where our lives are enhanced by the presence of robots. I Robot by the Alan Parsons Project is inspired by the book but the music is far from stimulating. I don’t own any of their albums, I’d not class the Project as prog and whereas I’d normally lump them in with art-rock, this particular release varies from competent AOR to almost disco; it goes without saying that it’s well produced. The instrumental tracks bookending the work are the best, though the rhythm machine drumming (is it Stuart Tosh?) however appropriate for the subject matter, detracts from some decent, keyboard dominated pieces.



ELP may have trodden familiar tropes about the future of mankind in Karn Evil 9 but the AI is a computer, not a robot; Radiohead may have referenced depressed robot Marvin from spoof SF The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on OK Computer with Paranoid Android; but only Pat Metheny has built a robot orchestra for his backing band on his Orchestrion album. Despite the technological innovations associated with progressive rock, I don’t think technology-heavy science fiction has had any particular influence on prog. Rather, it’s strong stories and key philosophical ideas which have inspired artists to push musical boundaries.











By ProgBlog, Mar 27 2016 07:52PM

I’ve just been in conversation with Fleur Elliott, one of the organisers of HRH Prog, who required a bit of feedback on last weekend’s festival, during which I tried to be as helpful as possible. The annual HRH Prog festival is held in the Haven holiday park, Hafan y Mor, Pwllheli, in North Wales. I attended this year’s bash (4) with friends Jim Knipe and Mike Chavez, and met up with my brother Richard who had travelled down from Cumbria with the drummer and keyboard player from his prog band Ravenwing, husband and wife team Paul and Rose East. The northern contingent was arriving on the Friday and staying off-site but Jim, Mike and I were accommodated in a freshly refurbished chalet within 50m of the Prog stage. The fittings were all new and the rooms were clean but never having camped in anything quite as permanent as this before (a succession of family camping holidays around Brittany saw us become relative experts at surviving in static mobile homes after a single year of sleeping in not just a tent but a Supertent, that somehow managed to survive an Atlantic storm that sent most other holidaymakers scurrying for local hotels.) The only drawback with the chalet was the nocturnal temperature which dropped close to freezing so that getting up in the morning was moderately uncomfortable; the walls were pretty thin and the windows were only single-glazed and it took some considerable time for the heater to warm up the living space.


Pwllheli is set in beautiful countryside such that the long drive up from Surrey via Stonehenge, Avebury and Bradford on Avon (to pick up Mike) was still enjoyable as we passed through impressive scenery making our way north through the middle of Wales. We arrived at the campsite a little late to take part in the quiz (I think we’d have made a formidable team) and to see Hammerhead and Oktopus (printed as Octopus in the official line-up) but entered the prog arena for Third Quadrant. Originally active in the golden era of neo-prog, the band reformed in 2012 and added to their 80s releases with a 2012 live recording and a series of three albums in 2013, the covers of which display a certain stylistic cohesiveness, with nice photography and a simple, distinctive font. The only song I remember from their set was from the album Deadstar but their sound was indistinct; it was impossible to work out what Clive Mollart on second keyboards was adding and the guitar was too high up in the mix. David Forster’s double neck bass may have been quite intriguing but the group left no lasting musical impression: a kind of space rock with poor vocals. Hawkwind were a space rock band but I’ve never really classed them as progressive rock.


This was the major fault with the festival, a succession of bands that were not really prog. I understand that the genre is wide-ranging and I’ve penned discourses on what is and is not prog, and why. Next on the bill was Arthur Brown and, aside from spawning some musicians that genuinely played a part in the genre, his theatrics never made him prog. We stayed for three songs before calling it a night, unimpressed by the material played by his band and disappointed with his vocals. Perhaps the dancer he featured was meant to take our minds off the music...

Friday began with a trip out to nearby Portmeirion, the Italianate village designed by Clough Williams-Ellis in 1925, eventually completed in 1975 that also featured in the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner. The freshly repainted plasterwork looked amazing in the spring sunshine and it proved to be a very worthwhile excursion, with a walk out onto the sands of Afon Dwyryd estuary in the footsteps of No. 6 and some impromptu conversations with locals. The return journey was broken with a trip to Cob Records in Porthmadog, an independent store that has been running since 1975. Mike had wondered out loud if the shop was still a viable proposition, having bought records from its mail order business in the 80s, and we happened to see it just off the main road out of the town on our way to Portmeirion. I bought vinyl copies of Seconds Out (1977) and Expresso II (1978) and Jim picked up a copy of McDonald and Giles (1971) on CD.


Generally described as ‘math rock’ or ‘post rock’ I’d wanted to see The Fierce and the Dead partly because of their Fripp-like guitar parts and a reputation that got them nominated in the Prog magazine reader’s poll Limelight category in 2013 but also because their first album was If it Carries on Like This We are Moving to Morecambe (2011); Morecambe lying south of Barrow across Morecambe Bay. We missed them, arriving back from our trip too late and we also skipped September Code and Abel Ganz because shopping and dinner took priority over a band that one reviewer had described as sounding like “late 80s Rush”, though I probably should have given the prog folk of Abel Ganz a listen.

We also declined to watch Edgar Broughton. Despite being on the Harvest label, the Edgar Broughton Band were heavy/psychedelic rockers with blues roots; Broughton’s vocals were gritty and well suited to the blues idiom. Richard, Paul and Rose had arrived in time to see this set and reported that he played a prog-free slot on acoustic guitar. We met up with them for Curved Air but when a woman took to the stage with a Gibson SG strung around her neck, it was Rosalie Cunningham with her psychedelic rock band Purson and not Sonja Kristina. Parachuted in at very short notice (the Purson website doesn’t list the gig and Curved Air remained on the official line-up) they played a competent set that bore no resemblance to progressive rock, despite Cunningham at one point introducing a song as being “more proggy” than their other material.

Caravan’s set was punctuated with too many new songs for my taste but at least they played Nine Feet Underground in its entirety. Though Pye Hastings is the only remaining original member, multi-instrumentalist and long-term stalwart Geoffrey Richardson and keyboard player Jan Schelhaas provide enough Canterbury history to get away with retaining the band’s moniker. Sadly, Hastings’ voice is no longer up to the classic material and they seem unwilling to transpose key to accommodate his new range. They remain crowd-pleasers and Golf Girl, played as an encore, featured Richardson performing an entertaining spoon solo.

The main event was the other founding Canterbury scene outfit, Soft Machine. Without any original members but with John Marshall, Roy Babbington and John Etheridge all having served in the band, augmented by Theo Travis who had been part of Soft Machine Legacy, it was as close as I’d ever get to one of the original progressive rock acts. The set was pretty challenging and covered a wide range of the Softs’ back catalogue, including Hugh Hopper’s Facelift (from Third, 1970), Hazard Profile (from Bundles, 1975) and Song of Aeolus (from Softs, 1976), plus some Soft Machine Legacy tracks.

None of this material was straightforward prog either, registering on the jazz side of jazz rock, but it was immensely enjoyable.


Saturday morning was devoted to a visit to Harlech Castle, built by Edward I in the late 13th century and now a World Heritage site (the third of the trip.) Grey and windy, it was hardly the best weather to visit Harlech though the sun began to break through in the early afternoon as we walked along the dune-flanked beach.

Back in Hafan y Mor, we shopped, cooked and ate and got to the main stage in time for The Enid only to be desperately disappointed. Festivals aren’t really the most appropriate occasions to reveal the entire new album and though the fan base is usually very forgiving, I wanted and was expecting some kind of ‘best of’ which is what I’d experienced when I last saw them at Balham’s Resonance Festival in 2014. When I reviewed that particular show I suggested that I might upset some readers with my opinion of Joe Payne but after last weekend my opinion has hardened. There’s still the hint of romantic classical music in their repertoire but the drama created by the music has been replaced with West End musical theatre, a surprising reversal of attitude for a band that in the late 70s never took itself too seriously as they played the Dam Busters March and God Save the Queen, while still producing grand, sweeping cinematic pieces of symphonic prog. The latest material is vocal heavy and though Payne does have a fine voice, the delivery is like Freddie Mercury appearing in Phantom of the Opera. When I returned home I played In the Region of the Summer Stars (1976) to remind myself how good The Enid used to be. This new phase of Enid music has eschewed fairies and Fand and it’s a crying shame.

Focus, on next, and Ian Anderson both played crowd-pleasing sets and both were very enjoyable. It’s clear that Focus don’t take themselves too seriously but Thijs van Leer is fully aware of the value of his back catalogue, delving into the first four albums and including complementary recent tracks, allowing him to plug Focus X (2012.) Ian Anderson’s set was promoted as ‘plays the best of Jethro Tull’ and only included one new song, Fruits of Frankenfield. Anderson’s voice is also not as strong as it once was but the music, and his flute in particular, were spot on.


Focus and Ian Anderson were undoubtedly the highlights of the evening. I survived one song and about four bars of another from the Von Hertzen Brothers before leaving; I got the impression that they weren’t going to play anything that I might class as prog.

On the way home on Sunday we discussed the weekend. It had been enjoyable with some good music, excellent location, countryside and scenery with some world-class attractions to fill the music-free hours, and pretty good accommodation. The organisation appeared a little haphazard; my arrival pack took a considerable time to track down, the non-show of Curved Air remained unexplained and there was no introduction of the acts. Yet somehow the groups seemed to stick close to their schedules. We didn’t visit and band merchandise stands but the vinyl and CDs on sale covered the gamut of rock and included some hard to find music, so someone was doing a decent job of organising, despite their apparent invisibility. Our major problem was that for an alleged prog festival, we didn’t detect a surfeit of prog! Jim pointed out that there are a handful of individuals in a family of art collectors, dealers and art scholars, the Wildensteins, who pronounce on whether or not a painting is genuine or fake. We’ve resolved to set up such a committee to invigilate on what constitutes progressive rock...










By ProgBlog, Sep 23 2015 04:06PM

I’m currently reading Marcus O’Dair’s authorised biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time (Serpent’s Tail, 2014) and thoroughly enjoying it; I’ve just reached the part where Wyatt becomes paralysed after falling out of a window at Lady June’s party on 1st June 1973. This was just after Wyatt had asked Nick Mason to produce the third album by a reconfigured Matching Mole, the original line-up having been disbanded by Wyatt after the release of Little Red Record (1972) because he found himself unable to take the decisions required of a band leader. This time point coincides with the start of my interest in music; in June 1972 I had no idea what I liked but by August I’d noticed there was a qualitative difference between Chinn and Chapman pop and the art-rock of Roxy Music. It wasn’t until much later in the 70s that I started to collect Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt related material but the first time I came across Wyatt’s music was a performance of I’m a Believer on Top of the Pops in the autumn of 1974, made more intriguing by the presence of Nick Mason and his ‘wave’ drum kit; I also seem to recall that Wyatt sung with his eyes closed. By this time I’d been become a regular reader of Melody Maker and New Musical Express so I had some idea of how well he was regarded as a musician.

Never mind his inability to hand out orders, he’d also proved unable to take them towards the end of his time in Soft Machine and though his departure from that band represented the end of a chapter in the Softs’ history, in reality the band had changed dramatically over that time going from pop psychedelia to power trio to to big band septet to jazz rock quartet so that none of the first four albums sounded alike. Third (1970) was released after the line-up had stabilised as a quartet (the septet never committed to the studio) and Fourth (1971) was performed by the same personnel. The difference between the two albums is creative input from Wyatt. Fourth had no Wyatt-penned material and though limited to one track (the entire side three of the original Third LP), Moon in June is essentially a Wyatt pop song, albeit a very clever one and it indicated the future course of the drummer; the ensemble hardly contributes and there’s a guest musician, Veleroy Spall, who adds violin. O’Dair suggests that Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge really didn’t like the vocals but also demonstrates that Wyatt’s preferred direction was back to song-based material, making the split inevitable. I can detect continuity between Moon in June and the eponymous Matching Mole debut that was released in 1972.

Fourth demonstrates Elton Dean pulling the band towards free jazz and it was only after I’d discovered jazz rock and fusion and subsequently lost faith in the sub genre that I thought William Burroughs’ term ‘soft machine’ meaning the human body, was no longer appropriate as a moniker. I think that at the beginning of the fusion movement, with jazz musicians moving towards rock and rock musicians moving towards jazz, the spark of creativity produced some incredible music. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew / In a Silent Way period, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever uncovered new musical ground to populate but eventually technique became valued above all else. The jazz rock of Fourth may have been cerebral but it was disconnected from warmth and feeling; I prefer the organic nature and humour of Matching Mole and Little Red Record. It’s not really surprising that Wyatt should return to a song format with his own band, encouraged by Dave Sinclair, and reusing material like Instant Pussy that was originally aired in 1969.

The trajectory of Gong, originally fronted by ex-Soft Machine Daevid Allen who instilled a sense of mischievous fun into music, evolved from space rock psychedelia into very slick jazz rock similar to that produced by Soft Machine in the mid-late 70s, Allen being jettisoned during the process. First coming to my attention when Camembert Electrique was reissued by Virgin in 1974 for the price of a single, I subsequently picked up Time is the Key (1979) on cassette from the bargain bin in the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1981 to discover a very different sound. It’s only since then that I’ve gone back and filled in some of the missing pieces: You (1974); Shamal and Gazeuse! (both 1976.) Similarly, from being the long-time owner of only one Soft Machine album Softs (1976) that I picked up for £1.99 in Virgin in January 1982 and having been donated a copy of The Soft Machine (1968) that I can no longer find, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to move to complete the collection.

It’s the coincidence of filling in the gaps at the same time that allowed me to hear the similarities but it’s no coincidence that there’s one individual who appears at the pivotal time point in both bands – Allan Holdsworth.

Apart from some Kevin Ayers guitar on the first Soft Machine album, the band eschewed guitar in favour of keyboards and saxophone, until Holdsworth was recruited for Bundles (1975.) Holdsworth’s guitar style is instantly identifiable, with fluid, fast melodic runs and a unique tone. I’d first come across him on the first Bruford album and subsequently on the first UK album (both 1978) and I bought a battered second-hand copy of the first Tempest album featuring Holdsworth, from a flea market in Crystal Palace sometime in the mid 80s. I also managed to get to see him play at the 100 Club as part of Plough with Jeff Clyne, John Stevens and Gordon Beck in the early 80s that I described as ‘complex, challenging music’ in a letter to my brother Tony. Superimposing the guitar over the almost mathematical keyboard work of Karl Jenkins (with Ratledge becoming less involved) added a degree of feeling to what I described as ‘sterile’ jazz rock; Bundles and Softs, where Holdsworth had been replaced by John Etheridge, were the only high points after Third. Perhaps the parallels between Soft Machine and Gong aren’t so surprising when you consider their origins and shared members. Daevid Allen may have left Soft Machine when he was unable to return to the UK with the rest of the band after some gigs in France, so he formed Gong with a group of largely French musicians; the inclusion and subsequent leadership of tuned percussionist Pierre Moerlen, during which phase Holdsworth was part of the band, was characterised by jazz percussion which was used to play fast, melodic, extended and repeated riffs, much as keyboards were used by Soft Machine. Even today, the Gong-Soft Machine cross-pollination continues with Theo Travis.



By ProgBlog, May 11 2015 05:35PM

I’ve just returned from a long bank holiday weekend in my native Cumbria, staying with my brother Tony near Ulverston, a short drive away from the Lake District National Park. The Lakes scenery is stunning, produced over millions of years by a range of natural processes and more lately tinkered with by man.

Part of the itinerary was to be a trip to RAF Spadeadam near Brampton in the north east of the county. The idea was to visit the former Blue Streak missile test site and, as we’d be travelling through the appropriate area, include a rendezvous with old friend Bill Burford, drummer for Water’s Edge who resides in Melmerby, near Penrith.

Blue Streak was intended to be the UK’s intermediate range ballistic missile but the programme was shelved in 1960 and the base was used for development of a Europe-based satellite launcher, itself abandoned in 1972. At least one of the Pages has a professional interest in cold war architecture; Daryl’s Historic Conservation master’s degree thesis was on the preservation and use of cold war bunkers - I simply wanted to take photos of the site for my next musical project, tentatively titled Cold War. Unfortunately, the organisers didn’t confirm our proposed visit and with insufficient time to plan any serious fell walking we just visited parts of the Lake District I’d not been to in the past, examples of human influence on the landscape: Allan Bank, above Grasmere, a former home of William Wordsworth and National Trust founder Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley; the Langdale Boulders at Copt Howe with their Neolithic markings, the most intricate and impressive examples of rock art in Cumbria; and Cathedral Quarry in Great Langdale, an enormous void where the roof is held up by a single pillar in a disused slate quarry.

Roger Dean has written about his trip to the Lakes where he describes seeing a mountain-top tarn that served as inspiration for the inside sleeve of Close to the Edge. It’s not difficult to imagine Dean walking from Honister via Haystacks, where his mountain tarn can be found, over to Langdale, the centre of the Lake District, and visiting the spectacular Cathedral Quarry where a huge hole has been excavated for the attractive green slate (more correctly Borrowdale Tuff, a volcanic ash around 450 million years old, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a rock that forms one of the distinctive building materials of the region. I think that this edifice could have influenced the cover of Relayer or the cover of his book Views.


This landscape has inspired painters, novelists and Lakeland poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and De Quincy; landscape in general seems to have inspired nineteenth century Romantic composers too, who used long-form symphonic pieces to depict visual images of landmarks and landscapes such as concert overture The Hebrides (better known as Fingal’s Cave) and Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in A minor) by Felix Mendelssohn and, as Romantic music was one of the major influences on progressive rock, it seems rather odd that despite frequent allusion to geographical or topographical forms there are only a few examples of prog compositions about a named physical landscape.

Not that I’m a fan but Haken’s The Mountain seemed like a good place to start looking however It turns out that the title is merely metaphorical. The most obvious classic prog track inspired by an imaginary landscape is Firth of Fifth, the perennial Genesis favourite, which is fitting because of the Tony Banks piano work and the notion of prog as an updated form of Romantic music; even Steve Hackett’s soloing conforms to the idea of nineteenth-century symphonic poems, stretching the song with sublime guitar lines that appear to describe the contours of the river valley, rounded and flowing, not aggressive or jarring.

Another obvious reference to a geographical location, real this time, is Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. I’ve previously described how I think this is the best Oldfield album and how the compositional style has been influenced by Romantic composers; the execution aided by supplementary musicians playing instruments associated with classical orchestras. This links rather nicely to The Song of the White Horse by David Bedford, a piece originally commissioned for BBC TV’s Omnibus and aired in 1978. The idea of the programme was to show Bedford in the process of writing, rehearsing and recording the score as well as performing it and it showed him riding his motorcycle along the route of the Ridgeway to the White Horse at Uffington, his inspiration for the commission.

The White Horse dates from around the Bronze Age, created by carving trenches into the hillside which are filled with crushed chalk. Part of a wider ancient landscape which includes the Blowing Stone, a perforated sarsen stone used in Bedford’s composition, the horse can be seen from miles away, as though leaping across the head of a dramatic, dry valley. I find it interesting that the White Horse is mentioned in the medieval Welsh book, Llyfr Coch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest): "Near to the town of Abinton there is a mountain with a figure of a stallion upon it and it is white. Nothing grows upon it.” Oldfield released Hergest Ridge in 1974 and David Bedford began his commission in 1977.

Though trained as a classical composer, Bedford’s other works have included odd things like 100 kazoos and his charts have used pictures, rather than staves and notes. His rock credentials come via his work with Kevin Ayers, which is how he was introduced to Oldfield. On White Horse he was helped by Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge on a variety of keyboards, a small ensemble with brass and strings and the Queen’s College choir, a hand-picked female choir from Bedford’s place of work where helium was used to increase the pitch of Diana Coulson’s singing by around two octaves (speed of sound in air = 331 m/s; speed of sound in helium = 972 m/s). The roughly 25 minute composition incorporates GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse which celebrates King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Englefield in the 9th century. Overall I think it’s a very satisfying piece of music incorporating basic sequencing, novel chorale work, Romanticism and some disharmony. It surprised me to find out that college friend Charlie Donkin, who liked The Who, The Rolling Stones, Harry Chapin and Dire Straits, was also a fan of The Song of the White Horse, ending up with a copy of Star’s End or Instructions for Angels when we went to see if we could find a copy in one of London’s many record shops; Charlie also liked Bedside Manner are Extra.



By ProgBlog, Mar 1 2015 11:32PM

On Friday 27th February I attended the first show in 17 years by analogue synth quartet Node at the Royal College of Music. This prestigious venue seemed rather suitable, affording electronica appropriate recognition as a distinct, legitimate musical form; hardly surprising when you consider the CVs of the band members: production legend Flood; veteran producer and musician Ed Buller; film composer Mel Wesson; and Professor Dave Bessell.

Arriving in the Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, we were greeted with what had been dubbed as the largest collection of vintage analogue synthesiser equipment ever seen outside a recording studio, with an estimated value of £500000; largely made up of modular synthesizers but with a couple of mini Moogs and a VCS3 also quite evident. The group played four pieces over two sets that lasted 90 minutes; all the material was sequencer driven but there were two distinct styles: one, a spacey ‘Berlin school’ sound that was inspired by mid 70s Tangerine Dream and the other was a more industrial sound where the sequences marked out aggressive, percussive beats as though forming the soundtrack to an imaginary film where a derelict factory had been occupied by feral denizens in a bleak vision of a dystopian near-future. Partial, fractured images of the band, interspersed with bubbles and Tron-like graphics were projected onto a circular screen just above and behind the band, the real time images captured by the video cameras trained on each of the musicians. The compositions weren’t all keyboards and sequencers; Dave Bessell performed with a guitar strung around his neck that he strummed lightly on a couple of occasions, so lightly that you couldn’t actually hear it at times. For the first half of the performance I sat at the back of the auditorium, having acquired my ticket in the week before the show, and was mesmerised by the weaving sequences and the otherworld synthesizer washes as they radiated away from the stage via a series of speakers placed along the length of the hall. In the second half of the show I sat in the second row (apparently some people were unable to make the show) which afforded a great view of the four silent, black-clad musos as they subtly manipulated their instrument settings. This was a very enjoyable gig, however different it was from the concerts I normally go to, my first live electronica event where it seemed that all the cream of British electronica had gathered.

In the pub before the show, the excellent Queen’s Arms, Queen’s Gate Mews, I’d been discussing analogue keyboard equipment with friend Neil Jellis, agreeing that the full analogue sound was so much more satisfying than the digital machines that emerged at the end of the 70s. I described some Wakeman Moog from The Six Wives of Henry VIII that Neil later identified as being on Anne Boleyn, which I consider quite sublime, one of the best Moog sounds ever. This conversation turned to White Rock which we both believe is under-rated and so much better than the material that both immediately preceded it and the output that followed Criminal Record. With the exception of the single novelty track The Breathalyser, Six Wives, White Rock and Criminal Record are purely instrumental and whatever you feel about the accuracy of the images they evoke, they utilise the full gamut of analogue technology to create miniature masterpieces of keyboard-based rock. I think that these three albums represent Wakeman’s best work and have previously criticised his forays into lyrics. This got me thinking whether or not the best prog is instrumental or vocal...

There are some groups where the vocals were integral to the ethos of the band, whether they were integral to the song’s narrative (Genesis) or philosophical musing (Yes); some where vocal tracks were balanced with instrumentals, possibly because there was no stand out singer in the band (Camel, King Crimson, Greenslade); and the fully instrumental (early Enid, Mike Oldfield, Gordon Giltrap.) It’s possible that the inclusion of vocals was a hangover from the rock roots that made up prog; the bands that were more influenced by jazz tended to be less inclined to use vocals, certainly Soft Machine, after the departure of first Kevin Ayers and then Robert Wyatt, went on to produce instrumental-only music. My collection includes the full spectrum from fully instrumental to all vocal and one of my personal favourite albums is Tales from Topographic Oceans, where the meaning of the lyrical content is difficult to discern. In Tales, the structure of the music is enhanced by the vocals but there are extended instrumental passages, which means the success of the concept relies on a balance of the relative strengths of the music and the song words. I think Yes get it about right though there are plenty of people who think the album fails on both accounts. Camel’s early output was a mixture of songs and instrumentals, until they released the excellent instrumental Music Inspired by the Snow Goose then subsequently reverted to a combination of the two forms. The recruiting of Richard Sinclair, a more accomplished vocalist than either Andy Latimer or Peter Bardens and someone with a jazz-informed vocabulary, resulted in a shift towards more songs. However, this may have been a result of record label interference, wanting the band to record a hit single (Highways of the Sun may have been radio friendly but it didn’t make the UK Top 50.) During the 70s Focus were predominantly instrumental, the exceptions being the title track from Moving Waves, Round Goes the Gossip from Focus 3, La Cathedrale de Strasbourg from Hamburger Concerto and I Need a Bathroom from Mother Focus. My favourite post-Barrett early Floyd are the space rock and prog instrumentals A Saucerful of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother and One of These Days. Dark Side of the Moon is a fantastic album despite the sixth-former lyrics and the title track from Shine on You Crazy Diamond, like Echoes, is predominantly instrumental. The angelic-voiced Greg Lake was a key component of the first incarnation of King Crimson and though John Wetton was an able vocalist, it’s the musicianship and improvisational talents of the Larks’ Tongues era Crimson that stand out.

Of course this is all subjective; the relative abilities of group members on their respective instruments, their influences and their vision of the best way to get their ideas across all play a part. But if I’m more interested in the instrumentation, how come my favourite album is Close to the Edge?



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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.

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