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, Apr 21 2015 07:53PM

It’s indisputable that progressive rock was a genre of grand concepts from the straightforward interpretation of classic novels (Camel’s Music Inspired by The Snow Goose, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month for example, based on Paul Gallico’s novella); the search for enlightenment (that’s my personal take on Tales from Topographic Oceans); the stresses of everyday life (Dark Side of the Moon); or allegory (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.) Though The Gift released Awake and Dreaming in 2006, a project that began in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition and which features a multi-part suite concerning the savagery of war, I find it somewhat surprising that during the golden era of prog there wasn’t an entire concept album about the horrors of warfare. I witnessed The Gift perform at the Resonance Festival in Balham last year and was impressed by Mike Morton’s musical depiction of the madness and futility of global conflict – I resigned as a member of the Labour Party because of Iraq.

Folk music was one of the keystones that enabled prog to form but in the UK, it seemed to be folk associated with tradition that informed prog, and this often tended to be dark; it was US folk that evolved into protest music because of both the inequality suffered by large numbers of the country’s own citizens and the prevailing American foreign policy from the 50s onwards. The Peace movement and the counter-culture were directly opposed to the American Dream, its imperialistic tendencies and its consumerism, and the ideals of these dissidents were imported to England when musicians, who acted as agents for change, crossed back and forth across the Atlantic. In this way John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance became an anthem of the American anti-war movement following the release of the single in 1969 by the Plastic Ono Band.

The Nice used America as a form of protest, getting banned from the Royal Albert Hall in the process, though this wasn’t about combat on foreign soil; they also included the track War and Peace on their first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack but this had started out as a tune called Silver Meter, played when Emerson was a member of the T-Bones. A live show staple, War and Peace was described by one critic as an ‘instrumental which seems to run like a hell-bound train through war inflicted landscapes.’ I sympathise with that view – the song is fairly raw and features some serious Hammond abuse and Davy O’List guitar histrionics.

When Greg Lake joined up with Keith Emerson in ELP, he brought with him some of the hippy ideals of Peter Sinfield. Though In The Court of the Crimson King isn’t an anti-war album, it comes across as anti-totalitarian and in 21st Century Schizoid Man Sinfield’s lyrics clearly point out the evils of contemporary warfare: “Innocents raped with napalm fire”. Though Lake had left Crimson before 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon he did provide the vocals for the three-part Peace, the ultimate part of which follows The Devil’s Triangle, an instrumental track based on Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War; despite a lack of an explicit condemnation of warfare, the final words on the album are “Peace is the end, like death / Of the war.” One of Lake’s defining contributions to the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album was the acoustic ballad Lucky Man that though he claimed was written when he was 12 years old, contains imagery that can only have been forged later in his life, painting a picture not just of the futility of acquiring possessions but also the stupidity of war. There are a number of oblique references to war throughout the early ELP albums; one interpretation of Tarkus is that the animal-machine hybrid represents totalitarianism, crushing culture, spirituality and freedom, and technology that has gone out of control (a subject revisited on Karn Evil 9 from Brain Salad Surgery, where Sinfield had been reunited with Lake to provide lyrical ideas.) According to William Neal, who provided the cover artwork, the name ‘Tarkus’ is an amalgamation of Tartarus (gloomy pits of darkness used for punishing angels that sinned, mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4 from the bible) and carcass, indicated by the album title written in bones on the cover. Consequently, he suggests the title track refers to the "futility of war, a man made mess with symbols of mutated destruction" but I think his explanation has been fitted in retrospect; it may reflect his painting but the music and lyrics can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Jon Anderson reprised John Lennon on I’ve Seen All Good People from The Yes Album (1971.) I’m almost ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until I saw Yes playing live that I picked up the words “All we are saying is give peace a chance” during the Anderson-penned Your Move section, some three years after I’d bought the album. My only excuse is that despite the track being a favourite of most fans, it doesn’t actually move me at all; it’s too simplistic, especially the All Good People part. I even prefer A Venture where the bass line is far from conventional. The Yes Album does in fact contain one of the most explicit anti-war songs in the progressive rock canon: Yours is no Disgrace. Jon Anderson has said that the meaning of the song is recognition that those fighting in the Vietnam war had no choice other than to fight, in effect carrying out the orders of a government with policy based on dogma. As the first track on the album it gains added importance for being the first of the long-form Yes songs.

Yes returned to the theme of war with The Gates of Delirium, the side long track from Relayer (1974). It has been said to have been inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace which both Anderson and Patrick Moraz had been reading but Anderson has simplified the concept to a battle scene with a prelude, a charge, a victory tune and a peaceful resolution leading to hope for the future; he has further suggested that it wasn’t an explanation of war or a denunciation which makes the piece more descriptive than protest. I love the aggressive feel of the composition, the crashing scrap metal and the strident guitar and keyboards which give the piece a jazz rock edge.

Maybe I’d been looking for the war concept album in the wrong place. Given the political state of Italy in the early 70s and the alignment of most progressivo Italiano with left-wing ideology, it can come as no surprise that there are a number of anti-war songs in the sub-genre, music that I’ve only recently discovered. The first Banco del Mutuo Soccorso album contains the track R.I.P Requiescant In Pace where the music and words conjure a battlefield scene, aptly summed up by author and prog reviewer Andrea Parentin as a bitter reflection of the inhumanity and uselessness of war and glory. Another feature of Italian prog is the number of bands who only ever produced one album. Tuscany based Campo di Marte took their name from a suburb of Firenze and, according to band leader, composer and guitarist Enrico Rosa that name, Field of Mars, allowed them to write lyrics about the stupidity of wars. Their only, self-titled album features a cover depicting Turkish mercenaries inflicting wounds on themselves to demonstrate their strength; the sleeve notes of the 2006 AMS remastered version inform us that the entire composition was arranged with specific purpose of pointing out ‘the absurdity of war and people’s complete impotence at the mercy of violence’. Another one-album group (another self-titled album, too!) was Alphataurus, with a release from 1973 that relates a disturbing dream of the threat of nuclear war but is balanced by the hope that we don’t have to follow that path and we can start over again. The incredible cover painting, a triple gatefold, appears to include a small homage to William Neal – a stegosaurus on caterpillar tracks.



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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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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