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, May 5 2020 09:26PM

A list of recent past, present and future happenings in the prog world


Recent additions


All April additions to the ProgBlog collection were ordered online using Bandcamp and Burning Shed because of the continuing lockdown and the classification of (physical) record shops as non-essential; my pre-order of Jon Kirkman’s latest book, Tales from Photographic Oceans Giants Under the Sun, pre-ordered at the end of last year also arrived to brighten up a weekend.

I’ve attempted to keep the economy ticking over but it’s another short list thanks to the constraints imposed to reduce the spread of Covid-19: Oughtibridge (Download) – [‘ramp]; The Equatorial Stars (Vinyl) – Fripp & Eno; Todmorden 513 (CD) – Markus Reuter; Tales from Photographic Oceans (Book) – Jon Kirkman; No Sleep ‘til Wilmersdorf (CD) – [‘ramp]; Frammenti Notturni (V) – Unreal City; Nostalgia for Infinity (CD) – Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate; Debris (CD) – [‘ramp]


The recent past


Book review: Tales from Photographic Oceans Giants Under the Sun - Jon Kirkman



Jon Kirkman's limited edition Tales From Photographic Oceans Giants Under the Sun was published in April, a photodocumentary of Yes live performances from 1969 - 2019 using previously unseen images primarily supplied by fans, many of which are of professional quality. There’s an introductory piece ‘The Camera on the Cover’ by Tony Howard, a former Southampton denizen who now lives in Canada; it’s his Olympus OM10 on the cover, used for photos of solo shows by Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman in 1980 and of Yes during the Drama tour that feature in the book. He relates how he had to hide his camera at the venue and how it was taken away from him part way through that Drama show, which chimes with my experience of attempting to take my Olympus OM2N into a Yes gig, having it removed at the bag search before the show then returned to me afterwards (I can only think that this was the 90125 tour at Wembley because I managed to get surreptitious photos of Peter Hammill and Camel at around that time.)

Broadcaster, author, journalist and Cruise to the Edge co-host Kirkman got into Yes music in 1972 through And You and I from Close to the Edge being shown on the UK's staple rock music TV programme The Old Grey Whistle Test, then hearing debut album Yes via the son of a friend of his mother, and being a Liverpudlian, connecting with the cover of The Beatles Every Little Thing. He’s since built up a close working relationship and friendships with the band, interviewing 16 of the 18 members for his books Yes - Time and a Word: The Yes Interviews (2013) and its updated version Dialogue (2017) making him ideally suited to curate such a project. It’s therefore not surprising he first photo is of Peter Banks in 1969, in black and white, captured in mid air holding a blonde Telecaster above his head. It’s striking not only because it’s a well-composed image but because it’s not the white Rickenbacker everyone associates with Banks during his time in Yes.

Each group of photos is accompanied by the show’s set list and a photo of the ticket stub, and given the difficulties of clandestine photography in theatres during the pre-digital era, it’s not surprising that there’s better coverage of the band from this millennium.

This book isn’t for everyone. For a start it’s a limited print run of 300, which makes it quite expensive, but for the hard-core fan it’s a really good addition to the library of Yes biographies, despite the paucity of words. And though there’s not going to be a second print run, there is a possibly of a second edition because of the overwhelming number of photos submitted. I’ll be signing up for that, too.


Details of how to order Jon Kirkman’s Tales From Photographic Oceans Giants Under the Sun can be found on his website: https://jonkirkman.co.uk/product/tales-from-photographic-oceans/



More Covid-19 cancellation chaos


Stewart / Gaskin Kings Place Concert Rescheduled

Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin have announced that their forthcoming performance at Kings Place, London has been put back a year to Saturday July 31st 2021 when it’s hoped that some semblance of normal life has returned. Everyone who bought a ticket for August 1st 2020 will be able to use their e-ticket for the rescheduled date at no extra cost: if you haven't done so already, please print it and keep it safe till next summer. Alternatively, you can get a full refund by emailing [email protected] with the subject line 'Stewart/Gaskin ticket refund'. There will be an announcement when tickets for the rescheduled concert go on sale, but Stewart and Gaskin are assuring those who already have an e-ticket will have their seat guaranteed


Yes - The Album Series European Tour 2020





It’s just been announced that Yes have postponed the European and UK legs of the 2020 tour and are working on confirmed dates for the rescheduled shows. The Royal Albert Hall (where I’ve booked tickets) is due to provide updated information on its website on May 31st. According to the Yes (official) Facebook page, all tickets bought for this year’s performances will be valid for the new shows


Rick Wakeman – The Red Planet



If the YouTube clips are anything to go by, Rick Wakeman’s The Red Planet, originally intended for release on April 3rd along with special launch events, will be well worth waiting for. It’s been held up by manufacturing and logistical issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the latest update suggests it’s going to be closer to June when we can finally get our hands on what sounds like the proggiest project Wakeman has been responsible for since debut solo album The Six Wives of Henry VIII (the last notification from Music Glue gives the date as May 22nd.)


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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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