ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Mar 27 2020 05:40PM

Everyday normal service has been increasingly abnormal since at least 2016 and probably since 2008. The UK’s EU referendum result might have seemed like a bolt from the blue but the shockwaves from the global financial meltdown, especially the austerity measures introduced by the new government in 2010 where the wrong demographic was punished for the shortcomings of capitalism, presaged the conditions necessary for the descent into irrationality and self-harm. The decline really began long before the 21st century when the influence of large corporations, becoming multinationals during a period of rapid globalisation that showed no signs of aversion to the exploitation of the mineral wealth or workforce of developing countries, embarked on schemes to protect their own value at the expense of the general population, democracy and the natural environment.

The power and behaviour of vested interests has eroded the mechanisms of world governments to the extent that we’re unable to respond appropriately to the current coronavirus crisis. Poor animal husbandry and unregulated exotic live meat markets facilitated the rise of a novel zoonosis; early reports of a new viral respiratory disease in China were suppressed and medical staff branded enemies of the State; the near-universal use of smartphones, implicated in a pandemic for the first time, acted as an ideal vector for spreading Covid-19; the connectivity of people, a benefit of globalisation, allowed the virus to spread as tourism and business continued as normal; vehicle and industrial pollutants responsible for inflammation of the respiratory tract exacerbated the severity of the disease; and in the UK, where 10 years of deliberate underfunding and deconstruction of the NHS has left staff shortages in every department, we are saddled with a Prime Minister unwilling to restrict the freedom of movement of its citizens, a PM whose initial policy acknowledged that Covid-19 would kill off the elderly as the rest of the population gained herd-immunity. However, it’s important to point out that no single country is to blame for the rise and spread of Covid-19, it’s a failure of regulation and standards.


BBC News coronavirus update 26/3/20
BBC News coronavirus update 26/3/20

I have to admit that when the disease first appeared in China, I was sceptical of its severity and perhaps foolhardily, I was skiing in Sauze d’Oulx, an hour away from Torino, while a number of provinces in neighbouring Lombardy were under lockdown. Coronavirus is common and anyone with only mild symptoms caused by Covid-19 will have a degree of immunity to the new strain because they’ve been previously exposed to other coronavirus. The rapid global spread and the mounting death toll in Italy, the epicentre outside of Wuhan, exposed a worldwide lack of preparation for a new pandemic, and that’s what changed my mind.

Though banning concerts, viewings at the cinema, spectator sports and other forms of human congregation will save some lives the cost, quite justifiably, is a restriction on our normal behaviour. What’s unacceptable is that any shutdown should result in a loss of income for workers and while some countries have agreed packages that will ensure no individual suffers from hardship during the crisis, the UK government has only just begun to address the very real concerns of millions of self-employed, those on zero hour contracts, anyone that doesn’t fall under the key worker banner, and those in rented accommodation but there’s no money available until June and it’s impossible to access the site for the derisory Universal Credit. Many musicians fall into this category, as do others working in the industry such as road crew and studio technicians.


Musicians' Union appeal
Musicians' Union appeal

Within the first ten days of a coronavirus impact survey of its 32000 members by the Musicians’ Union, it was estimated that musicians in the UK have already lost over £20m in earnings. Over 4000 responded to the survey with 90% saying their income had already been affected by social distancing rules, the closure of live venues and school closures, because many musicians make at least part of their income through teaching. The union announced that a new hardship fund would be set up to pay grants of £200 to out-of-work musicians to provide a small amount of relief to its members, adding that the government needed to provide urgent clarity on what wider support would be available, and called on the record industry to also play its part.


Eamonn Forde's 9 ways you can help your favourite band
Eamonn Forde's 9 ways you can help your favourite band

The first response I saw to the disruption to the livelihoods of musicians was an online article by Eamonn Forde (from Classic Rock) on the Louder website, 9 ways you can help your favourite band which neatly sets out the rationale behind some very supportive actions you can take to help secure the future of music. I attended 46 gigs between 2018 and 2019, some of which featured bands from prog’s premier league but many more were smaller or less successful acts. I tend to buy a tour programme when I go to see one of the really big groups but I’m more inclined to visit the merchandise stand for music, on vinyl if possible (recent purchases include The Lighthouse by Iamthemorning, and No Fear of Looking Down by Jadis, for instance) but I’m not unhappy to indulge in a CD or DVD (The Lifesigns debut album and Live in London - Under the Bridge, More Than Meets the Eye by Jadis, Cellar Noise’s second album Nautilus, the first three Hats Off Gentlemen it’s Adequate releases Invisible, When the Kill Code Fails, and Broken but Still Standing, Metamorphosis by Hamnesia.) I prefer to buy music direct from the artists and if it’s not available at gigs or there are no upcoming shows, the band’s own website invariably includes merchandise or redirects you an appropriate site like CD Baby. I got my (vinyl) copy of Exegi Monumentum Aere Perennius by The Rome Pro(g)ject direct from Vicenzo Ricca’s The Rome Pro(g)ject site, and got The Water Road on CD and an LP version of The Clockwork Universe by Thieves’ Kitchen from The Merch Desk via the band’s homepage. If you like a band, it’s sensible to sign up to their notifications. You’ll get advanced notice of upcoming performances (when they eventually resume) and of forthcoming releases. While there is often no problem obtaining tickets for some of the gigs I attend – I’ve been in an audience of about 10, the other nine being musician friends of the band for one concert in the rather splendid Teatro Altrove in Genova where I thought it was such a culturally significant event I’d have to pre-book my ticket to ensure my place


Event 16, Teatro Altrove, Genova
Event 16, Teatro Altrove, Genova

If you sign up to a band's mailing list you’re less likely to miss out on a special edition or limited release. A 2019 Facebook post, shortly after I’d discovered the Norwegian proggers, alerted me to the impending release of Jordsjø’s Nattfiolen; my red vinyl copy is from a limited run of 200; the first LP pressing of Sky Over Giza by La Morte Viene dallo Spazio which I’d seen advertised on their Facebook page (they caught my attention because they were on the same bill as Melting Clock at a gig in Genova which I was unable to attend) was a run of 500 copies divided into ten different colours representing different planets, selling for €17 plus p+p. I chose ‘Earth’.


Sky Over Giza on vinyl
Sky Over Giza on vinyl

Links from a group’s own website frequently redirect you to their Bandcamp store. I’ve been banging the drum for Bandcamp for some time now, but it has taken on greater significance since cities have come under lockdown and record stores, not considered to be an essential service by governments, are currently closed. It’s the artists themselves who post your album when you buy something via Bandcamp, and the price quoted is a minimum suggested price, leaving you free to decide whether you’re willing to pay more. There’s also the opportunity to leave a message for the artist – a nice bit of connectivity that fits in with the prog ethos – that is often acknowledged by the musicians by including a hand-written ’thank you’; it’s like having a 24/7 merchandise desk at your fingertips (T-shirts and bundles of items are available.) It’s probably lazy, but I give Bandcamp gift vouchers at Christmas to encourage the recipients to seek out new music and support artists. It’s possible to listen to a full album without buying it, but I don’t think trying something out is abusing the system. I’ll always buy a copy on a physical medium if I like the material and there’s one available but I do buy downloads if there’s not.


Thank You note from Raphael Weinroth Browne
Thank You note from Raphael Weinroth Browne

I was please that I ticked most of the boxes from the article but was quite surprised by one suggestion – Get political: campaign for better deals for acts, something that really appeals to me. I’m well-versed in fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds through my former union work and the music business doesn’t have such a great history when it comes to looking after artists. Forde’s piece goes on to suggest that those who use streaming services should buy physical copies of the music they like because streaming revenues are tiny, providing a stark example of the iniquitous behaviour of faceless and bland record companies. You should also remember that Spotify or whichever other service you’re using is charging you to harvest your personal preferences for its data-crunching algorithms, nudging your choices.

The other personal omission from Forde’s list was that I haven’t yet subscribed to a crowd-funding campaign, but that’s because I have not yet come across an appropriate project to subscribe to. I really like the idea – I’ve put money into Crystal Palace FC to ensure the club’s continued existence during their periods in administration, because I believe the club provides an important community role – and would willingly help out an artist that I liked if they ticked all the appropriate social and political buttons.


Listening to and writing about music forms a major part of my life and though it’s not what puts bread on my table, I’m concerned about the people who provide me with this pleasure and who, like many of the self-employed, have only been left with promises. Investing in the music that we love now, through Bandcamp or otherwise directly with the artists, not only provides a revenue stream but also sends the message that once we’re through these unprecedented times, we’ll support them in the future.


Covid-19 should be taken seriously - for its effects on health and the way it turns everyday life upside down.


By ProgBlog, Jul 19 2015 07:03PM

Oktober are comprised of Gary Bennett (basses, guitars, keyboards), David Speight (drums, percussion) and Molnár Kinga (vocals). Their origins hark back to 2007 when drummer Speight was playing with Peter Banks’ improvisation group Harmony in Diversity, who were invited to play at a Hungarian prog festival; also on the bill were Netherlands band Flamborough Head and Yesterdays, a Hungarian band based in Cluj Napoca, in the Transylvanian region of Romania and featuring Kinga on vocals. Speight was acquainted with Gary Bennett through symphonic prog band Yak but when the pair were involved in a collaborative effort on a record for Southend-on-Sea based hi-fi company Rega, Speight suggested Kinga as a vocalist for the project because she would be able to handle the complex arrangements associated with the prog take on the tracks they’d selected.

Bennett continued to work on original material with Kinga when she was back in Transylvania, sharing mp3 files over the internet. By 2011 the songs were ready for the addition of the drum tracks. The vocals were recorded in the UK in 2013 and the entire album was completed, mixed and mastered in December 2014; Sandcastles (2015) is the end result and it’s an album of well-crafted, beautiful melodic music carefully presented with some poignant (uncredited) photography from Bennett and his partner Fiona and one photo, ice skating, taken by Bennett’s father in 1986.

This isn’t really prog but it certainly has sonic links with prog. At just under 32 minutes and containing six songs it could have come from the early progressivo Italiano stable where a band’s recorded output was often notoriously brief. I’m struggling to pigeonhole the music but I shouldn’t really try because it’s best to let the music speak for itself; labels are only marketing tools, after all. Lyrically, the content is reflective and descriptive, taking in supernatural phenomenon and myriad aspects of the natural world. Throughout, Kinga’s voice is clear and strong and is reminiscent of Annie Haslam from Renaissance or, perhaps closer still, Amy Darby from Thieves’ Kitchen. Another comparison with Renaissance would be shared natural imagery as Betty Thatcher’s words included word pictures of icy pools and curling leaves; I’d go as far as suggesting that Bennett’s lyrics stray into classic Yes territory with his use of ‘green language’.

There’s a general progression over the CD of increasing complexity, where the later tracks are more layered than on the earlier tracks. Opening song Other People’s Parties is almost exclusively Bennett on acoustic guitar and Kinga singing though it’s here that we first get a glimpse of one of Bennett’s influences with a short burst of electric guitar that calls to mind the clean, compressed and EQ’d sound used by Mike Oldfield. This song is a joint Bennett – Kinga composition, the remainder of the album was written entirely by Bennett.

The shortest track on the CD, Don’t Stop is more up tempo and introduces a short riff on one of the multi-tracked guitars during the first two verses before another splash of Oldfield-like lead. The contemplative Dust and Rain is analogous to Genesis’ Blood on the Rooftops with some clever word-play over classical guitar, something that Steve Hackett would cover over his solo career. Lost and Found gets a traditional Irish folk song treatment, Bennett having played in a ceilidh band, and Oktober are joined by guest musicians Mick Graves on fiddle and Fez Powell on bodhran - Graves’ violin was produced by premier London violin maker Richard Duke and dates from around 1780. In this song Kinga delivers some neat call and response vocals and her harmonies remind me of Canterbury-scene backing vocalists The Northettes.

The opening section of Sleepers Awake is a fantastic riff reminiscent of Songs from the Wood era Jethro Tull and features a bouzouki, custom-made from an old 12 string guitar. The scan of the last two lines of verse two is a clever piece of lyricism, like Steve Hackett’s Tigermoth from Spectral Mornings. There’s more evidence of keyboards on this, the longest track, and there’s a nice ambient percussion section before a repeat of the bouzouki phrase and a reprise of the third verse from preceding track Lost and Found. In very prog fashion, there’s a neat segue into final track Sandcastles; taken together these two tracks could almost be a 13 minute long mini-suite because musically they’re approaching prog territory. Sandcastles features more Oldfield-like lead guitar but it’s the structure of the song that makes it stand out; after a fairly conventional verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus there’s a short syncopated section with the kick drum on every beat overlain with a concise guitar solo that fades (too) rapidly to seashore noises. This ends with a haunting verse that doesn’t appear in the lyrics, rather like a hidden song: Sing me to sleep underneath weeping willows / Wild fragrant roses are still in full bloom / I need to be gone by the first chill of autumn / My old friend the west wind is calling me home. These last two tracks are without a doubt my favourites and when Kinga sings the ‘rolling white horses’ line in the first chorus of Sandcastles it gives me involuntary goose bumps.

Bennett himself suggested that it would be disingenuous to call the album prog, but as both he and Speight are lifelong progressive rock fanatics, specifically citing Yes and Genesis, it’s hardly surprising that prog influences shine through and it’s evident from their respective techniques on guitars and drums that they really know their art. It was their belief that there was sufficient prog element in the songs to appeal to fans of the genre and I find it difficult to disagree. The songs may range from singer-songwriter introspection to electric folk but they defy being catalogued. Not having a target audience could be detrimental but, if Oktober get the break they deserve, Sandcastles, with its general theme of the ephemeral nature of things, has the power to speak to a wide range of people. I know I like it and I know there’s an audience out there.

Copies of the album can be ordered on ebay: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Sandcastles-Oktober-/291512162629 or by contacting the band at www.facebook.com/oktobertheband



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