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 17 2016 04:39PM

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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









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