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Regarded as a prog metal classic, Dream Theater's Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory is now 20 years old

ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2019 09:29PM

As the rest of the world watches, the UK plays out a real-time tragicomedy that the actors know is going to cause severe damage to services and the economy but, like the slow-mo approach to the cliff edge, seem incapable of taking appropriate action to avert the impending disaster. I flew to Bologna on the day of the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU (I had tickets to see Ian Anderson on the Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary tour) and fellow passengers laughed at our choice of dates and the confusion we’d have encountered if parliament had approved the Prime Minister’s deal. I was in Genoa the previous weekend where, over dinner with Italian friends, I was asked what on earth we, the UK, were doing. Brexit makes watching televised parliamentary business like watching an episode of The Office; excruciating but compulsive viewing.


Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19
Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19

Exiting the European Union is an act of wanton self-harm regardless of whatever anyone says about ‘respecting the will of the people’ or ‘give us what we voted for’ but unfortunately the genie has been released from the bottle and conflicting desires following the 52:48 split have used up our wishes to poison debate with hatred and accusations of treachery, fuelled by the personal ambitions of a few die-hards and financed by shadowy figures running insidious Facebook advertising campaigns. As it stands, Theresa May has at last extended an invitation to Jeremy Corbyn to work out some compromise on getting the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 passed, having had her preferred deal, what she regards as the only deal, rejected by the House of Commons three times; we’ve also had a series of indicative votes, seeking out a consensus for a resolution, none of which has commanded any majority in the House. Judging from reports of the current state of affairs it seems that she’s asking Labour to compromise and not shifting her own red lines.


I voted to remain in the 2016 referendum but if we are forced out of the EU, any deal must protect workers’ rights; the environment; the Good Friday Agreement; the rights of UK citizens living within the EU and EU citizens in the UK; food and manufacturing standards; and businesses importing and exporting between the UK and the EU; in other words a soft-Brexit with some form of customs union. One potential model has been coined ‘Norway plus’. Norway, along with Liechtenstein and Iceland, are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). Norway plus, which was proposed towards the end of 2018, would consist of membership of EFTA and membership of the EEA, combined with a separate customs union with the EU to create a trade relationship similar to that between the EU and its member states today. The one potential drawback cited by critics is that the UK would have to abide by EU regulations without any political representation in the EU's bodies, though it encompasses an idealised wish list for a soft Brexit.


I’ve always been intrigued by Norway, from Scandinavian mythology to physical geography lessons during my schooldays in the early 70s. Unlike the UK, who did exactly the opposite with money from North Sea Oil extraction, the Norwegian government created two sovereign wealth funds. One of these was for reinvesting surplus revenue back into global stocks, shares and assets and the other, the smaller Government Pension Fund Norway, invested in Norwegian and some Scandinavian businesses, acting like a national insurance scheme. Norway featured heavily in the second of my Interrail travels, where 10 days were spent exploring the country from Oslo up to Narvik, well inside the Arctic Circle and the farthest north I’ve ever travelled, 68o28’ N.

This trip coincided with campaigning for the 1983 Norwegian local elections, so university friend and fellow traveller Nick Hodgetts and I hung around with the Norsk Arbeiderparti (who had a band on stage singing about social democracy) and the Greens on our first afternoon in Oslo. I really enjoyed Norway; the people, the landscape, the towns and cities, picking redcurrants for a free night and breakfast at Åndalsnes Youth Hostel, and though the trains were frequently crowded, the travel was enjoyable, too. The journey up to Narvik was by bus, having unsuccessfully attempted to hitch a ride from Fauske. The road trip was just over 5 hours long, hugging the coastline and crossing two fjords by ferry. I described it as ‘cosmic’ in my diary, driving along quiet, unlit roads, climbing out of valleys and descending towards the head of a fjord with the mountains darker than the night sky. Just after midnight on the walk from Narvik bus station to the railway station, a casual glance towards the firmament revealed a constantly changing green shadow, fading, growing, shifting and finally dissipating; the aurora borealis clearly visible above the glow of the city lights.


Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983
Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983

We managed to see a number of free live music performances and though one of the last concerts I attended in the UK before setting off on my northern Europe trip was Pendragon, Solstice and The Enid at the Ace, Brixton on May 11th, an indication that neo-prog had truly arrived (partially thanks to being embraced by Kerrang!) it was striking that throughout the country the predominant musical style and associated fashion was heavy metal, though it was almost impossible not to hear Mike Oldfield’s Moonlit Shadow or Irene Cara’s Flashdance being played on the radio (or some cassette player.)

Whereas I’d started listening to Sweden’s Bo Hansson in the mid 70s and began buying Finnish prog in the mid 00s, I hadn’t actually paid any attention to music from Norway. A couple of years after my Norwegian trip, a-ha became the country’s top musical export with uplifting pop, though the trio themselves were irked that music critics couldn’t see beneath the shiny surface of their songs where the application of classical theory and a rich harmonic language made them mini-symphonic masterpieces straight out of the book of prog. Also around that time, the Norwegian love-affair with heavy metal evolved into Norwegian black metal, a sub-genre that peaked in popularity in the early 90s and was considered to rival Swedish death metal. I remain unconvinced that Sweden’s Opeth should fall under the prog banner despite prog flourishes amongst what I still hear as death metal and I that have been and am equally dismissive of black metal groups from Norway that have adopted prog stylistic leanings. However, when the third wave of progressive rock surfaced in Sweden and the USA in the early 90s, if it wasn’t quite metal with prog sensibilities it could certainly be classed as material close to the sound of Red-era Crimson; heavy prog but not prog metal.


My first taste of Norwegian prog was a set from Arabs in Aspic at the 2017 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa. Not knowing what to expect, I was nevertheless impressed with their brand of prog which though biased towards the heavy end of the spectrum, contained sufficient melody, variation and surprises to suit someone more accustomed to symphonic prog. They sang and communicated to the almost exclusively Italian crowd in excellent English, reminding us that we were united by progressive rock. They also formed the backing band for the Saturday headliner, space-rock legend Nik Turner.


Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017
Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017

When I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files I used to take it around Europe as a reference when I went into record stores until it became worn and fragile. This was also the source of my first interest in Anekdoten and Änglagård, expanding my knowledge of Swedish prog. The book was eventually replaced with Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook, a more complete and up-to-date volume with a set of different album sleeves presented in full colour. One of those depicted was Wobbler’s debut Hinterland (2005) which, I’m ashamed to say, I paid absolutely no attention to.


Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook
Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook

I’m pretty sure I saw adverts for Rites at Dawn around the time of its release in 2011 but it was From Silence to Somewhere (2017) that finally hooked me. One of the people I follow on Twitter had raved about it when she got her copy but at the time I didn’t follow up the recommendation. Some time early in 2018 I’d been browsing on Bandcamp and somehow ended up on the Karisma Records page which linked to the band, where I ended up listening to it, was blown away by it and bought a copy on vinyl. Hinterland (on vinyl) and Rites at Dawn (CD) followed and since then I’ve bought Hinterland and From Silence to Somewhere as presents for my brothers. I’ve also just ordered a remastered CD of Afterglow (2009) as a present to myself. The music sounds like early 70s symphonic prog, largely thanks to a keyboard set-up that would not have been unfamiliar to Rick Wakeman while recording Fragile, and trebly Rickenbacker bass. It’s a full sound, well structured, expertly played and nicely produced. Wobbler certainly aren’t afraid to stretch themselves with lengthy compositions, all of which could attract the criticism that they’re merely regurgitating music from 45 years ago rather than progressing, but the band started out playing music that they liked without worrying about where they would be pigeonholed. I like it, too. I like it very much.


The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)
The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)

It was while I was selecting a CD of Hinterland for my brother that I came across Jordsjø, another band allied to Karisma Records and after checking the reviews, bought Jord. There are some similarities with Wobbler but in the main they play prog with a large dose of Scandinavian folk. It reminds of the An Invitation EP by Amber Foil, not only in the palette, but the feel of the music which evokes unidentifiable forces dwelling in some dark forest. I’m a big fan of the flute on the album which adds to the folk feeling but the last track is something very different, though equally good – an electronica outing that could easily have been composed by Tangerine Dream in the mid 70s.


Jord by Jordsjø
Jord by Jordsjø

So if the UK is to leave the EU, and the leaders of EU countries are discussing this as I type, I’m going with Norway...




By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2018 03:25PM

I met up with an old school friend last week. Though we have always exchanged Christmas cards and occasional emails, usually around the time his band is about to release some new music which he will dutifully send me, I’d not seen Bill or his wife, Anna, for thirty years, the last time being at their wedding. Bill lived two doors away from me in Barrow, was in the same year at school and, as part of a tight-knit group of adolescents, we grew up liking the same music, the direction of which was set by my older brother.

I played bass and Bill played drums in a band influenced by early Pink Floyd and King Crimson until we departed for separate universities; we listened to records, analysed and discussed music and last Monday, in the Royal Oak, Borough, a pub without any form of electronic amusements where even the contactless payment facility failed to work, began making up for lost time in conversation about music over well-kept beer from Harvey’s of Lewes.



Having not long before returned from a trip to Italy, talk naturally turned to PFM, who’s Photos of Ghosts, Cook and Chocolate Kings were first obtained by Bill. I hadn’t realised that he wasn’t so much a fan of Jet Lag, despite its jazz rock leanings and his proclivity for jazz and jazz rock, or Chocolate Kings, because of Bernardo Lanzetti’s English vocals and what he suggested was a move away from the earlier band sound, with its distinctive Mediterranean feel. Favouring their post-millennium output, he also thought that Emotional Tattoos was the best thing they’d done since Photos of Ghosts. For my part, I agree that Emotional Tattoos is a step in the right direction, with a couple of tracks that do hint at their 70s prime, but I think the Mediterranean warmth that pervades their early work is largely absent. There’s less use of change in amplitude and other devices to add contrast to an individual piece of music than there used to be, less contrapuntal interplay and no flute; as much as I like Lucio Fabbri’s playing, I miss the flute when the current band play the old material. Still, based on Bill’s recommendation, I’ve just invested in a copy of Dracula from a seller on ebay, a CD I saw when I was in Rome in 2006 but failed to buy, but I’ve never seen it anywhere since.



I tend to play the English version of Emotional Tattoos because that’s the version I own on vinyl, but I listened to the Italian version (which came on CD with the 2LP) before going to see them in Genova last year. Bill and I agreed that the Italian version was better, like their 70’s material that was available in both Italian and English. I’m not trying to suggest that I don’t like PFM’s English language work as Photos of Ghosts and The World Became the World include faithful re-workings of songs from Storia di un Minuto and Per un Amico and I’m not too put out by Lanzetti’s singing; unfortunately, Peter Sinfield’s words required a more nuanced delivery than the band were capable of, though I found it pleasing, not understanding the social situation in Italy at the time, that they accepted his environmentalism and his compassionate lyrics.



The topic of Italian bands singing in English was also raised when I was talking to Melting Clock at the Porto Antico Prog Fest, who employ their native language for their original material. They also play one or two progressive rock classics during their live set, where vocalist Emanuela Vedana sings with confidence when they perform accurate renditions of Genesis’ Firth of Fifth, Time by Pink Floyd or Soon, the coda to Gates of Delirium by Yes; this not only demonstrates their understanding of prog history, but it’s also a clever device to ingratiate themselves with members of an audience who may not have heard their self-penned music. We were unanimous in agreement that it was preferable for a rock progressivo Italiano bands to sing in Italian, but they also understood that overcoming the language barrier was likely to make their music accessible to the wider public and were considering, at least on one of the formats for their forthcoming debut, to include a bonus track of original music with lyrics translated and sung in English to expand their appeal but also, like veteran local group and Black Widow Records stable mate Il Cerchio d’Oro on their 2008 album Il Viaggio di Columbo, include English translations of the Italian lyrics.



It could be argued that world-wide appreciation for the entire sub-genre of RPI was facilitated by Greg Lake, Keith Emerson and Manticore Records. PFM manager Franco Mamone passed on a tape of the group to Greg Lake who, to the surprise of the Italians, listened to and liked what he heard, and invited them to Fulham to see and hear them play. Peter Sinfield was working with ELP at the time and compared their musicianship to King Crimson (PFM performed cover versions of 21st Century Schizoid Man and Pictures of a City on their first Italian tours in 1971 and 72) and suggested that English language lyrics would make their music universally appealing, and the band agreed. Banco del Mutuo Soccorso were also signed to Manticore after Emerson had heard them play and became a huge fan. Banco (1975) was their first release for Manticore, containing one original track (in Italian) and re-workings of material from Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Io Sono Nato Libero in Italian and English, followed in 1976 by a concept album Come in un’ultima cena / As in a Last Supper released in both Italian and English.



Le Orme, another of the most successful RPI bands, also experimented with an English version of one of their highly regarded LPs with the aim of conquering the UK and US. Released on the Charisma label, Felona and Sorona had lyrics written by Peter Hammill (who was signed to Charisma), based on the concept provided by Tagliapietra, Pagliuca and Dei Rossi so that his words closely followed the original story.



In a modern twist, when La Maschera di Cera released their continuation of the Felona e Sorona story Le Porte del Domani in 2013, they also released a version in English, The Gates of Tomorrow, with a very subtle alternative mix and a less subtle variation of the album sleeve, painted by Lanfranco who had provided the original art work for Le Orme. In addition to Italian groups releasing an alternative version of an album for the English-speaking market, which spreads beyond the four acts listed above, there are examples found in my collection of groups who only sing in English (The Trip, Cellar Noise, Hollowscene); those like Banco, PFM and Osanna who have released albums with a mixture of Italian and English lyrics; and those who have released both all-Italian and all-English albums (Nuova Era with Dopo L’Infinito and Return to the Castle respectively).



The phenomenon of non-native English speakers singing in English isn’t restricted to Italy; plucking a few more examples from my collection are Tasavallan Presidentti from Finland (Wigwam don’t count because they were Anglo-Finnish); Pulsar from France (both French and English are used on Strands of the Future, 1976); Germany’s Eloy and Triumvirat; Aphrodite’s Child from Greece; Earth and Fire, Focus and Supersister from the Netherlands; Norway's Wobbler; Albion from Poland (Broken Hopes, 2007); Spain’s Iceberg (Tutankhamon, 1975, a mixture of Spanish and English); and Sweden’s Anekdoten. So what influenced these choices? Was it simply the likelihood that the music would be more universally accepted, with concomitant success, if they used English lyrics? I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward; there’s a theory that in Italy during the 70s in there was something of a backlash against groups singing in anything other than Italian when the political tension is well documented. It’s strange then that PFM should release their anti-American opus, Chocolate Kings as an English language LP but that album might give a hint why there’s a melange of native- and English languages used throughout progressive rock in mainland Europe.

The title track on Chocolate Kings spells out that the US army, an occupying force in Italy following the Second World War, became unwelcome when fascism was defeated and bribing the local populace with candy and consumer items was insufficient for them to gain the goodwill of the locals; it could even have been seen as a potential source of friction, especially with the polarisation of political viewpoints in the late 60s and 70s. American and British music arrived in Italy through major ports like Genova and with further influx from a mixture of cultures it’s not surprising that Genova has played an important role in the development of musical styles, though a crucial element was retaining some of their own heritage and identity, including a desire to sing in their own language. It could be argued that the adherence to a ‘romantic style’ also helps to explain the attraction of UK progressive rock in Italy.

A similar situation occurred in Germany, though there was a greater concentration of American armed forces. The counter-culture generation, born after the war, largely rejected Anglicised music but also opted to break from their own traditions to create their own music scene, disrespectfully dubbed Krautrock by the English-speaking media, which has since become massively influential in its own right. The more mainstream prog bands tended to develop along the lines of the space rock of early Pink Floyd although Triumvirat became something of an ELP-clone.


Progressive rock started as an British phenomenon and was absorbed an integrated by many European countries putting their own stamp on the movement, including choosing whether or not to adopt English as its official language. The eclectic mix of influences that helped to form progressive rock indicates that there was no manifesto for the genre to remain 'English', and many bands stuck to their native tongue; this enriched the scene and made it a joy for the UK and US audiences to discover something new. Sadly, globalisation means that the music industry, which once thrived on creativity, now treats artists as commodity, fulfilling the fears aired in Chocolate Kings. The trend for an increasing number of mainland European prog bands to sing in English may reflect the attitudes of the market but would anyone dispute that most fans prefer Italian bands to sing in Italian?


I personally like all non-UK bands to sing in their mother tongue because it sounds more fluent, more poetic, more passionate and more believable but it all boils down to whether or not a band feels that English lyrics best serve the purposes of their music.











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