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, Jan 2 2018 08:32PM

New Years Eve, 2017

It’s 7pm and I’ve just started the blog. I plan to go to bed early because I’m on call and I’m hoping that revellers don’t accidentally contribute to the strain on hospital A&E departments. Not a fan of this night, any year, because of the way it’s been hyped up by advertisers and the drinks industry and how it seems to have become accepted that on this particular occasion it’s OK to get totally wasted, my best new year was spent stargazing on the summit of a small drumlin on the Furness peninsula to mark the transition from the 1970s to the 80s.


Night sky over Furness
Night sky over Furness

TV has been awful this week. The BBC 24 hour news channel has been filling the gaps between genuine pieces of news with reviews of the year for Sport, Film, Deaths, Royals and so on, shown with a frequency that positively numbs so that it becomes difficult to work out which day of the week it is. Having gone to see Crystal Palace play today I can confirm that the football schedule doesn’t help with this feeling of dislocation; lucrative broadcasting deals mean that Premier League teams and their fans are at the mercy of TV executives so that this year, what used to be traditional Boxing Day fixture took place over three days and the New Year’s Day fixture is also due to be spread over three days. Throw in odd kick off times (Palace played at noon) and it’s also messing around with my circadian rhythm.


A couple of days ago we had the announcement of who appeared in the New Year’s Honours list. This is something of a end-of-year ritual and despite a promise to end cronyism, a concession wrung out by a public increasingly disillusioned with the way politics works, we end up with a knighthood for Tory kingmaker Graham Brady and another for ex-deputy PM Nick Clegg, whose lust for power facilitated 7 years of austerity, massive student debt and the impending destruction of the NHS. This ‘recognition’, though a little better than the obvious returning of a favour to Lynton Crosby in the list last year, reinforces the notion that politics is played by an elite for people within their own, tiny bubble and with little or no connection to everyday life. This is obviously not the case for all MPs but there are a number of parliamentarians (and, at a local level, councillors) who use their power and influence to manipulate policy so that it benefits themselves or their families; those with directorships of private health companies or the landlords of multiple properties, for instance. If there’s one burning issue of the times it must be inequality, whether that’s a lack of access to decent housing, decent social services and healthcare provision or decent jobs but, to the shame of us all, the gap between the haves and have nots is getting wider.


PM David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg (Getty Images)
PM David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg (Getty Images)

I find it obnoxious that the lies told during the Brexit debate have put the country in a position which exaggerates inequality; resentment at a lack of investment in former industrial regions, backed up with the spurious mantra that we’d ‘take back control’ was channelled into stoking anti-immigration sentiment and the subsequent devaluation of Sterling means that the increased cost of goods disproportionally affects the less well-off whereas the concomitant rise in share value benefits the already wealthy. It’s incredible that we can boast about the return of blue and gold passports (during the increased time in queues at customs, perhaps) swapped for seamless, invisible borders for exports and imports, and continue an archaic honours scheme which celebrates the achievements of some of the most inappropriate individuals. As for football, today’s Palace performance might have convinced me that it’s ok to get another season ticket for next year; the lack of application from players on silly wages at the beginning of the season felt like they didn’t care about the fans who pay to see them play, their earnings outstripping that of the average punter by some unholy figure.



Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City 31/12/17
Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City 31/12/17

I’m a bit torn by the awarding of any kind of prize where intangibles are weighed up by panels because everyone has innate bias; likes and dislikes. One of the rituals I used to go through as a youth in the mid-70s was to check the Melody Maker, NME and Sounds annual polls to see how the artists that I favoured fared. Some of the results ran counter to both my tastes and to reason, such as Gilbert O’Sullivan reaching no.2 in the Male Singer category and no.4 in the Keyboards category of the 1972 MM Readers’ Poll and I was somewhat bemused by some of the musicians ranked in ‘Miscellaneous Instrument’ because it didn’t tell you which particular instrument it was referring to for each artist and they could easily have been covered by one of the other categories.


The concept has been taken up by Prog magazine which, apart from holding an awards ceremony includes an annual 20 Top Albums of the Year feature where the results are culled from the preferences of the journalists themselves. Additionally, we were invited to vote in their annual reader’s poll, mimicking the format of the classic music papers during the 70s, with the results due out in the next edition. I’ve moved on a little since the 70s and though I don’t mind a list that is supplemented with a bit of information, the Top 20 Albums of 2017 as chosen by the writers at Prog magazine isn’t really my thing. However, I submitted some obscure choices for the Readers’ Poll so I will take a look at the published results.



New Year’s Day, 2018

After listening to one of my Christmas presents, the excellent Three Piece Suite retrospective by Gentle Giant, the first complete recording I’ve listened to for nearly a week due to work, football and family commitments, I thought I’d share some of ProgBlog’s category winners, based on material released in 2017 and the concerts I attended, material unlikely to get much of a mention in Prog...


Playing Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant
Playing Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant

(I got called out and got home a little before midnight)

Back to the blog. Tuesday 2nd January


Album of the year: An Invitation by Amber Foil

Strictly an EP, this is the creation of João Filipe, and it’s a wonderful, all-round and well balanced item. The music takes you back to classic 70s prog, blending very modern concerns with a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale. The quirkiness of the music is reflected in the CD packaging which also contains a ‘blueprint for a house’. It’s unique. Get yourself a copy.


Commended: Alight by Cellar Noise


Bassist: John Wetton

Wetton died in January 2017, the third original progressive rock bassist to pass away in the last couple of years. Whereas there are undoubtedly a large number of amazing technical players who were represented on record or I saw play live during 2017, the accolade has to go to Wetton for the unbelievably wide range of material he’s left for us, including some of the most inventive lines expressed during his time with the 1972 – 1974 incarnation of King Crimson. A great loss to the prog community.


John Wetton circa. Caught in the Crossfire
John Wetton circa. Caught in the Crossfire

Drummer: Franz di Cioccio

The only original member of PFM remaining in the band, di Cioccio now spends as much time behind a microphone acting as front man as he does behind his kit, but along with long-term associate bassist Patrick Djivas he’s steered the ship through periods of not-so-good music to produce their best album of original material for a very long time. Emotional Tattoos may not quite hit the heights of L’Isola di Niente and Photos of Ghosts (I think it lacks sufficient contrast) but the songs are strong and the playing assured. Di Cioccio’s boundless energy, with either sticks or mic stand in his hands, is something to behold.


Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth

Holdsworth is another progressive rock legend who died last year, though in reality he was probably more of a jazz guitarist whose fluid lines graced releases by Tempest, Soft Machine, Gong, Bruford and UK. Highly regarded by other guitarists, his style was idiosyncratic. He’s another fine musician who is sadly missed.


Keyboard player

There are actually too many excellent prog keyboard players to choose from. Of course it’s great to see Rick Wakeman performing classic Yes again with ARW but I’ve also been most impressed with up-and-coming talent from Italy like Niccolò Gallani from Cellar Noise and Sandro Amadei from Melting Clock.


Miscellaneous instrument: Mel Collins, King Crimson (flute, saxophones)

I’ve always considered this a category for non-conventional rock instrumentation, rather than picking a particular type of keyboard like Moog, Mellotron or synthesizer but it was fine when Mike Oldfield used to pick up the prize for playing everything. My preference for a prog-associated instrument not covered by bass, drums, guitar or keyboards is the flute, followed by violin; I was very impressed with Lucio Fabbri when I saw him with PFM and his playing on Emotional Tattoos is real quality but I’m going to plump for Mel Collins for his woodwind. Crimson may not have played the UK in 2017 but the set-list for the US gigs, released on vinyl and CD last year, highlights the formidable talents of Collins.


Vocalist: Emanuela Vedana, Melting Clock

I’m one of a fairly small number of people to have seen the two gigs by Melting Clock but I don’t imagine it will be too long before they reach a much wider audience when they release an album later this year. Their brand of symphonic progressivo Italiano would undoubtedly appeal to all fans of the genre, but two obvious reference points are Renaissance and neo-prog. The songs are highly melodic and well-crafted with multiple layers, utilising twin guitars and keyboards to set the tone for Emanuela’s strong, operatic vocals. Simply stunning.



Live act

Choosing a favourite live act is too difficult, so I’m not going to make a decision. I’ve managed to get to see quite a number of Italian bands from the 70s, including PFM at the fourth attempt, and seeing Wakeman, Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin performing Yes music together was quite special, but it’s the surprises like Cellar Noise and Melting Clock, both of which included accurate early Genesis tributes in their sets, which make it impossible to decide on an outright winner.


Cellar Noise at the Legend Club, Milan
Cellar Noise at the Legend Club, Milan

Venue: Porto Antico, Genova

Choosing a favourite venue is equally hard. The acoustics inside neo-rationalist Teatro Carlo Felice in Genova are brilliant, but the architecture and the internal decor are terrible; the Royal Festival Hall is a great looking building, also with amazing acoustics but I was disappointed with the Dweezil Zappa set. I loved the intimacy of Genova’s La Claque whereas Rome’s Jailbreak Club was a bit too crowded over the weekend of the Progressivamente festival. Brighton Dome is a beautiful performance space though it can be a bit of a drag getting back from Brighton by car or public transport at the end of a gig.

A fantastic setting, good sound and a great line-up made the Porto Antico Prog Fest very special and it was only a 10 minute walk back to my hotel.









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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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