By ProgBlog, Mar 7 2016 12:28AM
It would have been impossible not to be influenced in some way by the magnificent remains of Furness Abbey, a 15 minute walk from my childhood home. So, during my teenage years, I often visited the ruins of what was once the second richest Cistercian monastery in the country. Originally under the care of the Ministry of Works, Barrow rate payers could apply for a small yellow card from a back office in the town hall that granted them free access, I’d go with friends from the Infield Park Gang or on my own, finding peace and quiet within the weathered sandstone walls. I’d go in any weather, any time of year, even any time of day, sometimes climbing over the iron railings and wandering around the stairwells and hidden corners late at night, spurred on by the incredible atmosphere of the towering remains in moonlight or starlight, having to lie low when car headlamps scythed through the fog that would fill the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade in autumn and winter, casting dancing shadows as the lights shone through tree branches overhanging the road.
The site is incredibly picturesque and ought to be a must for anyone visiting the Lake District, a 30 minute drive from the southern lakes. I’ve taken rolls of film and hundreds of digital photos and snatches of video and, since Daryl studied architecture as an undergraduate, I’ve begun to look at detail as well as the big picture and it’s remarkable that some of the fine carving has survived through centuries of battering by rain driven on prevailing south westerly winds.
The ruins gave me an appreciation for place and time and once I’d discovered the abbey it became impossible not to scour the area for other historical sites within the district: Bow Bridge, close to the abbey; Dalton Castle, a 14th Century tower erected to assert the authority of the Abbot of Furness; Piel Castle, another 14th Century construction, situated on Piel Island off the southern tip of the Furness peninsula to regulate trade and to protect the riches of the abbey from border raiders operating in the disputed territory between Scotland and England; and the ruined 14th Century Gleaston Castle with its four towers and remnants of curtain walls, constructed from local limestone. The physical landscape and human landscape are equally important and equally inspiring, especially when you can see evidence of older cultures and civilisations: Anglo Saxons in Urswick (the Tunwinni Cross); the Romans at Ravenglass on the north of the Duddon Estuary; and Bronze Age (the stone circle at Birkrigg.) Then there’s the more recent industrial heritage associated with the extraction of iron ore for the steel and shipbuilding industries.
In a Glass House (1973) was Gentle Giant’s fifth album but it was the first I heard. Their instrumentation extended beyond the conventional and their use of tuned percussion and recorders, together with a penchant for complex interwoven lines made them stand out from other prog bands, lending a distinct medieval flavour. Their relative lack of financial success was down to unbending musical principles, originally declared in the sleeve notes for Acquiring the Taste (1971):
“It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought - that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste”
As a result in the US, their label Columbia Records would not release Glass House because it was deemed to be uncommercial. Though Glass House has plenty of examples of early music, this form had already been pretty much ever present on their records, from portions of Giant and Why Not (on Gentle Giant, 1970); Pantagruel’s Nativity (Acquiring the Taste) and The Advent of Panurge (Octopus, 1972), both of which were inspired by 16th century French writer François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel pentology in keeping with the ‘giant’ theme; and Raconteur Troubadour (also from Octopus.) Later songs would also incorporate this style though overall, from The Power and the Glory (1974) onwards, the band produced more muscular and generally more accessible material.
Perhaps the most well known of the medieval prog bands is Gryphon. One of the ridiculous criticisms of the genre is a perception that medieval-themed stories pervade prog. I suspect that this misconception is an ill-disguised attack on Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975.) Gryphon were unique, utilising genuine medieval instrumentation and performing period pieces but incorporating rock elements; a musical hybrid that may have inspired the band’s name, a mythical half lion, half eagle creature. Their appeal extended from classical music listeners on BBC Radio Three, possibly because of respect for the academic background of band members Richard Harvey and Brian Gulland, graduates from the Royal College of Music, to rock audiences. Tony saw Gryphon when they were the support act for Yes on the Relayer tour (1974-1975) and they had a small section devoted to them in the tour programme. I can’t remember when I first heard them but they were still largely concerned with performing early music. The first album I bought was Raindance (1975), the high point of which is the lengthy (Ein Klein) Heldenleben, a similar piece to the title track on Midnight Mushrumps (1974.) Though I really like these long-form compositions there’s an occasional feeling that there’s insufficient development of musical ideas. This is most acute on Red Queen to Gryphon Three (1974) where I’m left slightly dissatisfied. On the other hand, the immediacy of the up-tempo jigs shows off their dexterity and also brings a satisfactory resolution; I also have a soft spot for the traditional tunes The Astrologer, Unquiet Grave and Ploughboy’s Dream which are given a prog makeover. The experience with Yes obviously influenced the band and by Treason (1977) they’d turned into a rock band who happened to use some medieval instruments. When I listened to Treason recently I was disappointed with the song format; there’s too much singing and the original identity of the ensemble had been lost. The medieval revival was over.