By ProgBlog, Nov 25 2014 11:57AM

In the late 60s, experimentation and the rejection of the values of the previous generation was fed by musicians, artists and writers in a mini-renaissance where scientific possibilities pointed in two opposing directions: one to the promise of a utopian future based on consumerism; the other to an understanding that the unfettered use of natural resources was going to endanger the planet. Wars on foreign soil were viewed by the counterculture as imperialist manoeuvres and showed that governments were incapable of embracing ‘cultural relativism’, the academic anthropological view that other distinct cultures should not be seen as inferior to those that espoused Western ideals, because moral values can be culturally specific. The US government had begun to control the populace with pledges of the rewards of hard work: a steady job; a bank loan; a car; a house; new appliances, and competition was deemed to be good because in the economic race, the successful would rise to the top and, according the advertising copywriters of The American Dream, anybody could reap the rewards of the system if they worked hard enough, or swindled, lied and cheated enough.

The opposing view was imported from Eastern Europe and Asia. At that time, no one thought that wars would be fought over foreign oil and other natural resources, the raw materials of capitalism; the enemy was ideological. Such was the paranoia of US politicians, even Communism’s less strident sibling Socialism was to be feared and hated. The proponents of the counterculture embraced the principles of true egalitarianism and challenged creeping corporatism in areas such as agriculture and energy, preferring a ‘back to nature’ outlook and the benefits of a mutually supportive society. During this time, science fiction (SF) matured from escapism into a genre that looked both outwards and inwards and became a serious literary tool to criticise imperialistic tendencies (Ursula Le Guin) and one that warned of the consequences of climate change (JG Ballard). Not surprisingly, SF was embraced by the counterculture and, in conjunction with emerging musical technologies and a liberal dose of chemical stimulants, Psychedelia was born and Space Rock followed shortly after.

The extended blues jamming of the Grateful Dead wasn’t really replicated in the UK or Europe. Pink Floyd played extended jams during their live set and, despite the whimsical psychedelia of the Barrett-penned material that made up the majority of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the inclusion of Interstellar Overdrive and Astronomy Domine on the album indicated the direction of the Floyd for the next couple of years. The Floyd weren’t virtuoso but they did extend musical form by embracing effects and applying them in unusual ways and it was this experimentation and a penchant for cosmic-sounding titles that made them the premiere space rock act from around 1969; the live album of Ummagumma showcases their particular brand of music. The other main UK space rock outfit was Hawkwind who had a longstanding collaboration with SF author Michael Moorcock. Heavy and riff-based and again, not a virtuoso band and certainly not prog, I found them more amusing than any kind of serious proposition. Having said that, I do have a soft spot for Space Ritual and Quark Strangeness and Charm and I even attempted to see Robert Calvert’s West End stage interpretation of his novel Hype but the show had been closed early, that very same week. I did pluck up the courage to see Hawkwind at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon on 14th November 1999 but they didn’t play much material that I was familiar with and the gig was more techno than rambling space rock.

The Floyd had quite an influence on bands from mainland Europe. France’s Pulsar were dreamy and trippy and admit to being strongly influenced by Pink Floyd; before changing their name from Free Sound to Pulsar and playing self-penned material they used to perform cover versions of Set the Controls, and Careful with that Axe. Half Canterbury and half Space Rock and half French, early Gong created the Pot Head Pixies from the Planet Gong space mythology and their music was defined by trippy grooves, played by some excellent musicians. The arrival of Steve Hillage in the Gong fold in 1972 didn’t change their direction much as he’d just released an album with his band Khan called Space Shanty (1972) that highlights his fluid glissando guitar. His next venture outside of Gong was Fish Rising (1975) which continued where Space Shanty left off and included the classic Solar Musick Suite.

Perhaps more than anything, the influence of Pink Floyd was soaked-up by the fledgling German rock movement. Despite the America-centric music industry labelling all German bands with the derogatory term 'Krautrock', the bands themselves adopted the title. Somewhat like Italian prog having a different flavour depending on where the band originated, there were few similarities between bands from the different German cities and there were often no sonic similarities between bands from the same city. What they did have in common, however, was a rejection of the attitude of the previous generation who remained deeply conservative and refused to contemplate atonement for the acts their leaders had carried out in WW2; the new generation had grown up after the war and wanted to create something new and different and independent of mainstream western rock. Many of the early Krautrock acts were highly politicised: Amon Düül arose from a commune that celebrated a variety of art forms and the music they produced was fairly amateur. Musicians from the band formed Amon Düül II and the qualitative difference between the two acts, which co-existed for a while, was huge. Some would argue that Amon Düül II reneged on the principles of the commune, seeking to make a materialist livelihood playing Floyd-inspired space rock. It’s important to point out that not all Krautrock was spacey and reliant upon common instrumentation; much of it was a startlingly original blend of electronics and industrial sounds, including the use of a cement mixer by Faust.

Eloy played a fairly basic form of symphonic prog that owed a debt to the Floyd and were even signed to the Harvest label. Taking their name from the futuristic race in HG Wells’ The Time Machine, their sound is heavy and organ/guitar drenched. I have a copy of Inside (1973) that I bought second hand in Beanos in 2005; all the vocals are in English and the lyrics lack complexity; there’s a hint of politics in the writing but political content was toned down after their first release. I find Nektar, who were British and based in Hamburg yet still get classed as Krautrock, stylistically similar to Eloy with a basis of heavy rock but stretching out into space rock territory. They’re certainly more rock than prog and the one CD that I own, Remember the Future, is considered to be one of their best works. I’m not at all keen on the almost country rock guitar and vocal harmonies and find it hard to believe that I paid nearly €16 for the album. On the plus side, I did buy it at a good exchange rate when I was in Berlin in 2005.

The other major Floyd-influenced Krautrock band is Tangerine Dream. They began with guitar and drums but fairly rapidly evolved into the classic electronic trio line-up that had a great deal of success with the progressive crowd after signing to Virgin. Their expansion of kosmische musik (electronic drones produced by tape loops or keyboard, originally popularised by Popol Vuh) using sequencers for a form of metronomic backing. Pink Floyd had begun to use the VCS3 for Dark Side of the Moon and TD used sequencers in a not dissimilar fashion, weaving in and out of electronic washes of sound. Phaedra and Rubycon are both classic albums and essential listening. By the time of Stratosfear (1976), guitar had crept back into their instrumentation and original member uses mouth organ. Personally, I don’t think that the harmonica is not a prog instrument!

By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2014 07:03PM

There is an increasing amount of printed information about Rock Progressivo Italiano (RPI.) From the odd line or two in the original prog-as-serious-music sociological and musicological approaches of Bill Martin, Paul Stump and Edward McCann, writing on this sub-genre has spread to a chapter in Will Romano’s Mountains Come out of the Sky and 380 pages of personal impressions in Andrea Parentin’s Rock Progressivo Italiano: An introduction to Italian Progressive Rock.

What’s missing from the print media is a decent update on what is still an active field. Prog magazine unearths every facet of prog-metal (yawn) but barely touches on RPI.

That Prog magazine has not taken up the banner of RPI is something of a mystery to me. I wrote to them at the end of March 2013 and the letter was published in May, highlighting this deficiency and using what I consider to be the best album of 2013 so far to illustrate my point.

Le Porte Del Domani by La Maschera di Cera is truly cinematic in scope, like the soundtrack to an epic science fiction film (I am reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant novel The Dispossessed with its twin planets of Annares and Urras.) The impact of this piece of music, like all great Italian prog, is almost operatic; grand themes explored using classic prog instrumentation.

Prog didn’t use the full letter, so I’ve included a photo of the article as it appeared and the full text:

The early editions of Prog were a genuine revelation, and my favourite regular feature was the ‘Once around the World’ spread that introduced me (amongst other things) to the Zappa-esque Supersister. What is missing from the magazine is a column on Rock Progressivo Italiano. You dedicate column inch after column inch to Steven Wilson but somehow you’ve neglected to mention the best release of 2013 - Le Porte Del Domani (and the English co-release The Gates of Tomorrow) by La Maschera di Cera. Not even an album review, even though this was released in mid-January following a long build-up on the band’s website.

I first came across LMdC while trawling through the prog section of Beanos, Croydon’s late lamented best second-hand music shop in the world, and picked up their 2006 release Lux Ade, an album of classic 70s style RPI brought up-to-date with crisp production supplied courtesy of Franz di Cioccio, the PFM drummer. That album is stunning because all the essential ingredients are present: dominant fuzz bass; the whole gamut of analogue keyboards (and a theramin!); operatic vocals; great flute; expansive drumming; tasteful guitar and long, well crafted songs.

Le Porte Del Domani is a particularly bold concept because it takes up the story of interplanetary romance from Le Orme’s 1973 classic Felona e Sorona, an album regarded as a highlight of RPI with its overtures to European art music; LMdC even went back to Lanfranco for their artwork, the man responsible for the cover of Felona e Sorona. In true RPI style, two versions of the album have been released; the Italian version and an English version, with subtly different mixes. Think back to PFM with English language versions of L’Isola di Niente and songs from Storia di un Minuto; Banco’s foray into English language releases and the Peter Hammill penned lyrics of a collectors item Felona e Sorona. There’s even a deluxe limited edition box set of Le Porte Del Domani selling for €400!

Both Italian and English versions work very well, despite the obvious dangers of comparisons to a 70s classic. The musicianship is excellent, the melodies and riffs beautiful and stunning, influenced by styles as varied as Jethro Tull and Van der Graaf Generator, the sonic palette conforms to what you’d hope from an RPI band – check out the list of keyboards used by Agostino Macor – and it’s never over the top like Il Balletto di Bronzo’s raw Ys, it’s an excellent production from the first bass notes to the final crescendo. Come on, Prog, how did you miss this?

I had another letter published last year that was ostensibly about prog and socialist values but it was taken from an article I’d written that also included my fears about buying politically inappropriate music; the polarisation of Italian politics in the 70s coincided with the rise of the genre and, not having a very good grasp of the Italian language, I wasn’t happy about acquiring something that was produced by any proponent of extremist right-wing views.

The beauty of Andrea Parentin‘s book is that he covers the social and political situation of 70s Italy in sufficient detail to allay any concerns I had. He also translates the lyrics of his favourite 100 RPI albums so that the reader can better understand the songs; two areas that provide context for full appreciation of the music. Most RPI bands were left or left-leaning with a handful of religion-inspired bands and fascist sympathising bands, plus some bands that (later) claimed they weren’t attempting to be political. I had already mostly figured this out, because I’d read about the pro-Palestinian stance of PFM and Area and any of the groups that cited Jimi Hendrix as an inspiration (Garybaldi, New Trolls) was unlikely to be right-wing. In fact, the whole social movement that was instrumental in creating conditions for progressive rock to develop was united by the attitude that music could change the world, a belief that the peace movement could bring about the end to global conflicts and end oppression, and an appreciation for ecological concerns. This counter-culture idealism included the concept of multiculturalism, that a ‘good society’ was the inevitable result of the equality produced by a global village and spawned politicised music forms from folk to psychedelic rock and not only were the politics outward looking, the influences for this music were also outward looking. In this context, it’s hard to believe that any true progressive musician could be anything but left-leaning, whatever part of the world they came from. So, in reality, I need not have worried too much. Yet there is one album that made me think long and hard, Zarathustra by Museo Rosenbach. An undisputed classic, this album concerns philosophy that has been subjugated by both sides of the political spectrum, but also has a cover montage that includes a bust of Mussolini. Nietzsche’s ideas were misinterpreted by fascist leaders; Nietzsche originally inspired German socialists (the conservatives thought his writings were subversive) and his philosophy was associated with the anarchist movement especially in the US and France. The anti-Semitic right in France even labelled supporters of the artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, charged with treason but eventually exonerated, as Nietzscheans. However, by the First World War Nietzsche was cited as an inspiration for right-wing German militarism and Hitler, who probably didn’t even read Nietzsche, made selective use of the philosophy and hijacked terms for Mein Kampf. Museo Rosenbach may have been being ironic, as they include thanks for "Un busto di Mussolini cibi per cani e lacche per capelli" which translates to “A bust of Mussolini dog food and hair spray” that help to make up the cover image.

This is the moment to point out that I don’t like Rush. Any band that willingly adapts work by Ayn Rand, however skilful their musicianship, is not something I’m going to enjoy. Bill Martin comments that he thinks the music on Rush’s 2112 is mostly good though the ideas are mostly bad. Rand’s message is "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life". Rand's books have without doubt had great influence, especially in the US but increasingly among British Conservatives, probably because she took ideas already active in the US to their logical conclusion. It has been reported that Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve was her ardent disciple, as was Ronald Reagan. Apparently a survey in 1991 declared her book Atlas Shrugged "the most influential book on American lives after the Bible" and according to the Guardian, since the beginning of the current recession her books have once again shot to the top of the best-selling list. Her heroes are "men of the mind" - tycoons and inventors - who have to prevent the state from ever interfering with them by regulation. She herself identifies with these people, suggesting that they should never to be expected to consider the rest of the general public, who are "parasites" and "mindless hordes". During my teenage years, my friend Bill Burford had a Rush album and though we’d have intense, shared listening sessions when any of us bought a new LP, this Rush album wasn’t something that we’d request to listen to. Bill was a drummer and he appreciated Neil Peart’s technique. As a socialist, I didn’t appreciate any view that espoused selfishness, laissez-faire capitalism and an opposition to socialism, altruism or the welfare state.

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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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