A year like no other
By ProgBlog, Jan 1 2019 05:22PM
2018. A year like no other, with global politics stooping to a new nadir as so-called world leaders lie, cheat and bully their way through life. I’ve always tended towards optimism, which is one of the reasons I have an affinity for progressive rock, but when humanity is fast-approaching the point where man-made climate change is going to have irreversible, accelerated effects on the biosphere and some of the largest economies in the world argue about the wording of a document at the end of the (extended) COP24 Climate Conference in Katowice relating to the implementation of the 2015 Paris agreement, I may have reached my personal tipping point. For the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with tacit encouragement from Australia and Brazil, joining forces to prevent the conference fully embracing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings that any warming of above 1.5oC of pre-industrial levels would be disastrous for many species seems criminal to me. As forest fires rage across California and Australia and Japan once again break their local temperature records, it’s time surely for anyone with children or grandchildren to think globally and, at the earliest opportunity, use the ballot box to facilitate change.
Change appears to be the kryptonite of anyone with a vested interest. Colonial expansion allowed Europeans to profit from indigenous mineral wealth with little or no trickle-down benefit for locals (usually the opposite); the dirty energy that fuelled the industrial revolution made a small number of people very rich; the sell-off of former Soviet state industries made a smaller number of people super-wealthy; now our fondness for technology has created an even smaller group of unimaginably rich who are responsible for the way we get our information. I’m not going to deny that there’s no philanthropic disbursement of funds but however well-founded donations are, there’s always a return for the sponsor through free advertising and access to political power, and even something as outwardly benign as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has come under scrutiny for purportedly cornering the market on global health issues. Thanks to some stunning work by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), it has been revealed that the accumulation of wealth by a limited proportion of the global population, including politicians, is driven by self-interest and that they utilise schemes which although falling within the letter of the law, are actually complex constructs to preserve that wealth and ergo, influence or power. The employment of offshore structures is the equivalent of smoke and mirrors, a device to distract and confuse and ultimately avoid transparency; the influence is exerted to avoid regulation, the same red tape that might have prevented the Bhopal disaster, the Sandoz chemical spill, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the Flint, Michigan water crisis and many others. There’s a salutary lesson here: cutting regulations may save you money, but cutting costs may cost lives.
Climate change appears to be rather low on the UK government’s list of priorities, along with rising homelessness and providing appropriate care for the elderly, those with disabilities and the unwell. Currently paralysed in a mess of her own making, bounded by red lines and surrounded by a party disunited over Europe, the Prime Minister continues to rely on DUP MPs to hold the government together even as she decries almost half of the population who voted to remain in the EU as undemocratic for suggesting a second referendum; her pro-Brexit allies from Northern Ireland don’t actually represent the majority ‘remain’ sentiment to be found in the province but she continues to allow them to hold her to ransom. It’s easy for critics of Jeremy Corbyn to lambast him for not holding Theresa May fully to account for her Brexit bungling but there are some equally pressing issues which, if satisfactorily addressed, might persuade those who voted to leave that their voice is being heard and that there was nothing to gain from leaving the EU. If May had taken more of a consensus approach to work out the best solution for the country and not attempted the impossible, the reconciliation of the pro- and anti-Europe wings of the Conservative party, the UK might not be three months away from the worst possible scenario – no deal.
Extrapolating from what I’ve seen in Prog magazine and in tweets posted by the individuals I follow on Twitter, I imagine that the majority of UK prog musicians are in favour of remaining within the EU. The challenge of restriction to movement throughout Europe effectively putting a kibosh on touring the mainland continent for all but the best resourced bands by erecting barriers to seamless touring not seen since the early 1970s, cutting off a previously accessible market. The reciprocal arrangement will undoubtedly deter artists from some of our former EU partners from gigging in the UK. The following argument could be made by not only anyone who has enjoyed the benefits of cheap intracontinental travel but by NHS senior managers, hoteliers and other owners of hospitality, catering or drinks businesses, even farmers requiring a large seasonal workforce; any restriction or barrier to EU citizens working in the UK is going to have an adverse effect on our daily lives, whether that’s longer waiting times in hospitals, no one to staff care homes for our elderly relatives, food shortages and concomitant rising prices, or just finding it harder to enjoy a night out. Doesn’t that make us look grown-up?
The Brexit-fantasy nostalgia even puts my infatuation with 70’s prog in the shade. I resent the barriers being erected that will inconvenience me on my quest to witness the last few classic progressivo Italiano bands I’ve not yet seen, and flourishing my blue UK passport at the end of a slow-moving immigration queue at Genoa’s Cristoforo Colombo airport isn’t actually something I’m going to feel proud about.
2018 did turn out to be good for one thing; the number of concerts I managed to attend (22) was the most I’ve ever managed in a year; I had thought 2017 was busy with 14 (that’s including two days in Genoa for the Porto Antico Prog Fest and five nights in Rome for the Progressivamente festival.) At times it felt as though I was chasing gigs and was certainly flagging by the end of March. Having recommenced semi-retirement towards the end of 2017, it became easier to take extended weekend breaks so on my return from a midweek skiing trip to Chamonix in early January I discovered that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso had a gig in Brescia the following week which, thanks to its proximity to Milan, made travel arrangements relatively easy.
The true gig marathon began on the 23rd March with my second venture to the Fabio Zuffanti-organised Z-Fest in Milan and ended with my first attendance at a Tangerine Dream performance at the Union Chapel, Islington, on 23rd April. Between those dates I got to see Yes at the Palladium, the first of Steven Wilson’s three nights’ residency at the Royal Albert Hall, had a week skiing in Austria after which I dropped off my gear and immediately headed out to the ESP 22 Layers of Sunlight launch party at the Half Moon, Putney, and flew off to Brescia again, this time for another classic Italian prog band, Le Orme, who were augmented by David Cross on violin. The complexities of getting back the hotel from some of these Italian venues can be something of a logistical nightmare after public transport has shut down for the night. Walking the streets of Genoa after a show poses no threat when the club or theatre is in the heart of the city but the 11km between L’ Angelo Azzurro and the NH Genova Centro, though only a 90 minute walk at most, might not be the best idea at 2am. I am deeply indebted to Marina Montobbio for arranging my lift back from an excellent gig. BMS at Brescia would have been less problematic if I hadn’t followed my wife’s instructions not to use public transport to get back to our hotel. Circolo Colony, the venue for the show, was hidden away on an industrial estate about 20 minutes walk from the light rail terminus to the east of the city. Though the last train was scheduled for 1am, the walk to the station would have involved a section behind the Armco protection from a dual carriageway, so I was told to get a taxi. I had pre-programmed a mobile phone app to get my return cab but despatch phoned me to tell me nothing was available at the time I requested, 00:45am, and the last taxi was at midnight. Apart from missing a chunk of the BMS set, I had to hang around the car park for almost half an hour and had to phone the company to ask where the driver was. When he appeared, it turned out that he was familiar with progressive rock so the journey back to the hotel wasn’t unpleasant. On my return to the city three months later I’d worked out not to bother trying to pre-book a return taxi journey. I made a note of where the taxi dropped me off on the way to the Brixia Forum, returned to that spot at the conclusion of the performance, and called a taxi; mine was the third to arrive. As a result of making the trip for the BMS gig, I was able to explore more of Italy. I really like Brescia with its three record stores (special mention has to go to Kandinski, Via Tartaglia 49c, 25100 Brescia) but it also hosts a UNESCO World Heritage site and the railway provides easy access to other cities including Cremona, and to Lake Garda.
While the variety of live events I attended spanned the inaugural local electronica festival (part three of Palace Electrics was held at Antenna Studios, Crystal Palace and included an interpretation of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music) to Camel at the Royal Albert Hall and the fabulous Lucca Summer Festival for an outdoor experience of King Crimson, I was also being exposed to a lot more music that I’d describe as being outside my comfort zone. Requests for me to review new music, which came from all parts of the prog spectrum, led to the creation of a new section on the ProgBlog website, DISCovery, which had the aim of exposing new artists to a wider audience. So far it has featured a diverse range of styles including classic Floyd-like soundscape prog, pop-prog, prog with a metal bias, and RIO-inflicted free jazz.
I hope that my contribution to the prog world, however small, inspires someone to go out and explore, whether that’s just the sonic adventure of trying something new or a geographical quest to unearth the inspiration behind the music, where an understanding of physical and cultural artefacts help to piece the world together. 2019 certainly needs everyone to display a little more understanding.
Wishing everyone a peaceful new year.
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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...