By ProgBlog, Sep 12 2017 08:35AM

In an uncertain world, it’s very easy to surround yourself with the familiar, anchored to comforts which, for whatever reason, confer a sense of safety and reassurance. I’d like to think that I look upon on life as something of an adventure, searching for slightly unusual or enriching experiences. One of these was eight years ago, when my wife, son and I took advantage of close family living in New Zealand and embarked upon a two-week long tour of the country spanning the southern hemisphere transition of winter into spring, August to September. On my fiftieth birthday, a couple of days before we were due to return to the UK, Daryl and I jumped from the Auckland Sky Tower (and got the lift back up to do it again.)

This base-jump by wire is completely safe but when you’re weighed beforehand to calculate the forces required for deceleration and your harness is checked by a second individual, your mind does tend to stray towards irrationality: You’re falling from 192m and reach speeds of 85km/h. It’s an incredible thrill and it’s all over in around 10 seconds; on the second go we were encouraged to begin by falling off backwards!

Auckland's Sky Tower
Auckland's Sky Tower

Rationalising and calculating risk, as well as knowing your own physical limits are essential if you’re attempting something which appears dangerous. A long time ago I used to rock climb, nothing spectacular but involving both risk from the activity itself and also from the relative isolation should something untoward happen, this being long before the advent of mobile phones. A walking accident in the winter of 1976, slipping on snow while descending an improvised route from Great Gable in the Lake District as the weather deteriorated to such an extent that it was genuinely unsafe to continue, battered my confidence. I slipped, tumbled and fell about 120m down a scree slop where the pitch was such that there were plenty of rocks sticking up out of the snow cover. It’s remarkable that I didn’t break any bones but I did spend a couple of nights in hospital for observation because I’d lost consciousness at some stage during my ungainly descent. The A&E personnel thought I’d been involved on a motorcycle crash; it was common for local youths to buy motorbikes with their first pay check and almost as common for them to be involved in a serious incident within the following week. I suspect it’s the isolation that concerns me because it didn’t cause me to be afraid of heights; it does make South Side of the Sky resonate it little bit more. I’m just a bit more careful when I approach something potentially hazardous and more critical of the risks and benefits.

South Side of the Sky
South Side of the Sky

Endorphins, named so because they’re natural, morphine-like molecules (endo- means ‘from within’), are produced in the pituitary gland and hypothalamus. Their main function is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals but they also have a positive, euphoric effect; they are released in large quantities during pleasurable moments such as during extreme sports, during sex (especially during orgasm), eating chocolate, and when we listen to good music.

When it comes to prog, I tend to play safe and listen to albums from the ‘golden era’, preferring symphonic prog, keyboard-layered with its roots in classical music and jazz. The modern stuff that I like, possibly best exemplified by the current crop of Italian bands like Il Tempio delle Clessidre, Panther & C., Cellar Noise and Melting Clock, and also ESP from the UK, play music which has a grounding in classic progressive rock of the 70s. Along with jazz rock (last week’s playlist includes Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia (1978) and Deep End (1976) by Isotope on original vinyl), jazz and some classical music, this is basically my comfort zone. I do own some Magma releases, the classics Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh (1973) and Köhntarkösz (1974) on CD plus what I thought might be the most accessible LP Attahk (1978), which I bought first sometime in the early 80s; I still find all three hard going. My older brother Tony also tries to keep me on my toes. Though our tastes overlap to a considerable extent he likes some rather uncompromising modern jazz and bought me Louis Sclavis’ L'imparfait des langues (2007) for my birthday 10 years ago. The music, originally commissioned for a performance in Monaco in 2005 cancelled at short notice due to the death of Prince Rainier III, was a deliberate attempt to challenge Sclavis’ compositional habits, using players from different backgrounds with whom he’d not worked before. The album was recorded in one day.

Magma collection
Magma collection

More recently I’ve been extending the boundaries of what I’ll listen to. I’m not particularly a fan of Hawkwind but I did like some of Robert Calvert’s ideas (I was really disappointed that his stage adaptation of Hype was cancelled within a week of opening – as I stood outside the theatre’s closed doors) and I finally got hold of a copy of Quark Strangeness and Charm (1977) on vinyl, even though it’s outside my normal listening habits. I’ve previously been dismissive of Roger Waters’ solo efforts having seen his The Wall and The Final Cut follow-up The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking in concert and owned a bootleg recording of the LP on C-90 which I wasn’t over-enamoured with. I thought the music descended from the widescreen of mid-period Floyd to narrow-focus, basic rock built around a riff that sounded as though it came direct from The Wall. However, I bought a copy of Is this the life we really want? because of the sentiment, knowing that Waters is a master of concepts and believes in superlative production values, left in the extremely capable hands of Nigel Godrich on this latest release. I also procured the quirky folk-prog-world music re-release of Syd Arthur’s On An On (2012) which is beautifully written and played, but not what might have been expected of me!

Having recently become semi-retired again seems to have loosened some of my listening inhibitions and whereas I’d look at an album in my youth, without hearing it in its entirety and rating it highly, I’d never own it. I’m now more open to recommendation and even experimentation, buying albums which I probably should have owned many years ago without listening to them beforehand. Sometimes I’m disappointed. So what? Yet there’s still one genre that I’ve not fully embraced, prog metal, though I’m coming round to see the blurring of distinction between the prog and the metal, even accepting an invitation to review the latest release by Texan heavy prog/prog metal outfit Process of Illumination (see my album review of Radiant Memory here.) I was lent a copy of Opeth’s Heritage (2011) by friend and Steven Wilson fan Neil Jellis because it forms part of what Wilson, who engineered the album, described as a trilogy, the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album Grace for Drowning (2011). Heritage contains some decent music, the first full departure from the band’s metal roots and fortunately dispenses with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of the frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion I associate with metal. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano exercise and The Devil’s Orchard, like much of the rest of the album references the sounds of 70s prog – the organ work is quite rewarding, there’s plenty of electric piano and there are some tricky guitar riffs. The introduction to I feel the Dark could almost be Jethro Tull then roughly half way through the track it switches with the introduction of slow, crunchy power chords which in turn give way to some Mellotron. It never goes overtly ambient but I think I detect the Steven Wilson influence. Slither is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade. Nepenthe and Häxprocess display the players' sensitivity with good use of electric piano and some adventurous rhythmic patterns. Famine has flute, effects, gentle piano chords (c.f. Heritage) and gives way to fast guitar and Hammond. So what’s not to like? I think it’s an admirable effort with decent pitch, tempo and instrumental variation and you can’t fault the playing or the production; it just doesn’t grab me. Similarly I was recommended some Il Bacio della Medusa and bought the Black Widow records re-release of the eponymous debut (BWR, 2006) and bought a number of CDs by Peruvian prog band Flor de Loto when I was in Lima, only to be disappointed by the heavy edge – it wasn’t what I was expecting from either band. I’ve also got a download of The Gift of Anxiety (2013) by Sylvium and the Sky Architect CD A Dying Man’s Hymn (2011) neither of which are awful, start to finish metal by any stretch of the imagination but equally, neither is particularly inspiring.

Perhaps the greatest insult of all to my former listening habits was my recent acquisition of Kansas' Point of Know Return (1977) which I'm almost reluctant to admit I quite like. It's hardly up there with the greats but it's a decent effort, bought second-hand on spec. My comfort zone may be expanding but the more metal you get with your prog metal, the more reluctant I am to push those boundaries further. I’ll stick to the proto-prog metal of Red, thank you.

Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas
Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas

By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 01:02PM

I got a room to myself in my second year at uni, overlooking a portion of the beer garden of the White Horse next door. In good weather I would open my windows and play Asbury Park from King Crimson’s USA really loud, posing with my bass strapped round my neck. I have no idea what the pub clientele thought of the noise, but I rather hope it annoyed them. I considered Courage, the beer at the pub, to be quite unpleasant and the bar staff had begun to charge me for soda water when I ordered a soda and blackcurrant. My Barrovian accent was quite alien to the Kent locals, and one evening I was served with a disgusting concoction of cider and blackcurrant.

After another summer of working at British Steel and with nothing major to spend the money on I felt more able to get out to gigs, including two I’m not particularly proud of: Slade at the Goldsmiths’ College Christmas Ball and UFO at the Hammersmith Odeon, but live music generates a good feeling even though it might not be one’s preferred style, as long as it’s well played. The UFO gig was recorded for BBC in Concert and has since become available on CD and as a download. On-line reviewer SJC Armstrong called the overall performance stunning and every bit the equal of UFO’s Strangers in the Night album. They were supported by a dreadful glam-metal band, Girl, so the evening was more painful than pleasurable.

The Slade gig was memorable for the student who got up on stage, stripped off her top and bra and then dived into the audience, landing on top of me. Slade by this time had renounced all pop overtones and were just a rock band that did exceptionally well from the college circuit. They played all their hits but also showed a degree of musicianship that never came across on Top of the Pops; bassist Jim Lea was a former Staffordshire Youth Orchestra violinist.

I did go to some gigs that I enjoyed. The academic year started with Camel at the Hammersmith Odeon. Tony was doing his elective at the Institute of Psychiatry in Denmark Hill which coincided with my return to Goldsmiths’ so we met up, checked the listings in Time Out and headed off to west London. Some might say that by this time Camel were in creative decline. I’d heard but not bought Breathless, the studio release after Rain Dances and was not particularly impressed because it had dropped any pretence of being a conceptual whole and was more a collection of songs of varying quality and style. Breathless ran the gamut from classic progressive rock (Echoes) to the whimsical early Caravanesque Down On the Farm via funk (Wing and a Prayer; Summer Lightning). This mixture of styles detracted from the overall quality of the album but was obviously a result of the creative tensions between Peter Bardens and Andrew Latimer; Bardens would leave the band once the album was finished to be replaced for the ensuing tour by two ex-Caravan keyboard players, Jan Schelhaas and Dave Sinclair.

I’d not heard I Can See Your House from Here, Camel’s next effort because the album wasn’t due for release for another few days. This turned out to be unimportant because there was sufficient early classic Camel material to make it a good gig, but I was left with the impression that this was Camel without any balance: Andy Latimer playing leader of the ship and taking on the persona of guitar hero.

Dave Brubeck made a rare appearance in London at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in November 1979. I was quite in awe of the venue, something of a brutalist behemoth on the outside, but with an auditorium renowned for its excellent acoustics. I was equally in awe of the clientele that patronised the RFH, regarding it as a citadel of high culture, so it was somewhat surprising that Jim, Amanda Lait (Jim’s girlfriend at the time) and I managed to get tickets without much difficulty. Throughout his career Brubeck had upset jazz purists for making the genre too accessible, for using odd time signatures and for playing with electric instruments. It was this ‘outsider’ persona that I found intriguing. Keith Emerson had adapted Blue Rondo a la Turk for The Nice (changing it from 9/8 to 4/4 in the process) and I’ve always liked Take Five. Piano-led jazz is my favourite form of jazz and consequently I really enjoyed the concert.

From the fully seated concert hall to the cabaret style double-heading bill of Bruford and Brand X at the Venue, I was choosing my gigs fairly carefully. This was the first time I’d seen a band with Bruford occupying the drum stool; the man who had played with the three greats of progressive rock: Yes, King Crimson and Genesis. I like to watch all musicians who are masters of their craft, and Bill Bruford has the incredible ability to make complex drumming seem effortless. The set list (in running order) comprised of Hell's Bells; Sample & Hold; Land's End; Joe Frazier; Gothic 17; Palewell Park; Age of Information; and 5G. The music produced by Bruford is difficult to categorise, ranging from jazz rock to progressive. Brand X on the other hand were once called the ‘British Mahavishnu Orchestra’, and though less fiery than the avatars of fusion, they easily fitted within the jazz rock umbrella. This was a really good evening despite the price of the drinks. I made one pint of bitter last the whole evening.

The jazz-themed gigs continued with a summer term outing to Dartford to see Barbara Thompson. I’d picked up her band’s first album in 1989 from somewhere, an impulse buy influenced by the presence of ex-Soft Machine Roy Babbington on bass. At the time I was unaware of Ms Thompson’s jazz pedigree but after one listen I was hooked. This was melodic electric jazz not a million miles from progressive rock.

Being based in London meant that I had access to a wide variety of live music, but there weren’t too many prog acts around, and consequently I’d deliberated over which bands to go and see. I’d done Genesis and Yes; King Crimson were in hiatus (though at the time we all believed that KC had ceased to exist) but there was one remaining major act that were still touring. The big event was scheduled for the summer of 1980; Pink Floyd had major success with The Wall at the tail end of 1979 and were going to be performing a limited number of shows in the UK. Though not fully enamoured with the album, believing their progressive days were far behind them, I’d heard positive things about live Floyd shows (school friend John Bull had seen them playing at the Bingley Hall in Stafford on the Animals tour), I managed to get tickets for myself and some friends from Infield Park. I have to admit that it was the greatest spectacle I’d ever seen.

At the start of the third year Jim and I went to see Barbara Thompson at the Tramshed and, to Jim’s surprise, he knew the violinist in the band, Pete Hartley, with whom he’d been to school in Birmingham. This proved to be an easy opening for a chat with Barbara Thompson herself during the interval. Next up were Jethro Tull at the Royal Albert Hall, which had sold out so quickly that the only tickets we could get were standing in the gods, reached by narrow, winding enclosed stairs. This was the tour to promote A, with Eddie Jobson on violin and keyboards, including a mini-solo on the Hall’s organ. The A material was below-par Tull and from our perch on high the sound quality was dreadful. This was not the best of gigs, so it’s a good job that the tickets were only £1.75

The following week was a small stand-up affair at the London School of Economics, The League of Gentlemen, Robert Fripp’s pared-down New Wave band. According to the sleeve notes on their eponymous album the band played 77 gigs though only 71 are listed, the last one being the LSE show on November 29th 1980. The notes also reveal that the band’s commitment to work together ended on December 4th. Anyone going to see some form of reincarnation of Crimson would have been very disappointed. This sound was angular and immediate, dance music for a new decade. Or it would have been if it could get going. Fripp’s famous pedal board that allowed him to produce ‘Frippertronics’ effects (the precursor to Fripp’s soundscapes) and guitar sounds that could strip the paint off walls, decided not to function, however much the road crew coaxed and cajoled it. The crowd were getting restless but I can only imagine that Fripp himself was less than happy with this piece of defunct electronics. I think that eventually one or more of the components were by-passed and the show eventually went ahead. Fripp’s next venture would feature the more reliable Roland guitar synthesizer.

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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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