The gig marathon did pause, temporarily, for the annual week-long skiing holiday. This year’s resort was Sölden in Austria and, after the relative success of the self-organised trip to Chamonix in January, plus a wealth of experience planning prog-themed visits to Italy, flights, public transport transfers and accommodation were all booked individually and independently of tour operators. This meant that we could avoid the early Saturday morning chaos at Gatwick by choosing a Tuesday lunchtime flight, though a planned gig on the day of return, Tuesday 17th April, meant there was going to be something of a rush when we’d arrived back in the UK.
Despite some poor visibility when it snowed on the days we were on the mountains, we did ski every day and the conditions when the sun did come out were near perfect; carving down almost empty runs in fresh powder. I’d been to the resort before, in 2007 but the amount of investment that had been poured into the area made it almost unrecognisable. Not only could I not work out where the hotel I’d stayed at had been (if it still existed) but the Gaislachkogl lift, which I may have used once during my last stay, became the prime station for getting up anywhere in the ski area. Anyone familiar with the James Bond film SPECTRE would recognise the resort because the mountaintop clinic where Bond meets the female lead, Dr Swann (played by Léa Seydoux) is the ice Q restaurant on the summit of Gaislachkogl at 3048m, a beautifully designed building that fits perfectly within its high mountain environment and which serves really fine cuisine. We ate there, twice.
the ice Q restaurant, Gaislachkogl
Our B&B may have been a little way from the centre of Sölden but it did have a bus stop right outside, where journeys during daylight hours were free with a lift pass and hourly buses wound down the valley to Ötztal station, so this is where the trek to the ESP 2.0 gig on 17th April at the Half Moon, Putney began. I’d ordered a copy of their forthcoming release 22 Layers of Sunlight from their Bandcamp page and fortunately for me Cheryl Stringall, the owner and managing director of their record label Sunn Creative, recognised my name from previous correspondence and asked if I’d like a pre-release copy. This meant I was able to hear the whole album a couple of times and parts of it a few more times to acquaint myself with the music before the show.
The calm is over: Pitze bus stop, Sölden...
The Half Moon, Putney
I am a big fan of the original Tony Lowe – Mark Brzezicki ESP collaboration and after the launch of the debut album Invisible Din (2016) I pronounced that I wanted to hear more from them. A year and a half later 22 Layers of Sunlight is the product of a more settled outfit, with Lowe and Brzezicki being joined by Peter Coyle (ex-Lotus Eaters) on vocals plus bassist Pete Clark and keyboard player Richard Smith; ESP Invisible Din was more of a collective which though showcasing the talents of a variety of guest musicians including David Cross and David Jackson (whose collaboration CD Another Day arrived on my doormat the same day as 22 Layers) and vocalist John Beagley, would have been a nightmare to organise as a touring entity.
Coyle brought the concept with him, an original, cautionary tale of global tech-monopolies and AI that has increasing relevance in modern society. It was good to hear the instrumental layers are all still there, with the opening track God of Denial and its subsection The Code shifting seamlessly from angular post-rock guitar riffs to a couple of bars of lead synthesizer that wouldn’t be out of place on a proggy Steven Wilson album and then to orchestrated soundscape, all neatly tied together by Coyle’s clever lyrics. Algorithm contains some post-Hackett Genesis-like drumming and a dual vocal passage that strongly reminds me of Sigur Rós, then the title track has a cinematic orchestrated movement that gives way to a quality prog workout before reprising the chorus and main melody, though overlain with some gorgeous guitar soloing. Ride through Reality allows the players to let rip, it’s an instrumental with a little vocalising, partly jazzy but equally reminiscent of Lamb Lies Down-era Genesis instrumental blows, brief but not short on quality. Smiling Forever is another post-rock composition, laden with Mellotron string patches before it also goes full-Floyd with beautiful, tasteful slowburn guitar and after a vocal reprise blends into the laid-back Don’t Let Go section of the longest track on the CD Butterfly Suite with flute Mellotron patches. Traveling Light is the excellent instrumental part of this track, harking back to the sounds and complex rhythms of Genesis circa 1973 with some great synthesizer and organ work and more tasteful guitar, which eventually resolves into a very Hackett-like, disturbing riff before Sensual Earth continues with similar sounding themes, alternating analogue synthesizer lines and expressive guitar.
Gunshot Lips is a more modern-sounding track, its urgency dissolving into trance grooves before the driving beat resurfaces, though it retains the multiple layers of the more cinematic and prog pieces. Introducing the song at the Half Moon, Coyle confessed he didn’t know why it was called ‘Gunshot Lips’. Final track Ballad of Broken Hearts is an orchestrated, melodic piece with a deceptively pop-y structure overlain with harmonic splashes of guitar and lead synth. It’s quite optimistic sounding until about three quarters of the way through to the end when it slows and becomes more proggy and reflective as Coyle sings ‘is this all I can hope for?’
You can tell it’s an ESP album – there are certain similarities in quality of voice between Coyle and his Invisible Din predecessor Beagley – with the same degree of originality and a greater feeling of consistency on 22 Layers, though there are probably more excursions away from the undeniably symphonic prog feel of Invisible Din. It’s certainly a worthy sophomore effort, expertly crafted with excellent writing and musicianship, impeccable production and once again, beautiful presentation. I made it to the live performance with time to spare; the Half Moon is fairly convenient for me and it’s a great venue. The set consisted of material from both albums, expertly handled by the quintet and this was warmly appreciated by the crowd. I think of ESP Invisible Din as a Lowe/Brzezicki band but that evening Coyle played the part of front man and the 2.0 group appeared to be more democratically organised. It was a thoroughly enjoyable gig.
I may have made it from Sölden to the Half Moon but there wasn’t a great deal of time before it all started again, roughly 52 hours between getting back from Putney and setting off on the next leg of the gig marathon to Brescia, thematically connected to ESP through David Cross who has been touring as a guest musician with legendary progressivo Italiano band Le Orme. Previously acquainted with the small, beautiful city after staying there to see Banco del Mutuo Soccorso play in January, one of the first reminders of why I had come this time was plastered over a wall on our way to the hotel.
First stop of the afternoon was the Tostato coffee shop (although we’d already had coffee at Verona station) and then it was on to the record stores; Music Box and its sister store Brescia Dischi were closed but we wandered away from the centre to Kandinski, an excellent shop selling new and second-hand vinyl and CDs where I was allowed to browse through the selection ordered in for Record Store Day, being held the following day. I couldn’t really justify getting the special edition The Piper at the Gates of Dawn so I chose three albums from the Italian prog and International prog re-pressings racks: Il Tempio della Gioia by Quella Vecchia Locanda; ...per un Mondo di Cristallo by Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno; and Visitation by Pekka Pohjola. It was nice to chat about music and about being in Brescia specifically for music, and about the meaning of Record Store Day. As I left I was presented with a CD released in 2016 on Kandinsky Records, Double Rod Pendulum by Ant Mill which I was warned wasn’t prog but on subsequent listening have discovered is highly original guitar-driven rock which at times crosses into psyche. It’s not really my thing being relatively heavy and more blues-rock based than anything else in my collection, but it’s still melodic, with vocals all in English. It was recorded live in the studio and you can detect a raw edge, but the production, typified by the snare drum sound on Tale #11 [Lullaby for E] is really good.
The evening’s entertainment was Le Orme and David Cross at Dis-Play, a temporary venue set up in the Brixia Forum the city’s exhibition space, a 10 minute taxi ride from our hotel. This was me ticking off another classic 70’s progressivo Italiano band, though the current line-up includes just one original member, drummer Michi Dei Rossi. Keyboard player Michele Bon has been with the band since Tony Pagliuca left in 1992, so the most recent recruit is bassist/guitarist/vocalist Alessio Trapella who joined in February 2017. I was totally blown away by the musicianship – the performance seemed to have been comprised almost entirely of early material that I’m familiar with and the band had found a superb replacement for Aldo Tagliapietra in Trapella (I’d seen Tagliapietra performing the whole of Felona e Sorona in Genoa in 2014 which was quite special). The inclusion of David Cross on the tour was perfect; Le Orme are no strangers to guest musicians - Peter Hammill wrote English lyrics for Felona and Sorona and David Jackson has performed with both Tony Pagliuca and Aldo Tagliapietra - and the violin seems like such a natural fit with the Venetian-formed band. Dei Rossi (with the help of Cristiano Roversi) released an album of Orme material arranged for orchestra ClassicOrme last year and in 1979 the classic line-up released Florian (after Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco), an album recorded using only traditional (non-rock) instruments augmented with violin, an exercise in modern classical music with a progressive touch. Cross featured heavily during the gig and in return the ensemble played a version of Exiles, based more on Cross’ interpretation from his album of the same name than the original Larks’ Tongues version, but it was good to see the acknowledgement of the King Crimson influence on Italian prog. I thought there was an interesting comparison between the role of Dei Rossi, the drummer and only original member, with that of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio. Though Dei Rossi didn’t sing he spent quite a lot of the time between and sometimes during songs in front of his kit not only acting as spokesperson, but also directing the audience and the band. There was a humorous moment where he pointed out that he still had a lot of hair and the majority of the males in the audience had very little.
Apart from some technical problems with Michele Bon’s monitor and earpiece right at the beginning of the set, which required the removal of his jacket and held up the start of the show, it was a flawless performance by a group of exceptionally gifted musicians. Best of all, I managed to got to see the whole performance because I’d worked out how to order a taxi late in the evening, when the taxi hailing smartphone app no longer worked. My merchandise stand foray resulted in a limited edition copy of Elementi (2001) on vinyl but Chiemi Cross had moved off elsewhere for a moment so I couldn’t say hello and I’d just taken delivery of my Cross and Jackson CD at home.
The following day, Saturday, we headed off to nearby Cremona, a UNESCO World Heritage site listed in 2012 for the intangible heritage of violin making; to mark Record Store Day the main thoroughfare was lined with stalls selling vinyl and CDs. I got into conversation with a couple of stall holders and bought Florian for €15 and Per un Amico for €40, though I was being encouraged to buy an original Italian copy of Chocolate Kings complete with poster (my copy of Chocolate Kings is the Manticore release with the stars and stripes covered chocolate bar which on that particular stall had a higher mark up than the Italian version.)
We flew back to the UK on a late afternoon departure from Verona, and whereas I’d had time to get dinner before going to see ESP 2.0 when I came back from Austria, this time I headed straight from Verona (26oC) to the Union Chapel, Islington (14oC) for the first of two Tangerine Dream shows...