By ProgBlog, May 29 2016 09:00PM
In the mid-70s I was aware that progressive rock could be found elsewhere in the world other than the UK. I was very much into Focus and Trace (Netherlands); PFM (Italy); Gong (France); and even had an inkling that Wigwam were predominantly Finnish. I’d also come across the work of Swedish multi-instrumentalist Bo Hansson.
Hansson had a track on Charisma Keyboards, the Charisma sampler from 1974 that also included America by The Nice, The Fountain of Salmacis by Genesis and White Hammer by Van der Graaf Generator; Hansson’s Flight to the Ford was the shortest track on the album by some margin but the brevity of the piece didn’t deter Guy Wimble, a friend from across the road, buying Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings Hansson’s most successful assault on the UK album charts, from which the track was taken. The LP had been very successful in Sweden when it was originally released on Silence Records in 1970, partly because of the adoption of The Lord of the Rings by the counter-culture but equally because the music fitted the nascent progressive rock movement. The acquisition of Hansson by Charisma exposed Hansson to a far wider market and though his subsequent albums Magician’s Hat (Silence, 1972, Charisma 1973), Attic Thoughts (1975) and Music Inspired by Watership Down (1977) were not as successful it’s unlikely that many of us would have heard of him had it not been for Tony Stratton-Smith.
The music itself is pleasant and melodic but you could never call it over-adventurous; listening to it recently I found I liked it more than I remember doing so. There’s a space rock vibe pervading the compositions (the original Silence release cover art was quite psychedelic) and Hansson layers the instruments in a way that I think may have influenced Mike Oldfield’s modus operandi; he adds some nice distorted jazzy guitar that strays into Santana territory and, though he may have jammed with Jimi Hendrix, his playing is clearly more informed by jazz than the blues. Flight to the Ford is one of two up-tempo tracks (the other is The Horns of Rohan/The Battle of the Pelennor Fields where the cymbal work suggests clashing swords) but there’s only a relatively narrow dynamic range on the entire album; the swelling organ work conjures images of rolling countryside and though not truly pastoral, it certainly comes across as very reflective. Perhaps I was swayed more by the literary influences and references than the music itself, as Hansson employs titles from books I was reading as a teenager: The Lord of the Rings (obviously); Elidor by Alan Garner and Watership Down by Richard Adams. I suppose that it’s hardly surprising that the Swedes should have taken to modern myths from contemporary authors given their own story-telling legacy and Tolkien’s desire to create a myth to match the Norse sagas.
I travelled around Sweden as part of an InterRail adventure in 1983, making a brief stop in Gothenburg to wait for a train to Oslo,spent two hours in Boden before moving on to Finland, two full days in Stockholm, about half an hour waiting for a hydrofoil in Malmo plus hours of travel on the Swedish rail network, many kilometres of which were spent inside the arctic circle where, even in August, the landscape was stark; the trees denuded as though by acid rainfall, which was just reaching our collective environmental consciousness at the time. I really enjoyed Stockholm and wished I could have spent more time there, staying overnight on a full-rigged three mast iron sailing ship built in Whitehaven, Cumbria in 1888 (SS Dunboyne) which had become permanently moored off Skeppsholmen and converted to a Youth Hostel, the af Chapman. Travelling with college friend Nick Hodgetts, now a renowned bryophytologist, we island-hopped and explored some of the less popular areas of the city, the narrow streets behind the main thoroughfares. I don’t buy ‘tourist’ things but rather I bought a Franz Kafka T-shirt from the Akademibokhandeln bookshop, 1983 being Kafka’s centenary. The legend, in Swedish, read “Kafka hade inte heller så roligt” something along the lines of “Kafka was not so funny”.
The third wave of progressive rock didn’t arise in the UK but in Sweden and the USA. Around the time that King Crimson resurfaced with the double trio conformation in 1994 I started to subscribe to Elephant Talk, the King Crimson internet resource run by Toby Howard and this is when I realised that there was some form of prog revival, frequently sounding like metal with some prog flourishes but also material that was reported to sound like Red-era Crimson; heavy prog but not prog metal. It probably didn’t sink in that there was a strong Swedish connection to the prog revival until I bought my first Jerry Lucky book and with two highly regarded bands mentioned very early on in the listings, Anekdoten and Änglagård, I added Änglagård’s Hybris (1992) to my wish list (copies were selling for in excess of £50 when they were available, which was infrequent) and invested in my first ever download, Anekdoten’s Vemod (1993) because I’d read a description that suggested the music sounded like King Crimson would have done if they hadn’t disbanded in 1974, a remarkably accurate assessment. Vemod is heavy, Mellotron-drenched and although it’s predominantly instrumental, the lyrics are intelligent and call to mind Richard Palmer-James, rather than Peter Sinfield. The melancholy feel of the music is enhanced by the addition of cello; at times the guitar is like the angular playing of Steve Howe on Fragile and the bass style owes a heavy debt to John Wetton. I finally got my hands on a copy of Hybris from a stall at the Prog Résiste festival in 2014, a brilliant, less heavy affair than Vemod or the Anekdoten follow-up Nucleus (1995) but still deeply rooted in the 70s progressive rock sensibility. The darkness and sadness in this trio of albums may be in part due to the Scandinavian physical geography and latitude (nicely parodied by Steven Wilson in live performances of The Raven That Refused to Sing by asking Guthrie Govan to play guitar in the style of a number of stereotypical Swedish situations) but it’s to the benefit of every prog fan that they have such an attitude. I was fortunate to get to see Änglagård play their first UK gig at the Resonance Festival in 2014 and despite a lengthy delay due to the obstinacy of a Mellotron, it was a fantastic routine.
One name that links Änglagård and Anekdoten is Markus Resch who serviced and repaired their Mellotrons and who now owns the rights to the Mellotron name. I think I’m correct in believing that I first came across his name at the Night Watch playback in 1997 where there were two Mellotrons on display.
Another leading light of the third wave is Flower Kings, led by guitarist Roine Stolt who had joined Swedish symphonic prog band Kaipa aged 17 in the mid 70s. I managed to catch them headlining at Prog Résiste but was a little disappointed because they didn’t match expectations. I subsequently read that their later material deliberately moved away from classic analogue keyboard sounds and this fits with my memory of their set, which didn’t come anywhere close to recreating 70s prog but sounded more mainstream and, if you’ll excuse the pun, more transatlantic.
Sometime before I managed to acquire any of the 90s Swedish prog I’d been given Seven Days of Falling (2003) by E.S.T, the Esbjorn Svensson Trio as a present and later bought their final album Leucocyte (2008), released posthumously three months after the death of pianist Svensson. This jazz trio deliberately blurred genres and if such a thing existed, they’d be labelled as prog-jazz, incorporating electronics and noise into their recordings. It was after an E.S.T gig in Brighton in 2005 that I was caught accidentally speeding (34 mph in a 30 mph zone) searching for directions how to get out of the city centre and return to Croydon. It was still a good concert.
If you thought that the only musical export from Sweden was the over-produced Abba singing meaningless nonsense, you need to reappraise. Not only was Bo Hansson riding the first wave of progressive rock, it was the Swedes who resurrected the genre, not just as prog but as genuine progressive rock in the 90s. Bring on the Bo Hansson T-shirts!