By ProgBlog, Sep 7 2014 06:40PM

I read an article in The Guardian at the beginning of last month about the ‘death of the album’ due to the rise of digitised music and the rise of the playlist. The article was titled “Album spins closer towards its final track as a viable format” with the subtitle “Sales continue to fall and streamed playlists dominate. But like vinyl, talk of LP's extinction may be premature.” Musicians and industry insiders cited by the author, Hannah Ellis-Petersen, seemed to regard an ‘album’ as a collection of songs released at one particular time. There are classic progressive rock albums that contain collections of unrelated songs (Rain Dances by Camel, Going for the One by Yes, for example) though the 1981 incarnation of King Crimson released their first album of songs that were thematically disparate but stylistically linked by new technologies and interwoven guitar technique; prog was, and to a great extent, still is the genre of the concept album. Ellis-Petersen is also making a distinction between vinyl and LPs, two things I class as synonymous (though I prefer to call an LP an album.) I was never into singles and I was certainly not into bands that produced an album that contained tracks that were released as a series of singles, with the possible exception of Kate Bush – I’ve been listening to Hounds of Love as I write this article. I’m interested in concepts and serious art, not something that’s throwaway; something that provokes thought or reflection, not something that is desirable because it is in vogue. By this admission, I may be opening myself up to the charge of elitism, a criticism that was thrown at prog in the mid 70s, eschewing the simplicity of pop for something that the musicians created with care and imbued with value. Before you think I’ve gone all reactionary, the idea of craftsmanship was embraced by William Morris and the early socialists and the compression of music into digital information, firstly onto CD and then as purely digital files, is the product (and I use that word aware of all its meanings) of an industry that doesn’t care about music as an art form but as something that can be packaged and sold, a commodity to make money. This cynical approach promotes the mass marketing of artists who want to be famous, rather than those who have any creative ability. That’s not to say there are no current artists without credibility, it’s just that fashion wins out in the short-term. The old 7” single has been transformed into the download and the download is as ephemeral as prevailing trends. Streaming services do give the buyer the choice of what to download, so if I didn’t want all of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe because I don’t like Teakbois (I really don’t like Teakbois!) I wouldn’t have to download that particular track. This impression of consumer choice is still managed by large corporations; it’s handy for them to get their artists to produce a series of one-off songs because there’s no musician-controlled creative pause as they gather enough new material to fill an album, during which time prevailing trends may have changed and therefore profitability might suffer. Think of the gap between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, which for a 15 year old seemed interminable! Another charge thrown at prog was the length of time some of the bands spent in the recording studio but why should that be a valid criticism? I accept that from Bill Bruford’s point of view, decision by (group) committee during the production of Close to the Edge was very frustrating but, from a listener’s perspective, the results were worth the aggravation of the recording process. I think the decision of iTunes to diversify into the headphones market was fairly astute because of increasing competition within the streaming business, though if you take any journey using public transport you still hear streamed music played through the pathetic speakers of mobile phones and the high frequency-rich beats escaping from the ears of individuals who have the volume of their portable device turned up way too high. It’s laughable to think that any of these people should dare to consider themselves music lovers. Maybe I should get a life and accept this is the current established way to experience music but I still find it galling that a large proportion of the population don’t understand the term ‘personal’ as in ‘personal stereo’.

My recent experience in record shops in Tuscany, where they also sell component hi-fi equipment, shows that the vinyl album is doing very well, thank you. The Genova-based record label BTF has a Vinyl Magic division and Burning Shed, the online label and store established in 2001 by artists Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers and Pete Morgan for singer-songwriter, progressive, ambient and art rock music artists, does sterling work releasing heavyweight and 200g super heavyweight vinyl editions of albums. In Lucca’s Sky Stone and Songs there was a very impressive range of vinyl releases from metal bands, something that would have put Barrow’s Kelly’s to shame, even in the mid-70s. The march trip to Prog Résiste also revealed a thriving LP market, where for a few Euros more I could have bought the vinyl version of Elysian Pleasures by Carpet instead of the CD.

It’s not that I don’t buy vinyl. Last month I picked up a copy of The Kick Inside, in very good condition for £2, from a stall in Lewes flea market. I should get my Rega RP2 serviced – it’s a couple of years shy of 30 years old but it’s been well looked after, so that when I last did get it serviced by Billy Vee of Lewisham, they thought it was only a couple of years old. Perhaps age is the key. Middle aged and relatively comfortable with decidedly settled musical tastes, I can afford to side with the audiophiles and their turntables. I can also appreciate that some of the finest musical moments of the last 45 years have come as an album, a well-presented conceptual whole, requiring attention and making you think. The pop download is the antithesis of prog, classic or modern, and though there is a whole swathe of the world that either thinks the album format is dead or didn’t even know it existed in the first place, the album, the LP, is not going away because it’s not simply about how a song tells you of passing feelings, it’s an immersive experience.

By ProgBlog, May 10 2014 01:22PM

Is it the familiarity with the material that made me enjoy the Yes performance at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday (8/5/14) so much? I accept that four of the members of the band do have the right, to a greater or lesser degree, to call themselves ‘Yes’ but I’ve previously expressed the opinion that a Jon Anderson-less Yes is less than Yes; I’ve also said that I’ve enjoyed a live show by a Yes without Anderson but I was still in two minds whether or not to see this latest line-up, Squire, White, Howe, Downes and vocalist Jon Davison. The performance of three classic albums in their entirety, in correct track sequence, eventually proved too tempting and I managed to get tickets.

My second visit to the RAH in less than two weeks was inevitably going to draw comparisons between the two shows. Rick Wakeman T-shirts and shoulder bags were clearly visible so I wasn’t the only one who had witnessed Journey to the Centre of the Earth at the end of April. When I took my seat I could only hope that Yes wouldn’t disappoint me as much as the Wakeman gig but I relaxed the moment the birdsong that heralds Close to the Edge began and the spotlights played over the crowd giving the illusion that the floor of the auditorium was covered by ocean.

I was slightly surprised that the first track was Close to the Edge because I’d imagined that the show would proceed in album order. The show actually started in traditional manner with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite which accompanied images and mementos of Yes from the time of The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One. Some of these images had been photoshopped so that the only two band members appearing were Howe and Squire. I’d always thought that the problem with history was that it was revisionist...

I’ve written that Close to the Edge was the first piece of progressive rock music I’d ever heard and how I was struck by how different from rock ‘n’ roll it sounded. The thoughts and feelings I expressed then, about the ‘green language’, the sense of spirituality and acknowledgement of femininity (as opposed to ‘cock rock’) were not only reaffirmed by the projected images which included a woman seated in the lotus position, but by the presence of two women immediately in front of me who seemed very familiar with all the material and were very open in their expression of appreciation of the music.

The images were both very fitting and simultaneously naff, as though a GSCE student had been asked to put together a video using Windows Live Movie Maker. There weren’t any song introductions (not that it mattered); each song was announced using basic animation of a basic font on the projection. I preferred the back projections from the Fly from Here tour. But that didn’t matter. The music stuck close to the original recordings, with some extra notes somehow crammed in by Steve Howe and though Geoff Downes committed the unforgivable sin of using an inappropriate sound patch for what should have been the piano chords on I Get Up, I Get Down, the sonic palette was a fairly faithful reproduction. I’d also like to plead with someone to tell Chris Squire not to use a harmonica. It’s not a prog instrument.

The biggest surprise was the performance of Jon Davison, the unknown factor. His voice was very reminiscent of a young Jon Anderson, a much closer match than that of Benoit David. Not only did he sing really well, he also mimicked, possibly unconsciously, some of Anderson’s gestures and style of clothing. His movements added to the sense of a kind of universal inclusiveness, whether he was pointing up to space or indicating a more personal relationship with the audience. This portrayal of the music was easily enough to convince me that the whole band fully understood the cosmic legacy of their 70s output and though progressive rock in general has once more become an accepted genre, they were showcasing the acme of prog, especially in the two long form pieces Close to the Edge and Awaken.

I think that Squire has a greater bond to The Yes Album than the other albums and that’s possibly why it was the album that was played last. The only real solo spot of the entire evening, Steve Howe’s Clap and the inclusion of the concise A Venture, incorporated for possibly the first time in a Yes live set, were tracks that would hint at what Yes were about to produce as much as the four long songs. It was fitting that the encore should also be of that era, the redoubtable Roundabout, a classic end to a really enjoyable performance.

This isn’t intended to be an in-depth review of the gig – it’s more how it made me feel - the review will appear on the Gig Review pages in the near future. It’s almost unfair to compare the last two shows I’ve seen at the Albert Hall. Wakeman and his Journey was disappointing because it wasn’t really a rock gig; Yes, for all their line-up permutations, were still at the top of their game. However, I don’t think it was down to familiarity that made me enjoy the Yes show more than Rick Wakeman. There’s a gulf in the quality of the written music. Wakeman was a very important part of the line-up that produced Fragile, Close to the Edge and Going for the One and though Journey is considered to epitomise prog it’s not necessarily for the music, it’s more the scope, the battle against the odds to get it produced and the excess. This demonstrates that the whole can be better than the sum of its individual parts. There may be some great moments in Journey but I find it a trifle embarrassing because there are some very weak passages. I’m equally au fait with the Yes canon and Wakeman’s albums from the 70s and it was simply the standard of original music, well performed on the night, which made the Yes concert so enjoyable.

By ProgBlog, Mar 17 2014 10:55PM

One Saturday morning in September 1972 I accompanied my brother into Barrow town centre, and though this was not uncommon in itself, it was in fact the beginning of an obsession with progressive rock that continues to this day.

Tony is nearly three years older than me. I wasn’t entirely sure what music he had been listening to, though the only interesting act that I’d seen on Top of the Pops, the British staple music TV show, was Roxy Music performing Virginia Plain, released in August 1972. At the time, most of the music floating around our house was jazz. Our father was a keen fan, and though his preference was for swing and big bands, the radio provided sufficient variation to give us an appreciation of the different styles.

We went into Kelly’s, an odd shop which sold vacuum cleaners and washing machines downstairs but on the first floor, accessed by a narrow wooden staircase was a display of a small number of musical instruments and amplification and the record department. Tony asked if we could listen to a rather interesting looking album, Close to the Edge by Yes. We were allowed to take the gatefold sleeve into the listening booth, with its dearth of information; six photographs and the names of the band members and the instruments they played. We were both intrigued by the waterscape depicted inside the open sleeve, but nothing prepared me for the amazing music that came out of the speakers. This was rock of symphonic proportions: A single piece of music divided into four distinct sections with thematic continuity and reprise; it was quite evident that the musicians were extremely able, if not virtuoso; the musical production was faultless, with all the instruments and Jon Anderson’s vocals crisp and distinct; and the album packaging was exceptionally well crafted. Alan Farley writing in 2004 conveyed exactly how I had felt holding the album sleeve and listening to the album for the first time, “[CTTE] is a monumental and stunningly brilliant album. ...Particularly in the large format of the old vinyl records, opening the vivid green gatefold cover was like entering another world. In my view the title track ranks as one of the most significant pieces of music ever recorded...” and Bill Martin neatly summarises Close to the Edge as “perfection.”

One of the striking differences between CTTE and most other music around at the time was the lack of a feeling of “maleness.” That’s not to say the music was not flimsy or feeble, because Chris Squire’s opening bass lines are forceful and punchy, riding high in the mix. Even without analysing the lyrics (we didn’t have the lyric sheet in the listening booth) it was obvious there were no overt references to sex and that this was not run-of-the-mill rebellious rock ‘n’ roll. In 1972 I was not aware that CTTE conformed to the form of a sonata but it was obvious to even my untutored ears that this piece of music was different from everything else I had ever heard and that it was really special. At the time I was also unaware that this was an example of progressive rock, but it marked the start of a lifelong journey of musical exploration, and Close to the Edge remains my favourite album of all time. I genuinely felt that I had connected with the vanguard of a musical movement and not only did I need to spread the word, I had to find other music that moved and challenged me in a similar way.

So, what next? An obvious choice was to listen to the back catalogue of Yes, and Tony received Fragile for Christmas that year. School friends who had moved beyond pop or straightforward rock introduced new directions and this helped us discover The Nice. Record stores became a regular haunt. There were two established shops in Barrow, Kelly’s and Wells, but the move away from the single towards the LP format encouraged other shops to give up space for album racks: Boots the chemist, Woolworth and even Blackshaws, a local hardware shop better known for selling nuts and bolts and lawnmowers, converted around 100m2 of the upper floor to a record department with hastily fabricated chipboard racks. Earthquake Records was established in November 1976 by an ex-Barrow student who ended his academic career when he failed to find funding for a PhD. The store was fairly rough and ready, but was housed in the Civic Hall complex next to Barrow’s indoor market. For the princely sum of 5p you could join the Earthquake Music Club. I still have my handwritten note, “Congratulations punk, you have paid your 5 pence. You are now in the club.” I can’t actually remember what this entitled you to, unless it was for the coach trips to a variety of northern cities for live gigs. I went to see Peter Gabriel on his first solo tour in Liverpool (with Robert Fripp as Dusty Rhodes on guitar) and Genesis doing their Wind and Wuthering tour in Manchester. Earthquake closed down in 1983.

Album sleeves sometimes indicated a potentially interesting band. Based on the cover of CTTE which enclosed a real gem, anything that looked as though it could be interesting was scoured for possible clues to the direction of the music. The logic behind this “interesting sleeve – interesting music” hypothesis was that we believed that progressive bands were interested in presenting their work as a total concept: the music; the package; the live stage show. Assuming that each of these elements was given equal weight by the band, a “good” sleeve (or to put it less subjectively, a professionally presented album cover) suggested to us that if the band cared about the presentation of the outer package, they cared for the music inside.

This strategy didn’t always work. For instance, One Live Badger, the first album from ex-Yes organist Tony Kaye released in 1973 had a really stunning Roger Dean sleeve that included a pop-up Badger in the early pressings. Badger bassist David Foster was a former member of the Warriors (along with Jon Anderson) and contributor on the second Yes album Time and a Word, but the music didn’t challenge and the lyrical content tended towards the religious, rather than the spiritual. Equally, there were favoured bands that had awful album covers, such as Gentle Giant’s 1971 offering Acquiring the Taste.

We looked for the instrumentation of bands that we’d not heard. Multiple keyboards were regarded as a definite requirement, but unusual instruments were also considered acceptable because we were interested in bands with a wide sonic palette. Song titles sometimes gave a hint what had inspired the artists: Bo Hansson had brought out Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings but his next release Magician’s Hat included Elidor and Findhorn’s Song, suggesting that not only did he like Tolkien, but he also read Alan Garner. Hansson would subsequently release Attic Thoughts (which included the two part track Rabbit Music) and Music Inspired by Watership Down. This had a positive effect on me because it seemed as though we shared some connection or a common bond, simply by virtue of the fact that we were reading the same authors.

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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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