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Following a short skiing trip ProgBlog reflects on music about winter and snow, and reconsider reggae...

By ProgBlog, Jan 16 2018 08:52PM

I’m just back from a couple of days skiing in Chamonix, what I hope will turn out to be a warm-up event to a full week somewhere else later in the year. The town itself is very pleasant and though I’ve skied in the area three times before, we’ve always been based a little higher up the valley in Argentière and whereas we’d previously driven down to the resort, this time we flew to Geneva and took a transfer from there. We’d drive through Chamonix at the beginning and end of holidays and to get to some of the ski areas, scattered from just south of the town up to Balme at the head of the valley; we’ve even stopped there to see a screening of the second of the Lord of the Rings films, The Two Towers in English. So for the first time since our inaugural trip in March 2000, I managed to get a feel for the place, somewhere I’d read about in climbing accounts by Don Whillans, Joe Brown and Dougal Haston when I was a youth and somewhere I felt I knew well enough to base one of my O Level English Language exam essays.


Chamonix
Chamonix

I’m pretty sure there has been a lot of change since I read mountaineering books in the mid-70s, a time when young rock climbers used to name routes after prog tracks: The Gates of Delirium grade E4 (6a), described by UK Climbing as ‘magnificent’, Relayer (another E4) and Close to the Edge E3 (5c) are all climbs on Raven Crag, Thirlmere, in the Lake District and there’s also a Gates of Delirium in Yosemite; Genesis are represented by Hairless Heart, a grade E5 (5c) slab climb on Froggatt Edge in Derbyshire first ascended, solo, by John Allen in 1975 but there are others. There’s a thread from 2012, now closed down, on the UK Climbing site which asked why “an unnaturally high proportion of route names reference Pink Floyd, other dubious prog rock, or Tolkien.” The one sensible answer suggested that prog coincided with an explosion of new routes, though I did like the response “What's wrong with Prog rock? Or J.R.R. Tolkien? Many people have been inspired by the writings of Tolkien and the music of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Yes etc. The fact is that both tend to ramble on a bit, but are ultimately rewarding in the end.” The erection of a new sports hall at my school included a short, under-used climbing wall and along with a couple of others I was allowed to climb during PE lessons. Access to Lake District routes in Coniston and Langdale was facilitated by Honda 550, with me sitting pillion and carrying the gear but I wasn’t nearly as good at climbing as I’d hoped. However, progressive rock and rock climbing seemed intrinsically linked as I flicked through Crags and High magazines listening to Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on the radio, ticking off another prog-inspired route name.



I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.
I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.

I didn’t expect to see any record shops in Val d’Isère but I did think there might have been one in Chamonix, with its population of around 9000, a little less than that of Auray where I bought my first Ange CD Le Cimetière des Arlequins (from 1973.) Unfortunately there weren’t any so apart from listening to Semiramis’ Frazz Live (2017) on my mp3 player, the only music I got to hear was piped from restaurants and on one occasion, a truly awful singer-guitarist at the Irish Coffee bar across the road from our hotel. I don’t have much winter- or snow related music in my collection; I own a copy of Rick Wakeman’s White Rock (1977), the soundtrack to the official film of the 1976 Innsbruck winter Olympics and regard it as a return to form after Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. My favourite track is Lax’x and my next favourite is the definitive prog track on the album, Ice Run but there are a number of snippets of music used in the film that form a sonic link between the different Olympic disciplines that don’t appear on album tracks, some of which are very Yes-sounding. The album’s instrumentation of keyboards, percussion and choral backing provides an effective, coherent narrative that works well for both audio and cinematic formats, linked by the melodic ‘searching for gold’ keyboard motif. I really like Wakeman’s full use of a range of keyboards and think it’s that which makes the album stand out from its immediate predecessors; there’s a much broader range of tonality, even though there’s no guitar or bass guitar.


Wakeman was an integral part of the band for Fragile (1971), as Yes came close to perfection. Roundabout, with its imagery of mountains that ‘come out of the sky’ from ‘in and around the lake’ could represent somewhere like the Lake District or the Swiss Alps but this doesn’t necessarily suggest winter, unlike the lyrics to the angular, driving and somewhat overlooked South Side of the Sky with its message that natural forces can be brutal. It’s ironic that White Rock was recorded in Wembley but when Wakeman rejoined Yes in late 1976, the band had decamped to Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland to record Going for the One (1977), where Wakeman subsequently recorded 1977’s Criminal Record.

ELP were another band who combined a tax-break with recording in Montreux for parts of Works Volume 1 (1977) and though Fanfare for the Common Man wouldn’t normally fit into a ‘winter’ category, the video for the truncated version released as a single which reached no.2 in the UK charts was filmed in the futuristic Montreal Olympic Stadium (where they were rehearsing for the Works tour in a basement car park) after Greg Lake emerged from rehearsals for a breath of fresh air and was immediately struck by the vision of the snow-covered arena.


Another apt piece of music that I own is Winterthrough (2005) by Höstsonaten, part of a season-themed set of luscious melodic symphonic Italian prog albums. The standout track is Rainsuite which also featured in Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band set list; it’s made up of a number of linked melodies which I think puts it in the Focus or Camel bracket. Camel had their own winter-related mini-epic Ice from I Can See Your House from Here (1979) which I hummed to myself on the skiing trip as we visited an ice cave carved into the Mer de Glace. Both the ice cave and the track have a stately beauty; witnessing Camel play the track live when they were promoting the album and the experience of being inside a glacier had a similar awe-inspiring effect on me.



The story of Fang in White Mountain, my second favourite Trespass (1970) track after The Knife, is an obvious snow-related story but is One for the Vine from Wind and Wuthering (1976), enough of a winter- or snow and ice themed song to count in my list? One of the songs being played at a restaurant where we stopped for a late morning chocolat chaud certainly doesn’t fit into the list but it did force me to reconsider my opinion of reggae. I’m obviously aware of the significance of Bob Marley who, after the demise of The Wailers in 1974 relocated to England and, with music infused with spirituality, became not only a multi-million selling artist and also came to symbolise Jamaican culture and identity, letting a ray of Caribbean sunshine into the world, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to reggae. What I heard that morning at Les Houches, played at decent volume through Bose speakers seemed like a long single track, divided into subsections rather like prog. A quick Shazam app search revealed that part of the song was Rastafari Leads the Way by Lutan Fyah and I suspect that the music was a Warrior Musick production Think Twice Riddim, featuring a host of different artists with an amazing, positive vibe; a rejection of violence and a call to rethink a way of life which chimed with the ethos of progressive rock. The sun was shining, the snow conditions were perfect and I was skiing some long and some challenging runs with my family, and a little bit of reggae made it even better.



Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches
Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches






By ProgBlog, Jan 8 2018 03:43PM

Not content with the excellent music I received at Christmas, Gentle Giant’s Three Piece Suite, David Gilmour Live at Pompeii and Änglagård’s Prog på Svenska - Live in Japan, I reviewed my wish list and found that Folklore by Big Big Train was unavailable on vinyl... I’ve come a bit late to the Big Big Train party, only possessing the material released on the cover mount CDs of Prog magazine and until recently, when my listening habits relaxed a little, not being sufficiently moved enough to buy any of their albums. The first track I heard was probably Winchester from St. Giles' Hill, a YouTube clip which one reviewer described as ‘the best song Peter Gabriel never sung.’ It’s a very pleasant piece of music but as it doesn’t pick up the pace until about 5 minutes in, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t pursue the output of the band until sorting out my music library last year and finding Last Train, Kingmaker and Judas Unrepentant, all of which I very much like, on Prognosis 5, Prognosis 18 and P5 Into the Lens respectively, prompting me to add Folklore to my wish list. With that album out of stock, I decided to order Grimspound (on vinyl) instead, even before Burning Shed had reopened after Christmas, just in case that too became unavailable as an LP. Depending on how much I like Grimspound, I might have to buy a download of Folklore until the vinyl edition gets re-released.


Christmas present - Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant
Christmas present - Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant

I’ve also visited the BTF website, after seeing the vinyl version of Dedicato a Frazz by Semiramis advertised in the sidebar of my weekly email from the Italian prog distributors and mail order firm. I’ve been after the LP since before seeing the band perform at last year’s Progressivamente festival in Rome because it’s a great piece of music, little known or appreciated outside of Italy until the renaissance of prog; the CD was one of my most expensive second-hand purchases on that particular format but I’ve always thought it was well worth it, like some obscure treasure.

It seemed pointless to splash out on postage for one album so I added DNA by Jumbo to my shopping cart. I currently own this as a download, having never seen the release in a physical format, despite always scouring the Js in the CD and record bins in every record shop I go to in Italy. The first of their two classic RPI albums, DNA represents fairly basic progressivo Italiano but it’s still quite enjoyable. There’s not a great deal of variation in the keyboard with only organ and piano but, in common with quite a lot of early Italian progressive rock, there’s a hefty dose of flute which sounds as though it’s been inspired by Ian Anderson and early King Crimson. DNA was Jumbo’s first foray into a progressive sound but there’s still a weighty reminder of their roots, including harmonica, a blues instrument which I don’t believe has any place in prog! However, the influence of early UK prog is evident throughout and Ed Ora Corri (And now you have to run), the second part of the 3-part composition that makes up side one of the original LP (Suite per il Sig K., a track that reflects a Kafka-like existence) is quite spacey and seems to have been at least partially inspired by Pink Floyd. I’ve owned their 1973 release Vietato al minora di 18 anni? (Prohibited to minors under 18?) for a year now, a limited edition from BTF on red vinyl and apart from seeing vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Alvaro Fella performing with Consorzio Acqua Potable (CAP) at the Riviera Prog festival in Genova in 2014, where at the time he was confined to a wheelchair, I have also seen Fella play with CAP, and Jumbo, at Progressivamente in Rome last September. On record, Fella’s vocals might seem something of an acquired taste – he has a distinctive theatrical style that has hints of Alex Harvey or Roger Chapman from Family, but his singing comes across as perfectly suited to the music when you witness him play live.


The first gig of the year was a fairly low-key affair at The Dublin Castle in Camden. I was accompanied by Jim Knipe who only got to see a fraction of the main attraction, Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate, but had to sit through an excruciating performance by Unit 48 who were like Haircut 100 fronted by David Brent, one nondescript singer/guitarist, and a rather intriguing opening act False Plastic, a trio of bass, drums and guitar who played short, spiky numbers apart from their final song, where they let rip with some psychedelic punk.


The line-up at The Dublin Castle 4/1/18
The line-up at The Dublin Castle 4/1/18

I’d been invited to listen to the new release Broken but Still Standing by Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate at the end of last year and found it a pretty good mixture of prog and post-rock. The soundscapes are quite Floydian (especially post-Waters Floyd) and the themes are pretty deep; if that isn’t enough to intrigue you, the flute is absolutely gorgeous and these passages are the most prog. Their album When the Kill Code Fails from 2016 comes with a recommendation from Steve Hackett.

I was included in a tweet sometime during the day of the gig that flautist Kathryn Thomas wouldn’t be appearing and that the band, which can involve as many as five people or as few as just one, would be appearing as a duo, Malcolm Galloway on guitar and vocals, and Mark Gatland on bass, keyboard and effects; I wasn’t put off by the pared-down outfit because I knew that some of the material could be recreated using patches and triggers and though we weren’t going to get the high quality prog of the first fifteen minutes of Broken but Still Standing, there were plenty of other parts of the latest album which were very enjoyable.


Broken but Still Standing by Hats Off Gentlemen It's Adequate
Broken but Still Standing by Hats Off Gentlemen It's Adequate

Indeed, the set was a mixture of the shorter material from Kill Code and Broken and it was thoroughly enjoyable. The programmed drumming, something I’m a bit wary of, sounded like an authentic kit and the washes and bits of electronica were quite like on the albums. There was one moment, possibly at the end of My Clockwork Heart where Galloway pressed the wrong foot pedal and guitar continued playing, even though it was the end of the song. Galloway’s vocal style is quite languid, a bit like Pete Shelley, but it does suit the music; this is in comparison to Gatland who was a ball of energy, leaping around the small stage sometimes two footed, bringing his knees up to his chest. It wasn’t only good to listen to, it was genuinely entertaining and when I spoke to them afterwards it was quite clear that they’re both really nice guys. I bought the two recent CDs and took advantage of the special merchandise stand offer – buy two get the third (Invisible) free. The duo made an appearance at HRH Prog last year as stand-ins for Touchstone and by all accounts, went down very well. It’s hardly surprising. Their originality, enthusiasm and great songs mark them out to be a group to watch. I can’t wait to see them as a five-piece.


Hats Off Gentlemen It's Adequate set list 4/1/18
Hats Off Gentlemen It's Adequate set list 4/1/18

Still driven to own more music, I visited Croydon’s 101 records for their half-price New Year sale, where the offers were only available to those who’ve signed up to Duncan Barnes’ email list. The condition of the album is rated as A (Very Good Condition) to C and though I’ve had numerous chances to pick up the original Journey to the Centre of the Earth for £1 from flea markets, I’ve always resisted because the sleeve and/or the LP has been badly marked. I’m please I waited. With a sale price of £2 and rated as in VGC, I bought Journey (a record I’ve never owned before) and a replacement The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, something I bought in 1975 and sold in ’77 or ’78, also for £2. I then splashed out and added Ekseption's Greatest Hits for £3!


Sale bargains from Croydon's 101 Records
Sale bargains from Croydon's 101 Records

I’m not sure I’ll ever stop wanting more music...








By ProgBlog, Jan 2 2018 08:32PM

New Years Eve, 2017

It’s 7pm and I’ve just started the blog. I plan to go to bed early because I’m on call and I’m hoping that revellers don’t accidentally contribute to the strain on hospital A&E departments. Not a fan of this night, any year, because of the way it’s been hyped up by advertisers and the drinks industry and how it seems to have become accepted that on this particular occasion it’s OK to get totally wasted, my best new year was spent stargazing on the summit of a small drumlin on the Furness peninsula to mark the transition from the 1970s to the 80s.


Night sky over Furness
Night sky over Furness

TV has been awful this week. The BBC 24 hour news channel has been filling the gaps between genuine pieces of news with reviews of the year for Sport, Film, Deaths, Royals and so on, shown with a frequency that positively numbs so that it becomes difficult to work out which day of the week it is. Having gone to see Crystal Palace play today I can confirm that the football schedule doesn’t help with this feeling of dislocation; lucrative broadcasting deals mean that Premier League teams and their fans are at the mercy of TV executives so that this year, what used to be traditional Boxing Day fixture took place over three days and the New Year’s Day fixture is also due to be spread over three days. Throw in odd kick off times (Palace played at noon) and it’s also messing around with my circadian rhythm.


A couple of days ago we had the announcement of who appeared in the New Year’s Honours list. This is something of a end-of-year ritual and despite a promise to end cronyism, a concession wrung out by a public increasingly disillusioned with the way politics works, we end up with a knighthood for Tory kingmaker Graham Brady and another for ex-deputy PM Nick Clegg, whose lust for power facilitated 7 years of austerity, massive student debt and the impending destruction of the NHS. This ‘recognition’, though a little better than the obvious returning of a favour to Lynton Crosby in the list last year, reinforces the notion that politics is played by an elite for people within their own, tiny bubble and with little or no connection to everyday life. This is obviously not the case for all MPs but there are a number of parliamentarians (and, at a local level, councillors) who use their power and influence to manipulate policy so that it benefits themselves or their families; those with directorships of private health companies or the landlords of multiple properties, for instance. If there’s one burning issue of the times it must be inequality, whether that’s a lack of access to decent housing, decent social services and healthcare provision or decent jobs but, to the shame of us all, the gap between the haves and have nots is getting wider.


PM David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg (Getty Images)
PM David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg (Getty Images)

I find it obnoxious that the lies told during the Brexit debate have put the country in a position which exaggerates inequality; resentment at a lack of investment in former industrial regions, backed up with the spurious mantra that we’d ‘take back control’ was channelled into stoking anti-immigration sentiment and the subsequent devaluation of Sterling means that the increased cost of goods disproportionally affects the less well-off whereas the concomitant rise in share value benefits the already wealthy. It’s incredible that we can boast about the return of blue and gold passports (during the increased time in queues at customs, perhaps) swapped for seamless, invisible borders for exports and imports, and continue an archaic honours scheme which celebrates the achievements of some of the most inappropriate individuals. As for football, today’s Palace performance might have convinced me that it’s ok to get another season ticket for next year; the lack of application from players on silly wages at the beginning of the season felt like they didn’t care about the fans who pay to see them play, their earnings outstripping that of the average punter by some unholy figure.



Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City 31/12/17
Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City 31/12/17

I’m a bit torn by the awarding of any kind of prize where intangibles are weighed up by panels because everyone has innate bias; likes and dislikes. One of the rituals I used to go through as a youth in the mid-70s was to check the Melody Maker, NME and Sounds annual polls to see how the artists that I favoured fared. Some of the results ran counter to both my tastes and to reason, such as Gilbert O’Sullivan reaching no.2 in the Male Singer category and no.4 in the Keyboards category of the 1972 MM Readers’ Poll and I was somewhat bemused by some of the musicians ranked in ‘Miscellaneous Instrument’ because it didn’t tell you which particular instrument it was referring to for each artist and they could easily have been covered by one of the other categories.


The concept has been taken up by Prog magazine which, apart from holding an awards ceremony includes an annual 20 Top Albums of the Year feature where the results are culled from the preferences of the journalists themselves. Additionally, we were invited to vote in their annual reader’s poll, mimicking the format of the classic music papers during the 70s, with the results due out in the next edition. I’ve moved on a little since the 70s and though I don’t mind a list that is supplemented with a bit of information, the Top 20 Albums of 2017 as chosen by the writers at Prog magazine isn’t really my thing. However, I submitted some obscure choices for the Readers’ Poll so I will take a look at the published results.



New Year’s Day, 2018

After listening to one of my Christmas presents, the excellent Three Piece Suite retrospective by Gentle Giant, the first complete recording I’ve listened to for nearly a week due to work, football and family commitments, I thought I’d share some of ProgBlog’s category winners, based on material released in 2017 and the concerts I attended, material unlikely to get much of a mention in Prog...


Playing Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant
Playing Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant

(I got called out and got home a little before midnight)

Back to the blog. Tuesday 2nd January


Album of the year: An Invitation by Amber Foil

Strictly an EP, this is the creation of João Filipe, and it’s a wonderful, all-round and well balanced item. The music takes you back to classic 70s prog, blending very modern concerns with a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale. The quirkiness of the music is reflected in the CD packaging which also contains a ‘blueprint for a house’. It’s unique. Get yourself a copy.


Commended: Alight by Cellar Noise


Bassist: John Wetton

Wetton died in January 2017, the third original progressive rock bassist to pass away in the last couple of years. Whereas there are undoubtedly a large number of amazing technical players who were represented on record or I saw play live during 2017, the accolade has to go to Wetton for the unbelievably wide range of material he’s left for us, including some of the most inventive lines expressed during his time with the 1972 – 1974 incarnation of King Crimson. A great loss to the prog community.


John Wetton circa. Caught in the Crossfire
John Wetton circa. Caught in the Crossfire

Drummer: Franz di Cioccio

The only original member of PFM remaining in the band, di Cioccio now spends as much time behind a microphone acting as front man as he does behind his kit, but along with long-term associate bassist Patrick Djivas he’s steered the ship through periods of not-so-good music to produce their best album of original material for a very long time. Emotional Tattoos may not quite hit the heights of L’Isola di Niente and Photos of Ghosts (I think it lacks sufficient contrast) but the songs are strong and the playing assured. Di Cioccio’s boundless energy, with either sticks or mic stand in his hands, is something to behold.


Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth

Holdsworth is another progressive rock legend who died last year, though in reality he was probably more of a jazz guitarist whose fluid lines graced releases by Tempest, Soft Machine, Gong, Bruford and UK. Highly regarded by other guitarists, his style was idiosyncratic. He’s another fine musician who is sadly missed.


Keyboard player

There are actually too many excellent prog keyboard players to choose from. Of course it’s great to see Rick Wakeman performing classic Yes again with ARW but I’ve also been most impressed with up-and-coming talent from Italy like Niccolò Gallani from Cellar Noise and Sandro Amadei from Melting Clock.


Miscellaneous instrument: Mel Collins, King Crimson (flute, saxophones)

I’ve always considered this a category for non-conventional rock instrumentation, rather than picking a particular type of keyboard like Moog, Mellotron or synthesizer but it was fine when Mike Oldfield used to pick up the prize for playing everything. My preference for a prog-associated instrument not covered by bass, drums, guitar or keyboards is the flute, followed by violin; I was very impressed with Lucio Fabbri when I saw him with PFM and his playing on Emotional Tattoos is real quality but I’m going to plump for Mel Collins for his woodwind. Crimson may not have played the UK in 2017 but the set-list for the US gigs, released on vinyl and CD last year, highlights the formidable talents of Collins.


Vocalist: Emanuela Vedana, Melting Clock

I’m one of a fairly small number of people to have seen the two gigs by Melting Clock but I don’t imagine it will be too long before they reach a much wider audience when they release an album later this year. Their brand of symphonic progressivo Italiano would undoubtedly appeal to all fans of the genre, but two obvious reference points are Renaissance and neo-prog. The songs are highly melodic and well-crafted with multiple layers, utilising twin guitars and keyboards to set the tone for Emanuela’s strong, operatic vocals. Simply stunning.



Live act

Choosing a favourite live act is too difficult, so I’m not going to make a decision. I’ve managed to get to see quite a number of Italian bands from the 70s, including PFM at the fourth attempt, and seeing Wakeman, Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin performing Yes music together was quite special, but it’s the surprises like Cellar Noise and Melting Clock, both of which included accurate early Genesis tributes in their sets, which make it impossible to decide on an outright winner.


Cellar Noise at the Legend Club, Milan
Cellar Noise at the Legend Club, Milan

Venue: Porto Antico, Genova

Choosing a favourite venue is equally hard. The acoustics inside neo-rationalist Teatro Carlo Felice in Genova are brilliant, but the architecture and the internal decor are terrible; the Royal Festival Hall is a great looking building, also with amazing acoustics but I was disappointed with the Dweezil Zappa set. I loved the intimacy of Genova’s La Claque whereas Rome’s Jailbreak Club was a bit too crowded over the weekend of the Progressivamente festival. Brighton Dome is a beautiful performance space though it can be a bit of a drag getting back from Brighton by car or public transport at the end of a gig.

A fantastic setting, good sound and a great line-up made the Porto Antico Prog Fest very special and it was only a 10 minute walk back to my hotel.









By ProgBlog, Dec 24 2017 12:17AM

2017 isn’t quite over but there will be a short break for ProgBlog over the Christmas period. As I type there are almost 900000 hits on the website, many of which might not be from individuals who stayed to browse but in the 45 months since the site was founded, the trickle of visitors per month has shot up, accelerating from a total of 174000 at the beginning of 2016 thanks in part to my adoption of twitter and a dedicated Facebook page, a strategy suggested by the hosts of a Guardian Masterclass in how to promote your website.

It can’t be denied that substantial proportion of music bought in the early to mid 70s, the so-called ‘golden age’ of the genre, was progressive rock, so prog wasn’t really niche because it produced some very successful acts though an observer of musical trends over the past 50 years might not think so. Fast forward to 2017 and proof that progressive rock is regarded as mainstream (or at least present and recognisable as something distinct) comes in the guise of BBC TV family quiz show Pointless series 17, episode 10, where the final round is about prog! Yet it’s hard to explain the resurgence of a musical form which attracted such vitriol at the end of the 70s, despite the fact that Prog magazine, after something of a scare this time last year, is once again thriving and obviously serving a large fan-base, and across in mainland Europe, the Prog Italia title seems to be doing well and publisher DeAgostini, in conjunction with the magazine, has started to reissue a massive series of classic progressivo Italiano records on 180g vinyl which are available from newsstands. So why exactly is prog currently in vogue when it’s not really commercial and therefore not attractive to major labels, and the struggle for bands to get heard above the competition is far more difficult now than it ever was in the 70s?


Prog goes mainstream (1) Pointless categories
Prog goes mainstream (1) Pointless categories

Prog goes mainstream (2) Pointless questions
Prog goes mainstream (2) Pointless questions

I don’t think the answer lies in 2017 but it was a year when trends seems to coalesce and were picked up by the media. This is certainly true of the vinyl revival story, despite the rise in sales commencing in 2014, if not a couple of years earlier and though vinyl isn’t restricted to prog albums, classic prog is linked to the popularity of the LP and even CD box sets now come laden with facsimiles of original sized album artwork and other goodies. Talking about the music helps enormously, whether in print like Prog magazine, via social media (where the prog community behaves more civilly than almost any other group), or at one of the increasing number of occasions where the fans are able to approach and interact with musicians face-to-face. However sad, it’s a fact that the protagonists are dying and though 2017 might have seemed less tragic in terms of numbers of recognised musicians who passed away compared to 2016, all we’re left with is the irreplaceable sonic legacy of John Wetton (who inspired me to take up the bass), Phil Miller and Allan Holdsworth. But their deaths got us talking, too. National newspaper The Guardian printed obituaries of Miller and Holdsworth and the Daily Telegraph carried an obituary of John Wetton; it is only right that we celebrate their music. As far as mainstream print media goes, I try to keep tabs on the number of mentions in The Guardian concerning progressive rock and it’s more than you might realise, from crossword clues to film reviews!


Allan Holdsworth obituary - The Guardian 19/4/17
Allan Holdsworth obituary - The Guardian 19/4/17

From a purely personal point of view, over the latter part of the year I’ve learned to test my boundaries a bit more. This has proved somewhat challenging because I’m someone who doesn’t use music as a backdrop to other activities as I like time to concentrate on what’s being played. On a number of occasions I’ve been asked to review (or at least listen to) some new music, which has come in a range of styles. I’m exceedingly grateful that my judgment is valued enough for complete strangers to contact me and take this as a vindication of my opinions aired via the blog and associated bits of social media. I’m sure that a graphical representation of my particular tastes would result in a normal distribution curve but the wide spectrum that makes up prog means that some of this material was going to be right up my street and some was less likely to appeal. For anyone who has sent me links to their music, please be patient; I think that the promotion of prog music is a worthwhile pursuit and I will get around to writing about it however, I do have a daytime job which sometimes carries on out-of-hours.

The point is that once I’ve agreed to give something a listen, I can’t just play it in the background while I’m doing the ironing or reading my daily newspaper and then come up with an opinion, I have to really listen and pick out moments which I like and explain why I like it. I approached Process of Illumination’s Radiant Memory with a degree of trepidation because when I read their influences I genuinely thought it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. After repeated listens I could really appreciate the guitar and keyboard interactions and maybe they did have a metal edge, but they also had a good ear for a melody and mixed adventurous complexity with ambient washes. On the other hand, An Invitation by Amber Foil sounded and looked like a slice of 70’s prog and got me hooked instantly, and then proceeded to pull me deeper into a dark and vaguely disturbing storyline; though only an EP, An Invitation is my album of the year. Dam Kat’s Alawn mixes Kate Bush with Pink Floyd and Steven Wilson and adds a dash of traditional Breton music and the result is very pleasing, so I’m glad that I was invited to listen to it; the music of Dublin’s Groundburst was new to me, despite a back catalogue of EPs stretching back 10 years, with their latest EP Triad frequenting ground shared between prog and math rock, and though a full-length album due to be released next year will include much of their devilish complexity, it’s also rumoured that lengthier tracks will allow for more symphonic development; Seattle-based Gaillion are another band I’d describe as outside my old comfort zone with a more concise approach but I can’t help but admire their musicianship and rhythmic invention on their latest CD Renewal and Release; Servants of Science from Brighton and Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate from London have both covered exceptionally deep concepts on The Swan Song and Broken but Still Standing respectively, the former about an astronaut witnessing the end of the earth from space, and the latter following the story of human evolution from the last universal common ancestor to conflict and finally symbiosis with artificial intelligence. Both are cinematic but The Swan Song tends towards haunting alt-rock and Broken but Still Standing is more in the mould of Floydian soundscapes, aided by really gorgeous flute. Both are well worth seeking out.


2007 saw me manage multiple trips to Italy where I witnessed the first ever gig by the much admired Ancient Veil, in their home city, and became one of only a couple of hundred people to see the first two performances by Melting Clock. This young Genovese band may not have released an album yet but their symphonic prog is brilliantly structured and possesses an enviable accessibility, so I’m pretty sure they’re going to do well. Another young band who did release their first album was Milan’s Cellar Noise with Alight. This harks back to classic 70s Italian prog, even though it’s sung in English and the concept is based around stations on London Underground. I caught their show at Milan’s Legend Club, part of the Z-Fest, and bought the CD immediately after they’d completed their set. I actually took in two major prog festivals over the course of the Italian summer; the Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genova and Progressivamente in Rome. The former was an international affair organised by Black Widow Records where Melting Clock debuted, and the totally free Progressivamente festival, held over five nights, featured established bands (including some which had recently reformed), presenting an unmissable opportunity to catch up on incredible music from the last 45 years. The last trip to Genova included a night at La Claque where Ancient Veil played unplugged; Melting Clock played gig no. 2 and wowed the crowd; and Phoenix Again demonstrated their quality with a brand of jazzy/heavy/symphonic/complex prog. I stayed in the city for a couple of extra days because PFM were performing at the Teatro Carol Felice and I’d managed to get a ticket.



I don’t really speak Italian so I’m indebted to all the people I met to discuss prog for kindly resorting to converse in English. This list includes a whole host of musicians from Melting Clock, Panther & C, Phoenix Again and Ingranaggi della Valle, the friendly and knowledgeable staff from Black Widow Records, promoter Marina Montobbio, and audience members at the gigs like Vincenzo Praturlon and the cousin of Semiramis bassist Ivo Mileto. Part of the attraction of Italy is seeking out record stores in the different cities, where once again communication was in English, otherwise we couldn’t have had any sort of sensible conversation. Guidance and expert advice from Genova’s Black Widow comes as part of the package but new shops were discovered in Como (Frigerio Dischi, Alta Fedità); Savona (Jocks Team); and Rome (Elastic Rock, Millerrecords).

Wandering around record stores in the south east has been a major feature of the latter part of the year. There’s a shop just around the corner of my road which I recently discovered sells second-hand vinyl but the best find is a short tram journey away, Wanted Music in Beckenham where proprietor Adriaan Neervoort keeps a wide stock of prog and electronica, in great condition and at market rates. I’ve discovered it’s often worth popping into charity shops where amongst the James Last and battered classical LPs you might find the odd gem for £1 or £2, like my French version of the Chariots of Fire soundtrack and the Synergy album Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra. Then there are the flea markets...


Wanted Music, Beckenham
Wanted Music, Beckenham

I attended a few gigs on UK soil, the most anticipated of which was Anderson Rabin Wakeman who I went to see in Brighton, but the highlight of the year was the Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum, an in-depth historical perspective of the band using their music and a wide range of personal and band artefacts, providing a must-see experience for any Floyd fan.



That’s 2017 in a nutshell; good bits and low points. It demonstrated that prog is still going strong and I’ve already got some events lined up for next year... Prog on!











By ProgBlog, Dec 5 2017 09:22PM

The Italian Riviera, stretching from the border with France to the west, down to through the Cinque Terre to La Spezia is a beautiful and often dramatic coast packed full of interesting places with well-preserved medieval quarters and fascinating histories. Genova is the regional capital and is close to the geographic centre; it’s also at the heart of the progressivo Italiano movement having been responsible for a good number of the original 70s acts and also, since the early 90s, producing a quite amazing crop of the current (and future) standard bearers.


Genova - San Lorenzo
Genova - San Lorenzo

Savona, west of Genova, was responsible for Delirium, one of the first Italian acts to adopt progressive traits. Originally a beat group called Sagittari, they changed their name when Ivano Fossati replaced the original vocalist in 1970 and released their favourably-regarded debut, Dolce Acqua (Sweet Water) in 1971. This turned out to be their only album with Fossati, though the televised appearance at the Sanremo pop festival (100km west of Savona along the coast) in February 1972 was responsible for the huge success of their single Jesahel where it finished sixth, which many regard as being the best-known pop song in Italy; I think it’s quite interesting that there’s a picturesque Ligurian town called Dolceacqua with an old, elegant single arch bridge and a 12th Century castle roughly 25km inland from Sanremo. Fossati was subsequently replaced with Briton Martin Grice on sax and flute and, after a disappointment with the jazz influenced prog of their second album, Lo Scemo E Il Villaggio (1972), they produced their symphonic prog masterpiece Delirium III - Viaggio Negli Arcipelaghi del Tempo in 1974 but split up following personnel changes in 1975.


Savona
Savona

I own a budget price ‘2LP in 1CD’ release of Dolce Acqua (with Jesahel as a bonus track) plus Delirium III - Viaggio Negli Arcipelaghi del Tempo, bought from Piccadilly Sound in Livorno on a day trip out from Pisa in August 2014, and managed to get to see the reformed Delirium (Martin Grice, Fabio Chigini on bass, Alessandro Corvaglia on vocals, Michele Cusato on guitar, Alfredo Vandresi on drums and original member Ettore Vigo on keyboards); the very enjoyable set contained a number of songs from the prog-folk Dolce Acqua but there was also good slices of 2015’s L’Era della Menzogna and 2009 comeback release Il Nome del Vento.


Delirium 2LP in 1CD
Delirium 2LP in 1CD

On my second trip to Savona I wandered into the Jocks Team record store (it was closed for lunch on my first visit) I picked up a Yes T-shirt depicting the cover of Fragile and the CD Il Viaggio di Colombo (2008) by Il Cerchio d’Oro who also hail from the city; this was me fulfilling my desire to acquire music from the home city of a group. Though they’d been around in the 70s, Il Cerchio d’Oro never managed to release an album of original material until reforming in the 00s, although they did produce some non-prog singles in the late 70s which emerged on a Mellow Records compilation in 1999 and La Quadratura del Cerchio, an album of rehearsal tracks from the mid 70s, including cover versions of songs by The Trip, Le Orme and New Trolls was released by Psych-Out Records in 2006.

Christopher Columbus lived in both Genova and Savona and provided the inspiration for Il Viaggio di Colombo, a well-presented CD and the first collaboration between the band and Black Widow Records. The sound is crisp and clear with Giuseppe Terribile‘s Rickenbacker bass high in the mix, providing the driving force for some 70’s sounding progressivo Italiano. It’s almost as though the 33 years between the snippets from La Quadratura del Cerchio and Il Viaggio di Colombo never existed. The use of sound effects such as the creaking of the wooden ship show a welcome attention to detail, though the concept, the writing and the playing are all first-class. There’s a bit of a Floyd feel to the production but the music is very much Italian prog; at times I’m reminded of Alphataurus.


Il Viaggio di Colombo
Il Viaggio di Colombo

I completed my Il Cerchio d’Oro collection in the Black Widow Shop, with 2013’s Dedalo e Icaro on vinyl and the most recent release Il Fuoco sotto la Cenere on CD. The former is stylistically similar to Colombo, a concept album in classic Italian prog style, nicely presented in its gatefold sleeve and I haven’t yet made up my mind which is better, Colombo or Dedalo e Icaro.


Il Cerchio d’Oro had played just before Delirium at the Porto Antico Prog Fest and I suspect that they were premiering parts of Il Fuoco sotto la Cenere which hadn’t been released at that time. For this version of the band, the original members Gino (drums) and Giuseppe Terribile (bass) and Franco Piccolini (keyboards) were joined by Massimo Spica (guitar), Piuccio Pradal (acoustic guitar, vocals) and Franco’s son Simone Piccolini (keyboards), plus special appearances from vocalist Pino Ballarini (ex-Il Rovescio della Medaglia) and drummer Paolo Siani (ex-Nuovo Idea), two guest musicians warmly appreciated by the crowd. I recall thinking that the compositions were well structured but there wasn’t the degree of complexity I was expecting though when I got my hands on the new release I thought it was equally as good as Colombo and Dedalo e Icaro, if not better. I was once again reminded of Alphataurus despite detecting a subtle shift towards a more conventional rock format, and where the concept is presented as a series of snapshots, rather than the linear narrative of the two preceding albums. In a move reminiscent of their 70’s performances, the final track on the album Fuoco sulla collina (Fire on the mountain) is a cover version of an Ivan Graziani song, which fits the overall concept, the idea that we live in a world where feelings smoulder under the ashes and from time-to-time, fire erupts, often violently.


Il Cerchio d'Oro - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2017
Il Cerchio d'Oro - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2017

Title track Il Fuoco sotto la cenere (Fire under the ashes) is a really good piece of prog which commences with a melodic figure and goes through multiple changes (including a section with a heavy, distorted guitar riff and some excellent organ which reminds me of Biglietto per l’Inferno.) It’s about the state of mind of a person who becomes unable to deal with everyday problems and suppress the rage which has been building up as their inner strength gets worn away, the fire that bursts from the smouldering ashes.

Thomas uses the Great Fire of London as an analogy for our ability to turn a bad situation into an opportunity; fire destroys but it clears the path for new opportunities and life can emerge phoenix-like from the ashes. The organ and guitar work really well together and the vocal melody is nicely underlined with synthesizer. The solo vocals aren’t particularly strong but there are some memorable melodies on the longest track of the album.

Per sempre qui (Forever here) relates the story of a character who spent much of his life away from his homeland in exchange for prosperity but in the end, the desire to return to his origins, the ‘fire under the ashes’ prevails over the materialistic urges. This is a relatively short number, sung with great emotion by special guest Pino Ballarini on the recommendation of Black Widow Records and who, it transpires was perfectly placed to narrate the song because the sentiment coincides with his personal story.

I due poli (The two poles) is about the conflict between two mental states, including the suppression either one of the aspects. There are obviously different degrees of this bipolar phenomenon which affect individuals to different extents. At its most extreme, there is perpetual conflict between the two sides with one dominant and one suppressed (under the ashes), instantaneously switched and transformed into ‘fire’ when the conflict switches. It begins with some almost Hackett-like acoustic guitar which resolves to melodic piano and Mellotron cello before commencing a short riff and getting a bit Floyd-y. It’s in this track where I find the greatest similarity to Alphataurus, in the vocals where they work as a chorus (and this is where the vocals are at their strongest.) There’s nice expressive guitar and some great organ work and even a trippy synth solo.

Il Fuoco nel bicchiere (Fire in the glass) is a story of alcohol addiction, where the protagonist never totally overcomes the need for drink though he’s fully aware of the consequences of his failure to do so. The melancholy which besets the character is reflected in the slow melody; the song was written by keyboard player Simone Piccolini who has been described by his father as possessing the appropriate DNA for penning Il Cerchio d’Oro songs. This is dominated by moderately heavy guitar riffs but has some nice piano and an interesting section which includes a theremin sound.

Il Rock e l’inferno (Rock and hell) plays on the idea that rock music is frequently though inappropriately associated with the devil, when it’s actually a means of communication, just transmitting a mood. It’s altogether heavier and the beat more simple than most of their other material, with the band stamping their melodies over distorted guitar riffs and classic Hammond sounding organ and wordless vocals which recall some classic early 70’s RPI moments.


Some critics have pointed out the weakness of some of the vocals and there are times where I’d agree, though I think the music more than makes up for these moments. The band acknowledged the difficulty producing a suitable follow-up to the critically acclaimed Dedalo e Icaro and the time spent attaining their trademark ‘vintage’ sound without compromising cleanliness and quality was obviously worthwhile; it’s a very good album. Though I’m not a great fan of the artwork on the cover, I do understand the links between the painting and the songs and I’m impressed that artist Pino Paolino, a former vocalist with the band, has used images set partly in a 17th century fortress located in Capo Vado, not far from Savona. By strange chance the area was devastated by one of the fires which raged in the hills along the Riviera last summer, clearing the way for new possibilities.


Il Fuoco sotto la Cenere by Il Cerchio d’Oro is on Black Widow Records BWRCD 204 (2017)


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