Eastern European promise
By ProgBlog, Jul 17 2016 04:39PM
Last weekend was spent based in Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic and included a day trip to Bratislava in Slovakia, less than 90 minutes away by train. I’ve been to the Czech Republic before, for a presentation at the second East-West Immunogenetics conference in Prague in 2007 and on my brief time off I managed to get to a couple of record stores, one on a late evening trip around Wenceslas Square where the rock music selection was rather poor and the other, squeezed in just before my flight home, a shop called Bontonland in the Centrum Chodov mall at the end of subway line C. Though this large, rambling store was staffed entirely by non-English speakers (my problem, not theirs) I made my request for Czech prog using an elementary phrase book and citing English examples of the genre. Despite these communication difficulties, the staff managed to produce a handful of Czech CDs and provided me with a remote to ply through the selection. I sat for about an hour listening to parts of this collection but it was predominantly blues based material that I didn’t really like or want.
I had done some research before my 2007 trip and the band Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) were foremost on my list. This group formed in the aftermath of the crushing of Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring in 1968, named after the track Plastic People on the 1967 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention album Absolutely Free. PPU were targeted by the communist authorities with punishment ranging from imprisonment to having a house burned down. Unable to perform in public, an entire underground cultural movement formed around the band during the 1970s and the sympathizers of the movement were often called máničky, indicating youths with long hair. I was unable to find any PPU releases on that particular visit but that might have been in part due to the classification of the band. Inspired by Zappa and the Velvet Underground, PPU occupy an area akin to chamber-prog, but with more riff-based music than, for example, Henry Cow.
I was aware that rock bands, including some with progressive leanings, were around in communist countries in the late 70s and early 80s. I wanted to visit the USSR in 1983, with Leningrad a short train journey from Helsinki which I visited with friend Nick Hodgetts during an Inter Rail holiday over the summer, but organising a visa while already en route was an insurmountable problem. I did get to visit East Berlin before the fall of the Wall and got shouted at by a border guard in a watch tower when I stepped over a low barrier to take a photo of the Wall from the West; I even spent my honeymoon on a two-centre holiday to the relatively ‘loose’ communist state of Yugoslavia, officially the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where I witnessed the lack of choice available to the citizens and benefitted from a currency in freefall, cashing low value travellers cheques on a daily basis. I bought a piece of original artwork and, though I looked at some CDs, these were mostly folk music so I didn’t acquire any. Having come away from honeymoon without any local music, my first Eastern European CD purchase was a second-hand copy of U Vreci Za Spavanje by Yugoslavian band Tako, bought from Beanos in Croydon, in 2005, not from behind the Iron Curtain. I’d seen this and not bought it, but returned to the shop the following week after checking my Jerry Lucky books. My CD is a Brazilian reissue of the original 1980 LP plus a couple of bonus tracks and though the recording quality is a bit poor, it’s a very enjoyable album. The opening title track begins like something from Wish You Were Here and while there are plenty of keyboards throughout the album, there’s also a good quantity of flute, making it a great piece of symphonic prog which references Camel and Steve Hackett along with early 70s Floyd.
Beanos was the source of my next Eastern Europe music purchases in April 2008, picking up two CDs by Polish band Albion, Wabiąc Cienie (2005) and Broken Hopes (2007). The former is their second release, entirely in Polish (the title translates as Luring the Shadows, and the cover picture, which is very proggy, conveys this quite nicely) and the latter, their third album is a more mature and coherent effort but sung in English. Wabiąc Cienie demonstrates good musicianship, influenced by Pink Floyd and 80s Marillion, though it comes across as being a bit too controlled, as if studio time was the most important process and, for the most part it’s unchallenging 4/4, albeit with pleasant alternating passages of guitar and multi-layered keyboards. Vocalist Katarzyna Sobkowicz-Malec has a great voice, at times hinting at frailty but always controlled and in tune. The best track is the 11 minute plus instrumental Bieg po Tęczy (Run the Rainbow) which hints at the continued direction on subsequent album Broken Hopes, incorporating the sounds of a young baby and the flapping of birds’ wings; it contains lengthy passages in 7/8 time, too. Broken Hopes strikes me as Albion’s Misplaced Childhood with a narrative that questions politics, war and religion, all suitable epic themes for a concept album which has more variation than its predecessor but still sounds far more complete and satisfying.
A work friend told me about Solaris because one of his colleagues had introduced him to this Hungarian symphonic prog outfit. I eventually found a copy of Marsbéli Krónikák in Black Widow Records in Genoa last year, my only non-Italian purchase of the trip at just €17; the current UK price is almost £50. Solaris took their name from the science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem and their album titles from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, though Lem’s first novel was called The Man from Mars. I know that Marsbéli Krónikák is generally raved about, similar to the way that Ys by Il Balletto di Bronzo is hyped as being the best progressive rock album, ever, and though it’s undeniably well-played symphonic prog with lots and lots of keyboard and flute, it doesn’t press all the right buttons for me, possibly because it’s a little bit driven by some simple riffs and I’m not at all keen on one of the bonus tracks that appears on my 1995 re-issue CD – I think the quality of the material tails off towards the end of the original album. However, I’d still rate it as pretty good. Marsbéli Krónikák II is much cheaper to get in the UK because it was released in 2014, after years of the band attempting to get back together and I was given a copy for Christmas last year. This follow-up effort is stylistically similar despite thirty tears between the original and the sequel, which again tails off in quality towards the end of the album but is, overall, a really good release.
Whereas Solaris appeared in 1980, their fellow countrymen Omega had been active in the late 60s and appeared on the prog radar with the 1975 album The Hall of Floaters in the Sky. I think this may have had an airing on Alan Freeman’s radio show but I do remember looking at the interesting sleeve art in Blackshaw’s in Barrow when it was released, thinking it was a pretty odd title, not realising that it might be a literal translation from the Hungarian. I finally bought a copy from a stall in Dalston Old Market earlier this year but, despite Omega being the most successful Hungarian band and this particular album allegedly one of their best; a mixture of symphonic prog and post-Barrett Pink Floyd space rock, I was disappointed. I’m not a fan of the lyrics or the English vocals and it’s too close to heavy rock for my taste.
And so to last weekend. I really liked Brno with its flashes of Functionalist architectural style, the Villa Stiassni and Villa Tugendhat, and the day trip to Slovakia was good, taking in a number of varied sites like St Michael’s Tower and the UFO Tower over the Danube. On our first evening in Brno we’d noticed a shop selling CDs, Indies, next to the impressive Alfa Palace, a Functionalist masterpiece, and on our last morning we made time to shop. I bought two CDs by PPU, Hovězí Porážka (Beef Slaughtering) (1984) and Obešel já polí pět (I Walked Around Five Fields) (2009), the recording of a 2003 concert with the Agon Orchestra in honour of Czech philosopher Ladislaw Klima. I also bought two CDs by prog-folk band Zrni (which I haven’t had time to listen to yet.) Then I saw Vinyl Records... I have never travelled anywhere in the world with the intention of buying vinyl, not even recent excursions to Italy, but this shop, selling both new and second hand vinyl, was the obvious place to start. The incredibly helpful staff chose a selection of Czech prog for me and then let me listen to entire sides. I picked up original copies of Sluneční hodiny (Sundial) (1981), Křídlení (1983), both by Synkopy; 33 (1981) by M.Efekt; and a non-Czech LP, Brandung by Novalis (1977). Considering how small the Czech Republic and Slovakia are, there were some incredibly talented prog bands around in the 70s and 80s. I’m grateful to both Vinyl Records and the former owners of the LPs for keeping them in such great condition and, though recording studios used by rock bands in former communist countries may have been less advanced than Western Europe or American studios, I’m impressed with the dynamic range of the recordings.
If you’re ever in the Czech Republic, spend some time in Brno. The architecture is stunning and the friendly record shops contain some absolute gems.