Prog Australia (posted 15/6/14)
By ProgBlog, Jun 15 2014 07:13PM
As a Crystal Palace supporter I feel that I’ve got a connection to other teams involved in the current football contest that’s invading global TV screens. Eagles captain Mile Jedinak is also the captain of Australia so on Friday night I watched the Socceroos push World Cup dark horses Chile in a thrilling, end-to-end contest that ultimately led to a 1-3 defeat, though the score line did flatter the South Americans. That got me thinking about Australian prog and I’m not talking about Tame Impala.
I’ve visited Oz a couple of times, for a scientific workshop based in Melbourne in 2005 and to visit my son Daryl who got a job in Sydney after finishing his Masters degree, in 2012. By 2005 I was actively seeking indigenous prog wherever I travelled and I spent some time in Metropolis Music in Swanston Street going through a pile of CDs recommended by the staff that they thought might fit my musical taste. Though I bought a couple of CDs neither was by an Australian band – I thought the selection they’d suggested was very blues-based, more proto-prog than fully-formed prog.
Sydney, 7 years later, was a very different prospect. Daryl had discovered Red Eye Records next to the QVB and had already made a couple of purchases there which he’d shipped back to the UK as presents. He’d sent me the first Sebastian Hardie album, Four Moments and bought the second Sebastian Hardie release, Windchase, for his uncle Richard. Red Eye was the second stop for us on arrival in Sydney – the first stop was dropping off our bags at our hotel. This basement shop had an extensive ‘Australia’ section in addition to the normal genre divisions. The prog section, though smaller than some I’ve browsed, contained some interesting and unusual items; the staff, led by owner Chris Pepperell, were helpful and knowledgeable. I completed my personal Sebastian Hardie collection, picking up Windchase, the SH related release Symphinity (keyboard player Toivo Pilt and guitarist Mario Millo formed a band called Windchase), and buying the new release from the recently reformed Sebastian Hardie, Blueprint. I was also introduced to Pirana, Bakery and Tymepiece but I think all three bands fall into the proto-prog category as they moved from blues-based psychedelia to music that incorporated more adventurous elements. Of these three bands, I prefer Pirana but the Bakery sound approaches that of a Peter Banks and Tony Kaye Yes.
Sebastian Hardie has been described as “cheesy” in a Prog Archives review but I think this is unfair. They used to be a band that performed cover versions before coalescing around the line-up of Pilt, Millo and the Plavsic brothers, Peter (bass) and Alex (drums.) Still, their original music showed some very strong influences and the melodic lead guitar with organ or mellotron harmonic chord backing is very much like Focus. Their first album, Four Moments, also borrows from Yes. The sparse vocals are peppered with Jon Anderson imagery and stream of consciousness style that abounds on Tales from Topographic Oceans, which is no terrible thing. One criticism is that they take a melody and play it to death before moving on to the next melodic line. There’s a fine line between reinforcing a motif and repeating it too often and I think they just manage to stay within the boundary of taste and sense, helped by the fact that I find the music uplifting. There are moments that sound Camel-like but this may be just coincidental because Camel were only just hitting their creative heights with Snow Goose when Four Moments was released.
The second album, Windchase (1976), is a natural successor to Four Moments. The formula is the same with one side-long piece though it shows signs of developing complexity and, the rather more worrying development of a regression towards pop in Life, Love and Music.
The Plavsic brothers quit following Windchase but Pilt and Millo continued, changing the name of the band to Windchase and releasing Symphinity in 1977.
Symphinity has much more of a keyboard influence than the two preceding Sebastian Hardie albums and it has more of a jazz rock sensibility, sometimes approaching Santana territory, perhaps reflecting the tastes of Toivo Pilt. The vocals on Horsemen to Symphinity are reminiscent of the simple, meaningless but vaguely cosmic singing on the first two albums and the music is a natural progression from the symphonic prog of Sebastian Hardie. It’s the bland pop of Glad to be Alive that really detracts from the overall quality of the other material on the album. The strings are pure saccharine and the vocal harmonies could be the Osmonds. It’s surprising that the track was included because it’s so different from the other songs although the last track, Flight Call suffers from some of the same symptoms. The instrumental Gypsy, also written by Millo, is melodic prog; the anti-capitalist No Scruples was almost certainly influenced by Relayer-era Yes; the extended jam of Lamb’s Fry is a melodic jazz rock workout; the short acoustic Non Siamo Perfetti reprises a melody from Four Moments. The cover is something my wife would describe as a depiction of prog. It’s a painting by Peter Ledger of anachronistic technologies, alien artefacts and figures dressed like Romans on horseback. It calls to mind the Don Lawrence artwork for the Trigan Empire comic strip that appeared in the children’s science magazine Look and Learn. There’s also a nod to Roger Dean, with the horsemen and a coiled snake and a Mayan/alien temple.
Blueprint starts off where Sebastian Hardie left off, a melodic song sharing guitar and keyboard parts but this time with vocals reflecting on missed opportunities of the past. This is grown-up music, not necessarily always prog, similar in feel to Pink Floyd’s Division Bell, and it forms a sort of theme throughout the album. The voices have matured and the production is really clear, the instrumentation is very much in keeping with the 70s incarnation of the band but though the singing is better than thirty-plus years ago, the instrumental Vuja de is by far the best track on the album followed by the last track, Shame, which has hints of Focus.
On his return from Australia, Daryl managed to get me a copy of Clockwork Revenge by Airlord (1977) which is highly regarded by Australians, even though the band was from Wellington, New Zealand. They had to decamp to Oz to make the album and make a living and the result is akin to the relationship between England and Genesis. I also bought into Anubis, the Oz version of Porcupine Tree, seduced by the fantastic cover artwork of A Tower of Silence and the strange time signature used on the track The Passing Bell, completing a time line from the birth of Australian symphonic prog to the present day.