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A frantic fortnight of  gigs for ProgBlog began on March 9th at Genova's Angelo Azzurro Club, a much loved venue under threat of closure. Marina Montobbio's series of Lady Prog Nights was on its third event featuring local symphonic prog bands Melting Clock and Panther & C...

By ProgBlog, Feb 20 2018 03:57PM

In the last blog I commented on how difficult it was to pigeonhole Portico Quartet who don’t really sit easily on a sliding scale between jazz and anywhere but need something else, another superimposed scale perhaps, to give more of an indication of how you might identify their music. I’ve just had a fairly intensive session listening to L’Ora di Tutti (Time for Everyone) by Italian band Muffx and, as with Portico Quartet, I really like their music but whilst they fall somewhere in the amorphous prog cloud, they also defy a strict classification, taking a dash of psychedelia, a dose of proto-prog, incorporating some heavy blues aspects that featured in a number of the early RPI bands, some blues-inflected keyboard prog like Greenslade, swing, and experimentation.

It came as something of a surprise to me that L’Ora di Tutti is their fifth album, although only three prior to this one have been released: ...Saw The... (2007), Small Obsessions (2009), and Époque (2012); the material making up Nocturno which was recorded after Époque was shelved following the untimely death of producer and friend Pierpaolo Cazzolla. The band was formed in Salento (Puglia) by guitarist Luigi Bruno (leader of the Mediterranean Psychedelic Orkestra and co-founder of the Sagra Del Diavolo, the Devil’s Festival) and garnered favourable press when they toured Italy to promote their debut album; a success repeated when they released their second and third albums; they’ve even toured in the UK and have played with special guests from the prog world, like Richard Sinclair (now resident in Puglia) Aldo Tagliapietra and Claudio Simonetti.

The album reflects the band’s geographical roots, with the title L’Ora di Tutti taken from the 1962 cult novel by Maria Corti about the Ottoman attack on Otranto on the eastern side of the Salento peninsula in August 1480. In the book, the event is narrated by five different characters, fishermen and farmers, so in effect it is five stories told in the first person, offering different perspectives that complement each other chronologically; presenting an alternative narrative of heroism and sacrifice in contrast to the official chronicles. There are subtly different cover graphics for the vinyl and CD releases by Massimo Pasca, who appears to be channelling images of hell like Coppo di Marcovaldo, Pieter Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch, depicting the attack; it’s not a mainstream prog cover but does fit a ‘dark prog’ tag, a category firmly associated with Genoa’s Black Widow Records who co-produced and distributed the disc.

Opening track Un' Alba come Tante (A Dawn like Many Others) begins as far away from the sleeve artwork as you can imagine, with birdsong indicating the bucolic existence associated with the heel of Italy. The introduction of a deliberate flanged bass figure (played by Ilario Suppressa) and electric piano (courtesy of Mauro Tre) is reminiscent of early structured Pink Floyd; there’s a short, heavy fuzzed bass riff which resolves into a triumphant sounding, uplifting motif which is repeated on brassy synth before the riff changes style, becoming firstly more bluesy then jazzy with a swing beat provided by Alberto Ria. A walking bass line overlain with a synth solo has a very 70’s feel, like a subdued Greenslade, before a reprise of the ‘heroic’ riff that could have featured in the 70’s BBC TV series Gangsters (see Greenslade’s Time and Tide, 1975) with wah-wahed electric piano, finally ending with a section reminiscent of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. There are two guest brass players on the track, Gianni Alemanno who plays trumpet and Andrea Doremi on trombone whose contributions fit seamlessly with the piece, adding brightness rather than colour and enhancing the jazzy nature of the composition.

It’s a great start to the record, 11 minutes of predominantly riff-based music and some impressive but unflashy soloing. The constant changes prevent it from becoming boring and the bright riff which features near the start and is reprised later on in the track is a true ear-worm; I set off to work on Friday whistling the refrain and came back home still whistling the phrase! Only a minute shorter, second track Vengono dal Mare (They come from the Sea) quickly moves from the relative tranquility of wave sounds to vaguely disturbing guitar (think of the opening sequence of David Cronenberg’s cinematic adaptation of Crash by JG Ballard, scored by Howard Shore.) There’s a short spoken passage in Turkish by Gorkem Ismail which adds to the atmosphere without relieving the tension, then a short guitar figure before the introduction of a driving riff underneath a repeating keyboard figure and some more wah-wahed keyboard. There’s a slightly sinister edge to this track which reminds me of Goblin, so it comes as no surprise that Claudio Simonetti has played as a guest with the band.

Ottocento (800) features some great Farfisa organ, a keyboard tone not unlike the work of Rick Wright or Bo Hansson but any hint of Pink Floyd is covered with new additions, gull-cry guitar and other-worldly theremin. It’s the most psychedelic of the four tracks and possibly the least musically complex with stomping fuzzed bass and other fairly straightforward bass lines and rhythms, but there is some mesmerising highly reverbed guitar which sketches the outlines of a Middle Eastern scale.

Bernabei, named after an Ottoman soldier who doesn’t actually appear in Corti’s novel, is the shortest of the four tracks but following a deliberate, short, heavy riff that links to the preceding track, a fast Middle Eastern-scale guitar line is reintroduced and there’s some experimental early-Floyd jamming. A picked guitar motif is played over some Turkish text and then the guitar and synthesizer double up to play a fast eastern-sounding riff. The group switches between rock improvisation, jazz sections and the eastern riff, all played presto vivace and the record closes with a reprise of the eastern riff.

Written by Bruno and recorded live in the studio in two 10-hour stints after days of rehearsal, it’s possible to detect a sense of urgency about the music but it’s coherent and well played. I like the fact that the band has chosen a concept that relates to their home region, an examination of personal cultural history and an interpretation of what is regarded as a major literary work. The link to Goblin goes a bit deeper than occasional sections sounding like them; they had the idea of making the album as a soundtrack to an imaginary 70’s film of the novel, choosing instrumentation to match. This obviously adds to the prog sound but also puts Muffx in the Giallo category.

It’s prog, but it’s a mixture of heavy, Italian proto-prog (influenced by Deep Purple and Black Sabbath), psychedelia and jazz. It may be another ‘hard-to-pigeonhole’ album, but it's really good.

Muffx - L'Oro di Tutti (2017) BWRDIST 675

By ProgBlog, Mar 26 2017 08:54PM

The latest edition of Prog magazine (Prog 75) arrived last week with a somewhat surprising cover story: The 100 Greatest Prog Anthems of All Time. Not only had I missed the call for voting but I wasn’t sure what readers were supposed to have voted for. It turns out that what they had asked for was our favourite track, and their feature was actually a list of ‘the 100 Greatest Prog Songs of all time’, also described as ‘pretty much the definitive list of prog songs old and new’. Not surprisingly, the Prog website anticipated the response to the published list; a byline predicting ‘feverish debate’.

As happy as I am to wade through a comprehensive list, knowing I’ll disagree with a good proportion of it (although in this instance I have 17 of the top 20 in my collection, just not in the same order of preference), I do think compiling lists is lazy journalism. However, I wouldn’t want to diminish the not inconsiderable task of compiling the list, as it’s likely that there were very large numbers of votes cast. The feature also includes some new insight into the making of some of the albums highlighted, such as David Cross providing background thoughts on King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic from 1973 and a decent-length interview with Steve Rothery.

My gripe isn’t with the list, although Close to the Edge should have been at number 1 instead of Supper’s Ready, not number 2, but with the magazine’s cover and headline. According to the on-line Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘anthem’ derives from old English antefn or antifne, a composition sung antiphonally, itself a derivation from late Latin antiphona (see antiphon); the alternative spelling with ‘th’ was probably adopted in the 16th century. Whereas there’s a nationalistic connotation to anthems, solemn or patriotic songs officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity, and a subtly different appropriation where a rousing or uplifting song becomes identified with a particular social grouping, political body or cause, I’m not convinced that what we now recognise as anthems have any place in progressive rock.

This may not always have been the case, as Aldo Tagliapietra, bassist from Le Orme, has described the use of ‘stereo’ choirs in the Basilica di San Marco in his native Venice. This is an example of an antiphon, a hymn or a psalm performed by two groups of singers chanting alternative sections like a call and response and whether you believe in a Christian God or not, progressive rock has roots in liturgical music.

Call and response isn’t limited to either church music or prog but forms an interesting device in narrative songs. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Genesis, with their moniker and background in Charterhouse public school (and public schools had strong church links; Charterhouse was founded by Thomas Sutton in 1611 and built on the site of the ruins of a Carthusian monastery) should employ multi-character vocal parts on a range of albums: Harold the Barrel from Nursery Cryme; Get ‘em Out by Friday (Foxtrot); The Battle of Epping Forest (Selling England by the Pound); Robbery Assault and Battery (A Trick of the Tail); and All in a Mouse’s Night (Wind and Wuthering). There are some examples where a call and the response aren’t vocal, the best of which are on Between Nothingness and Eternity by the Mahavishnu Orchestra; normally a duel, Mahavishnu use three lead instruments in fiery exchanges, interplay that hints at the difficult nature of the quest for spiritual enlightenment.

The common understanding of an anthem involves a short, distilled message, largely because this is the easiest way to get a message across, be it a patriotic call or an environmental protest. That’s not to say progressive rock can’t be used to highlight some ecological or political concern; Yes’ anti-war themes in Yours is no Disgrace and Starship Trooper and their use of ‘green language’, especially on Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans embrace counter-cultural thinking but the message isn’t clear-cut, relying on a deeper engagement with the audience. On the other hand, Don’t Kill the Whale, although still not an anthem, is a direct call to humankind to respect sentience in another species which cynics thought was simply the group jumping on an environmental band-wagon, but in fact their musical philosophy pre-dates the realisation that we were hunting whales to extinction.

An anthem has to include vocals and, in the context of pop or rock music, not only requires a structure that invokes euphoric feelings, it has to serve as something that is closely associated with a particular band. It’s a sweeping generalisation to say that minor chords are gloomy and major chords are ‘bright’ but, apart from increasing the tempo (which gives a sense of urgency or striving) it’s possible to make a chord sequence sound more rousing by opening up the chord; taking the middle note of a triad and raising it by an octave. In terms of association with a group, sticking to a pre-existing structural verse, chorus, bridge formula helps a little, as does revisiting familiar lyrical tropes, but in a world where visuals are as dominant as sounds, subscribing to a group’s visual identity is also a helping factor. A tendency towards style over substance is more rock than prog rock which is why I’d include Asia’s Heat of the Moment in the anthemic class. It just seems to me that there’s a propensity for stadium AOR and heavy rock acts to churn out this sort of music, so that wearing the patch on your cut-down denim jacket becomes an emblem of belonging, waving devil-horn hand gestures and singing along with 50000 others who have lost their own individualism to bask in the enveloping identity of the group.

As a season ticket holder of many years at Crystal Palace I can see, and I’m very wary of mob behaviour. It’s no surprise that national anthems are sung at the beginning of international matches; the sub-text is that two teams are going into battle. At league level we wear the club shirt and sing and chant club anthems in lieu of violence and, for some die-hards, the result is everything, not simply entertainment. I’m a bit intimidated by this fervour and though I always want Palace to win, playing well and demonstrating cohesiveness is nearly as important as coming away with three points. I think that immersion in the mob, whether it’s at a sporting event or at a gig is a repudiation of your individuality, whereas progressive rock is about inclusivity while retaining individualism; a realisation that different cultural influences makes more interesting music, that diversity is to be celebrated.

I suspect that the Prog editorial team simply made a poor choice of words when it came to putting together the front page of the magazine, which leaves us with the question: Are there really any prog anthems? I may go to gigs and sing to myself, sometimes with my eyes closed like some old dope, but I don’t like a singalong or to be encouraged to clap along to a piece of music because it interferes with my appreciation of what is being played. I suppose these moments get as close as anything to being anthemic but the complexity of the music normally brings audience participation to a premature close. The use of encores, playing well known and appreciated tunes, kind of fills the requirement for an anthem without necessarily being anthemic. Heat of the Moment, the culmination of John Wetton’s search for commercial success while retaining a relatively high degree of musicality would fit the bill, but stomping out verse-chorus-verse-chorus isn’t really prog.

If there was a Yes anthem it would be I’ve seen All Good People. Not surprisingly, I’m least disposed towards it out of all the songs on The Yes Album because the All Good People section comes close to straightforward rock. It remains a live favourite however, the second most played song by the band, where it frequently appears as an encore and audience clapping is encouraged. The most played tune is Roundabout which, despite the success brought about by the truncation into a radio-friendly single, chops and changes too many times to be an anthem.

The answer lies with Emerson, Lake and Palmer who covered the William Blake / Hubert Parry Jerusalem. This may seem like a return to the theme of church music, or even the idea of a national anthem but Blake has also been appropriated by a wide range of people who recognise a spirit of utopianism in his writing. Rugby fans may bellow out the hymn in an effort to galvanise their team while right-wing commentators remind them that perhaps Blake wasn’t quite as patriotic as they thought; rationalists like Dawkins and Bronowski and Marxists like EP Thompson have sided with him; he inspired Gordon Giltrap’s excellent prog-folk Visionary. His Complete Works was the first book of poetry I ever bought. It may be the Elgar’s orchestration of the hymn provides much of the uplifting feel but the ELP version, with Greg Lake’s clear voice ringing through, is a call to all followers of progressive rock.

By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2014 03:33PM

It's mid December and I'm in Bah! Humbug mode. The endless incitement to consume that began gearing up in October is now reaching fever pitch and I’m feeling bad that I feel bad about the whole season. It's not that I don't like giving but I prefer not to be bullied into becoming a slave to this celebration of the unnecessary and shallow. 40 years ago, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock, there was a tug between those promoting commercialisation of Christmas and traditionalists pushing their views on religious significance. In a socio-political context, this was the height of the cold war and the ideological battle was being fought over consumer goods as much as the race to over-stock with nuclear arms; the West was fighting dirty, their propaganda directed at housewives, seducing them with a wide range of appliances and products on supermarket shelves that they were obviously unable to live without. The East failed to deliver promised social equality as money was poured into the military-industrial complex rather than into basics. Despite, or rather because of planned obsolescence, the West won the day; power to the consumer! Power to consume!

I'm not religious but I accept that some people ascribe meaning to this time of year although their belief is being trampled by the out-of-control machine dedicated to profit. My seasonal preference predates the Christian hijacking of Saturnalia, back to the pagan solstice; one where we simply recognise the end of a solar cycle without resorting to over-indulgence in food and alcohol. What do I wish for at this time of year? Peace on earth (yes, really!) and much stronger regulation of the food, drink and advertising industries.

Much of progressive rock owes a debt to church music. In In My Own Time, Kim Dancha’s authorised biography, John Wetton spoke of his use of chordal structures based on the harmony and counterpoint found in church music, citing the influence of his elder brother Robert who became a church organist of some accomplishment; Steve Hackett has acknowledged the influence of church music on Genesis material; and Jan Akkermann has referred to Eruption (from Moving Waves) as “patched-up church-y ideas, sacral stuff” describing that he made “blues out of those neoclassical church-like harmonies.” Chris Squire was a choir boy at St Andrew’s, Kingsbury and has spoken of the influence of church and choral music on his writing; though largely hidden within his co-written Yes-epics, the song-form on Squire’s solo album Fish out of Water is steeped in ecclesiastical influences, where he’s helped out by former school friend and band mate Andrew Pryce Jackman on keyboards and enlists the help of Barry Rose, the sub-organist from St Paul’s cathedral who plays pipe organ.

The cultural significance of the church within progressive rock has been thoroughly covered by academic authors such as Bill Martin and Edward Macan. The genre is peppered with references to liturgy, from the straightforward Credo by Refugee to the psychedelic retelling of Revelations by both Aphrodite’s Child (666) and Genesis (Supper’s Ready.) Perhaps the most overt church music albums are Mass in F minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes and the first album by Italy’s Latte e Miele, Passio Secundum Mattheum (1972). Mass in F minor was not really a full Electric Prunes album and it’s not really prog. The music was written by David Axelrod and he felt he had to draft in other musicians from Canadian group The Collectors to complete the project, a mix of acid rock guitar and Gregorian chants, sung in Latin and Greek. It’s a strange mix but somehow it works really well. Some critics have labelled Latte e Miele as an ELP clone, partly because of their keyboards/guitar/percussionist line up and partly because they include a Bach quotation that appears almost note-for-note and with the same feeling on The Three Fates (Clotho) from ELP’s first album. Such criticism is grossly unfair because 16-year old drummer Alfio Vitanza also adds flute, contributing to a pastoral feel that conjures up suggestions of early Genesis; I’d argue that the inclusion of Mellotron and string synth are the antithesis of ELP. It should be seen as a brave move for a first album and is rightly regarded as being something of a minor RPI classic.

That a band formed in a British public school should display influences from the church is hardly surprising. What is slightly more unexpected is that young musicians, absorbing blues, jazz and rock influences from the US, music born of repression and rebellion, should also exhibit a debt to music that, on reflection, reflects a deeply authoritarian way of life. I suppose it’s only symphonic prog, where the prevalent form is European art music, which truly fits this picture. These musicians grew up in a post-war society where religion played an important role in providing spiritual solace in the years following the massive loss of life and wanton destruction. This thinking was challenged by the pointless wars that occurred in faraway countries throughout the 60s and 70s and by the ideals of the counterculture when prog followed the trail of The Beatles and looked eastwards. These outside influences and experiences were revelatory; this wasn’t a clash of cultures because individuals were actively seeking alternatives to Western consumerism, leading to the dawn of the understanding that other belief systems were equally valid. The end result was that the prevailing church music, largely based on catholic and protestant doctrines, lost its religious baggage and became spiritual. On Aqualung, Jethro Tull play out a rejection of organised religion and on The Only Way from Tarkus (which describes itself as a hymn), ELP appear to take a humanist stance: “People are stirred, moved by the word/Kneel at the shrine, deceived by the wine/How was the earth conceived? Infinite space/Is there such a place? You must believe in the human race” and “Don’t be afraid, man is man made”.

During the 70s the church organ became an instrument of the prog keyboard player. Rick Wakeman played the organ at St Giles’, Cripplegate, part of London’s Barbican complex on The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the organ at St Martin’s, Vevey, Switzerland that was used on Going for the One and the solo album Criminal Record, an album that was something of a return to form; Keith Emerson uses St Mark’s church organ on Tarkus; Rick van der Linden plays the organ in the church of Maasluis (near Rotterdam) on the eponymous first Trace album and the organ of St Bavo’s church in Haarlem on the second album, Birds; on Hamburger Concerto Thijs van Leer plays the organ of St Mary the Virgin, Barnes (the album was recorded at Olympic Sound studios in Barnes.) Hamburger Concerto includes the track La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and when I was presented with the opportunity to visit Strasbourg for a scientific meeting, I took time out to visit the cathedral which is suitably impressive; a gothic masterpiece rising from the cobbles of a fairly densely hemmed-in square.

I like church architecture and the space they contain from a mathematical point of view. I like church music but I disassociate it from worship. Aldo Tagliapietra of Le Orme described how, during La Serenissima, there use to be two choirs in the basilica di San Marco, one on either side of the congregation, singing in stereo. Prog has absorbed bits and pieces of the form and few overt references to a specific god remain. The search for enlightenment, which runs throughout many prog compositions, doesn’t come across as religious; it’s head music which requires conscious engagement without the requirement for religious baggage. That’s something to think about if you receive any progressive rock as a present this Christmas.

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