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ProgBlog catches King Crimson on an auspicious date at the beginning of their 2018 UK tour

By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2016 10:05PM

Sometime in July my wife forwarded me an Amazon recommendation, Peter Hammill and the K Group Live At Rockpalast – Hamburg 1981, a DVD and double CD production available for pre-order. I’ve come to rely on her input for potential new purchases, though their appearance in her Amazon suggestions must irritate her as much as the People You May Know feature on Facebook infuriates me; I don’t know these people and I don’t want to know them, so please stop trying to expand my social network. I can count my Facebook friends just using my fingers and toes. I’m a sociopath. Leave me alone with my music.

I’m a Peter Hammill fan and the K Group’s The Margin (1985) recorded at live shows in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London in 1983 is something of a favourite, with a raw, seat-of-the-pants feel, even though the band had been touring with Hammill’s solo material since 1981, so I ordered it immediately. On Friday 26th August I received an email from Amazon informing me that the item was due for delivery that day and, not knowing how it was packaged and whether or not it would fit through the letterbox, my wife stayed at home to take collection. By the time I got home from work, with a short detour to the shops in Addiscombe, there was still no sign of my parcel. I utilised the tracking facility on Amazon’s email and was informed that it was out for delivery. After dinner, a little before 8pm, I looked again and Amazon reported a ‘delay in delivery due to external factors, Croydon GB’ but didn’t provide any explanation. At 10pm, without any further changes to the message, I contacted Amazon customer services to be told that there was a problem with their system and that they couldn’t check my account. I thought that they may be able to tell me at what point I should give up waiting without going into details; apparently they deliver up to 9.30pm. The package was pushed through my letterbox at around 1.30pm on Saturday, some time after I’d seen announcements of its arrival with other recipients on Twitter, despatched from Burning Shed. It’s a good job that I’ve used Burning Shed for the forthcoming VdGG release Do Not Disturb and King Crimson’s Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind.



In the sleeve notes to Live at Rockpalast, Hammill is quoted as saying of The K Group “I was the boss; it was ‘my’ band. But our human and musical interaction was unimpeachable.” This suggests that it was a band put together to perform his solo material in order to present the material in a way that fully reflected the power of songs from his then most recent album, Sitting Targets (1981), not something that represented a true collective. When I first discovered prog, the genre appeared to me fairly egalitarian, but it may be that my thinking has been influenced by two of the first few albums I heard; the completeness of Close to the Edge is to a great extent down to the balanced roles of the musicians and predecessor Fragile, which appeared after CttE in our house, reinforced that view with its five ‘solo’ spots interspersed with some quite amazing band compositions. The first ‘solo’ album I bought, a joint enterprise with brother Tony, was Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973), where all the music was written Wakeman and guitar, bass and percussion were provided by guest musicians, gathered together for this one-off release. It was this formulation of the solo album that I regarded as being the archetypal model, one that was repeated by Wakeman’s erstwhile band mates during the Yes hiatus of 1975 – 1977. Solo projects allowed a member of a band to record material that might not have been suitable for their regular work outfit though the circles in which they moved were quite evident from the list of guest musicians; following the example of Wakeman, Steve Howe and Chris Squire borrowed fellow members of Yes, and Steve Hackett utilised Genesis colleagues on his first solo venture, Voyage of the Acolyte (1975). Meanwhile, Alan White, releasing Ramshackled (1976) under his own name despite not writing any of the material, borrowed the vocal and guitar talents of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe respectively for one track. Patrick Moraz chose to release The Story of i (1976) without any members of Yes, so that whereas you could detect the DNA of Yes in Fish Out of Water (1975) and Beginnings (1975) because of the distinctive playing and song writing styles of Squire and Howe, Moraz’s effort was a frenetic jazz rock workout which borrowed from Mainhorse (his first band) and world music without referencing Yes. Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow (1976) was the only genuine solo effort which may have not sounded particularly like Yes but certainly embodied the spirit of the band.


Even though there was considerable debate about the true solo nature of Olias of Sunhillow, with suggestions that Vangelis had some uncredited physical input (Vangelis having borrowed Jon Anderson for a vocal contribution on So Long Ago, So Clear, from 1975’s Heaven and Hell, another genuine solo album if you discount the vocal and choral parts), there could be no disputing the stand out solo album of the period, even with contributions from Lindsay Cooper on string bass and Jon Field on flutes, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973) where one man pushed multi-tracking to the extreme. This brings us back to Hammill, whose second and third solo albums Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night (1973) and The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (1974) fall between the initial break up and reformation of VdGG but, due to the inclusion of (In The) Black Room/The Tower and A Louse is not a Home, long-form compositions which would have featured on a studio follow-up to Pawn Hearts, the line between solo and group material becomes heavily blurred. In Camera (1974) marks a departure from over-reliance on other members of Van der Graaf Generator (Guy Evans is still on hand to provide some of the drums) but this is the beginning of the Sofa Sound home recordings, utilising extensive multitracking. There were two more Hammill solo venture featuring more than just a couple of the Hammill coterie; the entire cast of Van der Graaf Generator appeared on the pre-reformation, proto-punk Nadir’s Big Chance (1975) and Over (1977) includes members of the somewhat different Van der Graaf. Hammill’s appropriation of the alter ego Rikki Nadir heralded his later adoption of an alternative character, K, leader of the K Group. The pared-back solo outings The Future Now (1978) and pH7 (1979) were the last two releases on Charisma and I regard them as a sort of pair. The only guest musicians are Graham Smith and David Jackson, the songs could be interchangeable and the covers are stylistically similar; I also bought both of them from WH Smith in Streatham from a sale bin.

The next two albums, A Black Box (1980) and Sitting Targets (1981) provide many of the songs played by the K Group. The epic Flight deserves full band treatment but the songs that made up the K Group set list all benefit from a band performance. I’ve seen Hammill perform solo shows and loved them, watching him play on two successive nights in 1984 as I was catching up on his solo records and Van der Graaf. His emotion and projection are quite incredible and there’s always a sense that you’re being taken into uncharted territory, however well you know the material. A good place to start for the uninitiated is the double CD Typical (1999) taken from concerts in 1992).




But where does solo begin and band end? Hammill wrote almost all the material for Van der Graaf Generator but there’s no way you could call VdGG the backing band. I think that the solo artist Hammill is the singer/songwriter performing material primarily sourced outside of VdGG, with or without accompaniment, and whether or not he’s alone with piano and guitar, or has someone like Stuart Gordon on violin helping out or even backed by the full K Group, he’s always interesting to listen to on record and compelling to watch live. Live at Rockpalast is worth buying just for the DVD.






By ProgBlog, Apr 17 2016 11:22PM

Yesterday was Record Store Day, the ninth year that it’s been running, an event to advertise your local record store, wherever you live in the world. Some of the comments I’ve seen on social media suggest that there are a lot of vinyl fans who don't subscribe and though I’m very much in favour of Jo(e) Public getting off their backside and going out into the high street to support the local record store, the concept smacks of the promotion of non-events like Halloween, mother’s day and father’s day and in any case, you should be patronising all the local shops in your area and make at least weekly visits to the local vinyl emporium. Croydon used to have a good selection of stores selling vinyl but now there are only two in the town centre that I can think of: HMV with its limited range of popular albums; and 101 Records which has a wide, varied but chaotic selection of second hand LPs and singles. Addiscombe, the bit of Croydon where I live, used to have two or three stores with Woolworth and Addiscombe Music Centre selling new records and The Vinyl Resting Place selling second hand records, books and memorabilia. The global economic crash saw the end of Woolworth (it became a Sainsbury’s Local); the tiny Addiscombe Music Centre was pulled down when trams returned to Croydon just before the current millennium; and the Vinyl Resting Place closed down after a series of unforeseen climatological events and the knock-on effects of global terrorism coupled with the inexorable rise of eBay. The owner Barbara Day told the Croydon Guardian: "I think record stores can still come back, maybe not in our lifetime, but we are hoping that people will get bored of the internet and go back to these shops.” She might be please to hear that a new record store has opened up in Addiscombe, DnR Vinyl, that I’ve yet to step inside – it specialises in UK garage classics, grime, dubstep and bassline – so there’s little chance of me picking up the new Höstsonaten album Symphony #1 Cupid and Psyche from there but I still hope that they are successful and that their appearance indicates an upturn in the fortunes of the local economy. It’s good to see new stores opening up in Addiscombe; it makes a change from charity shops and bookmakers. Though I walked right past Fopp in Shaftesbury Avenue yesterday, I didn’t go in. I was thinking about the economy, or more specifically an alternative economy as I was taking part in The People’s Assembly March for Heath, Houses, Jobs and Education from University College Hospital in Gower Street to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell gave a short speech during which he outlined what an incoming Labour government would do regarding the NHS (no privatisation), housing (building council homes for fair rent, not for private sale), ensuring the survival of the UK steel industry by nationalisation, if necessary, and supporting overworked teachers. Quite rousing stuff! I also like the way he’s been listening to Yanis Varoufakis who has convinced McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn that remaining in the EU, bringing about the necessary changes from within, is better than Brexit. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of McDonnell but more so after he made some complimentary comments about a speech I gave at a rally in support of the NHS in 2012.


Back in Addiscombe, DnR is next to musical instrument shop Tuga Sounds, another recent addition to the local retail landscape. I popped into Tuga last year to enquire about a Washburn Taurus T14 bass because I’d seen they had a Washburn six string for sale and at the time I believed that I’d have more time to dedicate to music during my semi-retirement. I own a Hohner B2A, a headless, almost bodiless bass bought in 1987 when they were quite trendy but I saw reviews of the fantastic looking T14, T24 and T25 models and thought that adding to my guitar collection, rather than replacing the Hohner, was not an unreasonable thing to do. A lengthy discussion with the store owner made me doubt the wisdom of acquiring a 5 string bass, an instrument that is quite prevalent in progressive rock, because he said he always reached for his four string bass. I was thinking of going for the lighter (and cheaper T14) but I’m tempted to go for the T24...

Dedicating more time to playing, writing and recording music would have been justification to buy another bass and I have followed music long enough to have seen some of my guitar heroes collect and utilise a range of different guitars. The first player of multiple guitars I came across was Steve Howe with his collection displayed in the Fragile (1971) booklet. There are 14 guitars visible, plus a violin/viola, a banjo and something I can’t identify.


According to the man himself in an interview that appears in the current edition of Prog magazine, the collection is now of the order of 100 guitars. His use of different guitar styles, one of the defining features of Yes music, is reason enough to have this variety where he is able to choose the instrument most appropriate for the sound required in a particular piece. Brother Tony used to have a post-Bruford Yes poster that was displayed on our bedroom wall and Howe features with the guitar I most associate with his work, the Gibson ES 175 D, a feeling reinforced by the picture on the inner gatefold of The Yes Album (1971) where the instrument can also be seen and on the cover of his first solo album Beginnings (1975). It goes without saying that this doesn’t tell the whole story. On side two of Close to the Edge (1972) he also uses 12 string acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitar, bringing a full symphonic range to the guitar parts. I don’t know but it sounds to me as though his use of instruments on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) closely matches those used on Close to the Edge; Gates of Delirium from Relayer (1974) has a harsher sound and this is partly down to his use of a 1955 Fender Telecaster. I think that there are strong hints of jazz rock on that album so I’d also expect his ES 175 to feature, being more of a jazz instrument. We expect progressive rock keyboard players to use multiple instruments on one track but it’s more unusual to see a guitarist swap instruments. Howe’s live performances with Yes feature frequent changes within one song and he’s come up with some innovative ways to carry this off without dropping a note, most notably the guitar fixed to a stand that gets wheeled out for And You And I.


Using different effects pedals and studio multitracking allow different guitar parts to come through on record and listing all the equipment used by a band in the sleeve notes was integral to my appreciation for progressive rock. Howe doesn’t list the guitars used on Beginnings but does, by track, on The Steve Howe Album (1979.) Though some of the albums I own hint at a number of different guitars used, it seems that it’s only Howe who lists instruments by track, though Mike Oldfield does kind of list his guitars (and other instruments) though not by manufacturer or model, on Tubular Bells (1973) and Ommadawn (1975). This is in contrast to keyboard players who list their instruments in minutiae. Other players may have collections of instruments but I believe it’s Howe who best demonstrates the value of owning a number of guitars, for both studio work and live performance.








By ProgBlog, Jun 28 2015 10:12PM

A forty-year anniversary passed last month that I hadn’t realised until I watched my The Gates of QPR, Yes at Queens Park Rangers Stadium (volume 2) a couple of days ago – a concert recorded on the 10th May 1975 and featuring Patrick Moraz on keyboards even though there’s a picture of Rick Wakeman on the back sleeve. The set list for this DVD is really good and the sound quality is mostly good, too. It’s quite interesting to see Steve Howe using a double-neck 6 and 12 string Gibson for the opener, And You and I, whereas in the studio he used a 12 string acoustic guitar and I’m sure I’ve seen him play an acoustic instrument when I’ve seen Yes play live. There are a number of entirely reasonable practical reasons for using an electric guitar in this context which doesn’t really detract from the feel of the performance but I believe the original studio instrumentation is an important part of the make-up of symphonic progressive rock.

One of the core features of symphonic prog is the broad sonic palette utilised to produce sweeping musical visions incorporating a range of different moods. The listener’s interest is maintained by a number of devices including changes of tempo, changes of time signature, chord changes and changes in amplitude. This compositional complexity is what appeals to me because it makes the music less formulaic and more likely to capture my imagination, transcending the verse-chorus-verse-chorus of the boy-meets-girl pop song and allowing the musicians to relate long stories or explore philosophical issues. Different instruments or electronic patches, often outside the remit of mainstream popular music, don’t only add an exotic flavour but may represent a particular narrative thread; Camel’s Snow Goose uses this formula but Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, written for a children's theatre is the best example. Prokofiev invented the story and wrote the narration, constructing the music as a child's introduction to the orchestra, with each character represented by a different instrument or group of instruments: Peter by the strings, the bird by the flute, the duck by the oboe, the cat by the clarinet, the wolf by the horn section, and so on. It’s therefore hardly surprising that a number of prog luminaries, including Bill Bruford, Brian Eno and Robin Lumley, should collaborate on a rock version of the Prokofiev classic.

The main exponents of acoustic guitar passages include Yes, Genesis, Focus and PFM. I’ve not included Jethro Tull in this list because Ian Anderson’s guitar is primarily used as strummed or picked chordal blocks, intended as backing for electric guitar, keyboards, flute or a vocal melody line. I’m also not including the brilliant John McLaughlin because his playing falls within the jazz and jazz-rock contexts but, from the progressive world, Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, Jan Akkerman and Franco Mussida are all masters of their craft, allowed to display their virtuosity within a group context though their solo work often shows how different genres have influenced them. Steve Howe’s Beginnings (1975) and The Steve Howe Album (1979) feature a range of examples of the different styles that have been key to his development as a guitarist. Early Genesis featured up to three members strumming guitars and the arrival of Steve Hackett didn’t change this too drastically, though his playing over the top of 12 string guitar, like on The Return of the Giant Hogweed, (from Nursery Cryme, 1971) is far more confident than that of the undeniably talented Anthony Phillips. The first real clue to what inspired Hackett comes in the form of Horizons (from Foxtrot, 1972) and I had the good fortune to see him on his acoustic trio tour at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon in 2005 which featured most of the same set and was played by the same musicians, Hackett, his brother John (flute) and Roger King (keyboards) appearing on the box set Hungarian Horizons Live in Budapest (2002) and formed a sort of prelude to the classical covers of Tribute (2008). Jan Akkerman’s study of the lute made an important contribution to both Focus 3 (1972) and Hamburger Concerto (1974).

The rise of prog coincided with an interest in classical guitar pieces, notably concertos written by Joaquín Rodrigo and Heitor Villa-Lobos – I recall buying my sister Linda an LP of Rodrigo’s guitar concertos sometime in the mid-70s – and this fascination was cemented by the Stanley Myers piece Cavatina, played by John Williams, which defined the soundtrack of The Deer Hunter. John Williams had been involved in crossover projects in the past but along with long-term collaborators Herbie Flowers on bass and tuba and drummer Tristan Fry he formed Sky after recruiting fellow Australian guitarist Kevin Peek and former Curved Air man Francis Monkman on keyboards. I was never a fan of Sky who I considered to be prog-lite, appended to the genre by journalists and critics even as it faded. It may have been the insipid rendition of Toccata that featured on Top of the Pops in 1980 that confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for the project.

A good place to look for acoustic guitar-rich prog is Spain. As part of my preparations for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2010, I researched Spanish prog bands and record shops and, on arrival, set out to find music by Triana (regarded as the best of Spanish prog), Iceberg and Gotic. In the end I had to buy a download album by Gotic, the upbeat, instrumental Escenes (1978) which sounds like Greenslade with flute but I did manage to find two releases by Iceberg, the symphonic prog Tutankhamon (1975) and the jazz-rock Coses Nostres (1976) and the first three Triana albums El Patio (1975), Hijos del Agobio (1977) and Sombra y Luz (1979). El Patio (The Backyard) is quite accessible, setting out the Triana stall of traditional flamenco mixed with progressive rock and referencing an LSD trip. I find it interesting that almost the entire album was written by keyboard player Jesús de la Rosa rather than guitarist Eduardo Rodríguez Rodway; electric guitar and bass were provided by guest musicians. Spain was just emerging from the fascist dictatorship of General Franco when Triana were becoming established and Hijos del Agobio (Children of the Burden) is darker and more political than its forerunner but this style of music, blending flamenco and keyboard driven symphonic prog and initiated by Triana, has its own sub genre, Andalusian rock.

The trio of albums by Gordon Giltrap beginning with Visionary (1976) moved the artist away from his folk roots and, with the aid of an electric guitar and a good backing band, create some excellent prog that features a good mix of electric and acoustic-based songs. Perhaps Giltrap thought that the folk sphere limited his outlook, rather like the strictly classical guitar field when you compare it with the potential audience that listens to rock. There’s a rich vein of early, classical and romantic music that can be used as a basis for prog compositions which can challenge the player and listener alike. Symphonic prog successfully taps this repertoire providing variations in tone and volume and, possibly most importantly, a link to pastoralism.



By ProgBlog, Feb 15 2015 10:58PM

1975 might seem like the middle of the golden age of progressive rock but there weren’t too many releases by the major players. Music inspired by the Snow Goose was about to put Camel firmly on the prog map but they had come fairly late to the party. Wish You Were Here was a key release marking a high point in the Floyd canon, coming after what seemed like a prolonged hiatus and the last overtly progressive album they would do for a very long time. Though brilliant, Hatfield and the North’s The Rotters’ Club was an album that fell outside of mainstream prog but that for me was the best of the Canterbury offerings. Steve Hillage released the good but not essential Fish Rising, helped by fellow Gong members and Hatfield’s Dave Stewart, a friend and former early band mate and Caravan released what could really be described as the last decent album of their golden years, Cunning Stunts.

Gentle Giant switched record label to Chrysalis and put out the accessible and rocky Free Hand. I heard the title track on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show around the time of its release and it remains one of my favourite Gentle Giant tracks; a reformed Van der Graaf Generator emerged with the excellent Godbluff and covered familiar foreboding VdGG territory in a more measured, controlled way; Jethro Tull regaled us with the under-rated Minstrel in the Gallery; Rick Wakeman followed up the massive success of Journey to the Centre of the Earth with The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; and Steve Hackett filled the vacuum in Genesis output following the departure of Peter Gabriel by embarking on his first solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, which covered much of the ground that had been inhabited by Genesis.

1975 was the year of the Yes sabbatical with band members concentrating on solo album material. Steve Howe’s Beginnings and Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water were released within a couple of weeks of each other in the autumn and Olias of Sunhillow, Story of I and Ramshackled followed in 1976. The extended break between group albums mimicked the lay-off between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here; WYWH and Animals; and Brain Salad Surgery and Works Volume 1 and could be regarded as a period to recharge creative batteries. The closest the solo material came to resemble Yes music, certainly from a structural point of view, was probably Fish out of Water though Anderson’s Olias was possibly more spiritually in tune with Yes music and my personal favourite of the bunch. I wasn’t sure about the recreation of Roger Dean’s Fragile spaceship by Dave Roe despite recognising his artwork from Anne McCaffrey Dragonflight books which were essential reading for a 15 year-old but, in general the gatefold album sleeve worked and felt very satisfactory as a book with Anderson’s planetary eco-disaster storytelling. Many Yes fans were disappointed with the mixed bag from Alan White because it wasn’t prog and I regard Beginnings as an album for purists because, although it is thoroughly Steve Howe, it’s again too much of a varied stylistic blend.

Patrick Moraz’s Story of I was written during 1975 then recorded (at Jean Ristori’s Aquarius studio in Geneva) and released in 1976. Ristori was a former band mate of Moraz in Mainhorse, who played a largely blues-inflected proto prog and released one self-titled album in 1971. Mainhorse features a hefty dose of psychedelia and it's relatively heavy, with a lot of Hendrix- or Cream-like guitar. The songs are well-crafted but uncomplicated and the lyrics relatively throwaway and meaningless, though Peter Lockett sings quite well. The instrumental breaks remind me of Pete Banks-era Yes and there are some sections that remind me of Dutch band Supersister. There are jazzy breaks, Lockett plays some violin and Jean Ristori plays some cello but it's the organ work of Moraz that pushes the album in a prog direction, peppered with baroque references. There's even a great swinging electric piano extemporisation around a Bach theme on More Tea Vicar. Moraz’s writing style had matured by the time of Refugee and though their only studio album Refugee (1974) is primarily a vehicle for Moraz, the playing of Lee Jackson and Brian Davison brilliantly complements Moraz’s compositions which are top-notch symphonic prog, miles away from Mainhorse. Story of I references Refugee and Relayer; the pitch-bended fast moog runs are classic Moraz and the dense, complex sound has been taken from his time with Yes but I don’t know how much I like the album. I never owned the album on vinyl and didn’t get a copy until February 2012. Alan Freeman played Like a Child in Disguise when the record first came out and I was bitterly disappointed. I’d not heard of Mainhorse at that time and didn’t realise that Moraz had been asked to join Lee Jackson’s pre-Refugee band Jackson Heights, I’d only heard Refugee and Relayer and Freeman’s featured track was nowhere near as good as either of those. The lyrics (by John McBurnie, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter from Jackson Heights) seemed a bit trite and though I’d been versed in the concept of the album, it was difficult to trace the story through either the music or the lyrics. The concept was rather adventurous bearing in mind that science fiction was only just becoming mainstream in 1976; the jungle setting and the architecture of the ‘hotel’ call to mind JG Ballard and there’s even a dystopian aspect to the setting because the trials of the guests are prime-time TV viewing for the rest of the world. This voyeurism may have been inspired by the 1975 film Death Race 2000 and, like Death Race, there’s a positive ending. The ascent/escape of the two main protagonists (Symphony in the Space) is the only part of the story that fits in with the music and it appears to have been influenced by Moraz’s time with Yes. Much of the music could actually be classed as ‘world music’, such is the strength and feel of the Latin rhythms; perhaps that’s what makes me unsure about the album. The playing is exceptional and the range of styles, from classical to jazz to rock to Latin, is part of the make-up of progressive music but, in fitting with the concept, the Brazilian rhythms are overwhelming. Without other creative input or just someone suggesting that some of the ideas don’t quite work, Story of I comes across as a single-minded tour de force and coupled with the rather humdrum nature of the lyrics (when Moraz worked so well with Lee Jackson), this isn’t exactly my cup of tea; it’s not strictly prog.



By ProgBlog, Feb 8 2015 06:37PM

There’s a column in Prog magazine called Locus Focus, written by rock gazetteer David Roberts (author of Rock Atlas) which has the by-line “puts prog on the map”. The notion of highlighting a geographical location associated with some musical iconography appeals to me. I appreciate that a rock atlas is able to transcend the artificial boundaries of genre (think of The Smiths and Salford Lads Club or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at 23 Heddon Street, London W1) but the idea seems somehow related to prog for reasons possibly associated with my early academic path and an insatiable appetite for poring over maps.

Yes Tor is an obvious choice for a prog-related geolocation but there are some more obscure sites that equally fit the bill. I’m sure I remember a section in Roger Dean’s Views where he was describing the inspiration for the watery world depicted inside the gatefold of Close to the Edge that included a photo of a small mountain tarn. I seem to recall that he was describing this tarn as being on the top of a mountain ridge and, for whatever reason, I associated this with the picturesque and entirely unexpected tarns on Haystacks in the western Lake District fells; sadly, I’m no longer able to refer to my copy of Views, bought on its publication in 1975, because over the next few years I removed pages to adorn my bedroom walls.

The formation of these tarns, the so-called summit tarn, Innominate Tarn and Blackbeck Tarn is a feature of the Buttermere-Ennerdale watershed as it passes the rocky protuberance of Great Round How and is restricted to a narrow ridge, craggy and precipitous on the Buttermere side. Alfred Wainwright has drawn a picture of the summit tarn, which doesn’t have a name, in his Western Fells (book seven of his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells) that looks very much as I remember it from a long time ago; the problem of having made a career in London is that I don’t get to do very much Lakeland fell walking anymore. It’s rather paradoxical that the second highest of these natural water features goes under the name of Innominate Tarn and of the three, this is the most magical with an indented rocky shore and a line of tiny islets. If Haystacks didn’t inspire Dean’s Close to the Edge cover, it appears as though it may have informed the cover of Steve Howe’s first solo album Beginnings with the rocky ‘islands’ protruding from the water.

The first time I noticed the Locus Focus column one album immediately sprung to mind: Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. Hergest Ridge is an elongated hill running from Kington in Herefordshire to Gladestry in Powys in a roughly NE – SW orientation, traversing the border between England and Wales. The summit of the hill is on the English side and stands 426m above sea level, rising 158m above the surrounding landscape; the Offa’s Dyke long distance footpath runs along the ridge. Following the success of Tubular Bells, Oldfield retreated to The Beacon, his house on Bradnor Hill, near Kington. The area obviously inspired him; not only was his sophomore effort titled Hergest Ridge but his third album Ommadawn, recorded at The Beacon, is appended by the short song On Horseback and contains the lyric “If you feel a little glum / To Hergest Ridge you should come”.

My copy of Hergest Ridge dates from 1975 and was bought for me for some ridiculous price; either 75p or 99p by friend Bill Burford who had seen cheap copies in WH Smith in Blackpool or somewhere like that. By the mid-late 70s I’d kind of grown out of Tubular Bells and sold my copy to the sister of classmate Eamonn Quinn. I wasn’t a great fan of side two and, at the time, didn’t appreciate the value of keeping hold of vinyl or the importance and longevity of the piece. It’s strange that I kept my Hergest Ridge but I’m pleased that I did because when I listened to it recently I thought it was a lush, symphonic piece. I’ve still got my original Ommadawn and I invested in Tubular Bells and Tubular Bells II on CD. Based on a review by my brother Richard, I bought a cheap copy of Crises on CD when I was in Padova at the end of last year but I still think that Oldfield’s best album is Hergest Ridge, specifically the original mix; the 2010 edit is unbalanced to my ears as some of the sounds that contribute to the pastoral sweep are sullied by encroaching instruments brought out higher in the mix.

Whereas Tubular Bells owes a debt to the minimalists and Ommadawn, with its pipes and African drums, seems to have fully embraced world music influences, Hergest Ridge occupies more than just a place in the sonic continuum. In some respects it’s a ‘son of’ Tubular Bells and in some respects it preludes the Celtic vibe that is evident on its successor but the thematic development of Hergest Ridge is much more rewarding and continues over the two sides of the album; Tubular Bells is an album of two distinct parts, with side two coming across as a rather hurried composition and as a consequence is far less satisfying. Whole Earth band mate and composer David Bedford lent Oldfield a copy of Delius’ tone poem Brigg Fair before the recording of his first album and though Tubular Bells doesn’t really conform to the romantic symphonic style, Hergest Ridge comes much closer. Oldfield utilised the talents of Bedford to conduct a string section and choir and though it’s not evident how much Bedford was responsible for the orchestration, I can’t believe he didn’t have some influence and input. The album also features guest oboe players Lindsay Cooper and June Whiting plus trumpet from Ted Hobart. This extra instrumentation adds a distinct symphonic flavour that fits together far more seamlessly than the vertical arrangements of its predecessor and though no piece of romantic music lasts anywhere near 40 minutes, Hergest Ridge mimics the rhapsodic structure with pastoral themes, variation and development that characterise Sibelius and Vaughan Williams.

Perhaps as a result of Oldfield’s retreat from the public eye, some critics have suggested that Hergest Ridge encapsulates the mid 70s middle-class hippie vibe; the macrobiotic lifestyle, real ale and flowery names for the children, something cartoonist Posy Simmons loved to lampoon. I think that he’s crafted an album that demonstrates his care and passion for music; it may not be as groundbreaking as Tubular Bells but it’s been carefully assembled and perfectly reflects the majesty of wild, open countryside. Not bad for 75p!



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