ProgBlog

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With themes ranging from the occult to murder cases, I'd never heard of 'dark prog' until I got chatting to the staff at Genoa's Black Widow Records.

Another early import from the UK, the Genovese record store and label are named after the original protagonists of the genre and are nuturing many of the important bands from the scene...

By ProgBlog, May 29 2018 06:10PM

One of my Record Store Day 2018 purchases, that is one of the limited editions specially produced for the occasion rather than one of the albums I happened to buy as I wandered through the stalls set out in Cremona’s Corso Campi on the day itself, was a 40th anniversary edition of UK by UK. My original vinyl pressing of this album is in perfectly good condition and I think it’s a well produced record but I was seduced by the promise of the booklet and intrigued by the idea of an Eddie Jobson re-mastering; I’ve not listened to the original LP for some time so I can’t be certain but I think the individual instruments are more discernible on the new release – it has a nice clarity.



Eight years on from the birth of progressive rock in the form of In the Court of the Crimson King, the genre was getting a little tired and large numbers of the record-buying public were getting tired of prog. Not helped by self-imposed exile from the UK for tax reasons but surely driven by creative burn-out to a great extent, the hiatus between studio albums meant that the three really big players in the field slipped out of the music paper headlines and created a void to be exploited and filled by the standard-bearers for Punk, claiming that the excesses of prog indicated how out-of-touch these bands were.

It wasn’t enough to simply release a ‘best of’ (though Yesterdays, released in 1975 was really my introduction to the first two Yes albums and something I still like.) Following the completion of the British leg of the Relayer tour in May 1975, bar an appearance at the Reading Festival in August that year, there wasn’t another UK appearance by the band until October 1977, though all five members of the group issued a solo album. ELP might be perceived as being the worst offenders, not playing on UK soil for 18 years after their 1st May 1974 show in Liverpool and though they performed in Europe and the USA later in 1974, they were absent from the stage between 21st August 1974 and 24th May 1977 with only a Christmas single (I Believe in Father Christmas, Greg Lake, 1975) and a near-novelty single (Honky Tonk Train Blues, Keith Emerson, 1976) to satisfy their fans. Pink Floyd seemed to have managed fans’ expectations quite well, despite the length of time taken between The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, then Wish You Were Here and Animals and the lack of live dates, especially in the UK. Between 14th December 1974 and the first Wall show in Los Angeles on February 7th 1980, they undertook a three month long North America tour and then played Knebworth in July 1975, toured Animals around Europe including the UK with dates in London and Stafford and North America between January and July 1977. Two of the members also produced solo albums, David Gilmour and Rick Wright’s Wet Dream.


For my part, I was less satisfied with ELP’s Works Volume 1 and Pink Floyd’s Animals than I had been with their preceding records; Yes’ Going for the One was a radical departure from Relayer but I thought it was still high quality, with Awaken high up in the list of all-time great prog tracks. In the case of the former and the latter, I wasn’t over-impressed with the keyboard tones from the Yamaha GX-1 and Polymoog respectively; Animals featured far less keyboards than Wish You Were Here so that I hesitate to call it progressive rock. By 1977, other acts like Camel, Caravan and Gentle Giant had stopped writing epics and both Caravan and Gentle Giant had begun to lose their appeal to core fans; Focus seemed to have disbanded, having released an uneven album of studio scraps the previous year; and Genesis may have released Seconds Out but this coincided with the departure of Steve Hackett. I thought that the future belonged to jazz rock and bought my first Isotope LP.


Looking back, 1978 started on an exceptionally good note with the release of Bill Bruford’s first LP as a band leader Feels Good to Me and the eponymous debut from National Health, both records being examples of jazz sensibilities mixed with prog leanings which resulted in complex, melodious albums. I think Feels Good to Me has a more experimental feel, thanks to Annette Peacock’s vocals and using flugelhorn in a (broadly) rock context; National Health is more intricate and, in the tradition of the band’s forerunner Hatfield and the North, didn’t take itself too seriously.


A good way to start 1978 - National Health
A good way to start 1978 - National Health

Then came UK.

Following the demise of the trio version of King Crimson in 1974 which took Robert Fripp away from music for a couple of years, Bill Bruford and John Wetton continued their musical education by rotating through a number of different bands. I thought Bruford’s involvement with Gong and National Health were interesting and it was definitely quite pleasing to find him sharing a drum stool with Phil Collins for Genesis’ Trick of the Tail tour, as he appeared to be helping out all the right bands. Wetton’s move to Roxy Music and then Uriah Heep impinged less on my consciousness; I was never really interested in post-Siren Roxy and thought Uriah Heep’s music unadventurous. However, his touring arrangement with Roxy started before King Crimson officially ceased to exist . It was meant to be a temporary measure before Crimson was due to recommence touring, and served to introduce him to Eddie Jobson. The proposed 1977 collaboration between Wetton, Bruford and Rick Wakeman could have been amazing but its failure to get off the ground ultimately resulted in the formation of what was hailed as a ‘supergroup’: UK. Their eponymous debut is a slick progressive rock album with jazz rock styling thanks to Bruford and Holdsworth but the modern sound, courtesy of Jobson, made it seem quite different from long-standing progressive acts and newer groups from that time, like symphonic prog band England; the three-part In the Dead of Night is an indisputable prog classic though it’s only now that I’ve got the 40th anniversary edition, complete with lyrics, that I can distinguish the words. The song writing was mature, involving all the group members, leading to a truly coherent effort where equal weight was afforded to each individual and it’s my belief that this equality, the fluid guitar lines from Holdsworth, the power and precision of the rhythm section along with Jobson’s virtuosity on keyboards and violin, adding a contemporary feel but with a past tied to the early progressive era, that made the record stand out as something with significance for the whole genre, like a new In the Court of the Crimson King.




Jethro Tull’s Heavy Horses was also released in April 1978 and I really like this second offering in the prog-folk trio of albums, with an enhanced palette thanks to the guest violin of Darryl Way, though there was a distinct sense of continuity from Songs from the Wood rather than being something that stood out as unique. My copy of the LP, bought in Barrow, was a swap for King Crimson’s Earthbound which I had just bought but thought was disappointing. Thanks to the staff in Blackshaw’s for sanctioning the exchange.

Steve Hackett released his second solo album Please Don’t Touch which was quite different to 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte, an album I rate higher than any post-Gabriel Genesis. I found it a bit of a mixed bunch and it’s that lack of consistency that marks it down – it’s not really UK progressive rock. Meanwhile, Hackett’s erstwhile bandmates released the decidedly thin end of the wedge ...And then there were Three... I first got a copy of Please Don’t Touch on cassette in 1981 or 1982 so I could also compare it to the excellent Spectral Mornings (1979); And then there were Three was acquired by a friend shortly after its release and I gave it a couple of listens before giving it the thumbs down. The seeds sown by the second-rate Your Own Special Way in 1976 were bearing a bitter fruit – Genesis could no longer be classed as a progressive rock band. Hackett’s other former colleague Peter Gabriel released the second of his self-titled albums which I don’t think can be called prog, either, though that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Rather, it was an example of what we might today call post-rock, very much a successor of the first Gabriel solo album. If prog was to wither away, this would provide a reasonable alternative; the highlight has to be Exposure.

Van der Graaf Generator shed an organist, a saxophonist and the ‘Generator’ for 1977’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, becoming more urgent sounding and, despite the excellent lyrics, more basic; it could even have been classed as prog-punk for sheer attitude. Bolstered with an appearance from David Jackson and with Charles Dickie on cello and synth, the group bade farewell (until the 2005 reunion) with a live album Vital. My brother went to see them in Leeds during that tour but it wasn’t until the reformation that I could really appreciate the intensity of the group. When I first saw Hammill performing solo in 1984 it was full-on but in a band context, it was off the scale.

Camel managed to keep one foot firmly in the prog idiom with Echoes and The Sleeper from their ’78 album Breathless but however good the melodies on the other tracks and the bright production, the relative brevity of most tunes makes it seem almost pop-prog descending into funk on Summer Lightning and outright silliness on Down on the Farm. This was another album bought by a friend at the time of its release but I don’t remember listening to it very often; I think we anticipated Peter Bardens’ departure because there appeared to be a tension between chief song-writers Bardens and Latimer, fuelled by an interfering record label, as they moved away from the early, classic Camel sound.

The cracks had not yet appeared in Yes but the cover of Tormato was a hint that all was not well. I bought the album on the day of its release, shortly before heading off to university armed with what I would discover was the best hi-fi in my hall of residence. I also managed to get to see them for the first time that October, in the round at Wembley Arena on the Tormato tour. The album contains some great ideas but the heavy-handed production detracts from the quality of the writing and the lack of a over-arching concept makes it appear devoid of a distinct identity. Taken on its own it doesn’t indicate the end of the golden era of progressive rock but it did suggest that Yes needed to rethink their future plans. The end of progressive rock was most starkly illustrated by Emerson Lake and Palmer with Love Beach. If the image on Tormato was a poor excuse for an album sleeve, the band photo on Love Beach was the antithesis of prog and that, more than anything else, meant I avoided the album until last year, and I only bought it then because it was cheap and I was filling a gap in my record collection. Even taking the best moments of Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman into account, it’s a really poor affair, succinctly exposing the true meaning of ‘contractual obligation’.


1978 ended with another National Health album, with a subtly different line-up to the debut but equally as good and, if anything, even more adventurous: Of Queues and Cures. National Health may get lumped in with the rest of prog but though the music conformed to many of the prog traits, the ease with which a substantial number of the musicians fitted into the British jazz and avant-garde scenes made them stand apart. Prog had withered without anyone to grasp the possibilities revealed by UK, whose 1979 follow-up Danger Money was a bit schizophrenic; reduced to a trio the material was a mixture of first-class retro-prog and verse-chorus-verse-chorus FM-friendly tunes played by progressive rock musicians.


The golden era of progressive rock was over.









By ProgBlog, Apr 24 2018 08:36PM

i) 50 years of Yes (25/3/18)


Less than 48 hours on from standing in front of the stage for some intricate, symphonic progressivo Italiano (plus UK guests Joe Payne and Heather Findlay) at a modest club in Milan to a venue that I had previously associated with some awful UK TV entertainment, taking my seat for the Sunday Yes50 date at London’s Palladium Theatre was something of a revelation.



I’d booked the tickets for myself and three family/friends only a couple of weeks before the gig and was relieved to find four seats together in the Royal Circle. Labyrinthine below the auditorium, choosing a sufficiently short merchandise queue or, for gentlemen of a certain age, a WC without a lengthy wait wasn’t easy; the theatre had hosted a Fan Convention earlier in the day and had even set up some exhibition space for Roger Dean artwork where the man himself was signing pieces for a trail of fans.



The sight lines to the stage were really good, though I should have expected that from a premier London theatre, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the vibe of the place considering that before this concert I couldn’t have ever imagined I’d have wanted to step inside its doors.

The opening remarks, delivered by special guest and ‘only original member available’ Bill Bruford, were a reminder that Yes had begun making music in 1968 and in the intervening years, despite the personnel changes, continued to produce incredible, inspirational music. One of the reasons I felt I had to attend this tour was the promise of sides one and four of Tales from Topographic Oceans so I thought it appropriate that the introductory music was a few bars from The Firebird Suite, as I strongly associate Tales with Stravinsky. It’s always been my favoured introduction, more so than Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra or the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.



The first set included material spanning from Time and a Word (an excellent version of Sweet Dreams) up to Tormato (Onward, the tribute to Chris Squire), what I’d consider a ‘fan’s favourite’ choice, and the second set was comprised of The Revealing Science of God, the Leaves of Green section of The Ancients and Ritual. Up to this point, back surgery had prevented Alan White from spending too long sitting on a drum stool and his role had been dutifully carried out by the excellent Jay Schellen, with a style more reminiscent of Bruford. White entered the fray for the percussion movement on Ritual while Schellen descended from the drum rostrum to help out with percussion, staying for the three-part encore of Tempus Fugit (with vocals by another special guest, Trevor Horn), Roundabout, and Starship Trooper.


The sound in the theatre was exceptionally good and well balanced. I liked the fact that as a celebration of 50 years of Yes it was kind of a ‘best of’ performance, plus a hint of the idea of the ‘album series’ of concerts and the inclusion of two and a half sides of Tales. I don’t believe Tales divides the fan base anymore and however difficult it was for audiences to take in around the time of the album’s release in 1973, with insufficient time to assimilate the complexity and scale of the piece as a whole, the shift from 70s boundary-pushing compositions to the slick AOR of the 90125 line-up caused a greater rift.


A few of my friends have commented on how the dynamic has changed within the group since the death of Chris Squire (Trevor Horn humorously hinted at this when he came on to sing Tempus Fugit). Having been in Yes since 1970 Steve Howe is the de facto leader although Alan White has been involved in the group for a longer period of time; Howe was responsible for most of the cues and retains an amazing energy although I’m not sure if he struggled a little on some of the more demanding guitar parts, which would be totally excusable considering the complexity of Yes music. Jon Davison does an admirable, if unenviable job of performing lines originally sung by Jon Anderson and Billy Sherwood is without any doubt the best stand-in for Squire the band could have chosen, in playing, in mannerisms and in presence. The one minor disappointment was Geoff Downes’ soloing; the bulk of his keyboard work was fine but the runs and arpeggios lacked fluidity and even, during certain passages, seemed to lag behind time.

It’s difficult to imagine quite where the band will go from here. Detractors will suggest that continuing without any original band members is just a tribute band, though the Yes family tree shows the pedigree of the players still on stage. I can’t say if they’re capable of producing any new, classic Yes material but without a return to the ideals of the early 70s and a willingness to re-embrace challenging, symphonic long-form compositions, I doubt that they will. Still, 50 years in the business of making and playing Yes music isn’t bad; I’m pleased I went.



ii) New king of pop - Steven Wilson 27/3/18


Another 48 hours later and I’d made my way to the Royal Albert Hall for the first of three nights of Steven Wilson. My good friend Neil had organised tickets back in May 2017, a couple of days after Wilson had begun to put out videos of his new music but before I’d got a hint of the direction the music from the forthcoming album was taking. Thinking back now, Pariah, one of the first tracks I heard, forms a kind of a sonic link between Hand.Cannot.Erase and To the Bone and I don’t think it’s a bad song; it just doesn’t challenge me. At the end of June 2017 he released the video for Permanating and I wasn’t impressed.

On the walk up to the Albert Hall doors I was still optimistic that the set would include sufficient Raven and Hand material to provide a worthwhile evening of entertainment, having seen him play on a number of occasions before and apart from the show I attended at the RAH in September 2015, where I was unfamiliar with a fair proportion of the material, I’ve enjoyed his performances. However, the shift from the full-on prog of Raven to the post-rock blend of electronica, industrial with a decent dose of prog on Hand should have indicated, especially when backed-up by Wilson’s own words regarding his influences, together with his immutable right as an artist to make whatever music he wants, that the music on To the Bone and subsequently the tour of that album, was not going to be wall-to-wall progressive rock.


The show started on a promising note with another clever though slightly disturbing video, announced by a rather stern voice as if narrating a public service broadcast, based on the themes of the current album, but I couldn't really engage. Ninet Tayeb was introduced for Pariah but even her excellent voice didn’t really do anything for me; I did enjoy Home Invasion which segued into Regret #9 which I thought were the highlights of the evening. It’s possible that the behaviour of a pair of loudmouths behind me, talking for the entire first set and a couple in front, behaving as though they were very, very drunk throughout the whole show, affected my ability to enjoy the music but in the second set, just before the rendition of Permanating, Wilson delivered a speech about making the music he wanted to, including an unbridled, joyous pop song and hoped that the tattooed and bearded gents in their Opeth T-shirts would stand up and submit to the euphoria and maybe dance a few steps. To be fair to a large portion of the audience they did get on their feet but I, bearded but not being interested in either Opeth or tattoos, remained seated, unmoved by what is indisputably a potentially infectious pop structure.

For much of the rest of the gig I found the sound a bit blurred and indistinguishable; it wasn’t that it was over-loud but it was quite heavy and it wasn’t until the third encore of The Raven that Refused to Sing that my gloom lifted a little.

I can’t fault the musicianship or the presentation and I certainly can’t criticise a Wilson for changing the form of music he writes. That the songs played on that Tuesday night weren’t to my satisfaction is no one’s fault but a matter of personal taste and I’m not going to burn the CDs that I own because I didn’t like this show. I’m simply not going to commit to buying a ticket for the tour of his next album until I’ve heard the next album.

Maybe gig fatigue is setting in...










By ProgBlog, Mar 6 2018 03:20PM

The Instagram and Twitter trend ‘9 albums that changed my life/mean most to me’ (#9albums) that appeared in January didn’t pass me by but its appearance on various social media platforms made me somewhat wary; as a piece of social investigation it’s an interesting topic but when internet monopolies get involved it becomes a little more sinister. I can’t be the only person in the world to get annoyed by adverts, including smart adverts, driven by clicks on Google, Facebook and Amazon. I want to make my own choices and, just because a large proportion of Yes fans might like Rush, it doesn’t mean that I do, or want to. Put another way, I’m not a lemming or a sheep and I know what I like (in my wardrobe). Why nine albums? Is it because it forms a neat 3x3 square for an Instagram photo or does the Instagram generation have an average of nine significant events in their lives? How should we define significant?


There were appearances of this question in January 2016 and 2017 but there’s evidence that the trend goes back to at least 2013. I suggest that it fits in with the New Year resolution phenomenon; a reflection on your life but one that doesn’t necessarily require any form of reappraisal or change. It’s all part of the challenge!

There don't appear to be any specific rules so I’ve arranged my nine choices chronologically by date of impact on my life. I got into prog fairly early so the chronology also fits roughly, but not exactly with the release date of the albums.


These are my personal choices:



Close to the Edge (1972) – Yes

It wouldn’t be fair to include the debut Roxy Music album, released three months prior to Close to the Edge, although Roxy were the first band to pique my interest in rock music when they appeared on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops playing Virginia Plain, because I only ever heard that single from the album. In September 1972 Close to the Edge was unlike anything I’d ever heard before and remains, in my opinion, the definitive progressive rock album and as close to musical perfection as you can get. It’s the reason I got into prog.



The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – Pink Floyd

Likely to appear in a large number of the lists compiled across the world but this was the first new Floyd album to appear after I’d set out down the road of progressive rock. Before its release I’d borrowed a couple of bootlegs from a school friend and bought Relics but this seemed like a massive leap forward. I was hooked by the whole package; not just the music and the way the whole album linked together but the stickers and posters and the prism and pyramid imagery (I studied physics at school.) I was even impressed by Roger Waters’ lyrics which came in for some criticism in the music press.



Focus 3 (1972) – Focus

I was given a small transistor radio as a present for Christmas 1972 and one of the things that always seemed to be on Radio Luxemburg around 10pm was Sylvia, released as a single by Focus in January 1973. Focus 3 was circulated amongst friends of my brother and I was struck by the flute and what I felt was a distinct branch of highly melodic prog, to which I’d later add Camel and Steve Hackett’s earlier solo works.



Birds of Fire (1973) – Mahavishnu Orchestra

Jazz was the predominate musical form in our household even after my brother and I began to buy our own records, so the fusion of jazz and rock was something quite easy to get into, having been introduced on rock radio. The fluency and attack of the guitar, drumming like I’d never heard before and the interplay between guitar, keyboards and violin was just amazing; I bought the album in 1975 and it became key to opening up the extraordinary world of jazz rock where melody was sometimes sacrificed for proficiency: Isotope, Brand X, Weather Report, Return to Forever and even mid-70s Soft Machine.




Starless and Bible Black (1974) – King Crimson

This was the first Crimson album in our household and I still regard it as a mixed bag which goes relatively unnoticed between the groundbreaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and the influential Red. I find the first side of the original LP slightly unfulfilling despite the strength of Lament and The Night Watch; side two is brilliant and demonstrates the power of the group and a sublime mastery of tension and release. This obviously kick-started a life-long fascination with King Crimson but the cover inspired me to seek out Tom Phillips’ work at the Tate when I first arrived in London and more than that, I became such a great fan of John Wetton’s bass playing that I bought myself a bass guitar on my 18th birthday.



Rubycon (1975) – Tangerine Dream

This was my introduction to electronica. One of my rules for discovering and enjoying new music was the presence of keyboards, so Tangerine Dream had something of an advantage! I bought Rubycon shortly after its release having heard and been intrigued by Phaedra in 1974 and sold on the suggestion that they were influenced by Pink Floyd. I loved the single composition format over the two sides of the LP (Rubycon part 1, Rubycon part 2) which seemed to be a Virgin Records thing, but it was the amorphous other-worldly nature of the music, transporting you somewhere alien but largely benevolent which most attracted. I still maintain it’s the best record to listen to through headphones in the dark.



Cook (1974) – Premiata Forneria Marconi

Cook has probably had the most profound effect on my life after Close to the Edge and is responsible for my appreciation of Rock Progressivo Italiano. I can’t remember exactly how PFM came across our radar but I must have seen their performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test and Alan Freeman must have played them on his Saturday afternoon radio show. Cook was the first of their records that I bought but we were also listening to Photos of Ghosts, Chocolate Kings and Jet Lag, blown away by the musicianship and intrigued by the Italian take on prog.




UK (1978) – UK

As brilliant as this album is, it’s disappointing because it marks the end of the first era of progressive rock. At the time it seemed like it marked a new beginning, a strong album with excellent tunes and great playing and incorporating, through Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford, a jazz rock sensibility. Following the demise of King Crimson, it seemed like the formidable rhythm section which drove Crimson from 1973 – 1974 had, after some wandering that added to their musical educational, found an ideal home. Of the other ostensibly prog releases that followed, only National Health produced music of a quality that could match anything from the golden age of progressive rock. Genesis were down to three members and consciously going pop; Camel, directed by their record company, had given up on epics; Yes seemed bereft of a coherent concept and put out the patchy Tormato, where poly-Moog drenches everything apart from flanged bass, and ELP produced Love Beach.


Lux Ade (2006) – La Maschera di Cera

By 2005 I had begun to fully appreciate the breadth of output from Italian prog bands operating during the golden period of progressive rock, despite rarely featuring in the UK music press at that time. 2005 was the first year of an almost unbroken series of annual pilgrimages to Italy and the first where I consciously sought out record stores in an attempt to build up a collection of classic Italian prog. Fast forward to 2008 and it was only by chance that I came across a copy of Lux Ade in Beano’s second hand record store in Croydon and, tempted by the obvious 70’s keyboard set up, production courtesy of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio, plus the fact I had a 50% discount as a ‘member’ of Beano’s, that I handed over £5 to complete the best ever speculative buy I’ve ever made. This CD opened up the Italian progressive rock scene that re-emerged in the mid 90s to me and, in a parallel to hearing Close to the Edge, the first rock album I’d ever listened to, I think that Lux Ade is the best of the current wave of Rock Progressivo Italiano albums.



I found it relatively easy to come up with the bands that made up my nine but I originally chose Moving Waves instead of Focus 3 and Red instead of Starless. I seem to recall hearing The Inner Mounting Flame before Birds of Fire, but I didn’t own the first Mahavishnu album for some time and I actually most like Between Nothingness and Eternity (which I also bought in 1975.) It seems a shame to miss out some of my favourite albums but that’s not the point of the exercise; I tried to choose titles which had the most meaning and my taste tended to expand organically, with an appreciation for The Nice opening up ELP and then Refugee. It’s not unfair to say that my predilection for music hasn’t really changed at all in the 35 years I’ve been buying records, and that includes life-affirmative events like getting married and becoming a father. My wife went through the exercise and almost instantly came up with a fairly eclectic mix that seems to have more to do with life events than mine but also reflects a constant evolution, partly spurred by the discovery of music through Shazam: Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, Let’s Get it On by Marvin Gaye, Bat out of Hell by Meat Loaf, Vienna by Ultravox, Private Eyes by Hall and Oates, Dare by The Human League, Chris Rea’s self-titled fourth album, True by Spandau Ballet and ending up with Truth Came Running, the first album by Australian singer-songwriter Mark Wilkinson, bought from the man himself as he was busking in Sydney in 2012.


I thought it might be interesting to ask a group of close friends and relatives, all with an interest in prog that was nurtured in the golden age, to come up with their nine albums. I grew up with almost all of them and most are regular gig companions; there’s no evidence that they’ve taken part in the challenge before and I didn’t stipulate that they must choose progressive rock releases. This is certainly not hard science but I thought it would be interesting to note their route into music and any divergence from core prog. Their responses, and an attempt at some analysis, will be published in the next blog...



By ProgBlog, Nov 28 2017 02:24PM

My first dalliance with a form of rock music other than progressive rock or jazz-rock came in the guise of Robert Fripp and The League of Gentlemen who played at the London School of Economics 37 years ago, on the 29th November 1980. Probably best described as post-punk, Fripp’s dance band provided a very up-front, driving beat courtesy of Sara Lee on bass and Kevin Wilkinson on drums, with the organ of ex-XTC Barry Andrews adding stabbed fragmented chord backing and the occasional top line, and Fripp scattering guitar over the whole thing. The show was delayed for some considerable time due to problems with the guitarist’s pedal board, which seemed at affect the artist himself as much as a restless crowd. I seem to recall that a degree of functionality was attained, enough to allow the gig to proceed, but this was the last of the LoG concerts and when I next saw Fripp play live, six months later at Her Majesty’s theatre in London’s West End and leading a band which would change its name to King Crimson before the release of an album, it looked like the pedal had been replaced with a Roland guitar synthesizer.


League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates
League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates

I was in my final year as an undergraduate when I saw The League of Gentlemen and as it was a cold November evening, I’d turned up in my greatcoat, still clinging on to the vestiges of progressive rock fashion at a time when everything about the genre was derided. I’d gone along to the LSE with Jim Knipe, not knowing what to expect but drawn by Fripp’s name and also bemused by the pairing with Barry Andrews, so we had a good idea that it wasn’t going to prog. What we got was hard to describe and, despite the obvious beat, quite enjoyable. The fast picked cyclical guitar previewed here would become a staple of the ’81-84 Crimson where twin guitars could play slightly different lines to produce knotty, complex patterns which weaved in and out of synch. There is a sonic relationship between The League of Gentlemen and 80’s King Crimson but the addition of Adrian Belew on second guitar (and guitar synth) and vocals, the reappearance of Bill Bruford with a kit augmented with electronic drums, and the introduction of Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick opened up vast possibilities, shifting the idiom from something very raw to a highly sophisticated form of energetic art-rock.


Though not necessarily the beginning of ‘math rock’, this version of Crimson is very likely to have influenced the first identifiable math rock bands like Don Caballero, when the genre emerged in the US in the late 80s, possibly attracting the description as a joke. Linked to prog through a common absence of blues influences and a shared embrace of non-standard time signatures, this style of music is predominantly instrumental, taking some cues from 20th century minimalist composers where riffs are tightly structured and repeated. When different time signatures are used by different instruments it produces complex, often chaotic or dissonant sounding phrases which resolve when the different rhythmic patterns converge on a mutual first beat; there are guitar parts book-ending Frame by Frame from King Crimson’s Discipline (1981) which have been compared to Steve Reich compositions and there is a section where Fripp plays in 13/8 with Belew playing in 14/8. The listener may perceive chaos but the music is rigidly structured and follows a defined layout where changes are counted out; if it sounds difficult to follow for the listener, it’s not so straightforward for the players! It’s just an observation but it seems to me that there is minimal use of distortion, which facilitates a better degree of separation of the instruments playing in different times and is more pleasing to listen to than what might simply come across as a mush of noise.

Maths and music have an obvious overlap and whether it’s the ancient Greeks looking at the ratio between notes and deriving scales, or Bach and Mozart inserting numerological games into their compositions, it’s impossible to ignore the numerical value of frequency of sound, the tempo and meter which define the rhythm, the velocity of a percussive strike, and the mathematics which can be applied to a sound wave. I was fortunate to have a good physics teacher at school and the lessons on sound were very interesting; the school had somehow managed to acquire some wooden organ pipes which were not only instructive for the investigation of wavelength, for someone who liked sound and the possibilities of progressive rock, they were educational toys. We often see representation of the Fibonacci series in nature in the growth patterns of plants and animal shells but the golden ratio is also present on a piano keyboard; the five flats/sharps and the eight notes of the octave correspond to 5:8:13 in Fibonacci’s numbers.


Anyone who has read this far will understand that the whole prog genre can be subdivided and subdivided some more. I think the idea of math rock as a distinct part of the prog spectrum isn’t too outrageous and there’s always going to be some blurring of boundaries. However, I’m not entirely sure if post-rock fits somewhere within the prog definition or if the term should be abandoned because it’s so nebulous. I’ve recently been listening to the music of Groundburst, a Dublin-based trio consisting of Si Dunne (keyboards); Phil Dunne (guitar) and Erik (drums) who formed in 2005 and who list their music as variously post-rock, math rock, progressive rock and soundtrack!

This version of the trio has recently released an EP, Triad, available as a download from their Bandcamp page https://groundburst.bandcamp.com/ but they’ve released a number of downloads, plus a very interesting physical EP (in CD format) Everything I didn’t say and all the things I wanted to and provided a soundtrack to the short, independent film Champagne, Intimacy, Alan written and directed by a friend of the band, David Martin. There’s an identifiable trajectory in their material from 2007’s EP1, with its dreamy feel, gorgeous electric piano and laid-back jazzy guitar to the tighter sounding, well-constructed Everything I didn’t say (2009) and their concise soundtrack compositions from 2014, the longest of which is 3’44 and four of the seven tracks are less than a minute long, to what really is a very well executed recording, Triad, from September this year. Noodles from EP1 has traces of repeated, short riffs but the overall feel is trippy jazz; Everything I didn’t say is probably the most proggy of their releases as it utilises more sounds but it could still pass off as modern jazz; the constraints of matching music to filmed sequences for Champagne, Intimacy, Alan resulted in a more timed and time-conscious style which can be identified as math rock and when you watch the film (which was nominated for an award and is rated 8.3/10), the music is a surprisingly easy fit, consisting mostly of snatches of guitar patterns and jazz piano apart from the looser Finding a Rope which also includes saxophone provided by Derek and Alan O’Callaghan, and the highly reverbed Alan’s Blues (which is not in the blues idiom.) For those interested, the film is about middle class couple Alan and Carol who are in their mid-40s and growing apart. They attend a swinger's party on the recommendation of a therapist and it’s evident that Alan has the greatest expectations, so that when they attend the party, held in a large country house he is keen to pair-off with the beautiful Sonya and her tall, handsome husband Dan, who obviously have a great deal of experience in the swinger lifestyle. Alan is clumsy and performs poorly, possibly intimidated by Carol’s obvious enjoyment, despite her initial reservations, and Alan goes off to question love, sex, marriage, life and everything.


Triad is a very focused offering and consists of three tracks. Law of Fives is clever jazz-rock, with staccato riffs and pauses and angular lines, properties that have been described as features of math rock. I’ve attempted to count out the time signature a few times but it’s not easy (Phil Dunne has said that the opening section is in 23/8 time!) Erik’s drumming adds appropriate elements which underline the riffs and it’s possibly his rhythmic input which has helped to refine the band’s style. Parlour Games has some Canterbury-like electric piano picking out an odd melody and when the guitar riffs give way to piano riffs and takes on the melody line it reminds me of The Civil Surface by Egg; it’s on the jazz side of rock, rather than the other way round but despite its relative accessibility, it retains the tightness which marks this particular set of tunes. Mazomba begins with urgent guitar feedback and is an altogether heavier prospect. Si plays electric piano over crunchy guitar riffs until halfway through when Phil plays a moderately distorted solo over the electric piano chords, and the roles of lead and backing are once again reversed before the end. Apparently, one of the albums the band had been listening to around the time the EP was put together was King Crimson’s Red and though Si suggests its influence can be heard in opening track Law of Fives, I think the proto prog-metal of Red surfaces in Mazumba.

Despite what might appear to be a very serious approach to their music, especially as it would be easy to suggest that math rock has an inherent geekiness, there is an intelligent humour behind it all. Law of Fives relates to the mathematically incorrect notion that everything has some form of relationship to number five, by being divisible by or a multiple of five, or somehow else directly or indirectly related to 5. The number 23 obeys the Law of Fives, because 2 + 3 = 5, however meaningless this is, and the band thought it amusing to link this illogical notion with a tune which included a riff in 23 time. Parlour Games evolved from the day job frustration caused by applying theoretical ideas to qualitative phenomena in ways that just didn’t seem to work, and finding a musical analogy to the idea of forcing something rigid over something organic.


Triad (2017)
Triad (2017)

Groundburst are currently finishing recording an album, provisionally titled Vortex Street for release in 2018. According to the band it’s going to feature longer songs than those in the current repertoire to allow for the development of themes and include more instrumentation and orchestration. It’s no surprise that we can expect more complex rhythmical material but it will be good to get to hear a full album from a band which has delivered such great promise in small doses.



Groundburst
Groundburst








By ProgBlog, May 7 2017 06:11PM

When my son was young we had family membership of both English Heritage and the National Trust and some part of most weekends was spent on outings to properties and gardens in the south east, with occasional forays into the north west when we returned to visit my family. Our subscriptions lapsed when Daryl became an adult; not only would this have incurred extra cost but we also saw less of him when he graduated and went off to do a Master’s degree in Oxford and then went to work in Australia for 18 months.

Remarkably for someone who graduated after the global economic meltdown, his career is based on his academic choices, architecture and historic conservation, and it’s this calling which has rekindled our interest in wandering around London in search of bits of fascinating architecture and design. When I first came to London in 1978 I roamed the streets from Notting Hill to Holborn looking for sites both off and on the tourist radar and, after almost weekly trips for three years, I considered myself well acquainted with the capital. This obsession with exploring the urban environment was an extension of my behaviour in Barrow, where almost all accessible and many (theoretically) inaccessible parts of the Furness peninsula were forensically investigated, inviting derision from anyone outside of a close circle of friends. Genetic or environmentally influenced, Daryl’s fixation with seeking out architectural gems means his knowledge of London’s streets is far better than mine ever was.

On a recent trip to the Design Museum in Kensington, a must for lovers of modernist architecture or anyone with a curiosity about the history of design, we stopped off at Café Phillies for a coffee and some lunch. I was intrigued to see a minibus pull up outside, the London Rock Legends Tour, on a stop to visit Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers restaurant which is opposite Café Phillies in Phillimore Road. I’m sure there are plenty of music-related sights, from the Abbey Road zebra crossing in St John’s Wood to The Hendrix/Handel museum in Brook Street, Mayfair, but it can’t be easy planning a sightseeing tour in London by road; the roadworks and sheer volume of traffic are hardly conducive to a strict schedule.



Inside the Design Museum
Inside the Design Museum

I was amazed to see the Yes logo on the side of the bus, along with more rock ‘n’ roll acts but, as the itinerary takes in pubs and clubs, it could be that there’s a stop at what used to be La Chasse at 100 Wardour Street, just down from the old Marquee. Writing songs about a particular location is nothing out of the ordinary but it tends to be a bit of a rarity in progressive rock; The King Crimson improvisations given the title of the town or city where they were recorded don’t count, whereas Egg’s A Visit to Newport Hospital (on the Isle of Wight) from The Polite Force (1971) is an excellent example – at this point it’s pertinent to mention that former Egg drummer and Pink Floyd drum tech Clive Brooks died last week, another loss to the progressive community.

I decided to challenge myself and go through my collection in search of London-themed compositions, requiring lyrics about the place, to see if it was possible to put together a virtual tour of physical locations, streets or landmarks which warranted a mention somewhere in the prog catalogue.

Public transport may have its problems but a combination of rail, tube and foot is by far the best way to move around the city and coincidentally, the tube map turns out to be a good place to start looking. Crimson’s Doctor Diamond from the Red-era, a song that never managed to get a studio release, doesn’t mention a place despite the reference to an ‘underground train’. I’d always assumed it was a New York subway train because Fallen Angel from the same cohort of songs is set in New York, but there’s every possibility that it’s London Underground, with a capital ‘U’. The most comprehensive reference to London Underground is on Alight, released earlier this year by progressivo Italiano Cellar Noise, where apart from the track Underground Ride, other songs are named after District and Circle Line stations Embankment, Temple, Blackfriars and Monument. This remarkable debut effort is a concept album where the narrative takes place somewhere between the real world and the imagination of the protagonist who, stuck in the monotonous grind of the daily commute through the underbelly of London, who suddenly finds a reason for existence. Musically and lyrically there are parallels with Genesis, from the Trespass-era to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (another New York-themed album) and the opening track on the album, Dive with Me is stylistically and harmonically linked to Foxtrot. It comes as no surprise that the play The Knife at gigs as an encore.



Genesis name-checked Epping Forest on Selling England by the Pound, a remnant of ancient woodland straddling the Greater London-Essex border where Peter Gabriel set his fictitious skirmish between rival East End gangs, apparently inspired by a piece in a newspaper that he’d read some years earlier. As much as I like this track, the piece has so much going on that when you include the four-minute instrumental After the Ordeal, it feels as though it’s taken up the entire side of the record when you’ve still got the ten-minute Cinema Show to come! Epping Forest is served by a number of stops on the Central Line and Forest Road, lined with its luxury cars (according to the song) heads into the forest from Loughton.

Also on the London Underground network is Turnham Green, served by the District and Piccadilly lines. This appears in Suite in C from McDonald and Giles’ self-titled album released in 1970, as a sub-section of the 11’40 mini-epic. This is a love song dedicated to Charlotte Bates, where the Turnham Green lyrics refer to the first time McDonald set eyes on Bates and the tube station where she disembarked. Besotted, McDonald placed an advert in International Times and remarkably, this was spotted by Bates’ friend who had been on the tube with her. It’s not really like Crimson but Michael Giles’ jazzy drum patterns do call to mind his work with his former band and his brother’s bass wouldn’t have been out of place on anything by the Crims; the subject matter is quite different, giving a more Beatles-like feel to the track.



Perhaps there’s a link between London geography and songs by King Crimson alumni. The UK song Nevermore, from their first album is about Soho, though it doesn’t relate to one particular location. Lyrically, it appears to be thematically linked to In the Dead of Night; commencing with some beautiful Allan Holdsworth acoustic guitar, it’s an altogether underrated piece with changes of dynamics and an experimental middle section. If Nevermore is a little hazy in its precise location, Rendezvous 6:02 from subsequent UK album Danger Money describes both time and place. When I first arrived in London I used to use the Sidcup branch of the railway from Charing Cross to Dartford, because my hall of residence was in North Cray, between Sidcup and Bexley. Stopping at Waterloo East, this journey afforded an excellent view of the (now Grade II Listed) Victory Arch leading into the main Waterloo Station. Built from Portland stone and completed in 1922, I find it an ugly piece of architecture but it relates to one of the most memorable UK songs, the poignant Rendezvous 6:02, which first describes the car journey from Hyde Park to Waterloo before specifically mentioning the arch itself. It was always a favourite pastime reviewing the departures timetable for trains leaving at two minutes past six in the evening and the last time I attended a talk at the nearby BFI, I deliberately arranged to meet Daryl at 18:02 under the arch.

It may not be part of the Underground network but Bill Bruford wrote the tune Palewell Park for the last of the Bruford albums. I’m labouring the point here, but this location, like the somewhat lengthier (in terms of both track timing and ground dimensions) Hergest Ridge was to Mike Oldfield, was evidently very inspiring to Bruford who lived close by in East Sheen and it's surprising because it's a piano-bass duet!.



Ian Anderson dedicated almost a full side to Baker Street on Minstrel in the Gallery, and Fulham Road features in A Passion Play. Of the former, which also mentions Blandford Street and Marylebone Road, this is the district inhabited by Anderson during 1974, making observations of everyday life in London W1. It’s possible that some of the lyrical content reflects some of the rehearsals for the album, where Anderson took on a great deal of the work as his fellow band members entertained themselves around Monte Carlo; there’s certainly more of a singer-songwriter feel to parts of the album, more acoustic guitar and less flute, but it remains one of the high points of the Jethro Tull canon. I’m less convinced about A Passion Play, particularly the use of saxophone and synthesizer, although the storyline is rather good. Is Fulham Road referenced because Brompton cemetery is close by?



Returning to modern prog, Big Big Train recite the names of underground and former waterways in Lost Rivers of London, from 2016’s Folklore. Citing Old Kent Road and Turnagain Lane (off Farringdon Road), there is much to be admired in their approach which reconnects modern, melodic prog with the importance of the roots of the genre. With the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Neckinger, the Westbourne, the Walbrook and the Effra, there are plenty of places to put on a progressive rock map of London.

...and there are a number of mews around Baker Street!







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