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ProgBlog goes to the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice but still manages to find prog connections - and a relatively new record store...

By ProgBlog, Oct 18 2018 07:02PM

I’ve just finished reading Will Romano’s analysis Close to the Edge: How Yes’s Masterpiece Defined Prog Rock (Backbeat Books, 2017) which deals in the minutiae of how the album came to be made, with input from many of the participants, both musical and non-musical. Apart from being a really enjoyable read for a fanatic like me, i.e. someone who believes Close to the Edge is not only the definitive progressive rock album but also the best album, ever, it touches on the impact the record had on other musicians and some (American) celebrities, and raises the question of inter-band rivalry.



The idea of ‘rivalry’ between the original cohort of progressive rock bands is something I originally thought about not long after discovering the genre in 1972 after hearing Close to the Edge for the first time, though in the context of fan affiliation. The Nice were the second band I listened to, who by that stage had already been disbanded for two years, followed by Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake & Palmer and then hosts of others. At some time in the early 70s I must have read that Hawkwind fans didn’t like Yes music (though I’ve never believed Hawkwind were a progressive rock band) and, from a personal perspective, I don’t appear to have had any inclination to listen to Genesis, based on some non-specific prejudice or resentment, until one of my friends bought a copy of the compilation LP Charisma Keyboards (released April 1974) which included the Nursery Cryme track The Fountain of Salmacis; then I was hooked. This sudden appreciation of Genesis also allowed me to view the entire genre as something inclusive with myriad bands all bringing something of value to the progressive rock world.


With two showman-like stars in Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, the music papers of the time gossiped about Yes-ELP rivalry which at the time I interpreted as a suggestion of enmity. Will Romano covers this in his book but the two keyboard players themselves have elsewhere written about and discussed their friendship, with Wakeman explaining how the two used to lunch together and laugh about their perceived competitiveness, with fans debating which of them was the better. The explanation put to Romano by Emerson was that any success of Yes would spur ELP on to greater things, whether that was song concepts or live sound. Wakeman has pointed out that the two friends came from different stylistic backgrounds, Wakeman himself from classical and Emerson from jazz, so that any ‘who is the best?’ argument boils down to the listener’s preferred style. In the October edition of Prog magazine (Prog 91), Emerson pips Wakeman in a readers’ poll for the best keyboard player...


It was fairly evident, even to a naive youth in 1972 or 73, that intra-band relationships could involve enough tension to tear the band apart; this probably being when I came across the risible term ‘creative differences’ for the first time. A review of the history of Yes, even at that moment in the early 70s, was enough to demonstrate the Machiavellian designs of certain band members intent on reaching their personal goals at whatever cost. I would come to realise that this behaviour wasn’t restricted to Yes, though later versions of the group could be equally brutal; it was sometimes difficult to discern whether ego or musical direction was a cause of conflict. On the other hand, gifted musicians left groups for perfectly understandable reasons like illness, stage-fright or an inability to reconcile family life with constant touring. However, it seemed to me that the overall scene was one of relative stability: Bruford had already left Yes when Close to the Edge was released; Pink Floyd had long put the dropping of Syd Barrett behind them and whatever personality differences were simmering under the surface wouldn’t rise until the end of the decade; the ELP juggernaut rolled on; Genesis had formed the classic quintet and were yet to begin shedding members; Gentle Giant had a settled line-up; Jethro Tull also had a settled line-up. Focus may not have been the most stable of bands, with a rhythm section that was frequently reinventing itself, and there were seismic changes in the pre-Larks’ Tongues in Aspic King Crimson, played out before I got into them, but the one glaring exception to the seeming constancy of the movement, at least among those represented by the music that I owned or listened to, was the flux within the Canterbury scene.


Soft Machinery - from Pete Frame's first volume of Rock Family Trees
Soft Machinery - from Pete Frame's first volume of Rock Family Trees

From a progressive rock fan’s point of view, the first major upheaval I felt was Wakeman leaving Yes for a solo career in 1974 and his eventual replacement, Patrick Moraz, breaking up Refugee. Their eponymous debut, one of my top five albums of all time, came out three months before Wakeman’s split and based on the quality of Refugee, I could only rue the loss of such a promising musical force. With the decommissioning of the 60’s – 70’s King Crimson in 1974 and the self-imposed temporary withdrawal of Yes, ELP and Pink Floyd from the scene in 1975, a number of musicians were left to occupy themselves outside of a group context, some releasing solo material with assistance from quite diverse sources. That meant that any rivalry that may have existed disappeared in an atmosphere of collaboration.


Friendships were formed when bands toured with one another and it wasn’t terribly unusual to come across a fellow act paying in the same city while touring; mutual respect between musicians is frequently quoted in biographies, creating a network of potential players for a ‘solo’ work. I mapped this network, based on musicians featured on albums in my record collection from the late 60s through the 70s and including two from the 80s, for a short article ‘What is Progressive rock?’ which accompanied a self-compiled 2CD set presented to a friend who was rediscovering prog in 2004. Though hardly comprehensive, it did indicate that even within a narrow range of groups, there was a healthy degree of interconnectedness.


Prog connections - in its original colours!
Prog connections - in its original colours!

I’ve not attempted to update or redraw this chart because the post-millennium revival of prog has resulted in an explosion of new bands, the reformation of old bands (sometimes with an extensive cast of new talent) and even instances where the assistance of an established musician is enlisted to help out with a less well-established act (João Felipe’s Amber Foil project enlisted the help of Manuel Cordoso, formerly of premier Portuguese 70’s symphonic prog band Tantra, who added guitar parts and produced the An Invitation EP.) Also, the original chart only covered three non-UK bands, Focus and Trace (Netherlands) and PFM (Italy). Any new review of the information would have to include more Italian bands to reflect my growing collection of progressivo Italiano, which I have recently discovered have their own extensive networks. There’s even a series of ‘supergroups’ with their own identity though they exist simultaneously with the groups that act as the main vehicle for the individual musicians.


The swelling number of connections between groups has to be due primarily to the increase in numbers of album releases and the additional bands that have appeared in the last 45 years, but the interest in the genre following a period when ‘prog’ was a dirty word seems to have had an unexpected positive effect, bolstered by Prog magazine and books from people like Will Romano, allowing the movement to become a large, happy family, almost encouraging bands to offer guest appearance slots to other musicians. This extended family idea, where guesting on different albums or joining a touring band, possibly in addition to being in their own group, facilitates earning a living as a professional musician. The days of the multimillion-selling prog album are over, along with self-imposed tax exile status, a huge advance for the next release and limitless studio time, so unless there’s another income stream, even if that means playing in the backing band for some pop act, it’s unlikely that music alone can pay the bills.


To challenge myself, I've begun the October ProgBlog album playlist based on the notion of interconnectedness. I've chosen direct connections between artists on a particular release, using an artist once only for a link to another album. For example, Patrick Moraz’s i features Jeff Berlin on bass, so the next album in the sequence also features Berlin and the next link is through a different musician on that record. This exercise predominantly features 70’s music but some of the LPs covered are from more recent incarnations of 70’s bands. The results will be available for scrutiny at the beginning of November...







By ProgBlog, Jul 30 2018 01:52PM

My wife and I habitually visit flea markets and bric-a-brac shops on our tours of London and the south east, where I’m specifically seeking out vinyl bargains. Last week we were prompted to visit a shop closer to home, Atomica, in a business park off Croydon’s Purley Way, thanks to an article posted by Bygone Croydon which indicated along with the retro homeware, fashion and general relics, they had a selection of 50s – 80s vinyl. Despite being more of a showroom for their self-designed gifts which sell all over the world, the records didn’t disappoint because co-owners David and Nicky turned out to be late 60s, early 70s psyche and prog aficionados so after a good browse through a selection weighted towards prog and prog-related (choosing to buy Jethro Tull’s Live – Bursting Out and Tangerine Dream’s Cyclone, both from 1978 and both at a very reasonable price) I had lengthy chat about music with the couple, when I should have been packing my bag for the following day’s short break in Italy.



Displaying an indecision worthy of my notable family trait but in fact attempting to ensure that friends and family were all able to attend one or the other of King Crimson’s Palladium gigs in November before booking the tickets, the London shows sold out before I’d got answers from everyone. Fortunately, tickets were still available for the first 2018 UK performance in Bournemouth, so my friend Jim bagged a couple. A couple of weeks later during a trip to Milan, I saw a rather large advert for the Lucca summer festival pasted on a wall inside Milano Centrale railway station and, after I’d taken in the Roger Waters Us and Them tour date, I noticed King Crimson were due to play the festival on July 25th. On my return to the UK I touted the idea to Jim, who was very much interested, and tickets, flights and accommodation were all booked.



Strangely, my Tuscany guidebook has a slightly larger section on Lucca than on Pisa; the first Tuscan family holiday in 2013 was based in Pisa and we used the train to travel around the region, but never visited Lucca. This was rectified on the subsequent Tuscan holiday in 2014, having been told that the smaller city was probably nicer to visit than Pisa. I do like Pisa, which has two very good record stores, GAP in Via San Martino and La Galleria del Disco in Via San Francesco, and is well connected on the railway network but, apart from the obvious and spectacular Campo dei Miracoli and the museums in the Piazza del Duomo, there’s little else to do. Lucca, on the other hand, is really compact and contains a number of points of interest: Roman remains in the crypt of the church of San Giovanni and the shops and piazza marking the former Roman amphitheatre; the medieval Torre Guinigi crowned with holm-oak and the Torre delle Ore, the tallest of the towers in the city; the details on the west facade of both the Duomo San Martino and San Michele in Foro; Puccini’s birthplace museum; the art deco shop fronts in the Via Fillungo; all enclosed in broad Renaissance city walls. Lucca also has a fine record store, Sky Stone and Songs located on the Piazza Napoleone and which, on the current visit, had a window display replete with King Crimson recordings.


The festival auditorium was set up in Piazza Napoleone, covering a far greater area than I remember from my previous visits. The huge stage was to the west of the square, up against the Palazzo Ducale and, until a few hours before the event started, it was possible to amble in and out of the area. I was picking up the tickets when the soundcheck started at around 5pm and went to join a number of fans at the back of the seating area listen in as the band ran through a couple of numbers; it was obvious that the evening’s performance was going to be special.



Soundcheck
Soundcheck

By the time we went out to eat, the piazza had been emptied and a rather intimidating security cordon comprised of barriers erected in strategic places had been set up to prevent non-ticket holders from wandering in; more reassuringly in the early evening heat and humidity, there were plenty of paramedics around to cope with anyone suffering from dehydration and/or intoxication – it had been suggested that this was the biggest crowd of the European leg of the tour. After a visit to the merchandise stall for a tour programme and 10” limited edition Uncertain Times double EP we made our way to our seats in block I, row 18, where I was a little disappointed that our mid-price range tickets didn’t afford the view of the band I’d been hoping for, although we had a very good view of the giant screen just to the right of the stage.



The performance started on the stroke of 9pm following an announcement in Italian about not recording the event and not taking photographs; this was succeeded by a recording of Robert Fripp emphasising that to ensure we all had a great party we shouldn’t take photos during the concert but, because bassist Tony Levin wanted to take a photo of the crowd when they’d finished playing, we could take photos when Levin took out his camera. He added that at the request of his fellow band members, there would be two halves to the set separated by a 20 minute intermission. Remarkably, following my experiences in Genoa and Brescia for PFM and Le Orme respectively where a sea of 10” tablets and cases obscured my sight line to the bands playing on stage, Fripp’s ‘no photography’ request was heeded by most of the crowd and the use of smartphones and cameras was restrained.

The set list wasn’t too far removed from the last time I saw them, at London’s Hackney Empire in September 2015, though in the intervening period Bill Rieflin had taken a sabbatical and was replaced by Jeremy Stacey on drums and keyboards, then returned in the role of keyboard player, creating an octet. There was a distinct bias towards material written for early incarnations of the group, where the only song missing from In the Court of the Crimson King was I Talk to the Wind and every studio album up to Beat, with the exception of Starless and Bible Black, was represented by at least one track. The most recent studio album music was Level Five/Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 5 (from 2003’s The Power to Believe) but they played parts of Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) written specifically for the three-drummer line-up, and the three drummers opened each half of the set with a remarkable percussive display, called for that evening A Tapestry of Drumsons and Drumsons of Psychokinesis. I was pleasantly surprised how much keyboard Fripp played, and how easy it was to distinguish the guitar of Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk when it had proved difficult for me to work out which line belonged to which guitarist in every version of the band including Adrian Belew; it was more difficult to work out who was playing which keyboard part when Stacey retreated to the back of his drum kit and the big screen showed Rieflin. The role of each drummer was fairly well delineated, with Pat Mastelotto adding a huge variety of colour with some novel bits of percussion and some non-percussion, much like Bill Bruford following the departure of Jamie Muir in 1973, Stacey’s keyboard responsibilities, and Gavin Harrison acting as the rhythmic anchor, even adding an impressive solo on encore 21st Century Schizoid Man. However, it was when the three operated as a unit that they most impressed, exemplified by their discipline and precision on Indiscipline.


Though Mel Collins had appeared on many of the originals played that evening (Pictures of a City, Cirkus, the Lizard suite, Islands) he didn’t simply stick to the written lines but was given plenty of room to extemporise, blowing jazz and quoting operatic flute. This free rein with well trodden pieces seemed to add to the enjoyment of the ensemble while also allowing the audience to experience the music in new ways; we were even treated to a new set of lyrics on Easy Money.


The performance, including the break, lasted over three hours. Though loud, the sound was really well balanced, making up for the slightly awkward seating position where it was easier but less desirable to watch close-ups on the big screen than get the big picture. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did the rest of the audience who not only showed their appreciation at the end of each piece of music but responded to mid-song solos and key moments with enthusiastic applause. I was a bit surprised by the clarity of the subtleties and, strangely for a King Crimson gig, did not feel overpowered by the volume. I really hope that there’s going to be a DVD release of the concert at some stage in the near future because along with the quality of the audio, the camerawork for the big screens was also rather good.



Another successful trip to see a band in Italy completed, but I’m now looking forward to seeing Crimson in Bournemouth at the end of October...









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...



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