ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

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

By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2016 03:34PM

April 1976. Forty years ago. This was late summer-early autumn in the progressive rock golden era timeline though none of us knew it at the time; it was also in the middle of the major player hiatus and consequently there were only three significant releases that month which, on reflection, may have been an indication of change in the musical landscape. During this period I had limited cash for buying albums, though my part-time job delivering the Cancer and Polio Research Fund News Letter to households around the Infield and Hawcoat wards of Barrow could sometimes result in a substantial tip if the recipient won a respectable sum on one of the bingo cards that were sold with the newsletter. Back then I was still catching up with previous releases by a range of prog bands and it wasn’t until a few years later that I acquired the cream of the April 1976 crop: Moonmadness by Camel, Interview by Gentle Giant and Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator.

There isn’t too much common ground between the three albums with Camel’s efforts moving from symphonic prog towards a jazz-tinged melodic prog, Gentle Giant providing their usual eclectic mix of styles, albeit with a distinct rockier feel than some of their earlier work that equates to an increased degree of accessibility, and Van der Graaf Generator’s second release from the stabilised second generation four piece which I believe represents the creative pinnacle of their career, more composed (in both senses of the word) than the albums of the 70 – 72 incarnation and Godbluff (1975) with some of Hammill’s best lyrics and exploration of philosophy.


Moonmadness hardly needs any introduction. The last release by the original line-up, this was a deliberate move by the band to create something other than ‘son of Snow Goose’, and the result was an album loosely held together with the concept that each of the main tracks represented a member of the band: Chord Change is keyboard player Pete Bardens; Another Night is bassist Doug Ferguson; Air Born is guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is drummer Andy Ward. The album title comes from a pun on Lunar Sea and there are other references to the moon throughout the album, from lyrics on Another Night to the title of the concise opening track Aristillus, a prominent impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium. This song features Andy Ward reciting ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’ (a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus.)

All the preceding Camel albums contained songs of a uniformly high standard and Snow Goose stands out as a major composition that never dips in quality. The band was finding its feet with the eponymous debut and got more confident, and heavier, with Mirage (1974). Moonmadness returns to the song format but the quality has notched up a level and though on balance I probably prefer Snow Goose, its successor rates very highly with Lunar Sea remaining one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. Though most evident on Lunar Sea which features alternating lead guitar and keyboard lines, the entire album has a very satisfactory balance and neither Bardens nor Latimer comes out as particularly dominant, with the lead musicians giving each other ample space to conjure those beautiful, melodic lines. The rhythm section also performs admirably; I’ve always been a fan of Andy Ward’s drumming but Doug Ferguson, if we had to choose the weakest contributor, provides really solid bass throughout and positively bubbles on Lunar Sea.

Interview could almost act as a statement of Gentle Giant’s career up to that point. The subject matter concerns some well-trodden Giant subject material, concerning aspects of the music business, with another look at a roadie’s perspective but there was supposed to be a concept behind the whole project, the crassness of the interview process to publicise the output of a band. There are clips of an imaginary interview: “how would you describe your music?” Unfortunately the concept falls a little flat, without any real conviction and the interviewer is Phil Sutcliffe, one of the only journalists to genuinely appreciate the band.

Musically, the title track which opens the album continues from where 1975’s Free Hand left off. It’s clever, rocky and accessible, a style that continues on the original LP side 2 opener Another Show. Empty City is more gentle and reflective but it’s only in the first half of final track I Lost My Head, that the band show off their acoustic, medieval chops, then conclude with a muscular, rocking section that is also featured on the live set Playing the Fool (1977); I think this is probably the most satisfactory track on the album. The one departure from the previous Giant musical direction comes in the form of the proto reggae of Give it Back which reminds me of Dreadlock Holiday, the most memorable single from 10cc’s Bloody Tourists (1978.) Though there are a number of parallels with Free Hand, the production on Interview allows a good deal of space between the instruments that almost adds a feeling of sparseness. Gentle Giant remain one of the only progressive rock bands I never got to see, even outside of the golden era but at least their music seems to have reached a wider audience than that attained during the 70s.


When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.
When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.

There’s a sort of roughness to the production of the early 70s VdGG albums, with the surprise possible exception of H to He, which suits the music. Godbluff is also fairly raw in contrast to Still Life which comes across as though the band have spent as much time as they needed to produce the record. It sounds well rehearsed and controlled so that even when the band lets rip it almost feels as though they’ve got something in reserve. Not that Still Life could truly be described as polished in the sense of being over-produced; the anthemic Pilgrims and the full-on La Rossa were written during the Godbluff sessions so that in effect the band only required three pieces to complete the album, arriving at the hymn-like title track, the relatively calm My Room (Waiting for Wonderland) where the lyrics really grabbed me: “Searching for diamonds in a sulphur mine...” and the deep, epically structured Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End. The band employed some simple and effective devices during the recording with the aim of stirring the listeners’ emotions, including delaying the introduction of the drums (and horns) on the track Still Life and using single-track vocals on My Room, where there’s also some fine bass work from Banton. The cover photo by Paul Brierley adds to the impression that considerable thought went into the making of the album. A chance find in a magazine, the image is of electrical discharge from a Van der Graaf generator though I’ve always felt that it had the appearance of mineralisation or a treated photograph of a fossil fern, a reference to still life. The Paul Whitehead sleeves may have been iconic but Still Life is class. It’s not an easy album to listen to, coming across more of an aural assault and I still don’t think my brother Tony gets it, even though he was the one that got me into progressive rock in the first place. I think it’s a brilliant work, one of the best pieces of music to emerge from the whole of 1976 and probably the most adventurous; Van der Graaf Generator didn’t really know how to play safe!






By ProgBlog, Apr 3 2016 06:21PM

As I begin to type I’m listening to Seconds Out, bought from Cob Records in Porthmadog during the HRH Prog 4 trip. This is relevant because on the return journey from Wales we (from now on to be referred to as 'The Committee') discussed the provenance of the bands performing at the festival, resolving to come up with either a scientifically derived formula (The Committee, at that stage, was comprised of scientists) or to autocratically pronounce whether a piece of music conformed to our naturally correct definition of progressive rock. Jim later went on to suggest that there could be two lists within the catalogue, so that Genesis would be included as a prog band, but their album Genesis (1983) wouldn’t make the list of progressive rock albums; the first tenet is that post-Hackett Genesis albums are not prog, so I’m listening to the last Genesis prog album.


The problem of hitting upon a comprehensive and logical catalogue has been documented in all books about the genre as well as played out on the letters pages of Prog magazine. Apart from perhaps Math Rock or some JS Bach, music is emotive and emotions are not controlled by logic, so though there can be some convention by which the definition is set, these rules are inherently fluid. There is a degree of agreement between most of the authors of the earliest academic or serious works on the subject, Bill Martin, Edward Macan and Paul Stump but their studies primarily relate to what Martin calls ‘the golden era’ of progressive rock (1968 – 1978), a time when there weren’t so many groups, albums or different genres; the advent of neo-prog in the early-mid 80s but more so the Lazarus-like emergence in the early-mid 90s really complicates the field as divergent influences and a propensity for the music business to come up with ever more labels to package their charges. I don’t believe that the original defining traits of prog can now be applied to exponents of the genre, because alongside virtuoso performances, ‘stretching out’ whether by improvisation or structured development including passages of divergent dynamics to create long-form compositions, the utilisation of technology to produce innovative sounds and the adoption of more thoughtful, often literary or philosophical themes that demanded some form of intellectual engagement with the audience, so called ‘head music’, was the absorption of multiple influences of musical style, central to which was the importance of European art music.

The jettisoning of blues-based American influences and the belief that a form of rock that borrowed from classical music could bridge the divide between high culture and popular culture were catalysts in the formation of progressive rock. Though the title wasn’t applied to music at the time (I called it 'techno-rock', to highlight the importance of the [mostly] keyboard technology and the technical dexterity required to play the music), progressive was an appropriate term because it was a musical form that seemed to actively push at boundaries. Keith Emerson hints at this in the sleeve notes to the proto-prog Five Bridges album and Emerson himself was one of the main bridges between the two schools, writing a piano concerto and continuing to play blues riffs during piano solos.

I think that politics and sociology also played an important part in the formation of the progressive rock movement, where the hippie ideals of the late 60s were carried on by musicians; 70s prog was generally positive, inclusive and questioning, all qualities that constitute a progressive form of politics, and some of the musicians explored what at the time were considered niche interests like vegetarianism. The progressive rock movement was incredibly successful, due in part to the ‘college circuit’ as higher education was opened up to more of the population in the 60s and student unions began to take responsibility for booking acts, bringing groups and their target audience together. When I was applying to universities in the late 70s, I placed considerable importance on the ability of a campus to attract bands though by the time I went to uni punk had come and largely gone.

Some commentators and musicians have suggested that playing the greatest hits from your 70s heyday is not progressive and that to live up to the term there has to be evidence of progression, a continual development. The Committee briefly discussed the use of the terms progressive rock and prog and maybe it’s best to apply the phrase ‘progressive rock’ to the music produced between 1968 and 1978 where there was a genuine direction of progress, strictly encapsulating a particular musical form within a specific time period. This leaves us with ‘prog’ which covers both progressive rock and idioms that used progressive rock as a blueprint: neo-prog and the music produced in the resurgent period from the early 90s to the present day. Prog is able to borrow from more sources, has some remarkable technology both in terms of the instruments and software available for recording, such that file sharing allows musicians to contribute to a recording remotely and their contribution slotted in without ever physically getting together with their collaborators, but while still boasting a healthy number of practitioners with amazing technique, the virtual studio allows less dextrous exponents to shine, ensuring that successful prog is more about concepts than mere execution, otherwise music-making would be reduced to an almost mathematical process devoid of emotion; there is even a new set of socio-political factors from which to choose a grand theme that will allow prog to remain relevant, rather than just looking back to the 70s for inspiration, including burning issues like the continuation of wars, the mass migration of peoples displaced by war, austerity and its flip side, the enrichment of the very few, the impact of globalisation, and the urgency of the need to accept and combat climate change. These concepts could be described under one banner: the Anthropocene era.



It goes without saying that original progressive rock is included under the prog umbrella but it’s the relationship between prog and progressive rock that is critical to the definition of prog; although progressive rock elements appear in other contemporary genres, the degree to which this music conforms to the principles of ‘golden era’ are crucial to whether or not the music is prog. This is where objectivity ends and subjectivity begins, so, with the terminology sorted out, it’s time for The Committee to compile the lists...




fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time