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The last of the May events in the ProgBlog gig marathon was a celebration of Italy... ...in Islington!

By ProgBlog, Apr 30 2018 09:34PM

The gig marathon did pause, temporarily, for the annual week-long skiing holiday. This year’s resort was Sölden in Austria and, after the relative success of the self-organised trip to Chamonix in January, plus a wealth of experience planning prog-themed visits to Italy, flights, public transport transfers and accommodation were all booked individually and independently of tour operators. This meant that we could avoid the early Saturday morning chaos at Gatwick by choosing a Tuesday lunchtime flight, though a planned gig on the day of return, Tuesday 17th April, meant there was going to be something of a rush when we’d arrived back in the UK.

Despite some poor visibility when it snowed on the days we were on the mountains, we did ski every day and the conditions when the sun did come out were near perfect; carving down almost empty runs in fresh powder. I’d been to the resort before, in 2007 but the amount of investment that had been poured into the area made it almost unrecognisable. Not only could I not work out where the hotel I’d stayed at had been (if it still existed) but the Gaislachkogl lift, which I may have used once during my last stay, became the prime station for getting up anywhere in the ski area. Anyone familiar with the James Bond film SPECTRE would recognise the resort because the mountaintop clinic where Bond meets the female lead, Dr Swann (played by Léa Seydoux) is the ice Q restaurant on the summit of Gaislachkogl at 3048m, a beautifully designed building that fits perfectly within its high mountain environment and which serves really fine cuisine. We ate there, twice.


the ice Q restaurant, Gaislachkogl
the ice Q restaurant, Gaislachkogl

Our B&B may have been a little way from the centre of Sölden but it did have a bus stop right outside, where journeys during daylight hours were free with a lift pass and hourly buses wound down the valley to Ötztal station, so this is where the trek to the ESP 2.0 gig on 17th April at the Half Moon, Putney began. I’d ordered a copy of their forthcoming release 22 Layers of Sunlight from their Bandcamp page and fortunately for me Cheryl Stringall, the owner and managing director of their record label Sunn Creative, recognised my name from previous correspondence and asked if I’d like a pre-release copy. This meant I was able to hear the whole album a couple of times and parts of it a few more times to acquaint myself with the music before the show.


The calm is over: Pitze bus stop, Sölden...
The calm is over: Pitze bus stop, Sölden...

The Half Moon, Putney
The Half Moon, Putney

I am a big fan of the original Tony Lowe – Mark Brzezicki ESP collaboration and after the launch of the debut album Invisible Din (2016) I pronounced that I wanted to hear more from them. A year and a half later 22 Layers of Sunlight is the product of a more settled outfit, with Lowe and Brzezicki being joined by Peter Coyle (ex-Lotus Eaters) on vocals plus bassist Pete Clark and keyboard player Richard Smith; ESP Invisible Din was more of a collective which though showcasing the talents of a variety of guest musicians including David Cross and David Jackson (whose collaboration CD Another Day arrived on my doormat the same day as 22 Layers) and vocalist John Beagley, would have been a nightmare to organise as a touring entity.





Coyle brought the concept with him, an original, cautionary tale of global tech-monopolies and AI that has increasing relevance in modern society. It was good to hear the instrumental layers are all still there, with the opening track God of Denial and its subsection The Code shifting seamlessly from angular post-rock guitar riffs to a couple of bars of lead synthesizer that wouldn’t be out of place on a proggy Steven Wilson album and then to orchestrated soundscape, all neatly tied together by Coyle’s clever lyrics. Algorithm contains some post-Hackett Genesis-like drumming and a dual vocal passage that strongly reminds me of Sigur Rós, then the title track has a cinematic orchestrated movement that gives way to a quality prog workout before reprising the chorus and main melody, though overlain with some gorgeous guitar soloing. Ride through Reality allows the players to let rip, it’s an instrumental with a little vocalising, partly jazzy but equally reminiscent of Lamb Lies Down-era Genesis instrumental blows, brief but not short on quality. Smiling Forever is another post-rock composition, laden with Mellotron string patches before it also goes full-Floyd with beautiful, tasteful slowburn guitar and after a vocal reprise blends into the laid-back Don’t Let Go section of the longest track on the CD Butterfly Suite with flute Mellotron patches. Traveling Light is the excellent instrumental part of this track, harking back to the sounds and complex rhythms of Genesis circa 1973 with some great synthesizer and organ work and more tasteful guitar, which eventually resolves into a very Hackett-like, disturbing riff before Sensual Earth continues with similar sounding themes, alternating analogue synthesizer lines and expressive guitar.

Gunshot Lips is a more modern-sounding track, its urgency dissolving into trance grooves before the driving beat resurfaces, though it retains the multiple layers of the more cinematic and prog pieces. Introducing the song at the Half Moon, Coyle confessed he didn’t know why it was called ‘Gunshot Lips’. Final track Ballad of Broken Hearts is an orchestrated, melodic piece with a deceptively pop-y structure overlain with harmonic splashes of guitar and lead synth. It’s quite optimistic sounding until about three quarters of the way through to the end when it slows and becomes more proggy and reflective as Coyle sings ‘is this all I can hope for?

You can tell it’s an ESP album – there are certain similarities in quality of voice between Coyle and his Invisible Din predecessor Beagley – with the same degree of originality and a greater feeling of consistency on 22 Layers, though there are probably more excursions away from the undeniably symphonic prog feel of Invisible Din. It’s certainly a worthy sophomore effort, expertly crafted with excellent writing and musicianship, impeccable production and once again, beautiful presentation. I made it to the live performance with time to spare; the Half Moon is fairly convenient for me and it’s a great venue. The set consisted of material from both albums, expertly handled by the quintet and this was warmly appreciated by the crowd. I think of ESP Invisible Din as a Lowe/Brzezicki band but that evening Coyle played the part of front man and the 2.0 group appeared to be more democratically organised. It was a thoroughly enjoyable gig.


I may have made it from Sölden to the Half Moon but there wasn’t a great deal of time before it all started again, roughly 52 hours between getting back from Putney and setting off on the next leg of the gig marathon to Brescia, thematically connected to ESP through David Cross who has been touring as a guest musician with legendary progressivo Italiano band Le Orme. Previously acquainted with the small, beautiful city after staying there to see Banco del Mutuo Soccorso play in January, one of the first reminders of why I had come this time was plastered over a wall on our way to the hotel.



First stop of the afternoon was the Tostato coffee shop (although we’d already had coffee at Verona station) and then it was on to the record stores; Music Box and its sister store Brescia Dischi were closed but we wandered away from the centre to Kandinski, an excellent shop selling new and second-hand vinyl and CDs where I was allowed to browse through the selection ordered in for Record Store Day, being held the following day. I couldn’t really justify getting the special edition The Piper at the Gates of Dawn so I chose three albums from the Italian prog and International prog re-pressings racks: Il Tempio della Gioia by Quella Vecchia Locanda; ...per un Mondo di Cristallo by Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno; and Visitation by Pekka Pohjola. It was nice to chat about music and about being in Brescia specifically for music, and about the meaning of Record Store Day. As I left I was presented with a CD released in 2016 on Kandinsky Records, Double Rod Pendulum by Ant Mill which I was warned wasn’t prog but on subsequent listening have discovered is highly original guitar-driven rock which at times crosses into psyche. It’s not really my thing being relatively heavy and more blues-rock based than anything else in my collection, but it’s still melodic, with vocals all in English. It was recorded live in the studio and you can detect a raw edge, but the production, typified by the snare drum sound on Tale #11 [Lullaby for E] is really good.



The evening’s entertainment was Le Orme and David Cross at Dis-Play, a temporary venue set up in the Brixia Forum the city’s exhibition space, a 10 minute taxi ride from our hotel. This was me ticking off another classic 70’s progressivo Italiano band, though the current line-up includes just one original member, drummer Michi Dei Rossi. Keyboard player Michele Bon has been with the band since Tony Pagliuca left in 1992, so the most recent recruit is bassist/guitarist/vocalist Alessio Trapella who joined in February 2017. I was totally blown away by the musicianship – the performance seemed to have been comprised almost entirely of early material that I’m familiar with and the band had found a superb replacement for Aldo Tagliapietra in Trapella (I’d seen Tagliapietra performing the whole of Felona e Sorona in Genoa in 2014 which was quite special). The inclusion of David Cross on the tour was perfect; Le Orme are no strangers to guest musicians - Peter Hammill wrote English lyrics for Felona and Sorona and David Jackson has performed with both Tony Pagliuca and Aldo Tagliapietra - and the violin seems like such a natural fit with the Venetian-formed band. Dei Rossi (with the help of Cristiano Roversi) released an album of Orme material arranged for orchestra ClassicOrme last year and in 1979 the classic line-up released Florian (after Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco), an album recorded using only traditional (non-rock) instruments augmented with violin, an exercise in modern classical music with a progressive touch. Cross featured heavily during the gig and in return the ensemble played a version of Exiles, based more on Cross’ interpretation from his album of the same name than the original Larks’ Tongues version, but it was good to see the acknowledgement of the King Crimson influence on Italian prog. I thought there was an interesting comparison between the role of Dei Rossi, the drummer and only original member, with that of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio. Though Dei Rossi didn’t sing he spent quite a lot of the time between and sometimes during songs in front of his kit not only acting as spokesperson, but also directing the audience and the band. There was a humorous moment where he pointed out that he still had a lot of hair and the majority of the males in the audience had very little.



Apart from some technical problems with Michele Bon’s monitor and earpiece right at the beginning of the set, which required the removal of his jacket and held up the start of the show, it was a flawless performance by a group of exceptionally gifted musicians. Best of all, I managed to got to see the whole performance because I’d worked out how to order a taxi late in the evening, when the taxi hailing smartphone app no longer worked. My merchandise stand foray resulted in a limited edition copy of Elementi (2001) on vinyl but Chiemi Cross had moved off elsewhere for a moment so I couldn’t say hello and I’d just taken delivery of my Cross and Jackson CD at home.



The following day, Saturday, we headed off to nearby Cremona, a UNESCO World Heritage site listed in 2012 for the intangible heritage of violin making; to mark Record Store Day the main thoroughfare was lined with stalls selling vinyl and CDs. I got into conversation with a couple of stall holders and bought Florian for €15 and Per un Amico for €40, though I was being encouraged to buy an original Italian copy of Chocolate Kings complete with poster (my copy of Chocolate Kings is the Manticore release with the stars and stripes covered chocolate bar which on that particular stall had a higher mark up than the Italian version.)




We flew back to the UK on a late afternoon departure from Verona, and whereas I’d had time to get dinner before going to see ESP 2.0 when I came back from Austria, this time I headed straight from Verona (26oC) to the Union Chapel, Islington (14oC) for the first of two Tangerine Dream shows...












By ProgBlog, Nov 13 2016 07:16PM

Imagine a blustery Friday evening in central London at rush hour, spilling out of Great Portland Street tube station and wondering why, in the middle of November, a large crowd had assembled outside the Green Man pub and inside was a heaving mass of people. Somewhere in the throng was Jim Knipe, one of two friends I’d managed to persuade to give an unknown band a try. On the occasion of an England vs Scotland football match, something I’d inconveniently forgotten, it really wasn’t the most sensible place to have chosen for a pub meal before a gig at the nearby 229 The Venue. The football fixture seemed to have fired up a particularly nasty form of nationalism, at least amongst the clientele of the Green Man, so moving on quickly as soon as dinner was completed was the order of the day. The Green Man was the third choice hostelry; first choice The Albany, almost next door, was already fully booked for meals (we decamped there for a beer before moving on to the gig) and the second choice was a large restored Victorian pub with good beer, only I couldn’t find it on Google maps, I couldn’t remember its name (the Mason’s Arms) and I had no idea if it served food (it does). All I knew was that it was normally empty. The food at the Green Man we visited on the junction of Euston and Marylebone Roads, not to be confused with the Green Man, Riding House Street, was served at gastropub prices without the gastropub quality. Not recommended.

Doors to 229 were due to open at 7.30pm so Jim and I made our way across the road at the appointed hour to meet up with the third of the evening’s prog trio, Gina Franchetti. 229 first opened its doors in 1965 as part of the International Students House, a charity providing accommodation for British and overseas students whilst they studied at different Universities in London. The venue has sporadically played host to numerous gigs, awards ceremonies, club nights, weekend festivals and music related events and profits are ploughed back into the charity to help fund scholarship programmes for students from less advantaged countries. It underwent major refurbishment and had a technical overhaul in 2007 and was re-launched as a dedicated entertainment venue with two performance spaces. Unfortunately, Gina was standing in the queue for the larger of the two rooms where Dreadzone (a Big Audio Dynamite spin-off) were due to play and it was only when staff on the door were unable to find my name on the guest list that we realised we were heading to the wrong show; our entertainment was due to be provided by ESP, billed as ‘A Prog Rock Tour de Force’ and the gig was to launch their new album Invisible Din.




First on stage was Yumi Hara, standing in as the support act and who would later take to the stage with the band. Normally a pianist, Hara had recently taken up the harp (think the Jon Anderson-sized harp used on Olias of Sunhillow and Going for the One), performing material from collaborations with Artaud Beats bandmate and ex-Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler. Her songs may have been brief but they were laden with poignancy; an effect enhanced by the delicate tone of her instrument and the oriental scales she used.





ESP is basically a two-man band comprised of guitarist/producer/multi-instrumentalist Tony Lowe and drummer Mark Brzezicki, ably supported with a stellar cast of collaborators. Lowe first came to my attention as the guitarist for the live launch of the 2015 David Cross and Robert Fripp CD Starless Starlight (which Lowe produced) where his understanding and appreciation of one of the most classic and memorable progressive rock melody lines was on display. Along with Cheryl Stringall he’s also the co-founder of Sunn Creative, a socially aware record label which operates on ethical business principles which include a commitment to environmental and social issues, and partners selected like-minded charities such as Action Aid with their ‘Bollocks to Poverty’ campaign. Brzezicki is best known for his work with Big Country, though prog fans will associate him with Procol Harum; he’s well regarded in drum circles and boasts an impressive session CV. These two musicians assembled some great names from the progressive rock scene to play on the album, from prog's early years to the more recent wave, and they all made guest appearances for the concert. Keyboard player Mickey Simmonds joined the project for the live circus because Lowe, who played keyboards on the recording, confined himself to guitar. Simmonds cites some classic prog influences and I recognised his name from Camel’s Harbour of Tears album (1996). Also on stage were bassists Steve Gee and Phil Spalding, each performing roughly half the set; vocalist John Beagley; David Jackson on saxes and flute; Yumi Hara on harp; and David Cross on violin.

From the outset it was obvious that the band were a really tight-knit outfit, playing densely layered lines of largely instrumental prog of the highest order with three lead instruments available at any one time over a solid, busy rhythm section. The keyboard patches were accurate reproductions of 70s analogue sounds but all the instruments were distinct and the whole sound well-balanced in the low-ceiling venue. It was possible to detect influences as varied as early Genesis, post-Gabriel Genesis, UK, and even a little Pawn Hearts-era Van der Graaf Generator; Jim even suggested he heard some 10cc. I’m not inferring the sound was derivative in any way and if I were to suggest a sonic comparison, perhaps because of the use of woodwind instruments, primarily the flute, I’d plump for one of the modern Italian symphonic prog acts.




Half-way through the set, Lowe informed us he wasn’t going to explain the concept behind the album because we could just read the sleeve notes of the CD to find out. I bought the CD from the merchandise stand but didn’t get round to reading the booklet until the following day. A Sunn Creative press release outlines the story and concept behind Invisible Din, where Lowe revealed that “The songs evoke a man’s childhood memory of illness and a ghostly, healing presence of beauty as he ventures into the realms of the astral world. The music and lyrics encompass the yearning we have for that elusive other, the dream partner, crossing the line between reality and fantasy as he ventures into the unknown.”

It’s sometimes unsatisfactory going to a gig without knowing what you’re going to hear, even when the event is billed as a ‘prog rock tour de force’ but it was evident from the first few bars and confirmed by the end of the performance that ESP are the genuine article. The compositions were first class, the playing exemplary and the utilisation of the talents of Davids Cross and Jackson was a stroke of genius. The crowd was fully appreciative of the music and such was the expectation of the band that Prog Italia magazine sent a reporter and photographer to cover the gig; Gina noticed that Claudia (the reporter) was making notes in Italian and spoke to them in Italian at the end of the concert; Federico (the photographer) has shared some photos with band members, including an atmospheric shot of David Jackson in black and white.

So there was no disappointment at the end, instead I’ve got a feeling that symphonic progressive rock has a new standard-bearer. I’ll certainly seek out future ESP shows in London and the South East – long may they continue. Thank you, Tony Lowe, Mark Brzezicki and your amazing collaborators for an evening of wonderful music.




Post Script

I’ve now listened to the album three times and the concept stands up really well. The production adds a Floydian feel to some of the material and the tracks evoke appropriate emotions: sometimes reflective, sometimes elation. The work is remarkably melodic; something that was less noticeable during the live performance, and repeated listening has revealed further layers and previously unnoticed jazzy moments. It’s impossible to choose a favourite track because the album holds together beautifully.

ESP: All symphonic progressive rock fans should buy Invisible Din and make every effort to go to see them on tour.









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