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, Jan 15 2017 10:47PM

Right from the start of my interest in progressive rock, I understood there was a strong link between what I was listening to and classical music. The Nice were one of the first bands I discovered and one of the earliest albums to enter the household was Five Bridges by The Nice, an album of predominantly orchestrated pieces. Studying the sleeve notes for Five Bridges revealed that the group credited Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Bach but the primary composition, the suite taking up the entire first side (from which the album got its title), was a mixture of classical and jazz with only a bit of rock music thrown in and was credited to Keith Emerson and Lee Jackson, the latter presumably just for the lyrics. I’d probably already worked out that a piano trio was my preferred form of jazz (in a house where I was exposed to a lot of jazz, from trad and big band to Miles but even after the full-blown symphonic approach of Yes, the pared-down Nice still managed to tick all the right boxes for me and I think at least part of that was the way they worked jazz into their repertoire, the other reason being the incredible organ work. This was most likely the first time I’d heard orchestration presented in this way but it was certainly the first time I’d paid any attention to a modern classical piece, marvelling at the way the five movements represented the bridges that crossed the Tyne and straining to work out Jackson’s words during Chorale (3rd Bridge). The Nice weren’t the first band to apply rock treatment to classical music, which was probably Nut Rocker, the Kim Fowley interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s March of the Toy Soldiers from his ballet The Nutcracker Suite, by Jack B. Nimble and the Quicks. This was released on the Del Rio label in early 1962 but was hastily re-recorded for Rendezvous Records and released under the group name of B. Bumble and the Stingers. At the time, the BBC had set itself up as a cultural gatekeeper and viewed itself as the nation’s arbiter of taste. Through the auspices of the Dance Music Policy Committee, it worked a policy of refusing to give air time to songs "which are slushy in sentiment" or pop versions of classical pieces including The Cougars' Saturday Nite at the Duckpond, a 1963 version of Swan Lake. Nut Rocker was discussed by the committee but was not banned because of its evident ephemeral nature which would not ‘offend reasonable people.’



Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6
Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6

Emerson did have an uncanny knack in identifying themes and phrases which fitted in with both original compositions and cover versions of other people’s tunes and this was one of the major avenues through which I, and many others, first began to appreciate classical music, so that one of the first classical albums I bought was the Camden Classics LP of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6. Though I heard it later than Country Pie from Five Bridges, this being the song that incorporated a portion of Brandenburg Concerto no. 6, the title track from Ars Longa Vita Brevis released two years earlier includes a snippet from Brandenburg Concerto no. 3. Additionally, the album features a band-only recording of the Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite which would resurface, with orchestra, on Five Bridges. One other piece of Bach appears on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, which was, paradoxically the last of their records I heard, a fragment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor inserted into Rondo, which I recognised as being very closely based on Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk, though Brubeck went un-credited.



Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!
Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!

Toccata and Fugue in D minor is instantly recognisable and iconic and one of the reasons I went to see the film Rollerball when it was released in 1975. Set in ‘the not too distant future’ it has turned out to be a shade prescient, where all the functions of the world are run by global corporations. The real purpose of the sport, played between teams owned by the different companies from different world cities, is to subdue individualism so that when the main protagonist Jonathan E. (played by James Caan) becomes successful and a crowd favourite, the corporations first try to get him to retire and then to kill him off during a match. The corporations fail and Jonathan E. prevails; the closing sequence sees him skating around the arena with the crowd chanting his name, softly at first then building in amplitude to a freeze frame and the single-voice flourish of the Toccata signals the credits. Sometime during the 1980s the provenance of the piece was questioned by academics and it appears that the musical form could have been written for violin. What is known is that the earliest manuscript was written out by Johannes Ringk, on a date estimated to have been between 1740 and 1760.

Is there something about Bach’s music that makes it adaptable to progressive rock? Bach appears to have been fascinated by music, numbers and codes and his name spells out a series of notes which were frequently employed in his works, providing a sonic signature to his work. If the letters of the name ‘Bach’ each replaced with its number in the alphabet, we end up with 2+1+3+8=14 and some researchers have hypothesised that he had something of a fixation with the number 14; it has been suggested that when he was asked to join Mizler's society of Musical Sciences he delayed accepting to ensure that he was the 14th member to join. Mozart was another who applied mathematical games to his compositions and there were yet more baroque composers using a cabalistic code to change letters into numbers which could then be used in musical composition to hide words.


Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band
Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band

Proto-prog converts included Procol Harum whose debut release A Whiter Shade of Pale drips with Bach from the repeated descending steps of the ground bass which appear in Air on the G string and Sleepers, Wake!, to a melody line which could be a novel adaptation of the cantata I am Standing One with Foot in the Grave, and Jethro Tull, barely out of their blues period, with Bourée from Stand Up (1969), an adaptation of the lute piece Bourrée in E minor, played on flute in a jazz idiom (latterly incorporated into the live version of Finisterre’s In Liminae by Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band, possibly as a tribute to the legacy of Jethro Tull on Italian progressive rock.) The Nice influenced many subsequent groups, themselves dissolving into Emerson, Lake and Palmer who not only quoted baroque compositions but moved on to pieces from the late 19th and 20th Centuries and were responsible for my appreciation of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Janáček.

I would find it hard to believe if Netherlands keyboard trio Trace weren’t influenced by The Nice where on their eponymous debut they covered Bach, Grieg and mixed in some traditional Polish dance and Swedish folk music. They first came to my attention on the Old Grey Whistle Test and, if anything, I was more impressed by keyboard player Rick van der Linden than I was by Keith Emerson. His interpretation of Bach’s Italian Concerto (presented as Gaillard) remains one of my favourite tracks of all time. It’s a really well structured multi-layered piece played unbelievably fast, demonstrating the virtuoso technical ability of van der Linden whilst simultaneously displaying a brilliant feel for the original composition. The second Trace album, Birds contains more Bach (Bourrée, from the English Suite) and Opus 1065, where they utilises the talents of Darryl Way on violin – a man equally at home playing classical variations including his own violin and synthesized orchestra album Concerto for Electric Violin.



Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace
Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace

We tend to think of Bach influencing prog initially through Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, possibly the ultimate Moog album but that influence spreads via Mahler, Stravinsky, Dave Brubeck and it even affected the thinking of The Beach Boys and The Kinks. The nascent progressive scene embraced Bach where, because of the mathematical structure, the harmony and counterpoint and maybe the association with church music, his compositions seemed such a good fit.

By ProgBlog, Jun 1 2014 07:08PM

Sometime in 1978 or 1979 in a Zoology class at Goldsmiths’, Jo Wallace and Karen Fraser were discussing the use of the violin in rock music, not getting much further than the Fabulous Poodles and the Electric Light Orchestra, who were not remotely prog. I don’t think they even included Slade, where bassist Jim Lea had previously played in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra, or Hawkwind who in their most prog period, and they have never been a prog band, included Simon House on violin. There’s a possibility that their friend Susan Aspinall (a botanist who I later found out was into prog) might have been able to help them out with some suggestions. I remembered this conversation recently, perhaps prompted by seeing RPI band La Coscienza di Zeno at Prog Résiste, who included violin, or by one of the CDs I was bought at Prog Résiste, the excellent Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Höstsonaten, where the violin is used primarily as a melodic lead instrument in the context of a rock interpretation of classical music. I thought the concept deserved revisiting, just sticking to prog acts.

If you consider the origins of progressive rock, a melting pot of influences including European romantic music, the violin has some claim to be a prog instrument, though it hardly features in bands from the golden era. Excluding the mix of rock band and orchestra (The Nice’s Five Bridges Suite, for example) I first heard violin on Birds of Fire. If you’ll allow me a little latitude, I maintain that there’s a very close relationship between jazz rock and prog. The Mahavishnu Orchestra utilised blistering exchanges between guitar, Moog and Jerry Goodman’s violin to stunning effect though years later when I bought a Flock CD I was disappointed with the song writing. I probably heard Geoffrey Richardson on For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night around the time of its release but it wasn’t until I started buying Caravan albums in the 80s that I really appreciated his contribution. I started listening to King Crimson in 1974, so after the Mahavishnu Orchestra, my next true exposure to prog violin was via the ’72-’74 incarnation of Crimson, and from David Cross to Eddie Jobson who did the studio overdubs for USA.

I first came across Darryl Way as a guest musician on the track Opus 1065 from Birds by Trace. Trace supported Curved Air on tour in 1975 and keyboard player Rick van der Linden expressed an appreciation of Way’s mastery of the violin, acknowledging a shared ability to improvise around a classical music theme. The drummer on Birds was prog journeyman Ian Mosley, formerly of Darryl Way’s Wolf. Darryl Way also appeared on Heavy Horses, as a guest on the title track and on Acres Wild and also in 1978, he released his first solo album, Concerto for Electric Violin, with an orchestra synthesized by former Curved Air band mate Francis Monkman, which I remember being premiered on ITV’s highly-regarded culture programme The South Bank Show and I bought it soon after my arrival in London at the end of the 70s. My first Curved Air Album was Air Conditioning, bought second-hand from Record and Tape Exchange for £1 in the early 80s and I’ve since added Second Album, Phantasmagoria and Midnight Wire, plus Canis Lupus on CD.

The supergroup UK formed in 1977 and featured Eddie Jobson on keyboards and violin. They released two studio albums and a live set recorded in Japan and the reduced-size line-up of the second Album, Danger Money, toured supporting Jethro Tull who were very much at the height of their commercial appeal. Subsequently, Ian Anderson asked Jobson to appear on what started out as a solo venture but was released as ‘A’ under the Jethro Tull banner. I’d chart the quality of the music, from the eponymous UK debut to A as a linear decline; UK was a great album, a very strong progressive rock album tinged with jazz. The departure of Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth meant that Danger Money and the live album from that tour, Night After Night were weaker and the live album contains some very middle-of-the-road material. I find A very poor fare. At the time of its release many prog acts had either disappeared (temporarily or permanently) or adopted a more commercial sound. The short songs on A seemed to attempt to match prevailing tastes and watching them live from the gods at the Albert Hall did nothing to change my mind about the quality of the material.

The departure of Hugh Banton and David Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator prompted a rethink by Peter Hammill and he drafted in Graham Smith from Charisma label-mates String Driven Thing on violin. Nick Potter, absent since the recording of H to He returned on bass. The resulting sound on The Quiet Zone The Pleasure Dome is far less full than on any of the preceding albums, coming across as more urgent and direct, almost punk. Peter Hammill’s use of a violinist continued after the demise of Van der Graaf on both solo albums and during the tours of his solo material when he collaborated with Stuart Gordon.

There’s more violin in progressivo Italiano. My first exposure to RPI was PFM’s live album Cook which features the excellent multi-instrumentalist Mauro Pagani on, amongst other things, violin. Violin is quite prominent throughout the album but it is used to best effect on Alta Loma Five Till Nine where the band play an arrangement of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Parent’s note: This song is brilliant for entertaining young children, bouncing them up and down to the rhythm on your knee. Following the departure of Pagani, PFM brought in another violinist for Jet Lag, Gregory Bloch. I understood that there was a strong tradition of Italian prog and that bands like Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator were incredibly successful in Italy, though it wasn’t until the advent of online music retailers that I was able to start buying examples from the Italian sub-genre. Introducing the family to the delights of Venice and Rome (2005, 2006 and 2007) allowed me to seek out record stores and ask the owners about prog bands. By this time it was also possible to read about RPI both in books and on fan sites so I had a good idea of what to look for. Aside from PFM, Quella Vecchia Locanda were possibly the most famous of the violin-featuring bands. I prefer their first, eponymous album with violinist Donald Lax to their second album Il Tempo Della Gioia from 1974, with Claudio Filice taking on violin duties. The first album is full of energy and, though the band took care producing their follow-up, there’s a feeling of melancholy that contradicts the album’s title, A Time of Joy. Celeste used violin on their excellent Principe di Giorno which has something of a cross between early Genesis and Wind and Wuthering Genesis. My copy is a second-hand Japanese import bought for me in Rome by an Italian transplant surgeon who spent 6 months at Guy’s. Jacopo, thanks very much.


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