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Recently returned from the 2018 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa, where ProgBlog met up with last year's star turn Melting Clock, and discussion turned to the artwork for their forthcoming album which is due to begin recording in the next couple of weeks...

By ProgBlog, Jan 22 2017 11:19PM

Whereas 1976 ended on a relatively high note for progressive rock with what I now regard as the last decent studio offering from Genesis, Wind and Wuthering, it hadn’t really been such a classic year for the progressive rock genre though there were obviously important releases. Looking back through my collection it would appear that the product from mainland Europe shined pretty brightly. 2017 has started with the inauguration of President Trump in the US but 1977 started off where 1976 ended, with a trip to see Genesis at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. It continued with the much-anticipated follow-up to Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd’s Animals. The entire album was premiered pre-official release, on John Peel’s radio show (January 20th, official release January 23rd.) That single exposure was enough for me to discern a qualitative difference between Animals and its predecessor; gone were the lavish keyboard washes and cutting synthesizer lines, replaced by a more traditional rock balance with organ and piano relegated to little more than rhythm work. I still went out and bought it, to discover that Rick Wright wasn’t included in any compositional credits and even Dave Gilmour only got his name on Dogs. It was fairly common knowledge that a decent proportion of the material which made up the LP had been presented to live audiences following the Dark Side tours, with You’ve Got to be Crazy forming the bones of Dogs and Sheep gestating as Raving and Drooling, the latter including far more synthesizer than on the finalised album version. Wish You Were Here is a good example of progressive rock; four years later The Wall is most definitely not prog. Sitting between the two, Animals doesn’t really conform to the requirements of the description either, though it does have its moments and does challenge the prevailing politics of the time, inverting the anti-Stalinist narrative of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and turning it into a rail against capitalism.


Animals - forty years old
Animals - forty years old

From the somewhat lacklustre and very disappointing Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! of the previous year, Jethro Tull reinvented themselves in 1977 with the prog-folk Songs from the Wood. This was not only a coherent, redefining statement (that would last for a trio of albums), it also utilised the playing talents of long-term associate and strings arranger David (now Dee) Palmer on keyboards which had the effect of adding another layer of complexity to the music. I don’t think the music could be compared to folk because it really rocked; the title better reflected the subject matter itself rather than any treatment of it, espousing green issues and contentment through a more rural way of life dressed. Ian Anderson had always utilised the acoustic guitar in a singer-songwriter way but now he had a package that harked back to a bucolic idyll and even, in Hunting Girl, hinted at Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I really like Songs from the Wood, the upfront, punchy bass of John Glascock and in general the instrumentation and arrangements. I suppose if I were to lay any criticism at this record it would be directed at the sometimes twee lyrics but overall, for a song-based album, it compares very favourably with Tull’s prog-concept pieces like Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play and Minstrel in the Gallery.


Songs from the Wood
Songs from the Wood

It would be incorrect of me to dismiss Tull as a second-division act but the first of the major players to return after an extended break from the studio were Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The pretentiously-titled Works Volume 1 may have been a cock-a-snook to punk, the dominant genre of the time, indicating that they didn’t care what anyone else thought about their approach to music. Aesthetically, even the sleeve is deadly serious in monochrome with its small neat font and the concept, one side for each band member plus one side for the ensemble comes across as an indication of artistic control. I’ve always thought Works Volume 1 and the albums just before it invoked a superficial parallel with Yes activity: Yes released Close to the Edge, their defining LP in 1972, this was followed by a triple live set (Yessongs) which in turn was followed by the magnum opus double LP Tales from Topographic Oceans; ELP released Brain Salad Surgery in 1973, the pinnacle of their career up to that date, they then released the triple live album Welcome Back My Friends and their next studio outing was the grand double LP Works Volume 1. If the analogy is pushed further, the Yes hiatus was punctuated by solo albums; ELP’s absence from the studio ended with solo material presented within a group album (though Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas and Emerson’s arrangement of the Meade Lux Lewis tune Honky Tonk Train Blues, released in 1975 and 1976 respectively were both charting singles, eventually ended up on the mixed bag Works Volume 2.) It’s easiest to analyse Works Volume 1 one side at a time. I find Emerson’s Piano Concerto no. 1 rather enjoyable, the piece cementing his reputation as a builder of bridges between the two worlds of classical and rock though which his influences shine. I’m not sure that it’s a great piece of composition but I like it. Lake’s side continues from where Still... You Turn Me On left off in 1973. I value Lake’s contribution to progressive rock as an integral part of the earliest incarnation of King Crimson and as bassist/vocalist for ELP. He may have considered himself a singer songwriter playing acoustic guitar who happened to play some bass but the ‘solo’ features on every ELP album bar the first are relatively poor affairs; nice voice, shame about the content. Having said that, I have a soft spot for C’est La Vie! Carl Palmer’s material works very well when the attention is on the percussion rather than his song writing; I could never work out why Joe Walsh should appear on an ELP album, which brings me to the group tracks. The Copland-penned Fanfare for the Common Man is safely back on ELP territory and the only gripe I have with it is the overrated sound of the Yamaha GX-1 when it would sound so much better using a Hammond. The Yamaha is more suited to the symphonic Pirates which, at a little over 13 minutes fits the prog mould far better, forming a mini-suite. Along with dinosaurs, you can’t go far wrong with pirates!


Works Volume 1
Works Volume 1

Yes also returned from the wilderness with Going for the One, an album which offered a nod to the punk ethos with the high-energy title track, albeit with a liberal dose of Anderson sensibility, with its trippy imagery (“so hard to find in my cosmic mind”) but the other four tracks are straight from the Yes universe. Parallels was left over from Squire’s Fish out of Water and is sonically closest to The Yes Album. With Wakeman back in the fold, the album is far lighter than Relayer and in Awaken, contains one of the best progressive rock songs, ever. There’s a nice balance in the compositions, with Wonderous Stories managing to compress a full prog epic into something less than four minutes to become a surprisingly successful single at a time when punk was riding high, and the understated, reflective Turn of the Century showing off Howe’s considerable talent on acoustic guitar. Yes music is always uplifting but this was somehow positive thinking presented in easy to digest chunks on a platter, beginning with the hope of Parallels, moving through unbounded joy (Going for the One) and reflection (Turn of the Century) to spiritual fulfilment (Awaken.) Wakeman’s return coincided with two solo releases: White Rock and Criminal Record, both very different from predecessors Journey and Myths and Legends, being much closer in style to Six Wives.


Going for the One
Going for the One

There were a number of other important releases through the year, many of which I also picked up at the time or within the next couple of years. Progressive rock fans readily took to Brand X whose 1976 debut Unorthodox Behaviour was followed up by Moroccan Roll. Their sound on the sophomore effort was fleshed out to a surprising extent with the inclusion of percussionist Maurice Pert, ensuring that any potential to stagnate as a straightforward fusion act was neatly avoided.

I’d already started to appreciate PFM and their 1977 release Jet Lag didn’t disappoint. I was catching up on jazz rock bands around this time and Jet Lag was the closest PFM would get to that sub-genre. I wasn’t too disappointed that the Sinfield lyrics had gone and was getting used to Bernado Lanzetti’s vocal style following his debut on Chocolate Kings. Bookended by the beautiful Peninsula and the anthemic Traveler the music and playing is outstanding throughout.

What did come as a shock was the change from Van der Graaf Generator to Van der Graaf. Losing both your organist and horn player might seem careless but Peter Hammill and Guy Evans reinvented the band with the return of Nic Potter on bass and the recruitment of violinist Graham Smith from String Driven Thing. The resulting The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome is no less complex but far more rough and ready than VdGG and more immediate, as though Hammill was once more channelling Rikki Nadir. I didn’t buy the album until a couple of years later but I encouraged my brother to go and see the band when they played Leeds University during what would become the tour that produced Vital. Tony also went to see Camel during their 1977 tour (and tracks played at Leeds would appear on A Live Record also released in 1977) but I had to make do with listening to a friend’s copy of Rain Dances. The arrival of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair cemented the Moonmadness drift towards a more jazzy direction but the collection of shorter songs, though still achingly melodic, was a bit disappointing. I think that of all the albums from 1977 that I listened to at the time, this was the one which I recognised as signalling a shift in the behaviour of the record companies, requiring the band to put out Highways of the Sun as a single. Evidence of the affect of punk on prog bands is best illustrated by the difference between Playing the Fool and The Missing Piece, both 1977 releases by Gentle Giant. The former, a brilliant introduction to the band in the guise of career-spanning compositions performed live which I bought on cassette is pure prog; the latter, not added to my collection until many years later for good reason, was like nothing the band had released before and is very disappointing.


More from 1977
More from 1977

Other notable records from 1977 which I acquired later include Genesis alumni Anthony Phillip’s The Geese and the Ghost, Peter Gabriel I (I did buy the Solsbury Hill single in preparation for seeing his first solo tour) and Steve Hackett’s Please Don’t Touch; I also recently bought a second hand vinyl copy of Seconds Out. England were a band who were unfairly accused of sounding Genesis-light who released the highly regarded Garden Shed. I saw them play in Barrow but didn’t buy the album until years later, one of my first internet purchases. I’ve since invested in a 2LP version with bonus material. The first National Health album also deserves a mention as it is one of the few albums which eschewed record company directives and is brilliant, melodic and complex. Along with England, they stood out as examples of how prog could have developed. The Enid represented a bridge from the first prog era and, like Van der Graaf, were accepted by the punk movement. They followed up the excellent In the Region of the Summer Stars with the sumptuous Aerie Faerie Nonsense. The US equivalent of late golden-period prog, recently added to my collection, is the first Happy The Man album released in 1977 which is a genuine treat.


If 1977 had some highs and lows, it wasn’t obvious until much later on in the year that the genre was unsustainable, coming under pressure from an industry which was just waking up to realise its global punch, partly through political developments. It’s interesting that the year began with Roger Waters’ onslaught against this political climate but half way through we were treated to a vision of hope but things went downhill fairly swiftly from 1978; forty years on January began with President Trump and despite the amazing scenes of Women’s Marches from around the world in reaction to the US election, I’m not very hopeful.

By ProgBlog, Mar 1 2015 11:32PM

On Friday 27th February I attended the first show in 17 years by analogue synth quartet Node at the Royal College of Music. This prestigious venue seemed rather suitable, affording electronica appropriate recognition as a distinct, legitimate musical form; hardly surprising when you consider the CVs of the band members: production legend Flood; veteran producer and musician Ed Buller; film composer Mel Wesson; and Professor Dave Bessell.

Arriving in the Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, we were greeted with what had been dubbed as the largest collection of vintage analogue synthesiser equipment ever seen outside a recording studio, with an estimated value of £500000; largely made up of modular synthesizers but with a couple of mini Moogs and a VCS3 also quite evident. The group played four pieces over two sets that lasted 90 minutes; all the material was sequencer driven but there were two distinct styles: one, a spacey ‘Berlin school’ sound that was inspired by mid 70s Tangerine Dream and the other was a more industrial sound where the sequences marked out aggressive, percussive beats as though forming the soundtrack to an imaginary film where a derelict factory had been occupied by feral denizens in a bleak vision of a dystopian near-future. Partial, fractured images of the band, interspersed with bubbles and Tron-like graphics were projected onto a circular screen just above and behind the band, the real time images captured by the video cameras trained on each of the musicians. The compositions weren’t all keyboards and sequencers; Dave Bessell performed with a guitar strung around his neck that he strummed lightly on a couple of occasions, so lightly that you couldn’t actually hear it at times. For the first half of the performance I sat at the back of the auditorium, having acquired my ticket in the week before the show, and was mesmerised by the weaving sequences and the otherworld synthesizer washes as they radiated away from the stage via a series of speakers placed along the length of the hall. In the second half of the show I sat in the second row (apparently some people were unable to make the show) which afforded a great view of the four silent, black-clad musos as they subtly manipulated their instrument settings. This was a very enjoyable gig, however different it was from the concerts I normally go to, my first live electronica event where it seemed that all the cream of British electronica had gathered.

In the pub before the show, the excellent Queen’s Arms, Queen’s Gate Mews, I’d been discussing analogue keyboard equipment with friend Neil Jellis, agreeing that the full analogue sound was so much more satisfying than the digital machines that emerged at the end of the 70s. I described some Wakeman Moog from The Six Wives of Henry VIII that Neil later identified as being on Anne Boleyn, which I consider quite sublime, one of the best Moog sounds ever. This conversation turned to White Rock which we both believe is under-rated and so much better than the material that both immediately preceded it and the output that followed Criminal Record. With the exception of the single novelty track The Breathalyser, Six Wives, White Rock and Criminal Record are purely instrumental and whatever you feel about the accuracy of the images they evoke, they utilise the full gamut of analogue technology to create miniature masterpieces of keyboard-based rock. I think that these three albums represent Wakeman’s best work and have previously criticised his forays into lyrics. This got me thinking whether or not the best prog is instrumental or vocal...

There are some groups where the vocals were integral to the ethos of the band, whether they were integral to the song’s narrative (Genesis) or philosophical musing (Yes); some where vocal tracks were balanced with instrumentals, possibly because there was no stand out singer in the band (Camel, King Crimson, Greenslade); and the fully instrumental (early Enid, Mike Oldfield, Gordon Giltrap.) It’s possible that the inclusion of vocals was a hangover from the rock roots that made up prog; the bands that were more influenced by jazz tended to be less inclined to use vocals, certainly Soft Machine, after the departure of first Kevin Ayers and then Robert Wyatt, went on to produce instrumental-only music. My collection includes the full spectrum from fully instrumental to all vocal and one of my personal favourite albums is Tales from Topographic Oceans, where the meaning of the lyrical content is difficult to discern. In Tales, the structure of the music is enhanced by the vocals but there are extended instrumental passages, which means the success of the concept relies on a balance of the relative strengths of the music and the song words. I think Yes get it about right though there are plenty of people who think the album fails on both accounts. Camel’s early output was a mixture of songs and instrumentals, until they released the excellent instrumental Music Inspired by the Snow Goose then subsequently reverted to a combination of the two forms. The recruiting of Richard Sinclair, a more accomplished vocalist than either Andy Latimer or Peter Bardens and someone with a jazz-informed vocabulary, resulted in a shift towards more songs. However, this may have been a result of record label interference, wanting the band to record a hit single (Highways of the Sun may have been radio friendly but it didn’t make the UK Top 50.) During the 70s Focus were predominantly instrumental, the exceptions being the title track from Moving Waves, Round Goes the Gossip from Focus 3, La Cathedrale de Strasbourg from Hamburger Concerto and I Need a Bathroom from Mother Focus. My favourite post-Barrett early Floyd are the space rock and prog instrumentals A Saucerful of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother and One of These Days. Dark Side of the Moon is a fantastic album despite the sixth-former lyrics and the title track from Shine on You Crazy Diamond, like Echoes, is predominantly instrumental. The angelic-voiced Greg Lake was a key component of the first incarnation of King Crimson and though John Wetton was an able vocalist, it’s the musicianship and improvisational talents of the Larks’ Tongues era Crimson that stand out.

Of course this is all subjective; the relative abilities of group members on their respective instruments, their influences and their vision of the best way to get their ideas across all play a part. But if I’m more interested in the instrumentation, how come my favourite album is Close to the Edge?



By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2014 03:33PM

It's mid December and I'm in Bah! Humbug mode. The endless incitement to consume that began gearing up in October is now reaching fever pitch and I’m feeling bad that I feel bad about the whole season. It's not that I don't like giving but I prefer not to be bullied into becoming a slave to this celebration of the unnecessary and shallow. 40 years ago, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock, there was a tug between those promoting commercialisation of Christmas and traditionalists pushing their views on religious significance. In a socio-political context, this was the height of the cold war and the ideological battle was being fought over consumer goods as much as the race to over-stock with nuclear arms; the West was fighting dirty, their propaganda directed at housewives, seducing them with a wide range of appliances and products on supermarket shelves that they were obviously unable to live without. The East failed to deliver promised social equality as money was poured into the military-industrial complex rather than into basics. Despite, or rather because of planned obsolescence, the West won the day; power to the consumer! Power to consume!

I'm not religious but I accept that some people ascribe meaning to this time of year although their belief is being trampled by the out-of-control machine dedicated to profit. My seasonal preference predates the Christian hijacking of Saturnalia, back to the pagan solstice; one where we simply recognise the end of a solar cycle without resorting to over-indulgence in food and alcohol. What do I wish for at this time of year? Peace on earth (yes, really!) and much stronger regulation of the food, drink and advertising industries.

Much of progressive rock owes a debt to church music. In In My Own Time, Kim Dancha’s authorised biography, John Wetton spoke of his use of chordal structures based on the harmony and counterpoint found in church music, citing the influence of his elder brother Robert who became a church organist of some accomplishment; Steve Hackett has acknowledged the influence of church music on Genesis material; and Jan Akkermann has referred to Eruption (from Moving Waves) as “patched-up church-y ideas, sacral stuff” describing that he made “blues out of those neoclassical church-like harmonies.” Chris Squire was a choir boy at St Andrew’s, Kingsbury and has spoken of the influence of church and choral music on his writing; though largely hidden within his co-written Yes-epics, the song-form on Squire’s solo album Fish out of Water is steeped in ecclesiastical influences, where he’s helped out by former school friend and band mate Andrew Pryce Jackman on keyboards and enlists the help of Barry Rose, the sub-organist from St Paul’s cathedral who plays pipe organ.

The cultural significance of the church within progressive rock has been thoroughly covered by academic authors such as Bill Martin and Edward Macan. The genre is peppered with references to liturgy, from the straightforward Credo by Refugee to the psychedelic retelling of Revelations by both Aphrodite’s Child (666) and Genesis (Supper’s Ready.) Perhaps the most overt church music albums are Mass in F minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes and the first album by Italy’s Latte e Miele, Passio Secundum Mattheum (1972). Mass in F minor was not really a full Electric Prunes album and it’s not really prog. The music was written by David Axelrod and he felt he had to draft in other musicians from Canadian group The Collectors to complete the project, a mix of acid rock guitar and Gregorian chants, sung in Latin and Greek. It’s a strange mix but somehow it works really well. Some critics have labelled Latte e Miele as an ELP clone, partly because of their keyboards/guitar/percussionist line up and partly because they include a Bach quotation that appears almost note-for-note and with the same feeling on The Three Fates (Clotho) from ELP’s first album. Such criticism is grossly unfair because 16-year old drummer Alfio Vitanza also adds flute, contributing to a pastoral feel that conjures up suggestions of early Genesis; I’d argue that the inclusion of Mellotron and string synth are the antithesis of ELP. It should be seen as a brave move for a first album and is rightly regarded as being something of a minor RPI classic.

That a band formed in a British public school should display influences from the church is hardly surprising. What is slightly more unexpected is that young musicians, absorbing blues, jazz and rock influences from the US, music born of repression and rebellion, should also exhibit a debt to music that, on reflection, reflects a deeply authoritarian way of life. I suppose it’s only symphonic prog, where the prevalent form is European art music, which truly fits this picture. These musicians grew up in a post-war society where religion played an important role in providing spiritual solace in the years following the massive loss of life and wanton destruction. This thinking was challenged by the pointless wars that occurred in faraway countries throughout the 60s and 70s and by the ideals of the counterculture when prog followed the trail of The Beatles and looked eastwards. These outside influences and experiences were revelatory; this wasn’t a clash of cultures because individuals were actively seeking alternatives to Western consumerism, leading to the dawn of the understanding that other belief systems were equally valid. The end result was that the prevailing church music, largely based on catholic and protestant doctrines, lost its religious baggage and became spiritual. On Aqualung, Jethro Tull play out a rejection of organised religion and on The Only Way from Tarkus (which describes itself as a hymn), ELP appear to take a humanist stance: “People are stirred, moved by the word/Kneel at the shrine, deceived by the wine/How was the earth conceived? Infinite space/Is there such a place? You must believe in the human race” and “Don’t be afraid, man is man made”.

During the 70s the church organ became an instrument of the prog keyboard player. Rick Wakeman played the organ at St Giles’, Cripplegate, part of London’s Barbican complex on The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the organ at St Martin’s, Vevey, Switzerland that was used on Going for the One and the solo album Criminal Record, an album that was something of a return to form; Keith Emerson uses St Mark’s church organ on Tarkus; Rick van der Linden plays the organ in the church of Maasluis (near Rotterdam) on the eponymous first Trace album and the organ of St Bavo’s church in Haarlem on the second album, Birds; on Hamburger Concerto Thijs van Leer plays the organ of St Mary the Virgin, Barnes (the album was recorded at Olympic Sound studios in Barnes.) Hamburger Concerto includes the track La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and when I was presented with the opportunity to visit Strasbourg for a scientific meeting, I took time out to visit the cathedral which is suitably impressive; a gothic masterpiece rising from the cobbles of a fairly densely hemmed-in square.

I like church architecture and the space they contain from a mathematical point of view. I like church music but I disassociate it from worship. Aldo Tagliapietra of Le Orme described how, during La Serenissima, there use to be two choirs in the basilica di San Marco, one on either side of the congregation, singing in stereo. Prog has absorbed bits and pieces of the form and few overt references to a specific god remain. The search for enlightenment, which runs throughout many prog compositions, doesn’t come across as religious; it’s head music which requires conscious engagement without the requirement for religious baggage. That’s something to think about if you receive any progressive rock as a present this Christmas.

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