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Don't judge a book by the cover, unless your particular speciality is dark prog...

ProgBlog sets about finding out about where Muffx fit into the prog genre with their 2017 release L'Ora di Tutti...

By ProgBlog, Jan 8 2018 03:43PM

Not content with the excellent music I received at Christmas, Gentle Giant’s Three Piece Suite, David Gilmour Live at Pompeii and Änglagård’s Prog på Svenska - Live in Japan, I reviewed my wish list and found that Folklore by Big Big Train was unavailable on vinyl... I’ve come a bit late to the Big Big Train party, only possessing the material released on the cover mount CDs of Prog magazine and until recently, when my listening habits relaxed a little, not being sufficiently moved enough to buy any of their albums. The first track I heard was probably Winchester from St. Giles' Hill, a YouTube clip which one reviewer described as ‘the best song Peter Gabriel never sung.’ It’s a very pleasant piece of music but as it doesn’t pick up the pace until about 5 minutes in, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t pursue the output of the band until sorting out my music library last year and finding Last Train, Kingmaker and Judas Unrepentant, all of which I very much like, on Prognosis 5, Prognosis 18 and P5 Into the Lens respectively, prompting me to add Folklore to my wish list. With that album out of stock, I decided to order Grimspound (on vinyl) instead, even before Burning Shed had reopened after Christmas, just in case that too became unavailable as an LP. Depending on how much I like Grimspound, I might have to buy a download of Folklore until the vinyl edition gets re-released.


Christmas present - Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant
Christmas present - Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant

I’ve also visited the BTF website, after seeing the vinyl version of Dedicato a Frazz by Semiramis advertised in the sidebar of my weekly email from the Italian prog distributors and mail order firm. I’ve been after the LP since before seeing the band perform at last year’s Progressivamente festival in Rome because it’s a great piece of music, little known or appreciated outside of Italy until the renaissance of prog; the CD was one of my most expensive second-hand purchases on that particular format but I’ve always thought it was well worth it, like some obscure treasure.

It seemed pointless to splash out on postage for one album so I added DNA by Jumbo to my shopping cart. I currently own this as a download, having never seen the release in a physical format, despite always scouring the Js in the CD and record bins in every record shop I go to in Italy. The first of their two classic RPI albums, DNA represents fairly basic progressivo Italiano but it’s still quite enjoyable. There’s not a great deal of variation in the keyboard with only organ and piano but, in common with quite a lot of early Italian progressive rock, there’s a hefty dose of flute which sounds as though it’s been inspired by Ian Anderson and early King Crimson. DNA was Jumbo’s first foray into a progressive sound but there’s still a weighty reminder of their roots, including harmonica, a blues instrument which I don’t believe has any place in prog! However, the influence of early UK prog is evident throughout and Ed Ora Corri (And now you have to run), the second part of the 3-part composition that makes up side one of the original LP (Suite per il Sig K., a track that reflects a Kafka-like existence) is quite spacey and seems to have been at least partially inspired by Pink Floyd. I’ve owned their 1973 release Vietato al minora di 18 anni? (Prohibited to minors under 18?) for a year now, a limited edition from BTF on red vinyl and apart from seeing vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Alvaro Fella performing with Consorzio Acqua Potable (CAP) at the Riviera Prog festival in Genova in 2014, where at the time he was confined to a wheelchair, I have also seen Fella play with CAP, and Jumbo, at Progressivamente in Rome last September. On record, Fella’s vocals might seem something of an acquired taste – he has a distinctive theatrical style that has hints of Alex Harvey or Roger Chapman from Family, but his singing comes across as perfectly suited to the music when you witness him play live.


The first gig of the year was a fairly low-key affair at The Dublin Castle in Camden. I was accompanied by Jim Knipe who only got to see a fraction of the main attraction, Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate, but had to sit through an excruciating performance by Unit 48 who were like Haircut 100 fronted by David Brent, one nondescript singer/guitarist, and a rather intriguing opening act False Plastic, a trio of bass, drums and guitar who played short, spiky numbers apart from their final song, where they let rip with some psychedelic punk.


The line-up at The Dublin Castle 4/1/18
The line-up at The Dublin Castle 4/1/18

I’d been invited to listen to the new release Broken but Still Standing by Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate at the end of last year and found it a pretty good mixture of prog and post-rock. The soundscapes are quite Floydian (especially post-Waters Floyd) and the themes are pretty deep; if that isn’t enough to intrigue you, the flute is absolutely gorgeous and these passages are the most prog. Their album When the Kill Code Fails from 2016 comes with a recommendation from Steve Hackett.

I was included in a tweet sometime during the day of the gig that flautist Kathryn Thomas wouldn’t be appearing and that the band, which can involve as many as five people or as few as just one, would be appearing as a duo, Malcolm Galloway on guitar and vocals, and Mark Gatland on bass, keyboard and effects; I wasn’t put off by the pared-down outfit because I knew that some of the material could be recreated using patches and triggers and though we weren’t going to get the high quality prog of the first fifteen minutes of Broken but Still Standing, there were plenty of other parts of the latest album which were very enjoyable.


Broken but Still Standing by Hats Off Gentlemen It's Adequate
Broken but Still Standing by Hats Off Gentlemen It's Adequate

Indeed, the set was a mixture of the shorter material from Kill Code and Broken and it was thoroughly enjoyable. The programmed drumming, something I’m a bit wary of, sounded like an authentic kit and the washes and bits of electronica were quite like on the albums. There was one moment, possibly at the end of My Clockwork Heart where Galloway pressed the wrong foot pedal and guitar continued playing, even though it was the end of the song. Galloway’s vocal style is quite languid, a bit like Pete Shelley, but it does suit the music; this is in comparison to Gatland who was a ball of energy, leaping around the small stage sometimes two footed, bringing his knees up to his chest. It wasn’t only good to listen to, it was genuinely entertaining and when I spoke to them afterwards it was quite clear that they’re both really nice guys. I bought the two recent CDs and took advantage of the special merchandise stand offer – buy two get the third (Invisible) free. The duo made an appearance at HRH Prog last year as stand-ins for Touchstone and by all accounts, went down very well. It’s hardly surprising. Their originality, enthusiasm and great songs mark them out to be a group to watch. I can’t wait to see them as a five-piece.


Hats Off Gentlemen It's Adequate set list 4/1/18
Hats Off Gentlemen It's Adequate set list 4/1/18

Still driven to own more music, I visited Croydon’s 101 records for their half-price New Year sale, where the offers were only available to those who’ve signed up to Duncan Barnes’ email list. The condition of the album is rated as A (Very Good Condition) to C and though I’ve had numerous chances to pick up the original Journey to the Centre of the Earth for £1 from flea markets, I’ve always resisted because the sleeve and/or the LP has been badly marked. I’m please I waited. With a sale price of £2 and rated as in VGC, I bought Journey (a record I’ve never owned before) and a replacement The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, something I bought in 1975 and sold in ’77 or ’78, also for £2. I then splashed out and added Ekseption's Greatest Hits for £3!


Sale bargains from Croydon's 101 Records
Sale bargains from Croydon's 101 Records

I’m not sure I’ll ever stop wanting more music...








By ProgBlog, May 21 2017 08:21PM

Yes, another trip to Genoa. The weekend had to be carefully planned: on call on the Thursday hastily rearranged; gig on Friday; Crystal Palace playing their last home game of the season with kick off at noon on Sunday...

My wife and I left on the 07.10 flight from Gatwick on Thursday morning and returned on the 13:25 flight on Saturday. It was a bit of a whirlwind stay but rather successful. Susan doesn’t come to the gigs so we spend as much of the remaining time getting around. Ideally we’d have been able to leave on the Sunday but the importance of the football match, with both Palace and opponents Hull involved in a relegation scrap, it was a game I was not prepared to miss.

After checking in at the hotel, the first stop was for coffee in a local bar, Caffé del Sivori before moving on for a bite to eat. We were then able to wander into the historical centre where, among the narrow lanes and small piazza, you can find the second-hand record, CD and book stalls. This was where I bought the 1997 Ulisse and the 2000 Serendipity CDs by PFM, along with Anthony Phillip’s Wise after the Event. The main shopping attraction however, was the small but perfectly formed Black Widow record shop in Via del Campo; specialising in progressive rock, psychedelia, heavy rock, ‘dark’ prog and folk. It turns out that the founders of the shop Massimo Gasperini, Pino Pintabona and Alberto Santamaria, used to come to Beanos in Croydon to buy stock and that the reputation of the store within the prog community is really high; the Prog Archives website published an interview with Massimo in 2010, remarking that he’s a friendly guy and I concur - I’ve had lengthy chats with both Massimo and Alberto on the occasions I’ve visited and can honestly say that their generosity, knowledge and graciousness are boundless. It’s easy to form a connection when you share a passion for the same kind of music, despite my lack of Italian.



You might wonder why such a small shop has such a big influence but part of the reason is because Genoa is at the heart of the current prog scene in Italy, with the emergence of a number of new bands seeped in the traditions of 70s progressivo Italiano, plus a renewed interest in the original bands, some of the most influential of which were based in Genoa (New Trolls, Delirium, Latte e Miele, Nuovo Idea, Garybaldi.) This historic connection must have influenced the foundation of the Centro Studi per il Progressive Italiano (in Genoa’s Pontedecimo district) who aim to create a comprehensive archive of material relating to Italian prog and build a complete database of material, but also study the material at a musicological level. The other part of the explanation is that Black Widow also operates as a record label, promoting new talent and, where possible, reissuing old classics. They play an important role in the live music scene, being instrumental in the Fiera della Musica which had been held in Genoa until the area, with buildings by local architect Renzo Piano, was scheduled for redevelopment. (Susan and I visited an exhibition of competitors for this redevelopment and, rather to my delight, one entrant included the cover of Atom Heart Mother in their presentation.)



Black Widow were putting on a Metal festival that weekend, though I was far more interested in their Prog Festival to be held in the old harbour from 14th – 16th July, featuring local and nearby acts Delirium and Il Cerchio d’Oro, prog from France and Norway and Nik Turner, formerly of Hawkwind, headlining on the Saturday.



I walked away from the shop with a selection of British and Italian prog on vinyl: The first Saint Just album (rereleased by AMS on green vinyl); Inferno by Metamorfosi, Acquiring the Taste by Gentle Giant, Future Legends by Fruupp, plus a second-hand copy of Quark, Strangeness and Charm by Hawkwind.


Daytime on Friday was spent in Alessandria, visiting the UNESCO World Heritage listed Cittadella, the most important hexagonal fort in Europe due the integrity of the site, though our access was restricted because there seemed to be some event being set up. We visited the W Dabliu record store but I didn’t buy anything there, however I did come across the first three editions of Prog Italia, bundled into one, for €12.99 which I had to buy, having spent the last three trips to Italy looking for copies of the magazine.

It’s become increasingly obvious to me that Friday night is the time for prog in this part of the country because the excursion had been organised to see a couple of bands, playing on a Friday, at la Claque; Finisterre and Ancient Veil.



I’d seen Finisterre as recently as the 31st March at the Z Fest in Milan, but I enjoyed this performance more. Maybe it was the theatre itself, with tables organised like a club rather than crowding the stage at Milan’s Legend Club (and where the space on stage was divided by supporting columns), or maybe it was that the recent exposure to the band had made me more aware of the material. Despite coming from Genova and performing around the world, Finisterre hadn’t played in their home city since 2004, so it must have been a rather emotional return. Their set list comprised of material from three of their four albums Finisterre, In Ogni Luogo and La Meccanica Naturale: Tempi Moderni, Anaporaz; La Maleducazione; Macinaaqua, Macinaluna; La Perfezione; Ninive, In Ogni Luogo and Coro Elettrico performed as a mini-suite with Edmondo Romano from Ancient Veil as guest; Ode al Mare; La Fine; Incipit; Phaedra; with chat, announcements and introductions made alternatively by Sefano Marelli and Fabio Zuffanti. The musicianship was sublime and despite the absence of anything from In Limine, my favourite Finisterre album, the set was perfect. If I had to make any complaint, it would be that from where I was seated, fairly close to the front and centre, I couldn’t hear Boris Valle’s keyboards too well but the overall sound was clear.

There was a poignant moment when Zuffanti introduced Davide Laricchia, the original vocalist for the band, to perform Macinaacqua, for which he wrote the words but left before he could appear on the first album. This track encapsulates the experimental approach of the group, interspersing classical motifs into some riff-driven prog, Marelli guitar effects and Agostino Macor electronics. The delivery was over-the-top theatrics along the lines of Alex Harvey, though the melodic denouement hinted at 70s The Enid, coalescing into classic Zuffanti material; Macor even used a xylophone on this piece. Their superb set ended with a medley of prog classics; a little bit of Interstellar Overdrive, 21st Century Schizoid Man and the Hackett-friendly portion of Firth of Fifth.



I first came across Ancient Veil after seeing an article about Eris Pluvia, and received Rings of Earthly Light as a Christmas present in 2012. Released in 1991, six years after the band formed, this is an uplifting piece of neo-prog which at times, thanks to the woodwind and reeds of Edmondo Romano, borders on prog-folk. The upbeat lyrics, all in English, and the calm, warm voice of guitarist Alessandro Serri help to give it an almost New Age feel but there are odd time signatures and sudden changes that would suit the most ardent of prog fans. Eris Pluvia disbanded in 1992 and Ancient Veil was formed by Alessandro Serri, Romano, with Fabio Serri on keyboards and they released one eponymous record in 1995, with music very much in the same vein as Eris Pluvia. Ancient Veil reappeared this year with bassist Massimo Palermo and drummer Marco Fuliano and the CD I am Changing. Remarkably, this presentation of their new album was the band’s first ever live performance and though there were a couple of hitches, technical and human, the audience was understandably forgiving. The material was set out in three blocks, commencing with The Ancient Veil, followed by Rings of Earthly Light and concluding with I am Changing but the material flowed seamlessly. I bought a copy of the CD during the interval between bands so I had not heard any of the new songs; I’d also not been able to lay my hands on a copy of The Ancient Veil but it would not be unfair to say that the composers have a distinctive style. Maybe their most recent material contains a hint of wistfulness? They also introduced a guest from the past, Valeria Caucino, who sang on Eris Pluvia’s Sell My Feelings and also appears on the new album, on the song Chime of the Times. And, just as Romano had accompanied Finisterre on stage, Zuffanti and Marelli returned the favour during In the Rising Mist, making four acoustic guitarists (along with Serri and drummer Fuliano); this summed up the camaraderie of not only the musicians gracing the stage that evening, but the Italian progressive rock community as a whole.



What made the evening special was a combination of great music and a sense of history; the return of Finisterre to Genoa after a considerable absence, and the first gig by a band who have long been praised in prog circles – a remarkable double bill and immensely enjoyable. I’m already preparing for my next trip...
What made the evening special was a combination of great music and a sense of history; the return of Finisterre to Genoa after a considerable absence, and the first gig by a band who have long been praised in prog circles – a remarkable double bill and immensely enjoyable. I’m already preparing for my next trip...

Postscript

Palace beat Hull 4-0 on an afternoon basked in sunlight, securing their tenure in the Premier Leaguue for another season. What a fantastic few days












By ProgBlog, Feb 12 2017 10:27PM

The acceptance of and concordant renewed interest in progressive rock has allowed the development of a support industry that uses the reach of the internet for marketing. Prog was niche at the beginning of the 90s, subsumed by a massive music industry singularly interested in shareholder return, leaving the artist a small cog in a very big machine. Prog survived by utilising the available technology, aided by fans with a working knowledge of the internet and who were often an integral part of this technological revolution, who helped to set up some of the earliest band websites and fan forums.

I was fortunate to have an academic email account before the roll-out of commercial hosts and dutifully signed up to the amazing Elephant Talk and a somewhat more earnest Gentle Giant forum. The first mention of Notes from the Edge, the Yes-related internet newsletter run by Mike Tiano and Jeff Hunnicutt and YesWorld, the online Yes resource, was in the booklet for Keys to Ascension (1996) but one major development was the beginning of a dedicated progressive rock / art-rock mail order business. Not only had I begun to pick up Voiceprint newsletters at John Wetton gigs, Discpline Global Mobile (DGM) was reinventing the role of the record label with an innovative, ethical business strategy. Utilising the online presence of these sites, I was able to access some fantastic music, both recorded and as exclusive pre-release playbacks in the presence of the artists themselves.


The Epitaph playback
The Epitaph playback

If we leap forward to the present, I have become much less reliant on Amazon and way more enamoured with Burning Shed and Italy’s BTF and I’ve also started to use Bandcamp, the latter having the advantage of providing a download in addition to the physical medium. I know that Amazon provides this service but with Bandcamp you are able, should you wish, communicate directly with the musicians but whether you do or not, there’s a feeling of better connecting with the artists and consequently, as you’re not simply getting a product, a sense of reward. You're also avoiding tax avoiders


Post-Christmas has been a relatively busy period for acquisition of music for me. A trip into Croydon HMV saw me return home with sale-price vinyl copies of Wish You Were Here and Animals (just in time for its 40th anniversary) though if I’d ever imagined a return of the LP, I’d have never traded-in my original copies.



HMV shopping trip
HMV shopping trip

Browsing the progressive rock suggestions on Bandcamp I came across Awake & Dreaming the 2006 release by The Gift and, having seen them perform at the Resonance Festival in 2014 and been suitably impressed by both the music and the message, I thought that was a worthy addition to my collection. A couple of weeks after that I engaged in a Twitter conversation with Lorenzo Gervasi (Lorenzo Vas) who was the keyboards player with Milan-based Lethe. Their only album release, Nymphae (1994) is available as a download from Mellow Records via Bandcamp and proved to be another Italian prog gem. I subscribe to the BTF newsletter and I frequently get seduced into buying some of the old classics I’ve not been able to pick up on my travels around Italy. The most recent of these purchases was Vietato ai minori di 18 anni? The 1973 release from Jumbo which had been on my radar since seeing vocalist/guitarist Alvaro Fella on stage with CAP in Genova in 2014. This album leaves behind the blues influences that remained on DNA (1972) and is a more mature effort including some avant garde styling.


Awake & Dreaming by The Gift
Awake & Dreaming by The Gift

An awful week at work in January made me think about dropping everything and going on a weekend jaunt to Italy but I fought off the initial impulse and decided to plan something more sensible. There are lots of progressive rock-themed events around Italy throughout the year but a Facebook link took me to Fabio Zuffanti’s Z-Fest, which this year is going to be held at the very end of March so I decided to organise the mini-break to include some live progressivo Italiano. Held in Milan, this year’s line-up is Finisterre, Cellar Noise and Christadoro. I’m already well versed in the works of the former and I’d read about the latter, named after drummer Mox Christadoro, a man with over 30 years experience in the Italian music scene (though not all of it in Italian prog!) so I pre-ordered a copy of the album from Zuffanti’s Bandcamp page. Meanwhile, the Burning Shed newsletter proclaimed the availability of a limited–edition 2015 re-master of the first Kaipa album (Kaipa, 1975) on 180g blue vinyl, including a CD of the album with two bonus tracks. Another album I’d been following with interest, I had to order it.


Z Fest 2017
Z Fest 2017

The two albums arrived with a couple of days of each other. First was Christadoro, a project which brought together a bunch of highly proficient musicians from varied backgrounds, united by their love of progressive rock. Joining Christadoro (drums and percussion) and bassist Fabio Zuffanti, who was at least partly responsible for the idea are Pier Panzeri from Biglietto per l’Inferno (guitars), Paul ‘Ske’ Botta who I’d seen with Not a Good Sign on the first day of the Riviera Prog festival in Genova in 2014 (keyboards) and vocalist Andrea ‘Mitzi’ Dal Santo. The core band is augmented with some renowned guests including PFM’s Franco Mussida.

The concept, hinted at in a quotation from Richie Havens printed on the inner sleeve

I really sing songs that move me

I’m not in show business

I’m in the communications business

is a presentation of seven popular Italian songs written by some of the biggest names in Italy during the 70s, given a progressive rock makeover in the same way that Yes performed Simon and Garfunkel’s America. Another track Ricercare nel mare dell’Inequitudine della paura (Searching the sea of anxiety and fear) is a Franco Mussida solo acoustic guitar prelude to L’ombra della luce (The shadow of the light) by Franco Battiato and uses some unexpected musical intervals. This pair of tracks (I couldn’t detect the transition between the two) are my favourites from the album, though I’m impressed with each of the interpretations and how neatly they have been turned prog. There may not be the complexity associated with progressivo Italiano but there’s some great playing; when the needle hit the groove on the first playing I was struck by the excellent-sounding organ of L’operaio Gerolamo and the driving guitar riff. The great organ work continues on Il sosia (The Lookalike) but not until we’ve had a traditional Zuffanti motif, the reading from some text, in this instance the recital of lines from a 1971 TV series Il Segno del Comando followed by a brief jazz-rock workout before getting a little heavy-psyche. The slide guitar and laid-back tempo on L’ultimo spettacolo calls to mind Pink Floyd’s Fat Old Sun and despite an interesting instrumental break in the middle of the song and a more rocking ending, I feel this is the weakest track on the album.

Figli di... is guitar-driven heavy rock but the vocals are clear and good. There’s more dynamic range and a healthy dose of drama in the side 2 opener Lo stambecco ferito which verges on Van der Graaf Generator territory. Solo begins with a cello section provided by Zeno Gabaglio, electric piano features heavily but there’s also some good Mellotron work. Overall it’s a rewarding buy, though not straightforward prog; the band are playing songs that move them...


Christadoro - insive sleeve
Christadoro - insive sleeve

The old purchase is actually a current re-release of old material, Kaipa’s eponymous debut. In my worldwide search for forgotten masterpieces I’d come across the group but finding examples of the early material was somewhat difficult. My initial investigations were before I understood the role of Roine Stolt and before I’d seen The Flower Kings play live – a slightly disappointing performance because the music wasn’t dominated by keyboards, which I’d come to expect; this re-issue of the early Kaipa albums is a masterstroke.

Kaipa might be keyboard-driven but there’s a nice balance with the guitar, think of Camel between their debut and Moonmadness and the result is first-class symphonic progressive rock. I love the Swedish vocals in the same way Italian prog is best sung in Italian; the lead vocals, provided by keyboard player Hans Lundin, are confident and come across as poetic and naturally flowing.

It would be too simplistic to simply class the music as being like Camel or Focus, just because these are bands who play melodic symphonic prog. The major difference between Kaipa and those two bands is the bass of Tomas Eriksson, who uses a Rickenbacker to achieve a punchy, trebly tone. Camel tend not to conform to a style that incorporates church music, whereas Focus and Kaipa include medieval-sounding compositions, a feeling enhanced by the use of harpsichord. It would have been hard for them not to have been influenced by their fellow countryman Bo Hansson, the first Swedish rock star to gain acclaim outside his native land (thanks to Charisma Records) and there are passages which use heavy reverb organ and guitar producing the distant feel that pervades Hansson’s Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings. The one sound I don’t particularly like is the string synthesizer, though it’s not overused.



Kaipa by Kaipa
Kaipa by Kaipa

One intriguing comparison can be made with Australians Sebastian Hardie, another band fitting that Camel/Focus/Yes symphonic style. There’s a section where a Kaipa melody line (forgive me for not being over-familiar with the tracks on Kaipa) reminds me of Rosanna from Four Moments by Sebastian Hardie; what is interesting is that the Prog Archive reviews for the Australians are overwhelming negative, suggesting their music is too derivative and labelling them ‘cheesy’. Four Moments was released in 1976, a year after Kaipa. One reviewer has also called Kaipa ‘cheesy’ though the majority find the album pleasant but not over-complex, but still worthwhile. I’d go a little further. This is good symphonic progressive rock where the language and the local folk influences make it stand apart from so-called derivative acts which I think tend to be mostly American. It’s another gem, one that surely played a part in the Sweden-centred progressive revival of the 90s.




Two new purchases, two different eras, two enjoyable pieces of music.

By ProgBlog, Jan 8 2017 06:52PM

The Christmas and New Year bank holidays fell on days which allowed extended weekends and, in order to address some of the inevitable excess that occurred despite the reduced volumes of food and drink that were brought into the house, both weekends featured a cultural excursion into central London.

One of these was a trip to the new Design Museum, housed in the former Commonwealth Institute just off High Street Kensington, an edifice described by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London after the Royal Festival Hall, which underwent an impressive refit to house the new exhibition spaces. I’d visited the building before, during the period of its former function, to receive a Wedgewood plate from the National Blood (Transfusion) Service for donating 100 units of blood, plasma and platelets and even in 1985, before I displayed any interest in architecture, I thought it was a remarkable building. The free, permanent display at the museum deserves more space and only scratches the surface of ‘design’. However, it still managed to mention album artwork and house a display of turntables. Perhaps they’re thinking of a temporary special exhibition of album artwork...


Interior of The Design Museum
Interior of The Design Museum

The other trip was to the Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy of Arts (a far less attractive building, despite the Palladian influence on its design). The phrase ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was coined by critic Robert Coates in 1946 to describe a new phenomenon in American art associated with a generation of artists all working in the US but with diverse backgrounds: New York; the heartlands of the US; the West; European émigrés. I was interested in attending because I quite like the work of Jackson Pollock, one of the featured artists, having seen his work in the Guggenheim in Venice. It could be argued that without Peggy Guggenheim’s patronage there wouldn’t have been a Abstract Expressionist movement. Another reason I like Pollock is because I associate his artwork with progressive rock; though the art and prog movements took place in different decades, the room I most associate with listening to early progressive rock had a piece of my father’s artwork on the wall, a drip painting in white, yellow and red after Pollock and I seem to recall him with a board (in lieu of canvas) in the back garden of our first house wheeling his bicycle over a similar composition and this process of construction, as well as the complexity of finished piece, held a deep fascination.


The Royal Academy of Arts - Abstract Expressionism
The Royal Academy of Arts - Abstract Expressionism

The extended break still ended too early, even with a reduced working week but it was nevertheless good to consign 2016 to the dustbin of history. Domestic and global politics took a downturn just when we were thinking it couldn’t get worse, amplifying divisions and, for the first time in a long, long time, bigotry and hate speech seemed to have become legitimised. Apart from the power-play where more than one multi-millionaire labelled all journalists as elitist, 2016 did have what appeared to be more than the average number of deaths of famous musicians and this had a quite extraordinary impact on the feelings of those who had grown up with this music. I don’t particularly like David Bowie’s music but I understand that millions and millions of people all around the world did have some form of connection with Bowie, and Prince, Leonard Cohen and George Michael. I was personally more affected by the deaths of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, two of the first rock musicians I’d ever heard but apart from reporting on their contribution to progressive rock in celebration of their careers, I remained relatively unmoved. I don’t mean any of this in a disrespectful way and if anyone, from any background, is able to positively influence someone in some way; give them some kind of meaning or put into words what they’ve not been able to express themselves, that’s not to be scoffed at. I’m approaching this from a rationalist standpoint; both Bowie and Lake had cancer and, at 69 years of age, had lived a full life which had reached a natural limit within statistical ranges. I reject the government argument that pensionable age should be raised because we’re all dying older because plainly that is not true. It might be the case that age at death has increased for some but, especially in areas of greater deprivation and reduced life-chances, longevity lags behind. A 2015 study from the King’s Fund Inequalities and life expectancy Changes over time and implications for policy by David Buck and David Maguire may have shown the relationship between income deprivation and life expectancy got weaker over the period between 1999 and 2010 but other factors, including employment, housing deprivation and some lifestyle factors go some way to explain differences in life expectancy between areas during the latter part of the study period, and that low employment, housing deprivation and smoking are among the factors that distinguish areas with persistently low life expectancy over time. The argument to raise the age of the state pension and to make changes to public sector pensions in 2011 which caused widespread public anger was part of a plan to make public sector jobs open to private business. It might be more economically sound to allow workers to retire to create decent, full-time jobs for school leavers and graduates who had been hard-wired to believe in home ownership but we’re going to find many of the workers in caring professions, who generally are not well paid, being ground down until they are incapable of working or dying before they can take their pensions.


NHS strike action
NHS strike action

I stood on picket lines and argued that even in the long-term, the NHS pension pot easily paid for itself as long as staff continued to be recruited into the scheme. I pointed out that the proposed legislation was because the cost of similar pension benefits was prohibitive to private healthcare providers, with plenty of friends in government, wanting to move into the UK; that pension reform and privatisation were inextricably linked and austerity was being used as a rationale to deliver cost-cutting and the decimation of the Health Service. Over the next year I witnessed the sale of NHS departments to private firms; soft targets going to DHL, Serco and Sainsbury, removing staff from hospital payroll and immediately cutting upfront costs. The damage to the NHS, alarmingly labelled a ‘humanitarian crisis’ by the Red Cross last week, includes no money for training, de-skilling, understaffing, endemic low-morale and stress-related sickness absence; throw in stories of European workers being told to prepare to leave the UK and it’s evident that there’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. Perhaps someone is waiting for the private sector to gallop in on a white charger...

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing particularly pertinent to current times, where not only access to music and film has been made easier, our ability to comment on and interact with others who feel the same, or the polar opposite, is part of the everyday landscape. I used to abuse the letters page of Barrow’s North Western Evening Mail with made-up opinions and made-up names in an attempt to lampoon parochial concerns (read: dog mess) but this ruse took a good deal of time and effort; I had to write the letter by hand, post the letter using Royal Mail and wait to see if the terribly elite editorial board would publish. If only Twitter and Facebook messages took two days, an editorial review and the equivalent of postage before they could be displayed. I’m not only guilty of mistreating the entire Evening Mail readership with letters and my poetry, I’m also in the business of spouting opinion on social media. That my ProgBlog somehow got mixed up with a Canadian political site of the same name may be of concern, but it earned a spot as the 24th most liberal blog detected by the Feedspot blog.

Meanwhile, at the back end of 2016, I was given a copy of the Greg Lake Live DVD for Christmas, a concert recorded in Stevenage in November 2005, less than a week before I went to see his performance in Croydon and dutifully watched it at the earliest opportunity. I recall enjoying the concert apart from a blues number which I refused to applaud because it was dire. This was Love You Too Much and I believe is evidence that Lake’s genuine creative period was over. I’m not fond of the later ELP material that’s included, either, beginning with the simplistic Paper Blood but also Farewell to Arms and Footprints in the Snow but the concert is well filmed and the band, including a young Florian Opahle on lead guitar, is really tight. Though it’s an accurate record of that tour, the bonus DVD material includes rehearsal time at Shepperton and some short interviews. One of these is with the promoter who predicts a great future for the ensemble and following the UK dates the band did play in Europe but his planned 2006 tour was cancelled.


Greg Lake Live DVD
Greg Lake Live DVD

Whereas Bowie and Prince maintained a sense of mystique and were able to reinvent themselves to remain relevant, I don’t believe that same can be said for the members of ELP, or even Yes who continue to tour, though they were giants that did at one stage rule the world of music. The relevance of the original progressive rock bands lies in their legacy, their experimentation and challenging norms. There are probably two generations who have been inspired by music that refuses to be packaged as industry standard and this innovation is what Lake and Emerson, and Chris Squire in 2015 should be remembered for.





By ProgBlog, Jul 17 2016 04:39PM

Last weekend was spent based in Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic and included a day trip to Bratislava in Slovakia, less than 90 minutes away by train. I’ve been to the Czech Republic before, for a presentation at the second East-West Immunogenetics conference in Prague in 2007 and on my brief time off I managed to get to a couple of record stores, one on a late evening trip around Wenceslas Square where the rock music selection was rather poor and the other, squeezed in just before my flight home, a shop called Bontonland in the Centrum Chodov mall at the end of subway line C. Though this large, rambling store was staffed entirely by non-English speakers (my problem, not theirs) I made my request for Czech prog using an elementary phrase book and citing English examples of the genre. Despite these communication difficulties, the staff managed to produce a handful of Czech CDs and provided me with a remote to ply through the selection. I sat for about an hour listening to parts of this collection but it was predominantly blues based material that I didn’t really like or want.

I had done some research before my 2007 trip and the band Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) were foremost on my list. This group formed in the aftermath of the crushing of Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring in 1968, named after the track Plastic People on the 1967 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention album Absolutely Free. PPU were targeted by the communist authorities with punishment ranging from imprisonment to having a house burned down. Unable to perform in public, an entire underground cultural movement formed around the band during the 1970s and the sympathizers of the movement were often called máničky, indicating youths with long hair. I was unable to find any PPU releases on that particular visit but that might have been in part due to the classification of the band. Inspired by Zappa and the Velvet Underground, PPU occupy an area akin to chamber-prog, but with more riff-based music than, for example, Henry Cow.


I was aware that rock bands, including some with progressive leanings, were around in communist countries in the late 70s and early 80s. I wanted to visit the USSR in 1983, with Leningrad a short train journey from Helsinki which I visited with friend Nick Hodgetts during an Inter Rail holiday over the summer, but organising a visa while already en route was an insurmountable problem. I did get to visit East Berlin before the fall of the Wall and got shouted at by a border guard in a watch tower when I stepped over a low barrier to take a photo of the Wall from the West; I even spent my honeymoon on a two-centre holiday to the relatively ‘loose’ communist state of Yugoslavia, officially the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where I witnessed the lack of choice available to the citizens and benefitted from a currency in freefall, cashing low value travellers cheques on a daily basis. I bought a piece of original artwork and, though I looked at some CDs, these were mostly folk music so I didn’t acquire any. Having come away from honeymoon without any local music, my first Eastern European CD purchase was a second-hand copy of U Vreci Za Spavanje by Yugoslavian band Tako, bought from Beanos in Croydon, in 2005, not from behind the Iron Curtain. I’d seen this and not bought it, but returned to the shop the following week after checking my Jerry Lucky books. My CD is a Brazilian reissue of the original 1980 LP plus a couple of bonus tracks and though the recording quality is a bit poor, it’s a very enjoyable album. The opening title track begins like something from Wish You Were Here and while there are plenty of keyboards throughout the album, there’s also a good quantity of flute, making it a great piece of symphonic prog which references Camel and Steve Hackett along with early 70s Floyd.

Beanos was the source of my next Eastern Europe music purchases in April 2008, picking up two CDs by Polish band Albion, Wabiąc Cienie (2005) and Broken Hopes (2007). The former is their second release, entirely in Polish (the title translates as Luring the Shadows, and the cover picture, which is very proggy, conveys this quite nicely) and the latter, their third album is a more mature and coherent effort but sung in English. Wabiąc Cienie demonstrates good musicianship, influenced by Pink Floyd and 80s Marillion, though it comes across as being a bit too controlled, as if studio time was the most important process and, for the most part it’s unchallenging 4/4, albeit with pleasant alternating passages of guitar and multi-layered keyboards. Vocalist Katarzyna Sobkowicz-Malec has a great voice, at times hinting at frailty but always controlled and in tune. The best track is the 11 minute plus instrumental Bieg po Tęczy (Run the Rainbow) which hints at the continued direction on subsequent album Broken Hopes, incorporating the sounds of a young baby and the flapping of birds’ wings; it contains lengthy passages in 7/8 time, too. Broken Hopes strikes me as Albion’s Misplaced Childhood with a narrative that questions politics, war and religion, all suitable epic themes for a concept album which has more variation than its predecessor but still sounds far more complete and satisfying.


A work friend told me about Solaris because one of his colleagues had introduced him to this Hungarian symphonic prog outfit. I eventually found a copy of Marsbéli Krónikák in Black Widow Records in Genoa last year, my only non-Italian purchase of the trip at just €17; the current UK price is almost £50. Solaris took their name from the science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem and their album titles from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, though Lem’s first novel was called The Man from Mars. I know that Marsbéli Krónikák is generally raved about, similar to the way that Ys by Il Balletto di Bronzo is hyped as being the best progressive rock album, ever, and though it’s undeniably well-played symphonic prog with lots and lots of keyboard and flute, it doesn’t press all the right buttons for me, possibly because it’s a little bit driven by some simple riffs and I’m not at all keen on one of the bonus tracks that appears on my 1995 re-issue CD – I think the quality of the material tails off towards the end of the original album. However, I’d still rate it as pretty good. Marsbéli Krónikák II is much cheaper to get in the UK because it was released in 2014, after years of the band attempting to get back together and I was given a copy for Christmas last year. This follow-up effort is stylistically similar despite thirty tears between the original and the sequel, which again tails off in quality towards the end of the album but is, overall, a really good release.


Whereas Solaris appeared in 1980, their fellow countrymen Omega had been active in the late 60s and appeared on the prog radar with the 1975 album The Hall of Floaters in the Sky. I think this may have had an airing on Alan Freeman’s radio show but I do remember looking at the interesting sleeve art in Blackshaw’s in Barrow when it was released, thinking it was a pretty odd title, not realising that it might be a literal translation from the Hungarian. I finally bought a copy from a stall in Dalston Old Market earlier this year but, despite Omega being the most successful Hungarian band and this particular album allegedly one of their best; a mixture of symphonic prog and post-Barrett Pink Floyd space rock, I was disappointed. I’m not a fan of the lyrics or the English vocals and it’s too close to heavy rock for my taste.


And so to last weekend. I really liked Brno with its flashes of Functionalist architectural style, the Villa Stiassni and Villa Tugendhat, and the day trip to Slovakia was good, taking in a number of varied sites like St Michael’s Tower and the UFO Tower over the Danube. On our first evening in Brno we’d noticed a shop selling CDs, Indies, next to the impressive Alfa Palace, a Functionalist masterpiece, and on our last morning we made time to shop. I bought two CDs by PPU, Hovězí Porážka (Beef Slaughtering) (1984) and Obešel já polí pět (I Walked Around Five Fields) (2009), the recording of a 2003 concert with the Agon Orchestra in honour of Czech philosopher Ladislaw Klima. I also bought two CDs by prog-folk band Zrni (which I haven’t had time to listen to yet.) Then I saw Vinyl Records... I have never travelled anywhere in the world with the intention of buying vinyl, not even recent excursions to Italy, but this shop, selling both new and second hand vinyl, was the obvious place to start. The incredibly helpful staff chose a selection of Czech prog for me and then let me listen to entire sides. I picked up original copies of Sluneční hodiny (Sundial) (1981), Křídlení (1983), both by Synkopy; 33 (1981) by M.Efekt; and a non-Czech LP, Brandung by Novalis (1977). Considering how small the Czech Republic and Slovakia are, there were some incredibly talented prog bands around in the 70s and 80s. I’m grateful to both Vinyl Records and the former owners of the LPs for keeping them in such great condition and, though recording studios used by rock bands in former communist countries may have been less advanced than Western Europe or American studios, I’m impressed with the dynamic range of the recordings.

If you’re ever in the Czech Republic, spend some time in Brno. The architecture is stunning and the friendly record shops contain some absolute gems.









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