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A frantic fortnight of  gigs for ProgBlog began on March 9th at Genova's Angelo Azzurro Club, a much loved venue under threat of closure. Marina Montobbio's series of Lady Prog Nights was on its third event featuring local symphonic prog bands Melting Clock and Panther & C...

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.

By ProgBlog, Aug 21 2016 08:07PM

When I arrived at The Lexington for the David Cross Band gig the week before last, I stopped at the merchandise stand and along with the excellent English Sun (2009) by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, I also procured Re-Collage, a live album by Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Donà Quintet, progressivo Italiano being my thing and Le Orme’s Collage (1971) being regarded as the first true progressive rock album to be released in Italy. I put the two CDs in my jacket pocket and went off to the bar before the second performance of the evening, Davids Cross and Jackson with a challenging but fun set, It wasn’t until I got home to view my two purchases that I realised the CD was missing from the Re-Collage sleeve. My email to David C was passed on to David J who apologised, gave a plausible explanation and put a disc in the post for me.

The baroque-prog of the original album has been replaced by a much more jazz-inflected feel, imbued by Pagliuca’s fellow Venetian Donà, a jazz trumpeter (and philosopher) and the other members of the quintet. The sound on this recording is incredibly clear, taken from gigs in the north east of Italy in March 2004 and, without knowing how much rehearsing took place, remarkably tight. Apart from the Collage material, the ensemble tackles Theme One and We Go Now from the VdGG back catalogue and Frank Zappa’s G-Spot Tornado. The result is an enjoyable, different take on some classic Italian prog. It is also further demonstration of the prestige in which Van der Graaf Generator were held in Italy; Peter Hammill provided English lyrics for a Charisma (UK) release of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona and Jackson would go on to play with Osanna, one of the other greats of progressivo Italiano who incorporated Theme One into their live set.

I obviously make an effort to see the bands I follow in a live setting and am willing to go to some lengths to do so. The David Cross Band gig was close to my workplace though a combination of a (justified) strike by rail workers and unannounced engineering work (I have not heard any justification for this, which I suspect may have been a political move by track operator Railtrack to erode sympathy for the rail transport unions) meant that getting home was slightly more problematic than expected. Sometimes getting across London takes more time than (for instance) getting down to a gig in Brighton.

One issue that raises itself at concerts is the use of cameras or camera phones. I’m as guilty as anyone for transgression but I remain conflicted, willing to adhere to any request from the performers not to take pictures, restricting myself to photography of an empty set before the performance and the bow at the end of the show. We should all be there for the music and the experience and should not be concentrating on a small screen held between our faces and the group performing onstage but the importance of social media for promoting a musician’s activity, coupled with an insatiable human desire to share our experience, shifts any ambivalence towards amateur concert photography in the direction of being a necessary evil. Other than at the request of the group (think King Crimson: Keep your phones in your pocket. Have fun. Enjoy the moment. “Please come and *be* with the band and not with your smart phone and other weapons of mass distraction”) I do take photographs, though not incessantly. I’m not sure why my camera was taken away from me at a Yes gig a long, long time ago when equipment for bootlegging would surely have been a more important target. The smart phone is theoretically an easy medium to use for recording a show, along with the uncontrollable volume of crowd sounds but I’d really rather wait for the band, who frequently make their own, high quality, balanced recordings, to officially release the performance. Some venues have a ban on both audio and photographic recording equipment and this is fairly strictly though not necessarily efficiently policed by staff (the Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican, the Fairfield Halls, for instance.) David Cross joked about audience photos before his concert (he welcomed them, in contrast with his erstwhile band mate) and Jon Anderson has also asked people taking photos to share them on social media; for smaller or independent acts it’s free publicity. It’s only polite to listen to the requests of those you’re going to see and hear but with progressive rock, you’re more likely to be required to concentrate on who is doing what. Why would you want to disturb those around you with the glow from your LED screen as you try to focus on the band instead of just watching and listening? Unfortunately, sometimes my memory needs a jog but I do feel pangs of guilt.

I’ve been at a number of concerts from which there’s been an associated official release and, whether I’m one of 1500 or one of 10000 people in the crowd, I feel a stronger bond between myself and the music. What makes a great live album? Of my favourites, there may be only one occasion I’ve attended the show where the release gets in my personal top 10 but this highlights the importance of the relationship between the performers and the audience. I think that recording quality is essential to get across the musical content though the material selected for the release has to be sufficiently representative of the band up to that time; on a few occasions I’ve bought a live album as an introduction to the recorded work of a group and this has encouraged me to become better acquainted with someone’s back catalogue.

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been happy with the sound quality, so when the tapes that made up the source material for that release were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be only slightly stricter than the content of the Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, presented in a sonically true manner.

Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs
Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs

Beating the bootleggers, maintaining an income stream and remaining relevant in a cut-throat industry was achieved by Robert Fripp by releasing archive material through official DGM releases and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Road to Red and Starless box sets and the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 and it became something of a treasured possession even after the appearance of the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition on CD. I used to blast this out of my room at university, posing with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM.

Actually, it’s pointless attempting to list my favourite live recordings in any sort of merit-based order. Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album; Playing the Fool (1977) is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette; Camel’s A Live Record (1978) has the sumptuous RAH Snow Goose performance plus a collection of some of their most memorable back catalogue up to that time, and the 2002 remastered and expanded CD was an even better potted history of the band; Genesis Live (1973) was my introduction to the band and I still think it’s the best collection of their early material in a live setting even though it’s only a single LP, because of the presence of Peter Gabriel.

I could go on but I’ll just mention one last release recorded with me in the audience (and possibly featuring, albeit too small to make out, on the sleeve.) Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... I can tell him: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. Great gig, great live recording of the gig.

Photographs taken at a performance and recordings of live shows allow you, in your own time, to revisit some great moments, frozen (these days, digitally) in time. As real-time memory fades, these aides-memoire can transport us to a time when prog ruled the earth.

By ProgBlog, Aug 15 2016 10:18PM

In the early 70s bands released a studio album roughly every year. Perhaps the first of the prog bands to increase the time between new studio output was Pink Floyd, with an 18 month elapse between Dark Side of the Moon (March 1973) and Wish You Were Here (September 1975) and then a further 16 months before Animals came out in January 1977. The gap between Relayer (November 1974) and Going for the One (July 1977) was tempered by solo albums from the Yes camp in 1975 and 1976 and though the wait for Wish You Were Here, possibly the most anticipated release of the time, seemed interminable, the follow up to Brain Salad Surgery (November 1973) took ELP an incredible 29 months, up to March 1977, for Works Volume 1. These bands had to contend with the rise of punk and have to take some responsibility for the brief but successful assault on the music scene, through absence from the country (including for tax reasons), coming back with material that had to compete in a different environment, one where the counter-culture ideals and ideas which had been so important to the genesis of progressive rock were no longer valid. The fan base seemed to hold firm for the premier acts: Going for the One stayed at no. 1 for two weeks in the UK and climbed to no. 8 in the US charts; Animals peaked at number 2 in the UK and one place lower in America; and though Works Volume 1 was less successful, bearing in mind the format of one side of the original double LP for material by each of the members and only one ‘band’ side, it still managed to get to number 9 in the UK and 12 on Billboard 200.

One effect of punk on prog acts was the redefinition of their sound. In the immediate aftermath of the arrival of the upstarts, Yes first became more direct (think of the title track from Going for the One) but as punk gave way to New Wave which was in turn subsumed by the glamour of MTV, they went with the commercial flow and produced their most successful selling album 90125. The Floyd may have continued to push the boundaries of studio possibilities but the material that made up Wish You Were Here was the last of their symphonic prog output until the sans Waters A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987, having descended into straight forward rock ‘n’ roll with The Wall and The Final Cut; I was ashamed of the flirtation with a disco beat on Another Brick in the Wall (part 2). The less said about ELP’s confused Love Beach (1978) the better... Jethro Tull, another globally successful act were already changing from the diehard prog of Thick as a Brick (1972), A Passion Play (1973) and Minstrel in the Gallery (recorded in Monte Carlo for tax reasons in 1975) to the prog folk trio of Songs From the Wood (1977), Heavy Horses (1978) and Stormwatch (1979) via Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! (1976), a release Ian Anderson described as a reaction to punk. This was a potential rock musical intended to demonstrate the cyclical nature of fashion and fads but, despite being a worthy concept, the songs didn’t come anywhere close to their standards reached between 1972 and 1975. It was probably time to change style after Stormwatch which sounds a little tired but I wasn’t impressed with the clear out that resulted in A (1980), despite the presence of Eddie Jobson. This was pop-rock and the songs never engaged or challenged me.

The resurgence of the genre in the mid 90s conformed to a different paradigm. In an industry that had changed beyond reason in the intervening years, it was never going to a re-run of the early 70s and if the music was to reach the public, it couldn’t involve chasing record labels like in the 80s where artistic control had to be largely ceded to accountants and managers, even though many of the bands had been integral to the success of an album-based market in the first place; it didn’t rely on any single solution but utilised a number of emerging technologies which included the internet and file sharing, crowd sourcing, online fanzines and discussion forums and social media, all of which empowered bands to take back control of their output. One practical facet was that collaborators didn’t even have to be on the same side of the world to produce a record, though with the requirement to maintain a reasonable lifestyle, musicians often took on other time-consuming roles. As a consequence some material took a long time to gestate, from concept to physical release making the wait between Dark Side and Wish You Were Here seem ridiculously short.

I first saw the David Cross Band as ‘special guests’ at a John Wetton concert at the Astoria in London in 1996, performing material from their forthcoming album Exiles which I thought was complex and aggressive but very good. I eventually found a copy of the CD in New York a few years later and I think it’s easily as good as I remember from the gig. The period between Exiles and the subsequent DCB album Closer than Skin puts almost all other delays in the shade, coming eight years later in 2005. The two albums are similar but Closer has less musical variation and more vocals. This is partly because Exiles features guest vocalists Peter Hammill and Cross’ former band mate John Wetton with Wetton singing on a pretty good version of the title track and also on This is Your Life, where the words are penned by Crimson alumnus Peter Sinfield. Another Crimson connection is guitar provided by Robert Fripp on tracks Duo and Troppo. More links to Cross’ Crimson past come on Closer, where all the lyrics are by Richard Palmer-James. If eight years seems an eternity, it has been a further 11 years waiting for Sign of the Crow.

I was one of a fairly intimate audience for the launch gig of the David Cross and Robert Fripp CD Starless Starlight in May 2015 where Cross was joined onstage by Tony Lowe on guitar, Yumi Hara on keyboard and vocals, and saxophonist/flautist/whistles player David Jackson with interpretations of the Fripp guitar loops and Cross violin improvisations around the Starless theme (from Red.) That show was immensely enjoyable, including some unexpected pieces like Stan Tracey’s Starless and Bible Black and a reading from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, so when I saw that the David Cross Band were going to perform a launch gig for Sign of the Crow in London, I signed up immediately; I was also pleased to see that David Jackson would be appearing as a guest.

A couple of days before the event an email came through from the ticket agency warning that the doors would open 30 minutes earlier than originally advertised but unfortunately on the day (Tuesday 9th August) I’d arranged to have dinner out with my family and though I thought I could make the gig in time, the fantastic food and relaxed atmosphere at Rucoletta in Foster Lane near St Paul’s meant that I arrived at the Lexington just as Richard Palmer-James was finishing his set (Palmer-James was once again responsible for the lyrics of the new DCB album.) I bought a couple of CDs from the merchandise stall, English Sun by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, an exquisite release of flute and violin pieces accurately described as ‘electric chamber music’, and a live CD from Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Dona Quintet performing Le Orme’s Collage, an album widely regarded as the first progressivo Italiano release (the CD is called Re-Collage.) When I got home I discovered that there was no CD in the sleeve and had to email Chiemi Cross who put me in touch with a very apologetic David Jackson. I’m expecting the real CD soon.

The second part of the show was a duet between the two Davids, a short but challenging set that included a piece from Starless Starlight with Fripp’s original guitar loop where Jackson was asked to play the Starless riff in reverse but refused to do so, citing the perfection of the original phrase. Another tune borrowed the title of the track Water on the Flame, to be found on the new album, as a spoken lyric. The mutual respect between these two fine musicians was quite evident and they really challenged expectations of violin/sax music. Jackson has suggested that there are studio recordings of the two of them improvising, pushing each other, which sounds like it could be edited into an amazing album.

Though he doesn’t appear on Sign of the Crow, Jackson added sax and keyboard for the David Cross Band, part of a line-up of incredibly gifted musicians: Paul Clark on guitars; Jinian Wilde on vocals; Craig Blundell on drums; Mick Paul on six string bass; and Cross himself. Beginning with a phenomenal drum solo (was it in 9/8 time?) the set featured the new album but also dipped into the past, with Nurse Insane (from The Big Picture), Over Your Shoulder (from Closer than Skin) and Tonk and the DCB version of Exiles (from Exiles). I hadn’t heard the new material because I was waiting for the CD to arrive in the post but it was powerful, complex, and at times verging on prog metal. From where I was standing it was also rather loud but I was still able to discern the sax, the violin and the keyboards. Paul Clark’s rhythm work was at times a heavy chug but his soloing was clear and precise; Mick Paul’s bass work was stunning throughout and Jinian Wilde was a revelation. He was the unknown quantity for me but his vocals suited all the material, including Exiles, a stunning rendition of Crimson’s Starless, and the encore, 21st Century Schizoid Man. He also wore a rather good top hat with a jester-like band and dangling bells, supplemented by a pair of goggles. He may have visited the same milliner as the two Davids!

My two favourite new tracks, since confirmed listening to the studio versions, were The Pool and Rain Rain; the former carefully constructed, melodic and anthemic (think next year’s Prog Awards), while Rain Rain is another slow burner but which still includes sudden changes of feel; it’s these changes that make the music unpredictable, gripping and enjoyable. The band was fantastic and the enthusiastic crowd, assembled in a fairly intimate venue having come from various points around the globe, were treated to a very special performance. A great gig, the best of 2016 so far and (now I have it) a really good album.

By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2016 03:34PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By ProgBlog, May 31 2015 09:06AM

This month marks the the 10th anniversary of the live reunion of Van der Graaf Generator (Friday 6th May 2005.) I’d heard about the event a couple of weeks beforehand but when I checked for availability, the Royal Festival Hall had sold out. Fortunately, one of my work colleagues was something of an expert at getting seats for prestigious concerts with high public demand and advised me that the press were often allocated a job lot of tickets that they didn’t always use and that I should check for returns about 24 hours before the show. I ‘phoned the box office two days beforehand and to my surprise and delight, managed to secure my attendance.

I think it’s fair to say that Van der Graaf Generator are an acquired taste. From being intrigued by the track White Hammer from The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other that I first heard on the Charisma Keyboards sampler LP in 1974 which I found to be an intense, almost frightening piece of music about the Spanish Inquisition, of all things, I’ve been a big fan. As much as I liked The Fountain of Salmacis, the Genesis offering on that album, it was the sheer force of VdGG that impressed me, blowing the twee Genesis track into the dust. Older brother Tony recently thought that he should see what the fuss was about and I directed him to Pawn Hearts as a good representation of the Mark I incarnation and Godbluff from the 1975 formation. He wasn’t over impressed and I think that VdGG inspires adoration and dislike in equal measure. That John Lydon should go on records as being a fan is quite amazing.

Apart from some powerful music, one of the things that I like about VdGG is Peter Hammill’s use of words. There can’t be any other lyricist who utilises the lexicon in the same way, something I put down to his education; from Jesuit public school to studying Liberal Studies in Science at Manchester University. There’s an immense range of material covered that reflected my interest in science and science fiction plus some deeper, philosophical thinking.

Commercially, VdGG were something of a second-division band. They may have been nurtured by Charisma Records owner Tony Stratton-Smith but they didn’t really get too much coverage in the music press at the time. However, I do remember being impressed by the photography on adverts for World Record in Melody Maker when the album was released in 1976 and it was only much, much later that I discovered that they had been successful in Italy.

It wasn’t until 1981 that I bought my first VdGG album, Still Life, from the Streatham branch of WH Smith. I had a choice between that and Godbluff but chose Still Life because I could see the lyrics on the back of the sleeve which looked interesting. I then randomly completed my collection, on vinyl and on cassette, whenever the opportunity presented itself. I included the out-take LP Time Vaults in my collection but I didn’t buy any of the compilation albums until I started to switch from vinyl to CD. I also embarked upon the acquisition of Peter Hammill solo albums, beginning with The Future Now and pH7 (both in a sale from Streatham WH Smith.) I went to see a solo performance by Hammill at the Bloomsbury Theatre in Camden on July 26th 1984 and was so impressed that I went to his show the next night, armed with a camera. I went to the first show not really knowing what to expect; it turned out to be almost entirely solo material but he did include Last Frame from the Van der Graaf album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. I seem to recall that, despite playing consecutive nights at the same venue, he still subtly adjusted the set list.

Though I remained reluctant to spend a lot of money on music, I bought the King Crimson 4CD box set The Great Deceiver in when it was released in 1992, thinking that it might represent a decent investment (it worked out at about £14.50 per CD.) When I came across 4CD The Box (2000) on a trip home to Barrow, with its remastered tracks and bonus material from BBC sessions and some unreleased live recordings, it seemed to me that VdGG were having something of a renaissance and I bought it without over-thinking. On reflection, this heralded the remastered 2005 releases and in the mean time, the band had remained friends and even played together at birthday parties. Shortly before the reunion gig they released their first CD of new studio material, Present (April 2005) since the Van der Graaf line-up released The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome in 1977. There used to be a record shop on the north east side of London Bridge, close to Guy’s Hospital, where I went to buy my copy so I’d know any new material that they were due to play.

The reunion gig was the best gig I’ve ever attended. The Royal Festival Hall is comfortable and has amazing acoustics and my seat was in row H of the front stalls, a little way to the left of centre. The choice of material couldn’t really be bettered; I imagine that the assembled audience (from 27 different countries), including me, were really there to hear some old classics but the two new songs that were performed, Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert, were seamlessly integrated into a set comprising the best of VdGG, captured for posterity on the brilliant subsequent release Real Time (2007). The power of the quartet was almost overwhelming; the Hugh Banton bass pedals with their low-frequency punch, the manic horns (and double horns) from David Jackson, Guy Evans’ fluid drums and the urgent vocals from Hammill, delivered with unbrlievable feeling. I loved it all, even though I felt pinned to my chair by a brutal, sonic blitzkrieg. Part of the reason for this reunion was that the band members tended to see each other mainly at the funerals of friends and former roadies and, as Hammill had himself suffered a heart attack in 2003, if they were ever going to play together again, Hammill suggested that it seemed like a good time to start. Under these circumstances, his performance was truly outstanding but the whole band was on incredible form. I didn’t think I’d ever hear VdGG music played live by the original ensemble and I think that’s why it was such a special occasion. Later in 2005 Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart released their excellent Van der Graaf Generator The Book, an in-depth biography of the band that concludes with the 2005 reunion. I had pre-ordered my copy (which cost around £20) but it is no longer available. Second-hand copies on Amazon sell for around £150.

I subsequently went to see the band, sans David Jackson at the Barbican during the Trisector tour in 2007 and again at the Barbican in June 2013; losing the horn player made the performances more unbalanced, raw and awkward and when in full flow the band seemed to be teetering on the ragged edge, dangerous and brilliant. On the latter occasion I thought the 64 year old Hammill looked slightly frail, but he proved he could still belt out songs and Hugh Banton somehow managed to mitigate the loss of saxophone and flute.

I was sorely tempted to attend an intimate evening with VdGG at Metropolis Studios in December 2010, part of a series of gigs by so-called ‘rock legends’. In the end I didn’t feel I could justify the cost and have had to make do with a DVD filmed at the event. I still have some reservations about the post-2005 material even though Hammill’s writing is as clever as ever; I remain stuck in the past and a fan of long-form VdGG flights of fancy.


I saw David Jackson perform with David Cross at The Bedford Arms last week and, in such an intimate venue it became clear how innovative he is. I wasn’t disappointed to see him bedecked his leather cap as he not only played saxes, flute and whistles, he also used the saxophone keys as a form of percussion instrument.

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