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At the start of a four-day immersion in gigs and record buying, ProgBlog attended the album launch of Gryphon's first studio release for 41 years, ReInvention.

More akin to the eponymous first album from 1973 than the more proggy later material, it's a worthy addition to the Gryphon canon

By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2018 03:25PM

I met up with an old school friend last week. Though we have always exchanged Christmas cards and occasional emails, usually around the time his band is about to release some new music which he will dutifully send me, I’d not seen Bill or his wife, Anna, for thirty years, the last time being at their wedding. Bill lived two doors away from me in Barrow, was in the same year at school and, as part of a tight-knit group of adolescents, we grew up liking the same music, the direction of which was set by my older brother.

I played bass and Bill played drums in a band influenced by early Pink Floyd and King Crimson until we departed for separate universities; we listened to records, analysed and discussed music and last Monday, in the Royal Oak, Borough, a pub without any form of electronic amusements where even the contactless payment facility failed to work, began making up for lost time in conversation about music over well-kept beer from Harvey’s of Lewes.



Having not long before returned from a trip to Italy, talk naturally turned to PFM, who’s Photos of Ghosts, Cook and Chocolate Kings were first obtained by Bill. I hadn’t realised that he wasn’t so much a fan of Jet Lag, despite its jazz rock leanings and his proclivity for jazz and jazz rock, or Chocolate Kings, because of Bernardo Lanzetti’s English vocals and what he suggested was a move away from the earlier band sound, with its distinctive Mediterranean feel. Favouring their post-millennium output, he also thought that Emotional Tattoos was the best thing they’d done since Photos of Ghosts. For my part, I agree that Emotional Tattoos is a step in the right direction, with a couple of tracks that do hint at their 70s prime, but I think the Mediterranean warmth that pervades their early work is largely absent. There’s less use of change in amplitude and other devices to add contrast to an individual piece of music than there used to be, less contrapuntal interplay and no flute; as much as I like Lucio Fabbri’s playing, I miss the flute when the current band play the old material. Still, based on Bill’s recommendation, I’ve just invested in a copy of Dracula from a seller on ebay, a CD I saw when I was in Rome in 2006 but failed to buy, but I’ve never seen it anywhere since.



I tend to play the English version of Emotional Tattoos because that’s the version I own on vinyl, but I listened to the Italian version (which came on CD with the 2LP) before going to see them in Genova last year. Bill and I agreed that the Italian version was better, like their 70’s material that was available in both Italian and English. I’m not trying to suggest that I don’t like PFM’s English language work as Photos of Ghosts and The World Became the World include faithful re-workings of songs from Storia di un Minuto and Per un Amico and I’m not too put out by Lanzetti’s singing; unfortunately, Peter Sinfield’s words required a more nuanced delivery than the band were capable of, though I found it pleasing, not understanding the social situation in Italy at the time, that they accepted his environmentalism and his compassionate lyrics.



The topic of Italian bands singing in English was also raised when I was talking to Melting Clock at the Porto Antico Prog Fest, who employ their native language for their original material. They also play one or two progressive rock classics during their live set, where vocalist Emanuela Verdana sings with confidence when they perform accurate renditions of Genesis’ Firth of Fifth, Time by Pink Floyd or Soon, the coda to Gates of Delirium by Yes; this not only demonstrates their understanding of prog history, but it’s also a clever device to ingratiate themselves with members of an audience who may not have heard their self-penned music. We were unanimous in agreement that it was preferable for a rock progressivo Italiano bands to sing in Italian, but they also understood that overcoming the language barrier was likely to make their music accessible to the wider public and were considering, at least on one of the formats for their forthcoming debut, to include a bonus track of original music with lyrics translated and sung in English to expand their appeal but also, like veteran local group and Black Widow Records stable mate Il Cerchio d’Oro on their 2008 album Il Viaggio di Columbo, include English translations of the Italian lyrics.



It could be argued that world-wide appreciation for the entire sub-genre of RPI was facilitated by Greg Lake, Keith Emerson and Manticore Records. PFM manager Franco Mamone passed on a tape of the group to Greg Lake who, to the surprise of the Italians, listened to and liked what he heard, and invited them to Fulham to see and hear them play. Peter Sinfield was working with ELP at the time and compared their musicianship to King Crimson (PFM performed cover versions of 21st Century Schizoid Man and Pictures of a City on their first Italian tours in 1971 and 72) and suggested that English language lyrics would make their music universally appealing, and the band agreed. Banco del Mutuo Soccorso were also signed to Manticore after Emerson had heard them play and became a huge fan. Banco (1975) was their first release for Manticore, containing one original track (in Italian) and re-workings of material from Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Io Sono Nato Libero in Italian and English, followed in 1976 by a concept album Come in un’ultima cena / As in a Last Supper released in both Italian and English.



Le Orme, another of the most successful RPI bands, also experimented with an English version of one of their highly regarded LPs with the aim of conquering the UK and US. Released on the Charisma label, Felona and Sorona had lyrics written by Peter Hammill (who was signed to Charisma), based on the concept provided by Tagliapietra, Pagliuca and Dei Rossi so that his words closely followed the original story.



In a modern twist, when La Maschera di Cera released their continuation of the Felona e Sorona story Le Porte del Domani in 2013, they also released a version in English, The Gates of Tomorrow, with a very subtle alternative mix and a less subtle variation of the album sleeve, painted by Lanfranco who had provided the original art work for Le Orme. In addition to Italian groups releasing an alternative version of an album for the English-speaking market, which spreads beyond the four acts listed above, there are examples found in my collection of groups who only sing in English (The Trip, Cellar Noise, Hollowscene); those like Banco, PFM and Osanna who have released albums with a mixture of Italian and English lyrics; and those who have released both all-Italian and all-English albums (Nuova Era with Dopo L’Infinito and Return to the Castle respectively).



The phenomenon of non-native English speakers singing in English isn’t restricted to Italy; plucking a few more examples from my collection are Tasavallan Presidentti from Finland (Wigwam don’t count because they were Anglo-Finnish); Pulsar from France (both French and English are used on Strands of the Future, 1976); Germany’s Eloy and Triumvirat; Aphrodite’s Child from Greece; Earth and Fire, Focus and Supersister from the Netherlands; Albion from Poland (Broken Hopes, 2007); Spain’s Iceberg (Tutankhamon, 1975, a mixture of Spanish and English); and Sweden’s Anekdoten and Wobbler. So what influenced these choices? Was it simply the likelihood that the music would be more universally accepted, with concomitant success, if they used English lyrics? I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward; there’s a theory that in Italy during the 70s in there was something of a backlash against groups singing in anything other than Italian when the political tension is well documented. It’s strange then that PFM should release their anti-American opus, Chocolate Kings as an English language LP but that album might give a hint why there’s a melange of native- and English languages used throughout progressive rock in mainland Europe .

The title track on Chocolate Kings spells out that the US army, an occupying force in Italy following the Second World War, became unwelcome when fascism was defeated and bribing the local populace with candy and consumer items was insufficient for them to gain the goodwill of the locals; it could even have been seen as a potential source of friction, especially with the polarisation of political viewpoints in the late 60s and 70s. American and British music arrived in Italy through major ports like Genova and with further influx from a mixture of cultures it’s not surprising that Genova has played an important role in the development of musical styles, though a crucial element was retaining some of their own heritage and identity, including a desire to sing in their own language. It could be argued that the adherence to a ‘romantic style’ also helps to explain the attraction of UK progressive rock in Italy.

A similar situation occurred in Germany, though there was a greater concentration of American armed forces. The counter-culture generation, born after the war, largely rejected Anglicised music but also opted to break from their own traditions to create their own music scene, disrespectfully dubbed Krautrock by the English-speaking media, which has since become massively influential in its own right. The more mainstream prog bands tended to develop along the lines of the space rock of early Pink Floyd although Triumvirat became something of an ELP-clone.


Progressive rock started as an British phenomenon and was absorbed an integrated by many European countries putting their own stamp on the movement, including choosing whether or not to adopt English as its official language. The eclectic mix of influences that helped to form progressive rock indicates that there was no manifesto for the genre to remain 'English', and many bands stuck to their native tongue; this enriched the scene and made it a joy for the UK and US audiences to discover something new. Sadly, globalisation means that the music industry, which once thrived on creativity, now treats artists as commodity, fulfilling the fears aired in Chocolate Kings. The trend for an increasing number of mainland European prog bands to sing in English may reflect the attitudes of the market but would anyone dispute that most fans prefer Italian bands to sing in Italian?


I personally like all non-UK bands to sing in their mother tongue because it sounds more fluent, more poetic, more passionate and more believable but it all boils down to whether or not a band feels that English lyrics best serve the purposes of their music.











By ProgBlog, Mar 6 2018 03:20PM

The Instagram and Twitter trend ‘9 albums that changed my life/mean most to me’ (#9albums) that appeared in January didn’t pass me by but its appearance on various social media platforms made me somewhat wary; as a piece of social investigation it’s an interesting topic but when internet monopolies get involved it becomes a little more sinister. I can’t be the only person in the world to get annoyed by adverts, including smart adverts, driven by clicks on Google, Facebook and Amazon. I want to make my own choices and, just because a large proportion of Yes fans might like Rush, it doesn’t mean that I do, or want to. Put another way, I’m not a lemming or a sheep and I know what I like (in my wardrobe). Why nine albums? Is it because it forms a neat 3x3 square for an Instagram photo or does the Instagram generation have an average of nine significant events in their lives? How should we define significant?


There were appearances of this question in January 2016 and 2017 but there’s evidence that the trend goes back to at least 2013. I suggest that it fits in with the New Year resolution phenomenon; a reflection on your life but one that doesn’t necessarily require any form of reappraisal or change. It’s all part of the challenge!

There don't appear to be any specific rules so I’ve arranged my nine choices chronologically by date of impact on my life. I got into prog fairly early so the chronology also fits roughly, but not exactly with the release date of the albums.


These are my personal choices:



Close to the Edge (1972) – Yes

It wouldn’t be fair to include the debut Roxy Music album, released three months prior to Close to the Edge, although Roxy were the first band to pique my interest in rock music when they appeared on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops playing Virginia Plain, because I only ever heard that single from the album. In September 1972 Close to the Edge was unlike anything I’d ever heard before and remains, in my opinion, the definitive progressive rock album and as close to musical perfection as you can get. It’s the reason I got into prog.



The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – Pink Floyd

Likely to appear in a large number of the lists compiled across the world but this was the first new Floyd album to appear after I’d set out down the road of progressive rock. Before its release I’d borrowed a couple of bootlegs from a school friend and bought Relics but this seemed like a massive leap forward. I was hooked by the whole package; not just the music and the way the whole album linked together but the stickers and posters and the prism and pyramid imagery (I studied physics at school.) I was even impressed by Roger Waters’ lyrics which came in for some criticism in the music press.



Focus 3 (1972) – Focus

I was given a small transistor radio as a present for Christmas 1972 and one of the things that always seemed to be on Radio Luxemburg around 10pm was Sylvia, released as a single by Focus in January 1973. Focus 3 was circulated amongst friends of my brother and I was struck by the flute and what I felt was a distinct branch of highly melodic prog, to which I’d later add Camel and Steve Hackett’s earlier solo works.



Birds of Fire (1973) – Mahavishnu Orchestra

Jazz was the predominate musical form in our household even after my brother and I began to buy our own records, so the fusion of jazz and rock was something quite easy to get into, having been introduced on rock radio. The fluency and attack of the guitar, drumming like I’d never heard before and the interplay between guitar, keyboards and violin was just amazing; I bought the album in 1975 and it became key to opening up the extraordinary world of jazz rock where melody was sometimes sacrificed for proficiency: Isotope, Brand X, Weather Report, Return to Forever and even mid-70s Soft Machine.




Starless and Bible Black (1974) – King Crimson

This was the first Crimson album in our household and I still regard it as a mixed bag which goes relatively unnoticed between the groundbreaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and the influential Red. I find the first side of the original LP slightly unfulfilling despite the strength of Lament and The Night Watch; side two is brilliant and demonstrates the power of the group and a sublime mastery of tension and release. This obviously kick-started a life-long fascination with King Crimson but the cover inspired me to seek out Tom Phillips’ work at the Tate when I first arrived in London and more than that, I became such a great fan of John Wetton’s bass playing that I bought myself a bass guitar on my 18th birthday.



Rubycon (1975) – Tangerine Dream

This was my introduction to electronica. One of my rules for discovering and enjoying new music was the presence of keyboards, so Tangerine Dream had something of an advantage! I bought Rubycon shortly after its release having heard and been intrigued by Phaedra in 1974 and sold on the suggestion that they were influenced by Pink Floyd. I loved the single composition format over the two sides of the LP (Rubycon part 1, Rubycon part 2) which seemed to be a Virgin Records thing, but it was the amorphous other-worldly nature of the music, transporting you somewhere alien but largely benevolent which most attracted. I still maintain it’s the best record to listen to through headphones in the dark.



Cook (1974) – Premiata Forneria Marconi

Cook has probably had the most profound effect on my life after Close to the Edge and is responsible for my appreciation of Rock Progressivo Italiano. I can’t remember exactly how PFM came across our radar but I must have seen their performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test and Alan Freeman must have played them on his Saturday afternoon radio show. Cook was the first of their records that I bought but we were also listening to Photos of Ghosts, Chocolate Kings and Jet Lag, blown away by the musicianship and intrigued by the Italian take on prog.




UK (1978) – UK

As brilliant as this album is, it’s disappointing because it marks the end of the first era of progressive rock. At the time it seemed like it marked a new beginning, a strong album with excellent tunes and great playing and incorporating, through Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford, a jazz rock sensibility. Following the demise of King Crimson, it seemed like the formidable rhythm section which drove Crimson from 1973 – 1974 had, after some wandering that added to their musical educational, found an ideal home. Of the other ostensibly prog releases that followed, only National Health produced music of a quality that could match anything from the golden age of progressive rock. Genesis were down to three members and consciously going pop; Camel, directed by their record company, had given up on epics; Yes seemed bereft of a coherent concept and put out the patchy Tormato, where poly-Moog drenches everything apart from flanged bass, and ELP produced Love Beach.


Lux Ade (2006) – La Maschera di Cera

By 2005 I had begun to fully appreciate the breadth of output from Italian prog bands operating during the golden period of progressive rock, despite rarely featuring in the UK music press at that time. 2005 was the first year of an almost unbroken series of annual pilgrimages to Italy and the first where I consciously sought out record stores in an attempt to build up a collection of classic Italian prog. Fast forward to 2008 and it was only by chance that I came across a copy of Lux Ade in Beano’s second hand record store in Croydon and, tempted by the obvious 70’s keyboard set up, production courtesy of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio, plus the fact I had a 50% discount as a ‘member’ of Beano’s, that I handed over £5 to complete the best ever speculative buy I’ve ever made. This CD opened up the Italian progressive rock scene that re-emerged in the mid 90s to me and, in a parallel to hearing Close to the Edge, the first rock album I’d ever listened to, I think that Lux Ade is the best of the current wave of Rock Progressivo Italiano albums.



I found it relatively easy to come up with the bands that made up my nine but I originally chose Moving Waves instead of Focus 3 and Red instead of Starless. I seem to recall hearing The Inner Mounting Flame before Birds of Fire, but I didn’t own the first Mahavishnu album for some time and I actually most like Between Nothingness and Eternity (which I also bought in 1975.) It seems a shame to miss out some of my favourite albums but that’s not the point of the exercise; I tried to choose titles which had the most meaning and my taste tended to expand organically, with an appreciation for The Nice opening up ELP and then Refugee. It’s not unfair to say that my predilection for music hasn’t really changed at all in the 35 years I’ve been buying records, and that includes life-affirmative events like getting married and becoming a father. My wife went through the exercise and almost instantly came up with a fairly eclectic mix that seems to have more to do with life events than mine but also reflects a constant evolution, partly spurred by the discovery of music through Shazam: Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, Let’s Get it On by Marvin Gaye, Bat out of Hell by Meat Loaf, Vienna by Ultravox, Private Eyes by Hall and Oates, Dare by The Human League, Chris Rea’s self-titled fourth album, True by Spandau Ballet and ending up with Truth Came Running, the first album by Australian singer-songwriter Mark Wilkinson, bought from the man himself as he was busking in Sydney in 2012.


I thought it might be interesting to ask a group of close friends and relatives, all with an interest in prog that was nurtured in the golden age, to come up with their nine albums. I grew up with almost all of them and most are regular gig companions; there’s no evidence that they’ve taken part in the challenge before and I didn’t stipulate that they must choose progressive rock releases. This is certainly not hard science but I thought it would be interesting to note their route into music and any divergence from core prog. Their responses, and an attempt at some analysis, will be published in the next blog...



By ProgBlog, Jan 16 2018 08:52PM

I’m just back from a couple of days skiing in Chamonix, what I hope will turn out to be a warm-up event to a full week somewhere else later in the year. The town itself is very pleasant and though I’ve skied in the area three times before, we’ve always been based a little higher up the valley in Argentière and whereas we’d previously driven down to the resort, this time we flew to Geneva and took a transfer from there. We’d drive through Chamonix at the beginning and end of holidays and to get to some of the ski areas, scattered from just south of the town up to Balme at the head of the valley; we’ve even stopped there to see a screening of the second of the Lord of the Rings films, The Two Towers in English. So for the first time since our inaugural trip in March 2000, I managed to get a feel for the place, somewhere I’d read about in climbing accounts by Don Whillans, Joe Brown and Dougal Haston when I was a youth and somewhere I felt I knew well enough to base one of my O Level English Language exam essays.


Chamonix
Chamonix

I’m pretty sure there has been a lot of change since I read mountaineering books in the mid-70s, a time when young rock climbers used to name routes after prog tracks: The Gates of Delirium grade E4 (6a), described by UK Climbing as ‘magnificent’, Relayer (another E4) and Close to the Edge E3 (5c) are all climbs on Raven Crag, Thirlmere, in the Lake District and there’s also a Gates of Delirium in Yosemite; Genesis are represented by Hairless Heart, a grade E5 (5c) slab climb on Froggatt Edge in Derbyshire first ascended, solo, by John Allen in 1975 but there are others. There’s a thread from 2012, now closed down, on the UK Climbing site which asked why “an unnaturally high proportion of route names reference Pink Floyd, other dubious prog rock, or Tolkien.” The one sensible answer suggested that prog coincided with an explosion of new routes, though I did like the response “What's wrong with Prog rock? Or J.R.R. Tolkien? Many people have been inspired by the writings of Tolkien and the music of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Yes etc. The fact is that both tend to ramble on a bit, but are ultimately rewarding in the end.” The erection of a new sports hall at my school included a short, under-used climbing wall and along with a couple of others I was allowed to climb during PE lessons. Access to Lake District routes in Coniston and Langdale was facilitated by Honda 550, with me sitting pillion and carrying the gear but I wasn’t nearly as good at climbing as I’d hoped. However, progressive rock and rock climbing seemed intrinsically linked as I flicked through Crags and High magazines listening to Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on the radio, ticking off another prog-inspired route name.



I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.
I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.

I didn’t expect to see any record shops in Val d’Isère but I did think there might have been one in Chamonix, with its population of around 9000, a little less than that of Auray where I bought my first Ange CD Le Cimetière des Arlequins (from 1973.) Unfortunately there weren’t any so apart from listening to Semiramis’ Frazz Live (2017) on my mp3 player, the only music I got to hear was piped from restaurants and on one occasion, a truly awful singer-guitarist at the Irish Coffee bar across the road from our hotel. I don’t have much winter- or snow related music in my collection; I own a copy of Rick Wakeman’s White Rock (1977), the soundtrack to the official film of the 1976 Innsbruck winter Olympics and regard it as a return to form after Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. My favourite track is Lax’x and my next favourite is the definitive prog track on the album, Ice Run but there are a number of snippets of music used in the film that form a sonic link between the different Olympic disciplines that don’t appear on album tracks, some of which are very Yes-sounding. The album’s instrumentation of keyboards, percussion and choral backing provides an effective, coherent narrative that works well for both audio and cinematic formats, linked by the melodic ‘searching for gold’ keyboard motif. I really like Wakeman’s full use of a range of keyboards and think it’s that which makes the album stand out from its immediate predecessors; there’s a much broader range of tonality, even though there’s no guitar or bass guitar.


Wakeman was an integral part of the band for Fragile (1971), as Yes came close to perfection. Roundabout, with its imagery of mountains that ‘come out of the sky’ from ‘in and around the lake’ could represent somewhere like the Lake District or the Swiss Alps but this doesn’t necessarily suggest winter, unlike the lyrics to the angular, driving and somewhat overlooked South Side of the Sky with its message that natural forces can be brutal. It’s ironic that White Rock was recorded in Wembley but when Wakeman rejoined Yes in late 1976, the band had decamped to Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland to record Going for the One (1977), where Wakeman subsequently recorded 1977’s Criminal Record.

ELP were another band who combined a tax-break with recording in Montreux for parts of Works Volume 1 (1977) and though Fanfare for the Common Man wouldn’t normally fit into a ‘winter’ category, the video for the truncated version released as a single which reached no.2 in the UK charts was filmed in the futuristic Montreal Olympic Stadium (where they were rehearsing for the Works tour in a basement car park) after Greg Lake emerged from rehearsals for a breath of fresh air and was immediately struck by the vision of the snow-covered arena.


Another apt piece of music that I own is Winterthrough (2005) by Höstsonaten, part of a season-themed set of luscious melodic symphonic Italian prog albums. The standout track is Rainsuite which also featured in Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band set list; it’s made up of a number of linked melodies which I think puts it in the Focus or Camel bracket. Camel had their own winter-related mini-epic Ice from I Can See Your House from Here (1979) which I hummed to myself on the skiing trip as we visited an ice cave carved into the Mer de Glace. Both the ice cave and the track have a stately beauty; witnessing Camel play the track live when they were promoting the album and the experience of being inside a glacier had a similar awe-inspiring effect on me.



The story of Fang in White Mountain, my second favourite Trespass (1970) track after The Knife, is an obvious snow-related story but is One for the Vine from Wind and Wuthering (1976), enough of a winter- or snow and ice themed song to count in my list? One of the songs being played at a restaurant where we stopped for a late morning chocolat chaud certainly doesn’t fit into the list but it did force me to reconsider my opinion of reggae. I’m obviously aware of the significance of Bob Marley who, after the demise of The Wailers in 1974 relocated to England and, with music infused with spirituality, became not only a multi-million selling artist and also came to symbolise Jamaican culture and identity, letting a ray of Caribbean sunshine into the world, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to reggae. What I heard that morning at Les Houches, played at decent volume through Bose speakers seemed like a long single track, divided into subsections rather like prog. A quick Shazam app search revealed that part of the song was Rastafari Leads the Way by Lutan Fyah and I suspect that the music was a Warrior Musick production Think Twice Riddim, featuring a host of different artists with an amazing, positive vibe; a rejection of violence and a call to rethink a way of life which chimed with the ethos of progressive rock. The sun was shining, the snow conditions were perfect and I was skiing some long and some challenging runs with my family, and a little bit of reggae made it even better.



Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches
Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches






By ProgBlog, Jul 11 2017 10:42PM

I’ve just ripped a rather large pile of my wife’s CDs to mp3 for her, nothing that remotely interests me but which does indicate the breadth of her musical tastes, according to categories ascribed by Windows Media Player: Soul and R&B; folk; electronica (not the sort that I like); country; pop; world. The selection generally dated from within the last five years and I noticed that most of the albums play for around 45 minutes with an average track length of a little over four minutes within a range of sub-three minutes to just over five. This near-standardised format would suit a release on 12” LP and though quite a few of these recent additions to her collection were originally released before the current vinyl revolution, at least one has been re-released in audiophile format and two, by the same artist, have ridden the recent vinyl wave with the one of them allegedly becoming the fastest selling LP for 20 years.



It’s well documented how progressive rock bands found the standard three minute single something of a constraint and it’s equally uncontroversial to suggest that in the late 70s, as the golden era was drawing to a close with very few exceptions, bands who were obliged to attempt to write a hit single by their label produced failures; prog relied on album sales and was a spectacular success in doing so. It’s hard enough to put together a winning formula for a hit single without attempting to include some form of coherent story or message and most of the singles in the 70s were aimed at a particular demographic, the adolescent in the early 70s and then when punk came along, older teenagers. On a sociological level this was to do with burgeoning self-awareness and searching for inclusivity; call me dumb but the tribe I ascribed to had long hair, wore flairs and suede desert boots and carried albums to and from school under our arms, as if to show the world how deep and interesting we were.


I’m not going to comment on the provenance of some, undeniably successful singles from prog-associated artists such as Greg Lake or the 1980s version of Yes and equally, I’m not thinking of edits of album tracks cut-down to favour air play but, in my opinion, the only genuine full-on hit progressive rock song of single length is Wonderous Stories by Yes which entered the UK Singles Chart at number 31 in mid-September 1977. Over the next four weeks climbed to its peak, reaching number 7 for the week of 8 October and it remained in the chart for the next five weeks. A favourite with fans and band members alike, the track somehow condenses epic Yes into 3’45, possibly because the song structure, built around a classical framework, incorporates signature features such as the harmony vocals and an uplifting vibe. It’s unclear to me how many new fans they attracted, especially in an era of punk. I didn’t buy the single in either of its formats because I owned the album but I imagine a fair number of pre-existing fans bought the special edition picture-sleeve 12” version in blue vinyl.




So what is the ideal track length, and what is the perfect album duration? As someone who began listening to music when the vinyl LP was the dominant format, I’m used to and therefore favour an album of 35 – 45 minutes of music. There are plenty of shorter length albums such as Electric Prunes’ Mass in F minor which, at 26 minutes, must be one of the shortest LPs ever, Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (just over 36 minutes), and many of the 70s progressivo Italiano releases. At the other end of the scale, Genesis had a bit of a reputation for eking out every square millimetre of the record surface with Foxtrot lasting over 51 minutes, Selling England by the Pound at over 53 minutes, Trick of the Tail at 51 minutes and Wind and Wuthering just shy of 51 minutes; [the non-prog] Duke was over 55 minutes. Progressive rock is known for its utilisation of full dynamics and the more music included on an LP means less space between grooves and a reduced dynamic range, plus the increased likelihood of damage from a worn stylus and though my Genesis records play well, the side-long title track on Autumn Grass by Continuum which lasts over 26 minutes, has reproduction problems on my current set-up, my former set-up and on the system in the shop I used to check the quality of the (second-hand) disc.

I’m very much in favour of side-long tracks and most of my favourite groups have committed one side of an album to a single piece of music; all of them have indulged in long-form, which I consider to be one of the defining qualities of prog. From the ultimate progressive rock album Close to the Edge to each of the four sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans and Gates of Delirium; Atom Heart Mother and Echoes to Eruption and Hamburger Concerto; Tarkus to A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers; Music Inspired by The Snow Goose to Nine Feet Underground; Supper’s Ready (Horizons is the prelude) to Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play; Lizard to Mumps; Rubycon to Tubular Bells; Trace’s Birds to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Dream, there are also other brilliant almost side-long tracks like Grand Canyon Suite and Credo on the only studio album by Refugee.




It’s not that I don’t like sub-five minute tracks but I just don’t think they represent the best a band can do. Anything around 10 minutes or over should give sufficient scope for development of ideas to transport the listener on a journey through the composition; there ought to be sufficient time to employ a variety of rhythmic devices, changes in amplitude and different instruments or instrumental voices.

The CD format opened up a whole new world of possibilities and prog supergroup Transatlantic managed to fill an album with a single piece of music, The Whirlwind, lasting 77 minutes. This may be an exception but the temptation to fill the available time on a CD, whether with a single track or a series of shorter tracks, is ever-present. Where should we stop? My brother Richard has specifically commented on Nad Sylvan’s 2015 solo album Courting the Widow, suggesting that as much as he likes the compositions, he finds it hard to reach the end of the album (it lasts just over 70 minutes.) I think Richard’s observation applies far more generally and that there’s no real requirement to release something over 50 minutes long. Before the 90s King Crimson came along I’ve held ‘Crimson days’ where I played all original (vinyl) releases one after the other; I’ve done the same for Yes and Pink Floyd but unless you have the time to dedicate to listening to music, there’s no point. I’m someone who believes in the importance of the album as a complete entity and that the running order described by the artist is sacrosanct yet I’m unsure if it’s the lives we lead (wake/commute/work/commute/eat/sleep/repeat) which is restricting our ability to fully connect with music or if the length of a CD album itself that we find hard to assimilate in a single sitting. Is this a generational thing affecting those of us who grew up happy to turn over an LP on the platter or is it a Page family thing? Yes magnum opus Tales from Topographic Oceans was derided for its length (amongst other things) and attracted criticism for passages regarded as ‘filler’, so would it have benefitted from a CD format, if that had been available in 1973, allowing it to be produced as a 60 minute-long piece of work? I like to think that the natural breaks afforded by changing sides and changing discs provide enough break to allow us to enjoy the full 80 minutes. Then again, as much as I enjoy Anderson/Stolt’s Invention of Knowledge which lasts around 65 minutes, I find it difficult to listen to from beginning to end on vinyl or in digital format; perhaps familiarity plays a large part and it’s not just the length of the album. I no longer have the time I once had to sit down and properly listen.




In fact there’s no perfect length of either a single track or of an album. The physical restraints of the 12” LP which allowed up to 27 minutes of music each side, has the capacity to hold music which can have any number of twists and turns, whether they’re presented as one piece or as a series of tracks. It’s not the length that counts – it’s the quality of the music itself.


By ProgBlog, Dec 18 2016 09:32PM

After the death of Greg Lake and a subsequent marathon session of listening to very early King Crimson and ELP albums I’ve not really had much opportunity to listen to music over the past week, my leisure time being taken up with two home games for Crystal Palace, a variety of reunions and a work Christmas party. Not being someone who rejoices in either the religious or commercial nature of Christmas, I find it a bit of a challenge when it comes to interacting with those that do get into the Christmas spirit. One of my gripes is the radio at work which is either tuned to a station broadcasting non-stop Christmas singles, other than Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas which I wouldn’t actually mind hearing, or tuned into something with more edge playing more contemporary chart rubbish; another is the seasonal TV programming which invariably excludes me from being part of the stereotypical family and which becomes ever more tired each year; and another is the general encouragement to eat and drink too much.

The idea of a reunion is to catch up with old friends but it’s difficult to communicate effectively in a crowded pub where the televised sport competes with the piped music. Having said that, en route to the work Christmas meal, we stopped off at Turner’s Old Star in Wapping where the vanguard were able to drink, talk and play pool for over an hour with only a couple of locals in attendance. This turned out to be the calm before the storm as the meal was held at Tobacco Dock and we were a small group amongst around 1000 other revellers. The live band seemed very professional but they weren’t likely to play anything remotely interesting or challenging, unlike the entertainment at the gala dinner for an American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Dallas in 1995 where the band were unable to perform the King Crimson I requested but did play some Talking Heads as compensation. When I was a student I occasionally used to take a pair of cushioned over-ear headphones to discos (only if they were held at my hall of residence – I wouldn’t have wanted to lug them all over south London) which was done primarily to indicate my disapproval of the music but also to partially reduce the volume; putting in a pair of in-ear headphones at the Tobacco Dock party was rather pointless, such was the overwhelming din coming from the disco.


Turner's Old Star
Turner's Old Star

The little music I have managed to play for my personal pleasure in the past week includes King Crimson’s Red (1974). I’d seen a tweet about the album and made a mental note that it was something I should make a point of listening to again. Red was one of the Crimson LPs I’d sold to a second hand record store when I got a copy of the original issue of the CD, but that has been replaced with the mighty Road to Red box set. It was also one of the first Crimson albums I’d heard, a copy was owned by a friend from across the road in Infield Park in my youth. Along with the heavy prog of the title track and the soaring Starless which has gone on to inspire a host of other works with its killer melody line, Providence is a track which I found particularly inspiring; at the time of the album’s release I didn’t have a clue that this was a live improvisation, despite the rather truncated ending, but the structure formed the basis of a composition by my late school - early university group where, dependent on our rehearsal space, we would utilise found objects like bicycle wheels and door keys. I think Fallen Angel and One More Red Nightmare point the way to John Wetton’s future musical course but both are carried off with distinct aplomb and fit in with the feel of the entire album. The most recent version of Starless I’ve heard was by the David Cross Band at The Lexington earlier this year which rivalled the three drummers King Crimson version (Hackney Empire, September 8th 2015) in terms of excellence.


The Road to Red
The Road to Red

Next on my list was the debut self-titled album by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (1972). Desperate to find some Banco, my first purchase was the sub-standard Donna Plautilla (released 1989) which I didn’t have on my list but it was the only Banco album available from a store in Treviso when I visited in 2005. Donna Plautilla is a compilation of pre-1972 material which doesn’t really fit the progressive Italiano tag, unlike the excellent first album. My current version of the album is a (2012) 40th anniversary 2CD edition where the second disc contains previously unreleased tracks Poilifonia, Tentazione and Padre Nostro and live versions of R.I.P, Metamorfosi and Traccia recorded in 2012.

The original album is one of the classics of the genre and, thanks to the vocals of Francesco Di Giacomo, truly operatic. I’d always associated the Banco sound with ELP because of the predominance of organ and piano, provided by the Nocenzi brothers Vittorio and Gianni respectively, but this time I was struck by the similarity to Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in March 1972. There may not be very much flute on Banco del Mutuo Soccorso but the stop-start nature of the music, plus the organ/piano which also feature heavily in TAAB (one of the main reasons I really like that album) sound as though they could all have come from the same sessions. Tull were undoubtedly a major influence on the early Italian prog acts but it’s hard to imagine Banco having time to rearrange their material to sound more like Jethro Tull in the two months that elapsed between the availability of the two records.


Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition

Though I didn’t get much time to myself I did manage to squeeze in, over two days, the DVD of The Golden Compass (2007), the somewhat unsatisfying cinematic adaptation of Philip Pullman’s brilliant Northern Lights. I can’t work out if it was the characterisation which was off, despite thinking that Nicole Kidman might actually make a suitable Mrs Coulter, or if it was just Disneyfication, stripping away all the darkness and complexity of the novel. As with all fantasy books, the film version relied heavily on CGI, mostly successfully but sometimes less so. I found the stage version of the Pullman trilogy (His Dark Materials, an adaptation by Nicholas Wright) which had a couple of seasons at the National Theatre more in keeping with the original work despite the necessary condensing, with an ingenious depiction of the daemons. The arctic setting made it an appropriate season to watch the film but I hadn’t realised, until I was distracted and left the credits running, that Kate Bush sang her own composition Lyra at the end of the film. I must have been walking out of the cinema as this began playing and missed it but apparently it was a commission which utilises the Magdalen College choir, a nice Oxford-related fact, and it is a genuinely beautiful song.

My inability to enjoy Christmas is becoming hardened with every passing year but I see decorations and other Yule-related paraphernalia go on sale in October and, apart from a couple of recent Decembers when we had a healthy sprinkling of snow even in the south east, the country has been subjected to some record-breaking flooding. Isn’t it supposed to snow at Christmas? We all know about the chances for peace on earth... I may find it hard to find any decent music being broadcast at this time of year but it’s incomprehensible that a large proportion of the human race has an inability to even consider working together for the common good, whether it’s finding a meaningful accord on climate change, cancelling third-world debt, halting the civil war in Syria or ending violence against women.

Merry Christmas?









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