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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, Feb 20 2018 03:57PM

In the last blog I commented on how difficult it was to pigeonhole Portico Quartet who don’t really sit easily on a sliding scale between jazz and anywhere but need something else, another superimposed scale perhaps, to give more of an indication of how you might identify their music. I’ve just had a fairly intensive session listening to L’Ora di Tutti (Time for Everyone) by Italian band Muffx and, as with Portico Quartet, I really like their music but whilst they fall somewhere in the amorphous prog cloud, they also defy a strict classification, taking a dash of psychedelia, a dose of proto-prog, incorporating some heavy blues aspects that featured in a number of the early RPI bands, some blues-inflected keyboard prog like Greenslade, swing, and experimentation.

It came as something of a surprise to me that L’Ora di Tutti is their fifth album, although only three prior to this one have been released: ...Saw The... (2007), Small Obsessions (2009), and Époque (2012); the material making up Nocturno which was recorded after Époque was shelved following the untimely death of producer and friend Pierpaolo Cazzolla. The band was formed in Salento (Puglia) by guitarist Luigi Bruno (leader of the Mediterranean Psychedelic Orkestra and co-founder of the Sagra Del Diavolo, the Devil’s Festival) and garnered favourable press when they toured Italy to promote their debut album; a success repeated when they released their second and third albums; they’ve even toured in the UK and have played with special guests from the prog world, like Richard Sinclair (now resident in Puglia) Aldo Tagliapietra and Claudio Simonetti.

The album reflects the band’s geographical roots, with the title L’Ora di Tutti taken from the 1962 cult novel by Maria Corti about the Ottoman attack on Otranto on the eastern side of the Salento peninsula in August 1480. In the book, the event is narrated by five different characters, fishermen and farmers, so in effect it is five stories told in the first person, offering different perspectives that complement each other chronologically; presenting an alternative narrative of heroism and sacrifice in contrast to the official chronicles. There are subtly different cover graphics for the vinyl and CD releases by Massimo Pasca, who appears to be channelling images of hell like Coppo di Marcovaldo, Pieter Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch, depicting the attack; it’s not a mainstream prog cover but does fit a ‘dark prog’ tag, a category firmly associated with Genoa’s Black Widow Records who co-produced and distributed the disc.

Opening track Un' Alba come Tante (A Dawn like Many Others) begins as far away from the sleeve artwork as you can imagine, with birdsong indicating the bucolic existence associated with the heel of Italy. The introduction of a deliberate flanged bass figure (played by Ilario Suppressa) and electric piano (courtesy of Mauro Tre) is reminiscent of early structured Pink Floyd; there’s a short, heavy fuzzed bass riff which resolves into a triumphant sounding, uplifting motif which is repeated on brassy synth before the riff changes style, becoming firstly more bluesy then jazzy with a swing beat provided by Alberto Ria. A walking bass line overlain with a synth solo has a very 70’s feel, like a subdued Greenslade, before a reprise of the ‘heroic’ riff that could have featured in the 70’s BBC TV series Gangsters (see Greenslade’s Time and Tide, 1975) with wah-wahed electric piano, finally ending with a section reminiscent of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. There are two guest brass players on the track, Gianni Alemanno who plays trumpet and Andrea Doremi on trombone whose contributions fit seamlessly with the piece, adding brightness rather than colour and enhancing the jazzy nature of the composition.

It’s a great start to the record, 11 minutes of predominantly riff-based music and some impressive but unflashy soloing. The constant changes prevent it from becoming boring and the bright riff which features near the start and is reprised later on in the track is a true ear-worm; I set off to work on Friday whistling the refrain and came back home still whistling the phrase! Only a minute shorter, second track Vengono dal Mare (They come from the Sea) quickly moves from the relative tranquility of wave sounds to vaguely disturbing guitar (think of the opening sequence of David Cronenberg’s cinematic adaptation of Crash by JG Ballard, scored by Howard Shore.) There’s a short spoken passage in Turkish by Gorkem Ismail which adds to the atmosphere without relieving the tension, then a short guitar figure before the introduction of a driving riff underneath a repeating keyboard figure and some more wah-wahed keyboard. There’s a slightly sinister edge to this track which reminds me of Goblin, so it comes as no surprise that Claudio Simonetti has played as a guest with the band.

Ottocento (800) features some great Farfisa organ, a keyboard tone not unlike the work of Rick Wright or Bo Hansson but any hint of Pink Floyd is covered with new additions, gull-cry guitar and other-worldly theremin. It’s the most psychedelic of the four tracks and possibly the least musically complex with stomping fuzzed bass and other fairly straightforward bass lines and rhythms, but there is some mesmerising highly reverbed guitar which sketches the outlines of a Middle Eastern scale.

Bernabei, named after an Ottoman soldier who doesn’t actually appear in Corti’s novel, is the shortest of the four tracks but following a deliberate, short, heavy riff that links to the preceding track, a fast Middle Eastern-scale guitar line is reintroduced and there’s some experimental early-Floyd jamming. A picked guitar motif is played over some Turkish text and then the guitar and synthesizer double up to play a fast eastern-sounding riff. The group switches between rock improvisation, jazz sections and the eastern riff, all played presto vivace and the record closes with a reprise of the eastern riff.

Written by Bruno and recorded live in the studio in two 10-hour stints after days of rehearsal, it’s possible to detect a sense of urgency about the music but it’s coherent and well played. I like the fact that the band has chosen a concept that relates to their home region, an examination of personal cultural history and an interpretation of what is regarded as a major literary work. The link to Goblin goes a bit deeper than occasional sections sounding like them; they had the idea of making the album as a soundtrack to an imaginary 70’s film of the novel, choosing instrumentation to match. This obviously adds to the prog sound but also puts Muffx in the Giallo category.

It’s prog, but it’s a mixture of heavy, Italian proto-prog (influenced by Deep Purple and Black Sabbath), psychedelia and jazz. It may be another ‘hard-to-pigeonhole’ album, but it's really good.

Muffx - L'Oro di Tutti (2017) BWRDIST 675

By ProgBlog, Aug 7 2017 02:46PM

I pay £1.47 for four pints (2.27 litres) of milk at our local Co-op, and I choose to pay almost half as much extra than is strictly necessary (there are supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, which is also very close to me, where that volume of milk only costs £1) because a supermarket price war over essentials which began in 2015 depressed the price of milk to a level below production costs, threatening the UK dairy industry. Consumers suggested that they were willing to pay more for the product and the supermarkets, faced with protests involving cows being herded through their aisles, agreed to pay a minimum price for processed milk to the dairies, which was set at around 26p to 28p per litre. However, guaranteeing a minimum price for milk doesn’t necessarily mean that dairy farmers will benefit because the large dairies supplying the supermarkets might not pay the minimum cost to the farmers. Something is broken in the economy when a staple like milk is sold for less than what it cost to produce so it’s fortunate that consumers, who stand to benefit in the short-term from this high-street competition, have decided that paying 47% more is worth avoiding the collapse of the industry.

I’ve been buying a fair amount of vinyl recently, both new and second-hand, and I’ve started to wonder if today’s prices are anywhere near equivalent to what I paid for albums in the 70s and 80s. Inflation in the UK was recorded at 2.9% in June and is expected to average out at 2.8% for 2017 and an online calculator shows me that the total inflation in the UK economy since 1973, the year I first bought an LP, is 1113.42%; if the laws of economics have held true, the equivalent of a new release costing £2.50 in 1973 would now set you back a little over £30 so it would appear that a new release 12” LP is good value for money compared to prices in the 70s. Of course I used to seek out bargains if I could but these tended to be old releases (my copy of Fripp and Eno’s Evening Star for example, bought for £2.99 from Simons Records in a large basement on London’s Oxford Street in 1981), and ‘cut outs’, sleeves with small slits in one corner or punch holes just off centre which would also penetrate the label in the middle of the LP. These items were slow selling records that had been returned to the record company by a retailer, subsequently bought by a third party at a reduced cost (they weren’t selling well anyway) and put back into record stores where they were sold at a discounted price. During the late 70s and early 80s it is hardly surprising that albums by prog acts were slow selling and ended up at sale prices. My cut out edition of Livestock by Brand X cost £2.49 from Virgin Records in Oxford Street in August 1981.

It’s interesting that a full price album, using Bryan Ferry’s Boys and Girls as an example because it’s still got the Our Price sticker on it, which cost £5.29 when it was released in 1985, would sell for £15.64 at today’s prices and that the total inflation since 1985 is only of the order of 195%. The massive hike in inflation occurred in the mid 70s with CPI inflation peaking at around 24% in 1975 and high inflation persisting into the early 80s. The oil crisis of 1973, precipitated by an embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Export Countries in response to US support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War, generated inflationary forces which increased energy and commodity prices, quadrupling the price of oil in less than four months. At the same time, the world economy was in recession and this was mirrored in the UK economy. It was a period of 'stagflation', in which recession combined with inflation; inflationary wage increases were accompanied by a rise in unemployment, reaching one million in early 1976. High unemployment required increased government expenditure and borrowing.

The oil crisis had a direct effect on vinyl, a petrochemical offshoot, causing shortages and a concomitant rise in LP price. Some vinyl got thinner and my copies of The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Rick Wakeman and Fruupp’s Seven Secrets from this time are semi-transparent (with a red hue.)

The Labour Party was elected to government in February 1974 without an overall majority and they pursued a commitment to the 'social contract' (voluntary wage restraint in return for better bargaining rights) and public spending. Unfortunately, an international loss of confidence in sterling followed due to the combination of recession, instability and commitment to social expenditure, and led to the devaluation of sterling. Labour was again voted into power, this time with a tiny majority, after a further election in October 1974 and the subsequent budget in April 1975 attempted to reduce the deficit by increasing the basic rate of taxation to 35%, cutting the rate of growth of public expenditure and restricting the supply of money but it was viewed critically in the financial sector; the Wall Street Journal advised against investment in Sterling. By mid-1976 the economy was under extreme pressure and Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healy made a nationwide broadcast on TV in an attempt to reassure the markets and investigated the possibility of loan arrangements with the chairman of The Group of Ten (richest countries.) Late that year the government was forced to apply to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan of $3.9bn, with IMF negotiators insisting on deep cuts in public expenditure, which had a huge effect on immediate economic and social policy but also on the politics of the 1980s and beyond.

At this stage I’d like to point out that I have no faith in economic theory because movement of capital seems to be reliant on whim or the perception that a country or organisation may be at any given time in a state of stability or instability, and built on exploitation. The inflexibility of thinking within the IMF and the European Central Bank dragged out austerity and caused near-irreversible damage to most of the southern European countries and Greece in particular, spawning groups of right-wing nationalists looking for someone to blame for their economic misery. Furthermore, I believe that the global financial system is run by chancers and geared towards enriching those already with great wealth. When a government intervenes to bail out some venerable banking group because it’s too big to fail, the bank denounces regulation and carries on as though nothing happened.

I should also make it clear that I’m not buying vinyl as an investment but because it has always been my preferred medium for listening to music. If there’s anything nostalgic about my habit, buying LPs I used to own but got rid of because the music/band fell out of favour so that I stopped playing the records (Rubycon by Tangerine Dream, L by Steve Hillage, The Civil Surface by Egg, Camembert Electrique by Gong and Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) or because I needed to fund the replacement of old vinyl with shiny new CDs and maybe get some bonus material), it’s the desire to hold a gatefold sleeve in my hands and look at the artwork as originally presented and maybe to count my leisure hours in (roughly) 20 minute chunks.

I don’t buy very many LPs where I have some updated form of CD though replacing my original King Crimson and Pink Floyd albums was a must; I tend to look in second-hand stores for particular recordings or bands that interested me when I was a youth but never took the plunge – Spyglass Guest by Greenslade, Ricochet by Tangerine Dream, Aqua by Edgar Froese are examples, along with Mother Focus. One of my first excursions from home to see a gig at Lancaster University was for Focus, promoting the just-released follow-up to the excellent Hamburger Concerto. It was one of the most disappointing performances I’ve ever witnessed, where Philip Catherine had replaced Jan Akkerman and the new material was not of a good standard.

I thought it was worth testing the inflation theory some more, wondering if it applied to beer. I go to the pub perhaps every couple of months and on a night out earlier this month I was paying £4.50 for a pint of Shepherd Neame (the oldest brewery in the country) Bishop’s Finger in the Bishop’s Finger pub between St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Smithfield market. I accept that’s central London but when I first started drinking in 1977, a pint of Hartley’s XB (‘best’) bitter cost 28p and by the same calculation I’d expect to pay £1.85 today. Of course Hartley’s was brewed in Ulverston and there’s a documented price disparity between northern and southern beers. I can’t remember how much I paid for a pint of bitter when I first arrived in London because I actively had to seek out decent beers in an era when real ale in London was in decline and I was never a fan of Courage – the CAMRA Good Beer Guide was an essential part of the student survival kit. Two worthwhile London breweries were Young’s of Wandsworth and Fuller's of Chiswick but there were a few free houses where the 70s equivalent of the ubiquitous Sharp’s Doom Bar, Ruddles County, could be found. I’m pretty sure this used to sell for a little shy of 50p in 1978 so I shouldn’t really expect to pay more than £2.86 for a pint in London today.

A final piece of economics: Ruddles brewery was based in Langham, in Rutland, the smallest historic county in England and produced a good-quality bitter (allegedly at least part due to the unique Langham water) which travelled well. This independent brewery was bought out by Watneys in 1986 and sold on again, to Grolsch in 1992. Following a downturn in fortunes, the beer and brewery were valued at £4.8m and sold to Morland & Co. in 1997. The brewery was closed down in 1999 and production moved to Abingdon but Greene King bought Morland in 2000 and shut down the Abingdon site...

The bottom line (as economists might say) is that whether I’m searching for second-hand or new vinyl, in real terms I’m paying less than I did when I started collecting albums. Yes, you might see pristine original pressings of In the Court of the Crimson King selling for £50 but equally, it’s possible to come across an original pressing of Tubular Bells with the black and white Virgin labels, etched stampers without matrix numbers, laminate sleeve, pinched spine top and bottom and a back cover which states "Printed in England by Robor Limited" in the bottom right corner (later sleeves were printed by E J Day), for just £5.50 and in excellent condition.

Vinyl, please!

By ProgBlog, Jul 3 2016 09:20PM

I’ve just taken receipt of the Anderson/Stolt LP Invention of Knowledge and, sitting in my Barcelona chair with the gatefold sleeve open in my hands, I’m transported back to the mid 70s.

TV plays a balanced part in my life although the ability to call up 24 hour news or watch catch-up programmes on mobile devices means that breaking news or doing something else the same night that Brian Pern is scheduled means I never miss anything I want to see. In reality, programmes I’m missing in real time are conveniently recorded on a TiVo box and I get pretty sick of 24 hour news streaming where the anchors frequently have to ad-lib as some sort of live action reaches an impasse and the scrolling red ribbon runs on an ever quicker cycle, complete with uncorrected spelling errors. I think there are too many channels, most of which peddle meaningless nonsense, cheap programming and repeats. I may have watched a little too much TV in the 70s but at least broadcasting was restricted to three terrestrial channels where, despite the airing of tired, formulaic situation comedies and crass game shows, it appeared that on the BBC at least there was some thought about what was shown.

I was at the BFI on London’s Southbank on Thursday, attending a very enjoyable presentation called Transport as Architecture: Ballard to Banham that featured three short films: Crash! directed by Harley Cokeliss from 1970 that featured JG Ballard himself along with Gabrielle Drake (who I remember as Lieutenant Gay Ellis from Gerry Anderson’s UFO which ran from 1970-1973); The Thing Is... Motorways, part of a 1992 Channel 4 ‘talk show’ series by Paul Morley which also included short contributions from JG Ballard; and Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles from 1972, in which the writer, critic and Professor of Architectural History drove around LA in search of interesting features to show to tourists. Both Cokeliss and Morley were present to introduce their pieces and, despite his writing for the NME from the mid 70s to the mid 80s, I hold a sneaking admiration for Morley, not because he’s a northerner (he was born in Farnham, Surrey), but because he has some interesting things to say and his taste in music is pretty eclectic; I thought that some of the music that accompanied his documentary, a short piece of electronica, was like a Mancunian take on Kraftwerk’s Autobahn only inspired by the Preston by-pass section of the M6. Before the films I flicked through a somewhat small collection of soundtracks on re-released vinyl in the BFI gift shop and, alongside Mike Oldfield’s soundtrack to the harrowing The Killing Fields, was an LP from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The Radiophonic Workshop was a revolutionary sound effects unit created in 1958, originally to provide sound effects for radio programmes which became most famous for recording Ron Grainer’s Dr Who theme in 1963. The creators and contributors included trained musicians with an appreciation of musique concrète and tape manipulation and their rooms at Maida Vale are reported to have looked more like an electronics laboratory than a routine recording studio. The pioneering work was carried out by some memorable names including Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. A synthesizer designed by Oram, where sounds and compositions were produced by drawings, featured in BBC Technology news last week and forms the centrepiece of an exhibition Oram to Electronica at the Science Museum in London. A mini-Oramics machine, based on original plans but never completed during her lifetime, has just been completed by a PhD student from Goldsmiths College and though there are now apps that mimic the principle it predated sequencing software and, if the machine had been available in 1973, it could have changed the way music was taught and performed.

Strange electronic noises are very suited to science fiction and the inception of the Radiophonic Workshop coincided with the rise in popularity of SF, from radio serials Quatermass and the Pit to Douglas Adams’ immensely popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which later translated to television, as well as shows like Dr Who.

One area where the BBC excelled was in its children’s programming. I distinctly remember a drama series, based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson and first broadcast in 1975 called The Changes. This near-apocalyptic vision was notable for its pro-integration message, being one of the first programmes to feature Sikhs, making it genuinely progressive. The excellent theme music was by Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which I seem to recall was available as a 45rpm single, but which wasn’t stocked by any of the record stores in Barrow. The long-running Blue Peter which at one time featured Barrovian Peter Purves (I used to deliver papers for his parent’s newsagents on the corner of Oxford Street and Furness Park Road) included an updated theme tune performed by Mike Oldfield that was available as a single, reaching no. 19 in the charts in 1979 and raising money for the Blue Peter Cambodia appeal. Another BBC children’s programme was Horses Galore, presented by Susan King which had a relatively short run, from 1977 to 1979. I’ve got no idea why I would watch a programme about horses, not being interested in equestrian pursuits and having once been bitten on the shoulder by Nicola Richardson’s horse, but the theme music was Pulstar by Vangelis from Albedo 0.39 (1976).

There was a lot of instrumental progressive rock around at the time and I thought that some of this should be used for items on BBC TV’s regional news and current affairs programme Nationwide that was shown immediately after the early evening so I wrote to them in December 1976, prompted to put pen to paper because I’d detected a snatch of Echoes on Jacob Bronowski’s seminal series The Ascent of Man, providing them with a list of suggestions. I don’t believe they took any notice but I did get a standard postcard in reply.

I was reminded of this when I read Rick Wakeman’s programme notes for his recent appearance at the Stone Free Festival; the Arthur theme was used by the BBC for Election Night specials on a number of occasions, a very fitting use of the music.

Yorkshire TV, one of the Independent Television company franchise holders ran a science-based show called Don’t Ask Me from 1974 to 1978 which used House of the King by Focus as a theme tune and exposed panellists David Bellamy (botany), Miriam Stoppard (medicine) and Magnus Pyke (natural sciences) to a wide audience. Pyke came across as the archetypal mad scientist and it was his unforgettable manner that was largely responsible for the success of the series, such that a large proportion of my generation will think of Don’t Ask Me rather than Focus when they hear the song.

Holiday was a long-running BBC programme that began in 1969, featuring reports from holiday destinations around the world. I think it was broadcast on a Sunday in the early evening and it was therefore something that could be watched while eating an informal Sunday tea. I’d bought Gordon Giltrap’s Visionary shortly after it was released in 1976 and bought the subsequent album, Perilous Journey when that came out in 1977. It was a bit of a surprise to hear Heartsong used as the theme tune for Holiday ’78 and it continued to be used until replaced by an unpopular piece by Simon May in 1985. Interestingly, the ITV holiday reviews show Wish You Were Here? (essentially a rip-off of Holiday) used Giltrap’s The Carnival as a theme tune.

One of the best original theme tunes was by Greenslade for the gritty BBC crime drama Gangsters (appearing on Time and Tide, 1975.) I think I saw the programme before hearing the album, immediately recognising the twin keyboard work of Daves Greenslade and Lawson. Set around Birmingham and originally a one-off Play for Today in 1975, this was the most lifelike screen violence I’d seen and was genuinely gripping.

Like The Changes, it’s a lost gem with excellent title music.

By ProgBlog, Jun 20 2016 10:24PM

ProgBlog attended the Stone Free Festival on Sunday 19th June so there was no time to write a full post

Though nothing comes close to the first time I heard progressive rock, partly because it was Close to the Edge, in September 1972, there are still moments when you hear something and you think, wow, how did I miss that?

I can’t remember where the suggestion came from exactly, other than that Schicke Führs and Fröhling (SFF) appear as a brief reference in a couple of my books and that I have been browsing the Esoteric Records website recently, where their 1975 debut Symphonic Pictures has been re-released, so this was an entirely speculative purchase which turned out to be one of those ‘how did I miss that?’ situations, where none of my friends had any idea this existed either.

Released in 1975, just as their compatriots and fellow UK-symphonic progressive rock school adherents Triumvirat were gaining a following outside of their native Germany, it has quite rightly been hailed as a classic. This isn’t Kosmiche or Berlin-school electronica, or sub-Floyd space-rock (Eloy, Nektar) and whereas it’s common to draw parallels between Triumvirat and ELP, SSF don’t fit into that mould either, being far more adventurous, despite both bands being, on paper at least, a keyboard, bass, drums trio. Part of this is down to the twin Mellotron approach of SSF. Heinz Fröhling created a double neck, six-string and bass, from a Gibson Les Paul and a Rickenbacker but also plays acoustic guitar and Mellotron, clavinet and string synthesizer. There are some Yes-like moments on Tao but there are also hints of Greenslade and live (my CD comes with a contemporaneous live recording from the ship-building town of Papenburg) they have a King-Crimson exploratory like vibe, achieved through fine musicianship, technical dexterity and working out all the compositions very carefully. It’s perhaps surprising that a German symphonic prog band doesn’t borrow from Bach or Beethoven but the inspiration appears to come from 20th Century composers like Bartok and Stravinsky, incorporating shifting rhythmical meters and angular motifs and straying into jazz territory.

It’s really good and there’s nothing quite like it.

By ProgBlog, Apr 26 2016 08:52PM

The desire amongst modern prog bands for the authentic sounds of the 70s has led to a mini revolution in digital samples. The unreliability of a Mellotron for live performance, a recent example of which was the lengthy delay that preceded Änglagård performing at the Resonance Festival in 2014, meant that anyone who favours the sound of the Beast is now better off utilising Mellotron patches on digital keyboards which have the bonus of considerably less mass to move around. I don’t know if it was just Rick Wakeman’s choice of programming but when he switched from minimoogs to polymoogs when he rejoined Yes for Going for the One (1977), I thought the sounds he utilised lacked substance and the same goes for the Emerson sound with the Yamaha GX-1 when ELP reconvened for Works Volume 1. Minimoogs disappeared in the 80s but it’s pleasing to hear the original Moog sound, apparently the result of an incorrect calculation that led to the filters being overdriven by around 15dB, has been recreated in the Moog Voyager series, seemingly the synthesizer of choice of bands playing progressive rock today.

Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014
Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014

Wakeman, Emerson, Patrick Moraz and Rick Wright all used grand pianos in a live setting but by the end of the golden era of progressive rock the sheer bulk of the instrument and the advent of polyphonic synthesizers meant that traditional piano parts were played on instruments like the Yamaha CP-70 electric grand, a half-way house between an acoustic instrument and a digital piano but far less unwieldy than the acoustic grand. There is a lot of rock music that features piano but exponents of progressive rock used the instrument as a shade or tone in a broader palette, like the calm interlude on South Side of the Sky (from Fragile, 1971) providing stark contrast with the angular electric mayhem the precedes and follows; there aren’t many prog albums where the only keyboard is piano even though it can be used for both delicacy and thunder.

The less bulky cousin of the grand is the electric piano which features in a wide variety of progressive rock and fusion. When I bought a Korg MIDI keyboard four years ago I was a little surprised to see a voucher for genuine Fender Rhodes patches but since then, on albums like Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) plus the very recent Höstsonaten release Symphony No. 1 Cupid and Psyche (2016), I’ve noticed the classic electric piano sound returning to the genre.

Whereas Wakeman used the RMI (Rocky Mount Instruments) electric piano and harpsichord and Peter Hammill, David Cross and Robert Fripp played Hohner electric pianos (Cross’ in white to match his Mellotron and Fripp’s in black, to match his), it’s the distinct sound of the Rhodes / Fender Rhodes that best exemplify the instrument, an almost bell-like resonance that retains its identity even when overdriven. Moraz may have owned a Fender Rhodes but that particular keyboard tends to be associated with jazz rock, rather than symphonic prog, so it’s not surprising to see a Rhodes listed in the instrumentation for bands like Greenslade, where their roots are in the British take on jazz and blues.

The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.
The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.

The tone of the Rhodes comes from the unique wire tines, tuning fork-like components of varying lengths that are struck by the hammers; the tines connect to tonebars and the amplification is by electromagnetic pickups. The characteristic bell sound is produced when the tine and the pickup are in close proximity and though there is a degree of similarity between the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer, the former has better sustain while the latter produces a range of harmonics when the keys are hit hard, providing more bite. The story behind the Rhodes is quite inspiring because inventor Harold Rhodes became a full-time piano teacher after dropping out of university to support his family through the Great Depression, utilising a technique that combined classical and jazz, then began developing instruments to help the rehabilitation of soldiers during the Second World War, utilising surplus army parts as he was required to stick to a very tight budget. The involvement of Fender came in 1959 with the marketing of the Piano Bass, the bottom 32 keys of the full 88 key design, and the later inclusion of a built-in power amplifier and a combined tremolo and auto-pan feature that bounces the output signal from the piano in stereo across two speakers, a feature mistakenly called ‘vibrato’ on some models which is consistent with the labelling on Fender amps. The first Fender Rhodes was released in 1965 following the acquisition of Fender by CBS; this model had 73 keys and included the built-in amplifier.

It’s mainly Miles Davis’ alumni that popularised the instrument though Ray Manzarek used a Piano Bass with The Doors, providing the bass lines for the bass guitarist-less band. From the In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970) period Miles, keyboard players Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock spread the word and the sound through their respective bands while guitarist John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring Jan Hammer on minimoog and Fender Rhodes and the keyboard was subsequently taken up by British jazz-rock bands influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, including Brand X and Isotope.

Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron
Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron

Return to Forever sailed closest to progressive rock of all the fusion bands with Romantic Warrior (1976) which became their best selling album despite critical drubbing from Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics. I fully believe the success of the album is its appeal to fans of symphonic prog; the majority of prog fans also like jazz rock but Romantic Warrior pushes all the right prog buttons: fantastic musicianship; extended instrumental pieces; a broad palette including an entirely acoustic track; and a loose concept. It comes across like a fusion version of Refugee by Refugee (1974).

The popularity of the Rhodes piano dipped at the end of the 70s as electronic keyboards began to proliferate but also because the quality of the instrument itself suffered as a consequence of cost-cutting and an attempt at mass production. Rhodes was sold to Roland by the company president William Schultz in 1987 and Roland produced digital pianos under the Rhodes name until Harold Rhodes, who hadn’t authorised the use of his name, bought back the rights to the instrument in 1997. It’s good to hear the Rhodes sound on contemporary prog.

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