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With themes ranging from the occult to murder cases, I'd never heard of 'dark prog' until I got chatting to the staff at Genoa's Black Widow Records.

Another early import from the UK, the Genovese record store and label are named after the original protagonists of the genre and are nuturing many of the important bands from the scene...

By ProgBlog, Feb 6 2018 03:45PM

BBC Four has just shown a new, three-part series Hits, Hype & Hustle: An Insider’s Guide to the Music Business where the timing of the last episode, Revivals and Reunions, coincided with the announcement that the Spice Girls, who appeared in the programme, are reuniting for the second time for a reputed £50 million.



I found the whole series enlightening and enjoyable, despite the cherry-picking of featured artists who were represented in some capacity by the three different presenters, Emma Banks (episode 1, Making a Star), John Giddings (episode 2, On the Road) and Alan Edwards in the last episode. Banks deals with the publicity side of the music business and her film revealed the mechanics of record deals, what I consider to be a rather unsavoury world where the artist is simply a medium for the record company to make money. She’s an award-winning music agent and head of the London office for Creative Artists Agency and clearly exceptionally good at her job, exposing a diverse roster of musicians to the right audience using every conceivable lever at her disposal. Having recently been asked to listen to, review or otherwise publicise new music from upcoming and unsigned bands like Process of Illumination, Gaillion, Groundburst, Amber Foil, Servants of Science, Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate, Dam Kat and Zombie Picnic who all have to resort to self-promotion, I now have a clearer idea of the difficulties faced by new acts, getting heard amidst the sea of noise, despite being responsible for some incredible music.


ProgBlog's reviews and to be reviewed
ProgBlog's reviews and to be reviewed

The Banks piece didn’t touch on prog but the second episode with John Giddings, a music agent and tour promoter covered a couple of progressive rock stories. There was film footage of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, including some of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour, an interview with Phil Collins, and Ian Anderson relating tales of Jethro Tull tours, from being one of the headline acts at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival where they didn’t get paid, a gig where someone poured a glass of urine over him from above as the band was waiting to go on stage and another where a blood-soaked Tampon hit him in the chest. These last recollections were accompanied by a clip from the Stormwatch tour which began in the US in April 1979, and shows the returning John Glascock on bass. Glascock had been too ill to complete the previous tour so ex-Stealers Wheel and Blackpool contemporary Tony Williams was drafted in to deputise. Williams appears on Tull’s Live at Madison Square Garden 1978 DVD, a concert aired on TV at the time and widely regarded as a great performance.


Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel

Ian Anderson
Ian Anderson

Concentrating on his own artists, Giddings neglected to discuss any Pink Floyd tours which seems to me to be a rather glaring oversight. Alan Edward’s guidance through the third episode Revivals and Reunions also concentrated on the groups he’d represented so although there was overlap with the two preceding documentaries, there was no mention of anything prog and the chance to discuss the Floyd reunion at 2005’s Live8 was missed. What it did cover, sometimes during candid interviews with the protagonists, was the reunion tour money generated for the artists which they didn’t always benefit from when they were first active. During On the Road Ian Anderson revealed that in the early years when Tull toured with Led Zeppelin, four road crew between the two bands meant overheads were kept to a minimum and playing 15000-seater venues was very lucrative. Led Zeppelin may have gone on to great acclaim, but increasing the size of the entourage and running your own aeroplane can’t have helped the accounts. Singer Clare Grogan from 80s pop group Altered Images and the two remaining members of Musical Youth, Michael Grant and Dennis Seaton all remarked upon the absence of money in their heyday, despite their chart successes, compared to their satisfaction with remuneration from touring in the present.


The programme highlighted the success of ‘heritage’ acts, opening with a piece about the UK’s first revival concert, The London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium in August 1972, where a number of performers from the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll revealed the potential of musical legacy to make a great deal of cash. According to trade magazine Pollstar, classic rock dominated lists of revenue-generating tours during 2017, topped by the reformed Guns N’ Roses playing a ‘best of’ set; Forbes suggests Roger Waters’ The Wall is the fourth highest grossing tour of all time and tops the list for a solo artist. This then poses the question: Is there anything wrong with so-called ‘heritage’ acts who play a ‘greatest hits’ set? I’d also like to ask another related question: How many original band members do there need to be to continue or reform under the original moniker?


Having missed out on seeing almost all bands during the golden age of prog because I was both too young and geographically isolated (it took an hour to get to Lancaster, the nearest University City by train and then another trek by public transport to get to the campus), I’d only ticked off Fruupp, Barclay James Harvest, a Jan Akkerman-less Focus, Rick Wakeman, post-Gabriel Genesis, Peter Gabriel and Gordon Giltrap before moving to London as a student. My arrival in the capital coincided with the demise of prog when punk and new wave were riding high. My first London gig was the classic line-up of Yes performing on the Tormato tour and, as the band contained two original members and had continued to release roughly one new studio album per year (apart from the hiatus between 1975 and 1976), it would be difficult to argue that incarnation, subtly different to that at the start of the band’s creative peak, should not be called ‘Yes’. What about Focus? The group had already demonstrated a degree of fluidity between debut recording In and Out of Focus (1970) and Hamburger Concerto (1974) utilising four drummers (including Akkerman’s younger brother) and three bass players. Their fifth drummer was recruited halfway through recording Mother Focus (1975) and in February 1976, a couple of days before I went to see them at Lancaster promoting the album, Thijs van Leer asked Akkerman to leave the band.

The distinctive sound of Yes is the product of a group effort, most recognisable in a highly developed form from Fragile onwards though present from the self-titled first album in 1969. The music of Focus was reliant on roughly equal contributions from van Leer and Akkerman and it was obvious when I first heard portions of Mother Focus on the radio that all was not well in the Focus camp; going to see the band without Akkerman made the experience bitterly disappointing. I’ve now seen Focus a number of times but on the next occasion after Lancaster, in October 2009 and subsequently, I’ve really enjoyed their set despite the lack of the original guitarist, with first Niels van der Steenhoven and then Menno Gootjes providing some very sympathetic lines. I think there’s an increased sense of legitimacy to the group with Pierre van der Linden on drums alongside van Leer but it’s also the fact that the newest members seem to have an appreciation of the original Focus legacy.


Over the last three or four years I’ve now managed to see most of the classic progressivo Italiano acts and many of them split up because of insufficient support from their record labels, rather than the trappings of fame and success tearing them apart. PFM are one band who are committed to making new music where there’s only one original member remaining, though Franz di Cioccio is joined by long-term amico Patrick Djivas plus 1980s recruit Lucio Fabbri; Banco del Mutuo Soccorso also have only one original band member in Vittorio Nocenzi, but the addition of technically gifted and musically sympathetic associates makes both PFM and BMS well worth seeking out for live versions of some of the best compositions ever committed to vinyl. It seems that the resurgence of an interest in prog in Italy, aided by traditional publishing, the rather adventurous reissue of Italian prog classics on 180g vinyl and a well-organised network of gigs and festivals has allowed some of the more esoteric single-album bands like Semiramis and Alphataurus to reform with the participation of many of their original members. I consider the reformation of any of the 70s Italian bands a good thing because it means I have a good excuse to take a trip to Italy!



Alphataurus, Genoa May 2014
Alphataurus, Genoa May 2014

The issue of who has the right to the band name was raised in the Hits, Hype & Hustle series using Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as an example. In their case, the record label held the rights to releasing music under the OMD banner and said they’d decide which of the two camps, Andy McCluskey or Paul Humphreys, to give the name to depending on how much they liked any forthcoming songs but, as Andy McCluskey was the face of the band, it seemed more sensible to allow him to use the name. Both Yes and Pink Floyd have found themselves in legal battles over ownership of the name of the group and in the 1989 case of Yes vs Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, I think the music suffered as a result of not just compromise, but because the musical ‘spirit’ of the band was fractured, exacerbated by the unwarranted sacking of various members. ABWH played modern Yes music which in my opinion is an updated continuation of some of the better material on Tormato (1978) and I don’t think any of the new material written since then, maybe with the exception of some of Magnification, lives up to the standards of their 70s output. Even the excellent Fly from Here suite (on Fly from Here, 2011) was a product of the 1980 line-up.


The death of Chris Squire in 2015 left Yes without an original member but even before that they’d taken up the role of a heritage act, certainly in the UK where they performed The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One in their entirety in 2014, and Fragile and Drama in 2016, omitting anything from 2014’s Heaven & Earth. I was happy to see the band on both of these tours and really enjoyed the performances; I like that music more than anything which came afterwards, even though I went to see them on the 90125, Union, Open Your Eyes, Magnification and Fly from Here tours. The inclusion of Billy Sherwood as a replacement for Squire fitted in with the idea of a Yes family and I think it’s the association of long-standing and former members coming together again with the occasional new face that means it’s perfectly valid for the band to retain its name, even without an original member. The appearance of Anderson Rabin Wakeman, now calling themselves Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman might have alerted the lawyers but so far, two bands each with a good claim on the name are providing fans with renditions of some of the best recorded music, ever.












By ProgBlog, Nov 28 2017 02:24PM

My first dalliance with a form of rock music other than progressive rock or jazz-rock came in the guise of Robert Fripp and The League of Gentlemen who played at the London School of Economics 37 years ago, on the 29th November 1980. Probably best described as post-punk, Fripp’s dance band provided a very up-front, driving beat courtesy of Sara Lee on bass and Kevin Wilkinson on drums, with the organ of ex-XTC Barry Andrews adding stabbed fragmented chord backing and the occasional top line, and Fripp scattering guitar over the whole thing. The show was delayed for some considerable time due to problems with the guitarist’s pedal board, which seemed at affect the artist himself as much as a restless crowd. I seem to recall that a degree of functionality was attained, enough to allow the gig to proceed, but this was the last of the LoG concerts and when I next saw Fripp play live, six months later at Her Majesty’s theatre in London’s West End and leading a band which would change its name to King Crimson before the release of an album, it looked like the pedal had been replaced with a Roland guitar synthesizer.


League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates
League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates

I was in my final year as an undergraduate when I saw The League of Gentlemen and as it was a cold November evening, I’d turned up in my greatcoat, still clinging on to the vestiges of progressive rock fashion at a time when everything about the genre was derided. I’d gone along to the LSE with Jim Knipe, not knowing what to expect but drawn by Fripp’s name and also bemused by the pairing with Barry Andrews, so we had a good idea that it wasn’t going to prog. What we got was hard to describe and, despite the obvious beat, quite enjoyable. The fast picked cyclical guitar previewed here would become a staple of the ’81-84 Crimson where twin guitars could play slightly different lines to produce knotty, complex patterns which weaved in and out of synch. There is a sonic relationship between The League of Gentlemen and 80’s King Crimson but the addition of Adrian Belew on second guitar (and guitar synth) and vocals, the reappearance of Bill Bruford with a kit augmented with electronic drums, and the introduction of Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick opened up vast possibilities, shifting the idiom from something very raw to a highly sophisticated form of energetic art-rock.


Though not necessarily the beginning of ‘math rock’, this version of Crimson is very likely to have influenced the first identifiable math rock bands like Don Caballero, when the genre emerged in the US in the late 80s, possibly attracting the description as a joke. Linked to prog through a common absence of blues influences and a shared embrace of non-standard time signatures, this style of music is predominantly instrumental, taking some cues from 20th century minimalist composers where riffs are tightly structured and repeated. When different time signatures are used by different instruments it produces complex, often chaotic or dissonant sounding phrases which resolve when the different rhythmic patterns converge on a mutual first beat; there are guitar parts book-ending Frame by Frame from King Crimson’s Discipline (1981) which have been compared to Steve Reich compositions and there is a section where Fripp plays in 13/8 with Belew playing in 14/8. The listener may perceive chaos but the music is rigidly structured and follows a defined layout where changes are counted out; if it sounds difficult to follow for the listener, it’s not so straightforward for the players! It’s just an observation but it seems to me that there is minimal use of distortion, which facilitates a better degree of separation of the instruments playing in different times and is more pleasing to listen to than what might simply come across as a mush of noise.

Maths and music have an obvious overlap and whether it’s the ancient Greeks looking at the ratio between notes and deriving scales, or Bach and Mozart inserting numerological games into their compositions, it’s impossible to ignore the numerical value of frequency of sound, the tempo and meter which define the rhythm, the velocity of a percussive strike, and the mathematics which can be applied to a sound wave. I was fortunate to have a good physics teacher at school and the lessons on sound were very interesting; the school had somehow managed to acquire some wooden organ pipes which were not only instructive for the investigation of wavelength, for someone who liked sound and the possibilities of progressive rock, they were educational toys. We often see representation of the Fibonacci series in nature in the growth patterns of plants and animal shells but the golden ratio is also present on a piano keyboard; the five flats/sharps and the eight notes of the octave correspond to 5:8:13 in Fibonacci’s numbers.


Anyone who has read this far will understand that the whole prog genre can be subdivided and subdivided some more. I think the idea of math rock as a distinct part of the prog spectrum isn’t too outrageous and there’s always going to be some blurring of boundaries. However, I’m not entirely sure if post-rock fits somewhere within the prog definition or if the term should be abandoned because it’s so nebulous. I’ve recently been listening to the music of Groundburst, a Dublin-based trio consisting of Si Dunne (keyboards); Phil Dunne (guitar) and Erik (drums) who formed in 2005 and who list their music as variously post-rock, math rock, progressive rock and soundtrack!

This version of the trio has recently released an EP, Triad, available as a download from their Bandcamp page https://groundburst.bandcamp.com/ but they’ve released a number of downloads, plus a very interesting physical EP (in CD format) Everything I didn’t say and all the things I wanted to and provided a soundtrack to the short, independent film Champagne, Intimacy, Alan written and directed by a friend of the band, David Martin. There’s an identifiable trajectory in their material from 2007’s EP1, with its dreamy feel, gorgeous electric piano and laid-back jazzy guitar to the tighter sounding, well-constructed Everything I didn’t say (2009) and their concise soundtrack compositions from 2014, the longest of which is 3’44 and four of the seven tracks are less than a minute long, to what really is a very well executed recording, Triad, from September this year. Noodles from EP1 has traces of repeated, short riffs but the overall feel is trippy jazz; Everything I didn’t say is probably the most proggy of their releases as it utilises more sounds but it could still pass off as modern jazz; the constraints of matching music to filmed sequences for Champagne, Intimacy, Alan resulted in a more timed and time-conscious style which can be identified as math rock and when you watch the film (which was nominated for an award and is rated 8.3/10), the music is a surprisingly easy fit, consisting mostly of snatches of guitar patterns and jazz piano apart from the looser Finding a Rope which also includes saxophone provided by Derek and Alan O’Callaghan, and the highly reverbed Alan’s Blues (which is not in the blues idiom.) For those interested, the film is about middle class couple Alan and Carol who are in their mid-40s and growing apart. They attend a swinger's party on the recommendation of a therapist and it’s evident that Alan has the greatest expectations, so that when they attend the party, held in a large country house he is keen to pair-off with the beautiful Sonya and her tall, handsome husband Dan, who obviously have a great deal of experience in the swinger lifestyle. Alan is clumsy and performs poorly, possibly intimidated by Carol’s obvious enjoyment, despite her initial reservations, and Alan goes off to question love, sex, marriage, life and everything.


Triad is a very focused offering and consists of three tracks. Law of Fives is clever jazz-rock, with staccato riffs and pauses and angular lines, properties that have been described as features of math rock. I’ve attempted to count out the time signature a few times but it’s not easy (Phil Dunne has said that the opening section is in 23/8 time!) Erik’s drumming adds appropriate elements which underline the riffs and it’s possibly his rhythmic input which has helped to refine the band’s style. Parlour Games has some Canterbury-like electric piano picking out an odd melody and when the guitar riffs give way to piano riffs and takes on the melody line it reminds me of The Civil Surface by Egg; it’s on the jazz side of rock, rather than the other way round but despite its relative accessibility, it retains the tightness which marks this particular set of tunes. Mazomba begins with urgent guitar feedback and is an altogether heavier prospect. Si plays electric piano over crunchy guitar riffs until halfway through when Phil plays a moderately distorted solo over the electric piano chords, and the roles of lead and backing are once again reversed before the end. Apparently, one of the albums the band had been listening to around the time the EP was put together was King Crimson’s Red and though Si suggests its influence can be heard in opening track Law of Fives, I think the proto prog-metal of Red surfaces in Mazumba.

Despite what might appear to be a very serious approach to their music, especially as it would be easy to suggest that math rock has an inherent geekiness, there is an intelligent humour behind it all. Law of Fives relates to the mathematically incorrect notion that everything has some form of relationship to number five, by being divisible by or a multiple of five, or somehow else directly or indirectly related to 5. The number 23 obeys the Law of Fives, because 2 + 3 = 5, however meaningless this is, and the band thought it amusing to link this illogical notion with a tune which included a riff in 23 time. Parlour Games evolved from the day job frustration caused by applying theoretical ideas to qualitative phenomena in ways that just didn’t seem to work, and finding a musical analogy to the idea of forcing something rigid over something organic.


Triad (2017)
Triad (2017)

Groundburst are currently finishing recording an album, provisionally titled Vortex Street for release in 2018. According to the band it’s going to feature longer songs than those in the current repertoire to allow for the development of themes and include more instrumentation and orchestration. It’s no surprise that we can expect more complex rhythmical material but it will be good to get to hear a full album from a band which has delivered such great promise in small doses.



Groundburst
Groundburst








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