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ProgBlog goes to the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice but still manages to find prog connections - and a relatively new record store...

By ProgBlog, Apr 24 2018 08:36PM

i) 50 years of Yes (25/3/18)


Less than 48 hours on from standing in front of the stage for some intricate, symphonic progressivo Italiano (plus UK guests Joe Payne and Heather Findlay) at a modest club in Milan to a venue that I had previously associated with some awful UK TV entertainment, taking my seat for the Sunday Yes50 date at London’s Palladium Theatre was something of a revelation.



I’d booked the tickets for myself and three family/friends only a couple of weeks before the gig and was relieved to find four seats together in the Royal Circle. Labyrinthine below the auditorium, choosing a sufficiently short merchandise queue or, for gentlemen of a certain age, a WC without a lengthy wait wasn’t easy; the theatre had hosted a Fan Convention earlier in the day and had even set up some exhibition space for Roger Dean artwork where the man himself was signing pieces for a trail of fans.



The sight lines to the stage were really good, though I should have expected that from a premier London theatre, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the vibe of the place considering that before this concert I couldn’t have ever imagined I’d have wanted to step inside its doors.

The opening remarks, delivered by special guest and ‘only original member available’ Bill Bruford, were a reminder that Yes had begun making music in 1968 and in the intervening years, despite the personnel changes, continued to produce incredible, inspirational music. One of the reasons I felt I had to attend this tour was the promise of sides one and four of Tales from Topographic Oceans so I thought it appropriate that the introductory music was a few bars from The Firebird Suite, as I strongly associate Tales with Stravinsky. It’s always been my favoured introduction, more so than Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra or the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.



The first set included material spanning from Time and a Word (an excellent version of Sweet Dreams) up to Tormato (Onward, the tribute to Chris Squire), what I’d consider a ‘fan’s favourite’ choice, and the second set was comprised of The Revealing Science of God, the Leaves of Green section of The Ancients and Ritual. Up to this point, back surgery had prevented Alan White from spending too long sitting on a drum stool and his role had been dutifully carried out by the excellent Jay Schellen, with a style more reminiscent of Bruford. White entered the fray for the percussion movement on Ritual while Schellen descended from the drum rostrum to help out with percussion, staying for the three-part encore of Tempus Fugit (with vocals by another special guest, Trevor Horn), Roundabout, and Starship Trooper.


The sound in the theatre was exceptionally good and well balanced. I liked the fact that as a celebration of 50 years of Yes it was kind of a ‘best of’ performance, plus a hint of the idea of the ‘album series’ of concerts and the inclusion of two and a half sides of Tales. I don’t believe Tales divides the fan base anymore and however difficult it was for audiences to take in around the time of the album’s release in 1973, with insufficient time to assimilate the complexity and scale of the piece as a whole, the shift from 70s boundary-pushing compositions to the slick AOR of the 90125 line-up caused a greater rift.


A few of my friends have commented on how the dynamic has changed within the group since the death of Chris Squire (Trevor Horn humorously hinted at this when he came on to sing Tempus Fugit). Having been in Yes since 1970 Steve Howe is the de facto leader although Alan White has been involved in the group for a longer period of time; Howe was responsible for most of the cues and retains an amazing energy although I’m not sure if he struggled a little on some of the more demanding guitar parts, which would be totally excusable considering the complexity of Yes music. Jon Davison does an admirable, if unenviable job of performing lines originally sung by Jon Anderson and Billy Sherwood is without any doubt the best stand-in for Squire the band could have chosen, in playing, in mannerisms and in presence. The one minor disappointment was Geoff Downes’ soloing; the bulk of his keyboard work was fine but the runs and arpeggios lacked fluidity and even, during certain passages, seemed to lag behind time.

It’s difficult to imagine quite where the band will go from here. Detractors will suggest that continuing without any original band members is just a tribute band, though the Yes family tree shows the pedigree of the players still on stage. I can’t say if they’re capable of producing any new, classic Yes material but without a return to the ideals of the early 70s and a willingness to re-embrace challenging, symphonic long-form compositions, I doubt that they will. Still, 50 years in the business of making and playing Yes music isn’t bad; I’m pleased I went.



ii) New king of pop - Steven Wilson 27/3/18


Another 48 hours later and I’d made my way to the Royal Albert Hall for the first of three nights of Steven Wilson. My good friend Neil had organised tickets back in May 2017, a couple of days after Wilson had begun to put out videos of his new music but before I’d got a hint of the direction the music from the forthcoming album was taking. Thinking back now, Pariah, one of the first tracks I heard, forms a kind of a sonic link between Hand.Cannot.Erase and To the Bone and I don’t think it’s a bad song; it just doesn’t challenge me. At the end of June 2017 he released the video for Permanating and I wasn’t impressed.

On the walk up to the Albert Hall doors I was still optimistic that the set would include sufficient Raven and Hand material to provide a worthwhile evening of entertainment, having seen him play on a number of occasions before and apart from the show I attended at the RAH in September 2015, where I was unfamiliar with a fair proportion of the material, I’ve enjoyed his performances. However, the shift from the full-on prog of Raven to the post-rock blend of electronica, industrial with a decent dose of prog on Hand should have indicated, especially when backed-up by Wilson’s own words regarding his influences, together with his immutable right as an artist to make whatever music he wants, that the music on To the Bone and subsequently the tour of that album, was not going to be wall-to-wall progressive rock.


The show started on a promising note with another clever though slightly disturbing video, announced by a rather stern voice as if narrating a public service broadcast, based on the themes of the current album, but I couldn't really engage. Ninet Tayeb was introduced for Pariah but even her excellent voice didn’t really do anything for me; I did enjoy Home Invasion which segued into Regret #9 which I thought were the highlights of the evening. It’s possible that the behaviour of a pair of loudmouths behind me, talking for the entire first set and a couple in front, behaving as though they were very, very drunk throughout the whole show, affected my ability to enjoy the music but in the second set, just before the rendition of Permanating, Wilson delivered a speech about making the music he wanted to, including an unbridled, joyous pop song and hoped that the tattooed and bearded gents in their Opeth T-shirts would stand up and submit to the euphoria and maybe dance a few steps. To be fair to a large portion of the audience they did get on their feet but I, bearded but not being interested in either Opeth or tattoos, remained seated, unmoved by what is indisputably a potentially infectious pop structure.

For much of the rest of the gig I found the sound a bit blurred and indistinguishable; it wasn’t that it was over-loud but it was quite heavy and it wasn’t until the third encore of The Raven that Refused to Sing that my gloom lifted a little.

I can’t fault the musicianship or the presentation and I certainly can’t criticise a Wilson for changing the form of music he writes. That the songs played on that Tuesday night weren’t to my satisfaction is no one’s fault but a matter of personal taste and I’m not going to burn the CDs that I own because I didn’t like this show. I’m simply not going to commit to buying a ticket for the tour of his next album until I’ve heard the next album.

Maybe gig fatigue is setting in...










By ProgBlog, Apr 9 2018 10:38PM

Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milan 23 March



Next stop: Milan. I attended the 2017 Z-Fest and apart from choosing a hotel miles from the club so that the taxi driver was unhappy to let me out of his cab because he wasn’t convinced that there was actually an event being held there and then not being able to communicate with a taxi firm to get me back to the hotel after it had finished, it was a successful venture. 2017 had something of an ‘experimental’ vibe, with the jazzy Zaal (standing in for Christadoro, a Zuffanti co-venture who released an album in February that year) and headliners Finisterre, who of all the Zuffanti projects seem to me the group who best represent boundary-pushing. That show also featured the Zuffanti-produced Cellar Noise, playing through their excellent symphonic prog debut Alight (2017) and wowing the crowd with an excellent rendition of Genesis’ The Knife as an encore. The whole band was present for this year’s Z-Fest, getting ready to embark upon their first concert outside of Europe, in Canada, and they told me the material they were writing for their forthcoming album was going to be a bit heavier than on Alight but still recognisably Cellar Noise. Z-Fest 2018 was dubbed ‘the symphonic edition’ headlined by Höstsonaten, who are without doubt the most symphonic of Zuffanti’s many sidelines and compared by the man himself to The Enid, so it was quite appropriate that former Enid vocalist Joe Payne had been invited to open proceedings, with the other slots allotted to Isproject, a prog/post rock duo augmented by Zuffanti associates, taking their place in the proceedings by virtue of releasing a fine, symphonic concept album The Archinauts (2017) produced by Zuffanti, and to Heather Findlay, the vocalist for Mostly Autumn from 1996 until 2010.



This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!
This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!

I’d last seen Joe Payne performing with The Enid at HRH 4 in North Wales and before that at the Resonance Festival at the Bedford Arms in Balham. On both occasions it was clear that he had an excellent voice but in my opinion the theatrical presentation came across as West End musical rather than rock, and certainly not progressive rock. I got to the club as the man reinvented as 'That Joe Payne' was finishing his sound check, thanks to a combination of the efficiency of the Milan metro and the performer not realising that the doors had actually opened. Following a short interlude during which the sound engineers played a selection of classic prog, including Siberian Khatru, Easy Money and Free Hand, Payne took to the stage again and explained that he would only be conversing in English and that this was his first ever solo performance, though it wasn’t his first post-Enid show; earlier in March he’d performed at The Picturedome in Northampton with a select backing group.

His performance was relatively brief, consisting of two (long-form) songs he’d contributed to from The Enid’s Invicta (2012) One and the Many and Who Created Me? plus both sides of his new single I need a Change/Moonlit Love. Confiding in the audience that he was a bit rusty and Who Created Me? was the most challenging thing he’d had to play on piano, he also admitted, mid song, that he’d forgotten how the piece went, then courageously continued. I thought he excelled in this format, solo voice and piano and, without the full bombast of his former band to compete with for kitsch, it completely changed my opinion of his singing; that he’s got a great voice is beyond question – he proved that it works in a rock context.


That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano
That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano

Isproject were next up, Ivan Santovito (who had a slight problem with the keyboard patches on his Mac before they got going) and Ilenia Salvemini, who after a couple of tracks as a duo were joined on stage by core members of Höstsonaten: Paolo Tixi; Marcella Arganese; Daniele Sollo; and Martin Grice.

Their inclusion at this symphonic Z-Fest was fully warranted. The music alternates between a post-Waters Floydian sweeping cinematic sound, melodies and instrumentation that recall classic 70s Italian prog, and a few guitar-driven moments that hint of prog-metal. The proggiest moments were the lead synthesizer lines over full band backing where a relative lack of layers evoked the early 70s sound; there was also plenty of delicate piano which contributed to the symphonic feel. Apart from playing the keyboards, Santovito handled a good portion of the vocals, sung in English, while most of the time Salvemini was responsible for providing harmony vocals or singing as a duet. The performance wasn’t quite faultless, with Salvemini occasionally demonstrating an unfortunate lack of stagecraft, generating low-level feedback by exposing her mic, held by her side when she wasn’t singing, to her monitor. This slightly naive behaviour didn’t affect the way I thought about the music and I visited the merchandise stand following their slot and bought a copy of The Archinauts on CD; I’m pleased I did, because Zuffanti’s production is beautifully clear and the symphonic nature of the music shines through.


Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito
Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito

I don’t own any Mostly Autumn or Heather Findlay music other than a live version of Evergreen that featured on the free CD that came with one of the early Prog magazines concentrating on prog-folk. Her time in Mostly Autumn has helped her amass a good following and since leaving them in 2010 she’s fronted her own band, collaborated with some of the biggest names in the prog world (including Ian Anderson and John Wetton) and, in 2016 formed Mantra Vega with Dave Kerzner, pulling in a number of Mostly Autumn alumni, creating what many branded a ‘supergroup’. However, this set was just Findlay accompanying herself singing with acoustic guitar, delving into a rich past of folk/symphonic tunes of which I recognised only one: Evergreen. Her voice on some of the recordings I’ve heard has a frail, ethereal quality, like a Yorkshire Stevie Nicks but live she had a good strong voice that reminded me of Sonja Kristina on some of the more song-based Curved Air material. She also communicated entirely in English and told the crowd that, like Joe Payne, this was her first ever solo gig.


Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!
Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!

I’d just missed out seeing Höstsonaten performing Symphony No.1 Cupid and Psyche in 2016 so I wasn’t going to miss the 2018 Z-Fest; this was the band I’d really come to see and they did not disappoint. I may have originally heard about them in 2007-8 when I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files but my first exposure to their music was at the 2014 Prog Résiste festival where the Z Band performed an array of pieces from a variety of projects including the superb Rainsuite from Winterthrough, a sumptuous example of modern symphonic prog, prompting me to visit their merchandise stand following the performance to buy the CD/DVD of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Alive in Theatre (2013). It was on a visit to Galleria del Disco, Firenze, in the subway passages underneath the main station later in 2014 that I got my hands on an AMS CD reissue of Winterthrough, and in 2016 I pre-ordered my copy of Symphony N.1 Cupid & Psyche (on pink vinyl) through Bandcamp.



The current Höstsonaten line-up of Zuffanti (bass, acoustic guitar and bass pedals), Luca Scherani (keyboards), Marcella Arganese (electric guitar), Daniele Sollo (bass) and Paolo Tixi (drums) was supplemented for the occasion by Martin Grice on sax and flute, Joanne Roan on flute, Alice Nappi on violin, and Gaetano Galli on oboe, providing a genuine symphonic dimension; Grice was part of the Z Band and Roan has appeared on a number of Höstsonaten records.

Zuffanti’s introduction was interrupted by remedial work on Scherani’s laptop (after Scherani had helped Ivan Santovito at the start of the Isproject set) but this was swiftly resolved and they began with a medley of Season Cycle tracks, Entering the Halls of Winter, The Edge of Summer and Toward the Sea. We were also treated to a large slice of 2016’s Symphony N.1, an album where Zuffanti had written the music but took a step back from much of the playing and allowed the partnership with Scherani, who arranged the piece for orchestra, to shine. I thought the evening couldn’t get any better but they next embarked upon Ancient Mariner in all its dramatic glory. I’d notice Joe Payne move a mic stand to the front of the stage between the Heather Findlay and Höstsonaten sets, so I had a pretty good idea that he’d be joining them for something, and he took on the role of the mariner really well. Sadly I had to leave to catch a bus back to my hotel during Part 3, but there’s a YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61N3h2qCPfk that goes some way to compensating for me missing out on Part 4 which features outstanding vocals from both Payne and Findlay.



Though the crowd was really supportive of all the acts, the club wasn’t full and with tickets at only €10, it’s something of a surprise that Zuffanti persists in hosting the event each year. However he does it, promoting his protégés, revisiting some exquisite music of his own and this year bringing UK artists to Milan, I’m glad he does. This was my second year and, like last year, it was really special. La Maschera di Cera next year?














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