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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 12 2018 09:30PM

There was relatively short notice for this year’s Porto Antico Prog Fest and it was only held on one day, Friday 3rd August, so the event was made up with two bands performing original music, Ancient Veil and Sophya Baccini’s Aradia, plus two bands contributing towards a ‘tribute night’, Get ‘em Out from Milan playing Gabriel-era Genesis, and Outside the Wall playing Pink Floyd from 1973-1980.



Ancient Veil began proceedings with a really enjoyable 45 minute set that included pieces from their three studio albums, Rings of Earthly Light (as Eris Pluvia), Ancient Veil and last year’s I am Changing, reflecting their live album Rings of Earthly... Live, with performances taken from two 2017 appearances at Genova’s La Claque club, released this year. Their music is predominately prog-folk, largely due to the variety of wind instruments played by Edmondo Romano which are sometimes used to give a Celtic feel, but Alessandro Serri adds some jazzy acoustic guitar and, during the epic 17 minute Rings of Earthly Light suite, played guitar parts with the Steve Hackett-invented finger tapping technique. The scope of this song, which at times invokes Genesis and Focus, is the reason it’s my personal favourite.


Ancient Veil - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2018
Ancient Veil - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2018

I took a break for almost an hour to have dinner with my wife and came back to witness Get 'em Out embark upon their last number of the evening, Supper’s Ready. It’s impossible to underestimate the affection that Italian prog fans hold for early Genesis but there are a couple of explanations for the appeal, one offered by long-time band associate Richard MacPhail who thought the appreciation came from the emotional content of Genesis’ music, presented as long-form, romantic, almost operatic suites which form an important part of the country’s musical heritage. Steve Hackett linked their success to the theological association of the storylines in many of the songs which, as well as in Italy, seemed to strike a chord in fans from other catholic countries, and also thought that the Italians especially, picked up on the Greco-Roman myth told in The Fountain Of Salmacis.


Enhanced by back projections and the costume changes of vocalist Franco Giaffreda, decent reproductions of Gabriel’s Narcissus flower and Magog head, Get ‘em Out proved to be an excellent act providing an accurate interpretation of the classic 1972 Genesis song, including the set design and instrumentation and, much as MacPhail describes in his book, even for a tribute act each section was cheered because so many of the audience knew every note and nuance of the song, singing along or mouthing the words.




Get 'em Out - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2018
Get 'em Out - Porto Antico Prog Fest 2018

I’d been looking forward to Sophya Baccini, even considering buying one of her albums from the pop-up Black Widow Records stall but on reflection I maybe should have gone for dinner an hour later so I'd not have missed Get 'em Out. Hailing from Naples, Baccini is a flamboyant vocalist with involvement in a number of musical collaborations including her heavy rock band Presence and her work with some of the most recognisable names in Italian prog, like Banco del Mutuo Soccorso’s Vittorio Nocenzi, Lino Vairetti of Osanna, and appearing as a guest on Delirium’s 2009 album Il Nome del Vento. Sophya Baccini’s Aradia is her current project and the band focused on their second album Big Red Dragon (William Blake’s Visions) from 2013.

Intrigued by the ‘dark prog’ tag and her ability to combine operatic vocal and experimental electronic elements, I was immediately disappointed with the quality of the sound, muddied by the use of delay on the vocals so that it was difficult to determine whether her vocals were in Italian or English (she sings in both); the only track I could fully discern was Satan from Big Red Dragon. Keyboard player Marilena Striano was also plagued with monitor problems at the beginning of their set but she did go on to provide some of the most interesting moments in a performance that conformed to ‘dark’ but was lacking in prog. The rhythm section of Isa Dido (bass) and Francesca Colaps (drums) was solid enough but lacked invention and the guitar lines provided by Peppe Gianfredo, despite the nice tone, were fairly predictable, devoid of the creativity and experimentation I was expecting.


Outside the Wall is a well known and acclaimed Italian Pink Floyd tribute band and, judging by the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd, easily met expectations. I thought they did a decent job if you ignored the frequently forgotten words, though they rhythm section of Mauro Vigo (drums) and Fabio Cecchini (bass) were, in common with the Waters-era Floyd, arguably the weakest link; Vigo’s timing was a little off and Cecchini added a few too many redundant funky frills. Performing most of The Dark Side of the Moon, including accurate sound effects, the title track and Shine On You Crazy Diamond from Wish You Were Here, plus Comfortably Numb, Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) and Run Like Hell from The Wall (even though the audience, when asked, appeared to want a selection from Animals), the most accomplished piece was The Great Gig in the Sky, with an outstanding vocal performance by Elisabetta Rondanina. Martin Grice from Delirium, a reliable presence at the prog fest (his band hail from Savona, a short distance west along the Riviera), added the Dick Parry saxophone parts on Money and Us and Them which he reproduced accurately and with feeling. I also enjoyed the film that they used to accompany them, made up mostly from genuine Floyd footage for Dark Side and The Wall interspersed with original cuts.


Although I would have preferred a bill of all original acts performing over two days, the size of the crowd, possibly reflecting the draw of the music of Genesis and Pink Floyd, seemed much bigger than at the 2017 Porto Antico Prog Fest. This is important because the event has to draw in punters to ensure it can continue. I had a great time, meeting up with the Black Widows Records team who organise the event, saying hello to Mauro Serpe from Panther & C. and watching proceedings with all the members of last year’s surprise star turn, Melting Clock.


I can exclusively reveal that Melting Clock is booked to begin recording their debut album later this month and, if everything goes smoothly, have a record ready for sale in November. Part of our conversation related to cover artwork and I was shown the design for the album sleeve, then asked what I thought about their proposed cover and about album artwork generally. It was something of an honour to preview the cover art (I like it a lot) but I didn’t back up my opinion with a full explanation why I think an appropriate album sleeve is an important part of the whole package, which I think should also take the music and (where possible) the live experience into account.

My preference for an album sleeve is a photographic image, because the medium, though both easily digitally manipulated and suitable for abstract work, best represents realism; I’m also an avid photographer with an inclination for scenery and architecture. I love much of the work of Hipgnosis but one of my favourite pieces is John Pasche’s design for Illusion by Isotope (1974) with a cover photo by Phil Jude - the depiction of headphones with a mercury-like fluid connecting the two ear-pieces was part of the reason I bought an Isotope LP and listen out for more jazz rock. However, I’m also partial to a good painting, graphic design or some other form of artwork, like Henry Cow’s iconic sock imagery.


The presentation of an album used to be one of the factors I took into account when I was first attempting to discover new music in the early 70s, a time when the 12 inch LP format offered the best possible option for displaying images, innocently believing that art direction was more the responsibility of the group than the label and hypothesised that a band that invested in decent artwork was likely to have taken equal care with their music. Pre-prog, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) with a design by Peter Blake and Jann Howarth pioneered a new form of album presentation, opening the doors for cover art to reflect the musical and lyrical content of the release.


The presumption, good artwork equates to good music, didn’t always stand up. Examples I use to illustrate the failure of the theory are Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste and the second Italian release by PFM, Per Un Amico, where the covers are awful but the music is excellent, and the alternative situation with a great Roger Dean cover but music not to my liking, Badger’s One Live Badger, but there are many other examples of good music wrapped in awful artwork and vice versa.

There are a number of artists and design teams who have a strong association with progressive rock but the most famous has to be Roger Dean, predominantly for his work with Yes. Whereas Hipgnosis images sometimes only obliquely refer to an album title or lyrical references, there is usually some allusion to the subject matter. On the other hand, Dean’s paintings have less of a concrete relationship with the subject matter because, on the two studio albums Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans, Jon Anderson was utilising the sounds of words rather than their meaning when penning lyrics. Even though there is no concept linking Fragile and Close to the Edge, Dean constructed a coherent narrative thread, explained in the paintings adorning the triple gatefold of Yessongs and later revisited in a number of live releases from Yes and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, that nevertheless formed an instantly recognisable visual brand.


I believe there are tangible benefits to a long-term partnership between a musical entity and a particular designer, where music, lyrics and visual motifs create a coherent artistic vision, a gesamtkuntswerk, readily recognisable to the record-buying public. For a band like Melting Clock embarking upon their debut album that have yet to build up such a relationship, it is essential to be comfortable with the trust placed in the artist to interpret their musical ideas to grace the album sleeve. Those of us who have heard their demo EP or seen them live know how good the music is; I think the cover artwork fits their vision.

By ProgBlog, Jun 18 2018 03:41PM

In addition to progressive rock, I harbour an interest in architecture and last Saturday I signed up to a London Society lecture by Urban Design academic Dr Jane Clossick ‘The Plan for London and the Concrete Better World’ at London Metropolitan University. Highlighting her talk with pertinent case studies to explore themes of civic, economic, social and architectural change, she began with Abercrombie’s Plan for London (1943-44) which represented a shift from cities simply growing around people to the modernist notion that man was able to plan the city using the view from above, with pedestrians and vehicles spatially separated and distinct zones for industry, commerce and housing, with the housing soaring above the smog of the city. Her enthusiasm for this unique phase in the history of the capital’s architecture and how it has left its indelible print on the urban grain of the city was not a straightforward paean to concrete because she was dismissive of some of the social housing schemes, citing the deliberate design of spaces which had not historically featured in neighbourhoods and how these became the focal points for antisocial behaviour; what she did admire was the idea of the Southbank which facilitated access to high culture for all social strata.



I’ve previously blogged about the mistaken idea that progressive rock was elitist, personally believing that efforts to bridge high culture with popular culture coincided with a flourishing of civic architecture in concrete and that a wave of expansion of higher education institutions, often featuring iconic buildings in concrete, created a particular zeitgeist that allowed prog to develop. I found myself surrounded by the former-imprinted concrete of the Southbank again last week, to hear the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Michael Seal performing pieces for David Bedford at 80 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Bedford died from lung cancer aged 74, in October 2011; he would have been 80 this August.



Bedford was one of the foremost proponents of providing universal access to high culture, whether through his best known work, orchestrating Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and his time as arranger and keyboard player for Kevin Ayres’ The Whole World or with his approach to composition; charts using pictures, rather than staves and notes and advocacy for unusual instrumentation, employing balloons, kazoos and even suggesting at one time that cans of dog biscuits were just as good as maracas.

One of the pieces last Tuesday was Orchestral Tubular Bells, marking a return to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Bedford with Oldfield’s music; Bedford played keyboards for an ensemble created to promote Tubular Bells in the Hall a month after it had been released in 1973, alongside Oldfield and a cast of musicians associated with Virgin Records, including John Greaves and Fred Frith of Henry Cow and Steve Hillage from Gong.


My interest in the work of Bedford was first sparked by Oldfield’s 1974 sophomore release Hergest Ridge when I bought it in 1975. It remains my favourite Oldfield album, largely because it seems to have been influenced by the style of Romantic composers, its development and execution aided by supplementary musicians playing instruments associated with classical orchestras. Around this time I’d have also picked up the sleeve of Star’s End (1974) and later Instructions for Angels (1977) while browsing in record stores, though I never bought either record. In my opinion, developed over the last 45 years, Bedford’s scoring and arrangement for Camel’s Music Inspired by The Snow Goose (1975) is the best example of seamless blending of rock group and orchestra but it was The Song of the White Horse, a piece originally commissioned for BBC TV’s Omnibus and aired in 1978 which most made me appreciate his music. The programme showed Bedford in the process of writing, rehearsing and recording the score as well as performing it, interspersed with footage of him riding his motorcycle along the route of the Ridgeway to the White Horse at Uffington, his inspiration for the commission. He utilised a small ensemble with brass and strings, borrowed Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge to help out on keyboards, and used the hand-picked female Queen’s College choir from his place of work and even employed another avant garde innovation, helium gas to increase the pitch of Diana Coulson’s vocals by around two octaves (speed of sound in air = 331 m/s; speed of sound in helium = 972 m/s) as the piece reached a climax of the libretto, GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse celebrating King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Englefield in 870.

The White Horse dates from around the Bronze Age, created by carving trenches into the hillside which were filled with crushed chalk. Part of a wider ancient landscape which includes the Blowing Stone, a perforated sarsen stone used in Bedford’s composition, the horse can be seen from miles away, as though leaping across the head of a dramatic, dry valley. One of my friends from university may have bought the Instructions for Angels LP in lieu of The Song of the White Horse, because the latter wasn’t available until 1983. It wasn’t until much later that I started to collect Bedford’s music; first a 1977 live recording of The Odyssey on CD which is a relatively formal rock piece, then Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon/The Song of the White Horse (1983) located at a second-hand vinyl fair in Brighton, and then The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), first on CD and subsequently on vinyl from a Brighton flea market.


Seduced by the promise of a performance of The Orchestral Tubular Bells though quite happy to experience any of Bedford’s music I’d not heard, I signed up to the concert well over a year ago; it was only later that I learned that we’d also be treated to Alleluia timpanis, Symphony No.1, and a guest composition, the world premiere of A Little Bit of Everything by Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner.

Alleluia timpanis was commissioned for the King’s Lynn Festival in 1976 and incorporates the medieval Alleluia psallat theme, a joyous, uplifting refrain that interrupts, and contrasts with an ominous four-note descending line that is varied, developed and inverted throughout the piece, which forms the finale of Instructions for Angels. It was a rather good introduction to the evening.


Programme notes written by Bedford’s daughter Tammy explain why Scanner’s work was included that evening; any celebration of his work had to include an acknowledgement of his support for fellow composers throughout his life, so commissioning someone whose compositional style was different from her father’s but who would be inspired by Bedford’s work, fitted in neatly with the idea of his 80th anniversary. Tammy Bedford had known Scanner since 2002 and was aware of his works created in response to other musicians, but also that he respected her father’s work, so he was invited to write a piece for the concert. Interviewed just before the composition was premiered, Scanner explained that A Little Bit of Everything wasn’t a cover version or arrangement of Bedford’s music, but used phrases from the works, much like Bedford himself had borrowed from other texts such as the Worcester Fragments in Alleluia timpanis, and presenting a form of time travel, highlighting the exploratory nature of Bedford’s compositions and combining the orchestra with live electronics played by Scanner himself, closing with synthesizers in a nod to Bedford’s use of the instrument in the mid 70s. The stage was mostly cleared for this piece, leaving only a small chamber orchestra with Scanner towards the edge of the platform on the left. In good Bedford tradition, the music brought the best out of the players, sounding fairly challenging though ultimately very satisfying. The one drawback was that from my seat, the electronics were a little under-mixed.


When I first took my seat and saw the musicians appear I was a little surprised that a conventional orchestra was being used for a celebration of David Bedford; it was less surprising to see multi-instrumentalist, composer, instrument designer and Stick Men guitarist Markus Reuter, whose compositions share some traits with Bedford’s, sitting in the row behind. For those who like their avant-garde, there had been a performance of Bedford’s Balloon Music 1 in the foyer using members of the public before the concert proper but Symphony No. 1 (1984) conforms to a more traditional compositional style than the works associated with his atonal avant-garde output and rock (specifically crossover prog), employing a strongly melodic, tonal approach. Sitting in the third row was the first time I’d been close enough to an orchestra to relate to the instrumentation with a clear view of the ensemble slightly raised above the floor of the auditorium. The BBC Concert Orchestra is not the biggest, with around 60 members on stage, but I found that being able to discern its organisation was helpful in discriminating how the piece had been scored, how the overall composition fitted together, and even how Bedford had so successfully blended Camel’s melodic progressive rock with (an unnamed) orchestra which I now see has his stamp all over it.



Orchestras have changed very little in composition during the course of the 20th century, having expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the size and make-up dictated by the writing of prominent composers of the time who were in turn largely influenced by the possibilities of the instruments available to them. The clarinet was not invented until around the turn of the 18th century, so it doesn’t appear in accurate renditions of Baroque music and valves for brass instruments were not invented until the early 19th century, at which point there was a rapid growth in both the number and the prominence of trumpets and horns, coinciding with the Romantic period. As the number of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments increased, the size of each string section also increased in order to balance the output of the different sections of the orchestra.


Orchestral Tubular Bells was everything that I’d hoped for. I hadn’t heard the album since around the time of its release, but had to agree with the comment from Neil Jellis, who had organised the tickets for the evening, that if you hadn’t heard the original, the music could well have been a classical composition. It’s possible that Bedford’s arrangement, while true to the recording, was the spur to Oldfield’s remastering of the classic album in 2009 in an attempt to bring out buried layers; the orchestral version does this so well. One of the very few weak spots on the original, as much for the stomping rhythm as the vocals, is the ‘Piltdown Man’ section on side two, a nod to the perceived belief it was necessary to have singing on the album, which is covered much better by an orchestra. Another of the highlights was the guest appearance of Steve Hillage on guitar. There’s a brilliant YouTube clip of Hillage with the London Philharmonic playing Orchestral Tubular Bells at the Royal Albert Hall in 1974, causing consternation or confusion (or both) for one of the double bassists. Invited to play the music again, he had swapped his Stratocaster for a Steinberg GL2T, lost the woolly hat and wore his hair at a more conventional length. After a cautious start he provided a surprisingly clean-toned blues-heavy solo, before switching on the distortion and giving us a tantalising glimpse of his trademark glissando guitar at the end of his appearance. He left the stage to rousing applause while the orchestra ploughed into the Sailor’s Hornpipe section, and they too were given an ovation that may have taken some of them by surprise.



The possibilities afforded to composers since the birth of electronic instruments together with a willingness to explore different fields ensured that formal music progressed. The appropriation of classical music forms by rock musicians from the late 60s onwards marked the birth of progressive rock. David Bedford was equally at home in both camps, at the forefront of a movement ensuring that all forms of music could be appreciated by everyone and anyone.









By ProgBlog, Jul 17 2016 04:39PM

Last weekend was spent based in Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic and included a day trip to Bratislava in Slovakia, less than 90 minutes away by train. I’ve been to the Czech Republic before, for a presentation at the second East-West Immunogenetics conference in Prague in 2007 and on my brief time off I managed to get to a couple of record stores, one on a late evening trip around Wenceslas Square where the rock music selection was rather poor and the other, squeezed in just before my flight home, a shop called Bontonland in the Centrum Chodov mall at the end of subway line C. Though this large, rambling store was staffed entirely by non-English speakers (my problem, not theirs) I made my request for Czech prog using an elementary phrase book and citing English examples of the genre. Despite these communication difficulties, the staff managed to produce a handful of Czech CDs and provided me with a remote to ply through the selection. I sat for about an hour listening to parts of this collection but it was predominantly blues based material that I didn’t really like or want.

I had done some research before my 2007 trip and the band Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) were foremost on my list. This group formed in the aftermath of the crushing of Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring in 1968, named after the track Plastic People on the 1967 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention album Absolutely Free. PPU were targeted by the communist authorities with punishment ranging from imprisonment to having a house burned down. Unable to perform in public, an entire underground cultural movement formed around the band during the 1970s and the sympathizers of the movement were often called máničky, indicating youths with long hair. I was unable to find any PPU releases on that particular visit but that might have been in part due to the classification of the band. Inspired by Zappa and the Velvet Underground, PPU occupy an area akin to chamber-prog, but with more riff-based music than, for example, Henry Cow.


I was aware that rock bands, including some with progressive leanings, were around in communist countries in the late 70s and early 80s. I wanted to visit the USSR in 1983, with Leningrad a short train journey from Helsinki which I visited with friend Nick Hodgetts during an Inter Rail holiday over the summer, but organising a visa while already en route was an insurmountable problem. I did get to visit East Berlin before the fall of the Wall and got shouted at by a border guard in a watch tower when I stepped over a low barrier to take a photo of the Wall from the West; I even spent my honeymoon on a two-centre holiday to the relatively ‘loose’ communist state of Yugoslavia, officially the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where I witnessed the lack of choice available to the citizens and benefitted from a currency in freefall, cashing low value travellers cheques on a daily basis. I bought a piece of original artwork and, though I looked at some CDs, these were mostly folk music so I didn’t acquire any. Having come away from honeymoon without any local music, my first Eastern European CD purchase was a second-hand copy of U Vreci Za Spavanje by Yugoslavian band Tako, bought from Beanos in Croydon, in 2005, not from behind the Iron Curtain. I’d seen this and not bought it, but returned to the shop the following week after checking my Jerry Lucky books. My CD is a Brazilian reissue of the original 1980 LP plus a couple of bonus tracks and though the recording quality is a bit poor, it’s a very enjoyable album. The opening title track begins like something from Wish You Were Here and while there are plenty of keyboards throughout the album, there’s also a good quantity of flute, making it a great piece of symphonic prog which references Camel and Steve Hackett along with early 70s Floyd.

Beanos was the source of my next Eastern Europe music purchases in April 2008, picking up two CDs by Polish band Albion, Wabiąc Cienie (2005) and Broken Hopes (2007). The former is their second release, entirely in Polish (the title translates as Luring the Shadows, and the cover picture, which is very proggy, conveys this quite nicely) and the latter, their third album is a more mature and coherent effort but sung in English. Wabiąc Cienie demonstrates good musicianship, influenced by Pink Floyd and 80s Marillion, though it comes across as being a bit too controlled, as if studio time was the most important process and, for the most part it’s unchallenging 4/4, albeit with pleasant alternating passages of guitar and multi-layered keyboards. Vocalist Katarzyna Sobkowicz-Malec has a great voice, at times hinting at frailty but always controlled and in tune. The best track is the 11 minute plus instrumental Bieg po Tęczy (Run the Rainbow) which hints at the continued direction on subsequent album Broken Hopes, incorporating the sounds of a young baby and the flapping of birds’ wings; it contains lengthy passages in 7/8 time, too. Broken Hopes strikes me as Albion’s Misplaced Childhood with a narrative that questions politics, war and religion, all suitable epic themes for a concept album which has more variation than its predecessor but still sounds far more complete and satisfying.


A work friend told me about Solaris because one of his colleagues had introduced him to this Hungarian symphonic prog outfit. I eventually found a copy of Marsbéli Krónikák in Black Widow Records in Genoa last year, my only non-Italian purchase of the trip at just €17; the current UK price is almost £50. Solaris took their name from the science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem and their album titles from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, though Lem’s first novel was called The Man from Mars. I know that Marsbéli Krónikák is generally raved about, similar to the way that Ys by Il Balletto di Bronzo is hyped as being the best progressive rock album, ever, and though it’s undeniably well-played symphonic prog with lots and lots of keyboard and flute, it doesn’t press all the right buttons for me, possibly because it’s a little bit driven by some simple riffs and I’m not at all keen on one of the bonus tracks that appears on my 1995 re-issue CD – I think the quality of the material tails off towards the end of the original album. However, I’d still rate it as pretty good. Marsbéli Krónikák II is much cheaper to get in the UK because it was released in 2014, after years of the band attempting to get back together and I was given a copy for Christmas last year. This follow-up effort is stylistically similar despite thirty tears between the original and the sequel, which again tails off in quality towards the end of the album but is, overall, a really good release.


Whereas Solaris appeared in 1980, their fellow countrymen Omega had been active in the late 60s and appeared on the prog radar with the 1975 album The Hall of Floaters in the Sky. I think this may have had an airing on Alan Freeman’s radio show but I do remember looking at the interesting sleeve art in Blackshaw’s in Barrow when it was released, thinking it was a pretty odd title, not realising that it might be a literal translation from the Hungarian. I finally bought a copy from a stall in Dalston Old Market earlier this year but, despite Omega being the most successful Hungarian band and this particular album allegedly one of their best; a mixture of symphonic prog and post-Barrett Pink Floyd space rock, I was disappointed. I’m not a fan of the lyrics or the English vocals and it’s too close to heavy rock for my taste.


And so to last weekend. I really liked Brno with its flashes of Functionalist architectural style, the Villa Stiassni and Villa Tugendhat, and the day trip to Slovakia was good, taking in a number of varied sites like St Michael’s Tower and the UFO Tower over the Danube. On our first evening in Brno we’d noticed a shop selling CDs, Indies, next to the impressive Alfa Palace, a Functionalist masterpiece, and on our last morning we made time to shop. I bought two CDs by PPU, Hovězí Porážka (Beef Slaughtering) (1984) and Obešel já polí pět (I Walked Around Five Fields) (2009), the recording of a 2003 concert with the Agon Orchestra in honour of Czech philosopher Ladislaw Klima. I also bought two CDs by prog-folk band Zrni (which I haven’t had time to listen to yet.) Then I saw Vinyl Records... I have never travelled anywhere in the world with the intention of buying vinyl, not even recent excursions to Italy, but this shop, selling both new and second hand vinyl, was the obvious place to start. The incredibly helpful staff chose a selection of Czech prog for me and then let me listen to entire sides. I picked up original copies of Sluneční hodiny (Sundial) (1981), Křídlení (1983), both by Synkopy; 33 (1981) by M.Efekt; and a non-Czech LP, Brandung by Novalis (1977). Considering how small the Czech Republic and Slovakia are, there were some incredibly talented prog bands around in the 70s and 80s. I’m grateful to both Vinyl Records and the former owners of the LPs for keeping them in such great condition and, though recording studios used by rock bands in former communist countries may have been less advanced than Western Europe or American studios, I’m impressed with the dynamic range of the recordings.

If you’re ever in the Czech Republic, spend some time in Brno. The architecture is stunning and the friendly record shops contain some absolute gems.









By ProgBlog, Jul 12 2015 10:43PM

I’ve just spent another night at a not-your-usual-kind-of gig. I’ve been signed up to the Barbican Centre’s mailing list for almost 18 months now and the kind of show it puts on are often on the fringes of ordinary prog: the Lindsay Cooper tribute last year and Goblin performing a live soundtrack to Profondo Rosso earlier this year are prime examples and mean that appearances by Van der Graaf Generator lie relatively safely within the boundary of the genre. The Keith Emerson Band would have been straightforward crossover prog but for the performance on 10th July they were joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra with conductor Terje Mikkelsen playing The Three Fates Project, an album of orchestrated works by Emerson, largely but not exclusively originally presented as trio pieces with ELP, and also featuring a couple of tracks by guitarist Marc Bonilla. I was personally rather thrilled by the prospect of the concert, imagining it hinted at the Works tour with orchestra in the late 70s which sadly had to be curtailed because of the negative financial impact, so it was good to see Emerson performing with an orchestra.

Emerson’s love of classical music is indisputable and his classical adaptations for a rock group format are legion. He also has a long history of integrating a rock band with an orchestra dating back to his days with The Nice: The side-long title track of Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968); the commissioned title track from Five Bridges (1970); and ELP’s Works (1978) which included his Piano Concerto no.1, the first true formal classical piece he’d written. However, this concert also formed part of the Barbican’s Moog Concordance series, marking 50 years since Dr Robert Moog unleashed his modular synthesizer on an unsuspecting world; a modular Moog formed the centrepiece of Emerson’s keyboard set-up.

I was accompanied on this sonic adventure by Jim, who pointed out that the recent back-room deal between the BBC and the government, in which the corporation agreed to pay for the cost of free TV licences for the over 75s, estimated at £650 million, was likely to require further cuts to services provided by the BBC, such as their orchestras. The Myerscough report Delivering Quality First from 2012 about the future funding of the BBC, talked about job cuts and rationalisation of Performing Groups: the five full-time orchestras and the BBC Singers. The size of the funding cut was to be of the order of 10 per cent but it swiftly became apparent that this figure was not to be shared out equally: the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic got away with single-figure cuts whereas the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers had to bear the brunt of the cuts. Of course I think that the TV licence fee should be reviewed and restructured, as should the current governance structure of the corporation after the awful handling of the last round of negotiations with the government, but the BBC remains an important organisation, largely unbiased, that offers not only some incredible programmes accessible to everyone and facilitates live culture through its Performing Groups, one of which was supporting Keith Emerson. Hands off the BBC!

The show began without Emerson but with the orchestra, drummer Ralph Salmins and bassist Travis Davis who inadvertently created a huge crunching noise over the quiet orchestration at the start of Abaddon's Bolero as he plugged in his guitar. The appearance of Marc Bonilla as the number built to a crescendo drew a burst of applause from the audience which was repeated, louder, when Emerson, replete in a sparkly dark suit appeared to play a few bars on the Moog at the end of the piece. At this juncture Emerson explained a little bit about the concept of The Three Fates and cracked some feeble jokes when he really shouldn’t have bothered. He even asked if Rick Wakeman was present in the audience, suggesting that Wakeman should do the jokes. It also appeared that he expected Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess to be in the crowd but it wasn’t clear if Rudess was to supply any humorous material... The music fitted the classical treatment really well and it was during the second piece, The Endless Enigma that I realised how Emerson’s scoring for strings was quite identifiable, harking back to The Five Bridges Suite. Emerson didn’t contribute to Bonilla’s American Matador but the composition didn’t seem at all out of place, showcasing the guitarist’s technique and genuinely providing a Spanish feel. We were sitting quite close to the front of the stalls and over to the left side of the stage close to where the band had set up and from this position, though the full orchestra was distinct, the only part of the band that was consistently audible was the drums. I could hear the cellos and double bass better than I could make out the bass guitar; the volume of the guitar became more acceptable as the concert progressed but the keyboards, with the exception of the grand piano, were for the most part indistinguishable, lost in the swell of the brass, woodwind and strings. It was only when Emerson played solo lines like for the encore Lucky Man that he could be made out clearly.

The weakest songs may have been After All Of This (which Emerson described as also being And all of that) and a piece from a film that never surfaced The Mourning Sun but that might have been due to their relative brevity. It was interesting to hear the performance of an Alberto Ginastera piece other than ELP’s version of Toccata, Malambo and the presentation of Fanfare for the Common Man, preceded by a story about asking Copeland for permission to use the piece, was a clever comparison of the score as written followed by a version just featuring the electric group that had originally appeared on Works. The highlight was of course Tarkus in its entirety, which didn’t sound out of place as an orchestrated piece.

Emerson took up the conductor’s baton for part of the encore and seemed to do fairly well. Lucky Man, dedicated to Greg Lake and featuring the only vocals of the evening, ably provided by Bonilla, brought the event to a close. With ELP never likely to play together again a concert like this was a must not miss occasion. Despite some difficulty with the sound (at least from our seating) the performance was exceptionally enjoyable, far more so than the last rock band and orchestra I went to see – the disappointing Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It's just a bit ironic that there was no attempt to play The Three Fates from the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album when the night's performance was dubbed Three Fates.



By ProgBlog, Nov 30 2014 09:04PM

Bassoon player and oboist Lindsay Cooper died last year from complications associated with Multiple Sclerosis. I’m most familiar with her work with Henry Cow and other, like-minded bands that made up the Canterbury scene, notably Hatfield and the North and Egg. She was briefly in progressive-folk band Comus before they split in 1972 (I have a copy of To Keep from Crying which features Cooper’s bassoon on the title track) and it may have been this that got her a job with Henry Cow – To Keep from Crying was released on Virgin in 1974 and Leg End was also a Virgin release, recorded at their Manor Studios in 1973.) Her collaborations were multitudinous and I saw her perform at the Actual 84 Festival in London with combinations of David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Chris Cutler, Sally Potter, Phil Minton, Georgie Born and Dagmar Krause.

The performance at the Barbican on November 21st was a celebration of the music of Cooper in chronological order of the ensembles she had performed with: Henry Cow, Music for Films, News from Babel and Oh Moscow. I’d gone because it was in effect the first Henry Cow gig since their split in 1978, with the reunion of Fred Frith (guitar and bass), John Greaves (bass, vocals), Tim Hodgkinson (alto sax, organ), Chris Cutler (drums) and Dagmar Krause (vocals). The bassoon parts were covered by Michel Berckmans from Univers Zero.

The music almost defies categorisation, but the closest I can get is experimental chamber music. There’s Canterbury progressive in the mix, most audible on the first number they played, Falling Away from Western Culture which I found reassuringly familiar. There were no song introductions but Sally Potter, before she took her place on the stage, made a general announcement about only being able to present a tiny proportion of Cooper’s oeuvre and the appropriateness of the venue for Cooper’s music. The audience was fully aware of the complexity of the song writing but it was the first time I’ve ever seen a band have to stop and restart on three different tunes, Falling Away being the first. This prompted Jim Knipe, in attendance with me, to comment that the performance was along the lines of ‘genially shambolic.’ This opinion may have gained some currency from observing Cutler’s expansive drum technique and the fact that both Cutler and Frith played barefoot. The inclusion of the 36 second long Slice proved to be a bit of a test for the audience; its sudden conclusion could easily have been a pause between sections of a lengthier piece but we did applaud after a brief, awkward silence.

The band weren’t over amplified and the layers of music were quite clear, illustrating Cooper’s ability to write for a number of instruments simultaneously. Her compositional skills reflected her excellent improvisation which was based on her ability to pick out the different lines. With an (up to) 12 piece ensemble playing, her dense, complex and startlingly original compositions were given an almost fun airing, contradicting the popular image of the deeply studious and serious musicians. I was previously a bit wary of Dagmar Krause’s singing but I found her much more melodic than I remember; she came across with a controlled intensity that added to the haunting beauty of the compositions. If anything, the one musician I was slightly disappointed with was Fred Frith, who may have had some problems with his effects pedals. The performance of the Oh Moscow song-cycle (featuring Sally Potter) was joyous and theatrical; that the piece explores the cold war as political fact and emotional metaphor was given new relevance by recent events in the Caucus. This best demonstrated Cooper’s melodic side in contrast to the rhythmically complex material she wrote for Henry Cow.

The review in The Guardian described the audience as a mixture of ‘ageing revolutionaries, prog aficionados and Italian communists’ and though the hall wasn’t full, it was a very respectable turn out for a performance packaged as jazz festival event; there may even have been a few others not fitting The Guardian’s stereotype making up the numbers, just not very many. However, a few of the adjectives have been applied to me at some time or other.

Lindsay Cooper was an articulate political activist and outstanding musician and composer, bringing the bassoon from the orchestral shadows to front-stage in a rock context. This was an extraordinary evening: extraordinary musicians playing extraordinary music. Henry Cow had said they’d never reform but Chris Cutler managed to bring together an incredible number of musicians closely associated with the music of Cooper. It doesn’t matter what you call it: avant-rock, avant-jazz, or experimental chamber music, it was certainly an evening to remember.


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