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Is there rivaly between progressive rock bands or is the genre like an extended happy family?

ProgBlog investigates...

By ProgBlog, Jul 30 2018 01:52PM

My wife and I habitually visit flea markets and bric-a-brac shops on our tours of London and the south east, where I’m specifically seeking out vinyl bargains. Last week we were prompted to visit a shop closer to home, Atomica, in a business park off Croydon’s Purley Way, thanks to an article posted by Bygone Croydon which indicated along with the retro homeware, fashion and general relics, they had a selection of 50s – 80s vinyl. Despite being more of a showroom for their self-designed gifts which sell all over the world, the records didn’t disappoint because co-owners David and Nicky turned out to be late 60s, early 70s psyche and prog aficionados so after a good browse through a selection weighted towards prog and prog-related (choosing to buy Jethro Tull’s Live – Bursting Out and Tangerine Dream’s Cyclone, both from 1978 and both at a very reasonable price) I had lengthy chat about music with the couple, when I should have been packing my bag for the following day’s short break in Italy.



Displaying an indecision worthy of my notable family trait but in fact attempting to ensure that friends and family were all able to attend one or the other of King Crimson’s Palladium gigs in November before booking the tickets, the London shows sold out before I’d got answers from everyone. Fortunately, tickets were still available for the first 2018 UK performance in Bournemouth, so my friend Jim bagged a couple. A couple of weeks later during a trip to Milan, I saw a rather large advert for the Lucca summer festival pasted on a wall inside Milano Centrale railway station and, after I’d taken in the Roger Waters Us and Them tour date, I noticed King Crimson were due to play the festival on July 25th. On my return to the UK I touted the idea to Jim, who was very much interested, and tickets, flights and accommodation were all booked.



Strangely, my Tuscany guidebook has a slightly larger section on Lucca than on Pisa; the first Tuscan family holiday in 2013 was based in Pisa and we used the train to travel around the region, but never visited Lucca. This was rectified on the subsequent Tuscan holiday in 2014, having been told that the smaller city was probably nicer to visit than Pisa. I do like Pisa, which has two very good record stores, GAP in Via San Martino and La Galleria del Disco in Via San Francesco, and is well connected on the railway network but, apart from the obvious and spectacular Campo dei Miracoli and the museums in the Piazza del Duomo, there’s little else to do. Lucca, on the other hand, is really compact and contains a number of points of interest: Roman remains in the crypt of the church of San Giovanni and the shops and piazza marking the former Roman amphitheatre; the medieval Torre Guinigi crowned with holm-oak and the Torre delle Ore, the tallest of the towers in the city; the details on the west facade of both the Duomo San Martino and San Michele in Foro; Puccini’s birthplace museum; the art deco shop fronts in the Via Fillungo; all enclosed in broad Renaissance city walls. Lucca also has a fine record store, Sky Stone and Songs located on the Piazza Napoleone and which, on the current visit, had a window display replete with King Crimson recordings.


The festival auditorium was set up in Piazza Napoleone, covering a far greater area than I remember from my previous visits. The huge stage was to the west of the square, up against the Palazzo Ducale and, until a few hours before the event started, it was possible to amble in and out of the area. I was picking up the tickets when the soundcheck started at around 5pm and went to join a number of fans at the back of the seating area listen in as the band ran through a couple of numbers; it was obvious that the evening’s performance was going to be special.



Soundcheck
Soundcheck

By the time we went out to eat, the piazza had been emptied and a rather intimidating security cordon comprised of barriers erected in strategic places had been set up to prevent non-ticket holders from wandering in; more reassuringly in the early evening heat and humidity, there were plenty of paramedics around to cope with anyone suffering from dehydration and/or intoxication – it had been suggested that this was the biggest crowd of the European leg of the tour. After a visit to the merchandise stall for a tour programme and 10” limited edition Uncertain Times double EP we made our way to our seats in block I, row 18, where I was a little disappointed that our mid-price range tickets didn’t afford the view of the band I’d been hoping for, although we had a very good view of the giant screen just to the right of the stage.



The performance started on the stroke of 9pm following an announcement in Italian about not recording the event and not taking photographs; this was succeeded by a recording of Robert Fripp emphasising that to ensure we all had a great party we shouldn’t take photos during the concert but, because bassist Tony Levin wanted to take a photo of the crowd when they’d finished playing, we could take photos when Levin took out his camera. He added that at the request of his fellow band members, there would be two halves to the set separated by a 20 minute intermission. Remarkably, following my experiences in Genoa and Brescia for PFM and Le Orme respectively where a sea of 10” tablets and cases obscured my sight line to the bands playing on stage, Fripp’s ‘no photography’ request was heeded by most of the crowd and the use of smartphones and cameras was restrained.

The set list wasn’t too far removed from the last time I saw them, at London’s Hackney Empire in September 2015, though in the intervening period Bill Rieflin had taken a sabbatical and was replaced by Jeremy Stacey on drums and keyboards, then returned in the role of keyboard player, creating an octet. There was a distinct bias towards material written for early incarnations of the group, where the only song missing from In the Court of the Crimson King was I Talk to the Wind and every studio album up to Beat, with the exception of Starless and Bible Black, was represented by at least one track. The most recent studio album music was Level Five/Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 5 (from 2003’s The Power to Believe) but they played parts of Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) written specifically for the three-drummer line-up, and the three drummers opened each half of the set with a remarkable percussive display, called for that evening A Tapestry of Drumsons and Drumsons of Psychokinesis. I was pleasantly surprised how much keyboard Fripp played, and how easy it was to distinguish the guitar of Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk when it had proved difficult for me to work out which line belonged to which guitarist in every version of the band including Adrian Belew; it was more difficult to work out who was playing which keyboard part when Stacey retreated to the back of his drum kit and the big screen showed Rieflin. The role of each drummer was fairly well delineated, with Pat Mastelotto adding a huge variety of colour with some novel bits of percussion and some non-percussion, much like Bill Bruford following the departure of Jamie Muir in 1973, Stacey’s keyboard responsibilities, and Gavin Harrison acting as the rhythmic anchor, even adding an impressive solo on encore 21st Century Schizoid Man. However, it was when the three operated as a unit that they most impressed, exemplified by their discipline and precision on Indiscipline.


Though Mel Collins had appeared on many of the originals played that evening (Pictures of a City, Cirkus, the Lizard suite, Islands) he didn’t simply stick to the written lines but was given plenty of room to extemporise, blowing jazz and quoting operatic flute. This free rein with well trodden pieces seemed to add to the enjoyment of the ensemble while also allowing the audience to experience the music in new ways; we were even treated to a new set of lyrics on Easy Money.


The performance, including the break, lasted over three hours. Though loud, the sound was really well balanced, making up for the slightly awkward seating position where it was easier but less desirable to watch close-ups on the big screen than get the big picture. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did the rest of the audience who not only showed their appreciation at the end of each piece of music but responded to mid-song solos and key moments with enthusiastic applause. I was a bit surprised by the clarity of the subtleties and, strangely for a King Crimson gig, did not feel overpowered by the volume. I really hope that there’s going to be a DVD release of the concert at some stage in the near future because along with the quality of the audio, the camerawork for the big screens was also rather good.



Another successful trip to see a band in Italy completed, but I’m now looking forward to seeing Crimson in Bournemouth at the end of October...









By ProgBlog, Jan 31 2016 10:18PM

The Steven Wilson gig did not disappoint. It helped that I had a front row seat, pretty much centre stage (courtesy of Neil with his hyper-quick responses when booking opened) and though Craig Blundell was obscured behind his drum kit, this was a view as good as it gets. Being so close to the stage had the slight disadvantage of not getting the best sound balance; the mixing desk was at the back of the stalls so I imagine that was where you’d experience the perfect listening environment. Ian Bond, veteran front-of-house sound man did a pretty good job for the front row, too, because the only difficulties we had with the sound were a rather quiet Adam Holzman Moog and some indistinct bass, though the latter may have been a venue-wide problem because Nick Beggs was making full use of a range of 5 string instruments; needless to say Wilson’s guitar, from his Bad Cat amp and cabinet placed directly in front of us, was crystal clear. It was satisfying that they played the entire Hand.Cannot.Erase, including the short Transience which had been omitted from the UK shows following the album’s release. After the intermission we were treated to a range of other Wilson material from Porcupine Tree to Storm Corrosion (the dark, haunting but brilliant Drag Ropes) plus, as a tribute to the recently departed David Bowie, Space Oddity which was filmed on a series of Go Pro cameras. There was also an outing for half of his new album 41/2, a collection of five songs that didn’t quite make it on to either Raven or H.C.E, not because of a perceived lack of quality, rather that they didn’t quite fit in with the feel of those albums, plus a reworked Don’t Hate Me, originally recorded by Porcupine Tree that appeared on Stupid Dream (1999). Theo Travis supplied flute and saxophone for the original release and his contribution was covered by keyboards and guitar when the piece was played live. The 41/2 version includes Travis plus singer Ninet Tayeb and live, without Travis but with its trippy Floyd-inspired lengthy spaced-out middle section, was one of the highlights of the evening. Tayeb, who was guest vocalist on a number of songs, is such an incredible talent she’s still able to add an extra dimension to the stellar-quality line-up of the Steven Wilson band. It seemed somehow appropriate that she should sing on Don’t Hate Me which utilised eastern scales.



Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016
Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016

During an interview for The Pedal Show before the Bristol gig a couple of days earlier, Wilson described himself as approaching the sound from a producer’s perspective, hinting that his musical ability wasn’t perhaps in the same class as his band. This could be cited as an example of classic English reserve, for Wilson is an undoubted talent, but I’ve heard this statement before, in the same context, from Italian bassist Fabio Zuffanti. There are quite a number of parallels between Wilson and Zuffanti though apart from in his native Italy, Zuffanti has not really been recognised as a major force in modern progressive rock.

I saw Zuffanti and his Z band when Jim Knipe and I attended the Prog Résiste convention in Soignies in April 2014, showcasing his latest solo effort La Quarta Vittima but also playing songs from a back catalogue of 20 years in the music business; extracts from the Soignies performance are available to view on YouTube (Rainsuite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6Dlf3HmzAc is a good example.) It was at the post-performance interview, fortunately carried out in English, that someone suggested a parallel with Steven Wilson and Zuffanti, in a self-depreciating manner, suggested that he wasn’t in the same calibre as his band-mates. What he revealed at this interview were his thoughts on his musical projects. He suggested that if Quarta Vittima was going to be compared to Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (which had been released a few months before, and which Zuffanti obviously felt was the pinnacle of Wilson’s output at that time, Höstsonaten were the equivalent of the Enid, with a very symphonic palette. Though Porcupine Tree was on hiatus at the time, the inference was that PT was the primary vehicle for Wilson’s music, rather like La Maschera di Cera was for Zuffanti.



Though I was aware of other Zuffanti projects, at the beginning of 2014 I only had Maschera di Cera albums and the first Finisterre album (Finisterre, 1995). I’d bought LuxAde (2006) for £6 from Beanos second-hand store in February 2009, without listening to it, based on the instrumentation and the fact it was produced by PFM drummer Franz di Cioccio. I hadn’t appreciated that this was a band revisiting the Orpheus saga (c.f. Focus and Eruption) but it remains one of the best buys I’ve ever made; when I got home and checked my Progressive Rock Files, even before listening to it, it was evident that I had acquired something special. I wasn’t disappointed because the recording is as close as you can get to classic 70s Italian prog; analogue instrumentation including some excellent fuzz bass, symphonic scope and operatic vocals, all executed with consummate skill. I was so impressed I began looking for Maschera di Cera albums on every subsequent trip to Italy but for some reason I couldn’t locate any and finally plumped for a download of their second album Il Grande Labirinto (2003) from Amazon in 2010, describing it in an Amazon review as a Fragile to the Close to the Edge of LuxAde (some of the details turned out to be not quite right!):


“...Il Grande Labirinto is their second album, and with no Italian trip scheduled for a while, I had to indulge in the mp3 download. (When I'm next in Italy I'm going to seek out and buy the CD for myself and two prog-minded brothers.) This release is slightly less musically mature than Lux Ade - kind of like the relationship between Fragile and Close to the Edge - almost perfect but not quite.

The musical territory is classic 70s Italian prog. PFM are an obvious comparison, though La Maschera di Cera are less jazz-influenced. Some of the keyboard trills sound like early Genesis, and there's a Wakeman-sounding synth line or two. My favourite passage is the final section of the 22 minute 37 second long Il Viaggio Nell'oceano Capovolto Parte 2 (Voyager to the Inverted Ocean) that builds up from a haunting gentle woodwind melody that reminds me of Islands-era King Crimson.

Did anyone think prog was dead? Think again, and invest in this great album.”


As soon as I’d heard the band were going to do a companion piece to Felona e Sorona (1973) by Le Orme, entitled Le Porte del Domani (2013) released in both Italian and English versions (The Gates of Tomorrow), I had to buy both mixes; the Italian version was my album of the year.

I hadn’t really formed an opinion about the music of Finisterre other than I liked it and it seemed not quite fully formed. Tracks seemed to be truncated mid-flow which left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. I bought In Limine (1996) when I went to the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014 where Zuffanti, in his home city of Genoa, was wandering around chatting to friends and fans on the first day. The title track of that album was one of the pieces played by the Z band in Soignies. I bought In ogni luogo (1998) and La Meccanica Naturale (2005), both in cardboard gatefold sleeves from Galleria del Disco in Florence later in 2014 and have now come to the conclusion that Finisterre was a band for trying out ideas. Back in Soignies I bought both La Quarta Vittima and Höstsonaten’s live version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2013) from Zuffanti’s merchandise stand and then also from the same shop in Florence, Höstsonaten’s Winterthrough (2005.) It’s true that Höstsonaten are symphonic; the music is layered and melodic and Ancient Mariner, performed with dancers, was a modern opera.

There was no full concert recording of the Z band so late in 2014 Zuffanti and his collaborators recorded the material they’d been playing during their live set, live in the studio, releasing Il Mondo Che Era Mio at the end of the year. My copy was bought early in 2015 and it is a faithful reproduction of the Z band live experience, a mixture of dynamics, strong melodies and classic-sounding instrumentation.

Last year I spent a family long weekend in Milan and came across the excellent Rossetti Records, and amongst my haul I bought Il giorno sottile (2001), by the rather obscure Zuffanti project Quadraphonic. This represents Zuffanti at his most experimental, producing an interesting and challenging album of industrial music and electronica, heavily reliant on loops, which at times is bleak though it does retain the memory of melody.

Zuffanti seems to be at the centre of the vast Genoa prog scene. When Francesca Francesca Zanetta, guitarist with Unreal City, was interviewed after their performance at the Riviera Prog Festival, she thanked Zuffanti for helping the band (he produced their debut album La Crudeltà Di Aprile, 2013) and another band he seems to have helped, who also appeared at the same festival, were Il Tempio delle Clessidre and most recently he’s collaborated with keyboard player Stefano Agnini from La Coscienza di Zeno, a band who played at both Soignies and at the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014. This project, under the title of La Curva di Lesmo, features a cast of the new wave of Italian prog and the music ranges from out and out symphonic prog to some traditional-sounding Italain music, taking in folk and electronica on the way. I bought a heavyweight white vinyl copy to play on my new Rega RP3 and the cover, by legendary artist Guido Crepax, harks back to Nuda (1972) by Garybaldi, in a similar manner to Maschera di Cera using artwork by Lanfranco for Le Porte del Domani, after Le Orme’s cover for Felona e Sorona, an album also released in English with lyrics by Peter Hammill.



Zuffanti shares with Wilson an appreciation for the origins of the genre (including a love of Mellotron) but they also choose to work with a range of other musicians which informs their style, seeking out different avenues for their talents. Wilson is now a global star; I’m just waiting for Zuffanti to get the full recognition he deserves.







By ProgBlog, Jul 26 2015 10:57PM

There were a number of factors that combined to allow the development of progressive rock, not least of all sociological factors. Psychedelia emerged as the music of the counterculture and this, in turn, allowed the evolution of prog which, at its inception, retained some of the anti-mainstream ideals. The concept of ‘free love’ was closely associated with the hippie movement, being a rejection of established sexual mores. Greater sexual freedom (leading to the term ‘swinging sixties’) was catalysed by the availability of the contraceptive pill, described as one of the most significant medical advance of the 20th century because of the major role it has played in the women's liberation movement and emancipation, for the first time allowing women to plan and control their own reproductive capacity. The pill, a combination of hormones oestrogen and progestin which were synthetically produced to mimic the body's natural hormones, works by suppressing ovulation. It was developed by biologist Dr Gregory Pincus in the US during the 1950s and was approved for release in 1960, having been tested on Puerto Rican and Haitian women. Take-up was rapid: within two years of its launch it was being used by 1.2 million American women and the current number of users is of the order of 11 million. It was made available in the UK on the NHS in 1961 for married women only, a state that lasted until 1967, the height of the psychedelic movement; between 1962 and 1969 the number of users rose from approximately 50,000 to one million and it is now taken by 3.5 million women in Britain between the ages of 16 and 49. Worldwide, around 100 million women take the pill. While there are concerns over the safety of the pill in certain groups of women (heavy smokers over the age of 35, the obese, those with a risk of thrombosis, those with heart disease, those with a history of certain disease such as breast cancer) the pill has been shown to protect against cancer of the ovaries and the womb lining, and protect against pelvic inflammatory disease, a major cause of infertility in women. Sadly, even today there’s still a reactionary bloc that is unable to accept women’s sexual rights, including patriarchal organisations such as the Catholic Church and some of the more right-wing media empires. Self-styled moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, famous in the progressive rock world for incurring the ire of Roger Waters (Pigs [Three Different Ones] from Animals, 1977) formed the (short-lived) Christian grassroots movement Nationwide Festival of Light along with, amongst others, journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge in response to concerns over the development of the permissive society in the UK during the late 60s; Muggeridge frequently denounced this new sexual freedom on radio and television and particularly railed against "pills and pot", birth control and cannabis. Within the counterculture he became something of a figure of ridicule, such that early bootlegged versions of Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky (to appear on Dark Side of the Moon, 1973) included snippets of his speeches, titled The Collected Ramblings of Malcolm Muggeridge.

It’s rather disappointing that the first wave of prog didn’t produce many bands with female musicians, building on the legacy of US psychedelic bands Jefferson Airship, later Jefferson Spaceship (Grace Slick) and Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin), both of these groups having formed in San Francisco, the epicentre of the counterculture. The rock music business was another male-dominated industry and counter-intuitively it wasn’t until the rise of punk that women got to feature in more bands, though there have always been other genres that did have female stars. For prog, which tended to address issues other than ‘boy-meets-girl’, in the UK only Sonja Kristina and Annie Haslam, with Curved Air and Renaissance respectively, got to front groups; I’m not going to include Kate Bush, a solo artist whose oeuvre includes some prog-inflected material, other than to mention her strike for equality by demonstrating that she was in complete creative control of her work; Jerney Kaagman was singer for successful Netherlands prog band Earth and Fire.

Normally the preserve of glam metal acts, there a small number of examples of prog which I think come close to hinting at the exploitation of women, the clearest of which is probably King Crimson’s Ladies of the Road (from Islands, 1971.) It has been suggested that the lyrics to the song were an accurate representation of the early period of Boz Burrell's life as a young man on tour where groupies were readily available for casual sex, a phenomenon that burgeoned during the heyday of the counterculture. Caravan’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink schoolboy humour runs throughout much of their early work but in my opinion it’s not necessarily exploitative; Richard Sinclair comes across as quite sympathetic to the lead character on the title track from Waterloo Lily (1972.)

My acquisition of An Electric Storm (1969) by White Noise from a record and CD fair in Brighton a couple of weeks ago is the third example in my collection of a record featuring simulated sex noises. I accept it’s pushing the definition of prog to include this album but it’s an important release in terms of sonic possibilities; a very early example of tape effects and electronica. More au fait with Vorhaus’ White Noise II (1975) on which he used a synthesizer with a ribbon controller (I dubbed it an electric drainpipe) the original White Noise featured BBC Radiophonic Workshop employees Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. The track My Game of Love was written with synthesized noises of an orgy but, according to the liner notes for the CD release, Vorhaus must have been dissatisfied with the results and mixed his electronic creation with a recording of a real orgy.

The first example that I heard of sex noises on a prog album was, appropriately enough, ∞ (Infinity) from 666 (1972) by Aphrodite’s Child – Aphrodite being the Greek goddess of love, beauty and procreation. The record company, Mercury, objected to the double-album length and the musical experimentation, as well as the track ∞, because of the simulated female orgasm lasting over 5 minutes provided by Greek actress Irene Papas, who repeats the words "I was, I am, I am to come" over a sparse percussion track. This track in particular makes Je t’aime... moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin sound rather tame.

The second is a CD I came across in Metropolis Music in Melbourne when I was in Australia in 2005 – Masq (1971) by Catharsis. There was no Australian prog available and I felt I had to buy something from the store because the staff were incredibly helpful. I chose Masq because it was described as ‘the first album from a great French underground group, lots of weirdness with some folky touches, unique!’ It comes across as something like a psychedelic folk band though it does feature some dreamy organ and some free-form sections that could have been inspired by early Pink Floyd. The final two minutes of the second track, 4 art 6 features simulated sex sounds, the female parts provided by singer Charlotte.

These three examples are from early in the prog canon and, to a greater extent, reflect the period in which they were written, a time of sexual freedom and exploration. They come across as consensual and sharing, fitting in with the original philosophy of progressive rock as an inclusive, outward looking and anti-authoritarian movement. It’s strange that this non-threatening music was performed almost exclusively by males to an audience of almost exclusively males but happily, the third wave of prog features a number of excellent women musicians and the presence of females in the audiences is becoming more noticeable. Long live equality!



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