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

ProgBlog investigates...

By ProgBlog, Apr 26 2016 08:52PM

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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








By ProgBlog, Nov 22 2015 09:33PM

My daily commute now involves taking the London Overground (aka the Ginger Line) from Norwood Junction to Whitechapel. Whereas the journey to London Bridge for Guy’s Hospital involved a 19 minute walk, a five minute wait in a carefully worked-out spot so that I’d get a seat on the 08.05 on a journey that took a minimum of 18 minutes, I now have an 18 minute walk through more pleasant surroundings (Brickfields Meadow in Woodside) and a theoretical 4 minute wait for the train, standing as close as fellow travellers allow to the position of the last doors of coach four when the carriage pulls to a halt. This is important. The East London Line service, which opened in 2010, was designed for four coach trains, i.e. the platform length of the new, dedicated Overground stations was equivalent to the length of a four coach train. This wonderful piece of prescience must have been an attempt to save money but such were the demands on the service that they added an extra car to each train and the doors of the last coach don’t open at the stations between New Cross Gate and Dalston Junction; the exit steps at Whitechapel are at the end of the train. I think I’ve managed to bag a seat only twice on outward journeys in the two months that I’ve been working at the Royal London, such is the inadequate provision of seats on these trains; I embark at the second station on the route. The boast ‘5 car train’ at the front of each service is a twisted joke - I’ve seen toy trains that have been longer.

I read my Guardian until capacity is reached, normally by Sydenham, when I’m no longer able to turn the pages; this depends on how the entire service is running and though I check BBC travel before I set off to the station, the situation is liable to change drastically by the time I step into Norwood Junction for reasons that the service operator seem unable to divulge. The result is that the train can be overcrowded before it has left and in these situations the mp3 player is essential.

The journey is timetabled to take 33 minutes but rarely achieves this so theoretically I could listen to a full, short album but choose to stow the Walkman before I pull into Whitechapel to facilitate a rapid exit; I seriously think I have some form of claustrophobia. On Friday I was listening to Birds of Fire (1973) by the Mahavishnu Orchestra and it struck me that though this is hailed as one of the fusion greats it stylistically leans much more towards the side of rock. That incarnation of the band seems to possess a remarkable musical understanding though the recording demonstrates urgency and, surprisingly, a fairly raw sound that I’d not really noticed before. With compositions primarily riff-based, the sheer power and attack of McLaughlin’s electric guitar reminds me of Cream but it’s when at least two of the lead instruments are playing the same lines where this aggressiveness is most evident. From a jazz perspective, there are solo spots for guitar, Jerry Goodman’s violin and Jan Hammer’s keyboards, however I find the band most thrilling when the musicians play call and response lines at breakneck speed. McLaughlin may be credited as composer on all tracks on Birds of Fire (and The Inner Mounting Flame, 1971) but I’ve noticed that when played on my PC there are other credits, to young keyboard player Jean-Philippe Rykiel, who had shared the stage with Miles Davis, for the track Hope; and to trombonist/pianist Bob Brookmeyer for Open Country Joy, two tracks where the writing is sympathetic to Goodman. I’ve just looked at my LP, bought in 1975 and there’s no indication that anyone else had a hand in writing the tunes; my remastered CD is currently out of reach, boxed away waiting for the new CD racks to appear.


I don’t remember quite why I got into the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s possible that Tony heard either The Inner Mounting Flame or Birds of Fire on Derek Jewell’s radio show, but when I saw the Ashok Chris Poisson cover on the latter I was intrigued; the Miles Davis connection was a bonus because I quite liked our father’s Miles records. Bill Burford bought The Inner Mounting Flame and I got Birds of Fire which, until recently, I’d always preferred out of the two; the earlier album occasionally veered too much towards Country music for my taste. My favourite album is Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) which I also bought in 1975, because the three coherent long-form tracks make it the closest the band came to prog; I love the dynamics and the playing is of such a remarkable standard you’d never guess that internal tensions were about to bring a close to that particular chapter. Jan Hammer, possibly most famous in non-musical circles for Crockett’s Theme (from Miami Vice) or the recent Mars Bar advert where a dog plays the tune on pan pipes, gets a full song writing credit for Sister Andrea but it’s undeniably Mahavishnu material. The studio version of these pieces, released as The Lost Trident Sessions (1999) also includes tracks by Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird. It would be remiss of me not to mention the rhythm section; Laird was very solid and unflash and Billy Cobham was stunning throughout, an undeniably super-talented musician who inspired a generation of jazz rock drummers. The live performance was remarkably true to the tracks laid down on The Lost Trident Sessions.

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