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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, Sep 12 2018 10:01PM

On a recent trip to my local retro-fashion and second-hand vinyl emporium Atomica, I bought a classic piece of 70’s electronica Timewind by Klaus Schulze and also picked up Kate Bush’s Lionheart from 1978. David and Nicky, who own Atomica, are into 60’s psyche and 70’s prog so, while I flicked through record sleeves and In the Court of the Crimson King was playing on a retro record deck, the conversation turned from Kate Bush sophistipop (their term) to the paucity of progressive rock in the 80s.

In common with some other commentators, I believe that the golden age of progressive rock ended in 1978, although that’s not to deny some good progressive rock music was produced afterwards; it’s simply that the industry and the market changed. Writing in a 2014 blog, I addressed what I called the ‘lean years for prog’ and referenced my gig diary; between Fairport Convention at Wimbledon Theatre in January 1985 and the unexpected but very welcome reunion of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe who I witnessed at Wembley Area in October 1989, I attended only two gigs: John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon in March 1987, and a resurrected Pink Floyd at Wembley Stadium in August 1988. It’s possible that the stunning presentation of the Floyd live show, complete with crash-diving Stuka bomber and evil flying pig reinvented the concert as rock music spectacular but from a personal perspective, it was the music that stood out. Their descent to mainstream rock (albeit with appropriate sentiment) covering parts of Animals, all of The Wall and The Final Cut was thrown into reverse with A Momentary Lapse of Reason which I’ve previously stated was a return to (progressive rock) form. Although I commented on what I was buying in lieu of prog I didn’t cover, and have never really written about, neo-prog.





The demise of progressive rock at the end of the 70s was inextricably linked to free market dogma, the predominant ideology at the time and one that was opposite to the counter-cultural beliefs that had inspired the movement. Punk may have briefly surfaced between 1976-8 as reaction to the perceived excesses of some of the established bands and musicians but it was quickly hijacked by the nascent publicity machinery, a major part of the UK’s replacement for a decimated manufacturing base.

Punk can be seen as a discontinuity (if you’ll forgive the geological pun); progressive rock was the dominant style in the preceding years and new wave would follow. For existing artists, moving away from prog was less a conscious decision and more of a drift towards conformity under pressure from a music business that was changing from an ethos of supporting artistic freedom (that somehow still managed to sell millions of albums) to one of commodity. Examples of record company interference might include the imposition of external producers to capture the immediacy of punk, or simply the insistence that a band produce a hit single or get dropped from the roster.

Punk may also have illustrated the bleakness of ordinary lives but in reaction, this readied the world for a bit of glamour: Fashion and music, the rise of style over substance. Fortunately, some of the next generation of musicians, those born in the late 50s and early 60s who had grown up listening to progressive rock, made a conscious decision to emulate these groups, sometimes injected with an attitude borrowed from punk or the fashion of post-punk. However, before the appearance of these neo-prog acts, King Crimson were making a reappearance as a cross between polyrhythmic progressive rock and new wave sophistipop, thanks to the inclusion of former Talking Head Adrian Belew in the line-up. The Discipline-era King Crimson lasted from 1981 to Sunday 12th July 1984, the morning after the last show of the Three of a Perfect Pair tour, during which time I managed to see them live on two occasions, the first as the pre-King Crimson Discipline.


Asia had also convened in 1981, releasing their eponymous debut album in March 1982. An easy target for critics, they were seen as yesterday’s musicians with nothing new to give but fortunately for the band, millions of ordinary members of the record-buying public disagreed and somehow Asia managed to ride the zeitgeist for a few years. At the time, I was happy to buy Asia without having heard a single bar of the music, simply based on the line-up. The end product was undoubtedly slick but it wasn’t progressive rock and I really wish they’d taken a different approach. Though it wasn’t terribly adventurous, the musicianship still manages to shine through despite this inability to challenge the listener. I also think the lyrical content conforms to the prevailing political climate of the time, where the subject matter is primarily about relationships, love, and sung in the first person. It’s inward-looking, what the world is doing to the singer, putting the individual at the centre. These were the new world values where the politics were far from progressive.


Out of some misplaced sense of loyalty I also bought the second Asia album Alpha when that came out in 1983 and a couple of months later handed over my cash for Yes' 90125. This proved to be a qualitative move away from classic Yes music, incorporating MTV- and radio-friendly tunes from which all traces of analogue keyboard had been eradicated. The shift towards more accessible music affected the existing Yes fan-base more than it did the fans of band members who made up Asia. Asia was a new band with no previously defined sound of its own whereas Yes had considerable history and, despite sometimes seismic personnel changes they had always maintained a particular world-view; 90125 is radically different, with a combination of guitar-heavy material from Trevor Rabin and Trevor Horn’s brash production. It may have become the best–selling Yes album but it divided existing Yes fans, with substantial numbers, like me, who could barely relate to the overtly commercial sound of a compressed sonic palette and what felt like a retrograde step towards generic 80s rock.

Yet hidden beneath the clamour created by the surprise continued success of some big names from the progressive rock genre, there were a few acts with a loyal live following struggling to get the attention of record labels, plying a music very closely related to classic 70’s progressive rock. My dalliance with neo-prog consisted of prevaricating about buying Marillion’s Script for a Jester’s Tear when it was first released in 1983, ‘Marillion’ being a shortened form of the band’s original name, Silmarillion, after the JRR Tolkien history of Middle Earth; buying the Garden Party 7” single (b/w Margaret) because it was cheap; recording a live radio broadcast of the Fugazi tour from Golddiggers in Chippenham in March 1984; buying the 12” single of Kayleigh b/w Lady Nina (extended version) sometime in 1985; and going to see The Enid with a variety of neo-prog support acts including Pendragon and Solstice at the Ace in Brixton on 11th May 1983.






The absence of column inches dedicated to my old favourites meant that I no longer regularly bought anything from the music press and therefore missed out on seeing the two best neo-prog bands, Marillion and IQ. Someone gave me a copy of Marillion in Words and Pictures by Carol Clerk for a birthday in the early 90s and around this time, when seconded to work in Saudi Arabia for a few weeks, I bought an unauthorised Marillion compilation on cassette. I reappraised the lack of Marillion in my collection in 2008 and got Misplaced Childhood on CD, and downloads of Script and Fugazi; having read sufficient good things about IQ and seen Martin Orford play in John Wetton’s band, I also bought a download of The Wake (1985) at the same time, and received the 30th anniversary Tales from the Lush Attic after that was released in 2013; I’ve since bought vinyl versions of Tales from the Lush Attic, The Wake, Script for a Jester’s Tear and bought a download of IQ’s Dark Matter (2004). Also, while looking for Spanish prog on holiday in Barcelona in 2010, I came across a second-hand copy of Pendragon’s Masquerade Overture (1996) in Impacto for €9.95.



Subsequent to my rediscovery of UK neo-prog, a trip to Milan earlier this year turned up a book about Italian prog, Rock Progressivo Italiano 1980-2013 by Massimo Salari (Arcana, 2018) which covers neo-prog and the 90’s progressive revival, quite different from the other progressivo Italiano books that tend to concentrate on music of the late 60s and 70s. My decision to buy Italian vinyl whilst visiting the country means I’ve unwittingly started to collect Italian music from the neo-prog era, the most prized being Ancient Afternoons (1990) by Ezra Winston, voted the best Italian album of the 90s by Prog Italia magazine, followed by Dopo l’Infinito (1988) by Nuovo Era and Heartquake (1988) by Leviathan, which were number 2 and number 7 respectively in Prog Italia’s Italian albums of the 80s – Ezra Winston were first with Myth of the Chrysavides from 1988.





One of the criticisms hurled at Marillion in particular, was that they were just a rehash of early 70’s Genesis. Fish’s predilection for greasepaint and costume changes must have added weight to that argument but it is actually guitarist Steve Rothery who comes across as being most influenced by Genesis with a playing style based on Steve Hackett and Dave Gilmour and Andy Latimer. It’s also well documented how much Gabriel-era Genesis influenced the Italian progressive rock bands but that influence also affects Italian neo-prog, with much of Ancient Afternoons referencing the pastoral charm of Trespass; however, both Heartquake and Dopo l’Infinito have a more modern sound, more akin to UK neo-prog than 70’s classic progressive rock. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that there are a number of different Marillion tribute acts in Italy – I saw Mr Punch perform an accurate recreation of Misplaced Childhood last year at the Porto Antico Prog Fest.




Another Italian band that I follow who came together during this time are Eris Pluvia. They released Rings of Earthly Light in 1991 and later reformed as Ancient Veil; both versions of the group, with Alessandro Serri and Edmondo Romano as core members, play a broader range of styles than Leviathan or Nuovo Era, demonstrated by jazz phrasing along with Serri’s Hackett-like guitar, and some very prog-folk moments thanks to Romano’s use of a full range of wind instruments.


My previous contention that the 80s was largely devoid of interesting music was totally misplaced. 70’s style progressive rock may have disappeared but both the industry and the market had changed when I didn’t. I was dimly aware that something was going on but declined to fully engage, spending my time and money seeking out albums to fill the gaps in my 70’s-centric collection, consequently missing out on a range of bands that I should have embraced. I do now.





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.

By ProgBlog, Nov 8 2015 09:09PM

The Wellcome Collection on Euston Road bills itself as ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’ and is basically a synthesis of a gallery and a museum that displays an eclectic mixture of medical artefacts and original artworks exploring ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art. I first visited Henry Solomon Wellcome’s former museum in Wigmore Street as a Botany/Zoology student, sometime in the late 70s or early 80s and though the collection has both moved and expanded, the concept of treating art and medical science as equally valid subjects remains true; it’s an institution that appeals to my sense of the value of medicine and medical research which reflects my professional life, but also satisfies my appreciation of the arts, though I subscribe to the belief that the Wellcome Trust should divest its investments in fossil fuels in order to combat climate change. I attended a British Transplantation Society Ethics symposium in its new home last December which concluded with an evening debate, hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby, open to transplant professionals and the general public. The building itself is impressive, with a neo-classical façade and modern interior; high ceilings, clean lines and a spectacular steel and glass spiral staircase that hints at DNA, designed by Wilkinson Eyre and costing over £1m.

I was there yesterday with my family to visit the first instalment of the States of Mind exhibition, an installation by Ann Veronica Janssens, yellowbluepink where the exhibition space is filled with a dense mist coloured by lights, giving the impression that it’s the colour itself that is held in a state of suspension as you make your way around the gallery. Rather like the feeling when you’re caught in a white-out on a mountain, you lose your sense of depth and you can’t detect any detail in the surface you’re walking upon; I’ve been known to fall over in conditions like these when skiing, even standing still. The effect of the artwork is to make you concentrate on the process of perception itself and, as your environment has an apparent embracing fluidity comprised of colour, your normal cognitive processes are deconstructed and you find yourself working out a different way of seeing.

Psychedelia and early progressive rock were very much keyed in to expanding consciousness. Lysergic acid, LSD, was seen as one route and meditative practice was another; I don’t think it can be disputed that LSD and eastern thinking had an influence on the output of the Beatles and it’s very likely that at least one of these had some bearing on Procol Harum (In Held 'Twas in I from Shine On Brightly, 1968) but while acid would become associated with space rock, inner space as much as outer space, an interest in the philosophy of eastern religions was more mainstream, inspiring (amongst others) John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Yes. Bill Bruford jokingly suggests he’s responsible for Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) because it was at Bruford’s wedding that King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir introduced Jon Anderson to the writings of Paramahansa Yogananda.

Transcendental Meditation was fashionable when I was at school and a number of my good friends went off to a lecture hear about the practice; the parents of one of them were concerned that the event was some form of brain-washing exercise. Though I read widely around the subjects of expanding consciousness including a trio of books by Carlos Castaneda and the obligatory The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, I was never tempted to meditate and the only hallucinogens I ever ingested were Psilocybe semilanceata, freshly foraged from Streatham common, and seeds from home-grown Ipomoea violacea (Heavenly Blue Morning Glory.) Both were chosen because they were natural, unadulterated products and, in the case of the magic mushrooms, as a former botany student I was unconcerned that I’d pick something unpalatable. During an InterRail tour of Europe in 1980 with fellow botany student Nick Hodgetts, we were on the lookout for Lophophora williamsii, the peyote. I may have been influenced by the almost lounge-jazz of Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) from In and Out of Focus (1970) but despite some promising signs on barges in Amsterdam, we didn’t find any. Back home, the Ipomoea didn’t work at all and the result from the fungi was mildly disappointing; I succumbed to finding everything very funny and though I thought that my smile was going to spread so wide that my head was going to fall off, there were no chromatic or sonic effects. This contrasts with the coverage of use of magic mushrooms by youths in Barrow’s Evening Mail which described tales of visions of dragons. How prog is that? Perhaps I should have stayed in Barrow...

I have found that live music can lead to transcendental experiences. The dreamy soundscapes of Sylvian and Fripp played havoc with my temporal awareness when I saw them at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993, despite the cramped seating conditions. It felt as though I was transported to another time and another place and, as I’d not previously heard any of the material, it came as something of a shock to find that one of the tracks was called Twentieth Century Dreaming (A Shaman's Song). When I used to listen to Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon (1975) in the dark and through headphones I used to imagine other possible worlds, with the flowing, amorphous sounds conjuring a dynamic spectrum of colours. Though I appreciate stagecraft and thematic stage design, I’d always wanted to see Tangerine Dream in a dimly-lit church. The nearest thing I ever came to them was witnessing Node earlier this year, at the Royal College of Music. The pulsating sequences and sonic washes were mesmerising; the musicians were mostly static but when I closed my eyes the effect was to take me on a trip into inner space, equating the sequences with racing heartbeats or neuro-synaptic transmission.

This effect isn’t only associated with soundscapes or electronica; two years ago watching a reformed Camel performing The Snow Goose in its entirety, I was carried by the music to a dream world where I played out the piece, somehow anticipating and embracing the changes required for the composition when realised without an orchestra. The effect seems to occur when I’m most relaxed, undisturbed by theatrical elements and allowing the musicians to weave their magic. Only prog seems to have that magic.



By ProgBlog, Jun 28 2015 10:12PM

A forty-year anniversary passed last month that I hadn’t realised until I watched my The Gates of QPR, Yes at Queens Park Rangers Stadium (volume 2) a couple of days ago – a concert recorded on the 10th May 1975 and featuring Patrick Moraz on keyboards even though there’s a picture of Rick Wakeman on the back sleeve. The set list for this DVD is really good and the sound quality is mostly good, too. It’s quite interesting to see Steve Howe using a double-neck 6 and 12 string Gibson for the opener, And You and I, whereas in the studio he used a 12 string acoustic guitar and I’m sure I’ve seen him play an acoustic instrument when I’ve seen Yes play live. There are a number of entirely reasonable practical reasons for using an electric guitar in this context which doesn’t really detract from the feel of the performance but I believe the original studio instrumentation is an important part of the make-up of symphonic progressive rock.

One of the core features of symphonic prog is the broad sonic palette utilised to produce sweeping musical visions incorporating a range of different moods. The listener’s interest is maintained by a number of devices including changes of tempo, changes of time signature, chord changes and changes in amplitude. This compositional complexity is what appeals to me because it makes the music less formulaic and more likely to capture my imagination, transcending the verse-chorus-verse-chorus of the boy-meets-girl pop song and allowing the musicians to relate long stories or explore philosophical issues. Different instruments or electronic patches, often outside the remit of mainstream popular music, don’t only add an exotic flavour but may represent a particular narrative thread; Camel’s Snow Goose uses this formula but Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, written for a children's theatre is the best example. Prokofiev invented the story and wrote the narration, constructing the music as a child's introduction to the orchestra, with each character represented by a different instrument or group of instruments: Peter by the strings, the bird by the flute, the duck by the oboe, the cat by the clarinet, the wolf by the horn section, and so on. It’s therefore hardly surprising that a number of prog luminaries, including Bill Bruford, Brian Eno and Robin Lumley, should collaborate on a rock version of the Prokofiev classic.

The main exponents of acoustic guitar passages include Yes, Genesis, Focus and PFM. I’ve not included Jethro Tull in this list because Ian Anderson’s guitar is primarily used as strummed or picked chordal blocks, intended as backing for electric guitar, keyboards, flute or a vocal melody line. I’m also not including the brilliant John McLaughlin because his playing falls within the jazz and jazz-rock contexts but, from the progressive world, Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, Jan Akkerman and Franco Mussida are all masters of their craft, allowed to display their virtuosity within a group context though their solo work often shows how different genres have influenced them. Steve Howe’s Beginnings (1975) and The Steve Howe Album (1979) feature a range of examples of the different styles that have been key to his development as a guitarist. Early Genesis featured up to three members strumming guitars and the arrival of Steve Hackett didn’t change this too drastically, though his playing over the top of 12 string guitar, like on The Return of the Giant Hogweed, (from Nursery Cryme, 1971) is far more confident than that of the undeniably talented Anthony Phillips. The first real clue to what inspired Hackett comes in the form of Horizons (from Foxtrot, 1972) and I had the good fortune to see him on his acoustic trio tour at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon in 2005 which featured most of the same set and was played by the same musicians, Hackett, his brother John (flute) and Roger King (keyboards) appearing on the box set Hungarian Horizons Live in Budapest (2002) and formed a sort of prelude to the classical covers of Tribute (2008). Jan Akkerman’s study of the lute made an important contribution to both Focus 3 (1972) and Hamburger Concerto (1974).

The rise of prog coincided with an interest in classical guitar pieces, notably concertos written by Joaquín Rodrigo and Heitor Villa-Lobos – I recall buying my sister Linda an LP of Rodrigo’s guitar concertos sometime in the mid-70s – and this fascination was cemented by the Stanley Myers piece Cavatina, played by John Williams, which defined the soundtrack of The Deer Hunter. John Williams had been involved in crossover projects in the past but along with long-term collaborators Herbie Flowers on bass and tuba and drummer Tristan Fry he formed Sky after recruiting fellow Australian guitarist Kevin Peek and former Curved Air man Francis Monkman on keyboards. I was never a fan of Sky who I considered to be prog-lite, appended to the genre by journalists and critics even as it faded. It may have been the insipid rendition of Toccata that featured on Top of the Pops in 1980 that confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for the project.

A good place to look for acoustic guitar-rich prog is Spain. As part of my preparations for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2010, I researched Spanish prog bands and record shops and, on arrival, set out to find music by Triana (regarded as the best of Spanish prog), Iceberg and Gotic. In the end I had to buy a download album by Gotic, the upbeat, instrumental Escenes (1978) which sounds like Greenslade with flute but I did manage to find two releases by Iceberg, the symphonic prog Tutankhamon (1975) and the jazz-rock Coses Nostres (1976) and the first three Triana albums El Patio (1975), Hijos del Agobio (1977) and Sombra y Luz (1979). El Patio (The Backyard) is quite accessible, setting out the Triana stall of traditional flamenco mixed with progressive rock and referencing an LSD trip. I find it interesting that almost the entire album was written by keyboard player Jesús de la Rosa rather than guitarist Eduardo Rodríguez Rodway; electric guitar and bass were provided by guest musicians. Spain was just emerging from the fascist dictatorship of General Franco when Triana were becoming established and Hijos del Agobio (Children of the Burden) is darker and more political than its forerunner but this style of music, blending flamenco and keyboard driven symphonic prog and initiated by Triana, has its own sub genre, Andalusian rock.

The trio of albums by Gordon Giltrap beginning with Visionary (1976) moved the artist away from his folk roots and, with the aid of an electric guitar and a good backing band, create some excellent prog that features a good mix of electric and acoustic-based songs. Perhaps Giltrap thought that the folk sphere limited his outlook, rather like the strictly classical guitar field when you compare it with the potential audience that listens to rock. There’s a rich vein of early, classical and romantic music that can be used as a basis for prog compositions which can challenge the player and listener alike. Symphonic prog successfully taps this repertoire providing variations in tone and volume and, possibly most importantly, a link to pastoralism.



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