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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, Jan 16 2018 08:52PM

I’m just back from a couple of days skiing in Chamonix, what I hope will turn out to be a warm-up event to a full week somewhere else later in the year. The town itself is very pleasant and though I’ve skied in the area three times before, we’ve always been based a little higher up the valley in Argentière and whereas we’d previously driven down to the resort, this time we flew to Geneva and took a transfer from there. We’d drive through Chamonix at the beginning and end of holidays and to get to some of the ski areas, scattered from just south of the town up to Balme at the head of the valley; we’ve even stopped there to see a screening of the second of the Lord of the Rings films, The Two Towers in English. So for the first time since our inaugural trip in March 2000, I managed to get a feel for the place, somewhere I’d read about in climbing accounts by Don Whillans, Joe Brown and Dougal Haston when I was a youth and somewhere I felt I knew well enough to base one of my O Level English Language exam essays.


Chamonix
Chamonix

I’m pretty sure there has been a lot of change since I read mountaineering books in the mid-70s, a time when young rock climbers used to name routes after prog tracks: The Gates of Delirium grade E4 (6a), described by UK Climbing as ‘magnificent’, Relayer (another E4) and Close to the Edge E3 (5c) are all climbs on Raven Crag, Thirlmere, in the Lake District and there’s also a Gates of Delirium in Yosemite; Genesis are represented by Hairless Heart, a grade E5 (5c) slab climb on Froggatt Edge in Derbyshire first ascended, solo, by John Allen in 1975 but there are others. There’s a thread from 2012, now closed down, on the UK Climbing site which asked why “an unnaturally high proportion of route names reference Pink Floyd, other dubious prog rock, or Tolkien.” The one sensible answer suggested that prog coincided with an explosion of new routes, though I did like the response “What's wrong with Prog rock? Or J.R.R. Tolkien? Many people have been inspired by the writings of Tolkien and the music of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Yes etc. The fact is that both tend to ramble on a bit, but are ultimately rewarding in the end.” The erection of a new sports hall at my school included a short, under-used climbing wall and along with a couple of others I was allowed to climb during PE lessons. Access to Lake District routes in Coniston and Langdale was facilitated by Honda 550, with me sitting pillion and carrying the gear but I wasn’t nearly as good at climbing as I’d hoped. However, progressive rock and rock climbing seemed intrinsically linked as I flicked through Crags and High magazines listening to Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on the radio, ticking off another prog-inspired route name.



I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.
I imagine there has also been some considerable change since I was last in Chamonix in 2005, even though the journey through Argentière up to La Tour was punctuated with familiar buildings. As someone who fully subscribes to the Italian version of coffee culture and will quite willingly frequent the sort of independent coffee shop that plagues hip areas of London and London commuter towns, I’ve found it difficult but not impossible to locate a decent espresso on my last couple of skiing trips to France. Last year, Val d’Isère had the Arctic Cafe and this year we found La Jonction Coffee, set up by two people who couldn’t find a decent coffee... The name of the cafe refers to the confluence of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz above the town at 2589m.

I didn’t expect to see any record shops in Val d’Isère but I did think there might have been one in Chamonix, with its population of around 9000, a little less than that of Auray where I bought my first Ange CD Le Cimetière des Arlequins (from 1973.) Unfortunately there weren’t any so apart from listening to Semiramis’ Frazz Live (2017) on my mp3 player, the only music I got to hear was piped from restaurants and on one occasion, a truly awful singer-guitarist at the Irish Coffee bar across the road from our hotel. I don’t have much winter- or snow related music in my collection; I own a copy of Rick Wakeman’s White Rock (1977), the soundtrack to the official film of the 1976 Innsbruck winter Olympics and regard it as a return to form after Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. My favourite track is Lax’x and my next favourite is the definitive prog track on the album, Ice Run but there are a number of snippets of music used in the film that form a sonic link between the different Olympic disciplines that don’t appear on album tracks, some of which are very Yes-sounding. The album’s instrumentation of keyboards, percussion and choral backing provides an effective, coherent narrative that works well for both audio and cinematic formats, linked by the melodic ‘searching for gold’ keyboard motif. I really like Wakeman’s full use of a range of keyboards and think it’s that which makes the album stand out from its immediate predecessors; there’s a much broader range of tonality, even though there’s no guitar or bass guitar.


Wakeman was an integral part of the band for Fragile (1971), as Yes came close to perfection. Roundabout, with its imagery of mountains that ‘come out of the sky’ from ‘in and around the lake’ could represent somewhere like the Lake District or the Swiss Alps but this doesn’t necessarily suggest winter, unlike the lyrics to the angular, driving and somewhat overlooked South Side of the Sky with its message that natural forces can be brutal. It’s ironic that White Rock was recorded in Wembley but when Wakeman rejoined Yes in late 1976, the band had decamped to Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland to record Going for the One (1977), where Wakeman subsequently recorded 1977’s Criminal Record.

ELP were another band who combined a tax-break with recording in Montreux for parts of Works Volume 1 (1977) and though Fanfare for the Common Man wouldn’t normally fit into a ‘winter’ category, the video for the truncated version released as a single which reached no.2 in the UK charts was filmed in the futuristic Montreal Olympic Stadium (where they were rehearsing for the Works tour in a basement car park) after Greg Lake emerged from rehearsals for a breath of fresh air and was immediately struck by the vision of the snow-covered arena.


Another apt piece of music that I own is Winterthrough (2005) by Höstsonaten, part of a season-themed set of luscious melodic symphonic Italian prog albums. The standout track is Rainsuite which also featured in Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band set list; it’s made up of a number of linked melodies which I think puts it in the Focus or Camel bracket. Camel had their own winter-related mini-epic Ice from I Can See Your House from Here (1979) which I hummed to myself on the skiing trip as we visited an ice cave carved into the Mer de Glace. Both the ice cave and the track have a stately beauty; witnessing Camel play the track live when they were promoting the album and the experience of being inside a glacier had a similar awe-inspiring effect on me.



The story of Fang in White Mountain, my second favourite Trespass (1970) track after The Knife, is an obvious snow-related story but is One for the Vine from Wind and Wuthering (1976), enough of a winter- or snow and ice themed song to count in my list? One of the songs being played at a restaurant where we stopped for a late morning chocolat chaud certainly doesn’t fit into the list but it did force me to reconsider my opinion of reggae. I’m obviously aware of the significance of Bob Marley who, after the demise of The Wailers in 1974 relocated to England and, with music infused with spirituality, became not only a multi-million selling artist and also came to symbolise Jamaican culture and identity, letting a ray of Caribbean sunshine into the world, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to reggae. What I heard that morning at Les Houches, played at decent volume through Bose speakers seemed like a long single track, divided into subsections rather like prog. A quick Shazam app search revealed that part of the song was Rastafari Leads the Way by Lutan Fyah and I suspect that the music was a Warrior Musick production Think Twice Riddim, featuring a host of different artists with an amazing, positive vibe; a rejection of violence and a call to rethink a way of life which chimed with the ethos of progressive rock. The sun was shining, the snow conditions were perfect and I was skiing some long and some challenging runs with my family, and a little bit of reggae made it even better.



Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches
Perfect skiing conditions at Les Houches






Yak

By ProgBlog, Jun 7 2015 12:37PM

I was one of those who put in a pre-order for Quest for the Stones, Yak’s long awaited follow-up to the sublime Journey of the Yak and, despite a last minute hold-up from the CD manufacturer that delayed its delivery to Martin Morgan, keyboard player and keeper of the Yak flame, it arrived in the same week that we’d been promised, landing on my door mat last Friday.

How could I not like Yak? This is keyboard-led instrumental progressive rock par excellence that references Tolkien and CS Lewis and has been endorsed by Steve Hackett. I first saw adverts for Journey of the Yak in Prog magazine and ordered my copy after hearing portions of a couple of selections from the yaksongs.com website, donating £10 to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary in return for the CD (a second pressing dated November 2009) and then spreading the word as best I could, buying a copy for my brother Richard and encouraging friends Jim Knipe and Neil Jellis to give them a listen. Jim managed to pick up a copy from one of the many record and CD stands at Prog Résiste in Belgium last year.

The trio of Morgan, Dave Speight (drums) and Gary Bennett (bass) produce a melodic blend of prog that occupies the same territory as Steve Hackett, Genesis just before the departure of Hackett, Camel and Danger Money conformation UK. To those readers who haven’t heard any Yak, suggesting that a keyboard trio sounds like Steve Hackett may appear far-fetched but Morgan employs a synthesizer patch that genuinely sounds like Hackett’s portamento guitar.

Quest for the Stones carries on where Journey of the Yak left off though the six longish tracks that featured on Journey have been replaced by two long-form compositions, Quest for the Stones at a couple of seconds short of 24 minutes and Veil of Aeternum which lasts over 19 minutes. Veil of Aeternum is a play on words on Aeternum vale (Latin: farewell forever) and there is a very strong stylistic link between the two albums. The music on Quest is instantly recognisable as being Yak. The blend of old and new keyboard technology gives some haunting Mellotron sounds and some classic synth and organ tones; there’s slightly less organ on the new album but the technique and attack still remind me of Eddie Jobson. The inclusion of more piano, enhanced by the cover artwork, gives an overall feel of a piece of late 19th Century or early 20th Century Romantic music, quintessentially English, where melodic motifs line up in succession and the pastoral impression is further bolstered by natural sounds at the end of the title track.

Although there aren’t many quiet interludes, variation comes through multiple changes of tempo and there are even a couple of passages in 7/4 time. Morgan adds keyboard saxophone to his sonic armoury and Gary Bennett, who is solid and mostly understated throughout, adds some funky bass lines. It goes without saying that the drumming of Dave Speight, former band mate of Enid alumnus Nick May in symphonic prog outfit Whimwise, is absolutely perfect so it comes across as a bit of a surprise that the three musicians only get together for a few days once every six years or so to record an album.

The title track on the new release revisits another familiar Yak theme, another reason why they’re my kind of band: ley lines. (There’s another Yak release from October 2005, a live jam called Does Your Yak Bite? that includes the piece Leylines of Yak; a very long time ago I wrote a short story for my school magazine called Flux Lines Deep in Dunnerdale about a ley line in the Duddon Valley on the outskirts of the Lake District. The sleeve notes for the new album refer to finding a significant monolith, the Easedale Yakstone in Langdale.)

There’s yet another association between the live jam CD and Quest for the Stones that relates to the rather exquisite pre-Raphaelite style cover painting by Laura Knight that depicts an Arthurian hero on a quest for The Stones astride his trusty yak but close by, hiding behind a tree, there’s a strange, stripy rabbit-like creature, Tog, from the BBC children’s series Pogles’ Wood made by Oliver Postgate’s Smallfilms between 1966 and 1968. Tog, formerly a stuffed toy brought to life by magic in a battle to defeat the Witch (a character who appears in series forerunner The Pogles), is given a credit on the back of the CD for co-owning the copyright to the recording; Does Your Yak Bite? includes a track called The Battle of Pogles Wood.

The sense of humour displayed in the sleeve notes has historic precedence. Prog bands may have been derided for being serious about their music but Pythonesque absurdity made its way onto releases by bands like Hatfield and the North and Michael Palin actually wrote the back sleeve notes for Do They Hurt? by Brand X. Take note, NME, humour and serious musicianship are not mutually exclusive.

The excellent, bucolic Quest for the Stones can be obtained from the Yak website www.yaksongs.com and, like that for its predecessor (which can still be bought from the website) the purchase is actually a donation to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary. If you love melodic, instrumental prog featuring lots of keyboards, I’d recommend you make that donation: you get a brilliant album in return. Winner!



By ProgBlog, May 11 2015 05:35PM

I’ve just returned from a long bank holiday weekend in my native Cumbria, staying with my brother Tony near Ulverston, a short drive away from the Lake District National Park. The Lakes scenery is stunning, produced over millions of years by a range of natural processes and more lately tinkered with by man.

Part of the itinerary was to be a trip to RAF Spadeadam near Brampton in the north east of the county. The idea was to visit the former Blue Streak missile test site and, as we’d be travelling through the appropriate area, include a rendezvous with old friend Bill Burford, drummer for Water’s Edge who resides in Melmerby, near Penrith.

Blue Streak was intended to be the UK’s intermediate range ballistic missile but the programme was shelved in 1960 and the base was used for development of a Europe-based satellite launcher, itself abandoned in 1972. At least one of the Pages has a professional interest in cold war architecture; Daryl’s Historic Conservation master’s degree thesis was on the preservation and use of cold war bunkers - I simply wanted to take photos of the site for my next musical project, tentatively titled Cold War. Unfortunately, the organisers didn’t confirm our proposed visit and with insufficient time to plan any serious fell walking we just visited parts of the Lake District I’d not been to in the past, examples of human influence on the landscape: Allan Bank, above Grasmere, a former home of William Wordsworth and National Trust founder Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley; the Langdale Boulders at Copt Howe with their Neolithic markings, the most intricate and impressive examples of rock art in Cumbria; and Cathedral Quarry in Great Langdale, an enormous void where the roof is held up by a single pillar in a disused slate quarry.

Roger Dean has written about his trip to the Lakes where he describes seeing a mountain-top tarn that served as inspiration for the inside sleeve of Close to the Edge. It’s not difficult to imagine Dean walking from Honister via Haystacks, where his mountain tarn can be found, over to Langdale, the centre of the Lake District, and visiting the spectacular Cathedral Quarry where a huge hole has been excavated for the attractive green slate (more correctly Borrowdale Tuff, a volcanic ash around 450 million years old, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a rock that forms one of the distinctive building materials of the region. I think that this edifice could have influenced the cover of Relayer or the cover of his book Views.


This landscape has inspired painters, novelists and Lakeland poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and De Quincy; landscape in general seems to have inspired nineteenth century Romantic composers too, who used long-form symphonic pieces to depict visual images of landmarks and landscapes such as concert overture The Hebrides (better known as Fingal’s Cave) and Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in A minor) by Felix Mendelssohn and, as Romantic music was one of the major influences on progressive rock, it seems rather odd that despite frequent allusion to geographical or topographical forms there are only a few examples of prog compositions about a named physical landscape.

Not that I’m a fan but Haken’s The Mountain seemed like a good place to start looking however It turns out that the title is merely metaphorical. The most obvious classic prog track inspired by an imaginary landscape is Firth of Fifth, the perennial Genesis favourite, which is fitting because of the Tony Banks piano work and the notion of prog as an updated form of Romantic music; even Steve Hackett’s soloing conforms to the idea of nineteenth-century symphonic poems, stretching the song with sublime guitar lines that appear to describe the contours of the river valley, rounded and flowing, not aggressive or jarring.

Another obvious reference to a geographical location, real this time, is Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. I’ve previously described how I think this is the best Oldfield album and how the compositional style has been influenced by Romantic composers; the execution aided by supplementary musicians playing instruments associated with classical orchestras. This links rather nicely to The Song of the White Horse by David Bedford, a piece originally commissioned for BBC TV’s Omnibus and aired in 1978. The idea of the programme was to show Bedford in the process of writing, rehearsing and recording the score as well as performing it and it showed him riding his motorcycle along the route of the Ridgeway to the White Horse at Uffington, his inspiration for the commission.

The White Horse dates from around the Bronze Age, created by carving trenches into the hillside which are 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. I find it interesting that the White Horse is mentioned in the medieval Welsh book, Llyfr Coch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest): "Near to the town of Abinton there is a mountain with a figure of a stallion upon it and it is white. Nothing grows upon it.” Oldfield released Hergest Ridge in 1974 and David Bedford began his commission in 1977.

Though trained as a classical composer, Bedford’s other works have included odd things like 100 kazoos and his charts have used pictures, rather than staves and notes. His rock credentials come via his work with Kevin Ayers, which is how he was introduced to Oldfield. On White Horse he was helped by Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge on a variety of keyboards, a small ensemble with brass and strings and the Queen’s College choir, a hand-picked female choir from Bedford’s place of work where helium was used to increase the pitch of Diana Coulson’s singing by around two octaves (speed of sound in air = 331 m/s; speed of sound in helium = 972 m/s). The roughly 25 minute composition incorporates GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse which celebrates King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Englefield in the 9th century. Overall I think it’s a very satisfying piece of music incorporating basic sequencing, novel chorale work, Romanticism and some disharmony. It surprised me to find out that college friend Charlie Donkin, who liked The Who, The Rolling Stones, Harry Chapin and Dire Straits, was also a fan of The Song of the White Horse, ending up with a copy of Star’s End or Instructions for Angels when we went to see if we could find a copy in one of London’s many record shops; Charlie also liked Bedside Manner are Extra.



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