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ProgBlog doesn't go to Milan for designer goods. Milan excursions are for progressivo Italiano with a bit of the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci thrown in...

By ProgBlog, May 31 2019 08:50PM

Popping into a local supermarket for essentials on our return from a recent trip to Milan, the sales assistant enquired where we’d been and when informed, asked us if we’d visited ‘the designer shops’. After my first visit to the city for Expo 2015, I was unsure if I liked it, but the time spent there was primarily devoted to the Expo and a day trip out to Bergamo, which I enjoyed (and discovered the delights of the Elav brewery where, amongst their range of music-related beers, was the Progressive Barley Wine – unavailable at the time of our trip.) This time, like then, we avoided designer shops.


Elav Brewery's Progressive Barley Wine
Elav Brewery's Progressive Barley Wine

It was fortunate that we managed to walk around the roof of the magnificent duomo on that first visit, because it has been undergoing restoration work ever since. On each subsequent trip I’ve begun to feel quite at home and got to like the city more and more. The first stop after the airport is Bar Centrale in Milano Centrale station for an espresso, an institution that has attracted poor reviews on Google for the alleged expense and the rudeness of the staff. Don’t these people know that the idea is to grab a quick coffee before you go about your daily business and the baristas are simply serving the hordes of commuters as efficiently as possible? You can’t go wrong if you follow the locals: pay for your drinks (and brioche if you want a bite for breakfast) at the till before standing at the bar; if you choose to sit down the service will be less efficient and more expensive. This is not the best espresso that the city has to offer, though it came close last year when they used Lavazza beans. Unfortunately they’ve changed supplier again and I’m not such a fan of the current roast.

Second stop is La Feltrinelli, which extends over three floors within the station and provides the opportunity to browse some vinyl and to buy the latest edition of Prog Italia. There’s even a dedicated Progressive Italiana CD section, unique to this particular branch of the chain. Only after this ritual can we check in at the hotel.


La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale
La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale

We’ve stayed in three different hotels for our visits, all perfectly pleasant although only one is well situated, the NH Machiavelli close to Repubblica Metro station and only 10 minutes walk from Milano Centrale. The UNAHotels Scandinavia was a lastminute.com bargain but the closest Metro stop is Gerusalemme on the M5 line (not fully completed at the time) so an interchange was necessary for each journey. The first prog-related visit was for the 2017 Z-Fest, held at Milan’s Legend Club, a 10 minute walk from Affori Centro, close to the northernmost terminus of the M3 line while our hotel on that occasion was one stop from the northern terminus of the M1 line. I took a taxi to the venue and left before the end of the performance, catching the metro to Duomo at around 1am as the station was closing and I couldn’t get a connection. Fortunately there were taxis around the Duomo piazza to get me back to the hotel. The third trip was just passing through on a journey from Paris to Como by rail. With a few hours between arriving at Centrale and getting a train out to Como, we dropped off our bags at left luggage and killed time by walking to the duomo, by chance (we had no map so I was navigating from memory) passing the NH Machiavelli, which was to become our base for the subsequent two visits for the 2018 Z-Fest and the 2018 FIM Prog Fest; the former easily accessed by metro (and metro replacement bus on the return journey), and the latter within walking distance at the Piazza Città di Lombardia.


It turned out that the NH Machiavelli has another advantage: it’s round the corner from a branch of Libraccio, a chain of shops selling stationery, books and music. The Viale Vittorio Veneto branch is especially good for stocking AMS releases which I normally have to order over the internet from btf.it as AMS, who have a Milan contact address, don’t appear to have a physical shop. Excluding the Vittorio Veneto Libraccio, the Feltrinelli in Centrale and its large sister branch in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the only dedicated Milan record shop I had ever managed to trawl through up to this latest visit was Rossetti Records and Books (via Cesare da Sesto, 24) a specialist in second-hand music founded in 1981. On the first trip I bought three CDs: Il Giorno Sottile (2001) by the experimental Fabio Zuffanti project Quadraphonic, a bleak, interesting and challenging album of industrial music, loops and electronica that just about retains the memory of melody; the self-titled release by Dedalus (1973) which strays into jazz-rock territory; and symphonic prog Il Bianco Regno Di Dooah (2003) by Consorzio Acqua Potabile (CAP); this time I came away with an original copy of Uomo di Pezza by Le Orme (1972).


Rossetti Records and Books, Milano
Rossetti Records and Books, Milano

The weather in northern Italy over our weekend stay was pretty awful and a threatened strike by Trenitalia staff meant we couldn’t plan any excursions to nearby towns. I have considered attempting an expedition to the Marconi bakery where PFM rehearsed and appropriated their moniker, and Chiari, between Milan and Brescia remains one of the few towns in the region that we’ve yet to explore. The omission of a day trip allowed us to take in more of the attractions within the city itself: the Torre Branca observation tower in Parco Sempione; a slow walk around the Navigli district where some canals still remain; the art deco Villa Necchi Campiglio (Piero Portaluppi, 1932-35) filled with innovative design features; and the Pirelli HangarBicocca, a huge contemporary art space converted from a former locomotive factory. Along with the stops for coffee there was also an attempt to photograph the brutalist Department of Accounting at Bocconi University, but my poor navigation and a degree award ceremony put an end to that adventure; what was more successful was ticking off more of the independent record stores.

King Crimson’s Live at the Marquee, August 10, 1971 was playing in Il Discomane (Alzaia Naviglio Grande, 38) when I went in. Primarily a second-hand vinyl store, there was an interesting rarities section but nothing which grabbed my attention; I may not have bought anything but I’d certainly go back for another browse. A couple of doors down was another branch of Libraccio, split into three separate units, but they didn’t have any vinyl that I could see. Serendeepity (Corso di Porta Ticinese, 100) selling new vinyl was also a very short walk away but the ‘Progressive’ section was tiny. Vinylbrokers (Via Privata Pericle, 4) is in the Precotto district, a 20 minute walk from the Pirelli HangarBicocca and it appeared to be closed when we visited, though it wasn’t closing time. However, just as we were turning to go the owner opened up the shop and let us in. To save time I asked for the progressivo Italiano section but he told me they only sold ‘Americana’ and suggested I visit Metropolis Dischi (Via Carlo Esterle, 29). I’d recommend Vinylbrokers for being helpful and friendly, but don’t go there if you’re only looking for prog.


The real purpose of the Milan trip was to attend the FIM Fiera prog fest, organised by Black Widow Records’ Massimo Gasperini in the role of artistic director. This year the event was billed as ‘Da Vinci’s Spirit’, designed to pay tribute to the Renaissance genius on the 500th anniversary of his death. FIM director Verdiano Vera suggested that progressive rock is a musical genre that more than any other embraces Leonardo’s spirit of experimentation due to its diverse influences, unusual time signatures, tempo changes and variations in amplitude and speed, all of which nurture talent, inspiration, inventiveness and ingenuity.



The four bands appearing, Silver Key, Macchina Pneumatica, Universal Totem Orchestra and FEM provided a broad range of examples of the genre from almost straightforward symphonic prog through to neo-prog, psyche-prog and avant-prog/jazz rock, though one constant was a set of Leonardo drawings projected behind the bands providing a constant visual reminder of the link between his futuristic thinking and prog, a musical form known to push at boundaries.

Silver Key began life as a Marillion cover-band in Milan in 1992 and has undergone a number of personnel changes. Over the past seven years they have produced three albums of original neo-prog, starting with In the Land of Dreams (2012), followed up with 2015’s The Screams Empire where keyboard player Davide Manara was left as the only founding member. Current guitarist Roberto Buchicchio and bassist Ivano Tognetti joined for The Screams Empire, and vocalist Dino Procopio was introduced for the latest album Third, released in April 2019; Procopio also provided the lyrics. The band don’t have a drummer – the album credits ‘Mr Drummer’ with percussive duties but when chatting to Massimo Gasperini after their performance, Manara owned up to programming the drums. Concentrating on material from Third, the music was nicely conceived and well played, incorporating convincing-sounding drum parts, expressive guitar, solid bass, nice ambient moments, and multiple false endings. It was evident that Procopio can sing (the vocals were in English) but unfortunately he was under-mixed during the full-ensemble blows.



Silver Key
Silver Key

One of the main draws was Macchina Pneumatica who released their debut album Riflessi e Maschere on Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 680) earlier this year. It’s primarily riff-based and moderately heavy, so it comes across as being on the psyche end of the prog spectrum. I’m reminded of the dominant, driving bass and penchant for distortion of fellow countrymen MUFFX who inhabit much of the same sonic landscape and who I gave a glowing review last year for L’Ora di Tutti; the difference is MUFFX are instrumental and Macchina Pneumatica use vocals, sung by Raffaele Gigliotti with lyrics inspired by everyday life, moods and relationships. The live performance, like Silver Key before them, was dogged by an imperfect sound, with house sound engineers running on stage to adjust the bass volume. From where I was sitting, right of centre and close to the front, some distance from the mixing desk, Gigliotti’s guitar volume was a bit too low and though Carlo Giustiniani’s bass was fairly dominant, it also cuts through on the CD without adversely affecting the sound balance. I was close to keyboard player Carlo Fiore, so I could fully appreciate his synth, piano and organ work, with accurate analogue-sounding patches to recreate a 70’s vibe. Their songs sound deceptively simple but counting out Vincenzo Vitagliano’s rhythmic patterns they’re anything but straightforward and there’s sufficient variation, including melodic passages and lead synthesizer lines, to hold your attention. They’re a relatively new group, formed as a keyboard trio Atom Age Empire in Milan in 2013, renamed Nudo when guitarist/vocalist Raffaele Gigliotti joined, and finally changed to Macchina Pneumatica during the recording of Riflessi e Maschere. They are currently working on a new album.


Macchina Pneumatica
Macchina Pneumatica

I’m well acquainted with Mathematical Mother, the 2016 album by Universal Totem Orchestra; the music is dense and complex with the intensity and pace of Magma or the Mahavishnu Orchestra, especially the 1974-75 incarnation where Gayle Moran adds vocals. The operatic approach to the vocals, whether female or male chorus evokes the Wagnerian facet of Zeuhl but there’s also the exploratory jazz of Coltrane. They employ an eastern scale on the track Elogio del dubbio, all of which indicates a fearless approach to music making that epitomises prog.

I love the intricacy of the compositions and it can’t be denied that Ana Torres Fraile has a superb voice but in the live setting I felt the lead vocal impinged on the instrumental sections, especially scat vocal in the style of Cleo Laine, and Fraile too seemed to have problems with her amplification. Whereas the guitar of Daniele Valle, Yanik Lorenzo Andreatta’s bass and Fabrizio Mattuzzi’s keyboards were all spot on, the saxophone and drums, played by Fedeli Antonio and UTO G. Golin respectively, occasionally sounded a bit loose but that’s not so surprising when you’re pushing boundaries.


Universal Totem Orchestra
Universal Totem Orchestra

The FEM (Forza Elettromotrice) set seemed rather brief after UTO’s sonic bombardment, but this was the closest to symphonic prog all evening, and I felt it ended too soon. The band (Alessandro Graziano, vocals; Paolo Colombo, guitars; Alberto Citterio, keyboards; Pietro Bertoni, trombone and keyboards; Marco Buzzi, bass; and Emanuele Borsati, drums) were showcasing their 2018 album Mutazione and could have been hampered by an injury to Cittero who had his left arm in a sling, but his playing, along with the rest of the ensemble, was fluent. I felt Bertoni was a little under-used but he was furthest from me and I may not have been able to hear him clearly. What did come across was the way each song had been carefully put together; one of the numbers reminded me of Focus.


FEM
FEM

The one downside of a multi-stage or multi-disciplinary event like the FIM Fiera is that there are occasions when you want to see more than one thing at one particular time; Fabio Gremo, bassist with Il Tempio delle Clessidre, has just released a second solo album and was performing it outside in the piazza while Da Vinci’s Spirit was in full flow in the auditorium Testori. I’m a big fan of Fabio Gremo’s La Mia Voce (2013) which demonstrates his considerable classical guitar skills, but the recital of Don’t be Scared of Trying also included piano accompaniment from Sandro Amadei of Melting Clock, so I was disappointed I didn’t get to see them play. I did get to chat with Sandro and his brother Stefano when they came to take in some of the prog fest, but I didn’t get to speak to Fabio. A major plus is that Da Vinci’s Spirit, and last year’s Prog On, showcased not just incredible music, but the confirmation of a ‘prog family’ that is all-embracing in its approach and one that rejoices in differences. The concept of a prog rock festival as Da Vinci’s Spirit is perfectly apt. Thanks, Massimo Gasperini and Verdiano Vera. See you next year!


Postscript

Even if you’re not into prog, forget Milan and fashion and seek out Milan and Leonardo da Vinci. There’s a waiting list for tickets to view The Last Supper which is in the former refectory of the convent attached to Milan’s Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, but I managed to arrange tickets for the first of our 2017 trips. If you are planning on going to Milan I’d strongly recommend booking a guided tour; the refectory and Leonardo’s masterpiece form an integral part of the convent architecture which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the prog's not bad, either.


Leonardo's The Last Supper
Leonardo's The Last Supper











By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2018 03:25PM

I met up with an old school friend last week. Though we have always exchanged Christmas cards and occasional emails, usually around the time his band is about to release some new music which he will dutifully send me, I’d not seen Bill or his wife, Anna, for thirty years, the last time being at their wedding. Bill lived two doors away from me in Barrow, was in the same year at school and, as part of a tight-knit group of adolescents, we grew up liking the same music, the direction of which was set by my older brother.

I played bass and Bill played drums in a band influenced by early Pink Floyd and King Crimson until we departed for separate universities; we listened to records, analysed and discussed music and last Monday, in the Royal Oak, Borough, a pub without any form of electronic amusements where even the contactless payment facility failed to work, began making up for lost time in conversation about music over well-kept beer from Harvey’s of Lewes.



Having not long before returned from a trip to Italy, talk naturally turned to PFM, who’s Photos of Ghosts, Cook and Chocolate Kings were first obtained by Bill. I hadn’t realised that he wasn’t so much a fan of Jet Lag, despite its jazz rock leanings and his proclivity for jazz and jazz rock, or Chocolate Kings, because of Bernardo Lanzetti’s English vocals and what he suggested was a move away from the earlier band sound, with its distinctive Mediterranean feel. Favouring their post-millennium output, he also thought that Emotional Tattoos was the best thing they’d done since Photos of Ghosts. For my part, I agree that Emotional Tattoos is a step in the right direction, with a couple of tracks that do hint at their 70s prime, but I think the Mediterranean warmth that pervades their early work is largely absent. There’s less use of change in amplitude and other devices to add contrast to an individual piece of music than there used to be, less contrapuntal interplay and no flute; as much as I like Lucio Fabbri’s playing, I miss the flute when the current band play the old material. Still, based on Bill’s recommendation, I’ve just invested in a copy of Dracula from a seller on ebay, a CD I saw when I was in Rome in 2006 but failed to buy, but I’ve never seen it anywhere since.



I tend to play the English version of Emotional Tattoos because that’s the version I own on vinyl, but I listened to the Italian version (which came on CD with the 2LP) before going to see them in Genova last year. Bill and I agreed that the Italian version was better, like their 70’s material that was available in both Italian and English. I’m not trying to suggest that I don’t like PFM’s English language work as Photos of Ghosts and The World Became the World include faithful re-workings of songs from Storia di un Minuto and Per un Amico and I’m not too put out by Lanzetti’s singing; unfortunately, Peter Sinfield’s words required a more nuanced delivery than the band were capable of, though I found it pleasing, not understanding the social situation in Italy at the time, that they accepted his environmentalism and his compassionate lyrics.



The topic of Italian bands singing in English was also raised when I was talking to Melting Clock at the Porto Antico Prog Fest, who employ their native language for their original material. They also play one or two progressive rock classics during their live set, where vocalist Emanuela Vedana sings with confidence when they perform accurate renditions of Genesis’ Firth of Fifth, Time by Pink Floyd or Soon, the coda to Gates of Delirium by Yes; this not only demonstrates their understanding of prog history, but it’s also a clever device to ingratiate themselves with members of an audience who may not have heard their self-penned music. We were unanimous in agreement that it was preferable for a rock progressivo Italiano bands to sing in Italian, but they also understood that overcoming the language barrier was likely to make their music accessible to the wider public and were considering, at least on one of the formats for their forthcoming debut, to include a bonus track of original music with lyrics translated and sung in English to expand their appeal but also, like veteran local group and Black Widow Records stable mate Il Cerchio d’Oro on their 2008 album Il Viaggio di Columbo, include English translations of the Italian lyrics.



It could be argued that world-wide appreciation for the entire sub-genre of RPI was facilitated by Greg Lake, Keith Emerson and Manticore Records. PFM manager Franco Mamone passed on a tape of the group to Greg Lake who, to the surprise of the Italians, listened to and liked what he heard, and invited them to Fulham to see and hear them play. Peter Sinfield was working with ELP at the time and compared their musicianship to King Crimson (PFM performed cover versions of 21st Century Schizoid Man and Pictures of a City on their first Italian tours in 1971 and 72) and suggested that English language lyrics would make their music universally appealing, and the band agreed. Banco del Mutuo Soccorso were also signed to Manticore after Emerson had heard them play and became a huge fan. Banco (1975) was their first release for Manticore, containing one original track (in Italian) and re-workings of material from Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Io Sono Nato Libero in Italian and English, followed in 1976 by a concept album Come in un’ultima cena / As in a Last Supper released in both Italian and English.



Le Orme, another of the most successful RPI bands, also experimented with an English version of one of their highly regarded LPs with the aim of conquering the UK and US. Released on the Charisma label, Felona and Sorona had lyrics written by Peter Hammill (who was signed to Charisma), based on the concept provided by Tagliapietra, Pagliuca and Dei Rossi so that his words closely followed the original story.



In a modern twist, when La Maschera di Cera released their continuation of the Felona e Sorona story Le Porte del Domani in 2013, they also released a version in English, The Gates of Tomorrow, with a very subtle alternative mix and a less subtle variation of the album sleeve, painted by Lanfranco who had provided the original art work for Le Orme. In addition to Italian groups releasing an alternative version of an album for the English-speaking market, which spreads beyond the four acts listed above, there are examples found in my collection of groups who only sing in English (The Trip, Cellar Noise, Hollowscene); those like Banco, PFM and Osanna who have released albums with a mixture of Italian and English lyrics; and those who have released both all-Italian and all-English albums (Nuova Era with Dopo L’Infinito and Return to the Castle respectively).



The phenomenon of non-native English speakers singing in English isn’t restricted to Italy; plucking a few more examples from my collection are Tasavallan Presidentti from Finland (Wigwam don’t count because they were Anglo-Finnish); Pulsar from France (both French and English are used on Strands of the Future, 1976); Germany’s Eloy and Triumvirat; Aphrodite’s Child from Greece; Earth and Fire, Focus and Supersister from the Netherlands; Norway's Wobbler; Albion from Poland (Broken Hopes, 2007); Spain’s Iceberg (Tutankhamon, 1975, a mixture of Spanish and English); and Sweden’s Anekdoten. So what influenced these choices? Was it simply the likelihood that the music would be more universally accepted, with concomitant success, if they used English lyrics? I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward; there’s a theory that in Italy during the 70s in there was something of a backlash against groups singing in anything other than Italian when the political tension is well documented. It’s strange then that PFM should release their anti-American opus, Chocolate Kings as an English language LP but that album might give a hint why there’s a melange of native- and English languages used throughout progressive rock in mainland Europe.

The title track on Chocolate Kings spells out that the US army, an occupying force in Italy following the Second World War, became unwelcome when fascism was defeated and bribing the local populace with candy and consumer items was insufficient for them to gain the goodwill of the locals; it could even have been seen as a potential source of friction, especially with the polarisation of political viewpoints in the late 60s and 70s. American and British music arrived in Italy through major ports like Genova and with further influx from a mixture of cultures it’s not surprising that Genova has played an important role in the development of musical styles, though a crucial element was retaining some of their own heritage and identity, including a desire to sing in their own language. It could be argued that the adherence to a ‘romantic style’ also helps to explain the attraction of UK progressive rock in Italy.

A similar situation occurred in Germany, though there was a greater concentration of American armed forces. The counter-culture generation, born after the war, largely rejected Anglicised music but also opted to break from their own traditions to create their own music scene, disrespectfully dubbed Krautrock by the English-speaking media, which has since become massively influential in its own right. The more mainstream prog bands tended to develop along the lines of the space rock of early Pink Floyd although Triumvirat became something of an ELP-clone.


Progressive rock started as an British phenomenon and was absorbed an integrated by many European countries putting their own stamp on the movement, including choosing whether or not to adopt English as its official language. The eclectic mix of influences that helped to form progressive rock indicates that there was no manifesto for the genre to remain 'English', and many bands stuck to their native tongue; this enriched the scene and made it a joy for the UK and US audiences to discover something new. Sadly, globalisation means that the music industry, which once thrived on creativity, now treats artists as commodity, fulfilling the fears aired in Chocolate Kings. The trend for an increasing number of mainland European prog bands to sing in English may reflect the attitudes of the market but would anyone dispute that most fans prefer Italian bands to sing in Italian?


I personally like all non-UK bands to sing in their mother tongue because it sounds more fluent, more poetic, more passionate and more believable but it all boils down to whether or not a band feels that English lyrics best serve the purposes of their music.











By ProgBlog, Aug 12 2018 09:30PM

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



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


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

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


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




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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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

By ProgBlog, Mar 19 2018 08:38PM

At the beginning of 2018 the proprietors of Genova bar and music venue L’Angelo Azzurro posted a message on their Facebook page that suggested that after almost nine years of putting on concerts they were very likely to have to close down for good because they had insufficient funds to cover their rent and were facing eviction. The energy, dedication and passion they’d put into the club really could not be questioned and the local musicians I’ve spoken to were seriously concerned about the loss of a venue that had been very supportive of the Genova progressive rock community; limiting the potential exposure of bands of whatever genre would have undoubtedly had an impact on a number of up-and-coming local bands.



Owners Danilo Lombardo and Katya Daffinoti launched an appeal for €6000 through the issue of shares and within the first three days had managed to collect over a third of that sum, prompting them to acknowledge that the club was more than simply their business, it belonged to family, friends, musicians and music fans within the community as ‘a shelter and a reference point.’ They received many certificates of esteem which indicated that their commitment over the past few years had obviously left good memories with the musicians who came to play and those in the audience who came to watch. By the end of January they were very close to reaching the total and held open meetings to discuss future plans and suggestions for improvement. I arrived at the club, still going strong and with more performances announced, on Friday 9th March.

I’d gone along to support Melting Clock, playing their third gig and premiering some new material that has been written for their forthcoming album and the event, part of a series organised by local impresario Marina Montobbio called ‘Lady Prog Nights’ was made even more attractive by the second act of the evening who already have two high calibre symphonic prog albums under their belt, Panther & C.



L’Angelo Azzurro is relatively quick, cheap and easy to access by public transport in the evening, costing just €1.60 for a ticket from Genoa’s main station (Piazza Principe) to the suburban stop Genova Borzoli, from where it’s a 10 minute downhill walk to the club. Unfortunately, Google maps drops a pin by a roundabout in what appears to be the middle of nowhere so it took me a little while to work out where the venue really was and how to get there, descending the hill beyond the roundabout then almost doubling back on myself through a 1930s industrial estate; a trip reminiscent of getting to the Progressivamente 25 festival at the Jailbreak Live Club in Rome last October or BMS at Circolo Colony in Brescia in January. I’d had to join the Circolo Colony club in addition to getting a BMS ticket; for this Lady Prog night entry to the gig was a one-off payment of €10 which included membership of the club. It was really good to meet up with friends from previous trips to the city and it was patently obvious how much the club meant to this community; the place was full and buzzing with anticipation.



I was seated behind a table occupied by members of Panther & C. along with their friends and family and was told by flautist/vocalist Mauro Serpe that he’d be joining Melting Clock on stage, for what I assumed was one of the surprises Melting Clock had hinted of. The event began with a short introductory speech by Montobbio about the club and the special brand of Genovese symphonic prog we were about to be treated to, but there was a delay before the band could start because there were problems with Simone Caffè’s acoustic guitar lead which took the house sound engineer a little while to rectify.

Once the guitar lead was fixed, the set commenced with the short instrumental Quello che Rimane, a track very much in keeping with the melodic symphonic prog style that characterises the band. Material that they’ve played on the previous occasions I’ve seen them followed: L’occhio dello sciacallo; Banalmente (first played at La Claque last November); Caleidoscopio; Strade Affollate; each song revealing nuances I’d not previously detected as the musicians had become more confident in their performance. I’ve previously compared them to Renaissance and while Emanuela Vedana’s voice matches Annie Haslam’s beautiful vocals, there’s something more adventurous about the music of Melting Clock, something in the layered sounds of the twin guitars of Caffè and Stefano Amadei that add an extra degree of complexity. If I was detecting new subtleties in the songs I’d heard before, I wasn’t prepared for the latest composition to be played live for the first time, Vetro. This song involved sudden stops and changes and reminded me of the early classic Italian prog bands, taking their lead from UK prog, most notably King Crimson. Stefano and Sandro Amadei both suggested that they’d been a little nervous of tackling something of that difficulty for the first time in front of an audience but I thought it sounded remarkably tight and contrasted nicely with the flowing tunes I associate with the band. The technical challenge faced by the musicians, not least drummer Francesco Fiorito and bassist Alessandro Bosca, will have tested the audience in a different way. I actively seek out music that could be difficult to listen to and though this wasn’t in any way extreme and would still be classified as symphonic prog, I can’t believe that it didn’t make a few people sit up and marvel at the writing and execution of the piece; the applause at the end of the song suggested that the crowd really appreciated an excellent piece of music.



We were back on familiar territory for the next two songs, my favourite Antares and the evocative Sono Luce before Panther & C.’s Serpe joined them for their final number, by tradition a cover version of a prog classic. In acknowledgement of Marina Montobbio’s fantastic efforts getting the series of concerts off the ground, they played a song that originally featured Steve Hackett, one of her all-time favourite musicians, Firth of Fifth, with flute provided by Serpe.

Apart from the glitch at the beginning of the set, the sound was mostly good. The mixing desk was at the side of the stage so the engineer had to walk out in front of the band to judge how well he’d balanced the instruments and it took him a couple of trips to get Vedana’s vocals to a suitable level in the mix. Being a bit of a fan of keyboards, I wouldn’t have complained if they’d been a little clearer when the band was in full flight.



The Panther & C. performance was as good and professional as you’d expect. I’m relatively familiar with their music having bought both of their CDs when I last saw them at the Porto Antico Prog Fest, so I’m beginning to pick out more subtleties in their music, too. The set was a mixture of material from both of their albums (my personal favourite was ...e Continua ad Essere which segued into Giusto Equilibrio) but whereas you expect them to play high quality symphonic prog, the theatrics of Serpe also play an important role and that’s not something I’d particularly noticed before or something that comes across on CD. In a previous review I’d incorrectly ascribed opening song La Leggenda di Arenberg to the famous cycle race through the Arenberg forest but, aided by the CD booklet I now understand it’s about the Flemish king Helmut, and how he battled bravely despite being outnumbered by another army with around 100000 cavalrymen. Legend tells of the reappearance of Helmut and his foes for one night every year, disappearing as the sun rises.

This has caused me to reappraise the band. The musicianship is of a very high standard (Serpe on flute and vocals; Alessandro La Corte on keyboards; Riccardo Mazzarini on guitars; Giorgio Boleto on bass; and Falco Fedele on drums) and the compositions are well-crafted and the lyrics poetic. They certainly tell a very good story through both music and words; add in the use of masks and it’s clear that they’ve derived some inspiration from early Genesis.



Montobbio and her husband very kindly gave me a lift back to my hotel at 2.30 am – public transport had shut down by the time the gig ended – but in the intervening period while the two groups packed up their equipment, I was introduced to some other members of the Italian Riviera prog scene: Bruno Cassan who is based in Nice and is responsible for, amongst other things, Prog’Sud in Pennes-Mirabeau, France (Panther & C. played there in 2017); and Il Tempio delle Clessidre bassist Fabio Gremo (who had come along with ITDC guitarist Giulio Canepa to support his good friends from Melting Clock.) The sense of community can’t be understated, and it would be a terrible loss if L’Angelo Azzurro was forced to close. Every time I visit the city, I’m awed by the friendliness of everyone involved in the prog scene in Genova: the support from the staff at Black Widow Records, the work and enthusiasm of Montobbio, and a world of welcoming musicians. I’ll be back











By ProgBlog, Jan 2 2018 08:32PM

New Years Eve, 2017

It’s 7pm and I’ve just started the blog. I plan to go to bed early because I’m on call and I’m hoping that revellers don’t accidentally contribute to the strain on hospital A&E departments. Not a fan of this night, any year, because of the way it’s been hyped up by advertisers and the drinks industry and how it seems to have become accepted that on this particular occasion it’s OK to get totally wasted, my best new year was spent stargazing on the summit of a small drumlin on the Furness peninsula to mark the transition from the 1970s to the 80s.


Night sky over Furness
Night sky over Furness

TV has been awful this week. The BBC 24 hour news channel has been filling the gaps between genuine pieces of news with reviews of the year for Sport, Film, Deaths, Royals and so on, shown with a frequency that positively numbs so that it becomes difficult to work out which day of the week it is. Having gone to see Crystal Palace play today I can confirm that the football schedule doesn’t help with this feeling of dislocation; lucrative broadcasting deals mean that Premier League teams and their fans are at the mercy of TV executives so that this year, what used to be traditional Boxing Day fixture took place over three days and the New Year’s Day fixture is also due to be spread over three days. Throw in odd kick off times (Palace played at noon) and it’s also messing around with my circadian rhythm.


A couple of days ago we had the announcement of who appeared in the New Year’s Honours list. This is something of a end-of-year ritual and despite a promise to end cronyism, a concession wrung out by a public increasingly disillusioned with the way politics works, we end up with a knighthood for Tory kingmaker Graham Brady and another for ex-deputy PM Nick Clegg, whose lust for power facilitated 7 years of austerity, massive student debt and the impending destruction of the NHS. This ‘recognition’, though a little better than the obvious returning of a favour to Lynton Crosby in the list last year, reinforces the notion that politics is played by an elite for people within their own, tiny bubble and with little or no connection to everyday life. This is obviously not the case for all MPs but there are a number of parliamentarians (and, at a local level, councillors) who use their power and influence to manipulate policy so that it benefits themselves or their families; those with directorships of private health companies or the landlords of multiple properties, for instance. If there’s one burning issue of the times it must be inequality, whether that’s a lack of access to decent housing, decent social services and healthcare provision or decent jobs but, to the shame of us all, the gap between the haves and have nots is getting wider.


PM David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg (Getty Images)
PM David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg (Getty Images)

I find it obnoxious that the lies told during the Brexit debate have put the country in a position which exaggerates inequality; resentment at a lack of investment in former industrial regions, backed up with the spurious mantra that we’d ‘take back control’ was channelled into stoking anti-immigration sentiment and the subsequent devaluation of Sterling means that the increased cost of goods disproportionally affects the less well-off whereas the concomitant rise in share value benefits the already wealthy. It’s incredible that we can boast about the return of blue and gold passports (during the increased time in queues at customs, perhaps) swapped for seamless, invisible borders for exports and imports, and continue an archaic honours scheme which celebrates the achievements of some of the most inappropriate individuals. As for football, today’s Palace performance might have convinced me that it’s ok to get another season ticket for next year; the lack of application from players on silly wages at the beginning of the season felt like they didn’t care about the fans who pay to see them play, their earnings outstripping that of the average punter by some unholy figure.



Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City 31/12/17
Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City 31/12/17

I’m a bit torn by the awarding of any kind of prize where intangibles are weighed up by panels because everyone has innate bias; likes and dislikes. One of the rituals I used to go through as a youth in the mid-70s was to check the Melody Maker, NME and Sounds annual polls to see how the artists that I favoured fared. Some of the results ran counter to both my tastes and to reason, such as Gilbert O’Sullivan reaching no.2 in the Male Singer category and no.4 in the Keyboards category of the 1972 MM Readers’ Poll and I was somewhat bemused by some of the musicians ranked in ‘Miscellaneous Instrument’ because it didn’t tell you which particular instrument it was referring to for each artist and they could easily have been covered by one of the other categories.


The concept has been taken up by Prog magazine which, apart from holding an awards ceremony includes an annual 20 Top Albums of the Year feature where the results are culled from the preferences of the journalists themselves. Additionally, we were invited to vote in their annual reader’s poll, mimicking the format of the classic music papers during the 70s, with the results due out in the next edition. I’ve moved on a little since the 70s and though I don’t mind a list that is supplemented with a bit of information, the Top 20 Albums of 2017 as chosen by the writers at Prog magazine isn’t really my thing. However, I submitted some obscure choices for the Readers’ Poll so I will take a look at the published results.



New Year’s Day, 2018

After listening to one of my Christmas presents, the excellent Three Piece Suite retrospective by Gentle Giant, the first complete recording I’ve listened to for nearly a week due to work, football and family commitments, I thought I’d share some of ProgBlog’s category winners, based on material released in 2017 and the concerts I attended, material unlikely to get much of a mention in Prog...


Playing Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant
Playing Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant

(I got called out and got home a little before midnight)

Back to the blog. Tuesday 2nd January


Album of the year: An Invitation by Amber Foil

Strictly an EP, this is the creation of João Filipe, and it’s a wonderful, all-round and well balanced item. The music takes you back to classic 70s prog, blending very modern concerns with a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale. The quirkiness of the music is reflected in the CD packaging which also contains a ‘blueprint for a house’. It’s unique. Get yourself a copy.


Commended: Alight by Cellar Noise


Bassist: John Wetton

Wetton died in January 2017, the third original progressive rock bassist to pass away in the last couple of years. Whereas there are undoubtedly a large number of amazing technical players who were represented on record or I saw play live during 2017, the accolade has to go to Wetton for the unbelievably wide range of material he’s left for us, including some of the most inventive lines expressed during his time with the 1972 – 1974 incarnation of King Crimson. A great loss to the prog community.


John Wetton circa. Caught in the Crossfire
John Wetton circa. Caught in the Crossfire

Drummer: Franz di Cioccio

The only original member of PFM remaining in the band, di Cioccio now spends as much time behind a microphone acting as front man as he does behind his kit, but along with long-term associate bassist Patrick Djivas he’s steered the ship through periods of not-so-good music to produce their best album of original material for a very long time. Emotional Tattoos may not quite hit the heights of L’Isola di Niente and Photos of Ghosts (I think it lacks sufficient contrast) but the songs are strong and the playing assured. Di Cioccio’s boundless energy, with either sticks or mic stand in his hands, is something to behold.


Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth

Holdsworth is another progressive rock legend who died last year, though in reality he was probably more of a jazz guitarist whose fluid lines graced releases by Tempest, Soft Machine, Gong, Bruford and UK. Highly regarded by other guitarists, his style was idiosyncratic. He’s another fine musician who is sadly missed.


Keyboard player

There are actually too many excellent prog keyboard players to choose from. Of course it’s great to see Rick Wakeman performing classic Yes again with ARW but I’ve also been most impressed with up-and-coming talent from Italy like Niccolò Gallani from Cellar Noise and Sandro Amadei from Melting Clock.


Miscellaneous instrument: Mel Collins, King Crimson (flute, saxophones)

I’ve always considered this a category for non-conventional rock instrumentation, rather than picking a particular type of keyboard like Moog, Mellotron or synthesizer but it was fine when Mike Oldfield used to pick up the prize for playing everything. My preference for a prog-associated instrument not covered by bass, drums, guitar or keyboards is the flute, followed by violin; I was very impressed with Lucio Fabbri when I saw him with PFM and his playing on Emotional Tattoos is real quality but I’m going to plump for Mel Collins for his woodwind. Crimson may not have played the UK in 2017 but the set-list for the US gigs, released on vinyl and CD last year, highlights the formidable talents of Collins.


Vocalist: Emanuela Vedana, Melting Clock

I’m one of a fairly small number of people to have seen the two gigs by Melting Clock but I don’t imagine it will be too long before they reach a much wider audience when they release an album later this year. Their brand of symphonic progressivo Italiano would undoubtedly appeal to all fans of the genre, but two obvious reference points are Renaissance and neo-prog. The songs are highly melodic and well-crafted with multiple layers, utilising twin guitars and keyboards to set the tone for Emanuela’s strong, operatic vocals. Simply stunning.



Live act

Choosing a favourite live act is too difficult, so I’m not going to make a decision. I’ve managed to get to see quite a number of Italian bands from the 70s, including PFM at the fourth attempt, and seeing Wakeman, Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin performing Yes music together was quite special, but it’s the surprises like Cellar Noise and Melting Clock, both of which included accurate early Genesis tributes in their sets, which make it impossible to decide on an outright winner.


Cellar Noise at the Legend Club, Milan
Cellar Noise at the Legend Club, Milan

Venue: Porto Antico, Genova

Choosing a favourite venue is equally hard. The acoustics inside neo-rationalist Teatro Carlo Felice in Genova are brilliant, but the architecture and the internal decor are terrible; the Royal Festival Hall is a great looking building, also with amazing acoustics but I was disappointed with the Dweezil Zappa set. I loved the intimacy of Genova’s La Claque whereas Rome’s Jailbreak Club was a bit too crowded over the weekend of the Progressivamente festival. Brighton Dome is a beautiful performance space though it can be a bit of a drag getting back from Brighton by car or public transport at the end of a gig.

A fantastic setting, good sound and a great line-up made the Porto Antico Prog Fest very special and it was only a 10 minute walk back to my hotel.









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