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Still reflecting on the latest venture to the Italian Riviera, ProgBlog looks at the legacy of the port city of Savona: Delirium and Il Cerchio d'Oro who released the rather good Il Fuoco Sotto la Cenere in the autumn

By ProgBlog, Nov 28 2017 02:24PM

My first dalliance with a form of rock music other than progressive rock or jazz-rock came in the guise of Robert Fripp and The League of Gentlemen who played at the London School of Economics 37 years ago, on the 29th November 1980. Probably best described as post-punk, Fripp’s dance band provided a very up-front, driving beat courtesy of Sara Lee on bass and Kevin Wilkinson on drums, with the organ of ex-XTC Barry Andrews adding stabbed fragmented chord backing and the occasional top line, and Fripp scattering guitar over the whole thing. The show was delayed for some considerable time due to problems with the guitarist’s pedal board, which seemed at affect the artist himself as much as a restless crowd. I seem to recall that a degree of functionality was attained, enough to allow the gig to proceed, but this was the last of the LoG concerts and when I next saw Fripp play live, six months later at Her Majesty’s theatre in London’s West End and leading a band which would change its name to King Crimson before the release of an album, it looked like the pedal had been replaced with a Roland guitar synthesizer.


League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates
League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates

I was in my final year as an undergraduate when I saw The League of Gentlemen and as it was a cold November evening, I’d turned up in my greatcoat, still clinging on to the vestiges of progressive rock fashion at a time when everything about the genre was derided. I’d gone along to the LSE with Jim Knipe, not knowing what to expect but drawn by Fripp’s name and also bemused by the pairing with Barry Andrews, so we had a good idea that it wasn’t going to prog. What we got was hard to describe and, despite the obvious beat, quite enjoyable. The fast picked cyclical guitar previewed here would become a staple of the ’81-84 Crimson where twin guitars could play slightly different lines to produce knotty, complex patterns which weaved in and out of synch. There is a sonic relationship between The League of Gentlemen and 80’s King Crimson but the addition of Adrian Belew on second guitar (and guitar synth) and vocals, the reappearance of Bill Bruford with a kit augmented with electronic drums, and the introduction of Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick opened up vast possibilities, shifting the idiom from something very raw to a highly sophisticated form of energetic art-rock.


Though not necessarily the beginning of ‘math rock’, this version of Crimson is very likely to have influenced the first identifiable math rock bands like Don Caballero, when the genre emerged in the US in the late 80s, possibly attracting the description as a joke. Linked to prog through a common absence of blues influences and a shared embrace of non-standard time signatures, this style of music is predominantly instrumental, taking some cues from 20th century minimalist composers where riffs are tightly structured and repeated. When different time signatures are used by different instruments it produces complex, often chaotic or dissonant sounding phrases which resolve when the different rhythmic patterns converge on a mutual first beat; there are guitar parts book-ending Frame by Frame from King Crimson’s Discipline (1981) which have been compared to Steve Reich compositions and there is a section where Fripp plays in 13/8 with Belew playing in 14/8. The listener may perceive chaos but the music is rigidly structured and follows a defined layout where changes are counted out; if it sounds difficult to follow for the listener, it’s not so straightforward for the players! It’s just an observation but it seems to me that there is minimal use of distortion, which facilitates a better degree of separation of the instruments playing in different times and is more pleasing to listen to than what might simply come across as a mush of noise.

Maths and music have an obvious overlap and whether it’s the ancient Greeks looking at the ratio between notes and deriving scales, or Bach and Mozart inserting numerological games into their compositions, it’s impossible to ignore the numerical value of frequency of sound, the tempo and meter which define the rhythm, the velocity of a percussive strike, and the mathematics which can be applied to a sound wave. I was fortunate to have a good physics teacher at school and the lessons on sound were very interesting; the school had somehow managed to acquire some wooden organ pipes which were not only instructive for the investigation of wavelength, for someone who liked sound and the possibilities of progressive rock, they were educational toys. We often see representation of the Fibonacci series in nature in the growth patterns of plants and animal shells but the golden ratio is also present on a piano keyboard; the five flats/sharps and the eight notes of the octave correspond to 5:8:13 in Fibonacci’s numbers.


Anyone who has read this far will understand that the whole prog genre can be subdivided and subdivided some more. I think the idea of math rock as a distinct part of the prog spectrum isn’t too outrageous and there’s always going to be some blurring of boundaries. However, I’m not entirely sure if post-rock fits somewhere within the prog definition or if the term should be abandoned because it’s so nebulous. I’ve recently been listening to the music of Groundburst, a Dublin-based trio consisting of Si Dunne (keyboards); Phil Dunne (guitar) and Erik (drums) who formed in 2005 and who list their music as variously post-rock, math rock, progressive rock and soundtrack!

This version of the trio has recently released an EP, Triad, available as a download from their Bandcamp page https://groundburst.bandcamp.com/ but they’ve released a number of downloads, plus a very interesting physical EP (in CD format) Everything I didn’t say and all the things I wanted to and provided a soundtrack to the short, independent film Champagne, Intimacy, Alan written and directed by a friend of the band, David Martin. There’s an identifiable trajectory in their material from 2007’s EP1, with its dreamy feel, gorgeous electric piano and laid-back jazzy guitar to the tighter sounding, well-constructed Everything I didn’t say (2009) and their concise soundtrack compositions from 2014, the longest of which is 3’44 and four of the seven tracks are less than a minute long, to what really is a very well executed recording, Triad, from September this year. Noodles from EP1 has traces of repeated, short riffs but the overall feel is trippy jazz; Everything I didn’t say is probably the most proggy of their releases as it utilises more sounds but it could still pass off as modern jazz; the constraints of matching music to filmed sequences for Champagne, Intimacy, Alan resulted in a more timed and time-conscious style which can be identified as math rock and when you watch the film (which was nominated for an award and is rated 8.3/10), the music is a surprisingly easy fit, consisting mostly of snatches of guitar patterns and jazz piano apart from the looser Finding a Rope which also includes saxophone provided by Derek and Alan O’Callaghan, and the highly reverbed Alan’s Blues (which is not in the blues idiom.) For those interested, the film is about middle class couple Alan and Carol who are in their mid-40s and growing apart. They attend a swinger's party on the recommendation of a therapist and it’s evident that Alan has the greatest expectations, so that when they attend the party, held in a large country house he is keen to pair-off with the beautiful Sonya and her tall, handsome husband Dan, who obviously have a great deal of experience in the swinger lifestyle. Alan is clumsy and performs poorly, possibly intimidated by Carol’s obvious enjoyment, despite her initial reservations, and Alan goes off to question love, sex, marriage, life and everything.


Triad is a very focused offering and consists of three tracks. Law of Fives is clever jazz-rock, with staccato riffs and pauses and angular lines, properties that have been described as features of math rock. I’ve attempted to count out the time signature a few times but it’s not easy (Phil Dunne has said that the opening section is in 23/8 time!) Erik’s drumming adds appropriate elements which underline the riffs and it’s possibly his rhythmic input which has helped to refine the band’s style. Parlour Games has some Canterbury-like electric piano picking out an odd melody and when the guitar riffs give way to piano riffs and takes on the melody line it reminds me of The Civil Surface by Egg; it’s on the jazz side of rock, rather than the other way round but despite its relative accessibility, it retains the tightness which marks this particular set of tunes. Mazomba begins with urgent guitar feedback and is an altogether heavier prospect. Si plays electric piano over crunchy guitar riffs until halfway through when Phil plays a moderately distorted solo over the electric piano chords, and the roles of lead and backing are once again reversed before the end. Apparently, one of the albums the band had been listening to around the time the EP was put together was King Crimson’s Red and though Si suggests its influence can be heard in opening track Law of Fives, I think the proto prog-metal of Red surfaces in Mazumba.

Despite what might appear to be a very serious approach to their music, especially as it would be easy to suggest that math rock has an inherent geekiness, there is an intelligent humour behind it all. Law of Fives relates to the mathematically incorrect notion that everything has some form of relationship to number five, by being divisible by or a multiple of five, or somehow else directly or indirectly related to 5. The number 23 obeys the Law of Fives, because 2 + 3 = 5, however meaningless this is, and the band thought it amusing to link this illogical notion with a tune which included a riff in 23 time. Parlour Games evolved from the day job frustration caused by applying theoretical ideas to qualitative phenomena in ways that just didn’t seem to work, and finding a musical analogy to the idea of forcing something rigid over something organic.


Triad (2017)
Triad (2017)

Groundburst are currently finishing recording an album, provisionally titled Vortex Street for release in 2018. According to the band it’s going to feature longer songs than those in the current repertoire to allow for the development of themes and include more instrumentation and orchestration. It’s no surprise that we can expect more complex rhythmical material but it will be good to get to hear a full album from a band which has delivered such great promise in small doses.



Groundburst
Groundburst








By ProgBlog, Jan 15 2017 10:47PM

Right from the start of my interest in progressive rock, I understood there was a strong link between what I was listening to and classical music. The Nice were one of the first bands I discovered and one of the earliest albums to enter the household was Five Bridges by The Nice, an album of predominantly orchestrated pieces. Studying the sleeve notes for Five Bridges revealed that the group credited Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Bach but the primary composition, the suite taking up the entire first side (from which the album got its title), was a mixture of classical and jazz with only a bit of rock music thrown in and was credited to Keith Emerson and Lee Jackson, the latter presumably just for the lyrics. I’d probably already worked out that a piano trio was my preferred form of jazz (in a house where I was exposed to a lot of jazz, from trad and big band to Miles but even after the full-blown symphonic approach of Yes, the pared-down Nice still managed to tick all the right boxes for me and I think at least part of that was the way they worked jazz into their repertoire, the other reason being the incredible organ work. This was most likely the first time I’d heard orchestration presented in this way but it was certainly the first time I’d paid any attention to a modern classical piece, marvelling at the way the five movements represented the bridges that crossed the Tyne and straining to work out Jackson’s words during Chorale (3rd Bridge). The Nice weren’t the first band to apply rock treatment to classical music, which was probably Nut Rocker, the Kim Fowley interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s March of the Toy Soldiers from his ballet The Nutcracker Suite, by Jack B. Nimble and the Quicks. This was released on the Del Rio label in early 1962 but was hastily re-recorded for Rendezvous Records and released under the group name of B. Bumble and the Stingers. At the time, the BBC had set itself up as a cultural gatekeeper and viewed itself as the nation’s arbiter of taste. Through the auspices of the Dance Music Policy Committee, it worked a policy of refusing to give air time to songs "which are slushy in sentiment" or pop versions of classical pieces including The Cougars' Saturday Nite at the Duckpond, a 1963 version of Swan Lake. Nut Rocker was discussed by the committee but was not banned because of its evident ephemeral nature which would not ‘offend reasonable people.’



Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6
Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6

Emerson did have an uncanny knack in identifying themes and phrases which fitted in with both original compositions and cover versions of other people’s tunes and this was one of the major avenues through which I, and many others, first began to appreciate classical music, so that one of the first classical albums I bought was the Camden Classics LP of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6. Though I heard it later than Country Pie from Five Bridges, this being the song that incorporated a portion of Brandenburg Concerto no. 6, the title track from Ars Longa Vita Brevis released two years earlier includes a snippet from Brandenburg Concerto no. 3. Additionally, the album features a band-only recording of the Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite which would resurface, with orchestra, on Five Bridges. One other piece of Bach appears on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, which was, paradoxically the last of their records I heard, a fragment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor inserted into Rondo, which I recognised as being very closely based on Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk, though Brubeck went un-credited.



Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!
Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!

Toccata and Fugue in D minor is instantly recognisable and iconic and one of the reasons I went to see the film Rollerball when it was released in 1975. Set in ‘the not too distant future’ it has turned out to be a shade prescient, where all the functions of the world are run by global corporations. The real purpose of the sport, played between teams owned by the different companies from different world cities, is to subdue individualism so that when the main protagonist Jonathan E. (played by James Caan) becomes successful and a crowd favourite, the corporations first try to get him to retire and then to kill him off during a match. The corporations fail and Jonathan E. prevails; the closing sequence sees him skating around the arena with the crowd chanting his name, softly at first then building in amplitude to a freeze frame and the single-voice flourish of the Toccata signals the credits. Sometime during the 1980s the provenance of the piece was questioned by academics and it appears that the musical form could have been written for violin. What is known is that the earliest manuscript was written out by Johannes Ringk, on a date estimated to have been between 1740 and 1760.

Is there something about Bach’s music that makes it adaptable to progressive rock? Bach appears to have been fascinated by music, numbers and codes and his name spells out a series of notes which were frequently employed in his works, providing a sonic signature to his work. If the letters of the name ‘Bach’ each replaced with its number in the alphabet, we end up with 2+1+3+8=14 and some researchers have hypothesised that he had something of a fixation with the number 14; it has been suggested that when he was asked to join Mizler's society of Musical Sciences he delayed accepting to ensure that he was the 14th member to join. Mozart was another who applied mathematical games to his compositions and there were yet more baroque composers using a cabalistic code to change letters into numbers which could then be used in musical composition to hide words.


Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band
Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band

Proto-prog converts included Procol Harum whose debut release A Whiter Shade of Pale drips with Bach from the repeated descending steps of the ground bass which appear in Air on the G string and Sleepers, Wake!, to a melody line which could be a novel adaptation of the cantata I am Standing One with Foot in the Grave, and Jethro Tull, barely out of their blues period, with Bourée from Stand Up (1969), an adaptation of the lute piece Bourrée in E minor, played on flute in a jazz idiom (latterly incorporated into the live version of Finisterre’s In Liminae by Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band, possibly as a tribute to the legacy of Jethro Tull on Italian progressive rock.) The Nice influenced many subsequent groups, themselves dissolving into Emerson, Lake and Palmer who not only quoted baroque compositions but moved on to pieces from the late 19th and 20th Centuries and were responsible for my appreciation of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Janáček.

I would find it hard to believe if Netherlands keyboard trio Trace weren’t influenced by The Nice where on their eponymous debut they covered Bach, Grieg and mixed in some traditional Polish dance and Swedish folk music. They first came to my attention on the Old Grey Whistle Test and, if anything, I was more impressed by keyboard player Rick van der Linden than I was by Keith Emerson. His interpretation of Bach’s Italian Concerto (presented as Gaillard) remains one of my favourite tracks of all time. It’s a really well structured multi-layered piece played unbelievably fast, demonstrating the virtuoso technical ability of van der Linden whilst simultaneously displaying a brilliant feel for the original composition. The second Trace album, Birds contains more Bach (Bourrée, from the English Suite) and Opus 1065, where they utilises the talents of Darryl Way on violin – a man equally at home playing classical variations including his own violin and synthesized orchestra album Concerto for Electric Violin.



Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace
Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace

We tend to think of Bach influencing prog initially through Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, possibly the ultimate Moog album but that influence spreads via Mahler, Stravinsky, Dave Brubeck and it even affected the thinking of The Beach Boys and The Kinks. The nascent progressive scene embraced Bach where, because of the mathematical structure, the harmony and counterpoint and maybe the association with church music, his compositions seemed such a good fit.

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