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The last of the May events in the ProgBlog gig marathon was a celebration of Italy... ...in Islington!

By ProgBlog, May 8 2018 10:01PM

Until last month, I’d never been to see a Tangerine Dream performance; the closest I’d ever come to witnessing the TD sound was seeing ‘Berlin school’ devotees Node at the Royal College of Music in 2015 (a performance that is just about to be released on CD), and I was also present at the rather intimate premiere of the Edgar Froese/Tangerine Dream film Revolution in Sound, part of the Doc ‘n’ Roll Festival, screened at the Barbican Centre last November.


My appreciation of Tangerine Dream spans back to being introduced to Phaedra (1974) by school friend Alan Lee and I bought 1975’s Rubycon shortly after its release based on the promise of its predecessor. I can’t remember where I first heard Ricochet which was largely recorded at a gig in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls on 23rd October 1975 but I remember not being over-impressed with the next studio release Stratosfear (1976), which I thought made too many concessions towards mainstream rock, including the use of harmonica. I imagine it was becoming ever more difficult to maintain originality and find new things to write in the idiom they’d created but I also think the change in use of the sequencer from pulsed rhythmic intervention to near-rigid substitute electronic drumming had the overall effect of making the group more industry-friendly. I sold my copy of Rubycon some time before I left school in 1978 but regretted it, believing that it remains one of the ultimate albums to listen to in the dark through headphones. I bought a compilation CD From Dawn ‘til Dusk 1973 - 1988 in the early 90s, a CD of Phaedra in 2005 and replaced my Rubycon on CD in 2009 and finally replaced both Phaedra and Rubycon CDs with original vinyl last year; over the last couple of years I’ve bought a second-hand vinyl copy of Ricochet, plus Stratosfear and soundtrack Sorcerer (1977) on CD and I inherited CDs to plug the gap from Encore (1977) to Hyperborea (1983) from friend Neil Jellis as he replaced his original CDs with remasters.



Their brand of electronica was swiftly accepted by the fans of British progressive rock, like myself, who were exposed to the band when Richard Branson signed them to Virgin Records. Though not virtuoso, the application of electronic keyboard-based instrumentation to the thinking of minimalist composers like György Ligeti put them at the forefront of a radical musical movement, with atmospheres created by sonic washes, sequencer pulses and haunting Mellotron, mapping both outer- and inner space.

My favourite line-up is the classic Froese-Franke-Baumann trio, responsible for the early-mid 70’s classics, and who performed in some unusual places for a rock band, like the cathedrals at Reims in France, Liverpool and Coventry. The latter two are modern architectural masterpieces but Reims Cathedral (Notre Dame de Reims) is an 81m high gothic building dating from 1211, lacking in facilities for a crowd of rock fans whose behaviour would lead to TD being banned from ever playing in a Catholic church again. The idea to perform electronic meditations in these sacred places, whether or not you hold religious beliefs, was a stroke of genius because as a layperson with an appreciation of architecture, I find this thoughtful, sometimes reflective and often searching music is somehow very fitting for the space.


The journey from Brescia to the gig at the Union Chapel, Islington, was dictated by the easyJet flight schedule from Verona to Gatwick which fortunately ran on time. There were no disasters at Gatwick’s railway station, or East Croydon or Victoria and I arrived at the venue to join the end of what was one of the biggest queues I’ve seen for a long time (that being for Steven Wilson at The Troxy in March 2015). This queue also contained Neil, who happened to be holding my ticket, and who fortuitously called me before he’d reached the entrance and disappeared inside. The one slight drawback with this rush was the rather stark temperature difference between Italy and the UK; it had been 26oC when I boarded my flight but the evening temperature in London was 14oC. I was wearing a T shirt and had no jacket.


The performances at the Union Chapel invited comparisons with the Reims show, and Bianca Froese-Acquaye suggested, as she introduced the evening’s proceedings, that Edgar would have approved of the setting. I get the feeling that many of the fans did, too, certainly on the night I attended, Monday 23rd April. Froese-Acquaye had been present at the screening of the documentary at the Barbican, where she read an extract about meeting Jimi Hendrix from her husband’s autobiography, Tangerine Dream: Force Majeure which had been published a couple of months before, and held a Q&A session following the film. She had obviously been given instructions that the group should carry on following Edgar’s ‘change of cosmic address’ and the trio with the responsibility for the musical legacy, Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane, proved well qualified to do so, building on the critical acclaim of Quantum Gate (2017). I was a little concerned about the way Edgar Froese was addressed by his widow as she dedicated the performance to ‘our master’; this may have been accidental miscommunication but it did come across as though we were being initiated into some form of cult, with Quaeschning named as Froese’s ‘chosen successor’.



The set list seems to have been comprised mostly from 80’s material, plus a couple of tracks from Quantum Gate: It is Time to Leave When Everyone is Dancing and Roll the Seven Twice, compositions I really wasn’t familiar with but thoroughly enjoyed because it sounded as though each piece had the right balance of instrumentation despite the reliance on midi-triggers and programming; during the mid 80s Froese reworked some of their tracks and added new layers of keyboard, guitar and rhythm, a move regarded by many as detracting from the stark elegance of the originals. One of the songs in the first set reminded me of Phaedra and I wonder if it was part of the 2005 reworking of that album, which featured Quaeschning, especially as a little research suggests that the selection includes more recent, post-Froese reworkings. The second set was more reminiscent of 70’s TD; not only did they play Stratosfear but they also performed an extended improvisation, a Session in TD parlance, like one of the improvised pieces that made up their seminal live albums.



I had thought that the enigmatic Yamane was responsible for very little of the soundscape, as there were lengthy sections where her violin was held by her side, but I’m reliably informed she was responsible for triggering and controlling effects using Ableton Push. There were a few moments where the electronic drums became a little cheesy but the sequencer-driven beats, a trademark of the Berlin School acts, were always imaginative. Some of the projections appeared a little dated, too, though most seemed apt, fitting in with the music and making it difficult to work out whether to watch the band or to watch the lights play over the neo-gothic interior of the chapel. On balance I was probably more impressed with the second set; especially the improvised piece which shifted in unpredictable ways and where the involvement of the whole trio was much more evident.



The whole event was really enjoyable, from the setting to the playing to the music itself. It didn’t matter that my preferred era of the band was one where there was less reliance on continuous sequences and the evolution of the tracks seemed more organic and free-form; I love Froese’s Mellotron work, rating both Aqua (1974) and Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (1975) as Mellotron classics but their adoption and employment of digital technology can’t be faulted, creating multiple layers of sound of uncertain origin that weaved and flowed over the crowd seated on the chapel’s pews. Like Froese before him, Quaeschning picked up a guitar during a couple of pieces but I wasn’t able to attribute a particular sound to the instrument; perhaps everything will become clear when the DVD is released because the entire performance was filmed.



...It was well worth the dash from Brescia to Islington.








By ProgBlog, Jun 20 2017 05:06PM

I’ve been listening to a fair amount of electronica over the last week, including an old favourite from my school days Rubycon and a couple of albums by Redshift, Halo and Ether. The idea was to help me sleep with night temperatures in London in the high teens or even low twenties, treating the music as a relaxant as the compositions seem to develop organically, even when there’s a sequencer beat driving things along. Then on Saturday I managed to drag myself out of a stifling house into the brilliant sunshine and June heat to witness Metamono playing on their home turf, at the Crystal Palace Overground Festival.




I discovered the band by accident, following a trawl through the second-hand records in the basement of Bambino in Upper Norwood and, after a brief discussion about Phaedra by Tangerine Dream, which I was in the process of buying, with Mark Hill who runs the record department, I was given a promotional postcard with his email address: mark@metamono.co.uk. Following this encounter, my subsequent blog was all about Crystal Palace and as part of my research I investigated ‘metamono’, discovering them to be an electronic musical trio formed in 2010 who, in September 2013, featured as The Guardian’s ‘new band of the week’ https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/sep/06/metamono-new-band-of-day

It was evident to me that Hill knew his electronica from the previous time I’d visited the store. I’d rifled through a box of (largely) Tangerine Dream-related vinyl that hadn’t quite made it downstairs to the record bins, selecting a copy of Edgar Froese’s Aqua and inquiring about the chances of locating Epsilon in Malaysian Pale. Evidently a huge fan of the genre, Hill is actually a fine artist who just coincidentally runs Sound Vinyl in Bambino's basement and plays vintage analogue keyboards (and radio, and Stylophone) with Crystal Palace’s answer to Düsseldorf’s best. The other two members are Jono Podmore and Paul Conboy. Podmore, as Kumo, has collaborated and released albums with Irmin Schmidt of Can; Conboy has worked with Bomb the Bass and is responsible for film soundtracks. What is most intriguing about this collective, something right up my street, is their manifesto. Dutifully read out before Saturday’s performance, they eschew any form of digital sound generation or processing and limit the sound sources available to them to old analogue instruments, found and repaired, to reflect the struggles of society. They believe that music has lost its transformative power, subsumed in a corporatist-capitalist order and use their own music “to kick against the pricks.”

Music journalist David Stubbs has postulated that this musical form, the Krautrock of the 70s, is being referenced by groups who want to branch out in different directions, suggesting that returning to basics and moving on from there is a quicker route to innovation than by simply evolving. This fits in with the Metamono ethic, that “Our limitations will be our aesthetic.”


Whereas found instruments hint at scrap heap recycling, evidently a good thing for the planet, this wasn’t at all like the first time I saw exponents of the genre, admittedly a group more in the Kosmiche or Berlin-school sub genre: Node. My dalliance with appropriating electronica commenced in 1974 or 1975 but I went on to sell Rubycon to a school friend in 1977 or 78 after being underwhelmed by Stratosfear. I’d been intrigued by the appearance of Kraftwerk on the BBC TV’s popular science programme Tomorrow’s World where they appeared to play hotplates with radio aerials and though friends subsequently got into Kraftwerk and Can, they never really pushed the right buttons for me. Consequently, it was only after a reappraisal tinged with a bit of FOMO that my first experience of live electronica came in February 2015 when I attended a performance by analogue synth quartet Node at the Royal College of Music, their first gig for 17 years. I thought the venue was entirely appropriate, affording electronica suitable recognition as a distinct, legitimate musical form but it was the hardware on display, reputedly the largest collection of analogue synthesizers ever seen outside a recording studio and rumoured to be worth around £500,000 which contrasted with Metamono’s recycling chic.



It was pointed out to me that the audience for Node was replete with the great and the good from the UK electronica scene. I don’t know if any of Metamono were present but the working backgrounds of the members of the two groups are very close: music production and film score composition.

Node played four pieces over two sets that lasted 90 minutes; all of which was sequencer driven but which fell into two distinct styles, spacey and industrial. Although I’m not averse to aggressive, percussive sequencer beats I’m more in favour of sequencer as lead instrument, bubbling to the surface, subtly changing over each cycle and giving the impression of drifting, rather than driving.

Node, like Tangerine Dream before them, also used guitar; Dave Bessell performed with a Les Paul strung around his neck which he occasionally lightly strummed. Their overall sound was multilayered and full, with a nicely-balanced live mix in the Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, a dedicated performance space carefully lined with speakers along the length of the room and though I’d describe the ambience as academic, serious or thoughtful, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and on more than one occasion floated away on the dreamy waves of keyboard wash. In contrast, Metamono managed to get a well-balanced mix from a temporary stage in Crystal Palace Park with a 45 minute set filled with fun, joyful music. The sequencers (or did they employ an old rhythm machine?) produced deep dance beats, the pressure waves moving the material on the bass speakers and summoning members of the crowd to their feet to dance in front of the stage. The top line was classic thin late 70s or early 80s synth, filled out with Podmore’s Theremin and some well-place radio transmission, used most effectively on their cover version of Kraftwerk’s Europe Endless, a track they had reworked and released as a single a week before the EU referendum last year as a plea to everyone to vote ‘remain’.


Considering how easily they instilled good vibes in a large crowd and looked as though they were enjoying it too, they have a serious message about not just the music business but about the way our lives are run by vested interests. It seems perfectly fitting that Crystal Palace, the site of the People’s Palace after its season in Hyde Park should produce an inclusive, outward-looking band who play music on found and refurbished instruments, applying a doctrine which seemingly restricts but actually liberates their creativity. Metamono – my band of the week.










By ProgBlog, Nov 8 2015 09:09PM

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

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

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

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

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

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



By ProgBlog, Mar 1 2015 11:32PM

On Friday 27th February I attended the first show in 17 years by analogue synth quartet Node at the Royal College of Music. This prestigious venue seemed rather suitable, affording electronica appropriate recognition as a distinct, legitimate musical form; hardly surprising when you consider the CVs of the band members: production legend Flood; veteran producer and musician Ed Buller; film composer Mel Wesson; and Professor Dave Bessell.

Arriving in the Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, we were greeted with what had been dubbed as the largest collection of vintage analogue synthesiser equipment ever seen outside a recording studio, with an estimated value of £500000; largely made up of modular synthesizers but with a couple of mini Moogs and a VCS3 also quite evident. The group played four pieces over two sets that lasted 90 minutes; all the material was sequencer driven but there were two distinct styles: one, a spacey ‘Berlin school’ sound that was inspired by mid 70s Tangerine Dream and the other was a more industrial sound where the sequences marked out aggressive, percussive beats as though forming the soundtrack to an imaginary film where a derelict factory had been occupied by feral denizens in a bleak vision of a dystopian near-future. Partial, fractured images of the band, interspersed with bubbles and Tron-like graphics were projected onto a circular screen just above and behind the band, the real time images captured by the video cameras trained on each of the musicians. The compositions weren’t all keyboards and sequencers; Dave Bessell performed with a guitar strung around his neck that he strummed lightly on a couple of occasions, so lightly that you couldn’t actually hear it at times. For the first half of the performance I sat at the back of the auditorium, having acquired my ticket in the week before the show, and was mesmerised by the weaving sequences and the otherworld synthesizer washes as they radiated away from the stage via a series of speakers placed along the length of the hall. In the second half of the show I sat in the second row (apparently some people were unable to make the show) which afforded a great view of the four silent, black-clad musos as they subtly manipulated their instrument settings. This was a very enjoyable gig, however different it was from the concerts I normally go to, my first live electronica event where it seemed that all the cream of British electronica had gathered.

In the pub before the show, the excellent Queen’s Arms, Queen’s Gate Mews, I’d been discussing analogue keyboard equipment with friend Neil Jellis, agreeing that the full analogue sound was so much more satisfying than the digital machines that emerged at the end of the 70s. I described some Wakeman Moog from The Six Wives of Henry VIII that Neil later identified as being on Anne Boleyn, which I consider quite sublime, one of the best Moog sounds ever. This conversation turned to White Rock which we both believe is under-rated and so much better than the material that both immediately preceded it and the output that followed Criminal Record. With the exception of the single novelty track The Breathalyser, Six Wives, White Rock and Criminal Record are purely instrumental and whatever you feel about the accuracy of the images they evoke, they utilise the full gamut of analogue technology to create miniature masterpieces of keyboard-based rock. I think that these three albums represent Wakeman’s best work and have previously criticised his forays into lyrics. This got me thinking whether or not the best prog is instrumental or vocal...

There are some groups where the vocals were integral to the ethos of the band, whether they were integral to the song’s narrative (Genesis) or philosophical musing (Yes); some where vocal tracks were balanced with instrumentals, possibly because there was no stand out singer in the band (Camel, King Crimson, Greenslade); and the fully instrumental (early Enid, Mike Oldfield, Gordon Giltrap.) It’s possible that the inclusion of vocals was a hangover from the rock roots that made up prog; the bands that were more influenced by jazz tended to be less inclined to use vocals, certainly Soft Machine, after the departure of first Kevin Ayers and then Robert Wyatt, went on to produce instrumental-only music. My collection includes the full spectrum from fully instrumental to all vocal and one of my personal favourite albums is Tales from Topographic Oceans, where the meaning of the lyrical content is difficult to discern. In Tales, the structure of the music is enhanced by the vocals but there are extended instrumental passages, which means the success of the concept relies on a balance of the relative strengths of the music and the song words. I think Yes get it about right though there are plenty of people who think the album fails on both accounts. Camel’s early output was a mixture of songs and instrumentals, until they released the excellent instrumental Music Inspired by the Snow Goose then subsequently reverted to a combination of the two forms. The recruiting of Richard Sinclair, a more accomplished vocalist than either Andy Latimer or Peter Bardens and someone with a jazz-informed vocabulary, resulted in a shift towards more songs. However, this may have been a result of record label interference, wanting the band to record a hit single (Highways of the Sun may have been radio friendly but it didn’t make the UK Top 50.) During the 70s Focus were predominantly instrumental, the exceptions being the title track from Moving Waves, Round Goes the Gossip from Focus 3, La Cathedrale de Strasbourg from Hamburger Concerto and I Need a Bathroom from Mother Focus. My favourite post-Barrett early Floyd are the space rock and prog instrumentals A Saucerful of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother and One of These Days. Dark Side of the Moon is a fantastic album despite the sixth-former lyrics and the title track from Shine on You Crazy Diamond, like Echoes, is predominantly instrumental. The angelic-voiced Greg Lake was a key component of the first incarnation of King Crimson and though John Wetton was an able vocalist, it’s the musicianship and improvisational talents of the Larks’ Tongues era Crimson that stand out.

Of course this is all subjective; the relative abilities of group members on their respective instruments, their influences and their vision of the best way to get their ideas across all play a part. But if I’m more interested in the instrumentation, how come my favourite album is Close to the Edge?



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