ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

ProgBlog goes to the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice but still manages to find prog connections - and a relatively new record store...

By ProgBlog, Jan 22 2017 11:19PM

Whereas 1976 ended on a relatively high note for progressive rock with what I now regard as the last decent studio offering from Genesis, Wind and Wuthering, it hadn’t really been such a classic year for the progressive rock genre though there were obviously important releases. Looking back through my collection it would appear that the product from mainland Europe shined pretty brightly. 2017 has started with the inauguration of President Trump in the US but 1977 started off where 1976 ended, with a trip to see Genesis at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. It continued with the much-anticipated follow-up to Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd’s Animals. The entire album was premiered pre-official release, on John Peel’s radio show (January 20th, official release January 23rd.) That single exposure was enough for me to discern a qualitative difference between Animals and its predecessor; gone were the lavish keyboard washes and cutting synthesizer lines, replaced by a more traditional rock balance with organ and piano relegated to little more than rhythm work. I still went out and bought it, to discover that Rick Wright wasn’t included in any compositional credits and even Dave Gilmour only got his name on Dogs. It was fairly common knowledge that a decent proportion of the material which made up the LP had been presented to live audiences following the Dark Side tours, with You’ve Got to be Crazy forming the bones of Dogs and Sheep gestating as Raving and Drooling, the latter including far more synthesizer than on the finalised album version. Wish You Were Here is a good example of progressive rock; four years later The Wall is most definitely not prog. Sitting between the two, Animals doesn’t really conform to the requirements of the description either, though it does have its moments and does challenge the prevailing politics of the time, inverting the anti-Stalinist narrative of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and turning it into a rail against capitalism.


Animals - forty years old
Animals - forty years old

From the somewhat lacklustre and very disappointing Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! of the previous year, Jethro Tull reinvented themselves in 1977 with the prog-folk Songs from the Wood. This was not only a coherent, redefining statement (that would last for a trio of albums), it also utilised the playing talents of long-term associate and strings arranger David (now Dee) Palmer on keyboards which had the effect of adding another layer of complexity to the music. I don’t think the music could be compared to folk because it really rocked; the title better reflected the subject matter itself rather than any treatment of it, espousing green issues and contentment through a more rural way of life dressed. Ian Anderson had always utilised the acoustic guitar in a singer-songwriter way but now he had a package that harked back to a bucolic idyll and even, in Hunting Girl, hinted at Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I really like Songs from the Wood, the upfront, punchy bass of John Glascock and in general the instrumentation and arrangements. I suppose if I were to lay any criticism at this record it would be directed at the sometimes twee lyrics but overall, for a song-based album, it compares very favourably with Tull’s prog-concept pieces like Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play and Minstrel in the Gallery.


Songs from the Wood
Songs from the Wood

It would be incorrect of me to dismiss Tull as a second-division act but the first of the major players to return after an extended break from the studio were Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The pretentiously-titled Works Volume 1 may have been a cock-a-snook to punk, the dominant genre of the time, indicating that they didn’t care what anyone else thought about their approach to music. Aesthetically, even the sleeve is deadly serious in monochrome with its small neat font and the concept, one side for each band member plus one side for the ensemble comes across as an indication of artistic control. I’ve always thought Works Volume 1 and the albums just before it invoked a superficial parallel with Yes activity: Yes released Close to the Edge, their defining LP in 1972, this was followed by a triple live set (Yessongs) which in turn was followed by the magnum opus double LP Tales from Topographic Oceans; ELP released Brain Salad Surgery in 1973, the pinnacle of their career up to that date, they then released the triple live album Welcome Back My Friends and their next studio outing was the grand double LP Works Volume 1. If the analogy is pushed further, the Yes hiatus was punctuated by solo albums; ELP’s absence from the studio ended with solo material presented within a group album (though Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas and Emerson’s arrangement of the Meade Lux Lewis tune Honky Tonk Train Blues, released in 1975 and 1976 respectively were both charting singles, eventually ended up on the mixed bag Works Volume 2.) It’s easiest to analyse Works Volume 1 one side at a time. I find Emerson’s Piano Concerto no. 1 rather enjoyable, the piece cementing his reputation as a builder of bridges between the two worlds of classical and rock though which his influences shine. I’m not sure that it’s a great piece of composition but I like it. Lake’s side continues from where Still... You Turn Me On left off in 1973. I value Lake’s contribution to progressive rock as an integral part of the earliest incarnation of King Crimson and as bassist/vocalist for ELP. He may have considered himself a singer songwriter playing acoustic guitar who happened to play some bass but the ‘solo’ features on every ELP album bar the first are relatively poor affairs; nice voice, shame about the content. Having said that, I have a soft spot for C’est La Vie! Carl Palmer’s material works very well when the attention is on the percussion rather than his song writing; I could never work out why Joe Walsh should appear on an ELP album, which brings me to the group tracks. The Copland-penned Fanfare for the Common Man is safely back on ELP territory and the only gripe I have with it is the overrated sound of the Yamaha GX-1 when it would sound so much better using a Hammond. The Yamaha is more suited to the symphonic Pirates which, at a little over 13 minutes fits the prog mould far better, forming a mini-suite. Along with dinosaurs, you can’t go far wrong with pirates!


Works Volume 1
Works Volume 1

Yes also returned from the wilderness with Going for the One, an album which offered a nod to the punk ethos with the high-energy title track, albeit with a liberal dose of Anderson sensibility, with its trippy imagery (“so hard to find in my cosmic mind”) but the other four tracks are straight from the Yes universe. Parallels was left over from Squire’s Fish out of Water and is sonically closest to The Yes Album. With Wakeman back in the fold, the album is far lighter than Relayer and in Awaken, contains one of the best progressive rock songs, ever. There’s a nice balance in the compositions, with Wonderous Stories managing to compress a full prog epic into something less than four minutes to become a surprisingly successful single at a time when punk was riding high, and the understated, reflective Turn of the Century showing off Howe’s considerable talent on acoustic guitar. Yes music is always uplifting but this was somehow positive thinking presented in easy to digest chunks on a platter, beginning with the hope of Parallels, moving through unbounded joy (Going for the One) and reflection (Turn of the Century) to spiritual fulfilment (Awaken.) Wakeman’s return coincided with two solo releases: White Rock and Criminal Record, both very different from predecessors Journey and Myths and Legends, being much closer in style to Six Wives.


Going for the One
Going for the One

There were a number of other important releases through the year, many of which I also picked up at the time or within the next couple of years. Progressive rock fans readily took to Brand X whose 1976 debut Unorthodox Behaviour was followed up by Moroccan Roll. Their sound on the sophomore effort was fleshed out to a surprising extent with the inclusion of percussionist Maurice Pert, ensuring that any potential to stagnate as a straightforward fusion act was neatly avoided.

I’d already started to appreciate PFM and their 1977 release Jet Lag didn’t disappoint. I was catching up on jazz rock bands around this time and Jet Lag was the closest PFM would get to that sub-genre. I wasn’t too disappointed that the Sinfield lyrics had gone and was getting used to Bernado Lanzetti’s vocal style following his debut on Chocolate Kings. Bookended by the beautiful Peninsula and the anthemic Traveler the music and playing is outstanding throughout.

What did come as a shock was the change from Van der Graaf Generator to Van der Graaf. Losing both your organist and horn player might seem careless but Peter Hammill and Guy Evans reinvented the band with the return of Nic Potter on bass and the recruitment of violinist Graham Smith from String Driven Thing. The resulting The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome is no less complex but far more rough and ready than VdGG and more immediate, as though Hammill was once more channelling Rikki Nadir. I didn’t buy the album until a couple of years later but I encouraged my brother to go and see the band when they played Leeds University during what would become the tour that produced Vital. Tony also went to see Camel during their 1977 tour (and tracks played at Leeds would appear on A Live Record also released in 1977) but I had to make do with listening to a friend’s copy of Rain Dances. The arrival of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair cemented the Moonmadness drift towards a more jazzy direction but the collection of shorter songs, though still achingly melodic, was a bit disappointing. I think that of all the albums from 1977 that I listened to at the time, this was the one which I recognised as signalling a shift in the behaviour of the record companies, requiring the band to put out Highways of the Sun as a single. Evidence of the affect of punk on prog bands is best illustrated by the difference between Playing the Fool and The Missing Piece, both 1977 releases by Gentle Giant. The former, a brilliant introduction to the band in the guise of career-spanning compositions performed live which I bought on cassette is pure prog; the latter, not added to my collection until many years later for good reason, was like nothing the band had released before and is very disappointing.


More from 1977
More from 1977

Other notable records from 1977 which I acquired later include Genesis alumni Anthony Phillip’s The Geese and the Ghost, Peter Gabriel I (I did buy the Solsbury Hill single in preparation for seeing his first solo tour) and Steve Hackett’s Please Don’t Touch; I also recently bought a second hand vinyl copy of Seconds Out. England were a band who were unfairly accused of sounding Genesis-light who released the highly regarded Garden Shed. I saw them play in Barrow but didn’t buy the album until years later, one of my first internet purchases. I’ve since invested in a 2LP version with bonus material. The first National Health album also deserves a mention as it is one of the few albums which eschewed record company directives and is brilliant, melodic and complex. Along with England, they stood out as examples of how prog could have developed. The Enid represented a bridge from the first prog era and, like Van der Graaf, were accepted by the punk movement. They followed up the excellent In the Region of the Summer Stars with the sumptuous Aerie Faerie Nonsense. The US equivalent of late golden-period prog, recently added to my collection, is the first Happy The Man album released in 1977 which is a genuine treat.


If 1977 had some highs and lows, it wasn’t obvious until much later on in the year that the genre was unsustainable, coming under pressure from an industry which was just waking up to realise its global punch, partly through political developments. It’s interesting that the year began with Roger Waters’ onslaught against this political climate but half way through we were treated to a vision of hope but things went downhill fairly swiftly from 1978; forty years on January began with President Trump and despite the amazing scenes of Women’s Marches from around the world in reaction to the US election, I’m not very hopeful.

By ProgBlog, Apr 3 2016 06:21PM

As I begin to type I’m listening to Seconds Out, bought from Cob Records in Porthmadog during the HRH Prog 4 trip. This is relevant because on the return journey from Wales we (from now on to be referred to as 'The Committee') discussed the provenance of the bands performing at the festival, resolving to come up with either a scientifically derived formula (The Committee, at that stage, was comprised of scientists) or to autocratically pronounce whether a piece of music conformed to our naturally correct definition of progressive rock. Jim later went on to suggest that there could be two lists within the catalogue, so that Genesis would be included as a prog band, but their album Genesis (1983) wouldn’t make the list of progressive rock albums; the first tenet is that post-Hackett Genesis albums are not prog, so I’m listening to the last Genesis prog album.


The problem of hitting upon a comprehensive and logical catalogue has been documented in all books about the genre as well as played out on the letters pages of Prog magazine. Apart from perhaps Math Rock or some JS Bach, music is emotive and emotions are not controlled by logic, so though there can be some convention by which the definition is set, these rules are inherently fluid. There is a degree of agreement between most of the authors of the earliest academic or serious works on the subject, Bill Martin, Edward Macan and Paul Stump but their studies primarily relate to what Martin calls ‘the golden era’ of progressive rock (1968 – 1978), a time when there weren’t so many groups, albums or different genres; the advent of neo-prog in the early-mid 80s but more so the Lazarus-like emergence in the early-mid 90s really complicates the field as divergent influences and a propensity for the music business to come up with ever more labels to package their charges. I don’t believe that the original defining traits of prog can now be applied to exponents of the genre, because alongside virtuoso performances, ‘stretching out’ whether by improvisation or structured development including passages of divergent dynamics to create long-form compositions, the utilisation of technology to produce innovative sounds and the adoption of more thoughtful, often literary or philosophical themes that demanded some form of intellectual engagement with the audience, so called ‘head music’, was the absorption of multiple influences of musical style, central to which was the importance of European art music.

The jettisoning of blues-based American influences and the belief that a form of rock that borrowed from classical music could bridge the divide between high culture and popular culture were catalysts in the formation of progressive rock. Though the title wasn’t applied to music at the time (I called it 'techno-rock', to highlight the importance of the [mostly] keyboard technology and the technical dexterity required to play the music), progressive was an appropriate term because it was a musical form that seemed to actively push at boundaries. Keith Emerson hints at this in the sleeve notes to the proto-prog Five Bridges album and Emerson himself was one of the main bridges between the two schools, writing a piano concerto and continuing to play blues riffs during piano solos.

I think that politics and sociology also played an important part in the formation of the progressive rock movement, where the hippie ideals of the late 60s were carried on by musicians; 70s prog was generally positive, inclusive and questioning, all qualities that constitute a progressive form of politics, and some of the musicians explored what at the time were considered niche interests like vegetarianism. The progressive rock movement was incredibly successful, due in part to the ‘college circuit’ as higher education was opened up to more of the population in the 60s and student unions began to take responsibility for booking acts, bringing groups and their target audience together. When I was applying to universities in the late 70s, I placed considerable importance on the ability of a campus to attract bands though by the time I went to uni punk had come and largely gone.

Some commentators and musicians have suggested that playing the greatest hits from your 70s heyday is not progressive and that to live up to the term there has to be evidence of progression, a continual development. The Committee briefly discussed the use of the terms progressive rock and prog and maybe it’s best to apply the phrase ‘progressive rock’ to the music produced between 1968 and 1978 where there was a genuine direction of progress, strictly encapsulating a particular musical form within a specific time period. This leaves us with ‘prog’ which covers both progressive rock and idioms that used progressive rock as a blueprint: neo-prog and the music produced in the resurgent period from the early 90s to the present day. Prog is able to borrow from more sources, has some remarkable technology both in terms of the instruments and software available for recording, such that file sharing allows musicians to contribute to a recording remotely and their contribution slotted in without ever physically getting together with their collaborators, but while still boasting a healthy number of practitioners with amazing technique, the virtual studio allows less dextrous exponents to shine, ensuring that successful prog is more about concepts than mere execution, otherwise music-making would be reduced to an almost mathematical process devoid of emotion; there is even a new set of socio-political factors from which to choose a grand theme that will allow prog to remain relevant, rather than just looking back to the 70s for inspiration, including burning issues like the continuation of wars, the mass migration of peoples displaced by war, austerity and its flip side, the enrichment of the very few, the impact of globalisation, and the urgency of the need to accept and combat climate change. These concepts could be described under one banner: the Anthropocene era.



It goes without saying that original progressive rock is included under the prog umbrella but it’s the relationship between prog and progressive rock that is critical to the definition of prog; although progressive rock elements appear in other contemporary genres, the degree to which this music conforms to the principles of ‘golden era’ are crucial to whether or not the music is prog. This is where objectivity ends and subjectivity begins, so, with the terminology sorted out, it’s time for The Committee to compile the lists...




By ProgBlog, Mar 13 2016 10:34PM

Already 2016 seems to have been blighted by more high-profile musician deaths than previous years. I was still reading articles about Sir George Martin’s legacy as late as Friday last week when news began to filter through about Keith Emerson. Is the death of a septuagenarian rock musician especially surprising? As I type this the single rumour that his death might have been suicide has gained more credence and though tragic for family and friends who might think they could have done something to prevent such an horrendous outcome, it comes across to this fan in the UK as shocking; the world of prog has lost a genuine pioneer.

After Yes, The Nice was the next band I became familiar with and though this was in late 1972, two years after their demise, it was before I discovered Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The Page family Nice collection was acquired in roughly reverse chronological order, beginning with either Elegy (1971) or Five Bridges (1970.) Tony was responsible for these purchases and it was only when I was a student in London that I bought my own copies. I remember that Nice (1969) was relatively difficult to come by; we called this album ‘red cover’ to distinguish it from the other releases as well as the group itself even though it had an ‘official’ alternative title, Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It. My copy of The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) was a 1976 reissue on the Charly label with a Magritte-like cover illustration of a grand piano breaking through ice, credited to P Larue (Patrice Larue?)

I’d class most Nice material as proto-prog but the first two albums, Thoughts and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) are psychedelic, with a link to another early British psychedelic act, Pink Floyd, through guitarist Davy O’List who stood in for an incapacitated Syd Barrett. The short songs are largely throw-away, not as original or as good as the early Floyd efforts, but Rondo, War and Peace and Dawn hinted at the greatness to come. Keith Emerson’s ability to blend jazz, rock and blues with classical music was the basis of the success of the Nice and subsequently, ELP. Whereas Pink Floyd developed space rock and dallied with the avant garde, Emerson took another route: rocking the classics. Equal parts virtuoso and showman, Emerson stood out as the first important keyboard player in rock; having ousted guitarist O’List as unreliable he showed that a keyboard trio was equal to any guitar-based band and influencing a number of other fledgling progressive acts. Bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison were solid enough and would later show they were more than capable in Refugee with Patrick Moraz but the Nice was really all about Emerson. The Dylan adaptations were barely recognisable as songs by Bob Dylan, who I didn’t like but She Belongs to Me was a bit of an epic in the hands of Emerson, Jackson and Davison; Country Pie on the other hand was only acceptable because of the inclusion of Bach. The classical excerpts morphed into rock interpretations of lengthier pieces, so that the intermezzo from The Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius, the tune used for the current affairs TV programme This Week became a staple live number and forms the track of main interest on side one of Ars Longa Vita Brevis, acting as a neat prelude to Emerson’s first recorded orchestral piece, the title track taking up the entirety of side two; there’s a naivety about this composition and it’s not really helped by poor production but I really like it.


If the Nice helped Emerson cut his arranging skills they were perfected early on, with more challenging compositions, in ELP. Their eponymous debut album remains high up in my personal prog top 10 and though I do like Take a Pebble and Lucky Man, it’s for the beautiful, flowing piano and the marvellous Moog respectively. Emerson may have dabbled with the modular Moog while still with the Nice and played the instrument from the beginning with his new trio but it’s on Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970) where it makes its stunning first recorded appearance. Emerson’s ‘sound’ was defined as much by his synthesizer work as his organ or piano and the use of the ribbon controller allowed him to incorporate showmanship into his Moog playing, in the same way that attacking his L100 with knives and wrestling it to the floor or playing it from behind demonstrated his incredible ability on organ or sitting at a piano that revolved around in the air enhanced the live performances. School friend Keith Palmen was converted into a big ELP fan and it was probably at his house that I first heard Pictures at an Exhibition (1971), a brilliant example of both the excitement that the band could generate live and of the interpretative skills of Emerson.

In 1973 or ’74, when I started to become interested in ELP, I became aware how ELP divided opinion, such that my original vinyl collection included second-hand copies of Tarkus (1971), Pictures, Brain Salad Surgery (1973) and Works Volume 1 (1977) as disgruntled friends decided they’d outgrown the bombast and turned to either punk or smooth jazz. It could not be disputed that the 1974 tour promoting Brain Salad was something of a monster because it was turned into a road documentary and a triple live album. The version of Aquatarkus on Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends (1974) remains one of my favourite ELP tracks; the solid rhythm of Palmer and Lake allows Emerson to really shine on organ and Moog, reminiscent of the backing provided by Jackson and Davison in the Nice.

The subsequent studio hiatus signalled the beginning of the end for ELP; while they toured and rested punk was hoiking over music fans. ELP came back strongly with a pretty good effort but the decision to allow one side of the double LP Works Volume 1 to each of the members and only one side of real group collaboration may, on reflection, have been the wrong approach. Emerson’s Piano Concerto No.1 is very enjoyable, building on his previous orchestrated pieces with the Nice and reflecting his admiration for Aaron Copeland but the ELP side has an updated sound, coming from the Yamaha GX1. Emerson is reported to have been quite smitten with this keyboard, eschewing Moog and organ on side 4 in favour of the new piece of technology. I find the sound thin, like so many late 70s and early 80s synthesizers, and would have preferred it if he’d stuck to his analogue instruments.

Having been unaware of the Royal Albert Hall gig in October 1992 that resulted in the excellent Live at the Royal Albert Hall (1993) I thought that I’d never get to see them play live. I’d managed to get to see the reformed Nice during a period of ELP disbandment in 2003 at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, the venue for the recording of much of Five Bridges where the band were augmented by guitarist Dave Kilminster. Though at times the sound was quite poor and there were problems with Emerson’s Moog, it was a fantastic occasion, with the performance divided into a Nice portion and an ELP portion where Jackson and Davison stepping back to allow two other musicians to take over on bass and drums.

I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010, the 40th anniversary of the debut album and though I’d have preferred a more intimate venue than London’s Victoria Park, it was an occasion not to be missed. The music was incredible and the atmosphere was rather special at this huge event. This would be the last time that the three would play together.



Jim and I went to see the Keith Emerson Band with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Barbican last year, the highlight of which was an orchestrated Tarkus, but it was good to see Emerson taking the conductor’s baton for the encore Glorieta Pass. I believe this was Emerson’s last ever concert performance and though he seemed to relish his raconteur role as much as his musical contribution, he did appear somewhat unsteady. If it’s true that there were no more live concert appearances, I feel quite privileged that I attended two significant events, even though I missed out on classic ELP back in 1974 and only discovered the Nice two years after they’d broken up.



Emerson was an inspiration to keyboard players. He will be sadly missed.


Keith Emerson b. 2nd November 1944 d. 10th March 2016



fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time