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

By ProgBlog, Feb 20 2018 03:57PM

In the last blog I commented on how difficult it was to pigeonhole Portico Quartet who don’t really sit easily on a sliding scale between jazz and anywhere but need something else, another superimposed scale perhaps, to give more of an indication of how you might identify their music. I’ve just had a fairly intensive session listening to L’Ora di Tutti (Time for Everyone) by Italian band Muffx and, as with Portico Quartet, I really like their music but whilst they fall somewhere in the amorphous prog cloud, they also defy a strict classification, taking a dash of psychedelia, a dose of proto-prog, incorporating some heavy blues aspects that featured in a number of the early RPI bands, some blues-inflected keyboard prog like Greenslade, swing, and experimentation.


It came as something of a surprise to me that L’Ora di Tutti is their fifth album, although only three prior to this one have been released: ...Saw The... (2007), Small Obsessions (2009), and Époque (2012); the material making up Nocturno which was recorded after Époque was shelved following the untimely death of producer and friend Pierpaolo Cazzolla. The band was formed in Salento (Puglia) by guitarist Luigi Bruno (leader of the Mediterranean Psychedelic Orkestra and co-founder of the Sagra Del Diavolo, the Devil’s Festival) and garnered favourable press when they toured Italy to promote their debut album; a success repeated when they released their second and third albums; they’ve even toured in the UK and have played with special guests from the prog world, like Richard Sinclair (now resident in Puglia) Aldo Tagliapietra and Claudio Simonetti.


The album reflects the band’s geographical roots, with the title L’Ora di Tutti taken from the 1962 cult novel by Maria Corti about the Ottoman attack on Otranto on the eastern side of the Salento peninsula in August 1480. In the book, the event is narrated by five different characters, fishermen and farmers, so in effect it is five stories told in the first person, offering different perspectives that complement each other chronologically; presenting an alternative narrative of heroism and sacrifice in contrast to the official chronicles. There are subtly different cover graphics for the vinyl and CD releases by Massimo Pasca, who appears to be channelling images of hell like Coppo di Marcovaldo, Pieter Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch, depicting the attack; it’s not a mainstream prog cover but does fit a ‘dark prog’ tag, a category firmly associated with Genoa’s Black Widow Records who co-produced and distributed the disc.


Opening track Un' Alba come Tante (A Dawn like Many Others) begins as far away from the sleeve artwork as you can imagine, with birdsong indicating the bucolic existence associated with the heel of Italy. The introduction of a deliberate flanged bass figure (played by Ilario Suppressa) and electric piano (courtesy of Mauro Tre) is reminiscent of early structured Pink Floyd; there’s a short, heavy fuzzed bass riff which resolves into a triumphant sounding, uplifting motif which is repeated on brassy synth before the riff changes style, becoming firstly more bluesy then jazzy with a swing beat provided by Alberto Ria. A walking bass line overlain with a synth solo has a very 70’s feel, like a subdued Greenslade, before a reprise of the ‘heroic’ riff that could have featured in the 70’s BBC TV series Gangsters (see Greenslade’s Time and Tide, 1975) with wah-wahed electric piano, finally ending with a section reminiscent of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. There are two guest brass players on the track, Gianni Alemanno who plays trumpet and Andrea Doremi on trombone whose contributions fit seamlessly with the piece, adding brightness rather than colour and enhancing the jazzy nature of the composition.


It’s a great start to the record, 11 minutes of predominantly riff-based music and some impressive but unflashy soloing. The constant changes prevent it from becoming boring and the bright riff which features near the start and is reprised later on in the track is a true ear-worm; I set off to work on Friday whistling the refrain and came back home still whistling the phrase! Only a minute shorter, second track Vengono dal Mare (They come from the Sea) quickly moves from the relative tranquility of wave sounds to vaguely disturbing guitar (think of the opening sequence of David Cronenberg’s cinematic adaptation of Crash by JG Ballard, scored by Howard Shore.) There’s a short spoken passage in Turkish by Gorkem Ismail which adds to the atmosphere without relieving the tension, then a short guitar figure before the introduction of a driving riff underneath a repeating keyboard figure and some more wah-wahed keyboard. There’s a slightly sinister edge to this track which reminds me of Goblin, so it comes as no surprise that Claudio Simonetti has played as a guest with the band.


Ottocento (800) features some great Farfisa organ, a keyboard tone not unlike the work of Rick Wright or Bo Hansson but any hint of Pink Floyd is covered with new additions, gull-cry guitar and other-worldly theremin. It’s the most psychedelic of the four tracks and possibly the least musically complex with stomping fuzzed bass and other fairly straightforward bass lines and rhythms, but there is some mesmerising highly reverbed guitar which sketches the outlines of a Middle Eastern scale.

Bernabei, named after an Ottoman soldier who doesn’t actually appear in Corti’s novel, is the shortest of the four tracks but following a deliberate, short, heavy riff that links to the preceding track, a fast Middle Eastern-scale guitar line is reintroduced and there’s some experimental early-Floyd jamming. A picked guitar motif is played over some Turkish text and then the guitar and synthesizer double up to play a fast eastern-sounding riff. The group switches between rock improvisation, jazz sections and the eastern riff, all played presto vivace and the record closes with a reprise of the eastern riff.


Written by Bruno and recorded live in the studio in two 10-hour stints after days of rehearsal, it’s possible to detect a sense of urgency about the music but it’s coherent and well played. I like the fact that the band has chosen a concept that relates to their home region, an examination of personal cultural history and an interpretation of what is regarded as a major literary work. The link to Goblin goes a bit deeper than occasional sections sounding like them; they had the idea of making the album as a soundtrack to an imaginary 70’s film of the novel, choosing instrumentation to match. This obviously adds to the prog sound but also puts Muffx in the Giallo category.


It’s prog, but it’s a mixture of heavy, Italian proto-prog (influenced by Deep Purple and Black Sabbath), psychedelia and jazz. It may be another ‘hard-to-pigeonhole’ album, but it's really good.


Muffx - L'Oro di Tutti (2017) BWRDIST 675



By ProgBlog, Feb 12 2018 04:43PM

Coming from something of a backwater, as far as I was aware the Round House was a 1970s concrete replacement for the former pavilion and bandstand at Biggar on Walney Island, just off the mainland at Barrow-in-Furness. Originally a council-run facility, it may have been an unusual piece of architecture with an amazing windswept location but I seem to remember it becoming a Chinese restaurant which had a bit of a troubled history, culminating in the murder of owner Lai Yo Fu by disgruntled former employee Ke Yuan who stabbed her to death in front of a number of witnesses in February 2000. It’s a popular place to eat today and seems to inspire admiring and disapproving reviews in roughly equal measure. Its conversion to a restaurant must have coincided with my departure from Barrow and I have never had food from there; the Infield Park Gang used to head inland, away from the coast towards the Furness countryside on nights out and, if the occasion arose, we’d stop off at an alternative Chinese take-away in Dalton on our way home.

I must have read about gigs at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse in the mid 70s, amongst the pages of one of the weekly music papers Melody Maker, NME or Sounds after getting into prog in 1972, though wasn’t until sometime later, having ploughed through a few books concerning the early history of Pink Floyd, that I came to understand the significance of the venue in the birth of UK counterculture. Despite being intended as an arts centre planned by playwright Arnold Wesker, the first cultural use of the Roundhouse was as the venue for the launch party of IT, the International Times in October 1966, a multi-media all-night rave billed as a ‘strip-trips-happening-movie-pop-op-costume-masque-drag ball’, featuring performances from Pink Floyd and Soft Machine plus screenings of films and poetry readings.


Poster advertising the IT launch party
Poster advertising the IT launch party

The Roundhouse was built between 1846-7 for the London and North Western Railway by Branson & Gwyther, a Birmingham-based civil engineering and construction firm, out of yellow brick, using designs by architects Robert Dockray and Robert Stephenson as a building containing a turntable for turning round railway engines. The conical slate roof is supported by 24 cast-iron Doric columns arranged around the original locomotive spaces braced with a framework of curved ribs. The central smoke louvre, now glazed, adds to the distinctiveness of the building and the interior still contains portions of original flooring, parts of the turntable and fragments of early railway lines. It was recognised as a notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture and made a listed building in 1954, amended to Grade II* in January 1999, and declared a National Heritage Site in 2010.

The original building had a diameter of 48m to accommodate the turntable and although the designs were meant to allow for advances in locomotive engineering, it was only used for this purpose for ten years before locomotives became too big for the space. It was repurposed as a bonded warehouse for London Gin distillers W & A Gilbey, lasting around 50 years from 1871 but fell into disuse just before the Second World War.


Arnold Wesker established the Centre 42 Theatre Company in 1964 and prepared a scheme to adapt the building as a cultural centre to contain a theatre, cinema, art gallery and workshops with committee rooms for local organisations, a library and youth club with an estimated cost of between £300,000 and £600,000. The proposals were supported by well-known names within the arts community and in 1966, the Roundhouse became an arts venue, with the freehold taken up by the Greater London Council. By the time Camden Council assumed control of the Roundhouse in 1983, Centre 42 had already run out of funds so the building remained unused until it was bought on a whim for £3 million by former investment banker and local philanthropist Torquil Norman in 1996. Performing arts shows resumed before an extensive redevelopment in 2004, reopening on June 1st 2006.

Seven layers of soundproofing were added to the roof during these renovations, the glazed roof-lights were reinstated and the steel and glass New Wing, curving around the north side of the main building was added to house the box office, bar and café, an art gallery foyer and offices. The auditorium is quite spectacular, seating 1700 or accommodating up to 3300 standing. The performance space is highly flexible and provides both artist and audience an experience they won’t find anywhere else. And the sound is brilliant.



Considering my interest in music and architecture, it’s surprising that my first ever visit was for a gig by the Portico Quartet on February 3rd this year. I’d seen posters for the event in Whitechapel where I work, possibly as early as last year, but didn’t do anything about it until the day itself; fortunately there was at least one seat remaining at the time I booked.
Considering my interest in music and architecture, it’s surprising that my first ever visit was for a gig by the Portico Quartet on February 3rd this year. I’d seen posters for the event in Whitechapel where I work, possibly as early as last year, but didn’t do anything about it until the day itself; fortunately there was at least one seat remaining at the time I booked.

Portico Quartet listing, The Guide, 3rd February 2018
Portico Quartet listing, The Guide, 3rd February 2018

I’d been given the self-titled Portico Quartet CD as a present in 2012, probably, I suspect, because it had been favourably reviewed by John Fordham in The Guardian. I really liked it and, rather like The Necks which it called to mind, it was obvious this shouldn’t be simply labelled as ‘jazz’; the treated bowed bass puts it in Esbjörn Svensson Trio bassist Dan Berglund territory, the saxophone has at times an almost choral quality and the repetitive gamelan-like motifs on the hang together with looped keyboards put it in the realm of trance. All this is held together with a mixture of neat drumming and electronic drum patterns, creating a mixture that genuinely defies a simple description, though if you triangulate the labels that are most often thrown at the band, jazz, ambient and electronica, you might get a rough idea of the form in which they operate, a sound like no other band. The hang was actually developed as recently as 2000 by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Bern, Switzerland and I probably first came across one being played by a busker in Oxford in 2011 on a trip to visit my son who was studying for his Masters Degree, and whereas it’s most certainly incorrect to suggest that the hang alone provides their USP, this tuned percussion instrument with its beautiful harmonic resonance adds an exotic flavour to the music, quite unlike any other small ensemble working in a loose jazz idiom.


ProgBlog's Portico Quartet CDs (before the gig)
ProgBlog's Portico Quartet CDs (before the gig)

I received Art in the Age of Automation as a birthday present last year so my choice at the merchandise stand looked like it was going to be limited. Despite not bringing my vinyl-specific cotton bag I bought double LP Live/Remix from 2013, for what I thought was a very reasonable £15, and a £5 EP Abbey Road on CD.


...and from the merchandise desk just before the gig
...and from the merchandise desk just before the gig

Before we were treated to Portico Quartet, there was a 30 minute set from Riah, one of the students attached to the Roundhouse through the Roundhouse Trust, set up by Norman in 1998 and which runs a creative programme for young people aged 11 - 25. They get taught live music, circus, theatre and new media on-site in the Roundhouse Studios located in the undercroft beneath the Main Space, and allowing them to perform a support slot is an essential part of the program.


I’d had an excellent view of Riah, albeit from the back, framed by one of the cast iron arches but when Portico Quartet took to the stage, the columns obscured saxophonist Jack Wyllie and bassist Milo Fitzpatrick, though I could make out everything that Duncan Bellamy did with his drum kit (he was closest to me) and Keir Vine faced me when he was playing his keyboards and was in profile when he played hanghang (the official plural!) They started off with Endless from Art in the Age of Automation which was extended after a fake pause, and followed with Ruins (from 2012’s self-titled album) and Current History from the latest release. Bellamy, who is responsible for all the album artwork, took on role of compere and provided the song introductions, and gave a more full explanation about the next number Double Space, an as yet unreleased track due to appear on a mini-album comprised of material which is an extension of that on the current album and is due out in April.


The performance was relatively brief, finished off with an encore taken from another track on Art in the Age of Automation, Lines Glow but I was really pleased I’d managed to attend. I really like their music but the combination of the tunes, the musicianship, the sound (I was just above the mixing desk), the unique architecture of the venue and the visual effect created by a smoke machine with (relatively basic) lighting made it a really special occasion.


Duncan Bellamy, at the conclusion of Lines Glow
Duncan Bellamy, at the conclusion of Lines Glow







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