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Following a short skiing trip ProgBlog reflects on music about winter and snow, and reconsider reggae...

By ProgBlog, Jan 2 2018 08:32PM

New Years Eve, 2017

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


Night sky over Furness
Night sky over Furness

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


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


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

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



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

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


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



New Year’s Day, 2018

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


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

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

Back to the blog. Tuesday 2nd January


Album of the year: An Invitation by Amber Foil

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


Commended: Alight by Cellar Noise


Bassist: John Wetton

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


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

Drummer: Franz di Cioccio

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


Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth

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


Keyboard player

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


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

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


Vocalist: Emanuela Vedana, Melting Clock

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



Live act

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


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

Venue: Porto Antico, Genova

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

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









By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2017 11:24AM

I’ve recently introduced a ‘playlist’ feature to the ProgBlog homepage and rather than a straightforward list I’ve produced a GIF, made up from photos taken of the albums as I’ve been playing them. I used to tweet pictures of whatever I was ‘now playing’, influenced by the posts of some of those that I follow, including 140 characters (or less) describing what I think about the music on that record; for a couple of months in 2015 I did post a list of my weekly indulgences, because I’d seen playlists on websites including Steven Wilson’s official site where there’s also an archive of what he’s been listening to, referred to as ‘Headphone Dust’ http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/playlist-archive/ . My GIF is intended as a way of presenting my listening habits in a manner more interesting than a simple list and still illustrating the width of the progressive rock genre.


ProgBlog playlists from 2015
ProgBlog playlists from 2015

I’m vaguely wary of the idea of a playlist because I see it as a device to prop-up the music business, linked to streaming services. The release of the mp3 codec by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1993 was to facilitate rapid transmission and immediate access of audio files between different points on the planet and, inadvertently or otherwise, it proved very easy to copy and share. From the ‘home taping is killing music’ panic which began in 1981, when the industry really wasn’t that large (but which was about to gear up and become truly global) and the uproar over the introduction of Napster in 1999, music corporations have consistently stifled creativity and creamed off massive profits from their artists. At the beginning of this decade, recession, falling CD sales and piracy all seemed to spell doom and gloom for the record labels but last year saw a reversal of fortune, driven by streaming services exemplified by Spotify, Deezer, Apple and Amazon. It’s been reported that around 30% of Warner’s £2.66bn revenue for 2016 came from streaming. I’ve just finished reading Robert Barry’s excellent The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017) who points out that the idea of a ‘celestial jukebox’ (in essence, a remote server sending music to everyone with a suitable hand-held device for accessing the service) first aired by Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein in his 1994 article Copyright’s Highway, allowed the ‘record oligopoly’ to convert from supplying goods to on-line services and creating a landlord – renter relationship. The one-off Napster payment has given way to subscription which, it has been predicted, could double or triple the size of the music industry; the tech firms also seem to be doing fairly well from this model - there are 90 million people signed up to streaming services worldwide.


The Music of the Future by Robert Barry
The Music of the Future by Robert Barry

A couple of fairly recent articles in The Guardian, one in July and one earlier this week, highlight some worrying issues with streaming. Industry insiders such as Paul Smernicki, former head of digital at Universal Records, speak in terms of business models and commodity rather than music as an art form, proposing that the numbers of people streaming indicates that music has never been more popular, where the value of reliability, convenience and accessibility to an enormous catalogue of songs for a small cost now make illegal downloading almost redundant, encouraging people to invest in the service. He doesn’t go on to say that while a paid-for download or a physical copy of some music only generates revenue once, streaming rewards the music company over and over again and it’s only a tiny amount, between $0.006 and $0.0084 which goes to the artist for each play of a song; it’s being sold to us as ‘choice’ and in our inimitable consumerist manner we believe the glossy images and accept what the industry says. Unfortunately, a shift to streaming has the effect of discouraging experimental music while enriching already big stars, with the pursuit of Adele by Sony creating a parallel with the other-world Premier League transfer market. Both the majors and indie labels are incorporating streaming playlists as the thrust of their marketing strategy, tying in music to consumption and lifestyle habits.


It’s a successful strategy. There’s a huge market for streaming playlists because the public is increasingly engaging with the service to find their music, so that the streaming companies themselves have invested in the creation of their own playlists which theoretically, might help less well-known artists if part of their remit is identify new music to champion. This part of the tech company – music business relationship appears roughly symbiotic, where the business now uses streaming pluggers pushing for songs, and the range of artists on offer can define the streaming service and help it to attract more subscribers. In reality, the record labels are favouring music that is known to provide the greatest revenue and the tech companies are getting the greater benefit. Barry explains that Spotify (for example) is doing what tech companies do, gathering data, in much the same way as Facebook and Google and Amazon do. The playlists are created with the help of sophisticated collaborative filtering systems where your preferences are matched with the preferences of everyone else on a database and you're constantly badgered into 'liking' and responding to posts, so you get specific recommendations. This doesn’t work very well for me because I hold a deep disdain for advertising and anyway, a very large proportion of people who like the same music as me also like Rush...


While the latest Guardian article suggested that the album could be under threat from streamed playlists, as artists are tempted to ignore the format and concentrate on rolling playlists instead, the Alexis Petridis piece from July concerned reports of ‘fake’ artists used to pad out popular playlists, paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines, mostly unchallenging instrumental music for relaxation, avoiding royalty payments. Spotify denied the charge, which would have far-reaching implications for genuine artists, but the stories continued, citing theories relating to quality control, and a tussle for power between service and industry.


I don’t use a streaming service and have no desire to do so but the music business couldn’t care less as the development of voice-activated speakers means we can ask Apple, Google and Amazon avatars to choose some music for a specific mood at a specific time. The playlists I put together in 2015 differ slightly from those now appearing as video on my Twitter and Facebook pages and on the ProgBlog website; in 2015 I was commuting from East Croydon to London Bridge, a nominal journey of 17 minutes, during which I would read my Guardian and, like many other commuters/consumers, listen to my portable mp3 player to shut out incessant high frequency beats, predominantly hi-hat, emanating from the earbud headphones of my fellow travellers. For the past four years or so, the railway lines south of the capital have been increasingly congested as major redevelopment has been carried out at London Bridge, making it impossible to predict the duration of any single journey (industrial action by two rail unions didn’t help but they get my sympathy as they stood up to management pressure to relax safety regulations, opposing the introduction of driver-only trains) and therefore making playlist selection difficult; an unwritten rule was that you couldn’t leave the train mid-track.


The recent playlists have been compiled from listening to albums, mostly LPs but some CDs and, on one occasion a download of demo tracks by new Italian prog band Melting Clock. The commonality between the two sets of playlists is that I listen to the album in full, in running order. That’s obviously essential for something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway where there’s a linear narrative but it’s not strictly necessary for every single concept album. It might be irritating to mix the tracks around on Dark Side of the Moon because the album is designed with specific segues but would the world end if we played the different sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans out of order? It would certainly wind me up! I’m not a fan of the shuffle function on music players and as much as I admire Sid Smith’s eclectic podcast Postcards from the Yellow Room http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk which has genuine breadth, it’s essentially a sampler for the now generation, whereas I prefer to make time to submerge myself in the entire album.


playtime
playtime

It’s quite clear why the record oligopoly likes streaming and I find it hard to envisage what future developments might come along, if there’s ever to be another threat to the industry. I don’t believe that there’s any immediate risk to the album from streaming as long as genres like prog retain a degree of popularity, simply because the grand themes of progressive rock were developed across the LP format, continued during the CD era and as yet there’s no sign of that historic link being broken. The current fad for all things vinyl may not last but while it does, there’s no better feeling than holding the edges of a new release on heavyweight vinyl between your palms, placing it carefully on the turntable and getting ready to devote your time, in 20 minute chunks, to uninterrupted listening.







By ProgBlog, Aug 23 2015 09:38PM

August in the south eastern corner of the UK has been quite poor in terms of weather this year, with unseasonal downpours following a series of Atlantic depressions that have tracked across the country. This weekend we experienced a ‘Spanish plume’, a condition that arises from a large southwards dip in the high altitude jet stream that developed to the west of Europe that in turn encouraged a deep southerly wind flow that pushed hot and humid air from Portugal and Spain north and north-east into northern Europe, including to us the UK. Temperatures at Selhurst Park for Crystal Palace vs. Aston Villa peaked at over 30oC prompting the first water breaks in a Premier League fixture. With a cold front from the Atlantic over the north of the UK and unstable, hot air pushing up from the south or south west, there was the potential for heavy thunderstorms where the two weather systems met; strong winds associated with the jet stream help organise thunderstorms and play a part in their severity. This latest forecast came with a degree of uncertainty, something that’s become increasingly prevalent in our televised weather bulletins where over the last couple of weeks the prediction for the next day has inevitably proved to be inaccurate.

It seems that the British like talking about the weather. It serves as a common topic when individuals are thrust into a situation where it’s uncomfortable not to talk. It helps that UK weather so changeable and unpredictable, part of the beauty of living in a temperate marine climate; it also gives us the right to moan. As a youth in the North West I became used to rain. The relief rainfall that was a major feature of the western Lake District didn’t really affect Barrow very much but moisture-laden air from the Atlantic had a habit of dampening our plans one way or another. I was very much at home when I stayed in Seattle for a week in 2002 where there were a number of dedicated, accurate weather channels on the TV.

Weather may seem a bit prosaic as a topic for prog but weather and the British go together like tea and crumpets. After a childhood in Barrow I feel as though I’ve got fifty words for rain... In fact, the water cycle and our understanding of the principles of weather processes, such as drought, flood or monsoon, is very much the stuff of prog. Furthermore, the ability of humankind to distort weather patterns through extracting and burning hydrocarbons and the detrimental effect of pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is something that the adherents of the counterculture warned us about; the origins of the progressive rock movement had strong links to environmental groups. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that there’s no definitive album about the physical geography of weather or its myriad facets, just a straightforward interpretation.

Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch (1979) may come closest to revisiting the old hippie theme of global environmental disaster and a form of gloom pervades the entire album. Largely referred to as the third and final part of the Tull folk-rock phase, when I listened to the album recently I didn’t think there was much folk to detect; there’s a reference to pre-Christian themes (on Dun Ringill) which might fit the tag but it’s more an association of convenience, marking the last of the stable Tull line-ups. Stormwatch uses the concept of a storm as both metaphor and as literal description, picking up from a theme in the title track of Heavy Horses (1978) where Ian Anderson predicts that the magnificent beasts will be required once more when the oil has run out; North Sea Oil recognises the commodity as a quick fix for the economy and one that wasn’t going to last. Dark Ages and Something’s on the Move hint at energy shortages and long, cold winters and subsequent rioting while Flying Dutchman bemoans our inability as a nation to accept immigrants. In a recent Prog magazine interview, Anderson admitted to being politically left of centre; Stormwatch was released in September 1979 at the tail end of the first era of progressive rock; the political and social landscape was changing with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister four months earlier as she commenced the dismantlement of the state and used burgeoning oil revenues to fuel her rewards for the selfish (North Sea oil had come on stream in 1975.) The dark mood of the album was no doubt partly down to the illness of bassist John Glascock who died two months after its release, having only played on three of the tracks. Though the (David Palmer) penned track Elegy was written for Palmer’s father, at the time the only section remaining of the Anderson/Palmer/Barre ballet The Water’s Edge, I felt it also served as a tribute to Glascock.

Camel’s Rain Dances (1977) isn’t weather-related. The short, melodic instrumental title track that closes the album doesn’t call to mind rain but merely reprises the beautiful, melodic opener, First Light and could be called anything because the album doesn’t have any cohesive concept; at least the title track from Gryphon’s Raindance (1975) which begins and ends with the sounds of rain and thunder has a keyboard backing under the main melody line that is reminiscent of flowing water and the album’s cover depicts the effects of playing the record.

The strong Red Rain from Peter Gabriel’s So (1986) is supposed to have been inspired by a terrifying dream. Some ascribe the imagery to acid rainfall (Gabriel is well known for his environmental concerns, appearing at the People's Climate March in London last September) but it seems to me to be about the nightmare of genocide; a number of African nations were in the throes of civil war in the early – mid 80s including Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Rain is represented on this track by hi-hat, played by ex-Curved Air drummer Stewart Copeland. More up-to-date, Anathema’s prog metal-lite Weather Systems (2012) is full of nice melodic touches and contains some interesting sonic experimentation and passages that remind me of Porcupine Tree but despite its title, the album only uses weather as a metaphor for events during a life.

I think some band should attempt a concept album based on the science of meteorology, whether it’s a series of interpretations of particular examples (think Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII.) Fabio Zuffanti’s Hostsonaten project covers some of this ground on the excellent symphonic prog Winterthrough (2008) with tracks called Snowstorm and Rainsuite but I still believe classic British prog bands missed out on an easy topic with a captive audience.



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