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By ProgBlog, Jan 30 2018 05:04PM

The announcement that one of the most highly regarded Italian prog bands was playing a gig in a relatively accessible city came as a bit of a surprise. Having just flown back from skiing in Chamonix the day before a Facebook post indicated that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso were performing in Brescia in seven days time, I needed to get my act together, pronto.


Advert for BMS at Circolo Colony, Brescia
Advert for BMS at Circolo Colony, Brescia

I delayed booking until I’d had confirmation that I could take annual leave but still managed to put together a decent hotel and flight bundle with only four days before we were due to leave. We flew to Milan (there was an alternative but early flight to Verona) and had just enough time to kill to grab a coffee and a browse through the Feltrinelli shop at the station before getting a slow train to Brescia from Milano Centrale. This particular branch of La Feltrinelli has a dedicated Progressive Italiana section where I found Giro di Valzer per Domani (1975) by Arti & Mestieri on CD and, being a fan of Tilt (1974) and their more recent release Universi Paralleli (2015) (the latter acquired on vinyl in Como last spring), I really couldn’t resist buying it, along with Prog Italia no.16. Giro di Valzer per Domani leans more towards jazz-rock than prog and there are times when they play tunes you could imagine were written by the Mahavishnu Orchestra; it’s genuinely impressive stuff.


Highlights from La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale
Highlights from La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale

Brescia doesn’t have such impressive prog credentials as somewhere like Genoa, Milan or Rome although PFM’s Mauro Pagani was born in the city; Pagani was also, for a brief time, a member of classic progressivo Italiano group Dalton (from Bergamo, 53km west of Brescia) but left before their well-regarded debut album Riflessioni: Idea d'infinito (1973). Convenor of a number of musical projects, drummer and composer Gustavo Pasini used to run the Canterbury Café in the San Polo district, south east of the city centre.


Temporarily resident in the Novotel a 10 minute walk south east of Brescia railway station, we arrived on Friday evening and spent the next day exploring the city before I had to set out to the Sant’Eufemia district where BMS were playing at Circolo Colony, a club on an industrial estate or retail park. The first band on, La Stanza di Iris (Valeria Di Domenicantonio, voice and synth; Antonio Di Girolamo, guitar; and Valentino Piacentini, drums) were a bit noisy for my taste and lacked sufficient variation to really hold my interest; they describe themselves rather accurately as a ‘rock bomb that hits and stuns those who listen to us’. Second up were Hamnesia (Lorenzo Diana, guitar; Livia Montalesi, vocal, violin; Giovanni Tarantino, drums; Matteo Bartolo, keyboards; and Andrea Manno, bass guitar) who were premiering their first album Metamorphosis, available at the merchandise stand. Metamorphosis is a concept piece about a journey into human consciousness through the fears and uncertainties that paralyze it, yet at the same time provide us with an opportunity to overcome them and change ourselves through metamorphosis. This was much more to my liking, where the individual influences of the band members which appeared to include symphonic prog, classical and metal, combined to form a modern prog that included some riffing, some great soloing, some authentic analogue keyboard patches and some memorable melodic lines. The lyrics were all in English, something which may have been influenced by the English-speaking bands they profess to admire like Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree, but I prefer my Italian bands singing in their native language. Montalesi may have had monitor problems because there were a couple of occasions where I thought she drifted out of key, whereas her singing on the CD – I thought I ought to buy a copy – is assured and problem free. Hamnesia are another young Italian progressive rock band to look out for.


The actual reason I’d organised the trip was to see Banco but when the first track Metamorfosi kicked in the link between the veterans and the newcomers was eloquently spelled out. Having stood around at the back of the hall for La Stanza di Iris, then moved near to the mixing desk for Hamnesia, I stood with most of the rest of the crowd close to the stage for Banco. Without Gianni Nocenza or any of the other members from the 70s apart from Vittorio Nocenza, the sextet which now consists of Vittorio Nocenzi, keyboards, vocals; Nicola Di Già, guitar; Tony D’Alessio, vocals; Marco Capozi, bass guitar; Fabio Moresco, drums; and Filippo Marcheggiani, guitar, released a re-imagined version of Io Sono Nato Librero, titled La Libertà Difficile along with the original, as a legacy edition CD in the autumn of 2017.

La Libertà Difficile is well played and well thought out but lacks the raw energy of the 1973 release and, however good D’Alessio is, he’s not going to fill the shoes of Francesco Di Giacomo. This had been one of my concerns when I booked my ticket but to his credit, he didn’t try to emulate Di Giacomo and accompanied by Nocenzi, the singing worked very well. Unfortunately, I’d been forced to book a taxi for 11.50pm because the taxi firm couldn’t provide the service that I’d originally requested at half-past midnight, or my compromise at 00.15am so I didn’t get to hear the full set. Following Metamorfosi (from their eponymous debut in 1972) they played Cento Mani e Cento Occhi (from Darwin! 1972), Il Ragno (from Come in un'Ultima Cena, 1976), La Conquista della Posizione Eretta (from Darwin!), Canto Nomade per un Prigioniero Politico (from Io Sono Nato Librero) and then a couple of tracks I don’t have in my collection which I believe were Canto di primavera (from the 1979 album of the same name) and Paolo Pa’ (from Urgentissimo, 1980). I had to leave the club as the excellent L'Evoluzione (from Darwin!) was ending.


BMS, Circolo Colony, Brescia 20 Jan 2018
BMS, Circolo Colony, Brescia 20 Jan 2018

Though I’d been a little disconcerted by the songs I didn’t know, the playing throughout was exceptional and Nocenzi, fairly close to the beginning of the set related a tale of how much Brescia meant to the band. So, despite only getting half a set, I was glad I attended. I don’t think I can make up my mind whether I prefer the music of PFM or Banco and, having seen PFM live for the first time last year, I’ve now ticked off Banco del Mutuo Soccorso from the list. I suppose my only gripe is that the club was some way out of the city centre and even public transport, which I had been informed shut down at 1am on a Saturday, was not an easy option to take because of the nature of the journey from the club to the station. This is becoming a bit of a recurring theme: the gigs start late and at gigs in both Milan and Rome last year, the journey back to my hotel was pretty fraught unless I left early and missed part of the performance.


The city has a couple of decent second-hand record stores, Music Box and Brescia Dischi which are round the corner from each other and appear to be owned by the same person. I was tempted to buy a live BMS album from 1974 but I thought €40 was a bit too much to pay. Opposite Music Box there’s a branch of bookstore Punto Einaudi which sells classical and jazz music on CD and vinyl, and there’s also a reasonably-sized branch of La Feltrinelli on Corso Giuseppe Zanardelli where I bought three PFM-related LPs: L’Isola di Niente, Amore e non Amore (1971) by Lucio Battisti where his backing band is the original PFM line-up, and Acqua Fragile’s second album Mass-Media Stars from 1974 which features Bernardo Lanzetti, the vocalist with PFM from Chocolate Kings to Passpartù, and was produced by PFM and Claudio Fabi. Marva Jan Morrow who contributed lyrics to Jet Lag also wrote lyrics for Mass-Media Stars.



In between bouts of seeking out Italian prog, we discovered Brescia boasts some of the most impressive Roman remains I’ve ever seen, located in a UNESCO World Heritage Site complex made up from the Brixia Archaeological area and the Museo di Santa Giulia. The city was also under the control of Venice during La Serenissima, making the architectural history from Roman, through medieval to the Rationalist redevelopment of the Piazza della Vittoria to the postmodern reinvention of the Courts of Justice and the Brescia 2 district where our Novotel was situated, a fabulous eclectic mix of styles. It’s a clean, pleasant and friendly city. I’d visit it again.


Mimmo Paladino sculpture 'Ritiro' in the Brixia archaeological site
Mimmo Paladino sculpture 'Ritiro' in the Brixia archaeological site


By ProgBlog, Dec 24 2017 12:17AM

2017 isn’t quite over but there will be a short break for ProgBlog over the Christmas period. As I type there are almost 900000 hits on the website, many of which might not be from individuals who stayed to browse but in the 45 months since the site was founded, the trickle of visitors per month has shot up, accelerating from a total of 174000 at the beginning of 2016 thanks in part to my adoption of twitter and a dedicated Facebook page, a strategy suggested by the hosts of a Guardian Masterclass in how to promote your website.

It can’t be denied that substantial proportion of music bought in the early to mid 70s, the so-called ‘golden age’ of the genre, was progressive rock, so prog wasn’t really niche because it produced some very successful acts though an observer of musical trends over the past 50 years might not think so. Fast forward to 2017 and proof that progressive rock is regarded as mainstream (or at least present and recognisable as something distinct) comes in the guise of BBC TV family quiz show Pointless series 17, episode 10, where the final round is about prog! Yet it’s hard to explain the resurgence of a musical form which attracted such vitriol at the end of the 70s, despite the fact that Prog magazine, after something of a scare this time last year, is once again thriving and obviously serving a large fan-base, and across in mainland Europe, the Prog Italia title seems to be doing well and publisher DeAgostini, in conjunction with the magazine, has started to reissue a massive series of classic progressivo Italiano records on 180g vinyl which are available from newsstands. So why exactly is prog currently in vogue when it’s not really commercial and therefore not attractive to major labels, and the struggle for bands to get heard above the competition is far more difficult now than it ever was in the 70s?


Prog goes mainstream (1) Pointless categories
Prog goes mainstream (1) Pointless categories

Prog goes mainstream (2) Pointless questions
Prog goes mainstream (2) Pointless questions

I don’t think the answer lies in 2017 but it was a year when trends seems to coalesce and were picked up by the media. This is certainly true of the vinyl revival story, despite the rise in sales commencing in 2014, if not a couple of years earlier and though vinyl isn’t restricted to prog albums, classic prog is linked to the popularity of the LP and even CD box sets now come laden with facsimiles of original sized album artwork and other goodies. Talking about the music helps enormously, whether in print like Prog magazine, via social media (where the prog community behaves more civilly than almost any other group), or at one of the increasing number of occasions where the fans are able to approach and interact with musicians face-to-face. However sad, it’s a fact that the protagonists are dying and though 2017 might have seemed less tragic in terms of numbers of recognised musicians who passed away compared to 2016, all we’re left with is the irreplaceable sonic legacy of John Wetton (who inspired me to take up the bass), Phil Miller and Allan Holdsworth. But their deaths got us talking, too. National newspaper The Guardian printed obituaries of Miller and Holdsworth and the Daily Telegraph carried an obituary of John Wetton; it is only right that we celebrate their music. As far as mainstream print media goes, I try to keep tabs on the number of mentions in The Guardian concerning progressive rock and it’s more than you might realise, from crossword clues to film reviews!


Allan Holdsworth obituary - The Guardian 19/4/17
Allan Holdsworth obituary - The Guardian 19/4/17

From a purely personal point of view, over the latter part of the year I’ve learned to test my boundaries a bit more. This has proved somewhat challenging because I’m someone who doesn’t use music as a backdrop to other activities as I like time to concentrate on what’s being played. On a number of occasions I’ve been asked to review (or at least listen to) some new music, which has come in a range of styles. I’m exceedingly grateful that my judgment is valued enough for complete strangers to contact me and take this as a vindication of my opinions aired via the blog and associated bits of social media. I’m sure that a graphical representation of my particular tastes would result in a normal distribution curve but the wide spectrum that makes up prog means that some of this material was going to be right up my street and some was less likely to appeal. For anyone who has sent me links to their music, please be patient; I think that the promotion of prog music is a worthwhile pursuit and I will get around to writing about it however, I do have a daytime job which sometimes carries on out-of-hours.

The point is that once I’ve agreed to give something a listen, I can’t just play it in the background while I’m doing the ironing or reading my daily newspaper and then come up with an opinion, I have to really listen and pick out moments which I like and explain why I like it. I approached Process of Illumination’s Radiant Memory with a degree of trepidation because when I read their influences I genuinely thought it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. After repeated listens I could really appreciate the guitar and keyboard interactions and maybe they did have a metal edge, but they also had a good ear for a melody and mixed adventurous complexity with ambient washes. On the other hand, An Invitation by Amber Foil sounded and looked like a slice of 70’s prog and got me hooked instantly, and then proceeded to pull me deeper into a dark and vaguely disturbing storyline; though only an EP, An Invitation is my album of the year. Dam Kat’s Alawn mixes Kate Bush with Pink Floyd and Steven Wilson and adds a dash of traditional Breton music and the result is very pleasing, so I’m glad that I was invited to listen to it; the music of Dublin’s Groundburst was new to me, despite a back catalogue of EPs stretching back 10 years, with their latest EP Triad frequenting ground shared between prog and math rock, and though a full-length album due to be released next year will include much of their devilish complexity, it’s also rumoured that lengthier tracks will allow for more symphonic development; Seattle-based Gaillion are another band I’d describe as outside my old comfort zone with a more concise approach but I can’t help but admire their musicianship and rhythmic invention on their latest CD Renewal and Release; Servants of Science from Brighton and Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate from London have both covered exceptionally deep concepts on The Swan Song and Broken but Still Standing respectively, the former about an astronaut witnessing the end of the earth from space, and the latter following the story of human evolution from the last universal common ancestor to conflict and finally symbiosis with artificial intelligence. Both are cinematic but The Swan Song tends towards haunting alt-rock and Broken but Still Standing is more in the mould of Floydian soundscapes, aided by really gorgeous flute. Both are well worth seeking out.


2017 saw me manage multiple trips to Italy where I witnessed the first ever gig by the much admired Ancient Veil, in their home city, and became one of only a couple of hundred people to see the first two performances by Melting Clock. This young Genovese band may not have released an album yet but their symphonic prog is brilliantly structured and possesses an enviable accessibility, so I’m pretty sure they’re going to do well. Another young band who did release their first album was Milan’s Cellar Noise with Alight. This harks back to classic 70s Italian prog, even though it’s sung in English and the concept is based around stations on London Underground. I caught their show at Milan’s Legend Club, part of the Z-Fest, and bought the CD immediately after they’d completed their set. I actually took in two major prog festivals over the course of the Italian summer; the Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genova and Progressivamente in Rome. The former was an international affair organised by Black Widow Records where Melting Clock debuted, and the totally free Progressivamente festival, held over five nights, featured established bands (including some which had recently reformed), presenting an unmissable opportunity to catch up on incredible music from the last 45 years. The last trip to Genova included a night at La Claque where Ancient Veil played unplugged; Melting Clock played gig no. 2 and wowed the crowd; and Phoenix Again demonstrated their quality with a brand of jazzy/heavy/symphonic/complex prog. I stayed in the city for a couple of extra days because PFM were performing at the Teatro Carol Felice and I’d managed to get a ticket.



I don’t really speak Italian so I’m indebted to all the people I met to discuss prog for kindly resorting to converse in English. This list includes a whole host of musicians from Melting Clock, Panther & C, Phoenix Again and Ingranaggi della Valle, the friendly and knowledgeable staff from Black Widow Records, promoter Marina Montobbio, and audience members at the gigs like Vincenzo Praturlon and the cousin of Semiramis bassist Ivo Mileto. Part of the attraction of Italy is seeking out record stores in the different cities, where once again communication was in English, otherwise we couldn’t have had any sort of sensible conversation. Guidance and expert advice from Genova’s Black Widow comes as part of the package but new shops were discovered in Como (Frigerio Dischi, Alta Fedità); Savona (Jocks Team); and Rome (Elastic Rock, Millerrecords).

Wandering around record stores in the south east has been a major feature of the latter part of the year. There’s a shop just around the corner of my road which I recently discovered sells second-hand vinyl but the best find is a short tram journey away, Wanted Music in Beckenham where proprietor Adriaan Neervoort keeps a wide stock of prog and electronica, in great condition and at market rates. I’ve discovered it’s often worth popping into charity shops where amongst the James Last and battered classical LPs you might find the odd gem for £1 or £2, like my French version of the Chariots of Fire soundtrack and the Synergy album Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra. Then there are the flea markets...


Wanted Music, Beckenham
Wanted Music, Beckenham

I attended a few gigs on UK soil, the most anticipated of which was Anderson Rabin Wakeman who I went to see in Brighton, but the highlight of the year was the Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum, an in-depth historical perspective of the band using their music and a wide range of personal and band artefacts, providing a must-see experience for any Floyd fan.



That’s 2017 in a nutshell; good bits and low points. It demonstrated that prog is still going strong and I’ve already got some events lined up for next year... Prog on!











By ProgBlog, May 21 2017 08:21PM

Yes, another trip to Genoa. The weekend had to be carefully planned: on call on the Thursday hastily rearranged; gig on Friday; Crystal Palace playing their last home game of the season with kick off at noon on Sunday...

My wife and I left on the 07.10 flight from Gatwick on Thursday morning and returned on the 13:25 flight on Saturday. It was a bit of a whirlwind stay but rather successful. Susan doesn’t come to the gigs so we spend as much of the remaining time getting around. Ideally we’d have been able to leave on the Sunday but the importance of the football match, with both Palace and opponents Hull involved in a relegation scrap, it was a game I was not prepared to miss.

After checking in at the hotel, the first stop was for coffee in a local bar, Caffé del Sivori before moving on for a bite to eat. We were then able to wander into the historical centre where, among the narrow lanes and small piazza, you can find the second-hand record, CD and book stalls. This was where I bought the 1997 Ulisse and the 2000 Serendipity CDs by PFM, along with Anthony Phillip’s Wise after the Event. The main shopping attraction however, was the small but perfectly formed Black Widow record shop in Via del Campo; specialising in progressive rock, psychedelia, heavy rock, ‘dark’ prog and folk. It turns out that the founders of the shop Massimo Gasperini, Pino Pintabona and Alberto Santamaria, used to come to Beanos in Croydon to buy stock and that the reputation of the store within the prog community is really high; the Prog Archives website published an interview with Massimo in 2010, remarking that he’s a friendly guy and I concur - I’ve had lengthy chats with both Massimo and Alberto on the occasions I’ve visited and can honestly say that their generosity, knowledge and graciousness are boundless. It’s easy to form a connection when you share a passion for the same kind of music, despite my lack of Italian.



You might wonder why such a small shop has such a big influence but part of the reason is because Genoa is at the heart of the current prog scene in Italy, with the emergence of a number of new bands seeped in the traditions of 70s progressivo Italiano, plus a renewed interest in the original bands, some of the most influential of which were based in Genoa (New Trolls, Delirium, Latte e Miele, Nuovo Idea, Garybaldi.) This historic connection must have influenced the foundation of the Centro Studi per il Progressive Italiano (in Genoa’s Pontedecimo district) who aim to create a comprehensive archive of material relating to Italian prog and build a complete database of material, but also study the material at a musicological level. The other part of the explanation is that Black Widow also operates as a record label, promoting new talent and, where possible, reissuing old classics. They play an important role in the live music scene, being instrumental in the Fiera della Musica which had been held in Genoa until the area, with buildings by local architect Renzo Piano, was scheduled for redevelopment. (Susan and I visited an exhibition of competitors for this redevelopment and, rather to my delight, one entrant included the cover of Atom Heart Mother in their presentation.)



Black Widow were putting on a Metal festival that weekend, though I was far more interested in their Prog Festival to be held in the old harbour from 14th – 16th July, featuring local and nearby acts Delirium and Il Cerchio d’Oro, prog from France and Norway and Nik Turner, formerly of Hawkwind, headlining on the Saturday.



I walked away from the shop with a selection of British and Italian prog on vinyl: The first Saint Just album (rereleased by AMS on green vinyl); Inferno by Metamorfosi, Acquiring the Taste by Gentle Giant, Future Legends by Fruupp, plus a second-hand copy of Quark, Strangeness and Charm by Hawkwind.


Daytime on Friday was spent in Alessandria, visiting the UNESCO World Heritage listed Cittadella, the most important hexagonal fort in Europe due the integrity of the site, though our access was restricted because there seemed to be some event being set up. We visited the W Dabliu record store but I didn’t buy anything there, however I did come across the first three editions of Prog Italia, bundled into one, for €12.99 which I had to buy, having spent the last three trips to Italy looking for copies of the magazine.

It’s become increasingly obvious to me that Friday night is the time for prog in this part of the country because the excursion had been organised to see a couple of bands, playing on a Friday, at la Claque; Finisterre and Ancient Veil.



I’d seen Finisterre as recently as the 31st March at the Z Fest in Milan, but I enjoyed this performance more. Maybe it was the theatre itself, with tables organised like a club rather than crowding the stage at Milan’s Legend Club (and where the space on stage was divided by supporting columns), or maybe it was that the recent exposure to the band had made me more aware of the material. Despite coming from Genova and performing around the world, Finisterre hadn’t played in their home city since 2004, so it must have been a rather emotional return. Their set list comprised of material from three of their four albums Finisterre, In Ogni Luogo and La Meccanica Naturale: Tempi Moderni, Anaporaz; La Maleducazione; Macinaaqua, Macinaluna; La Perfezione; Ninive, In Ogni Luogo and Coro Elettrico performed as a mini-suite with Edmondo Romano from Ancient Veil as guest; Ode al Mare; La Fine; Incipit; Phaedra; with chat, announcements and introductions made alternatively by Sefano Marelli and Fabio Zuffanti. The musicianship was sublime and despite the absence of anything from In Limine, my favourite Finisterre album, the set was perfect. If I had to make any complaint, it would be that from where I was seated, fairly close to the front and centre, I couldn’t hear Boris Valle’s keyboards too well but the overall sound was clear.

There was a poignant moment when Zuffanti introduced Davide Laricchia, the original vocalist for the band, to perform Macinaacqua, for which he wrote the words but left before he could appear on the first album. This track encapsulates the experimental approach of the group, interspersing classical motifs into some riff-driven prog, Marelli guitar effects and Agostino Macor electronics. The delivery was over-the-top theatrics along the lines of Alex Harvey, though the melodic denouement hinted at 70s The Enid, coalescing into classic Zuffanti material; Macor even used a xylophone on this piece. Their superb set ended with a medley of prog classics; a little bit of Interstellar Overdrive, 21st Century Schizoid Man and the Hackett-friendly portion of Firth of Fifth.



I first came across Ancient Veil after seeing an article about Eris Pluvia, and received Rings of Earthly Light as a Christmas present in 2012. Released in 1991, six years after the band formed, this is an uplifting piece of neo-prog which at times, thanks to the woodwind and reeds of Edmondo Romano, borders on prog-folk. The upbeat lyrics, all in English, and the calm, warm voice of guitarist Alessandro Serri help to give it an almost New Age feel but there are odd time signatures and sudden changes that would suit the most ardent of prog fans. Eris Pluvia disbanded in 1992 and Ancient Veil was formed by Alessandro Serri, Romano, with Fabio Serri on keyboards and they released one eponymous record in 1995, with music very much in the same vein as Eris Pluvia. Ancient Veil reappeared this year with bassist Massimo Palermo and drummer Marco Fuliano and the CD I am Changing. Remarkably, this presentation of their new album was the band’s first ever live performance and though there were a couple of hitches, technical and human, the audience was understandably forgiving. The material was set out in three blocks, commencing with The Ancient Veil, followed by Rings of Earthly Light and concluding with I am Changing but the material flowed seamlessly. I bought a copy of the CD during the interval between bands so I had not heard any of the new songs; I’d also not been able to lay my hands on a copy of The Ancient Veil but it would not be unfair to say that the composers have a distinctive style. Maybe their most recent material contains a hint of wistfulness? They also introduced a guest from the past, Valeria Caucino, who sang on Eris Pluvia’s Sell My Feelings and also appears on the new album, on the song Chime of the Times. And, just as Romano had accompanied Finisterre on stage, Zuffanti and Marelli returned the favour during In the Rising Mist, making four acoustic guitarists (along with Serri and drummer Fuliano); this summed up the camaraderie of not only the musicians gracing the stage that evening, but the Italian progressive rock community as a whole.



What made the evening special was a combination of great music and a sense of history; the return of Finisterre to Genoa after a considerable absence, and the first gig by a band who have long been praised in prog circles – a remarkable double bill and immensely enjoyable. I’m already preparing for my next trip...
What made the evening special was a combination of great music and a sense of history; the return of Finisterre to Genoa after a considerable absence, and the first gig by a band who have long been praised in prog circles – a remarkable double bill and immensely enjoyable. I’m already preparing for my next trip...

Postscript

Palace beat Hull 4-0 on an afternoon basked in sunlight, securing their tenure in the Premier Leaguue for another season. What a fantastic few days












By ProgBlog, Dec 11 2016 08:03PM

It’s interesting to see how progressive rock faces the future. One of my latest gig attendances was for newcomer act ESP launching their debut CD Invisible Din, though the combined pedigree of the performers both on the new album and those playing live hardly warrants the ‘newcomer’ tag. ESP performed an updated symphonic prog rock which acknowledged some of the most influential movers from the first wave of prog but still managed to sound relevant and contemporary, not unlike some of the newer Italian bands, expressive and almost operatic. The stylistic contrast with Lazuli, who I witnessed at London’s Borderline last week could hardly have been greater. Lazuli have been around since 1998 and are well known and respected in their native France and around mainland Europe but have not had very much exposure in the UK, despite wowing crowds at Summers End in 2011 and 2013. Their music falls within the prog sphere but it is closer to the Peter Gabriel end of the spectrum, more akin to world music, especially their take on North African sounds and scales. Somewhat surprisingly given the heavy edge to much of their material and subject matter which includes a message supporting the cause to end violence against women and an indictment of the rise of the right-wing in France, it has an infectious joyfulness. Lazuli first came to my notice when I saw them at the Prog Résiste festival in Belgium in 2014 and it was quite obvious they were not only unique but that they had a devoted following on the continent so I wrote to Prog magazine to tell readers to make sure they went to see them when they next played in the UK. It’s likely that Lazuli will get a live review in the next edition of the magazine but ESP, who did have a Prog Italia journalist and photographer in attendance, have had neither an album nor live review.


Lazuli at The Borderline 5/12/16
Lazuli at The Borderline 5/12/16

From the recent to the beginning

If we accept that the progressive rock genre started in 1969 it’s hardly surprising that, given there have been 46 intervening years, a number of the main protagonists should no longer be with us. The prog world has once more been rocked by the death of one of the most important members of the prog family, Greg Lake, who succumbed to cancer earlier this week.

Lake’s influence can’t be underestimated. As a member of the first incarnation of King Crimson, it could be argued that he was one of the five young men at the vanguard of the movement, the coalescence of a musical idiom which was served fully formed as the LP In the Court of the Crimson King but also, according to music journalists and critics, a perpetrator of excess and pretentiousness, one of a handful of individuals responsible for the downfall of the genre at the end of the 70s. I first heard him on the self-titled ELP debut which I originally picked up because I was interested in Keith Emerson’s career development following the demise of The Nice. Emerson, Lake & Palmer remains one of my favourite albums, where despite my adoration of Emerson’s previous musical vehicle, there’s a noticeable qualitative improvement and cohesiveness on the first ELP album. This can be partly ascribed to the nature of the Nice albums, where The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) was really psychedelia and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) a mixture of psychedelia and proto-prog; these two albums are entirely studio efforts but suffer from poor production. The subsequent three albums Nice (1969), Five Bridges (1970) and Elegy (1971) all contain a mix of studio and live tracks. Although, in my opinion, Emerson Lake & Palmer is dominated by Emerson, in recognition of the status of the bassist and the drummer, both having come from successful bands, the contribution of Lake and Palmer is essential to the sound and feel of the album. Lake’s crystal clear voice was key to the sound of the first Crimson LP and made ELP far more accessible than The Nice, where Lee Jackson took on main vocal duties. Though all members of the band seemed happy with adaptations of classical pieces I’d always credited Emerson as the main proponent, balanced with the acoustic sensibility of Lake. Take a Pebble ticks all the right boxes for me by virtue of the amazing piano and the ensemble playing and if I’m honest I could live without the solo acoustic sections. Lucky Man is a different kettle of fish, where Emerson’s Moog is simply the icing on a near-perfect song. His experience with King Crimson coupled with reluctance from Emerson and Palmer to get involved meant that record production duties became the responsibility of Lake; the result is a well-balanced sound on the majority of the tracks tough I find The Three Fates a bit muddy. It’s clear that there were personality clashes between Lake and Emerson and initial splits over the direction of Tarkus (1971) seemed quite serious. Fortunately, Lake got on board and the Tarkus suite has become one of my most admired ELP long-form pieces, but there’s a lack of consistency on side two. Trilogy (1972) suffers from a similar fate, where the longer tracks are brilliant but there’s an abundance of shorter, throw-away music.

I suspect the mix of the serious, multi-part compositions and the short, not necessarily progressive rock songs was part of the reason for ELP’s success, where they could attract both the prog crowd and more adventurous rock ‘n’ rollers. I also think that the approach of ELP helped to bridge the gap between popular and classical music, introducing a new generation to the delights of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Bach but also opening our eyes to Copland and Ginastera. Brain Salad Surgery (1973) was a more consistent album but the production was thin and biased towards the treble. The triple live Welcome Back My Friends... (1974) may have been a triumph but the years spent touring, putting on huge shows with equipment unloaded from three articulated lorries, became another stick with which to beat the band as the music industry was changing in their absence; ELP’s excess was in stark contrast to the pared back ideology and sounds of punk. Even I wondered about Lake’s ‘plutonium’ bike mentioned in one of the music papers! All of this meant that the pretentiously-titled Works Vol.1 (1977) was hardly likely to be greeted with open arms by the critics. The band material was good but I thought it was spoiled by Emerson’s predilection for the Yamaha GX-1. I loved his Piano Concerto but much of the writing on the Lake and Palmer sides wasn’t really up to scratch and as a whole, the double LP was a bit like Fragile taken to extreme.

After Works Vol.1 I gave up on ELP, foregoing Works Vol.2 and Love Beach and not realising the three protagonists had toured in 1992 having reformed for Black Moon. The live album recorded at the Royal Albert Hall captures the band back on form and I wish I’d paid more attention to listing magazines at the time. I went to see Greg Lake at the Fairfield Halls in 2005, based on the mooted set list and was very pleasantly surprised. His voice wasn’t as clear as it had been 30 years previously but his band performed admirable versions of ELP and King Crimson numbers.

I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010 on the 40th anniversary of their debut album which featured prominently. Despite a couple of minor problems they were totally amazing and I’m really pleased to have been there because it turned out to be their last ever gig.

I’m not a fan of the 45rpm single but, like many prog fans, I have a soft spot for Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas – Lake and Sinfield at their concise best with a bit of Prokofiev thrown in. Lake is likely to be remembered for this single more than his contribution to progressive rock but he was there at the beginning of prog and shaped those early years with his choirboy voice, deft bass and acoustic songs. His death marks another major loss to the prog world.




Greg Lake b. 10th November 1947 d. 7th December 2016







By ProgBlog, Nov 13 2016 07:16PM

Imagine a blustery Friday evening in central London at rush hour, spilling out of Great Portland Street tube station and wondering why, in the middle of November, a large crowd had assembled outside the Green Man pub and inside was a heaving mass of people. Somewhere in the throng was Jim Knipe, one of two friends I’d managed to persuade to give an unknown band a try. On the occasion of an England vs Scotland football match, something I’d inconveniently forgotten, it really wasn’t the most sensible place to have chosen for a pub meal before a gig at the nearby 229 The Venue. The football fixture seemed to have fired up a particularly nasty form of nationalism, at least amongst the clientele of the Green Man, so moving on quickly as soon as dinner was completed was the order of the day. The Green Man was the third choice hostelry; first choice The Albany, almost next door, was already fully booked for meals (we decamped there for a beer before moving on to the gig) and the second choice was a large restored Victorian pub with good beer, only I couldn’t find it on Google maps, I couldn’t remember its name (the Mason’s Arms) and I had no idea if it served food (it does). All I knew was that it was normally empty. The food at the Green Man we visited on the junction of Euston and Marylebone Roads, not to be confused with the Green Man, Riding House Street, was served at gastropub prices without the gastropub quality. Not recommended.

Doors to 229 were due to open at 7.30pm so Jim and I made our way across the road at the appointed hour to meet up with the third of the evening’s prog trio, Gina Franchetti. 229 first opened its doors in 1965 as part of the International Students House, a charity providing accommodation for British and overseas students whilst they studied at different Universities in London. The venue has sporadically played host to numerous gigs, awards ceremonies, club nights, weekend festivals and music related events and profits are ploughed back into the charity to help fund scholarship programmes for students from less advantaged countries. It underwent major refurbishment and had a technical overhaul in 2007 and was re-launched as a dedicated entertainment venue with two performance spaces. Unfortunately, Gina was standing in the queue for the larger of the two rooms where Dreadzone (a Big Audio Dynamite spin-off) were due to play and it was only when staff on the door were unable to find my name on the guest list that we realised we were heading to the wrong show; our entertainment was due to be provided by ESP, billed as ‘A Prog Rock Tour de Force’ and the gig was to launch their new album Invisible Din.




First on stage was Yumi Hara, standing in as the support act and who would later take to the stage with the band. Normally a pianist, Hara had recently taken up the harp (think the Jon Anderson-sized harp used on Olias of Sunhillow and Going for the One), performing material from collaborations with Artaud Beats bandmate and ex-Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler. Her songs may have been brief but they were laden with poignancy; an effect enhanced by the delicate tone of her instrument and the oriental scales she used.





ESP is basically a two-man band comprised of guitarist/producer/multi-instrumentalist Tony Lowe and drummer Mark Brzezicki, ably supported with a stellar cast of collaborators. Lowe first came to my attention as the guitarist for the live launch of the 2015 David Cross and Robert Fripp CD Starless Starlight (which Lowe produced) where his understanding and appreciation of one of the most classic and memorable progressive rock melody lines was on display. Along with Cheryl Stringall he’s also the co-founder of Sunn Creative, a socially aware record label which operates on ethical business principles which include a commitment to environmental and social issues, and partners selected like-minded charities such as Action Aid with their ‘Bollocks to Poverty’ campaign. Brzezicki is best known for his work with Big Country, though prog fans will associate him with Procol Harum; he’s well regarded in drum circles and boasts an impressive session CV. These two musicians assembled some great names from the progressive rock scene to play on the album, from prog's early years to the more recent wave, and they all made guest appearances for the concert. Keyboard player Mickey Simmonds joined the project for the live circus because Lowe, who played keyboards on the recording, confined himself to guitar. Simmonds cites some classic prog influences and I recognised his name from Camel’s Harbour of Tears album (1996). Also on stage were bassists Steve Gee and Phil Spalding, each performing roughly half the set; vocalist John Beagley; David Jackson on saxes and flute; Yumi Hara on harp; and David Cross on violin.

From the outset it was obvious that the band were a really tight-knit outfit, playing densely layered lines of largely instrumental prog of the highest order with three lead instruments available at any one time over a solid, busy rhythm section. The keyboard patches were accurate reproductions of 70s analogue sounds but all the instruments were distinct and the whole sound well-balanced in the low-ceiling venue. It was possible to detect influences as varied as early Genesis, post-Gabriel Genesis, UK, and even a little Pawn Hearts-era Van der Graaf Generator; Jim even suggested he heard some 10cc. I’m not inferring the sound was derivative in any way and if I were to suggest a sonic comparison, perhaps because of the use of woodwind instruments, primarily the flute, I’d plump for one of the modern Italian symphonic prog acts.




Half-way through the set, Lowe informed us he wasn’t going to explain the concept behind the album because we could just read the sleeve notes of the CD to find out. I bought the CD from the merchandise stand but didn’t get round to reading the booklet until the following day. A Sunn Creative press release outlines the story and concept behind Invisible Din, where Lowe revealed that “The songs evoke a man’s childhood memory of illness and a ghostly, healing presence of beauty as he ventures into the realms of the astral world. The music and lyrics encompass the yearning we have for that elusive other, the dream partner, crossing the line between reality and fantasy as he ventures into the unknown.”

It’s sometimes unsatisfactory going to a gig without knowing what you’re going to hear, even when the event is billed as a ‘prog rock tour de force’ but it was evident from the first few bars and confirmed by the end of the performance that ESP are the genuine article. The compositions were first class, the playing exemplary and the utilisation of the talents of Davids Cross and Jackson was a stroke of genius. The crowd was fully appreciative of the music and such was the expectation of the band that Prog Italia magazine sent a reporter and photographer to cover the gig; Gina noticed that Claudia (the reporter) was making notes in Italian and spoke to them in Italian at the end of the concert; Federico (the photographer) has shared some photos with band members, including an atmospheric shot of David Jackson in black and white.

So there was no disappointment at the end, instead I’ve got a feeling that symphonic progressive rock has a new standard-bearer. I’ll certainly seek out future ESP shows in London and the South East – long may they continue. Thank you, Tony Lowe, Mark Brzezicki and your amazing collaborators for an evening of wonderful music.




Post Script

I’ve now listened to the album three times and the concept stands up really well. The production adds a Floydian feel to some of the material and the tracks evoke appropriate emotions: sometimes reflective, sometimes elation. The work is remarkably melodic; something that was less noticeable during the live performance, and repeated listening has revealed further layers and previously unnoticed jazzy moments. It’s impossible to choose a favourite track because the album holds together beautifully.

ESP: All symphonic progressive rock fans should buy Invisible Din and make every effort to go to see them on tour.









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