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The ProgBlog gig marathon continued with a rare opportunity to see the mythical hybrid beast Gryphon and their mix of early music, folk and prog... ...at the rather obscure Claygate Music Festival

By ProgBlog, Apr 9 2018 10:38PM

Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milan 23 March



Next stop: Milan. I attended the 2017 Z-Fest and apart from choosing a hotel miles from the club so that the taxi driver was unhappy to let me out of his cab because he wasn’t convinced that there was actually an event being held there and then not being able to communicate with a taxi firm to get me back to the hotel after it had finished, it was a successful venture. 2017 had something of an ‘experimental’ vibe, with the jazzy Zaal (standing in for Christadoro, a Zuffanti co-venture who released an album in February that year) and headliners Finisterre, who of all the Zuffanti projects seem to me the group who best represent boundary-pushing. That show also featured the Zuffanti-produced Cellar Noise, playing through their excellent symphonic prog debut Alight (2017) and wowing the crowd with an excellent rendition of Genesis’ The Knife as an encore. The whole band was present for this year’s Z-Fest, getting ready to embark upon their first concert outside of Europe, in Canada, and they told me the material they were writing for their forthcoming album was going to be a bit heavier than on Alight but still recognisably Cellar Noise. Z-Fest 2018 was dubbed ‘the symphonic edition’ headlined by Höstsonaten, who are without doubt the most symphonic of Zuffanti’s many sidelines and compared by the man himself to The Enid, so it was quite appropriate that former Enid vocalist Joe Payne had been invited to open proceedings, with the other slots allotted to Isproject, a prog/post rock duo augmented by Zuffanti associates, taking their place in the proceedings by virtue of releasing a fine, symphonic concept album The Archinauts (2017) produced by Zuffanti, and to Heather Findlay, the vocalist for Mostly Autumn from 1996 until 2010.



This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!
This year my wife and I were based in a different hotel, the NH Milano Machiavelli close to Repubblica, handy for Metro Line 3 to facilitate an effortless trip to Affori Centro for the Legend Club, but after a relatively relaxed flight to Milan Malpensa, we discovered that Trenitalia staff were on strike so we had to catch a coach to Milano Centrale. Not that I minded, because I’m happy to show solidarity with rail workers, but it would have been nice to have known before we got to the airport station ticket hall. Every visit to Italy since Rome last September has included some form of industrial action!

I’d last seen Joe Payne performing with The Enid at HRH 4 in North Wales and before that at the Resonance Festival at the Bedford Arms in Balham. On both occasions it was clear that he had an excellent voice but in my opinion the theatrical presentation came across as West End musical rather than rock, and certainly not progressive rock. I got to the club as the man reinvented as 'That Joe Payne' was finishing his sound check, thanks to a combination of the efficiency of the Milan metro and the performer not realising that the doors had actually opened. Following a short interlude during which the sound engineers played a selection of classic prog, including Siberian Khatru, Easy Money and Free Hand, Payne took to the stage again and explained that he would only be conversing in English and that this was his first ever solo performance, though it wasn’t his first post-Enid show; earlier in March he’d performed at The Picturedome in Northampton with a select backing group.

His performance was relatively brief, consisting of two (long-form) songs he’d contributed to from The Enid’s Invicta (2012) One and the Many and Who Created Me? plus both sides of his new single I need a Change/Moonlit Love. Confiding in the audience that he was a bit rusty and Who Created Me? was the most challenging thing he’d had to play on piano, he also admitted, mid song, that he’d forgotten how the piece went, then courageously continued. I thought he excelled in this format, solo voice and piano and, without the full bombast of his former band to compete with for kitsch, it completely changed my opinion of his singing; that he’s got a great voice is beyond question – he proved that it works in a rock context.


That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano
That Joe Payne, Z-Fest 2018, Legend Club, Milano

Isproject were next up, Ivan Santovito (who had a slight problem with the keyboard patches on his Mac before they got going) and Ilenia Salvemini, who after a couple of tracks as a duo were joined on stage by core members of Höstsonaten: Paolo Tixi; Marcella Arganese; Daniele Sollo; and Martin Grice.

Their inclusion at this symphonic Z-Fest was fully warranted. The music alternates between a post-Waters Floydian sweeping cinematic sound, melodies and instrumentation that recall classic 70s Italian prog, and a few guitar-driven moments that hint of prog-metal. The proggiest moments were the lead synthesizer lines over full band backing where a relative lack of layers evoked the early 70s sound; there was also plenty of delicate piano which contributed to the symphonic feel. Apart from playing the keyboards, Santovito handled a good portion of the vocals, sung in English, while most of the time Salvemini was responsible for providing harmony vocals or singing as a duet. The performance wasn’t quite faultless, with Salvemini occasionally demonstrating an unfortunate lack of stagecraft, generating low-level feedback by exposing her mic, held by her side when she wasn’t singing, to her monitor. This slightly naive behaviour didn’t affect the way I thought about the music and I visited the merchandise stand following their slot and bought a copy of The Archinauts on CD; I’m pleased I did, because Zuffanti’s production is beautifully clear and the symphonic nature of the music shines through.


Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito
Isproject: Ilenia Salvemini and Ivan Santovito

I don’t own any Mostly Autumn or Heather Findlay music other than a live version of Evergreen that featured on the free CD that came with one of the early Prog magazines concentrating on prog-folk. Her time in Mostly Autumn has helped her amass a good following and since leaving them in 2010 she’s fronted her own band, collaborated with some of the biggest names in the prog world (including Ian Anderson and John Wetton) and, in 2016 formed Mantra Vega with Dave Kerzner, pulling in a number of Mostly Autumn alumni, creating what many branded a ‘supergroup’. However, this set was just Findlay accompanying herself singing with acoustic guitar, delving into a rich past of folk/symphonic tunes of which I recognised only one: Evergreen. Her voice on some of the recordings I’ve heard has a frail, ethereal quality, like a Yorkshire Stevie Nicks but live she had a good strong voice that reminded me of Sonja Kristina on some of the more song-based Curved Air material. She also communicated entirely in English and told the crowd that, like Joe Payne, this was her first ever solo gig.


Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!
Heather Findlay - her first solo gig!

I’d just missed out seeing Höstsonaten performing Symphony No.1 Cupid and Psyche in 2016 so I wasn’t going to miss the 2018 Z-Fest; this was the band I’d really come to see and they did not disappoint. I may have originally heard about them in 2007-8 when I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files but my first exposure to their music was at the 2014 Prog Résiste festival where the Z Band performed an array of pieces from a variety of projects including the superb Rainsuite from Winterthrough, a sumptuous example of modern symphonic prog, prompting me to visit their merchandise stand following the performance to buy the CD/DVD of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Alive in Theatre (2013). It was on a visit to Galleria del Disco, Firenze, in the subway passages underneath the main station later in 2014 that I got my hands on an AMS CD reissue of Winterthrough, and in 2016 I pre-ordered my copy of Symphony N.1 Cupid & Psyche (on pink vinyl) through Bandcamp.



The current Höstsonaten line-up of Zuffanti (bass, acoustic guitar and bass pedals), Luca Scherani (keyboards), Marcella Arganese (electric guitar), Daniele Sollo (bass) and Paolo Tixi (drums) was supplemented for the occasion by Martin Grice on sax and flute, Joanne Roan on flute, Alice Nappi on violin, and Gaetano Galli on oboe, providing a genuine symphonic dimension; Grice was part of the Z Band and Roan has appeared on a number of Höstsonaten records.

Zuffanti’s introduction was interrupted by remedial work on Scherani’s laptop (after Scherani had helped Ivan Santovito at the start of the Isproject set) but this was swiftly resolved and they began with a medley of Season Cycle tracks, Entering the Halls of Winter, The Edge of Summer and Toward the Sea. We were also treated to a large slice of 2016’s Symphony N.1, an album where Zuffanti had written the music but took a step back from much of the playing and allowed the partnership with Scherani, who arranged the piece for orchestra, to shine. I thought the evening couldn’t get any better but they next embarked upon Ancient Mariner in all its dramatic glory. I’d notice Joe Payne move a mic stand to the front of the stage between the Heather Findlay and Höstsonaten sets, so I had a pretty good idea that he’d be joining them for something, and he took on the role of the mariner really well. Sadly I had to leave to catch a bus back to my hotel during Part 3, but there’s a YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61N3h2qCPfk that goes some way to compensating for me missing out on Part 4 which features outstanding vocals from both Payne and Findlay.



Though the crowd was really supportive of all the acts, the club wasn’t full and with tickets at only €10, it’s something of a surprise that Zuffanti persists in hosting the event each year. However he does it, promoting his protégés, revisiting some exquisite music of his own and this year bringing UK artists to Milan, I’m glad he does. This was my second year and, like last year, it was really special. La Maschera di Cera next year?














By ProgBlog, Oct 16 2016 06:32PM

Ever since Tales from Topographic Oceans was released in 1973, I’ve been entranced by not just the music, but also by the Roger Dean cover artwork. I’ve blogged about Tales before http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/Tales-of-division-(posted-22-6-14)/8315138 and up until the release of the Anderson/Stolt Invention of Knowledge earlier this year, there hadn’t really been anything of such scope released by anyone else. If we believe the review of the Steven Wilson remixed Tales by Chris Roberts in Prog 70 at the beginning of the month, there appears to be a consensus emerging that regards The Ancient (side 3) as being the weak link. I disagree. I think that Giants Under the Sun is Yes doing Stravinsky, a brilliant interpretation of primal human belief, neatly brought to resolution by the under-rated Howe acoustic guitar in the ‘leaves of green’ section; The Remembering, on the other hand, meanders too much and when Wakeman criticised the album as lacking sufficient material for a double LP, I assumed the ‘filler’ he was referring to was on side 2, as I think the ebb and flow of the Topographic Ocean has a more limited dynamic range.

If the artwork on Fragile, Close to the Edge and Yessongs represent a unified narrative allowing the listener to piece together the story of a doomed planet and the recolonisation of a new home, Tales was a mini-story all on one gatefold sleeve, the juxtaposition of disparate elements selected by the members of the band, carefully placed so that both the front cover on its own and the front and back images together have a symmetry that works visually. Being interested in Stonehenge and Avebury provided a degree of familiarity but the fish swimming through the air added a sense of of mystery which I always associated with the ‘topographic ocean’. There’s an incongruity to the painting but it doesn’t detract from the overall scene. Why, for instance, would you put one of the geoglyphs from the plain at Nazca in front of a Mayan temple? I simply accepted the explanation that these were suggestions from the musicians themselves and marvelled at their exoticism.




The golden era of progressive rock coincided with an increased interest in science fiction, possibly catalysed by the moon landing on July 20th 1969 when it seemed that the future had arrived; Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind heralding a technologically-fuelled optimism. As we expanded the frontiers of our knowledge, probing out into space and preparing for lunar exploration, the imagination of a number of cod-science writers was sent into overdrive. Erich Von Daniken published Chariots of the Gods? In 1968 and within the next few years it had become quite widely read by school friends and associates. Alan White’s wish to have a Nazca geoglyph on the cover of Tales was roughly synchronous with the popularity of Von Daniken’s book and whereas I’d far rather listen to archaeological explanations than some spurious New Age theory involving ancient aliens, I still had a desire to see the markings at Nazca. Von Daniken compares photographs of American space centre launch sites to the constructions on the plains of Nazca but current archaeological evidence suggests the markings had a magical-religious purpose pertaining to water, which was in very scarce supply and they had an astronomical purpose that related to seasonal changes. Over the past 30-odd years I’ve ticked off Stonehenge, Avebury and the Carnac alignments in Brittany and last month I finally got around to visit Peru, taking in Machu Picchu and, equally importantly, a flight over the Nazca lines. Both were unforgettable experiences though sadly the monkey geoglyph, as used in the illustration for Tales, appeared a little indistinct from the air. It’s strange that Dean has painted the monkey as a mirror image, with the tail to the right and the hands to the left; in real life this 110m figure has the coiled tailed to the left and the intricate hands to the right.




The whole Peruvian adventure was amazing. We arrived in Lima 48 hours after Steve Hackett had begun playing with local Genesis tribute band Genetics but there was no way I could have got to see the performance without taking extra days off work (when it had already proved difficult to get the leave I required) because the 15 day tours all began on a Monday, meaning we had a little over 24 hours before getting together as a tour group.




Rather than head off to the old centre of the city, we spent Sunday in Miraflores, where our hotel was located, and the adjacent district of Barranco because these were areas where gentrification was well under way, reflecting the modern Lima of restaurants, cafés and restored architecture. I’d done some homework before setting off, saving a list of the cream of Peruvian progressive rock bands on my phone and, after finding the first decent espresso for three days – I've been told that South America has a thing about Nescafe and it turns out that Madrid, the international hub for direct flights to South America, isn’t well supplied with good coffee either – we came across Phantom Music (Av. Jose Larco 409, Miraflores 18, Peru) which looked a little unpromising at first with a window display comprised of advertising for computer games. Don’t judge a book by the cover; The shop had CDs by Flor de Loto and Frágil and also a CD by Ultimos Incas bearing the legend on its shrink wrap: “El rock progresivo en su más original propuesta peruvana, las raices de una cultura en diálogo soberbio con lo contemporáneo” which roughly translates as “Peruvian progressive rock at its most original, the roots of a culture in superb dialogue with the contemporary.” How could I resist?





I missed out on two of the albums I’d most wanted, Frágil’s first album Avenida Larco (the road on which Phantom was situated) from 1981 and Flor de Loto’s eponymous 2005 debut but, applying the ProgBlog rule that if you saw an album that was on your radar you had to buy it because you might not see it again, I came away with a Frágil compilation, Ultimos Incas' Naturaleza Luminosa (2011); and four CDs by Flor de Loto: Imperio De Cristal (2011); Volver A Nacer (2012); Nuevo Mesias (2014); and the live offering Medusa: En vivo en Buenos Aires (2015).

Frágil, named after the 1971 Yes album, are a highly regarded band that have only managed to release five albums in their career, having undergone numerous personnel changes. The songs on my compilation CD reveal some world-class progressive rock (the earliest material which calls to mind early Genesis) through neo-prog to pop-rock in the style of post-Hackett Genesis. Los Ultimos Incas have been going for over 10 years and play a fusion of traditional Peruvian music and rock, resulting in a prog/world music sound, without keyboards. Some of this is genuine prog-sounding but there are tracks which are slightly less inspiring, more Andean folk and reliant on old influences rather than mixing past and present.

Henri Strik, writing for Netherlands-based Background Magazine has described Flor de Loto as ‘refined progressive rockmixed with elements taken from progmetal and Latin influences’ but they have been described elsewhere as ‘prog-folk.’ Regarded as being the biggest progressive rock act in Peru at the present moment, I find the more recent material leaning towards prog-metal, though they can also handle prog. The ‘folk’ tag comes from the use of flute and their first release displays some Jethro Tull influence.

Of the three bands, I think I prefer Frágil, because their first album is closest to the sort of music that I like and they include more keyboards. Flor de Loto, despite great musicianship, have a tendency to fall back on metal-edged lines that sit a little incongruously with the flute. Los Ultimos Incas come closest to how you’d imagine a Peruvian folk-rock band with their uses of pipes, but there is far more sophistication than your average group of musicians carrying their instruments around from restaurant to restaurant in Aguas Calientes or Puno with their extended versions of El Condor Pasa, and way more authentic than the Andean pipe player in town centres up and down the UK, playing over backing tracks on a Saturday morning...

Peru is an incredible country with amazing scenery. It’s also got an established progressive rock scene to go along with the amazing sites and scenery. Our Quechuan tour guide impressed on us how Peruvians were proud of their mixed gene pool; disparate influences are necessary ingredients for progressive rock.








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