ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

With themes ranging from the occult to murder cases, I'd never heard of 'dark prog' until I got chatting to the staff at Genoa's Black Widow Records.

Another early import from the UK, the Genovese record store and label are named after the original protagonists of the genre and are nuturing many of the important bands from the scene...

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, Sep 12 2017 08:35AM

In an uncertain world, it’s very easy to surround yourself with the familiar, anchored to comforts which, for whatever reason, confer a sense of safety and reassurance. I’d like to think that I look upon on life as something of an adventure, searching for slightly unusual or enriching experiences. One of these was eight years ago, when my wife, son and I took advantage of close family living in New Zealand and embarked upon a two-week long tour of the country spanning the southern hemisphere transition of winter into spring, August to September. On my fiftieth birthday, a couple of days before we were due to return to the UK, Daryl and I jumped from the Auckland Sky Tower (and got the lift back up to do it again.)

This base-jump by wire is completely safe but when you’re weighed beforehand to calculate the forces required for deceleration and your harness is checked by a second individual, your mind does tend to stray towards irrationality: You’re falling from 192m and reach speeds of 85km/h. It’s an incredible thrill and it’s all over in around 10 seconds; on the second go we were encouraged to begin by falling off backwards!


Auckland's Sky Tower
Auckland's Sky Tower

Rationalising and calculating risk, as well as knowing your own physical limits are essential if you’re attempting something which appears dangerous. A long time ago I used to rock climb, nothing spectacular but involving both risk from the activity itself and also from the relative isolation should something untoward happen, this being long before the advent of mobile phones. A walking accident in the winter of 1976, slipping on snow while descending an improvised route from Great Gable in the Lake District as the weather deteriorated to such an extent that it was genuinely unsafe to continue, battered my confidence. I slipped, tumbled and fell about 120m down a scree slop where the pitch was such that there were plenty of rocks sticking up out of the snow cover. It’s remarkable that I didn’t break any bones but I did spend a couple of nights in hospital for observation because I’d lost consciousness at some stage during my ungainly descent. The A&E personnel thought I’d been involved on a motorcycle crash; it was common for local youths to buy motorbikes with their first pay check and almost as common for them to be involved in a serious incident within the following week. I suspect it’s the isolation that concerns me because it didn’t cause me to be afraid of heights; it does make South Side of the Sky resonate it little bit more. I’m just a bit more careful when I approach something potentially hazardous and more critical of the risks and benefits.


South Side of the Sky
South Side of the Sky

Endorphins, named so because they’re natural, morphine-like molecules (endo- means ‘from within’), are produced in the pituitary gland and hypothalamus. Their main function is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals but they also have a positive, euphoric effect; they are released in large quantities during pleasurable moments such as during extreme sports, during sex (especially during orgasm), eating chocolate, and when we listen to good music.

When it comes to prog, I tend to play safe and listen to albums from the ‘golden era’, preferring symphonic prog, keyboard-layered with its roots in classical music and jazz. The modern stuff that I like, possibly best exemplified by the current crop of Italian bands like Il Tempio delle Clessidre, Panther & C., Cellar Noise and Melting Clock, and also ESP from the UK, play music which has a grounding in classic progressive rock of the 70s. Along with jazz rock (last week’s playlist includes Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia (1978) and Deep End (1976) by Isotope on original vinyl), jazz and some classical music, this is basically my comfort zone. I do own some Magma releases, the classics Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh (1973) and Köhntarkösz (1974) on CD plus what I thought might be the most accessible LP Attahk (1978), which I bought first sometime in the early 80s; I still find all three hard going. My older brother Tony also tries to keep me on my toes. Though our tastes overlap to a considerable extent he likes some rather uncompromising modern jazz and bought me Louis Sclavis’ L'imparfait des langues (2007) for my birthday 10 years ago. The music, originally commissioned for a performance in Monaco in 2005 cancelled at short notice due to the death of Prince Rainier III, was a deliberate attempt to challenge Sclavis’ compositional habits, using players from different backgrounds with whom he’d not worked before. The album was recorded in one day.


Magma collection
Magma collection

More recently I’ve been extending the boundaries of what I’ll listen to. I’m not particularly a fan of Hawkwind but I did like some of Robert Calvert’s ideas (I was really disappointed that his stage adaptation of Hype was cancelled within a week of opening – as I stood outside the theatre’s closed doors) and I finally got hold of a copy of Quark Strangeness and Charm (1977) on vinyl, even though it’s outside my normal listening habits. I’ve previously been dismissive of Roger Waters’ solo efforts having seen his The Wall and The Final Cut follow-up The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking in concert and owned a bootleg recording of the LP on C-90 which I wasn’t over-enamoured with. I thought the music descended from the widescreen of mid-period Floyd to narrow-focus, basic rock built around a riff that sounded as though it came direct from The Wall. However, I bought a copy of Is this the life we really want? because of the sentiment, knowing that Waters is a master of concepts and believes in superlative production values, left in the extremely capable hands of Nigel Godrich on this latest release. I also procured the quirky folk-prog-world music re-release of Syd Arthur’s On An On (2012) which is beautifully written and played, but not what might have been expected of me!



Having recently become semi-retired again seems to have loosened some of my listening inhibitions and whereas I’d look at an album in my youth, without hearing it in its entirety and rating it highly, I’d never own it. I’m now more open to recommendation and even experimentation, buying albums which I probably should have owned many years ago without listening to them beforehand. Sometimes I’m disappointed. So what? Yet there’s still one genre that I’ve not fully embraced, prog metal, though I’m coming round to see the blurring of distinction between the prog and the metal, even accepting an invitation to review the latest release by Texan heavy prog/prog metal outfit Process of Illumination (see my album review of Radiant Memory here.) I was lent a copy of Opeth’s Heritage (2011) by friend and Steven Wilson fan Neil Jellis because it forms part of what Wilson, who engineered the album, described as a trilogy, the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album Grace for Drowning (2011). Heritage contains some decent music, the first full departure from the band’s metal roots and fortunately dispenses with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of the frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion I associate with metal. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano exercise and The Devil’s Orchard, like much of the rest of the album references the sounds of 70s prog – the organ work is quite rewarding, there’s plenty of electric piano and there are some tricky guitar riffs. The introduction to I feel the Dark could almost be Jethro Tull then roughly half way through the track it switches with the introduction of slow, crunchy power chords which in turn give way to some Mellotron. It never goes overtly ambient but I think I detect the Steven Wilson influence. Slither is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade. Nepenthe and Häxprocess display the players' sensitivity with good use of electric piano and some adventurous rhythmic patterns. Famine has flute, effects, gentle piano chords (c.f. Heritage) and gives way to fast guitar and Hammond. So what’s not to like? I think it’s an admirable effort with decent pitch, tempo and instrumental variation and you can’t fault the playing or the production; it just doesn’t grab me. Similarly I was recommended some Il Bacio della Medusa and bought the Black Widow records re-release of the eponymous debut (BWR, 2006) and bought a number of CDs by Peruvian prog band Flor de Loto when I was in Lima, only to be disappointed by the heavy edge – it wasn’t what I was expecting from either band. I’ve also got a download of The Gift of Anxiety (2013) by Sylvium and the Sky Architect CD A Dying Man’s Hymn (2011) neither of which are awful, start to finish metal by any stretch of the imagination but equally, neither is particularly inspiring.


Perhaps the greatest insult of all to my former listening habits was my recent acquisition of Kansas' Point of Know Return (1977) which I'm almost reluctant to admit I quite like. It's hardly up there with the greats but it's a decent effort, bought second-hand on spec. My comfort zone may be expanding but the more metal you get with your prog metal, the more reluctant I am to push those boundaries further. I’ll stick to the proto-prog metal of Red, thank you.


Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas
Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas






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