ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

I had previously thought that the 80s was a bleak time for prog, but a conversation in my local retro-homeware, fashion and vinyl shop made me think again. I didn't embrace neo-prog at the time, though I did dabble. A reappraisal of the importance of that music, starting about 10 years ago, together with the discovery of a range of Italian neo-prog bands, has made me change my mind. About time, too...

By ProgBlog, Apr 2 2018 05:14PM

Mythical beast in deepest Surrey – Gryphon at the Claygate Festival, 15 March 2018



Having originally bought Gryphon’s Raindance in 1979, four years after its release, it wasn’t until the CD age that I next added to my medieval-prog collection with the compilation CD The Collection (1991). Their appearance on all four of the BBC Radio channels in the same week following the release of their debut, Gryphon (1973), is oft-quoted, as are the sensationalist Melody Maker headlines from August 1973 about the ‘13th Century Slade’, written by Gryphon champion Chris Welch. I first became interested in the band when they toured with Yes in 1975 and my brother returned from their April performance in Liverpool with the concert programme which included a concise history of the group up to that time (up to Red Queen to Gryphon Three, 1974). I subsequently added a combined CD release of Gryphon plus Midnight Mushrumps (1974), and Red Queen to Gryphon Three and Treason (1977) were birthday and Christmas presents; I began to buy the original albums on second-hand vinyl last year.


Much was made of the idea that Gryphon music was, like the mythical beast itself, hybrid in form, taking in folk, medieval and Renaissance music and by the time of Midnight Mushrumps, acquiring an increasingly progressive rock sensibility; the rationale behind Welch’s Slade comparison was that like Slade, they were simply playing dance music, only dance music that was popular in medieval times and it was undeniable that the ensemble caught the nations collective imagination, offering something to everyone: the infectious jigs for anyone who liked to dance; the early instruments and Royal College of Music credentials for classical music buffs; the interpretation of traditional English songs for folk-lovers; and the way the amplified virtuoso sound struck a chord with prog rock aficionados. Their 70’s high points were appearing with Yes at Madison Square Garden and the Houston Astrodome, and being asked to provide the music for Sir Peter Hall’s National Theatre production of The Tempest at the Old Vic but their brief period in the limelight ended in 1977 after Treason, an album without original guitarist Graeme Taylor and which most corresponds to progressive rock at a time when prog itself was falling out of favour with the general public. I find Treason a little disappointing, possibly because it’s more song-oriented even though the playing remains as good as ever. Following that album, founder, keyboard and recorder player Richard Harvey pursued a career in film and TV soundtracks and Gryphon, for the time, ceased to be. They got back together in 2009 for what was planned as a one-off concert, then returned to sporadic action in 2014, most notably appearing at Cropredy in 2016 and Islington’s Union Chapel later that year, plus a couple of gigs in 2017, though Harvey left the band to concentrate on his other commitments prior to Cropredy.



The current line-up, which I managed to get to see at the Holy Trinity Church in Claygate, making an appearance as part of an ambitious annual festival for a small Surrey village, consists of co-founder Brian Gulland (bassoon, crumhorn), and original members Graeme Taylor (guitar) and Dave Oberlé (percussion, vocals) plus Graham Preskett (keyboards, mandolin, fiddle), Andy Findon (woodwind) and Rory McFarlane (bass guitar.) The set list comprised of favourites from the 70s, possibly biased more towards their eponymous debut plus a couple of tunes (one of which was Rhubarb Crumhorn) very much in the expected fashion, from a new album due out later this year. Their humour, exemplified by the song titles and between song banter easily endears them to a crowd; the encore of Le Cambrioleur est dans le Mouchoir (from Raindance) coupled with Gershwin’s Promenade and Tiger Rag by Original Dixieland Jazz Band was dedicated to Stephen Hawking and Jim Bowen plus, at the suggestion of a member of the audience, Ken Dodd. I was a bit disappointed with the size of the audience: the venue, an unusual Victorian neo-gothic church with twin spires and beautiful beams and nice acoustics, suited the band perfectly but for all the good work of the Claygate Festival organisers, this rather small Surrey village is not best equipped to attract large crowds however highly their acts are regarded, doubly so on a weekday night.



My favourite piece was probably The Unquiet Grave, an English folk song thought to date from the early 15th Century, collected by Francis James Child in 1868 and most famously arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912. (Obsessive fact: Vaughan Williams spent his childhood at Leith Hill Place, about 20 miles from Claygate). The song has a befittingly haunting melody that makes the hairs on your arms stand up but the Gryphon arrangement has an equally haunting middle section, what I like to think of as the experimental proggy bit, in the same vein as the improvised The Illusion section from King Crimson’s Moonchild. The Astrologer (featuring Gulland’s special hat) provided another example of how well Gryphon handle folk music but the more complex and long-form pieces such as the extract from Midnight Mushrumps and selections from Red Queen to Gryphon Three are brilliant, carefully crafted and superbly executed tracks equal to the best in the prog genre.



This incarnation of the band, a bunch of supremely talented multi-instrumentalists with a keen ear for a good melody and a knack of putting together stunning arrangements (Oberlé’s singing isn’t too bad, either) continue to mix cutting-edge with tradition: the use of iPads in place of sheet music!

I’m going to grab a copy of the new album as soon as it becomes available and go to see them again ASAP. I’d strongly recommend anyone to do the same.










By ProgBlog, Mar 7 2016 12:28AM

It would have been impossible not to be influenced in some way by the magnificent remains of Furness Abbey, a 15 minute walk from my childhood home. So, during my teenage years, I often visited the ruins of what was once the second richest Cistercian monastery in the country. Originally under the care of the Ministry of Works, Barrow rate payers could apply for a small yellow card from a back office in the town hall that granted them free access, I’d go with friends from the Infield Park Gang or on my own, finding peace and quiet within the weathered sandstone walls. I’d go in any weather, any time of year, even any time of day, sometimes climbing over the iron railings and wandering around the stairwells and hidden corners late at night, spurred on by the incredible atmosphere of the towering remains in moonlight or starlight, having to lie low when car headlamps scythed through the fog that would fill the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade in autumn and winter, casting dancing shadows as the lights shone through tree branches overhanging the road.


Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey

The site is incredibly picturesque and ought to be a must for anyone visiting the Lake District, a 30 minute drive from the southern lakes. I’ve taken rolls of film and hundreds of digital photos and snatches of video and, since Daryl studied architecture as an undergraduate, I’ve begun to look at detail as well as the big picture and it’s remarkable that some of the fine carving has survived through centuries of battering by rain driven on prevailing south westerly winds.


The Furness peninsula has limited access which even today instils a sense of solitude, so it’s easy to understand why the Savigniac monks who founded the abbey in 1127 chose this location, Bekanesgill in old Norse, with its abundance of building material, an excellent water supply and the seclusion, even though they had to abandon the usual east- west orientation of the church due to the geography of the valley, so that it lies almost north east to south west. The abbey became prosperous, owning territory that included most of the Furness peninsula, with its forests to the north and rich agricultural lands to the south but the Reformation signalled its demise; in 1535, as a prelude to its dissolution, the abbey was valued at £805 0s 5d. On the 9th April 1537, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and its possessions to the King.
The Furness peninsula has limited access which even today instils a sense of solitude, so it’s easy to understand why the Savigniac monks who founded the abbey in 1127 chose this location, Bekanesgill in old Norse, with its abundance of building material, an excellent water supply and the seclusion, even though they had to abandon the usual east- west orientation of the church due to the geography of the valley, so that it lies almost north east to south west. The abbey became prosperous, owning territory that included most of the Furness peninsula, with its forests to the north and rich agricultural lands to the south but the Reformation signalled its demise; in 1535, as a prelude to its dissolution, the abbey was valued at £805 0s 5d. On the 9th April 1537, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and its possessions to the King.

The ruins gave me an appreciation for place and time and once I’d discovered the abbey it became impossible not to scour the area for other historical sites within the district: Bow Bridge, close to the abbey; Dalton Castle, a 14th Century tower erected to assert the authority of the Abbot of Furness; Piel Castle, another 14th Century construction, situated on Piel Island off the southern tip of the Furness peninsula to regulate trade and to protect the riches of the abbey from border raiders operating in the disputed territory between Scotland and England; and the ruined 14th Century Gleaston Castle with its four towers and remnants of curtain walls, constructed from local limestone. The physical landscape and human landscape are equally important and equally inspiring, especially when you can see evidence of older cultures and civilisations: Anglo Saxons in Urswick (the Tunwinni Cross); the Romans at Ravenglass on the north of the Duddon Estuary; and Bronze Age (the stone circle at Birkrigg.) Then there’s the more recent industrial heritage associated with the extraction of iron ore for the steel and shipbuilding industries.


I’m not sure that the abbey played any part in my appreciation of medieval music and the medieval prog sub-genre but, in common with many exponents of prog, I did like music primarily associated with the church and was even selected for the school choir, a post that I declined. I’m interested in both forms of early music: sacred (monophonic chants) and secular music, incorporating variations on lutes, zithers and early wind and reed instruments, and combinations of the two forms. My first exposure to medieval music in a rock context would have been Focus and Gentle Giant. Elspeth of Nottingham from Focus 3 (1972) is a melodic exercise on lute, apparently inspired by a recital by Julian Bream when Akkerman was on holiday in the Cotswolds in 1967; the birdsong and animal sounds that enhance the bucolic feel were suggested by producer Mike Vernon. Hamburger Concerto (1974) contains the concise opener Delitae Musicae, another Akkerman lute outing that I think brilliantly sets the mood of the whole album and van Leer’s expanded keyboard rig is fully utilised to provide a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock that owes a debt to church music. Not only is the title track based on Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Haydn but there are other references to sacred music in La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and Birth.
I’m not sure that the abbey played any part in my appreciation of medieval music and the medieval prog sub-genre but, in common with many exponents of prog, I did like music primarily associated with the church and was even selected for the school choir, a post that I declined. I’m interested in both forms of early music: sacred (monophonic chants) and secular music, incorporating variations on lutes, zithers and early wind and reed instruments, and combinations of the two forms. My first exposure to medieval music in a rock context would have been Focus and Gentle Giant. Elspeth of Nottingham from Focus 3 (1972) is a melodic exercise on lute, apparently inspired by a recital by Julian Bream when Akkerman was on holiday in the Cotswolds in 1967; the birdsong and animal sounds that enhance the bucolic feel were suggested by producer Mike Vernon. Hamburger Concerto (1974) contains the concise opener Delitae Musicae, another Akkerman lute outing that I think brilliantly sets the mood of the whole album and van Leer’s expanded keyboard rig is fully utilised to provide a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock that owes a debt to church music. Not only is the title track based on Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Haydn but there are other references to sacred music in La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and Birth.

In a Glass House (1973) was Gentle Giant’s fifth album but it was the first I heard. Their instrumentation extended beyond the conventional and their use of tuned percussion and recorders, together with a penchant for complex interwoven lines made them stand out from other prog bands, lending a distinct medieval flavour. Their relative lack of financial success was down to unbending musical principles, originally declared in the sleeve notes for Acquiring the Taste (1971):

“It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought - that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste”

As a result in the US, their label Columbia Records would not release Glass House because it was deemed to be uncommercial. Though Glass House has plenty of examples of early music, this form had already been pretty much ever present on their records, from portions of Giant and Why Not (on Gentle Giant, 1970); Pantagruel’s Nativity (Acquiring the Taste) and The Advent of Panurge (Octopus, 1972), both of which were inspired by 16th century French writer François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel pentology in keeping with the ‘giant’ theme; and Raconteur Troubadour (also from Octopus.) Later songs would also incorporate this style though overall, from The Power and the Glory (1974) onwards, the band produced more muscular and generally more accessible material.

Perhaps the most well known of the medieval prog bands is Gryphon. One of the ridiculous criticisms of the genre is a perception that medieval-themed stories pervade prog. I suspect that this misconception is an ill-disguised attack on Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975.) Gryphon were unique, utilising genuine medieval instrumentation and performing period pieces but incorporating rock elements; a musical hybrid that may have inspired the band’s name, a mythical half lion, half eagle creature. Their appeal extended from classical music listeners on BBC Radio Three, possibly because of respect for the academic background of band members Richard Harvey and Brian Gulland, graduates from the Royal College of Music, to rock audiences. Tony saw Gryphon when they were the support act for Yes on the Relayer tour (1974-1975) and they had a small section devoted to them in the tour programme. I can’t remember when I first heard them but they were still largely concerned with performing early music. The first album I bought was Raindance (1975), the high point of which is the lengthy (Ein Klein) Heldenleben, a similar piece to the title track on Midnight Mushrumps (1974.) Though I really like these long-form compositions there’s an occasional feeling that there’s insufficient development of musical ideas. This is most acute on Red Queen to Gryphon Three (1974) where I’m left slightly dissatisfied. On the other hand, the immediacy of the up-tempo jigs shows off their dexterity and also brings a satisfactory resolution; I also have a soft spot for the traditional tunes The Astrologer, Unquiet Grave and Ploughboy’s Dream which are given a prog makeover. The experience with Yes obviously influenced the band and by Treason (1977) they’d turned into a rock band who happened to use some medieval instruments. When I listened to Treason recently I was disappointed with the song format; there’s too much singing and the original identity of the ensemble had been lost. The medieval revival was over.








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.



fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time