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Nick Mason has just received a CBE, is touring with Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, and is currently hosting a BBC World Service radio series called A History of Music and Technology

 

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By ProgBlog, Feb 25 2019 09:36PM

My first visit to Amsterdam was as a 20 year old, the first stop on a month-long journey around western Europe by train with university friend Nick Hodgetts, where we attempted to find examples of the cactus Lophophora williamsii on the barges tied up along the canals – archetypal botany student behaviour or an unconscious nod towards Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) from the Focus debut album In and Out of Focus – botanical gardens frequently featured in our itinerary as though we were in some sort of competition to tick off the most jardin botanique in a short time. Perhaps the most striking memory is being caught up in a housing riot, a tale related to a family friend on my second visit to the city earlier this month. What Nick and I witnessed was a flare-up of the Vondelstraat Riots which began on 29th February 1980 and lasted for four days, prompted by the eviction of large numbers of squatters from a building on the corner of Vondelstraat and Eerste Constantijn Huygensstraat. A second episode of violent street protest coincided with the coronation of Queen Beatrix on 30 April and other, smaller outbreaks occurred in August, September and December and into 1981 and 1982. What we saw, quite close up, was a running battle between riot police and youths wearing crash helmets for both disguise and protection from tear gas armed with baseball bats; the police had a strategic advantage as they manoeuvred their barge-mounted water cannon along the canals, so Nick and I retired to an area of safety.


Amsterdam, August 1980
Amsterdam, August 1980

The 24 hours spent in the city in 1980 was perhaps not as much of an eye-opener as you might imagine, even though the basic hotel where we stayed (the Schreierstoren Hotel, named after the 15th century tower which formed part of the medieval city walls, but apparently no longer present at least under that name) was in the middle of the red light district; the area in front of Amsterdam Centraal involved numerous approaches from individuals enquiring if we’d like to buy drugs but my first day in central London as a fresher a couple of years before was no different and, unlike the seedier Soho, Amsterdam’s Walletjes didn’t really have a threatening atmosphere, possibly because it was bright and sunny, appearing more open-to-all touristy.


The opportunity to return, long overdue after an almost 39 year absence, came about as a consequence of FOMO. My wife had visited the city with friends just before Christmas and based on her description of the architecture and various cultural attractions, together with my belief that there was a rich seam of Dutch progressive rock to be found in Amsterdam’s legendary vinyl record shop scene, I signed up for a two-night exploratory weekday visit, with Susan entrusted to act as some form of guide.

Amsterdam isn’t a big city so we didn’t need to be based in a particular location. We chose the museum quarter where there was a suitably comfortable NH hotel in easy reach of Centraal station by a number 24 tram, and because I’d expressed a desire to visit the Rijksmuseum, specifically for its King Crimson connection. Travelling by Eurostar meant there would be no restriction on baggage allowance so I did some forward planning, cross-referencing reviews of prog bands from the Netherlands, compiled a wish list, and packed two canvas bags for vinyl purchases.



Though we had an early start (the 08.16 from St Pancras International, a direct service to Amsterdam) we encountered a problem somewhere between Belgium and Holland and had to be diverted onto a local service route, reaching Amsterdam Centraal 83 minutes late and desperate for a coffee. Despite the delay, we met up with the family friend at a bar near the Opera House at the scheduled rendezvous time and had a pretty awful coffee. Fortunately, our hotel bordered the Pijp district, a bohemian area characterised by Middle Eastern eateries, artisanal craft shops, old school pubs and cafés where, after checking in to the NH and dropping off our luggage, we came across the exceptionally good Locals Coffee on our way to the first of the record shop stops.

Situated on a corner plot, Locals Coffee has a double aspect through large windows, making it bright and airy. The interior was clean and unfussy with contemporary decor; the counter, channelling Rem Koolhaas’ Fondazione Prada in Milano, is a thing of beauty! Even before stepping inside I was attracted by the sign in the door 'baristas wanted', suggesting that they were serious about coffee. It's really not easy to find a decent espresso-based coffee in mainland Europe outside of Italy but the friendly and helpful staff were all trained to a high standard and produced consistent high quality espressos and cappuccinos. They use Italian roasted beans (Buscaglione of Rome), and their model of espresso machine was the one I was trained on. We made it our local coffee shop, stopping in a couple of times each day, taking time to sample the cakes (excellent) and the pancakes (ditto!)



The local record store, Record Mania (Ferdinand Bolstraat 30) turned out to be another great find where, over two visits I ticked off the top two albums on my hit-list, Glory of the Inner Force (1975) and Beyond Expression (1976) by Finch along with more from my list: Marks (Alquin, 1972); At the Rainbow (Focus, 1973); Royal Bed Bouncer (Kayak, 1975); To the Highest Bidder (Supersister, 1971); plus a couple not on my list which I couldn’t resist, Introspection 2 by Thijs van Leer (1975) because it was in perfect condition, in the €2 bin, and In a Glass House by Gentle Giant (1973), which I’ve wanted on vinyl for some time. This really is a must-visit for anyone into music; well-stocked, friendly and helpful.

There wasn’t much time to seek out other stores before closing time but I did manage to rootle through the bins in Record Palace (Weteringschans 33A) as the owner was bringing in his stock from the pavement for the night. Opened in 1988 and considered to be the vinyl shop of Amsterdam, the Netherlands rock section was quite small but there was a section dedicated to progressivo Italiano which contained a few albums I was tempted by. Feeling a little under pressure as the clock edged towards 6pm, I came out empty-handed, the Supersister compilation being in too poor condition to warrant purchase.


Record Mania, Amsterdam
Record Mania, Amsterdam

As with all our family city breaks, the trip had to include activities for everyone so the next morning, following a hotel buffet breakfast and a coffee at Locals, we made our way towards Anne Frank House starting from the south-westerly edge of the Museumplein with another King Crimson reference, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, past the modern art Stedelijk museum and the Van Gogh museum (saved for another trip), past the Rijksmuseum (saved for later), and past the not-yet-open Second Life Music (Prinsengracht 366). Tickets for Anne Frank House are timed and are only obtained online, though this wasn’t clear from our 2019 guidebook or leaflets from the I Amsterdam tourist information; we had (incorrectly) assumed that getting tickets on the door for a pre-lunchtime visit on a Tuesday in early February was going to be simple and straightforward, so our plan for the day was adapted according to circumstance. Watery sunlight had begun to break through the cloud so we took the opportunity to be real tourists, crossing the IJ by ferry and ascending the A’DAM tower to the Lookout and the Over the Edge swing. This formed one of the a modern architecture sessions of the visit – the former Toren Overhoeks was a modernist icon designed by Arthur Staal (completed in 1971) and the regeneration of the Overhoeks district now includes the angular EYE Film Institute (Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, 2012), a building that rather fittingly appears to be in motion.



We were attempting to take in as much of the city as possible by foot, and as I didn’t have any recollection of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest building, founded in the early 13th century, I considered it a must-see. It’s located in the red light district which, thanks to the efforts of the city council who direct visitors to museums and bars and other attractions, appeared quite sanitised. With time getting on and the Begijnhof, the next stop on the agenda beckoning, I skipped Redlight Records (Oudekerksplein 26) but found Records and Books (Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 371), a shop that had been on my list, closed. To compensate I was allowed to visit Waxwell Records (Gasthuismolensteeg 8) which I’d also singled out as a potential cornucopia for prog, and it was. I came out with another Dutch classic Mountain Queen (Alquin, 1973) and added to my UK-centric vinyl collection with Free Hand (Gentle Giant, 1975); Out in the Sun (Patrick Moraz, 1977); Sorcerer OST (Tangerine Dream, 1977); and World Record (Van der Graaf Generator, 1976). I’d recommend it for its range of stock and the helpfulness of the staff.



I made a lightning visit to the Rijksmuseum on Wednesday morning, arriving not long after opening and beating the crowds. The building, originally designed by Pierre Cuypers in the late 19th century underwent modern but sympathetic redevelopment by Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz alongside French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and restoration architect Van Hoogevest, between 2003 and 2013. With an ‘All the Rembrandts’ exhibition opening two days later, the museum was in the final stages of preparation but the painting I’d gone to see, Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642), was accessible. It's rightly a world-famous canvas but most importantly from a prog point of view, a track from King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black, originally recorded in the Concertgebouw but largely over-dubbed because of a malfunction with David Cross’ Mellotron during the live performance.



Day three was also a modern architecture day, specifically featuring Renzo Piano’s NEMO Science Museum (opened 1997) which provided panoramas of the city from its rooftop. The return to the hotel to pick up our luggage was planned to include some gift shopping and, on the same canal-side street, Second Life Music. This was too cluttered for my liking and though there was a section for Netherlands rock, most categories were randomly scattered and, due to the piles of records, sometimes inaccessible. It would be nice to recommend the shop but the two members of staff behind the counter were both deep in conversation with a customer or friend so that it was difficult to speak to them or get served. I took a punt on Ton Scherpenzeel’s Le Carnaval des Animaux (1978), in perfect condition, for €7.


And so our rather successful Amsterdam trip ended. While in Waxwell discussing the remarkable number of record shops in the city, I was informed that the population of Amsterdam is a little over 820000 people, with numbers swelled by tourists (6.7 million foreign hotel-booked tourists in 2017) and that there might be some people who would say there were too many record shops... Not me. I’ve still got the early Kayak albums to look out for and, if it ever resurfaces, Present from Nancy by Supersister. I’ll be back.







By ProgBlog, Jul 23 2017 12:25PM

The port in Genoa, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, is over 1000 years old but has been reinvented during the last 20, thanks in large part to local starchitect Renzo Piano. The facilities, a mixture of new build and renovated historic buildings include an aquarium, harbour offices, a viewing platform known as the Bigo and a 20m diameter crystal sphere, the Bolla (‘Bubble’) on a floating platform containing the largest collection of ferns in the world. The matrix of steel poles which support the Bigo, inspired by the cranes on the old wharfs, also support the membrane above a performance space, the Piazza delle Feste which is where the Porto Antico Prog Fest is held.


Piazza delle Feste from the Bigo (Daryl Page)
Piazza delle Feste from the Bigo (Daryl Page)

It may be entirely by accident but the reinvention of the old port has parallels with progressive rock. In the early 70s before the redevelopment of the harbour area, Genoa was home to some of the well-known names in progressivo Italiano: I New Trolls; Delirium; Gleemen; Garybaldi; Latte e Miele; Osage Tribe; Nuova Idea, and the recent resurgence in the genre has some very strong Genovese connections, from the Fabio Zuffanti projects including Maschera di Cera, Finisterre and Höstsonaten to other now well-established acts like Ancient Veil, Il Tempio delle Clessidre and La Coscienza di Zeno.

The second Porto Antico Prog Fest, organised by local record label and record shop Black Widow, was held over the weekend of 15th – 17th July, with live performances on the Friday and Saturday and, alongside famous artists, featured some of the emerging or less well-known but nevertheless incredible local talent, including Melting Clock on Friday and Panther & C. on Saturday.


Melting Clock was something of a revelation. Fronted by amazing vocalist Emanuela Vedana, the group who also comprise Sandro Amadei on keyboards, Stefano Amadei on guitar, Alessandro Bosca on bass, Simone Caffè on guitar and Francesco Fiorito on drums, have not yet released a record but they performed some wonderful, highly accomplished symphonic progressivo Italiano with a nice full, well-balanced sound. The stand-out track for me was a piece called Antares with Mellotron strings and harmony vocals and plenty of musical drama, although the entire set was thoroughly enjoyable. They may have concluded with an excellent rendition of Firth of Fifth but their music doesn’t seem to be directly influenced by the UK prog scene, it’s seeped in the expressive, lyrical style of RPI. It’s well worth checking out their music at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCu4J-y-P_JnFFXtHiu2kPfw


Melting Clock
Melting Clock

Mad Fellaz hail from Bassano del Grappa in the Veneto and though they say they were influenced by classic UK and Italian prog bands along with more recent exponents of the genre, the octet (Luca Brighi, vocals; Enrico Brunelli, keyboards; Marco Busatto, drums; Paolo Busatto, guitar; Ruggero Burigo, guitar; Carlo Passuello, bass; Lorenzo Todesco, percussion; and Rudy Zilio, flute, clarinet, keyboards) played complex tunes which came across as a blend of Zappa and Canterbury. It certainly wasn’t music that you could fall asleep to, with unpredictable twists and turns somehow all fitting together brilliantly. I was reminded of some of the bands I’d seen at Prog Résiste in Soignies in 2014 which seemed to specialise in RIO acts – uncompromising, challenging and really enjoyable.


Il Cerchio d’Oro were around in the 70s but never managed to release an album of original material until reforming in the 00s. I was looking forward to this appearance because I’d read some good things about Il Viaggio di Colombo (2008) and Dedalo e Icaro (2013) and there is another album in the pipeline. For this version of the band, the original members Gino (drums) and Giuseppe Terribile (bass) and Franco Piccolini (keyboards) were augmented by Massimo Cesare (guitar), Piuccio Pradal (acoustic guitar, vocals) and Simone Piccolini (keyboards), with guest vocalist Pino Ballarini (ex-Il Rovescio della Medaglia) and guest drummer Paolo Siani (ex-Nuova Idea.) The compositions were well structured but I felt there was less complexity than there might have been – some of the singles they released in the 70s weren’t actually prog. It was still an enjoyable performance and the appearance of the two guest musicians was warmly appreciated by the crowd.



One of the main reasons for attending was seeing Delirium on the bill, another local band who formed in 1970 and whose debut Dolce Acqua (1971) and third album Delirium III – Viaggio Negli Arcipelaghi del Tempo (1974) are considered classics of the genre; the first album is largely acoustic with an Italian folk influence and features Ivano Fossati on flute and vocals and the set at the Prog Fest contained a number of songs from this release; Delirium III is highly regarded and full-on symphonic prog though despite the absence of Fossati, who left to pursue a solo career before the second, less successful record to be replaced by Englishman Martin Grice on flute and sax, there are obvious sonic comparisons between III and Dolce Acqua, especially on opening track Il Dono. Grice has performed with Fabio Zuffanti in the Z Band and I’ve seen him at a number of gigs in the city. The present line-up, reconvened in 2015 after a hiatus of six years for the album L’Era della Menzogna features Grice, Fabio Chigini on bass, Alessandro Corvaglia on vocals (another Zuffanti connection, La Maschera di Cera), Michele Cusato on guitar, Alfredo Vandresi on drums and original member Ettore Vigo on keyboards. A very enjoyable set.


Delirium IPG
Delirium IPG

It’s pertinent that he headline act on Friday, Gens de la Lune, followed Delirium on stage because they feature Francis Décamps, formerly of French prog superstars Ange, and Ange’s crowning glory was Au-Delà Du Délire (Beyond Delirium, 1974.) I started collecting Ange CDs whilst on holiday in August 2004 from what is now Bazoom BD Musique in Auray and, not knowing which best represented their output, decided that Le Cimetière Des Arlequins was most suitable based on its year of release (1973.) I was really pleased that I detected Aujourd'Hui C'Est La Fête Chez L'Apprenti Sorcier during the Ange medley because despite the stop-start expressionist nature of the music and the theatrical delivery of Décamps (in grease paint and long leather coat, performing some serious tongue flicking) and vocalist Jean Philippe Suzan who wore a Venetian plague mask and bowler hat during one song, there wasn’t too much of Ange in evidence. Though touching on prog metal at times where the ensemble got very heavy, the music was pretty varied with more gentle moments such as guitarist Damien Chopard performing an acoustic guitar solo, and the use of a theremin and a Haken Continuum Fingerboard by Décamps. One of the highlights was an unusual percussion duet with Suzan and drummer Cédric Mells. Bassist Mathieu Desbarats was really solid throughout. They were a very good way to end the first day, finishing their set at nearly half past midnight.


The second day began with Panther & C. performing a very accomplished set of melodic symphonic prog. Their latest album Il Giusto Equilibrio was reviewed on ProgBlog earlier this month http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/Panther-C./11189638 and as I’d only streamed that album and listened to their debut release L’Epoca di un Altro on YouTube, I thought I ought to do the decent thing and buy both CDs from the Black Widow stand.



Mr Punch
Mr Punch

I didn’t get to see the full Mr Punch performance and saw none of The Mugshots because I’d booked a table at a local restaurant, Le Rune. What I did see of Mr Punch, a Marillion tribute act, was pretty good as they played through Misplaced Childhood. Featuring Alessandro Corvaglia for the second time that weekend, delivering a fairly convincing Fish vocal and barefoot, just for the shooting stars, he was joined on stage by another link to Fabio Zuffanti, Luca Scherani (who plays keyboards with La Coscienza di Zeno and Höstsonaten), plus Marcella Arganese (guitar), Roberto Leoni (drums) and Guglielmo Mariotti Pirovano (bass.) I returned after dinner to see the Arabs in Aspic set and was impressed by their brand of prog which tended towards the heavy end of the spectrum but which contained sufficient melody, variation and surprises to suit someone more accustomed to symphonic prog. The Norwegian quartet sang and communicated to the crowd in excellent English, reminding us that we were united by progressive rock and when they’d finished, I was a little bemused that they weren’t helped by a group of roadies to clear their equipment. In fact, guitarist Jostein Smeby stood in the shadows stage left and began to tune one of his instruments because along with the rest of the band (Erik Paulsen, bass; Eskil Nyhus, drums; Stig Arve Jorgenson, keyboards) he was part of the backing group for Saturday headliner and space-rock legend Nik Turner.

I have to admit I didn’t stay for the whole of Turner’s performance but I did watch them tick off old Hawkwind favourites Motorhead, Silver Machine and Master of the Universe. My Hawkwind collection is limited to Space Ritual, Silver Machine and Quark Strangeness and Charm (the latter bought from Black Widow Records earlier this year) and though I’d never call them prog, there are moments when it’s appropriate to turn up the amplifier and blast out some driving riff tracks like Brainstorm and Orgone Accumulator or the electronics and spoken-word Sonic Attack. I think Quark Strangeness and Charm is a much more coherent effort than preceding albums but I do feel Nik Turner’s contribution to the early material (he left the band after Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music in 1976) is a key part of the attraction of their music and it was a real pleasure to see him on-stage, backed by a group of exceptional musicians.


The success of the festival was due to a combination of factors but the organisational nous of Massimo Gasperini and the Black Widow team and the international network of gifted musicians associated with the Black Widow roster were vitally important. It helped too, that the weather was amazing and the Piazza delle Feste provides a really good performance space. My one minor gripe was an over-zealous security guard but that was swiftly resolved by the organising team.

From the old bands to the new, Genoa is the centre of progressivo Italiano; I can’t wait to go back.









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