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A frantic fortnight of  gigs for ProgBlog began on March 9th at Genova's Angelo Azzurro Club, a much loved venue under threat of closure. Marina Montobbio's series of Lady Prog Nights was on its third event featuring local symphonic prog bands Melting Clock and Panther & C...

By ProgBlog, Feb 20 2018 03:57PM

In the last blog I commented on how difficult it was to pigeonhole Portico Quartet who don’t really sit easily on a sliding scale between jazz and anywhere but need something else, another superimposed scale perhaps, to give more of an indication of how you might identify their music. I’ve just had a fairly intensive session listening to L’Ora di Tutti (Time for Everyone) by Italian band Muffx and, as with Portico Quartet, I really like their music but whilst they fall somewhere in the amorphous prog cloud, they also defy a strict classification, taking a dash of psychedelia, a dose of proto-prog, incorporating some heavy blues aspects that featured in a number of the early RPI bands, some blues-inflected keyboard prog like Greenslade, swing, and experimentation.

It came as something of a surprise to me that L’Ora di Tutti is their fifth album, although only three prior to this one have been released: ...Saw The... (2007), Small Obsessions (2009), and Époque (2012); the material making up Nocturno which was recorded after Époque was shelved following the untimely death of producer and friend Pierpaolo Cazzolla. The band was formed in Salento (Puglia) by guitarist Luigi Bruno (leader of the Mediterranean Psychedelic Orkestra and co-founder of the Sagra Del Diavolo, the Devil’s Festival) and garnered favourable press when they toured Italy to promote their debut album; a success repeated when they released their second and third albums; they’ve even toured in the UK and have played with special guests from the prog world, like Richard Sinclair (now resident in Puglia) Aldo Tagliapietra and Claudio Simonetti.

The album reflects the band’s geographical roots, with the title L’Ora di Tutti taken from the 1962 cult novel by Maria Corti about the Ottoman attack on Otranto on the eastern side of the Salento peninsula in August 1480. In the book, the event is narrated by five different characters, fishermen and farmers, so in effect it is five stories told in the first person, offering different perspectives that complement each other chronologically; presenting an alternative narrative of heroism and sacrifice in contrast to the official chronicles. There are subtly different cover graphics for the vinyl and CD releases by Massimo Pasca, who appears to be channelling images of hell like Coppo di Marcovaldo, Pieter Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch, depicting the attack; it’s not a mainstream prog cover but does fit a ‘dark prog’ tag, a category firmly associated with Genoa’s Black Widow Records who co-produced and distributed the disc.

Opening track Un' Alba come Tante (A Dawn like Many Others) begins as far away from the sleeve artwork as you can imagine, with birdsong indicating the bucolic existence associated with the heel of Italy. The introduction of a deliberate flanged bass figure (played by Ilario Suppressa) and electric piano (courtesy of Mauro Tre) is reminiscent of early structured Pink Floyd; there’s a short, heavy fuzzed bass riff which resolves into a triumphant sounding, uplifting motif which is repeated on brassy synth before the riff changes style, becoming firstly more bluesy then jazzy with a swing beat provided by Alberto Ria. A walking bass line overlain with a synth solo has a very 70’s feel, like a subdued Greenslade, before a reprise of the ‘heroic’ riff that could have featured in the 70’s BBC TV series Gangsters (see Greenslade’s Time and Tide, 1975) with wah-wahed electric piano, finally ending with a section reminiscent of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. There are two guest brass players on the track, Gianni Alemanno who plays trumpet and Andrea Doremi on trombone whose contributions fit seamlessly with the piece, adding brightness rather than colour and enhancing the jazzy nature of the composition.

It’s a great start to the record, 11 minutes of predominantly riff-based music and some impressive but unflashy soloing. The constant changes prevent it from becoming boring and the bright riff which features near the start and is reprised later on in the track is a true ear-worm; I set off to work on Friday whistling the refrain and came back home still whistling the phrase! Only a minute shorter, second track Vengono dal Mare (They come from the Sea) quickly moves from the relative tranquility of wave sounds to vaguely disturbing guitar (think of the opening sequence of David Cronenberg’s cinematic adaptation of Crash by JG Ballard, scored by Howard Shore.) There’s a short spoken passage in Turkish by Gorkem Ismail which adds to the atmosphere without relieving the tension, then a short guitar figure before the introduction of a driving riff underneath a repeating keyboard figure and some more wah-wahed keyboard. There’s a slightly sinister edge to this track which reminds me of Goblin, so it comes as no surprise that Claudio Simonetti has played as a guest with the band.

Ottocento (800) features some great Farfisa organ, a keyboard tone not unlike the work of Rick Wright or Bo Hansson but any hint of Pink Floyd is covered with new additions, gull-cry guitar and other-worldly theremin. It’s the most psychedelic of the four tracks and possibly the least musically complex with stomping fuzzed bass and other fairly straightforward bass lines and rhythms, but there is some mesmerising highly reverbed guitar which sketches the outlines of a Middle Eastern scale.

Bernabei, named after an Ottoman soldier who doesn’t actually appear in Corti’s novel, is the shortest of the four tracks but following a deliberate, short, heavy riff that links to the preceding track, a fast Middle Eastern-scale guitar line is reintroduced and there’s some experimental early-Floyd jamming. A picked guitar motif is played over some Turkish text and then the guitar and synthesizer double up to play a fast eastern-sounding riff. The group switches between rock improvisation, jazz sections and the eastern riff, all played presto vivace and the record closes with a reprise of the eastern riff.

Written by Bruno and recorded live in the studio in two 10-hour stints after days of rehearsal, it’s possible to detect a sense of urgency about the music but it’s coherent and well played. I like the fact that the band has chosen a concept that relates to their home region, an examination of personal cultural history and an interpretation of what is regarded as a major literary work. The link to Goblin goes a bit deeper than occasional sections sounding like them; they had the idea of making the album as a soundtrack to an imaginary 70’s film of the novel, choosing instrumentation to match. This obviously adds to the prog sound but also puts Muffx in the Giallo category.

It’s prog, but it’s a mixture of heavy, Italian proto-prog (influenced by Deep Purple and Black Sabbath), psychedelia and jazz. It may be another ‘hard-to-pigeonhole’ album, but it's really good.

Muffx - L'Oro di Tutti (2017) BWRDIST 675

By ProgBlog, May 29 2017 08:47AM

I began listening to Pink Floyd bootlegs, loaned by a school friend, in 1973. It was probably John Bull who also lent me his copy of The Dark Side of the Moon before I went out to buy it, shared with my brother Tony for the princely sum of £1 each, and then I began to probe the Floyd back catalogue starting with the 1971 retrospective Relics and the compilation A Nice Pair. That I loved and was influenced by Dark Side, to the extent that I copied the lyrical motifs when asked to write some poetry for a piece of English Language at school, is undeniable. At the time I wasn’t aware that Dark Side was going to be a massive, record-breaking hit album or that it was the almost perfect realisation of all the Floydian experimentation that had gone before. It may have been one of the closest records to straightforward rock that I owned for many years but it oozed exquisitely tasteful guitar and keyboard work and superlative production values; the between-track segues that render it a nightmare to convert to mp3 bestow a grand concept feel and, last but not least, the package is completed by a simple sleeve design that has become an icon in its own right, enhanced by the posters and stickers that came with the album that graced my walls for many years. The exotic and mysterious pyramids captured my imagination as a 14 year old schoolboy and the prism motif tapped into my love of physics, even appearing as a mandala in the centre of the vinyl, the first time I’d seen a thematic device used in this way.

Record Store Day 2017 release of Interstellar Overdrive
Record Store Day 2017 release of Interstellar Overdrive

But I also liked the Barrett-era Floyd; the psychedelic whimsy tinged with a darker edge and the sonic exploration best exemplified by Interstellar Overdrive. This was unconventional rock territory, setting the Floyd in the vanguard of bands wishing to move away from the formulaic constraints of the three minute single, not simply by extended jamming but incorporating ideas such as musique concrète. Unfortunately, the diametrically opposed wishes of Barrett and record label EMI (and the other band members who at the time wanted more hit singles), resulting in the recruitment of David Gilmour as guitarist while Barrett was expected to continue to write but not perform was a short-lived idea and Barrett was dropped, though their second album A Saucerful of Secrets was something of a hybrid album between the Barrett- and Gilmour eras. The space-rock Floyd, best preserved on the live half of Ummagumma and the film Live in Pompeii, displays an evolution from the track A Saucerful of Secrets through the Atom Heart Mother suite and Echoes (from Meddle) to Dark Side, where their vision was fully realised. I’m rather dismissive of the soundtrack work for More and Obscured by Clouds and I’m not particularly a fan of the short tracks on the second side of Atom Heart Mother or the first side Meddle (apart from One of These Days.) I think Wish You Were Here is an admirable follow-up to Dark Side, but even as early as 1975 I can detect the seeds of the descent from progressive visionaries to mainstream rock that in my opinion, and I may be a solitary voice here, is of lesser artistic merit. The instrument of change was the strummed acoustic guitar and from a solitary track on Wish You Were Here, it took more of a central role on Animals, bookending the three main tracks as Pigs on the Wing parts 1 and 2 but also appearing in Dogs; simplistic acoustic guitar riffs formed an integral part of The Wall, The Final Cut and, inevitably, the first Roger Waters solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.

Ticket stubs, 1980, 1988 and 1994
Ticket stubs, 1980, 1988 and 1994

I was exceptionally pleased with the reformation of the band in 1987 and the Momentary Lapse of Reason album, believing it to be worthy of the Pink Floyd canon. Even if, as some critics argue, it was initially conceived as a David Gilmour solo project and however brief the input from Mason and Wright, the vision was far removed from any other material released under Gilmour’s own name such that the assembled cast, with progressive credentials bolstered by Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick, created a well balanced album that returned the group to the prog fold. I’d seen the Floyd perform The Wall during its first outing at Earls Court in 1980 and though it was an incredible piece of musical theatre, I was never overwhelmed with the music itself. On a hot summer’s day within 24 hours of being exactly eight years later, I saw Pink Floyd on the Delicate Sound of Thunder tour at Wembley Stadium and was totally blown away because both the staging and the set were brilliant. 1994’s The Division Bell crept up on me because at that time I wasn’t closely watching the music press, relying more on a nascent internet but particularly concentrating on all things Crimson. Back as a member of the band, Rick Wright’s input was more evident though apart from Cluster One which harked back to the soundscapes of Wish You Were Here, the instrumental Marooned, the Stephen Hawking-voiced Keep Talking and the epic, grandiose High Hopes, I don’t think it reached the heights of its studio predecessor. However, the Earls Court gig in October that year was another excellent show.

As far as Gilmour and Mason were concerned, the Pink Floyd story didn’t end with the death of Rick Wright in 2008 so The Endless River, largely comprised of sessions recorded with the keyboard player was constructed and released in 2014, an album as eagerly anticipated as Wish You Were Here in 1975. This owed as much to early-Gilmour era Floyd as it did to rehearsals for Lapse and Division Bell, including a portion of Wright playing the Royal Albert Hall organ, some Shine on you Crazy Diamond-like synthesizer noodling and a near reprise of Mason’s solo track from Ummagumma, The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party.

With the 50th anniversary of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn looming and a successful David Bowie exhibition under their belt, the Victoria & Albert museum planned a Pink Floyd exhibition which opened earlier this month. I went along in the first week with long-time friend Jim Knipe and came away very impressed. Towards the end of last year I’d persuaded my family to visit the V&A You Say You Want A Revolution, Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 which featured the Floyd and indicated how well-thought out their special exhibitions were, so I was looking forward to the event. The recent trawl through the archives that allowed the band to put out the 27 disc The Early Years 1965 – 72 box set unearthed some previously unseen footage and unreleased music, some of which was premiered in an hour-long BBC TV documentary Pink Floyd Beginnings 1967 – 1972, must have coincided with the gestation of Their Mortal Remains. A must for any Floyd fan, the exhibition whose title is adapted from a line in Nobody Home (from The Wall): “Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains” follows the Floydian timeline from their student days in London (when they called themselves The Tea Set and Sigma Six) to The Endless River, with each album presented in association with video footage, commentary, personal memorabilia, instruments and effects and props.

Visitors are bathed in an early Pink Floyd light show
Visitors are bathed in an early Pink Floyd light show

The timeline is indicated by socially relevant books, magazines and words set inside red telephone boxes; the red telephone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of Battersea Power Station which is associated with Animals. We tend to think of Pink Floyd as being fairly anonymous; they graced the cover of Piper in 1967, appeared on the cover of Ummagumma in 1969 and again on the inner gatefold of Meddle in 1971, one of my favourite photos of the band, then there wasn’t another picture until David Bailey’s portrait of Gilmour and Mason, looking very much of the zeitgeist, on Lapse in 1987; some might find it strange for a major London museum to put on a special exhibition dedicated to the output of a core of five attention-avoiding musicians but actually, Pink Floyd have now shaken off their relative reserve and are now a cultural touchstone with 50 years of creativity under their belt. There’s even a commemorative set of Royal Mail postage stamps celebrating their albums. This sonic legacy is almost unparalleled so it’s neither unexpected nor unreasonable that their mark on the musical landscape has acquired an establishment-like acceptance and the Johnny Rotten ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ T-shirt simply a curated memento from the 70s.

The Delicate Sound of Thunder room
The Delicate Sound of Thunder room

My youth was spent poring over musical instrument catalogues and instrumentation listings on album sleeves so I was delighted by the array of original equipment on display. If Rick Wright’s Minimoog is for sale after the exhibition closes, I’d be interested in putting in a bid! I’d always associated the Floyd echo effect with the WEM Copycat but the Barratt-era band used the almost industrial Binson Echorec, a number of which were present along with an array of VCS3 synthesizers; there is a neat hands-on exhibit in the Dark Side section where you can pretend to be Alan Parsons and mix your own version of Money. It wasn’t only the hardware that grabbed my attention; early on was a technical drawing by Roger Waters of Cambridge railway station from the time he was an Architecture student (along with Mason and Wright) at Regent Street Poly and though there were a few references to architecture, I thought there may have been more or better-argued links. I think that the structural element to some of their early post-Barrett compositions demonstrate a form of architectural thinking and one of my son’s friends from university submitted his degree project on Pink Floyd stage shows.

The Division Bell room
The Division Bell room

The lack of a tour of The Final Cut may explain the relative paucity of material relating to the album on display though the suddenness of the split in the band may itself be reason enough. The law suits and differences between the two camps was largely ignored, Waters seemingly being abruptly cut out of the exhibition from that point, forgotten in the rooms dedicated to Lapse, Division Bell and Endless River however, the final room was a large space dedicated to a presentation of the 2005 Live 8 reunion footage, a nice touch showing an end to the internecine feuding, though not pronouncing on any warming of relations.

The experience is well organised and presented where the strong bond between the band and Hipgnosis, Storm Thorgerson, Aubrey Powell and Peter Curzon is key to the sucess of the concept. The headsets delivering the audio feed are hands free so that when you walk from exhibit to exhibit or room to room, the equipment automatically picks up either ambient feed (Floyd music) or a piece of commentary. I had feared that there would be queues at some of the installations but it was easy to shuffle around without being held up or waiting too long or having to miss something. The whole of Dark Side was played in one room, featuring a rotating 360o view of a beam of light being diffracted through a prism, making it easy to spend three hours at the show. And I plan to return.

By ProgBlog, Jan 22 2017 11:19PM

Whereas 1976 ended on a relatively high note for progressive rock with what I now regard as the last decent studio offering from Genesis, Wind and Wuthering, it hadn’t really been such a classic year for the progressive rock genre though there were obviously important releases. Looking back through my collection it would appear that the product from mainland Europe shined pretty brightly. 2017 has started with the inauguration of President Trump in the US but 1977 started off where 1976 ended, with a trip to see Genesis at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. It continued with the much-anticipated follow-up to Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd’s Animals. The entire album was premiered pre-official release, on John Peel’s radio show (January 20th, official release January 23rd.) That single exposure was enough for me to discern a qualitative difference between Animals and its predecessor; gone were the lavish keyboard washes and cutting synthesizer lines, replaced by a more traditional rock balance with organ and piano relegated to little more than rhythm work. I still went out and bought it, to discover that Rick Wright wasn’t included in any compositional credits and even Dave Gilmour only got his name on Dogs. It was fairly common knowledge that a decent proportion of the material which made up the LP had been presented to live audiences following the Dark Side tours, with You’ve Got to be Crazy forming the bones of Dogs and Sheep gestating as Raving and Drooling, the latter including far more synthesizer than on the finalised album version. Wish You Were Here is a good example of progressive rock; four years later The Wall is most definitely not prog. Sitting between the two, Animals doesn’t really conform to the requirements of the description either, though it does have its moments and does challenge the prevailing politics of the time, inverting the anti-Stalinist narrative of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and turning it into a rail against capitalism.

Animals - forty years old
Animals - forty years old

From the somewhat lacklustre and very disappointing Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! of the previous year, Jethro Tull reinvented themselves in 1977 with the prog-folk Songs from the Wood. This was not only a coherent, redefining statement (that would last for a trio of albums), it also utilised the playing talents of long-term associate and strings arranger David (now Dee) Palmer on keyboards which had the effect of adding another layer of complexity to the music. I don’t think the music could be compared to folk because it really rocked; the title better reflected the subject matter itself rather than any treatment of it, espousing green issues and contentment through a more rural way of life dressed. Ian Anderson had always utilised the acoustic guitar in a singer-songwriter way but now he had a package that harked back to a bucolic idyll and even, in Hunting Girl, hinted at Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I really like Songs from the Wood, the upfront, punchy bass of John Glascock and in general the instrumentation and arrangements. I suppose if I were to lay any criticism at this record it would be directed at the sometimes twee lyrics but overall, for a song-based album, it compares very favourably with Tull’s prog-concept pieces like Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play and Minstrel in the Gallery.

Songs from the Wood
Songs from the Wood

It would be incorrect of me to dismiss Tull as a second-division act but the first of the major players to return after an extended break from the studio were Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The pretentiously-titled Works Volume 1 may have been a cock-a-snook to punk, the dominant genre of the time, indicating that they didn’t care what anyone else thought about their approach to music. Aesthetically, even the sleeve is deadly serious in monochrome with its small neat font and the concept, one side for each band member plus one side for the ensemble comes across as an indication of artistic control. I’ve always thought Works Volume 1 and the albums just before it invoked a superficial parallel with Yes activity: Yes released Close to the Edge, their defining LP in 1972, this was followed by a triple live set (Yessongs) which in turn was followed by the magnum opus double LP Tales from Topographic Oceans; ELP released Brain Salad Surgery in 1973, the pinnacle of their career up to that date, they then released the triple live album Welcome Back My Friends and their next studio outing was the grand double LP Works Volume 1. If the analogy is pushed further, the Yes hiatus was punctuated by solo albums; ELP’s absence from the studio ended with solo material presented within a group album (though Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas and Emerson’s arrangement of the Meade Lux Lewis tune Honky Tonk Train Blues, released in 1975 and 1976 respectively were both charting singles, eventually ended up on the mixed bag Works Volume 2.) It’s easiest to analyse Works Volume 1 one side at a time. I find Emerson’s Piano Concerto no. 1 rather enjoyable, the piece cementing his reputation as a builder of bridges between the two worlds of classical and rock though which his influences shine. I’m not sure that it’s a great piece of composition but I like it. Lake’s side continues from where Still... You Turn Me On left off in 1973. I value Lake’s contribution to progressive rock as an integral part of the earliest incarnation of King Crimson and as bassist/vocalist for ELP. He may have considered himself a singer songwriter playing acoustic guitar who happened to play some bass but the ‘solo’ features on every ELP album bar the first are relatively poor affairs; nice voice, shame about the content. Having said that, I have a soft spot for C’est La Vie! Carl Palmer’s material works very well when the attention is on the percussion rather than his song writing; I could never work out why Joe Walsh should appear on an ELP album, which brings me to the group tracks. The Copland-penned Fanfare for the Common Man is safely back on ELP territory and the only gripe I have with it is the overrated sound of the Yamaha GX-1 when it would sound so much better using a Hammond. The Yamaha is more suited to the symphonic Pirates which, at a little over 13 minutes fits the prog mould far better, forming a mini-suite. Along with dinosaurs, you can’t go far wrong with pirates!

Works Volume 1
Works Volume 1

Yes also returned from the wilderness with Going for the One, an album which offered a nod to the punk ethos with the high-energy title track, albeit with a liberal dose of Anderson sensibility, with its trippy imagery (“so hard to find in my cosmic mind”) but the other four tracks are straight from the Yes universe. Parallels was left over from Squire’s Fish out of Water and is sonically closest to The Yes Album. With Wakeman back in the fold, the album is far lighter than Relayer and in Awaken, contains one of the best progressive rock songs, ever. There’s a nice balance in the compositions, with Wonderous Stories managing to compress a full prog epic into something less than four minutes to become a surprisingly successful single at a time when punk was riding high, and the understated, reflective Turn of the Century showing off Howe’s considerable talent on acoustic guitar. Yes music is always uplifting but this was somehow positive thinking presented in easy to digest chunks on a platter, beginning with the hope of Parallels, moving through unbounded joy (Going for the One) and reflection (Turn of the Century) to spiritual fulfilment (Awaken.) Wakeman’s return coincided with two solo releases: White Rock and Criminal Record, both very different from predecessors Journey and Myths and Legends, being much closer in style to Six Wives.

Going for the One
Going for the One

There were a number of other important releases through the year, many of which I also picked up at the time or within the next couple of years. Progressive rock fans readily took to Brand X whose 1976 debut Unorthodox Behaviour was followed up by Moroccan Roll. Their sound on the sophomore effort was fleshed out to a surprising extent with the inclusion of percussionist Maurice Pert, ensuring that any potential to stagnate as a straightforward fusion act was neatly avoided.

I’d already started to appreciate PFM and their 1977 release Jet Lag didn’t disappoint. I was catching up on jazz rock bands around this time and Jet Lag was the closest PFM would get to that sub-genre. I wasn’t too disappointed that the Sinfield lyrics had gone and was getting used to Bernado Lanzetti’s vocal style following his debut on Chocolate Kings. Bookended by the beautiful Peninsula and the anthemic Traveler the music and playing is outstanding throughout.

What did come as a shock was the change from Van der Graaf Generator to Van der Graaf. Losing both your organist and horn player might seem careless but Peter Hammill and Guy Evans reinvented the band with the return of Nic Potter on bass and the recruitment of violinist Graham Smith from String Driven Thing. The resulting The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome is no less complex but far more rough and ready than VdGG and more immediate, as though Hammill was once more channelling Rikki Nadir. I didn’t buy the album until a couple of years later but I encouraged my brother to go and see the band when they played Leeds University during what would become the tour that produced Vital. Tony also went to see Camel during their 1977 tour (and tracks played at Leeds would appear on A Live Record also released in 1977) but I had to make do with listening to a friend’s copy of Rain Dances. The arrival of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair cemented the Moonmadness drift towards a more jazzy direction but the collection of shorter songs, though still achingly melodic, was a bit disappointing. I think that of all the albums from 1977 that I listened to at the time, this was the one which I recognised as signalling a shift in the behaviour of the record companies, requiring the band to put out Highways of the Sun as a single. Evidence of the affect of punk on prog bands is best illustrated by the difference between Playing the Fool and The Missing Piece, both 1977 releases by Gentle Giant. The former, a brilliant introduction to the band in the guise of career-spanning compositions performed live which I bought on cassette is pure prog; the latter, not added to my collection until many years later for good reason, was like nothing the band had released before and is very disappointing.

More from 1977
More from 1977

Other notable records from 1977 which I acquired later include Genesis alumni Anthony Phillip’s The Geese and the Ghost, Peter Gabriel I (I did buy the Solsbury Hill single in preparation for seeing his first solo tour) and Steve Hackett’s Please Don’t Touch; I also recently bought a second hand vinyl copy of Seconds Out. England were a band who were unfairly accused of sounding Genesis-light who released the highly regarded Garden Shed. I saw them play in Barrow but didn’t buy the album until years later, one of my first internet purchases. I’ve since invested in a 2LP version with bonus material. The first National Health album also deserves a mention as it is one of the few albums which eschewed record company directives and is brilliant, melodic and complex. Along with England, they stood out as examples of how prog could have developed. The Enid represented a bridge from the first prog era and, like Van der Graaf, were accepted by the punk movement. They followed up the excellent In the Region of the Summer Stars with the sumptuous Aerie Faerie Nonsense. The US equivalent of late golden-period prog, recently added to my collection, is the first Happy The Man album released in 1977 which is a genuine treat.

If 1977 had some highs and lows, it wasn’t obvious until much later on in the year that the genre was unsustainable, coming under pressure from an industry which was just waking up to realise its global punch, partly through political developments. It’s interesting that the year began with Roger Waters’ onslaught against this political climate but half way through we were treated to a vision of hope but things went downhill fairly swiftly from 1978; forty years on January began with President Trump and despite the amazing scenes of Women’s Marches from around the world in reaction to the US election, I’m not very hopeful.

By ProgBlog, Apr 26 2016 08:52PM

The desire amongst modern prog bands for the authentic sounds of the 70s has led to a mini revolution in digital samples. The unreliability of a Mellotron for live performance, a recent example of which was the lengthy delay that preceded Änglagård performing at the Resonance Festival in 2014, meant that anyone who favours the sound of the Beast is now better off utilising Mellotron patches on digital keyboards which have the bonus of considerably less mass to move around. I don’t know if it was just Rick Wakeman’s choice of programming but when he switched from minimoogs to polymoogs when he rejoined Yes for Going for the One (1977), I thought the sounds he utilised lacked substance and the same goes for the Emerson sound with the Yamaha GX-1 when ELP reconvened for Works Volume 1. Minimoogs disappeared in the 80s but it’s pleasing to hear the original Moog sound, apparently the result of an incorrect calculation that led to the filters being overdriven by around 15dB, has been recreated in the Moog Voyager series, seemingly the synthesizer of choice of bands playing progressive rock today.

Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014
Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014

Wakeman, Emerson, Patrick Moraz and Rick Wright all used grand pianos in a live setting but by the end of the golden era of progressive rock the sheer bulk of the instrument and the advent of polyphonic synthesizers meant that traditional piano parts were played on instruments like the Yamaha CP-70 electric grand, a half-way house between an acoustic instrument and a digital piano but far less unwieldy than the acoustic grand. There is a lot of rock music that features piano but exponents of progressive rock used the instrument as a shade or tone in a broader palette, like the calm interlude on South Side of the Sky (from Fragile, 1971) providing stark contrast with the angular electric mayhem the precedes and follows; there aren’t many prog albums where the only keyboard is piano even though it can be used for both delicacy and thunder.

The less bulky cousin of the grand is the electric piano which features in a wide variety of progressive rock and fusion. When I bought a Korg MIDI keyboard four years ago I was a little surprised to see a voucher for genuine Fender Rhodes patches but since then, on albums like Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) plus the very recent Höstsonaten release Symphony No. 1 Cupid and Psyche (2016), I’ve noticed the classic electric piano sound returning to the genre.

Whereas Wakeman used the RMI (Rocky Mount Instruments) electric piano and harpsichord and Peter Hammill, David Cross and Robert Fripp played Hohner electric pianos (Cross’ in white to match his Mellotron and Fripp’s in black, to match his), it’s the distinct sound of the Rhodes / Fender Rhodes that best exemplify the instrument, an almost bell-like resonance that retains its identity even when overdriven. Moraz may have owned a Fender Rhodes but that particular keyboard tends to be associated with jazz rock, rather than symphonic prog, so it’s not surprising to see a Rhodes listed in the instrumentation for bands like Greenslade, where their roots are in the British take on jazz and blues.

The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.
The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.

The tone of the Rhodes comes from the unique wire tines, tuning fork-like components of varying lengths that are struck by the hammers; the tines connect to tonebars and the amplification is by electromagnetic pickups. The characteristic bell sound is produced when the tine and the pickup are in close proximity and though there is a degree of similarity between the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer, the former has better sustain while the latter produces a range of harmonics when the keys are hit hard, providing more bite. The story behind the Rhodes is quite inspiring because inventor Harold Rhodes became a full-time piano teacher after dropping out of university to support his family through the Great Depression, utilising a technique that combined classical and jazz, then began developing instruments to help the rehabilitation of soldiers during the Second World War, utilising surplus army parts as he was required to stick to a very tight budget. The involvement of Fender came in 1959 with the marketing of the Piano Bass, the bottom 32 keys of the full 88 key design, and the later inclusion of a built-in power amplifier and a combined tremolo and auto-pan feature that bounces the output signal from the piano in stereo across two speakers, a feature mistakenly called ‘vibrato’ on some models which is consistent with the labelling on Fender amps. The first Fender Rhodes was released in 1965 following the acquisition of Fender by CBS; this model had 73 keys and included the built-in amplifier.

It’s mainly Miles Davis’ alumni that popularised the instrument though Ray Manzarek used a Piano Bass with The Doors, providing the bass lines for the bass guitarist-less band. From the In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970) period Miles, keyboard players Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock spread the word and the sound through their respective bands while guitarist John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring Jan Hammer on minimoog and Fender Rhodes and the keyboard was subsequently taken up by British jazz-rock bands influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, including Brand X and Isotope.

Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron
Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron

Return to Forever sailed closest to progressive rock of all the fusion bands with Romantic Warrior (1976) which became their best selling album despite critical drubbing from Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics. I fully believe the success of the album is its appeal to fans of symphonic prog; the majority of prog fans also like jazz rock but Romantic Warrior pushes all the right prog buttons: fantastic musicianship; extended instrumental pieces; a broad palette including an entirely acoustic track; and a loose concept. It comes across like a fusion version of Refugee by Refugee (1974).

The popularity of the Rhodes piano dipped at the end of the 70s as electronic keyboards began to proliferate but also because the quality of the instrument itself suffered as a consequence of cost-cutting and an attempt at mass production. Rhodes was sold to Roland by the company president William Schultz in 1987 and Roland produced digital pianos under the Rhodes name until Harold Rhodes, who hadn’t authorised the use of his name, bought back the rights to the instrument in 1997. It’s good to hear the Rhodes sound on contemporary prog.

By ProgBlog, Mar 20 2016 11:29PM

Pink Floyd The Wall – Earls Court, London, 14 June 1981

Well they say “better late than never”, but almost 35 years after this seminal event may be pushing

it a bit. This show is probably the best known live show to prog fans the world over, although some

don’t consider The Wall to be prog, and there are no less than THREE officially released (different)

live shows on CD (from 1980/1, 1990 and 2010-13) and two different DVD releases. So I probably

don’t really need to tell you much about the show itself, who played what, track listing etc but let

me tell you about the experience of three fourteen year olds marking a rite of passage with their

first gig, because that was something really special.

I’ve often thought about this show, and I didn’t realise how big a deal it was at the time, nor how

significant it would be afterwards. My gig debut was the fourth from last gig the Roger Waters’

Floyd played, notwithstanding their fleeting and triumphant swansong at Live 8 some 24 years

later. Of course we didn’t know that at the time, nor of the enmity in the band, and we thought

seeing PF may become a regular event. Since this show there’s only been one gig in amongst the

hundreds of shows I’ve seen that can compare for the sheer spectacle – and that was the Wall tour

that Waters brought to the UK in 2011! When you consider the technology and the money available

for all the mega tours undertaken since 1981 I guess that’s quite something.

My first introduction to this live show was when my brothers and some friends (including your blog

host Gareth) went to London to see the first round of Wall gigs in August 1980. The very next day I

became the proud owner of an official tour T Shirt, costing about £4, which I barely took off for the

next couple of years. There was excited talk of building a wall on stage, then demolishing it and

lots of inflatables, projections, crashing planes, flying pigs and the like. About a month later I

bought a triple album bootleg from the ‘tour’ (if you could call 4 cities - New York, LA, London and

Dortmund - a tour) and immediately became aware of the audio treat that I’d missed out on,

including the great track “What Shall We Do Now?” which was missed off the studio album, but

tantalisingly had the lyrics printed on the inner sleeve. I remember being really struck by the guitar

solo on Comfortably Numb, which was just out of this world. It still makes the hairs on my neck

stand up even now, and is probably (well almost) the only song I will play air guitar to in the privacy

of my own home.

It all went a bit wrong for Floyd soon after those original shows, and they lost a lot of money when

a company they’d heavily invested in (Norton Warburg) went into receivership. The rumours at the

time were that the set of Wall shows in June 1981 were arranged to recover some of their lost

millions. I can’t see they were ever facing a life on the streets, and in hindsight the cost of re-

convening for just five more shows in London to 90,000 people (at £8.50 a throw, so about

£750,000 of ticket sales) was unlikely to fix it, but it seemed vaguely plausible at the time. It’s well

known now that the only band member to make any money from The Wall tours was Rick Wright,

and that’s only because he’d been sacked and was paid a fixed fee.

So, back to summer 1981. Derek at Earthquake records in Barrow sticks the hand scrawled piece

of paper in the window “Pink Floyd, London, £20 coach and ticket”. My friends and I discuss it and

decide we want in, then I recall lengthy discussions with mums and dads and a few days of

deliberation. I must give credit to my folks, because I doubt that I’d have let my 14 year old son and

two of his mates go on a 600 mile round trip on a bus to London, but finally we were given the go


We set off down to London at midnight, and arrived at Victoria coach station about 6.30am. After a

couple of hours surfing the tube, and then checking out the museums, we ended up sitting outside

Earls Court in the sunshine for much of the afternoon with lots of other PF fans, soaking up the

atmosphere, avoiding a lot of dodgy blokes selling bogus merchandise, and hoping for a glimpse of

the band. Actually I can’t remember if there was any atmosphere or whether it was just loads of

other travelling fans that had nothing better to do and nowhere else to go. Earls Court was a beast

of a place, and I remember looking up at this massive concrete monolith and struggling with its

scale and its 18000 capacity, a quarter of the population of my home town, and by far the biggest

indoor music venue in the country until the O2 came along.

After hours of waiting we were allowed in and promptly spent months worth of savings on T shirts

(3!), a large poster of a massive arse, programmes, postcards, badges etc – young fans well and

truly relieved of all of their cash. After taking our seats the opening bars of In The Flesh finally rang

out, and I swear the whole building shook, then it all really kicked off with smoke bombs and the

crashing Stuka. What a start. The show was immense and totally immersive, and the sound was

just wonderful, with the band allegedly spending half a million pounds perfecting it. We had pretty

reasonable seats, half way up the left hand side about a third of the way along from the stage, but

for a show of this scale it wouldn’t have mattered that much where you sat. The audience was

fascinating, a few kids like us and a lot of people five to fifteen years older and then some quite

respectable looking “old” people (around 50 – 60!) who were there to see the show as they would

any other piece of theatre. That really surprised me at the time, I was expecting a rock gig not a

west end show.

We knew the show was being filmed, but some of us were nervous about seeing our acne covered

selves at the Astra in Barrow some months down the track, ah the insecurity of youth. The Wall film

that arrived a year later in 1982 turned out to be something different to what we’d expected, so we

were spared, and so was everyone else. If you look on Youtube you can find some very low quality

footage of this tour, much to the band’s chagrin I’m sure, but there’s no pimply teens to be seen.

The show went all too quickly and the highlight for me was, of course, Comfortably Numb, during

which Dave Gilmour stood on top of the wall, heavily backlit, and drowned the place in that guitar

solo. The crowd went nuts at the end of it, so I don’t think it was just my highlight. A side and a bit

later the wall came down, looking a bit battered after being torn down almost thirty times before.

The band were cheered off and someone close by called for an encore of something from

Dark Side. Optimism beyond belief.

After that it was the long trip home on the coach, with it seemingly taking hours to get out of

London, and a return home about 6.30am. I’m pretty sure I got the day off school that day, which

after seeing the Floyd the night before was the icing on the cake.

Ten years later I met my future wife Jayne, who had also been to one of the 1981 shows. Her

experiences of the day were very similar to mine, we might have met, and it turned out that she’d

decided afterwards that the man she would eventually marry would need to have seen Pink Floyd

at least once. I’m still undecided whether that was a quest to find someone with a deep seated

synergy in life’s outlook, or just someone who is a bit cynical.

So how did it all compare to the RW tour thirty years later? That one entailed a more stylish arrival

(at the O2) by Thames Clipper. Well old Rog had certainly cheered up immeasurably by 2011 with,

and these are his words not mine, “poor sad fucked up little Roger” from last time left behind. You

could see he was bouncing and really enjoying what he was doing, free of the shackles of having

to fight anyone to be in charge and (mostly) rid of a few other demons too. The great show of 1981

had become a stratospheric $60m production, and the 32 shows of 1980-81 were eclipsed by the

219 between 2010 and 2013, grossing $458m and leaving the Norton Warburg worries a distant

memory. I was right at the back of the O2 for that one but it was the same feeling when In The

Flesh started, transported back thirty years but with the special effects cranked up an order of

magnitude from the first time, jaw dropping stuff. It didn’t disappoint. If you’ve not seen Roger’s

recent film I strongly recommend you do, ideally in your own private cinema with the volume

cranked up very loud, because your average 40” screen in the comfort of your living room isn’t

going to do this show justice.

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