ProgBlog

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Five days of progressive rock, dedicated to musicians and friends who have died since the last event, divided between historic and new bands, symphonic prog and jazz rock, the avant-garde and a tribute to an important story. Along with the desire to share music together, the event is only held thanks to the effort of all those who work for free: artists, organisers, hosts and helpers. The Progressivamente Festival is a display of dedication, comradeship and great music

By ProgBlog, Sep 12 2017 08:35AM

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

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


Auckland's Sky Tower
Auckland's Sky Tower

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


South Side of the Sky
South Side of the Sky

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

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


Magma collection
Magma collection

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



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


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


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






By ProgBlog, Jul 31 2016 09:34PM

Progressive rock covers a huge number of themes, even though it is frequently derided for (mistakenly) being a one-topic genre: fantasy, the realm of elves and wizards. Rick Wakeman is less to blame than the music press but a much-used clip of Wakeman on the rocks at Tintagel posing with his Hammond and mini Moogs in cape and wizard’s hat, most recently appearing in the second episode of The People’s History of Pop, presented by writer, journalist, broadcaster and confessed prog fan Danny Baker which was aired on BBC Four last week. This episode related to 1966 to 1976, the years of Baker’s youth and included a piece about progressive rock from the perspective of a (now) Managing Director who was a 14 year old at the time, living in Crawley. The photo he showed of his teenage self could equally have been me captured in 1975. Baker, who should have known better, introduced this section from a record store (he used to work in One Stop Records in central London) by stereotyping glam rock fans, heavy metal fans (circa 1975) and prog fans: “Pale, introverted types, they took things very seriously... ...possibly with a copy of Lord of the Rings with them...” It’s true that we took our music seriously and, even though Hatfield and the North, Supersister, Focus, Zappa showed they could laugh at themselves, the musicians took the music seriously, too. However, I fell into the stereotype yesterday when I listened to the 1982 Jethro Tull album Broadsword and the Beast for the first time for years and was compelled to translate the runes on the cover. I may have done this when I bought the record when it was released, though I’d normally have left a copy of the translation inside the sleeve. I have form in this sort of thing and I imagine that there are many other prog fans who share this thirst for knowledge: I translated all the runes and the elvish script wherever I found them in my copy of Lord of the Rings and I cracked the encrypted letter from Tom to Jan that appears in Alan Garner’s Red Shift. It turns out that the runes on Broadsword and the Beast are Anglo Saxon and they just quote a lyric from the track Broadsword: “I see a dark sail on the horizon set under a cloud that hides the. Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding. Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.” The word ‘sun’ is missing from the second (bottom) panel because the Ian Anderson elf-like creature’s sword crosses the border at that point, although I don’t believe the three runic letters would have fitted in that space. The artist’s initials can be found top right, with runes for R, I and M plus the superscript ‘c’ for R Iain McCaig. There is more writing on the inside sleeve, indicating that it was ‘scribed by candlelight’.


Part of the earnestness of the musicians was manifest in the choice of subject matter for an album; grand themes, including literary interpretation, being a defining feature of the genre. I think there’s an innate rationality about the music itself and this, as someone who went down the sciences route at school, studied botany and zoology at university and ended up working in a medical science, is part of the appeal. Even something with a meaning as obscure as Close to the Edge works, not just because the musicianship is exemplary but, equally importantly, it has an appropriate structure that helps to convey the rather nebulous concept of seeking enlightenment; prog bands, pushing at the limits of what was sonically possible with the technology available, took on the role musical explorers and experimentalists where their artistic vision was equivalent to a scientist working to a hypothesis.

Flying used as a concept allows a band to utilise threads from a mixture of philosophy, technology and metaphor, from the Greek mythology of Icarus with its warnings against complacency and hubris, through the visions of Leonardo and his principles of mechanical flight, to understanding the physics; I love the parlour trick used in science museums to demonstrate the Bernoulli Principle with the table tennis ball or beach ball in the stream of air, fast flow creates low pressure and, when applied to the upper curved surface of an aeroplane wing, low pressure creates lift. Much of the original space rock concerned exploration, though the imagery of the lyrics for Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, one of my all-time favourite space rock-era Floyd songs, and one of the first Pink Floyd songs I ever heard, seems to relate to a quest to expand the consciousness rather than some kind of starship pilot plotting a course to crash his vessel into a star. Later, David Gilmour would write Learning to Fly (from A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987) which is about genuinely learning the mechanics of flying an aeroplane (the pilot’s voice on the track is Nick Mason going through pre-flight checks) but is also about the liberation of the spirit. I’ve previously written about my appreciation of A Momentary Lapse, and this is because the writing is much more thought-provoking than the last two albums of the Waters era.


The space rock vision of flight is best covered by Hawkwind’s Silver Machine (1972) and the related Robert Calvert solo album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters (1974) which satirised the story of the Lockheed 104 ‘Starfighter’ sold to America’s NATO allies, specifically Germany: the 104G. As a boy, Calvert, who co-wrote Silver Machine, had wanted to be an RAF fighter pilot but it is alleged that he failed the medical. The music on Captain Lockheed is quite varied but the album was originally conceived as a stage play. It’s not really prog, but it is very amusing; my favourite track being the Hawkwind-like Ejection.

Steve Hackett’s Icarus Ascending (Please Don’t Touch, 1978) name checks the son of Daedalus as a metaphor for someone who failed to achieve their goal (in the song, a stable relationship) where successful flight is eventually achieved “Never falling / Since your eyes first touched mine.”


One of the most profound uses of aeroplane and flying metaphors is Flight by Peter Hammill from A Black Box, 1980, Hammill’s first album after leaving Charisma and his first venture into long-form without the help of his Van der Graaf band mates. The side-long track could be compared to the VdGG epic A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers due to the structure comprised of different songs and moods pieced together with a unifying theme, the contemplation of fate and willpower and control. This was a surprise inclusion the last time I went to see Van der Graaf in 2013 although it had been performed by the K Group; the trio did a brilliant job, shifting from the manic to the melodic to the dissonant.

The idea of aeronaut as explorer is raised in Astral Traveller (from Time and a Word, 1970) a track that is almost steampunk with the protagonist being a balloonist within a futuristic-sounding setting. Together with The Prophet, this track seems to map out the future direction of Yes and forms a thematic link to Starship Trooper from the next Yes effort, The Yes Album (1971.)

When Ian McDonald and Michael Giles left King Crimson at the end of the first Crimson US tour in 1969, they put together a melodic, sometimes pastoral album that owes a great deal to the Beatles, where the mellotron is used for colour rather than doomy chords. Some sections (Flight of the Ibis, for example) are recognisable as coming from the Crimson stable, like bits of what would become Cadence and Cascade. The second side of the album is a multi-part suite conceived by Peter Sinfield, The Birdman, and this covers the desire of man to fly and his successful designing and building of the machine. This success is opposite to that described in Paper Wings by Barclay James Harvest (from Everyone is Everybody Else, 1974) where the protagonist is convinced of his ability to fly, but plummets to his death. I have the Barclay James Harvest Live version of this song and, though short, I really like it. The death plunge is a scenario revisited in Suicide? (from Octoberon, 1976.)

I was given a glider flight experience as a birthday present many years ago and headed off to the Surrey Hills Gliding Club based at Kenley, a few miles south of Croydon, for my taster. The sensation of unpowered flight is truly incredible and it’s no wonder that flying and flight has obsessed humankind. Should I ever get the necessary financing, it’s something I’d love to take up seriously.






By ProgBlog, Nov 25 2014 11:57AM

In the late 60s, experimentation and the rejection of the values of the previous generation was fed by musicians, artists and writers in a mini-renaissance where scientific possibilities pointed in two opposing directions: one to the promise of a utopian future based on consumerism; the other to an understanding that the unfettered use of natural resources was going to endanger the planet. Wars on foreign soil were viewed by the counterculture as imperialist manoeuvres and showed that governments were incapable of embracing ‘cultural relativism’, the academic anthropological view that other distinct cultures should not be seen as inferior to those that espoused Western ideals, because moral values can be culturally specific. The US government had begun to control the populace with pledges of the rewards of hard work: a steady job; a bank loan; a car; a house; new appliances, and competition was deemed to be good because in the economic race, the successful would rise to the top and, according the advertising copywriters of The American Dream, anybody could reap the rewards of the system if they worked hard enough, or swindled, lied and cheated enough.

The opposing view was imported from Eastern Europe and Asia. At that time, no one thought that wars would be fought over foreign oil and other natural resources, the raw materials of capitalism; the enemy was ideological. Such was the paranoia of US politicians, even Communism’s less strident sibling Socialism was to be feared and hated. The proponents of the counterculture embraced the principles of true egalitarianism and challenged creeping corporatism in areas such as agriculture and energy, preferring a ‘back to nature’ outlook and the benefits of a mutually supportive society. During this time, science fiction (SF) matured from escapism into a genre that looked both outwards and inwards and became a serious literary tool to criticise imperialistic tendencies (Ursula Le Guin) and one that warned of the consequences of climate change (JG Ballard). Not surprisingly, SF was embraced by the counterculture and, in conjunction with emerging musical technologies and a liberal dose of chemical stimulants, Psychedelia was born and Space Rock followed shortly after.

The extended blues jamming of the Grateful Dead wasn’t really replicated in the UK or Europe. Pink Floyd played extended jams during their live set and, despite the whimsical psychedelia of the Barrett-penned material that made up the majority of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the inclusion of Interstellar Overdrive and Astronomy Domine on the album indicated the direction of the Floyd for the next couple of years. The Floyd weren’t virtuoso but they did extend musical form by embracing effects and applying them in unusual ways and it was this experimentation and a penchant for cosmic-sounding titles that made them the premiere space rock act from around 1969; the live album of Ummagumma showcases their particular brand of music. The other main UK space rock outfit was Hawkwind who had a longstanding collaboration with SF author Michael Moorcock. Heavy and riff-based and again, not a virtuoso band and certainly not prog, I found them more amusing than any kind of serious proposition. Having said that, I do have a soft spot for Space Ritual and Quark Strangeness and Charm and I even attempted to see Robert Calvert’s West End stage interpretation of his novel Hype but the show had been closed early, that very same week. I did pluck up the courage to see Hawkwind at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon on 14th November 1999 but they didn’t play much material that I was familiar with and the gig was more techno than rambling space rock.

The Floyd had quite an influence on bands from mainland Europe. France’s Pulsar were dreamy and trippy and admit to being strongly influenced by Pink Floyd; before changing their name from Free Sound to Pulsar and playing self-penned material they used to perform cover versions of Set the Controls, and Careful with that Axe. Half Canterbury and half Space Rock and half French, early Gong created the Pot Head Pixies from the Planet Gong space mythology and their music was defined by trippy grooves, played by some excellent musicians. The arrival of Steve Hillage in the Gong fold in 1972 didn’t change their direction much as he’d just released an album with his band Khan called Space Shanty (1972) that highlights his fluid glissando guitar. His next venture outside of Gong was Fish Rising (1975) which continued where Space Shanty left off and included the classic Solar Musick Suite.

Perhaps more than anything, the influence of Pink Floyd was soaked-up by the fledgling German rock movement. Despite the America-centric music industry labelling all German bands with the derogatory term 'Krautrock', the bands themselves adopted the title. Somewhat like Italian prog having a different flavour depending on where the band originated, there were few similarities between bands from the different German cities and there were often no sonic similarities between bands from the same city. What they did have in common, however, was a rejection of the attitude of the previous generation who remained deeply conservative and refused to contemplate atonement for the acts their leaders had carried out in WW2; the new generation had grown up after the war and wanted to create something new and different and independent of mainstream western rock. Many of the early Krautrock acts were highly politicised: Amon Düül arose from a commune that celebrated a variety of art forms and the music they produced was fairly amateur. Musicians from the band formed Amon Düül II and the qualitative difference between the two acts, which co-existed for a while, was huge. Some would argue that Amon Düül II reneged on the principles of the commune, seeking to make a materialist livelihood playing Floyd-inspired space rock. It’s important to point out that not all Krautrock was spacey and reliant upon common instrumentation; much of it was a startlingly original blend of electronics and industrial sounds, including the use of a cement mixer by Faust.

Eloy played a fairly basic form of symphonic prog that owed a debt to the Floyd and were even signed to the Harvest label. Taking their name from the futuristic race in HG Wells’ The Time Machine, their sound is heavy and organ/guitar drenched. I have a copy of Inside (1973) that I bought second hand in Beanos in 2005; all the vocals are in English and the lyrics lack complexity; there’s a hint of politics in the writing but political content was toned down after their first release. I find Nektar, who were British and based in Hamburg yet still get classed as Krautrock, stylistically similar to Eloy with a basis of heavy rock but stretching out into space rock territory. They’re certainly more rock than prog and the one CD that I own, Remember the Future, is considered to be one of their best works. I’m not at all keen on the almost country rock guitar and vocal harmonies and find it hard to believe that I paid nearly €16 for the album. On the plus side, I did buy it at a good exchange rate when I was in Berlin in 2005.

The other major Floyd-influenced Krautrock band is Tangerine Dream. They began with guitar and drums but fairly rapidly evolved into the classic electronic trio line-up that had a great deal of success with the progressive crowd after signing to Virgin. Their expansion of kosmische musik (electronic drones produced by tape loops or keyboard, originally popularised by Popol Vuh) using sequencers for a form of metronomic backing. Pink Floyd had begun to use the VCS3 for Dark Side of the Moon and TD used sequencers in a not dissimilar fashion, weaving in and out of electronic washes of sound. Phaedra and Rubycon are both classic albums and essential listening. By the time of Stratosfear (1976), guitar had crept back into their instrumentation and original member uses mouth organ. Personally, I don’t think that the harmonica is not a prog instrument!


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