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ProgBlog goes to the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice but still manages to find prog connections - and a relatively new record store...

By ProgBlog, Nov 6 2018 12:59PM

While I’m not particularly enamoured with the Dorset seaside resort, having landed at Bournemouth International airport twice within a few hours after separate runway problems at Gatwick caused my BA flight home from Genova in August last year to be diverted, then unceremoniously kicked off the plane when the pilot announced the flight had been cancelled and left to our own devices to find our own way back to either Gatwick or home (in my case Croydon), the only opportunity to get to see King Crimson play in the UK this year happened to be in Bournemouth, because I’d neglected to organise tickets for the London Palladium gigs before they sold out.



Crimson manager David Singleton is one of the few people I’ve read who has remarked upon the geographical significance of the first Crimson gig on the current leg of the Meltdown tour, describing the event as having “a particular poignancy as the return to Bournemouth felt slightly like a ‘coming home’ for King Crimson”, explaining for those without an appreciation of the band’s history that King Crimson precursor Giles, Giles and Fripp was originally a Bournemouth group, as indeed was Greg Lake’s pre-Crimson outfit The Gods, the pair having taken guitar lessons from Don Strike whose shop is still located in Westbourne Parade. Though Singleton also went on to reveal that the band stayed at the Royal Bath Hotel where a teenage Robert Fripp had apparently played a few gigs, and suggested that the interior decor had not changed during the intervening years, he didn’t mention the John Wetton-Richard Palmer-James connection, also crucial to the early Crimson story.


I went down to see Crimson with my friend Jim and, having decided that returning to the south London commuter belt that same evening was not the best course of action, booked overnight accommodation at the Royal Exeter Hotel, a five minute walk away from the venue at the Bournemouth Pavilion. Our hotel was formerly the first house built in Bournemouth, by Captain Lewis Tregonwell, in 1810 which retains some original features but has been upgraded to 21st century standards.



Having left Ashtead with what seemed like plenty of time for a gig scheduled for 7.30pm, we discovered that roadworks on the A31 and A338 were enough to jeopardise our plans; we ate in the hotel for expediency but still missed the opening percussion barrage, under that title of Drumsons Turn Back the Tide for the evening, and Neurotica, held outside the auditorium until the piece had ended.

The set list turned out to be very similar to that we’d witnessed in Lucca back in July, only without the tracks from In the Wake of Poseidon and I thought that the familiarity with the material that made up the set, despite a break of three months between Venice at the end of July and this Bournemouth performance, allowed them to play with a similar level of intensity that we’d seen at the Lucca Summer Festival, the penultimate city on the mainland Europe leg of their tour.

Despite a good sound in the open-air Piazza Napoleone, the stage was quite a way to our left which made it difficult to decide whether to strain to see the band or simply look straight ahead at close-ups of individual members on a big screen. The Pavilion Theatre didn’t have any of those problems; seated in row V on the left-hand side of the stalls (capacity 1012), the raked floor allowed a good view of the band. It almost goes without saying that the sound was fantastic – and notices in the foyer informed us the show was being filmed. Crimson rely entirely on their music; there are no props and the one concession they make to theatricality is gradually bathing the whole ensemble in red light during Starless, a reference to a spine-tingling moment of resonance during the last ever performance by the 1974 incarnation of the band as they played the track in Central Park, New York.


Waiting for Crimson, Piazza Napoleone, Lucca 25 July 2018
Waiting for Crimson, Piazza Napoleone, Lucca 25 July 2018

It may have simply been my perception but I thought that Mel Collins was allowed something of a free rein during the Lucca gig compared to more restrained playing at Bournemouth however, in what may have been a nod to the band’s history in the south coast resort, added a snatch of a big band style melody during a short improvisation.

I’m really pleased with Collins’ participation in this version of the band because it allows a closer interpretation of the early material to the originals, where the excerpts from the Lizard suite and Islands come across as excellent examples of symphonic progressive rock. The interaction between the three drummers is spectacular and fits in seamlessly with whatever the band are playing but the inclusion of Bill Rieflin as a dedicated keyboard player rather than as a percussionist who adds keyboards, the role now taken by Jeremy Stacey, helps to fill out the symphonic sound which is further enhanced when Fripp also adds keys. This is where having two guitarists helps with the pre-Discipline era compositions; the interlocking parts of Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk on the track Discipline is an obvious example where you can’t play the track without two guitars but Fripp’s role in the current line-up includes both the definitive spray guitar and providing classic Mellotron lines. Stacey described this in Prog magazine (Prog 92) as an illustration how the band did things properly and didn’t cheat but I’ve started to wonder when critics of groups of the first wave of progressive rock who play ‘greatest hits’ sets are going to start taking pot-shots at this band. It’s been reported that there’s already a degree of sniping at Jakszyk’s singing circulating on social media (I personally quite like his voice and really can’t visualise too many other vocalists handling the songs from the first album; I’m also rather fond of his re-imagined lyrics to Easy Money with is dig at the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crash); it may be that history is sort of repeating itself because Adrian Belew came in for some intense criticism on Elephant Talk when electronic fan forums were just taking off.


Despite breaks between 1974 and 1981, 1984 and 1994, then 2008 and 2014 Crimson, like many of the original acts from the late 60s – early 70s, have a rich source of material to select from when compiling a live set, but last put out an album’s worth of new material back in 2003 with The Power to Believe. What the three-drummer septet/octet has done in the four years of its existence as a touring band, is tap into early material that had never previously been played at concerts, whether because of short-lived formations or the lack of the full instrumentation in a line-up to do a piece of music justice. The structure of something like the Lizard suite, something I can’t imagine I’d have ever heard played live before this incarnation, doesn’t necessarily constrain the ability to extemporise but the era of the grand improvisational pieces ended in the 70s. There’s also a suspicion that the group is playing to a wider demographic than on any previous occasion but this wasn’t particularly evident from my seat towards the back of the stalls in the Pavilion Theatre where the audience was pretty much as you’d expect for a group that formed in 1969 that is rightly or wrongly inextricably linked to the progressive rock genre. On the other hand, the concert can’t have failed to delight any of the original fan base who were present with its mix of favourites and the previously never-heard-live, or anyone being inducted into the world of Crimson with an amazing display of musicianship in a performance that lasted around two and a half hours.


I’d rate the gig very highly, on a par with the first time I saw a three-drummer manifestation in September 2015 at the Hackney Empire and with Lucca in July, each being memorable for different reasons. Maybe Bournemouth isn’t too bad, after all.


The full set list was:


Drumsons Turn Back the Tide

Neurotica

Indiscipline

Moonchild

In the Court of the Crimson King

Discipline

One More Red Nightmare

Red

Islands

Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (1)

Meltdown

Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (2)

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 5


(Interval)


Drumsons Turn on the World

Cirkus

Bolero-Dawn Song-Skirmish-Lament

Epitaph

Easy Money

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 2

Starless


(Encore) 21st Century Schizoid Man








By ProgBlog, Jul 30 2018 01:52PM

My wife and I habitually visit flea markets and bric-a-brac shops on our tours of London and the south east, where I’m specifically seeking out vinyl bargains. Last week we were prompted to visit a shop closer to home, Atomica, in a business park off Croydon’s Purley Way, thanks to an article posted by Bygone Croydon which indicated along with the retro homeware, fashion and general relics, they had a selection of 50s – 80s vinyl. Despite being more of a showroom for their self-designed gifts which sell all over the world, the records didn’t disappoint because co-owners David and Nicky turned out to be late 60s, early 70s psyche and prog aficionados so after a good browse through a selection weighted towards prog and prog-related (choosing to buy Jethro Tull’s Live – Bursting Out and Tangerine Dream’s Cyclone, both from 1978 and both at a very reasonable price) I had lengthy chat about music with the couple, when I should have been packing my bag for the following day’s short break in Italy.



Displaying an indecision worthy of my notable family trait but in fact attempting to ensure that friends and family were all able to attend one or the other of King Crimson’s Palladium gigs in November before booking the tickets, the London shows sold out before I’d got answers from everyone. Fortunately, tickets were still available for the first 2018 UK performance in Bournemouth, so my friend Jim bagged a couple. A couple of weeks later during a trip to Milan, I saw a rather large advert for the Lucca summer festival pasted on a wall inside Milano Centrale railway station and, after I’d taken in the Roger Waters Us and Them tour date, I noticed King Crimson were due to play the festival on July 25th. On my return to the UK I touted the idea to Jim, who was very much interested, and tickets, flights and accommodation were all booked.



Strangely, my Tuscany guidebook has a slightly larger section on Lucca than on Pisa; the first Tuscan family holiday in 2013 was based in Pisa and we used the train to travel around the region, but never visited Lucca. This was rectified on the subsequent Tuscan holiday in 2014, having been told that the smaller city was probably nicer to visit than Pisa. I do like Pisa, which has two very good record stores, GAP in Via San Martino and La Galleria del Disco in Via San Francesco, and is well connected on the railway network but, apart from the obvious and spectacular Campo dei Miracoli and the museums in the Piazza del Duomo, there’s little else to do. Lucca, on the other hand, is really compact and contains a number of points of interest: Roman remains in the crypt of the church of San Giovanni and the shops and piazza marking the former Roman amphitheatre; the medieval Torre Guinigi crowned with holm-oak and the Torre delle Ore, the tallest of the towers in the city; the details on the west facade of both the Duomo San Martino and San Michele in Foro; Puccini’s birthplace museum; the art deco shop fronts in the Via Fillungo; all enclosed in broad Renaissance city walls. Lucca also has a fine record store, Sky Stone and Songs located on the Piazza Napoleone and which, on the current visit, had a window display replete with King Crimson recordings.


The festival auditorium was set up in Piazza Napoleone, covering a far greater area than I remember from my previous visits. The huge stage was to the west of the square, up against the Palazzo Ducale and, until a few hours before the event started, it was possible to amble in and out of the area. I was picking up the tickets when the soundcheck started at around 5pm and went to join a number of fans at the back of the seating area listen in as the band ran through a couple of numbers; it was obvious that the evening’s performance was going to be special.



Soundcheck
Soundcheck

By the time we went out to eat, the piazza had been emptied and a rather intimidating security cordon comprised of barriers erected in strategic places had been set up to prevent non-ticket holders from wandering in; more reassuringly in the early evening heat and humidity, there were plenty of paramedics around to cope with anyone suffering from dehydration and/or intoxication – it had been suggested that this was the biggest crowd of the European leg of the tour. After a visit to the merchandise stall for a tour programme and 10” limited edition Uncertain Times double EP we made our way to our seats in block I, row 18, where I was a little disappointed that our mid-price range tickets didn’t afford the view of the band I’d been hoping for, although we had a very good view of the giant screen just to the right of the stage.



The performance started on the stroke of 9pm following an announcement in Italian about not recording the event and not taking photographs; this was succeeded by a recording of Robert Fripp emphasising that to ensure we all had a great party we shouldn’t take photos during the concert but, because bassist Tony Levin wanted to take a photo of the crowd when they’d finished playing, we could take photos when Levin took out his camera. He added that at the request of his fellow band members, there would be two halves to the set separated by a 20 minute intermission. Remarkably, following my experiences in Genoa and Brescia for PFM and Le Orme respectively where a sea of 10” tablets and cases obscured my sight line to the bands playing on stage, Fripp’s ‘no photography’ request was heeded by most of the crowd and the use of smartphones and cameras was restrained.

The set list wasn’t too far removed from the last time I saw them, at London’s Hackney Empire in September 2015, though in the intervening period Bill Rieflin had taken a sabbatical and was replaced by Jeremy Stacey on drums and keyboards, then returned in the role of keyboard player, creating an octet. There was a distinct bias towards material written for early incarnations of the group, where the only song missing from In the Court of the Crimson King was I Talk to the Wind and every studio album up to Beat, with the exception of Starless and Bible Black, was represented by at least one track. The most recent studio album music was Level Five/Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 5 (from 2003’s The Power to Believe) but they played parts of Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) written specifically for the three-drummer line-up, and the three drummers opened each half of the set with a remarkable percussive display, called for that evening A Tapestry of Drumsons and Drumsons of Psychokinesis. I was pleasantly surprised how much keyboard Fripp played, and how easy it was to distinguish the guitar of Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk when it had proved difficult for me to work out which line belonged to which guitarist in every version of the band including Adrian Belew; it was more difficult to work out who was playing which keyboard part when Stacey retreated to the back of his drum kit and the big screen showed Rieflin. The role of each drummer was fairly well delineated, with Pat Mastelotto adding a huge variety of colour with some novel bits of percussion and some non-percussion, much like Bill Bruford following the departure of Jamie Muir in 1973, Stacey’s keyboard responsibilities, and Gavin Harrison acting as the rhythmic anchor, even adding an impressive solo on encore 21st Century Schizoid Man. However, it was when the three operated as a unit that they most impressed, exemplified by their discipline and precision on Indiscipline.


Though Mel Collins had appeared on many of the originals played that evening (Pictures of a City, Cirkus, the Lizard suite, Islands) he didn’t simply stick to the written lines but was given plenty of room to extemporise, blowing jazz and quoting operatic flute. This free rein with well trodden pieces seemed to add to the enjoyment of the ensemble while also allowing the audience to experience the music in new ways; we were even treated to a new set of lyrics on Easy Money.


The performance, including the break, lasted over three hours. Though loud, the sound was really well balanced, making up for the slightly awkward seating position where it was easier but less desirable to watch close-ups on the big screen than get the big picture. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did the rest of the audience who not only showed their appreciation at the end of each piece of music but responded to mid-song solos and key moments with enthusiastic applause. I was a bit surprised by the clarity of the subtleties and, strangely for a King Crimson gig, did not feel overpowered by the volume. I really hope that there’s going to be a DVD release of the concert at some stage in the near future because along with the quality of the audio, the camerawork for the big screens was also rather good.



Another successful trip to see a band in Italy completed, but I’m now looking forward to seeing Crimson in Bournemouth at the end of October...









By ProgBlog, May 29 2018 06:10PM

One of my Record Store Day 2018 purchases, that is one of the limited editions specially produced for the occasion rather than one of the albums I happened to buy as I wandered through the stalls set out in Cremona’s Corso Campi on the day itself, was a 40th anniversary edition of UK by UK. My original vinyl pressing of this album is in perfectly good condition and I think it’s a well produced record but I was seduced by the promise of the booklet and intrigued by the idea of an Eddie Jobson re-mastering; I’ve not listened to the original LP for some time so I can’t be certain but I think the individual instruments are more discernible on the new release – it has a nice clarity.



Eight years on from the birth of progressive rock in the form of In the Court of the Crimson King, the genre was getting a little tired and large numbers of the record-buying public were getting tired of prog. Not helped by self-imposed exile from the UK for tax reasons but surely driven by creative burn-out to a great extent, the hiatus between studio albums meant that the three really big players in the field slipped out of the music paper headlines and created a void to be exploited and filled by the standard-bearers for Punk, claiming that the excesses of prog indicated how out-of-touch these bands were.

It wasn’t enough to simply release a ‘best of’ (though Yesterdays, released in 1975 was really my introduction to the first two Yes albums and something I still like.) Following the completion of the British leg of the Relayer tour in May 1975, bar an appearance at the Reading Festival in August that year, there wasn’t another UK appearance by the band until October 1977, though all five members of the group issued a solo album. ELP might be perceived as being the worst offenders, not playing on UK soil for 18 years after their 1st May 1974 show in Liverpool and though they performed in Europe and the USA later in 1974, they were absent from the stage between 21st August 1974 and 24th May 1977 with only a Christmas single (I Believe in Father Christmas, Greg Lake, 1975) and a near-novelty single (Honky Tonk Train Blues, Keith Emerson, 1976) to satisfy their fans. Pink Floyd seemed to have managed fans’ expectations quite well, despite the length of time taken between The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, then Wish You Were Here and Animals and the lack of live dates, especially in the UK. Between 14th December 1974 and the first Wall show in Los Angeles on February 7th 1980, they undertook a three month long North America tour and then played Knebworth in July 1975, toured Animals around Europe including the UK with dates in London and Stafford and North America between January and July 1977. Two of the members also produced solo albums, David Gilmour and Rick Wright’s Wet Dream.


For my part, I was less satisfied with ELP’s Works Volume 1 and Pink Floyd’s Animals than I had been with their preceding records; Yes’ Going for the One was a radical departure from Relayer but I thought it was still high quality, with Awaken high up in the list of all-time great prog tracks. In the case of the former and the latter, I wasn’t over-impressed with the keyboard tones from the Yamaha GX-1 and Polymoog respectively; Animals featured far less keyboards than Wish You Were Here so that I hesitate to call it progressive rock. By 1977, other acts like Camel, Caravan and Gentle Giant had stopped writing epics and both Caravan and Gentle Giant had begun to lose their appeal to core fans; Focus seemed to have disbanded, having released an uneven album of studio scraps the previous year; and Genesis may have released Seconds Out but this coincided with the departure of Steve Hackett. I thought that the future belonged to jazz rock and bought my first Isotope LP.


Looking back, 1978 started on an exceptionally good note with the release of Bill Bruford’s first LP as a band leader Feels Good to Me and the eponymous debut from National Health, both records being examples of jazz sensibilities mixed with prog leanings which resulted in complex, melodious albums. I think Feels Good to Me has a more experimental feel, thanks to Annette Peacock’s vocals and using flugelhorn in a (broadly) rock context; National Health is more intricate and, in the tradition of the band’s forerunner Hatfield and the North, didn’t take itself too seriously.


A good way to start 1978 - National Health
A good way to start 1978 - National Health

Then came UK.

Following the demise of the trio version of King Crimson in 1974 which took Robert Fripp away from music for a couple of years, Bill Bruford and John Wetton continued their musical education by rotating through a number of different bands. I thought Bruford’s involvement with Gong and National Health were interesting and it was definitely quite pleasing to find him sharing a drum stool with Phil Collins for Genesis’ Trick of the Tail tour, as he appeared to be helping out all the right bands. Wetton’s move to Roxy Music and then Uriah Heep impinged less on my consciousness; I was never really interested in post-Siren Roxy and thought Uriah Heep’s music unadventurous. However, his touring arrangement with Roxy started before King Crimson officially ceased to exist . It was meant to be a temporary measure before Crimson was due to recommence touring, and served to introduce him to Eddie Jobson. The proposed 1977 collaboration between Wetton, Bruford and Rick Wakeman could have been amazing but its failure to get off the ground ultimately resulted in the formation of what was hailed as a ‘supergroup’: UK. Their eponymous debut is a slick progressive rock album with jazz rock styling thanks to Bruford and Holdsworth but the modern sound, courtesy of Jobson, made it seem quite different from long-standing progressive acts and newer groups from that time, like symphonic prog band England; the three-part In the Dead of Night is an indisputable prog classic though it’s only now that I’ve got the 40th anniversary edition, complete with lyrics, that I can distinguish the words. The song writing was mature, involving all the group members, leading to a truly coherent effort where equal weight was afforded to each individual and it’s my belief that this equality, the fluid guitar lines from Holdsworth, the power and precision of the rhythm section along with Jobson’s virtuosity on keyboards and violin, adding a contemporary feel but with a past tied to the early progressive era, that made the record stand out as something with significance for the whole genre, like a new In the Court of the Crimson King.




Jethro Tull’s Heavy Horses was also released in April 1978 and I really like this second offering in the prog-folk trio of albums, with an enhanced palette thanks to the guest violin of Darryl Way, though there was a distinct sense of continuity from Songs from the Wood rather than being something that stood out as unique. My copy of the LP, bought in Barrow, was a swap for King Crimson’s Earthbound which I had just bought but thought was disappointing. Thanks to the staff in Blackshaw’s for sanctioning the exchange.

Steve Hackett released his second solo album Please Don’t Touch which was quite different to 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte, an album I rate higher than any post-Gabriel Genesis. I found it a bit of a mixed bunch and it’s that lack of consistency that marks it down – it’s not really UK progressive rock. Meanwhile, Hackett’s erstwhile bandmates released the decidedly thin end of the wedge ...And then there were Three... I first got a copy of Please Don’t Touch on cassette in 1981 or 1982 so I could also compare it to the excellent Spectral Mornings (1979); And then there were Three was acquired by a friend shortly after its release and I gave it a couple of listens before giving it the thumbs down. The seeds sown by the second-rate Your Own Special Way in 1976 were bearing a bitter fruit – Genesis could no longer be classed as a progressive rock band. Hackett’s other former colleague Peter Gabriel released the second of his self-titled albums which I don’t think can be called prog, either, though that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Rather, it was an example of what we might today call post-rock, very much a successor of the first Gabriel solo album. If prog was to wither away, this would provide a reasonable alternative; the highlight has to be Exposure.

Van der Graaf Generator shed an organist, a saxophonist and the ‘Generator’ for 1977’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, becoming more urgent sounding and, despite the excellent lyrics, more basic; it could even have been classed as prog-punk for sheer attitude. Bolstered with an appearance from David Jackson and with Charles Dickie on cello and synth, the group bade farewell (until the 2005 reunion) with a live album Vital. My brother went to see them in Leeds during that tour but it wasn’t until the reformation that I could really appreciate the intensity of the group. When I first saw Hammill performing solo in 1984 it was full-on but in a band context, it was off the scale.

Camel managed to keep one foot firmly in the prog idiom with Echoes and The Sleeper from their ’78 album Breathless but however good the melodies on the other tracks and the bright production, the relative brevity of most tunes makes it seem almost pop-prog descending into funk on Summer Lightning and outright silliness on Down on the Farm. This was another album bought by a friend at the time of its release but I don’t remember listening to it very often; I think we anticipated Peter Bardens’ departure because there appeared to be a tension between chief song-writers Bardens and Latimer, fuelled by an interfering record label, as they moved away from the early, classic Camel sound.

The cracks had not yet appeared in Yes but the cover of Tormato was a hint that all was not well. I bought the album on the day of its release, shortly before heading off to university armed with what I would discover was the best hi-fi in my hall of residence. I also managed to get to see them for the first time that October, in the round at Wembley Arena on the Tormato tour. The album contains some great ideas but the heavy-handed production detracts from the quality of the writing and the lack of a over-arching concept makes it appear devoid of a distinct identity. Taken on its own it doesn’t indicate the end of the golden era of progressive rock but it did suggest that Yes needed to rethink their future plans. The end of progressive rock was most starkly illustrated by Emerson Lake and Palmer with Love Beach. If the image on Tormato was a poor excuse for an album sleeve, the band photo on Love Beach was the antithesis of prog and that, more than anything else, meant I avoided the album until last year, and I only bought it then because it was cheap and I was filling a gap in my record collection. Even taking the best moments of Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman into account, it’s a really poor affair, succinctly exposing the true meaning of ‘contractual obligation’.


1978 ended with another National Health album, with a subtly different line-up to the debut but equally as good and, if anything, even more adventurous: Of Queues and Cures. National Health may get lumped in with the rest of prog but though the music conformed to many of the prog traits, the ease with which a substantial number of the musicians fitted into the British jazz and avant-garde scenes made them stand apart. Prog had withered without anyone to grasp the possibilities revealed by UK, whose 1979 follow-up Danger Money was a bit schizophrenic; reduced to a trio the material was a mixture of first-class retro-prog and verse-chorus-verse-chorus FM-friendly tunes played by progressive rock musicians.


The golden era of progressive rock was over.









By ProgBlog, Nov 28 2017 02:24PM

My first dalliance with a form of rock music other than progressive rock or jazz-rock came in the guise of Robert Fripp and The League of Gentlemen who played at the London School of Economics 37 years ago, on the 29th November 1980. Probably best described as post-punk, Fripp’s dance band provided a very up-front, driving beat courtesy of Sara Lee on bass and Kevin Wilkinson on drums, with the organ of ex-XTC Barry Andrews adding stabbed fragmented chord backing and the occasional top line, and Fripp scattering guitar over the whole thing. The show was delayed for some considerable time due to problems with the guitarist’s pedal board, which seemed at affect the artist himself as much as a restless crowd. I seem to recall that a degree of functionality was attained, enough to allow the gig to proceed, but this was the last of the LoG concerts and when I next saw Fripp play live, six months later at Her Majesty’s theatre in London’s West End and leading a band which would change its name to King Crimson before the release of an album, it looked like the pedal had been replaced with a Roland guitar synthesizer.


League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates
League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates

I was in my final year as an undergraduate when I saw The League of Gentlemen and as it was a cold November evening, I’d turned up in my greatcoat, still clinging on to the vestiges of progressive rock fashion at a time when everything about the genre was derided. I’d gone along to the LSE with Jim Knipe, not knowing what to expect but drawn by Fripp’s name and also bemused by the pairing with Barry Andrews, so we had a good idea that it wasn’t going to prog. What we got was hard to describe and, despite the obvious beat, quite enjoyable. The fast picked cyclical guitar previewed here would become a staple of the ’81-84 Crimson where twin guitars could play slightly different lines to produce knotty, complex patterns which weaved in and out of synch. There is a sonic relationship between The League of Gentlemen and 80’s King Crimson but the addition of Adrian Belew on second guitar (and guitar synth) and vocals, the reappearance of Bill Bruford with a kit augmented with electronic drums, and the introduction of Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick opened up vast possibilities, shifting the idiom from something very raw to a highly sophisticated form of energetic art-rock.


Though not necessarily the beginning of ‘math rock’, this version of Crimson is very likely to have influenced the first identifiable math rock bands like Don Caballero, when the genre emerged in the US in the late 80s, possibly attracting the description as a joke. Linked to prog through a common absence of blues influences and a shared embrace of non-standard time signatures, this style of music is predominantly instrumental, taking some cues from 20th century minimalist composers where riffs are tightly structured and repeated. When different time signatures are used by different instruments it produces complex, often chaotic or dissonant sounding phrases which resolve when the different rhythmic patterns converge on a mutual first beat; there are guitar parts book-ending Frame by Frame from King Crimson’s Discipline (1981) which have been compared to Steve Reich compositions and there is a section where Fripp plays in 13/8 with Belew playing in 14/8. The listener may perceive chaos but the music is rigidly structured and follows a defined layout where changes are counted out; if it sounds difficult to follow for the listener, it’s not so straightforward for the players! It’s just an observation but it seems to me that there is minimal use of distortion, which facilitates a better degree of separation of the instruments playing in different times and is more pleasing to listen to than what might simply come across as a mush of noise.

Maths and music have an obvious overlap and whether it’s the ancient Greeks looking at the ratio between notes and deriving scales, or Bach and Mozart inserting numerological games into their compositions, it’s impossible to ignore the numerical value of frequency of sound, the tempo and meter which define the rhythm, the velocity of a percussive strike, and the mathematics which can be applied to a sound wave. I was fortunate to have a good physics teacher at school and the lessons on sound were very interesting; the school had somehow managed to acquire some wooden organ pipes which were not only instructive for the investigation of wavelength, for someone who liked sound and the possibilities of progressive rock, they were educational toys. We often see representation of the Fibonacci series in nature in the growth patterns of plants and animal shells but the golden ratio is also present on a piano keyboard; the five flats/sharps and the eight notes of the octave correspond to 5:8:13 in Fibonacci’s numbers.


Anyone who has read this far will understand that the whole prog genre can be subdivided and subdivided some more. I think the idea of math rock as a distinct part of the prog spectrum isn’t too outrageous and there’s always going to be some blurring of boundaries. However, I’m not entirely sure if post-rock fits somewhere within the prog definition or if the term should be abandoned because it’s so nebulous. I’ve recently been listening to the music of Groundburst, a Dublin-based trio consisting of Si Dunne (keyboards); Phil Dunne (guitar) and Erik (drums) who formed in 2005 and who list their music as variously post-rock, math rock, progressive rock and soundtrack!

This version of the trio has recently released an EP, Triad, available as a download from their Bandcamp page https://groundburst.bandcamp.com/ but they’ve released a number of downloads, plus a very interesting physical EP (in CD format) Everything I didn’t say and all the things I wanted to and provided a soundtrack to the short, independent film Champagne, Intimacy, Alan written and directed by a friend of the band, David Martin. There’s an identifiable trajectory in their material from 2007’s EP1, with its dreamy feel, gorgeous electric piano and laid-back jazzy guitar to the tighter sounding, well-constructed Everything I didn’t say (2009) and their concise soundtrack compositions from 2014, the longest of which is 3’44 and four of the seven tracks are less than a minute long, to what really is a very well executed recording, Triad, from September this year. Noodles from EP1 has traces of repeated, short riffs but the overall feel is trippy jazz; Everything I didn’t say is probably the most proggy of their releases as it utilises more sounds but it could still pass off as modern jazz; the constraints of matching music to filmed sequences for Champagne, Intimacy, Alan resulted in a more timed and time-conscious style which can be identified as math rock and when you watch the film (which was nominated for an award and is rated 8.3/10), the music is a surprisingly easy fit, consisting mostly of snatches of guitar patterns and jazz piano apart from the looser Finding a Rope which also includes saxophone provided by Derek and Alan O’Callaghan, and the highly reverbed Alan’s Blues (which is not in the blues idiom.) For those interested, the film is about middle class couple Alan and Carol who are in their mid-40s and growing apart. They attend a swinger's party on the recommendation of a therapist and it’s evident that Alan has the greatest expectations, so that when they attend the party, held in a large country house he is keen to pair-off with the beautiful Sonya and her tall, handsome husband Dan, who obviously have a great deal of experience in the swinger lifestyle. Alan is clumsy and performs poorly, possibly intimidated by Carol’s obvious enjoyment, despite her initial reservations, and Alan goes off to question love, sex, marriage, life and everything.


Triad is a very focused offering and consists of three tracks. Law of Fives is clever jazz-rock, with staccato riffs and pauses and angular lines, properties that have been described as features of math rock. I’ve attempted to count out the time signature a few times but it’s not easy (Phil Dunne has said that the opening section is in 23/8 time!) Erik’s drumming adds appropriate elements which underline the riffs and it’s possibly his rhythmic input which has helped to refine the band’s style. Parlour Games has some Canterbury-like electric piano picking out an odd melody and when the guitar riffs give way to piano riffs and takes on the melody line it reminds me of The Civil Surface by Egg; it’s on the jazz side of rock, rather than the other way round but despite its relative accessibility, it retains the tightness which marks this particular set of tunes. Mazomba begins with urgent guitar feedback and is an altogether heavier prospect. Si plays electric piano over crunchy guitar riffs until halfway through when Phil plays a moderately distorted solo over the electric piano chords, and the roles of lead and backing are once again reversed before the end. Apparently, one of the albums the band had been listening to around the time the EP was put together was King Crimson’s Red and though Si suggests its influence can be heard in opening track Law of Fives, I think the proto prog-metal of Red surfaces in Mazumba.

Despite what might appear to be a very serious approach to their music, especially as it would be easy to suggest that math rock has an inherent geekiness, there is an intelligent humour behind it all. Law of Fives relates to the mathematically incorrect notion that everything has some form of relationship to number five, by being divisible by or a multiple of five, or somehow else directly or indirectly related to 5. The number 23 obeys the Law of Fives, because 2 + 3 = 5, however meaningless this is, and the band thought it amusing to link this illogical notion with a tune which included a riff in 23 time. Parlour Games evolved from the day job frustration caused by applying theoretical ideas to qualitative phenomena in ways that just didn’t seem to work, and finding a musical analogy to the idea of forcing something rigid over something organic.


Triad (2017)
Triad (2017)

Groundburst are currently finishing recording an album, provisionally titled Vortex Street for release in 2018. According to the band it’s going to feature longer songs than those in the current repertoire to allow for the development of themes and include more instrumentation and orchestration. It’s no surprise that we can expect more complex rhythmical material but it will be good to get to hear a full album from a band which has delivered such great promise in small doses.



Groundburst
Groundburst








By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2017 09:13PM

The sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed that on Wednesday last week (August 23rd), Gentle Giant were inducted into Portsmouth Guildhall’s ‘Wall of Fame’. The Guildhall, originally the Town Hall, was renamed after Portsmouth gained city status in 1926. The neoclassical building was severely damaged during the Second World War but restored, with much of the original detail missing, and reopened in 1959 with standing space for an audience of 2500 in the largest performance space. The Wall of Fame is a recent feature, introduced in 2014 to honour (mainly) local artists who have achieved great success. Gentle Giant join artists like Mark King of Level 42 (originally from the Isle of Wight); local boy Mick Jones, who formed Foreigner with Ian McDonald; another local boy Spike Edney, probably most famous for his live work with Queen; and Steve Hackett, voted on by fans in recognition of his amazing musical career who was inducted in May this year.


The Shulman family originally hailed from Glasgow but set up home in Portsmouth in 1948 after the father of the yet-to-be Gentle Giants had been posted there during the war. The three Shulman brothers Phil, Derek and Ray first formed Simon Dupree and the Big Sound along with Eric Hine (keyboards), Pete O’Flaherty (bass) and Tony Ransley (drums) in 1966 and had a hit in 1967 with Kites, originally a ballad written by Lee Pockriss and Hal Hackady which the band were quite unhappy with, insisting it wasn’t in their chosen musical idiom. They eventually recorded a version at the insistence of their manager John King, in psychedelic style featuring a variety of odd studio instruments in Abbey Road, including Mellotron and a wind machine; they even got an actress friend to recite some Chinese during a spoken interlude and, to their surprise, the single did very well, ultimately peaking at no. 8 in the charts. Simon Dupree and the Big Sound had no further success but evolved into Gentle Giant in 1970 when the Shulmans recruited Kerry Minnear (keyboards), Gary Green (guitar) and Martin Smith (drums.)

The first Gentle Giant album I heard was In a Glass House (1973) and the first I bought, in an effort to hear as much of their material as possible, was Playing the Fool – The Official Live (1977) on cassette. It was obvious from a very early stage that GG were highly accomplished musicians playing incredibly complex material and it wasn’t until I heard Free Hand (1975), premiered on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show, that I realised they could also really rock without compromising their identity. At that stage, GG being a band that I looked out for, I had no idea of their relative lack of commercial success. What I heard of The Missing Piece (1977) indicated a major change, and not a good one. The Sight & Sound in Concert performance, filmed at London’s Golders Green Hippodrome on January 5th 1978 and shown on BBC TV a couple of weeks later was a must watch occasion, but Two Weeks in Spain and Betcha Thought we Couldn’t Do It were major disappointments. I started to build up a full collection of GG in the 80s and in the mid 90s, when progressive rock was slightly less vilified than it had been for almost 20 years and when the nascent internet was mostly accessed for academic purposes, I signed up to a couple of web-based forums: Elephant Talk for all things Crimson and On Reflection, the internet discussion list for GG fans; it was a revelation to read fans’ thoughts and anecdotes. There’s no doubt that the band deserve their place in the Portsmouth Guildhall Wall of Fame.


Gentle Giant inducted in The Wall of Fame
Gentle Giant inducted in The Wall of Fame

photo from http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/leisure/news/15494134.Gentle_Giant_inducted_into_Wall_of_Fame/#gallery0


London obviously exerts a pull on musicians and in the late 60s and early 70s the sheer mass of opportunity, the music papers, the range of clubs, the presence of record labels, recording studios and publishing firms was enough to make most artists gravitate towards the capital. Perhaps more important than any of those things was the presence of sufficient numbers of punters willing to listen to something which offered more than ephemeral pop; Pink Floyd may have had roots in Cambridge but it was London which formed the base for their success. In the very early days, their reception outside of the capital was frequently hostile and it’s 'Pink Floyd London' stamped on their banks of WEM speakers, clearly visible during the Echoes part 1 footage from Live at Pompeii, not 'Pink Floyd Cambridge'. Similarly, Floyd contemporaries Soft Machine may have formed in Canterbury and been responsible for an entire prog sub-genre, but they also migrated 100km along the route of Watling Street in search of fame and fortune. That doesn’t mean that the south coast of England was unimportant for progressive rock; an hour’s drive west of Portsmouth is Bournemouth, half an hour’s drive inland from Bournemouth is Wimborne and 10km due west of Bournemouth is Poole. This relatively small area is where Michael and Peter Giles, Robert Fripp, Greg Lake, Gordon Haskell, John Wetton, Richard Palmer-James and Andy Summers all began playing.


Pink Floyd of London - Live at Pompeii
Pink Floyd of London - Live at Pompeii

Over the last few weeks I’ve been to a number of towns on the south coast, lured by a combination of a bracing sea breeze and the prospect of browsing through second-hand records in both favourite and new haunts. One of the reasons for progressive rock musicians having a connection to the south coast can be detected in the architecture of the seaside towns which is another reason for getting on a train south from East Croydon station; the inter-war suggestion that swimming provided universal health benefits resulted in something of a seaside boom, coinciding with a penchant for streamlined art deco apartment blocks, hotels and public buildings, and the upturn in visitor numbers meant that there had to be provision of suitable entertainment; dance halls and dance bands. Likewise, when armed forces were barracked in the dockyards at Portsmouth or at one of the RAF radar stations, they needed an outlet for R&R. Both Robert Fripp in Bournemouth and Keith Emerson in Worthing played in hotel- and dance bands where the predominant genre was jazz; the young Emerson even played piano for a local dance class, covering a variety of styles and playing a range of tempos, all excellent experience for the future combination of rock, jazz and classical music exemplified by prog.


Seaside art deco: De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill
Seaside art deco: De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Our trip to Worthing wasn’t entirely successful. This was the most westerly of the towns visited recently and was intended to be a reconnaissance mission. I’d identified a couple of independent record stores, along with an HMV in the Montague shopping centre but the condition of the interesting records in the flea market on Montague Parade wasn’t brilliant and after thinking about replacing my sold off copy of Barclay James Harvest Live (1974) for £4, I decided against it. Next stop was Music Mania in West Buildings but this was closed until the end of August for holidays. I did manage to find a copy of Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975) by Synergy, aka Larry Fast, for £2.99 in Oxfam. It was very breezy on the beach but at least the architecture was good: the brutalist Grafton car park, given a colourful makeover by street artist Ricky Also, and the 1930s art deco flats of Stoke Abbott Court, even though their restoration wasn’t in keeping with their original, aerodynamic form.


Grafton car park, Worthing
Grafton car park, Worthing

Brighton is just brilliant. On our most recent trip I picked up an original copy of Tubular Bells for £5.50, David Bedford’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), Pink Floyd's Obscured by Clouds (1972) and the rather obscure US electronic album Zygoat (1974) by Burt Alcantara under the name of Zygoat. These were all from Snoopers Paradise in North Laine; I then popped into Across the Tracks and bought a new copy of Stranded (1970) by Edwards Hands.


A short way east along the A27 is Lewes, and though it’s not costal, the river Ouse is tidal. Octave Music has now closed down but Union Music Store and Si’s Sounds are both worth looking around. Si’s was closed on the day of our visit and I was tempted by some unsold record store day bargains in Union, but not tempted enough. Lewes has a number of antique shops and I managed to locate David Sylvian’s double LP Gone to Earth (1986) which to some degree presages the Sylvian-Fripp collaboration in 1993, plus Phallus Dei (1969) by Amon Düül II, Moraz-Bruford Flags (1985), Barclay James Harvest Time Honoured Ghosts (1975), and the surprisingly good Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas. The architecture in Lewes is very interesting and one of the most recent additions, a concrete and glass 5 bedroom house clad in Cor-Ten steel set on the banks of the Ouse on the site of an old workshop, is really special.


Union Music Store, Lewes
Union Music Store, Lewes

Most recent on the list of coastal visits was Hastings. Again, I’d identified suitable record shops to visit but the duration of the train journey, a little over 100 minutes each way, restricted our time for wandering around. It’s been some considerable time since I was last there and in the intervening years the town has been used as an overspill for London boroughs facing a housing crisis, shifting the pressure from the capital to local services in East Sussex. However, that’s not what we witnessed. The relative ease of the commute to central London and the laid-back vibe appears to have encouraged a degree of regeneration. The beach was empty and very clean; the pier has been redeveloped and shortlisted for the 2017 Sterling prize; George Street is like a short stretch of Brighton’s Laines with some unique gift shops, independent coffee bars, antique shops and best of all, Atlas Sound Records, which hadn’t been on my list. The cash-only shop acted as an outlet for at least three sellers who travelled the world to find suitable vinyl. I came away with Rakes Progress by Scafell Pike (1974) – folk rather than prog, but for £5 its Lake District name and the fact I’d only ever seen it twice before, once around the time of its release in Kelly’s Records, Barrow, and much more recently in a market stall in Vicenza, Italy, meant I had to buy it. I also picked up Midnight Mushrumps (1974) by Gryphon and Mass in F Minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes, a piece of gothic psychedelia that I’d only got in mp3 format, converted from a home taping of my brother’s copy of the LP back in the late 70s. I was encouraged to return because I was told that the stock had a good turnover.

Bob’s Records was on my list, in the basement of an antique shop in High Street; disorganised but reasonably well-priced and mostly in very good condition, there were bits of memorabilia for display like the framed cover of In the Land of Grey and Pink for £7 and three laminated back-stage passes for Pink Floyd concerts presented in a frame at £40. I bought a copy of the last Colosseum II album War Dance (1977). In another of Hastings’ antique shops I saw a framed Pink Floyd at Hastings Pier poster on sale for £20 and as far as I can make out, they only ever played in Hastings on one occasion, Saturday 20th January 1968, just before Dave Gilmour was invited to join the band, and I’m not sure if the article was genuine.


Atlas Sound Records, Hastings
Atlas Sound Records, Hastings

I think the atmosphere of some of the towns on the south coast is accurately captured by the melancholy of Exiles (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, 1973); those responsible for the track’s writing credits, Cross, Fripp and Palmer-James all had a history linking them to the south coast, as did vocalist/bassist Wetton (Cross was from the Plymouth area.) The contrast of a parochial existence with the glamour, real or superficial, found in cities around the world resonates today: Worthing town centre has certainly seen better days and the empty public spaces in Eastbourne are equally sad; Bexhill would be nowhere without the De La Warr pavilion and the towns seem to cling on to the remnants of a faded glory. Fortunately there are places like Brighton and Lewes, and now Hastings, where there’s a positive vibe... ...and good record shops.







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