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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, May 8 2018 10:01PM

Until last month, I’d never been to see a Tangerine Dream performance; the closest I’d ever come to witnessing the TD sound was seeing ‘Berlin school’ devotees Node at the Royal College of Music in 2015 (a performance that is just about to be released on CD), and I was also present at the rather intimate premiere of the Edgar Froese/Tangerine Dream film Revolution in Sound, part of the Doc ‘n’ Roll Festival, screened at the Barbican Centre last November.


My appreciation of Tangerine Dream spans back to being introduced to Phaedra (1974) by school friend Alan Lee and I bought 1975’s Rubycon shortly after its release based on the promise of its predecessor. I can’t remember where I first heard Ricochet which was largely recorded at a gig in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls on 23rd October 1975 but I remember not being over-impressed with the next studio release Stratosfear (1976), which I thought made too many concessions towards mainstream rock, including the use of harmonica. I imagine it was becoming ever more difficult to maintain originality and find new things to write in the idiom they’d created but I also think the change in use of the sequencer from pulsed rhythmic intervention to near-rigid substitute electronic drumming had the overall effect of making the group more industry-friendly. I sold my copy of Rubycon some time before I left school in 1978 but regretted it, believing that it remains one of the ultimate albums to listen to in the dark through headphones. I bought a compilation CD From Dawn ‘til Dusk 1973 - 1988 in the early 90s, a CD of Phaedra in 2005 and replaced my Rubycon on CD in 2009 and finally replaced both Phaedra and Rubycon CDs with original vinyl last year; over the last couple of years I’ve bought a second-hand vinyl copy of Ricochet, plus Stratosfear and soundtrack Sorcerer (1977) on CD and I inherited CDs to plug the gap from Encore (1977) to Hyperborea (1983) from friend Neil Jellis as he replaced his original CDs with remasters.



Their brand of electronica was swiftly accepted by the fans of British progressive rock, like myself, who were exposed to the band when Richard Branson signed them to Virgin Records. Though not virtuoso, the application of electronic keyboard-based instrumentation to the thinking of minimalist composers like György Ligeti put them at the forefront of a radical musical movement, with atmospheres created by sonic washes, sequencer pulses and haunting Mellotron, mapping both outer- and inner space.

My favourite line-up is the classic Froese-Franke-Baumann trio, responsible for the early-mid 70’s classics, and who performed in some unusual places for a rock band, like the cathedrals at Reims in France, Liverpool and Coventry. The latter two are modern architectural masterpieces but Reims Cathedral (Notre Dame de Reims) is an 81m high gothic building dating from 1211, lacking in facilities for a crowd of rock fans whose behaviour would lead to TD being banned from ever playing in a Catholic church again. The idea to perform electronic meditations in these sacred places, whether or not you hold religious beliefs, was a stroke of genius because as a layperson with an appreciation of architecture, I find this thoughtful, sometimes reflective and often searching music is somehow very fitting for the space.


The journey from Brescia to the gig at the Union Chapel, Islington, was dictated by the easyJet flight schedule from Verona to Gatwick which fortunately ran on time. There were no disasters at Gatwick’s railway station, or East Croydon or Victoria and I arrived at the venue to join the end of what was one of the biggest queues I’ve seen for a long time (that being for Steven Wilson at The Troxy in March 2015). This queue also contained Neil, who happened to be holding my ticket, and who fortuitously called me before he’d reached the entrance and disappeared inside. The one slight drawback with this rush was the rather stark temperature difference between Italy and the UK; it had been 26oC when I boarded my flight but the evening temperature in London was 14oC. I was wearing a T shirt and had no jacket.


The performances at the Union Chapel invited comparisons with the Reims show, and Bianca Froese-Acquaye suggested, as she introduced the evening’s proceedings, that Edgar would have approved of the setting. I get the feeling that many of the fans did, too, certainly on the night I attended, Monday 23rd April. Froese-Acquaye had been present at the screening of the documentary at the Barbican, where she read an extract about meeting Jimi Hendrix from her husband’s autobiography, Tangerine Dream: Force Majeure which had been published a couple of months before, and held a Q&A session following the film. She had obviously been given instructions that the group should carry on following Edgar’s ‘change of cosmic address’ and the trio with the responsibility for the musical legacy, Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane, proved well qualified to do so, building on the critical acclaim of Quantum Gate (2017). I was a little concerned about the way Edgar Froese was addressed by his widow as she dedicated the performance to ‘our master’; this may have been accidental miscommunication but it did come across as though we were being initiated into some form of cult, with Quaeschning named as Froese’s ‘chosen successor’.



The set list seems to have been comprised mostly from 80’s material, plus a couple of tracks from Quantum Gate: It is Time to Leave When Everyone is Dancing and Roll the Seven Twice, compositions I really wasn’t familiar with but thoroughly enjoyed because it sounded as though each piece had the right balance of instrumentation despite the reliance on midi-triggers and programming; during the mid 80s Froese reworked some of their tracks and added new layers of keyboard, guitar and rhythm, a move regarded by many as detracting from the stark elegance of the originals. One of the songs in the first set reminded me of Phaedra and I wonder if it was part of the 2005 reworking of that album, which featured Quaeschning, especially as a little research suggests that the selection includes more recent, post-Froese reworkings. The second set was more reminiscent of 70’s TD; not only did they play Stratosfear but they also performed an extended improvisation, a Session in TD parlance, like one of the improvised pieces that made up their seminal live albums.



I had thought that the enigmatic Yamane was responsible for very little of the soundscape, as there were lengthy sections where her violin was held by her side, but I’m reliably informed she was responsible for triggering and controlling effects using Ableton Push. There were a few moments where the electronic drums became a little cheesy but the sequencer-driven beats, a trademark of the Berlin School acts, were always imaginative. Some of the projections appeared a little dated, too, though most seemed apt, fitting in with the music and making it difficult to work out whether to watch the band or to watch the lights play over the neo-gothic interior of the chapel. On balance I was probably more impressed with the second set; especially the improvised piece which shifted in unpredictable ways and where the involvement of the whole trio was much more evident.



The whole event was really enjoyable, from the setting to the playing to the music itself. It didn’t matter that my preferred era of the band was one where there was less reliance on continuous sequences and the evolution of the tracks seemed more organic and free-form; I love Froese’s Mellotron work, rating both Aqua (1974) and Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (1975) as Mellotron classics but their adoption and employment of digital technology can’t be faulted, creating multiple layers of sound of uncertain origin that weaved and flowed over the crowd seated on the chapel’s pews. Like Froese before him, Quaeschning picked up a guitar during a couple of pieces but I wasn’t able to attribute a particular sound to the instrument; perhaps everything will become clear when the DVD is released because the entire performance was filmed.



...It was well worth the dash from Brescia to Islington.








By ProgBlog, Jun 20 2017 05:06PM

I’ve been listening to a fair amount of electronica over the last week, including an old favourite from my school days Rubycon and a couple of albums by Redshift, Halo and Ether. The idea was to help me sleep with night temperatures in London in the high teens or even low twenties, treating the music as a relaxant as the compositions seem to develop organically, even when there’s a sequencer beat driving things along. Then on Saturday I managed to drag myself out of a stifling house into the brilliant sunshine and June heat to witness Metamono playing on their home turf, at the Crystal Palace Overground Festival.




I discovered the band by accident, following a trawl through the second-hand records in the basement of Bambino in Upper Norwood and, after a brief discussion about Phaedra by Tangerine Dream, which I was in the process of buying, with Mark Hill who runs the record department, I was given a promotional postcard with his email address: mark@metamono.co.uk. Following this encounter, my subsequent blog was all about Crystal Palace and as part of my research I investigated ‘metamono’, discovering them to be an electronic musical trio formed in 2010 who, in September 2013, featured as The Guardian’s ‘new band of the week’ https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/sep/06/metamono-new-band-of-day

It was evident to me that Hill knew his electronica from the previous time I’d visited the store. I’d rifled through a box of (largely) Tangerine Dream-related vinyl that hadn’t quite made it downstairs to the record bins, selecting a copy of Edgar Froese’s Aqua and inquiring about the chances of locating Epsilon in Malaysian Pale. Evidently a huge fan of the genre, Hill is actually a fine artist who just coincidentally runs Sound Vinyl in Bambino's basement and plays vintage analogue keyboards (and radio, and Stylophone) with Crystal Palace’s answer to Düsseldorf’s best. The other two members are Jono Podmore and Paul Conboy. Podmore, as Kumo, has collaborated and released albums with Irmin Schmidt of Can; Conboy has worked with Bomb the Bass and is responsible for film soundtracks. What is most intriguing about this collective, something right up my street, is their manifesto. Dutifully read out before Saturday’s performance, they eschew any form of digital sound generation or processing and limit the sound sources available to them to old analogue instruments, found and repaired, to reflect the struggles of society. They believe that music has lost its transformative power, subsumed in a corporatist-capitalist order and use their own music “to kick against the pricks.”

Music journalist David Stubbs has postulated that this musical form, the Krautrock of the 70s, is being referenced by groups who want to branch out in different directions, suggesting that returning to basics and moving on from there is a quicker route to innovation than by simply evolving. This fits in with the Metamono ethic, that “Our limitations will be our aesthetic.”


Whereas found instruments hint at scrap heap recycling, evidently a good thing for the planet, this wasn’t at all like the first time I saw exponents of the genre, admittedly a group more in the Kosmiche or Berlin-school sub genre: Node. My dalliance with appropriating electronica commenced in 1974 or 1975 but I went on to sell Rubycon to a school friend in 1977 or 78 after being underwhelmed by Stratosfear. I’d been intrigued by the appearance of Kraftwerk on the BBC TV’s popular science programme Tomorrow’s World where they appeared to play hotplates with radio aerials and though friends subsequently got into Kraftwerk and Can, they never really pushed the right buttons for me. Consequently, it was only after a reappraisal tinged with a bit of FOMO that my first experience of live electronica came in February 2015 when I attended a performance by analogue synth quartet Node at the Royal College of Music, their first gig for 17 years. I thought the venue was entirely appropriate, affording electronica suitable recognition as a distinct, legitimate musical form but it was the hardware on display, reputedly the largest collection of analogue synthesizers ever seen outside a recording studio and rumoured to be worth around £500,000 which contrasted with Metamono’s recycling chic.



It was pointed out to me that the audience for Node was replete with the great and the good from the UK electronica scene. I don’t know if any of Metamono were present but the working backgrounds of the members of the two groups are very close: music production and film score composition.

Node played four pieces over two sets that lasted 90 minutes; all of which was sequencer driven but which fell into two distinct styles, spacey and industrial. Although I’m not averse to aggressive, percussive sequencer beats I’m more in favour of sequencer as lead instrument, bubbling to the surface, subtly changing over each cycle and giving the impression of drifting, rather than driving.

Node, like Tangerine Dream before them, also used guitar; Dave Bessell performed with a Les Paul strung around his neck which he occasionally lightly strummed. Their overall sound was multilayered and full, with a nicely-balanced live mix in the Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, a dedicated performance space carefully lined with speakers along the length of the room and though I’d describe the ambience as academic, serious or thoughtful, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and on more than one occasion floated away on the dreamy waves of keyboard wash. In contrast, Metamono managed to get a well-balanced mix from a temporary stage in Crystal Palace Park with a 45 minute set filled with fun, joyful music. The sequencers (or did they employ an old rhythm machine?) produced deep dance beats, the pressure waves moving the material on the bass speakers and summoning members of the crowd to their feet to dance in front of the stage. The top line was classic thin late 70s or early 80s synth, filled out with Podmore’s Theremin and some well-place radio transmission, used most effectively on their cover version of Kraftwerk’s Europe Endless, a track they had reworked and released as a single a week before the EU referendum last year as a plea to everyone to vote ‘remain’.


Considering how easily they instilled good vibes in a large crowd and looked as though they were enjoying it too, they have a serious message about not just the music business but about the way our lives are run by vested interests. It seems perfectly fitting that Crystal Palace, the site of the People’s Palace after its season in Hyde Park should produce an inclusive, outward-looking band who play music on found and refurbished instruments, applying a doctrine which seemingly restricts but actually liberates their creativity. Metamono – my band of the week.










By ProgBlog, Oct 9 2016 08:29PM

Every so often I allow myself the odd hour or two when I fully relax, when I don’t want to listen to anything epic or watch anything that engages, when I watch a fairly mindless film just for fun. Suffering from a heavy cold at the beginning of September (which delayed this blog), I chose to watch the DVD of School of Rock (2003), starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack and Sarah Silverman, directed by Richard Linklater. Though formulaic and predictable the film requires absolutely no thinking and is still moderately enjoyable. One of the great surprises is the chalk board feature of the history of rock which Dewey Finn (the Jack Black character) is teaching to his 10 year old pupils. This scene, lasting only a few seconds, manages to neatly encapsulate the relationship between (rock) musical genres, listing some of the major exponents of each. It must have taken someone some considerable thought to produce and, quite impressively, includes ‘Prog Rock’ with examples Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis (the) Residents and King Crimson. The aspiring keyboard player is given Fragile to listen to as homework, with the instruction to pay close attention to Wakeman’s work on Roundabout. The film wasn’t aimed at the age group featured but it still must have been the first exposure to progressive rock for many of the viewing public.


Watching the DVD coincided with the start of a new school year. As a youth at school, I used to get annoyed at the airing of TV adverts for back-to-school paraphernalia the moment the summer holidays started. (I was similarly dismayed by the start of the season for pushing summer holiday destinations, which started over Christmas…) I don’t know if this was a reaction to commercialisation, a chaotic lifestyle or merely innate laziness, but the bombardment from supermarkets flogging school clothing and stationery stores plugging pencil cases was a major turn-off, as though the six week break was already over when it had barely begun. And anyway, I had far better things to do than think of preparing for a new term.

The start of this school year was heralded by the government indicating that they wanted to reintroduce selective education. There are so many reasons for not returning to the grammar school system and none for the reinstatement of the 11+ but this crazy policy announcement has galvanised a broad range of teaching professionals, education experts and parents, becoming united in opposition to the plans. It’s not even popular with all Conservative MPs, though it does appeal to the more reactionary types. Social mobility has become something of a political mantra and it’s this notion that is behind Theresa May’s idea of the expansion of the grammar schools system, incorrectly attributing the academic success of less affluent pupils to a grammar school education. It’s been pointed out that most children will lose out in a selective system but it’s evident that dogma is at work because there has been next to no thought behind the proposals, just the in-vogue trashing and rejection of objections raised by experts. Not only was there no mention of children with special needs or disabilities, they hadn’t considered the effect on teacher recruitment. I don’t really need to reiterate that the comprehensive system showed it is possible to provide a high quality, inclusive education for all children because the statistics speak for themselves: 86% of state-funded schools are currently rated as good or outstanding. This figure will be at risk if there’s a return to selection. The evidence shows that the educational advantage received by those selected for grammars is more than outweighed by the drag effect of the remaining secondary modern pupils, who perform disproportionately badly. Only 3% of grammar school pupils receive free school meals, and even these will gain only a marginal uplift in GCSE grades. I’m the product of the grammar school system, the child of teachers and someone who has a history of active trade unionism. I know that selection is unfair and that teachers, one of the most recognisable groups of public sector employees, while tasked with educating the nation’s children, are frequently placed in unpleasant positions by politicians.


The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.
The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.

Prog doesn’t really do songs about school, which tends to be straightforward rock subject matter (c.f. the film School of Rock.) I started to become interested in music in 1972 and one of the first songs I heard was Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (1972) which captured the anarchic mood at the end of a summer term with its anthemic guitar-heavy structure and the immortal lines: School’s out for summer, school’s out for ever, school’s been blown to pieces. I recognised this as something I’d not heard before, a form of musical theatre (Cooper brandished a rapier during his performances on Top of the Pops) but it was not something that necessarily convinced me it was worth pursuing, as it was relatively simplistic. That particular single vies with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) (1979) for most memorable school-themed song and it’s not really surprising that I consider this offering as outside of the Floyd progressive period. When The Wall was released and both the album and single became successful, I was torn between celebrating that success (as a band I’d followed for eight years) and disappointed with the quality of the material; the single in particular calls to mind a disco beat, something I’d been decrying for the preceding two to three years. Equally theatrical, it has been misinterpreted as anti-education when it's really an attack on a particular form of educational system within the UK, based on Waters’ own school experience, which he described as detestable: "I hated every second of it, apart from games. The regime at school was a very oppressive one ... the same kids who are susceptible to bullying by other kids are also susceptible to bullying by the teachers.” This comes across very clearly in the film of the album.


One partial exception to the rule appears on Three Friends (1972) by Gentle Giant, a concept album that follows three school friends through their subsequent, somewhat less than satisfying career choices back to their reunion as friends. Following the introductory Prologue school is referenced as the starting point of their friendship in Schooldays where, along with sound effects of a schoolyard which according to Ray Shulman are intended to invoke nostalgia, are suggestions of a care-free existence before the three protagonists begin to question how long they will remain friends. The concept is relatively simple but the album is a forgotten gem in the Giant canon.


Education is about releasing potential. The evidence suggests that high-quality support in a child’s early years improves educational outcomes, as an infant ’s brain is approximately 25% formed at birth, rising to 80% formed by the age of three and this is where gaps open up between children from different backgrounds. That’s why the argument about social mobility and selective education is spurious - children from poorer homes are already playing catch-up by the time they start nursery. If there’s going to be any form of government intervention in education it needs to concentrate on the early years, targeting maternal health, school readiness, the home environment and parenting skills. Just say ‘no’ to more grammar schools.







By ProgBlog, Mar 7 2016 12:28AM

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


Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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








By ProgBlog, Nov 8 2015 09:09PM

The Wellcome Collection on Euston Road bills itself as ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’ and is basically a synthesis of a gallery and a museum that displays an eclectic mixture of medical artefacts and original artworks exploring ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art. I first visited Henry Solomon Wellcome’s former museum in Wigmore Street as a Botany/Zoology student, sometime in the late 70s or early 80s and though the collection has both moved and expanded, the concept of treating art and medical science as equally valid subjects remains true; it’s an institution that appeals to my sense of the value of medicine and medical research which reflects my professional life, but also satisfies my appreciation of the arts, though I subscribe to the belief that the Wellcome Trust should divest its investments in fossil fuels in order to combat climate change. I attended a British Transplantation Society Ethics symposium in its new home last December which concluded with an evening debate, hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby, open to transplant professionals and the general public. The building itself is impressive, with a neo-classical façade and modern interior; high ceilings, clean lines and a spectacular steel and glass spiral staircase that hints at DNA, designed by Wilkinson Eyre and costing over £1m.

I was there yesterday with my family to visit the first instalment of the States of Mind exhibition, an installation by Ann Veronica Janssens, yellowbluepink where the exhibition space is filled with a dense mist coloured by lights, giving the impression that it’s the colour itself that is held in a state of suspension as you make your way around the gallery. Rather like the feeling when you’re caught in a white-out on a mountain, you lose your sense of depth and you can’t detect any detail in the surface you’re walking upon; I’ve been known to fall over in conditions like these when skiing, even standing still. The effect of the artwork is to make you concentrate on the process of perception itself and, as your environment has an apparent embracing fluidity comprised of colour, your normal cognitive processes are deconstructed and you find yourself working out a different way of seeing.

Psychedelia and early progressive rock were very much keyed in to expanding consciousness. Lysergic acid, LSD, was seen as one route and meditative practice was another; I don’t think it can be disputed that LSD and eastern thinking had an influence on the output of the Beatles and it’s very likely that at least one of these had some bearing on Procol Harum (In Held 'Twas in I from Shine On Brightly, 1968) but while acid would become associated with space rock, inner space as much as outer space, an interest in the philosophy of eastern religions was more mainstream, inspiring (amongst others) John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Yes. Bill Bruford jokingly suggests he’s responsible for Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) because it was at Bruford’s wedding that King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir introduced Jon Anderson to the writings of Paramahansa Yogananda.

Transcendental Meditation was fashionable when I was at school and a number of my good friends went off to a lecture hear about the practice; the parents of one of them were concerned that the event was some form of brain-washing exercise. Though I read widely around the subjects of expanding consciousness including a trio of books by Carlos Castaneda and the obligatory The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, I was never tempted to meditate and the only hallucinogens I ever ingested were Psilocybe semilanceata, freshly foraged from Streatham common, and seeds from home-grown Ipomoea violacea (Heavenly Blue Morning Glory.) Both were chosen because they were natural, unadulterated products and, in the case of the magic mushrooms, as a former botany student I was unconcerned that I’d pick something unpalatable. During an InterRail tour of Europe in 1980 with fellow botany student Nick Hodgetts, we were on the lookout for Lophophora williamsii, the peyote. I may have been influenced by the almost lounge-jazz of Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) from In and Out of Focus (1970) but despite some promising signs on barges in Amsterdam, we didn’t find any. Back home, the Ipomoea didn’t work at all and the result from the fungi was mildly disappointing; I succumbed to finding everything very funny and though I thought that my smile was going to spread so wide that my head was going to fall off, there were no chromatic or sonic effects. This contrasts with the coverage of use of magic mushrooms by youths in Barrow’s Evening Mail which described tales of visions of dragons. How prog is that? Perhaps I should have stayed in Barrow...

I have found that live music can lead to transcendental experiences. The dreamy soundscapes of Sylvian and Fripp played havoc with my temporal awareness when I saw them at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993, despite the cramped seating conditions. It felt as though I was transported to another time and another place and, as I’d not previously heard any of the material, it came as something of a shock to find that one of the tracks was called Twentieth Century Dreaming (A Shaman's Song). When I used to listen to Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon (1975) in the dark and through headphones I used to imagine other possible worlds, with the flowing, amorphous sounds conjuring a dynamic spectrum of colours. Though I appreciate stagecraft and thematic stage design, I’d always wanted to see Tangerine Dream in a dimly-lit church. The nearest thing I ever came to them was witnessing Node earlier this year, at the Royal College of Music. The pulsating sequences and sonic washes were mesmerising; the musicians were mostly static but when I closed my eyes the effect was to take me on a trip into inner space, equating the sequences with racing heartbeats or neuro-synaptic transmission.

This effect isn’t only associated with soundscapes or electronica; two years ago watching a reformed Camel performing The Snow Goose in its entirety, I was carried by the music to a dream world where I played out the piece, somehow anticipating and embracing the changes required for the composition when realised without an orchestra. The effect seems to occur when I’m most relaxed, undisturbed by theatrical elements and allowing the musicians to weave their magic. Only prog seems to have that magic.



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