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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, Jan 11 2016 12:02AM

I’ve had an innate aversion to all things that instruct “Keep Calm and Carry On...”, including the almost acceptable Keep Calm and Mellotron T shirt that I spotted during 2014’s Resonance Festival in Balham, since these things began appearing in 2008 or 2009. I don’t like the juxtaposition of the font and the crown but it’s hard to pin down why it offends me so much. Fortunately, author and journalist Owen Hatherley has just done a piece for The Guardian in which he succinctly explains and justifies my hatred: probably resurrected as a joke this war-time phrase, seemingly innocent nostalgia, quickly took on a dark meaning as governments imposed austerity in response to the global financial crisis. From signifying that we should invoke the ‘blitz spirit’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ as the poor, ill and disabled had their benefits cut and many had to rely on food banks, Hatherley coins the phrase ‘austerity nostalgia’ and suggests that the message is a return of the nostalgia of repression, when there was public spirit in the face of adversity; the real world is of course currently geared towards greed and selfishness.


Keep Calm and Carry On in all its countless forms encourages us to carry on consuming as though capitalism hadn’t just taken a massive shock and I find it somewhat ironic that Past Times, a UK retailer based on the purveyance of nostalgia (and therefore just the sort of place you’d see Keep Calm and Carry On merchandise) went into administration in 2012. Austerity nostalgia transports us back to a time between roughly 1930 and 1970, encompassing a period before the decline of the Empire and the post-war revival and social revolution where health and housing were provided by the state and the call from Harold Wilson for ‘a New Britain to be forged in the white heat of technology.’ Though the Beatles, the swinging sixties and the birth of progressive rock are covered by this time frame, we don’t appear to have been too successful in creating a better Britain through technology – government spending on R&D slumped below 0.5% in 2012. The privatisation of iconic council housing is a major contributory factor to the national housing shortage. My son came close to sharing a flat in Keeling House, a former Tower Hamlets council tower block designed by Denys Lasdun (completed in 1957.) Hatherley name checks this modernist masterpiece, an early example of a public asset being hived off to a private developer, as an illustration of how the romantic notion of design classics form part of this austerity nostalgia. The clean lines of the building (and an array of other iconic modernist edifices) have now been turned into limited edition prints and crockery to adorn the flats of hipsters, sold off by the local council and redeveloped by private equity barons. The reality is that Keeling House was emptied of council tenants in 1993 because of safety fears and was threatened with demolition; it was granted listed status that year but there was no council money to affect repairs and return it to the public housing pool.

Is the resurgence of vinyl part of this wave of nostalgia? It just about fits into the time frame and many diehard prog fans are now able to live their audiophile dreams, including me. I may have not been without a turntable since 1978 but I chose to play CDs when there was sufficient material available on that format, eschewing LPs because of the convenience of their digital cousins. However, the miniaturisation of the artwork and sleeve notes was always a problem, most evident on dual format releases like the eponymous Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album (1989); I bought the CD and struggled with the insert.

My short-lived semi-retirement allowed me to indulge in an upgraded hi-fi to fit in our upgraded dining room but the problem of the through lounge/diner, the inability for different family members to indulge in separate, different leisure pursuits (TV, and for me, music) meant that I needed a new pair of headphones...

I last owned a pair of closed back headphones between (about) 1976 and 1983. I don't remember the make but the sound quality was far better than that from the speakers that came with our Philips stereo deck. Like much of that record player, the speakers were housed in plastic and the slide volume and tone controls matched the slide volume controls on my cans! I can’t remember why I referred to headphones as cans, other than it was an adoption of a term used by professionals. I also assume that Rick Wakeman’s adaptation of Brahms 4th symphony is called Cans and Brahms (from Fragile, 1971) because of the headphone association with recording. My headphones may have originally been used for their designated purpose but in addition I used to take them to student discos to obscure the music and later used them in lieu of a microphone when making primitive recordings with friends. A few years after their demise I requested a pair of headphones for Christmas and my wife very kindly bought me a Sennheiser HD414 Anniversary Edition which are on their third set of foam pads but still going.


Towards the end of last year I noticed that the high frequency response of the 414s was causing a bit of distortion which is why I acquired a pair of wireless Sennheiser RS165s so I could listen to music while other members of my family watched TV; wireless because unlike in my youth where the comfy armchair was in easy reach of the headphone socket on the stereo, my new listening position, a gorgeous Barcelona chair, is on the opposite side of the room to my amplifier. I exercised some brand loyalty in my choice; I also have Sennheiser ear buds for my mp3 player and I'm happy with the quality of them, so the opportunity to buy the RS165s for £159 seemed like a good move. It was. The sound quality is exactly what you'd expect. Within the myriad forms of progressive rock are an amazing range of amplitude, frequencies and tones, all of which are handled with effortless clarity. Another reason for getting a good set of cans was so that I could follow the instructions inside Edgar Froese’s Aqua (1974) which features Gunther Brunschen’s artificial head system to produce binaural recordings, allowing the listener to perceive the direction of the sound source. The experience of listening to Aqua through closed ear cans was reminiscent of listening to Tangerine Dream through headphones in the dark when I was a teenager.




Headphones were helpful to discern song words when the speakers were located in shoulder high alcoves in a Victorian dining room which made putting your ear to the cone on the uncomfortable side of awkward, taking into account having to go back to the deck to lift and replace the tone arm to replay a section of track. Working out the words in the absence of a lyric sheet was something of a hobby, one that I don’t look back on with a warm and fuzzy feeling.







By ProgBlog, Oct 25 2015 09:45PM

My Walkman is blinking at me, cycling between the home screen and the music I was last listening to on my journey home from work last Thursday, shutting myself off from the noise and the crush on the London Overground (aka the Ginger Line), Tormato by Yes. The Option and Back buttons don’t respond yet I can scroll through the different tracks on the album but when it stays on the home screen for long enough, the left, up, right and down functions don’t work. It won’t even turn off! It’s broken. At 16GB it’s not big enough to hold anywhere near my entire music collection and my life involves constant updating of the material on the player each time I acquire more music and shuffle things around. In the last couple of months I’ve been to Italy and bought more CDs than I probably should have done; bought CDs at gigs; I’ve had a birthday, which inevitably resulted in multiple CDs; and I’ve been picking up new vinyl from the internet (the English version of Felona and Sorona by Le Orme and the yet to be despatched La Curva di Lesmo by Fabio Zuffanti) plus second hand vinyl (Edgar Froese’s Aqua, 1974) from an antique shop in Crystal Palace. My last batch of CD burning was a sequence of Tangerine Dream releases, Encore (1977), the last of the Peter Baumann-era TD, Cyclone (1978) featuring Steve Jolliffe, Force Majeure (1979) which featured Klaus Krieger on drums, Tangram (1980), the first album of the Johannes Schmoelling-era, and Hyperborea (1983); the vinyl won’t be converted to mp3 until I get a new turntable. Oh, I almost forgot. BTF put out a couple of discounted CDs every week and after reading a short review of the only and eponymous LP by Paese dei Balocchi (Land of Toys) from 1972, presented in a mini gatefold sleeve for €5.99, I put in my order and I’m waiting for it to be delivered. I bought a new MP3 player yesterday, just an updated version of my old Sony, because I was happy with the balance of portability (it’s very small) and sound quality, when played through Sennheiser earphones. I find it a little strange that the new device has a time display and as BST switched to GMT in the early hours of this morning; I found it stranger that this was an electronic device that required a manual adjustment to the time.

Time is something of an abstract concept that covers both immense (astronomical) measurement and the quantum level; the second was originally defined as the fraction 1/86400 of the mean solar day but uncertainty over the exact definition of a mean solar day and irregularities in the rotation of the earth resulted in deviations from the required accuracy. In order to define the unit of time more precisely, in 1967 the 13th CGPM (Conférence générale des poids et measures – General Conference on Weights and Measures) decided to replace the definition of the second with the following: The second is the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom at a temperature of 0 Kelvin.

It’s hardly surprising that an examination of the concept of time should feature in prog, from time travel (Beggar Julia’s Time Trip by Ekseption, 1969) to the condition of mankind (Time, from Dark Side of the Moon, 1973.) It may be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that a fascination with time goes back to before the beginning of the genre when psychedelia was in ascendency: the ingestion of LSD may have been used by some to expand consciousness but one of the alleged effects of the drug was to alter the perception of time, such that minutes seemed to stretch into hours. An early psychedelic-progressive crossover was the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed (1967), a song cycle about a day in the life of an everyman.

Roger Waters took an interesting approach to time on The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (1984) where the track titles all incorporate a specific time, from 4.30 am to 5.11 am with the track length corresponding to the times indicated by the titles; a parallel with Dark Side is that Pros and Cons is a reflection on issues contributing to a mid-life crisis. I went to see Waters perform the show live in London in June 1984; I’ve never owned the album because it resembles The Wall too much for my taste and though the concept may be prog, the music (and musicians) belonged to a straightforward rock idiom. I’m not suggesting that writing songs about time are unique to progressive rock or even that time isn’t only referred to by progressive rock bands in a manner other than the prosaic (think of Counting Out Time from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,1974) or even without any context (the very short harpsichord-drenched instrumental Time from Time and Tide (1975) by Greenslade, a collection of short pieces without any over-reaching concept. Within prog, some aspect of time often forms an integral part of a piece: the iconic chiming clocks that precede the Floyd’s Time or Vangelis’ use of the speaking clock at the end of Pulstar from Albedo 0.39 (1976) - a pulsar (an abbreviation for pulsating radio star) emits electromagnetic radiation as it spins so that there is a set period between pulses at a particular observation point. This precise period means that some pulsars are as accurate as an atomic clock.

Tempus Fugit by Yes (Drama, 1980) is more narrative-descriptive than a particular concept; the music was primarily supplied by Howe, Squire and White before Trevor Horn provided the lyrics which seem to suggest, in a somewhat convoluted way, that despite the lack of Anderson and Wakeman, Drama is a Yes album. It’s interesting that Horn reprises one of my favourite pieces from Tormato, the line in RejoiceTime flies, on and on it goes” and Rejoice is in essence the second part of opening track Future Times. Though Tempus Fugit may have influenced Roger Dean’s cover art (or the other way round) there seem to be references in the song words to the inside sleeve of Tormato. Time Table from Foxtrot (1972) is a classic Genesis pun but it’s really a short reflection on the failure of mankind to learn from the mistakes of the past, a slightly less naive take on the subject than Stagnation from Trespass (1970.) I prefer the earlier song. There’s another agonising pun on Zero Time (1971) by T.O.N.T.O’s Expanding Headband where the third track is titled Timewhys. I can’t detect any cohesive theme on this particular release, though in accord with their synthesizer instrumentation, a couple of the song titles hint at futurism: Cybernaut and Jetsex.

There’s more to the relationship between prog and time, including a perceived obsession with length of track and unusual time signatures. King Crimson might be regarded as one of the leading exponents of very odd times but most prog acts have strayed from 4/4; Waters’ bass and cash-register sounds on Money are in 7/8 and flow seamlessly. Critics regard this as being clever for the sake of it, pretentious self indulgence, whereas I think that uncommon meters allow a band to incorporate interesting rhythmical ideas, rather than conforming to the chug-chug-chug-chug of four beats to the bar. Furthermore, the extended length of tracks allows for development, eschewing the somewhat narrow constraints of the three minute single, which may be a challenge of the attention span of some critics.



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