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Is there rivaly between progressive rock bands or is the genre like an extended happy family?

ProgBlog investigates...

By ProgBlog, Aug 23 2015 09:38PM

August in the south eastern corner of the UK has been quite poor in terms of weather this year, with unseasonal downpours following a series of Atlantic depressions that have tracked across the country. This weekend we experienced a ‘Spanish plume’, a condition that arises from a large southwards dip in the high altitude jet stream that developed to the west of Europe that in turn encouraged a deep southerly wind flow that pushed hot and humid air from Portugal and Spain north and north-east into northern Europe, including to us the UK. Temperatures at Selhurst Park for Crystal Palace vs. Aston Villa peaked at over 30oC prompting the first water breaks in a Premier League fixture. With a cold front from the Atlantic over the north of the UK and unstable, hot air pushing up from the south or south west, there was the potential for heavy thunderstorms where the two weather systems met; strong winds associated with the jet stream help organise thunderstorms and play a part in their severity. This latest forecast came with a degree of uncertainty, something that’s become increasingly prevalent in our televised weather bulletins where over the last couple of weeks the prediction for the next day has inevitably proved to be inaccurate.

It seems that the British like talking about the weather. It serves as a common topic when individuals are thrust into a situation where it’s uncomfortable not to talk. It helps that UK weather so changeable and unpredictable, part of the beauty of living in a temperate marine climate; it also gives us the right to moan. As a youth in the North West I became used to rain. The relief rainfall that was a major feature of the western Lake District didn’t really affect Barrow very much but moisture-laden air from the Atlantic had a habit of dampening our plans one way or another. I was very much at home when I stayed in Seattle for a week in 2002 where there were a number of dedicated, accurate weather channels on the TV.

Weather may seem a bit prosaic as a topic for prog but weather and the British go together like tea and crumpets. After a childhood in Barrow I feel as though I’ve got fifty words for rain... In fact, the water cycle and our understanding of the principles of weather processes, such as drought, flood or monsoon, is very much the stuff of prog. Furthermore, the ability of humankind to distort weather patterns through extracting and burning hydrocarbons and the detrimental effect of pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is something that the adherents of the counterculture warned us about; the origins of the progressive rock movement had strong links to environmental groups. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that there’s no definitive album about the physical geography of weather or its myriad facets, just a straightforward interpretation.

Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch (1979) may come closest to revisiting the old hippie theme of global environmental disaster and a form of gloom pervades the entire album. Largely referred to as the third and final part of the Tull folk-rock phase, when I listened to the album recently I didn’t think there was much folk to detect; there’s a reference to pre-Christian themes (on Dun Ringill) which might fit the tag but it’s more an association of convenience, marking the last of the stable Tull line-ups. Stormwatch uses the concept of a storm as both metaphor and as literal description, picking up from a theme in the title track of Heavy Horses (1978) where Ian Anderson predicts that the magnificent beasts will be required once more when the oil has run out; North Sea Oil recognises the commodity as a quick fix for the economy and one that wasn’t going to last. Dark Ages and Something’s on the Move hint at energy shortages and long, cold winters and subsequent rioting while Flying Dutchman bemoans our inability as a nation to accept immigrants. In a recent Prog magazine interview, Anderson admitted to being politically left of centre; Stormwatch was released in September 1979 at the tail end of the first era of progressive rock; the political and social landscape was changing with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister four months earlier as she commenced the dismantlement of the state and used burgeoning oil revenues to fuel her rewards for the selfish (North Sea oil had come on stream in 1975.) The dark mood of the album was no doubt partly down to the illness of bassist John Glascock who died two months after its release, having only played on three of the tracks. Though the (David Palmer) penned track Elegy was written for Palmer’s father, at the time the only section remaining of the Anderson/Palmer/Barre ballet The Water’s Edge, I felt it also served as a tribute to Glascock.

Camel’s Rain Dances (1977) isn’t weather-related. The short, melodic instrumental title track that closes the album doesn’t call to mind rain but merely reprises the beautiful, melodic opener, First Light and could be called anything because the album doesn’t have any cohesive concept; at least the title track from Gryphon’s Raindance (1975) which begins and ends with the sounds of rain and thunder has a keyboard backing under the main melody line that is reminiscent of flowing water and the album’s cover depicts the effects of playing the record.

The strong Red Rain from Peter Gabriel’s So (1986) is supposed to have been inspired by a terrifying dream. Some ascribe the imagery to acid rainfall (Gabriel is well known for his environmental concerns, appearing at the People's Climate March in London last September) but it seems to me to be about the nightmare of genocide; a number of African nations were in the throes of civil war in the early – mid 80s including Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Rain is represented on this track by hi-hat, played by ex-Curved Air drummer Stewart Copeland. More up-to-date, Anathema’s prog metal-lite Weather Systems (2012) is full of nice melodic touches and contains some interesting sonic experimentation and passages that remind me of Porcupine Tree but despite its title, the album only uses weather as a metaphor for events during a life.

I think some band should attempt a concept album based on the science of meteorology, whether it’s a series of interpretations of particular examples (think Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII.) Fabio Zuffanti’s Hostsonaten project covers some of this ground on the excellent symphonic prog Winterthrough (2008) with tracks called Snowstorm and Rainsuite but I still believe classic British prog bands missed out on an easy topic with a captive audience.



By ProgBlog, Mar 1 2015 11:32PM

On Friday 27th February I attended the first show in 17 years by analogue synth quartet Node at the Royal College of Music. This prestigious venue seemed rather suitable, affording electronica appropriate recognition as a distinct, legitimate musical form; hardly surprising when you consider the CVs of the band members: production legend Flood; veteran producer and musician Ed Buller; film composer Mel Wesson; and Professor Dave Bessell.

Arriving in the Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, we were greeted with what had been dubbed as the largest collection of vintage analogue synthesiser equipment ever seen outside a recording studio, with an estimated value of £500000; largely made up of modular synthesizers but with a couple of mini Moogs and a VCS3 also quite evident. The group played four pieces over two sets that lasted 90 minutes; all the material was sequencer driven but there were two distinct styles: one, a spacey ‘Berlin school’ sound that was inspired by mid 70s Tangerine Dream and the other was a more industrial sound where the sequences marked out aggressive, percussive beats as though forming the soundtrack to an imaginary film where a derelict factory had been occupied by feral denizens in a bleak vision of a dystopian near-future. Partial, fractured images of the band, interspersed with bubbles and Tron-like graphics were projected onto a circular screen just above and behind the band, the real time images captured by the video cameras trained on each of the musicians. The compositions weren’t all keyboards and sequencers; Dave Bessell performed with a guitar strung around his neck that he strummed lightly on a couple of occasions, so lightly that you couldn’t actually hear it at times. For the first half of the performance I sat at the back of the auditorium, having acquired my ticket in the week before the show, and was mesmerised by the weaving sequences and the otherworld synthesizer washes as they radiated away from the stage via a series of speakers placed along the length of the hall. In the second half of the show I sat in the second row (apparently some people were unable to make the show) which afforded a great view of the four silent, black-clad musos as they subtly manipulated their instrument settings. This was a very enjoyable gig, however different it was from the concerts I normally go to, my first live electronica event where it seemed that all the cream of British electronica had gathered.

In the pub before the show, the excellent Queen’s Arms, Queen’s Gate Mews, I’d been discussing analogue keyboard equipment with friend Neil Jellis, agreeing that the full analogue sound was so much more satisfying than the digital machines that emerged at the end of the 70s. I described some Wakeman Moog from The Six Wives of Henry VIII that Neil later identified as being on Anne Boleyn, which I consider quite sublime, one of the best Moog sounds ever. This conversation turned to White Rock which we both believe is under-rated and so much better than the material that both immediately preceded it and the output that followed Criminal Record. With the exception of the single novelty track The Breathalyser, Six Wives, White Rock and Criminal Record are purely instrumental and whatever you feel about the accuracy of the images they evoke, they utilise the full gamut of analogue technology to create miniature masterpieces of keyboard-based rock. I think that these three albums represent Wakeman’s best work and have previously criticised his forays into lyrics. This got me thinking whether or not the best prog is instrumental or vocal...

There are some groups where the vocals were integral to the ethos of the band, whether they were integral to the song’s narrative (Genesis) or philosophical musing (Yes); some where vocal tracks were balanced with instrumentals, possibly because there was no stand out singer in the band (Camel, King Crimson, Greenslade); and the fully instrumental (early Enid, Mike Oldfield, Gordon Giltrap.) It’s possible that the inclusion of vocals was a hangover from the rock roots that made up prog; the bands that were more influenced by jazz tended to be less inclined to use vocals, certainly Soft Machine, after the departure of first Kevin Ayers and then Robert Wyatt, went on to produce instrumental-only music. My collection includes the full spectrum from fully instrumental to all vocal and one of my personal favourite albums is Tales from Topographic Oceans, where the meaning of the lyrical content is difficult to discern. In Tales, the structure of the music is enhanced by the vocals but there are extended instrumental passages, which means the success of the concept relies on a balance of the relative strengths of the music and the song words. I think Yes get it about right though there are plenty of people who think the album fails on both accounts. Camel’s early output was a mixture of songs and instrumentals, until they released the excellent instrumental Music Inspired by the Snow Goose then subsequently reverted to a combination of the two forms. The recruiting of Richard Sinclair, a more accomplished vocalist than either Andy Latimer or Peter Bardens and someone with a jazz-informed vocabulary, resulted in a shift towards more songs. However, this may have been a result of record label interference, wanting the band to record a hit single (Highways of the Sun may have been radio friendly but it didn’t make the UK Top 50.) During the 70s Focus were predominantly instrumental, the exceptions being the title track from Moving Waves, Round Goes the Gossip from Focus 3, La Cathedrale de Strasbourg from Hamburger Concerto and I Need a Bathroom from Mother Focus. My favourite post-Barrett early Floyd are the space rock and prog instrumentals A Saucerful of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother and One of These Days. Dark Side of the Moon is a fantastic album despite the sixth-former lyrics and the title track from Shine on You Crazy Diamond, like Echoes, is predominantly instrumental. The angelic-voiced Greg Lake was a key component of the first incarnation of King Crimson and though John Wetton was an able vocalist, it’s the musicianship and improvisational talents of the Larks’ Tongues era Crimson that stand out.

Of course this is all subjective; the relative abilities of group members on their respective instruments, their influences and their vision of the best way to get their ideas across all play a part. But if I’m more interested in the instrumentation, how come my favourite album is Close to the Edge?



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