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The ProgBlog gig marathon rolls on, back in the UK 48 hours after the symphonic edition of the Z-Fest for two shows themselves only 48 hours apart: The #Yes50 tour at the London Palladium and the first show of Steven Wilson's three night residency at the Royal Albert Hall.

Could it all be getting a bit too much?

By ProgBlog, Jul 17 2016 04:39PM

Last weekend was spent based in Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic and included a day trip to Bratislava in Slovakia, less than 90 minutes away by train. I’ve been to the Czech Republic before, for a presentation at the second East-West Immunogenetics conference in Prague in 2007 and on my brief time off I managed to get to a couple of record stores, one on a late evening trip around Wenceslas Square where the rock music selection was rather poor and the other, squeezed in just before my flight home, a shop called Bontonland in the Centrum Chodov mall at the end of subway line C. Though this large, rambling store was staffed entirely by non-English speakers (my problem, not theirs) I made my request for Czech prog using an elementary phrase book and citing English examples of the genre. Despite these communication difficulties, the staff managed to produce a handful of Czech CDs and provided me with a remote to ply through the selection. I sat for about an hour listening to parts of this collection but it was predominantly blues based material that I didn’t really like or want.

I had done some research before my 2007 trip and the band Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) were foremost on my list. This group formed in the aftermath of the crushing of Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring in 1968, named after the track Plastic People on the 1967 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention album Absolutely Free. PPU were targeted by the communist authorities with punishment ranging from imprisonment to having a house burned down. Unable to perform in public, an entire underground cultural movement formed around the band during the 1970s and the sympathizers of the movement were often called máničky, indicating youths with long hair. I was unable to find any PPU releases on that particular visit but that might have been in part due to the classification of the band. Inspired by Zappa and the Velvet Underground, PPU occupy an area akin to chamber-prog, but with more riff-based music than, for example, Henry Cow.


I was aware that rock bands, including some with progressive leanings, were around in communist countries in the late 70s and early 80s. I wanted to visit the USSR in 1983, with Leningrad a short train journey from Helsinki which I visited with friend Nick Hodgetts during an Inter Rail holiday over the summer, but organising a visa while already en route was an insurmountable problem. I did get to visit East Berlin before the fall of the Wall and got shouted at by a border guard in a watch tower when I stepped over a low barrier to take a photo of the Wall from the West; I even spent my honeymoon on a two-centre holiday to the relatively ‘loose’ communist state of Yugoslavia, officially the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where I witnessed the lack of choice available to the citizens and benefitted from a currency in freefall, cashing low value travellers cheques on a daily basis. I bought a piece of original artwork and, though I looked at some CDs, these were mostly folk music so I didn’t acquire any. Having come away from honeymoon without any local music, my first Eastern European CD purchase was a second-hand copy of U Vreci Za Spavanje by Yugoslavian band Tako, bought from Beanos in Croydon, in 2005, not from behind the Iron Curtain. I’d seen this and not bought it, but returned to the shop the following week after checking my Jerry Lucky books. My CD is a Brazilian reissue of the original 1980 LP plus a couple of bonus tracks and though the recording quality is a bit poor, it’s a very enjoyable album. The opening title track begins like something from Wish You Were Here and while there are plenty of keyboards throughout the album, there’s also a good quantity of flute, making it a great piece of symphonic prog which references Camel and Steve Hackett along with early 70s Floyd.

Beanos was the source of my next Eastern Europe music purchases in April 2008, picking up two CDs by Polish band Albion, Wabiąc Cienie (2005) and Broken Hopes (2007). The former is their second release, entirely in Polish (the title translates as Luring the Shadows, and the cover picture, which is very proggy, conveys this quite nicely) and the latter, their third album is a more mature and coherent effort but sung in English. Wabiąc Cienie demonstrates good musicianship, influenced by Pink Floyd and 80s Marillion, though it comes across as being a bit too controlled, as if studio time was the most important process and, for the most part it’s unchallenging 4/4, albeit with pleasant alternating passages of guitar and multi-layered keyboards. Vocalist Katarzyna Sobkowicz-Malec has a great voice, at times hinting at frailty but always controlled and in tune. The best track is the 11 minute plus instrumental Bieg po Tęczy (Run the Rainbow) which hints at the continued direction on subsequent album Broken Hopes, incorporating the sounds of a young baby and the flapping of birds’ wings; it contains lengthy passages in 7/8 time, too. Broken Hopes strikes me as Albion’s Misplaced Childhood with a narrative that questions politics, war and religion, all suitable epic themes for a concept album which has more variation than its predecessor but still sounds far more complete and satisfying.


A work friend told me about Solaris because one of his colleagues had introduced him to this Hungarian symphonic prog outfit. I eventually found a copy of Marsbéli Krónikák in Black Widow Records in Genoa last year, my only non-Italian purchase of the trip at just €17; the current UK price is almost £50. Solaris took their name from the science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem and their album titles from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, though Lem’s first novel was called The Man from Mars. I know that Marsbéli Krónikák is generally raved about, similar to the way that Ys by Il Balletto di Bronzo is hyped as being the best progressive rock album, ever, and though it’s undeniably well-played symphonic prog with lots and lots of keyboard and flute, it doesn’t press all the right buttons for me, possibly because it’s a little bit driven by some simple riffs and I’m not at all keen on one of the bonus tracks that appears on my 1995 re-issue CD – I think the quality of the material tails off towards the end of the original album. However, I’d still rate it as pretty good. Marsbéli Krónikák II is much cheaper to get in the UK because it was released in 2014, after years of the band attempting to get back together and I was given a copy for Christmas last year. This follow-up effort is stylistically similar despite thirty tears between the original and the sequel, which again tails off in quality towards the end of the album but is, overall, a really good release.


Whereas Solaris appeared in 1980, their fellow countrymen Omega had been active in the late 60s and appeared on the prog radar with the 1975 album The Hall of Floaters in the Sky. I think this may have had an airing on Alan Freeman’s radio show but I do remember looking at the interesting sleeve art in Blackshaw’s in Barrow when it was released, thinking it was a pretty odd title, not realising that it might be a literal translation from the Hungarian. I finally bought a copy from a stall in Dalston Old Market earlier this year but, despite Omega being the most successful Hungarian band and this particular album allegedly one of their best; a mixture of symphonic prog and post-Barrett Pink Floyd space rock, I was disappointed. I’m not a fan of the lyrics or the English vocals and it’s too close to heavy rock for my taste.


And so to last weekend. I really liked Brno with its flashes of Functionalist architectural style, the Villa Stiassni and Villa Tugendhat, and the day trip to Slovakia was good, taking in a number of varied sites like St Michael’s Tower and the UFO Tower over the Danube. On our first evening in Brno we’d noticed a shop selling CDs, Indies, next to the impressive Alfa Palace, a Functionalist masterpiece, and on our last morning we made time to shop. I bought two CDs by PPU, Hovězí Porážka (Beef Slaughtering) (1984) and Obešel já polí pět (I Walked Around Five Fields) (2009), the recording of a 2003 concert with the Agon Orchestra in honour of Czech philosopher Ladislaw Klima. I also bought two CDs by prog-folk band Zrni (which I haven’t had time to listen to yet.) Then I saw Vinyl Records... I have never travelled anywhere in the world with the intention of buying vinyl, not even recent excursions to Italy, but this shop, selling both new and second hand vinyl, was the obvious place to start. The incredibly helpful staff chose a selection of Czech prog for me and then let me listen to entire sides. I picked up original copies of Sluneční hodiny (Sundial) (1981), Křídlení (1983), both by Synkopy; 33 (1981) by M.Efekt; and a non-Czech LP, Brandung by Novalis (1977). Considering how small the Czech Republic and Slovakia are, there were some incredibly talented prog bands around in the 70s and 80s. I’m grateful to both Vinyl Records and the former owners of the LPs for keeping them in such great condition and, though recording studios used by rock bands in former communist countries may have been less advanced than Western Europe or American studios, I’m impressed with the dynamic range of the recordings.

If you’re ever in the Czech Republic, spend some time in Brno. The architecture is stunning and the friendly record shops contain some absolute gems.









By ProgBlog, Dec 27 2015 11:05PM

I was very fortunate to receive a good collection of prog this Christmas. I try to help family members with a wish list but even better, my wife, who has a history of buying prog for my birthdays and Christmases, gets progressive rock-related suggestions from Amazon. One present I wasn’t expecting was the Steve Hackett: The Man, The Music DVD (Wienerworld, 2015) which is an up-to-date documentary that includes material relating to Wolflight and ends with a dedication to Chris Squire who was interviewed for the release. It also boasts a design that dovetails with that for Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith box set (InsideOut Music, 2013.) Filmed and directed by Matt Groom it includes some insights into the early Hackett family life but the parts that will be of most interest to fans are those that relate to the Genesis period and the subsequent solo (Hackett band) material. The man himself comes across as very thoughtful and very polite when he comes to discuss his former colleagues in Genesis. It may be that those interviews were conducted before the shoddy treatment he received at the hands of the Genesis: Together and Apart documentary aired in October 2014. Keyboard player Roger King features quite heavily because of the value of his long-term musical and production contributions and there are other cameos from brother John Hackett, drummer Gary O’Toole, wind player Rob Townsend, guitarist Amanda Lehmann and inimitable bassist Nick Beggs. There are also discussions between Hackett and Steven Wilson and Hackett and Chris Squire. Footage from a concert at Leamington Spa is very well recorded and it would be interesting to know if there was sufficient material from that gig for a full DVD release.

I was listening to Nursery Cryme (1971) on my commute to and from work one day last week and was surprised to hear For Absent Friends, thinking that I’d not included it when I transferred the album to my mp3 player. Described by Hackett in the DVD as one of his first contributions to the group, I find the song a little throwaway. Hackett confirmed what I’ve always suspected, that Phil Collins featured on vocals on this track though when I won tickets from Capital Radio to see Genesis for their Three Sides Live Tour, the question was “what is the Genesis track where Phil Collins first sings solo?” I answered, on a homemade postcard, More Fool Me from Selling England by the Pound (1973) which has the sleeve declaration “(Vocals Phil)”. As I put the postcard in the post box I did wonder if it was a trick question so getting the ‘congratulations!’ letter came as a total surprise. Overall, The Man, The Music is a well balanced piece of work covering all of Hackett’s output, his personal thoughts, his guitar technique and with some interesting input from collaborators and family. I’d recommend it for any Hackett fan.



Congratulations letter from Capital Radio
Congratulations letter from Capital Radio

My wife also got me David Bedford’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), a CD that had been on my wish list for some time. I bought a copy of Bedford’s Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon / The Song of the White Horse (1983) on vinyl from a record fair earlier this year which I really like, having previously dug out a YouTube video of the fascinating Omnibus documentary about the commission and making of White Horse. I bought a copy of Höstsonaten’s live performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2013) from Fabio Zuffanti’s stall at the Prog Résiste festival in 2014, which included a DVD of the show from December 2012. That release epitomises Italian progressive rock with its brilliant musicianship and operatic scope and it rekindled my admiration for Coleridge’s poetry; when I was an undergraduate I used to own a copy of Coleridge’s complete works that I lent to an English student who never returned the book. I thought that the David Bedford version, from over 35 years earlier and narrated by actor Robert Powell, would make an interesting comparison. White Horse is truly organic, utilising the blowing stone in the instrumentation and describing a landscape; comparisons with Mike Oldfield’s sublime Bedford-orchestrated Hergest Ridge (1974) seem quite appropriate, whereas I find Ancient Mariner closer in structure to The Odyssey (1976) with less reliance on atonality and dissonance and more on recognisable melody, created with multiple keyboard lines. Having said that, there’s a highly evocative sparse percussive section where the ship is ice bound and it sounds like lanterns and sundry deck equipment is moving in the wind.

It’s interesting that Powell’s narration isn’t a recital of the poem; rather it conforms to what Bedford set out in the sleeve notes for the album, wanting to evoke the mood and atmosphere of certain passages, an effect achieved by using the notes from the margin of the poem. One of these, “No twilight within the courts of the sun” became a track by Steven Wilson on his first full-length solo album Insurgents (2008). I really like Ancient Mariner.

Another present that I’d not accessed before is Beyond and Before - the formative years of Yes by Peter Banks with Billy James (Golden Treasures Publishing, 2001.) Banks (born Brockbanks) died in 2013 and appeared on the first two Yes albums before forming his own band Flash. His style of playing was unique and he’s remembered as being a better guitarist than he was originally regarded. Flash weren’t really prog so I didn’t follow them particularly closely though it was hard to miss their albums in record stores. Banks himself has not really featured in much of the general discussion of the genre despite his excellent guitar work with Yes so this publication can be regarded as going some way to correct that omission. The book suffers from repetition, an excess of exclamations and some poor grammar but it’s gratifying to see very little bitterness in someone who wasn’t necessarily treated as well as they deserved; there aren’t many people he doesn’t like. He reflects upon material on which he performed and though he may have not been pleased with the recorded results at the time, he reassesses the music and generally now appreciates how it has turned out. It may not be deeply analytical but it’s easy and pleasurable to read.



Beyond and Before
Beyond and Before

Cactus Choir (1976) by Dave Greenslade is another album I’ve had on my radar for some time. Recorded not long after the break-up of Greenslade, the production is much cleaner than his previous band efforts but overall it’s less proggy and more bluesy and, in my opinion, less clever. I really liked the dynamic between Dave Greenslade and Dave Lawson and I liked Lawson’s lyrics. Early Greenslade may have sounded a little raw but there seemed to be a very good understanding between the four members. Simon Phillips isn’t a bad replacement for Andrew McCulloch and Tony Reeves features on half the tracks but the vocals are disappointing, with Steve Gould sounding like Elton John on the title track. For me, only Finale reaches the standard of the old band but it’s by no means a terrible effort.

With a remastered copy of GTR (2015), another Steve Hackett connection, Solaris’ Martian Chronicles II (2014) and, from my brother Richard Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy Two this has been a good Christmas. I really appreciate all my other presents but the prog-related gifts have been exceptional.




Christmas presents
Christmas presents




By ProgBlog, Aug 16 2015 08:59PM

It may be the largest seaport in Italy, served by several cruise lines, but Genova is hardly geared up for tourism. I first visited the city in May 2014 for the Riviera Prog Festival but was intrigued by the UNESCO World Heritage designation for the largest medieval city centre in Europe including the Palazzi dei Rolli. This vertical city also has some unusual modes of transport. Your 100 minute ticket (€1.60) is good for the Metro, local train services, the bus and elevators and a funicular railway. The lifts are incredible – I couldn’t quite believe the map last year when I saw ‘ascensore’ marked and I somehow managed to walk right past one; last week, when I went for a return visit with my wife Susan, I made sure we used them. There’s even a Starship Enterprise-like lift that travels horizontally for some distance before ascending – possibly the only example of its kind in the world.

It seems appropriate that Genova should host an annual prog festival though it’s actually a music festival associated with a musical equipment fair held in the Fiera, the exhibition centre reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s.

Last year the excellent Black Widow Records (Via del Campo 6R) had decamped to the prog festival leaving the shop closed but on our first afternoon we somehow managed to make the pilgrimage to what I can only describe as one of the best record stores I’ve ever visited. Small in area but filled with vinyl and CDs, owner Massimo Gasperini is a fountain of knowledge and also friends with a number of musicians. He may not have been quite prepared for the Englishman who came into his shop and encouraged by his wife, began to select a rather large pile of CDs. Rather than having the CDs themselves accessible, Massimo has saved space by displaying four CD covers in plastic wallets the size of a vinyl album. It also meant that the storage racks could be uniform; a system I’d previously seen in Rossetti Records in Milan. On former trips I’d taken lists or one of my Progressive Italiano books but the gaps in my collection are becoming fewer and fewer and I now recognise what I want to acquire without too much trouble. The gaps that do exist are generally more recent album releases, bands that formed or reformed during the third wave of progressive rock and these 90s onwards groups aren’t all covered in my books. I have to rely on engaging the shopkeeper in conversation, mostly in English because my Italian is very basic, using a shared appreciation of the music itself. I was both surprised and impressed to see a copy of Marsbeli Kronikak by Hungarian symphonic prog band Solaris. Initially released in 1984, this is a highly regarded piece of work and somewhat difficult or expensive to come by in the UK. When I last checked my Amazon wish list it was selling for £43; I bought it there and then for €17. It really is a well-crafted melodic piece of work, spoiled only by some harmonica on the last of the two bonus tracks.

An old release from 1973 that I’d not previously come across in any of my travels was Melos by Cervello, the only record they produced before breaking up. I was aware that there was no keyboard player in the band but there’s plenty of flute and they utilise some interesting dynamics; the entire concept is based around Greek myths which is enhanced by a strong Mediterranean feel.

I saw Il Tempio delle Clessidre at the Riviera Prog Festival last year and was impressed enough to buy their first CD and a T shirt from their merchandise stand. I’d previously seen a review of their 2013 album Alienatura in Prog Magazine but I’d not actually seen it other than at the music festival. They’re a Genova band and their material is released on Black Widow Records so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to pick it up in the shop!

I’ve now seen La Coscienza di Zeno twice, on the second day of Prog Résiste last year in Soignies and again the following month, once more in Genova. I think I preferred the Genova set more, possibly because I’d heard the material which has some neat hooks but can also be quite rhythmically complex. A lack of ready cash and a shortage of luggage space meant I didn’t buy anything on either of these occasions but I couldn’t resist buying Sensitivita (2013) this time.

I’d resisted buying Latte e Miele records until I got a copy of Passio Secundum Mattheum from 1972 on a day trip to Padova from Venezia late last year. I‘d originally been put off by suggestions that the members of the group were inspired by religion but found the music and musicianship quite incredible, genuine classic Italian prog and anyway, rather religion than dodgy right-wing politics. I’ve been looking out for Marco Polo Sogni e Viaggi from 2009 but Black Widow had Passio Secundum Mattheum The Complete Work which is a 2014 remake of the original album, extended and rearranged and released on the Black Widow label – Latte e Miele being another Genovese group. It’s interesting to see the list of narrators who appear on the album, a list that includes other Genovese and some of the greats from the original RPI scene.

I’ve been a Goblin fan for some years and managed to find a copy of the eponymous Cherry Five album, which I like a great deal, in Pisa a couple of years ago. I was delighted that a reformed Cherry Five had just released Il Pozzo dei Giganti which is based on Dante’s Inferno, on the Black Widow label. It’s quite clear they’ve picked up from where they left off in the 70s; not only is it thematically Cherry Five material but the analogue keyboard sounds are very fitting.

Finally, Massimo produced a CD that wasn’t in the racks and asked if I was interested: Palepolitana by Osanna, the just-released reinterpretation of Palepoli from 1972 by the current line-up. I explained that I was a big fan of the original album but less impressed by their later material; Landscape of Life (1975) has two great tracks but the line-up was in transition for that album and the remaining material is really very throwaway. Massimo told me that the original Palepoli was supposed to have been a double album and the current group had not only recreated the material released in 1972 but included the songs that would have made up the other LP in the proposed double album, described as “an act of love for the city of Naples...” There are hints of the very early material, the Mediterranean feel mixed with psychedelia but I still prefer the three tracks Ora Caldo, Stanza Citta and Animale senza Respira which continue to reveal surprises.

That’s my advert for the Genoa tourist board. I've not mentioned one other of the Genova greats: La Maschera di Cera. I've got all their albums apart from Petali di Fuoco (2010) plus a considerable number of albums by Fabio Zuffanti. Coincidentally, Genova featured in the travel section of The Guardian this weekend http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/aug/14/italy-genoa-food-drink-chocolate-walking - it was as though I was still there...



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