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Following a short skiing trip ProgBlog reflects on music about winter and snow, and reconsider reggae...

By ProgBlog, Jan 2 2018 08:32PM

New Years Eve, 2017

It’s 7pm and I’ve just started the blog. I plan to go to bed early because I’m on call and I’m hoping that revellers don’t accidentally contribute to the strain on hospital A&E departments. Not a fan of this night, any year, because of the way it’s been hyped up by advertisers and the drinks industry and how it seems to have become accepted that on this particular occasion it’s OK to get totally wasted, my best new year was spent stargazing on the summit of a small drumlin on the Furness peninsula to mark the transition from the 1970s to the 80s.


Night sky over Furness
Night sky over Furness

TV has been awful this week. The BBC 24 hour news channel has been filling the gaps between genuine pieces of news with reviews of the year for Sport, Film, Deaths, Royals and so on, shown with a frequency that positively numbs so that it becomes difficult to work out which day of the week it is. Having gone to see Crystal Palace play today I can confirm that the football schedule doesn’t help with this feeling of dislocation; lucrative broadcasting deals mean that Premier League teams and their fans are at the mercy of TV executives so that this year, what used to be traditional Boxing Day fixture took place over three days and the New Year’s Day fixture is also due to be spread over three days. Throw in odd kick off times (Palace played at noon) and it’s also messing around with my circadian rhythm.


A couple of days ago we had the announcement of who appeared in the New Year’s Honours list. This is something of a end-of-year ritual and despite a promise to end cronyism, a concession wrung out by a public increasingly disillusioned with the way politics works, we end up with a knighthood for Tory kingmaker Graham Brady and another for ex-deputy PM Nick Clegg, whose lust for power facilitated 7 years of austerity, massive student debt and the impending destruction of the NHS. This ‘recognition’, though a little better than the obvious returning of a favour to Lynton Crosby in the list last year, reinforces the notion that politics is played by an elite for people within their own, tiny bubble and with little or no connection to everyday life. This is obviously not the case for all MPs but there are a number of parliamentarians (and, at a local level, councillors) who use their power and influence to manipulate policy so that it benefits themselves or their families; those with directorships of private health companies or the landlords of multiple properties, for instance. If there’s one burning issue of the times it must be inequality, whether that’s a lack of access to decent housing, decent social services and healthcare provision or decent jobs but, to the shame of us all, the gap between the haves and have nots is getting wider.


PM David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg (Getty Images)
PM David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg (Getty Images)

I find it obnoxious that the lies told during the Brexit debate have put the country in a position which exaggerates inequality; resentment at a lack of investment in former industrial regions, backed up with the spurious mantra that we’d ‘take back control’ was channelled into stoking anti-immigration sentiment and the subsequent devaluation of Sterling means that the increased cost of goods disproportionally affects the less well-off whereas the concomitant rise in share value benefits the already wealthy. It’s incredible that we can boast about the return of blue and gold passports (during the increased time in queues at customs, perhaps) swapped for seamless, invisible borders for exports and imports, and continue an archaic honours scheme which celebrates the achievements of some of the most inappropriate individuals. As for football, today’s Palace performance might have convinced me that it’s ok to get another season ticket for next year; the lack of application from players on silly wages at the beginning of the season felt like they didn’t care about the fans who pay to see them play, their earnings outstripping that of the average punter by some unholy figure.



Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City 31/12/17
Crystal Palace vs. Manchester City 31/12/17

I’m a bit torn by the awarding of any kind of prize where intangibles are weighed up by panels because everyone has innate bias; likes and dislikes. One of the rituals I used to go through as a youth in the mid-70s was to check the Melody Maker, NME and Sounds annual polls to see how the artists that I favoured fared. Some of the results ran counter to both my tastes and to reason, such as Gilbert O’Sullivan reaching no.2 in the Male Singer category and no.4 in the Keyboards category of the 1972 MM Readers’ Poll and I was somewhat bemused by some of the musicians ranked in ‘Miscellaneous Instrument’ because it didn’t tell you which particular instrument it was referring to for each artist and they could easily have been covered by one of the other categories.


The concept has been taken up by Prog magazine which, apart from holding an awards ceremony includes an annual 20 Top Albums of the Year feature where the results are culled from the preferences of the journalists themselves. Additionally, we were invited to vote in their annual reader’s poll, mimicking the format of the classic music papers during the 70s, with the results due out in the next edition. I’ve moved on a little since the 70s and though I don’t mind a list that is supplemented with a bit of information, the Top 20 Albums of 2017 as chosen by the writers at Prog magazine isn’t really my thing. However, I submitted some obscure choices for the Readers’ Poll so I will take a look at the published results.



New Year’s Day, 2018

After listening to one of my Christmas presents, the excellent Three Piece Suite retrospective by Gentle Giant, the first complete recording I’ve listened to for nearly a week due to work, football and family commitments, I thought I’d share some of ProgBlog’s category winners, based on material released in 2017 and the concerts I attended, material unlikely to get much of a mention in Prog...


Playing Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant
Playing Three Piece Suite by Gentle Giant

(I got called out and got home a little before midnight)

Back to the blog. Tuesday 2nd January


Album of the year: An Invitation by Amber Foil

Strictly an EP, this is the creation of João Filipe, and it’s a wonderful, all-round and well balanced item. The music takes you back to classic 70s prog, blending very modern concerns with a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale. The quirkiness of the music is reflected in the CD packaging which also contains a ‘blueprint for a house’. It’s unique. Get yourself a copy.


Commended: Alight by Cellar Noise


Bassist: John Wetton

Wetton died in January 2017, the third original progressive rock bassist to pass away in the last couple of years. Whereas there are undoubtedly a large number of amazing technical players who were represented on record or I saw play live during 2017, the accolade has to go to Wetton for the unbelievably wide range of material he’s left for us, including some of the most inventive lines expressed during his time with the 1972 – 1974 incarnation of King Crimson. A great loss to the prog community.


John Wetton circa. Caught in the Crossfire
John Wetton circa. Caught in the Crossfire

Drummer: Franz di Cioccio

The only original member of PFM remaining in the band, di Cioccio now spends as much time behind a microphone acting as front man as he does behind his kit, but along with long-term associate bassist Patrick Djivas he’s steered the ship through periods of not-so-good music to produce their best album of original material for a very long time. Emotional Tattoos may not quite hit the heights of L’Isola di Niente and Photos of Ghosts (I think it lacks sufficient contrast) but the songs are strong and the playing assured. Di Cioccio’s boundless energy, with either sticks or mic stand in his hands, is something to behold.


Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth

Holdsworth is another progressive rock legend who died last year, though in reality he was probably more of a jazz guitarist whose fluid lines graced releases by Tempest, Soft Machine, Gong, Bruford and UK. Highly regarded by other guitarists, his style was idiosyncratic. He’s another fine musician who is sadly missed.


Keyboard player

There are actually too many excellent prog keyboard players to choose from. Of course it’s great to see Rick Wakeman performing classic Yes again with ARW but I’ve also been most impressed with up-and-coming talent from Italy like Niccolò Gallani from Cellar Noise and Sandro Amadei from Melting Clock.


Miscellaneous instrument: Mel Collins, King Crimson (flute, saxophones)

I’ve always considered this a category for non-conventional rock instrumentation, rather than picking a particular type of keyboard like Moog, Mellotron or synthesizer but it was fine when Mike Oldfield used to pick up the prize for playing everything. My preference for a prog-associated instrument not covered by bass, drums, guitar or keyboards is the flute, followed by violin; I was very impressed with Lucio Fabbri when I saw him with PFM and his playing on Emotional Tattoos is real quality but I’m going to plump for Mel Collins for his woodwind. Crimson may not have played the UK in 2017 but the set-list for the US gigs, released on vinyl and CD last year, highlights the formidable talents of Collins.


Vocalist: Emanuela Vedana, Melting Clock

I’m one of a fairly small number of people to have seen the two gigs by Melting Clock but I don’t imagine it will be too long before they reach a much wider audience when they release an album later this year. Their brand of symphonic progressivo Italiano would undoubtedly appeal to all fans of the genre, but two obvious reference points are Renaissance and neo-prog. The songs are highly melodic and well-crafted with multiple layers, utilising twin guitars and keyboards to set the tone for Emanuela’s strong, operatic vocals. Simply stunning.



Live act

Choosing a favourite live act is too difficult, so I’m not going to make a decision. I’ve managed to get to see quite a number of Italian bands from the 70s, including PFM at the fourth attempt, and seeing Wakeman, Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin performing Yes music together was quite special, but it’s the surprises like Cellar Noise and Melting Clock, both of which included accurate early Genesis tributes in their sets, which make it impossible to decide on an outright winner.


Cellar Noise at the Legend Club, Milan
Cellar Noise at the Legend Club, Milan

Venue: Porto Antico, Genova

Choosing a favourite venue is equally hard. The acoustics inside neo-rationalist Teatro Carlo Felice in Genova are brilliant, but the architecture and the internal decor are terrible; the Royal Festival Hall is a great looking building, also with amazing acoustics but I was disappointed with the Dweezil Zappa set. I loved the intimacy of Genova’s La Claque whereas Rome’s Jailbreak Club was a bit too crowded over the weekend of the Progressivamente festival. Brighton Dome is a beautiful performance space though it can be a bit of a drag getting back from Brighton by car or public transport at the end of a gig.

A fantastic setting, good sound and a great line-up made the Porto Antico Prog Fest very special and it was only a 10 minute walk back to my hotel.









By ProgBlog, Jan 11 2015 08:19PM

I’ve just done something that on the face of it may seem to be hypocritical: I’ve filled out the Prog magazine readers’ poll for 2014. My stance on lists is that they’re lazy and how could anything as diverse as progressive rock produce a result that is in any way representative of anything. I occasionally fill out staff surveys at work because the NHS employs bullies and overpaid and under-qualified managers to run a service that really should be run by clinically qualified staff (the clue is in the ‘health’ bit); just because you may have broken your leg as a teenager and subsequently went on to manage a supermarket or a home improvement centre, or sold stocks and shares for rich idiots, it does not mean that you’re fit to run a hospital. I could have predicted what has just happened to Hinchingbrooke Hospital. I use the staff survey process to remind these people that cutting the salaries of nurses by £1700 per year during times of austerity, when housing prices and rent are spiralling out of control and rail fares shoot upwards with annual inflation-busting rises even though the service itself gets worse, is not only nasty but will lead to recruitment and retention problems, staff shortages, a demoralised workforce, a stressed-out workforce and clinical errors. This inevitably falls on deaf ears and the perpetrators of this mismanagement get rewarded in the New Year’s Honours list. Honestly. But I’m saving up each “I told you so” in the hope that it will give me cold satisfaction during my retirement.

As a youth I liked to look at the readers’ polls in (primarily) Melody Maker and (to a lesser extent) in the NME and Sounds. I’m not sure if this was an exercise in wanting to belong to the prog tribe or if it was simply checking to see if the bands I liked had received the recognition that I believed they had earned. It’s quite incredible that from 1973 to 1977, Yes were either top British band or International band or both in the Melody Maker poll and during those five years their lowest position was second. The news of their success was generally acknowledged with a large ‘thank you’ advertisement directed at their fans, accompanied by some Roger Dean artwork; I did particularly look out for members of Yes when I pored over the results though I was interested in prog acts in general. I feel that the recognition of prog bands and their members during this period, a time before the dreadful concept of celebrity, was testament to their musical ability and creative vision. It’s undeniable that the most successful of the 70s progressive rock bands shifted millions of albums and despite their penchant for a more cerebral approach to music-making, fans were evidently happy to indulge in odd time signatures, dissonance, lofty concepts and whatever else could be thrown at them in the name of high art. Whatever the reason for scrutinising the published results, the success of your favourite bands gave you bragging rights in the school playground, an important rite as punk and new wave made inroads on the musical map.

On reflection, I’m not sure why there were ‘British’ and ‘International’ sections and even more perplexed by the votes for miscellaneous instrument. The category seems quite sensible, asking the readership to vote for musicians playing instruments other than bass, drums, guitar and keyboards yet some of the responses were somewhat baffling. Reasonable votes were cast for Ian Anderson who usually ranked highly with ‘flute’ but why would Brian Eno be included in the list because he played a VCS3? I’d always classed the EMS VCS3 along with keyboards, based on my impression of the Synthi A, the VCS3 in a briefcase as used by Pink Floyd (featured in the Abbey Road studios footage of Dark Side sessions on Live at Pompeii.) If the VCS3 is classed as a miscellaneous instrument, then why not include exponents of the Mellotron or a double neck 6-string and 12-string guitar? Another common response was for Mike Oldfield who made appearances during this time for ‘everything’. However, a check of the instrumentation on Tubular Bells reveals just one instrument, the flageolet, which falls outside the remit of the other classes, being a woodwind instrument that was said to have been invented by Frenchman Sieur Juvigny in 1581.

The Prog magazine poll has been going since 2009 and adheres to a similar format to the old Melody Maker example, though there’s been a gradual evolution to the current format: Best album; best band; best male / female vocalist; best guitarist / bassist / drummer / keyboard player; and best unsigned / new act is equivalent to Melody Maker’s ‘brightest hope’. Prog also includes categories for best and worst event, best multimedia best reissue and icon. The reader’s poll allows personal choice, unlike the nominations for the annual Prog Awards where we are only able to vote for a shortlist of Prog magazine-approved candidates, and if you fail to vote for someone in one of the categories your votes don’t count. Perhaps the Prog team need a lesson in democracy!

Anyway, my votes were cast as follows, based on albums released in 2014 and acts that I saw perform live throughout the year, with the exception of Prog Woman of the Year:

Best band: Änglagård

Best album: La Quarta Vittima by Fabio Zuffanti

Best female vocalist: Sonja Kristina

Best male vocalist: Stefano 'Lupo' Galifi

Best guitarist: Steve Howe

Best bassist: Fabio Zuffanti

Best keyboard player: Agostino Macor

Best drummer: Chris Cutler

Best reissue: King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

Best multimedia: Pink Floyd, The Endless River

Best event: Prog Resiste, Soignies

Worst event: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Royal Albert Hall

Best venue: Victor Jara Cultural Centre, Soignies

Tip for 2014: Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band

Prog woman of the year: Kate Bush

Prog man of the year: Fabio Zuffanti


Prog magazine has also hosted other readers' polls, an early edition featured a ‘best albums’ poll which was repeated last year, the fifth anniversary of the magazine’s inception. Close to the Edge was second in 2009, pipped to the top position by Selling England by the Pound, but was promoted to the number one slot in 2014. I should think so! It was quite interesting to see how many albums I owned that made the top 100 (54) and relate this to the editorial remit of the publication. I did have 13 of the top 15 albums, not being at all interested in the two Rush albums that scraped in.

I also subscribed to a best Genesis track plebiscite, the results of which appeared in Prog 13 (January 2011) in the hope that my reasons for selecting my top three would get published because I spent some time thinking about it. My choices made the top three and in the correct order (3, Watcher of the Skies; 2, Firth of Fifth; 1, Supper’s Ready) but they didn’t quote me.

Even though I think publishing lists is lazy journalism, I’ll continue to submit my opinions in the hope that the editorial board takes notice of both my suggestions and my reasons. I'm not so stupid that I think they ever will.



By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 07:18PM

In the early 70s, radio was a vital medium which began to play an increasingly important role in my interest in prog. Though BBC Radio 3 was primarily dedicated to classical music, the Sunday Times journalist Derek Jewell hosted a not to be missed programme called Sounds Interesting that featured jazz and progressive rock bands, but it was Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on Radio 1 which aired from 1973 until 1978 that provided the best introduction to new acts to buy into. We were allowed to use a large Grundig stereogram in ‘The Big Room’ normally reserved for entertaining guests, probably to keep the noise to a minimum. This stereogram was more like a piece of furniture than a radio, but the speakers were of a decent quality and the walnut-finish wooden construction produced a warm tonal response. The sprung turntable was hardly at the cutting edge of hi-fi but it was certainly adequate. We cemented our claim on this piece of equipment by buying a new stylus, being unaware of its previous history, and prided ourselves on our careful handling of any vinyl. If we borrowed a record we would take great care of it, and if we lent one of ours to a friend, we expected that they would take as good care of it as we would ourselves. In reality our hopes were sometimes dashed: one friend left a borrowed copy of Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth above a radiator, reducing it to something like a timepiece in Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory.


The Saturday afternoon radio sessions were often accompanied by a scouring of one of the UK’s weekly music papers, Melody Maker, New Musical Express, or (less commonly) Sounds that we’d bought in town earlier that day. At the time progressive rock was big business and consequently these papers carried many column inches of information about acts we were interested in, and also acts that might potentially interest us. Melody Maker originally concentrated on jazz, and though at first rather dismissive of rock and roll, in the early 70s it became quite sympathetic to prog, particularly the writers Richard Williams and Chris Welch who raised the standard of writing on the subject of popular music. I always preferred the professionalism of MM and felt that NME journalists were rather fickle, likely to follow any trend in the hope of appearing ‘hip.’ The NME was more likely to champion straight forward rock acts and espouse the Dionysian values of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, and in the mid 70s it was quick to latch on to punk and new wave and embark upon some serious dinosaur bashing, advocating the view that exponents of progressive rock were class traitors with an unhealthy obsession for high culture. I have to admit to subscribing to the view that prog did represent high culture, whether it was the symphonic sound of Yes, the politically driven stridency of Henry Cow or the electronic musing of Tangerine Dream, this was all thought-provoking and often challenging music, aimed at the head and not the heart (or genitals.) I wasn’t interested in rock for its rebelliousness (which has since been shown to involve a great deal of hypocrisy as acts like the Rolling Stones are now firmly embedded within the establishment); I was interested in the possibilities of the music. Henry Cow were anti-establishment and unashamedly complex and for me, the prog ethos reflected a philosophy of expanding an understanding of art, literature and science, not simply a ‘get your rocks off’ base instinct.


The inclusion of lengthy instrumental passages meant prog was increasingly able to be used as the soundtrack to documentary pieces on TV. In 1973 Jacob Bronowski included a short section of Echoes in the Generation Upon Generation episode of his seminal series The Ascent of Man on BBC television. The accompanying clip was of two stags fighting for the right to mate with a female and it seemed to me that it was a fitting piece of music for the subject. Pink Floyd were even credited at the end of the programme. My feeling was obviously not without reason. Will Romano suggests that Echoes is as much as song about Darwinism and instinctual knowledge as about human connectedness. In 2010, Bronowski’s daughter Lisa Jardine presented a television programme entitled My Father, The Bomb and Me in which she explored aspects of his life that she knew little of. She had discovered that he worked in operations research during WWII, designing more effective bombs, and wondered how she could reconcile this piece of information with the loving father that she remembered. Whether by accident or design, she used Pink Floyd as incidental music.


In December 1976, imagining that I knew it all, I wrote to the editor of the daily television news programme, Nationwide, suggesting a number of prog instrumentals that could be used as music for their documentary features. I was a little disappointed to get a post card in reply with the stock phrase “Thank you for your recent letter to NATIONWIDE. The Team are always interested to hear from individual viewers in this way and are grateful to you for taking the trouble to write.” I don’t recall ever hearing any of my suggestions being played.


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