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

ProgBlog investigates...

By ProgBlog, Nov 13 2016 07:16PM

Imagine a blustery Friday evening in central London at rush hour, spilling out of Great Portland Street tube station and wondering why, in the middle of November, a large crowd had assembled outside the Green Man pub and inside was a heaving mass of people. Somewhere in the throng was Jim Knipe, one of two friends I’d managed to persuade to give an unknown band a try. On the occasion of an England vs Scotland football match, something I’d inconveniently forgotten, it really wasn’t the most sensible place to have chosen for a pub meal before a gig at the nearby 229 The Venue. The football fixture seemed to have fired up a particularly nasty form of nationalism, at least amongst the clientele of the Green Man, so moving on quickly as soon as dinner was completed was the order of the day. The Green Man was the third choice hostelry; first choice The Albany, almost next door, was already fully booked for meals (we decamped there for a beer before moving on to the gig) and the second choice was a large restored Victorian pub with good beer, only I couldn’t find it on Google maps, I couldn’t remember its name (the Mason’s Arms) and I had no idea if it served food (it does). All I knew was that it was normally empty. The food at the Green Man we visited on the junction of Euston and Marylebone Roads, not to be confused with the Green Man, Riding House Street, was served at gastropub prices without the gastropub quality. Not recommended.

Doors to 229 were due to open at 7.30pm so Jim and I made our way across the road at the appointed hour to meet up with the third of the evening’s prog trio, Gina Franchetti. 229 first opened its doors in 1965 as part of the International Students House, a charity providing accommodation for British and overseas students whilst they studied at different Universities in London. The venue has sporadically played host to numerous gigs, awards ceremonies, club nights, weekend festivals and music related events and profits are ploughed back into the charity to help fund scholarship programmes for students from less advantaged countries. It underwent major refurbishment and had a technical overhaul in 2007 and was re-launched as a dedicated entertainment venue with two performance spaces. Unfortunately, Gina was standing in the queue for the larger of the two rooms where Dreadzone (a Big Audio Dynamite spin-off) were due to play and it was only when staff on the door were unable to find my name on the guest list that we realised we were heading to the wrong show; our entertainment was due to be provided by ESP, billed as ‘A Prog Rock Tour de Force’ and the gig was to launch their new album Invisible Din.




First on stage was Yumi Hara, standing in as the support act and who would later take to the stage with the band. Normally a pianist, Hara had recently taken up the harp (think the Jon Anderson-sized harp used on Olias of Sunhillow and Going for the One), performing material from collaborations with Artaud Beats bandmate and ex-Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler. Her songs may have been brief but they were laden with poignancy; an effect enhanced by the delicate tone of her instrument and the oriental scales she used.





ESP is basically a two-man band comprised of guitarist/producer/multi-instrumentalist Tony Lowe and drummer Mark Brzezicki, ably supported with a stellar cast of collaborators. Lowe first came to my attention as the guitarist for the live launch of the 2015 David Cross and Robert Fripp CD Starless Starlight (which Lowe produced) where his understanding and appreciation of one of the most classic and memorable progressive rock melody lines was on display. Along with Cheryl Stringall he’s also the co-founder of Sunn Creative, a socially aware record label which operates on ethical business principles which include a commitment to environmental and social issues, and partners selected like-minded charities such as Action Aid with their ‘Bollocks to Poverty’ campaign. Brzezicki is best known for his work with Big Country, though prog fans will associate him with Procol Harum; he’s well regarded in drum circles and boasts an impressive session CV. These two musicians assembled some great names from the progressive rock scene to play on the album, from prog's early years to the more recent wave, and they all made guest appearances for the concert. Keyboard player Mickey Simmonds joined the project for the live circus because Lowe, who played keyboards on the recording, confined himself to guitar. Simmonds cites some classic prog influences and I recognised his name from Camel’s Harbour of Tears album (1996). Also on stage were bassists Steve Gee and Phil Spalding, each performing roughly half the set; vocalist John Beagley; David Jackson on saxes and flute; Yumi Hara on harp; and David Cross on violin.

From the outset it was obvious that the band were a really tight-knit outfit, playing densely layered lines of largely instrumental prog of the highest order with three lead instruments available at any one time over a solid, busy rhythm section. The keyboard patches were accurate reproductions of 70s analogue sounds but all the instruments were distinct and the whole sound well-balanced in the low-ceiling venue. It was possible to detect influences as varied as early Genesis, post-Gabriel Genesis, UK, and even a little Pawn Hearts-era Van der Graaf Generator; Jim even suggested he heard some 10cc. I’m not inferring the sound was derivative in any way and if I were to suggest a sonic comparison, perhaps because of the use of woodwind instruments, primarily the flute, I’d plump for one of the modern Italian symphonic prog acts.




Half-way through the set, Lowe informed us he wasn’t going to explain the concept behind the album because we could just read the sleeve notes of the CD to find out. I bought the CD from the merchandise stand but didn’t get round to reading the booklet until the following day. A Sunn Creative press release outlines the story and concept behind Invisible Din, where Lowe revealed that “The songs evoke a man’s childhood memory of illness and a ghostly, healing presence of beauty as he ventures into the realms of the astral world. The music and lyrics encompass the yearning we have for that elusive other, the dream partner, crossing the line between reality and fantasy as he ventures into the unknown.”

It’s sometimes unsatisfactory going to a gig without knowing what you’re going to hear, even when the event is billed as a ‘prog rock tour de force’ but it was evident from the first few bars and confirmed by the end of the performance that ESP are the genuine article. The compositions were first class, the playing exemplary and the utilisation of the talents of Davids Cross and Jackson was a stroke of genius. The crowd was fully appreciative of the music and such was the expectation of the band that Prog Italia magazine sent a reporter and photographer to cover the gig; Gina noticed that Claudia (the reporter) was making notes in Italian and spoke to them in Italian at the end of the concert; Federico (the photographer) has shared some photos with band members, including an atmospheric shot of David Jackson in black and white.

So there was no disappointment at the end, instead I’ve got a feeling that symphonic progressive rock has a new standard-bearer. I’ll certainly seek out future ESP shows in London and the South East – long may they continue. Thank you, Tony Lowe, Mark Brzezicki and your amazing collaborators for an evening of wonderful music.




Post Script

I’ve now listened to the album three times and the concept stands up really well. The production adds a Floydian feel to some of the material and the tracks evoke appropriate emotions: sometimes reflective, sometimes elation. The work is remarkably melodic; something that was less noticeable during the live performance, and repeated listening has revealed further layers and previously unnoticed jazzy moments. It’s impossible to choose a favourite track because the album holds together beautifully.

ESP: All symphonic progressive rock fans should buy Invisible Din and make every effort to go to see them on tour.









By ProgBlog, Aug 15 2016 10:18PM

In the early 70s bands released a studio album roughly every year. Perhaps the first of the prog bands to increase the time between new studio output was Pink Floyd, with an 18 month elapse between Dark Side of the Moon (March 1973) and Wish You Were Here (September 1975) and then a further 16 months before Animals came out in January 1977. The gap between Relayer (November 1974) and Going for the One (July 1977) was tempered by solo albums from the Yes camp in 1975 and 1976 and though the wait for Wish You Were Here, possibly the most anticipated release of the time, seemed interminable, the follow up to Brain Salad Surgery (November 1973) took ELP an incredible 29 months, up to March 1977, for Works Volume 1. These bands had to contend with the rise of punk and have to take some responsibility for the brief but successful assault on the music scene, through absence from the country (including for tax reasons), coming back with material that had to compete in a different environment, one where the counter-culture ideals and ideas which had been so important to the genesis of progressive rock were no longer valid. The fan base seemed to hold firm for the premier acts: Going for the One stayed at no. 1 for two weeks in the UK and climbed to no. 8 in the US charts; Animals peaked at number 2 in the UK and one place lower in America; and though Works Volume 1 was less successful, bearing in mind the format of one side of the original double LP for material by each of the members and only one ‘band’ side, it still managed to get to number 9 in the UK and 12 on Billboard 200.

One effect of punk on prog acts was the redefinition of their sound. In the immediate aftermath of the arrival of the upstarts, Yes first became more direct (think of the title track from Going for the One) but as punk gave way to New Wave which was in turn subsumed by the glamour of MTV, they went with the commercial flow and produced their most successful selling album 90125. The Floyd may have continued to push the boundaries of studio possibilities but the material that made up Wish You Were Here was the last of their symphonic prog output until the sans Waters A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987, having descended into straight forward rock ‘n’ roll with The Wall and The Final Cut; I was ashamed of the flirtation with a disco beat on Another Brick in the Wall (part 2). The less said about ELP’s confused Love Beach (1978) the better... Jethro Tull, another globally successful act were already changing from the diehard prog of Thick as a Brick (1972), A Passion Play (1973) and Minstrel in the Gallery (recorded in Monte Carlo for tax reasons in 1975) to the prog folk trio of Songs From the Wood (1977), Heavy Horses (1978) and Stormwatch (1979) via Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! (1976), a release Ian Anderson described as a reaction to punk. This was a potential rock musical intended to demonstrate the cyclical nature of fashion and fads but, despite being a worthy concept, the songs didn’t come anywhere close to their standards reached between 1972 and 1975. It was probably time to change style after Stormwatch which sounds a little tired but I wasn’t impressed with the clear out that resulted in A (1980), despite the presence of Eddie Jobson. This was pop-rock and the songs never engaged or challenged me.

The resurgence of the genre in the mid 90s conformed to a different paradigm. In an industry that had changed beyond reason in the intervening years, it was never going to a re-run of the early 70s and if the music was to reach the public, it couldn’t involve chasing record labels like in the 80s where artistic control had to be largely ceded to accountants and managers, even though many of the bands had been integral to the success of an album-based market in the first place; it didn’t rely on any single solution but utilised a number of emerging technologies which included the internet and file sharing, crowd sourcing, online fanzines and discussion forums and social media, all of which empowered bands to take back control of their output. One practical facet was that collaborators didn’t even have to be on the same side of the world to produce a record, though with the requirement to maintain a reasonable lifestyle, musicians often took on other time-consuming roles. As a consequence some material took a long time to gestate, from concept to physical release making the wait between Dark Side and Wish You Were Here seem ridiculously short.


I first saw the David Cross Band as ‘special guests’ at a John Wetton concert at the Astoria in London in 1996, performing material from their forthcoming album Exiles which I thought was complex and aggressive but very good. I eventually found a copy of the CD in New York a few years later and I think it’s easily as good as I remember from the gig. The period between Exiles and the subsequent DCB album Closer than Skin puts almost all other delays in the shade, coming eight years later in 2005. The two albums are similar but Closer has less musical variation and more vocals. This is partly because Exiles features guest vocalists Peter Hammill and Cross’ former band mate John Wetton with Wetton singing on a pretty good version of the title track and also on This is Your Life, where the words are penned by Crimson alumnus Peter Sinfield. Another Crimson connection is guitar provided by Robert Fripp on tracks Duo and Troppo. More links to Cross’ Crimson past come on Closer, where all the lyrics are by Richard Palmer-James. If eight years seems an eternity, it has been a further 11 years waiting for Sign of the Crow.

I was one of a fairly intimate audience for the launch gig of the David Cross and Robert Fripp CD Starless Starlight in May 2015 where Cross was joined onstage by Tony Lowe on guitar, Yumi Hara on keyboard and vocals, and saxophonist/flautist/whistles player David Jackson with interpretations of the Fripp guitar loops and Cross violin improvisations around the Starless theme (from Red.) That show was immensely enjoyable, including some unexpected pieces like Stan Tracey’s Starless and Bible Black and a reading from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, so when I saw that the David Cross Band were going to perform a launch gig for Sign of the Crow in London, I signed up immediately; I was also pleased to see that David Jackson would be appearing as a guest.




A couple of days before the event an email came through from the ticket agency warning that the doors would open 30 minutes earlier than originally advertised but unfortunately on the day (Tuesday 9th August) I’d arranged to have dinner out with my family and though I thought I could make the gig in time, the fantastic food and relaxed atmosphere at Rucoletta in Foster Lane near St Paul’s meant that I arrived at the Lexington just as Richard Palmer-James was finishing his set (Palmer-James was once again responsible for the lyrics of the new DCB album.) I bought a couple of CDs from the merchandise stall, English Sun by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, an exquisite release of flute and violin pieces accurately described as ‘electric chamber music’, and a live CD from Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Dona Quintet performing Le Orme’s Collage, an album widely regarded as the first progressivo Italiano release (the CD is called Re-Collage.) When I got home I discovered that there was no CD in the sleeve and had to email Chiemi Cross who put me in touch with a very apologetic David Jackson. I’m expecting the real CD soon.

The second part of the show was a duet between the two Davids, a short but challenging set that included a piece from Starless Starlight with Fripp’s original guitar loop where Jackson was asked to play the Starless riff in reverse but refused to do so, citing the perfection of the original phrase. Another tune borrowed the title of the track Water on the Flame, to be found on the new album, as a spoken lyric. The mutual respect between these two fine musicians was quite evident and they really challenged expectations of violin/sax music. Jackson has suggested that there are studio recordings of the two of them improvising, pushing each other, which sounds like it could be edited into an amazing album.

Though he doesn’t appear on Sign of the Crow, Jackson added sax and keyboard for the David Cross Band, part of a line-up of incredibly gifted musicians: Paul Clark on guitars; Jinian Wilde on vocals; Craig Blundell on drums; Mick Paul on six string bass; and Cross himself. Beginning with a phenomenal drum solo (was it in 9/8 time?) the set featured the new album but also dipped into the past, with Nurse Insane (from The Big Picture), Over Your Shoulder (from Closer than Skin) and Tonk and the DCB version of Exiles (from Exiles). I hadn’t heard the new material because I was waiting for the CD to arrive in the post but it was powerful, complex, and at times verging on prog metal. From where I was standing it was also rather loud but I was still able to discern the sax, the violin and the keyboards. Paul Clark’s rhythm work was at times a heavy chug but his soloing was clear and precise; Mick Paul’s bass work was stunning throughout and Jinian Wilde was a revelation. He was the unknown quantity for me but his vocals suited all the material, including Exiles, a stunning rendition of Crimson’s Starless, and the encore, 21st Century Schizoid Man. He also wore a rather good top hat with a jester-like band and dangling bells, supplemented by a pair of goggles. He may have visited the same milliner as the two Davids!

My two favourite new tracks, since confirmed listening to the studio versions, were The Pool and Rain Rain; the former carefully constructed, melodic and anthemic (think next year’s Prog Awards), while Rain Rain is another slow burner but which still includes sudden changes of feel; it’s these changes that make the music unpredictable, gripping and enjoyable. The band was fantastic and the enthusiastic crowd, assembled in a fairly intimate venue having come from various points around the globe, were treated to a very special performance. A great gig, the best of 2016 so far and (now I have it) a really good album.




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