Welcome to the ProgBlog


A frantic fortnight of  gigs for ProgBlog began on March 9th at Genova's Angelo Azzurro Club, a much loved venue under threat of closure. Marina Montobbio's series of Lady Prog Nights was on its third event featuring local symphonic prog bands Melting Clock and Panther & C...

By ProgBlog, Jun 20 2017 05:06PM

I’ve been listening to a fair amount of electronica over the last week, including an old favourite from my school days Rubycon and a couple of albums by Redshift, Halo and Ether. The idea was to help me sleep with night temperatures in London in the high teens or even low twenties, treating the music as a relaxant as the compositions seem to develop organically, even when there’s a sequencer beat driving things along. Then on Saturday I managed to drag myself out of a stifling house into the brilliant sunshine and June heat to witness Metamono playing on their home turf, at the Crystal Palace Overground Festival.

I discovered the band by accident, following a trawl through the second-hand records in the basement of Bambino in Upper Norwood and, after a brief discussion about Phaedra by Tangerine Dream, which I was in the process of buying, with Mark Hill who runs the record department, I was given a promotional postcard with his email address: Following this encounter, my subsequent blog was all about Crystal Palace and as part of my research I investigated ‘metamono’, discovering them to be an electronic musical trio formed in 2010 who, in September 2013, featured as The Guardian’s ‘new band of the week’

It was evident to me that Hill knew his electronica from the previous time I’d visited the store. I’d rifled through a box of (largely) Tangerine Dream-related vinyl that hadn’t quite made it downstairs to the record bins, selecting a copy of Edgar Froese’s Aqua and inquiring about the chances of locating Epsilon in Malaysian Pale. Evidently a huge fan of the genre, Hill is actually a fine artist who just coincidentally runs Sound Vinyl in Bambino's basement and plays vintage analogue keyboards (and radio, and Stylophone) with Crystal Palace’s answer to Düsseldorf’s best. The other two members are Jono Podmore and Paul Conboy. Podmore, as Kumo, has collaborated and released albums with Irmin Schmidt of Can; Conboy has worked with Bomb the Bass and is responsible for film soundtracks. What is most intriguing about this collective, something right up my street, is their manifesto. Dutifully read out before Saturday’s performance, they eschew any form of digital sound generation or processing and limit the sound sources available to them to old analogue instruments, found and repaired, to reflect the struggles of society. They believe that music has lost its transformative power, subsumed in a corporatist-capitalist order and use their own music “to kick against the pricks.”

Music journalist David Stubbs has postulated that this musical form, the Krautrock of the 70s, is being referenced by groups who want to branch out in different directions, suggesting that returning to basics and moving on from there is a quicker route to innovation than by simply evolving. This fits in with the Metamono ethic, that “Our limitations will be our aesthetic.”

Whereas found instruments hint at scrap heap recycling, evidently a good thing for the planet, this wasn’t at all like the first time I saw exponents of the genre, admittedly a group more in the Kosmiche or Berlin-school sub genre: Node. My dalliance with appropriating electronica commenced in 1974 or 1975 but I went on to sell Rubycon to a school friend in 1977 or 78 after being underwhelmed by Stratosfear. I’d been intrigued by the appearance of Kraftwerk on the BBC TV’s popular science programme Tomorrow’s World where they appeared to play hotplates with radio aerials and though friends subsequently got into Kraftwerk and Can, they never really pushed the right buttons for me. Consequently, it was only after a reappraisal tinged with a bit of FOMO that my first experience of live electronica came in February 2015 when I attended a performance by analogue synth quartet Node at the Royal College of Music, their first gig for 17 years. I thought the venue was entirely appropriate, affording electronica suitable recognition as a distinct, legitimate musical form but it was the hardware on display, reputedly the largest collection of analogue synthesizers ever seen outside a recording studio and rumoured to be worth around £500,000 which contrasted with Metamono’s recycling chic.

It was pointed out to me that the audience for Node was replete with the great and the good from the UK electronica scene. I don’t know if any of Metamono were present but the working backgrounds of the members of the two groups are very close: music production and film score composition.

Node played four pieces over two sets that lasted 90 minutes; all of which was sequencer driven but which fell into two distinct styles, spacey and industrial. Although I’m not averse to aggressive, percussive sequencer beats I’m more in favour of sequencer as lead instrument, bubbling to the surface, subtly changing over each cycle and giving the impression of drifting, rather than driving.

Node, like Tangerine Dream before them, also used guitar; Dave Bessell performed with a Les Paul strung around his neck which he occasionally lightly strummed. Their overall sound was multilayered and full, with a nicely-balanced live mix in the Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, a dedicated performance space carefully lined with speakers along the length of the room and though I’d describe the ambience as academic, serious or thoughtful, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and on more than one occasion floated away on the dreamy waves of keyboard wash. In contrast, Metamono managed to get a well-balanced mix from a temporary stage in Crystal Palace Park with a 45 minute set filled with fun, joyful music. The sequencers (or did they employ an old rhythm machine?) produced deep dance beats, the pressure waves moving the material on the bass speakers and summoning members of the crowd to their feet to dance in front of the stage. The top line was classic thin late 70s or early 80s synth, filled out with Podmore’s Theremin and some well-place radio transmission, used most effectively on their cover version of Kraftwerk’s Europe Endless, a track they had reworked and released as a single a week before the EU referendum last year as a plea to everyone to vote ‘remain’.

Considering how easily they instilled good vibes in a large crowd and looked as though they were enjoying it too, they have a serious message about not just the music business but about the way our lives are run by vested interests. It seems perfectly fitting that Crystal Palace, the site of the People’s Palace after its season in Hyde Park should produce an inclusive, outward-looking band who play music on found and refurbished instruments, applying a doctrine which seemingly restricts but actually liberates their creativity. Metamono – my band of the week.

By ProgBlog, Jan 25 2015 11:12PM

Edgar Froese, the founder member of Tangerine Dream died unexpectedly last week from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 70.

Froese was born in 1944 in a region of East Prussia (now the Russian city of Sovetsk) and settled in West Berlin where he went on to study art and sculpture in the mid-60s. He formed a Beat group called The Ones who toured widely playing songs such as soul classic In the Midnight Hour. It was during this time that he visited Salvador Dali at his villa in Cadaqués where he was inspired to reject the Anglo-American confines of popular music. On his return to Berlin, he dropped into the newly founded Zodiak Arts Lab and adopted the moniker Tangerine Dream. The first TD album Electronic Meditation, made with drummer Klaus Schulze, unconventional musician Conrad Schnitzler (who played dried peas, typewriter and manipulated taped sounds), organist Jimmy Jackson and flautist Thomas Keyserling, was not really ‘electronic’ but treated conventional instruments.

Their third release, Zeit, a double album from 1972, is a bleak, minimalist masterpiece from the rather dramatic cello quartet opening through to the very end. Based on the philosophy that time is motionless and only exists in our own minds, the shifting sounds, overlain and treated, make me imagine that I’m lost and alone in deep space. There’s a hint of strummed guitar in part 3 (Origin of Supernatural Probabilities) but, apart from the cellos, that’s the only discernible instrument; Zeit is also notable for being the first TD album that brought together seminal line-up of Froese, Christopher Franke and Peter Baumann.

DJ John Peel and Richard Branson were primarily responsible for the popularity of TD in the UK after Peel named Atem (1973) his album of the year and, following their signing to the fledgling Virgin Records, Phaedra (1974) reached no 15 in the charts despite only selling a couple of thousand copies in their native Germany. Despite Phaedra being my introduction to TD (thanks to school friend Alan Lee) I prefer Rubycon (1975) and, though I haven't heard Ricochet for nearly 40 years, I think I also prefer that to Phaedra.

Some commentators think that the term ‘progressive’ should not be applied to Zeit, partly on philosophical grounds – how can you progress if time doesn’t really exist? – but the output of the Virgin years is a maturing of the Kosmische sound that fully embraces the spirit of prog where the sequencer comes to the fore. Whereas Zeit with its subtle sonic shifts could be called ambient in the same way that Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting and Evening Star are ambient, the subsequent TD releases are something more. I’m struggling to find a suitable term but I guess ‘atmospheric’ will do. Though inherently rhythmical, sequencers weren’t used to provide rhythm; their pulses weave in and out of the sonic washes like snapshots of important moments in time, mayfly fragments in the history of the universe.

The band may not have been virtuoso but that’s why they didn’t emulate British prog; they became virtuosos of technology and Chris Franke applied the influence of the minimalists and modern composer György Ligeti. Their use of haunting Mellotron flute is classic but they also used the instrument to great effect on Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares from Phaedra to emulate staccato violin, something that contradicts the 'ambient' tag. In fact, their use of Mellotron is quite different from that of the symphonic prog bands, something I’d ascribe to the sonic territory that they inhabited. I’m one of those people who believe that the mid-70s TD were a defining sound of prog and rushed out to buy Rubycon when it was released. I loved the cover of Phaedra more than Rubycon, but the inside gatefold of the latter was brilliant, in gorgeous chocolate colours, with the cameo of Monique Froese. TD cover artwork was pretty special and as immersive as the music itself, another reason to define them as classic prog. Rubycon was an album that was fantastic for listening to in the dark, through headphones, a pure escapist experience whether you were exploring outer or inner space.

The next studio release, Stratosfear, makes too many concessions towards mainstream rock for my liking. Why on earth did Froese use a harmonica? Friend and Electronica aficionado Neil Jellis opines that Stratosfear is much more polished than their live material of that year or even 1977’s Encore. I think that the studio material is all very well produced but I’m not particularly au fait with the live material and interpret Neil’s comment not as a criticism as such, rather an indication that TD were becoming more industry-friendly. I imagine it was difficult to find new things to write in the idiom that they’d created. We both agree that Song of the Whale (from Underwater Sunlight) is their last great track and Neil points out that Chris Franke left the band one studio album later and believes there is a direct correlation between the (declining) quality of TD material and Franke's exit. He says there are long-standing rumours that Franke is sitting on a pile of live recordings from the 1970s and 80s. It may be that following the death of Froese there is a chance that these recordings may now see the light of day as the relationship between Froese and Franke was pretty poor following the latter’s departure from the band.

I was somewhat surprised to find that George Wells, one of my brothers-in-law, was a TD fan because much of his record collection was made up of Neil Diamond records! He’d been to see TD play live but as I only met my future wife in 1984 I’m not sure if he was present at the concert at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon (23/10/1975) where much of Ricochet was recorded. I didn’t mind buying him a couple of TD albums as birthday presents in the mid-late 80s before the disappearance of vinyl but I would have been embarrassed if I’d had to hand over money in a record shop for anything else he liked!

Edgar Willmar Froese b. 6 June 1944 d. 20 January 2015

By ProgBlog, Nov 25 2014 11:57AM

In the late 60s, experimentation and the rejection of the values of the previous generation was fed by musicians, artists and writers in a mini-renaissance where scientific possibilities pointed in two opposing directions: one to the promise of a utopian future based on consumerism; the other to an understanding that the unfettered use of natural resources was going to endanger the planet. Wars on foreign soil were viewed by the counterculture as imperialist manoeuvres and showed that governments were incapable of embracing ‘cultural relativism’, the academic anthropological view that other distinct cultures should not be seen as inferior to those that espoused Western ideals, because moral values can be culturally specific. The US government had begun to control the populace with pledges of the rewards of hard work: a steady job; a bank loan; a car; a house; new appliances, and competition was deemed to be good because in the economic race, the successful would rise to the top and, according the advertising copywriters of The American Dream, anybody could reap the rewards of the system if they worked hard enough, or swindled, lied and cheated enough.

The opposing view was imported from Eastern Europe and Asia. At that time, no one thought that wars would be fought over foreign oil and other natural resources, the raw materials of capitalism; the enemy was ideological. Such was the paranoia of US politicians, even Communism’s less strident sibling Socialism was to be feared and hated. The proponents of the counterculture embraced the principles of true egalitarianism and challenged creeping corporatism in areas such as agriculture and energy, preferring a ‘back to nature’ outlook and the benefits of a mutually supportive society. During this time, science fiction (SF) matured from escapism into a genre that looked both outwards and inwards and became a serious literary tool to criticise imperialistic tendencies (Ursula Le Guin) and one that warned of the consequences of climate change (JG Ballard). Not surprisingly, SF was embraced by the counterculture and, in conjunction with emerging musical technologies and a liberal dose of chemical stimulants, Psychedelia was born and Space Rock followed shortly after.

The extended blues jamming of the Grateful Dead wasn’t really replicated in the UK or Europe. Pink Floyd played extended jams during their live set and, despite the whimsical psychedelia of the Barrett-penned material that made up the majority of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the inclusion of Interstellar Overdrive and Astronomy Domine on the album indicated the direction of the Floyd for the next couple of years. The Floyd weren’t virtuoso but they did extend musical form by embracing effects and applying them in unusual ways and it was this experimentation and a penchant for cosmic-sounding titles that made them the premiere space rock act from around 1969; the live album of Ummagumma showcases their particular brand of music. The other main UK space rock outfit was Hawkwind who had a longstanding collaboration with SF author Michael Moorcock. Heavy and riff-based and again, not a virtuoso band and certainly not prog, I found them more amusing than any kind of serious proposition. Having said that, I do have a soft spot for Space Ritual and Quark Strangeness and Charm and I even attempted to see Robert Calvert’s West End stage interpretation of his novel Hype but the show had been closed early, that very same week. I did pluck up the courage to see Hawkwind at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon on 14th November 1999 but they didn’t play much material that I was familiar with and the gig was more techno than rambling space rock.

The Floyd had quite an influence on bands from mainland Europe. France’s Pulsar were dreamy and trippy and admit to being strongly influenced by Pink Floyd; before changing their name from Free Sound to Pulsar and playing self-penned material they used to perform cover versions of Set the Controls, and Careful with that Axe. Half Canterbury and half Space Rock and half French, early Gong created the Pot Head Pixies from the Planet Gong space mythology and their music was defined by trippy grooves, played by some excellent musicians. The arrival of Steve Hillage in the Gong fold in 1972 didn’t change their direction much as he’d just released an album with his band Khan called Space Shanty (1972) that highlights his fluid glissando guitar. His next venture outside of Gong was Fish Rising (1975) which continued where Space Shanty left off and included the classic Solar Musick Suite.

Perhaps more than anything, the influence of Pink Floyd was soaked-up by the fledgling German rock movement. Despite the America-centric music industry labelling all German bands with the derogatory term 'Krautrock', the bands themselves adopted the title. Somewhat like Italian prog having a different flavour depending on where the band originated, there were few similarities between bands from the different German cities and there were often no sonic similarities between bands from the same city. What they did have in common, however, was a rejection of the attitude of the previous generation who remained deeply conservative and refused to contemplate atonement for the acts their leaders had carried out in WW2; the new generation had grown up after the war and wanted to create something new and different and independent of mainstream western rock. Many of the early Krautrock acts were highly politicised: Amon Düül arose from a commune that celebrated a variety of art forms and the music they produced was fairly amateur. Musicians from the band formed Amon Düül II and the qualitative difference between the two acts, which co-existed for a while, was huge. Some would argue that Amon Düül II reneged on the principles of the commune, seeking to make a materialist livelihood playing Floyd-inspired space rock. It’s important to point out that not all Krautrock was spacey and reliant upon common instrumentation; much of it was a startlingly original blend of electronics and industrial sounds, including the use of a cement mixer by Faust.

Eloy played a fairly basic form of symphonic prog that owed a debt to the Floyd and were even signed to the Harvest label. Taking their name from the futuristic race in HG Wells’ The Time Machine, their sound is heavy and organ/guitar drenched. I have a copy of Inside (1973) that I bought second hand in Beanos in 2005; all the vocals are in English and the lyrics lack complexity; there’s a hint of politics in the writing but political content was toned down after their first release. I find Nektar, who were British and based in Hamburg yet still get classed as Krautrock, stylistically similar to Eloy with a basis of heavy rock but stretching out into space rock territory. They’re certainly more rock than prog and the one CD that I own, Remember the Future, is considered to be one of their best works. I’m not at all keen on the almost country rock guitar and vocal harmonies and find it hard to believe that I paid nearly €16 for the album. On the plus side, I did buy it at a good exchange rate when I was in Berlin in 2005.

The other major Floyd-influenced Krautrock band is Tangerine Dream. They began with guitar and drums but fairly rapidly evolved into the classic electronic trio line-up that had a great deal of success with the progressive crowd after signing to Virgin. Their expansion of kosmische musik (electronic drones produced by tape loops or keyboard, originally popularised by Popol Vuh) using sequencers for a form of metronomic backing. Pink Floyd had begun to use the VCS3 for Dark Side of the Moon and TD used sequencers in a not dissimilar fashion, weaving in and out of electronic washes of sound. Phaedra and Rubycon are both classic albums and essential listening. By the time of Stratosfear (1976), guitar had crept back into their instrumentation and original member uses mouth organ. Personally, I don’t think that the harmonica is not a prog instrument!

fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time