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

By ProgBlog, Jan 15 2017 10:47PM

Right from the start of my interest in progressive rock, I understood there was a strong link between what I was listening to and classical music. The Nice were one of the first bands I discovered and one of the earliest albums to enter the household was Five Bridges by The Nice, an album of predominantly orchestrated pieces. Studying the sleeve notes for Five Bridges revealed that the group credited Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Bach but the primary composition, the suite taking up the entire first side (from which the album got its title), was a mixture of classical and jazz with only a bit of rock music thrown in and was credited to Keith Emerson and Lee Jackson, the latter presumably just for the lyrics. I’d probably already worked out that a piano trio was my preferred form of jazz (in a house where I was exposed to a lot of jazz, from trad and big band to Miles but even after the full-blown symphonic approach of Yes, the pared-down Nice still managed to tick all the right boxes for me and I think at least part of that was the way they worked jazz into their repertoire, the other reason being the incredible organ work. This was most likely the first time I’d heard orchestration presented in this way but it was certainly the first time I’d paid any attention to a modern classical piece, marvelling at the way the five movements represented the bridges that crossed the Tyne and straining to work out Jackson’s words during Chorale (3rd Bridge). The Nice weren’t the first band to apply rock treatment to classical music, which was probably Nut Rocker, the Kim Fowley interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s March of the Toy Soldiers from his ballet The Nutcracker Suite, by Jack B. Nimble and the Quicks. This was released on the Del Rio label in early 1962 but was hastily re-recorded for Rendezvous Records and released under the group name of B. Bumble and the Stingers. At the time, the BBC had set itself up as a cultural gatekeeper and viewed itself as the nation’s arbiter of taste. Through the auspices of the Dance Music Policy Committee, it worked a policy of refusing to give air time to songs "which are slushy in sentiment" or pop versions of classical pieces including The Cougars' Saturday Nite at the Duckpond, a 1963 version of Swan Lake. Nut Rocker was discussed by the committee but was not banned because of its evident ephemeral nature which would not ‘offend reasonable people.’



Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6
Bach - Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6

Emerson did have an uncanny knack in identifying themes and phrases which fitted in with both original compositions and cover versions of other people’s tunes and this was one of the major avenues through which I, and many others, first began to appreciate classical music, so that one of the first classical albums I bought was the Camden Classics LP of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6. Though I heard it later than Country Pie from Five Bridges, this being the song that incorporated a portion of Brandenburg Concerto no. 6, the title track from Ars Longa Vita Brevis released two years earlier includes a snippet from Brandenburg Concerto no. 3. Additionally, the album features a band-only recording of the Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite which would resurface, with orchestra, on Five Bridges. One other piece of Bach appears on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, which was, paradoxically the last of their records I heard, a fragment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor inserted into Rondo, which I recognised as being very closely based on Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk, though Brubeck went un-credited.



Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!
Rollerball poster from 1975. The 'not too distant future' is 2018!

Toccata and Fugue in D minor is instantly recognisable and iconic and one of the reasons I went to see the film Rollerball when it was released in 1975. Set in ‘the not too distant future’ it has turned out to be a shade prescient, where all the functions of the world are run by global corporations. The real purpose of the sport, played between teams owned by the different companies from different world cities, is to subdue individualism so that when the main protagonist Jonathan E. (played by James Caan) becomes successful and a crowd favourite, the corporations first try to get him to retire and then to kill him off during a match. The corporations fail and Jonathan E. prevails; the closing sequence sees him skating around the arena with the crowd chanting his name, softly at first then building in amplitude to a freeze frame and the single-voice flourish of the Toccata signals the credits. Sometime during the 1980s the provenance of the piece was questioned by academics and it appears that the musical form could have been written for violin. What is known is that the earliest manuscript was written out by Johannes Ringk, on a date estimated to have been between 1740 and 1760.

Is there something about Bach’s music that makes it adaptable to progressive rock? Bach appears to have been fascinated by music, numbers and codes and his name spells out a series of notes which were frequently employed in his works, providing a sonic signature to his work. If the letters of the name ‘Bach’ each replaced with its number in the alphabet, we end up with 2+1+3+8=14 and some researchers have hypothesised that he had something of a fixation with the number 14; it has been suggested that when he was asked to join Mizler's society of Musical Sciences he delayed accepting to ensure that he was the 14th member to join. Mozart was another who applied mathematical games to his compositions and there were yet more baroque composers using a cabalistic code to change letters into numbers which could then be used in musical composition to hide words.


Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band
Il Mondo che era Mio - the live album by Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band

Proto-prog converts included Procol Harum whose debut release A Whiter Shade of Pale drips with Bach from the repeated descending steps of the ground bass which appear in Air on the G string and Sleepers, Wake!, to a melody line which could be a novel adaptation of the cantata I am Standing One with Foot in the Grave, and Jethro Tull, barely out of their blues period, with Bourée from Stand Up (1969), an adaptation of the lute piece Bourrée in E minor, played on flute in a jazz idiom (latterly incorporated into the live version of Finisterre’s In Liminae by Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band, possibly as a tribute to the legacy of Jethro Tull on Italian progressive rock.) The Nice influenced many subsequent groups, themselves dissolving into Emerson, Lake and Palmer who not only quoted baroque compositions but moved on to pieces from the late 19th and 20th Centuries and were responsible for my appreciation of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Janáček.

I would find it hard to believe if Netherlands keyboard trio Trace weren’t influenced by The Nice where on their eponymous debut they covered Bach, Grieg and mixed in some traditional Polish dance and Swedish folk music. They first came to my attention on the Old Grey Whistle Test and, if anything, I was more impressed by keyboard player Rick van der Linden than I was by Keith Emerson. His interpretation of Bach’s Italian Concerto (presented as Gaillard) remains one of my favourite tracks of all time. It’s a really well structured multi-layered piece played unbelievably fast, demonstrating the virtuoso technical ability of van der Linden whilst simultaneously displaying a brilliant feel for the original composition. The second Trace album, Birds contains more Bach (Bourrée, from the English Suite) and Opus 1065, where they utilises the talents of Darryl Way on violin – a man equally at home playing classical variations including his own violin and synthesized orchestra album Concerto for Electric Violin.



Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace
Classic prog from the Netherlands by Trace

We tend to think of Bach influencing prog initially through Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, possibly the ultimate Moog album but that influence spreads via Mahler, Stravinsky, Dave Brubeck and it even affected the thinking of The Beach Boys and The Kinks. The nascent progressive scene embraced Bach where, because of the mathematical structure, the harmony and counterpoint and maybe the association with church music, his compositions seemed such a good fit.

By ProgBlog, Jun 20 2016 10:24PM

ProgBlog attended the Stone Free Festival on Sunday 19th June so there was no time to write a full post


Though nothing comes close to the first time I heard progressive rock, partly because it was Close to the Edge, in September 1972, there are still moments when you hear something and you think, wow, how did I miss that?

I can’t remember where the suggestion came from exactly, other than that Schicke Führs and Fröhling (SFF) appear as a brief reference in a couple of my books and that I have been browsing the Esoteric Records website recently, where their 1975 debut Symphonic Pictures has been re-released, so this was an entirely speculative purchase which turned out to be one of those ‘how did I miss that?’ situations, where none of my friends had any idea this existed either.

Released in 1975, just as their compatriots and fellow UK-symphonic progressive rock school adherents Triumvirat were gaining a following outside of their native Germany, it has quite rightly been hailed as a classic. This isn’t Kosmiche or Berlin-school electronica, or sub-Floyd space-rock (Eloy, Nektar) and whereas it’s common to draw parallels between Triumvirat and ELP, SSF don’t fit into that mould either, being far more adventurous, despite both bands being, on paper at least, a keyboard, bass, drums trio. Part of this is down to the twin Mellotron approach of SSF. Heinz Fröhling created a double neck, six-string and bass, from a Gibson Les Paul and a Rickenbacker but also plays acoustic guitar and Mellotron, clavinet and string synthesizer. There are some Yes-like moments on Tao but there are also hints of Greenslade and live (my CD comes with a contemporaneous live recording from the ship-building town of Papenburg) they have a King-Crimson exploratory like vibe, achieved through fine musicianship, technical dexterity and working out all the compositions very carefully. It’s perhaps surprising that a German symphonic prog band doesn’t borrow from Bach or Beethoven but the inspiration appears to come from 20th Century composers like Bartok and Stravinsky, incorporating shifting rhythmical meters and angular motifs and straying into jazz territory.

It’s really good and there’s nothing quite like it.




By ProgBlog, May 8 2016 06:52PM

The past ten years or so have been taken up to a worrying degree with expanding my collection of progressivo Italiano, such that family holidays to Italy always include time for seeking out record stores to scour for releases that remain on my ever decreasing list.

Aided to a large extent by Andrea Parentin’s excellent Rock Progressivo Italiano: A guide to Italian Progressive Rock (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2011) and the handy-sized Progressive Italiano by Alessandro Gaboli and Giovanni Ottone (Giunti, 2007), the former for the translation of the lyrics and a sense of social setting and the latter for the depiction of album sleeves and a rating system that broadly matches my opinion of the albums by the most recognised acts Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Le Orme, I've explored cities and towns for any signs of record stores. I can even make out some of what is written about the groups in Italian but it’s opportune that Parentin’s book is in English.


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My first full foray into Italian record shops was on a trip to the Veneto in 2005 when there were two stores in Venice and another a short train ride away in Treviso. In those days I was aided by Jerry Lucky’s Progressive Rock Files (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2000) when I’d scour entries for remarks like “if you’re a fan of PFM then you’ll like this” and, following up a reference to Celeste that described them as “...influenced by early King Crimson but their sound is very original. You’ll hear elements of Genesis circa Trespass and even bits of PFM’s Per un Amico. A very beautiful, symphonic pastoral result. Lots of Mellotron. One of the genre’s highly rated bands” I began to seek out their 1976 release Principe di un giorno and looked for references to Celeste in the listings. One of these was Finisterre, described as “Symphonic progressive rock with long tracks containing restrained hints of bands like Celeste or Banco. They’ve chosen to create a moody and atmospheric sound that relies more on the classical style than neo-prog. Long passages of dissonant harmonies and jazzy chord voicings”. It wasn’t until I updated to Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook (Collector’s Guide Publishing, 2008), that I heard of Höstsonaten and La Maschera di Cera and was able to fathom out the relationship between them. I began to collect Maschera di Cera CDs in 2009 and Finisterre CDs some time later but it wasn’t until 2014 that I bought my first Höstsonaten release, the CD and DVD of the live performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was experiencing a live version of Rainsuite by the Z Band that really turned me on to Höstsonaten, revealing a very symphonic progressive rock style that Fabio Zuffanti himself equated with The Enid. Zuffanti’s projects are all essential listening for fans of the original progressivo Italiano movement and though I really enjoy Maschera di Cera’s albums for their modern take on the original genre, remaining true to the spirit of the work of bands like PFM and Banco, the instrumental work by Höstsonaten comes closest to symphonic rock and the Enid comparison is well founded

I pre-ordered a copy of Symphony N. 1 – Cupid & Psyche in early April and after negotiating a redelivery to my local post office, having been out at work when the postman attempted to deliver the item, I finally got hold of the LP on Friday and listened to it for the first time yesterday. I was not disappointed.

The music was conceived by Zuffanti but he has stepped away from the limelight and is only responsible for bass pedals ‘treatments and devices’, leaving Luca Scherani from La Coscienza di Zeno and a collaborator on Zuffanti’s 2015 project La Curva di Lesmo, to handle the arrangements and orchestrations in addition to playing keyboards; guitar, bass and drums are provided by long-term Zuffanti collaborators Laura Marano, Daniele Sollo and Paolo Tixi respectively.


There are many precedents of full orchestration in progressive rock and progressivo Italiano has some very notable examples including the New Trolls’ Concerto Grosso (1971, 1976, 2007) and Contaminazione by Il Rovescio della Medaglia (1973) but enhancing the symphonic scope of Höstsonaten seems like a logical step, one that is true to the principles of progressive rock as it attempted to bridge the gap between high and popular culture. The melange of influences that inform their output, their RPI predecessors, jazz and Mediterranean folk are enhanced with inspiration from Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. I’ve thought quite hard about other orchestrated prog albums and there aren’t many that genuinely seamlessly blend the rock and the orchestral moments; the pieces by Keith Emerson with the Nice were predominantly divided into distinct sections, band then orchestra then band. There are times when Yes’ Magnification (2001) works well but this mostly comes across as orchestra instead of keyboards and has hints of Tony Cox’s imperfect arrangements on Time and a Word (1970). There are long passages of orchestral music on Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water (1975) but the most satisfying orchestrated pieces of progressive rock are Camel’s Music Inspired by the Snow Goose (1975) and Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge (1974). In terms of orchestration in progressivo Italiano, Passio Secondum Mattheum by Latte e Miele (1972) impresses, but I think that Höstsonaten have come up with one of the most balanced mixes of rock and orchestra that at times reminds me of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970) and the eponymous 1972 release by Il Paese dei Balocchi, both of which, like Cupid & Psyche, are predominantly instrumental; Laura Marano provides some epic, melodic Gilmour-like guitar lines but it’s the inclusion of classic prog keyboards, Moog, Mellotron, organ and piano which fit in so neatly with the strings and brass that bestow a sense of harmonious union between the classical and the rock instrumentation. Not surprisingly, there are refrains that hint of Höstsonaten’s previous output and it goes without saying that the execution is highly consummate.

Another important link with the foundation of the genre is the appropriation of literary myth in a manner similar to Genesis writing The Fountain of Salmacis, with Zuffanti utilising the Apuleius story Metamorphoses. A translation by author, columnist and philosopher Pee Gee Daniel, providing a synopsis of the chapters that make up the ten tracks, is included in the gatefold sleeve.

Maschera di Cera produced one of my all time favourite albums Lux Ade (2006) based on the Orpheus story but that was an entirely rock affair. With Cupid & Psyche, Zuffanti has realised his dream of creating a symphonic suite with group and orchestra that is also able to serve as the soundtrack for a ballet, in the manner of Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky. Beginning with an array of musical ideas suitable for the project, enlisting Luca Scherani to create a score for string, wind and brass instruments, the album easily succeeds in presenting a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock and the ballet based on the music of the album is expected to debut in theatres later this year under the direction of the Genoese choreographer Paola Grazz. October 22nd is already reserved in my diary.












By ProgBlog, Jun 22 2014 04:47PM

Tales from Topographic Oceans was released on December 14th 1973 and my brother Tony bought a copy the next day. Tales would divide opinion amongst fans and critics alike: overblown and pretentious or symphonic prog masterpiece.

The presentation of the album was quite special. It was less ostentatious than the preceding Yes offering, the triple live set Yessongs in a triple gatefold and it was more elaborate than Close to the Edge which, perhaps more than any other album, was responsible for creating a link between the sonic vision of a band and a visual representation of the music. The imagery used on Tales took in some obscure iconography and utilised ideas put forward by the band themselves, such that it could have been a bit of a dog’s breakfast. But somehow, Roger Dean got it to all hang together. I was more worried that the four words of the album title featured three basic colours. Both the front cover and the open gatefold work as complete images, as the eye finds different focal points for the two potential presentations: the Mayan temple on the front cover; the waterfall for the open gatefold. I used to try to ascribe meaning to the position of the photographs within the song words but I no longer believe there is any association other than they are literal illustrations of Anderson and Howe's use of 'green language' in their lyrics.

This cover is wrapped around roughly 80 minutes of music which, though it can be plotted on a line of general progression between Close to the Edge and Relayer, there has been nothing like it in terms of ambition and scope either before or since. The original release was of course on four sides of vinyl and though I own a remastered and expanded edition on CD, I still have a vinyl copy and that’s how I prefer to refer to the album.

80 minutes of complex and challenging music makes Tales a fairly difficult listen. With each side acting as a suite in its own right it's quite easy to see why the casual listener might have difficulty understanding why Yes should record such an album. There are a bare minimum of passages where there is a straightforward rhythm defined by bass drum and snare and, with its lofty, philosophical concept, this could be the reason why most critics were so averse to the album as it moved ever further from the narrow confines of rock ‘n’ roll.

I personally love the album though I believe side 2 (The Remembering/High the Memory) is comparatively weak. Side 1 (The Revealing Science of God/Dance of the Dawn) is relatively accessible because it does seem a natural progression from Close to the Edge but that’s not the reason it’s my favourite track. There's a good deal of sonic variety and what comes across as shared input. I particularly like that around the same point on Close to the Edge where there's a Wakeman organ solo, there's a synthesizer solo on side 1 of Tales, and I love the sound of the moog. As an atheist, the title of the track did use to cause me some concern with its reference to ‘God’ and there’s also the line ‘Young Christians see it from the beginning’ but my apprehension was reconciled when I placed the album in the context of a quest for enlightenment that doesn’t necessarily require a specific deity.

Side 2 comes across as having most of what Wakeman has described as padding. Though it’s necessary to regard this movement as part of the whole, I still find that the relatively slow pace of the piece tends to drag and, whereas Close to the Edge and to a lesser extent The Revealing Science of God are densely packed with sound, The Remembering (forgive the allusion) has space between the notes. What’s more, this side contains music with the least contrast.

Side 3 (The Ancient/Giants under the Sun) comes across as almost pagan. From the different languages used to name the Sun to the percussive sections and then the end ‘leaves of green’ section which, though by no means folk music, does call to mind a plainer, less advanced or mechanised way of life. It’s no surprise that the band should use The Firebird Suite as opening music for their live shows. I think that stretching the possibilities of rock music by incorporating some of the ideas of Stravinsky was brave but also something that perhaps only Yes could have done and, if you’ll let me draw another parallel, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring not also caused something of a stir when it was first performed in Paris in May 1913, dividing critics and the ballet audience with its deviation from the accepted form. I think that The Ancient and Ritual are the best illustrations of the influence of Stravinsky on Yes music.

Side 4 (Ritual/Nous Sommes du Soleil) is something of a cross between the more straightforward prog of The Revealing Science of God and the percussion movement on The Ancient. It may be that Wakeman also thought that this was an unnecessary inclusion but again, in the context of what Anderson and Howe had envisaged, it’s actually stunningly dynamic, especially (so I am told) when performed live. The resolution of the track into the Nous Sommes du Soleil section is a powerful piece of musical drama, drawing threads from the other three sides together into what always feels to me like a very satisfactory conclusion; you have to have listened to the other three sides before this to get it to work. It’s uplifting and very positive and ultimately very satisfying.

When I first used to listen to the album I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more overt keyboard work but I’ve since realised that the subtle mellotron that pervades the entire album is a vital part of the overall orchestration. I believe it’s important to see the work as ‘orchestrated’ because of what Anderson and Howe had originally conceived. Equally, the percussion (and Alan White was something of an unknown to me) should not be regarded as rock drumming because it’s often used as musical colour around guitar lines, rather than the other way round.

As a fourteen year old, listening to the album and poring over the lyrics (and I used to be able to recite all of them) this was a natural successor to Close to the Edge. It’s only since then that I’ve read how it divided fans in a manner similar to the schism caused by the release of 90125, but I do understand why. I accepted Tales because I believed that Yes music had the power to transform; the music and the concept of Tales may be challenging but they are ultimately rewarding but it’s not surprising that the further they deviated from the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is an expression of simple rebellion, the more chance there was of losing fans.

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