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The last of the May events in the ProgBlog gig marathon was a celebration of Italy... ...in Islington!

By ProgBlog, Apr 24 2018 08:36PM

i) 50 years of Yes (25/3/18)


Less than 48 hours on from standing in front of the stage for some intricate, symphonic progressivo Italiano (plus UK guests Joe Payne and Heather Findlay) at a modest club in Milan to a venue that I had previously associated with some awful UK TV entertainment, taking my seat for the Sunday Yes50 date at London’s Palladium Theatre was something of a revelation.



I’d booked the tickets for myself and three family/friends only a couple of weeks before the gig and was relieved to find four seats together in the Royal Circle. Labyrinthine below the auditorium, choosing a sufficiently short merchandise queue or, for gentlemen of a certain age, a WC without a lengthy wait wasn’t easy; the theatre had hosted a Fan Convention earlier in the day and had even set up some exhibition space for Roger Dean artwork where the man himself was signing pieces for a trail of fans.



The sight lines to the stage were really good, though I should have expected that from a premier London theatre, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the vibe of the place considering that before this concert I couldn’t have ever imagined I’d have wanted to step inside its doors.

The opening remarks, delivered by special guest and ‘only original member available’ Bill Bruford, were a reminder that Yes had begun making music in 1968 and in the intervening years, despite the personnel changes, continued to produce incredible, inspirational music. One of the reasons I felt I had to attend this tour was the promise of sides one and four of Tales from Topographic Oceans so I thought it appropriate that the introductory music was a few bars from The Firebird Suite, as I strongly associate Tales with Stravinsky. It’s always been my favoured introduction, more so than Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra or the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.



The first set included material spanning from Time and a Word (an excellent version of Sweet Dreams) up to Tormato (Onward, the tribute to Chris Squire), what I’d consider a ‘fan’s favourite’ choice, and the second set was comprised of The Revealing Science of God, the Leaves of Green section of The Ancients and Ritual. Up to this point, back surgery had prevented Alan White from spending too long sitting on a drum stool and his role had been dutifully carried out by the excellent Jay Schellen, with a style more reminiscent of Bruford. White entered the fray for the percussion movement on Ritual while Schellen descended from the drum rostrum to help out with percussion, staying for the three-part encore of Tempus Fugit (with vocals by another special guest, Trevor Horn), Roundabout, and Starship Trooper.


The sound in the theatre was exceptionally good and well balanced. I liked the fact that as a celebration of 50 years of Yes it was kind of a ‘best of’ performance, plus a hint of the idea of the ‘album series’ of concerts and the inclusion of two and a half sides of Tales. I don’t believe Tales divides the fan base anymore and however difficult it was for audiences to take in around the time of the album’s release in 1973, with insufficient time to assimilate the complexity and scale of the piece as a whole, the shift from 70s boundary-pushing compositions to the slick AOR of the 90125 line-up caused a greater rift.


A few of my friends have commented on how the dynamic has changed within the group since the death of Chris Squire (Trevor Horn humorously hinted at this when he came on to sing Tempus Fugit). Having been in Yes since 1970 Steve Howe is the de facto leader although Alan White has been involved in the group for a longer period of time; Howe was responsible for most of the cues and retains an amazing energy although I’m not sure if he struggled a little on some of the more demanding guitar parts, which would be totally excusable considering the complexity of Yes music. Jon Davison does an admirable, if unenviable job of performing lines originally sung by Jon Anderson and Billy Sherwood is without any doubt the best stand-in for Squire the band could have chosen, in playing, in mannerisms and in presence. The one minor disappointment was Geoff Downes’ soloing; the bulk of his keyboard work was fine but the runs and arpeggios lacked fluidity and even, during certain passages, seemed to lag behind time.

It’s difficult to imagine quite where the band will go from here. Detractors will suggest that continuing without any original band members is just a tribute band, though the Yes family tree shows the pedigree of the players still on stage. I can’t say if they’re capable of producing any new, classic Yes material but without a return to the ideals of the early 70s and a willingness to re-embrace challenging, symphonic long-form compositions, I doubt that they will. Still, 50 years in the business of making and playing Yes music isn’t bad; I’m pleased I went.



ii) New king of pop - Steven Wilson 27/3/18


Another 48 hours later and I’d made my way to the Royal Albert Hall for the first of three nights of Steven Wilson. My good friend Neil had organised tickets back in May 2017, a couple of days after Wilson had begun to put out videos of his new music but before I’d got a hint of the direction the music from the forthcoming album was taking. Thinking back now, Pariah, one of the first tracks I heard, forms a kind of a sonic link between Hand.Cannot.Erase and To the Bone and I don’t think it’s a bad song; it just doesn’t challenge me. At the end of June 2017 he released the video for Permanating and I wasn’t impressed.

On the walk up to the Albert Hall doors I was still optimistic that the set would include sufficient Raven and Hand material to provide a worthwhile evening of entertainment, having seen him play on a number of occasions before and apart from the show I attended at the RAH in September 2015, where I was unfamiliar with a fair proportion of the material, I’ve enjoyed his performances. However, the shift from the full-on prog of Raven to the post-rock blend of electronica, industrial with a decent dose of prog on Hand should have indicated, especially when backed-up by Wilson’s own words regarding his influences, together with his immutable right as an artist to make whatever music he wants, that the music on To the Bone and subsequently the tour of that album, was not going to be wall-to-wall progressive rock.


The show started on a promising note with another clever though slightly disturbing video, announced by a rather stern voice as if narrating a public service broadcast, based on the themes of the current album, but I couldn't really engage. Ninet Tayeb was introduced for Pariah but even her excellent voice didn’t really do anything for me; I did enjoy Home Invasion which segued into Regret #9 which I thought were the highlights of the evening. It’s possible that the behaviour of a pair of loudmouths behind me, talking for the entire first set and a couple in front, behaving as though they were very, very drunk throughout the whole show, affected my ability to enjoy the music but in the second set, just before the rendition of Permanating, Wilson delivered a speech about making the music he wanted to, including an unbridled, joyous pop song and hoped that the tattooed and bearded gents in their Opeth T-shirts would stand up and submit to the euphoria and maybe dance a few steps. To be fair to a large portion of the audience they did get on their feet but I, bearded but not being interested in either Opeth or tattoos, remained seated, unmoved by what is indisputably a potentially infectious pop structure.

For much of the rest of the gig I found the sound a bit blurred and indistinguishable; it wasn’t that it was over-loud but it was quite heavy and it wasn’t until the third encore of The Raven that Refused to Sing that my gloom lifted a little.

I can’t fault the musicianship or the presentation and I certainly can’t criticise a Wilson for changing the form of music he writes. That the songs played on that Tuesday night weren’t to my satisfaction is no one’s fault but a matter of personal taste and I’m not going to burn the CDs that I own because I didn’t like this show. I’m simply not going to commit to buying a ticket for the tour of his next album until I’ve heard the next album.

Maybe gig fatigue is setting in...










By ProgBlog, Mar 12 2018 10:28PM

The small group of family and friends that share my interest in prog can all trace their appreciation of the genre to the golden age. I grew up with almost all of them and most are regular gig companions but I was still blown away by their response when asked to submit their nine ‘life changing’ albums. Some just provided me with a list, one a list with bullet points and the remainder of the submissions were roughly along the same lines as my selection last week, including explanatory notes. My guidelines were deliberately woolly but included the following points: to list the nine albums that had the most significant impact on their lives, or were at least associated with significant events in their lives; to provide a short summary of their choice should they wish to do so; and to compile their choices before I revealed my own list, published the blog last week.

These are their 9 albums:



The albums are arranged in chronological order of their release. Thick as a Brick I didn't discover until about 1975 but is the best Tull, saw IA perform it in Newcastle a few years ago along with TAAB2. Close to the Edge is the best Yes and any prog album and one of my earliest discoveries. The Dark Side of the Moon still sets the bar and was another of my early favourites. Refugee is still Patrick Moraz's finest work along with Relayer. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is another early find and remains brilliant. Red runs close with In the Court of... as the best Crimson album but I chose it as it features Bill B. I got Harbour of Tears last year on holiday in Krakow and is as good as any Camel album. Dust and Dreams and Rajaz both from the 90s are also up there with their best work. AD 2010 I got on holiday in Sienna which was a great holiday made even better by this find and I have been seeking out other recent post-2000 PFM albums which are really good. Rattle that Lock is DG's best solo effort and compares favourably with any Floyd. I was very tempted to include a Water's Edge album for personal reasons but probably not prog enough! Number 10 would have been Aerie Faerie Nonsense by The Enid.

_______________________________


Days of Future Passed

A linked piece (concept) with varied writers and instrumentalists contributing to a fine album supported by a full orchestra, it was one the first pieces of progressive music I heard. Having grown up in a house where classical music was enjoyed by my dad, it was as if ' pop ' music was going somewhere and albums were works in themselves.

Argus

Loved the music, harmonizing guitars, lyrics and extended progressive middle sections. Although Wishbone Ash have a rocky sound at times, it had sustenance in its tracks and delivered open lengthy pieces.

Music Inspired by The Snow Goose

Had read the book and someone lent me the album. Hooked and to this day I enjoy it as much as ever. The sounds and progression! A great work.

Tubular Bells

One man's concept album or was it? But life was never the same after hearing this and subsequent albums were certainly more fluid and impressionistic. It was different!

Nursery Cryme

Ahh, Genesis. Perhaps the one band I committed to wholly. This really was 'fantastic' music, story-telling, picturesque, album after album but it started for me with Nursery Cryme in the mid 70s.

Tales from Topographic Oceans

Of all the YES albums, I came to this first! Fascinated by the other worldliness of its sounds, by the album sleeve and its escapist, visionary nature. You travel with the music.

Brain Salad Surgery

I had a friend who had Pictures at an Exhibition (I knew the classical work) and had enjoyed it, then this. Big, brash, funny and a moment of sublime love (or so it seemed to a teenage girl). Played my dad Jerusalem over a cup of tea. Even my sister (not her usual stuff) played it ...well, some of it. You had to be in the mood to go through all the three movements of Karn Evil 9 but it anchors me to a time and place.

Meddle

I'd had an amazing first listen to Dark Side of the Moon; lights out, candles lit, a group of us listening in an attic bedroom but it was Meddle that I returned to in 1975 as a soundscape when revising for my O Levels. Experimental, varied influence, perhaps no real concept but some tremendous pieces. A favourite to this day.

The Condensed 21st century Guide to King Crimson 1969-2003

Essential inclusion for me and with thanks to [ProgBlog]. I had heard In the Court of the Crimson King at parties (the lads in a room wowing at whatever) but it is, criminally, only in relatively recent times that I've immersed myself in KC as a unit and this collection is stunning. This may has enhanced my prog listening. Am still on that journey.

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The albums represent: 1st single purchased; 1st album purchased; 1st prog album I heard; 1st gig attended; 1st album heard at Uni; 1st CD purchased; 1st double album purchased; favourite prog album; favourite prog track; favourite album cover; favourite album; favourite non-prog album; album with the most versions in my collection (vinyl, half-speed remastered vinyl, hi-res 24 bit download, CD, picture disc CD); album I play the most often (but not necessarily my favourite)

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Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon

The very first album I bought, second hand from Paul Thompson for £3.50 in 1980, mint condition with the posters and stickers. What a way to start your music listening career! The first album being prog-related set a tone for the music I got into in the immediate years following, and a lifetime of listening beyond that.

Jethro Tull – Repeat the Best of Jethro Tull Vol.2

A 14th birthday present from [ProgBlog] and Bill Burford. Having struggled a little at first with the Songs from the Wood album this pulled me in hook, line and sinker. Several years of Tull obsession followed. A very good compilation from the classic Tull prog years.

Martin Stephenson & The Daintees – Gladsome Humour & Blue

“Who?” you may ask. A former carpet fitter from Washington, Tyne & Wear, that’s who. Rather like Dark Side, an album written by a man with immense maturity for his tender years. Heart melting stuff bought second hand at the record shop in the Newcastle University student union. Martin’s almost a shaman character, who shunned the majors for a simple life doing music his way, which he still does to this day from the Highlands of Scotland.

Johnny Cash – American III Solitary Man

Early 2000s, I’d heard Folsom Prison and thought it was quite quirky, so bought this on the hop for a fiver at Fopp. The (on the face of it) bizarre collaboration of hip hop producer Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash produced heavily stylised recordings that turned ok originals into probably the most dramatic music I’ve ever heard.

Various Artists – The Best of Blue Note Vol.1

Introduced me to the world of Blue Note, and very heavily influenced the next ten years of listening and purchasing. Included the Donald Byrd version of Cristo Redentor, a beautifully pure trumpet tune with eerie backing “woos” (not words as such) from a gospel choir. A song which will be played at my funeral. Included other future faves like Horace Silver and Art Blakey.

Genesis – Live

Bought this for a pound off John Carrott, when he was selling his albums. Played to death then replaced on CD. Played very frequently to this day, and I keep hoping they’’ issue an expanded version one day. Five songs, all great, but side 2 with The Musical Box and The Knife is surely one of the greatest sides of music ever issued.

Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

A 1974 compilation bought at Hitsville in Newcastle. Poetry meets jazz meets funk meets politics meets human rights. A pioneer of rap from the late 60s, but with really strong messages, from the very raw at the start to really sophisticated pieces near the end.

Various Artists – First Time I Met The Blues

I’d started seeing some live roots music, then picked up this Chess compilation, which led me to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chicago blues that had come from the fields originally, very raw black music, the punk of its day.

Various Artists – Blue Brazil

A Blue Note compilation of very melodic Brazilian jazzy numbers, laced with fantastic rhythms and beautiful voices. Strange because none of the music had been released on Blue Note originally. Set off another investigation into rhythmic music from other countries that picked up some things I already liked including funk rhythms and jazz, Afro-centric music, and pulled at my own South American heritage (albeit much more interesting music than the native stuff from Chile and most of South America).

I know these compilations are cheating a bit, but they’re random purchases that opened doors.

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A Nice Pair – Pink Floyd.

This release of the first two Floyd albums was my real initiation into music that was to become ‘mine’. Although I had heard my brother playing albums in his bedroom in the early 1970’s it wasn’t until I was played A Saucerful of Secrets in a music lesson at school that I began discovering music outside the charts. I will forever be thankful to that teacher, Mr Peter Nurse.

Evening Star – Fripp & Eno.

I first heard this when visiting my brothers flat. The music had an otherworldly quality that resonated with me and indeed still does.

Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield.

This is an album I remember hearing my brother play and it became one of the first albums I bought, the first was actually Hergest Ridge also by Oldfield. However, if I hadn’t heard this album as much as I did I’d never have bought Hergest Ridge. It’s not my favourite Oldfield album, that remains Ommadawn, but without it, a love of instrumental music may never have been forged.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Rick Wakeman

This one album sparked my love of electronic keyboards and synthesisers. I was introduced to it by a friend called Richard Key who used to give me lifts when we went to fishing matches. One day on our return he invited me in to hear this album and I was hooked. Much was to follow from that day.

Close to the Edge – Yes

Having discovered Mr Wakeman it didn’t take long to discover Yes. This remains the quintessential progressive rock album to me and the best that Yes released. Other individual Yes songs may have come close, The Revealing Science of God, Gates of Delirium, Awaken, Starship Trooper and Heart of the Sunrise immediately spring to mind but this album had it all in just three songs.

The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

This is another album that isn’t my favourite from the band, that would be Wish You Were Here, but when I first got the album, bought as a Xmas present on cassette, I played it to death. I’ve since had the album on vinyl and CD (4 times) and I never tire of it.

Phaedra – Tangerine Dream

I believe I first heard this album in the ‘Tracks’ record shop in Royston where I grew up. The guys in the shop were beginning to suggest albums to me knowing my interest in electronic keyboard based music and the decision to purchase was immediate when I heard the sequencer kick in. This has been a really important album for me and gets played at least once a month even now. It may not be as technically proficient as subsequent albums but it retains a distinct charm all of its own.

Oxygene – Jean Michel Jarre

This was another of those albums that just had to be bought once I’d heard the single from the album, Oxygene IV. This was really accessible electronic music which couldn’t be said so easily of Tangerine Dream. I’ve followed Jarre’s career ever since. He’s released some real duds in the last 40 years but Oxygene is an electronic music classic and is another of those albums that I still get real enjoyment out of listening to.

Deadwing – Porcupine Tree

This was my introduction to both Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson who has since become a very important musical personality in my listening. Strangely, I only started to find out about the group when I discovered that Robert Fripp would be the support artist on the second UK leg of the Deadwing tour. As I wanted to see Fripp performing his soundscapes live I thought I’d find out more about the group he was supporting. I’d be a lot richer now if I hadn’t bothered but I’m so glad I did. I now have nearly every album that Steven Wilson has released either with Porcupine Tree, as a solo artist, with Blackfield, Bass Communion or No-Man. Tickets for four gigs on the upcoming UK tour might give an indication of how important his music is to me

________________________________



Yes - Close to the Edge

Yes - Relayer

King Crimson - Larks' Tongues in Aspic

King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black

ELP - Trilogy

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue

Miles Davis - Star People

Camel - Music Inspired by The Snow Goose

Focus - Best of Focus

________________________________



Probably think of some album I'd rather include but can't check record collection. All oldies, number 1 has remained so since age 14, the others might move about a bit

1) Close to the Edge

2) Larks' Tongues in Aspic

3) Fragile

4) Tales from Topographic Oceans

5) Starless and Bible Black

6) Nice

7) The Dark Side of the Moon

8) Pictures at an Exhibition

9) The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

_______________________________

The group of respondents, including me, have an age range of 47 – 61; the mean age is 56 and the median age is 58. Six of the group spent their formative years in a relatively close-knit community, separated by only a very few houses and three of the six are closely related; one is from the Birmingham area, one from a small town in Hertfordshire and one from Leeds. More importantly, the musical tastes of this cohort don’t appear to have changed during the intervening years. With the exception of one respondent, all were teenagers at a time when progressive rock was a recognised and commercially successful genre, though competition from other musical styles was fairly restricted to outright pop (appealing to the predominantly pre-pubescent), blues-based rock, glam-rock and soul; my household was filled with a wide spectrum of jazz and at least one household featured a range of classical music. The oft-observed gender imbalance of prog fandom is evident here, with only one of the eight being female.


What comes across that respondents were discovering music which has informed their choice; most have stuck with the music of their teens but there is an element of tastes branching out. The influence of older siblings and friends is also clear, so that both Close to the Edge and The Dark Side of the Moon albums feature heavily but different examples of works by ELP, Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes, five of the leading exponents of prog, are scattered throughout the lists, potentially indicating personal preference for one of a band’s albums over another. The degree of homogeneity between respondents is further demonstrated by Camel, Focus, Jethro Tull, Mike Oldfield, PFM and Tangerine Dream all appearing in more than one list.

There’s also an indication that some of the choices aren’t the favourite albums by a band, though they still appear in the list. My personal choice wouldn’t all be in my favourite nine albums as I prefer Hamburger Concerto to Focus 3, Refugee’s self-titled LP from 1974 would be in my top five and however good Starless and Bible Black may be, I like In the Court of the Crimson King, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Red and USA even more. I looked upon each choice as a gateway to further discovery so that I couldn’t include Refugee or Snow Goose or any Genesis.


Thanks to everyone I asked for their nine albums for their illuminating replies – you know who you are.










By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2017 11:24AM

I’ve recently introduced a ‘playlist’ feature to the ProgBlog homepage and rather than a straightforward list I’ve produced a GIF, made up from photos taken of the albums as I’ve been playing them. I used to tweet pictures of whatever I was ‘now playing’, influenced by the posts of some of those that I follow, including 140 characters (or less) describing what I think about the music on that record; for a couple of months in 2015 I did post a list of my weekly indulgences, because I’d seen playlists on websites including Steven Wilson’s official site where there’s also an archive of what he’s been listening to, referred to as ‘Headphone Dust’ http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/playlist-archive/ . My GIF is intended as a way of presenting my listening habits in a manner more interesting than a simple list and still illustrating the width of the progressive rock genre.


ProgBlog playlists from 2015
ProgBlog playlists from 2015

I’m vaguely wary of the idea of a playlist because I see it as a device to prop-up the music business, linked to streaming services. The release of the mp3 codec by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1993 was to facilitate rapid transmission and immediate access of audio files between different points on the planet and, inadvertently or otherwise, it proved very easy to copy and share. From the ‘home taping is killing music’ panic which began in 1981, when the industry really wasn’t that large (but which was about to gear up and become truly global) and the uproar over the introduction of Napster in 1999, music corporations have consistently stifled creativity and creamed off massive profits from their artists. At the beginning of this decade, recession, falling CD sales and piracy all seemed to spell doom and gloom for the record labels but last year saw a reversal of fortune, driven by streaming services exemplified by Spotify, Deezer, Apple and Amazon. It’s been reported that around 30% of Warner’s £2.66bn revenue for 2016 came from streaming. I’ve just finished reading Robert Barry’s excellent The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017) who points out that the idea of a ‘celestial jukebox’ (in essence, a remote server sending music to everyone with a suitable hand-held device for accessing the service) first aired by Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein in his 1994 article Copyright’s Highway, allowed the ‘record oligopoly’ to convert from supplying goods to on-line services and creating a landlord – renter relationship. The one-off Napster payment has given way to subscription which, it has been predicted, could double or triple the size of the music industry; the tech firms also seem to be doing fairly well from this model - there are 90 million people signed up to streaming services worldwide.


The Music of the Future by Robert Barry
The Music of the Future by Robert Barry

A couple of fairly recent articles in The Guardian, one in July and one earlier this week, highlight some worrying issues with streaming. Industry insiders such as Paul Smernicki, former head of digital at Universal Records, speak in terms of business models and commodity rather than music as an art form, proposing that the numbers of people streaming indicates that music has never been more popular, where the value of reliability, convenience and accessibility to an enormous catalogue of songs for a small cost now make illegal downloading almost redundant, encouraging people to invest in the service. He doesn’t go on to say that while a paid-for download or a physical copy of some music only generates revenue once, streaming rewards the music company over and over again and it’s only a tiny amount, between $0.006 and $0.0084 which goes to the artist for each play of a song; it’s being sold to us as ‘choice’ and in our inimitable consumerist manner we believe the glossy images and accept what the industry says. Unfortunately, a shift to streaming has the effect of discouraging experimental music while enriching already big stars, with the pursuit of Adele by Sony creating a parallel with the other-world Premier League transfer market. Both the majors and indie labels are incorporating streaming playlists as the thrust of their marketing strategy, tying in music to consumption and lifestyle habits.


It’s a successful strategy. There’s a huge market for streaming playlists because the public is increasingly engaging with the service to find their music, so that the streaming companies themselves have invested in the creation of their own playlists which theoretically, might help less well-known artists if part of their remit is identify new music to champion. This part of the tech company – music business relationship appears roughly symbiotic, where the business now uses streaming pluggers pushing for songs, and the range of artists on offer can define the streaming service and help it to attract more subscribers. In reality, the record labels are favouring music that is known to provide the greatest revenue and the tech companies are getting the greater benefit. Barry explains that Spotify (for example) is doing what tech companies do, gathering data, in much the same way as Facebook and Google and Amazon do. The playlists are created with the help of sophisticated collaborative filtering systems where your preferences are matched with the preferences of everyone else on a database and you're constantly badgered into 'liking' and responding to posts, so you get specific recommendations. This doesn’t work very well for me because I hold a deep disdain for advertising and anyway, a very large proportion of people who like the same music as me also like Rush...


While the latest Guardian article suggested that the album could be under threat from streamed playlists, as artists are tempted to ignore the format and concentrate on rolling playlists instead, the Alexis Petridis piece from July concerned reports of ‘fake’ artists used to pad out popular playlists, paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines, mostly unchallenging instrumental music for relaxation, avoiding royalty payments. Spotify denied the charge, which would have far-reaching implications for genuine artists, but the stories continued, citing theories relating to quality control, and a tussle for power between service and industry.


I don’t use a streaming service and have no desire to do so but the music business couldn’t care less as the development of voice-activated speakers means we can ask Apple, Google and Amazon avatars to choose some music for a specific mood at a specific time. The playlists I put together in 2015 differ slightly from those now appearing as video on my Twitter and Facebook pages and on the ProgBlog website; in 2015 I was commuting from East Croydon to London Bridge, a nominal journey of 17 minutes, during which I would read my Guardian and, like many other commuters/consumers, listen to my portable mp3 player to shut out incessant high frequency beats, predominantly hi-hat, emanating from the earbud headphones of my fellow travellers. For the past four years or so, the railway lines south of the capital have been increasingly congested as major redevelopment has been carried out at London Bridge, making it impossible to predict the duration of any single journey (industrial action by two rail unions didn’t help but they get my sympathy as they stood up to management pressure to relax safety regulations, opposing the introduction of driver-only trains) and therefore making playlist selection difficult; an unwritten rule was that you couldn’t leave the train mid-track.


The recent playlists have been compiled from listening to albums, mostly LPs but some CDs and, on one occasion a download of demo tracks by new Italian prog band Melting Clock. The commonality between the two sets of playlists is that I listen to the album in full, in running order. That’s obviously essential for something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway where there’s a linear narrative but it’s not strictly necessary for every single concept album. It might be irritating to mix the tracks around on Dark Side of the Moon because the album is designed with specific segues but would the world end if we played the different sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans out of order? It would certainly wind me up! I’m not a fan of the shuffle function on music players and as much as I admire Sid Smith’s eclectic podcast Postcards from the Yellow Room http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk which has genuine breadth, it’s essentially a sampler for the now generation, whereas I prefer to make time to submerge myself in the entire album.


playtime
playtime

It’s quite clear why the record oligopoly likes streaming and I find it hard to envisage what future developments might come along, if there’s ever to be another threat to the industry. I don’t believe that there’s any immediate risk to the album from streaming as long as genres like prog retain a degree of popularity, simply because the grand themes of progressive rock were developed across the LP format, continued during the CD era and as yet there’s no sign of that historic link being broken. The current fad for all things vinyl may not last but while it does, there’s no better feeling than holding the edges of a new release on heavyweight vinyl between your palms, placing it carefully on the turntable and getting ready to devote your time, in 20 minute chunks, to uninterrupted listening.







By ProgBlog, Jul 11 2017 10:42PM

I’ve just ripped a rather large pile of my wife’s CDs to mp3 for her, nothing that remotely interests me but which does indicate the breadth of her musical tastes, according to categories ascribed by Windows Media Player: Soul and R&B; folk; electronica (not the sort that I like); country; pop; world. The selection generally dated from within the last five years and I noticed that most of the albums play for around 45 minutes with an average track length of a little over four minutes within a range of sub-three minutes to just over five. This near-standardised format would suit a release on 12” LP and though quite a few of these recent additions to her collection were originally released before the current vinyl revolution, at least one has been re-released in audiophile format and two, by the same artist, have ridden the recent vinyl wave with the one of them allegedly becoming the fastest selling LP for 20 years.



It’s well documented how progressive rock bands found the standard three minute single something of a constraint and it’s equally uncontroversial to suggest that in the late 70s, as the golden era was drawing to a close with very few exceptions, bands who were obliged to attempt to write a hit single by their label produced failures; prog relied on album sales and was a spectacular success in doing so. It’s hard enough to put together a winning formula for a hit single without attempting to include some form of coherent story or message and most of the singles in the 70s were aimed at a particular demographic, the adolescent in the early 70s and then when punk came along, older teenagers. On a sociological level this was to do with burgeoning self-awareness and searching for inclusivity; call me dumb but the tribe I ascribed to had long hair, wore flairs and suede desert boots and carried albums to and from school under our arms, as if to show the world how deep and interesting we were.


I’m not going to comment on the provenance of some, undeniably successful singles from prog-associated artists such as Greg Lake or the 1980s version of Yes and equally, I’m not thinking of edits of album tracks cut-down to favour air play but, in my opinion, the only genuine full-on hit progressive rock song of single length is Wonderous Stories by Yes which entered the UK Singles Chart at number 31 in mid-September 1977. Over the next four weeks climbed to its peak, reaching number 7 for the week of 8 October and it remained in the chart for the next five weeks. A favourite with fans and band members alike, the track somehow condenses epic Yes into 3’45, possibly because the song structure, built around a classical framework, incorporates signature features such as the harmony vocals and an uplifting vibe. It’s unclear to me how many new fans they attracted, especially in an era of punk. I didn’t buy the single in either of its formats because I owned the album but I imagine a fair number of pre-existing fans bought the special edition picture-sleeve 12” version in blue vinyl.




So what is the ideal track length, and what is the perfect album duration? As someone who began listening to music when the vinyl LP was the dominant format, I’m used to and therefore favour an album of 35 – 45 minutes of music. There are plenty of shorter length albums such as Electric Prunes’ Mass in F minor which, at 26 minutes, must be one of the shortest LPs ever, Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (just over 36 minutes), and many of the 70s progressivo Italiano releases. At the other end of the scale, Genesis had a bit of a reputation for eking out every square millimetre of the record surface with Foxtrot lasting over 51 minutes, Selling England by the Pound at over 53 minutes, Trick of the Tail at 51 minutes and Wind and Wuthering just shy of 51 minutes; [the non-prog] Duke was over 55 minutes. Progressive rock is known for its utilisation of full dynamics and the more music included on an LP means less space between grooves and a reduced dynamic range, plus the increased likelihood of damage from a worn stylus and though my Genesis records play well, the side-long title track on Autumn Grass by Continuum which lasts over 26 minutes, has reproduction problems on my current set-up, my former set-up and on the system in the shop I used to check the quality of the (second-hand) disc.

I’m very much in favour of side-long tracks and most of my favourite groups have committed one side of an album to a single piece of music; all of them have indulged in long-form, which I consider to be one of the defining qualities of prog. From the ultimate progressive rock album Close to the Edge to each of the four sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans and Gates of Delirium; Atom Heart Mother and Echoes to Eruption and Hamburger Concerto; Tarkus to A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers; Music Inspired by The Snow Goose to Nine Feet Underground; Supper’s Ready (Horizons is the prelude) to Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play; Lizard to Mumps; Rubycon to Tubular Bells; Trace’s Birds to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Dream, there are also other brilliant almost side-long tracks like Grand Canyon Suite and Credo on the only studio album by Refugee.




It’s not that I don’t like sub-five minute tracks but I just don’t think they represent the best a band can do. Anything around 10 minutes or over should give sufficient scope for development of ideas to transport the listener on a journey through the composition; there ought to be sufficient time to employ a variety of rhythmic devices, changes in amplitude and different instruments or instrumental voices.

The CD format opened up a whole new world of possibilities and prog supergroup Transatlantic managed to fill an album with a single piece of music, The Whirlwind, lasting 77 minutes. This may be an exception but the temptation to fill the available time on a CD, whether with a single track or a series of shorter tracks, is ever-present. Where should we stop? My brother Richard has specifically commented on Nad Sylvan’s 2015 solo album Courting the Widow, suggesting that as much as he likes the compositions, he finds it hard to reach the end of the album (it lasts just over 70 minutes.) I think Richard’s observation applies far more generally and that there’s no real requirement to release something over 50 minutes long. Before the 90s King Crimson came along I’ve held ‘Crimson days’ where I played all original (vinyl) releases one after the other; I’ve done the same for Yes and Pink Floyd but unless you have the time to dedicate to listening to music, there’s no point. I’m someone who believes in the importance of the album as a complete entity and that the running order described by the artist is sacrosanct yet I’m unsure if it’s the lives we lead (wake/commute/work/commute/eat/sleep/repeat) which is restricting our ability to fully connect with music or if the length of a CD album itself that we find hard to assimilate in a single sitting. Is this a generational thing affecting those of us who grew up happy to turn over an LP on the platter or is it a Page family thing? Yes magnum opus Tales from Topographic Oceans was derided for its length (amongst other things) and attracted criticism for passages regarded as ‘filler’, so would it have benefitted from a CD format, if that had been available in 1973, allowing it to be produced as a 60 minute-long piece of work? I like to think that the natural breaks afforded by changing sides and changing discs provide enough break to allow us to enjoy the full 80 minutes. Then again, as much as I enjoy Anderson/Stolt’s Invention of Knowledge which lasts around 65 minutes, I find it difficult to listen to from beginning to end on vinyl or in digital format; perhaps familiarity plays a large part and it’s not just the length of the album. I no longer have the time I once had to sit down and properly listen.




In fact there’s no perfect length of either a single track or of an album. The physical restraints of the 12” LP which allowed up to 27 minutes of music each side, has the capacity to hold music which can have any number of twists and turns, whether they’re presented as one piece or as a series of tracks. It’s not the length that counts – it’s the quality of the music itself.


By ProgBlog, Jan 22 2017 11:19PM

Whereas 1976 ended on a relatively high note for progressive rock with what I now regard as the last decent studio offering from Genesis, Wind and Wuthering, it hadn’t really been such a classic year for the progressive rock genre though there were obviously important releases. Looking back through my collection it would appear that the product from mainland Europe shined pretty brightly. 2017 has started with the inauguration of President Trump in the US but 1977 started off where 1976 ended, with a trip to see Genesis at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. It continued with the much-anticipated follow-up to Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd’s Animals. The entire album was premiered pre-official release, on John Peel’s radio show (January 20th, official release January 23rd.) That single exposure was enough for me to discern a qualitative difference between Animals and its predecessor; gone were the lavish keyboard washes and cutting synthesizer lines, replaced by a more traditional rock balance with organ and piano relegated to little more than rhythm work. I still went out and bought it, to discover that Rick Wright wasn’t included in any compositional credits and even Dave Gilmour only got his name on Dogs. It was fairly common knowledge that a decent proportion of the material which made up the LP had been presented to live audiences following the Dark Side tours, with You’ve Got to be Crazy forming the bones of Dogs and Sheep gestating as Raving and Drooling, the latter including far more synthesizer than on the finalised album version. Wish You Were Here is a good example of progressive rock; four years later The Wall is most definitely not prog. Sitting between the two, Animals doesn’t really conform to the requirements of the description either, though it does have its moments and does challenge the prevailing politics of the time, inverting the anti-Stalinist narrative of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and turning it into a rail against capitalism.


Animals - forty years old
Animals - forty years old

From the somewhat lacklustre and very disappointing Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! of the previous year, Jethro Tull reinvented themselves in 1977 with the prog-folk Songs from the Wood. This was not only a coherent, redefining statement (that would last for a trio of albums), it also utilised the playing talents of long-term associate and strings arranger David (now Dee) Palmer on keyboards which had the effect of adding another layer of complexity to the music. I don’t think the music could be compared to folk because it really rocked; the title better reflected the subject matter itself rather than any treatment of it, espousing green issues and contentment through a more rural way of life dressed. Ian Anderson had always utilised the acoustic guitar in a singer-songwriter way but now he had a package that harked back to a bucolic idyll and even, in Hunting Girl, hinted at Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I really like Songs from the Wood, the upfront, punchy bass of John Glascock and in general the instrumentation and arrangements. I suppose if I were to lay any criticism at this record it would be directed at the sometimes twee lyrics but overall, for a song-based album, it compares very favourably with Tull’s prog-concept pieces like Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play and Minstrel in the Gallery.


Songs from the Wood
Songs from the Wood

It would be incorrect of me to dismiss Tull as a second-division act but the first of the major players to return after an extended break from the studio were Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The pretentiously-titled Works Volume 1 may have been a cock-a-snook to punk, the dominant genre of the time, indicating that they didn’t care what anyone else thought about their approach to music. Aesthetically, even the sleeve is deadly serious in monochrome with its small neat font and the concept, one side for each band member plus one side for the ensemble comes across as an indication of artistic control. I’ve always thought Works Volume 1 and the albums just before it invoked a superficial parallel with Yes activity: Yes released Close to the Edge, their defining LP in 1972, this was followed by a triple live set (Yessongs) which in turn was followed by the magnum opus double LP Tales from Topographic Oceans; ELP released Brain Salad Surgery in 1973, the pinnacle of their career up to that date, they then released the triple live album Welcome Back My Friends and their next studio outing was the grand double LP Works Volume 1. If the analogy is pushed further, the Yes hiatus was punctuated by solo albums; ELP’s absence from the studio ended with solo material presented within a group album (though Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas and Emerson’s arrangement of the Meade Lux Lewis tune Honky Tonk Train Blues, released in 1975 and 1976 respectively were both charting singles, eventually ended up on the mixed bag Works Volume 2.) It’s easiest to analyse Works Volume 1 one side at a time. I find Emerson’s Piano Concerto no. 1 rather enjoyable, the piece cementing his reputation as a builder of bridges between the two worlds of classical and rock though which his influences shine. I’m not sure that it’s a great piece of composition but I like it. Lake’s side continues from where Still... You Turn Me On left off in 1973. I value Lake’s contribution to progressive rock as an integral part of the earliest incarnation of King Crimson and as bassist/vocalist for ELP. He may have considered himself a singer songwriter playing acoustic guitar who happened to play some bass but the ‘solo’ features on every ELP album bar the first are relatively poor affairs; nice voice, shame about the content. Having said that, I have a soft spot for C’est La Vie! Carl Palmer’s material works very well when the attention is on the percussion rather than his song writing; I could never work out why Joe Walsh should appear on an ELP album, which brings me to the group tracks. The Copland-penned Fanfare for the Common Man is safely back on ELP territory and the only gripe I have with it is the overrated sound of the Yamaha GX-1 when it would sound so much better using a Hammond. The Yamaha is more suited to the symphonic Pirates which, at a little over 13 minutes fits the prog mould far better, forming a mini-suite. Along with dinosaurs, you can’t go far wrong with pirates!


Works Volume 1
Works Volume 1

Yes also returned from the wilderness with Going for the One, an album which offered a nod to the punk ethos with the high-energy title track, albeit with a liberal dose of Anderson sensibility, with its trippy imagery (“so hard to find in my cosmic mind”) but the other four tracks are straight from the Yes universe. Parallels was left over from Squire’s Fish out of Water and is sonically closest to The Yes Album. With Wakeman back in the fold, the album is far lighter than Relayer and in Awaken, contains one of the best progressive rock songs, ever. There’s a nice balance in the compositions, with Wonderous Stories managing to compress a full prog epic into something less than four minutes to become a surprisingly successful single at a time when punk was riding high, and the understated, reflective Turn of the Century showing off Howe’s considerable talent on acoustic guitar. Yes music is always uplifting but this was somehow positive thinking presented in easy to digest chunks on a platter, beginning with the hope of Parallels, moving through unbounded joy (Going for the One) and reflection (Turn of the Century) to spiritual fulfilment (Awaken.) Wakeman’s return coincided with two solo releases: White Rock and Criminal Record, both very different from predecessors Journey and Myths and Legends, being much closer in style to Six Wives.


Going for the One
Going for the One

There were a number of other important releases through the year, many of which I also picked up at the time or within the next couple of years. Progressive rock fans readily took to Brand X whose 1976 debut Unorthodox Behaviour was followed up by Moroccan Roll. Their sound on the sophomore effort was fleshed out to a surprising extent with the inclusion of percussionist Maurice Pert, ensuring that any potential to stagnate as a straightforward fusion act was neatly avoided.

I’d already started to appreciate PFM and their 1977 release Jet Lag didn’t disappoint. I was catching up on jazz rock bands around this time and Jet Lag was the closest PFM would get to that sub-genre. I wasn’t too disappointed that the Sinfield lyrics had gone and was getting used to Bernado Lanzetti’s vocal style following his debut on Chocolate Kings. Bookended by the beautiful Peninsula and the anthemic Traveler the music and playing is outstanding throughout.

What did come as a shock was the change from Van der Graaf Generator to Van der Graaf. Losing both your organist and horn player might seem careless but Peter Hammill and Guy Evans reinvented the band with the return of Nic Potter on bass and the recruitment of violinist Graham Smith from String Driven Thing. The resulting The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome is no less complex but far more rough and ready than VdGG and more immediate, as though Hammill was once more channelling Rikki Nadir. I didn’t buy the album until a couple of years later but I encouraged my brother to go and see the band when they played Leeds University during what would become the tour that produced Vital. Tony also went to see Camel during their 1977 tour (and tracks played at Leeds would appear on A Live Record also released in 1977) but I had to make do with listening to a friend’s copy of Rain Dances. The arrival of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair cemented the Moonmadness drift towards a more jazzy direction but the collection of shorter songs, though still achingly melodic, was a bit disappointing. I think that of all the albums from 1977 that I listened to at the time, this was the one which I recognised as signalling a shift in the behaviour of the record companies, requiring the band to put out Highways of the Sun as a single. Evidence of the affect of punk on prog bands is best illustrated by the difference between Playing the Fool and The Missing Piece, both 1977 releases by Gentle Giant. The former, a brilliant introduction to the band in the guise of career-spanning compositions performed live which I bought on cassette is pure prog; the latter, not added to my collection until many years later for good reason, was like nothing the band had released before and is very disappointing.


More from 1977
More from 1977

Other notable records from 1977 which I acquired later include Genesis alumni Anthony Phillip’s The Geese and the Ghost, Peter Gabriel I (I did buy the Solsbury Hill single in preparation for seeing his first solo tour) and Steve Hackett’s Please Don’t Touch; I also recently bought a second hand vinyl copy of Seconds Out. England were a band who were unfairly accused of sounding Genesis-light who released the highly regarded Garden Shed. I saw them play in Barrow but didn’t buy the album until years later, one of my first internet purchases. I’ve since invested in a 2LP version with bonus material. The first National Health album also deserves a mention as it is one of the few albums which eschewed record company directives and is brilliant, melodic and complex. Along with England, they stood out as examples of how prog could have developed. The Enid represented a bridge from the first prog era and, like Van der Graaf, were accepted by the punk movement. They followed up the excellent In the Region of the Summer Stars with the sumptuous Aerie Faerie Nonsense. The US equivalent of late golden-period prog, recently added to my collection, is the first Happy The Man album released in 1977 which is a genuine treat.


If 1977 had some highs and lows, it wasn’t obvious until much later on in the year that the genre was unsustainable, coming under pressure from an industry which was just waking up to realise its global punch, partly through political developments. It’s interesting that the year began with Roger Waters’ onslaught against this political climate but half way through we were treated to a vision of hope but things went downhill fairly swiftly from 1978; forty years on January began with President Trump and despite the amazing scenes of Women’s Marches from around the world in reaction to the US election, I’m not very hopeful.

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