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Still reflecting on the latest venture to the Italian Riviera, ProgBlog looks at the legacy of the port city of Savona: Delirium and Il Cerchio d'Oro who released the rather good Il Fuoco Sotto la Cenere in the autumn

By ProgBlog, Nov 16 2017 10:26PM

Last weekend marked another milestone in the history of progressive rock. June 1967 saw the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was certainly not progressive rock but which revealed a whole new world of possibilities. In Abbey Road Studios at the same time were Pink Floyd, also pushing boundaries, releasing The Piper at the Gates of Dawn three months later in August, not only stamping an indelible English whimsy on popular music but also staking out sonic territory in outer space. Procol Harum had released the JS Bach-themed single A Whiter Shade of Pale in May and followed-up their surreal musing with a self-titled debut album in September, offering mature and quite original R&B.



On November 11th the Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed. If Sgt Pepper’s wasn’t progressive rock, it was definitely the beginning of art-rock and the first concept package, utilising the notion of a song cycle and highlighting the importance of the lyrics by printing them on the sleeve; Piper wasn’t prog either but it marked the birth of UK psychedelic rock; Days of Future Passed wasn’t prog, but there is a reasonable argument to suggest it was the first proto-progressive album.

The Beatles have to take credit for a number of things, perhaps most importantly being a pop group who wrote their own songs, demonstrating an (at the time) unprecedented creative control which would become the norm for rock acts as the music industry began to change. The Beatles, along with George Martin, were responsible for pushing recording studio technology along, beginning with Revolver in 1966, an album which features George Harrison playing sitar on the track Love You To, extending the sounds available to pop music and also opening up western music to Eastern philosophy. Prior to this, most bands in the UK were relying on a rock vocabulary imported almost wholesale from the US and the Moody Blues were no exception. The replacement of Denny Laine and Clint Warwick with Justin Hayward and John Lodge on guitar and bass respectively introduced a folk influence to the group and as more time passed since they’d had success with their cover version of Bessie Banks’ Go Now with no sign of a follow-up hit, they decided to decamp to Belgium and write their own material, better suited to ‘lower-middle class English boys’, and move away from their R&B live set. Their new sound was defined by their use of Mellotron; keyboard player Mike Pinder had experience of the instrument from when he worked at Streetly Electronics in his native West Midlands, and sourced one from the local Dunlop Social Club at a bargain price because no one at the club could play it!

The story of how the album came to be made is well known; the band was in debt to Decca and, following a promising but unsuccessful self-penned single Fly Me High, was offered the chance to record an orchestra and rock version of Antonín Dvořák’s 9th Symphony From the New World for release on their Deram imprint for innovative new music, to promote their novel stereo recording technique, the Deramic Sound System, which gave improved channel separation. Once in the recording studio, the band persuaded producer Tony Clarke and orchestral arranger Peter Knight to drop Dvořák and record the song cycle which had become a staple at their gigs. Days of Future Passed (a title provided by the record company) was the result.

It’s likely that I first heard the album in 1973 as my sister was a big Moodies fan and we had a number of Moody Blues LPs appended to my dad’s jazz albums and an ever-growing collection of progressive rock. I liked some aspects of their music, In the Beginning from On the Threshold of a Dream for instance, but I thought there was a qualitative difference between what I was listening to (Yes, The Nice, ELP, Pink Floyd) and the Moodies, so consequently consigned them to a prog footnote and only in the past few years since I’ve been thinking more about the genre have I given them the reappraisal they deserve.

I don’t think the Moody Blues have ever been a progressive rock band but the idea of proto-prog is important. Orchestration in pop music may have already been commonplace but Days of Future Passed was the first attempt to bridge the pop and classical worlds. It’s ironic that The Nice used the 4th Movement of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony to extend their rendition of the Bernstein/Sondheim America; Keith Emerson was one of the prime movers for fusing classical music with jazz and rock and, with Ars Longa Vita Brevis appearing a year later in 1968, producing one of the most satisfactory early classical-rock hybrids on the side-long title suite. It’s been reported that Peter Knight, to his great credit, was keen to score the music for Days of Future Passed because at the time there really weren’t many voices from the classical world willing to rub shoulders with purveyors of popular music. Knight’s additions are quite in keeping with the pop of the Moodies but that’s one of the problems I have with side 1 of the album; I don’t think it’s aged at all well. The score lacks depth and drama and reminds me of music for some lightweight British movie from that time or even before; the saccharine strings and woodwind trills which open the record are hackneyed, though there’s a brief respite when each track theme is previewed. I do like the idea of Graeme Edge’s poetry on The Day Begins (Morning Glory and, at the end of side 2 Late Lament/Resolvement) and however much this influenced my attempts at teenage poetry, I can quite understand how it attracted accusations of pretentiousness. Dawn is a Feeling isn’t a bad song but the 2/4 sections ruin Another Morning and the orchestral introduction to Peak Hour. When Peak Hour gets going it actually rocks and the harmony work, a key component of the Moody Blues sound, reminds me of The Beatles. There’s more soloing on this track, easily the best part of the first side and this too adds to the impression that the piece is locked inside the mid 60s.

Side two is a different matter with better writing and more variation in each song, and more Mellotron. I’m not so sure about the bridge, but I like Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?) with its Mellotron line that surely inspired Barclay James Harvest, and I think it conforms to a classic Justin Hayward blueprint, even presaging Forever Autumn. The Sunset taps into the trend for Eastern music and Twilight Time is rather psychedelic, and could easily have been influenced by Pink Floyd. The stylistic variation continues with Nights in White Satin which is quite different from anything else on the album. It may be familiarity but I think it is a well-structured piece and deserves its reputation as an undisputed classic.


The orchestration doesn’t really supplement the songs but links them, acting to reinforce the themes and that’s why I don’t believe it succeeds in what it set out to do as described on the sleeve notes “...where it becomes one with the world of the classics.” The writing on side one lacks maturity, hardly breaking away from the pop of the time but side two, and the overall theme of ‘a day’ from sunrise to after sunset, would set a trend for other conceptual works. Opinion amongst Decca executives has been reported as ‘mixed’ when the record was completed but they released the album anyway, in the hope that it would recoup some of the financial investment in the project.

The rest is history; progressive rock as a genre wouldn't be the same without it.





By ProgBlog, May 19 2015 10:03PM

The presentation of an album used to be one of the factors I took into account when I was attempting to discover new music at a time when the 12 inch LP format offered the best possible option for displaying images; subsequent popular formats (cassette tape, CDs) didn’t provide such a good showcase for album art so the recent trend for releasing new music on vinyl is a positive step in returning artwork to the status it had in the 70s. My father was an Art teacher and would drag us around galleries whenever the chance arose; I seem to recall Abbot Hall in Kendal as being a popular destination. I guess his efforts to interest us in art were successful because I subjected my son Daryl to the same sort of treatment, despite me ending up as a scientist... Anyway, not knowing how the music industry actually worked, thinking that art direction was the responsibility of the group rather than the label, I hypothesised that a band that invested in decent artwork was likely to have taken equal care with their music.

There are a handful of artists and design teams who have a strong association with progressive rock though prog wasn’t necessarily the only genre they worked in. The most obvious examples include Roger Dean and Yes; Hipgnosis and Pink Floyd; William Neal and ELP; Mark Wilkinson and Marillion; Philip Travers and the Moody Blues. The relationship was most rewarding, in a symbiotic kind of way, where bands stuck with a particular designer over the course of a number of releases. This conforms to what Wagner described as ‘gesamtkuntswerk’ where music, lyrics and visual motifs create a coherent artistic vision, fitting the idea of the concept album and consistent constructed mythologies.

When I started to listen to music I took the presence of printed lyrics for granted and consequently I found it irritating when I didn’t have a lyric sheet, having been reduced to replaying sections of albums to work out what Greg Lake was singing on Tarkus (1971), for instance. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the original rock concept album, was the first rock LP to have the song words reproduced on the sleeve and the cover specifically related to the idea that the album had been released by the fictitious Sgt Pepper. Prior to Sgt Pepper most album covers featured a photograph of the band but Peter Blake and Jann Howarth pioneered a new form of album presentation, opening the doors for cover art to reflect the musical and lyrical content within.

Roger Dean’s work with Yes created a narrative that took on a life of its own, incorporating stage design for live performances (with Dean’s brother Martyn) and inspiring Jon Anderson to write and release Olias of Sunhillow (1976). I used to buy postcards of the Yessongs panels from the union shop at Goldsmiths’ College when I was a student, to use as notes to friends detailing in minutiae what I’d been doing over the preceding week or two, lectures attended, field trips, books read and albums bought. I was rather surprised when, following the group hiatus from 1975 to 1977, Yes reconvened with an album that didn’t have a Roger Dean cover. The Hipgnosis effort was similar to material that they’d provided for other musicians but I didn’t really think it was very fitting with Yes music. Perhaps this was to coincide with the Yes reaction to punk; the title track of Going for the One (1977) is more direct than any of their preceding output but the rest of the material on the album ranks as being pretty cosmic, especially the epic Awaken. Hipgnosis shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near Tormato (1978) – one of the worst album covers, ever. It did neither Yes or Hipgnosis any favours, when it could have been so good! I approved of the Drama (1980) sleeve and was indifferent to 90125 (1983) and Big Generator (1987) – they weren’t Yes music.

Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant is one of my favourite Dean covers and it’s interesting to see how Patrick Woodroffe incorporated another of my favourites, Dean’s Greenslade multi-limbed wizard figure for Time and Tide (1975) after Spyglass Guest (1973) which only featured the Dean designed Greenslade typography (the typography itself on Time and Tide is a subtle alteration); though the cover of the first Dave Greenslade solo album Cactus Choir (1976) is also illustrated by Dean, his working relationship with Woodroffe was continued on The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony (1979), an album I’ve picked up a number of times at record fairs, some in very good condition, but never bought because of the reported poor quality of the music and I’m not too sure whether I like the work of Woodroffe, either.

I do like the work of Ashok (Chris Poisson) for the Mahavishnu Orchestra that runs from Birds of Fire (1973) to Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975) incorporating graphics, photography or both. This provides the illusion of continuity, even though the group disbanded in 1973 and reconvened with a different line-up for Apocalypse (1974) and I find the images reflect the spiritual nature of the music.

Sitting with the gatefold sleeve of Rubycon (1975) and listening to the album through a pair of headphones was a favourite pastime during the mid 70s but I like all of Monique Froese’s covers for Tangerine Dream with the silhouette image on Ricochet (1975) influencing my own technique with a camera. The graphics for covers of albums by jazz rock outfit Isotope were certainly part of the hook that got me interested in the band. I’d seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test shortly after they’d formed but my first purchase was their second release, Illusion (1974) with the mercury-like liquid splashing between the two earpieces of a pair of headphones. This form of surreal photography was repeated on Deep End (1975) and the continuity of band image was maintained by the use of the same ‘Isotope’ logo on all of their albums, created by award winning graphic designer John Pasche who, apart from providing covers for releases on the Gull label, created the ‘tongue’ logo for the Rolling Stones. Pasche provided artwork for a number of bands in the mid 70s but I believe that his photographic work for Isotope is his best.

The hypothesis that a good cover is somehow an indicator of the quality of the music within the packaging is totally misplaced. One look at Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste (1971) might be enough to put off the casual browser and there are many examples of awful music wrapped in beautiful images, so the hypothesis needs modification. I visited Impacto Records in Barcelona and bought a second hand copy of Pendragon’s The Masquerade Overture (1996). My wife picked out the CD for me, suggesting that it had a ‘prog’ cover. The artwork, by Simon Williams, has hints of Mark Wilkinson about it but there’s a lot going on from art to architecture to mysticism to Eastern exoticism. If the images reflect the components that make up the music, a cover like this could only be for a work of epic proportions, i.e. prog.

Part of growing up with prog was poring over the album sleeve, whether it was a hand-drawn creation by Nick Mason on Relics (1971) or Fruupp’s Peter Farrelly (Future Legends, 1973 and Seven Secrets, 1974) or the complexity of PJ Crooks’ work for King Crimson, looking for clues linking the images and the music; thinking about the music and actively engaging, not simply playing music to create some background noise. That is what a good record sleeve is for.


By ProgBlog, Jan 18 2015 09:57PM

During my school-age years, as a student in London and in the first couple of years at work following graduation, it wasn’t often that I’d buy more than one album in a day, or even a month. This was just as much to do with the availability of suitable material to buy as it was a shortage of money. There was a small amount of back catalogue that I could pick up, things I’d listened to at friends’ houses that I knew I liked that weren’t necessarily considered essential and, particularly in the late 70s and early 80s, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of new material coming through. From a personal point of view, my inability to commit to a purchase after hearing only track from a candidate album on the radio, what I would consider to be speculation, was out of the question. I’d already been scarred by gambling; when Alan Freeman played March to the Eternal City from Spartacus by Triumvirat on his Saturday radio show and based on one listening of that one track, I went out and bought the album. Musically, the whole record is pretty good, which is hardly surprising from a band frequently referred to as a ‘German ELP’, but lyrically, and there weren’t many words on March to the Eternal City, it’s rather poor. I felt a little let down.

The time between buying albums allowed us to give a newly acquired disc multiple listenings, absorbing the music and lyrical content in what could be considered a ritualised manner: the playback session with friends followed by our amateur attempts at critique; or the solo listening with headphones, frequently with all the lights turned out.

My music-buying habits have changed and I now bulk buy if there’s an opportunity to do so, such as visiting a record store when I’m on holiday. My listening habits have also changed as my domestic duties eat into personal time and an accident, many years ago, rendered the bi-folding doors that separate our living room from our dining room (where the hi-fi is situated) inoperative and useless.

A couple of CDs arrived from BTF in Italy last week: Per... un mondo di cristallo (For... a crystal world), the only album by Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno (from 1972) and Il mondo che era mio (The world that was mine) Live in Studio 2014 by Fabio Zuffanti’s Z Band. Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno (Registered Return Receipt), or RRR as they became known, have a jazzy-blues feel and are predominantly acoustic; their influences include early Jethro Tull and Trespass-era Genesis and the vocals, by guitarist Luciano Regoli, are reminiscent of Il Balletto di Bronzo’s Gianni Leone. The album is based on a story by Marina Comin (who provided the lyrics) about the feelings of an astronaut who returns to Earth find a ruined planet, depicted on the inner gatefold. It’s not fully-formed RPI but it is quite enjoyable and the BTF reissue, in a cardboard gatefold CD sleeve, is a nice, faithful recreation of the original LP packaging.

For various reasons, the Z Band were unable to record themselves live and to capture the essence of the group performing, before the departure of guitarist Matteo Nahum, the band recorded a set in the studio, live but without an audience. I thoroughly enjoyed the Z Band set at Soignies last year despite not being familiar with any of the material and I thought that getting the album would be a great reminder of that day. During the question and answer session following their slot, Fabio Zuffanti was asked about the projects he was involved in, describing Höstsonaten as producing music along the lines of The Enid. They played one Höstsonaten track, Rainsuite from Winterthrough which I managed to find in Firenze last summer and, after listening to both Höstsonaten studio album and the Z Band live in the studio, I can see what he means; there’s a broad symphonic feel to Höstsonaten, long-form compositions that may be sub-divided into separate songs or ‘movements’. The Enid, despite producing albums that appeared late in the timeline for classic symphonic prog, and afterwards, when they were able to ride the shockwaves of punk with their ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude that resonated with the punks, produced symphonic suites using rock instrumentation plus the odd non-rock instrument such as trumpet and tuba, heavily influenced by romantic composers Chopin, Rachmaninov, Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

Bands that fall into the category of ‘symphonic prog’ are readily recognisable by followers of the genre; the majority of the original prog bands could be classed as ‘symphonic’ though there was considerable stylistic difference between, for example, Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, or Camel and Barclay James Harvest and though In the Court of the Crimson King is an example of the sub-genre, Crimson deviated from the idiom early in their career. This being prog, it goes without saying that the sub-genre is in fact a continuous spectrum of styles; Camel released Snow Goose and then took steps in the direction of jazz rock with Moonmadness and Rain Dances before going Canterbury with Breathless. Even Yes went from what might be considered the ultimate symphonic album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, to the jazz rock of Relayer. I think that the input of Patrick Moraz is very evident on Relayer, though he’d just come from Refugee, another band firmly rooted in the symphonic tradition. Refugee’s only studio album is a classic of the genre and, in my opinion, can be used as an example of material that conforms to more strict definition of symphonic prog. I don’t believe there are many who would disagree with the classification of the Moody Blues as symphonic prog but I’m not so certain. Days of Future Passed evidently contains some elements of prog but the song writing lacks complexity and remains predominantly blues-based and, though they’re competent musicians, there’s no indication of the band stretching out or any sign of individual virtuosity. I’d class this as proto-prog and their subsequent material, which continues in a similar vein with the Mellotron taking on the role of the orchestra, closer to straightforward rock.

Perhaps the use of a Mellotron contributes to the ‘symphonic’ tag but, thinking about King Crimson and their continued use of Mellotrons as they moved into heavy, improvised music, it may be more the way a band deployed the instrument rather than just its presence. According to Planet Mellotron, the Enid hired a Mellotron for In the Region of the Summer Stars, which appears on the final two tracks, The Last Judgment and the title track In the Region of the Summer Stars, its use restricted to supplying choir backing. I’ve always thought of the Enid as using a string synthesizer approach.

To qualify as being ‘symphonic’ a band has really to demonstrate an influence from European classical music and, perhaps more than that, produce long-form compositions with strong melodic themes and linked variations and reprise utilising a broad sonic palette, even venturing outside of the common rock instrumentation; that’s the link I detect between Höstsonaten and the Enid, a classification that might exclude some other long-standing exponents.

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