ProgBlog

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Five days of progressive rock, dedicated to musicians and friends who have died since the last event, divided between historic and new bands, symphonic prog and jazz rock, the avant-garde and a tribute to an important story. Along with the desire to share music together, the event is only held thanks to the effort of all those who work for free: artists, organisers, hosts and helpers. The Progressivamente Festival is a display of dedication, comradeship and great music

By ProgBlog, Sep 12 2017 08:35AM

In an uncertain world, it’s very easy to surround yourself with the familiar, anchored to comforts which, for whatever reason, confer a sense of safety and reassurance. I’d like to think that I look upon on life as something of an adventure, searching for slightly unusual or enriching experiences. One of these was eight years ago, when my wife, son and I took advantage of close family living in New Zealand and embarked upon a two-week long tour of the country spanning the southern hemisphere transition of winter into spring, August to September. On my fiftieth birthday, a couple of days before we were due to return to the UK, Daryl and I jumped from the Auckland Sky Tower (and got the lift back up to do it again.)

This base-jump by wire is completely safe but when you’re weighed beforehand to calculate the forces required for deceleration and your harness is checked by a second individual, your mind does tend to stray towards irrationality: You’re falling from 192m and reach speeds of 85km/h. It’s an incredible thrill and it’s all over in around 10 seconds; on the second go we were encouraged to begin by falling off backwards!


Auckland's Sky Tower
Auckland's Sky Tower

Rationalising and calculating risk, as well as knowing your own physical limits are essential if you’re attempting something which appears dangerous. A long time ago I used to rock climb, nothing spectacular but involving both risk from the activity itself and also from the relative isolation should something untoward happen, this being long before the advent of mobile phones. A walking accident in the winter of 1976, slipping on snow while descending an improvised route from Great Gable in the Lake District as the weather deteriorated to such an extent that it was genuinely unsafe to continue, battered my confidence. I slipped, tumbled and fell about 120m down a scree slop where the pitch was such that there were plenty of rocks sticking up out of the snow cover. It’s remarkable that I didn’t break any bones but I did spend a couple of nights in hospital for observation because I’d lost consciousness at some stage during my ungainly descent. The A&E personnel thought I’d been involved on a motorcycle crash; it was common for local youths to buy motorbikes with their first pay check and almost as common for them to be involved in a serious incident within the following week. I suspect it’s the isolation that concerns me because it didn’t cause me to be afraid of heights; it does make South Side of the Sky resonate it little bit more. I’m just a bit more careful when I approach something potentially hazardous and more critical of the risks and benefits.


South Side of the Sky
South Side of the Sky

Endorphins, named so because they’re natural, morphine-like molecules (endo- means ‘from within’), are produced in the pituitary gland and hypothalamus. Their main function is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals but they also have a positive, euphoric effect; they are released in large quantities during pleasurable moments such as during extreme sports, during sex (especially during orgasm), eating chocolate, and when we listen to good music.

When it comes to prog, I tend to play safe and listen to albums from the ‘golden era’, preferring symphonic prog, keyboard-layered with its roots in classical music and jazz. The modern stuff that I like, possibly best exemplified by the current crop of Italian bands like Il Tempio delle Clessidre, Panther & C., Cellar Noise and Melting Clock, and also ESP from the UK, play music which has a grounding in classic progressive rock of the 70s. Along with jazz rock (last week’s playlist includes Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia (1978) and Deep End (1976) by Isotope on original vinyl), jazz and some classical music, this is basically my comfort zone. I do own some Magma releases, the classics Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh (1973) and Köhntarkösz (1974) on CD plus what I thought might be the most accessible LP Attahk (1978), which I bought first sometime in the early 80s; I still find all three hard going. My older brother Tony also tries to keep me on my toes. Though our tastes overlap to a considerable extent he likes some rather uncompromising modern jazz and bought me Louis Sclavis’ L'imparfait des langues (2007) for my birthday 10 years ago. The music, originally commissioned for a performance in Monaco in 2005 cancelled at short notice due to the death of Prince Rainier III, was a deliberate attempt to challenge Sclavis’ compositional habits, using players from different backgrounds with whom he’d not worked before. The album was recorded in one day.


Magma collection
Magma collection

More recently I’ve been extending the boundaries of what I’ll listen to. I’m not particularly a fan of Hawkwind but I did like some of Robert Calvert’s ideas (I was really disappointed that his stage adaptation of Hype was cancelled within a week of opening – as I stood outside the theatre’s closed doors) and I finally got hold of a copy of Quark Strangeness and Charm (1977) on vinyl, even though it’s outside my normal listening habits. I’ve previously been dismissive of Roger Waters’ solo efforts having seen his The Wall and The Final Cut follow-up The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking in concert and owned a bootleg recording of the LP on C-90 which I wasn’t over-enamoured with. I thought the music descended from the widescreen of mid-period Floyd to narrow-focus, basic rock built around a riff that sounded as though it came direct from The Wall. However, I bought a copy of Is this the life we really want? because of the sentiment, knowing that Waters is a master of concepts and believes in superlative production values, left in the extremely capable hands of Nigel Godrich on this latest release. I also procured the quirky folk-prog-world music re-release of Syd Arthur’s On An On (2012) which is beautifully written and played, but not what might have been expected of me!



Having recently become semi-retired again seems to have loosened some of my listening inhibitions and whereas I’d look at an album in my youth, without hearing it in its entirety and rating it highly, I’d never own it. I’m now more open to recommendation and even experimentation, buying albums which I probably should have owned many years ago without listening to them beforehand. Sometimes I’m disappointed. So what? Yet there’s still one genre that I’ve not fully embraced, prog metal, though I’m coming round to see the blurring of distinction between the prog and the metal, even accepting an invitation to review the latest release by Texan heavy prog/prog metal outfit Process of Illumination (see my album review of Radiant Memory here.) I was lent a copy of Opeth’s Heritage (2011) by friend and Steven Wilson fan Neil Jellis because it forms part of what Wilson, who engineered the album, described as a trilogy, the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album Grace for Drowning (2011). Heritage contains some decent music, the first full departure from the band’s metal roots and fortunately dispenses with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of the frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion I associate with metal. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano exercise and The Devil’s Orchard, like much of the rest of the album references the sounds of 70s prog – the organ work is quite rewarding, there’s plenty of electric piano and there are some tricky guitar riffs. The introduction to I feel the Dark could almost be Jethro Tull then roughly half way through the track it switches with the introduction of slow, crunchy power chords which in turn give way to some Mellotron. It never goes overtly ambient but I think I detect the Steven Wilson influence. Slither is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade. Nepenthe and Häxprocess display the players' sensitivity with good use of electric piano and some adventurous rhythmic patterns. Famine has flute, effects, gentle piano chords (c.f. Heritage) and gives way to fast guitar and Hammond. So what’s not to like? I think it’s an admirable effort with decent pitch, tempo and instrumental variation and you can’t fault the playing or the production; it just doesn’t grab me. Similarly I was recommended some Il Bacio della Medusa and bought the Black Widow records re-release of the eponymous debut (BWR, 2006) and bought a number of CDs by Peruvian prog band Flor de Loto when I was in Lima, only to be disappointed by the heavy edge – it wasn’t what I was expecting from either band. I’ve also got a download of The Gift of Anxiety (2013) by Sylvium and the Sky Architect CD A Dying Man’s Hymn (2011) neither of which are awful, start to finish metal by any stretch of the imagination but equally, neither is particularly inspiring.


Perhaps the greatest insult of all to my former listening habits was my recent acquisition of Kansas' Point of Know Return (1977) which I'm almost reluctant to admit I quite like. It's hardly up there with the greats but it's a decent effort, bought second-hand on spec. My comfort zone may be expanding but the more metal you get with your prog metal, the more reluctant I am to push those boundaries further. I’ll stick to the proto-prog metal of Red, thank you.


Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas
Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas






By ProgBlog, Oct 26 2014 09:39PM

The ProgBlog didn’t appear last week due to a combination of circumstances. Firstly, the weekend was taken up with the TUC Britain Needs a Pay Rise march in central London followed immediately by Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea at Selhurst Park, with domestic duties transferred to the Sunday and secondly, because I had writers block.

The ProgBlog is intended to form the basis of a book, A personal Guide to Progressive Rock, should any publisher be willing to take up the idea. After all, Prog magazine has been going for over 5 years and there is a growing library of progressive rock-related literature. I’ve amassed around 60000 words in blog posts and a further 15000 in gig reviews, aiming to write about 1100 words each week. I’ve stuck to this formula pretty well, taking breaks for holidays when necessary and using the holiday experience to form the basis for a post.


The Genesis documentary continues to provoke umbrage amongst prog aficionados. A conversation with brother Richard, who is coming down from Cumbria to London to see Steve Hackett next Saturday, was dismissive of Genesis: Together and Apart because of the lack of input from Hackett and included nothing at all about the guitarist’s extensive solo output. Speaking to Jim Knipe on our way to see West Bromwich Albion vs. Crystal Palace yesterday (Jim is a Baggies fan and when Palace and West Brom manage to be in the same league, we both do the home and away fixtures) he also referred to the TV programme and reiterated his comment posted to the blog that he thought it was outrageous that the band continued to call themselves Genesis when their output in the 80s and beyond was such rubbish. Richard had suggested the next blog should be about when prog bands stopped playing prog; Jim had derided rump Genesis for not being prog...

The golden age of prog ended in 1978 for reasons covered in a number of my posts. Many of the less successful acts simply disbanded but of the major prog bands that continued, Yes changed musical direction following the perfectly acceptable Drama with a modern-sounding rock; an established three-piece Genesis continued to strip their music of complexity and churned out soft-rock; Pink Floyd succumbed to control by Roger Waters and, despite the brilliance of their studio trickery dropped any pretence of symphonic prog and became a run-of-the-mill rock band with lyrics that seemed to attempt to out-snarl the punks, who had themselves largely disappeared; ELP broke up following Love Beach (1978) and made two brief almost reunions as Emerson Lake and Powell in 1985 and 3 (Emerson, Palmer and Robert Berry) in 1988 that didn’t really approach prog territory. The album Emerson Lake and Powell has two tracks running at over 7 minutes and also includes an adaptation of Holst’s Mars, something that Lake had performed when he was in King Crimson, running in at just less than 8 minutes; To the Power of 3 has one 7 minute plus song; following a prog-folk trilogy that ended with Stormwatch in 1979, Jethro Tull also modernised their sound and, in contrast to the stable line-up of the band since 1976’s Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die adopted a policy of changing musicians for subsequent albums. Though originally intended to be an Ian Anderson solo album, A was released under the Tull moniker and with short, contemporary songs (4WD [Low Ratio], Fylingdale Flyer, Protect and Survive) it really wasn’t prog. The Pine Marten’s Jig forms a sonic link to the three preceding albums but the other tracks are stylistically closer to material that appeared on Anderson’s 1983 solo album, Walk into Light. Tull’s 1982 offering, The Broadsword and the Beast featured Walk into Light collaborator Peter-John Vettese on keyboards, strikes me as being closer to Stormwatch that to A because the subject matter is less ‘modern’ and the concept of Beastie is suggestive of folklore. I thought Under Wraps was uninspired and simply disappointing.

The other major act, last seen in 1974 following the famous announcement that King Crimson “had ceased to exist” made a surprise return in 1981. Quite different from previous incarnations and more aligned with art-rock thanks to the inclusion of former Talking Head Adrian Belew, this Crimson, originally testing the water as Discipline, were most definitely prog; different, but certainly prog. It’s deeply ironic that it was King Crimson who returned as standard-bearers for the genre (from the perspective of someone who listens to and buys progressive rock music) as the other main proponents changed to conform with a bland music industry but, as the neo-prog movement briefly burned bright and faded, Crimson also broke up in 1984 after three albums of remarkable originality. A ten year hiatus, during which time prog was re-evaluated and subsequently deemed less toxic than it had been at any time since the mid 70s saw not just the reappearance of King Crimson but also of former acts and an amazing roll call of new bands from all over the world.

The issue of retaining a band’s name has resulted in more than one legal battle. Jim suggests that it’s shameful that Banks, Collins and Rutherford should have continued to call themselves Genesis. Though I agree with this sentiment, bearing in mind that Banks and Rutherford brought in vocalist Ray Wilson for the 1997 Genesis album Calling All Stations that also included drumming provided by US prog royalty, Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard, Banks and Rutherford were two of the founding members of the band. The Yes saga was resolved with the union of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe and the Squire-Rabin LA based Yes but, rather like Jim and his issues with the post-Hackett Genesis, I have a problem with the 90125 band taking on the name of Yes. Originally a project that went under the name of Cinema (hence the track Cinema on the album) they only became Yes after the late inclusion of Jon Anderson. The temporary disagreement between Tony Kaye and producer Trevor Horn and subsequent hiring of Eddie Jobson might have put the adoption of the name Yes in (legal) jeopardy but Kaye was brought back into the fold and Jobson, not wanting to share keyboard duties, stood down. I think there’s a qualitative difference between the music pre- and post 90125; Drama, though lacking Anderson and Wakeman, is stylistically similar to the preceding albums and is undoubtedly symphonic prog. 90125, on the other hand, is a very different sonic beast that also demonstrates a shift away from the spiritual and ecological themes that characterised Yes musical territory up to Drama. Jim’s point is that the post-Hackett Genesis is stylistically and thematically divergent from the pastoral symphonic long-form pieces based on mythology that required input from all band members, not least Steve Hackett who had to treat the guitar quite differently from that used in normal rock bands, to make it stand out from the keyboard melodies. Though The Lamb appeared quite different at the time, you can detect motifs originally aired in Selling England and, perhaps more importantly, this was the classic prog Genesis line-up.

The Gilmour-led Pink Floyd ended up in a legal battle with Roger Waters but again, despite the inclusion of founding members Rick Wright and Nick Mason in the Momentary Lapse line-up, Gilmour’s resurrection of the Floyd name should be allowed on the grounds that A Momentary Lapse of Reason is a return to the symphonic prog last expressed on Wish You Were Here. The post-Barrett Floyd were a very different kettle of fish from the whimsy psychedelia that dominates Piper. Wright and Gilmour were together responsible for the more progressive leanings that emerged from the fledgling space rock of Saucerful; Waters seemed to be hooked on simplistic acoustic guitar riffs that are detectable on his solo portion of Ummagumma, through the short tracks on Atom Heart and Meddle and that re-emerge on the tracks Wish You Were Here and Pigs on the Wing, then dominate The Wall, The Final Cut and his first solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. Despite its success, I don’t really regard The Wall as a genuine Pink Floyd album in a musical sense because of the domination of the ideas of Waters and how the concept was delivered to the rest of the band. The live performance was a wonderful piece of theatrics but it wasn’t prog. I don’t imagine there are too many other people who think like that...


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