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Is there rivaly between progressive rock bands or is the genre like an extended happy family?

ProgBlog investigates...

By ProgBlog, Mar 27 2016 07:52PM

I’ve just been in conversation with Fleur Elliott, one of the organisers of HRH Prog, who required a bit of feedback on last weekend’s festival, during which I tried to be as helpful as possible. The annual HRH Prog festival is held in the Haven holiday park, Hafan y Mor, Pwllheli, in North Wales. I attended this year’s bash (4) with friends Jim Knipe and Mike Chavez, and met up with my brother Richard who had travelled down from Cumbria with the drummer and keyboard player from his prog band Ravenwing, husband and wife team Paul and Rose East. The northern contingent was arriving on the Friday and staying off-site but Jim, Mike and I were accommodated in a freshly refurbished chalet within 50m of the Prog stage. The fittings were all new and the rooms were clean but never having camped in anything quite as permanent as this before (a succession of family camping holidays around Brittany saw us become relative experts at surviving in static mobile homes after a single year of sleeping in not just a tent but a Supertent, that somehow managed to survive an Atlantic storm that sent most other holidaymakers scurrying for local hotels.) The only drawback with the chalet was the nocturnal temperature which dropped close to freezing so that getting up in the morning was moderately uncomfortable; the walls were pretty thin and the windows were only single-glazed and it took some considerable time for the heater to warm up the living space.


Pwllheli is set in beautiful countryside such that the long drive up from Surrey via Stonehenge, Avebury and Bradford on Avon (to pick up Mike) was still enjoyable as we passed through impressive scenery making our way north through the middle of Wales. We arrived at the campsite a little late to take part in the quiz (I think we’d have made a formidable team) and to see Hammerhead and Oktopus (printed as Octopus in the official line-up) but entered the prog arena for Third Quadrant. Originally active in the golden era of neo-prog, the band reformed in 2012 and added to their 80s releases with a 2012 live recording and a series of three albums in 2013, the covers of which display a certain stylistic cohesiveness, with nice photography and a simple, distinctive font. The only song I remember from their set was from the album Deadstar but their sound was indistinct; it was impossible to work out what Clive Mollart on second keyboards was adding and the guitar was too high up in the mix. David Forster’s double neck bass may have been quite intriguing but the group left no lasting musical impression: a kind of space rock with poor vocals. Hawkwind were a space rock band but I’ve never really classed them as progressive rock.


This was the major fault with the festival, a succession of bands that were not really prog. I understand that the genre is wide-ranging and I’ve penned discourses on what is and is not prog, and why. Next on the bill was Arthur Brown and, aside from spawning some musicians that genuinely played a part in the genre, his theatrics never made him prog. We stayed for three songs before calling it a night, unimpressed by the material played by his band and disappointed with his vocals. Perhaps the dancer he featured was meant to take our minds off the music...

Friday began with a trip out to nearby Portmeirion, the Italianate village designed by Clough Williams-Ellis in 1925, eventually completed in 1975 that also featured in the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner. The freshly repainted plasterwork looked amazing in the spring sunshine and it proved to be a very worthwhile excursion, with a walk out onto the sands of Afon Dwyryd estuary in the footsteps of No. 6 and some impromptu conversations with locals. The return journey was broken with a trip to Cob Records in Porthmadog, an independent store that has been running since 1975. Mike had wondered out loud if the shop was still a viable proposition, having bought records from its mail order business in the 80s, and we happened to see it just off the main road out of the town on our way to Portmeirion. I bought vinyl copies of Seconds Out (1977) and Expresso II (1978) and Jim picked up a copy of McDonald and Giles (1971) on CD.


Generally described as ‘math rock’ or ‘post rock’ I’d wanted to see The Fierce and the Dead partly because of their Fripp-like guitar parts and a reputation that got them nominated in the Prog magazine reader’s poll Limelight category in 2013 but also because their first album was If it Carries on Like This We are Moving to Morecambe (2011); Morecambe lying south of Barrow across Morecambe Bay. We missed them, arriving back from our trip too late and we also skipped September Code and Abel Ganz because shopping and dinner took priority over a band that one reviewer had described as sounding like “late 80s Rush”, though I probably should have given the prog folk of Abel Ganz a listen.

We also declined to watch Edgar Broughton. Despite being on the Harvest label, the Edgar Broughton Band were heavy/psychedelic rockers with blues roots; Broughton’s vocals were gritty and well suited to the blues idiom. Richard, Paul and Rose had arrived in time to see this set and reported that he played a prog-free slot on acoustic guitar. We met up with them for Curved Air but when a woman took to the stage with a Gibson SG strung around her neck, it was Rosalie Cunningham with her psychedelic rock band Purson and not Sonja Kristina. Parachuted in at very short notice (the Purson website doesn’t list the gig and Curved Air remained on the official line-up) they played a competent set that bore no resemblance to progressive rock, despite Cunningham at one point introducing a song as being “more proggy” than their other material.

Caravan’s set was punctuated with too many new songs for my taste but at least they played Nine Feet Underground in its entirety. Though Pye Hastings is the only remaining original member, multi-instrumentalist and long-term stalwart Geoffrey Richardson and keyboard player Jan Schelhaas provide enough Canterbury history to get away with retaining the band’s moniker. Sadly, Hastings’ voice is no longer up to the classic material and they seem unwilling to transpose key to accommodate his new range. They remain crowd-pleasers and Golf Girl, played as an encore, featured Richardson performing an entertaining spoon solo.

The main event was the other founding Canterbury scene outfit, Soft Machine. Without any original members but with John Marshall, Roy Babbington and John Etheridge all having served in the band, augmented by Theo Travis who had been part of Soft Machine Legacy, it was as close as I’d ever get to one of the original progressive rock acts. The set was pretty challenging and covered a wide range of the Softs’ back catalogue, including Hugh Hopper’s Facelift (from Third, 1970), Hazard Profile (from Bundles, 1975) and Song of Aeolus (from Softs, 1976), plus some Soft Machine Legacy tracks.

None of this material was straightforward prog either, registering on the jazz side of jazz rock, but it was immensely enjoyable.


Saturday morning was devoted to a visit to Harlech Castle, built by Edward I in the late 13th century and now a World Heritage site (the third of the trip.) Grey and windy, it was hardly the best weather to visit Harlech though the sun began to break through in the early afternoon as we walked along the dune-flanked beach.

Back in Hafan y Mor, we shopped, cooked and ate and got to the main stage in time for The Enid only to be desperately disappointed. Festivals aren’t really the most appropriate occasions to reveal the entire new album and though the fan base is usually very forgiving, I wanted and was expecting some kind of ‘best of’ which is what I’d experienced when I last saw them at Balham’s Resonance Festival in 2014. When I reviewed that particular show I suggested that I might upset some readers with my opinion of Joe Payne but after last weekend my opinion has hardened. There’s still the hint of romantic classical music in their repertoire but the drama created by the music has been replaced with West End musical theatre, a surprising reversal of attitude for a band that in the late 70s never took itself too seriously as they played the Dam Busters March and God Save the Queen, while still producing grand, sweeping cinematic pieces of symphonic prog. The latest material is vocal heavy and though Payne does have a fine voice, the delivery is like Freddie Mercury appearing in Phantom of the Opera. When I returned home I played In the Region of the Summer Stars (1976) to remind myself how good The Enid used to be. This new phase of Enid music has eschewed fairies and Fand and it’s a crying shame.

Focus, on next, and Ian Anderson both played crowd-pleasing sets and both were very enjoyable. It’s clear that Focus don’t take themselves too seriously but Thijs van Leer is fully aware of the value of his back catalogue, delving into the first four albums and including complementary recent tracks, allowing him to plug Focus X (2012.) Ian Anderson’s set was promoted as ‘plays the best of Jethro Tull’ and only included one new song, Fruits of Frankenfield. Anderson’s voice is also not as strong as it once was but the music, and his flute in particular, were spot on.


Focus and Ian Anderson were undoubtedly the highlights of the evening. I survived one song and about four bars of another from the Von Hertzen Brothers before leaving; I got the impression that they weren’t going to play anything that I might class as prog.

On the way home on Sunday we discussed the weekend. It had been enjoyable with some good music, excellent location, countryside and scenery with some world-class attractions to fill the music-free hours, and pretty good accommodation. The organisation appeared a little haphazard; my arrival pack took a considerable time to track down, the non-show of Curved Air remained unexplained and there was no introduction of the acts. Yet somehow the groups seemed to stick close to their schedules. We didn’t visit and band merchandise stands but the vinyl and CDs on sale covered the gamut of rock and included some hard to find music, so someone was doing a decent job of organising, despite their apparent invisibility. Our major problem was that for an alleged prog festival, we didn’t detect a surfeit of prog! Jim pointed out that there are a handful of individuals in a family of art collectors, dealers and art scholars, the Wildensteins, who pronounce on whether or not a painting is genuine or fake. We’ve resolved to set up such a committee to invigilate on what constitutes progressive rock...










By ProgBlog, Jan 31 2016 10:18PM

The Steven Wilson gig did not disappoint. It helped that I had a front row seat, pretty much centre stage (courtesy of Neil with his hyper-quick responses when booking opened) and though Craig Blundell was obscured behind his drum kit, this was a view as good as it gets. Being so close to the stage had the slight disadvantage of not getting the best sound balance; the mixing desk was at the back of the stalls so I imagine that was where you’d experience the perfect listening environment. Ian Bond, veteran front-of-house sound man did a pretty good job for the front row, too, because the only difficulties we had with the sound were a rather quiet Adam Holzman Moog and some indistinct bass, though the latter may have been a venue-wide problem because Nick Beggs was making full use of a range of 5 string instruments; needless to say Wilson’s guitar, from his Bad Cat amp and cabinet placed directly in front of us, was crystal clear. It was satisfying that they played the entire Hand.Cannot.Erase, including the short Transience which had been omitted from the UK shows following the album’s release. After the intermission we were treated to a range of other Wilson material from Porcupine Tree to Storm Corrosion (the dark, haunting but brilliant Drag Ropes) plus, as a tribute to the recently departed David Bowie, Space Oddity which was filmed on a series of Go Pro cameras. There was also an outing for half of his new album 41/2, a collection of five songs that didn’t quite make it on to either Raven or H.C.E, not because of a perceived lack of quality, rather that they didn’t quite fit in with the feel of those albums, plus a reworked Don’t Hate Me, originally recorded by Porcupine Tree that appeared on Stupid Dream (1999). Theo Travis supplied flute and saxophone for the original release and his contribution was covered by keyboards and guitar when the piece was played live. The 41/2 version includes Travis plus singer Ninet Tayeb and live, without Travis but with its trippy Floyd-inspired lengthy spaced-out middle section, was one of the highlights of the evening. Tayeb, who was guest vocalist on a number of songs, is such an incredible talent she’s still able to add an extra dimension to the stellar-quality line-up of the Steven Wilson band. It seemed somehow appropriate that she should sing on Don’t Hate Me which utilised eastern scales.



Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016
Steven Wilso ticket 27th January 2016

During an interview for The Pedal Show before the Bristol gig a couple of days earlier, Wilson described himself as approaching the sound from a producer’s perspective, hinting that his musical ability wasn’t perhaps in the same class as his band. This could be cited as an example of classic English reserve, for Wilson is an undoubted talent, but I’ve heard this statement before, in the same context, from Italian bassist Fabio Zuffanti. There are quite a number of parallels between Wilson and Zuffanti though apart from in his native Italy, Zuffanti has not really been recognised as a major force in modern progressive rock.

I saw Zuffanti and his Z band when Jim Knipe and I attended the Prog Résiste convention in Soignies in April 2014, showcasing his latest solo effort La Quarta Vittima but also playing songs from a back catalogue of 20 years in the music business; extracts from the Soignies performance are available to view on YouTube (Rainsuite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6Dlf3HmzAc is a good example.) It was at the post-performance interview, fortunately carried out in English, that someone suggested a parallel with Steven Wilson and Zuffanti, in a self-depreciating manner, suggested that he wasn’t in the same calibre as his band-mates. What he revealed at this interview were his thoughts on his musical projects. He suggested that if Quarta Vittima was going to be compared to Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (which had been released a few months before, and which Zuffanti obviously felt was the pinnacle of Wilson’s output at that time, Höstsonaten were the equivalent of the Enid, with a very symphonic palette. Though Porcupine Tree was on hiatus at the time, the inference was that PT was the primary vehicle for Wilson’s music, rather like La Maschera di Cera was for Zuffanti.



Though I was aware of other Zuffanti projects, at the beginning of 2014 I only had Maschera di Cera albums and the first Finisterre album (Finisterre, 1995). I’d bought LuxAde (2006) for £6 from Beanos second-hand store in February 2009, without listening to it, based on the instrumentation and the fact it was produced by PFM drummer Franz di Cioccio. I hadn’t appreciated that this was a band revisiting the Orpheus saga (c.f. Focus and Eruption) but it remains one of the best buys I’ve ever made; when I got home and checked my Progressive Rock Files, even before listening to it, it was evident that I had acquired something special. I wasn’t disappointed because the recording is as close as you can get to classic 70s Italian prog; analogue instrumentation including some excellent fuzz bass, symphonic scope and operatic vocals, all executed with consummate skill. I was so impressed I began looking for Maschera di Cera albums on every subsequent trip to Italy but for some reason I couldn’t locate any and finally plumped for a download of their second album Il Grande Labirinto (2003) from Amazon in 2010, describing it in an Amazon review as a Fragile to the Close to the Edge of LuxAde (some of the details turned out to be not quite right!):


“...Il Grande Labirinto is their second album, and with no Italian trip scheduled for a while, I had to indulge in the mp3 download. (When I'm next in Italy I'm going to seek out and buy the CD for myself and two prog-minded brothers.) This release is slightly less musically mature than Lux Ade - kind of like the relationship between Fragile and Close to the Edge - almost perfect but not quite.

The musical territory is classic 70s Italian prog. PFM are an obvious comparison, though La Maschera di Cera are less jazz-influenced. Some of the keyboard trills sound like early Genesis, and there's a Wakeman-sounding synth line or two. My favourite passage is the final section of the 22 minute 37 second long Il Viaggio Nell'oceano Capovolto Parte 2 (Voyager to the Inverted Ocean) that builds up from a haunting gentle woodwind melody that reminds me of Islands-era King Crimson.

Did anyone think prog was dead? Think again, and invest in this great album.”


As soon as I’d heard the band were going to do a companion piece to Felona e Sorona (1973) by Le Orme, entitled Le Porte del Domani (2013) released in both Italian and English versions (The Gates of Tomorrow), I had to buy both mixes; the Italian version was my album of the year.

I hadn’t really formed an opinion about the music of Finisterre other than I liked it and it seemed not quite fully formed. Tracks seemed to be truncated mid-flow which left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. I bought In Limine (1996) when I went to the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014 where Zuffanti, in his home city of Genoa, was wandering around chatting to friends and fans on the first day. The title track of that album was one of the pieces played by the Z band in Soignies. I bought In ogni luogo (1998) and La Meccanica Naturale (2005), both in cardboard gatefold sleeves from Galleria del Disco in Florence later in 2014 and have now come to the conclusion that Finisterre was a band for trying out ideas. Back in Soignies I bought both La Quarta Vittima and Höstsonaten’s live version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2013) from Zuffanti’s merchandise stand and then also from the same shop in Florence, Höstsonaten’s Winterthrough (2005.) It’s true that Höstsonaten are symphonic; the music is layered and melodic and Ancient Mariner, performed with dancers, was a modern opera.

There was no full concert recording of the Z band so late in 2014 Zuffanti and his collaborators recorded the material they’d been playing during their live set, live in the studio, releasing Il Mondo Che Era Mio at the end of the year. My copy was bought early in 2015 and it is a faithful reproduction of the Z band live experience, a mixture of dynamics, strong melodies and classic-sounding instrumentation.

Last year I spent a family long weekend in Milan and came across the excellent Rossetti Records, and amongst my haul I bought Il giorno sottile (2001), by the rather obscure Zuffanti project Quadraphonic. This represents Zuffanti at his most experimental, producing an interesting and challenging album of industrial music and electronica, heavily reliant on loops, which at times is bleak though it does retain the memory of melody.

Zuffanti seems to be at the centre of the vast Genoa prog scene. When Francesca Francesca Zanetta, guitarist with Unreal City, was interviewed after their performance at the Riviera Prog Festival, she thanked Zuffanti for helping the band (he produced their debut album La Crudeltà Di Aprile, 2013) and another band he seems to have helped, who also appeared at the same festival, were Il Tempio delle Clessidre and most recently he’s collaborated with keyboard player Stefano Agnini from La Coscienza di Zeno, a band who played at both Soignies and at the Riviera Prog Festival in 2014. This project, under the title of La Curva di Lesmo, features a cast of the new wave of Italian prog and the music ranges from out and out symphonic prog to some traditional-sounding Italain music, taking in folk and electronica on the way. I bought a heavyweight white vinyl copy to play on my new Rega RP3 and the cover, by legendary artist Guido Crepax, harks back to Nuda (1972) by Garybaldi, in a similar manner to Maschera di Cera using artwork by Lanfranco for Le Porte del Domani, after Le Orme’s cover for Felona e Sorona, an album also released in English with lyrics by Peter Hammill.



Zuffanti shares with Wilson an appreciation for the origins of the genre (including a love of Mellotron) but they also choose to work with a range of other musicians which informs their style, seeking out different avenues for their talents. Wilson is now a global star; I’m just waiting for Zuffanti to get the full recognition he deserves.







By ProgBlog, Jan 24 2016 10:07PM



With Steven Wilson’s London gig rapidly approaching it seems like a good time to reflect on my relationship with his music. Though my collection cannot be said to contain a surfeit of Wilson-related material, partly due to my ambivalence towards Porcupine Tree, it can’t be denied that his output covers a wide stylistic range largely owing to the trait of possessing a collaborative nature. I own his two most recent ‘solo’ efforts, The Raven that Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) along with Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007). I’ve also been loaned Lightbulb Sun (Porcupine Tree, 2000); Wilson’s solo material Grace for Drowning (2011), Get All You Deserve (2012), Catalogue Preserve Amass (2012); his project with Mikael Akerfeldt Storm Corrosion (2012); and Bass Communion albums Continuum (2005) and Continuum Vol.2 (2007).

I was first prompted to see him live at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2013 by friend Neil Jellis and I acceded on the strength of Raven; he’d assembled some supremely able musicians and produced an album that ticked all the right golden era of prog boxes but still retained an element of contemporary music. There’s a moment in Luminol where I can determine Siberian Khatru that reveals Wilson’s deep appreciation of classic prog but it goes further than this. His use of analogue sounds doesn’t simply conjure images of gatefold sleeves, long hair and flares and dirty university refectory floors, it gives the music a depth and warmth. Wilson is of course a highly respected producer and many of the classic 70s reissues have been placed in his extremely capable hands for a remix because of his respect for the original music and his undoubted talent at tweaking out some of the instrumentation that has been buried in the mix of the original recording; something he achieves without harming the balance of the music due to his mastery of nuances.

Raven is an excellent album throughout and the performance at the Albert Hall did not disappoint, from the opening video to the final bow, the music, the musicianship and the presentation were flawless. Presentation is obviously very important to Wilson for, like his 70s heroes, he has forged long-standing artistic partnerships with Lasse Hoile, Hajo Mueller and Jess Cope that (forgive me for sounding pretentious) create the visuals for the Wilson brand, such is their importance to the integrity of the production; even something as simple as a transparent veil draped down from the lighting gantry to the front of the stage produces a quite startling effect and this attention to detail, linking music, album art and stage presentation first emerged with the prog acts Wilson was listening to in the early 70s.



When I first heard Hand.Cannot.Erase I was a bit disappointed, not because I considered the album as a retrograde step though I had wanted more of a ‘son of Raven’, rather that the mix of styles on the one disc, electronica, industrial, post-rock and out-and-out prog, didn’t really include enough classic-style prog for my taste. Further listening has mellowed my opinion: It’s a very well constructed album but I still regard it less favourably than Raven. The playing is as good as ever and there is an outstanding guest performance by Ninet Tayeb but I think it’s more difficult to portray invisibility in a world dominated by social media that inspired the album as a musical concept compared to the very straightforward alternative ghost stories of Raven. Raven also features more sax and flute, courtesy of Theo Travis. To an extent, Hand covers some of the same territory that informed Fear of a Blank Planet, the social isolation caused by technology but, to his credit, Wilson explores a very different sonic landscape in his more recent release. This sort of fits in with the characters of the protagonists on the two albums, a male teenager in Blank Planet with its distorted guitar-driven riffs and Hand’s young professional woman.

The live performance at the Troxy in London in March 2015 was basically the Hand.Cannot.Erase. album, played in its entirety (apart from Transience) in running order, interspersed with tracks from his back catalogue that Wilson felt fitted in with the idea of isolation and loss. Seeing the band perform the piece live helped me appreciate the music more, despite the atmosphere in the Troxy being less welcoming than at the Albert Hall; from my seat in the circle, I had the constant distraction of the light and noise from the bar, like in the upper circle at the over-rated Shepherd’s Bush Empire. However, experiencing the album live meant I was better able to relate Ancestral to the song introduced as Wreckage at the Albert Hall in 2013, a piece that had been announced as a work in progress and which had different titles throughout the Raven tour. Another personal highlight was the extended First Regret, with the clever video of concrete apartment blocks that have (mistakenly) become inextricably associated with the breakdown of society; concrete jungles and problem estates.

The addition of two Royal Albert Hall dates at the end of 2015 meant I was once again invited to go along. When I signed up to the proposal I thought that I could only manage one night because of work commitments and so Neil got me a ticket just for the second evening. It transpired that to get the full experience you did need to be there for both gigs, which had subtly different set-lists. Guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minnemann were unable to make this leg of the tour and were deputised by Dave Kilminster and Craig Blundell respectively and over the two nights there were a series of special guests, including Guthrie Govan. The set list had relaxed from the album format and included a number of tracks I was unfamiliar with. This meant that I felt at something of a disadvantage compared to my fellow audients and though I witnessed an incredible show, I have to admit a little disappointment at the inclusion of what seemed like an unhealthy dose of Porcupine Tree; it’s almost as though I was crashing a party, not knowing the host but the feeling was partly offset by the gift of a personalised T–shirt from Neil – We have got the Perfect Life.

I’m looking forward to the performance on Wednesday. Hammersmith is a good, comfortable rock venue. I’d just like more of Raven and Hand.Cannot.Erase.






By ProgBlog, Oct 5 2015 10:00PM

I’ve got a cold. I started to feel a little ill on Wednesday and wondered if I should indulge in my usual Wednesday squash evening at the National Sports Centre, Crystal Palace, but as I’d dragged my squash kit into work I thought I’d give it a go and see how I got on. As it turned out I won some games and I lost some but I felt better for doing a bit of exercise. I was very interested to read that members of Pink Floyd used to prefer to play squash rather than going to the studio during the Wish You Were Here sessions in 1974 but putting together a follow-up to Dark Side of the Moon was proving difficult. Strains in personal relationships and professional tensions within the band had surfaced and the direction of the group was unclear and of course none of this was helped by a souring relationship with the media; the NME journalist Nick Kent being particularly unkind. Squash is not only a fantastic cardio workout, it also helps to relieve tension and pent-up frustrations. It’s been suggested that David Gilmour and Nick Mason became rather fond of the squash court and their relationship improved as a consequence – I can personally vouch for the de-stressing effects of regular squash as someone who a couple of years ago played up to six times a week – I was left feeling much more able to cope with whatever life could throw at me, physically and mentally reenergised. However, it’s also addictive (thanks, endorphins); I had to change my working hours to allow for a 45 minute session of squash at lunchtimes and I was unreasonably frustrated when either a planned opponent or I myself couldn’t make a game. Working in a hospital meant that, not infrequently, somebody would have to attend to urgent work (there were a group of around five of us who regularly took over the two courts at Guy’s, helped by me taking on the role of time sheet monitor.)

Squash has been put on the backburner of late despite a flurry of league games in the final days of my semi-retirement. Now back working full time at the Royal London Hospital I’m reduced to Wednesday evenings and the odd league match at weekends. I received an invite to play last Tuesday (September 29th) but had a more pressing engagement, Steven Wilson’s second night at the Royal Albert Hall. Having been quite blown away by the Raven that Refused to Sing show at the Albert Hall in October 2013 and in March this year, at the Hand.Cannot.Erase performance at London’s Troxy, I was only too happy to sign up to one of the gigs on this two-night tour postscript. Leading the party was friend and Wilson aficionado Neil Jellis, who not only organised some great seats, but provided his own bespoke tour T-shirts. Neil had been in the front row on the first night, in front of Wilson’s keyboard and in direct line with Craig Blundell’s kick drum and, as the two dates were billed to have different sets and different guests, had also got tickets for the second show, to which I tagged along. Having heard Neil effuse enthusiastically about the first night, I was anticipating a great performance and I wasn’t disappointed.

We wandered into the auditorium after Matt Berry, the support act, had begun his set with the rather spacey Medicine and I have to admit that not being much of a TV person, I had no idea who Berry was, other than I’d seen something in Prog magazine about him. It must have been rather daunting to open for Steven Wilson but Berry’s band did an admirable job.

When Steven Wilson’s band took to the stage, one by one, it became gradually clear to Neil that the first number was the rather heavy No Twilight within the Courts of the Sun from his first solo album Insurgentes, a track I’m not over-familiar with, likewise with the next Porcupine Tree song, a much more melodic/symphonic-lite Shesmovedon from Lightbulb Sun. I’d not seen Blundell play before (sitting in for previous incumbent Marco Minnemann) and though I’d witnessed the talents of Dave Kilminster on a number of previous occasions, none of them were as Wilson’s guitarist. From our seats, level with the stage and only a few seats away from Nick Beggs who was positioned to the left of the band (from an audience perspective) it was easy to observe the technique of each of the musicians; only Adam Holzman was partially obscured by his keyboards. The first guest of the evening was Ninet Tayeb. She’d also sung the previous night and took on all vocal duties for Routine, putting in a stunning performance. I was once again in unknown territory with the next two songs, Open Car and Don’t Hate Me, the latter coming across as quite proggy and the film to accompany the piece, of light snow falling in London was classic Lasse Hoile; Home Invasion featured Beggs on keyboard and Guthrie Govan as special guest guitarist which segued into Regret #9 with a brilliant Moog solo from Holzman. Theo Travis was then introduced and the band continued with Drive Home, personal favourite Sectarian and the haunting Insurgentes with its watery visuals that remind me of punting on the Isis. The set was completed with more from Grace for Drowning, No Part of Me and a truncated but still epic Raider II.

There were two encores, featuring three songs; Porcupine Tree’s Dark Matter after which the band left the stage but returned, after a bit of adjustment to the drums for Lazarus, with special guest Gavin Harrison, fresh from touring with King Crimson and easily remembering his old part, finally ending with another song I’d not heard before, The Sound of Muzak.

The sound (thanks to Ian Bond) was balanced and clear, even where we were seated on the extreme left and the presentation, as ever, was consummately professional. Wilson has a brilliant rapport with his audience, teasing those that hadn’t attended the first night and explaining how he was extending an introduction to make the correct pedal setting for his guitar. There was no veil on this night, though there had been on the 28th and if I have to make one complaint, it’s that the programme was the same as that sold during the spring leg of the tour, even though the two shows were more varied, more special, and the musicians had changed subtly.

All in all the occasion lived up to its hype: 4 hours of amazing music over the two nights. On reflection, I should have signed up for both shows, but I already have a ticket for January 2016...



By ProgBlog, Sep 23 2015 04:06PM

I’m currently reading Marcus O’Dair’s authorised biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time (Serpent’s Tail, 2014) and thoroughly enjoying it; I’ve just reached the part where Wyatt becomes paralysed after falling out of a window at Lady June’s party on 1st June 1973. This was just after Wyatt had asked Nick Mason to produce the third album by a reconfigured Matching Mole, the original line-up having been disbanded by Wyatt after the release of Little Red Record (1972) because he found himself unable to take the decisions required of a band leader. This time point coincides with the start of my interest in music; in June 1972 I had no idea what I liked but by August I’d noticed there was a qualitative difference between Chinn and Chapman pop and the art-rock of Roxy Music. It wasn’t until much later in the 70s that I started to collect Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt related material but the first time I came across Wyatt’s music was a performance of I’m a Believer on Top of the Pops in the autumn of 1974, made more intriguing by the presence of Nick Mason and his ‘wave’ drum kit; I also seem to recall that Wyatt sung with his eyes closed. By this time I’d been become a regular reader of Melody Maker and New Musical Express so I had some idea of how well he was regarded as a musician.

Never mind his inability to hand out orders, he’d also proved unable to take them towards the end of his time in Soft Machine and though his departure from that band represented the end of a chapter in the Softs’ history, in reality the band had changed dramatically over that time going from pop psychedelia to power trio to to big band septet to jazz rock quartet so that none of the first four albums sounded alike. Third (1970) was released after the line-up had stabilised as a quartet (the septet never committed to the studio) and Fourth (1971) was performed by the same personnel. The difference between the two albums is creative input from Wyatt. Fourth had no Wyatt-penned material and though limited to one track (the entire side three of the original Third LP), Moon in June is essentially a Wyatt pop song, albeit a very clever one and it indicated the future course of the drummer; the ensemble hardly contributes and there’s a guest musician, Veleroy Spall, who adds violin. O’Dair suggests that Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge really didn’t like the vocals but also demonstrates that Wyatt’s preferred direction was back to song-based material, making the split inevitable. I can detect continuity between Moon in June and the eponymous Matching Mole debut that was released in 1972.

Fourth demonstrates Elton Dean pulling the band towards free jazz and it was only after I’d discovered jazz rock and fusion and subsequently lost faith in the sub genre that I thought William Burroughs’ term ‘soft machine’ meaning the human body, was no longer appropriate as a moniker. I think that at the beginning of the fusion movement, with jazz musicians moving towards rock and rock musicians moving towards jazz, the spark of creativity produced some incredible music. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew / In a Silent Way period, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever uncovered new musical ground to populate but eventually technique became valued above all else. The jazz rock of Fourth may have been cerebral but it was disconnected from warmth and feeling; I prefer the organic nature and humour of Matching Mole and Little Red Record. It’s not really surprising that Wyatt should return to a song format with his own band, encouraged by Dave Sinclair, and reusing material like Instant Pussy that was originally aired in 1969.

The trajectory of Gong, originally fronted by ex-Soft Machine Daevid Allen who instilled a sense of mischievous fun into music, evolved from space rock psychedelia into very slick jazz rock similar to that produced by Soft Machine in the mid-late 70s, Allen being jettisoned during the process. First coming to my attention when Camembert Electrique was reissued by Virgin in 1974 for the price of a single, I subsequently picked up Time is the Key (1979) on cassette from the bargain bin in the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1981 to discover a very different sound. It’s only since then that I’ve gone back and filled in some of the missing pieces: You (1974); Shamal and Gazeuse! (both 1976.) Similarly, from being the long-time owner of only one Soft Machine album Softs (1976) that I picked up for £1.99 in Virgin in January 1982 and having been donated a copy of The Soft Machine (1968) that I can no longer find, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to move to complete the collection.

It’s the coincidence of filling in the gaps at the same time that allowed me to hear the similarities but it’s no coincidence that there’s one individual who appears at the pivotal time point in both bands – Allan Holdsworth.

Apart from some Kevin Ayers guitar on the first Soft Machine album, the band eschewed guitar in favour of keyboards and saxophone, until Holdsworth was recruited for Bundles (1975.) Holdsworth’s guitar style is instantly identifiable, with fluid, fast melodic runs and a unique tone. I’d first come across him on the first Bruford album and subsequently on the first UK album (both 1978) and I bought a battered second-hand copy of the first Tempest album featuring Holdsworth, from a flea market in Crystal Palace sometime in the mid 80s. I also managed to get to see him play at the 100 Club as part of Plough with Jeff Clyne, John Stevens and Gordon Beck in the early 80s that I described as ‘complex, challenging music’ in a letter to my brother Tony. Superimposing the guitar over the almost mathematical keyboard work of Karl Jenkins (with Ratledge becoming less involved) added a degree of feeling to what I described as ‘sterile’ jazz rock; Bundles and Softs, where Holdsworth had been replaced by John Etheridge, were the only high points after Third. Perhaps the parallels between Soft Machine and Gong aren’t so surprising when you consider their origins and shared members. Daevid Allen may have left Soft Machine when he was unable to return to the UK with the rest of the band after some gigs in France, so he formed Gong with a group of largely French musicians; the inclusion and subsequent leadership of tuned percussionist Pierre Moerlen, during which phase Holdsworth was part of the band, was characterised by jazz percussion which was used to play fast, melodic, extended and repeated riffs, much as keyboards were used by Soft Machine. Even today, the Gong-Soft Machine cross-pollination continues with Theo Travis.



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