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Getting out a full edition of a magazine devoted to prog music every month obviously treads a difficult path, remaining relevant whilst retaining the ethos of prog rock. Prog manages this incredibly well, mixing content from all parts and all eras of the genre. ProgBlog reflects on 10 years and 100 editions of Prog magazine

By ProgBlog, May 31 2019 08:50PM

Popping into a local supermarket for essentials on our return from a recent trip to Milan, the sales assistant enquired where we’d been and when informed, asked us if we’d visited ‘the designer shops’. After my first visit to the city for Expo 2015, I was unsure if I liked it, but the time spent there was primarily devoted to the Expo and a day trip out to Bergamo, which I enjoyed (and discovered the delights of the Elav brewery where, amongst their range of music-related beers, was the Progressive Barley Wine – unavailable at the time of our trip.) This time, like then, we avoided designer shops.


Elav Brewery's Progressive Barley Wine
Elav Brewery's Progressive Barley Wine

It was fortunate that we managed to walk around the roof of the magnificent duomo on that first visit, because it has been undergoing restoration work ever since. On each subsequent trip I’ve begun to feel quite at home and got to like the city more and more. The first stop after the airport is Bar Centrale in Milano Centrale station for an espresso, an institution that has attracted poor reviews on Google for the alleged expense and the rudeness of the staff. Don’t these people know that the idea is to grab a quick coffee before you go about your daily business and the baristas are simply serving the hordes of commuters as efficiently as possible? You can’t go wrong if you follow the locals: pay for your drinks (and brioche if you want a bite for breakfast) at the till before standing at the bar; if you choose to sit down the service will be less efficient and more expensive. This is not the best espresso that the city has to offer, though it came close last year when they used Lavazza beans. Unfortunately they’ve changed supplier again and I’m not such a fan of the current roast.

Second stop is La Feltrinelli, which extends over three floors within the station and provides the opportunity to browse some vinyl and to buy the latest edition of Prog Italia. There’s even a dedicated Progressive Italiana CD section, unique to this particular branch of the chain. Only after this ritual can we check in at the hotel.


La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale
La Feltrinelli, Milano Centrale

We’ve stayed in three different hotels for our visits, all perfectly pleasant although only one is well situated, the NH Machiavelli close to Repubblica Metro station and only 10 minutes walk from Milano Centrale. The UNAHotels Scandinavia was a lastminute.com bargain but the closest Metro stop is Gerusalemme on the M5 line (not fully completed at the time) so an interchange was necessary for each journey. The first prog-related visit was for the 2017 Z-Fest, held at Milan’s Legend Club, a 10 minute walk from Affori Centro, close to the northernmost terminus of the M3 line while our hotel on that occasion was one stop from the northern terminus of the M1 line. I took a taxi to the venue and left before the end of the performance, catching the metro to Duomo at around 1am as the station was closing and I couldn’t get a connection. Fortunately there were taxis around the Duomo piazza to get me back to the hotel. The third trip was just passing through on a journey from Paris to Como by rail. With a few hours between arriving at Centrale and getting a train out to Como, we dropped off our bags at left luggage and killed time by walking to the duomo, by chance (we had no map so I was navigating from memory) passing the NH Machiavelli, which was to become our base for the subsequent two visits for the 2018 Z-Fest and the 2018 FIM Prog Fest; the former easily accessed by metro (and metro replacement bus on the return journey), and the latter within walking distance at the Piazza Città di Lombardia.


It turned out that the NH Machiavelli has another advantage: it’s round the corner from a branch of Libraccio, a chain of shops selling stationery, books and music. The Viale Vittorio Veneto branch is especially good for stocking AMS releases which I normally have to order over the internet from btf.it as AMS, who have a Milan contact address, don’t appear to have a physical shop. Excluding the Vittorio Veneto Libraccio, the Feltrinelli in Centrale and its large sister branch in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the only dedicated Milan record shop I had ever managed to trawl through up to this latest visit was Rossetti Records and Books (via Cesare da Sesto, 24) a specialist in second-hand music founded in 1981. On the first trip I bought three CDs: Il Giorno Sottile (2001) by the experimental Fabio Zuffanti project Quadraphonic, a bleak, interesting and challenging album of industrial music, loops and electronica that just about retains the memory of melody; the self-titled release by Dedalus (1973) which strays into jazz-rock territory; and symphonic prog Il Bianco Regno Di Dooah (2003) by Consorzio Acqua Potabile (CAP); this time I came away with an original copy of Uomo di Pezza by Le Orme (1972).


Rossetti Records and Books, Milano
Rossetti Records and Books, Milano

The weather in northern Italy over our weekend stay was pretty awful and a threatened strike by Trenitalia staff meant we couldn’t plan any excursions to nearby towns. I have considered attempting an expedition to the Marconi bakery where PFM rehearsed and appropriated their moniker, and Chiari, between Milan and Brescia remains one of the few towns in the region that we’ve yet to explore. The omission of a day trip allowed us to take in more of the attractions within the city itself: the Torre Branca observation tower in Parco Sempione; a slow walk around the Navigli district where some canals still remain; the art deco Villa Necchi Campiglio (Piero Portaluppi, 1932-35) filled with innovative design features; and the Pirelli HangarBicocca, a huge contemporary art space converted from a former locomotive factory. Along with the stops for coffee there was also an attempt to photograph the brutalist Department of Accounting at Bocconi University, but my poor navigation and a degree award ceremony put an end to that adventure; what was more successful was ticking off more of the independent record stores.

King Crimson’s Live at the Marquee, August 10, 1971 was playing in Il Discomane (Alzaia Naviglio Grande, 38) when I went in. Primarily a second-hand vinyl store, there was an interesting rarities section but nothing which grabbed my attention; I may not have bought anything but I’d certainly go back for another browse. A couple of doors down was another branch of Libraccio, split into three separate units, but they didn’t have any vinyl that I could see. Serendeepity (Corso di Porta Ticinese, 100) selling new vinyl was also a very short walk away but the ‘Progressive’ section was tiny. Vinylbrokers (Via Privata Pericle, 4) is in the Precotto district, a 20 minute walk from the Pirelli HangarBicocca and it appeared to be closed when we visited, though it wasn’t closing time. However, just as we were turning to go the owner opened up the shop and let us in. To save time I asked for the progressivo Italiano section but he told me they only sold ‘Americana’ and suggested I visit Metropolis Dischi (Via Carlo Esterle, 29). I’d recommend Vinylbrokers for being helpful and friendly, but don’t go there if you’re only looking for prog.


The real purpose of the Milan trip was to attend the FIM Fiera prog fest, organised by Black Widow Records’ Massimo Gasperini in the role of artistic director. This year the event was billed as ‘Da Vinci’s Spirit’, designed to pay tribute to the Renaissance genius on the 500th anniversary of his death. FIM director Verdiano Vera suggested that progressive rock is a musical genre that more than any other embraces Leonardo’s spirit of experimentation due to its diverse influences, unusual time signatures, tempo changes and variations in amplitude and speed, all of which nurture talent, inspiration, inventiveness and ingenuity.



The four bands appearing, Silver Key, Macchina Pneumatica, Universal Totem Orchestra and FEM provided a broad range of examples of the genre from almost straightforward symphonic prog through to neo-prog, psyche-prog and avant-prog/jazz rock, though one constant was a set of Leonardo drawings projected behind the bands providing a constant visual reminder of the link between his futuristic thinking and prog, a musical form known to push at boundaries.

Silver Key began life as a Marillion cover-band in Milan in 1992 and has undergone a number of personnel changes. Over the past seven years they have produced three albums of original neo-prog, starting with In the Land of Dreams (2012), followed up with 2015’s The Screams Empire where keyboard player Davide Manara was left as the only founding member. Current guitarist Roberto Buchicchio and bassist Ivano Tognetti joined for The Screams Empire, and vocalist Dino Procopio was introduced for the latest album Third, released in April 2019; Procopio also provided the lyrics. The band don’t have a drummer – the album credits ‘Mr Drummer’ with percussive duties but when chatting to Massimo Gasperini after their performance, Manara owned up to programming the drums. Concentrating on material from Third, the music was nicely conceived and well played, incorporating convincing-sounding drum parts, expressive guitar, solid bass, nice ambient moments, and multiple false endings. It was evident that Procopio can sing (the vocals were in English) but unfortunately he was under-mixed during the full-ensemble blows.



Silver Key
Silver Key

One of the main draws was Macchina Pneumatica who released their debut album Riflessi e Maschere on Black Widow Records (BWRDIST 680) earlier this year. It’s primarily riff-based and moderately heavy, so it comes across as being on the psyche end of the prog spectrum. I’m reminded of the dominant, driving bass and penchant for distortion of fellow countrymen MUFFX who inhabit much of the same sonic landscape and who I gave a glowing review last year for L’Ora di Tutti; the difference is MUFFX are instrumental and Macchina Pneumatica use vocals, sung by Raffaele Gigliotti with lyrics inspired by everyday life, moods and relationships. The live performance, like Silver Key before them, was dogged by an imperfect sound, with house sound engineers running on stage to adjust the bass volume. From where I was sitting, right of centre and close to the front, some distance from the mixing desk, Gigliotti’s guitar volume was a bit too low and though Carlo Giustiniani’s bass was fairly dominant, it also cuts through on the CD without adversely affecting the sound balance. I was close to keyboard player Carlo Fiore, so I could fully appreciate his synth, piano and organ work, with accurate analogue-sounding patches to recreate a 70’s vibe. Their songs sound deceptively simple but counting out Vincenzo Vitagliano’s rhythmic patterns they’re anything but straightforward and there’s sufficient variation, including melodic passages and lead synthesizer lines, to hold your attention. They’re a relatively new group, formed as a keyboard trio Atom Age Empire in Milan in 2013, renamed Nudo when guitarist/vocalist Raffaele Gigliotti joined, and finally changed to Macchina Pneumatica during the recording of Riflessi e Maschere. They are currently working on a new album.


Macchina Pneumatica
Macchina Pneumatica

I’m well acquainted with Mathematical Mother, the 2016 album by Universal Totem Orchestra; the music is dense and complex with the intensity and pace of Magma or the Mahavishnu Orchestra, especially the 1974-75 incarnation where Gayle Moran adds vocals. The operatic approach to the vocals, whether female or male chorus evokes the Wagnerian facet of Zeuhl but there’s also the exploratory jazz of Coltrane. They employ an eastern scale on the track Elogio del dubbio, all of which indicates a fearless approach to music making that epitomises prog.

I love the intricacy of the compositions and it can’t be denied that Ana Torres Fraile has a superb voice but in the live setting I felt the lead vocal impinged on the instrumental sections, especially scat vocal in the style of Cleo Laine, and Fraile too seemed to have problems with her amplification. Whereas the guitar of Daniele Valle, Yanik Lorenzo Andreatta’s bass and Fabrizio Mattuzzi’s keyboards were all spot on, the saxophone and drums, played by Fedeli Antonio and UTO G. Golin respectively, occasionally sounded a bit loose but that’s not so surprising when you’re pushing boundaries.


Universal Totem Orchestra
Universal Totem Orchestra

The FEM (Forza Elettromotrice) set seemed rather brief after UTO’s sonic bombardment, but this was the closest to symphonic prog all evening, and I felt it ended too soon. The band (Alessandro Graziano, vocals; Paolo Colombo, guitars; Alberto Citterio, keyboards; Pietro Bertoni, trombone and keyboards; Marco Buzzi, bass; and Emanuele Borsati, drums) were showcasing their 2018 album Mutazione and could have been hampered by an injury to Cittero who had his left arm in a sling, but his playing, along with the rest of the ensemble, was fluent. I felt Bertoni was a little under-used but he was furthest from me and I may not have been able to hear him clearly. What did come across was the way each song had been carefully put together; one of the numbers reminded me of Focus.


FEM
FEM

The one downside of a multi-stage or multi-disciplinary event like the FIM Fiera is that there are occasions when you want to see more than one thing at one particular time; Fabio Gremo, bassist with Il Tempio delle Clessidre, has just released a second solo album and was performing it outside in the piazza while Da Vinci’s Spirit was in full flow in the auditorium Testori. I’m a big fan of Fabio Gremo’s La Mia Voce (2013) which demonstrates his considerable classical guitar skills, but the recital of Don’t be Scared of Trying also included piano accompaniment from Sandro Amadei of Melting Clock, so I was disappointed I didn’t get to see them play. I did get to chat with Sandro and his brother Stefano when they came to take in some of the prog fest, but I didn’t get to speak to Fabio. A major plus is that Da Vinci’s Spirit, and last year’s Prog On, showcased not just incredible music, but the confirmation of a ‘prog family’ that is all-embracing in its approach and one that rejoices in differences. The concept of a prog rock festival as Da Vinci’s Spirit is perfectly apt. Thanks, Massimo Gasperini and Verdiano Vera. See you next year!


Postscript

Even if you’re not into prog, forget Milan and fashion and seek out Milan and Leonardo da Vinci. There’s a waiting list for tickets to view The Last Supper which is in the former refectory of the convent attached to Milan’s Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, but I managed to arrange tickets for the first of our 2017 trips. If you are planning on going to Milan I’d strongly recommend booking a guided tour; the refectory and Leonardo’s masterpiece form an integral part of the convent architecture which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the prog's not bad, either.


Leonardo's The Last Supper
Leonardo's The Last Supper











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...










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