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.