ProgBlog

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The possibilities afforded to composers since the birth of electronic instruments together with a willingness to explore different fields ensured that formal music progressed. The appropriation of classical music forms by rock musicians from the late 60s onwards marked the birth of progressive rock.

David Bedford was equally at home in both camps, at the forefront of a movement ensuring that all forms of music could be appreciated by everyone and anyone

By ProgBlog, Mar 1 2015 11:32PM

On Friday 27th February I attended the first show in 17 years by analogue synth quartet Node at the Royal College of Music. This prestigious venue seemed rather suitable, affording electronica appropriate recognition as a distinct, legitimate musical form; hardly surprising when you consider the CVs of the band members: production legend Flood; veteran producer and musician Ed Buller; film composer Mel Wesson; and Professor Dave Bessell.

Arriving in the Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, we were greeted with what had been dubbed as the largest collection of vintage analogue synthesiser equipment ever seen outside a recording studio, with an estimated value of £500000; largely made up of modular synthesizers but with a couple of mini Moogs and a VCS3 also quite evident. The group played four pieces over two sets that lasted 90 minutes; all the material was sequencer driven but there were two distinct styles: one, a spacey ‘Berlin school’ sound that was inspired by mid 70s Tangerine Dream and the other was a more industrial sound where the sequences marked out aggressive, percussive beats as though forming the soundtrack to an imaginary film where a derelict factory had been occupied by feral denizens in a bleak vision of a dystopian near-future. Partial, fractured images of the band, interspersed with bubbles and Tron-like graphics were projected onto a circular screen just above and behind the band, the real time images captured by the video cameras trained on each of the musicians. The compositions weren’t all keyboards and sequencers; Dave Bessell performed with a guitar strung around his neck that he strummed lightly on a couple of occasions, so lightly that you couldn’t actually hear it at times. For the first half of the performance I sat at the back of the auditorium, having acquired my ticket in the week before the show, and was mesmerised by the weaving sequences and the otherworld synthesizer washes as they radiated away from the stage via a series of speakers placed along the length of the hall. In the second half of the show I sat in the second row (apparently some people were unable to make the show) which afforded a great view of the four silent, black-clad musos as they subtly manipulated their instrument settings. This was a very enjoyable gig, however different it was from the concerts I normally go to, my first live electronica event where it seemed that all the cream of British electronica had gathered.

In the pub before the show, the excellent Queen’s Arms, Queen’s Gate Mews, I’d been discussing analogue keyboard equipment with friend Neil Jellis, agreeing that the full analogue sound was so much more satisfying than the digital machines that emerged at the end of the 70s. I described some Wakeman Moog from The Six Wives of Henry VIII that Neil later identified as being on Anne Boleyn, which I consider quite sublime, one of the best Moog sounds ever. This conversation turned to White Rock which we both believe is under-rated and so much better than the material that both immediately preceded it and the output that followed Criminal Record. With the exception of the single novelty track The Breathalyser, Six Wives, White Rock and Criminal Record are purely instrumental and whatever you feel about the accuracy of the images they evoke, they utilise the full gamut of analogue technology to create miniature masterpieces of keyboard-based rock. I think that these three albums represent Wakeman’s best work and have previously criticised his forays into lyrics. This got me thinking whether or not the best prog is instrumental or vocal...

There are some groups where the vocals were integral to the ethos of the band, whether they were integral to the song’s narrative (Genesis) or philosophical musing (Yes); some where vocal tracks were balanced with instrumentals, possibly because there was no stand out singer in the band (Camel, King Crimson, Greenslade); and the fully instrumental (early Enid, Mike Oldfield, Gordon Giltrap.) It’s possible that the inclusion of vocals was a hangover from the rock roots that made up prog; the bands that were more influenced by jazz tended to be less inclined to use vocals, certainly Soft Machine, after the departure of first Kevin Ayers and then Robert Wyatt, went on to produce instrumental-only music. My collection includes the full spectrum from fully instrumental to all vocal and one of my personal favourite albums is Tales from Topographic Oceans, where the meaning of the lyrical content is difficult to discern. In Tales, the structure of the music is enhanced by the vocals but there are extended instrumental passages, which means the success of the concept relies on a balance of the relative strengths of the music and the song words. I think Yes get it about right though there are plenty of people who think the album fails on both accounts. Camel’s early output was a mixture of songs and instrumentals, until they released the excellent instrumental Music Inspired by the Snow Goose then subsequently reverted to a combination of the two forms. The recruiting of Richard Sinclair, a more accomplished vocalist than either Andy Latimer or Peter Bardens and someone with a jazz-informed vocabulary, resulted in a shift towards more songs. However, this may have been a result of record label interference, wanting the band to record a hit single (Highways of the Sun may have been radio friendly but it didn’t make the UK Top 50.) During the 70s Focus were predominantly instrumental, the exceptions being the title track from Moving Waves, Round Goes the Gossip from Focus 3, La Cathedrale de Strasbourg from Hamburger Concerto and I Need a Bathroom from Mother Focus. My favourite post-Barrett early Floyd are the space rock and prog instrumentals A Saucerful of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother and One of These Days. Dark Side of the Moon is a fantastic album despite the sixth-former lyrics and the title track from Shine on You Crazy Diamond, like Echoes, is predominantly instrumental. The angelic-voiced Greg Lake was a key component of the first incarnation of King Crimson and though John Wetton was an able vocalist, it’s the musicianship and improvisational talents of the Larks’ Tongues era Crimson that stand out.

Of course this is all subjective; the relative abilities of group members on their respective instruments, their influences and their vision of the best way to get their ideas across all play a part. But if I’m more interested in the instrumentation, how come my favourite album is Close to the Edge?



By ProgBlog, Nov 25 2014 11:57AM

In the late 60s, experimentation and the rejection of the values of the previous generation was fed by musicians, artists and writers in a mini-renaissance where scientific possibilities pointed in two opposing directions: one to the promise of a utopian future based on consumerism; the other to an understanding that the unfettered use of natural resources was going to endanger the planet. Wars on foreign soil were viewed by the counterculture as imperialist manoeuvres and showed that governments were incapable of embracing ‘cultural relativism’, the academic anthropological view that other distinct cultures should not be seen as inferior to those that espoused Western ideals, because moral values can be culturally specific. The US government had begun to control the populace with pledges of the rewards of hard work: a steady job; a bank loan; a car; a house; new appliances, and competition was deemed to be good because in the economic race, the successful would rise to the top and, according the advertising copywriters of The American Dream, anybody could reap the rewards of the system if they worked hard enough, or swindled, lied and cheated enough.

The opposing view was imported from Eastern Europe and Asia. At that time, no one thought that wars would be fought over foreign oil and other natural resources, the raw materials of capitalism; the enemy was ideological. Such was the paranoia of US politicians, even Communism’s less strident sibling Socialism was to be feared and hated. The proponents of the counterculture embraced the principles of true egalitarianism and challenged creeping corporatism in areas such as agriculture and energy, preferring a ‘back to nature’ outlook and the benefits of a mutually supportive society. During this time, science fiction (SF) matured from escapism into a genre that looked both outwards and inwards and became a serious literary tool to criticise imperialistic tendencies (Ursula Le Guin) and one that warned of the consequences of climate change (JG Ballard). Not surprisingly, SF was embraced by the counterculture and, in conjunction with emerging musical technologies and a liberal dose of chemical stimulants, Psychedelia was born and Space Rock followed shortly after.

The extended blues jamming of the Grateful Dead wasn’t really replicated in the UK or Europe. Pink Floyd played extended jams during their live set and, despite the whimsical psychedelia of the Barrett-penned material that made up the majority of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the inclusion of Interstellar Overdrive and Astronomy Domine on the album indicated the direction of the Floyd for the next couple of years. The Floyd weren’t virtuoso but they did extend musical form by embracing effects and applying them in unusual ways and it was this experimentation and a penchant for cosmic-sounding titles that made them the premiere space rock act from around 1969; the live album of Ummagumma showcases their particular brand of music. The other main UK space rock outfit was Hawkwind who had a longstanding collaboration with SF author Michael Moorcock. Heavy and riff-based and again, not a virtuoso band and certainly not prog, I found them more amusing than any kind of serious proposition. Having said that, I do have a soft spot for Space Ritual and Quark Strangeness and Charm and I even attempted to see Robert Calvert’s West End stage interpretation of his novel Hype but the show had been closed early, that very same week. I did pluck up the courage to see Hawkwind at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon on 14th November 1999 but they didn’t play much material that I was familiar with and the gig was more techno than rambling space rock.

The Floyd had quite an influence on bands from mainland Europe. France’s Pulsar were dreamy and trippy and admit to being strongly influenced by Pink Floyd; before changing their name from Free Sound to Pulsar and playing self-penned material they used to perform cover versions of Set the Controls, and Careful with that Axe. Half Canterbury and half Space Rock and half French, early Gong created the Pot Head Pixies from the Planet Gong space mythology and their music was defined by trippy grooves, played by some excellent musicians. The arrival of Steve Hillage in the Gong fold in 1972 didn’t change their direction much as he’d just released an album with his band Khan called Space Shanty (1972) that highlights his fluid glissando guitar. His next venture outside of Gong was Fish Rising (1975) which continued where Space Shanty left off and included the classic Solar Musick Suite.

Perhaps more than anything, the influence of Pink Floyd was soaked-up by the fledgling German rock movement. Despite the America-centric music industry labelling all German bands with the derogatory term 'Krautrock', the bands themselves adopted the title. Somewhat like Italian prog having a different flavour depending on where the band originated, there were few similarities between bands from the different German cities and there were often no sonic similarities between bands from the same city. What they did have in common, however, was a rejection of the attitude of the previous generation who remained deeply conservative and refused to contemplate atonement for the acts their leaders had carried out in WW2; the new generation had grown up after the war and wanted to create something new and different and independent of mainstream western rock. Many of the early Krautrock acts were highly politicised: Amon Düül arose from a commune that celebrated a variety of art forms and the music they produced was fairly amateur. Musicians from the band formed Amon Düül II and the qualitative difference between the two acts, which co-existed for a while, was huge. Some would argue that Amon Düül II reneged on the principles of the commune, seeking to make a materialist livelihood playing Floyd-inspired space rock. It’s important to point out that not all Krautrock was spacey and reliant upon common instrumentation; much of it was a startlingly original blend of electronics and industrial sounds, including the use of a cement mixer by Faust.

Eloy played a fairly basic form of symphonic prog that owed a debt to the Floyd and were even signed to the Harvest label. Taking their name from the futuristic race in HG Wells’ The Time Machine, their sound is heavy and organ/guitar drenched. I have a copy of Inside (1973) that I bought second hand in Beanos in 2005; all the vocals are in English and the lyrics lack complexity; there’s a hint of politics in the writing but political content was toned down after their first release. I find Nektar, who were British and based in Hamburg yet still get classed as Krautrock, stylistically similar to Eloy with a basis of heavy rock but stretching out into space rock territory. They’re certainly more rock than prog and the one CD that I own, Remember the Future, is considered to be one of their best works. I’m not at all keen on the almost country rock guitar and vocal harmonies and find it hard to believe that I paid nearly €16 for the album. On the plus side, I did buy it at a good exchange rate when I was in Berlin in 2005.

The other major Floyd-influenced Krautrock band is Tangerine Dream. They began with guitar and drums but fairly rapidly evolved into the classic electronic trio line-up that had a great deal of success with the progressive crowd after signing to Virgin. Their expansion of kosmische musik (electronic drones produced by tape loops or keyboard, originally popularised by Popol Vuh) using sequencers for a form of metronomic backing. Pink Floyd had begun to use the VCS3 for Dark Side of the Moon and TD used sequencers in a not dissimilar fashion, weaving in and out of electronic washes of sound. Phaedra and Rubycon are both classic albums and essential listening. By the time of Stratosfear (1976), guitar had crept back into their instrumentation and original member uses mouth organ. Personally, I don’t think that the harmonica is not a prog instrument!


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