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Recently returned from the 2018 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa, where ProgBlog met up with last year's star turn Melting Clock, and discussion turned to the artwork for their forthcoming album which is due to begin recording in the next couple of weeks...

By ProgBlog, Mar 26 2017 08:54PM

The latest edition of Prog magazine (Prog 75) arrived last week with a somewhat surprising cover story: The 100 Greatest Prog Anthems of All Time. Not only had I missed the call for voting but I wasn’t sure what readers were supposed to have voted for. It turns out that what they had asked for was our favourite track, and their feature was actually a list of ‘the 100 Greatest Prog Songs of all time’, also described as ‘pretty much the definitive list of prog songs old and new’. Not surprisingly, the Prog website anticipated the response to the published list; a byline predicting ‘feverish debate’.



As happy as I am to wade through a comprehensive list, knowing I’ll disagree with a good proportion of it (although in this instance I have 17 of the top 20 in my collection, just not in the same order of preference), I do think compiling lists is lazy journalism. However, I wouldn’t want to diminish the not inconsiderable task of compiling the list, as it’s likely that there were very large numbers of votes cast. The feature also includes some new insight into the making of some of the albums highlighted, such as David Cross providing background thoughts on King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic from 1973 and a decent-length interview with Steve Rothery.

My gripe isn’t with the list, although Close to the Edge should have been at number 1 instead of Supper’s Ready, not number 2, but with the magazine’s cover and headline. According to the on-line Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘anthem’ derives from old English antefn or antifne, a composition sung antiphonally, itself a derivation from late Latin antiphona (see antiphon); the alternative spelling with ‘th’ was probably adopted in the 16th century. Whereas there’s a nationalistic connotation to anthems, solemn or patriotic songs officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity, and a subtly different appropriation where a rousing or uplifting song becomes identified with a particular social grouping, political body or cause, I’m not convinced that what we now recognise as anthems have any place in progressive rock.

This may not always have been the case, as Aldo Tagliapietra, bassist from Le Orme, has described the use of ‘stereo’ choirs in the Basilica di San Marco in his native Venice. This is an example of an antiphon, a hymn or a psalm performed by two groups of singers chanting alternative sections like a call and response and whether you believe in a Christian God or not, progressive rock has roots in liturgical music.

Call and response isn’t limited to either church music or prog but forms an interesting device in narrative songs. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Genesis, with their moniker and background in Charterhouse public school (and public schools had strong church links; Charterhouse was founded by Thomas Sutton in 1611 and built on the site of the ruins of a Carthusian monastery) should employ multi-character vocal parts on a range of albums: Harold the Barrel from Nursery Cryme; Get ‘em Out by Friday (Foxtrot); The Battle of Epping Forest (Selling England by the Pound); Robbery Assault and Battery (A Trick of the Tail); and All in a Mouse’s Night (Wind and Wuthering). There are some examples where a call and the response aren’t vocal, the best of which are on Between Nothingness and Eternity by the Mahavishnu Orchestra; normally a duel, Mahavishnu use three lead instruments in fiery exchanges, interplay that hints at the difficult nature of the quest for spiritual enlightenment.



The common understanding of an anthem involves a short, distilled message, largely because this is the easiest way to get a message across, be it a patriotic call or an environmental protest. That’s not to say progressive rock can’t be used to highlight some ecological or political concern; Yes’ anti-war themes in Yours is no Disgrace and Starship Trooper and their use of ‘green language’, especially on Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans embrace counter-cultural thinking but the message isn’t clear-cut, relying on a deeper engagement with the audience. On the other hand, Don’t Kill the Whale, although still not an anthem, is a direct call to humankind to respect sentience in another species which cynics thought was simply the group jumping on an environmental band-wagon, but in fact their musical philosophy pre-dates the realisation that we were hunting whales to extinction.


An anthem has to include vocals and, in the context of pop or rock music, not only requires a structure that invokes euphoric feelings, it has to serve as something that is closely associated with a particular band. It’s a sweeping generalisation to say that minor chords are gloomy and major chords are ‘bright’ but, apart from increasing the tempo (which gives a sense of urgency or striving) it’s possible to make a chord sequence sound more rousing by opening up the chord; taking the middle note of a triad and raising it by an octave. In terms of association with a group, sticking to a pre-existing structural verse, chorus, bridge formula helps a little, as does revisiting familiar lyrical tropes, but in a world where visuals are as dominant as sounds, subscribing to a group’s visual identity is also a helping factor. A tendency towards style over substance is more rock than prog rock which is why I’d include Asia’s Heat of the Moment in the anthemic class. It just seems to me that there’s a propensity for stadium AOR and heavy rock acts to churn out this sort of music, so that wearing the patch on your cut-down denim jacket becomes an emblem of belonging, waving devil-horn hand gestures and singing along with 50000 others who have lost their own individualism to bask in the enveloping identity of the group.

As a season ticket holder of many years at Crystal Palace I can see, and I’m very wary of mob behaviour. It’s no surprise that national anthems are sung at the beginning of international matches; the sub-text is that two teams are going into battle. At league level we wear the club shirt and sing and chant club anthems in lieu of violence and, for some die-hards, the result is everything, not simply entertainment. I’m a bit intimidated by this fervour and though I always want Palace to win, playing well and demonstrating cohesiveness is nearly as important as coming away with three points. I think that immersion in the mob, whether it’s at a sporting event or at a gig is a repudiation of your individuality, whereas progressive rock is about inclusivity while retaining individualism; a realisation that different cultural influences makes more interesting music, that diversity is to be celebrated.



I suspect that the Prog editorial team simply made a poor choice of words when it came to putting together the front page of the magazine, which leaves us with the question: Are there really any prog anthems? I may go to gigs and sing to myself, sometimes with my eyes closed like some old dope, but I don’t like a singalong or to be encouraged to clap along to a piece of music because it interferes with my appreciation of what is being played. I suppose these moments get as close as anything to being anthemic but the complexity of the music normally brings audience participation to a premature close. The use of encores, playing well known and appreciated tunes, kind of fills the requirement for an anthem without necessarily being anthemic. Heat of the Moment, the culmination of John Wetton’s search for commercial success while retaining a relatively high degree of musicality would fit the bill, but stomping out verse-chorus-verse-chorus isn’t really prog.

If there was a Yes anthem it would be I’ve seen All Good People. Not surprisingly, I’m least disposed towards it out of all the songs on The Yes Album because the All Good People section comes close to straightforward rock. It remains a live favourite however, the second most played song by the band, where it frequently appears as an encore and audience clapping is encouraged. The most played tune is Roundabout which, despite the success brought about by the truncation into a radio-friendly single, chops and changes too many times to be an anthem.


The answer lies with Emerson, Lake and Palmer who covered the William Blake / Hubert Parry Jerusalem. This may seem like a return to the theme of church music, or even the idea of a national anthem but Blake has also been appropriated by a wide range of people who recognise a spirit of utopianism in his writing. Rugby fans may bellow out the hymn in an effort to galvanise their team while right-wing commentators remind them that perhaps Blake wasn’t quite as patriotic as they thought; rationalists like Dawkins and Bronowski and Marxists like EP Thompson have sided with him; he inspired Gordon Giltrap’s excellent prog-folk Visionary. His Complete Works was the first book of poetry I ever bought. It may be the Elgar’s orchestration of the hymn provides much of the uplifting feel but the ELP version, with Greg Lake’s clear voice ringing through, is a call to all followers of progressive rock.







By ProgBlog, Jun 28 2015 10:12PM

A forty-year anniversary passed last month that I hadn’t realised until I watched my The Gates of QPR, Yes at Queens Park Rangers Stadium (volume 2) a couple of days ago – a concert recorded on the 10th May 1975 and featuring Patrick Moraz on keyboards even though there’s a picture of Rick Wakeman on the back sleeve. The set list for this DVD is really good and the sound quality is mostly good, too. It’s quite interesting to see Steve Howe using a double-neck 6 and 12 string Gibson for the opener, And You and I, whereas in the studio he used a 12 string acoustic guitar and I’m sure I’ve seen him play an acoustic instrument when I’ve seen Yes play live. There are a number of entirely reasonable practical reasons for using an electric guitar in this context which doesn’t really detract from the feel of the performance but I believe the original studio instrumentation is an important part of the make-up of symphonic progressive rock.

One of the core features of symphonic prog is the broad sonic palette utilised to produce sweeping musical visions incorporating a range of different moods. The listener’s interest is maintained by a number of devices including changes of tempo, changes of time signature, chord changes and changes in amplitude. This compositional complexity is what appeals to me because it makes the music less formulaic and more likely to capture my imagination, transcending the verse-chorus-verse-chorus of the boy-meets-girl pop song and allowing the musicians to relate long stories or explore philosophical issues. Different instruments or electronic patches, often outside the remit of mainstream popular music, don’t only add an exotic flavour but may represent a particular narrative thread; Camel’s Snow Goose uses this formula but Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, written for a children's theatre is the best example. Prokofiev invented the story and wrote the narration, constructing the music as a child's introduction to the orchestra, with each character represented by a different instrument or group of instruments: Peter by the strings, the bird by the flute, the duck by the oboe, the cat by the clarinet, the wolf by the horn section, and so on. It’s therefore hardly surprising that a number of prog luminaries, including Bill Bruford, Brian Eno and Robin Lumley, should collaborate on a rock version of the Prokofiev classic.

The main exponents of acoustic guitar passages include Yes, Genesis, Focus and PFM. I’ve not included Jethro Tull in this list because Ian Anderson’s guitar is primarily used as strummed or picked chordal blocks, intended as backing for electric guitar, keyboards, flute or a vocal melody line. I’m also not including the brilliant John McLaughlin because his playing falls within the jazz and jazz-rock contexts but, from the progressive world, Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, Jan Akkerman and Franco Mussida are all masters of their craft, allowed to display their virtuosity within a group context though their solo work often shows how different genres have influenced them. Steve Howe’s Beginnings (1975) and The Steve Howe Album (1979) feature a range of examples of the different styles that have been key to his development as a guitarist. Early Genesis featured up to three members strumming guitars and the arrival of Steve Hackett didn’t change this too drastically, though his playing over the top of 12 string guitar, like on The Return of the Giant Hogweed, (from Nursery Cryme, 1971) is far more confident than that of the undeniably talented Anthony Phillips. The first real clue to what inspired Hackett comes in the form of Horizons (from Foxtrot, 1972) and I had the good fortune to see him on his acoustic trio tour at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon in 2005 which featured most of the same set and was played by the same musicians, Hackett, his brother John (flute) and Roger King (keyboards) appearing on the box set Hungarian Horizons Live in Budapest (2002) and formed a sort of prelude to the classical covers of Tribute (2008). Jan Akkerman’s study of the lute made an important contribution to both Focus 3 (1972) and Hamburger Concerto (1974).

The rise of prog coincided with an interest in classical guitar pieces, notably concertos written by Joaquín Rodrigo and Heitor Villa-Lobos – I recall buying my sister Linda an LP of Rodrigo’s guitar concertos sometime in the mid-70s – and this fascination was cemented by the Stanley Myers piece Cavatina, played by John Williams, which defined the soundtrack of The Deer Hunter. John Williams had been involved in crossover projects in the past but along with long-term collaborators Herbie Flowers on bass and tuba and drummer Tristan Fry he formed Sky after recruiting fellow Australian guitarist Kevin Peek and former Curved Air man Francis Monkman on keyboards. I was never a fan of Sky who I considered to be prog-lite, appended to the genre by journalists and critics even as it faded. It may have been the insipid rendition of Toccata that featured on Top of the Pops in 1980 that confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for the project.

A good place to look for acoustic guitar-rich prog is Spain. As part of my preparations for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2010, I researched Spanish prog bands and record shops and, on arrival, set out to find music by Triana (regarded as the best of Spanish prog), Iceberg and Gotic. In the end I had to buy a download album by Gotic, the upbeat, instrumental Escenes (1978) which sounds like Greenslade with flute but I did manage to find two releases by Iceberg, the symphonic prog Tutankhamon (1975) and the jazz-rock Coses Nostres (1976) and the first three Triana albums El Patio (1975), Hijos del Agobio (1977) and Sombra y Luz (1979). El Patio (The Backyard) is quite accessible, setting out the Triana stall of traditional flamenco mixed with progressive rock and referencing an LSD trip. I find it interesting that almost the entire album was written by keyboard player Jesús de la Rosa rather than guitarist Eduardo Rodríguez Rodway; electric guitar and bass were provided by guest musicians. Spain was just emerging from the fascist dictatorship of General Franco when Triana were becoming established and Hijos del Agobio (Children of the Burden) is darker and more political than its forerunner but this style of music, blending flamenco and keyboard driven symphonic prog and initiated by Triana, has its own sub genre, Andalusian rock.

The trio of albums by Gordon Giltrap beginning with Visionary (1976) moved the artist away from his folk roots and, with the aid of an electric guitar and a good backing band, create some excellent prog that features a good mix of electric and acoustic-based songs. Perhaps Giltrap thought that the folk sphere limited his outlook, rather like the strictly classical guitar field when you compare it with the potential audience that listens to rock. There’s a rich vein of early, classical and romantic music that can be used as a basis for prog compositions which can challenge the player and listener alike. Symphonic prog successfully taps this repertoire providing variations in tone and volume and, possibly most importantly, a link to pastoralism.



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