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Nick Mason has just received a CBE, is touring with Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, and is currently hosting a BBC World Service radio series called A History of Music and Technology

 

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By ProgBlog, Jan 1 2019 05:22PM

2018. A year like no other, with global politics stooping to a new nadir as so-called world leaders lie, cheat and bully their way through life. I’ve always tended towards optimism, which is one of the reasons I have an affinity for progressive rock, but when humanity is fast-approaching the point where man-made climate change is going to have irreversible, accelerated effects on the biosphere and some of the largest economies in the world argue about the wording of a document at the end of the (extended) COP24 Climate Conference in Katowice relating to the implementation of the 2015 Paris agreement, I may have reached my personal tipping point. For the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with tacit encouragement from Australia and Brazil, joining forces to prevent the conference fully embracing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings that any warming of above 1.5oC of pre-industrial levels would be disastrous for many species seems criminal to me. As forest fires rage across California and Australia and Japan once again break their local temperature records, it’s time surely for anyone with children or grandchildren to think globally and, at the earliest opportunity, use the ballot box to facilitate change.


The Guardian headline 15 December 2018
The Guardian headline 15 December 2018

Change appears to be the kryptonite of anyone with a vested interest. Colonial expansion allowed Europeans to profit from indigenous mineral wealth with little or no trickle-down benefit for locals (usually the opposite); the dirty energy that fuelled the industrial revolution made a small number of people very rich; the sell-off of former Soviet state industries made a smaller number of people super-wealthy; now our fondness for technology has created an even smaller group of unimaginably rich who are responsible for the way we get our information. I’m not going to deny that there’s no philanthropic disbursement of funds but however well-founded donations are, there’s always a return for the sponsor through free advertising and access to political power, and even something as outwardly benign as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has come under scrutiny for purportedly cornering the market on global health issues. Thanks to some stunning work by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), it has been revealed that the accumulation of wealth by a limited proportion of the global population, including politicians, is driven by self-interest and that they utilise schemes which although falling within the letter of the law, are actually complex constructs to preserve that wealth and ergo, influence or power. The employment of offshore structures is the equivalent of smoke and mirrors, a device to distract and confuse and ultimately avoid transparency; the influence is exerted to avoid regulation, the same red tape that might have prevented the Bhopal disaster, the Sandoz chemical spill, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the Flint, Michigan water crisis and many others. There’s a salutary lesson here: cutting regulations may save you money, but cutting costs may cost lives.


Climate change appears to be rather low on the UK government’s list of priorities, along with rising homelessness and providing appropriate care for the elderly, those with disabilities and the unwell. Currently paralysed in a mess of her own making, bounded by red lines and surrounded by a party disunited over Europe, the Prime Minister continues to rely on DUP MPs to hold the government together even as she decries almost half of the population who voted to remain in the EU as undemocratic for suggesting a second referendum; her pro-Brexit allies from Northern Ireland don’t actually represent the majority ‘remain’ sentiment to be found in the province but she continues to allow them to hold her to ransom. It’s easy for critics of Jeremy Corbyn to lambast him for not holding Theresa May fully to account for her Brexit bungling but there are some equally pressing issues which, if satisfactorily addressed, might persuade those who voted to leave that their voice is being heard and that there was nothing to gain from leaving the EU. If May had taken more of a consensus approach to work out the best solution for the country and not attempted the impossible, the reconciliation of the pro- and anti-Europe wings of the Conservative party, the UK might not be three months away from the worst possible scenario – no deal.


Extrapolating from what I’ve seen in Prog magazine and in tweets posted by the individuals I follow on Twitter, I imagine that the majority of UK prog musicians are in favour of remaining within the EU. The challenge of restriction to movement throughout Europe effectively putting a kibosh on touring the mainland continent for all but the best resourced bands by erecting barriers to seamless touring not seen since the early 1970s, cutting off a previously accessible market. The reciprocal arrangement will undoubtedly deter artists from some of our former EU partners from gigging in the UK. The following argument could be made by not only anyone who has enjoyed the benefits of cheap intracontinental travel but by NHS senior managers, hoteliers and other owners of hospitality, catering or drinks businesses, even farmers requiring a large seasonal workforce; any restriction or barrier to EU citizens working in the UK is going to have an adverse effect on our daily lives, whether that’s longer waiting times in hospitals, no one to staff care homes for our elderly relatives, food shortages and concomitant rising prices, or just finding it harder to enjoy a night out. Doesn’t that make us look grown-up?

The Brexit-fantasy nostalgia even puts my infatuation with 70’s prog in the shade. I resent the barriers being erected that will inconvenience me on my quest to witness the last few classic progressivo Italiano bands I’ve not yet seen, and flourishing my blue UK passport at the end of a slow-moving immigration queue at Genoa’s Cristoforo Colombo airport isn’t actually something I’m going to feel proud about.


2018 did turn out to be good for one thing; the number of concerts I managed to attend (22) was the most I’ve ever managed in a year; I had thought 2017 was busy with 14 (that’s including two days in Genoa for the Porto Antico Prog Fest and five nights in Rome for the Progressivamente festival.) At times it felt as though I was chasing gigs and was certainly flagging by the end of March. Having recommenced semi-retirement towards the end of 2017, it became easier to take extended weekend breaks so on my return from a midweek skiing trip to Chamonix in early January I discovered that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso had a gig in Brescia the following week which, thanks to its proximity to Milan, made travel arrangements relatively easy.


ProgBlog's list of gigs, 2018
ProgBlog's list of gigs, 2018

The true gig marathon began on the 23rd March with my second venture to the Fabio Zuffanti-organised Z-Fest in Milan and ended with my first attendance at a Tangerine Dream performance at the Union Chapel, Islington, on 23rd April. Between those dates I got to see Yes at the Palladium, the first of Steven Wilson’s three nights’ residency at the Royal Albert Hall, had a week skiing in Austria after which I dropped off my gear and immediately headed out to the ESP 22 Layers of Sunlight launch party at the Half Moon, Putney, and flew off to Brescia again, this time for another classic Italian prog band, Le Orme, who were augmented by David Cross on violin. The complexities of getting back the hotel from some of these Italian venues can be something of a logistical nightmare after public transport has shut down for the night. Walking the streets of Genoa after a show poses no threat when the club or theatre is in the heart of the city but the 11km between L’ Angelo Azzurro and the NH Genova Centro, though only a 90 minute walk at most, might not be the best idea at 2am. I am deeply indebted to Marina Montobbio for arranging my lift back from an excellent gig. BMS at Brescia would have been less problematic if I hadn’t followed my wife’s instructions not to use public transport to get back to our hotel. Circolo Colony, the venue for the show, was hidden away on an industrial estate about 20 minutes walk from the light rail terminus to the east of the city. Though the last train was scheduled for 1am, the walk to the station would have involved a section behind the Armco protection from a dual carriageway, so I was told to get a taxi. I had pre-programmed a mobile phone app to get my return cab but despatch phoned me to tell me nothing was available at the time I requested, 00:45am, and the last taxi was at midnight. Apart from missing a chunk of the BMS set, I had to hang around the car park for almost half an hour and had to phone the company to ask where the driver was. When he appeared, it turned out that he was familiar with progressive rock so the journey back to the hotel wasn’t unpleasant. On my return to the city three months later I’d worked out not to bother trying to pre-book a return taxi journey. I made a note of where the taxi dropped me off on the way to the Brixia Forum, returned to that spot at the conclusion of the performance, and called a taxi; mine was the third to arrive. As a result of making the trip for the BMS gig, I was able to explore more of Italy. I really like Brescia with its three record stores (special mention has to go to Kandinski, Via Tartaglia 49c, 25100 Brescia) but it also hosts a UNESCO World Heritage site and the railway provides easy access to other cities including Cremona, and to Lake Garda.


While the variety of live events I attended spanned the inaugural local electronica festival (part three of Palace Electrics was held at Antenna Studios, Crystal Palace and included an interpretation of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music) to Camel at the Royal Albert Hall and the fabulous Lucca Summer Festival for an outdoor experience of King Crimson, I was also being exposed to a lot more music that I’d describe as being outside my comfort zone. Requests for me to review new music, which came from all parts of the prog spectrum, led to the creation of a new section on the ProgBlog website, DISCovery, which had the aim of exposing new artists to a wider audience. So far it has featured a diverse range of styles including classic Floyd-like soundscape prog, pop-prog, prog with a metal bias, and RIO-inflicted free jazz.

I hope that my contribution to the prog world, however small, inspires someone to go out and explore, whether that’s just the sonic adventure of trying something new or a geographical quest to unearth the inspiration behind the music, where an understanding of physical and cultural artefacts help to piece the world together. 2019 certainly needs everyone to display a little more understanding.


Wishing everyone a peaceful new year.







By ProgBlog, Apr 30 2018 09:34PM

The gig marathon did pause, temporarily, for the annual week-long skiing holiday. This year’s resort was Sölden in Austria and, after the relative success of the self-organised trip to Chamonix in January, plus a wealth of experience planning prog-themed visits to Italy, flights, public transport transfers and accommodation were all booked individually and independently of tour operators. This meant that we could avoid the early Saturday morning chaos at Gatwick by choosing a Tuesday lunchtime flight, though a planned gig on the day of return, Tuesday 17th April, meant there was going to be something of a rush when we’d arrived back in the UK.

Despite some poor visibility when it snowed on the days we were on the mountains, we did ski every day and the conditions when the sun did come out were near perfect; carving down almost empty runs in fresh powder. I’d been to the resort before, in 2007 but the amount of investment that had been poured into the area made it almost unrecognisable. Not only could I not work out where the hotel I’d stayed at had been (if it still existed) but the Gaislachkogl lift, which I may have used once during my last stay, became the prime station for getting up anywhere in the ski area. Anyone familiar with the James Bond film SPECTRE would recognise the resort because the mountaintop clinic where Bond meets the female lead, Dr Swann (played by Léa Seydoux) is the ice Q restaurant on the summit of Gaislachkogl at 3048m, a beautifully designed building that fits perfectly within its high mountain environment and which serves really fine cuisine. We ate there, twice.


the ice Q restaurant, Gaislachkogl
the ice Q restaurant, Gaislachkogl

Our B&B may have been a little way from the centre of Sölden but it did have a bus stop right outside, where journeys during daylight hours were free with a lift pass and hourly buses wound down the valley to Ötztal station, so this is where the trek to the ESP 2.0 gig on 17th April at the Half Moon, Putney began. I’d ordered a copy of their forthcoming release 22 Layers of Sunlight from their Bandcamp page and fortunately for me Cheryl Stringall, the owner and managing director of their record label Sunn Creative, recognised my name from previous correspondence and asked if I’d like a pre-release copy. This meant I was able to hear the whole album a couple of times and parts of it a few more times to acquaint myself with the music before the show.


The calm is over: Pitze bus stop, Sölden...
The calm is over: Pitze bus stop, Sölden...

The Half Moon, Putney
The Half Moon, Putney

I am a big fan of the original Tony Lowe – Mark Brzezicki ESP collaboration and after the launch of the debut album Invisible Din (2016) I pronounced that I wanted to hear more from them. A year and a half later 22 Layers of Sunlight is the product of a more settled outfit, with Lowe and Brzezicki being joined by Peter Coyle (ex-Lotus Eaters) on vocals plus bassist Pete Clark and keyboard player Richard Smith; ESP Invisible Din was more of a collective which though showcasing the talents of a variety of guest musicians including David Cross and David Jackson (whose collaboration CD Another Day arrived on my doormat the same day as 22 Layers) and vocalist John Beagley, would have been a nightmare to organise as a touring entity.





Coyle brought the concept with him, an original, cautionary tale of global tech-monopolies and AI that has increasing relevance in modern society. It was good to hear the instrumental layers are all still there, with the opening track God of Denial and its subsection The Code shifting seamlessly from angular post-rock guitar riffs to a couple of bars of lead synthesizer that wouldn’t be out of place on a proggy Steven Wilson album and then to orchestrated soundscape, all neatly tied together by Coyle’s clever lyrics. Algorithm contains some post-Hackett Genesis-like drumming and a dual vocal passage that strongly reminds me of Sigur Rós, then the title track has a cinematic orchestrated movement that gives way to a quality prog workout before reprising the chorus and main melody, though overlain with some gorgeous guitar soloing. Ride through Reality allows the players to let rip, it’s an instrumental with a little vocalising, partly jazzy but equally reminiscent of Lamb Lies Down-era Genesis instrumental blows, brief but not short on quality. Smiling Forever is another post-rock composition, laden with Mellotron string patches before it also goes full-Floyd with beautiful, tasteful slowburn guitar and after a vocal reprise blends into the laid-back Don’t Let Go section of the longest track on the CD Butterfly Suite with flute Mellotron patches. Traveling Light is the excellent instrumental part of this track, harking back to the sounds and complex rhythms of Genesis circa 1973 with some great synthesizer and organ work and more tasteful guitar, which eventually resolves into a very Hackett-like, disturbing riff before Sensual Earth continues with similar sounding themes, alternating analogue synthesizer lines and expressive guitar.

Gunshot Lips is a more modern-sounding track, its urgency dissolving into trance grooves before the driving beat resurfaces, though it retains the multiple layers of the more cinematic and prog pieces. Introducing the song at the Half Moon, Coyle confessed he didn’t know why it was called ‘Gunshot Lips’. Final track Ballad of Broken Hearts is an orchestrated, melodic piece with a deceptively pop-y structure overlain with harmonic splashes of guitar and lead synth. It’s quite optimistic sounding until about three quarters of the way through to the end when it slows and becomes more proggy and reflective as Coyle sings ‘is this all I can hope for?

You can tell it’s an ESP album – there are certain similarities in quality of voice between Coyle and his Invisible Din predecessor Beagley – with the same degree of originality and a greater feeling of consistency on 22 Layers, though there are probably more excursions away from the undeniably symphonic prog feel of Invisible Din. It’s certainly a worthy sophomore effort, expertly crafted with excellent writing and musicianship, impeccable production and once again, beautiful presentation. I made it to the live performance with time to spare; the Half Moon is fairly convenient for me and it’s a great venue. The set consisted of material from both albums, expertly handled by the quintet and this was warmly appreciated by the crowd. I think of ESP Invisible Din as a Lowe/Brzezicki band but that evening Coyle played the part of front man and the 2.0 group appeared to be more democratically organised. It was a thoroughly enjoyable gig.


I may have made it from Sölden to the Half Moon but there wasn’t a great deal of time before it all started again, roughly 52 hours between getting back from Putney and setting off on the next leg of the gig marathon to Brescia, thematically connected to ESP through David Cross who has been touring as a guest musician with legendary progressivo Italiano band Le Orme. Previously acquainted with the small, beautiful city after staying there to see Banco del Mutuo Soccorso play in January, one of the first reminders of why I had come this time was plastered over a wall on our way to the hotel.



First stop of the afternoon was the Tostato coffee shop (although we’d already had coffee at Verona station) and then it was on to the record stores; Music Box and its sister store Brescia Dischi were closed but we wandered away from the centre to Kandinski, an excellent shop selling new and second-hand vinyl and CDs where I was allowed to browse through the selection ordered in for Record Store Day, being held the following day. I couldn’t really justify getting the special edition The Piper at the Gates of Dawn so I chose three albums from the Italian prog and International prog re-pressings racks: Il Tempio della Gioia by Quella Vecchia Locanda; ...per un Mondo di Cristallo by Raccomandata Ricevuta di Ritorno; and Visitation by Pekka Pohjola. It was nice to chat about music and about being in Brescia specifically for music, and about the meaning of Record Store Day. As I left I was presented with a CD released in 2016 on Kandinsky Records, Double Rod Pendulum by Ant Mill which I was warned wasn’t prog but on subsequent listening have discovered is highly original guitar-driven rock which at times crosses into psyche. It’s not really my thing being relatively heavy and more blues-rock based than anything else in my collection, but it’s still melodic, with vocals all in English. It was recorded live in the studio and you can detect a raw edge, but the production, typified by the snare drum sound on Tale #11 [Lullaby for E] is really good.



The evening’s entertainment was Le Orme and David Cross at Dis-Play, a temporary venue set up in the Brixia Forum the city’s exhibition space, a 10 minute taxi ride from our hotel. This was me ticking off another classic 70’s progressivo Italiano band, though the current line-up includes just one original member, drummer Michi Dei Rossi. Keyboard player Michele Bon has been with the band since Tony Pagliuca left in 1992, so the most recent recruit is bassist/guitarist/vocalist Alessio Trapella who joined in February 2017. I was totally blown away by the musicianship – the performance seemed to have been comprised almost entirely of early material that I’m familiar with and the band had found a superb replacement for Aldo Tagliapietra in Trapella (I’d seen Tagliapietra performing the whole of Felona e Sorona in Genoa in 2014 which was quite special). The inclusion of David Cross on the tour was perfect; Le Orme are no strangers to guest musicians - Peter Hammill wrote English lyrics for Felona and Sorona and David Jackson has performed with both Tony Pagliuca and Aldo Tagliapietra - and the violin seems like such a natural fit with the Venetian-formed band. Dei Rossi (with the help of Cristiano Roversi) released an album of Orme material arranged for orchestra ClassicOrme last year and in 1979 the classic line-up released Florian (after Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco), an album recorded using only traditional (non-rock) instruments augmented with violin, an exercise in modern classical music with a progressive touch. Cross featured heavily during the gig and in return the ensemble played a version of Exiles, based more on Cross’ interpretation from his album of the same name than the original Larks’ Tongues version, but it was good to see the acknowledgement of the King Crimson influence on Italian prog. I thought there was an interesting comparison between the role of Dei Rossi, the drummer and only original member, with that of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio. Though Dei Rossi didn’t sing he spent quite a lot of the time between and sometimes during songs in front of his kit not only acting as spokesperson, but also directing the audience and the band. There was a humorous moment where he pointed out that he still had a lot of hair and the majority of the males in the audience had very little.



Apart from some technical problems with Michele Bon’s monitor and earpiece right at the beginning of the set, which required the removal of his jacket and held up the start of the show, it was a flawless performance by a group of exceptionally gifted musicians. Best of all, I managed to got to see the whole performance because I’d worked out how to order a taxi late in the evening, when the taxi hailing smartphone app no longer worked. My merchandise stand foray resulted in a limited edition copy of Elementi (2001) on vinyl but Chiemi Cross had moved off elsewhere for a moment so I couldn’t say hello and I’d just taken delivery of my Cross and Jackson CD at home.



The following day, Saturday, we headed off to nearby Cremona, a UNESCO World Heritage site listed in 2012 for the intangible heritage of violin making; to mark Record Store Day the main thoroughfare was lined with stalls selling vinyl and CDs. I got into conversation with a couple of stall holders and bought Florian for €15 and Per un Amico for €40, though I was being encouraged to buy an original Italian copy of Chocolate Kings complete with poster (my copy of Chocolate Kings is the Manticore release with the stars and stripes covered chocolate bar which on that particular stall had a higher mark up than the Italian version.)




We flew back to the UK on a late afternoon departure from Verona, and whereas I’d had time to get dinner before going to see ESP 2.0 when I came back from Austria, this time I headed straight from Verona (26oC) to the Union Chapel, Islington (14oC) for the first of two Tangerine Dream shows...












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