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Is there rivaly between progressive rock bands or is the genre like an extended happy family?

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By ProgBlog, Oct 29 2017 11:16PM

Something strange is going on in my local area. I’ve been around at home most evenings for the past two weeks and the fireworks associated with Diwali or the approaching Guy Fawkes Night have not featured at all. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from my neighbourhood, the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Addiscombe, from celebrating the victory of knowledge over ignorance but I wonder if burning money on brief flashes of coloured light and a banging noise has been abandoned this year, along with a misplaced acceptance of austerity as the Bank of England strongly hints of a rise in the interest rate.


A witch hunt is never a good idea
A witch hunt is never a good idea

Maybe I’m just going around with my eyes closed but it seems there’s also less visible evidence of US-style Halloween advertising. I’d like to think that this is a rejection of commercialisation and whereas encouraging the purchase of pumpkins is quite acceptable, it would be best if they were consumed as a seasonal fruit rather than discarding perfectly edible portions and turning them into Jack-o’-lanterns. Our local Co-op doesn’t appear to be stocking them this year but whether that’s because the harvest has been affected by adverse weather conditions in Suffolk or the store has finally employed someone who understands that there’s an unacceptable level of food wastage at the beginning of November (from either an economic or moral point of view), I’ll never know. The store is selling a limited range of Halloween-themed confectionary but even this involves some self-assembly, with scary monster forming components included with a packet of gingerbread biscuits. Perhaps because it’s expected or easy, my Saturday edition of The Guardian included a couple of Halloween items, the most interesting of which was in the Review section where a handful of writers were invited to put a spin on the traditional ghost story with tales set in English Heritage properties and Mark Haddon set his in the York cold war bunker; cold war bunkers were the theme of my son’s MSc thesis for his Historic Conservation course and as a youth I used to illicitly visit the civil defence bunker at Abbot’s Wood in Barrow-in-Furness.


Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill
Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill

Thinking back to my youth, Halloween wasn’t really an important fixture on the calendar and when you were old enough to look as though you were old enough to buy fireworks you could visit the local newsagent for an array of items which, if used incorrectly, could (and did) result in life-changing injuries; our fireworks were utilised on Halloween for some ridiculous purposes which we deluded ourselves into thinking were scientific investigation, like attaching bangers to rocks and dropping them in drains to produce a plume of water. Bonfire night used to be more of a social fixture, though after university (my hall of residence used to put on a party and firework display with professional pyrotechnics and I was responsible for the advertising posters which hung from the balcony of the refectory at Goldsmiths’) it became clear that subscribing to these things was not only uninteresting but an unnecessary expense.


Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978
Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978

Halloween customs have been influenced by Celtic folklore and beliefs and some are likely to have pagan roots, linked to the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or Parentalia, the festival of the dead. Its origins are most typically associated with the Celtic festivals of Samhain (Old Irish for ‘summer's end’), Calan Gaeaf (‘first day of winter’) in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, celebrated on 31st October and 1st November to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was believed that the boundary between the world of the living and the spirits overlapped at this time, allowing the Aos Sí (spirits or fairies) to enter our world. Respected and feared, the Aos Sí were appeased with offerings of food and drink or part of the crop at Samhain to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, a belief of ancient origins common to many cultures; throughout Ireland and Britain, the household festivities included rituals and fortune-telling games incorporating seasonal fare, apple bobbing and roasting nuts. Bonfires were also part of the rituals where flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have cleansing or protective powers.


In a tradition that goes back at least to the 16th century, the festivities of the Celtic communities of the British Isles included mumming and guising, dressing up as the Aos Sí, going from house-to-house in costume, reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. Also believed to be a protection from the souls of the dead, it’s likely that this behaviour is responsible for dressing up and trick-or-treating, the term ‘trick or treat’ first emerging in 1927. Throughout the centuries the power of the Church has enabled it to subvert and appropriate festivals from other, older customs and though we might sneer at a culture which believes that there are times during the year when the boundary between the spirit world and our world is less fixed, is it much different from the belief that there’s a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church Triumphant) and the living (the Church militant)? The difference is that the Church has used faith and superstition to impose a doctrine designed to preserve its own power.


Halloween fits into this narrative as an illustration of the monsters subsequently subdued by an adherence to the liturgy of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day; a story designed to frighten us should we stray from the path of righteousness. In his Guardian piece, Haddon suggests that much of literary fiction, not only ghost stories, explores a deep anxiety about how we come to terms with our own mortality. So do we like to be scared, and does this translate into other art forms? I used to watch Hammer horror films after returning from an evening in the pub when I was a student (The Devil Rides Out from 1968 was a favourite) but that was because they were ridiculous; Hollywood horror was very big in the early 80s but it became derivative and it wasn’t until The Blair Witch Project (1999) where fear of the unknown was used to generate heightened tension, reinvented the horror genre.

A recent Twitter thread and an older Progressive Archives forum topic concerned ‘frightening’ music and though we might class King Crimson’s The Devil’s Triangle or some early Van der Graaf Generator (White Hammer, Man-Erg, Lemmings) as disturbing, I think the crux of both discussion points was horror. The rise of the Fundamentalist Right in the USA makes heavy metal the genre easiest to associate with horror, because of their insistence that pro-Satanic subliminal messages were revealed when Slayer and Judas Priest records were played backwards. Backmasking, as it is known, was popularised by The Beatles on Revolver and even Pink Floyd didn’t escape accusations of inappropriately brainwashing youths through the technique. More likely, the satanic imagery used by Slayer was simply adopted for commercial reasons, and the Iron Maiden mascot Eddie, depicted as controlling the devil like a marionette on the cover of The Number of the Beast may have caused outrage amongst the Moral Majority but the resultant public burning of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue generated huge publicity.


The first prog-horror link I came across was the use of the Tubular Bells overture in The Exorcist (1974) which I watched at a screening in Leeds long before I was 18, visiting my brother who was studying medicine at the University. What I missed out on for many years, not actively researching Italian prog until 2005, were the cult classic gialli films of Dario Argento, with Profundo Rosso (1975) considered to be the best giallo film ever made. I’ve now seen Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin twice, the first time at the beginning of 2014 where they performed tracks from all their classic soundtracks: Profundo Rosso; Suspiria; Roller; Zombi; Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark; Tenebrae; and Non Ho Sonno. A year later I saw them perform the Profundo Rosso soundtrack live to a screening of the film at the Barbican and though the film itself may be critically acclaimed, it’s too psychedelic to be frightening, however good the music. It was hard to work out whether the audience at either of these performances was predominantly there for the cinematic or the prog- association. I was there for the latter but I think I may have been in a minority.



With roots in folklore, ghost stories and the supernatural should suit progressive rock but I can’t think of too many examples where this has been the case. Psychedelic prog-folk band Comus (named after Milton’s pagan sorcerer-king) channel a pagan vibe on First Utterance (1971) with material covering rape, murder, mental illness and sacrifice, and the music itself which varies from conveying primal malevolence to quiet, pastoral beauty, recalls the spirit of a independent horror film. I suspect that the best ghost-story album is Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing and Other Stories from 2013. You’d think the excellent Gustav Mahler-inspired Halloween by Pulsar (1977) should feature but the title was used because the band liked the beauty of the word and the way it evoked childhood, magic, fairy-tales and the imaginary, themes which are suggested in the music and lyrics.


Halloween by Pulsar
Halloween by Pulsar

According to a 2006 survey, the British hate Halloween and over half of British homeowners turn off their lights and pretend not to be home. 2017 looks like being a great deal worse for advocates of this celebration sponsored by confectioners and I know I won’t be answering the door to anyone on Tuesday evening. However, much more memorable than Halloween or the gunpowder plot is that Saturday 28th October is the anniversary of me seeing Yes for the first time, having been in London for less than a month....









By ProgBlog, Feb 22 2015 10:54PM

Yesterday evening I rushed from Selhurst Park (Crystal Palace v Arsenal) to the Barbican to watch a screening of Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary, with a live score performed by the band. I first saw Goblin last year at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, where clips from Argento’s films were played behind the band on a cramped stage. On that occasion, I overheard complaints that the music wasn’t synched with the films (I’m guessing they were horror fans, not aficionados of Italian prog); they did it properly this time in the main hall of the Barbican – a good sized stage, great acoustics, comfy seating with unrestricted views wherever you sit, and a big screen. I bought my ticket just a few days before the show and somehow managed to get a prime seat, just off-centre and around mid stalls, not too far in front of the mixing desk. I actually ended up with two tickets; my payment was declined for no apparent reason and when I navigated back to restart the process, I somehow ended up reserving the seat next to the one I’d originally chosen. When the purchase confirmation came through I’d booked two seats, M42 and M43 and, not wanting to pay double for the one seat I required, I contacted the box office by ‘phone. They told me that somehow I’d booked two tickets and only paid for one, so much for complaining!

I hadn’t know quite how performing the live score would work but Claudio Simonetti revealed in an interview that there were times, the longest of which lasted about 20 minutes, when the band wasn’t required to play. During these pauses, they all sat quite still at their instruments: Simonetti at his keyboards; Titta Tani at his drums and percussion (including gong and timpani); Bruno Previtali with his guitars; and Federico Amorosi with his sunburst-finish Rickenbacker bass. I used to watch Hammer Horror films in the 1970s but I’d hardly call myself fanatical about the genre and I didn’t really know very much about the Argento films; the stills from the film set out in my 2012 reissue of Profondo Rosso soundtrack CD (bought second-hand when I was in Genova last year) didn’t really add to my understanding of the plot. The Barbican screening was dubbed into English and though I like my foreign films in their original language, with subtitles, that probably wouldn’t have worked as I shifted focus from Goblin to film and back again. Starring David Hemmings as jazz pianist Marcus Daly who befriends a psychic medium who gets murdered (he lives in the same apartment block), the film follows Daly’s investigation into a series of subsequent, related murders and culminates in a confrontation with the mysterious murderer, the mother of his alcoholic friend Carlo, in which he gets injured with a blow from a meat cleaver but manages to cause the gruesome demise of the murderer when her necklace gets caught in the grille of an old-fashioned lift. Daly calls the lift which subsequently pulls on the necklace and beheads her. This final scene, together with an earlier scene depicting the death of Carlo, provoked an outburst of laughter from the audience. It’s hard to believe that the performance was restricted to those over 18; the horror is dated and doesn’t hold much shock value. In fact, there’s a psychedelic vibe to the film; the blood looks like red paint, the narrative jumps inexplicably and the setting, presumably Turin where much of the filming took place, included some modernist architecture that reminded me of the Barbican because of the mix of residential and leisure facilities. Suspense was created by hiding the identity of the murderer and by the use of a child’s lullaby, played on a tape recorder by the murderer before she commits a crime. I’d never rated David Hemmings as much of an actor and none of the others appearing in the production were much good either but the film was critically acclaimed and became an international success. That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy the film, because I did. The soundtrack, originally put together in ten days after Simonetti’s band Cherry Five were asked to step in following a disagreement between director Argento and original composer Giorgio Gaslini, fits the idiom incredibly well. This may come as a bit of a surprise when you consider that Cherry Five were influenced by King Crimson and Genesis and played extended compositions on the jazzy side of prog, but perhaps not when you find out that tracks on the under-rated eponymous Cherry Five album include Country Grave-Yard [sic] and The Swan is a Murderer. In keeping with the nature of the material they were providing music for they changed their name to Goblin and the success of the Profondo Rosso film was replicated by the soundtrack which has sold over a million copies.

The live score stuck fairly faithfully to the original. Whereas the original recording utilised church organ and harpsichord, Simonetti reproduced the analogue sounds with great precision and his Moog playing was absolutely brilliant; however, this was a band performance and whereas at the Electric Ballroom I found the sound indistinct and the guitar somewhat lost, the sound at the Barbican was balanced and clear, including the guitar harmonics and trebly bass. I think that Mad Puppet bears more than a passing resemblance to the section on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells that leads up to Vivian Stanshall recounting the instruments used in the production; is it coincidence that part of Tubular Bells was used in horror film The Exorcist? A fair amount of the material is quite jazzy and at other times a Keith Emerson influence is evident that reminds me of ELP’s interpretation of Ginastera’s Toccata.

The performance was split with a twenty minute intermission but following the closing credit sequence the band remained on stage and played some more of their soundtrack material, Demoni, Zombi, Suspiria, Tenebre and Phenomena. This was all very well received by the audience and I even liked the version of Tenebre where I found the vocoder parts less grating than when I’d heard it last year. Suspiria, from 1977, is regarded as being the real Goblin sound where it became impossible to hear their original prog influences in the music.


It wasn’t five years since I’d last seen Goblin and it was another very enjoyable gig made even more special because of the 40 year celebrations since the release of Profondo Rosso. I almost forgot that I’d just seen Crystal Palace narrowly beaten by Arsenal...



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