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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, Mar 7 2016 12:28AM

It would have been impossible not to be influenced in some way by the magnificent remains of Furness Abbey, a 15 minute walk from my childhood home. So, during my teenage years, I often visited the ruins of what was once the second richest Cistercian monastery in the country. Originally under the care of the Ministry of Works, Barrow rate payers could apply for a small yellow card from a back office in the town hall that granted them free access, I’d go with friends from the Infield Park Gang or on my own, finding peace and quiet within the weathered sandstone walls. I’d go in any weather, any time of year, even any time of day, sometimes climbing over the iron railings and wandering around the stairwells and hidden corners late at night, spurred on by the incredible atmosphere of the towering remains in moonlight or starlight, having to lie low when car headlamps scythed through the fog that would fill the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade in autumn and winter, casting dancing shadows as the lights shone through tree branches overhanging the road.


Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey

The site is incredibly picturesque and ought to be a must for anyone visiting the Lake District, a 30 minute drive from the southern lakes. I’ve taken rolls of film and hundreds of digital photos and snatches of video and, since Daryl studied architecture as an undergraduate, I’ve begun to look at detail as well as the big picture and it’s remarkable that some of the fine carving has survived through centuries of battering by rain driven on prevailing south westerly winds.


The Furness peninsula has limited access which even today instils a sense of solitude, so it’s easy to understand why the Savigniac monks who founded the abbey in 1127 chose this location, Bekanesgill in old Norse, with its abundance of building material, an excellent water supply and the seclusion, even though they had to abandon the usual east- west orientation of the church due to the geography of the valley, so that it lies almost north east to south west. The abbey became prosperous, owning territory that included most of the Furness peninsula, with its forests to the north and rich agricultural lands to the south but the Reformation signalled its demise; in 1535, as a prelude to its dissolution, the abbey was valued at £805 0s 5d. On the 9th April 1537, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and its possessions to the King.
The Furness peninsula has limited access which even today instils a sense of solitude, so it’s easy to understand why the Savigniac monks who founded the abbey in 1127 chose this location, Bekanesgill in old Norse, with its abundance of building material, an excellent water supply and the seclusion, even though they had to abandon the usual east- west orientation of the church due to the geography of the valley, so that it lies almost north east to south west. The abbey became prosperous, owning territory that included most of the Furness peninsula, with its forests to the north and rich agricultural lands to the south but the Reformation signalled its demise; in 1535, as a prelude to its dissolution, the abbey was valued at £805 0s 5d. On the 9th April 1537, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and its possessions to the King.

The ruins gave me an appreciation for place and time and once I’d discovered the abbey it became impossible not to scour the area for other historical sites within the district: Bow Bridge, close to the abbey; Dalton Castle, a 14th Century tower erected to assert the authority of the Abbot of Furness; Piel Castle, another 14th Century construction, situated on Piel Island off the southern tip of the Furness peninsula to regulate trade and to protect the riches of the abbey from border raiders operating in the disputed territory between Scotland and England; and the ruined 14th Century Gleaston Castle with its four towers and remnants of curtain walls, constructed from local limestone. The physical landscape and human landscape are equally important and equally inspiring, especially when you can see evidence of older cultures and civilisations: Anglo Saxons in Urswick (the Tunwinni Cross); the Romans at Ravenglass on the north of the Duddon Estuary; and Bronze Age (the stone circle at Birkrigg.) Then there’s the more recent industrial heritage associated with the extraction of iron ore for the steel and shipbuilding industries.


I’m not sure that the abbey played any part in my appreciation of medieval music and the medieval prog sub-genre but, in common with many exponents of prog, I did like music primarily associated with the church and was even selected for the school choir, a post that I declined. I’m interested in both forms of early music: sacred (monophonic chants) and secular music, incorporating variations on lutes, zithers and early wind and reed instruments, and combinations of the two forms. My first exposure to medieval music in a rock context would have been Focus and Gentle Giant. Elspeth of Nottingham from Focus 3 (1972) is a melodic exercise on lute, apparently inspired by a recital by Julian Bream when Akkerman was on holiday in the Cotswolds in 1967; the birdsong and animal sounds that enhance the bucolic feel were suggested by producer Mike Vernon. Hamburger Concerto (1974) contains the concise opener Delitae Musicae, another Akkerman lute outing that I think brilliantly sets the mood of the whole album and van Leer’s expanded keyboard rig is fully utilised to provide a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock that owes a debt to church music. Not only is the title track based on Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Haydn but there are other references to sacred music in La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and Birth.
I’m not sure that the abbey played any part in my appreciation of medieval music and the medieval prog sub-genre but, in common with many exponents of prog, I did like music primarily associated with the church and was even selected for the school choir, a post that I declined. I’m interested in both forms of early music: sacred (monophonic chants) and secular music, incorporating variations on lutes, zithers and early wind and reed instruments, and combinations of the two forms. My first exposure to medieval music in a rock context would have been Focus and Gentle Giant. Elspeth of Nottingham from Focus 3 (1972) is a melodic exercise on lute, apparently inspired by a recital by Julian Bream when Akkerman was on holiday in the Cotswolds in 1967; the birdsong and animal sounds that enhance the bucolic feel were suggested by producer Mike Vernon. Hamburger Concerto (1974) contains the concise opener Delitae Musicae, another Akkerman lute outing that I think brilliantly sets the mood of the whole album and van Leer’s expanded keyboard rig is fully utilised to provide a coherent piece of symphonic progressive rock that owes a debt to church music. Not only is the title track based on Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Haydn but there are other references to sacred music in La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and Birth.

In a Glass House (1973) was Gentle Giant’s fifth album but it was the first I heard. Their instrumentation extended beyond the conventional and their use of tuned percussion and recorders, together with a penchant for complex interwoven lines made them stand out from other prog bands, lending a distinct medieval flavour. Their relative lack of financial success was down to unbending musical principles, originally declared in the sleeve notes for Acquiring the Taste (1971):

“It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought - that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste”

As a result in the US, their label Columbia Records would not release Glass House because it was deemed to be uncommercial. Though Glass House has plenty of examples of early music, this form had already been pretty much ever present on their records, from portions of Giant and Why Not (on Gentle Giant, 1970); Pantagruel’s Nativity (Acquiring the Taste) and The Advent of Panurge (Octopus, 1972), both of which were inspired by 16th century French writer François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel pentology in keeping with the ‘giant’ theme; and Raconteur Troubadour (also from Octopus.) Later songs would also incorporate this style though overall, from The Power and the Glory (1974) onwards, the band produced more muscular and generally more accessible material.

Perhaps the most well known of the medieval prog bands is Gryphon. One of the ridiculous criticisms of the genre is a perception that medieval-themed stories pervade prog. I suspect that this misconception is an ill-disguised attack on Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975.) Gryphon were unique, utilising genuine medieval instrumentation and performing period pieces but incorporating rock elements; a musical hybrid that may have inspired the band’s name, a mythical half lion, half eagle creature. Their appeal extended from classical music listeners on BBC Radio Three, possibly because of respect for the academic background of band members Richard Harvey and Brian Gulland, graduates from the Royal College of Music, to rock audiences. Tony saw Gryphon when they were the support act for Yes on the Relayer tour (1974-1975) and they had a small section devoted to them in the tour programme. I can’t remember when I first heard them but they were still largely concerned with performing early music. The first album I bought was Raindance (1975), the high point of which is the lengthy (Ein Klein) Heldenleben, a similar piece to the title track on Midnight Mushrumps (1974.) Though I really like these long-form compositions there’s an occasional feeling that there’s insufficient development of musical ideas. This is most acute on Red Queen to Gryphon Three (1974) where I’m left slightly dissatisfied. On the other hand, the immediacy of the up-tempo jigs shows off their dexterity and also brings a satisfactory resolution; I also have a soft spot for the traditional tunes The Astrologer, Unquiet Grave and Ploughboy’s Dream which are given a prog makeover. The experience with Yes obviously influenced the band and by Treason (1977) they’d turned into a rock band who happened to use some medieval instruments. When I listened to Treason recently I was disappointed with the song format; there’s too much singing and the original identity of the ensemble had been lost. The medieval revival was over.








By ProgBlog, Oct 18 2015 10:09PM

Back in 1972, when I started listening to progressive rock and Focus 3 was circulating between brother Tony’s friends, I didn’t make any distinction between groups of different nationalities. From a starting point of Close to the Edge and spreading out to early ELP via the collected works of The Nice, Focus were one of the first bands that I heard and they simply fitted into the spectrum of music that I liked; jazz, classical, early music, blended in with rock instrumentation. The inclusion of flute also made an impression on me and I’m a strong advocate of the instrument in prog. There was a short period in very early 1973 where I’d turn on my small medium wave radio with its single earpiece and tune in to Radio Luxembourg (208m) and the first song I’d hear would be Sylvia. This short, melodic piece is something of a classic and though prog bands tended not to be interested in chart-topping singles, it ended up being Focus’ biggest international hit. I didn’t buy Focus 3 until 1976 (it seemed to me to be quite expensive, even for a double album) but Tony bought Moving Waves (1971) not long after we’d discovered the band and we bought Hamburger Concerto (1974) at the time it was released. Taken as a whole, I think I prefer Hamburger over Moving Waves, probably because of the more varied instrumentation. The two long-form compositions, Eruption and Hamburger Concerto are both brilliant examples of the genre; on Moving Waves the tracks on side one highlight the band’s influences but on Hamburger the tracks are all much more like full-on prog, including a Hocus Pocus reprise in the equally bonkers Harem Scarem. Focus 3 contained the epic Anonymous II running at over 26 minutes but even at this early stage in my understanding of music, I thought that it sounded like a studio jam that pushed the boundaries of taste with the extended bass and drum solos. However, such was my appreciation for Focus, they were one of the very first groups I went to see play live. Unfortunately, Jan Akkerman had left the band and guitar duties were taken up by Philip Catherine so I found the performance a bit disappointing; added to that was the fact that I wasn’t too familiar with the current material (from Mother Focus, 1975) and what I had heard wasn’t too much like Hamburger or anything prior to that. On reflection, Hamburger was a high point and it wasn’t until Focus 9 (2006) when Thijs van Leer was once more reunited with classic-Focus period drummer Pierre van der Linden that I thought them sufficiently progressive enough to afford them another chance. The first time I saw the reformed Focus was at Chislehurst’s Beaverwood Club in October 2010 and they were brilliant. Van Leer has never taken himself too seriously but still managed to produce some incredible music. This performance mixed the early, classic material with some up-to-date songs such as the humorous Aya-Yuppie-Hippie-Yee which fitted in neatly with the 70s music. Bobby Jacobs (bass) was a constant from the original reformed line-up from 2002 but guitarist Niels van der Steenhoven and Pierre van der Linden were new recruits. Van der Steenhoven handled the original Akkerman guitar parts beautifully. Prog mate Gina Franchetti accompanied me to this gig – she was something of a Beaverwood Club regular – and happily engaged van Leer in conversation after the show, where he revealed a love for Italian food.

My next exposure to prog from the Netherlands was seeing Trace on BBC TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, performing Gaillarde from their first, eponymous album Trace (1974.) Having only previously seen Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson with large, multi-keyboard rigs, I was stunned by Rick van der Linden’s keyboards. I noted, though, that he was an ARP synthesizer man, without a Moog in sight. Based on the third movement of JS Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major (BWV 971) and a traditional Polish dance, Gaillarde is more Emerson than Wakeman, predominantly organ-driven, a classical interpretation performed by a trio. Self-taught bassist Jaap van Eik plays neat contrapuntal lines and ex-Focus drummer (playing his transparent Perspex kit on the Whistle Test) lays down jazz patterns, sometimes at breakneck speed. There’s a drum solo on the album (The Lost Past) which calls to mind the drum solo at the end of Eruption (Endless Road) from Moving Waves, but it somehow seems to fit the Trace album better, sandwiched between two parts of the haunting A Memory, a song based on a traditional Swedish piece of music. My copy of Trace was bought in 1975 and remains one of my favourite albums. The follow-up album, Birds was released in 1975, this time incorporating more van der Linden penned pieces and featuring ex-Darryl Way’s Wolf drummer Ian Mosley, Way was a guest on the album playing violins on Opus 1065, another Trace interpretation of JS Bach. My copy, the cover of which was damaged during storage sometime in the last 20 years, was bought from the Leeds University record store on a trip to see Rick Wakeman playing in the uni refectory in May 1976. Like classic Focus albums, Birds contains a multi-section suite which takes up the entire second side of the LP.

I’ve since supplemented my vinyl with CDs and also picked up a copy of The White Ladies (1976) that I saw in Dublin a couple of years ago. Though ascribed to Trace, The White Ladies is Rick van der Linden and his former Ekseption colleagues. I first heard about Ekseption, a pre- and post-Trace band, in around 2004 when I subscribed to a Rick van der Linden internet newsletter that was run by his wife Inez. During this time he was suffering from some of the major complications of diabetes, requiring eye surgery and, if memory serves correctly, needing a pancreas transplant; he died in January 2006 from complications following a stroke. I bought a second-hand copy of what fans regard as the best Ekseption album, Beggar Julia’s Time Trip (1969) for £8 from Beanos and identified portions that van der Linden would recycle for Trace, most notably Bach’s Italian Concerto. Though somewhat experimental it is a good example of fusing rock and the classics, with a bit of jazz thrown in. Whereas Focus and Trace are indistinguishable from British prog, Julia comes across as being different, Continental European, a facet I attribute to the spoken words by Linda van Dyck. It’s still an enjoyable album so I snapped up a CD of Ekseption 3 (1970) / Trinity (1973) when I saw it in a record store in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2009, neither of which has the same quality of composition as Julia throughout.

I was alerted to Supersister by Prog magazine and now own To the Highest Bidder (1971) and Iskander (1973.) This music is fairly complex, with Highest Bidder hinting at Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (from 1969.) The lyrics may be a bit throwaway but the music and musicianship is outstanding.

My most recent foray into prog from the Netherlands has been another time trip. I bought Earth and Fire’s Song of the Marching Children (1971) at the same time I bought The White Ladies in Dublin and though it’s not musically challenging, it’s in the same league as early Ekseption; I was also given a CD of the remastered first Earth and Fire album (1970), with the Roger Dean cover, as a birthday present this year which is really proto-prog.

I’ve made a distinction between British prog and that of other countries because I think there are stylistic variations based on local cultures and would suggest that most Italian bands have a distinct flavour that allows them to be grouped together in their own sub-genre. It may be because I got to hear Focus and Trace in the early 70s that I don’t think there’s much difference between Dutch prog and UK prog but whether or not there are differences, Focus and Trace have produced some of the best progressive rock, ever.



By ProgBlog, Mar 29 2015 07:01PM

Early in the new millennium, when progressive rock was emerging from underneath rocks and dragging itself out of slimy ponds, I discovered that Gina Franchetti, the wife of my university friend Mark Franchetti, was into prog in a fairly big way. This came as something of a surprise because I was only aware that Mark’s taste in music was very different from mine, with what I recall as being a penchant for rock ‘n’ roll of the late 50s and early 60s.

Gina’s collection was centred around reel-to-reel tapes that remained, to a greater degree, inaccessible and, in an effort to rekindle her passion for odd time signatures and Jon Anderson flights of fancy, I offered to put together a couple of CDs (the noughties equivalent of the mix tape) to cover as wide a range of classic prog as possible with a short explanation why I’d chosen the included tracks, prefaced by a brief ‘what is prog?’ Conforming to the most logical arrangement i.e. alphabetically, by band, I put together the following:

CD1. 1) Mockingbird (Barclay James Harvest); 2) First Light (Camel); 3) Virgin on the Ridiculous (Caravan); 4) Trilogy (Emerson, Lake & Palmer); 5) The Last Judgement (The Enid); 6) Anonymus (Focus); 7) The Fountain of Salmacis (Genesis); 8) On Reflection (Gentle Giant); 9) Lucifer’s Cage (Gordon Giltrap); 10) Pilgrims Progress (Greenslade); 11) Juniper Suite (Gryphon); 12) Minstrel in the Gallery (Jethro Tull)

CD2. 1) Easy Money (King Crimson); 2) 3rd Movement Pathetique (The Nice); 3) The World Became the World (PFM); 4) Time (Pink Floyd); 5) Papillion (Refugee); 6) Opus 1065 (Trace); 7) Rendezvous 6.02 (UK); 8) White Hammer (Van der Graaf Generator); 9) Arrow (Van der Graaf Generator); 10) Awaken (Yes)


Why this selection? The easy answer would be that it fitted very neatly onto two CDs. Perhaps that is the most satisfying answer, because the way you define prog has an influence on choice. I stuck to the premise that prog was largely, but not exclusively, a European phenomenon, centred in the UK; I included Focus, Trace (both from the Netherlands) and PFM (Italy) to highlight important continental influences on the genre. Another easy answer would be that these groups formed the core of my collection at the time, before I’d accrued disposable income and before I actively began to fill in the gaps; some of the recordings were transferred to digital from the original vinyl. I have a fairly conservative view of what constitutes prog (the only instance I’m ever going to be associated with that word) but progressive rock was genuinely a broad church and in the intervening period it has arguably become a lot broader; looking back at the list after ten years I think my choice stands the test of time. It’s not a ‘best of’ or my personal top 22 but I did put a great deal of effort into the selection balancing how representative each track was of each band within the constraints of an 80 minute CD.

Around this time the music industry and the marketing world had woken up to the fact that forty- and fifty somethings had significant buying power and hooked into the phenomenon of cyclical fashion. Recognising that prog had shaken off its pariah status they cynically released the first of a batch of compilation albums, triple CD The Best Prog Rock Album in the World... Ever! (complete with imitation Roger Dean cover) just in time for father’s day 2003 and Daryl dutifully bought it for me. That selection included some material that I wouldn’t class as prog (Be Bop Deluxe, Deep Purple, Electric Light Orchestra, Hawkwind, Man, Roxy Music) but the album was released by Virgin/EMI which explains why Kevin Ayers, Egg, Hatfield and the North and Steve Hillage were prominently featured. There was no King Crimson.


Barclay James Harvest were the first band I went to see outside Barrow, playing at Lancaster University on the Time Honoured Ghosts tour. On the strength of the performance, I bought the album BJH Live. Mockingbird is a quintessential BJH track, played as the encore at concerts which combines many of the elements that make up prog.

First Light is second-phase Camel but it neatly encapsulates their sense of tasteful, melodic prog. The success of Snow Goose and Moonmadness is not diminished by this relatively short track that opens Rain Dances.

Selecting a Caravan track proved quite difficult. I regard much of the Pye Hastings material as being filler unless it forms a multipart suite. Virgin on the Ridiculous had not been recorded prior to the live performance of Caravan and the New Symphonia and this is one of Hastings’ finer efforts with less of the schoolboy humour and a more symphonic feel.

Hoedown is archetypal ELP because it is one of their classical adaptations – Emerson named his son Aaron after Hoedown composer Aaron Copeland. It covers ground that had been laid out in his days with The Nice, possibly to the chagrin of Lake, whose acoustic ballads are far too throwaway for me.

I’d followed the fortunes of The Enid since their arrival on the prog scene with In the Region of the Summer Stars from 1976. Last Judgment is from this symphonic masterwork.

I shunned the popular and successful Hocus Pocus and Sylvia in favour of a more complex but no less pleasing offering from Focus, Anonymus [sic] from their first album, a track that indicated how successful they would become.

The Genesis track had to incorporate the classic line-up and I decided on The Fountain of Salmacis from Nursery Cryme because I regard it as a forgotten gem. With its mythical concept, alternating passages of pastoralism and rock sections and dramatic Mellotron, this was the first Genesis track that I remember hearing.

Gentle Giant cover a wide range of styles but I chose a track from one of their more accessible works, On Reflection, from 1975’s Free Hand. This particular song features trademark Giant vocal acrobatics and has a more medieval vibe than most other material from Free Hand (excepting Talybont) and includes plaintive recorder and delicate tuned percussion.

Folk musician Gordon Giltrap caught the zeitgeist and produced a series of folk-inflected symphonic prog albums beginning with the William Blake-inspired Visionary from 1976. Lucifer’s Cage is the rockiest of the compositions and at a little over 4 minutes is probably the longest track on the album.

Greenslade evolved from the British Blues explosion and were unusual. if not unique, for their twin keyboard player line-up and lack of a guitarist. Though the Dave Lawson lyrics are very clever, I prefer their instrumentals. Pilgrims Progress [sic] showcases the entire band but is a standout track by virtue of some chilling Mellotron.

Gryphon were comprised of former Royal College of Music students who blended medieval folk tunes, classics and pop tunes all played on unusual and early instruments. Their compositions developed in line with the spirit of progressive rock and Juniper Suite is a good example of early music goes rock.

Stand Up may have indicated the future direction of Jethro Tull but I’m not over impressed with their catalogue until Thick as a Brick. Minstrel in the Gallery is an under-rated album and the title track balances their folk leanings with some heavy prog, something that would become an accepted formula for tracks on a number of subsequent albums.

What King Crimson track should be included? Possibly the hardest choice of the project, I plumped for Easy Money because it best represented the hidden power of the band that was unleashed when the band played live.

Referring back to Keith Emerson’s predilection for interpreting classical compositions, the track for The Nice was Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Movement Pathetique, the band only version that appears on Elegy.

PFM were the first progressivo Italiano band that I heard. The World Became the World, the title track from the English language version of L'Isola Di Niente is short but perfectly formed.

The progressive phase of Pink Floyd doesn’t really last very long. Time was chosen because it incorporates the progressive features of Dark Side and has an archetypal Gilmour guitar solo.

Refugee were a very short-lived entity but their one eponymous studio album from 1974 was as good as progressive rock gets. Papillion is quirky and catchy and demonstrates how good the rhythm section of Jackson and Davison could be.

Trace were a kind of Dutch ELP, highlighting the musicianship of keyboard player Rick van der Linden. Opus 1065 is an arrangement of Bach and features Darryl Way on electric violin.

Prog’s last throw of the dice in the 70s was the supergroup UK. Though the second album Danger Money indicates the direction towards AOR following the departure of Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth, the uncomplicated Rendezvous 6:02 is a personal favourite.

I included two Van der Graaf Generator tracks because of the disparity in style before and after their split in 1972. White Hammer is a sonic assault and classic Hammill material; Arrow is pared-back and neurotic and quite different from the other material on Godbluff because of the paucity of organ, the major feature of the band throughout their career.

I had to end with Yes. Gina has accompanied members of the Page family to a number of gigs, the vast majority involving Yes or past members of the band. Awaken is an inspiring piece of music that’s deceptively accessible and one of the best prog tracks... ever.


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