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Don't judge a book by the cover, unless your particular speciality is dark prog...

ProgBlog sets about finding out about where Muffx fit into the prog genre with their 2017 release L'Ora di Tutti...

By ProgBlog, Feb 12 2018 04:43PM

Coming from something of a backwater, as far as I was aware the Round House was a 1970s concrete replacement for the former pavilion and bandstand at Biggar on Walney Island, just off the mainland at Barrow-in-Furness. Originally a council-run facility, it may have been an unusual piece of architecture with an amazing windswept location but I seem to remember it becoming a Chinese restaurant which had a bit of a troubled history, culminating in the murder of owner Lai Yo Fu by disgruntled former employee Ke Yuan who stabbed her to death in front of a number of witnesses in February 2000. It’s a popular place to eat today and seems to inspire admiring and disapproving reviews in roughly equal measure. Its conversion to a restaurant must have coincided with my departure from Barrow and I have never had food from there; the Infield Park Gang used to head inland, away from the coast towards the Furness countryside on nights out and, if the occasion arose, we’d stop off at an alternative Chinese take-away in Dalton on our way home.

I must have read about gigs at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse in the mid 70s, amongst the pages of one of the weekly music papers Melody Maker, NME or Sounds after getting into prog in 1972, though wasn’t until sometime later, having ploughed through a few books concerning the early history of Pink Floyd, that I came to understand the significance of the venue in the birth of UK counterculture. Despite being intended as an arts centre planned by playwright Arnold Wesker, the first cultural use of the Roundhouse was as the venue for the launch party of IT, the International Times in October 1966, a multi-media all-night rave billed as a ‘strip-trips-happening-movie-pop-op-costume-masque-drag ball’, featuring performances from Pink Floyd and Soft Machine plus screenings of films and poetry readings.


Poster advertising the IT launch party
Poster advertising the IT launch party

The Roundhouse was built between 1846-7 for the London and North Western Railway by Branson & Gwyther, a Birmingham-based civil engineering and construction firm, out of yellow brick, using designs by architects Robert Dockray and Robert Stephenson as a building containing a turntable for turning round railway engines. The conical slate roof is supported by 24 cast-iron Doric columns arranged around the original locomotive spaces braced with a framework of curved ribs. The central smoke louvre, now glazed, adds to the distinctiveness of the building and the interior still contains portions of original flooring, parts of the turntable and fragments of early railway lines. It was recognised as a notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture and made a listed building in 1954, amended to Grade II* in January 1999, and declared a National Heritage Site in 2010.

The original building had a diameter of 48m to accommodate the turntable and although the designs were meant to allow for advances in locomotive engineering, it was only used for this purpose for ten years before locomotives became too big for the space. It was repurposed as a bonded warehouse for London Gin distillers W & A Gilbey, lasting around 50 years from 1871 but fell into disuse just before the Second World War.


Arnold Wesker established the Centre 42 Theatre Company in 1964 and prepared a scheme to adapt the building as a cultural centre to contain a theatre, cinema, art gallery and workshops with committee rooms for local organisations, a library and youth club with an estimated cost of between £300,000 and £600,000. The proposals were supported by well-known names within the arts community and in 1966, the Roundhouse became an arts venue, with the freehold taken up by the Greater London Council. By the time Camden Council assumed control of the Roundhouse in 1983, Centre 42 had already run out of funds so the building remained unused until it was bought on a whim for £3 million by former investment banker and local philanthropist Torquil Norman in 1996. Performing arts shows resumed before an extensive redevelopment in 2004, reopening on June 1st 2006.

Seven layers of soundproofing were added to the roof during these renovations, the glazed roof-lights were reinstated and the steel and glass New Wing, curving around the north side of the main building was added to house the box office, bar and café, an art gallery foyer and offices. The auditorium is quite spectacular, seating 1700 or accommodating up to 3300 standing. The performance space is highly flexible and provides both artist and audience an experience they won’t find anywhere else. And the sound is brilliant.



Considering my interest in music and architecture, it’s surprising that my first ever visit was for a gig by the Portico Quartet on February 3rd this year. I’d seen posters for the event in Whitechapel where I work, possibly as early as last year, but didn’t do anything about it until the day itself; fortunately there was at least one seat remaining at the time I booked.
Considering my interest in music and architecture, it’s surprising that my first ever visit was for a gig by the Portico Quartet on February 3rd this year. I’d seen posters for the event in Whitechapel where I work, possibly as early as last year, but didn’t do anything about it until the day itself; fortunately there was at least one seat remaining at the time I booked.

Portico Quartet listing, The Guide, 3rd February 2018
Portico Quartet listing, The Guide, 3rd February 2018

I’d been given the self-titled Portico Quartet CD as a present in 2012, probably, I suspect, because it had been favourably reviewed by John Fordham in The Guardian. I really liked it and, rather like The Necks which it called to mind, it was obvious this shouldn’t be simply labelled as ‘jazz’; the treated bowed bass puts it in Esbjörn Svensson Trio bassist Dan Berglund territory, the saxophone has at times an almost choral quality and the repetitive gamelan-like motifs on the hang together with looped keyboards put it in the realm of trance. All this is held together with a mixture of neat drumming and electronic drum patterns, creating a mixture that genuinely defies a simple description, though if you triangulate the labels that are most often thrown at the band, jazz, ambient and electronica, you might get a rough idea of the form in which they operate, a sound like no other band. The hang was actually developed as recently as 2000 by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Bern, Switzerland and I probably first came across one being played by a busker in Oxford in 2011 on a trip to visit my son who was studying for his Masters Degree, and whereas it’s most certainly incorrect to suggest that the hang alone provides their USP, this tuned percussion instrument with its beautiful harmonic resonance adds an exotic flavour to the music, quite unlike any other small ensemble working in a loose jazz idiom.


ProgBlog's Portico Quartet CDs (before the gig)
ProgBlog's Portico Quartet CDs (before the gig)

I received Art in the Age of Automation as a birthday present last year so my choice at the merchandise stand looked like it was going to be limited. Despite not bringing my vinyl-specific cotton bag I bought double LP Live/Remix from 2013, for what I thought was a very reasonable £15, and a £5 EP Abbey Road on CD.


...and from the merchandise desk just before the gig
...and from the merchandise desk just before the gig

Before we were treated to Portico Quartet, there was a 30 minute set from Riah, one of the students attached to the Roundhouse through the Roundhouse Trust, set up by Norman in 1998 and which runs a creative programme for young people aged 11 - 25. They get taught live music, circus, theatre and new media on-site in the Roundhouse Studios located in the undercroft beneath the Main Space, and allowing them to perform a support slot is an essential part of the program.


I’d had an excellent view of Riah, albeit from the back, framed by one of the cast iron arches but when Portico Quartet took to the stage, the columns obscured saxophonist Jack Wyllie and bassist Milo Fitzpatrick, though I could make out everything that Duncan Bellamy did with his drum kit (he was closest to me) and Keir Vine faced me when he was playing his keyboards and was in profile when he played hanghang (the official plural!) They started off with Endless from Art in the Age of Automation which was extended after a fake pause, and followed with Ruins (from 2012’s self-titled album) and Current History from the latest release. Bellamy, who is responsible for all the album artwork, took on role of compere and provided the song introductions, and gave a more full explanation about the next number Double Space, an as yet unreleased track due to appear on a mini-album comprised of material which is an extension of that on the current album and is due out in April.


The performance was relatively brief, finished off with an encore taken from another track on Art in the Age of Automation, Lines Glow but I was really pleased I’d managed to attend. I really like their music but the combination of the tunes, the musicianship, the sound (I was just above the mixing desk), the unique architecture of the venue and the visual effect created by a smoke machine with (relatively basic) lighting made it a really special occasion.


Duncan Bellamy, at the conclusion of Lines Glow
Duncan Bellamy, at the conclusion of Lines Glow







By ProgBlog, Jan 23 2018 04:44PM

The limited edition CDs are being hand-numbered and I’m eagerly anticipating the postman bringing me my vinyl copy, gatefold sleeve and all, of debut album The Swan Song by Servants of Science, the Brighton-based crossover prog collective. I was invited to listen to a download of the music shortly after its digital release in early December last year and was suitably impressed by the whole project, from the cinematic opener Another Day which reminded me of dreamy 70s French prog masters Pulsar, to the epic Burning in the Cold which closes the album. Musically, the compositions most obviously reference Pink Floyd and Roger Waters’ solo material but there’s also more than a hint of arty 80s synthesizer pop bands, something which should appeal to anyone who likes Steven Wilson’s To the Bone. Lyrically, if you scratch the surface you find a layer of meaning apart from the obvious ‘destruction of the earth’, and perhaps this is also Floyd-related; an examination of mental health issues.


With an intelligent social media campaign to back up an amazing product, they've gained a lot of radio play across Europe and North America over the last month and generated a good deal of interest surrounding the release of the album. In the first ever ProgBlog interview, to coincide with the release of the physical editions I set Stuart Avis, the prime mover of the group, some questions about the new album, influences and about survival in the music business. To my gratitude, he’s provided some in-depth and insightful answers; I hope you find them interesting too.


The Swan Song by Servants of Science
The Swan Song by Servants of Science

Servants of Science play at The Prince Albert in Brighton on 21st April 2018

For details of live appearances see https://www.facebook.com/servantsofscience/



ProgBlog: Who are your favourite bands, who is your biggest musical influence and why?


Stuart Avis: I've always been drawn to bands that are sonically interesting, people that make albums that can still surprise you with something that you hadn't noticed before on the umpteenth listen. Bands like Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips and Grandaddy are masters of the art, it's all in the details. Many of us know a record like Dark Side of the Moon inside out but, when you give it a listen on a pair of speakers or headphones that you've not used before you can never be 100% certain of what you're going to hear, that's pretty amazing. Growing up in the 80's I became a big fan of the pop music at the time as most pre-teens do, but the band that really stood out for me was Depeche Mode, they were at the forefront of sampling and crafted their own sounds. This was when sampling was extremely limited and not the quick fix lazy exercise it can often be today, you couldn't just lift a chunk of a song back then, you had just a few seconds to work with and use your initiative. They'd spend hours doing field recordings then effectively create new instruments with fragments of those recordings in a sampler. You'd hear sounds on a Depeche Mode record that had never been used before musically. I guess they were my way in to a lot of the music I would get into later, including prog due to them being one of the key pioneers of the 12" extended version, lapping up those 7 or 8 minute epic versions was a good primer for long form music outside of a typical song structure. My first musical love was Sparks, a band that have a lot more prog tendencies than people may realise. They're still my favourite band to this day, no one can pen a skewed pop song like Ron Mael, and their relentless drive to redefine what pop music can consist of always yields fascinating results.


PB: Brighton has a fantastic vibe and there’s some excellent countryside around with settlement going back to Neolithic times. Your debut album The Swan Song is about an astronaut witnessing the end of the world from space and the cover depicts The Joker pub at the bifurcation of Preston Road and Beaconsfield Road (the A23); what prompted that concept and do you draw any inspiration from the surrounding area?


SA: Oh absolutely! We're quite spoilt down here, where I live I can travel 5 minutes in one direction and be on the beach, or 5 minutes in the opposite direction and be in the countryside. Two roads that run parallel to each other can have completely different vibes, there's no end of inspiration. The idea for the cover came to me on the train home after recording the vocals for the album up in Nottingham last year. "The Swan Song" has two story lines running in tandem, the surface one with the astronaut witnessing the end of the world, but the album is also littered with references to a possible mental health condition such as schizophrenia, so, depending on how the listener wishes to interpret these clues this may all just be in someone's head as they're experiencing an episode of sorts. The image of the astronaut holding one of those "The end of the world is nigh" boards in a normal everyday setting seemed to capture both stories in one photo. The location became one of necessity. The story takes place in the summer, as set up with the radio samples and the "summer rain" references in the opening track "Another Day", but there was a delay with the spacesuit so we couldn't do the photoshoot until the end of November. The location was the last high street left in Brighton that didn't have Christmas decorations everywhere, this turned out to be quite fortuitous though as we ended up with a better shot than what I originally had in mind. The traffic lights all being on red was a nice bonus too, a signal to stop, they're very fitting with the themes in the album.



PB: Brighton has some great record stores and a variety of musical instrument suppliers. Do you shop locally for music and musical equipment?


SA: Far more than I should! Record shops are my Achilles heel, although I've tried to curtail my spending a bit over the last year, partly because I have a huge pile of records I still haven't played, and partly because I've been so involved with "The Swan Song". There are constantly gems to be found down here, Brighton's record shops can be a tad pricey compared to say, Nottingham, but once you get to know the owners, a little haggling helps things along. I own a studio called Black Bunker so I'm often having a wander around miscellaneous shops keeping an eye out for equipment bargains too and of course things that can benefit the band as well. It's worryingly easy to pop along the road for a packet of crisps and come back with a guitar amp.


PB: What was the last prog album you bought?


SA: That was FEAR by Marillion, to my eternal shame I arrived late to the party for this one and only got around to hearing it last November, my jaw hit the floor! I'm a massive fan of the Fish-era but never fully gelled with the Steve Hogarth material, when they hit the spot though they're amazing and everything on FEAR is amazing and then some! I lost track of them for one reason or another after Marbles but this has prompted me to fill in the gaps over the last decade or so since then, and I'm finding more treats that are making me kick myself for missing them first time around. Steve Rothery is as close as anyone can get to David Gilmour for feel, tone and sheer beauty of playing but still retains his own individuality without ever cloning, they're a super-talented bunch.


PB: Where is the best place to see a gig in Brighton and where is best to eat/drink beforehand?


SA: I guess my regular haunt for local bands is The Prince Albert, I'm very fond of the place. I've a good relationship with the venue and staff there, have known some of them since I was a kid and even played in bands with a few over the years so it's like a night out with mates even if I go alone. They do excellent food there too so you can kill two birds with one stone. We'll be playing there on April 21st with The Filthy Tongues, a band I've admired for nigh on 30 years in their original incarnation as Goodbye Mr MacKenzie and then Angelfish. The albatross that's forever circling over them is being the band that Shirley Manson was poached from for Garbage, but they're a fantastic band in their own right.


PB: Some of your own ideas have been worked on on-line and releases like Anderson-Stolt’s The Invention of Knowledge show technology has made long-distance collaboration no barrier to producing adventurous music. Would you like to collaborate with any other artist(s) and for what reasons?


SA: The internet is amazing for this; it's opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Many years ago I co-ordinated a couple of Pink Floyd tribute CD sets for a website called Neptune Pink Floyd. Pre-Facebook, Twitter etc internet forums were hugely popular, the NPF one was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, of Floyd ones. Many of the various forum members contributed songs either solo or recorded with their own bands, but one of the aims was to try and get the forum members to collaborate on covers wherever possible regardless of where they were in the world. I played keys on a version of Atom Heart Mother which also included a guitarist in Australia and a bass player in Ireland. The project may also be considered one version of the genesis of Servants of Science. Our vocalist Neil Beards submitted to me a couple of cover versions under the moniker The Amber Herd for the project. After we put out the CDs I organised a live Floyd tribute event in Brighton which lasted 10 hours inviting as many of the CD participants to perform as possible. Neil wanted to take part in the event so he put a band together to bring The Amber Herd to life which is still going strong to this day. On the day of the gig, I found myself in a bit of a jam when it became clear that neither of the people I was collaborating with could sing our opening number, "Welcome To The Machine", so Neil graciously stepped up to the plate, did a fantastic job and from there on a friendship was born and now, 12 years later, Servants of Science. Internet collaborations are such a wonderful opportunity for people; I guess the biggest success commercially of this ilk so far may well be the FFS project between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. They wrote the whole album by sending files back and forth across continents via e-mail. Sparks are a band I'd love to collaborate with, that would be a childhood fantasy, but I'm happy to collaborate with anyone. I believe everyone has a musical ability, even if they don't believe it themselves, often those are the most rewarding and surprising ones. Obviously any of the members of Floyd would be a dream collaboration too. I pass David Gilmour's house almost every day on the way to the studio, once the physical copies of the album arrive I'll be popping one through his letterbox, nothing ventured as they say.


PB: You’re self-releasing a limited edition CD and a heavyweight vinyl edition of The Swan Song. What do you think of the state of the music business today and what challenges as an indie artist do you feel you have?


SA: It's making a steady return to health. After it fell on its arse with Napster, which no one seemed to know how to deal with, a lot of record labels turned into headless chickens then died and we lost a lot of record stores in the fall-out as sales dwindled, but, things are certainly on the up again. We'll never see a return to the kind of sales that ran from the 60s through to the 90s, the landscape has changed too much for that, but it's in a good place, even cassettes are making a return. The worst aspect now is probably the need for instant gratification, both from the labels and the consumer. It's not exactly new but fewer risks are being taken now and investment in bands and allowing them to grow is a much rarer occurrence today. Fortunately there are still a number of small maverick labels out there taking risks and their number appears to be growing, we're seeing a return to the punk DIY ethos thanks to the internet. Ironically, something that once nearly crippled the music industry is now serving as its saviour. I think the challenges have always been the same, trying to stand out in a crowd and offer something fresh and get that noticed, the main difference now is how you navigate the obstacles, social media is proving a great vehicle for that.


PB: What importance would you ascribe to social media for getting noticed and providing support for your projects?


SA: It's been a massive help for us. The opportunities the various social media platforms provide for artists to be heard is incredible, we're having this conversation now thanks to its virtues but, as these opportunities are, and quite rightly so, available to everyone, artists have become a needle in a different haystack. However, I do believe the pros far outweigh the cons if you're willing to put the time and effort in. We've been getting played a lot in Canada and the U.S. as well as a number of European territories within a month of putting our music out into the world. This is something we could have only dreamt about prior to the social media boom; it's put music in the hands of the artist and given them a chance to take control of their path. It's tough and the competition is fierce, but that's a healthy thing, it'll pay off if you work hard at it.


PB: What is your opinion on streaming?


SA: As a way of discovering new music and being heard by people that might not normally get to hear you it's invaluable. Streaming technology has opened a lot of doors with radio and video and generated new audiences, it's certainly expanded our reach immeasurably, the downside is it has also majorly contributed to the growing disposable nature of music for many too. It has had a massive effect on sales but in turn it has also generated sales for us which we wouldn't have received without streaming. I'm a traditionalist and prefer the physical format, which fortunately is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment, and long may it last, but streaming is here to stay so I guess we have to adapt to it and focus on its benefits.


PB: What advice would you give for people thinking of getting into the business?


SA: Keep on keeping on, expect a lot of knock backs but remain positive and believe that each "no" is one step closer to the next "yes". Utilise the internet, it's full of opportunity, look up bands in a similar vein to yourselves, find radio stations, press and promoters that are following them and get in contact and build a database of the contacts too.


PB: Can you give us an idea of what Servants of Science has planned for the future?


SA: We'll be performing live and promoting "The Swan Song" for the foreseeable future. We're developing the live show at the moment which will feature the album in full and it's coming along spectacularly. We've got a great 6 piece band together that features many of the musicians that appear on the album, but rather than playing various instruments each, like we did on the record, we have dedicated roles for the live shows. I'll be sticking to just keyboards, Neil Beards is playing acoustic guitar and providing lead vocals, Andy Bay is playing bass, Helena Deluca is reprising her vocal role and adding some extra harmonies as well as playing rhythm guitar, Adam McKee is in his spiritual home behind the drum kit and Ian Brocken, who recently joined us, will be handling all the lead guitar parts and, if I may say so myself, it's all sounding fantastic! We're currently shooting footage for our backdrop film projections which we're also going to be putting out as a film of the album. On top of that we'll also be incorporating lighting into the shows too, and anything else we can get our hands on. The astronaut may even be joining us on our journey. After that we'll be embracing the challenge of the difficult second album…




Servants of Science
Servants of Science


By ProgBlog, Nov 21 2017 04:02PM

Last week was the latest ProgBlog adventure in Genova (and a couple of cities along the Italian Riviera.) Not only did I get to see four amazing bands on two separate nights, I also managed to add to my vinyl and CD collections with visits to Genova’s Black Widow Records and Jocks Team in Savona, at the La Claque night of prog, plus a couple of 180g vinyl re-releases bought from newsstands, part of a series of Prog Rock Italiano in association with publisher De Agostini.


Jocks Team, Savona
Jocks Team, Savona

The Progressive Night was held at the La Claque club and organised by Black Widow. Ancient Veil opened proceedings with an acoustic set from a pared-down line-up of Alessandro Serri on guitar, Edmondo Romano on woodwind and Fabio Serri on piano, plus contributions from special guest Marco Gnecco. The sound may have been pared down since I last saw them as a full electric band in May, but their compositions are well-suited to an unplugged format and apart from a couple of moments where Alessandro had to fight a little to find the right key to sing, on tracks where the vocals commenced the song without an instrumental introduction, it was a fine performance of some beautiful, folk-inspired music. I’m still getting into their latest release I Am Changing from earlier this year, so my favourite track was one of those I’m much more familiar with, the Eris Pluvia album title track Rings of Earthly Light.


Ticket for A Progressive Night, La Claque
Ticket for A Progressive Night, La Claque

Ancient Veil, unplugged 11-11-17
Ancient Veil, unplugged 11-11-17

I’d had a chat with Melting Clock keyboard player Sandro Amadei in the Black Widow shop (where else?) when I popped in to say hello and buy a few albums after arriving in the city on the Friday, and when I arrived at La Claque for the gig I spoke to most of the band and was pleased to see that they’d got lots of support from family and friends in a packed club. I was even given a small memento: a Melting Clock plectrum which had featured in a promotional poster for the evening. I was told that this was only their second ever gig as an ensemble, the first being the Porto Antico Prog Fest in the summer, and they suggested that although the atmosphere in La Claque was incredible, the sound check had uncovered a problem with feedback when vocalist Emanuela Vedana sang at full volume. This was in contrast to Porto Antico, a large, semi-open space where whatever first-gig nerves they may have had, they could really let rip. They need not have worried; the audience was won over with the first song, L'Occhio dello Sciacallo (The Jackal’s Eye) which followed a short instrumental introduction Quello che rimane (What Remains) and the club’s acoustics didn’t cause any problems. My personal favourite is Antares, a mini-masterpiece of carefully crafted modern symphonic progressive rock. Their self-penned compositions hint at 70’s Renaissance, albeit with a distinct Mediterranean flavour; the twin guitars of Simone Caffè and Stefano Amadei add extra depth while the rhythm section of Alessandro Bosca (sporting a new 6-string bass and matching tie!) and Francesco Fiorito contribute complex but well-thought out lines to pin down the music.


Their influences might surprise a few people, considering the songs they’ve covered. At Porto Antico they performed a sublime rendition of Firth of Fifth, at La Claque they played an incredibly accurate version of Soon, the hauntingly beautiful coda to Gates of Delirium from Relayer by Yes, producing one of those spine-tingling moments which made the hairs on my arms stand up, and ended their set with a crowd-pleasing performance of Time from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It turns out that Stefano and Francesco are into metal and Sandro likes Scandinavian jazz, though Simone is a David Gilmour fan. The mixture has somehow produced excellent results; their entire set was brilliant and heralds a very bright future.


Phoenix Again was the headline act of the evening. I met most of the band at the merchandise stand where I bought their three studio albums on CD; ThreeFour (2011), Look Out (2014) and Unexplored, released this year on the Black Widow Records label, and was very kindly presented with a T-shirt. From Brescia and originally called Phoenix when they formed in 1981 by Lorandi brothers Claudio (lead guitar, voices), Antonio (bass), Sergio (guitars) along with Silvano Silva (drums, percussion), they added keyboard player Emilio Rossi to expand their symphonic sound in 1986 but disbanded in 1998 without ever having produced an album. Following the death of Claudio in 2007 they revisited their music and, with the help of a number of guest musicians, released ThreeFour in 2011 under the moniker of Phoenix Again.

The current incarnation, first appearing on Look Out, is made up from original Phoenix members Antonio Lorandi, Sergio Lorandi (now taking on lead guitar and vocal duties) and Silvano Silva, plus two more of the Lorandi family, Marco (guitar) and Giorgio (percussion), and Andrea Piccinelli on keyboards. On record, their sound ranges from symphonic progressive to jazz rock, funk and experimental however, their live sound tends more towards the jazzy and has a much more urgent, hard edge which makes it come across as complex and intricate. I think I recognised the epic tune Adso da Melk from Look Out which includes a multitude of styles but has a section which reminds me of Camel’s Lunar Sea. The high energy set concluded with some banter between the audience and Marco Lorandi, who appeared to have been asked to pick out a particular tune or riff and this in turn gave way to a solo spot from Sergio who, as the crowd was dispersing, played beautiful renditions of first Steve Howe’s Mood for a Day (from Fragile) and then Steve Hackett’s Horizons from Foxtrot.


I stayed behind after the performances to speak to a number of the artists, congratulating Melting Clock on a magnificent show and getting introduced to local promoter Marina Montobbio who, it turns out, had been at the 2014 Prog Résiste festival in Soignies because of her work for The Watch who had headlined on the last evening. Resplendent in a pair of Gibson plectrum earrings, I’d seen her at Porto Antico taking photos of the different groups and also chatting to musicians, so I suspected she had some official role. Smart and knowledgeable, if I ever think about getting involved in promotion in the music business, she’d be top of the list of people to contact. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening thanks to the musicians and the organisers and I can’t believe anyone could have left the venue feeling disappointed.



PFM ticket
PFM ticket

I’ve waited a long time to see PFM play live and stayed on in Genova for their appearance at the city’s premier venue, the Teatro Carlo Felice. With a boarded-over orchestra pit the septet seemed quite far away, even from row 12 in the stalls, but I soon found out that sole surviving original member and de facto front man Franz Di Cioccio was able to take full advantage of the empty space. I’d burned the Italian version of the CD of their new release Emotional Tattoos, which came with my English-version double vinyl, and listened to this the night before on my mp3 player in preparation for the concert; they began with Il Regno from that album, which I think is one of the best tracks. They then performed a string of early classics: La Luna Nuova (from L’Isola di Niente, the original version of Four Holes in the Ground for anyone without the Italian releases); a surprising English language inclusion, Photos of Ghosts; Il Banchetto which appears on the second album Per un Amico and also on the first of their Manticore LPs Photos of Ghosts; Dove... Quando... part 1 and part 2, from 1972’s Storia di un Minuto; and La Carrozza di Hans and Impressioni di Settembre (which would become the title track from The World Became the World) also from the debut record. If the performance had stopped at this point I’d have been completely satisfied because the songs and the playing had already exceeded my expectations; this is what I’d waited for. However, the show continued with two more of the best songs from Emotional Tattoos, La Danza degli Specchi and Freedom Square, before the band took a 10 minute break. They recommenced with the Celtic-influenced Quartiere Generale but then moved into territory I was unfamiliar with, Maestro della Voce from the 1980 album Suonare Suonare, one of the only PFM releases I don’t possess and which featured violinist and current member Lucio Fabbri for the first time. There is a version on PFM: In Classic but it's not a track I listen to. This was one of two tracks from the entire evening which I found unsatisfactory but that’s because Suonare Suonare is considered to be PFM’s equivalent of ...And Then There Were Three, the first post-Gabriel, post-Hackett Genesis album, the mark of decline from full-on progressive rock. Normal service was resumed following an introductory explanation to the next piece from Patrick Djivas, who pointed out the importance of classical composers to the PFM sound and they played Romeo e Giulietta: Danza dei Cavalieri which had been covered on their 2013 PFM: In Classic album. The classical theme continued with Mr. Nine Till Five appended with Five Till Nine including their version of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. They left the stage only to return in less than a minute, before the audience request for an encore had even started in earnest, recommencing with their version of the Fabrizio De André song Il Pescatore. This had particular relevance for Genova, because De André, regarded as Italy’s best ever singer-songwriter for his mix of Ligurian folk influences with social commentary, came from the city. De André shunned public performance until 1975 but his 1979 tour featured PFM as backing band and allowed them to choose the set list and make the instrumental arrangements. The crowd had been calling out suggestions for what to play and it came as no surprise that part of the encore was the old favourite È Festa (Celebration on Photos of Ghosts) which included an amusing drum duet between Di Cioccio and Roberto Gualdi and some audience participation, encouraged by the PFM front man who was bounding around the entire front stage area (splitting the hall into three sections to chant Se-le-Brescion, as this version of the song is known.) They left the stage to tumultuous applause and even though the house lights came on, the crowd applauded and called for more music and eventually, the band conceded and returned to play what I believe was the theme from the 1966 comedy film L’Armata Brancaleone, the energetic folk-inflected Branca Branca Branca Leon Leon Leon written by Carlo Rustichelli. This was lost on me at the time, though my fellow concert-goers absolutely loved it; it’s been in the PFM repertoire for some time and I found it interesting to note that Carlo Rustichelli’s son Paolo was also a composer, releasing the prog Italiano Opera Prima in 1973.


The vocals were primarily handled by Di Cioccio but some of the singing was by Alberto Bravin, who also added keyboards. The main keyboard player, accurately interpreting the early material, was Alessandro Scaglione and filling the shoes of Franco Mussida, who left the band in 2015, was Marco Sfogli. The line-up proved very adept and though there was no flautist, these lines were provided by keyboards; it might also have been good to hear something from Chocolate Kings or Jet Lag, the latter album being a vehicle to showcase Djivas’ excellent bass technique but when you think that they played for over two and a half hours, promoting their latest release but also entertaining us with all the old classics, it was impossible to walk away without thinking that sticking around in Genova for three extra nights had been a good cause for celebration.












By ProgBlog, Sep 4 2017 10:23PM

I’ve just watched the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi/adventure film The Running Man which, when it begins, is set in 2017, jumping to 2019 after Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger’s character) is framed, and imprisoned for a mass murder of innocent civilians. Based on a Stephen King novel published under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman (with the Bachman borrowed from Canadian rockers Bachman Turner Overdrive) the 2017 of the future hints at the 2017 of today: “By 2017 the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A Police State, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the State and a sadistic game show called ‘The Running Man’ has become the most popular program in history. All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground” but it’s the plot relating to editing video footage, the use of ‘fake news’ to manipulate the masses, along with the quest for ratings, which most resemble our present. It’s quite incredible that two actors from the film, Schwarzenegger himself and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura (who plays Captain Freedom) would make the shift from entertainer to politician: Schwarzenegger was the Republican governor of California for two terms from 2003 and Ventura was the Reform Party candidate and elected governor of Minnesota in 1999, deciding not to stand for re-election in 2003; current POTUS Donald Trump has no previous political experience but he has featured in the reality TV business.

The Running Man also serves as a vehicle for the acting talents (!) of Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac) and Dweezil Zappa, who happens to be playing 50 Years of Frank in the UK over the next month. Stephen King’s novel was written three years before Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the two books share that near-future (our present) dystopian world-view.



The Running Man and Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa
The Running Man and Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa

We live in worrying times. The very recent planned detonation of a hydrogen bomb, ten times more powerful than the previous device tested and allegedly capable of deployment by one of their ICBMs which have also been tested with alarming frequency in recent weeks in response to joint military manoeuvres by the South Koreans and the US, represents a disturbing testosterone-fuelled escalation towards a potential devastating conflict between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and almost all of the rest of the world. Whereas I personally wasn’t worried by the Cold War stand-off between the US and its allies and the Communist Bloc, even though my youth was spent living in a potential target for Soviet missiles and I moved to London, an obvious target, just before the Thatcher-Reagan years; a period when bullish rhetoric was backed by American-controlled cruise missiles sited on UK soil and of Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense [sic] Initiative. However, the behaviour of Trump on the one hand and Kim Jong-un on the other, two megalomaniacs who simply refuse to back down, is an increasing cause for concern.

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock is currently set at two and a half minutes to midnight, indicating that the probability of global catastrophe is very high, the highest it has been since 1953 when the US decided to pursue the development of the Hydrogen bomb. Throughout 2016 and 2015, the clock stood at three minutes to the hour, the closest to midnight since the early 1980s; this year the danger is even greater. My lack of concern during the 80s was partly due to my belief that the USSR economy, ploughing ever more resources into the military-industrial complex and away from the staples needed by the ordinary people was unsustainable, though there was always the possibility of initiating a strike by accident. I attended CND rallies and laughed at the ridiculous Civil Defence plans for a nuclear attack on the UK, its forced public dissemination five months after it had been ‘officially’ released in January 1980 following an investigation by the (pre-Murdoch) Times newspaper. In March 1984 David Gilmour released his second solo album About Face which included the jaunty and ironic Cruise, featuring innumerable puns about atomic warfare and fading out with a cod reggae groove. My current anxiety is fuelled by the actions of a paranoid dictator in North Korea who ignores the basic rights and requirements of his people and a clueless, populist, not-particularly-successful-businessman-turned-TV-personality who wouldn’t know diplomacy if he had to shake it by the hand.



Dave Gilmour, Hammersmith Odeon 30.04.84
Dave Gilmour, Hammersmith Odeon 30.04.84

If there is going to be a future despite Trump’s best endeavours to scupper it through either total war or climate change denial, what is prog going to look like? In 2017 we have the benefit of being able to look back at almost 50 years of prog, but is reflecting on the changes in both the music itself and the industry since Sgt Pepper’s, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Days of Future Passed any help in imagining future-prog?

I propose that we define prog rock along temporal lines to provide an indication of general stylistic attributes. If we restrict the term ‘progressive rock’ to music produced between 1969 (the year of In the Court of the Crimson King) and 1978, which equates to the so-called ‘golden era’, there were a couple of years beforehand where blues-based rock and psychedelia began to push at the boundaries of conventional popular music which we could call proto-progressive, append neo-prog (early-mid 80s) which combined progressive rock traits with an almost punk attitude, and further append the early 90s prog revival which has gone from strength to strength and flourishes today; to avoid any arguments over semantics and how ‘progressive’ implies continuous development, these four ages, plus future-prog should be scrutinised under the overarching umbrella of ‘prog’.


It’s quite remarkable that prog should be as strong as it currently appears. If the original proto-prog and progressive rock success was down to the baby boomer generation, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that our children are maintaining the continued interest. However, this is not necessarily always the case. My son may recognise classic progressive rock and buy me prog but I couldn’t get him to learn an instrument or get serious about the genre! At least part of the driver for prog was a series of technological advances from the 60s onwards and innovators like Robert Moog who took these ideas and turned them to practical, musical uses, though there have been some duds. I’ve never been happy with the sound of the string synthesizer, seen as a reliable alternative to the unwieldy Mellotron, but which had an equally short life cycle. The Elka Rhapsody was produced in Italy between 1975 and 1980 and became something of a favourite, despite what I’d describe as a thin sound; even my band used one in 1979-80, before our keyboard player John Carrott bought himself a Juno 6 and the band dissolved. Perhaps the biggest offender was the Solina String Ensemble before the Prophet 5 and Yamaha DX7 polyphonic synthesizers came along to make the string synth redundant. Fortunately, after a number of hiccoughs Mellotron are going strong and it’s virtually impossible to go to a prog gig in Italy without seeing a Mellotron on stage. However, there are two mellotron companies: Mellotron run by Markus Resch in Sweden who own the brand name and produce the Mk 6 and digital M4000D model, and Streetly Electronics, the original UK manufacturers of the Mellotron who produce the M4000. The accurate digital reproduction of 70s analogue sounds is a feature of much of the current keyboard-based prog and while appearing retrograde, it’s the culmination of technological advancement to achieve the widest range of sounds without compromising portability. This refinement is hardly a major leap forwards compared to the pace of change within the recording side of the business. Digital recording and file sharing have facilitated a near revolution in record production, so that The Invention of Knowledge (2016) was made over a two-year period without Jon Anderson and Roine Stolt meeting up, apart from for a Los Angeles photo shoot; Anderson sent his vocals from the US to Stolt in Sweden, where the instruments were recorded with other musicians.


Anderson-Stolt - The Invention of Knowledge (2016)
Anderson-Stolt - The Invention of Knowledge (2016)

This lack of a geographical centre of the movement is associated with the prog revival and it’s a very good thing. Progressive rock wouldn’t have emerged without the political and social changes experienced by the UK in the 60s, quickly exported to our continental European neighbours who had both similar and their own unique conditions for developing the genre. Some of the original proto-prog and progressive rock philosophy remains and has been applied to some of the woes of the modern world: Steven Wilson’s latest release To the Bone (2017) covers topics like the divisiveness of President Trump and his notion that truth isn’t always the truth, the everyday lives of refugees, terrorists and religious fundamentalists; Roger Waters also wades into current affairs and Trump on Is This the Life We Really Want? in a continuation of a thread running from Animals (1977).


Roger Waters - Is this the life we really want (2017)
Roger Waters - Is this the life we really want (2017)

But what of the future? Is the recycling of classic progressive rock sounds and the return of vinyl a step into tomorrow? Is the cause helped by the remnants of original acts touring their old material? I suspect that the genre is time-limited and we’re currently approaching the twilight of a second ‘golden age’ though through recorded media it has the chance to live on.

There’s nothing wrong with playing the greatest hits from your back catalogue because that’s what bands of all eras and all genres have done; if the creative spark has gone then continue to please audiences with old favourites and let newcomers, the next generation of prog rockers, reinterpret the idiom in whatever way they can. Prog has used a myriad of diverse influences to create wonderful, amazing, challenging music and whether good or bad, there will be plenty of unimagined future legends to inspire the prog musician.



Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images








By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2017 11:24AM

I’ve recently introduced a ‘playlist’ feature to the ProgBlog homepage and rather than a straightforward list I’ve produced a GIF, made up from photos taken of the albums as I’ve been playing them. I used to tweet pictures of whatever I was ‘now playing’, influenced by the posts of some of those that I follow, including 140 characters (or less) describing what I think about the music on that record; for a couple of months in 2015 I did post a list of my weekly indulgences, because I’d seen playlists on websites including Steven Wilson’s official site where there’s also an archive of what he’s been listening to, referred to as ‘Headphone Dust’ http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/playlist-archive/ . My GIF is intended as a way of presenting my listening habits in a manner more interesting than a simple list and still illustrating the width of the progressive rock genre.


ProgBlog playlists from 2015
ProgBlog playlists from 2015

I’m vaguely wary of the idea of a playlist because I see it as a device to prop-up the music business, linked to streaming services. The release of the mp3 codec by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1993 was to facilitate rapid transmission and immediate access of audio files between different points on the planet and, inadvertently or otherwise, it proved very easy to copy and share. From the ‘home taping is killing music’ panic which began in 1981, when the industry really wasn’t that large (but which was about to gear up and become truly global) and the uproar over the introduction of Napster in 1999, music corporations have consistently stifled creativity and creamed off massive profits from their artists. At the beginning of this decade, recession, falling CD sales and piracy all seemed to spell doom and gloom for the record labels but last year saw a reversal of fortune, driven by streaming services exemplified by Spotify, Deezer, Apple and Amazon. It’s been reported that around 30% of Warner’s £2.66bn revenue for 2016 came from streaming. I’ve just finished reading Robert Barry’s excellent The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017) who points out that the idea of a ‘celestial jukebox’ (in essence, a remote server sending music to everyone with a suitable hand-held device for accessing the service) first aired by Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein in his 1994 article Copyright’s Highway, allowed the ‘record oligopoly’ to convert from supplying goods to on-line services and creating a landlord – renter relationship. The one-off Napster payment has given way to subscription which, it has been predicted, could double or triple the size of the music industry; the tech firms also seem to be doing fairly well from this model - there are 90 million people signed up to streaming services worldwide.


The Music of the Future by Robert Barry
The Music of the Future by Robert Barry

A couple of fairly recent articles in The Guardian, one in July and one earlier this week, highlight some worrying issues with streaming. Industry insiders such as Paul Smernicki, former head of digital at Universal Records, speak in terms of business models and commodity rather than music as an art form, proposing that the numbers of people streaming indicates that music has never been more popular, where the value of reliability, convenience and accessibility to an enormous catalogue of songs for a small cost now make illegal downloading almost redundant, encouraging people to invest in the service. He doesn’t go on to say that while a paid-for download or a physical copy of some music only generates revenue once, streaming rewards the music company over and over again and it’s only a tiny amount, between $0.006 and $0.0084 which goes to the artist for each play of a song; it’s being sold to us as ‘choice’ and in our inimitable consumerist manner we believe the glossy images and accept what the industry says. Unfortunately, a shift to streaming has the effect of discouraging experimental music while enriching already big stars, with the pursuit of Adele by Sony creating a parallel with the other-world Premier League transfer market. Both the majors and indie labels are incorporating streaming playlists as the thrust of their marketing strategy, tying in music to consumption and lifestyle habits.


It’s a successful strategy. There’s a huge market for streaming playlists because the public is increasingly engaging with the service to find their music, so that the streaming companies themselves have invested in the creation of their own playlists which theoretically, might help less well-known artists if part of their remit is identify new music to champion. This part of the tech company – music business relationship appears roughly symbiotic, where the business now uses streaming pluggers pushing for songs, and the range of artists on offer can define the streaming service and help it to attract more subscribers. In reality, the record labels are favouring music that is known to provide the greatest revenue and the tech companies are getting the greater benefit. Barry explains that Spotify (for example) is doing what tech companies do, gathering data, in much the same way as Facebook and Google and Amazon do. The playlists are created with the help of sophisticated collaborative filtering systems where your preferences are matched with the preferences of everyone else on a database and you're constantly badgered into 'liking' and responding to posts, so you get specific recommendations. This doesn’t work very well for me because I hold a deep disdain for advertising and anyway, a very large proportion of people who like the same music as me also like Rush...


While the latest Guardian article suggested that the album could be under threat from streamed playlists, as artists are tempted to ignore the format and concentrate on rolling playlists instead, the Alexis Petridis piece from July concerned reports of ‘fake’ artists used to pad out popular playlists, paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines, mostly unchallenging instrumental music for relaxation, avoiding royalty payments. Spotify denied the charge, which would have far-reaching implications for genuine artists, but the stories continued, citing theories relating to quality control, and a tussle for power between service and industry.


I don’t use a streaming service and have no desire to do so but the music business couldn’t care less as the development of voice-activated speakers means we can ask Apple, Google and Amazon avatars to choose some music for a specific mood at a specific time. The playlists I put together in 2015 differ slightly from those now appearing as video on my Twitter and Facebook pages and on the ProgBlog website; in 2015 I was commuting from East Croydon to London Bridge, a nominal journey of 17 minutes, during which I would read my Guardian and, like many other commuters/consumers, listen to my portable mp3 player to shut out incessant high frequency beats, predominantly hi-hat, emanating from the earbud headphones of my fellow travellers. For the past four years or so, the railway lines south of the capital have been increasingly congested as major redevelopment has been carried out at London Bridge, making it impossible to predict the duration of any single journey (industrial action by two rail unions didn’t help but they get my sympathy as they stood up to management pressure to relax safety regulations, opposing the introduction of driver-only trains) and therefore making playlist selection difficult; an unwritten rule was that you couldn’t leave the train mid-track.


The recent playlists have been compiled from listening to albums, mostly LPs but some CDs and, on one occasion a download of demo tracks by new Italian prog band Melting Clock. The commonality between the two sets of playlists is that I listen to the album in full, in running order. That’s obviously essential for something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway where there’s a linear narrative but it’s not strictly necessary for every single concept album. It might be irritating to mix the tracks around on Dark Side of the Moon because the album is designed with specific segues but would the world end if we played the different sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans out of order? It would certainly wind me up! I’m not a fan of the shuffle function on music players and as much as I admire Sid Smith’s eclectic podcast Postcards from the Yellow Room http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk which has genuine breadth, it’s essentially a sampler for the now generation, whereas I prefer to make time to submerge myself in the entire album.


playtime
playtime

It’s quite clear why the record oligopoly likes streaming and I find it hard to envisage what future developments might come along, if there’s ever to be another threat to the industry. I don’t believe that there’s any immediate risk to the album from streaming as long as genres like prog retain a degree of popularity, simply because the grand themes of progressive rock were developed across the LP format, continued during the CD era and as yet there’s no sign of that historic link being broken. The current fad for all things vinyl may not last but while it does, there’s no better feeling than holding the edges of a new release on heavyweight vinyl between your palms, placing it carefully on the turntable and getting ready to devote your time, in 20 minute chunks, to uninterrupted listening.







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