Thursday, 26 October 2017

Labelled with Prog

My audiobook recently has been "The Show That Never Ends - The Rise and Fall Of Prog Rock" by David Weigel. While it focuses on the stories of the 70's heavyweights there are also diversions into other parts of Progworld which have pointed me towards yet more overlooked music.

Looking through the genre tab of the iPod it turns out I have quite a bit of stuff labelled "Progressive Rock". Seems strange for someone whose music tastes formed at the end of the 70's and the early 80's. Then there's the Prog Magazine Readers group on Facebook which spends most of its time arguing about what is or isn't "Prog". So what's it all about (Alfie)?

To set my stall out I don't like ELP, not too fussed about Pink Floyd (for me the Collection of Great Dance Songs compilation is all the Floyd you need) and I can take or leave most Genesis. I've nothing against the early/mid 70s, I just wasn't there...

King Crimson: My interest in Crimson starts in 1981, in fact I saw the band while it was still called Discipline at Moles Club in Bath on their first gig. The inventiveness of the trio of 80s albums still amazes me. Live they were constantly challenging, listen to any of the downloads at DGM Live, better, listen to them all. From there right up to the current 8 man band revisiting and rewriting earlier incarnations it's the sound of boundaries and envelopes being pushed. Nothing has ever got close to King Crimson. They are the musical equivalent of flicking away a lit cigarette without looking to see where it lands.


Camel: Much gentler stuff, and a different kind of inventive. If you like Gilmour's guitar but not Waters' polemics then try Camel. A much sparkier prospect live where the Jazz & Blues inflections that can sound twee on record catch fire and Andy Latimer's guitar work has space to stretch out.

Renaissance: I know, not very radical whats with the orchestras and all. Forget Northern Lights, it's Betty Thatcher-Newsinger's lyrics sung by Annie Haslam and earlier by Jane Relf that make Renaissance's best albums worth your attention.

Procol Harum: Again ignore the hit and go for the live stuff. I got properly interested when BBC4 showed their Live at Union Chapel, and it's a good place to start.

David Weigel's definition of Prog drifts towards Jazz Rock, Electronic and AOR. Consequently people like Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Mike Oldfield and John Wetton get a fair covering. His look at 80s "Neo Prog" doesn't go much further than Marillion, and the more recent revival, or perhaps that should be reappraisal, concentrates on Porcupine Tree, which is fair enough given Steven Wilson's ubiquity. It stops short of his recent chart shaking "To the Bone" album, which itself has generated some "is it Prog?" debate. Personally I think the place to start with Wilson's work is "Hand Cannot Erase".

John Mitchell, the other name to conjure with in modern Prog circles, has a very definite sound that he brings to his albums with Frost*, Lonely Robot and his production work, particularly Kim Seviour's excellent "Recovery Is Learning" album. Kim was previously singer with Touchstone, who highlight much of the problem with current Prog leaning music. Talented musicians, decent production, but hit and miss material, making most albums a struggle. Mitchell and Wilson have the songwriting skills to move beyond the banal to something with some lyrical bite and most importantly a tune. You see why I'm not keen on ELP now.

A few recommendations some from slightly outside the Prog box, that I think are "progressive" within a fairly traditional rock music format.

Elbow. As I suggested in my live review in March, Elbow have many of the qualifications for Progressive-ness, better live than on record, songs that can be the stuff of epics, and a comfort with the fact that they are good at what they do.
Try: "Live at Jodrell Bank", "Build a Rocket Boys" and "Little Fictions"

Steeleye Span "Wintersmith" with Terry Pratchett. I'm not a massive Pratchett fan (although try The Long Earth written with Stephen Baxter), but this rendering of his stories hits the spot. Chris Tsangrides production toughens up the sound without losing the organic, folk based feel. Get the deluxe edition with extra tracks and live material.
"The Dark Morris Song" "Crown of Ice" and "The Good Witch" for a flavour of the album

Robert Fripp / Andrew Keeling / David Singleton: The Wine of Silence. Fripp's soundscapes orchestrated by Andrew Keeling and produced by David Singleton are a thing of beauty. Probably more accurately seen as modern classical music, nevertheless meets the definition of progressive as something challenging and involving. Don't try it, just buy it.

Yes: The best of the "proper" Prog bands for me. Rick Wakeman describes their studio albums as "sterile" and by and large he's right. Despite a tendency (mostly Steve Howe I gather) to repeat the recorded works the same every night, right down to the solos, Yes can be a great live band, or at least before they turned into their own tribute band.
Try Keys To Ascension, very close to the best of live from a time when they were playing at their best. The only song missing is Southside of The Sky. Also try Live from the House of Blues, and the best studio album Going For The One.

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