Tuesday 30 April 2013

Mater Tenebrarum (Keith Emerson, 1980)

This is a short track taken from the original soundtrack Keith wrote for "Inferno", a movie by Dario Argento, the famous Italian director, the same of "Profondo Rosso" and "Suspiria". Being an O.S.T., this music should be considered as a companion to the scenes it depicts, but I think this song is a little and underrated jewel. Its recipe is not new: put together a rock rythm section and a classical ensemble and stir the mixture till you have a stretchy dough.

Just a little worrying this cover, isnt'it...?

The problem is that such a recipe often gives tasteless dishes. This is not the case with "Mater Tenebrarum" and this for three many reasons - plus one - IMHO: a)  the rythm is pressing and effective; b) the classical ensemble is'nt an orchestra (most usual choice in the late '70s) but a choir performing a strange and eerie chant; c) the keyboards are strong and measured, the perfect glue welding the rythm section and the choir.  The "plus" is also very important: under the frightening and lavish surface of the song there's a pinch of irony, a winning ingredient, believe me.

Monday 29 April 2013

A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (Van Der Graaf Generator, 1971)

What a suite is this... how deep, creative, complex and hard to catch track it is! 23 minutes of surprises, 10 movements of pure genius. Of course, it's not the kind of song you'll be able to sing taking a shower, but this is not exactly what prog was born for. Many fans reckon this suite and all the "Pawn Hearts" album is the creative peak of VDGG; I'm not so sure of that (what about "H to He..." or "Still Life"?), but "A Plague..." is certainly a masterpiece and a very influential track in prog history. I confess I had many problems with this song: it's so intricate and unusual that I had to listen to it at least four times to get into it. Some movements are plain, even easy to catch, but other ones are dark and cryptic, even aggressive... but at last I appreciated the whole lot and I simply loved it when I listened to it at night. Yes, after all this is about a lighthouse and you need such a machinery in the dark.

"Pawn Hearts" is  a whole world to explore.

Behind the countless changes of the track, its jazzy, gloom, heavy, avant-garde or creepy, noisy or silent movements, there's a grievous story the lyrics relate leaving out all details. The narrator is the lighthouse keeper and we learn he's remorseful and distressed for a shipwreck he caused by forgetting to turn on the lighthouse lantern. Both music and lyrics are soaked in sorrow and confusion, along with the narrator's quest for atonement and redemption. A long and amazing journey through the most intimate and dramatic proglands.You're warned.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Caricatures (Ange, 1972)

This excellent track is taken from Ange's first album, featuring the same title. It's a long track (some 13 minutes) starting with a spoken intro, where Francis Décamps shows for the first time to the world his original and theatrical style. The rest of the track includes a long, fascinating example of "medieval" prog rock, in which keyboards, percussions and vocals play the main role. Also interesting here the guitar / keys plots and the piano introducing the next section. 

This is where Ange's story begins...

After this beautiful instrumental pasage, the voice comes back in the final part and once again it amazes me, embroiding strange landscapes with a helping hand from the keys and some gentle percussion touches. Now, the lyrics. Even if you perfectly speak French, please don't try to find some logic here: one should simply enjoy the nonsense and the sounds. Resonance is all that matters, among Attila and the Holy Virgin, cunning zebras marrying curves and Al Capone selling his armor. Like a dadaist poem, maybe, or like the puppet play on the album cover... but with such good music in addition.

Saturday 27 April 2013

As The World (Echolyn, 1995)

Did you ever wonder how Gentle Giant would sound if they were born in the '90s? Well, if you did, Echolyn is the answer. This American band is one of the happy few considering the Shulman brothers' band as a major influence for their music. This doesn't mean they reproduce the original sound of the '70s, on the contrary they have their own trademark, made of good ol' prog, but also of a genuine research in contemporary music field.

Echolyn in 1995 in a Sony official press photograph.

The title track of their 1995 album - the only one released by a major recording company - is a fine example of this. Complex plots, some instrumental passages and a good vocal harmony lay on a syncopated rythm and the general mood is one of joyful adventure. The lyrics perfectly describe what music means for the band and those lines could be adopted as a manifesto by many other prog musicians. Please, read this:

I'm stretching my ears they're open and not withstanding
To rhythmic syncopation, harmonic dissonance
I move to a groove that will never stop swinging
And I sing to a song that never ends
I'm pushing my brain to think a little harder
To learn from the simple and question the complex
If logic and reason are the gods that you follow
Then you'll drown in your soul's emptiness.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Oni 鬼 (Shingetsu 新月, 1979)

In the prehistoric era when there were no Internet nor Youtube providing pre-listening of nearly every music worldwide, I read somewhere with interest of this Japanese band, but it was simply impossible to find one single copy of their only studio album, at least in my country. When I finally got my hands on this CD, I wasn't disappointed at all. It's a fascinating, old style, melodic and sensitive progressive rock, featuring tons of keyboards (mostly mellotron) and 12 string guitars, but also Makoto Kitayama's soft and effective voice, singing Japanese lyrics in a convincing and warm tone.

...and what a beautiful cover!

"Oni" (鬼, meaning "demon") is the 9 minutes opening track of "Shingetsu" album (新月 "New Moon", also the name of the band) and one of the best. There's a sense of opening and unknown worlds in this song and I also appreciate the intricate and delicate instrumental weavings, alternating with calm and suggestive melodies. The early UK prog and the Italian scene certainly influence Shingetsu, but they had their own style. Such a pity they disbanded so soon... well, at least we have this very good record to listen to!

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Hamburger Concerto (Focus, 1974)

This 20 minute suite is the title track of one of the most known and appreciated albums in the Dutch Progressive history. It's a successful mix of different genres and inspirational sources, incuding classical music of course, and especially from the baroque era, but also jazz, blues, psychedelia, and even flamenco. The miracle here is that even with such a heap of ideas and so many serious sources involved, the track is unpretentious and enjoyable, pretty and fluid.

Here's the line-up for this song: Van Leer, Akkerman, Ruiter & Allen.

Also, you'll find here an unusual quality for a prog band: humour. Joking with the two meanings of hamburger, the six parts of the suite are titled like in a burger menu: Starter / Rare / Medium I / Medium II / Well done / One for the road. And the music goes on the same, playing with religious chants and pipe organs without any fear and providing a proper space for the band members' skills. As you may imagine, Thijs van Leer's keyboards and Jan Akkerman's guitars take the leading role, but this is a choral track in all senses and the listener enjoys a real band playing a real masterpiece.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Duke's Travels / Duke's End (Genesis, 1980)

As we all know, "Duke" is a milestone in Genesis' career: depending on one's taste (and mood), this is their last prog album or their first pop album. For sure, this mini-suite - originally the last part of a longer one including other tracks from the same album - is definitely progressive rock at its best. Even more, it's one of the last "purely prog" songs by a '70s band. You might assume I like it and you're pretty right: I adore it. It's a strongly dynamic and percussive song, mainly instrumental, but including a beautiful sung theme (the same of "Guide Vocal", another track from "Duke") and the loud keyboards-driven riff from the opening song "Behind The Lines".

"Albert" looking at a new Genesis' era.

The longer section is a breathtaking crescendo, an impressive wall of sound culminating with the sung passage, then the volume falls down and Phil Collins announces the last section - that's "Duke's End" - playing an ocarina. I heard somebody say this was the swansong of progressive rock; luckily prog is not dead, but this is the final classic prog song from Genesis. That's why I shiver every time I listen to this line: "There was a choice but now it's gone...". Alas...

Monday 22 April 2013

A volte un istante di quiete (Locanda delle fate, 1977)

This instrumental track is taken from "Forse le lucciole non si amano più", the only album (before a recent reunion) of an Italian band that came a little too late to their first official LP. Such a pity, because it's a real masterpiece and this opening track is so packed of emotions and ideas that I can't help listening to it again and again.
The original line-up of the "Locanda".
I was immediately smitten by the brilliant sound, full and warm, deep and glorious. The classical inspiration is clear, especially for the piano and keyboards plots, but the rythm is nonetheless enthralling, while the unpredictable changes of mood, tempo and instrument give a sparkling feature to the song. In short, this is a treat for every italian prog lover, one of the last diamonds of the '70s.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Time Has Come (Spock's Beard, 1996)

Spock's Beard are a very good band and this for many reasons. I emphasize this one: they gather all sort of inspirations to forge their own sound. Take this beautiful "Time Has Come", for example: prog rock, neo-prog maybe, but also some country music, a bit of heavy rock, a reminiscence of gospel and even a touch of psychedelia.

Spock's Beard around "Beware of Darkness" period.

Neal Morse is a remarkable singer and composer and here he shows up both these qualities. But the band add all the rest: guitar and keyboards switch themselves on riffs and melodies, bass and drums are always there, driving a perpetual change of tempo. And those passages between different moods are awesome: from the wall of sound to the piano or guitar solo, then back again in no time at all! The lyrics - as Neil Morse says - are partially inspired to a Steven King's character. Fantasy before all. This 16 minute suite was taken from "Beware of Darkness", the second album by one of the finest American prog bands ever... should I add IMHO?

Saturday 20 April 2013

Spectral Mornings (Steve Hackett, 1979)

A dreaming guitar, that's exactly what you'll find here. This instrumental title track from Steve's third album is not of this world, 'cause it come from another strange planet, from another mysterious dawn. On a keyboards carpet provided by Nick Magnus and reminiscent of Pink Floyd-esque atmospheres comes this persistent guitar, both dreamy and painful, like an ancient ode to a misty rising sun.

Kim Poor's album cover art perfectly depicts the misty mood of this track.

You'll actually see an English landscape slowly brightening, a beautiful and melancholic daylight fighting the fog and piercing your very soul. Steve replays the same moving melody and each time its performance grows in deepness and power. An extraordinary experience, don't miss it. 

Friday 19 April 2013

Exiles (King Crimson, 1973)

In 1973, King Crimson released "Larks' Tongues in Aspic" with a largely renewed line-up and also a new lyricist, Richard Palmer-James, to substitute Pete Sinfield. The new album - unfortunately the only one  including Jamie Muir's creative percussions - included this song, definitely one of those King Crimson's tracks that carry the listener to Neverland.

Here's KC's line-up for "Larks' Tongues in Aspic".

Slow and dreamy, reminiscent of the early sound of the band, featuring pastoral and spiritual lyrics, this track is really a treat. Robert Fripp's filtered guitar seems to come from a mysterious underworld, David Cross graces the song with his striking violin, let alone the usual profound vocals by John Wetton. I know many King Crimson fans better like other songs from this albums, more experimental and more complex, but I can't help loving the melancholic mood surfacing here and there in the band's production. I'm really unfashionable...

Thursday 18 April 2013

This Strange Engine (Marillion, 1997)

This suite strikes me for many reasons. Released in 1997 as the title track of the first Marillion's album for an indy label, "This Strange Engine" is an emotional journey in Steve Hogarth's past, focusing on his father. This man abandoned a militar career to work in a coal mine and live with his family. Like flashes, we see pictures of the singer's childhood, somewhat softened by the years and the strange engine we call heart. But there wouldn't be magic without music and what a music we have here!

I like this cover art very much. And the music inside as well.

Four different themes follow one another in a fluid and warm composition, both classically prog and modern. Hogarth's voice depicts all the nuances of human affection, while some beautiful guitar / keyboards plots enrich the whole lot. The final crescendo tops it all and this track stands up like one of the most beautiful prog suites of the '90s... IMHO, of course. Finally, please listen to one of the many live recordings of this song: it's even more moving.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Troller Tanz (Magma, 1976)

The French Magma are among the most imaginative and unpredictable bands of the planet and often their tracks are well beyond my poor musical culture and need several listenings in order to fully appreciate them. But this is an apparently easy song, taken from the album "Üdü Ẁüdü", a good starting point to explore Magma world.

No, these aren't trolls: just Magma...

This Troller Tanz (or Ghost Dance) is exactly what the title says: a divertissement somewhere between horror and humour, mainly instrumental featuring only some spoken words in the language the band invented, the Kobaïan. As usual with Magma, rythm is the most important element of Troller Tanz, along with vocal effects. You actually see those trolls from the planet  Kobaïa dancing and howling around and the music surrounds you, boiling like a cauldron on the fire. Warning: risk of burning!

Sunday 14 April 2013

World of Adventures (The Flower Kings, 1995)

Maybe I'm not always fond of this swedish leading new prog group, but some of their songs really take my heart away. This is the case with "World of Adventures", taken from "Back in The World of Adentures", the first official release of The Flower Kings and still my favourite. This is a well organised and well written track, starting with a Yes reminiscent intro, then exploring new and old prog ways. Actally, in more than 13 minutes you'll never find twice the same idea, it's a phantasmagorical series of musical and vocal passages perfectly interlocked. Of course, Roine Stolt's guitar plays an important role here, but there's plenty of space for keyboards too.

Yes, prog is back.
Do you recognize any old friends in this cover?

The song's title says it all: it's like welcoming home all the prog fans, and the lyrics bode a new journey through the progressive world: "I'm deep into sonical changes", says Roine, then: "We're getting high on adventures / say goodbye to the pressure / prepare to fly." And we really fly here, high in the prog rock skies, we recognize many old friends (yes, the band quote some classics... find them out yourself!) and we see new ones. A great debut for those Kings... after all, you'll hear the say: "We're children of the Woodstock nation /lost in peace and contemplation." Great.

Friday 12 April 2013

È festa (Premiata Forneria Marconi, 1972)

This track, "Celebration" in its English version, is a manifesto of the so-called "Italian Progressive rock", one of the most known songs of that early period, when Italy created its own interpretation of the new British genre. This is taken from the first PFM's album, "Storia di un minuto" while the English version graces the 1973 international release "Photos of Ghosts". Apart from four lines, sung with a choral arrangement, the track is mostly instrumental and definitely up-tempo. 

PFM today. Long live the prog!

The keyboards an guitars phrasing drives an uproarious rythm not far from a mediterranean dance, in two crescendos separated by the calm sung section. I reckon it's impossible to stay still when listening to this track, a burst of energy and progressive glory. For those loving "Celebration": please note that the recent Esoteric Recordings "The World Became The World" reissue also features an until then unreleased single edit of the song.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Turn of The Century (Yes, 1977)

When the album "Going for The One" was released, back in 1977, many Yes fans were expectant for the line-up changes and especially for Rick Wakeman's coming back.  And they were fulfilled when they listend to this "Turn of The Century" (let alone "Awaken"), a typical Yes song with a rarefied atmosphere powered by Wakeman's  experience and improved knowledge in electronic keys. Jon Anderson's voice shines like a diamond over this crystalline ground, relieved here and there by Steve Howe's guitar. Even if this is essentially a down tempo song, the rythm section never takes a rest, as usual with Yes and every single beat comes like a surprise.

Yes in concert for "Going for The One" (1977).

The music is so beautiful that you could underestimate the lyrics of this track, but I'd like to add something about that. Facing so much incomprehensible Jon Anderson's lyrics, one could imagine this strange love story including stone and clay shaping, sleepless nights and illness belongs to the same category. Well, it doesn't: the song is actually inspired by the famous painter Marc Chagall's own relationship with his wife, suffering the lack of attention of an husband completely absorbed by his artistic work, so that she eventually got ill and died. A further emotion source when listening to "Turn of The Century".

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Second Life Syndrome (Riverside, 2005)

Before their metal drift, I used to love this Polish band and I still reckon they're one of the most interesting fruits of the progressive tree at the dawn of 21st century. This three part suite of 15 minutes, the title track of their second official full length album, is a magnificent song, where Riverside succeeed in gathering many different sources and moods in one recognizable and consistent musical style. You'll find here all the peculiar doom and sadness of Riverside, but also fragments of hope and rise towards another kind of life.

Riverside adore gloomy promo pics like this one.
Until they play good music, I tend to forgive them...

Most of all, I enjoy here the abundance of ideas and inspirations: good melodies, new rythmic solutions, old patterns revisited with modern sounds. I especially like Piotr Kozieradzki's drumming, slightly reminiscent of Marillion's Ian Mosley. The third part of the suite, an instrumental finale, also offers to the listener a very good dreaming guitar solo by Piotr Grudziński. A treat, like Mariusz Duda's voice and bass and the keys sound carpet by Michał Łapaj. As you may have imagined, I highly recommend this track.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Open Your Eyes (Asia, 1983)

Are Asia a prog band? Old question. For sure, the group's members are what I call prog: not only they come from three of the greatest progressive rock acts of the '70s (Yes, E L & P, King Crimson), but they played an essential role in building and defining this genre and its features. They wanted to find an easier approach with Asia and they succeeded. 

Roger Dean's cover for "Alpha": this, at least, is very prog!

Even so, some of their songs bear the prog rock mark, and it's exactly the case with "Open Your Eyes" and its "arena rock" wall of sound, where tempo changes, instrumental passages, guitar/keyboards dialogues and imaginative arrangements seize the listerer's attention. IMHO, a pearl from Asia's second album "Alpha". OK, there's also a catchy tune... so what? Just try the airy finale and let me know.

Monday 8 April 2013

Firth of Fifth (Genesis, 1973)

Another essential landmark in progressive rock history, taken from "Selling England by The Pound". No matter what your favourite band is, no ona can deny this track teared down many boundaries and pointed out new directions for the whole movement. Peter Gabriel's vocals are great, but the instrumental passages are no doubt the strongest point of this song. The piano intro is now a classic of the genre, but the central part is a timeless wonder.
The famous piano intro of "Firth of Fifth".

As we all know, this section is the musical description of a river from its source to its mouth. Tony Bank's theme changes in tempo, solo instrument and arrangements: the flute and the piano portray the springing water getting down the mountain and jumping on the rocks, then Steve Hackett's guitar comes in and continues the river ride between hills and towns, getting more and more large and majestic until the sea ends up the journey and the song. Putting aside the allegorical meanings and the all the symbols employed, IMHO "Firth of Fifth" is the accomplished prog track.

Sunday 7 April 2013

The Wide Open Sea (Big Big Train, 2010)

Big Big Train is one of the most consistent groups in English new progressive bands. I think this long charming track, taken from "Far Skies Deep Time" EP, proves my statement, a 17 minute suite in 8 movements depicting an inner journey. Aerial melodies and arrangements immediatly seize the listeners then other themes follow one another with fluency and pleasant changes.

The new Big Big Train's line-up.

If I had to qualify this song's general feeling, I'd suggest a flight, over a landscape of hills and seas, an open view through the clouds, suddenly enlightened by a sheer sunbeam. As always, David Longdon's voice and choral arrangementa are an additional instrument and - last but not least - I welcome the new skillful drummer, Nick D' Virgilio of Spockbeard's fame.

Friday 5 April 2013

Hey You (Pink Floyd, 1979)

Taken from "The Wall", this bewitching song amazes me for its perfect balance of sweetness and distress. When listening to it for the first time one could consider this as a sensitive ballad, kind of a love song without love. But a second run will suffice to perceive the harshness of the guitar hidden under its apparent gentleness and the distressing lyrics, filled with an incurable pain and a devastating loneliness.
Wonderful lyrics, awesome music...
Those feelings grow up during the song in a strained crescendo Roger Water's voice sharpens and amplifies. Moreover, his creeping bass guitar puts an alrming final touch in this hypnotic track I can't help loving. One of Pink Floyd's materpieces, IMHO.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Abre la puerta (Triana, 1975)

And now a Spanish band's track... what a band and what a track! Triana were ome of the greatest prog-rock groups of their generation and this "Abre la puerta" ("Open the Door") really opens a huge door on a totally new kind of music, sometimes called "Flamenco Rock" in Europe and "Rock andaluz" in Spain. Mind, please: in this song you'll find above all a very good prog rock, based on tempo and mood changes and effective plots involving acoustic and electric instruments. But you'll also find this "very spanish" atmosphere driven in by a warm and speedy spanish guitar and cadenced vocal melodies where Jesus de la Rosa's deep and beautiful voice stands out in all its glory.
Here's the single cover of "Abre la puerta".
This 9 minute song, taken from "El Patio" album, never tires its listener, thanks to the clean transitions between three different movements and the band's passionate performance. A ray of hot mediterranean sun over the usually foggy prog scene.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

A Whiter Shade of Pale (Procol Harum, 1967)

This is not just a song, this is a myth and a gateway open to the prog rock era by one of the most underrated bands ever. It is diffucult to say how much this track influenced the end of sixties music world, but any time I listen to it, I can't help getting more and more convinced this was a real turning point in rock history. I know, other artists tried a successful combination of pop-rock and classical patterns ("Eleanor Rigby" is there to prove what I'm saying), but here the fusion is perfect and you can't tell what's rock and what's not: it's a seamless single piece of art, not a pop song with orchestral arrangements.

Soberly dessed Procol Harum.

Furthermore, this blending contains traces of r'n'b and psychedelia, so that one could say this was the mirror of its season and its worldwide huge success certainly inspired many artits to follow this path and to build up a new, hybrid idea of rock'n'roll. In short, progressive rock was born. Even the metaphysical lyrics announce a new trend others will make the most of, but Procol Harum were there first... and that's saying something.

Monday 1 April 2013

She Said (Barclay James Harvest, 1971)

Let me say this: I love BJH, even when they're a little too much sweetish. Anyway, this is not the case: "She Said" is a perfectly balanced song, featuring a hammond-driven proto-prog first part and a pastoral, dreamy second movement, a final reprise of the main theme ending with a very good John Lee's guitar solo. "She Said" is also immune to the orchestral arrangements characterizing many songs of BJH's second LP (and many BJH's albums, actually).

There's also an edited version of this song ,
released as a 7" single, b/w the famous "Mocking Bird".

Really, this is a powerful opening song for "Once Again" and you could even consider this as a mini-suite, being the union of two different songs written by Les Holroyd the band decided to merge and enrich with the instrumental passage and the final solo. Maybe the lyrics aren't as good as the music, but the resulting 8 minute composition is definitely worth your attention, trust me.