2017 – what a year it has been for prog. Against the backdrop of some highly perplexing and disturbing events across the world’s stage, but, to quote the title of Paul Stump’s excellent assessment of prog, The Music’s All That Matters.
On a personal note, it has been a particularly challenging year, having early on developed a stress-related condition due to pressures presented by a previous employer, which led to an emergency operation and a month’s recuperation. This was coupled with seeing a parent being subsumed in the clutches of dementia. However, equilibrium was restored in the latter part, thanks to the kindness, belief and support of many people both inside and outside the prog bubble.
Though prevailing conditions resulted in me missing several high profile happenings, including HRH Prog in March, 2017 has continued to astound and astonish with the quality of the music being produced, and also the wonderful community of people. This is the tribe that cherishes and follows prog in individual capacities from the fans and supporters, to the writers, the promoters, the merchandise sellers, the record label owners and of course, the artistes themselves, most of whom make scant financial returns on their considerable investments of time and energy. As was originally stated, the music is all that matters.
Without further ado, here are the highlights, and some of the lowlights, which made 2017 another great year for us prog passionistas.
1) The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery – The Tangent. As one of prog’s most outspoken savants, Andy Tillison brings profound political and social commentary into the narrative of this musically outstanding album. This is a clarion call to wake up and see how our perceptions of the world are being manipulated. Some stellar musicianship peaks on Dr Livingstone (I Presume), co-written by his brilliant fellow Tangential collaborator Luke Machin. Thoughtful, profound with hints of jazz and dance-trance, it also features some extraordinary hard hitting artwork by DC Comics cartoonist, Mark Buckingham.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in late September and we’re heading to London by train on the second leg of an epic journey that has been gathering speed for several years. The destination tonight is located within the traditional haunt of the once fêted Sloane Rangers, the well-heeled, young members of the Chelsea and Kensington jet set. But tonight, Sloane Square and its environs are the temporary haunts of another social group, better known as Passengers or, for two nights and one afternoon only, the Cadogan Crows.
The Passengers, sorry Crows, have flocked here from every corner of the globe, the furthest travellers coming from Australia and America, with a sizeable contingent winging its way from Europe – Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy among the represented nations.
It’s not a global sporting occasion which has set their compasses and sat-navs to SW1 but the re-emergence on the live stage of one of the UK’s best known unknown bands, Big Big Train.
Since they graced the stage of Kings Place, London, in August 2015, the anticipation of more Big Big Train live dates has frequently reached fever pitch. However, the fans have had to make do with a double live album recorded at those London concerts plus three new studio albums that have significantly moved on the stories they are renowned for telling. Instead of the verdant beauty of Upton Heath, the ethereal loveliness of Curator of Butterflies and tales from the coalface in Worked Out, there have been freshly mined tales to explore.
The talisman for these new tales is a crow, which, by custom, is a bird of omen and by a happy co-incidence, often enjoys the collective name of “a storytelling”. The flight starts with Folklore, released last year, which was joined this year by its companion piece Grimspound, the eponymous name of the crow, and finally by The Second Brightest Star, which acts as the coda to this particular musical chapter.
Also, maybe by design or perhaps another happy co-incidence, the Cadogan Hall, the venue which Big Big Train has chosen for this particular leg of the live journey, is just a short crow’s flight from the River Thames, which features so prominently on the recently released London Song EP.
The imposing Byzantine Revival-style hall has an interesting history, having originally been built as a Christian Science church, hence its impressive stained glass windows. It nearly became the palatial home of former Harrods owner, Mohamed Fayed, until Cadogan Estates Ltd bought the building and turned it into a concert hall. In fact, its prog credentials include Marillion’sLive From Cadogan Hall DVD, which was recorded here in 2010.
As the hour approaches, there’s a sizeable crowd assembling outside in the intermittent drizzle. It’s one of those moments when you realise that around 75% of the fans there probably know each other personally or have spoken at some juncture on Facebook. At one point, I look up to see a Facebook friend, previously unmet, who regularly thrashes me at online Scrabble!
Handshakes, hugs, selfies – the sight of so many people of a certain age, some meeting for the very first time but conversing like old friends, is a significant part of what this evening is all about – and all united by one band. If any adjudicator for the Nobel Peace Prize is in the vicinity of SW1 this evening, they may find some worthy contenders for bringing together people in the spirit of peace, love and understanding.
The hall’s expansive foyer is soon consumed by the swelling tide of concert-goers, many of whom are immediately drawn to the expansive merch desk running along almost one side of it.
The desk is in overdrive for most of the evening as thoughtfully-crafted mementos and souvenirs literally fly off the table. Umbrellas, car air fresheners in the shape of the last two albums, aprons, mugs, concert tee-shirts and of course, the ever growing collection of albums, available on CD and vinyl, all find new owners. My own personal choice is an exquisite hand-painted pendant depicting the cover of The Second Brightest Star. Alas, the pendants have all been snapped up within an hour on the Friday night. Continue reading “As the Cadogan Crow flies..”→
Very few prog bands have sailed through nearly two decades of music-making with flying colours quite like the Welsh Magenta.
With prog’s Captain Prolific, Rob Reed, still holding a strong and steady course at the helm, Magenta’s band of sister and brothers are united in their overwhelming desire to create some of the most mellifluous, melodic prog around.
Never afraid to steer into previously uncharted waters, Magenta’s canon of work now includes seven studio albums, the newest being We Are Legend, which is released on 27 April.
Again, this is completely new territory for a band that is now so adept at giving us memorable figures and concepts within their specific landscape, but more about that later.
I truly believed they had reached the zenith of their considerable powers when they released The Twenty Seven Club in 2013, an album depicting six musical legends- Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, Cobain and Johnson, all of whose lives came to tragic ends at that Bermuda Triangle age of 27.
Well, you have had an insight into some of the more surprising musical influences of my very early days. ‘Tis time now to indulge more in the “business end” of the music that shaped my life by singling out my first favourite band.
Of course, there were the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Who, the Zombies and the Moody Blues, whom I remember from their early appearances on TV.
However, it took a holiday in Majorca at the tender age of 12 to ignite the quantum leap into the world of prog. During that holiday, I met an “older man” aged 15 called Andy from Oxhey in Watford, to whom I still owe so much if only I knew where he was now.
He talked about Jimi Hendrix and also a band called Curved Air who had just released their debut album, the seminal “Air Conditioning”, that year. It became one of the must-play albums on Radio One in the days when it entertained thinking listeners by playing prog and heavy rock, Pete Drummond and the late and very great Alan “Fluff” Freeman being the main cheerleaders.
It was through their shows that I heard the album’s stunning opener “It Happened Today” and the extraordinary “Vivaldi”.
Here was a band whom I could really learn to love, that arthouse electronic edginess, the hints of West Coast psychedelia and folk, the doomy lyrics, the classical backdrop on which the songs were lovingly arranged, that searing violin and of course, that incredible smoky voice.
The songs seemed to be about love and loss, pain, destruction and depression – quite a heady brew but with an intoxicating sonic drama, which verged on the visceral and the intellectual, they got inside my head, and thankfully, they have never ever really left.
However, it was not until the following year that I was able to fully appreciate the wonders of the band, when their second album “Curved Air II” was released. It is a particularly special album because it was the first one I ever bought – from the proceeds of six weeks’ babysitting.
It gave a chance to finally see on the album cover what the band looked like and of course, they were magnificent and provided my first and probably only real female role model, Sonja Kristina. The lady was the quintessential hippie goddess with her outrageously beautiful face, long, straight hair and overt sensuality, seized on by many a callow youth of the day. These callow youths are now men of a certain age, who still sigh at the very mention of her name.
But Sonja always had that streak of rebellious independence and “don’t mess with me” attitude, which transcended any cute girliness. She was a real woman – and then some. And that sultry voice with its unique vibrato could only really be successfully paired musically with a violin. Darryl Way was her perfect foil. He was able to seamlessly move the violin’s melody lines alongside her vocals.
Francis Monkman was the keyboard/guitar player, a classically trained musician who later moved to Sky and composing film scores, notably for “The Long Good Friday”.
Ian Eyre was the bass player for the first two albums, replaced by Mike Wedgewood, but it was the drummer with the amazing name, Florian Pilkington-Miksa, who became a particular favourite. In fact, a very dear friend remarked recently on how much he now resembles my beloved husband, something which I had not quite previously computed.
It was fair to say Florian was of this young teenager’s first pin-ups because he was so strikingly handsome in an ethereal kind of way. We had the most extraordinary of meetings in the 80s but I shall come to that later.
I loved everything about Curved Air – the way they sounded, the way they looked, the way they seemed to break with tradition in creating music which came from a feminine dynamic, Sonja Kristina taking an autobiographical look at her world through songs such as “Young Mother” and the surprise hit single “Backstreet Luv”. Monkman provided the whole of side two of “CA II”, rounding off with the stunning “Piece of Mind” based on T.S. Eliot’s epic poem “The Waste Land”.
Their third album “Phantasmagoria” somehow passed me by back then – probably because they might have been superseded by Yes by then! However, it did produce the haunting “Melinda -More Or Less”, Sonja Kristina’s beautiful folk song about a lady using induced fantasy to blot out the spectre of her reality.
It was a radically different Curved Air which emerged the following year for “Air Cut”, with all the original band members apart from Sonja having now departed. Into the ranks came guitarist Kirby Gregory – simply known as Kirby. To replace Way and Monkman, a wunderkind called Eddie Jobson was recruited and there are no prizes for guessing where he ended up. It was an interesting album with Sonja Kristina’s tales of seemingly mythical beings and fantasy worlds. It was a heady brew with “Metamorphosis” providing the band with yet another epic showstopper.
The band continued and, by then, I was only following them from afar, even when a certain Stewart Copeland became their drummer for a year, and subsequently married Sonja Kristina.
Remember I mentioned a close encounter with one of the band members? It happened not today, but back in the 80s when I was recovering from an extremely damaging marriage. To cut a long story short, my then ex was a clairvoyant-medium who went horribly off the psychic rails and psychologically, he left me in a very bad place.
However, I had found some good friends by then and we all set off for a day in West Sussex to attend some low key New Age gathering. In the car on the way over, I suddenly had one of my occasional premonitions that told me “I would meet someone there that I know”. Well, I thought it might by my ex but we kept on going all the same.
When we got to the village hall where it was being held, we were ushered into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. There we were introduced to a couple already there: “This is Christine, and this is Florian.” Well, imagine coming face to face with one of your musical pin-ups in such extraordinary circumstances. I tried to stop the knees from trembling but I did manage to blurt out that I knew who he was and he was quite taken aback that I did recognise him as the drummer from Curved Air.
And they say the best things in life are worth waiting for and indeed they are for the one thing I had not done up until now was to see them play live.
Fortunately, they are still going strong, playing venues across the length and breadth of the land, and in Europe. So when it was announced they were playing right on my doorstep at the Brook in Southampton about four years ago, cometh the band, cometh the fan.
I was accompanied that night by that lovely prog gentleman Sean Filkins and his delightful “A” team, wife Amanda and daughter Abigail.
It was a stunning night if only to finally hear all those soundtrack songs of my youth being played. Apparently, Abigail was very impressed that I knew all the words to the songs!
Best of all, I finally got to meet my heroine, who now resembles a gorgeous gypsy queen with her long flaming locks and black lace dress. And Florian remembered our encounter back in the 80s!
I have seen them several times since, including at the High Voltage and Summer’s End Festivals, and at Farncombe Music Club, the venue for our wedding party, where they played the whole set without Florian, who fell ill that night and was unable to perform.
The whole Curved Air cycle came full circle last September, when, on the 45th anniversary of its release, the band took to the stage at Under The Bridge in London to play all of “Air Conditioning”, something which had not been done for many a decade.
The first part of the set was a selection of songs old and new, including some from their most recent album “North Star” released in 2014.
It was the sheer joy of experiencing “Air Conditioning” in a live setting and realising the album had not lost any of its power and excitement in the ensuing years.
Perhaps I should mention that Curved Air’s current violinist Paul Sax is one of the most electric forces of nature in prog, his whole demeanour that of a wild gypsy violinist.
For this evening and one evening only, he was joined by Darryl Way. who flashed and burned his way through the most extraordinary version of “Vivaldi”. To see a musician play with such incredible virtuosity and passion on a piece fashioned when he was still young enough to be at art school or music college is simply remarkable. And I do not mind saying a few tears were shed, especially when Sax joined him for a sizzling rendition of “Everdance” from “CA II” for the encore.
Ian Eyre, the original bass player, also made an appearance to help celebrate this wonderful landmark in the career of a band that simply keeps on burning brightly.
They’ll be coming here to my current home town of Basingstoke in November and next year they will be one of the bands lighting up the Cruise to the Edge.
I cannot see the Curved Air Everdance ending any time soon – not while Sonja Kristina continues to weave her wonderful sorceress magic onstage, surrounded by the ever-changing, evergreen band of musicians, bringing new nuances and subtle light and shade to their very distinct and special brand of prog.
Our esteemed Progarchy editor has invited me to offer some thoughts and insights about how music has shaped my life; so hang on to your hats as there will be much to impart – but not all at once!
Where did it all begin? That’s an interesting question as my first memories are of bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, circa 1964. Even then, the Beatles were the good guys and their single “She Loves You” was the first record I ever owned when I was six. The Rolling Stones were cast as the bad guys and quite honestly, I never really took to them until much, much later when I finally came to understand the more darkly adult themes within their music.
I was brought up on hip new television programmes such as “Ready Steady Go”, “Juke Box Jury” and of course, the iconic “Top of the Pops”, which was then a cutting edge programme very much in its infancy.
However, it was my parents who gave me the first taster of some of what was to come. My Dad, who has always been a huge jazz/big band fan, had a sizeable collection of 78s by artistes such as Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman with “The Woodchopper’s Ball”, Stan Kenton, Tommy Dorsey and Nelson Riddle. Although I did not have the same deep affection for his big band passions, Dad certainly did teach me how to appreciate and enjoy music- as he found out later to his cost when I became a teenager!
There were two bands that he particularly loved, who went on to influence me and indeed, many of our contemporary heroes.
One was The Four Freshmen, an American four piece vocal harmony band, very much in the jazz tradition, who also played their own instruments. Some of their renditions of standards like “Tuxedo Junction”, “Baltimore Oriele” and “Poinciana” were simply breath-taking in their harmonic complexity and beauty. It is no surprise then that they were a major influence on Brian Wilson, and their vocal style provided the foundations for all that is best in the Beach Boys. Both The Manhattan Transfer and Donald Fagin have also acknowledged the Freshmen as a major inspiration.
Perhaps this is why I have a great love of bands which specialise in close vocal harmonies. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Zombies, Yes, Queen and Simon & Garfunkel come immediately to mind along with the brilliant Fleet Foxes, and latterly, the great Moon Safari with their vocalist/keyboard player Simon Åkesson’s amazing a capella side project, Accent.
My father’s other great musical love was the Jacques Loussier Trio, an outfit which puts an amazing jazzy spin on European classical music, led by the charismatic, celebral French piano maestro Jacques Loussier, who is also a pilot and wine producer.
I loved the way these three musicians could so effortlessly fuse two distinct musical styles to create a brand new modern-sounding idiom. They were, in fact, probably the first musicians I ever saw in concert at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth and I must thank my parents for taking me along that night.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would hear of them again much further down the line. But it comes as absolutely no surprise that they are one of Andy Tillison’s major influences and you can detect that inspiration in The Tangent’s music, especially when the Maestro cuts loose his jazzier mojo.
To a lesser extent, the other group who I remember hearing very early one via my parents was The Swingle Singers. There are links with the Freshmen and Loussier yet again as this group were French-based and weave their close harmony vocal magic on European classics in very much a jazz style, with double bass and drums accompaniment, their most famous interpretation being Bach’s “Air On A G String”. And if you listen to the instrumental passage in ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, you will find them right in there too!
There were early classical influences too, such as Antonín Dvořák’s extraordinary Symphony No 9, better known as “The New World Symphony”, which was influenced by his experiences of America and its native music. The other piece which really rang true was “Vltava”, more popularly known as “The Moldau”, by his fellow Czech composer Bedrich Smetlana. This was the first time I ever heard nature pervading music with that incredible “river” effect achieved in the composition.
I have never had a chance to reflect on these beginnings but, writing it down now, it makes perfect sense and gives me a much greater understanding on why I now love the music of so many artistes, who use so much of what is best in classical and jazz, to give us this all- encompassing style we know and love as prog.
There’s a wonderful revolution currently taking place and it’s happening in unexpected places, like on hillsides in Winchester and deep in the Wiltshire countryside rather than in some huge faceless metropolis or swanky foreign location.
It brings together a lost tribe, a band of people who would not have known about each other’s existence without what communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan described in 1962 as “the global village concept”.
Fifty-four years later, McLuhan’s prophecy has been fulfilled with the global reach of Facebook gathering in self-proclaimed Passengers from as far afield as Australia, Sweden, Germany and Scotland. But more about them later.
Like millions of other fans around the world, the death of Keith Emerson was the most terrible shock, especially as he took his own life believing that his ability, through his incredible musical virtuosity, to bring of joy and pleasure to so many was at an end.
This is my tribute to an incredible talent and a legend who helped to shape the soundtrack to my life.