The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Four): Paul Brett

Considering his reputation as one of the greatest living twelve-string guitar players, Paul Brett is probably not among the more obscure names I have included in this series thus far. Having performed with the likes of Arthur Brown, Roy Harper, and the Strawbs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brett was by no means a stranger to the prog scene by the time he ventured forth on his own. He released several solo albums in the 1970s, Interlife being perhaps the most celebrated of the bunch. Although Brett’s acoustic and electric guitars are the stars of the show, the album also features the talents of ex-Strawbs drummer Rod Coombes and the ubiquitous Mel Collins on saxophone, who helps give the album a jazzier feel. Here are a few highlights from this hidden gem:

The opening number “Interlife” is both the longest and strongest track on the album. Although it begins as a soft folk tune with the rich sound of layered acoustic guitars, it transitions quickly and seamlessly to a unique blend of folk and jazz rock. Each member of Brett’s supporting cast is able to show off their chops, be it Coombes on drums, Collins on Sax, Derek Austin on synthesizer, or Delisle Harper on bass. Fans of Mike Oldfield’s instrumental prog masterpiece Tubular Bells – which also features several acoustic and electric guitars – will appreciate this track.

The remaining tracks, beginning with “Celebration,” are much shorter and equally enjoyable. Brett again opens with the gentle sound of acoustic guitar on “Celebration” before he’s joined by his mates. The electric guitar soars on this piece before the track finishes in a sort of jig.

“Segregation” also begins gently, but transitions suddenly to a jazzy guitar riff and a thumping bass line courtesy of Harper, who does a superb job on this piece. “Isolation,” another acoustically-driven work, follows “Segregation” before we arrive…

“Into Life,” the heaviest piece on the album. Unlike the other tracks, the closer opens with electric guitar, bass, and drums. Perhaps this is meant to represent the (somewhat) chaotic transition into life itself, but it does feel somewhat out of place on what is otherwise a rather subdued album.

Fans of the Strawbs, Mike Oldfield, and Roy Harper will not want to miss Interlife. For those less inclined toward the prog folk scene, I would still recommend this as an excellent album for a rainy or slow-paced day. Brett’s work on both acoustic and electric guitar (but especially the former) is simply superb and would be appreciated by any prog enthusiast.

Stay tuned for number twenty-five!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Eighteen): Principal Edwards Magic Theatre

One of the hallmarks of the classic era of progressive rock was the theatrics: Peter Gabriel’s eclectic costumes, Keith Emerson’s knives and flying piano, and Rick Wakeman’s flowing capes are just a few that come to mind. But few prog bands ever included an entire troupe on tour. Enter Principal Edwards Magic Theatre (PEMT), a fourteen member ensemble that included singers, musicians, poets, dancers, and sound and light technicians. This cast of characters, who at the time were students at the University of Essex, initially sought to express their artistic abilities through the medium of print, but it did not take them long to realize that it was more enjoyable to display their talents on stage.

Although they managed to release only two albums (in 1969 and 1971) before splitting up, they rubbed shoulders with some of the luminaries of prog and classic rock, including Pink Floyd (Nick Mason even produced their second album), Elton John, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, and King Crimson. Combining whimsical lyrics with flute, violin, acoustic guitar, a healthy dose of electric guitar, and spoken word vocals, PEMT sounds something like a blend of Fairport Convention and Pink Floyd. Here are a few standouts from their debut album, Soundtrack:

“Enigmatic Insomniac Machine,” besides earning the award for best-titled song on the album, is as bizarre as the title suggests. And if you can’t follow the story the song tells, you can at least enjoy Vivienne McAuliffe’s soothingly beautiful vocals. Fans of Judy Dyble, Sandy Denny, or Sonja Kristina will be impressed.

Root Cartwright’s electric guitar explodes onto the scene in “Sacrifice,” a song concerning, well, a human sacrifice. Cartwright’s guitar calms down for a few minutes before taking centerstage again after the murder of the poor lady about halfway through the song.

The peculiar man of La Mancha who fought windmills is dispatched in a somewhat unorthodox fashion in “The Death of Don Quixote,” a patchwork epic that jumps from one mood to the next without much warning.

The album closes with “Pinky: A Mystery Cycle,” which features some eerie violin courtesy of the multi-instrumentalist Belinda Bourquin and ominous spoken word vocals courtesy of McAuliffe. Cartwright again shines on electric guitar.

Soundtrack is an eclectic patchwork of psychedelia, folk, grunge, and prog. The album is neither particularly coherent nor consistent, but for some this will be part of its charm. For those who enjoy Curved Air, Fairport Convention, or Strawbs, this will be worth a listen. And judging by the live performance below, they must have been quite a group to see, too.

Stay tuned for number nineteen!

Autumn

In acknowledgement of the most beautiful season of the year….

In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfires
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!

— Robert Louis Stevenson

Welcome, Fall

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The Wethersfield Ancient Burying Ground in my hometown.

As a born and bred New Englander, I cannot neglect this opportunity to acknowledge the time of year when my home truly becomes God’s country. May everyone enjoy a restful Fall!

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
– “October” by Robert Frost

Advice From The Strawbs

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As I watch the political ads attempting to convince each Connecticut resident who the “right” choice for governor is, I cannot help but think of this brilliant song by The Strawbs, a band I have enjoyed for a few years now. “Mind of My Own,” not surprisingly, urges people to think for themselves, a skill which seems to be in short supply these days. I especially recommend playing this song out loud (or at least in your head) if you ever find yourself surrounded by a group of Republicans or Democrats. Now, if only this song could be heard by every American…