Thursday, 22 July 2021

Caravans and camels - assorted seventies prog rock

Brought together here are several late sixties-seventies progressive rock groups. The big hitters (ELP, Yes, Genesis etc) all have their own detailed sections. The artists covered here are, in order - Caravan; Colosseum; Camel; East Of Eden; King Crimson; Hawkwind; Van Der Graaf Generator; Focus; Argent; Todd Rundgren's Utopia; Ambrosia; Renaissance; Rick Wakeman; Greenslade; Curved Air; Gentle Giant; Steve Hillage; Le Orme; Banco Del Mutuo Soccoro; Aphrodite's Child and National Health.... 

In true indulgent prog rock style, there is a lot of material to scroll through!

Caravan - If I Could Do It Again, I'd Do It All Over You (1970)

I always thought of Canterbury band Caravan as more of a folk rock group than a prog one, particularly at the beginning of their career and this, their second album carries many folky feelings inside it, along with some solid but catchy rock instincts that make it a classic early prog album with considerable folky aspects, one very typical of 1969-70. It is also quite psychedelic too, again, something very much of that particular period. 

If I Could Do It Again, I'd Do It All Over You is a simply marvellous, vibrant piece of vaguely folky rock fun. I remember it as a single and it still sounds great today -full of freshness and youthful enthusiasm. And I Wish I Were Stoned-Don't Worry is slower in pace but no less inventive and appealing, featuring some great bass, keyboards and drums. Yes, it is slightly proggy, but it has a folky melodiousness and a conciseness to it that makes it most accessible. The vocal harmonies are lovely, too as is the mid-song guitar solo. The Don't Worry part is beautiful, with a sumptuous bass. I can hear some of Paul Weller's Wild Wood album here and there on this album, you know.

As I Feel I Die is a gentle, reflective acoustic number at the beginning that suddenly breaks out into frantic jazzy, psychedelic rock. In true Jethro Tull-ish early seventies prog style, the next track, With An Ear To The Ground, is an eight-minute plus amalgam of several different passages, with a typically proggy emphasis on changes in tempo. Whatever, it is played immaculately. 

Hello Hello is very 1969 folky in its feel, particularly in its behind the ledge-hedge lyrics and its staccato, quirky rhythm. Can't Be Long Now is another extended suite that alternates between bucolic folky acoustic fare and big, chunky rock riffs. The guitar and saxophone soloing is excellent as is the drumming at the end. This is where they got proto-prog. Limits ends on a sleepy, groovy note, a sort of slower version of the album's opener. This was really quite an adventurous, unusual album for its time and one that I have enjoyed properly discovering. 

** Also enjoyable is the early Pink Floyd-esque non-album track, A Day In The Life Of Maurice Haylett.

Colosseum - Valentyne Suite (1969)

Featuring Dave Greenslade on keyboards, this was an interesting mix of avant-garde, prog jazz rock, with pre-early Roxy Music and contemporary for 1969 King Crimson saxophone, hints of Van Der Graaf Generator and lots of Keith Emerson meets Deep Purple keyboards. 

The highlight is the sixteen minute extended groove of The Valentyne Suite. It was well received at the time, but retrospectively not so much. I actually quite like it. There is a loose, melodic feel to it and the saxophone from Dick Heckstall-Smith is simply superb, as is future Greenslade member Tony Reeves’ bass. It is a bit of a forgotten gem. I first heard it on a prog rock playlist and it blew me away and is a track worthy of being in any best of prog list. 

Regarding the first part of the album, The Kettle is a gloriously heavy, psychedelic-influenced opener, with searing pysch guitar interjecting itself all over the place. This was the heavy rock type of prog that I really dug, man. It is heavy as fuck and I love it. 

Elegy, on the other hand, is deliciously jazzy and funky, featuring a totally infectious shuffling drum rhythm, some killer clarinet and an overall breezy appeal that makes it hard to resist. Butty's Blues, with its deep rumbling bassline and slow-burning Hammond organ showed that the band had not forgotten their old sixties blues roots. Any band that can play the blues gets my vote. Some fine saxophone enhances the middle of the track too. The Machine Demands A Sacrifice is a great bit of psychedelic jazzy rock which again is most pleasing on the ear - I love the carefree jazziness of this album. While the track The Valentyne Suite qualifies as a hidden nugget, so indeed does the whole album.

** The bonus non-album tracks include more jazzy stuff in Arthur's Moustache and the sax-driven Lost Angeles. Both are excellent.

Camel - Mirage (1974)

Initially suspicious of this band's work, from way back in the seventies - I have been pleasantly surprised. This album, from 1974, is said to be one of the cornerstones of the prog rock genre, a genre I have my problems with, as regular readers will know. However, as you will also know, I am attempting to break down my prog barriers, so I will give this a listen.

I quite like Freefall, the opener, due its powerful riffs, solid drumming and swirling keyboards. the keyboards-cymbals interplay in the middle is almost like avant-garde jazz. The bass is nice and deeply rumbling too although the vocal is a bit proggy. The overall sound is, of course proggy, but there is something more rock about it that makes me prefer it to the quasi-classical, keyboard-driven noodling of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. it is prog ROCK in the best sense. Yes, it is still based around typical prog indulgence, but it retains some appeal for me. 

The instrumental Supertwister is a slower, more dreamy, laid-back number, featuring a gentle flute (played by Andrew Latimer) and more jazzy vibes. I really quite like this too.

Nimrodel is one of those multi-part "suites" that prog rock bands specialised in. Here I find I like the instrumental passages but am not so much a fan of the vocal bits. Look, it is all too rambling and overdone for me but I cannot deny that the band could play. The track, and the album, have a great sound quality to it - lots of warm bass and less of the ELP-style discordance. I like the mid-song guitar part and the spacey cymbals-keyboards break around 7:30. 

The instrumental Earthrise is tuneful and richly bassy. Once more, it is something I can listen to. as always with this sort of music, I am never going to return to it regularly, but I am happily enjoying this as I write. Some more fine guitar can be found in the middle. Although Lady Fantasy is a twelve minute-plus opus it has an appealing gentle catchiness to it that perfectly exemplifies the group's musical dexterity and comparative accessibility. Yesterday I listened to Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery and had to turn it off. Give me this any day. Listen to that great funky stereo bit at 3.:58 when the guitar, bass, keyboards and drums kick in - good stuff. Ditto the guitar soloing around ten minutes in. 

Camel sound, to me, far more melodic, varied and warm in their sound (particularly when compared to contemporaries ELP). I find them to be more fluid, subtle, intricate and carrying more musicality. Many prog fans would no doubt disagree but it is just how this outsider hears it.

Camel - The Snow Goose (1975)

I also took the time to check out this release, from 1975, which was one of those dreaded concept" albums. Now, I love literature and I love music, but I find the two don't always mix too well. This album was a collection of bits of music inspired by Paul Gallico's World War II (Dunkirk)-themed novella, The Snow Goose. In true prog rock style, Camel decided they wanted to write some music based on a book and duly chose Gallico's. As it happened, though, it is a very nice piece of work containing lots of relaxing instrumental fare, along with some nicely upbeat but extremely melodic tracks - Rhayader and Rhayader Goes To Town are two exceptionally attractive ones, as indeed is The Snow Goose

The longer tracks are interspersed with shorter ambient pieces and there is a refreshing lack of archetypal prog rock indulgence. It is simply really good music, all the way through, albeit with proggy tinges.

As I said, the album is full of quality instrumental offerings that relate loosely to the book - soaring parts representing the previously injured goose returning successfully to flight, a brief jaunty bit maybe conjuring images of a goose waddling along etc. Either way, the music is really good, played immaculately and reproduced in top quality sound. I found myself enjoying this immensely.

East Of Eden - New Leaf (1971)

An appealing band were East Of Eden, who merged folk music with prog rock and a bassy funkiness at times. 

Check out the lovely deep thump of the grinding instrumental Bradshaw The Bison Hunter for starters - no classically-influenced meandering ELP keyboards here. It is a truly wonderful, deceptively funky track. Great sound quality on it as well. The vocals arrive on the fiddle-driven, muscular funky folk rock of Ain't Gonna Do You No Harm. I really like this. It is like some of The Strawbs' stuff but with a chunkier sound, great bass and a stronger, bluesier vocal. I really dig this stuff, man. Yes, really. I love it.

I like my prog rock like this - the acoustic Get Happy could almost be Paul Weller in the 2000s or Traffic in the seventies. This is a world away from Yes and ELP. I would say that this is far more folk rock than prog rock. Maybe the group's best years just happened to have been around the same time as the proggers and they got caught under the same umbrella. Don't Be Afraid sounds very similar to some of the early Rod Stewart solo material, with David Jack's voice equally gritty. That bluesy country-influenced rock was very popular in the early seventies. 

More of a Traffic vibe can be heard of the grinding bluesy rock of Man Said. Look this isn't noodling prog rock - it is chunky, industrial rock if you ask me. Listen to the guitar solo, the bass and the heavy rock-style vocal for proof. Song For No One is the bassiest, funkiest piece of prog rock I have ever heard, for a start. It bubbles and boils with funkiness from beginning to end. Once again, the vocal is great, reminding me a bit of Family's Roger Chapman. There is more Traffic influence to be had here too, or maybe this influenced Traffic?

Joe is an evocative slow rock ballad that reminds me of Bad Company. Unfortunately it is a terribly sad song about a guide dog that moves me too much to listen to it more than once. Nothin' To Do also has that Paul Rodgers-Free-Bad Company feel to it, as does Road Song, with added Rod Stewart-style mandolin. A solid bluesy guitar introduces the excellent grind of Home Blues. This is a great track too, full of bluesy power. Prog? I don't think so

The group also had a great instrumental folky hit hit single in 1971 with the irresistible fiddle sounds of Jig-A-Jig, a track I clearly remember from the time. Check out that great bass sound and fuzzy guitar on it too and the stonking drum-guitar interplay near the end. Boogie Woogie Flu is a great rocker of a non-album cut, too. A really good album, this one. A proper rock album, for me. 

King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)

I have never particularly been into these multi-albumed, experimental proggies, but I have managed to look at their most famous release. This 1969 offering, with its grotesque, instantly recognisable cover, was King Crimson’s first album and has long been considered to be one of the first trail blazers of the progressive rock genre. It has only five tracks and they are all lengthy but, as with quite a few of the early prog rock outings, it sounds a lot more “rock” in its sound than prog. It is just extended rock, building on the psychedelia of the previous two years. For me, it is more post-psychedelic, experimental rock than progressive rock. Maybe the former sub-genre eventually morphed into the bigger beast, though.  

21st Century Schizoid Man is a delightfully heavy thrash, with powerful guitar passages, insane scratchy vocals, big rumbling bass, industrial strength drums and some punchy, madcap brass too. Although it is lengthy and experimental, it sounds more heavy to my ears than it does prog. It is by far the album’s chunkiest cut and easily my favourite. I Talk To The Wind slows the whole thing down considerably on an ethereal, gentle number, full of “chilled out” ambience. It has some nice bass sounds in it, some appealing flute along with some subtly attractive drum and cymbal work. It has a subtle appeal to it and a lovely, warm sound quality as well. Actually, I’ll instantly change my choice of favourite and go for this one. I’d forgotten that Greg Lake was in the group at this time and this bears many similarities to the best tracks on later ELP albums (I prefer Lake’s stuff to Emerson’s). 

Epitaph is a bit more robust, but also has a slow, grinding tempo.   I can really make a case for this one too. I am sure the passage around five minutes in will have influenced early Roxy Music - the bass lines, the drums - just something about it that reminds me of the middle section of If There Is Something. Anyway, this was rock music going as big and drawn-out as it had done thus far (although we still had the twenty minute tracks of Yes and ELP to come).

The ghostly Moonchild is also very ambient and sonically low-key and has lots of proggy lyrical conceits. It is almost sleepy at times with a sort of jazzy vibe to it. Despite some good parts at the beginning, it is all a little bit to experimental from the mid-point on for my liking, its innovative sounds going on and on, without much to captivate. It just doesn’t make for riveting listening as far as I am concerned. This was prog rock’s problem - far too much noodling and indulgence. Yes, it intrigues me, but it doesn’t grab me by the balls. Bizarrely, though, it grows on me, so there you go, Not before time, the grandiose The Court Of The Crimson King sees the return of solid, punchy, heavy drums (check them out right at the end, after the Beatles-esque pipe organ bit), although its classically-influenced orchestration is a bit overbearing, as too are its somewhat pretentious lyrics about black queens and jugglers. As is my experience with a lot of prog rock, I find myself liking various bits of it but overall it still remains a little indigestible in places too. As I am someone who has never been into prog, this is not really surprising. The album is not without its merits, however, and it definitely pulled up trees. There had really not been anything like it before. In considering prog rock as a genre, I much prefer this to ELP and Yes but Jethro Tull, Focus, Wishbone Ash and Atomic Rooster are a bit more to my taste.

Hawkwind - In Search Of Space (1971)

A bunch of happy rustics here ? No, man - space rock met prog rock in the form of Hawkwind and their silver machine. The band were obsessed with space travel and it dominates much of their material, both in lyrics and sound. They were thought of as prog rock pioneers, and in man ways that is true, but their music, particularly on this album, is far more proto-electro rock.

Take, for example, the fifteen-minute opener to this album, You Shouldn't Do That, which is a marvellous maelstrom of sound - throbbing bass, pounding drums, swirling keyboards, wailing saxophone (which surely influenced early Roxy Music) and a Kraftwerk-esque Autobahn-style insistent beat that gets into your system. It also features some droning, repetitive, atonal vocals. Played with an irrepressible vibrancy, this actually is really good stuff, despite its length. I can't help but like it. So many bands will have taken bits of this and adapted them, in shorter form, to their own music. 

I have to say, though, that when the vocals properly arrive, on You Know You're Only Dreaming they are are not great - monotone and dreary, with dreaming pronounced as "drea-man". The music is good though - psychedelic and freaky, with flute and bass combining all over the place with intermittent guitars if that makes sense. I love the sound on this, despite its unshackled, improvisational druggy wildness. 

Listen to Master Of The Universe and tell me that the lead riff is not a classic punk-post punk one, and the drum sound too. It, together with the vocal, sounds a lot like Joy Division would do some eight years later. The track is full of great riffs and a deep bass line. This is rock, for me, proper dark, brooding rock, not prog. This had a big influence on much post punk, even though many of them may not have admitted it at the time. We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago is a freaky acoustic swirl, with spacey noises all around while Adjust Me is a little to experimental for my liking, not really getting anywhere, despite some interesting guitar noises, riffs and an infectious cowbell rhythm. Children Of The Sun is a comparatively low-key acoustic-driven closer to an album that runs out of inspiration a bit at the end but is certainly not without is ground-breaking, innovative good points.

Van Der Graaf Generator - H To He, Who Am The Only One (1970)

Remember the Van Der Graaf Generator in the school physics lab that made your hair stand on end? They named a band after itMore obviously in the prog rock mould were Van Der Graaf Generator, who, although they only had five tracks on this typically preposterously-titled album, boasted a big, deep sound enhanced by saxophone - something unusual among prog rock bands. 

Killer, the album's opener, is a fine example of their dark, brooding version of prog rock. It almost sounds like Black Sabbath at times, but with blaring saxophones - a most interesting cornucopia. The old proggy swirling organ is still there, however and the saxophone at the end must have influenced Roxy Music, I'm sure. It is a big, monstrous delight of a track. Actually, it sits a bit incongruously from some of the rest of the album

House With No Door is just lovely - quiet and seductive with a beautiful bass line and gentle drum sound, together with an ethereal, understated vocal. It is prog rock with a soul, if there could be such a thing. I find this a very moving piece of work, in a hippyish, early seventies sort of way. There is something so very early Bowie-esque about it, too, isn't there? Listen to the great organ solo at the end - great stuff. Emperor In His War-Room is very late sixties, psychedelic-influenced as it mixes wild, psych sounds with low-key, quieter passages in true prog style. King Crimson's Robert Fripp played on this and it sounds quite like some of the stuff on their album from the previous year. There is another melodic bass line to be found here and VDGG seemed to be a band who always utilised a bit of melody in their proggy wildness. 

Lost: The Dance In Sand And Sea: The Dance In The Frost is somewhat bloated in prog style, but the saxophone gives it some rousing moments, as indeed does the drum-keyboard-bass-saxophone interplay around three minutes in. That deep bass line when the sound suddenly goes quiet is truly sublime. The vocal once again sounds so like Bowie at times. indeed, Bowie was said to have been a fan of theirs, as was Peter Gabriel and, that old proggy himself, Johnny Rotten (ever get the feeling you're selling out, Johnny?). Back to Bowie, the use of the saxophone reminds me of the atonal instrumental tracks on the "Heroes" album.

Yes, VDGG were undoubtedly a prog group, but there was an intriguing darkness to their sound, an innovative madness that attracted. Pioneers Over C makes me think of Roxy Music's early stuff at times too, in its haunting, often stark saxophone sound. The bit where the song breaks out around three and a half minutes in is great, but as with all of this sort of thing, it is an acquired taste. It is intellectual music for listeners who want to be challenged. Mostly in music I just want to be instantly moved by something less testing, (sorry if that makes me sound shallow) so this is certainly not something I will listen to over and over, but I can appreciate its brilliance in places, so maybe I'm not far away from the group's intended effect after all. 

Van Der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts (1971)

After the previous album, which displayed considerable creative potential, this one was a bit of a let-down and a commercial and critical failure. Listening to its three tracks, I can hear why.

Lemmings is a big thumper of a track - overbearing, dark, slightly menacing but in possession of enough heaviness to keep me happy. It is full of churchy organ and a massive drum sound, as well as the group’s trademark discordant saxophone. As is often the case with VDDG’s material, for me, it goes on way too long, and some of the musical passages are superfluous. It needed more cohesion and a concise approach to production, in my opinion. This material is way too sprawling.

Man-Erg is an improvement- slower, more atmospheric and featuring some impressive drums. The vocals are once more very Bowie-esque. Half way through it gets manically loud and heavy and the whining vocals sound like their fan, Johnny Rotten. Maybe this is where he gained some inspiration. The track also features some very Andy Mackay-sounding saxophone around six minutes or so in. A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers is basically twenty-three minutes of pretty much interminable prog indulgence. It has been described as a work of “misunderstood genius” and, although it contains a few good parts, their effect is lost in a cornucopia of directionless prog noise. Cut it down to about eight minutes and you might have had something. Despite its excellent sound quality, this one is not for me. Contemporary reviewers found it difficult to understand in what direction the group was heading, upon hearing this. It is easy to concur with that point of view. Within a year, the group had split up, citing those good old “musical differences“.

** A notable extra that got a lot of late night Radio One play at the time was the single, Theme One, whose heavy succintness showed just what the group could have achieved.  As with Yes’s single edits, prog rock did not have to be twenty minutes long, did it? Incidentally, the inner cover image above was intended to be Monty Python-esque, but its Nazi salutes ending up looking a little creepy and tasteless.

Focus - Moving Waves (1971)

Focus were a Dutch progressive rock band that came to my attention with the hit single, Sylvia. This was their most successful and well-known album and, like many others from the period, one that I was always coming across when flicking through album sleeves in seventies record shops. Despite my taste for glam and glam-influenced rock in 1972-73, my teenage self was aware of Dutch proggers Focus due to their two hit singles - the marvellous instrumental Sylvia (not on this album), which featured the guitar virtuosity of Jan Akkerman, and the first track on this album, which I thought was great. I really liked both of these although I didn't dip into the album at the time, I left that to the hard-core prog rock fans who seemed to be overrunning my school. On to the album, which consisted of five tracks and one twenty-two minute opus. Wasn't that typical of the prog-rock era?

Hocus Pocus is a truly marvellous slice of seventies rock riffery, overflowing from the very start with strong, vibrant guitar workouts, pounding drums, brief drum soloes, madcap proggy organ, some crazy flute and, of course, nutty drummer Thijs Van Leer's ludicrous but catchy "bom-bom" yodelling and improvised "diddle diddle diddle" vocals. Yes, they are silly, but they are part of the track's quirky appeal. It was a hit single and was one of quite a few excellent seventies rock instrumentals/semi-instrumentals from the time. I'm thinking of Edgar Winter's Frankenstein from the same period. The extended version that we get here on the album is superb. I love it - and that's from a glam fan of the time.

The exultant ambience suddenly changes with the brief, chilled-out acoustic vibe of Le Clochard and then we get the equally relaxing feel of Janis, a flute, acoustic guitar and drums instrumental. It is slightly more powerful than its predecessor due to its drum sound but the overall effect is one of sleepy peace.

Moving Waves is a short track with vocals that doesn't really get anywhere, for me, while Focus II is an impressive instrumental featuring some fine upbeat drumming and equally fine lead guitar. I have to say, also, that the sound is superb - clear, warm, bassy and delivered in excellent seventies stereo. Eruption is the afore-mentioned lengthy number and it is chock-full of prog musical stereotypes - classically-influenced hymnal organ, occasional tympanic drum soloes, gentle woodwind passages, innovative Santana-esque jazz rock guitar - a supposed concept (the story or Orpheus and Eurydice) and a general rambling feel of a never-ending jam session. I like it in places because the sound is so damn good - it is like a hi-fi demonstration - and it is undeniably musically brilliant, but, hold on, isn't this why punk came about? Maybe, but there is something in it that I quite like, so there you go. I've always been a bit contradictory. Do I play Eruption much, though? The answer to that remains no, unfortunately, but I've done pretty well to get this far.

Argent - In Deep (1973)

What is a shame about both Argent, and this album, is they produced three absolute stonking pieces of classic early seventies rock in God Gave Rock 'n' Roll To YouIt's Only Money  and Hold Your Head Up (included on the “Collectors Edition”). The latter has one of the best intros around - that insistent drum beat, then the swirling organ, the guitar interjections and a great vocal. Superb. God Gave Rock 'n' Roll To You is similar in its magnificent, portentous build up and iconic chorus.

It's Only Money is great - brooding, powerful, proper rock. Yes, it is Deep Purple-ish in style, particularly on the driving organ and drum passage, but there’s nothing wrong with that. “Part Two” of it is even better, in my opinion. Lovely, rich and thumping. The sound quality on this album is excellent, by the way. I am not sure if it has been remastered, it doesn’t say. Russ Ballard, who wrote the first two tracks, was one hell of a pop-rock songwriter as his CV shows. It is the shame that the rest of the album gets bogged down in the worst excesses of “progressive rock”.

Losing Hold is pretty standard, early seventies, semi-classically-influenced grandiose rock. An impressive guitar solo in the middle and meandering lyrics about, well, who knows. It has a bombastic drum and chamber-style orchestration ending. There are attractive parts to tracks like this, but as a whole, some of it is not quite my thing.

Be Glad, in many respects, represents the very worst of progressive rock - eight minutes of piano experimentation, drum passages, a few pretentious vocals here and there, constant changes in pace. A Deep Purple-style madcap organ solo comes in as well. This sounds great, but where does it fit in with the rest of it. Then the piano comes back in. It is as if each individual member is showing off what they can do. For me, the track never knows what it wants to be. It just ends up as a bit of a mess, which I am sure was not the band’s intention when they set out to compose something really ground-breaking. At times, it actually sounds really good, then it changes again. Maybe I just don’t get that progressive vibe, man. I should probably give it another chance, but actually can’t quite get the motivation.
Christmas For Free is a John Lennon-esque slow Christmas-themed ballad that has the band ruminating about “Jesus’s day” in a somewhat unconvincing manner. Get back to rocking, eh, lads? 
The Deep Purple-ish Candles In The River is more like it, featuring some heavy guitar, and a Hold Your Head Up organ and drum extended instrumental “bridge”, which I have to say I really like. Very Jon Lord. Or maybe Jon Lord was very Rod Argent. Much as an old punk I want to despise passages like this, I always find I quite enjoy them. This largely instrumental track is a worthy one.

Rosie is a bluesy, upbeat rocker in a sort of Free goes commercial but without Paul Rodgers style, if that makes any sense whatsoever. There is a killer piano part in it though, followed by some searing buzzsaw guitar, ending the album on a high point. It is a valid point, that I have read others make, that if you only imagine you will dig this album out very rarely, then maybe it just it that good. I will probably play the classic tracks via my classic rock playlist, which is what I have always done.

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (1974)

Todd Rundgren is an artist that I have never really got to know. My only memory of him is of a minor hit single from 1972 called I Saw The Light, which was sort of George Harrison meets Phil Spector-ish. However, Rundgren had also been involved in music since the sixties so he had been around a bit without any really notable success. In 1974, however, he decided to board the prog rock train and released this four track album of largely instrumental virtuosity. It will clearly not be to everyone's taste, but whether you can sit through a track lasting thirty minutes or not, there are still some fine passages to be found on the album.

Utopia Theme, a live track, is a mad fifteen minutes of prog rock virtuosity, or gratuitous indulgence, depending on whatever your point of view may be. It includes ELP-style insane classically-influenced keyboards, meandering instrumental passages, occasional vocals and, notably, about five minutes from the end, some superb guitar, piano and drums rock riffage that surely-to-goodness influenced Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell (the song). Of course it did, Rundgren was the producer on that legendary album. Yes, the track is way, way, way too long and does not beg many listens - that was the problem with much of prog rock, for me, it simply went on way too long, travelling down so many blind alleys. That is what happens here, the track gets precisely nowhere. On the other hand, some of the musicianship is genuinely first class, rendering the album worthy of one’s respect, at least.

Freak Parade also utilises one of prog rock's favourite things  - the swirling crazy keyboard sound รก la Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Along with that, though, there is some fine slow melodic guitar and some equally appealing bass and drum sounds. As readers of my reviews will know, I have never been a hug prog rock fan, but I am enjoying my journey into its recesses. I'm not sure whether I will return on a regular basis, but there is something strangely addictive about this stuff. The military drum-bass-keyboard interplay on this track is excellent and there is a surprisingly funky, clavinet-driven bit just before five minutes in. A lovely deep bass solo sees the track out. Another good bit - great in isolation.

The riffy, psychedelic-influenced rock of the short (four minutes!) of Freedom Fighters is the closest thing this group came to something that could be played on the radio as a single. It's actually really good, if a little tinny. It was not released as a single but if there was such a thing as a great prog rock single, this would qualify.

Then we get The Ikon - thirty minutes - yes, thirty minutes of wild, solid prog rock noodling - riffs, keyboards, breezy vocals, pounding drums - that will get the nerdy, studious boys and flowing skirt-wearing girls slipping easily into a dream of cheesecloth and incense. One either loves it or hates it. I am somewhere between the two in that I am prepared to give it a chance and, as with so much prog rock, there are so many changes in tempo and style that you are guaranteed to like some of it. Also something prog rock had was that its exponents could play, not half. Can I sit through this? Not easily, I have to admit, but its multiple changes make it sound like more than its four tracks. At times recently, I have got disturbingly proggy. I guess there is more to music than punk, Motown and Springsteen. A lot more.

Ambrosia - Ambrosia (1975)

This was the debut album by a difficult-to-categorise group. They are parts rock, parts country rock, parts prog, parts AOR. They are very 1975, very pre-punk, with lots of keyboards, crystal clear acoustic guitars, affected high-pitched vocals, proggy lyrics hippy-ish harmonies, chunky riffs and powerful drums. They make for an interesting but ultimately disposable listen. They sound a bit like Chicago became a few years later, as so many many mid-seventies AOR artists did. It is often labelled under "progressive rock". however. 

Nice, Nice, Very Nice has a big, thumping, bassy mid-pace rock opening and some proggy organ before the somewhat mannered vocal arrives in a sort of easy listening-AOR-Yes's Jon Anderson high-pitched, breezy style. Quite why David Pack had to exaggerate the rolled "r's" as much as he did is not clear. It sort of detracts from the song although the accompanying harmonies are impressive and it is probably the album's second best track.

Time Waits For No-One has a melodic acoustic guitar intro that brings to mind America's Ventura Highway before the group go full-on Yes and indulge their proggy desires again. As with Yes's material, there are good parts in the song, along with some frustrating changes of pace. The bass-percussion interplay half way through is great. Holdin' On To Yesterday was the first song I came across from the band and I liked it so much that I was prompted to listen to the album. It is a nice slow AOR rock ballad, with a deep bass sound and quality vocals. It features a great slow guitar solo too.

World Leave Us Alone is standard AOR rock fare, pleasant enough but nothing that justifies repeated listens. Having said that, on second listen it appeals to me more. Make Us All Aware is a proggy, well-meaning number with some baroque keyboard parts. Its production is way over the top, for me, however. Lover Arrive is a gentle ballad to calm things down, though. Mama Frog has big jazz rock influences but it all goes a bit prog with a spoken bit of Lewis Carroll poetry and the prog vibe continues on the more enjoyable big, grandiose but dignified sound of Drink Of Water. Listen to all those massive keyboard parts - impressive. Overall, though, none of the album matched up to the first track I heard from it, which was a bit of a disappointment. The whole thing is a tad too indulgent for my liking, a bit too prog and not enough rock.

Renaissance - Scheherazade And Other Stories (1975)

Considered a prog rock album, this was thought, by many, to be the best album from a group who were really difficult to categorise. It has classical, rock, prog, folk and jazz influences contained within its varied compositions. It is its very innovativeness that makes it progressive, I guess. I remember a friend of mine, who became a real full-on punk, being very into this, along with Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway - how he changed in just over a year! Annie Haslam to Johnny Rotten.

A Trip To The Fair begins with some classically-influenced piano, before progressing, via some rhythmic, invigorating percussion, to the folky vocal bit with singer Annie Haslam sounding a lot like Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior. Both have crystal clear, very English voices. The tracks progresses into an appealing avant-garde jazz piece, featuring vibes, shuffling drums and jazz piano. It is a most odd, but thoroughly beguiling and strangely compelling creation. A lovely, deep bass line backs the energetic, lively strains of the shorter, more concise and rocky The Vultures Fly High. I like this one a lot, I have to say, but again, it fits into no particular pigeonhole. Ocean Gypsy is a beautiful, piano-driven slow ballad that has another fine vocal, along with a warm, attractive soft rock-ish backing. Once more, it is a most attractive track.

The original side two of the album was taken up by a twenty-four minute suite of music, entitled The Song Of Scheherazade. It is almost like a piece of classical music, with lots of influences from that genre and indeed features The London Symphony Orchestra. In true prog style, though, it probably goes on too long, but there are still nice passages in there, particularly at nine minutes in and Annie’s vocal about a minute or so later. Thinking about it, however, I think I prefer the more compact nature of the other songs, something that happened a lot with prog - you sit though twenty four minutes for six or seven minutes that you really like. Funnily enough, about half way through the whole thing goes quiet for a few seconds, so maybe it could have been separated into different songs. The last part, for example, would function nicely as a folky rock song. The group remain best known, though, for their one-off 1978 hit single, Northern Lights, which was as surprising as it was pleasant, a bit like when Mike Oldfield had a hit with Moonlight Shadow. 

Rick Wakeman - The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (1973)

This was an interesting instrumental solo album from Yes keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman. It contains some fine proggy workouts, but, in my opinion, bears no relation to the wives it is intending to portray. Taking that away, though, and just listening to it as music, I think it’s great. 

Not played in the correct chronological order of the wives’ marriages to Henry, we start (as we should, though) with Catherine Of Aragon which is a jaunty synth, organ, piano, drums and bass number that is enjoyable, although I am not sure how it reflects the pious and morose Spaniard’s character. I would have liked some Spanish guitar in here. It was an old Yes number, that was not used on the Fragile album, so was nothing to do with Henry’s first wife.

Next up we get the fourth wife, Anne Of Cleves, (pictured) whose dour, unshowy Germanic character is represented with some almost funky avant-garde “throw the kitchen sink in” rock. It features some inspired bass, great percussion and Rick goes pretty apeshit on the electric keys. Far too lively for dear old Anne, I think, (it should have been more Wagnerian, possibly) but again, I like it.

Catherine Howard (pictured) is better, its lively, carefree, partying air suiting her young, coquettish ways while also containing an underlying sadness to it that fits with her unfair end. The slow bit at the end is really moving. 

Jane Seymour is a churchy, sonorous, organ-driven composition that possibly suits the fact that she died, sadly, after childbirth complications. She was said to be “gentle, peaceful and charming”, however, so a less overbearing piece may have been more appropriate, something like Vivaldi’s Summer from The Four Seasons, maybe.

Anne Boleyn is simultaneously heavy rock and melodic piano, aptly representing her turbulent character. It is a restless piece, symbolising the pair’s passionate but doomed relationship. I love the bassy, funky part just after three minutes. It ends, beautifully, with an emotional rendition of the hymn The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended, a passage that suitably mourns Anne’s once more unfair demise. This is probably my favourite of the compositions.

Catherine Parr, ending the album with Henry’s final wife, is a solid piece of rock that again maybe misrepresented the character of this sensible, companionable and calm lady. 

My misgivings about some of the musical portrayals aside, I think this was a clever and inspired album.

* Another excellent review of this album can be found on Mark Barry's site :-

Greenslade - Greenslade (1973)

I'll be honest here, I hated Greenslade as a teenager in the mid-seventies. They played five times at Friars Club in Aylesbury, where I lived. I didn't go to any of the gigs and I loathed the boys who carried Greenslade albums around under their arms at school. I was certainly not into "prog-rock" whatsoever. It was completely anathema to me. However, time is a great changer. In recent years, I have begun to wonder what it was those boys liked so much and have started listening to stuff like this, along with The Strawbs, early Supertramp and Mike Oldfield. No ELP or Yes as yet, though. There are limits! Maybe I'll dare to dip my toes into those murky, incense, "loons" and cheesecloth waters at some later point.

Greenslade were formed by keyboardist Dave Greenslade and the eschewed the use of electric guitar, being just keyboards drums and bass (although I am convinced electric guitar turns up on at least one of the tracks on this album. The music is largely instrumental, yes there are vocals, but they sort of float in and out of songs without every annoying me too much or dominating the song. It is the instrumentation it was all about and I have to say that the material is not all typically prog-rock in sound or mood. There are definite blues influences in places, and even funk and jazz influences cropping up. For that reason I find it easier to get into this album and appreciate it more than others in the prog genre. A lot of the music is very laid back and, dare I say, ambient. After a couple of listens, you get quite hooked on it.

Feathered Friends begins with an almost funky rhythm and is driven along by a melodious bass line. It has the usual proggy changes of pace and mood throughout its seven minutes and the vocals are very typically prog in that high-pitched, nasal and dreamy fashion that so many of its exponents seemed to sing in. An English Western is a shorter track with some archetypal prog organ swirls. Drowning Man is a bit Pink Floyd-esque and not a little pretentious in its quasi-religious "forgive us our trespasses" lyrics. As always with prog-rock, though, a sudden change of pace can yield a different feeling, and the song bursts out of its somnolence half way through, with some rhythmic and inventive organ, bass and drum interplay.

Temple Song is a short, very late sixties song in feel with some delicious bass, cymbals and keyboards interaction which all most betrays psychedelic jazz qualities in places. 
Melange is my favourite track on the album. I am sure there is electric guitar all over this one, from its chunky opening riffs to its electric guitar-sounding extended ending. Maybe Dave Greenslade reproduced the sound somehow on his keyboards, but it sounds very guitar-ish to me. Maybe it is bass and electric piano? Either way, it is a superb track, with intoxicating cymbal work, bass and organ. Some floaty trippy backing vocals are there too, plus some great bass. Really impressive. Very "ambient" to use current terminology. This stuff could be sampled.

What Are You Doin' To Me sounds quite like Argent to me. It is one of the heaviest, rockiest cuts on the album. There are slight airs of Steely Dan in places, would you believe. Only vague ones though, but they are there. Something about the vocal tone at times. Sundance is the final track on the album, and an impressive one it is too, beginning with some classically-influenced piano before kicking into some serious heavy rock passages with Greenslade's organ swirling around all over the place, together with some spacey keyboard interjections. It ends with some full-on Deep Purple organ-driven rock. I have to say that this remaster, while having an excellent, sonorous bass sound throughout, is also a little bit muffled, drum-wise. Maybe that was how it was originally recorded and will always remain so. It is notable how the second CD of live at the BBC material from the album actually sounds less muffled and much clearer and defined. The sound on these are truly superb. I almost prefer listening to the album this way (What Are You Doin' To Me is that only one not played live) The tracks are all exceptionally well played, showing what a good live band they were, although the thought of seeing them in concert in the seventies filled me with horror at the time. As regards the cover art - stuff like that was partly responsible for punk!

Curved Air - Air Conditioning (1970)

Curved Air were seen as "progressive rock" pioneers - an amalgam of hard rock guitar and vocals, classically-styled violin and strings, psychedelic drums and ambience and a weakness for instrumental indulgence. They were impossible to categorise to be honest, other than as "prog rock". There is something harder about them, though, something heavier which again make them something of a unique contradiction. This was Curved Air's debut album and a most unusual, innovative creation it was. 

It Happened Today kicks off as a chugging, bluesy boogie rock number, with Sonja Kristina doing what she does best with her powerful vocal, before it merges into a reflective, classically-influenced ambient passage featuring Darryl Way's violin. This was the essence of Curved Air - plenty of diverse instrumentation that nobody had really experimented with before, certainly within a conventional hard rock setting

Stretch has a firm rocking beat and a Deep Purple Black Night-esque riff but also some hints of upbeat folk rock. Once more, it pushes several boundaries for the time. Superb guitar merging with violin and a very prog rock drum sound. Screw again features some delicious violin, solid psych-ish drumming and another strong but beguiling vocal. Blind Man has some dreamy, folky hiccuppy vocals over its quirky string backing and gently rhythmic drums. Vivaldi is very typical of prog rock sensibilities - showing off their classical bent with some crazed violin while merging it with some rolling rock drums. Personally, I prefer it when Curved Air let Sonja loose to rock, that is not to ignore the virtuosity of parts of this track though. It is inventive and clever, but to me is a tad indulgent, particularly by the end when a discordant electric guitar arrives. Enough.

Hide And Seek returns to rock and vocal, with a beguiling, again slightly folky vocal. Despite remastering however, this track in particular is still a bit scratchy and tinny in places. Proposition is a very archetypal early seventies prog-psychedelic rocker. It is difficult to describe, but it is instantly recognisable when you hear it. 

Rob One is a beautiful violin, piano and drum instrumental. Situations starts plaintively but ends up as a superb slice of rock, with some deliciously buzzy guitar and a big rumbling bass beneath it. Vivaldi (With Cannons) adds some sound effects to the violin soloing for a few minutes to end a album that is very much an acquired taste. This remastered version is an improvement, but there will, I feel, always be a few faults in the sound that can never be ironed out. The new, extended version includes the slightly punky Thinking On The Floor which is excellent and really should have been on the original album. The bass and wah-wah guitar groove of What Happens If You Blow Yourself Up? is really good too. I really like these two tracks. 

Funnily enough, the alternative takes included of several of the album's tracks are more appealing, to me. Rob One (Take 2) is particularly good. The John Peel show live cut of Propositions simply crackles with a wonderful vitality. Superb bass on it too. It also merges into some of What Happens. The version of Young Mother in Style, introduced by Alan Freeman, but listed as from the John Peel show, is the same one as included on the Second Album extras. The other live session cuts are unique to this album, however. The sound quality on them is much better than on the session tracks on the "Second Album" too. Personally, I prefer the group's second album, titled, originally, Second Album, but I realise the importance of this one and accept that it needs a few listens.

Curved Air - Second Album (1971)
I was twelve in September 1971. I was vaguely aware of Curved Air, as they played at the rock club in my town - Friars in Aylesbury and they had a singer in Sonja Kristina who older boys went "phwoor" over. They actually had their only hit single in the same month - Back Street Luv got to number four, but I have no memory of it. I preferred T. Rex, Rod Stewart, The Tams and Diana Ross. As I got older I enjoyed the thought of Sonja, but considered their music to be uncategorisable and tarred with too much of the accursed "prog rock" brush. Later years have found me exploring the music of this band that certainly were difficult to pigeonhole. Maybe that was what made them interesting.

For a band that, while critically-acclaimed in certain quarters, have slipped under quite a few people's radars, their influence on others/influences on themselves can be discerned far and wide on this album - the avant-garde synthesiser sound and beguiling lyrics of Roxy Music; the melodic miserableness of The Velvet Underground; the haughty vocal delivery of Siouxsie Sioux; the madcap electric violin of early Cockney Rebel; the progressive adventurousness of Greenslade and The Strawbs; a funky organ sound from funk-soul music; even some cadences of The Who in small places. Quite a list. Furthermore, Sonja Kristina has countered the "folk influences" question by saying that fellow band members Darryl Way and Francis Monkman would not have countenanced such a thing, considering folk far too simplistic for their grand musical ambitions. However, you can hear the versatility of Pentangle and the vocal tones of Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny on this album, for me. There are even just the odd note here and there that bring to mind Steeleye Span. So, that is a whole lot to be getting on with when considering just what Curved Air were all about. On to this most quirky, oddly captivating album. 
Young Mother is a mysterious opener, full of some wild proggy ELP-style organ sounds and a sonorous classical influence. Sonja's voice is beautifully haunting and that electric violin swirls all over the place, together with some delicious Eno-style keyboard noises. Every now and again it breaks into an intoxicating drum-bass-organ rock rhythm. As one who used to instinctively reject progressive rock, I have to say that this is up there with the best of it. 

The afore-mentioned single, Back Street Luv begins with the sort of keyboard-drums intro that Roxy Music would use a lot on their first album. It also has an appealing funky grind to it. Sonja's vocal, while sixties-influenced in many places would, I am sure, have had a huge influence on Siouxsie Sioux in its staccato delivery. There is also something really post-punk in the grinding organ riff. As I said earlier, for some reason, this single slipped completely under my personal radar. I love it now, however. Jumbo is a piano-driven, plaintive, classically-influenced number that, despite its obvious beauty, sits just a little incongruously with the rest of the album's material, for me. I am missing the proggy stuff - can you believe it? No, I can't, either. 

You Know is gloriously riffy, with some sumptuous guitar flying around and the sparse Puppets is once again an enigmatic song. It has a bit of Kate Bush about it I feel. Nice bass on the track too. I love the lively, vibrant, violin-powered Everdance. It is full of short, sharp folk-ish rock energy and a catchy, quite irresistible melody. This material really is quite unique. It is a shame that Curved Air always split critics and most that was written about them seemed to be negative. Listening to them now, considering this album is getting on for fifty years old, it actually seems quite ahead of is time and definitely adventurous. Bright Summer's Day 68 annoys some listeners. I actually find it quirkily fetching. I hear hints of mid seventies group Fox in it in places. Maybe Sonja's voice had that same breathy quality as Noosha Fox. Finally, Piece Of Mind is a thirteen minute plus slice of prog perfection. Full of experimentation, changes of mood and pace, infectious vocals, churchy organ, psychedelia, rocking piano and basically the kitchen sink. Near the end are some quacking duck sounds. It is decidedly pretentious, of course, but also deliciously bonkers. The sound quality on this new 2018 remastered edition is much better than previous releases. The John Peel session bonus recordings, mainly from the band's debut album, are an interesting document, although the sound quality on these is a little bit hit and miss. I have to admit that I find the final track, Vivaldi pretty much unlistenable, however. Overall, though, this is an invigorating, challenging and ultimately enjoyable listen from what my esteemed fellow reviewer Mark Barry called a "difficult band". That sums them up quite succinctly, I guess, but it also makes them worthy of attention.

Gentle Giant - Gentle Giant (1970)

Gentle Giant were part of the late sixties-early seventies prog rock explosion that gave the world King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Caravan, Yes, Colosseum, Van Der Graaf Generator and Genesis amongst others and they generated a cult following, without ever really making it. They had previous in that the three Shulman brothers who made up three-quarters of the band had been the founders of Simon Dupree and The Big Sound who had a big hit in 1967 with Kites. Like so many psychedelic rockers, they ended up as proggies.

This was their first album, one whose grotesque, leprechaun cover I recall seeing as I flipped through sleeves in the seventies record shops. As with many prog rock groups, they were classically influenced, their sound featuring a lot of neo-classical keyboards.

This sound is showcased on the opener, Giant, with its ELP-esque keyboards and several changes of pace. It also rocks heavily in parts, with some powerful drums, but the vocal is not great, to be honest. As with so many prog tracks, for me, there are parts that I like (the bass line and some of the jazzy vibes), and others that grate a little, such as the vocals and some of the overbearing, heavily orchestrated parts. It is very much a creation of its time, very 1970. Funny Ways is a slow, string-backed ballad with a sleepy atmosphere but another unconvincing vocal performance from Derek Shulman. It features a good guitar solo though. Alucard is archetypal late sixties-early seventies prog rock - lots of insane keyboard breaks, those changes of pace and some dabbled-with vocals making the whole thing sound like a dodgy drug trip. It is all too messy for my liking. 

Isn’t It Quiet And Cold? is an irritating, whimsical number that has no real redeeming qualities, for me. Nothing At All is a nine minute ethereal, trippy slow acoustic song that builds up gradually into a relatively pleasant offering that eventually gives us some solid guitar, bass and drums jamming and, guess what - a drum solo too. It was 1970 after all. The whole thing goes on way too long though. Why Not? is chunkier and heavier, again very much a period piece from the time, however. It dabbles in a folky flute too, which is quite pleasant. The album ends with the group showing that Queen were not the first to record a version of the national anthem. I have to be honest, here and say that although this album tweaked my interest, it is not one I think I will be revisiting any time soon, unless a track from it comes up on a prog rock random playlist.

Steve Hillage - Motivation Radio (1977)

The world viewed Steve Hillage as a long-haired, bearded proggy but he saw himself differently, wanting to be considered funky. Good luck with that one, Steve...An album from 1977 that totally ignored contemporary punk trends, this one. It was “spacey rock”, with slightly annoying lyrics about the cosmos, leylines and saucers, sung in a weak, unconvincing voice by Hillage but redeemed by his excellent guitar work. The guy could play guitar but he sure couldn’t sing too good. It has a funky side to it, too, as Hillage had intended - apparently he had become irked by many prog rock followers’ dislike of funk and he became determined to go down the funk route. He didn’t consider himself to be a prog artist and he disliked the term and the fans’ musical snobbery. I have still categorised it as prog, however, due to its hippy-new age lyrics and Hillage’s long hair and hippy beard. If he had wanted to shake off the prog shackles and go funky he could have tried harder. It was not an album that would win over any punk or funk fans. The claim that he had “got the funk” was pushing things a bit.

Both the Trampled Underfoot-esque Hello Dawn and Motivation are strong songs, somewhat blighted by Hillage’s voice. The latter, particularly, features some fine guitar and a vague funk-rock vibe but when Hillage sings “motivation is the key!” I just think “oh dear”. If you thought that Hillage’s voice was bad, though, then listen to the positively awful female vocal on Light In The Sky. Whoever it is, (keyboardist Miquette Giraudy) it is not good. Otherwise, it is a fine chunky rocker. 

Radio is a lengthy number with an introduction that goes on for ages. I like it, though, and feel a bit disappointed when the vocal arrives, its grating "radi-ohhhh” sound spoiling what was a nice instrumental groove. Wait One Moment sounds very Pink Floyd, to me. Hillage’s weird guitar sounds are excellent on this one. More fine guitar introduces the psychedelic-ish fuzzy rock of Saucer Surfing, a song that, despite its funky underbeat, still has many prog aspects to it. It also has a bit of a punky riffiness to it too. The bass is deep and funky, I have to say.

Searching For The Spark is pure, organ-driven spacey prog, isn’t it? Not too much funk here. The same applies to the instrumental Octave Doctors, which highlights Hillage’s swirling guitar. The closer is a freaky, psychedelic guitar and funky bass cover of Not Fade Away, which is musically really good but is totally ruined by Hillage’s truly terrible vocal. This was about as far away from what I was listening to in 1977 as you could get, but experienced now, it has its good points, despite its glaring vocal limitations.

Steve Hillage - Green (1978)

Actually, Hillage went even funkier on this next release, written at the same time as Motivation Radio, but not released until the spring of 1978 on luminous green vinyl (I remember it well). It is an album full of funky guitars, funky bass and lots of interesting, spacey, electronic sounds. 

The opening track, Sea Nature, serves as a fine example of this sound and, thankfully, it concentrates more on the instrumental side of things than it does on Hillage's weak voice. There are a lot of hints of The Electric Light Orchestra's contemporary sounds on this, and it is no surprise to learn that Hillage was the support act on their 1977 tour. You can pick up on a lot of cross-influence. The album was produced by Pink Floyd's Nick Mason and you can easily detect that pollination too. 

Ether Ships is an ambient instrumental that sounds like Kraftwerk have got in the studio with Jean Michel Jarre. The synthesisers mix perfectly towards the end with drums and rock guitar. Indeed, Hillage was playing "guitar synthesiser". Musik Of The Trees uses acoustic guitar and some Eastern influences as well as a very Pink Floyd-esque vocal. Palm Trees (Love Guitar), unsurprisingly, features some superb guitar.

Unidentified (Flying Being) is wonderfully funky for a supposed prog artist - check out that rubberband bass line. It cooks with funk, you would never believe it was Steve Hillage, well, until he starts singing. The funk continues straight into UFO Over Paris, adding a bit more electronic stuff.

Nick Mason plays drums on the wonderfully ambient, chilled-out Leylines To Glassdom. The final three tracks - the infectious, beguiling Crystal City with its very Bowie-like vocals, Activation Meditation and the lengthy workout of The Glorious Om Riff continue with an electronic atmosphere until the latter breaks out into some glorious spacey rock. The album was low on voice and high on music and, in Hillage's case, that was a good thing. Despite punk being the media's music of choice in 1977-78, punters lapped up Hillage's output, he was almost cultishly popular at the time. I remember my then girlfriend having a big poster of him on her bedroom wall. He seemed to avoid the punk backlash against perceived prog artists, possibly because of Hillage's support for both punk and funk sounds. 

Le Orme - Felona E Sorona (1973)

What now? Italian prog rock! Lord above - what's become of me? Along with Banco Del Mutuo Soccoro, Le Orme were a prominent Italian progressive rock band in the seventies. Again, I have only covered one of their albums, but is popularly considered their best one. This is a surprising choice to review for me, I guess....Anyway, this is actually a really good album from 1973 and is considered the major (or should I say il maggiore) Italian prog rock recording. Influenced by contemporaries UK proggers Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Van Der Graaf Generator (who were involved in writing English lyrics for an alternative version of the album  believe) this is a largely keyboard-based album but featuring some warm, melodic bass and solid drumming too. Where it differs from, say, ELP, is that the protagonists have incorporated an intrinsic Italian ear for melody into their music, rendering it much more accessible - particularly to a prog-phobe like me. Sure, it is still classically-influenced, symphonic largely instrumental prog, with swirling keyboards all around, but there are some fine deep rock passages along with some fetchingly tuneful vocal parts (the album plays as one continuous whole, by the way, each track merging into the other as it progresses). 

The highlight is the multi-ambience eight minute-plus opener, Sospesi Nell' Incredible, a track even someone like me, with a natural suspicion of all things prog, finds himself enjoying immensely. Check out the drum and organ interplay around six minutes in. Great stuff. The catchy Italian folk of Felona is mightily appealing too, as is the beautifully rumbling bass on both L'Equilibrio and Attesa Inerte.

Banco Del Mutuo Socorro - Darwin! (1972)

Banco Del Mutuo Socorro were an Italian progressive rock band. Most popular in the 1970s, they continued making music in the 1980s and 1990s. I have covered just one of their albums here but it is pretty representative of their inventive seventies sound. Along with Le Orme's Felona E Sorona, this is considered to be one of the finest early seventies Italian prog rock releases. Their name means "Bank Of Mutual Relief" by the way).

As with their contemporaries, and indeed most prog rock groups, there are lots of keyboards involved but there are also passages of crystal clear acoustic guitar, both melodic and searing rock guitar and pounding rock drums. Like with Le Orme, their Italian musicality shines through making the music, although grandiose and classically-influenced, have a distinct Mediterranean feel in places. I would say that they were more influenced by Yes than by Emerson, Lake & Palmer (the main influence for Le Orme). 

Their music can be exemplified perfectly by the thirteen minute-plus opener, L'evoluzuione, which includes some fine acoustic guitar, rumbling bass, spacey keyboards, madcap vocals, rollicking piano and stonking lead rock guitar. There is some Deep Purple-style keyboard soloing too as well as the requisite several changes of feel and tempo that is written on the tablet of prog rock commandments. La Conquista Della Posizione Eretta sounds like Deep Purple meeting Kraftwerk. Get a load of that great bass, drums and keyboard interplay.

Danza Dei Grandi Rettili is beautifully laid-back and jazzy in places - check out the bass, piano and jazz guitar - at least before the proggy bits kick in.

The album tends to tail off somewhat on the last few tracks, becoming a bit too raucously indulgent, but it is worth a listen for these first three compositions. I think overall I prefer Le Orme, however. Regular readers of my reviews will know that, traditionally, I have never been a huge fan of extended prog rock workouts, but the simple fact here is that what is being served up is just damn good music. End of. As they say. The regazzi could play, that was for sure.

Aphrodite's Child - End Of The World (1968)

This was an oddity - Greek prog rock. Featuring future successful artists in keyboard wizard Vangelis and high-pitched housewives' favourite Demis Roussos it was an interesting mixture of classical keyboard influences, vibrant druggy percussion and melodic woodwind, all delivered with a Greek ear for a tune. End Of The World is both tuneful and bombastic at the same time, with Demis Roussos's instantly recognisable falsetto floating around in dreamy fashion over Vanhelis's classically, influenced grandiose piano. Don't Try To Catch A River is a lively piece of frantic, crazy psychedelic pop that I can't help but enjoy. They throw all sorts of madcap instrumentation in here - the afore-mentioned woodwind, percussion and keyboards. The drumming, from Loukas Sideras, is great on it too as is the bass. I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised upon hearing this for the first time and on several occasions since.

The semi-spoken Syd Barrett-influenced Mr. Thomas is best forgotten but Rain And Tears, which appropriates Pachelbel's toccata and fugue, is a baroque delight. The Grass Is No Green is a wonderfully spaced-out slow psychedelic number, so evocative of much of 1968's material. Remember also that this very proggy organ-driven number was from 1968, considerably ahead of much prog rock. This album was more ground-breaking and influential than you might think. Valley Of Sadness is another baroque song that breaks out into some floor-shaking heavy passages. You Always Stand In My Way is a strong prog rocker with wild organ and a Robert Plant-esque vocal. It ends up as a bit of a racket, though, I have to say.

The Shepherd And The Moon is a sort of Greek folk song on LSD, full of  rustic, Eastern influences but also proggy changes of pace and a pretentious, spoken part. There is an appeal to its madness, though. Day Of The Fool is a bit of a mess, however, not really getting anywhere and going round in proggy circles. Overall, though, it is an interesting and beguiling album  that is worth the occasional listen.

Aphrodite's Child - 666 (1972)

This was the group's final album, and, true to prog tradition, it was a sprawling, indulgent double album based on The Book Of Revelation (apparently). It goes on for an hour and a half and is, sadly, pretty much unlistenable, save for the best-known number on there, The Four Horsemen, which is a solid piece of heavy prog rock, the chugging Altamont and the more relaxing instrumental, Aegean SeaThe twenty minute-plus All The Seats Were Occupied "suite" (again typically prog rock) also contains some solid, heavy passages and some nice drums near the end, which I like, but you have to sift through the endless ambient noises to find them. As usual with these things, it goes on far too long.

National Health - National Health (1978)

An utterly culturally incongruous release here from 1978 - some “Canterbury scene” keyboard-dominated, spacey and jazzy prog eight or nine years too late. It went down like a lead balloon at the time but has garnered considerable critical kudos since. It would have been fine in 1973, mind. 

There are bucketloads of jazzy female vocals (from one Amanda Parsons) on the lengthy, keyboard-driven rock of Tenemos Roads and also on the beguiling, beautifully jazzy and laid-back Brujo. Both these tracks are chock full of seriously good instrumental soloing. Admittedly the "la-la-la" - and sometimes scat-style  - airy backing vocals are a little irritating, but that is a small gripe, really as the music is so good that it doesn't matter so much. It genuinely rocks in a most innovative, almost avant-jazz style. 

Borogroves (Excerpt From Part Two) features some fine funky guitar and a seriously rubbery bass line. Borogroves Part One gives us some spacey keyboards along with excellent chunky riffage. Indeed they (the keyboards) abound throughout the album as do those breezy backing vocals. The fifteen minute avant-garde and experimental Elephants is very Pink Floyd-esque in places with hints of Can and Neu! too. In conclusion, National Health were like a more accessible, jazzy ELP, both grandiose and beautiful. They bring to mind the two great Italian seventies proggies Le Orme and Banco Del Mutuo Soccoro. I can highly recommend them as a most interesting "forgotten" oddity.

National Health - Of Queues & Cures (1978)

The second album was similar, but not quite as good, lacking, somehow, the loose, easy flow of its predecessor. It is a difficult call to make, though, as this album grows on me. Its song titles are also stunningly pretentious - The Bryden Two-Step (For Amphibians), Phlakaton and Paracelsus and The Apocalypso for starters. God knows how they thought this sort of thing would go down in 1978. It has been praised retrospectively for being the last great  ‘Canterbury sound” instrumental-jazz-rock-prog fusion album. In reality, however, it was probably one bit of indulgence too many at exactly the wrong time - certainly about half way through the album I have sort of had enough.

The first track, The Bryden Two-Step (For Amphibians), is probably the best, being an upbeat piece of Deep Purple meets funky jazz instrumental. It is full of lots of driving riffs and swirling keyboard runs. Check out that mid-trak bass solo as well. It is actually a really good track, particularly when listened to out of cultural-musical history context. The Collapso is a good one too, for the same reasons. Lots of Purple-influenced keyboards to be heard here. Dreams Wide Awake has a nice funky bass rhythm. A low point is probably reached on Binoculars, when we get vocals, and they sound like a parody of early David Bowie. Both albums have a bit of a vinyl-ish flat sound to them that is not quite to my taste - I crave a warmer, bassier sound. I can't help but like the albums, though, I have to say. Who would have thought it? In 1978 I would have dismissed them out of hand. 

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