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Tome On The Range

Ye Gods: The Twenty Greatest Prog Rock Record Sleeves
The Quietus , February 11th, 2018 13:43

Jerry Ewing, editor of Prog magazine, shares with tQ his twenty favourite prog rock album sleeves along with an interview about his new book Wonderous Stories, followed by an exclusive extract from the book itself

Back in 2008, Jerry Ewing found himself at the Classic Rock Awards, the tenth anniversary party of the magazine he had founded at the tail end of the twentieth century. Having left the magazine some time ago to go freelance, the evening was a reflective one for Ewing. He looked around and asked himself: what of substance had he done in that decade? The question would prompt the beginning of the venture that has occupied him for the ten years' since. "The old creative juices started flowing," he says, "and I kept coming back to thinking about prog." He pitched an idea to Future Publishing. The time was right. Prog magazine was born.

But the birth of Prog, the magazine, was for Ewing, just the latest chapter in a devotion to the genre that by that point stretched back almost thirty years. Often mocked for its perceived excesses, progressive rock, Ewing explains in his new book on the genre, Wonderous Stories, is a "music that challenges the listener while also intriguing them." Leafing through the pages of Wonderous Stories, one can certainly find plenty to be intrigued by.

Prog, more than perhaps any other genre, always knew how to luxuriate in the expansive canvas offered by the gatefold LP sleeve, and over the succeeding pages, Ewing has picked for us a selection of his all time favourite prog record sleeves. We're also fortunate to be able to bring you an exclusive extract from the book (see below), with a chapter on the history of prog on the European mainland.

But before all that, we caught up with Ewing to ask him a few questions about how his obsession first began, how the genre has changed over the years, and why it's not all about wizard's capes and King Arthur on ice.

How did you get into prog in the first place?

I was going to see Asia play their first ever UK gig at Wembley Arena, so October 1982, and was round my mate’s house beforehand, and his older brother had just bought Marillion’s first single, Market Square Heroes on 12”, which we duly played before heading off to the gig. It was like nothing we’d ever heard before. It was heavy, but sounded so different to the heavy metal I grew up loving. And the b-side was the 17-minute long Grendel which just totally blew my mind.

Two months later I was at the Marquee for Marillion’s legendary Xmas 82 gigs and I was hooked. I didn’t know about prog’s history at that point, had no idea how the media deemed it somewhat irrelevant, it was really exciting music to my 16-year old ears. I wasn’t the only one either, there were lots of kids my age going to see Marillion and the band’s who followed in their wake.

For a lot of people, prog rock is a genre associated very much with the 1970s, but your book – and the artists covered in your magazine – go right up to the present day. How has the genre changed over time and are there any changes you'd like to see in the future?

In the 80s, the bands that came through were largely obviosuly inspired by the decade that preceded them. Marillion and IQ by Genesis, Pallas by ELP, Pendragon by Camel, Twelfth Night by Pink Floyd. Today the progressive influence is much more assimilated into the music with less influences worn on sleeves. Young bands are, I think, intrigued by progressive music and take bits they like and add it to other influences. Prog mag can happily write about Muse, Meshuggah and Mogwai at the same time. Also, modern prog bands seem more adept at cramming more into a four or five minute song than their predecessors. Not that there’s anything wrong with a side-long epic mind...

How do you respond to people who poke fun at prog's excesses?

I normally laugh along with them. I’ve worked on music magazines for almost 25 years. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that brings with it a certain ability to laugh at what you also love. Most prog musicians and fans agree everything got a bit OTT by the mid 70s and things needed shaking up. But every genre has its periods worthy of ridicule. Just so happens for prog in the 70s it was capes and keyboard solos. Wakeman can still get away with that in this day and age but few else would bother. Lyrically prog is more about social realism in todays world than the usual tropes thrown at it. It’s just that musically the bands tend to use the album format to take the listener on a musical journey instead of concentrating on the singular song.

The following is an extract from the twenty-second chapter of Wanderous Stories entitled, "EUROPEAN PROGRESSIVE ROCK"…

Simple geography suggests that the spread of progressive rock from the UK mainland was always going to take hold in Europe far quicker than it would in America, and so it proved. Touring logistics meant that the British originators, especially Genesis, Gentle Giant and Van der Graaf Generator, found favour with European audiences and their impact was felt in new scenes all over the continent. Some of this new progressive music was deemed derivative of the sound emanating from the UK; but others, such as the new sounds in Germany and France, broke bold new ground, giving rise to new sub-genres of progressive rock like Krautrock and Zeuhl.

Italy remains a strong European prog territory and in 2015 launched its own language version of the UK’s Prog magazine. As with many European countries, the majority of Italian prog bands remain popular in their own country but have had less impact abroad, largely due to singing in their native tongue. Some, like PFM, did sing in English (as well as Italian), and they remain one of the most internationally popular Italian progressive bands. That they signed to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Manticore label and had lyrics penned by Pete Sinfield (also signed to the label) helped. Equally, Le Orme’s lyrics were penned by VdGG front man Peter Hammill, and they are also one of Italy’s more prominent bands. However, with increased interest in progressive music, more and more of the country’s bands have gained recognition in the last decade.

As with the UK, progressive music developed in Italy as beat music gave way to psychedelic experimentation. Le Orme’s 1969 debut album, Ad gloriam, is rooted in psychedelia, yet their ground-breaking second release, Collage (1971) was responsible for kick-starting serious interest in home-grown progressive music.

PFM, or Premiata Forneria Marconi (named after a bakery in Chiari), released both Storia di un minuto and Per un amico in 1972; Banco del Mutuo Soccorso released their self-titled debut; and New Trolls released their celebrated Concerto grosso per I New Trolls, all heralding a golden era of progressive Italian music. However, by the mid-1970s, as with elsewhere in Europe, commercial success was on the wane for many of these acts. Nonetheless, progressive music has remained popular and all four of these acts are still around today. Newer artists include Nosound (signed to British prog label Kscope), and a resurgent Goblin, the band responsible for many of the soundtracks for horror film director Dario Argento.

France’s premiere progressive rock act has long been Magma, the band formed by jazz aficionado, drummer Christian Vander. Inspired by his singular vision of ‘humanity’s spiritual and ecological future’, Vander even went so far as to create his own language, Kobaïan, in which Magma have sung across their 11 studio albums and numerable live offerings since their formation in 1969. Magma’s most famous brush with international fame was when World Snooker champion (and now Prog magazine columnist) Steve Davis paid out of his own pocket for three performances of the band at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre in the mid-1980s, while presenter of Channel 4’s programme Eurotrash, Antoine de Caunes, penned the band’s biography. Zeuhl is the generic term given to the Magma sound, and to bands that have followed in their wake. Zeuhl (Kobaïan for ‘celestial’) bands, such as Unit Wail and Caillou, are mostly French, although the genre has spread as far as Japan (Happy Family) and the USA (Ga’an).

Of course, Magma and Zeuhl aren’t the only exponents of progressive music from France. Jean-Michel Jarre is an international superstar, breaking through with Oxygene (1976) and Equinoxe (1978), and his heavily synthesized works have found favour with favour with many prog fans. Ange formed in 1969, originally inspired by King Crimson and Genesis. The band appeared alongside the latter at the 1973 Reading Festival, although that was really the extent of their international impact. Ange split in 1995, but reformed in 1999 and are still active to this day.

Art Zoyd are an example of the RIO (or Rock in Opposition) sub-genre of progressive music. Akin to Zeuhl, the name RIO comes from a movement that began in the late 1970s with UK band Henry Cow; it referred to the lack of acknowledgement given to such like-minded artists by the music industry. Henry Cow, with the aid of a British Arts Council grant, arranged a London concert to highlight several of these bands, including Belgium’s Univers Zero and Sweden’s Sammla Mammas Manna. Over the past 10 years, the Anglo-French outfit Delusion Squared and the much-loved Lazuli have spearheaded French progressive music, the latter making headway with two appearances at the UK’s Summer’s End Festival and several UK tours, supporting Fish in 2015.

Keyboard player Vangelis is probably Greece’s most famous progressive musician. He started out in Aphrodite’s Child, with whom he recorded the classic 666 album in 1972, and he went on to have a hugely successful solo career, with a mix of solo albums, such as Heaven and Hell (1975) and Beaubourg (1978), and film soundtracks, such as Chariots of Fire (1981) and Blade Runner (1982). In 1980 Vangelis began a collaborative venture with former Yes singer Jon Anderson: Jon and Vangelis. Vangelis had been considered as a replacement for Rick Wakeman in Yes in 1974, but plans never came to fruition. The pair have released four albums, the best being Short Stories (1980) and the 1981 follow-up Friends of Mr. Cairo. Although Anderson made an approach to Vangelis in 2011 to rekindle the creative partnership, nothing has been heard since 1991’s Page of Life.

Riverside are easily the most successful exponent of prog from Poland, thanks largely to a deal with InsideOut Records and a strong back catalogue of modern, aggressive progressive rock albums, including Shrine of New Generation Slaves (2013) and Love, Fear and the Time Machine (2015). The band tour Europe regularly, and an appearance on the Prog stage at the 2015 inaugural Ramblin’ Man Fair has helped add to their appeal. There are a host of other strong Polish acts, such as Quidam, SBB, Satellite and Lunatic Soul, the latter being the solo venture from Riverside main man Mariusz Duda.

Like Poland, the Scandinavian countries are well served by a strong modern prog showing, but they also have a strong progressive heritage. Sweden boasted solo artist Bo Hannson, who released Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings in 1970; RIO act Sammla Mammas Manna, who formed in 1969; and Kaipa who in 1974 featured a 17-year-old Roine Stolt on guitar. Stolt would go on to become the mainstay of symphonic prog legends The Flower Kings, as well as being connected to modern-day prog acts like Agents of Mercy. He is also a member of the prog supergroup Transatlantic.

Opeth are the most famous exponent of progressive music from Sweden, while the country also has a fine modern-day roster of bands such as Anglagard, Pain of Salvation, Moon Safari, Anekdoten, Beardfish and Karmakanic, all creating thought provoking and intriguing new sounds.

Norway can hold its own with Sweden for a strong showing of modern-day progressive rock with bands like White Willow, Wobbler, Gazpacho, Airbag, Motorpsycho, Tusmorke and Shining, and Mew from Denmark are a fine example of a band blending more contemporary rock with the musical values of prog. Iceland has an equally fine tradition, with acts like Elk and Cabaret from the 1970s, and since the turn of the millennium, the excellent post-rock of Sigur Ros and the heavier Solstafir. Finland’s own prog tradition is almost as strong as Sweden’s, with 1970s acts such as Wigwam, whose guitarist Pekka Pohjola went on to carve a very successful home-grown solo career, and Kingston Wall. Today, Nightwish, Moonwagon and Amorphis carry on Finland’s progressive tradition.

Perhaps the most famous exponent of the European progressive scene is Dutch band Focus, who had a string of international hits. Their songs include yodel-fest ‘Hocus Pocus’, the dreamily catchy ‘Sylvia’, and the Jethro Tull-like ‘House of the King’ (which served as the theme music for the heritage-rock inspired Steve Coogan comedy show Saxondale). The band were formed in Amsterdam in 1969 by keyboard/flute playing vocalist Thijs Van Leer and guitar virtuoso Jan Akkerman, previously of Dutch proggers Brainbox. Although the band initially split in 1978, they were by far and away the most successful Dutch rock band, with albums such as Moving Waves (1971) and Focus 3 (1972). The band have reformed several times, most recently in 2002, and remain a huge live attraction.

Of course, Focus weren’t the only Dutch prog act. Kayak formed in 1972, and although international success wasn’t massively forthcoming, they remain a popular act with prog die-hards. Their founding keyboard player Ton Scherpenzeel joined Camel, with whom he still performs, and also Dutch prog rockers Earth And Fire. Drummer Pim Koopman was in Diesel, who had an international hit with ‘Sausalito Summernights’ in the early 1980s.

The Hague band Supersister became embroiled in the UK’s Canterbury Scene, while the likes of Silhouette and Sky Architect are among the new breed of progressive bands flying the flag for Holland.

Unfortunately, a chapter like this cannot do justice to the wealth of progressive talent that has abounded throughout Europe since the late 1960s. However, hopefully it serves as a guide to point you in the direction of some of the continent’s more interesting acts.

Jerry Ewing's Wonderous Stories is published by The Flood Gallery