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A documentary film by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Total time: 118 minutes

Located in Kent, the south-eastern county nicknamed “Garden of England” for its bucolic beauty, Canterbury is a city of barely over 50,000 people, dominated (not just in a physical sense) by the sprawling mass of its stunning Gothic cathedral. For all its rich history, it is easy to imagine how stifling such a place might have felt to its younger denizens in the late Sixties. Its very Englishness, in some ways, explains many of the distinctive features of the musical movement that originated there in those heady years.

Even within a quintessentially niche context such as progressive rock, the Canterbury scene has acquired a cult status that transcends its unassuming beginnings. With often mind-boggling connections and ramifications that would make the task of drawing a family tree rather daunting, this “movement” – born, in a polite, understated English way, from the early musical pursuits of a handful of middle-class teenagers – became extremely influential, though never achieving any of the commercial success that was awarded (albeit briefly) to some of the original prog bands.

Well over two years in the making, and nearly two hours long, the third chapter in Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s Romantic Warriors saga is at the same time similar and different from its predecessors. Though by far the most technically polished of the three documentaries – its pristine photography providing a perfect foil to the grainy footage from the Seventies – it is also the one with the strongest emotional impact. Meticulously researched, yet somewhat hampered by the unwillingness of some of the key protagonists of the scene to release material, or even just show up, the film occasionally feels like a story told from a third-person point of view. This, however, proves to be a strength rather than a weakness, lending an almost mythical quality to the narration.

In spite of some glaring defections, many of the exponents of the early Canterbury scene agreed to contribute to the film, providing their unique insights on the birth and development of the movement. Their contributions are supported by those of three modern-day experts: Aymeric Leroy, who maintains the most complete and informative website on the Canterbury scene; Bruce Gallanter of Downtown Music Gallery, one of New York City’s few surviving independent music stores; and Leonardo Pavkovic, head of Moonjune Records.

The story unfolds in chronological order, its very dense content sometimes hard to follow even for those who are familiar with the ins and outs of the scene – lively and colourful, yet tinged with an inescapable feeling of sadness. Because of the unavailability of a lot of the material recorded in those years, the music often takes a back seat: in fact, Canterbury Tales is the first film in the series to have a score written expressly by an outsider to the movement itself – the very talented, Maryland-based multi-instrumentalist/composer Dan Britton, who appeared in the first Romantic Warriors. On account of this and other factors, the film’s focus on people rather than music comes across even more strongly than in the previous two episodes of this “progressive music saga”.

If I had to sum up Canterbury Tales in few words, I would say that it is, first and foremost, about absence and loss. The story of Soft Machine – probably the best-known and most influential of the Canterbury acts – is mostly told by people who (with the sole exception of Daevid Allen) were not involved in the original incarnation of the band, though the availability of plentiful footage makes the extremely intricate tale come alive. Some of the protagonists of the scene seem to view their connection to Canterbury more like an embarrassment than a badge of honour: iconic keyboardist Dave Stewart’s image is hard to discern even in photo stills, while Robert Wyatt’s 1995 interview makes it quite clear that he is not interested in revisiting the past (“I am not a museum”).

In most other cases, however, the absence is a direct consequence of death: in fact, over the years the Canterbury scene has lost a larger share of its protagonists than other prog subgenres. The slight, pixie-like figure of Daevid Allen – with his lined face and uncannily young eyes and smile – weaves in and out of the narration, his untimely passing (occurred while the film was in post-production) reinforcing its melancholy, elegiac mood. In the whirlwind of images, the headline of Charlie Hebdo – the French satirical magazine that gained notoriety after the tragic events of a few months ago – flashes by a couple of times, perhaps easily missed, but adding to the pervasive sense of loss.

On the other hand, Canterbury’s trademark sense of humour and whimsy – a blend of quintessentially English nonsense, slightly risqué puns and highbrow suggestions – is suitably emphasized, in stark contrast with the stereotyped idea of progressive rock as an overly serious genre. Those characteristics are embodied by some of the musicians who appear in the film: Richard Sinclair’s gently eccentric, almost luminous presence, Mont Campbell’s charismatic allure and self-deprecating wit, Daevid Allen’s endearing quirkiness stand out, while others come across as more serious, but as a whole all the original protagonists give the impression of being content with their life, and still very much involved in artistic creation.

One of the most appealing features of Canterbury Tales lies in its “travelogue” aspect, apparently at odds with the narrow geographical focus of the original scene. Alongside Canterbury Cathedral’s majestic towers and pinnacles, the immaculately beautiful images of different locales – London’s Tower Bridge by night, Paris’ stately boulevards, the silver-grey North Sea shore, the peaceful greenery of the Apulian countryside, the bustling streets of Barcelona, the bright lights of the theatre district in Kyoto – illustrate the wide-ranging sweep of a movement that over the years managed to spread its influence well beyond the borders of its humble beginnings. Accordingly, the activity of non-English Canterbury bands such as Moving Gelatine Plates, The Muffins and Supersister is given ample recognition.

While watching Canterbury Tales, it is often hard not to feel that – unlike the first two chapters of the saga – the film’s main focus is on the past rather than the present. Daevid Allen’s enthusiastic endorsement of Gong’s newest member, maverick guitarist/composer Kavus Torabi, contrasts with the film’s final shot of David Sinclair’s deeply moving interpretation of his own signature piece, “Nine Feet Underground”, while the camera lingers over hands that, in spite of the evident marks of age, are as nimble as ever over the keys. Even if enough space is granted to those modern bands and artists who have picked up the baton (Forgas Band Phenomena, Planeta Imaginario, The Wrong Object and Syd Arthur), it is not enough to dispel the looming presence of the past, and the underlying poignancy so superbly conveyed by the opening and closing shots of Allen’s solitary figure on the sea shore. The dedication of the film to Zegarra’s mother and all the musicians who have passed away compounds the impression that Canterbury Tales is, in many ways, an epitaph.

Even if someone may find its relative lack of original music disappointing, Canterbury Tales is a beautiful, deeply touching (though not depressing) piece of filmmaking, a warm-hearted tribute to those protagonists of the scene who are no longer with us. While the film’s subdued mood reflects the impermanence of things, the lasting legacy of the music created by that handful of young people from a provincial corner of England is given its due, and the unavoidable sadness implied in Daevid Allen’s fateful parting words is somewhat mitigated. Highly recommended to every self-respecting progressive rock fan, Canterbury Tales is also an encouragement to delve deep into the treasure trove of this highly idiosyncratic subgenre’s rich output.

Links:
http://www.progdocs.com/Progdocs.com/Home.html
http://calyx.perso.neuf.fr/index.html
http://www.moonjune.com
http://www.downtownmusicgallery.com/Main/index.htm

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candle

While searching for a suitable title for my customary “year in review” essay, I thought of something that would convey the general mood of my 2014 while emphasizing the role that music had in helping me out of a bout of potentially severe depression. This is how I came out with this title (shared by a song from Rainbow’s iconic Rising album) and the image that goes with it. The first six months of the year were spent in a sort of daze, in which I tried to keep up with listening and reviewing new music, but was increasingly consumed by a job assignment that ultimately got me burned out. Over the summer months I gradually withdrew from social life, and lost most of my interest in music – to the point that, when ProgDay was approaching, I almost decided to bail out and stay home. The low number of posts on my blog bears witness to this sorry state of affairs – which was thankfully brought to an end by a very enjoyable ProgDay experience. Music, as usual, did help me out of a black hole, and so did the friendships I have made over the years thanks to this lifelong passion of mine.

After such an introduction, it will not come as a surprise that many of this year’s highly regarded albums escaped my attention, and even those I did manage to hear did not impress as much as they would have in a different situation. This 2014 overview may therefore contain some glaring omissions, for which I apologize. Keeping track of the staggering number of new releases in the progressive realm is difficult under normal circumstances, and even harder when real life gets in the way.

Although my full-length reviews have become a much rarer item, since February 2014 I have been regularly providing recommendations for an excellent new feature (the brainchild of DPRP longtime collaborator and editor Andy Read) by the name of Something for the Weekend?. Dedicated exclusively to progressive music available for free streaming on invaluable resources such as Progstreaming or Bandcamp, this weekly feature has allowed me to promote the work of many outstanding artists – as well as exploring a lot of exciting new music that might have otherwise flown under the radar. Going back to ProgArchives, the thriving website where I started my career as a reviewer back in 2005 (and also met my husband), after a four-year absence has also been very beneficial in terms of discovering new music and cultivating fulfilling relationships.

The past year saw my personal tastes shift even further away from traditional prog, and wholeheartedly embrace the new incarnations of the genre. While this does not mean I have stopped enjoying classic prog, I recognize that, in the second decade of the 21st century, the genre needs to look forward rather than backward if it is to survive. Speaking of which, having resolutely moved underground is probably the best thing to happen to progressive rock in the past few years. In spite of the many difficulties they face, many progressive artists now produce music to please themselves first and foremost. Without having to obey the constraints of the “market”, artistic creativity can be given free rein, so that we can expect the next few years to be generous with high-quality releases.

My personal “best of 2014” spans different subgenres of prog, with a pronounced emphasis on the eclectic and experimental side of things. Though often labeled as RIO/Avant, my album of the year – Ut Gret’s marvelous Ancestor’s Tale – is the best Canterbury album to be released in a long while (though the band hail from Louisville, Kentucky), and introduced the prog audience to the stunning vocal talents of songstress Cheyenne Mize. Incidentally, another two of my favourite 2014 albums came from bands that have occasionally been associated with the Canterbury sound – though. Like Ut Gret, neither hails from that part of the world. Moraine’s  Groundswell, is their most mature work to date, showcasing the Seattle quintet’s unique brand of ethnic-tinged, contemporary jazz-rock. On the other hand Italian quartet Accordo dei Contrari’s comeback album, AdC , saw them explore heavier territories, though retaining the exquisite sense of melody that distinguishes Giovanni Parmeggiani’s compositional style.

As a whole, 2014 was an uncommonly good year for eclectic releases that avoided the “old wine in new bottles” syndrome. Knifeworld’s sophomore release, The Unraveling, spearheaded this highly individual approach to the creation of progressive rock. Also appearing on Gong’s latest effort, I See You, Knifeworld mainman Kavus Torabi seems poised to replace Steven Wilson as the busiest man in prog, though with a much more genuinely innovative attitude. Torabi’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Emmett Elvin’s Bloody Marvels was true to its title, delivering a series of deeply cinematic, atmospheric pieces mostly performed on acoustic instruments, released on independent British label Bad Elephant Music – which in 2014 distinguished itself as one of the foremost purveyors of interesting progressive fare. Together with Elvin’s album, guitarist Matt Stevens’ Lucid and Trojan Horse’s “pronk” assault World Upside Down proved that the British isles have got more to offer than endless variations on the neo-prog gospel. As for Sound Mirror, the highly touted second album by “new Canterburians” Syd Arthur (their first for the revamped Harvest label), I only managed to get hold of it when I had already started writing this piece: my initial impression is positive, though the album is definitely in a more mainstream vein.

One of the biggest surprises of the year, mentioned as a favourite by many prog fans, came from Norwegian outfit Seven Impale: their furiously sax-driven, full-length debut, City of the Sun, combines echoes of King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator with an endearingly zany sense of humour. Fellow Norwegians Major Parkinson’s “cabaret rock” opus Twilight Cinema also drew a lot of rave reviews, as did Swedes Pingvinorkestern’s heady melting pot Push. Spain’s ebullient Cheeto’s Magazine offered more Zappaesque, genre-bending goodness with their debut, Boiling Fowls, while French outfit PoiL’s Brossaklitt went beyond Magma and their offspring, with lyrics in an invented language set to an explosive mixture of punk, jazz and RIO/Avant. From the eastern reaches of Europe, Russian quartet Uphill Work’s third album, Missing Opportunities, struck a fine balance between the traditional song form and eccentric avant-garde.

The sprawling US scene achieved its fair share of cliché-busting releases, such as Atomic Ape’s frenetic debut, Swarm (introducing a revamped lineup of Orange Tulip Conspiracy), or Jack O’The Clock’s mysterious Night Loops, a rather different album from last year’s folksy All My Friends. Bent Knee’s Shiny-Eyed Babies reinterprets art rock in thoroughly modern fashion -occasionally reminiscent of their fellow Bostonians Schooltree, though in a darker, more experimental vein. The Pacific Northwest scene produced the melancholy folk-prog of The Autumn Electric’s Flowers for Ambrosia (featuring Phideaux’s keyboardist Johnny Unicorn) as well as the furious “pronk” of Alex’s Hand’s The Roaches and Badwater Fire Company’s eponymous debut, the elegant eclecticism of The Mercury Tree’s Countenance, and the experimental jazz-rock of Fang Chia’s Where Would You That We Gather?. From New York City came the dirty funk of Tauk’s Collisions and the Zappa-inflected jazz-rock of Trout Cake’s EP Ultrasounds (recommended to fans of Frogg Café). Somewhat more appealing to prog traditionalists, Resistor’s To the Stars blends a lot of diverse influences (think Kansas, Iron Maiden and Jethro Tull jamming together with a very 21st-century attitude) for one of the year’s most intriguing “crossover” offerings, while Dream the Electric Sleep’s powerful second album Heretics treads in grunge/alternative territory. Minneapolis quartet  Galactic Cowboy Orchestra also released a new album, Zombie Mouth, and at the end of August wowed the ProgDay crowd with their sparkling brand of “jazzgrass art-rock”.

Instrumental progressive rock in its many forms continues to be a source of interest and delight. After 2013’s psychedelic opus, The Trip, Djam Karet celebrated their 30th anniversary with the über-laid-back Regenerator 3017, while their label Firepool Records brought to the prog audience’s attention the riveting self-titled debut by Spoke of Shadows, the latest project by Warr guitar wizard Mark Cook (of Herd of Instinct fame) in collaboration with renowned session drummer Bill Bachman. One of the year’s undisputed highlights, however, came once again from the cold climes of Sweden, with Necromonkey’s mesmerizing second album, A Glimpse of Possible Endings – complemented later in the year by a career-defining appearance at ProgDay.

Alongside Moraine’s pristine album, the ever-reliable Moonjune Records provided at least another entry to my personal “best of 2014” list: Belgian songstress Susan Clynes’s delightful debut, Life Is… – a must-listen for fans of Kate Bush and Tori Amos, but also for lovers of contemporary jazz. Keeping up his efforts at promoting the Indonesian progressive jazz-rock scene, Leonardo Pavkovic also brought us the latest opuses from established guitar heroes Tohpati (Tribal Dance) and Dewa Budjana (Surya Namaskar), as well as rising star Tesla Manaf’s self-titled debut, and simakDialog’s Live at Orion (capturing a gig that I was lucky to attend). Another live album, The Third Set, came from Chicago whizz kids Marbin, one of the busiest bands on the planet; while the European scene gave us drummer Xavi Reija’s thunderous Resolution and the majestic modern jazz-rock tour de force of Machine Mass Trio’s Inti.

Milan-based label AltrOck Productions kept its unflagging tradition of delivering high-class material to sophisticated prog listeners looking for distinctive musical experiences: besides the already-mentioned Ut Gret, Accordo dei Contrari and PoiL, the re-release of Geranium by Russian folksy RIO/Avant outfit Vezhlivyi Otkaz, the jazz-rock-meets-space-rock craziness of Wrupk Urei’s Kõik Saab Korda, the almost impenetrable, yet fascinating Avant of Factor Burzaco’s 3, enhanced by Carolina Restuccia’s vertiginous vocals.

Indeed, 2014 was a great year for bands fronted by female vocalists. One of the most anticipated releases of the year was undoubtedly MoeTar’s scintillating Entropy of the Century, a quintessential modern art rock effort showcasing Moorea Dickason’s jaw-dropping vocal skills. Kate Bush fans certainly found a lot to love in Russian duo iamthemorning’s delicate, haunting Belighted. In a similar vein, the debut of Swedish band Nomads of Hope (including two former members of late Seventies band Kultivator), Breaking the Circles for a While, marries folk and medieval music with haunting trip-hop suggestions, while Finnish outfit Aalto’s Ikaro introduces elements of Tuvan throat singing and North Indian raga. Many accolades were also received by Homínido‘s debut Estirpe Litica, another highly eclectic effort featuring some former members of Chilean band La Desoorden.

Plenty of interesting new releases came both from newcomers and seasoned protagonists of the thriving Italian scene: among the many worth mentioning, Fabio Zuffanti’s somberly ambitious La quarta vittima, Alex Carpani Band’s modern symphonic 4 Destinies, FEM’s lush concept Sulla bolla di sapone, Nodo Gordiano’s intricate Nous, Agora’s lovely slice of acoustic jazz-rock Ichinen, Greenwall’s melodic yet whimsical Zappa Zippa Zuppa Zeppa, the space-tinged classic RPI of LogosL’enigma della vita, Tacita Intesa’s dramatic, self-titled debut. On the other hand, Lagartija’s Amore di vinile and Marco Machera’s Dime Novels explored the successful union of prog and singer-songwriter music, while Periplo’s debut, Diario di un malessere passeggero, offered an intriguing slice of stylish chamber rock. Sadly, the Italian prog scene suffered an irreparable loss in February, when legendary Banco vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo was killed in a car crash.

Even if I have grown away from classic symphonic prog, a few 2014 releases brought a breath of fresh air in a subgenre that can often sound stale. Kant Freud Kafka’s No Tengas Miedo brought to mind The Enid’s unique brand of majestic, classical-inspired prog, while Deluge Grander’s powerfully choral Heliotians – printed in only 205 hand-numbered, hand-painted LP copies –distilled the very essence of the modern DIY ethos. Those disappointed with Yes’ recent lackluster recording efforts found a lot of enjoyment in Heliopolis’ bright, feel-good debut, City of the Sun. Australia’s The Merlin Bird’s offered lovely female vocals and pastoral textures in their second album, Chapter and Verse, while Eccentric Orbit went for an all-out, ELP-style keyboard assault in Creation of the Humanoids.

2014 also brought some interesting solo projects, with the brilliant heavy fusion of Dean Watson’s Fantasizer!, the eclectic jazz-rock concept of Superfluous Motor’s Shipwrecked, the hauntingly intimist album by  Bodies Floating Ashore (aka Matt Lebofsky of miRthkon/MoeTar/Secret Chiefs 3 fame), and Simon McKechnie’s brainy, Crimsonian tour de force, Newton’s Alchemy.

Unfortunately, some of this year’s notable releases still remain unheard to this day: for instance, Univers Zéro’s Phosphorescent Dreams (released by an obscure Japanese label, and therefore very hard to find), Gong’s I See You, Secret Chiefs 3’s Ishraqiyun: Perichoresis, KaukasusI, and all of Cuneiform Records’ 2014 output. Other high-profile albums have been discussed in detail by most prog websites, but will not be mentioned here for a number of reasons. I have also refrained from mentioning albums I did not particularly enjoy, because I find negativity ultimately pointless, and also because quite a few fellow music writers have already published comprehensive “year in review” pieces covering many of the albums that have not found a place here.

No “year in review” piece would be complete without a mention of live performances. Even if my personal concert-going activity was very limited in comparison to previous years, 2014 was quite generous in terms of festivals and shows, with the continuing success of ROSfest, the return of Baja Prog (unfortunately suspended for 2015), the second editions of SeaProg and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (both confirmed for 2015), ProgDay’s 20th edition, and the Orion Studios‘ marvelous 20th anniversary celebration – as well as the welcome addition of A Day of Prog Art Rock Showcase, organized by the New England Art Rock Society(NewEARS) in the Boston metropolitan area, and Chicago’s two-day Progtoberfest.

My commitment to Something for the Weekend? provided the incentive to explore and actively look for new music to recommend to the feature’s steadily increasing number of readers (50,000 were reached a couple of weeks before the end of the year). What I jokingly call my “collection” of interesting new music bookmarks is also steadily growing. Bandcamp, in particular, is like an underground treasure trove that more and more artists are using to give exposure to their music, embracing a model that rules out any kind of financial gain, but thrives on positive feedback and direct communication with fans. Actively seeking out challenging new music, and making a point of listening to at least one album a day (preferably early in the morning, before I start getting ready to go to work) has become a pleasant routine that has helped me to keep in touch with the scene.

Since many of the albums mentioned in this essay are available for streaming, I hope this lengthy feature will encourage at least some of my readers to click on the hyperlinks and listen to those artists, and perhaps invest a few dollars (or any other currency) to buy a CD or two. As much as I enjoy the classics, I firmly believe that the future of progressive music lies with these people, whose dedication to music often means struggling with less than favourable circumstances, including the lack of support on the part of their intended audience. This essay is dedicated to them, with my most heartfelt thanks for the gift of music and its positive effect on my life.

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1505

No doubt about it: 2012 was a difficult year for most of us. True to the Italian saying about leap years being unlucky, 2012 ran the gamut from weather-related disasters, wars and other acts of random violence to political malfunction and economic near-collapse, sparing almost no part of the world. There was no lack of disruption in my own little world either. In spite of all my good resolutions, the year started with a few weeks of less than stellar physical condition (nothing serious, but enough to grind most of my projects to a halt), and then I was hit by a double-whammy of bureaucracy-related problems that –  while obviously not tragic – caused enough distress to cast a pall over the remaining months.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 2012 I have been less prolific a reviewer than in previous years, or that the views on this blog have somehow decreased, though not dramatically so. Constant stress can wreak havoc on inspiration, and at times it was hard to come up with a coherent sentence – let alone an 800-word review. However, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of worry and general annoyance, music has remained a source of delight and (as the title of this essay points out) comfort when things got really tough.

The number of progressive rock-related albums released during 2012 was nothing short of staggering. The second decade of the 21st century started indeed with a bang in 2011, and, at least for the time being, the trend does not show any signs of being reversed. Many of those albums were made available for streaming (at least for a limited time) by websites such as Progstreaming, Bandcamp or Soundcloud, allowing the often cash-strapped fans a “test run”. On the other hand, the sheer volume of new releases made it necessary to pick and choose to avoid being overwhelmed. While confirming the vitality of the genre, this also showed one of the downsides of the digital age – the oversaturation of the market, and frequent lack of quality control.

As my readers know, I do not do “top 10/20/50/100” lists, leaving this exercise to people who are interested in arranging their choices according to a more or less strict order of preference. From my perspective, there have been milestone releases, and others that – while perhaps not equally memorable – still deserve a mention. On any account, even more so than in the previous year, 2012 has emphasized the ever-widening gulf between the retro-oriented and the forward-thinking components of the prog audience. Sometimes, while looking at the reviews pages of some of the leading websites of the genre, I have had the impression that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) the twain shall hardly ever meet. In the US, such a split has been detrimental to the festival scene – though the void left by NEARfest’s demise may lead organizers to step out of their typical audience’s comfort zone in order to attract a more diverse crowd.

Though I am most familiar with albums that I have reviewed, or otherwise own, there are others that have left enough of an impression to deserve a mention in this post. As my choices have been mainly informed by personal taste, I will apologize beforehand for any major omissions. While I may consider those albums essential listening, some of my readers will certainly disagree with me, and suggest their own personal picks –and this is exactly how things should be. Indeed, as the French would say, vive la différence!

Although I have built a reputation as a fan of the more “difficult” stuff, one of my favourite albums of the year (and one that is likely to be featured in many top 10 lists) is an album that, in many respects, is not even “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. However, Echolyn’s self-titled eighth studio album – unlike so many true-blue prog releases – is a masterpiece of songwriting, instrumentally tight without any concessions to self-indulgence, and packing a huge emotional punch. Another highly awaited, almost unexpected comeback – 18 years after the band’s previous studio effort – Änglagård’s third studio album, Viljans Öga, reveals a keen, almost avant-garde edge beneath its pastoral surface, well highlighted in their impeccable NEARfest appearance.

2012 was a milestone year for what I like to call the “new frontier” of prog – less focused on epic grandeur and more song-oriented. In the second decade of the 21st century, “progressive rock” and “song” are not antithetic concepts any longer, and going for 5 minutes instead than 15 is not a sign of sell-out. Three albums in particular stand out: 3RDegree’s The Long Division, a perfect combination of great melodies, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship with the added value of George Dobbs’ Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals; the Magna Carta reissue of MoeTar’s 2010 debut From These Small Seeds, a heady blend of catchy hooks, edgier suggestions and Moorea Dickason’s stellar, jazz-inflected voice; and Syd Arthur’s delightful “modern Canterbury” debut, On And On – infused with the spirit of early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

As in the previous years, in 2012 the ever-growing instrumental prog scene produced some outstanding albums. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson wowed devotees of high-energy jazz-rock with Imposing Elements, the second installment of his one-man project – inspired by the industrial Gothic paintings of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. In the early months of 2012, French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena made a triumphant recording comeback with the exhilaratingly accomplished Acte V. Another two excellent Cuneiform releases, Ergo’s second album If Not Inertia and Janel & Anthony’s lovely debut, Where Is Home, while not immediately approachable, will gradually win over the discerning listener with their deep emotion and lyricism. In a similar vein, A Room for the Night by drummer extraordinaire John Orsi (the mind behind Providence-based collective Knitting By Twilight) provides a veritable aural feast for percussion lovers. On the cusp of prog, jazz and metal, the aptly-titled Brutal Romance marks the thunderous return of ebullient French power trio Mörglbl, led by Christophe Godin’s humour-laden guitar acrobatics. Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records specializes in instrumental music of a consistently high standard of quality, and this year’s landmark releases were no exception: Indonesian powerhouses Ligro (Dictionary 2) and Tohpati Bertiga (Riot), Canadian quartet Mahogany Frog’s rivetingly eclectic Senna, and douBt’s towering Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love – all of them true melting pots of rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelia. Also very much worthy of exploration, Kotebel’s Concert for Piano and Electric Ensemble revisits and updates the marriage of classical music and progressive rock with a heady dose of traditional Spanish flavour.

The left-field fringe of the progressive rock spectrum was spearheaded by the tireless efforts of dedicated labels such as Cuneiform Records and AltrOck Productions. One of  2012’s musical milestones – the long-awaited sixth studio album by seminal US Avant outfit Thinking Plague, titled Decline and Fall – was released in the very first weeks of the year. Mike Johnson’s monumentally intricate, intensely gloomy reflection on humankind’s impending Doomsday was complemented by a Thinking Plague-related project of a vastly different nature  – the charming, Old-World whimsy of 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard, Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco’s transatlantic collaboration with Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille. By an intriguing coincidence, almost at the tail end of the year came the stunning live album by one of the foremost modern RIO/Avant outfits, Yugen’s Mirrors – recorded at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux (France). A special mention is also deserved by Cuneiform’s touching tribute to RIO icon Lars Hollmer, With Floury Hand (sketches), released four years after the artist’s untimely passing.

On the Zeuhl front, founding fathers Magma made their comeback with the short and unusually low-key Félicité Thosz, proving once again Christian Vander’s versatility and seemingly endless reservoir of ideas; while the US produced an astonishing example of Zeuhl inspired by Aztec mythology – multi-national outfit Corima’s second album Quetzalcoatl. Eclectic albums such as Cucamonga’s Alter Huevo, Inner Ear Brigade’s Rainbro (featuring another extremely talented female vocalist, Melody Ferris) and Stabat Akish’s Nebulos – as well as chamber-rock gems such as Subtilior’s Absence Upon a Ground  and AltrOck Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes RIO – reinforced AltrOck’s essential role in the discovery of new, exciting talent on the cutting edge of the progressive rock scene. Also worthy of a mention as regards the Avant-Progressive field are the politically-charged Songs From the Empire by Scott Brazieal, one of the founding fathers of the US Avant scene; the exhilarating Sleep Furiously by English outfit Thumpermonkey;  the wacked-out return of cult Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat, titled Valta; and French quartet Jack Dupon’s energetic double live CD set, Bascule A Vif . The Avant-Progressive scene was also celebrated in the second episode of José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt’s documentary film series dedicated to progressive rock , Romantic Warriors II – About Rock in Opposition.

The year was also noted for hotly anticipated comebacks from high-profile acts:  first of all, Rush, who were also finally inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the joy of their substantial following. Their Clockwork Angels, while not a life-altering masterpiece, is definitely their strongest effort in almost 20 years. 2012 also saw the release of Ian Anderson’s Thick As a Brick 2, mixed by none other than Steven Wilson (also responsible in 2012 for the 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson’s seminal Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) – a solid, well-crafted album, though not on a par with the original. While King Crimson seem to have been put on hold indefinitely, Robert Fripp has not been idle, and the elegant Travis/Fripp CD/DVD package Follow offers a complete aural and visual experience – suitably rarefied yet spiked by almost unexpected electric surges – to diehard fans of the legendary guitarist.

On the “modern prog” front, standard-bearers The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album Noctourniquet marks a return to form for the band, as it is their tightest, most cohesive effort in quite a long time. The Tea Club’s third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly confirms the status of the New Jersey band (now a trio) as one of the most interesting modern outfits, with a respectful eye towards the golden age of the genre; while Gazpacho’s deeply atmospheric March of Ghosts offers another fine example of English label KScope’s “post-progressive” direction. In a more accessible vein, Canadian/Ukrainian duo Ummagma’s  pair of debut albums, Ummagma and Antigravity,  will appeal to fans of Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins with their ethereal yet uplifting feel.

Though I cannot call myself a fan of progressive metal, the debut albums by female-fronted German band Effloresce (Coma Ghosts) and Israeli outfit Distorted Harmony (Utopia) made enough of an impression to deserve a mention here; while Diablo Swing Orchestra’s Pandora’s Piñata – the band’s most mature effort to date – transcends the boundaries of the genre.  At the very beginning of the year, Steve Brockmann and George Andrade’s opus AIRS: A Rock Opera updates the classic rock opera format while deftly avoiding the cheesiness of other similar efforts, concentrating on a moving tale of guilt and redemption interpreted by an array of considerable vocal and instrumental talent.

The thriving contemporary psychedelic/space rock scene also produced a slew of fine albums that combine modernity and eclecticism with an unmistakable retro touch: among many others, Øresund Space Collective’s mellow West, Space and Love, Earthling Society’s eerie pagan-fest Stations of the Ghost, Colour Haze’s Krautrock-influenced double CD set She Said, Diagonal’s fiery The Second Mechanism, Astra’s highly awaited (though to these ears not as impressive as the others) second album, The Black Chord. Fans of Krautrock, and Can in particular, should also check out Black and Ginger by Churn Milk Joan, one of the many projects by volcanic English multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson (of Big Block 454 fame); while Australian band Tame Impala’s Lonerism will appeal to those who like psychedelic rock in a song-based format.

As prolific and varied as ever, the Italian progressive rock scene produced a number of remarkable albums ranging from the classic symphonic prog of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Pt. 1, Alphataurus’ comeback AttosecondO and Locanda delle Fate’s The Missing Fireflies (featuring both older and new material) to more left-field fare such as Nichelodeon’s live album NO, Stereokimono’s Intergalactic Art Café and Daal’s Dodecahedron. Another of Fabio Zuffanti’s many projects besides Höstsonaten, L’Ombra della Sera, presents an appealingly Gothic-tinged, almost completely instrumental homage to the soundtracks of cult Italian TV series of the Seventies. Aldo Tagliapietra’s Nella Pietra e Nel Vento, his first release after his split from Le Orme, a classy, prog-tinged singer-songwriter effort, boasts a splendid cover by Paul Whitehead. The prize of most impressive RPI album of the year, however, goes to Il Bacio della Medusa’s ultra-dramatic historical concept Deus Lo Vult, with side project Ornithos’ eclectic debut La Trasfigurazione a close second.

Of the many “traditional” prog albums released in 2012, one in particular stands out on account of its superb songwriting: Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1, an effort of great distinction though not as impressive as its predecessor, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Autumn Chorus’ debut The Village to the Vale also celebrates the glories of England’s green and pleasant land with a near-perfect marriage of pastoral symphonic prog and haunting post-rock; while Israeli outfit Musica Ficta’s A Child & A Well (originally released in 2006) blends ancient and folk music suggestions with jazz and symphonic prog. Released just three weeks before the end of the year, Shadow Circus’ third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night (their first for 10T Records), based on Madeleine L’Engle’s cult novel A Wrinkle in Time, fuses symphonic prog with classic and hard rock in an exhilarating mixture. On the other hand, Pacific Northwest trio Dissonati’s debut, Reductio Ad Absurdum, gives classic prog modes a makeover with influences from new wave and avant-garde. Highly touted outfit District 97’s sophomore effort, Trouble With Machines, proves that the Chicago band is much more than a nine days’ wonder, showcasing their  tighter songwriting skills, as well as vocalist/frontwoman Leslie Hunt’s undeniable talent and charisma.

With such a huge wealth of releases, it was materially impossible for me to listen to everything I would have wanted to, and my personal circumstances often impaired my enjoyment of music, as well as my concentration. Among the releases of note that I missed in 2012 (though I still hope to be able to hear in 2013), I will mention Beardfish’s The Void, Anathema’s Weather Systems, Dead Can Dance’s comeback Anastasis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (another comeback, released after a 10-year hiatus), AranisMade in Belgium, The Muffins’ Mother Tongue, Alec K. Redfearn and the EyesoresSister Death, and Motorpsycho’s The Death-Defying Unicorn. All of these albums have been very positively received by the prog community, even if they will not necessarily appeal to everyone.

As was the case with my 2011 retrospective, quite a few highly acclaimed prog albums will be missing from this article. This implies no judgment in terms of intrinsic quality, but is simply determined by personal taste. Albums such as The Flower KingsBanks of Eden, Marillion’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made or IZZ’s Crush of Night (to name but three) –although thoroughly professional and excellent from a musical point of view – failed to set my world on fire. A pure matter of chemistry – as further demonstrated by my lack of enthusiasm for Storm Corrosion’s self-titled album (which reflected my reaction to Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning in 2011), or Mike Keneally’s undoubtedly outstanding Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC fame.

2012 was also a great year for live music, with both big names and new talent hitting the road. While we missed some of the former (such as Rush and Peter Gabriel), as well as this year’s edition of RoSfest,  the one-two punch of NEARfest Apocalypse and ProgDay 2012 more than made up for it. Unfortunately, the all-out Seventies bash named FarFest, organized by a veteran of the US prog scene such as Greg Walker, and planned for early October 2012 – was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, reinforcing the impression that the era of larger-scale prog festivals may well be coming to an end (in spite of the announcement of Baja Prog’s return in the spring of 2013). On the other hand, the much less ambitious ProgDay model is likely to become the way forward, as are the smaller, intimate gigs organized by people such as Mike Potter of Orion Studios, the NJ Proghouse “staph”, and our very own DC-SOAR.

With an impressive list of forthcoming releases for every progressive taste, 2013 looks set up to be as great a year as the previous two. In the meantime, we should continue to support the independent music scene in our best capacity – not just by buying albums or writing about them, but also attending gigs and generally maintaining a positive, constructive attitude. I would also like to thank all my friends and readers for their input and encouragement, which has been invaluable especially whenever the pressures of “real life” became too hard to bear. If this piece has seen the light of day, it is because you have made me feel that it was still worth it.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. First Difference (3:18)
2. Edge of the Earth (3:40)
3. Ode to the Summer (4:10)
4. Dorothy (4:25)
5. Truth Seeker (3:06)
6. Night Shaped Light (3:38)
7. Promise Me (2:40)
8. Black Wave (2:40)
9. Moving World (4:08)
10. Paradise Lost (8:22)

LINEUP:
Liam Magill – lead vocals, guitar, flute, percussion, effects
Raven Bush – violin, mandolin, piano, percussion, vocals, effects
Fred Rother – drums
Joel Magill – bass, vocals, percussion, effects

For all my familiarity with the current progressive rock scene, English band Syd Arthur took me completely by surprise, as I had never heard their name prior to receiving On And On, their debut album, as a gift from a friend. Though very few albums make a deep impression on me on first listen, On And On was one of those rare cases, and one of the strongest releases I have heard in a year that has not been at all stingy with interesting music.

In the past couple of years, Syd Arthur have received extensive coverage on magazines and websites dedicated to non-mainstream music, and on February 15, 2010 were featured as New Band of the Day by British newspaper The Guardian, notoriously harsh towards old-school prog. While most of those articles mentioned the “P” word, the numerous webzines and blog sites specializing in the genre seem to  have been largely unaware of them – which is not the case with other bands associated with the psychedelic rock revival, such as Dungen or Black Mountain.

Syd Arthur (whose name was inspired by Herman Hesse’s novel Siddharta, one of the iconic texts of the hippie era, and also the inspiration for Yes’ Close to the Edge) are a quartet hailing from the historic English town of Canterbury – a place synonymous with one of the most distinctive strains of the multifaceted progressive rock  universe. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to call them the direct heirs of the scene that developed in the late Sixties, producing highly influential bands such as Soft Machine, Caravan and Gong. In many ways, Syd Arthur are deeply rooted in that scene, pursuing the path laid out by Caravan and Soft Machine in their early albums before both bands took a more “progressive” direction. In addition, the “Syd” part of the band’s name evokes the spirit of  psychedelic rock icon Syd Barrett, who was also an important influence on the original Canterbury bands.

While Syd Arthur’s music may not be the most ground-breaking on the market, it undoubtedly modernizes a sound that is all too often prone to showing its age. The four band members, in spite of their obvious youth, have been together since 2006, and have already accumulated enough experience to set up their own recording studio and independent label (named Dawn Chorus Recording Company). Their recording debut, the EP Moving World, was released in 2010, followed by the single “Ode to the Summer” in the following year, and finally by On And On in the summer of 2012. Like most progressive bands that shun the “prog” tag, they also have an impressive record of live performances in the UK and in other European countries. Interestingly, violinist Raven Bush is the son of writer and photographer John Carder Bush, Kate Bush’s elder brother, and – though Syd Arthur’s music as a whole might not immediately recall Kate’s – some similarities can be noticed, especially in terms of approach to the traditional song format.

With their distinctive configuration – which gives violin a starring role in conjunction with the guitar, while keyboards are used very sparingly – Syd Arthur play music from a bygone era with a contemporary flair, blending psychedelic folk with funky jazz-rock suggestions and some heady spacey nuances, both acoustic and electric elements well in evidence. The eclectic inspiration – so often resulting in a mishmash of unfinished ideas – is instead handled skillfully, and the songs have an easy, natural flow, their delightful musical texture enhanced by Liam Magill’s unique vocal delivery – a 21st century take on Robert Wyatt, a tenor imbued with a gentle wistfulness and innate sense of melody, yet never whiny or overdramatic.

Clocking in at a mere 38 minutes, On And On is a short album, and  – with the sole exception of closer “Paradise Lost”, its songs are also short (3 minutes on average). However, the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure is often cleverly disguised or understated, and the appeal of the melodies is never made too obvious. Opener “First Difference” blends the airy lyricism of the violin and acoustic guitar with the slight edge injected by the electric guitar, and a hint of reggae in the song’s easy mid-pace. Liam Magill’s voice follows the musical line, never dominating the instruments though not taking a back seat either. The following two songs are variations on the same theme, but with enough personality of their own to stand individually – the changes in pacing within each piece handled with subtlety, allowing the music to flow naturally without ever sounding strained or contrived.

“Dorothy” (recently released as a single), on the other hand, is a slow, nostalgic number – almost a jazzy torch song, while the uptempo “Truth Seeker” introduces a vein of psychedelic electricity, which in “Night Shaped Light” coexists with a samba-tinged saunter. “Moving World” brings back echoes of early Soft Machine, though with a folksier flavour softening the psychedelic edge. The 8 minutes of “Paradise Lost” come almost as a surprise, as the track diverges noticeably from the rest of the album – not only in running time, but also in its looser structure and in the different role of the vocals – mostly present in the form of chanting, or else treated as to be almost unrecognizable. The heavy, distorted guitar-violin interplay in the middle of the track hints at stoner rock, or even Jefferson Airplane at their most experimental. All of this, as well as the recourse to atmospheric sound effects, hints at possible future developments in the band’s style.

Unlike other bands that tap into the rich vein of the psychedelic rock tradition, Syd Arthur do not indulge in lengthy, hypnotic riff-feasts, and introduce elements of “prog” complexity with admirable lightness of hand – much as Caravan or Soft Machine did in their early stages, or Hatfield and the North when blending catchy tunes with intricate jazz-rock patterns. Highly recommended to to fans of the Canterbury scene and early Pink Floyd, as well as to anyone who does not equate progressive rock with 30-minute epics, On and On is a surprisingly accomplished production, and a genuinely delightful listen.

Links:
http://sydarthur.co.uk/

http://www.myspace.com/sydarthur

http://www.dawnchorusrecordco.com/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/feb/15/new-band-syd-arthur

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