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Album review: Schicke Führs and Fröhling (SFF) - Symphonic Pictures (1976)

Symphonic prog / avant prog

Album review: Schicke Führs and Fröhling (SFF) - Symphonic Pictures (1976)

Though nothing comes close to the first time I heard progressive rock, partly because I was absolutely blown away by Close to the Edge in September 1972, there are still moments decades later when you hear something that’s been around for some time and you think, ‘wow, how did I miss that?‘
Seeking out 70s progressivo italiano starting in 2005 was a planned programme so the impact of some genuinely stunning music (Il Balletto di Bronzo’s Ys, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso’s Darwin! or Zarathustra by Museo Rosenbach) was somewhat tempered. On the other hand, coming across the Lux Ade CD by La Maschera di Cera on sale for £10 in a second hand record shop, listening to Änglagård’s Hybris for the first time in 2014 and discovering the retro prog of Hinterland by Norway’s Wobbler more than a decade after its release elicited a ‘where have you been all my life?’ response.
One other album that had this effect on me was Symphonic Pictures by Schicke Führs and Fröhling (SFF) which I first bought on CD in 2016. Symphonic Pictures warrants a mention in Charles Snider’s Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock, noting that the unusual conformation of a trio with two Mellotron players managed to clock up sales of around 12000 in their native Germany when it was released despite a cold reception from music journalists. A listing in The Progressive Rock Handbook by Jerry Lucky also mentions lots of Mellotron and I might have been reminded of these two references when I found myself browsing the Esoteric Records website where Symphonic Pictures had been re-released on CD with live bonus material making up a second disc, so I embarked upon an entirely speculative purchase which turned out to be one of those serendipitous ‘wow’ occasions.
I actually find it a little strange that I’d never seen or heard of the album in my youth and none of my friends had any idea the album existed. Triumvirat, a Cologne-based keyboard trio very much in the mould of ELP had released Spartacus the previous year, an album which allowed them to gain a following outside of their native Germany. Spartacus was played on Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show and I bought the LP from a local record store which had begun to stock a range of European prog, including Clearlight and Pulsar from France and Tangerine Dream, Faust, Klaus Schulze and Can, alongside Triumvirat, from Germany, Greece’s Aphrodite’s Child and even the Hungarian band Omega.
One reason why Symphonic Pictures didn’t appear in the UK could be because it was released on the Brain label, while their compatriots were signed to UK labels Harvest (Triumvirat), the international label United Artists (Can) and Virgin or one of its subsidiaries; Clearlight were signed to Virgin; Pulsar were signed to Decca in the UK and the third album Halloween was on CBS; Aphrodite’s Child were signed to the Philips progressive imprint Vertigo; and Omega were signed to Decca.
Originally released in 1976, Symphonic Pictures has subsequently and quite rightly been hailed as a classic. Another reason why it might not have been picked up by the UK press or radio was its categorisation. It’s not Krautrock, Kosmiche or Berlin-school electronica and though (as one German critic suggested, citing drums and guitar) it’s a reversion to classic rock instrumentation, it’s not Pink Floyd-influenced space-rock like Eloy or Nektar; it doesn’t even fit into the keyboard trio formula responsible for the parallels between Triumvirat and ELP. I’m not really sure I’d class it as symphonic prog.
SSF were incredibly adventurous, carefully planning the music so that the trio could produce compositions more suited to a quartet. Heinz Fröhling created a double neck, six-string and bass, from a Gibson Les Paul and a Rickenbacker and also played acoustic guitar, clavinet, string synthesizer and one of the two Mellotrons; Gerhard Führs played a fairly conventional keyboard set up, including the other Mellotron, but used a synthesizer to add bass parts when Fröhling was playing guitar; Eduard Schicke is a solid drummer, playing a variety of percussion instruments and is even credited with ‘Moog’, though the sleeve notes don’t explain in what context.
The LP is quite short, containing four tracks on side one, the long-form opener Tao and two brief compositions Solution and Sundrops sandwiching the five minute thirty seconds Dialog. Side two features a single track Pictures, lasting 16’27. The all-instrumental music is made up of short motifs which form melodic blocks, incorporating shifting rhythmical meters and angular lines and even straying into jazz territory. I’d suggest that any ‘symphonic’ influence comes from 20th Century composers like Bartok and Stravinsky rather than any Bach or Beethoven-inspired tradition and that the song structure owes a debt to composers like Steve Reich.
The eight minute-plus Tao is very much in the same style as the long-form Pictures suite taking up the entire second side of the LP, although I think there are hints of Greenslade. There are some Yes-like moments on Dialog and the ending is reminiscent of Gentle Giant but overall I find it more avant-prog than symphonic. Solution is more pastoral and along with the transient Sundrops, a track which also reminds me of medieval-sounding Gentle Giant compositions conforms more closely to the UK symphonic prog idiom.
Pictures has plenty of development and I can imagine this piece in particular influencing the Mellotron-loving Änglagård. My CD comes with a contemporaneous live recording of good sonic quality from the ship-building town of Papenburg where the music has a King-Crimson exploratory vibe, achieved through fine musicianship, technical dexterity and a good level of understanding between the three band members, helped by planning the compositions very carefully.

It’s a ‘wow’ album - and there’s nothing quite like it.

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