Ever since Tales from Topographic Oceans was released in 1973, I’ve been entranced by not just the music, but also by the Roger Dean cover artwork. My original blog about Tales was turned into a full review https://www.progblog.co.uk/copy-of-tales-from-topographic-oceans and up until the release of the Anderson – Stolt Invention of Knowledge earlier this year (2016) there hadn’t really been anything of such scope released by anyone else. If we believe the review of the Steven Wilson remix of Tales by Chris Roberts in Prog 70, there appears to be a consensus emerging that regards The Ancients (side 3) as being the weak link. I disagree. I think that The Ancients is Yes doing Stravinsky, a brilliant interpretation of primal human belief, neatly brought to resolution by the underrated Howe acoustic guitar in the ‘leaves of green’ section; The Remembering on the other hand, meanders too much and when Wakeman criticised the album as lacking sufficient material for a double LP, I assumed the ‘filler’ he was referring to was on side 2 as the ebb and flow of the Topographic Ocean has a more limited dynamic range.
If the artwork on Fragile, Close to the Edge and Yessongs represent a unified narrative allowing the listener to piece together the story of a doomed planet and the recolonisation of a new home, Tales was a mini-story all on one gatefold sleeve, the juxtaposition of disparate elements selected by the members of the band, carefully placed so that both the front cover on its own and the front and back images together have a symmetry that works. Having an interest in Stonehenge and Avebury provided a degree of familiarity but the fish swimming through the air added a degree of mystery which I always associated with the ‘topographic ocean’. There’s an incongruity to the painting but it doesn’t detract from the overall scene. Why, for instance, would you put one of the geoglyphs from the plain at Nazca in front of a Mayan temple? I simply accepted the explanation that these were suggestions from the musicians themselves and marvelled at their exoticism.
Monkey geoglyph, Nazca
The golden era of progressive rock coincided with an increased interest in science fiction, possibly catalysed by the moon landing on 20th July1969 when it seemed that the future had arrived; Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind heralding a technologically fuelled optimism. As we expanded the frontiers of our knowledge, probing out into space and preparing for lunar exploration, the imagination of a number of cod-science writers was sent into overdrive. Erich Von Daniken published Chariots of the Gods? In 1968 and within the next few years it had become quite widely read by school friends and associates. Alan White’s wish to have a Nazca geoglyph on the cover of Tales was roughly synchronous with the popularity of Von Daniken’s book and whereas I’d far rather listen to archaeological explanations than some spurious New Age theory of ancient aliens, I still had a desire to see the markings at Nazca. Von Daniken compares photographs of American space centre launch sites to the constructions on the plains of Nazca and while current archaeological evidence suggests the markings had a magical-religious purpose pertaining to water which was in very scarce supply, they also had an astronomical purpose that related to seasonal changes. Over the past 30-odd years I’ve ticked off Stonehenge, Avebury and the Carnac alignments in Brittany and last month I finally got around to visit Peru, taking in Machu Picchu and equally importantly, a flight over the Nazca lines. Both were unforgettable experiences though sadly the monkey geoglyph, as used in the illustration for Tales, appeared a little indistinct from the air. It’s strange that Dean has painted the monkey as a mirror image, with the tail to the right and the hands to the left; in real life this 110m figure has the coiled tailed to the left and the intricate hands to the right.
The whole Peruvian adventure was filled with unforgettable sights and activities, with the 7-hour trek up to Machu Picchu when it was revealed below us from the Sun Gate being the most memorable. We arrived in Lima 48 hours after Steve Hackett had begun playing with local Genesis tribute band Genetics but there was no way I could have got to see the performance without taking extra days off work, especially as it had proved difficult to get the leave I required and requested. The 15-day tours all begin on a Monday so a short stopover in Madrid meant we had a little over 24 hours before getting together as a tour group. Rather than head off to the old centre of the city, we spent Sunday in Miraflores, where our hotel was located, and the adjacent district of Barranco because these were areas where gentrification was well under way, reflecting the modern Lima of restaurants, cafés and restored architecture. I’d done some homework before setting off, saving a list of the cream of Peruvian progressive rock bands on my phone and, after finding the first decent espresso for three days – it turns out that Madrid, the international hub for direct flights to South America isn’t well supplied with good coffee either – we came across Phantom (Av. Jose Larco 409, Miraflores 18, Peru) which looked a little unpromising at first with a window display comprised of advertising for computer games. It’s inadvisable to judge a book by the cover because the shop had CDs by Flor de Loto and Frágil and also a CD by Ultimos Incas bearing the legend on its shrink wrap: “El rock progresivo en su más original propuesta peruvana, las raices de una cultura en diálogo soberbio con lo contemporáneo” which roughly translates as “Peruvian progressive rock at its most original, the roots of a culture in superb dialogue with the contemporary.” How could I resist?
I missed out on two of the albums I’d most wanted, Frágil’s first album Avenida Larco (the road on which Phantom was situated) from 1981 and Flor de Loto’s eponymous 2005 debut but, applying the ProgBlog rule that if you saw an album that was on your radar you had to buy it because you might not see it again, I came away with a Frágil compilation, Ultimos Incas’ Naturaleza Luminosa (2011); and four CDs by Flor de Loto: Imperio De Cristal (2011); Volver A Nacer (2012); Nuevo Mesias (2014); and the live offering Medusa: En vivo en Buenos Aires (2015).
ProgBlog's Peruvian prog
Frágil, named after the 1971 Yes album, are a highly regarded band that have only managed to release five albums in their career, having undergone numerous personnel changes. The songs on my compilation CD reveal some world-class progressive rock (the earliest material which calls to mind early Genesis) through neo-prog to pop-rock in the style of post-Hackett Genesis. Los Ultimos Incas have been going for over 10 years and play a fusion of traditional Peruvian music and rock, resulting in a melodic prog/world music sound without keyboards, some of which is genuine prog-sounding but there are tracks which are slightly less inspiring, more like Andean folk which is reliant on old influences rather than mixing past and present.
Henri Strik, writing for Netherlands-based Background Magazine has described Flor de Loto as ‘refined progressive rock mixed with elements taken from prog-metal and Latin influences’ but they have been described elsewhere as ‘prog-folk.’ Regarded as being the biggest progressive rock act in Peru at the present moment, I find the more recent material leans towards prog-metal, though they can also handle prog. The ‘folk’ tag comes from the use of flute and their first release displays some Jethro Tull influence.
Of the three bands, I think I prefer Frágil, because their first album is closest to the sort of music that I like, and they include more keyboards. Flor de Loto compositions, despite great musicianship, have a tendency to fall back on metal-edged lines that sit a little incongruously with the flute. Los Ultimos Incas come closest to how you’d imagine a Peruvian folk-rock band with their uses of pipes, but there is far more sophistication than your average group of musicians carrying their instruments around from restaurant to restaurant in Aguas Calientes or Puno with their extended versions of El Condor Pasa and are far more authentic than the Andean pipe players in town centres up and down the UK, playing over backing tracks on a Saturday morning.
Peru is an incredible country with amazing scenery. It’s also got an established prog rock scene to go along with the ancient sites and awesome landscapes. Our Quechuan tour guide impressed on us how Peruvians were proud of their mixed gene pool, which makes perfect sense - disparate influences are necessary ingredients for progressive rock.
ProgBlog travelled with G Adventures on a 15-day National Geographic Inca Explorer trip