Life Sciences

By ProgBlog, Oct 12 2014 06:04PM

Sometimes prog themes turn up in unusual places...

Many years ago I didn’t appreciate the Zoology classes drawing animal skeletons and stuffed or pickled specimens and I wasn’t keen on spending a two hour Geology practical lesson drawing rugosa, an extinct order of coral that were abundant in Middle Ordovician to Late Permian seas. I had wanted to do Biophysics at York but disappointing A-level results meant that I ended up doing Botany and Zoology, with Geology as a first year option (that I somehow managed to drag on into my final year) at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.

Though I would probably make a different choice of course and career if I could have my time over again, the landscape around Barrow extending up into the Lake District but also including a decent amount of coastline, instilled a love of the natural world and the natural sciences. Having been told by my headmaster at the age of 11 that I didn’t read enough, I embarked on a fifteen year literary binge that took in classics (Austin, Bronte, Dickens, Hardy); modern classics (Hesse, Kafka, Peake); fantasy (CS Lewis, Tolkien); SF (I distinctly remember the yellow jackets on hardbacks by Ursula Le Guin, published by Gollancz that I would borrow from the town library); and a burgeoning genre aimed at children, from Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners to Alan Garner’s Weirdstone books, a trilogy recently completed by the excellent Boneland (2012). Landscape and literature became important influences; the geology of Low Furness was moderately complex and was responsible for the industrial landscape superimposed over the natural. In my mind, I equated Tolkien’s The Shire to the contours of the former haematite workings around Furness, perpetually verdant by virtue of the prevailing moisture-laden westerly breezes from over the Irish Sea. Local ruins Furness Abbey, Piel Castle and Gleaston Castle imposed their history on the scenery but I was equally interested in landmarks that added to the mythical setting: Birkrigg Stone Circle. My interest in the cosmological was partly inspired by this environment; the artificial light from the town was effectively cut off by the drumlins that surrounded Furness Abbey and clear nights were ideal for stargazing. On more than one occasion a small group of us would access the playground of St Paul’s School at night, itself surrounded by tall trees that eliminated any extraneous sodium glow from the street lights, and lie there, staring up at comet showers. I link this behaviour with my love of progressive rock; the exploration of my environment, the thirst for the written word and the possibilities linked to space travel all fit in with grand prog themes.

That my school years were important in forming who I’ve become has only relatively recently become apparent. It was around the time when my son Daryl was completing his studies that I realised that my youth exploring Furness and the Botany, Zoology and Geology classes all fitted in with my understanding of the universe. I think that my undergraduate courses were badly taught and that’s why I didn’t really appreciate comparative biology.

This knowledge may have lain dormant but there was also a continuing accumulation of information as I attempted to show him things I’d learned, tried to answer his questions and also listened to what interested him.

The unusual place to discover a prog theme, a Rock Progressivo Italiano theme in fact, was on the beach at Lancing in West Sussex. At low tide one weekend, the family were taking some mild exercise on the beach and came across rocks perforated by even-sized holes. It’s hard to believe that this effect was not the result of some human derived mechanical activity, simply because of the regularity of the holes, but I recalled some ancient zoology and knew that the holes were produced by burrowing marine animals. I was reminded of this episode as I travelled home from work last Friday when I was playing Concerto delle Menti (Concerto of the Mind), the only album by Pholas Dactylus, a band from around Bergamo, released in 1973. The group was named after the marine mollusc Pholas dactylus which is found around the north Atlantic and Mediterranean shores and was once a revered source of food. This shellfish has a couple of interesting properties; it is luminescent (a property recorded by Pliny that probably accounts for its esteem) and it is also capable of boring into rock; the chalk of West Sussex can’t have presented too much of a problem because the creature is capable of boring into gneiss, a form of high grade metamorphic rock.

The album was based on an apocalyptic poem by their vocalist Paolo Carelli who narrates the story by spoken word, rather than singing and the lyrics laid out in the inner sleeve are preceded by an enigmatic sentence attributed to Paolo Marcello: “A tall column made of bricks... ...each brick a word... ...the meaning of which you can understand just by looking at the base or on top of it...”

The storyline borrows imagery from a variety of biblical sources, most notably Revelations, something that had previously been attempted by Aphrodite’s Child and Genesis, but this comes across as more frightening and psychotic and includes a very abrupt ending. The spoken passages are punctuated by extended musical interludes that vary between jazz, jazz rock, pastoral breaks and psychedelia, representing the build-up and release of musical tension. Carelli’s words and voice fit really well though some online reviewers find the narration irritating; personally, I like the poetic flow. The opening section sets the scene “You are going to take a tramway. In a while you’ll be on an old, battered tramway carriage, looking like you after a black, empty, paranoiac day...” which hints at possible inspiration through stimulants and certainly suggests that the tram journey is a bad trip. The album is really one piece, split into two parts by the restrictions imposed by the original vinyl format and unlike many RPI releases, which barely include over 30 minutes of music, this is a very lengthy production with part 1 lasting over 29 minutes and part 2 almost 24 minutes. When I first listened to it, I knew that I would need to listen to it again without distractions to really appreciate the startling originality and subtle nuances of the work. Despite a well-received live following the album had poor sales and critics were at best indifferent to the work. I think this unique piece of work ranks as one of the best hidden gems of the original RPI scene. Sadly, the group broke up following the album’s release.

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