Whether by conscious choice or directed drift, the latter part of 2018 saw me adopt what the media are calling ‘flexitarianism’. My son had started out on this road towards the end of last year but quickly shifted to a full vegan diet and when he’s invited to dinner, I prepare vegan food for the whole family.
Not yet prepared to give up meat entirely, this casual vegetarianism is an attempt to reduce my carbon footprint by taking a more environmentally sustainable approach to what I eat by consuming less meat. For someone who shuns almost all fast food (I eat supermarket pizza, occasionally go to pizza restaurants, I might have takeaway fish and chips once every couple of months or buy-in an Indian takeaway perhaps twice a year) and is entirely happy in the kitchen, it’s not as onerous as many might imagine. If statistics are to be believed, 26% of Millennials are either vegan or vegetarian and supermarkets, eager to maintain market share, have been quick to produce suitable ranges of ready-to-cook vegan dishes; the fad has also been matched by the availability of varied recipes. I mostly cook from scratch which means it’s fortunate that the Co-op, our nearest supermarket, is one of the better outlets for identifying vegan produce but it’s equally handy that Coughlans, our local bakery chain, has an extensive range of vegan cakes. My first visit to Coughlans with the specific aim of buying an appropriate treat for my son involved an almost conspiratorial approach from another customer, a young woman who asked me if I was vegan like her and her young son; I fear she was a little disappointed with my truthful response that I hadn’t increased the number of vegans in Addiscombe. Rather than go the full extreme, I attempt to eat a balanced diet and if my comparative zoology lectures taught me anything when I was a student, we have the ideal dentition for an omnivorous diet, although I admire anyone who chooses to go vegan for ethical reasons. The recent family skiing holiday to Bardonecchia showed how well veganism has spread; I needn’t have feared that we weren’t going to find suitable foodstuffs to cook on the two hotplates and small oven that served as our apartment kitchenette – Carrefour (which has a supermarket near-monopoly in the resort) carried a wide range of alternatives, including one awarded a ‘product of the year’, for our vegan skier.
The best known examples of prog vegetarians are Yes. It’s well documented that in the early 70s all the members of the band bar Rick Wakeman, along with many of their road crew, stopped eating meat, initially influenced by producer Eddie Offord who was already into health foods. This chimes with the cosmic image of Jon Anderson, the man primarily responsible for the band’s mystically-themed lyrics and concepts which include recurring motifs of environmentalism, pacifism and pantheism. Anderson let his vegetarianism slip, though in a 2006 interview with Howard Stern he spoke of maintaining a healthy diet. In fact it was Steve Howe who was the first of the band to stop eating meat and continues to maintain this stance; In the January 1992 edition of Vegetarian Times he related that the group was in New York during the 1972 Fragile tour when he ordered his last chicken dinner but was unable to eat it.
I’m not sure what the musical equivalent of flexitarianism is, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve allowed myself to be exposed to genres other than symphonic prog and progressivo Italiano, from a Philip Glass CD received as a Christmas present to the protest folk-psyche of Twilight Fields who invited me to listen to their forthcoming release Songs from the Age of Ruin which featured in a recent ProgBlog DISCovery post (their track Prologue: The Ruined City is included on the covermount CD of Prog 95). The lesson is clear, although it’s unlikely to have any environmental impact: it’s good to listen to a wide spectrum of musical genres.
Compared to last year, live prog has not yet featured heavily in my schedule for 2019 but the two events I have attended were not run-of-the-mill gigs. A last-minute decision to see London-based electronica musician Amané Suganami (who performs under the stage name Amane) at Camden Assembly for an event tagged as ‘the spirit of Brian Eno’ was my first ever prog date and the first time I’d gone to a gig with my wife since Chris Rea at Wembley Arena in December 1988! Strictly sticking to Eno’s ambient music with interpretations of Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (with Harold Budd); Ambient 3: Day of Radiance (Laraaji, produced by Eno) and Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, of which I only recognised An Ending (Ascent) from the latter, this was an enjoyable, well-attended event with a distinctly un-prog demographic, spoiled only by the suggested start time of 7pm – doors were at 7.30 and the performance began at 8pm.
The second event wasn’t really a gig and it wasn’t strictly live; it was Steve Hackett’s At the Edge of Light album preview held at the Everyman cinema in Crystal Palace, a run-through of the record in 5.1 surround sound four days before the official release, organised by Prog Magazine and Inside Out records. I ‘won’ tickets by sending Prog a selfie, holding a copy of Prog 94 with Steve Hackett on the cover, taken in my dining room (photos of the magazine taken in newsagents were disallowed!) I’d been to two King Crimson playbacks in the mid-late 90s for the releases of the Epitaph box set and The Night Watch CDs, both unmissable because they were relatively small gatherings of like-minded fans and featured the assembly of the musicians responsible for the performances but which also included fascinating side events: the offering of home-made cakes (I baked a date and walnut loaf); a Mellotron display; and John Wetton performing a solo acoustic version of Book of Saturday. An even more exclusive gathering, the At the Edge of Light playback was a chance to hear the latest Steve Hackett release before the general public and had the distinct advantage of being held on my doorstep, a short 410 bus journey from home.
When I lived in Crystal Palace/Upper Norwood the former Rialto Cinema, opened in 1928, was being used as a bingo hall. The cinema had shown its last film in 1968 and Gala Bingo, in a restructuring exercise following diminishing profits and questionable financial viability partly blamed on the 2007 ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, closed the premises sometime around 2009. It was bought by Kingsway International Christian Centre but they failed to gain planning permission for change of use to an evangelical church partly because the development would result in the loss of an important leisure venue, deemed to be "harmful to the social, cultural and economic characteristics of the area." Repurposing as a church also incurred opposition from an active local group, founded in 2010, who campaigned to return the prominent Art Deco building to its original function and so, with the building listed as an asset of social value (ASV) ensuring KICC had no prospect of planning approval, they decided to sell up in 2017.
The building has been lovingly restored and given a new lease of life by Everyman, with the original main auditorium divided up to form four screens. Screen 4, the venue for the playback, seats 75 on plush two-seater sofas and provided a warm, intimate setting for the event. I had wondered why Hackett and the record label had chosen Everyman Crystal Palace but Steve Hackett’s live film Wuthering Nights: Live in Birmingham was given a screening at Everyman King’s Cross on 15th Jan 2018, prior to its official release eleven days later; Marillion’s 2017 Royal Albert Hall concert film was screened at Everyman cinemas around the country in March 2018 prior to the release of the DVD/Blu-ray for home consumption; and Steven Wilson held a pre-release screening of Home Invasion at Everyman King’s Cross last October. There’s a rumour that someone high up in the Everyman organisation is partial to prog...
It’s unclear how many ordinary punters were present, not industry insiders from Inside Out music or Prog magazine or members of the Hackett family (Steve’s wife, Jo; brother and collaborator John; their mother; aunt Betty) but regardless of status we were all treated to a signed card from Steve and some Green & Black’s chocolate. Prog magazine editor Jerry Ewing commenced proceedings with a short introduction, declaring At the Edge of Light the best offering from Hackett for 20 years; he handed over the mic to Hackett who thanked quite a few people present and said a little bit about the music and the guest musicians, and then we settled down to listen.
Having already watched three available YouTube videos and being fully aware of Hackett’s diverse styles through building up a comprehensive library of his recorded output, I wasn’t surprised by any of the material. It’s a natural successor to Night Siren though with a more cohesive sound despite the eclectic mix and, as Ewing suggested, probably his best album for many years. The fact that it’s not all-out prog is one of the album’s strengths, the eclecticism providing an almost commercial level of accessibility but without being ‘commercial’. My least favourite track was Underground Railroad although I do love the story of the inspiration behind the song. It was written following a visit to Wilmington, Delaware, where he found out about the network that helped slaves escape in pre-Civil War America, spearheaded by people like Harriet Tubman; it’s just that I’m not a great fan of the Blues or, however well it’s played, harmonica.
I thought that there were a number of highlights; from the brief opening tune Fallen Walls and Pedestals with its archetypal guitar sound to the prog mini-epic Those Golden Wings to the three numbers forming a kind of suite closing the album, Descent which channels Holst or King Crimson, Conflict, and Peace but the overall quality of song writing on the album is really high, including the infectious prog-pop of The Hungry Years! At times I was reminded of Cured-era Hackett which I think has a distinct overall sound. On completion of the album presentation he remained in the auditorium and chatted to the attendees, graciously posing for selfies with fans.
More than just the music, I admire Hackett’s viewpoint, expressed in both Prog 94 and in his explanation for the album’s title. He described the thread linking the songs as different interpretations of the contrast between light and dark, expressed at its most basic on Beasts in Our Time as good versus evil, but also the more mystical interplay of dark and light magically combining in cultures such as that which provides the heartbeat of India (Shadow and Flame). In summary, Hackett takes a hopeful stance: “In these dangerous times, deep shadows feel even sharper than usual and we find ourselves standing at the edge of light. Ultimately, this album embraces the need for all musical forms and cultures to connect and celebrate the wonder of unity in this divided world."
I think it’s time for us all to go culturally flexitarian.