ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Dec 31 2020 11:34PM

Like something out of a Hollywood apocalypse movie, 2020 descended into the stuff of nightmares during March when Sars-CoV-2 viral infections spread unconstrained around the world, and ten months later we’re still far from getting out of an unprecedented situation for our times, with Christmas marking the potential onset of a third spike of cases.

There’s no denying that most governments appeared to be putting the welfare of their citizens ahead of any other concerns in March and April. Some may have been a little slow to get off the mark but as deaths increased, huge sums of money were thrown at building, opening and equipping new hospitals, and attempting to acquire PPE for frontline staff in the other hospitals. Even Free-Market finance ministers came up with furlough schemes to protect businesses from closure and to ensure employees were ready for the return to work once the pandemic had passed. Unfortunately for those of us in the UK, there were gaping holes in the provision of protective equipment to those that needed it, there were mixed messages with policy seemingly made up on the hoof, there were no staff to run the new hospitals, local public health expertise was ignored and following the introduction of new test kits, marred by a shortage of reagents, positive contacts weren’t effectively traced by a centralised team. Politicians began to lie. They split into factions, those for or against restarting the economy before the pandemic was fully over; there was a push to get children back to school without the provision of adequate safeguards. The Free-Marketeers won the day and restrictions were lifted – before it was safe to do so.


All parts of the hospitality sector suffered but the music industry was as badly affected as any. In response, the UK government eventually put together a Culture Recovery Fund, a welcome if late move, and in the devolved nations some of the money went to individuals. In England, the money was directed at organisations and venues. John Harris, writing in The Guardian says the Musicians Union has estimated that 70% of its membership is unable to more than a quarter of their pre-pandemic work and that 87% of musicians will earn less than £20000 this year.

With no performance option, revenue has had to come from the artist’s recorded output. Unfortunately, physical sales have been declining for years and the current industry model for distribution of music is based on streaming, where the dominant platforms have been under attack for their derisory musician’s remuneration. Fortunately, prog has historically had a core of dedicated fans that seem far more willing than most to purchase an LP or CD. In fact, despite the pandemic, 2020 saw the release of some quite incredible music. Home studios and file sharing played a major part which is nothing new, but a temporary relaxation of restrictions also allowed musicians to meet up. That there has been such a quantity of quality prog is still a surprise, given the inevitable anxiety over artists’ livelihoods and their concerns for family and friends. It’s hard to believe the creative process wasn’t adversely affected by the pandemic.



ProgBlog has been in the fortuitous position to be introduced to some of these releases, much of which goes under the radar, even escaping the journalists at Prog magazine who once again have done an admirable job reporting on all aspects of prog music, even delving into the far-flung corners of interconnected sub-genres. As is traditional at this time of year, I’ve revisited submissions to ProgBlog, recommendations, releases by bands I’ve been lucky enough to get to see live in a year when there really hasn’t been a great deal of live activity, plus other gems that I’ve come across while continuing my musical research, and I’ve decided on my album of the year.

Actually, my favourite album of 2020 is jointly held by Italy’s La Maschera di Cera with S.E.I. and Norway’s Wobbler with Dwellers of the Deep. Both came out well into the latter half of the year, suggesting that at least part of the production process was carried out well into the pandemic. Compare that to another of ProgBlog’s ‘recommended’ 2020 releases, Worlds Within by Raphael Weinroth-Browne which came out in January, before almost everyone had heard of Covid-19 (more about Worlds Within can be found here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/discovery20-worlds-within/4594865353)

So what is it about S.E.I. and Dwellers of the Deep that puts them at the top of the list? By sheer coincidence my copies are both on green vinyl, but the reason it’s hard to decide which I find most enjoyable is another facet they share: they both reference 70s prog without sounding derivative. There’s a narrow line between imitating bands from the golden period of progressive rock and utilising the sonic template of those acts while sounding relevant 50 years later, and both La Maschera di Cera and Wobbler manage to sound fresh. The Italians have been playing as a unit since 2001 but S.E.I. is only their sixth album, presumably due to other musical commitments (see Zaal, below), and while the style and palette are clearly related to classic progressivo italiano bands, the writing and production easily transcends the earlier era, and the group stands out for its lack of lead guitar and lashings of idiosyncratic flute. The new album is their best yet, and a full review of S.E.I. can be found here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/la-maschera-di-cera-sei/4595073765

Wobbler came into existence in 1999, and are now on album number five. They also have a distinctive sound, propelled like a fair few other Scandinavian bands, by trebly Rickenbacker bass. Unashamed to signal their influences, there’s more than a hint of early 70s Yes in their music, lyrical themes and song titles, but they maintain their relevance with an intangible sensibility, a vaguely menacing quality that I associate with Norse myths. Dwellers of the Deep is full-on prog.


Recommended releases of 2020

Wobbler and La Maschera di Cera are both well-established acts (though Prog stubbornly refuses to write an article on La Maschera di Cera), as is another of my favourites for 2020. The Red Planet by Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble, delayed by problems ‘with the supply chain’, presumably Covid-related, was promised by Wakeman to be a 70’s keyboard-laden instrumental prog album along the lines of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. From the music to the gatefold sleeve, he delivered in full. The review can be seen here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/rick-wakeman-the-red-planet/4594979105




Rick Wakeman's The Red Planet - How prog is that?
Rick Wakeman's The Red Planet - How prog is that?

Less well known but highly recommended is the UK-Italian collaboration Zopp, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Stevenson and Leviathan drummer Andrea Moneta, whose debut Zopp from April is a natural successor to the Canterbury sounds of National Health.


Zopp by Zopp - The new sound of Canterbury
Zopp by Zopp - The new sound of Canterbury

Zaal is a prog-jazz project fronted by La Maschera di Cera keyboard player Agostino Macor. I was lucky enough to catch a rare performance by the band in 2017 where I detected Third-era Soft Machine influences but Homo Habilis, released in October incorporates a world-jazz vibe and at times reminds me of the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring Jean-Luc Ponty. I’d suggest any fan of La Maschera di Cera or Finisterre would like this album.


Zaal - Homo Habilis
Zaal - Homo Habilis

The recently-formed Quelle Che Disse il Tuonno from Milan mix well-known progressivo italiano names like guitarist Francesca Zanetta and the up-and-coming, like Niccolò Gallani and in March’s Il Velo dei Riflessi they’ve produced a mature, well-balanced modern symphonic RPI album which would appeal to anyone who likes Cellar Noise or Unreal City.


Quelle Che Disse il Tuonno - Il Velo dei Riflessi
Quelle Che Disse il Tuonno - Il Velo dei Riflessi

Mention must also go to Phenomena by ESP Project. Since launching ESP Invisible Din in 2016, Tony Lowe has steered the band through five albums of beautifully written, played and produced music, drifting from full-blown symphonic prog to post-rock. Phenomena falls mainly in the latter category but it’s exquisitely layered and an integral part of ESP canon. See the review here: https://www.progblog.co.uk/esp-project-phenomena/4595049609


The albums listed above form a very small part of the music from 2020 that I’ve been listening to, and the bands that I’ve not mentioned all deserve credit for keeping going during trying times – I’ve enjoyed your contribution, too. A couple of bands who might have been in with a shout of an appearance in this year’s list are Gryphon, whose Get out of my Father’s Car is on vinyl pre-order, and Beaten Paths by Vincenzo Ricca’s The Rome Pro(G)ject IV, another album where I’m waiting for a release on vinyl.

The pandemic may not have ended but there are signs of hope if we stick to the public health guidelines and the vaccines prove to be effective.

Anywhere there’s music, there’s hope








By ProgBlog, Apr 9 2017 09:47PM

It’s just after 8.30 pm on Friday 31st March and the taxi driver is suggesting that I’ve given him the wrong address. He’s driven me somewhere well outside the centre of Milan (a taxi was much quicker than public transport) and I have to assure him that there really is a gig at the night club he’s just pulled up outside, Milan’s Legend 54.



It’s a slightly strange looking venue from the kerbside, with an array of pop-up food stalls and not much else, though there was music blaring from one stall. The woman at the cash bar stand informed me that tickets for the Z-Fest could be bought ‘inside’ only I had no idea how to get inside. It was obvious I had arrived at the right place because the improvised musical equipment storage rooms, made of the sort of tents that fit onto motor vehicles, contained not just the odd drum kit but also the organiser and bassist with the headline act, Fabio Zuffanti. By the time I’d circumnavigated the building a queue had formed at the entrance: €8 for three bands and three hours of quality music.

Going back a couple of months following an awful day at work in Whitechapel, I arrived home to search the internet for a weekend break. Realistically, I couldn’t have gone away the next weekend, so I calmed down and checked to see if there was anything prog-related coming up in the next few weeks that I could include in a short city break with my wife. Milan, 31st March to 2nd April, coinciding with the Zuffanti-organised Z-Fest and, with cheap flights at good times and a four star hotel with cheap rooms, was something I couldn’t resist.



Jumping forward again to last weekend, we ate an early evening meal overlooking the duomo from the terrace of the Obicà Mozzarella restaurant at the top of the Rinascente before making our way to a guided tour of Leonardo’s The Last Supper (in the former refectory of the convent attached to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie) – an exceptionally pleasing attraction made all the better by our knowledgeable and irrepressible local guide. I escorted my wife back to our hotel before getting in the taxi...



When the gig was originally announced, the line-up included Cellar Noise, Christadoro, and Finisterre. The promo video for the 2017 Cellar Noise debut album Alight, an album produced by Zuffanti, was very promising and rather than import a copy, I had already decided to buy the CD (or LP, if available) at the show. The Christadoro album, another 2017 release, featured well-known Italian songs given a progressive rock makeover, not unlike the way Yes treated Simon and Garfunkel’s America. Fabio Zuffanti was involved with the concept and played bass with the band. I’d already bought the album on vinyl before reading the group were on the bill but later Facebook posts suggested they wouldn’t appear and that they had been replaced by experimental jazz-prog quintet Zaal. The Zaal connection with Zuffanti was via keyboard player Agostino Macor, an integral member of Maschera di Cera and other Zuffanti projects, though I’d never heard any music by them, unlike headliners Finisterre, as I own all their studio releases.

The evening conformed to what I’d come to expect from an Italian prog festival; it was running slightly late, there were interviews with luminaries including Stefano Agnini and Mox Christadoro during set changes, and the music was incredible. The club was pretty full and for almost all of the Cellar Noise performance I found myself standing next to drummer Paolo Tixi (Fabio Zuffanti’s Z-Band, Il Tempio delle Clessidre.) Cellar Noise were very, very good. Their live sound is heavier than on record but they played symphonic prog of the highest order, despite a couple of early technical hitches, taking us through their entire debut album and even appending a quotation from Höstsonaten’s Rainsuite to the track Monument, a nice gesture to Zuffanti, before delivering a magnificent encore of The Knife. It’s hardly surprising then, that Niccolò Gallani should come out with some Tony Banks-like synthesizer runs during their original material, or that Alessandro Palmisano should don a mask, and his between-song explanations could have been Peter Gabriel stories, especially as Alight is linked to the back cover story on Genesis Live via the London Underground. The Gabriel flute solo was covered by keyboard, with Palmisano sitting on the stage, miming the action of a flautist. Together with brothers Loris and Eric Bersan (bass and drums respectively) and guitarist Francesco Lovari, based on their excellent first album and the transfer to a live performance, there’s a bright future for this quintet.


Zaal played some challenging music and I suspect that since the original album La lama sottile, described on progarchives.com as a ‘delicately colourful type of progressive-oriented jazz-rock, highly melodic and yet mysterious’.they have become a little more hard-core, featuring some nice electric piano with a hefty dose of electronica. I have an enduring vision of Macor reaching over his Roland to a sequencer, the keyboard player forever moving, never staying still. I was reminded of circa Third Soft Machine with sax provided by Francesco Mascardi and trumpet by Mario Martini (El Trompeta), powered by the driving rhythms of Pietro Martinelli on bass and Andrea Orlando on drums (who would subsequently also play alongside Macor again for the Finisterre set); though at times they played some mesmerising jazzy space-rock grooves. I’ll be checking out their two albums on Mellow Records.



Finisterre have undergone many personnel changes over 25 years, behaving more like a musical collective than a band, although Zuffanti, Stefano Marelli (guitars) and Boris Valle (keyboards) remain core members. Tonight they were joined by Macor (who has a long history with the band) and Orlando, and the music was again heavier than on the albums. Tracks segued into each other so I found it a bit hard to follow but the musical trickery and alchemy between the members was remarkable. During an interview at Prog Résiste in 2014, Zuffanti dismissed his bass guitar skills, suggesting he was the least accomplished musician in his band (the Z-Band.) Up close, his work rate and dexterity reveal he was being too modest; his song-writing and his ability to pick amazing colleagues for his projects was never in any doubt.



The whole evening went very smoothly and it was amazing to witness such prodigious talent squeezed into 3 hours of performance, ranging from classic symphonic Italian prog to radical jazz-prog. I can’t wait to see next year’s line-up.


I got back to my hotel room in the early hours of the next morning, having failed to understand the message on a taxi firm answerphone and making my way across Milan by late-running public transport and a taxi from the Piazza del Duomo, but I didn’t get much sleep because we had to catch the 09:25 train to Como. The purpose of this day out was to assess the suitability of the lakes as a base for a longer family holiday, and Como. Only 47 minutes from Milano Central, seemed like a good place to start.

We were both suitably impressed by the architecture and the scenery but, I was once again amazed by the presence of really good record stores – every town we visit in Italy has somewhere that sells CDs and vinyl. First up was Frigerio Dischi on Via Garibaldi, before we’d seen anything of Como, where I spent some quality time going through the comprehensive Italiano section, picking out two CDs by Alphataurus (Attosecondo and Live in Bloom), a couple by Area (Maledetti and Event ’76, inspired by my attendance at Event ’16 in Genoa last October), Clowns by Nuovo Idea, La Via Della Seta by Le Orme, and PFM’s first album Storia di un Minuto on vinyl.


I could probably have bought more but travelling on Easyjet, with their cabin luggage restrictions, made me a bit wary. After an early lunch, sitting between the duomo and the rationalist Terragni Palace (the latter a modernist masterpiece, unfortunately once used as the Fascist Party headquarters but now the base for the Guardia di Finanza) we walked towards the waterfront and had to stop in Alta Fedità to browse through the vinyl, though Susan wasn’t at all impressed by the cover version of a Dead Kennedys song being played... The shop contained some rarities and some cheap, second-hand records, but there was nothing really which caught my eye, apart from a Support Your Local Record Store T-shirt.



We flew back on the Sunday, but not after a deviation for an architectural masterpiece (Torre Velasca) and a rummage through the extensive CD and vinyl in the branch of Feltrinelli in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II; I emerged with a copy of Il Rovescio della Medaglia’s English language version of Contaminazione, (Contamination) on vinyl.


The break was successful. Getting away from work had been a high priority, but combined with the opportunity to see some amazing music made it especially worthwhile.

It’s becoming ever more evident to me that the north west of Italy, Genoa and Milan, is the crucible of much of modern progressivo Italiano. My love affair with Italian music, architecture and scenery continues. I’ll be back











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It may have been an awful year but there was a surprising amount of great music released during 2020.

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