2017 – what a year it has been for prog. Against the backdrop of some highly perplexing and disturbing events across the world’s stage, but, to quote the title of Paul Stump’s excellent assessment of prog, The Music’s All That Matters.
On a personal note, it has been a particularly challenging year, having early on developed a stress-related condition due to pressures presented by a previous employer, which led to an emergency operation and a month’s recuperation. This was coupled with seeing a parent being subsumed in the clutches of dementia. However, equilibrium was restored in the latter part, thanks to the kindness, belief and support of many people both inside and outside the prog bubble.
Though prevailing conditions resulted in me missing several high profile happenings, including HRH Prog in March, 2017 has continued to astound and astonish with the quality of the music being produced, and also the wonderful community of people. This is the tribe that cherishes and follows prog in individual capacities from the fans and supporters, to the writers, the promoters, the merchandise sellers, the record label owners and of course, the artistes themselves, most of whom make scant financial returns on their considerable investments of time and energy. As was originally stated, the music is all that matters.
Without further ado, here are the highlights, and some of the lowlights, which made 2017 another great year for us prog passionistas.
1) The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery – The Tangent. As one of prog’s most outspoken savants, Andy Tillison brings profound political and social commentary into the narrative of this musically outstanding album. This is a clarion call to wake up and see how our perceptions of the world are being manipulated. Some stellar musicianship peaks on Dr Livingstone (I Presume), co-written by his brilliant fellow Tangential collaborator Luke Machin. Thoughtful, profound with hints of jazz and dance-trance, it also features some extraordinary hard hitting artwork by DC Comics cartoonist, Mark Buckingham.
2) In The Passing Light of Day – Pain of Salvation. This is a band whose music I usually equate to being mentally mugged. However, it is full of emotion and anguish expressed through the travails of charismatic frontman Daniel Gildenlöw. This is all about the unimaginable journey he experienced during his close brush with death when he contracted a flesh-eating bug; this created an intensity and intimacy within this album which is hard to resist.
3) Grimspound – Big Big Train. Going off on a slightly different track, Big Big Train mined a new seam of beautiful story-led songs, introducing us to new personae dramatis, including Captain Cook, the Brave Captain, Experimental Gentlemen and the inhabitants of the Mead Hall. However, it is the folkie beauty and simplicity of The Ivy Gate featuring Judy Dyble which really clinches it here.
4) On Track – Damanek. One of the surprise packages of the year came from this richly talented musical ensemble led by Guy Manning. The understated, perceptive way it goes about its business, offering some coruscating commentary about the state of the world and the wonders of the night sky is compelling and joyous.
5) = Cardington – Lifesigns. Having released one of prog’s greatest debuts in 2013, John Young took his time to deliver that tricky second album. And deliver it does, but in a very clever, subtle way. Full of passion, melody and some killer hooklines, it reels you in and delights you with every play.
5) = The Bride Said No – Nad Sylvan. Prog’s Beau Brummel enhanced his reputation as a distinctive singer, composer and solo artist with a gorgeous collection of songs. These include two of this year’s most memorable, The Quartermaster and When The Music Dies, in which his theatrical sensibilities really come to the fore.
Highlights of the Year:
- Big Big Train cementing their reputation as the consummate prog band with their three amazing shows at the Cadogan Hall in London. There were sound issues on the opening night but once these were overcome, there was no disputing the incredible power and innate beauty of their music which reduced many grown men in the audience to mush. Especially touching was dedicating Meadowland to John Wetton, whose wife Lisa was in the audience.
- Franck Carducci bringing the house down at Summer’s End. Going on after Frost*, he and his band of players offered the unsuspecting audience the prog equivalent of a big top circus. It was sexy, funny, colourful and totally over the top. Everybody went home with a huge smile on their face.
- Tangekanic at Summer’s End offering an incredibly well-measured and beautiful performance. Nobody there will ever forget Andy Tillison’s extraordinary solo piece Sanctuary. This was written in memory of the music fans who were murdered in Manchester and Las Vegas after two disparate deranged, cowardly individuals decided that predominantly young people having the time of their lives were an easy target to forward their twisted personal agendas. Moving in extremis.
- The emergence of Talking Heads in Southampton as an excellent provincial south coast venue, attracting some class acts throughout the year including Tiger Moth Tales/Red Bazar, Magenta and the Von Hertzen Brothers.
- A personal memory was of Tom Newman, legendary producer of Tubular Bells, coming on stage during a performance of Sanctuary with Robert Reed and his brilliant ensemble at the Parabola Arts Centre in Cheltenham. This was heightened further with the great man mistaking Martin (my husband) for his old mate, Gordon Giltrap!
- Meeting up again with Michael Sadler, frontman of Canadian rockers Saga, after 36 years. Saga is one of those bands who never seemed to find a consistent audience in the UK. Mindful of the loyal band of fans in the UK, Michael made a special point of coming over to London to spend an informal afternoon meeting and chatting with around 15 of them. It was a lovely gesture by a superb performer and musician.
- The spiralling price of gig tickets, putting many out of the reach of some prog fans. For example, the price of the Hammersmith Apollo tickets for Anderson, Wakeman and Rabin which were nudging the £100 mark which proved a deterrent.
- Frost*, the official headliners on Saturday night at Summers End but opted to perform in the early evening slot. Granted, they had sound problems during their set but their brusque “turn up, play and depart” attitude was noticed and remarked upon by many present. All the other bands, without exception, took time out to meet and mingle with fans, and sign merchandise.
- Lazuli being unable to complete their much anticipated support slot on tour with Fish due to singer Domi Leonetti’s illness. Many people were so looking forward to seeing them again and, being the band they are, they will probably feel very deeply that they have let down both Fish and their fans. Few bands attract such genuine love and affection and rest assured, they will be back.
- Ian Oakley, the Tangent’s stalwart, genial right hand person breaking his leg in two places while photographing Andy and Jonas by the iconic sign for Basildon a day after joining us here at Prog Cottage for some filming, photographing and laughs.
- The disappointing turn-out at many gigs. The one which immediately springs to mind is the Midsummer Madness festival at the Bedford in Balham where several quality bands were appearing, including the great Verbal Delirium, who had flown in from Greece to take part. The musicians in the bands present outnumbered the entry-paying audience members who came along that afternoon.