NEARFEST 2009 REFLECTIONS & 10 Classic Progressive Rock Albums

Is Progressive rock  progressing?

nf_logo_mwAnother year, another NEARFEST and the 2009 edition was as good as any, and much better than 2008, which, as I wrote then, was overlong and overwrought.   In ’09 I rarely looked at my watch, there were several acts that excited and you heard nothing but brilliant musicianship.   Van Der Graaf Generator fullfilled a 35 year old dream, Gong made you remember why you love their goofy psychedelia and PFM redeemed themselves.

After NEARFEST 2005 I wrote a web piece called There Is No Progress in Progressive Rock.  That was actually a quote from several musicians I talked to.  Four years later that’s still largely true and I could just write what I wrote then:

To listen to the bands at NEARfest, you’d never know that world music has been a phenomena of the last 30 years that has penetrated jazz, classical, avant-garde, new age and even space music genres. And that’s surprising given that one of the icons of Progressive Rock, Peter Gabriel, created the Realworld music label and has been infusing his own music with global elements since the early 1980s.

The Progrockers on stage also seem blithely unaware of trends related to their own genre. Space music, electronica, techno and ambient, all styles created by former prog & art rockers like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Kraftwerk and others, find little representation in the expansive compositions of mainstream Progressive Rock.

With the striking exception of Cabezas de Cerra, who used Latin touches and home made instruments that evoked sitars, ouds, tablas and more, that all remains true.

What’s perhaps more disconcerting is that the elder bands, PFM, Van Der Graaf Generator, Gong, and the Steve Hillage Band, were by and large content to play their golden oldies.  Yes, VDGG insisted they “weren’t here to be holograms” and played music off 2008’s Trisector and Gong and PFM all played recent or soon to be released compositions, but none of that materiel was as strong as the classics and ultimately were swamped by older materiel.

It’s great to see these bands, who we may have missed in the 1970s, play the songs that we loved in our youth.  But  I know when I was thinking this was the crown of creation in 1974, I never suspected they might become the equivalent of a Golden Oldies Tour with Rick Nelson, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Bobby Rydell. Is this any different than Hippiefest with Three Dog Night, The Rascals, Badfinger, Flo & Eddie, Mountain and Country Joe (Or actually, some fractional semblance of those groups) trotting out their hits?  Is NEARFEST like the “Garden Party” that Rick Nelson sang about 27 years ago?

All those aforementioned Nearfest bands played their butts off, but you don’t see Peter Gabriel just performing his greatest hits.  He tours his new album.  King Crimson is always playing later era music and John McLaughlin rarely revisits Mahavishnu Orchestra material.  Why don’t Nearfest bands do the same (and I don’t mean PFM playing the blues, please)?

I think that’s the conundrum of Nearfest.  Every year, a couple of bands break the mold, but they are the exception.  A few groups, like Univers Zero, Present, Magma, Steve Roach and The Muffins, just live on the edge of the new anyway, so it’s not an issue.  But a lot of the elder statesman seem content to regurgitate the past and their descendants aren’t really interested in breaking form.

Nearfest once again produced a first class plus festival, a festival that is as geared to the musicians as it is to the fans, a real rarity in concert production.  Sound and lights were improved over previous years and the transition from the founders to the new caretakers was smooth and seems to assure more quality Nearfests to come.

In that article I wrote 4 years ago, I cited 10 classics from Progressive Rocks Golden years.  Here they are again.

TEN CLASSICS FROM PROGRESSIVE ROCK’S GOLDEN YEARS

Red 30th Anniversary Edition Remastered King Crimson-Red
The definitive electric guitar Prog album with Robert Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford locking into a headlong charge towards the abyss

Tales from Topographic Oceans YesTales from Topographic Oceans
Their definitive double album epic has everything from soaring keyboard orchestrations to Jon Anderson’s choirboy vocals.

Foxtrot GenesisFoxtrot
Watcher of the Skies and Supper’s Ready.  What else needs be said about this symphonic-theatrical epic.

HeresieUnivers ZeroHeresie
Music from beyond the void.  Glorious in it’s frightening gothic cadences and honking bassoons.

41RGNQFPWWL._SL500_AA240_ Van Der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts
Peter Hammill and crew ably mixing lyrical contemplations on life and epic, but smokey Hammond B-3 instrumental workouts.

The Snow Goose CamelThe Snow Goose
One of the prettier prog bands, this is their crowning conceptual work, with arrangements from David Bedford.

Ommadawn Mike OldfieldOmmadawn
His third album was also his most compositionally integrated, mixing Celtic themes and searing guitar.

Way of the Sun Jade Warrior-Way of the Sun
The single most under-rated group of the Prog era and one of the few still timeless enough to be played on Echoes.  They mixed Asian delicacy with blues-rock edges in this epic, instrumental tone poem, the last in a brilliant quartet of albums on Island.

Meddle Pink FloydMeddle
The band that bridged the gap between psychedelic and Progressive Rock, it contains the serene epic, “Echoes” as well as the propulsive “One of These Days.”

Soon Over Babaluma Can Soon Over Babaluma
The German spacerock bands most melodic and kinetic album of man-machine rhythms, electro-shock guitar and propulsive bass

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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6 Responses to “NEARFEST 2009 REFLECTIONS & 10 Classic Progressive Rock Albums”

  1. James Roberts Says:

    Peter Gabriel’s first four albums are incredible. After that, it’s all downhill. No balls, no edge. And the ‘world music’ direction has a lot to do with it. Heart’s in the right place, no doubt, but the middle-of-the-road blandness makes him less and less of a ‘rock’ act. And I still like the idea and philosophy of ‘rock.’

    I can’t speak about the other NearFest bands you mention, but I’ll gladly defend VdGG. “King Crimson is always playing later era music and John McLaughlin rarely revisits Mahavishnu Orchestra material. Why don’t Nearfest bands do the same?” VdGG has been playing some dangerous, on-the-edge concerts this whole U.S. tour and a few fans have noted the preponderance of newer (i.e. Trisector and, at some gigs, Present) material over older chestnuts. Whether you like those two albums less than the new Crimson stuff is a matter of taste, but I find the same experimentalism and creativity in them that turned people like the Sex Pistols, The Germs, Jello Biafra, Throbbing Gristle, and The Fall into fans. And you’d put VdGG into the same catagory as bands who are “content to regurgitate the past”? you probably don’t know much about the Hammill ethos, which is fine, but you should know that you’re way off. And when McLaughlin performs without MO, why *would* he play that stuff? When Peter Hammill plays solo, it’s mostly stuff from the solo career; you wouldn’t give him kudos for it, it’s just how it is.

    “Space music, electronica, techno and ambient, all styles created by former prog & art rockers like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Kraftwerk and others, find little representation in the expansive compositions of mainstream Progressive Rock.”

    I really hope you’re not excluding Peter Hammill from the class of true mavericks when it comes to art-rock guys who trailblazed new paths. If you are then you need to brush up. Vis a vis Edward Ka-Spel (who practically embarassed himself by gushing over PH when he got the chance to interview him and tell him how the avant-garde electronics of Gog/Magog highly influenced Legendary Pink Dots), Julian Cope, Ivan Krall (Iggy, Patti Smith), Univers Zero, Graham Coxon, or John Frusciante… all Hammill/VdGG admirers.

    Personally, I’m glad VdGG exists again, and I’m even moreso impressed (though not surprised) that they continue to push boundaries and *aren’t* content to rest on laurels… although not with any mainstream success or media attention (although it’s been nice to see them get good reviews/writeups on this tour in the New York Times, Boston Globe, etc).

    • echoesblog Says:

      Thanks James.
      I believe you are taking offense in places where offense wasn’t given. If you read what I wrote, in this blog and a previous posting ( http://tinyurl.com/Near-09-1 ), I lauded VDGG’s performance, and your defense seems unnecessary. Yes they played Trisector materiel, but their set was dominated and perhaps more importantly, remembered, for their “classics.” As to the Hammill “ethos” well, I’ve been listening to him for 35 years and have interviewed him many times, so I think I might have some idea.

      You set up a few straw men to bolster your argument. The people VDGG have influenced isn’t really that relevant, and citing an obscure, and utterly unlistenable musician like Edward Ka-Spel as proof of Hammill’s impact does little to bolster your argument. The influence of any of these artists is not in question, it’s their reliance, especially at Nearfest, on tried and true materiel and the fact that none of them are really producing innovative music at the level of their heyday.

      You state “And when McLaughlin performs without MO, why *would* he play that stuff?” Perhaps for the same reason that Chick Corea, Stevie Winwood, John Fogerty, Lisa Gerrard , Eric Clapton and countless others still play music from their former bands. Because it’s good. But he doesn’t, because he’s looking forward, even if I don’t always like his direction.

      I do sorely disagree with you on the Gabriel oeuvre. Us, So, Up, Passion and OVO represent the works of a mature and still experimenting artist. Passion alone has been one of the most influential albums of the last 25 years, across several genres. Your dismissal of his world music explorations only proves my point about the insularity of progressive rock. Fans who were still waiting for the successor to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, have abandoned Gabriel while he’s gone on to find a bigger audience and become a potent voice in an ongoing and evolving musical discussion, not something living in the past. Peter Gabriel today still sounds like Peter Gabriel, but not the same as he did 35 years ago. And that’s what I’m questioning about Nearfest artists.

  2. James Roberts Says:

    Thanks for the thought-out response. I do disagree about a few things, but these are all only opinions anyway.

    Peter Gabriel: “I do sorely disagree with you on the Gabriel oeuvre… Your dismissal of his world music explorations only proves my point about the insularity of progressive rock.”

    Absolutely not. Now it’s you who’ve set up a strawman.

    “Fans who were still waiting for the successor to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, have abandoned Gabriel while he’s gone on to find a bigger audience and become a potent voice in an ongoing and evolving musical discussion, not something living in the past.”

    None of this even approaches my view, so the fact that I don’t like PG’s output of the last several years proves nothing about prog rock fans since I’m not one. I don’t like prog. As far as the 60’s/70’s go, give me Beefheart, Nick Drake, or Can (who are not prog) over PFM, Genesis, or Gentle Giant any day. I don’t listen to or like old school prog. The Lamb (and everything Genesis did before) doesn’t touch PG’s first couple of solo albums. I just don’t like the PG albums you mention because I find them boring. I’d much rather hear 80’s PIL or 90’s Blur over any of PG’s bland (to me) output of the last few decades. Again, though, it’s just my opinion that it’s boring and it ain’t stated as fact (just like you don’t think the newer VdGG stuff is very good and I think it is).

    “Peter Gabriel today still sounds like Peter Gabriel, but not the same as he did 35 years ago. And that’s what I’m questioning about Nearfest artists.” You’ve listened to Hammill for 35 years and you wouldn’t be comfortable saying the same thing about him that you just said about PG?

    I’m sure you know this but, speaking of world music, it was Hammill who used ethnic rythyms (scattered with jagged electronics) and sang about Biko before Gabriel ever did.

    And now, the rest:

    “If you read what I wrote, in this blog and a previous posting ( http://tinyurl.com/Near-09-1 ), I lauded VDGG’s performance, and your defense seems unnecessary.”

    It’s not the performance I’m defending (you do indeed say that all the bands displayed brilliant musicianship). It’s more the fact that you group VdGG (and, in my mind, Hammill) in with old prog groups who are happy to “regurgitate the past” and have no place amongst “real” trailblazers like Gabriel, Eno, and Fripp. If you’ve interviewed Hammill several times and have listened to him for over 35 years, do you really think he’s not as creative, talented, or exploratory as those three?

    “The people VDGG have influenced isn’t really that relevant.” And yet stating that Passion has been a mammoth influence for the last 25 years is? It may well be relevant to the discussion, but we should be consistent.

    “The influence of any of these artists is not in question, it’s their reliance, especially at Nearfest, on tried and true materiel and the fact that none of them are really producing innovative music at the level of their heyday.” Again, that’s your opinion (no more or less valid than mine when I say that Gabriel is boring). I won’t speak to PFM, Gong, or whoever else. But VdGG may have done more chestnuts at NearFest because it is a prog fest attended by fans of old prog. I can tell you that there have been shows on this tour where they’ve done five tunes from the new album as well as one or two from Present. That might have been disappointing for some, but that’s just the ethos; they are not content to “regurgitate the past” and even when they play something like Lemmings, it sounds like a modern punkish racket that could well have been written in 2009 (it’s nothing like what you hear on Pawn Hearts… good for them).

    Whenever Gabriel performs, he’ll do new stuff and stuff from the back catalog. Just like VdGG. You just like PG’s stuff better and that’s fair enough. But, knowing PH, GE, and HB personally and having had several discussions with them over the years, the fact that someone would want to bag them as ‘content’ and not ‘forward looking’ would be ghastly to them. And, trust me, if Mahavishnu reformed, JM *would* play tunes from that era. JM is no different than PH. PH plays a preponderance of solo tunes when he plays solo, and with VdGG he plays VdGG tunes… mostly.

    *whew*

    • echoesblog Says:

      James-
      I don’t really want to get into an extended back & forth with you in the blog comments, but I did want you to know that I hear what you’re saying and think you have valid, arguable points, which is why I have posted both your comments.

      I’m surprised you don’t consider yourself a progger, I think I have the same ambivalence. Regarding Peter. I was a solid devotee in the 1970s and 80s, but I confess, I found his work increasingly tedious and unmusical. He completely fell off my radar in the new millennium even though I know he’s been prolific. I sometimes think he might be better off just writing a book or two.

      So, anyway, thank you for your passion.
      John

      • James Roberts Says:

        All fair enough. Thanks for the response. Very worthwhile blog, by the way!

  3. H.T. Riekels Says:

    I actually thought the selections PFM did from “Stati di Immaginazione” were just as strong, if not stronger than the classics. Sure, they were different, and the crowd did not respond as enthusiastically, but the performances were great.

    But I do see your point. That was my third NEARrfest, and they do tend to take on that “golden oldies” sheen. When newer acts like Cabezas come out, they usually steal the show. I wouldn’t mind more of that. Those surprises are always some of the best moments. Indukti and Morgbl did it in previous years

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