by Paris Gravouniotis
Translation: Alexandros Mantas
In the first part of the progressive rock of the 80s article (click), we focused on the releases of well-known bands of the 70s, and in the second we looked into the underground prog of that decade (click). Well, the third part is much more focused…
RIO / Avant-Prog
One the one hand, the acute humour and the artistic imprint of the great Frank Zappa and on the other hand the ideology of rock-in-opposition (RIO) that imbued many bands with the philosophy of artistic expression unharnessed by trends or grey suits’ orders, are two factors that rendered avant-prog as the most pure prog subgenre of the 80s and triumphed over plenty musical works.
The genealogical tree of the main British representatives of RIO, namely the great Henry Cow, supplied us with new groups and personal careers that we are about to talk. First and most important is Art Bears, the band of Fred Frith and Chris Cutler who after releasing two splendid albums, delivered in 1981 their third and also their last LP The World As It Is Today.The song titles hint a direct attack to capitalism (consider The Song Of Investment Capital Overseas, The Song Of The Monopolists, Freedom, Democracy) and with regard to music the listener is immersed in experimental, dark, avant-garde uncompromising stuff, spiked with plentiful jazz elements.
Another band that was given birth by the creative drive of Lindsay Cooper (Henry Cow), Chris Cutler (Henry Cow, Art Bears), Dagmar Krause (Art Bears) and Zeena Parkins was News From Babel. Being, in essence, a studio project and not a “real” band, they released two groundbreaking records bristling with asymmetrical, experimental avant-prog stuff, more accessible compared to Art Bears because of a handful of melodic passages. Worth mentioning is the participation of no other than Robert Wyatt in their second album Letters Home. Going deeper into more underground stuff, one more side project monickered Cassiber was the outcome of the collaboration between Chris Cutler and the saxophonist Alfred Harth with two German musicians, Heiner Goebbels on the violin and the piano and Christoph Anders on the guitar. They did in total four albums of extreme and demanding music, hard to grasp even for the most experienced listeners. At this point we should point out that Chris Cutler and Tim Hodgkinson hooked up beyond Henry Cow. We speak of the debut album of The Work which is, to be honest, hard to listen.
Granted, the line-up of This Heat was deprived of any member of Henry Cow, yet they were warmly welcomed in the beginning. The experimental trio consisting of the drummer of Quiet Sun, Charles Hayward (drums, bass, keyboards, vocals), Charles Bullen (clarinet, guitar, drums, vocals) and Gareth Williams (keyboards, bass, vocals), after releasing their exceptional debut album, they honed to perfection all of its individual elements and they came back with its follow-up Deceit, one of the top avant-prog albums of the decade. The King Crimson and Henry Cow influences are blended in a unique way with the dark atmosphere and extreme experimentation, while their intense personal style was the main reason to be held in high esteem within the prog and punk circles. After their split, Charles Hayward formed along with Trefor Goronwy and Stephe Rickard The Camberwell Now and they released The Ghost Trade, where it is fair to say that the avant-prog and post-punk doses are equal; a very special case of an album.
As regards personal releases, there was a lot of activity. The great musician Lindsay Cooper (oboe, bassoon) with such an extended bio that is impossible to include in this feature, she did four albums in the eighties of similar aesthetic, among which her debut Rags stands out. With her teammates from Henry Cow partnering her, the outcome brings heavily to mind their most experimental moments. Only a special feature could record the career of Fred Frith, before there was only a mere mention of his side projects. As a solo artist, he did no less than eight studio albums in the eighties. Despite the fact that most of them are of high standards, Gravity (1980) stands head and shoulders above the rest. Having assembled a dream line-up consisting of Samla Mammas Manna on the first side and Muffins with the addition of Marc Hollander (Aksak Maboul) and nine guest musicians on the second one, the outcome sounds harsh, experimental and very artistic.
A very complex outing whose brilliance can be truly appreciated through multiple listens. Closing this reference to the projects relative to Henry Cow members, Massacre were formed during a Fred Firth’s short stay in New York who along with Bill Laswell of Material and Fred Maher recorded Killing Time. It is an album influenced equally by Laswell’s no-wave past, as well as Frith’s avant-garde history. The second case is no other than The Last Nightingale, an album of 15 minutes total running time that was recorded by the three members of Henry Cow (Chris Cutler, Tim Hodgkinson, Lindsay Cooper), the great Robert Wyatt, Bill Gilonis together with Fred Frith, and John Greaves and Adrian Mitchell as guests. Aside the marvelous material which mixes uniquely avant with jazz Canterbury sound, the album merits mention also because of the purpose it was recorded, which is no other than raise money to support the strike of the British miners during the biennium 1984-1985; great guys, aside musicians, if anything.
One of the most special cases, regardless of the genre, was the British Cardiacs. Founded in 1977, they started releasing their material via self-released tapes. Even though The Obvious Identity (under the name Cardiac Arrest), Toy World and The Seaside (just last year it was re-released on vinyl and CD) suffer from bad sound quality and were redolent of a more sophisticated punk atmosphere, they include some scattered ideas and the incunabulum of their distinctive style that was crystallized in their next releases. Taking the above for granted, it would be an educated guess that A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window (1988) would be a revelation to the unsuspected listener; alternative rock, indie, avant-garde aesthetic, unexpected changes, tremendous variety (violin, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flute among other instruments), well-placed keyboards, fabulous renditions by Tim Smith and, above all, evident personal style, are trademarks of this monumental record. Having forged the style that suits them better, they recorded just a year later their second in a row amazing album. On Land And In The Sea, even though more rock-oriented and without the guest appearances featured on their previous album, is in the same vein where they composed top songs like Buds And Spawn and The Everso Closely Guarded Line. Cardiacs went on after the eighties, releasing one more perfect record (Sing To God -1996).
One of the most important RIO bands, the Belgians Univers Zero, were on the crest of a creative wave in the 80s, releasing three flawless records. Among Ceux Du Dehors, Heatwave and Uzed, the last one stands out because it balances beautifully between melody and experimentation, which might be their best album. What could possibly somebody say for the aesthetic, the technique, the post-apocalyptic atmosphere, their dark surroundings, their artistic level or the ingenious way they introduce King Crimson elements to their abstract – in the good sense of the word – avant-garde setting? All it takes is to have a listen to the opener Presage or the epic Emmanations to be convinced of the obvious: that Uzed is one of the most well-rounded and non-negotiable gems of the 80s prog scene. In order to be fair with their other two albums, we should say that they are fabulous too and are deemed as essential for the fans of this genre.
But Belgium isn’t Univers Zero exclusively, so it’s worth saying a few things about two more groups. Aksak Maboul had caused a great sensation with their debut album Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine (1977). Their direction was way too experimental and their sound too complex that even the most initiated had a hard time with them. Their second and also their last record Un Peu De L’Ame Des Bandits which was released at the dawn of the eighties was somewhat more accessible, at least as such queer bands go, where the melodic passages interchange with abnormal rhythms and soundscapes in an album that challenges but at the same time gratifies the listener. Present, on the other hand, began their career as a side project of Univers Zero. Specifically, the guitarist of the first two albums of the Belgian legends, Roger Trigaux, after his dismissal and with the help of the permanent to this day drummer Daniel Denis and with the addition of Ferdinand Philippot and Alain Rochette on the bass and keyboards / piano respectively, they formed Present. Their debut Triskaidekaphobie flaunts radical and trailblazing instrumental avant-prog, quite more aggressive compared to Universe Zero material and of course heavily experimental and replete with rhythm changes and melodies. In 1985 their last album in the 80s was released till their comeback eight years later. Le Poison Qui Rend Fou is along the same lines of its predecessor, with a more cohesive and restraint structure. It is by all means highly recommended as well to every fan of RIO.
The most prominent avant-prog band from Sweden and one of the best in general, was undoubtedly Samla Mammas Manna. Out of their split in 1976, and having released four extraordinary records, there were formed two important side projects. Zamla Mammaz Manna released two albums in 1978 and in 1980 their third, and by far the best, album Familjesprickor (Family cracks in English) saw the light of day. Consisting of the old soldiers Lars Hollmer and Lars Krantz on the keyboards / accordion / vocals and bass / vocals respectively and with the addition of the guitarist Eino Haapala and the drummer Vilgot Hansson completing the puzzle, the RIO that ZMM deliver is loaded with feelings, coupled with tons of Zappa and fusion elements, quirky mad vocals and a unique humourous disposition.
When they split, a new bad was formed out of their ashes named Von Zamla, leaded by the aforementioned Lars Hollmer and Eino Haapala plus the newbies Jan Garret on bass / guitar / percussion and Denis Brely on saxophone / flute / oboe / bassoon. Their first release Zamlaranamma is not far from the style of SMM’s genealogical tree, yet what sets it apart is its theatricality and diversity. Their second album No Make Up! is also very good, even though it was not as inspired as its predecessor. The solo career of Lars Hollmer in the eighties, which includes five records where he played all the instruments no less, merits mention. Despite the fact that everybody keeps away from Familjesprickor and Zamlaranamma, they are highly recommended (and most of all Vendeltid) for those who wish to listen to everything that has to do with Samla Mammas Manna.
Closing the chapter of Scandinavian scene, it is worthwhile to discuss the Swedes Kultivator. Bearing in mind that Barndomens Stigar (1981) is the only album they ever did, it is genuinely incredible that they pulled off to blend successfully such motley elements. Basslines out of Magma’s top-of-their-game moments, jazz influences, evident folk elements, aggressive disposition, avant-garde philosophy and high technique, are the ingredients of this marvelous record that deserves a lot more than the obscurity that it is now.
Going nearby to -granted, not so prolific in the eighties- Norway, When, the personal band of multi-instrumentalist Lars Pedersen, drew some attention. Out of the first two records they did during the decade we speak of, Death In The Blue Lake (1988) is the best. Based on Andre Bjerke’s nouvelle De Dodes Tjern, the aforementioned LP is one of the most narrative and self-experiential listens not only of the decade, but also in general. Especially in the self-titled sidelong composition, experimental and dark soundscapes are decked out with multiple effects (bird sounds, clocks, doors, etc.) in a remarkable theatrical environment; a special case of an album through and through.
In the rest of the Europe there was not an intense recording activity, yet some groups surfaced that are worth mentioning. We start from France which was represented mainly via the Zeuhl movement, of which we will talk more extensively below. Nevertheless, Art Zoyd is the most typical case of an avant band that was never pigeonholed as such, in spite of its musical similarities with the great Magma. Their course in the 80s includes seven studio albums, all of them very good or even better. Their style is evidently influenced by modern classical music (Stravinsky is the most obvious) and the most experimental moments of King Crimson, bringing many times Univers Zero to mind, yet the total lack of drums to all of their records and their knotty approach, primarily due to the experimental usage of, mainly, the stringed instruments, but also the brass ones, render it as a challenge to listen to any album of them. Having in mind that they are quite similar from one to another, Generation Sans Futur, Le Mariage Du Ciel Et De L’Enfer and Berlin stand out.
Still walking on Art Zoyd-related paths we bump into another magnificent case, the only and only record of Alain Eckert, the guitarist of the first four albums of the French pioneers. Recorded in Belgium, Alain Eckert Quartet balances beautifully between avant-prog and jazz rock, impressing with its flawless technique and the musicians’ fiery jamming. One more French band that was distinguished was Etron Fou Leloublan. All of the three records they did were released in the 80s and they sound quite alike, trademarked by intense experimentation, narrative vocals, humorous mood and marvelous rhythms. Going further to the east, the career of Stormy Six, the representatives of RIO movement in Italy, came to an end in the 80s by releasing their two last albums, the very good Macchina Maccheronica and the average Al Volo. The first one with its Zappa-ish humour and experimental approach ranks among the three better albums of the Italians. The Swiss scene was never prolific, yet in the 80s it can be proud of Debile Menthol and their debut Emile Au Jardin Patrologique. One of the best illustrations how avant-prog music can be mixed with Canterbury elements is the second album of the Italians Picchio Dal Pozzo. Sounding less influenced by the Canterbury scene compared to their magnificent self-titled debut and more by the works of Henry Cow and Art Bears, Abbiamo TuttiI Suoi Problemi enthuses with its experimental direction and its numerous time meter changes and rhythms. It is a quite demanding listen with impeccable technique and, of course, the necessary experimentation that is part and parcel of avant prog. Before we end our European wandering, we should pay a visit to the former Czechoslovakia. Plastic People Of The Universe was perhaps the only band from Eastern Europe that sounded so close to Samla Mammas Manna and Henry Cow, but the extensive usage of vocals in their mother language and the lunatic elements that are not always wisely implemented, make it hard to listen to them.
Leaving Europe behind we go across the pond to the United States. Frank Zappa did eleven studio records and eight live albums and while all of them contain plenty of strong material, none of them can hold a candle to the masterpieces of the past. On the other hand, the works of John Zorn, Captain Beefheart and Residents, despite that they are experimental and avant-garde, they can hardly be labeled as progressive. A special case was Thinking Plague from Colorado. Out of the three albums they released, their third one In This Life stands head and shoulders above the rest. Their sound owes almost everything to Henry Cow and Art Bears and the Americans deliver flawlessly their demanding material that balances uniquely between avant experimentation and jazz melody. Special mention should be made of the talented Susanne Lewis who penned the lyrics, did the artwork, sang and also played accordion, violin and guitar! For the record, the famous Fred Firth makes a guest appearance on two songs. Going further to the south and more precisely to Phoenix, Arizona, we bump into Cartoon and their self-titled debut. By the end of the album the listener scratches their head trying to figure out how it is possible such a complex and diverse outcome to have been created by a trio (keyboards, guitar/bass, percussion)! Mostly this, but also their next LP Music From Left Field are recommended unreservedly.
Granted, there was not much activity in the Canadian scene, yet the artistic stature of Miriodor is enough, one of the finest bands of avant-prog in general with consistent course and nothing but remarkable releases under their belt. Their debut Rencontres is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the kind which in spite of its extreme length (70 minutes) is not a whit tiresome. This is because it includes impressive arrangements and impeccable playing, while their rich musical arsenal (keyboards, piano, guitar, flute, saxophone, violin) offers them the potential to move around effortlessly from majestic melodious moments to out-and-out experimental paths. The same year (1986) they released their second self-titled LP with two members less and their sound more focused on the threesome of keyboards, saxophone and violin. It is more experimental but not as splendid as Rencontres, yet it still is a remarkable release from the Canadians.
Mexico has every reason to boast that two of the best bands of the kind in the entire Latin America originate from there. For starters, it is Banda Elástica and their second out of the two albums they did in the 80s. Their sound is based mostly on brass instruments (saxophones, flutes, clarinet) and their style borrows equally from jazz / fusion and RIO, with the necessary ethnic / folk touches to be present. It is a highly interesting album that will thrill the fans of the kind. Nazca is a slightly different story. Their sound is based mostly on the stringed instruments (violin, viola and cello) and is also darker and more experimental that brings Univers Zero and Art Zoyd to mind. They released two groundbreaking and demanding albums (Nazca-1985 and Estacion De Sombra-1986), among which the second is more focused and much better on the whole. But both of them are recommended, without question.
The artistic imprint of the mighty Magma was so intense that sufficed to give birth to an entire prog subgenre which was totally based on their sound, namely on this unique mixture of modern classical music with avant jazz and the marching rhythms and their distinctive imposing style. Granted, the only album that Christian Vander’s squad recorded in the 80s (Merci – 1984) divided their fans since the blend of zeuhl and funk and disco elements was considered by many as successful and twice as many as a failure, yet their 70s back catalogue was the springboard for some little-known French bands to leave some great releases behind them.
Eskaton took their first step at the end of the 70s by releasing the single Musique Post Atomique and recording 4 Visions which saw the light of day in 1981 on tape and many years later was released also on vinyl and CD. The album we speak of is a revelation. The heavy keyboard arsenal (three synths, two Fender pianos and one organ) plus the double vocals in French language, contribute to the creation of a pitch-black (bordering on horror) atmosphere. Their zeuhl-meets-fusion style is served excellently by their unimaginable technique skills, while the range of their influences (from Magma to Clearlight till Univers Zero) is demonstrated through the four lengthy compositions. Special mention should be made of the jaw–dropping rhythm section and most notably of Andre Bernardi’s basslines. Their line-up was somewhat revamped when they released their first official full length album (Ardeur – 1980), since the guitarist Alain Blesing and the keyboardist Eric Guillaume had departed, whereas the violinist Patrick LeMercier was recruited. Their compositions became shorter and their material was slightly more accessible, as albums of that kind go. Their next and also the last album (Fiction – 1983) was equally inspired, where they partly shook off the shades of Magma which doesn’t take away from the experimentation and the dark element that were always trademark of theirs.
From Nantes of France came a group that begs the question why it didn’t keep the ball rolling with such a fine reference under their belt. We speak of the sextet of Dün and their only album Eros which is a concept album based on Frank Herbert’s Dune. What the French pulled off was a tall order indeed, that is to blend masterly the zeuhl atmosphere of Magma with the avant-prog style of Art Zoyd, Univers Zero and Frank Zappa, grafted with symphonic prog and jazz/fusion elements. Should we speak of the perfectness of their technique, or the unique combination of the guitar, keyboards, flute, vibraphone and xylophone or the nerve-racking fluency with which they perform their demanding material? All it takes is to hit the play button and listen carefully to the four ambitious compositions of this excellent album.
Taking a look at the poor haul of the prog album during the quadrennium of 1986 to 1989, it becomes evident why marvelous works like the debut of the French Shub-Niggurath are so important. Even though the name of the band (taken from the Cthulhu Mythos of the great H.P. Lovecraft) hints of what you are about to hear, Les Morts Vont Vite impresses with its very intense dark content. A personal style is unfolded through the four tunes of the album which balances uniquely between Univers Zero and Magma, while tell-tale are the aggressive guitars and the combination of female vocals, pipe organ and trombone that contributes fundamentally to the final outcome. Shub-Nigguarth went on, but none of their next albums is up to the par compared to their debut.
We remain in France and there we find Eider Stellaire and their self-titled debut that was released in 1981. This is perhaps the most typical case of a zeuhl record that barely flirts with the experimental nature of the avant-prog sound, on the contrary it gives weight to melodiousness, copious rhythmic changes and virtuosic playing. Musically, they clearly recall the late 70s Magma (the basslines testify this) enriching their sound with prominent fusion elements. It is a flawless record that is ranked among the best of zeuhl without question. Unfortunately, their next two albums didn’t live up to the expectations which resulted in the split of the group.
Before we wrap it up, it is worthwhile to mention four even more obscure cases, starting with Offering which was, in essence, a side project of the drummer and leader of Magma, Christian Vander. They released in 1986 their debut Part I / Part II, a very complex and demanding album that was characterized by rich arrangements, experimentation and jazz background. Also Magma-related is the debut of the Paga Group, the band of the bassist Bernard Paganotti (who participated in Üdü Ẁüdü of Magma), an illustrative example of combination of zeuhl with fusion. The backbone of the line-up came from the ashes of Weidorje and the album we speak of is, in spite of its experimental style, accessible for the uninitiated and suitable to start with. One more special case was Noa and their self-titled debut released in 1980. The “obligatory” operatic female vocals, the plethora of brass instruments (two soprano saxophones, one alto and a flute), the diverse percussions (drums, vibraphone and xylophone) and the vintage zeuhl bass contribute to the final outcome which balances beautifully between avant-prog and free-jazz. Finally, Yog Sothoth was also named after a deity in the Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft., while they are musically quite similar, too. Perhaps a trifle less dark but more heavily influenced by the free nature of jazz, Yog Sothoth’s debut album impresses with its abstract attitude and intense experimentation.
In contrast to the majority of the rest of progressive subgenres, avant-prog bloomed in the 80s and gave us albums that will be mentioned in the distant future, but more importantly laid the foundations for the avant-prog scene that is currently celebrating its most glorious days.