Progressive rock in the 80s (part II)

 by Paris Gravouniotis

Translation: Alexandros Mantas

In the first part of the progressive rock of the 80s feature (click), we focused on the releases of the established bands of the 70s. It was easily noticed by the reader that, aside a few bright exceptions, most of the bands were below their usual standards, changing their style with the view to achieving commercial success. Underground was, once again, on standby to save the day for progressive rock, which was going through the most difficult time of its history.

Neo-prog

The beginning of this feature belongs rightfully to neo-prog, the subgenre that drew once more music industry’s attention to this complex genre that since 1977 thumbed its nose at it. Going back to the beginning of the decade, a glimpse of a scene consisting of bands that attempted a brave dive into the symphonic prog of Genesis mainly, but also of Yes and ELP, began to formulate in Great Britain. The most significant difference that established neo-prog as a separate genre lies in that the majority of the bands didn’t zero in on the complexity, but rather on romanticism, melancholy and melodiousness.

Historically, the first British band that ever recorded was Twelfth Night and their debut Fact and Fiction is a classic. Yet the compositions lack inspiration which combined with the dominant new wave element and the pathetic production resulted into a moderate record, to say the least. The rest of their three releases go without a comment, firstly because they are a far cry from prog and also because of their content.

One of the most important neo-prog groups that was consolidated mainly in the 90s, debuted in 1985 with The Jewel. Τhe band was Pendragon whose contribution was invaluable so that progressive sound gained the audience’s attention once again. Yet, despite the fact that the guitars and the synths provide some magnificent melodies and it contains some amazing stuff (Alaska, The Black Knight), it is not up to the mark, compositional- and aesthetical-wise. The follow-up Kowtow was disappointing and it was the next decade when the band began to pick up steam. Palas were exactly the same case but definitely not of such caliber who achieved to stir the interest with The Sentinel. Unfortunately, their obsession with the cheesy synth atmosphere combined with the overly pompous ideas and the average production, tarnish a record that could be, and in fact is, very much better. In their follow-up The Wedge, the singer’s place was occupied by Alan Reed but the outcome is of poor quality. A hiatus of twelve years followed till their comeback in 1998.

IQ is arguably considered as the second most important neo-prog band with consistent and quality recordings. With Genesis of the Gabriel and Hackett era, but also Yes, as guidelines, they released Tales From The Lush Attic in 1983. Imbued by the 80s element which was as a rule difficult to bypass, but also bathed in impeccable playing and matured compositions, their debut features some sublime compositions like The Last Human Gateway and The Enemy Smacks. With their self-confidence soaring high, they released The Wake just two years later, a classic for the neo-prog fans. Despite the fact that their core style remained the same and composition-wise was pretty much in the same vein, IQ, with their rhythm section tighter than ever and Mike Holmes and Martin Orford in starring role, delivered remarkable cuts like Outer Limits and Window’s Peak. Unfortunately, the split with their singer and leader Peter Nicholls had as a result to enter their worse phase of their career by releasing two uninspired records. Luckily, this error was rectified soon enough by rejoining the band at the dawn of the new decade.

There are very few cases with regard to the progressive rock’s subgenres where its most typical representative overshadows every band that belongs to it. The most illustrative one is Marillion that achieved to reach an enviable status, as prog bands go. Named after J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Silmarillion, Marillion were founded in 1979 in Aylesbury by the drummer Mick Pointer and the guitarist Steve Rothery. The line-up was completed by Fish on vocals, Pete Trewavas on bass and Mark Kelly on keyboards. After releasing the promising EP Marker Squares Hero (the incomparable Grendel is included here) the British entered the studio in 1983 to record their debut album.

It is hard to believe that Script For A Jester’s Tear is a band’s first step because the feeling it oozes, Fish’s poetic lyrics and performance, Rothery’s overwhelming playing, the impeccable rhythm section, Mark Kelly’s melodies and above all the six extraordinary compositions, render it as one of the top prog rock records of all time. With Genesis of the 70s era, Pink Floyd and the whole field of British progressive rock as signposts, yet producing a fresh sound and personal style, the quintet made history by writing songs like Script For A Jester’s Tear, He Knows You Know, The Web, Garden Party, Chelsea Monday and Forgotten Sons. Having replaced Mick Pointer with Ian Mosley on drums, Marillion released just a year later one more amazing record, quite different from its predecessor, no less. Fugazi, which was less 70s and more 80s and straightforward, pulled off to stand out because of its diversity. The hard rocking Assasing is side-by-side with the sentimental Jigsaw and the “haunted” She Chameleon and the upbeat Punch & Judy and Emerald Lies coexist with the prog epics Incubus and Fugazi. The unrepeatable duo Fish/Rothery featured once again in all compositions. 1985 was the year that had in store for them the introduction to a wider audience: Misplaced Childhood, aside that is their commercial breakthrough, it is also their first concept record. The seeds of the initial idea were planted during a Fish’s ten hour acid trip and deal with childhood memories, lost loves and unfulfilled dreams. It belongs to the category of albums that you need to listen from end to end in order to fully appreciate their magic. From the melancholic Pseudo Silk Kimono onwards, to the legendary Kayleigh and Lavender and from the typical Heart Of Lothian, Waterhole and Lords Of The Backstage Marillion cuts to the epics Bitter Suite and Blind Curve and to the up-tempo Childhood’s End? and White Feather, Marillion pulled off to compose one more exceptional record that flows amazingly. Despite the simpler arrangements and the radio-friendly sound, they put a lot of effort into the melodies and the atmosphere and the result justifies them once again. Clutching At Straws was unfortunately Marillion’s swan song with Fish as their singer and leader. His problems and disagreements with the band’s manager, as well as with the rest members of the band, played a capital role for the split. Yet Clutching… deserves more than being commemorated as their last release with Fish because it is a great album and perhaps the most mature of their career. Striking a unique balance between proggier and more mainstream moments and coming up with a concept based on the disastrous personal and professional life of Torch’s character (probably a parallelism with Fish’s life), they wrote unique tunes like Hotel Hobbies, Warm Wet Circles, White Russian, Sugar Mice and The Last Straw. The first, legendary era of Marillion came to an end and Steve Hogarth, who would be from there on their chief lyricist, joined the band. At the fall of the decade they released their fifth aptly named album Season’s End. Sounding as if the material was written for Fish’s voice and Hogarth’s input was yet to come, Seasons End is considered as their most transitional album. Of course this doesn’t take away from its worth a bit, and how could it after all since top compositions like The King Of Sunset Town, Easter, Berlin and Seasons End are included. 27 years later Marillion go on with the same line-up and aside their consistent discography, they put out from time to time astonishing works like Brave and Marbles.

Symphonic prog

Unfortunately, the contribution of Italy and Germany (two countries with long term tradition to this scene) was minimal. In Germany there was a tiny scene consisting of groups that walked a fine line between neo-prog and symphonic prog and their typical features were romantic mood and extended usage of keyboards. Even though I am not a huge fan of this style, its most notable representatives were Amenophis with their self-titled debut, Anyone’s Daughter with In Blau and their self-titled album, Sirius with Running To Paradise and Werwolf with Creation. The latter could be the most interesting case of the aforementioned no less, since the keyboard-driven prog they delivered is imbued with folk melodies and the typical dynamics of Eloy. On the other hand, the only worth mentioning Italian band is Nuova Era with their debut L’UltimoViaggio, in an attempt to revive the bygone glamour of PFM and Metamorfosi (the much superior Il Passo Del Soldato released in 1995 merits mention). Neo-prog can be viewed, in essence, as the 80s projection of the symphonic prog of the 70s, yet a number of underground groups put out records that pulled off to keep the 70s feeling of symphonic prog rock intact.

An illustrative example of such a band was Asia Minor that three out of its four members originate from Turkey. Based in France and after a powerful debut, they released in 1980 their second, and unfortunately last, record. Between Flesh And Divine is one of these obscure masterpieces, waiting patiently to be discovered. Influenced by Camel and Pink Floyd with an addition of sweet melancholy that drapes the six compositions, Asia Minor wrote gorgeous melodies and enviable tunes like Nightwind, Northern Lights and Lost In A Dream Yell. The eastern touches so deftly introduced into the final outcome merit mention, as well as one of the best interactions between the guitar and the flute that we have ever heard of. We stay in France and as we explore even more obscure stuff, we discover Neo and their unique self-titled album. Their sound is purely guitar- and synth-driven but the saxophone adds a more eclectic or even jazz character to the whole venture. Neo is marked by its instrumental nature but also by high technique, unpredictable changes and amazing melodies, most notably in songs like Osibirsk, Scene De Chasse and Sortie De Brain.

Despite the fact that things have been quiet during the 80s in Scandinavia, two bands made their appearance in Sweden that delivered two remarkable outings. Tribute from Norrköping were formed in 1982 and just two years later they released their instrumental debut New Views. Featuring a very sweet sound and playing safe occasionally, their main influences are drawn from Camel, Kansas and Eloy, bringing into existence superb melodies and memorable songs like the juicy Climbing To The Top, the acoustic A New Morning and the 22-minute self-titled epic. Unfortunately their next two albums didn’t live up to the expectations and the band split. On the other hand, Foundation was a typical case of a one-album-wonder band, leaving Departure (1985) as their sole legacy. An instrumental album (minus a few exceptions) with vibrant melodies and evident influences from Camel and Genesis are the record’s trademark, prodding Foundation to put together ambitious cuts line Crossing Lines and Final Thoughts, Departure.

 

Before we end our wandering in Europe, is worth the effort to stop by Eastern Europe and say a few things about three groups. Blue Effect, aside from being held as Czech Republic’s most noteworthy band for a very good reason, went through various changes with regard to their style and each change was accompanied by a different monicker. On their latest to this date release, and only one during the 80s, they performed under the name M. Efekt. Sticking to the same symphonic prog sound as their previous record Světhledačů, 33 is full of impeccable technique, intense synth atmosphere, sublime guitar playing and lengthy compositions. If we overlook the not-so-good vocals, we have to do with a very strong record. Searching for progressive rock band is Russia is just like looking for a needle in a haystack. Nevertheless, Horizont not just bear the not-so-important title of the best Soviet band, but they put out two impressive records, quite different one from the other, no less. Their debut Summer In Town which sports three lengthy compositions, stands out mainly because of its classical attitude and complex structures, bringing to mind the works of ELP and Yes. Their second and last record The Portrait Of A Boy, even though is evidently influenced by classical music, it has a dark atmosphere and sonically is closer to the avant-prog of Univers Zero and Magma.

One of the top – to say the least – symphonic prog outings of the decade came from a little-known band from Hungary. The talk is about Solaris who released their debut record Marsbéli krónikák (The Martian Chronicles in English) in 1984. Their sonic spectrum is so wide that is impossible to convey it through words, you need to hear it. Marsbéli krónikák Suite kicks off with an electronic sound that owes everything to Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, before it evolves into an imposing, epic composition, with spacey keyboards, dynamic guitars and well-placed flute interjections. Their debut includes more exceptional moments, like the aggressive M’Ars Poetica and Apokalipszis and the melodic Ha felszáll a köd. Solaris are active to this day, having released three more records, among which Nostradamus Book Of Prophecies stands out.

Things were not exactly a bed of roses for prog in Latin America of the 80s, even for countries that had established a strong scene like Argentina or Brazil. Yet there were, as always, exceptions that prove the rule. The Argentineans Pablo El Enterrador put out their self-titled record back in 1983 and are held in high esteem by collectors up to this day. Their style owes everything to Genesis and late 70s Italian prog, defined by the guitars and the double keyboards, giving birth to melodic as it gets tunes like the opener Carrussel De La Vieja Idiotez or Dentro Del Corral and La Herencia De Pablo. We stay put in Argentina and one more illustrating example of a band that released one record only were Agnus that did Pinturas Y Expresiones in 1980. Influenced by the vintage era of Italian prog but also the exceptional Argentinean symphonic prog scene of the 1975-78 era, the LP we speak of is defined by irresistible melodies coming from the vintage guitars and the flute but also by the bare usage of keyboards, quite unusual for the 80s symphonic prog.

The third case that did not just stir the interest but they also released one of the best prog albums of all time, was the Brazilians Bacamarte. Having a listen to Depois Do Fim will shatter the doubts of those who think of the claim above as far-fetched. The first impression we get is focused on the incomparable technical level but what makes them really stand out is the distinctive style their compositions emanate combined with their influences, something rare for bands with one and only outing. Borrowing elements from Italian prog, folk, and classical music, they wrote eight flawless tunes with Miragem, Depois Do Fim and Ultimo Entardecer as highlights. A genuine jewel.

Even though Japan always had a long tradition of psychedelia and avant-prog, some bands did stand out because of their work. From the name and the cover onwards to the musical content, it is hard to believe that Pazzo Fanfano Di Musica are Japanese and not Italians. By releasing one record only, they pulled off to distinguish themselves in a period (late 80s) when new prog releases were not abound. It is not only the elements of classical music that impress, but also the fact that they play essentially classical symphonic music with rock instruments. The combination of flute, piano and mellotron with the violin and cello is truly one of the kind, while the melodies of the whole venture are beyond criticism.

Being part of a scene that included acts like Novela, Gerard, Vienna and Deja-Vu, Pageant separate themselves from the rest mainly due to their debut La Mosaique De La Reverie. Ingredients of the recipe are the typical symphonic prog of the time, which occasionally flirts openly with neo-prog, yet the dynamics of the record and some remarkable melodic passages that bring to mind the standard duo Camel / Genesis keep them at an arm’s length from the cheesy content of the aforementioned groups. Every listener that pompous and classical-oriented symphonic prog, melancholic in mood and keyboards all over the place in the vein of Wakeman / Banks is their bag, they should check out Mugen’s Sinfonia Della Luna. Finally, the other band that turned heads was Outer Limits. Their catalogue in the 80s consisted of four records and three of them attracted a lot of attention. Since all of them are more or less in the same vein, it suffices to talk about the style of their debut (Misty Moon) that aside its classical approach it also stands out because of the usage of the violin that is in pride of place next to the typical duo synth/guitar.

Prog folk

It makes sense that the decadence of the progressive sound in the 80s would affect prog folk too, a genre that was already going downhill since late 70s. Yet, there were some bands that kept on drawing inspiration from folk melodies, be it medieval or eastern or flamenco or from the mountain ranges of Andes.

The first and most illustrative case is the one of the Chileans Los Jaivas, the most prominent prog band of this country. After their 70s route which yielded five studio albums, all of which recorded outside Chile due to Pinochet’s dictatorship, they entered the new decade in the best possible way by releasing the most superb record of their career. In Alturas De Machu Picchu, which is based on the poetry of the great Nobelist Pablo Neruda, Los Jaivas pulled off to blend like no other the traditional melodies of Incas with the complex structures of Genesis and the feeling of Pink Floyd. It is hands down one of the most sublime and, mainly, most original pieces of the 80s progressive music, all it takes is to have a listen to the 11-minute epic La Poderosa Muerte. Of their rest three albums, the double one Obras De Violeta Parra (1984) easily makes the cut where their sound came closer to traditional prog rock, because of the more extended usage of the keyboards. 

We stay put in Latin America and head to Mexico to meet Nirgal Vallis and their only record Y Murio La Tarde. It is a remarkable example of melodic prog that balances between the English prog folk and the synth-driven symphonic genre. No wonder why Musea opted to re-release it several years later. Anyone who is in for instrumental prog with rich arrangements, beautiful melodies and the guitar and the flute as main protagonists, should check out by all means the four personal albums of the Brazilian guitarist Marco Antonio Araujo and most notably his latest one (Lucas, 1984). Unfortunately he passed away in 1986 at the early age of 36 due to brain aneurysm.

In Spain, the Basques Itoiz stirred the interest with their second album Ezekiel. Having augmented their line-up with regard to their debut (violin, saxophone, mandolin) they blended diverse elements in a sophisticated and authentic way. The flamenco-meet-Steve Hackett guitars, flute’s folk melodies and the fusion piano, play their part to create one of the best outings of the kind. Itoiz went on with three uninspired albums of low aesthetic. A very special case were the Spanish Babia and the sole record they ever did; in Oriente-Occidente the listener stands before one of the best mishmashes of folk, ethnic and fusion. An assembly of stringed and wind instruments and percussions, is the vehicle for a unique journey through the musical traditions of Spain, Africa, Arabia and India.

Going further north and more precisely to Sweden, one more band made its appearance that released unfortunately only one record. The word “unfortunately” should be stressed in cases like the self-titled album of Nya Ljudbolaget. Pigeonholing the Swedish as a prog folk band is a shame for the musical wealth they deliver, since they balance effortlessly between avant-prog, folk and fusion, leaving you dumbfounded that is their first and only release. An exceptional instrumental album that will thrill the demanding listeners.

As regards the more traditional folk sound, the way we were introduced to it through great British bands like Jethro Tull, Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Spirogyra, there were some bands that did remarkable albums. In France, the most illustrious one was the three-piece group of Avaric. Pauvre Sens Et Pauvre Memoire (1980) and Rotroenges Du Mer Chant Amour (1981) are two beautiful albums, redolent with medieval folk melodies, and the double acoustic guitars and the flute take care of their romantic style. One more example of an “out of date” release is Geoffroy, Emeraude’s sole album. The album’s imprint is like no other, from the black and white sleeve with the knight to their melancholic prog folk style that shifts effortlessly from acoustic to electric parts. Out of the poor haul of the 80s prog albums from Holland, the second one of Flairck makes the cut. Gevecht Met De Engel is a wondrous example of instrumental folk music, consisting mostly of a six-string guitar, a twelve-string guitar, a flute and a violin. Touches lent by other string and wind instruments, plus the gentle feeling that envelops the album, place it at the cream of the crop in its class. The other six records they did are a far cry, with regard to quality, from this very album. Finally, in Albion the only representatives that are worth mentioning were the Welsh Pererin who released three records and one tape, with the lyrics written in the traditional Welsh dialect. Their first two albums Haul Ar Yr Eira (1980) and Teithgan (1981) are two extraordinary examples of the prog folk music with Celtic melodies, awesome call-and-responses between the guitar and the flute, discreet keyboards and double male/female vocals. The fans of Trees and Mellow Candle will get their thrills.

To be continued…

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