Psych and Prog

Peter Hammill “The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage” (1974)

The absolute pinnacle of Peter Hammill’s solo career. The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage is every bit as impressive as the finest records from Van der Graaf Generator, although with most members of the (temporarily-defunct) Generator chipping in it’s arguable as to what degree this is a true solo album. Many of the tracks here are especially reminiscent of the intense vocal/sax-centric sound featured on the upcoming Generator classics Godbluff and Still Life, and fans of either of those albums will almost certainly love this release. Yet Silent Corner is a somewhat different kind of album than Hammill ever produced with the Generator. Every song here is extremely “intimate”, be it via deeply personal lyrics or via a stripped down production that brings everything back to Hammill’s voice. It’s also an extremely “weird” and “difficult” album, even compared to the average Generator release (only Pawn Hearts compares here). Bizarre lyrics, sudden shifts in dynamic, and absolutely no percussion until track four(!!!)- after dozens of listens there are parts of this album that I’m still trying to “figure out”. Yet before I scare away all but the most devout prog rock fans, let me emphasize that this album is totally worth your effort. A true classic of progressive music that repeatedly rewards the thoughtful listener via a wealth of magnificent details.

As for the tracks themselves, Silent Corner is bookended by what are arguably the two finest tracks of Hammill’s solo career: “Modern” and “A Louse Is Not a Home”. The first of those tracks contributes one of the most memorable opening sequences of any album from my collection, gradually developing into a glorious mindfuck of a song that perfectly epitomizes Mr. Hammill’s unique musical vision. The latter of those two tracks is representative of the record’s Generator-esque tendencies- a 10+ minute epic rocker in which Hammill’s energetic vocals are complimented by an equally-remarkable instrumental arrangement. Other highlights include a slow-building piano-driven “ballad” in “Forsaken Gardens” and another Generator-esque rocker in “Red Shift”. Preventing a perfect 5.0 star rating are the relatively straightforward ballads “Wilhelmina” and “Rubicon”, which carry over the “singer/songwriter” aesthetic that was more pronounced on the previous Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night. As with a number of tracks from that earlier album, I find both of these songs to be nice yet remarkably unmemorable.

Alongside the subsequent In Camera, the cornerstone of any Hammill collection. Strongly recommended to any progressive rock enthusiast, and a record that every Van der Graaf Generator fan should seek out. —Paul

Wigwam “Fairyport” (1971)

Third album by the Finnish Prog Masters Wigwam, marking the arrival of the group at a point of maturity after the initial period of searching for their unique voice, as reflected on their first two releases. This album is often considered as one of the finest examples of Finnish Prog and together with its follow up “Being” it presents Wigwam as one of Prog’s all time highest achievements. The band’s core: vocalist Jim Pembroke (a British expatriate living in Finland), keyboardist Jukka Gustavson, who was the band’s principal composer, bassist Pekka Pohjola and drummer Ronnie Osterberg are joined by several guest musicians, mainly guitarist Jukka Tolonen, who often cooperated with the band, and woodwind / brass players, including Jazz saxophonists Eero Koivistoinen and Pekka Poyry, expanding the overall sound of the basic quartet. The compositions are all outstanding, moody and full of unexpected turns and twists. Superb instrumental sections allow all musicians to express their talents, often moving into lengthy Jazzy improvisations. Pembroke’s English vocals were a great asset for the group and contributed to their immense popularity outside of Finland. Almost four decades after this material was recorded, it still sounds fresh and exciting, ready to be discovered by new generations of music lovers. Absolutely essential! —Adam

Barclay James Harvest “Barclay James Harvest” (1970)

A magnificent piece of early symphonic progressive rock with some of the most enduring melodies of all time. Barclay James Harvest’s first album can be categorized somewhere in the Procol Harum and early Moody Blues school of musical thought while still carrying their own personality. In many ways this debut album gives off a rather “Beatles’ish” feel as well; vocals are like velvet with superb musical harmonies and excellent lyrics which seems to fit the music with perfection. Recorded in ’69 and ’70 using only two eight-track machines with the assistance of Robert Godfrey (The Enid), the Barclay James Harvest Orchestra and a mellotron. Trivia buffs might be interesting to note that Jim Litherland (Colosseum) added some guitar brilliance to the opening number “Taking Some Time On”. Although sounding a little dated at times, this is still a tremendous recording which I fondly treasure. —James

Van Dyke Parks “Song Cycles” (1968)

In 1968 Warner Brothers were preparing to make pop music history by releasing an album by a young musician and songwriter called Van Dyke Parks. Song Cycle’s budget at the time made it the most expensive album ever recorded back then. The Warner bosses weren’t worried, they knew it was going to be the biggest thing since Sgt. Pepper and probably bigger. They were wrong, they were very wrong.

When Song Cycle was released it just didn’t sell. It had received unprecedented pre-release rave reviews saying it things like: “The most important, creative and advanced pop recording since Sgt Pepper”; “a work of creative genius”; “the most vital piece of musical Americana since Gershwin”. Parks also had an impressive pedigree as a musician on The Byrds ‘5D’ and the first Tim Buckley album; songwriter for Harpers Bizarre and others; a musical arranger on Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’ and most famously as a collaborator with Beached Boy Brian Wilson. Despite the advance press and the pedigree it’s hard to see how on earth Warners thought this was going to be a real big seller. It is undoubtedly a work of unique vision and ambition. Truly a masterpiece but with zero “radio friendly” 3 minute sound bites packed with catchy hooks. Even today Song Cycle is not an easy listening experience but it is a challenging and ultimately rewarding one.

I can think of no other record like it. Song Cycle is a musical travelogue, a sonic trip across the America of Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Busby Berkeley musicals and John Ford Westerns. It has moments of real beauty such as ‘The All Golden’ and ‘Donavan’s Colours’ but just as you’re beginning to feel like you know which direction you’re moving in, it whisks you up like a hayseed in the wind and then lands you somewhere completely different.

Warner Brothers reaction to the lack of sales was a strange but entertaining one. They started to run a series of adverts in the press stating they didn’t care they, ‘lost $$,$$$ on the album of the year’, because it was a great album and people shouldn’t worry about them, as they could afford it as they were making lots of money from lesser artists. Then they offered people the chance to send their worn copies of the album with one penny to Warners and they would send back two new copies, ‘one to educate a friend with’. After all they had so many copies pressed up. Whether or not this reaction by Warners was a bluff or not they have stuck by Van Dyke Parks, continuing to finance his self indulgent, uncommercial but often wonderful fare. The latest of these releases being a collaboration with Brian Wilson ‘Orange Crate Art’. For me ‘Song Cycle’ remains his finest work. —D Stewart

Irmin Schmidt & Bruno Spoerri “Toy Planet” (1981)

A great forgotten 1981 album from the Can keyboardist, Irmin Schmidt. Delicate synth passages a few sudden astonishing gypsy disco stomps. Slightly camp, but in a good way. Sometimes sci-fi creepy, like watching Tron after eating Nutmeg. Irmin’s album does not overstate itself or outstay its welcome. It cheers me up with happy tunes. —TheGreatCurve

Black Sabbath “Black Sabbath” (1970)

Hearing Black Sabbath for the first time was like dusting off and cracking open some ancient tome of infernal knowledge, with a nefarious collection of witches, warlocks, and Lucifer himself lurking around the corners of songs like “N.I.B.,” “The Wizard,” the chilling paralysis of “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” eerie acoustic drift “Sleeping Village,” and of course “Black Sabbath,” it’s diabolus in musica riff cracking open the egg on this thing called heavy metal. Hiding behind that hazy, creepy cover shot was a suite like arrangement of songs almost entirely devoted to exploring supernatural fears, rife with horror-themed imagery and the threat of unseen evil, delivered with a crushing blow rendered in stark, black and white production. Though the album drifts in it’s second act, with the extended workout on Retaliation’s “Warning” and a primitive Crow cover, “Evil Woman,” appearing on UK issues, US audiences were treated to the superior, stoned rumblings of “Wicked World.” Castle’s 1996 CD contains both tracks, though missing in action on this and subsequent Sabbath reissues are subtitles like “Wasp,” “Bassically” and “A Bit of Finger,” originally appended to the US release to pull in more publishing royalties to the band, but just adding another layer of enigma for those of us already lost in the forest, with nowhere to run as the figure in black drew closer. —Ben

Brand X “Moroccan Roll” (1977)

Any band or artist that was blessed with Phil Collins presence on the drums in the 70’s would instantly improve their sound. Brand X, of course, was no exception. In fact, If I had to choose one band to prove the greatness of Phil Collins behind the drum kit, it would be Brand X. As much as I love Genesis, it’s here that he seems most confident to create whatever he feels like and to develop a style with no restrictions. In Genesis he was brilliant on the drums, but he was always conscious of the boundaries imposed by Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks compositions. In Brand X he sounds like there’s nothing he can’t do. The other guys are brilliant as well, but it’s Phil Collins that makes them sound so tight.

The music is unmistakingly late 70’s funk-prog-fusion with a jazzy flavor. This is fusion that never becomes tiring and self-absorbed. It’s music for people who love to get lost in a sound filled with intricate patterns and cool atmospheres created by musicians in perfect control of their own vision and who know how to explore new boundaries without losing their sense of fun on the way! —Som

Can “Soon Over Babaluma” (1974)

Even without Damo Suzuki, Can demonstrate their mastery of dense, funky jamming on Soon Over Babaluma.

The opener, “Dizzy Dizzy”, with surprisingly funny lyrics whispered by Michael Karoli, shows the band at their most confident and powerful, with the added violin work fitting in the mood remarkably well. “Come Sta, La Luna”, chant-sang by keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, has an almost mystical tone that reminds one of Roxy Music’s “Triptych”, yet the sparse, beautiful piano playing gives it a quite different type of “medieval” sounds from anything coming from England in the 1970s. Whilst the almost ambient atmospheres of these two tracks are a step beyond Future Days, the remaining three songs are less atmospheric and mostly instrumental. “Chain Reaction”, sang by Karoli, is really dense and hypnotic, yet is so danceable owing to Karoli’s understated and powerful guitar work, and the four-minute mid-song solo is about the most hypnotic thing any rock band has ever put to record. The final track, “Quantum Physics” is truly ambient and remarkably fluid: almost a relief from the fiery “Chain Reaction” with which it formed the original vinyl’s second side. “Splash”, though sounding rather like the Soft Machine, was a fiery, jazzy number that showed Can’s ability to make densely improvised music was at its peak.

Soon Over Babaluma may lack the explosive quality of the Suzuki-era albums, but its glacial, hypnotic beauty is remarkable. —laikehao

Kaleidoscope “Tangerine Dream” (1967)

Kaleidoscope’s Tangerine Dream is just about the most perfect example of fairy tale psychedelia. A technicolor gem produced at the exact moment British psychedelia went for a full on overkill of whimsy. Silly tweeness abounds, in fact the childlike lyricism is exclusively of the strawberry monkeys / candy forests variety. It’s up to you to decide if that’s a realm you’d be interested in visiting. If you are, you’ll stumble upon one of the prettiest records of the 60’s, one filled with exceedingly well written pop songs and some mildly medieval-esque balladry. It’s been quite some time since I’ve found such a scrumptious album, such delicious, cuddly cuteness.

Kaleidoscope themselves (not to be confused with the American Kaleidoscope) were quite the talented band, with their flair for composition and execution making the songs positively sparkle. Peter Daltrey’s sweet voice, Eddie Pumer’s exquisite guitars and the many little details sprayed across all shine. The band’s first single, “Flight From Ashiya” is the skyscraping tale of a doomed flight where “Captain Simpson seems to be in a daze, one minute high and the next minute low, nobody knows where we are”; “Sky Children” and its dragons, candy forests or porcupine captains add another candy coated layer to the cake, “In the Room of Percussion” recalls a Byrds’ rumination, albeit with the unByrdslike line of “My God, the spiders are everywhere”. “The Murder of Lewis Tollani” brings darker subject matter afloat and a trippy post chorus bit, “Please Excuse My Face” is both minimal and adorable. Plus the opener “Kaleidoscope”, with its precious harmonies and playful keys could be British psych’s theme song. Truly a treat.  —Johnny

Magic Carpet “Magic Carpet” (1972)

Mindblowing UK raga-psych that has all the right moves: Warm, stoned and fuzzy guitars, gentle tabla, soft acoustic passages, blissed-out sitar lines and simply wonderful female vocals. I cannot overstate how full-on psych this record is. From the opening lines of “The Phoenix” to the fade out of the final ‘trance’ raga, this one is a synapse burner. Totally far out, and gorgeous, too. Track it down if you are even remotely interested in Eastern folkpsych, you’ll be thrilled with it. —Chad

Pretty Things “Parachute” (1970)

While Parachute is less innovative than its predecessor, SF. Sorrow, it shows the Pretty Things at their most mature, lyrically and musically. It begins with a medley that stretches through the majority of side one, one that vaguely resembles the one on The Beatles’ Abbey Road. While it doesn’t reach the cathartic heights of that medley’s finale, it’s melodically stronger than it’s counterpart.

The noisy Scene One is a discomforting opener, with wild drumming that establishes a manic atmosphere. But then it goes away, and you get the peaceful beauty of The Good Mr. Square, which immediately makes it clear that the Pretty Things have improved melodically since their last album, and almost all of these songs boast strong melodies and breathtaking harmonies. Even better yet, they spin that melody into a lovely gospel song in She Was Tall, She Was High, and it’s interesting to see how, in the space of a minute in a half, the song builds up and falls with its soaring chorus Then we get the gorgeous in the Square, with a melody so great, that Radiohead decided to rip it off for Paranoid Android. The song also starts introduce the dichotomy of the city and the country that’s such a prominent theme in this album. Then we get a terrific rocker in the form of Miss Fay Regrets, with it’s fantastic riff, and almost schizophrenic lyrics, and Grass, one of the album’s highlights, with its brooding piano line, and it’s lovely rising melody. The song sounds like a less self-indulgent Pink Floyd with similar production values, only, not only does it predate that classic sound, it actually exceeds it, achieving it’s lovely atmosphere without the use of any of the sound effects Pink Floyd cherished.

As the album hurtles towards its end, we get She’s a Lover, another fantastic rocker, with its Phil May’s lovely falsetto chorus and surprising middle 8 After that, we get What’s the Use, which stuffs three different songs into less than two minutes. It’s a little confusing, and I sorta wish the three parts could’ve been developed more, because they’re all strong, but that’s all made up for with the title track, which is gorgeous beyond words, and features some of the best harmonies this side of the Beach Boys. And that build up, when the drums and piano join the guitar, has to be the most cathartic moment on a Pretty Things record. The best part, is that rising synthesizer near the end, it just keeps soaring up and up and is almost overwhelming, and then the song stops. It’s a great and daring ending for an album, and is just another display of the bands great mastery of atmosphere. This is a fantastic album! —Foxtrot

Robert Wyatt “Rock Bottom” (1974)

The strange and beautiful Rock Bottom has a remarkable story to tell reflected in its melancholy magic. It epitomizes the saying “every cloud has a silver lining” as, in the face of devastating adversity, the resilient Robert Wyatt finds a way to turn personal tragedy into universal triumph. No longer able to sit behind a drumkit [after a paralyzing accident] he uses the keyboard to realize a set of compositions he’d previously developed for his band. Wyatt had already displayed a weird originality on his first solo album End Of An Ear and here he reveals it once again in a completely new direction forced upon him by dire circumstances.

The whole album rests on a small number of simple ideas that might have been approached in a variety of ways but are expanded into fascinating keyboard excursions of ethereal beauty. The shimmering sound Wyatt refers to in his liner notes serves as a backdrop for guest musicians as eminent as Hugh Hopper, Mike Oldfield, Fred Frith and Richard Sinclair. The first two numbers, Sea Song and A Last Straw, are delicate dreamscapes but the lyrics are more poignant than could ever have been imagined. Wyatt sings it straight but can’t resist launching into his unique scat style (imitation of a trumpet) when he runs out of words, a style that helped set him apart from his contemporaries. The drone like quality of the music drifts slowly through the chord changes leaving plenty of space for touches of piano, bass and drums. Wyatt also plays slide guitar on A Last Straw showing what a natural musician he is. On Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road the tempo picks up a little but without losing its intimacy, the chords run through majors and minors touching at crucial moments on the all-important 7th. Trumpets left and right play short bursts repeatedly, creating, along with the sustained keyboard, a canvas alive with bright colors. At times different parts of the mix go into reverse, the drums, the trumpets and even the vocals, confusing its circular chord sequence delightfully. Add to this the wonderfully comic lyric and Ivor Cutler’s absurd recital and it all amounts to the centerpiece of the album.

Every bit as eccentric as End Of An Ear but profoundly beautiful rather than a silly indulgence, Rock Bottom is Wyatt’s crowning achievement. —Robert