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Rock in the Name of Progress (Part IV-"The Triple Alliance")

By Brian L. Knight

progressive \Pro*gress"ive\, a. [Cf. F. progressif.] 1. Moving forward; proceeding onward; advancing; evincing progress; increasing; as, progressive motion or course; -- opposed to retrograde. (Websters Dictionary)

Over the last two issues, the Vermont Review has discussed the bands that comprise the diverse music genre known as progressive rock. We have already visited the popular stalwarts of Yes and King Crimson, the space rocking Gong and Hawkwind, and Henry Cow, Mont Campbell, Peter Blevgad and National Health on Chicago’s East Side Digital. In this issue we will head to Maryland’s Cuneiform Records (Cuneiform Records PO Box 8427, Silver Spring, MD 20907) who are one of the biggest purveyors of progressive music. Their catalog covers every progressive style from every country and period of the time by looking at their collection of artists; one can get a tour of the history of progressive music. We will took a look at three distinctive bands from European progressive rock and traced their lineage from the band’s inception in the 1960s and 1970s to the band member’s present day endeavors. These three bands/musicians are Hugh Hopper of the jazz-rock godfathers The Soft Machine; Frenchmen Richard Pinhas pioneering electronica with his band Heldon and the dark gothic chamber rock of Belgium’s Univers Zero and its drummer/leader Daniel Denis.

 

Soft Machine

One of the biggest "art rock" bands to arise from the English rock scene in the late 1960s was the Soft Machine. Best remembered for opening for Jimi Hendrix during his two American tours, the Soft Machine was often referred to as Pink Floyd’s greatest rival, despite the fact that the Soft Machine took a slightly jazzier approach to music than Floyd’s space rock excursions. Together, two bands participated in English psychedelic events at the UFO or the Roundhouse in London which was by far, the English equivalent of the And Warhol’s Plastic Inevitable in New York City or the Acid Tests on the west coast. These events were huge parties in which the Floyd, Soft Machine or other bands, such as the Crazy World of Arthur Band provided background music while the parties went on until the early hours of the morning. The two bands were also the two big bands at the International Times’ big rock festival, The 14-Hour Technicolor Dream.

Just like America’s Steely Dan, the Soft Machine found its band name from a novel by William S. Burroughs and the original lineup consisted of Daevid Allen (guitarist), Kevin Ayers (bass, vocals), Mike Ratledge (keyboards) and Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals). Friend and occasional musician Hugh Hopper managed the band. After the departure of Allen and Ayers, the Soft Machine slowly mutated into a quartet with manager Hopper joining in on bass and saxophonist Elton Dean adding a much needed brass sound.

Since the early days of the Soft Machine has experienced an unfathomable amount of lineup changes, but with the foundation of jazz based improvisation serving as the creative spark of the band.

Cuneiform Records recently released Virtually, which was recorded during the quartet’s 1971 concert in Bremen, Germany. A radio station originally accomplished the recording, so the sound is immaculate and marks one of the final recordings of the classic quartet (Wyatt left the band in the summer of 1971). Most of the material was taken from two of the band’s albums, Third and Fourth, and the majority of the tunes are steady R&B rhythms with extended psychedelic solos laid on top. The concert begins with Hugh Hopper’s 10 minute "Facelift" and 8 minute "Virtually" which are both psychedelic improvisations as they allow for ample room for Hopper’s fuzz bass, Dean’s Coltrane-esque blowing, Ratledge’s unique Lowery Organ and Wyatt’s Tony Williams-like energy plenty of room to explore. Bands of today, ranging from New York City’s Curlew to Providence’s the Slip, owe a debt of gratitude to these jazz-rock pioneers.

 

Hugh Hopper

With the departure of Wyatt from the band in 1971, Soft Machine embarked on an endless stream of lineup changes. Bassist Hugh Hopper, who rose from position of band manager to primary composer, remained with the band until May of 1973. Shortly from his departure from the band, Hopper recorded his first solo album 1984. Just like David Bowie during the same period and the Eurythmics further down the road, Hopper wanted to create a musical interpretation of George Orwell’s tale of a Stalinist society in which "Big Brother" was watching you. Consisting of seven tracks, titled "Miniluv", "Minipax I &II", "Minitrue", "Miniplenty", "Minitrue Reprise" and "Miniluv Reprise", the album, even after a cursory glances, provided a vision of a regimented world. The four "Mini" compositions related the ministries that ruled the land in Orwell’s book and the contradictions they represented (In the book, Miniluv stood for the repression; Minipax stood for war; Miniplenty stood for shortages and Minitrue stood for disinformation). 1984 was truly an innovative album for its time as it signified some of the early uses of electronics, mellophones and loops that are musical characteristics that run rampant in the 1990s. The music is spaced out with unbridled free improvisation. For the opening "Miniluv", it is simply Hopper on bass, loops, percussion and mellophone. For the remainder of the album, Hopper recruits such as John Marshall of Soft Machine, Pye Hastings of Caravan and respected jazz saxophonists Gary Windo and Lol Coxhill. Only a few tunes such as "Minipax I", "Minitrue" and "Miniluv Reprise" remain true to the progressive-jazz rock of Soft Machine while the remaining tracks are spaced out experimentation. It is the combination of the two that provides the breadth of scope that these musicians covered during these years. From jazz improv to electronics spaciness, there was a whole lot of innovation going on.

 

Hugh Hopper & Alan Gowen

After the incredible critical success of 1984, Hopper spent the next twenty years in a variety of obscure bands with the likes of Carla Bley, Elton Dean and Pip Pyle. One such unique collaboration was 1980’s Two Rainbows Daily with keyboardist Alan Gowen. Gowen, a veteran of National Health and Gilgamesh, had played with Hopper on numerous occasions over the years. Two Rainbows Daily is an excellent recording featuring the two improving freely on keyboards and bass with no vocals, overdubs and loops. Similar to the great jazz collaborations between keyboardist Gil Goldstein and guitarist Pat Martino, the twelve recordings on this album are very light and ethereal and allow for talented instrumentation from both contributor.

 

Hughscore

In the mid-1990s, Hopper crossed the Atlantic Ocean and North American continent and arrived in Seattle, Washington. Just like his fellow ex-Soft Machiner, Daevid Allen, Hopper felt the allure of the American west. While grunge was reigning supreme in the Pacific Northwest, Hopper continued with his jazz-rock electronics. In 1995, he formed Hughscore with bassist Fred Chalenor, vocalist keyboardist Elaine diFalco and drummer Tucker Martine. Chalenor was no stranger to the world of experimental music as he had played with saxophonist George Cartwright (from the New York City avant-garde rock and roll band Curlew), the space funk of Zony Mash (as well as other Wayne Horvitz enterprises) and guitar wizard Elliot Sharp. Both diFalco and Martine also had experience with the Knitting Factory experimentation of Wayne Horvitz while Martine had played with free jazz greats like Sam Rivers and Julian Priester. In comparison to his earlier recordings, Delta Flora features vocals, which have been absence for quite some time. DiFalco provides beautiful lyrics and voicing for tunes such as "Was a Friend", "November" and "Ramifications". There is an updated version of Soft Machine’s "Facelift" and old time friend Elton Dean sits in for the album . The combination of DiFranco’s sweeping vocals and amazing bass of Hopper provides a whole new take on 1990s pyschedelia.

 

 

Univers Zero & Daniel Denis

There has been quite a bit of emphasis on the British Isles in these pages, but now we ahead across the channel to the small country of Belgium which is home to the progressive "chamber rock" band Univers Zero. Like Soft Machine, Univers Zero found their name from the pages of a science fiction novel by fellow Belgian Jaques Steenberg. Formed in 1974 with the atypical instruments of percussion, guitar, bass, violin, bassoon and harmonium, it should have been evident that Univers Zero was going to provide a style of music that truly alternative. The original lineup consisted of leader/drummer Daniel Denis, bassist Christian Genet, bassoonist Michael Berckmans, violinist Marcel Dufrane, the violin/viola/cello of Patrick Hanappier, the harmonium of Emmanuel Nicaise and guitarist Roger Trigaux and they released their first album, 1313, in 1977. The music from this album was dark, Gothic and extremely classically influenced. In America, jazz musicians looked to classical music in what Gunther Schuller called the "Third Stream." Univers Zero was much deeper into the classic as their music was dark, brooding and hardly uplifting. While Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer incorporated the classical influences of Mozart and Bach, Univers Zero delved into the haunting world of Bartok.

In a 1996 interview with Drummer Dude Magazine, Denis described the goals of Univers Zero: "We didn't look for musicians who played specific instruments, rather we looked for those who were interested in doing something different. This is how we recruited Michel Berkmans (bassoon) and Patrick Hanappier (violin, viola). I like to mix styles. It's difficult for me to find people who share similar ideas. Musicians are often too attached to one form of music. If you transcend it, they become frightened in some way or another. It's a shame." Also like Soft Machine, Univers Zero also experienced numerous lineup changes. By the time 1984’s UZED was recorded, only Denis and Genet remained from the first album. Regardless of the lineup changes, the same Gothic, classically influenced sounds prevailed with Denis, who is a fan of Tony Williams and Mitch Mitchell, always leading the band through strong and adventurous improvisations.

In 1986, Univers Zero disbanded, but the 1990s have seen a resurrection of the Univers Zero sounds. In 1993, Denis released his second solo album Les Eaux Troubles (Troubled Waters). Joined by some fellow Univers Zero cohorts, Les Eaux Troubles captured all of Univers Zero’s "soothing sinistery". In 1999, after 13 years of dormancy, Univers Zero returned to the studio with different musicians from the different stages of the band – Denis, Berckmans, Trigaux as well as clarinetist Dirk Descheemaeker an violinist Igor Semenoff. The name of the album is The Hard Quest and expect more of the "medeievality" of Univers Zero that will keep you both pensive and amazed. As always, it is Denis propulsive drumming that keeps the music tied to rock and roll but it his conservatory trained partners that push the music into the Gothic chambers. And let us not forget the music is all acoustic, which is always refreshing in this day and age.

 

Heldon, Richard Pinhas

Down through the Rhine River valley and across the historic Maginot Line, we head from the dark Gothic Chamber rock into the searing instrumentalism of France’s Heldon. Although considered a band, the band Heldon was simply a vehicle for guitarist/keyboardist Richard Pinhas. While Univers Zero was an all-acoustic outfit, Pinhas/Heldon made bold innovations in the world of electronic rock and roll. And one again, in a striking similarity to both Univers Zero and Soft Machine, Pinhas got the name for Heldon from a science fiction book written by Norman Spinrad. Pinhas’ primary instrument was the guitar and he emulated the work of the great King Crimson guitar player Robert Fripp. The two enjoyed a very precise and exacting playing style that simultaneously allowed for soaring leads. In addition, Fripp and Pinhas looked for repetition with slight accent changes within their compositions. Both Fripp and Pinhas, as well as Brian Eno, used loops in order to create this sense of slightly mutating repetition. In a 1992 interview with Audion magazine, Pinhas discussed his comparison with Fripp: "Robert is much better ! However, we both have a style, which is quite recognizable. Even on a rotten amp with a bad guitar, I would play my own sound. (adding softly) Which isn't too bad I guess."

In a 1982 interview with "Electronics and Music Maker", Pinhas provides further elaboration on Fripp’s influence: "But Fripp is the most important composer. It is important that people realize that what he has done has more importance than any other recent compositions. I can just tell you one thing that he is developing like an organic rhythm that suggests the pulsation of the earth. You know in physical studies you have something you call the electronic noise, the noise in the Cosmos? Well, he is doing this in music and that is one of the most important things you can do. Wagner developed all the ground mythology and Fripp is developing electronic noise reality. And the second thing is that his music is composed of a block of time, he is not doing music in the time, he is doing music that is immediately a block of time. That is why he is so important."

Between 1974 and 1979, Heldon which also consisted of the relatively stable band mates of percussionist Francois Auger and keyboardist Patrick Gauthier released seven albums that fused Tangerine Dream like electronica with the darker compositions of King Crimson. The final album to be released under the name Heldon was 1979’s Stand By. With the additional help of Didier Batard (bass), Klaus Blasquiz (voices) and Didier Badez (sequencer), Stand By is a three song album beginning with the 14 minute guitar romping Heavy Metal-esqu title track, then contains a 4 minute keyboard interlude ("Une Drole de Journee") and then the ambitious eight part, 21 minute "Bolero" which is can only be described as "Spanish Cosmic Music" and can easily pass as one of Tangerine Dream’s finest pieces.

After the "break up" of Heldon, Pinhas continued to record. In 1977, Pinhas recorded Rhizosphere as a solo project although it also featured Gauthier and Auger. Rhizosphere differed from previous Heldon/Pinhas efforts as it contained no guitar and signified Pinhas’s full-blown submersion into electronica. Rhizosphere contains four shorter length electronic cuts and then the epic seventeen-minute title track. In 1994, Cuneiform Records coupled Rhizosphere with a live recording in 1982, which also included Auger and Gauthier. The live recording indicates that the Heldon/Pinhas sound was as easily captivating in a live environment as they were on an immaculately produced studio album. In contrast to Rhizosphere, Pinhas used a guitar for the live show and created a perfect symbiosis between ethereal keyboards and soaring guitar solos. In both of these albums, you will not find a vocal in sight, just though provoking and intense instrumentals. Between 1996 and 1998, Pinhas initiated his own concept of European unification through his collaboration with German synthesizer wizard Peter Frohmader on the album Fossil Culture. While Frohmader prefers a the dark side of electronic music and Pinhas chooses to blast off to space, the two together make quite a electronic buzz on the seven part journey.

Besides his defining of a whole musical era and style, Pinhas also attains the stature of brilliance through his Ph.D. is philosophy. Pinhas originally dropped out of the Sorbonne to pursue Heldon but has since finished up his work. When he is not pushing space rock into the outer cosmos, he is debating man’s existence and role within those same cosmos. In addition to his countless musical compositions, Pinhas has also written numerous pieces on sociology, psychoanalysis and he is now working on a book on Frederick Nietzsche. Pinhas is a true Renaissance man.

In the next issue of the Vermont Review, we will feature an in-depth interview with legendary Canterbury musician Hugh Hopper.

Go To Part III

Go To Part V