Jordan Blum — On Track: Opeth
Opeth have been around a while now, from the early melodic/death and prog roots, through to the heyday of their polished and refined period with Still Life through to Watershed , followed by their later modern blend of prog and almost “stoner doom” works from Sorceress and so on. Regardless of a fan's thoughts on the post-Watershed era, there is no denying the longevity and reach of Opeth. As a long time fan ever since hearing that opening moments of Ghost Of Perdition, any further information on the history and background of the band is interesting for me.
Jordan Blum is the associate editor of PopMatters and founded the creative arts journal The Bookends Review. He has also written for various other publications such as Metal Injection, Kerrang!, PROG and more. For the On Track series, he has penned the respective books on Jethro Tull and Dream Theater.
At 141 pages (the last 5 being a bibliography and Jordan's ultimate playlist and album rankings), with 16 colour pages of gig photos, set lists and tour posters, the book packs a lot into a small space.
Going from Orchid back in 1995 up to the most recent (at time of writing) release of In Cauda Venenum in 2019, and a small section for a round up on live/video releases, compilations, and extra tracks. There is a wealth of information contained within the book that would be best consumed with the band playing with a nice glass of wine (or cava in my case).
It is a fascinating glimpse into the long history of the band, from learning that Åkerfeldt started collecting second hand prog vinyl as the photos reminded him of the classic rock and metal giants from which they took inspiration to be “a heavy metal band that could really play”. This took them from a Swedish death metal group to the start of their domination of the prog/death style. Another interesting section is the discussion on the coming together of Åkerfeldt and Steven Wilson. Porcupine Tree were “about the only modern prog band I [Åkerfeldt] cared about”, and he wanted to get in touch with Wilson (one of his idols at that point). But before he had the chance, Wilson dropped him an email first, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While everything is taken from previous interviews and features on Opeth, so there isn't anything “new” as such, it does do the handy thing of taking the meat of them and combining it into one place. With the history of the band, their writing process and inspiration for each song coming together for a pleasant bit of reading.
If you're a fan of the band and interested in their history and process, then I'd suggest grabbing this. It is a very good read to pass the time.
Gian-Luca Di Rocco — The Prog Rock Trivia Book
Over the last few years quite a few book reviews have found their way onto DPRP's pages. A lot of those involved editions of Sonicbond's On Track and Decades series, which personally has given me a wealth of insightful knowledge and subsequent (fun) facts towards many of my/our beloved artists and genre in question. What all of these delightful books, and their miscellaneous adversaries, have in common is the absence of a book that focuses solely on prog rock trivia.
This void of facts, details and pieces of little known information has now been filled for the first time by progressive rock enthusiast Gian-Luca Di Rocco. He is also the author of books on Doctor Who, Charlie's Angels and a comedic murder mystery entitled Murder At The Battle Of The Bands, which explores the adventures of an all female prog group named "The Exquisite Curves". In light of my hardened belief from recent readings that on any given quiz night the trophy is as good as mine, I'm obviously enthusiastic about the contents of his independently released questionnaire.
Upon turning to the back-cover and answering the first quoted question with assuring conviction I can feel my sense of winning euphoria instantly growing. But once I read the third example (Which Progressive Rock artist is related to Darth Vader?) I realise I will have to use all The Force to ever lift that cup. So... You Think You Know Prog? Think again, and maybe some more, for Di Rocco's trivial queries are far from easy and often impossible to answer directly.
Prior to posing those 530+ questions, Di Rocco goes about explaining his criteria in an engagingly written prologue. In this introduction he gives a fair description of prog from his 30 years experience, elaborating and explaining on his decision to make his book appealing to a broad audience. He uses his own affinity towards various artists, making his 2000+ album collection a starting point, while trying to avoid questions where the answer can be easily looked up on Wikipedia.
Building from his "rules" this process has resulted in his book largely focussing on the late 60s, the 70s and early neo-prog 80s, with minute sidesteps into contemporary acts and the near exclusion of prog-metal, a genre he's not a fan of. This works fine for well-seasoned prog-fanatics like me who have a thirst for random interesting knowledge and can identify with many (certainly not all) of the bands mentioned within the book.
I doubt this narrowing approach works for those recently acquainted to our beloved genre (recent as in the last 25 years) though, for the book is filled with a mountain of relatively unknown names which many of these youngsters have probably never heard of. This makes his decision to exclude more "obscure" names (e.g. Pure Reason Revolution, The Pineapple Thief) distinctly raise my eyebrows, for my guess is that these nowadays familiar names would greatly benefit his original objective.
Reversing this view for a moment, it has to be said that relative newbies are lavishly treated to a wealth of quirky information with valleys blossoming with "new" names that fully deserve ones attention, renewed appreciation or overall recognition. All this next to the obvious bigger names appearing in the book. As such Di Rocco's effort is highly rewarding and supplies these readers with a well of leads and tips for further exploration and many a magical music moment in its wake!
Following the guiding introduction one finds the aptly titled parts Side One - Answers? Questions! and Side Two - Questions? Answers!. Each side is conveniently divided into ten congruent topics (e.g. albums, tracks, lyrics, concerts, quotes and television), while the artist-chapter itself is subdivided into a septet of geographically orientated questions (e.g. Italian, Germany, British, Canterbury). A clear layout that works just fine. There's however one important part that needs preparation on the readers part before launching into the questions and answers!
This has everything to do with one's urge to find out the answer to Di Rocco's prog stimulating and brain challenging questions, which I'll try to illustrate with two self-made questions in the spirit of his aim, as to not spoil the fun in reading his admirable effort:
Question 1: What colour was Landmarq's broken down van which they had to push uphill in Rotherham (UK), high heels and all?
Question 2: When Tom Cruise scrolls through his album collection in the SF blockbuster Oblivion, which character can clearly be seen riding a horse and what two classic prog albums follow shortly after?
If one turns towards the page that informs on the first answer one is likely to accidentally glance at the second one (see answer in video below). This takes away some fun elements in one's effort to try and find a solution to his puzzling and mind boggling questions. To avoid this spoiling side effect from happening one definitely needs a blank piece of paper to shield the answers in advance.
This answer section is where Di Rocco gets to excel and prove his expert knowledge on many of prog's diversities, filling it with extensive information, references and other miscellaneous guidelines where applicable. The only practical problem here is the fact that one has to flip back and forth through pages in order to read on, which has an effect on overall readability. Combined with the daunting difficulty of enjoyable questions it does mean I need a break from information overload having page-turned some 15 to 20 odd questions.
So although I see a few points for improvement Di Rocco's first trivia effort sets an overall nice benchmark. At the same time I also see some great potential applications. One of which is a converted Trivial Pursuit board game suitable for up to 6 players, where each player has to roll the bones and earn components of their instrument of choice by answering questions on six different categories correctly. Once achieved a marathon run to the board's centre stage for a final question on General Prog knowledge will then determine who gets to effortlessly lift the Golden Mellotron trophy. A night of gaming fun with prog-heads alike, who can resist?
Thanks to Di Rocco's excellently researched Prog Rock Trivia Book the first 530+ questions/answers are accounted for. And to even out everyone's winning odds, in case an interested board game developer is reading this, I'm obliged to say that photographic evidence confirms Landmarq's troubling van to be blue.
Geoffrey Feakes — 1973: The Golden Year Of Progressive Rock
Aged 4 at the time means I hardly have any personal recollections of the "golden" prog year 1973. Unlike the author, and DPRP colleague, Geoffrey Feakes, whose book reveals his age to be some 15 years above mine. Next to acquiring some 80 albums during this marvellous year, he witnessed dozens of live shows by Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Nektar, Pink Floyd, Gentle Giant, and many others. Quite possibly, one can hear him clap on the Genesis Live album that coincides with the stream of memorable releases of 1973. And if by chance a video will one day turn up of a genuine Tales From Topographic Ocean show there's every possibility one would find him in the audience enjoying every bit of it (four times in a row).
I did do a little research within my own collection prior to the arrival of Geoff's book to see whether I can concur with the proclamation of 1973 being the golden rock year in the progressive Seventies. To my surprise I come up fairly empty apart from a few live albums (Hawkwind, Yes) and studio albums by Yes (Tales From Topographic Oceans), Greenslade (Bedside Manners Are Extra), Nektar (Remember The Future) and Queen (Queen I). If I were to cheat, then Spirit's original Potatoland would be included but that album was shelved for decades. All in all a thin result, so Geoff has his work cut out in convincing me that 1973 is indeed worthy of that precious metal qualification.
The book itself, apart from a short introduction and overviewing epilogue, is divided into two sections with part one covering aspects of the year itself which I'll address later on. The second part, taking up the vast majority of the book, brings twenty On Track... analyses of milestone albums released in 1973. Within these 20 key-albums Geoff doesn't include live albums, so Hawkwind's Space Ritual, Genesis Live, and Yessongs are left out. This is no major issue for in the first part of his pleasantly told narrative, he makes sure to give them their deserved accolades and fully acknowledges their importance. Judging that these albums aren't representative of the band's accomplishments in the year 1973, seeing it's mostly live recordings done in 1972 or songs older than 1973, this makes perfect sense and fully justifies his decision.
Geoff's 20 keystone choices are as surprising as they are logical. Logical, for it includes Genesis' Selling England By The Pound, Rick Wakeman's The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, Renaissance's Ashes Are Burning and various aforementioned albums, except Queen. Albums that resonate to many prog fans nowadays, both young and old, and over time have proven their worth to prog. Semi-logically. one finds unexpected gems from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Kayak, PFM, Le Orme, Caravan, ELO, Can, and Magma. These albums brilliantly show the diversity of our beloved genre during those early years, covering Krautrock, symphonic prog, Canterbury, fusion, space-rock, avant-garde, zeuhl, and progressive pop subgenres. Each of them are certainly warranted additions and serve a strong illustrative purpose within Geoff's elaborate argument.
An upfront surprise is that out of all the albums available for inclusion Geoff exorcises the two most iconic studio albums of 1973, something that might/will stun several readers: Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon (released March 1) and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (released May 25). A daring decision, for when used as evidence in court, these iconic albums can almost instantaneously convict 1973 as the most illustrious year in prog rock history. His explanation is that "they have been exhaustively chronicled in numerous other publications". This also makes perfect sense, although I can imagine some readers/newbies will regret their absence. Not being a particular fan of these two albums (emails to our usual no-reply address please) these omissions, given due justice in the marvellous first part of the book by the way, prove to be of no consequence in enjoying Geoff's thoroughly satisfying read.
Geoff's pleasant writing style, highlighting each album with anecdotes, a shortlist of interesting facts surrounding or leading up to the album, and occasional exclusive funny memoirs from his diary, gives these approximate 100 pages great reading appeal in more ways than one. The first way is his choice of words which brings his engaging story to life and urges one to read on, meanwhile painting clear views of the albums. (Magma is not for me, thanks Geoff!)
The second way sees me killing my curiosity and skipping a-chronologically through chapters towards favourite albums where I look forward to Geoff's insights, before I decide to scroll back and read his thoughts on the other albums included. In the meantime Geoff's take on Jethro Tull's A Passion Play once again confirms Sonicbond's strength in using different writers, having previously encountered the album in Jordan Blum's book on Tull. Both versions bring different yet equally rewarding and entertaining views on the album, which is a great bonus.
Leaving no stone unturned in securing 1973 its golden prog status, the book is extremely precise and intricately researched. The factual first part is Geoff's greatest achievement, however. I won't completely spoil the fun and urge everyone to read the book itself, but his passionate plea left me in desperate need of a DeLorean or some other means of time travelling. I channelled thoughts of kindergarten happiness out of mild envy. A new copy of the book might also be needed, for I simply devoured this first part several times in a row.
Setting the scene by highlighting several world challenges and memorable happenings he starts to carefully plot his moves and brings a highly detailed overview of the progressive scene which at the time went through its most creative and flourishing peak. Mentioning a plethora of artists and their adjacent releases from all corners of the world he spreads his wings all over the prog-spectrum and gives every sub-genres their rightful credit, including household names (e.g. VDGG, Camel, Focus, Led Zeppelin) alongside more obscure acts (e.g. Gryphon, Carmen, Alquin). During this he fully acknowledges the fact that one can't please everyone so some absences or inclusions might be questioned, and indeed some come to mind. Overall his archaeological skills, and the staggering amount of connecting details and insightful information he whips out in his easy-to-read style, are outstanding and would definitely make Indiana Jones proud.
Allowing circumstantial technicalities of groundbreaking records prior to 1973 into his fluently well written words, meanwhile certifying Close To The Edge's quintessential prog status in 1972, Geoff then comprehensively addresses the arrival of ambitious stage shows filled with all sorts of costume changes and gives a glance on the importance of radio and television (see the video link) during those days. He finally plays his trump card by drawing attention to the unforgettable prestigious artwork of Hipgnosis, Roger Dean, and H.F. Giger (E.L.P.) and this strike sees him win an open and shut case on all accounts. 1973 was a truly amazing and brilliantly successful year in prog and fully deserves its crowning glory.
Overall Geoff's insightful and genuinely information filled book is a joyous read and highly recommended for anyone wanting to get a glimpse and feel of 1973's enormous scope in progressive rock. Engagingly written it contains many leads, references and essential information worthy of further exploration, which is something that will please newbies as well as seasoned prog minded fans.
Supplying many answers in its pages, two questions though still linger on inside me: which year qualifies as runner-up to prog's golden era, and what are the other two albums Geoff and his wife had in common when they first met up? Hopefully Geoff will answer and reveal more in a sequel.
John Van Der Kiste — Decades: Free And Bad Company In The 1970s
Hot on the trails of his page-turner on Ian Hunter and Mott The Hoople, John Van der Kiste publishes its brotherly equivalent on Free and Bad Company. Both descending from the same period in musical history, intertwining in a multitude of ways all accounted for in this well-written book. It once again makes for a lovely read that fills my pub-quizzing databases with little-known facts, brings enlightening insights in the band's developments (and Free's rapid declines) and reacquaints me with general knowledge thereby mentioning obvious references like the timeless All Right Now, Bad Company's Feels Like Making Love, and the bands' overarching presence of vocalist Paul Rodgers.
Similar to the author's previous book, the chronologically told entertaining story starts extensively in the 60s. A logical decision once again, seeing Free's foundation in 1968. It would indeed feel strange not to include this historically interesting informative part, especially in light of their relatively short-lived tumultuous period in the 70s. A moment in time which skyrocketed at the beginning of 1970 with All Right Now, selling at a staggering estimated 1000 copies an hour in the UK alone at the time of its release. A momentum the band effectively couldn't cope with and shortly after several cracks begin to show, and rising tensions between the members causes the band to break up in May 1971. Not for long though, as they reformed in January 1972, due to unsuccessful endeavours by the individual members in the months after their split.
By incorporating a delightful amount of insightful era-defining background history (mining strike effects, lyrical controversy, record company pressure, addiction habits, continental success...), Van Der Kiste then continues to create an outstanding and perfectly readable story in which his passion and love for the band is clearly visible. Painting a clear picture of the inevitable decline of Free, which turns out worse than I envisioned, the image created of the fruitful return to the stage, when Bad Company is formed in 1973 with Rodgers and Simon Kirke, joined by Mott The Hoople's Mick Ralphs and Boz Burrell (ex-King Crimson), is equally finely formulated. All this makes for an informative read thanks to its embellishment with many insightful views.
Within the year-based paragraphs, with obligatory album info and a short analytical rundown of adjacent songs, Van Der Kiste stays mainly positive with a hint of criticism seeping through his well-chosen enthusiastic words now and again. This honesty gives the distinct impression that Free's troubled guitarist Paul Kossof's effort 2nd Street under the Back Street Crawler flag is a truly atrocious one, for van Der Kiste avoids highlighting it, and skips any analytical outline of its songs completely. It could be the album is actually unknown to him, but I reckon this to be untrue for his thorough research is immaculate. Needless to say I haven't checked this album out yet, and probably never will, opposite to some of Bad Company's efforts which on basis of Van Der Kiste's accurate descriptions now suitably tickle my melodic rock/AOR fancy.
Van der Kiste rounds off his exemplary read with an extensive postscript of accomplishments up until to present day. Amongst it one finds other mentions of Bad Company albums and Paul Rodger's three-year fling with members of Queen, hence essentially covering the complete output of both bands and their members. This section is an excellent addition for collectors and those interested in the overall encompassing story of Bad Company and Rodgers.
With 80 out of the totalling 125 pages actually addressed to the 70s, the rest handling in pristine detail the other remaining decades, one could argue whether the chosen title fully justifies its contents. To enjoy the book it makes no difference though and personally I find this digression a bonus, for one now gets the full story on both bands, as well as clear insights into the fruitfullest period of Bad Company.
Pure prog minded music lovers will be wishing well towards more prog orientated books within Sonicbond's release schedule, for only meagre odd references like Alan White's involvement on Kossof's Back Street Crawler are catered for. Despite this fact, Van Der Kiste's splendid effort proves to be good company in Sonicbond's roster and perfectly suitable for fans of Paul Rodgers, the bands in question and those generally interested in musical history.