Penguin Cafe Orchestra – “The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter” (1976)
Penguin Cafe Orchestra sadly seem to be an anomaly, from some unknown space between prog, the avant-garde, neo-chamber music, proto-post-punk (think Essendon Airport or Durrutti Column) and even RiO. The later work has achieved some popularity, but their first album remains seemingly unheralded. To my ears, it is perhaps their best, or at least purest, less cute than later work, more emotionally direct. The guitar figuring here has a feeling not unlike something from ‘Chelsea Girls,’ but the strings and the electric piano add a slightly off-kilter warmth that is unique. This music could very easily have been recorded today, in the best possible sense: based in no fads or even prevailing styles, it stands apart from its time or origin. [Penguin Cafe Orchestra are featured in several mixes at Musicophilia.] Update: wrong audio stream when first published, now corrected. Thanks!
Debile Menthol – “Go-Jaunit” (1981)
This Swiss group walks the fine, sometimes precarious line between RIO-style prog and post-punk with great success. While generally more Henry Cow or ‘Red’-era King Crimson than This Heat, they avoid most of the noodly show-off pitfalls of ur-prog, and instead give it a little muscular restraint and humor as they speed along. This album, which I heard thanks to Mutant Sounds, reminds me most of Bill Laswell’s Material or the Belgians in the Honeymoon Killers/Aqsak Maboul, bouncing saxophones and vamping keyboards with odd percussion and kinetic, almost entirely rhythm-oriented guitar and bass. I imagine if there really were Seychellian Circuscore Post-Punk, I imagine it might sound rather like Debile Menthol. [Check out the whole record at Mutant Sounds.]
Il Balletto di Bronzo – “Epilogo” (1972)
Prog is a form of music that when I enjoy it, I’m certain I enjoy it from all the “wrong” directions and for all the “wrong” reasons, as I place no intrinsic value of the purported paramount virtues of the genre (virtuosity, speed, complexity-as-an-inherent-good, constant change for its own sake, technicality). I’ve come to appreciate plenty of middle-period King Crimson, but via This Heat; I enjoy post-Wyatt Soft Machine, but through the lense of Miles Davis; I dig Amon Duul II only when they set aside the noodling and get a little Stooges rawness. Il Balletto di Bronzo, described elsewhere as “difficult at first” is an easy fit, coming from my prog-wrong directions. Apparently the album ‘Ys,’ from which this track is culled, represents the pinnacle of something called “Italian symphonic prog,” which had I known would probably have steered me clear of this recent Exiled Records acquisition.
Fortunately, I gave it a blind listen, and found that its stereo-experimentalism and weird choral vocals and moog-and-piano arpeggios work for me entirely against any “symphonic” assessment–this ain’t no Yngwie, thank goodness. The fast parts remind me of Death May Be Your Santa Claus or Burnin Red Ivanhoe or Os Mutantes–they have a sense of humor and psychedelic playfulness, rather than lockstep-prog guitar-faced seriousness. The long slow-burn phased-drums groove of the middle section of this track needs no apologies–it’s just damned spooky, dark-space heavy badassness.
Franco Battiato – “Meccanica” (1972)
‘Fetus’ was undoubtedly a horizon-expanding discovery for me, adding another layer to my understanding of the roots of synth-based music, outre, proto-punk, etc. Battiato would go on to do much more abstract music, following a trajectory not that unlike Eno, until he entered the center of the Italian mainstream in the 80s. This early stuff is a great headtrip of early electronics, off-kilter pop-rock songwriting, borrowed/sampled sources, and what I take to be sort of sci-fi lyrics (from what I can gather via Italian-English cognates). [I’ve not used the album’s cover because some might find it disturbing; it does seem slightly shock-value unecessary to me and is not representative of the fun music contained within. Franco Battiato is featured from this period here and in a later form here in mixes at Musicophilia.]
Caravan – “With An Ear to the Ground, You Can Make It” (1970)
I bought this album when I was 18, the same day as buying a twofer of the Soft Machine’s first two albums. And ten years later, I don’t think I’ve heard anything from the “Canterbury scene” I like more; but one doesn’t hear as much about this band as Wyatt, Ayers, et al. Canterbury is the other “prog” besides Faust/Can/Neu/Cluster-nexus Krautrock that doesn’t go wanky, even when it goes jammy, and Caravan from this era is a perfect introduction. This track has it all: it’s sprawling but spare, quiet and loud, rocking and introspective, even “epic”; but it’s always purposeful and infectious, with fantastic vocals (uncannily similar to Wyatt’s), bass, drums, percussion, flute and keyboards, never giving in to stereotypical prog-complexity for its own sake. [This track starts out very quiet, so be careful not to turn up your speakers too loud. Caravan is featured here in a mix at Musicophilia.]
Godley & Creme – “This Sporting Life” (1978)
This is a weird one, too be sure–part Sparks, part Roxy Music, part Nietzsche, part circus, part Beach Boys. . . Rarely has such songcraft sophistication (ex TenCC) been put to such bizarre use. I have no idea how this would’ve been classified at the time–prog, but it’s got a sense of humor; post-punk, except it was made by bearded oldsters. Most likely it just sat outside of anything cool, waiting for geeks like us to trickle in over the years. This one is a real epic of which Dominique Leone is almost surely a big fan, rarely resting in one musical place for longer than a minute or two; audio theatre. . . advocating the use of suicide for the entertainment of others. Or something. Like I said, a weird one–but grand. It’s available in a number of worthwhile two-fers, but you can try it out in full at Mutant Sounds.
Erkin Koray – “Sir” (1974)
Erkin Koray is touted as “Turkey’s Jimi Hendrix,” but for me, while the Arabesque guitar lines are compelling, the interest is often in the beats, the baselines, and the clean funk-psych-prog way the music is produced. This one starts out with a decidedly Turkish, almost traditional groove (were it not for the dancing electric bassline), moves into rock-out territory, and back again in just under three minutes. [Koray is featured here in a mix of miniatures from the early ’70s at Musicophilia.]