December 8, 2021

One of the perks of this job is that you get to listen to music of various types that probably wouldn’t have come across the threshold under normal conditions. It’s a further perk that you sometimes get to compare it with something else you also wouldn’t have come across in any other way. For instance, I reviewed a 3-CD boxed set named Banquet from Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint a few months ago, which comprised nearly four hours’ worth of formative prog from 1969. It’s a massively impressive product, packaged with love and attention to detail, and as much as I enjoyed it, and it opened my eyes (and ears) to an avalanche of material I had never heard before, I’d have to say it’s unlikely it would have tempted me had it not been dropped through my letterbox one summer’s day. Cherry Red are nothing if not prolific though, and I have now been treated to another, similar set based entirely in 1971, named Breakthrough after the track from Atomic Rooster that opens CD 3. This set is larger, louder and even more impressive, with four CDs of 78 or 79 minutes each, amounting to over five hours of underground material taken from a single year, like a single malt whisky or a single vineyard vintage. Underground indeed, as prog really was in its formative years at the time, but was just about to flower into the biggest, most overblown musical genre since the days of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

And the great thing about all this ear-bending is that it has allowed me a perspective on early prog I would never have gained in any other way. For instance, the melting pot of 1969 was an incredibly disparate mix of genres, with bands rooted in rock’n’roll, country, folk, middle-Eastern music, jazz and embryonic hard rock, all starting to travel together on the same road, that would burst out into the most broadly creative musical outpouring in history. Just two years later, all of these genres had effectively merged into a single sound that is instantly identifiable as prog rock. It had grown in confidence and ambition, and had also started to take on the pretentiously flamboyant lyrical content that would later see it dismissed by its detractors as dinosaur rock, huge, unwieldy and ultimately doomed to destruction.

And truth to tell, with some bands that would go on to be stellar influences still finding their feet and exploring their sound, it’s not all good. The Edgar Broughton Band kicks off proceedings with Evening Over Rooftops, Broughton’s atonal voice presiding over a dowdy, shoe-gazing, minor-key anthem, which nevertheless displays some impressive ambition, with frenetic violins introducing a cello counterpoint in the intro. A couple of tracks later, we find the mighty Procol Harum making a dreadful racket with Simple Sister, and even the famously pastoral Barclay James Harvest apparently kicking their amps down the stairs, although they compensate by presenting a tasteful recorder bit in the middle. Sandy Denny makes a pleasantly melodic change, but the first track I would identify as a bit of decently classy prog is supplied by Jethro Tull with Mother Goose at track six. Talk of Tull can hardly fail to provoke mention of frenetic fluting, but it’s surprising to realise just how ubiquitous the flute was in early prog, popping up all over this set.

One of the specialities of these Cherry Red compilations is digging up obscure masterpieces, from bands that showed masses of promise but were somehow swallowed up at the time, like Big Sleep, Mighty Baby and the wonderfully-named BB Blunder. The first of these is House On The Hill by a band named Audience, which has everything acoustic, electric and brass thrown into the mix, along with tight stops and an imaginative and individual vocal style that makes it stand out from the crowd. Fans of modern-day prog metal, which unashamedly pastes classic sounds into a powerful, modern mix, will be interested to hear some of those sounds used in their original setting – for instance, Time Machine by Beggars Opera makes great use of a vintage organ tone that will be instantly recognisable to fans of Ayreon and others that inhabit the symphonic and sci-fi arenas.

CD 2 seems, either intentionally or otherwise, to take a somewhat different approach. Apart from opener Do It by the Pink Fairies, which could be early Status Quo or AC/DC in its hard-rocking intensity, most of the other tracks are soft ballads, or at least start that way. With prog though, nothing is ever set in stone, and Barclay James Harvest’s Blue John’s Blues builds from a light start up to a rocker with shades of Mott The Hoople. Nevertheless, the early Thin Lizzy track Eire is nothing more or less than a moving poetic ode to Phil Lynott’s beloved homeland, with guitarist Eric Bell’s guitar adding a layer of emotion he rarely gets credited for, while Traffic’s enigmatically-named The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys is an ambient epic, burning slowly for over 11 minutes, taking no less than 7 minutes to get to the piano solo. Great to hear Status Quo included too, with their pre-fame jam-band wig-out Someone’s Learning, just months before they broke into the hard-rocking mainstream with Paper Plane.

And so it continues, and whether it gets better as it goes on, or whether it’s just me getting my ear in, I daren’t say. But there’s no doubt that by disc 4, there are some real classics crawling out of the woodwork, with Keef Hartley providing one of the highlights in his 8-minute fusion epic Theme Song/En Route. Gentle Giant provide an imaginative soundscape with a heavily-effected guitar underneath a violin line and their trademark gentle vocals, but by the end of the set, we are treated to ELO as it should always have been, a rock band playing on exclusively classical instruments, with Roy Wood’s high vocals belting out 10538 Overture, followed by the impressive jazz-fusion horn wig-out Song For The Bearded Lady by Nucleus. The highlight of the entire collection is saved for last though, with Yes’s beautiful Heart Of The Sunrise, which arguably set the template for all the leading prog to come out of the seventies.

OK, so it’s a bit of a Curate’s egg, as is inevitable with such a broad-based, wide-ranging, and ultimately long, compilation as this. But there’s no doubt that it’s an immersive and highly entertaining experience, and the presentation is simply awesome. The simple cardboard slip cases of lesser boxed sets are replaced by lovingly constructed mini record sleeves, each with the same wide-angled, druidic photograph presented in a different colour, with sumptuous fonts and extensive credits for each song. But the clamshell box also includes a gloriously detailed 48-page booklet, featuring a full biography of each band, in alphabetical order, painstakingly curated by Mark Powell, who also masterminded the 1969 Banquet compilation. For fans of formative prog, it can hardly get better than this. And for those whose tastes lean towards slicker and more processed production, make no mistake that later bands were standing on the shoulders of giants.