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  • Thom Holmes

Symphonic Rock with Electronic Keyboards

My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music



In the last episode of the podcast, we explored the fantastic Moog playing of Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer with the help of fellow electronic music historian Brian Kehew. Emerson’s playing drew upon his experience in classical music, among other idioms. Brian walked us through some pivotal performances by Emerson and I encourage you to give a listen to that show if you haven’t already.


Continuing on that theme, I’ve combed my archives for interesting and sometimes obscure examples of progressive rock that combined classical stylings and featured electronic keyboards. The playlist for this episode features details on the instrumentation for each recording. But I want to take a few moments and walk-through each of the tracks.


The selected music comes from a few well-known names—ELP, Alan Parsons Project, King Crimson—but also include tracks from individuals and lesser-known groups. Obscure or not, each of these recordings has made it into my collection because of the instrumentation involved in making the record, not the relative popularity of the music. I hope that once you hear these tracks—even some of the least familiar tracks from the big names—you will be motivated to explore each artist more fully.


This episode featured eleven tracks. The first is another piece by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, "Trilogy" from 1972. ELP established the highest standard for this kind of music.


From Trilogy we listen to a great track from Patrick Moraz on his first solo album, The Conflict released in 1978. Moraz is the Swiss keyboard player who replaced Rick Wakeman in Yes for several years. This album came at the conclusion of that stint. On this work, Moraz uses many interesting keyboards. So many that it makes it difficult to identify some of them in the multitrack mix. But you’ll probably note the presence of the Minimoog, Polymoog, Oberheim 8-voice customized synthesizer and maybe the Yamaha CS-80, a keyboard favorite of Vangelis.


The third track is from King Crimson’s third album, released in 1970. I wanted to include this for the great Mellotron sound played by Robert Fripp. Listen for the Mellotron and other electronic effects on this track. The Mellotron parts heard at about 2:25 into the track and then around 4:18 really isolate that wonderful ,taped string sound. Curiously, the track opens with an electronic tinkling that reminds me of a Christmas carol by Jean Jacques Perry, but there are no Ondioline or Moog on this record. I think that’s a section created with the EMS VCS 3 synthesizer.


For the fourth track, I wanted to showcase another really wonderful Mellotron part. This was recorded by the German group SFF in 1976 and released on the Brain label. Called “Sundrops,” the Mellotron is most prominent during the first minute of the track, after which a Moog String Ensemble takes over which blends into a Minimoog part.


The next track is by classical guitarist Linda Cohen who recorded an album with electronic accompaniment called Lake of Light in 1973. This track is “Nouveau Riche.” It features several well-known Philadelphian electronic musicians from that time, Jeff Cain, Craig Anderton, and Charles Cohen. Each provides some dazzling but tasteful sounds using such things as a Theremin, Minimoog, and homemade devices such as a Polytonic Modulator.


For the sixth track, I found an early solo release by composer James Newton Howard. He is best known for his music for television and the movies. But before that, he produced this self-titled album for piano and synthesizer. I think he’s using an ARP Odyssey for this track called “Six B’s” from 1974.


Track seven is by The Pink Mice, another German artist for which Rainer Hecht did the arrangements and played most of the instruments. The album is called In Synthesizer Sound and is from 1973. This admittedly goes more for the pop classical sound, but the energy is sufficiently infectious, and the music played with such gusto that I think you should hear it. I think you hear the Minimoog and ARP Odyssey on this track.


Track eight features two tracks by the UK group Seventh Wave. “Sky Scraper” is followed by “Metropolis” from the 1973 album Things to Come. This album is a veritable mashup of synthesizers by Moog, ARP, and EMS plus the Clavinet and Mellotron. I don’t think they have any guitars on this album, so that guitar like fuzz sound is probably one of the synthesizers.


Seventh Wave is followed by a track by Symphonic Slam, “Universe” from the self-titled album by this US-Canadian group. The leader of the group was Timo Laine, born in Finland, and who played an instrument called the Polyphonic Guitar Synthesizer, a $10,000 guitar synthesizer prototype made by 360 systems. This guitar synthesizer dedicated a synthesizer voice to each of the six strings. On this track it is mixed with keyboard synthesizers, but listen for the gradual build of the guitar synth, string by string, during the first two minutes of the song.


For the final two tracks, I am playing some music from the Alan Parsons Project production of I Robot. Parsons has been known for his musical adaptations of famous works of literature. We’ll first hear the track called I Robot, an overture of sorts introducing the entire work. After that, I’ll play Nucleus, a fascinating work that features an instrument called the Projectron, a Mellotron-like keyboard built by Parsons. It was a 24-track tape device with each playback channel addressable by a key on the organ-like keyboard. Parsons could easily switch-out the sounds for whatever effects he wanted and play them repeatedly as a sound loop. I think this was used extensively on the track Nucleus, not only for the sound effects that open the piece—you can hear the beginning and ends of the repeated loops of sound—but perhaps also for some of the rest of the work and its repeated phrasings.



Playlist

1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Trilogy” from Trilogy (Island 1972). Keith Emerson, Moog Modular and Minimoog synthesizers, Hammond organ, piano; Carl Palmer, drums; Greg Lake bass, guitar, vocals.


2. Patrick Moraz, “The Conflict” from Patrick Moraz (1978 Charisma). All instruments played by Patrick Moraz, Djalma Correia and the Percussionists of Rio de Janeiro. Electronic keyboards by Moraz include grand piano, Hammond C3 organ, Minimoog, Polymoog, Oberheim 4- and 8-voice synthesizers (custom), Computron, Yamaha CS80, Micromoog, Mellotron, ARP Pro Soloist.


3. King Crimson, “Cirkus (Including: Entry Of The Chameleons),” from Lizard (1970 Island). Guitar, Mellotron, EMS VCS 3, electronic devices, Robert Fripp; bass guitar, vocals, Gordon Haskell; cornet, Marc Charig; drums, Andy McCulloch; flute, saxophone, Mel Collins; oboe, cor anglaise, Robin Miller; piano, electric piano, Keith Tippet; trombone,Nick Evans. Listen to the signature sound of the Mellotron in this track.


4. SFF, “Sundrops” from Symphonic Pictures (1976 Brain). Bass guitar, Mellotron, Heinz Fröhling; drums, percussion, synthesizer (Minimoog), Eduard Schichke; grand piano, Moog String Ensemble, Clavinet, Mellotron, Gerhard Führs. Produced by Dieter Dirks. The Mellotron is also outstanding in this track.


5. Linda Cohen, “Nouveau Riche,” from Lake of Light (1973 Poppy). Classical guitar, Linda Cohen; acoustic guitar, bass, piano, Polytonic Modulator, Jefferson Cain; flute, Stan Slotter; producer, composer, electric guitar, electronic Matrix Drums; modulator, sitar, synthesizer, Craig Anderton; Minimoog, Theremin, Charles Cohen; trumpet, Stan Slotter.


6. James Newton Howard, “Six B’s” from James Newton Howard (1974 Kama Sutra). Composed, arranged, piano and synthesizers by James Newton Howard; drums, Brie Howard. Film and TV composer in an early solo album. Can you guess the synthesizers? I think he is playing an ARP Odyssey.


7. The Pink Mice, “Ouvertüre ‘Dichter Und Bauern,’" from In Synthesizer Sound (1973 Europa). Arranged and played by Rainer Hecht.


8. Seventh Wave, “Sky Scraper” and “Metropolis,” from Things To Come (1973 Gull). Piano, electric piano, Clavinet, ARP, Moog, and EMS synthesizers, Mellotron, glockenspiel, chimes, vocals, Ken Elliott; drums, congas, bongos, bells [sleigh], cymbal [finger, crash], castanets handclaps, claves, xylophone, vibraphone, Kieran O'Connor. An early mashup of many synthesizers.


9. Symphonic Slam, “Universe” from Symphonic Slam (1976 A&M). Polyphonic Guitar Synthesizer, vocals, Timo Laine; keyboards, backing vocals, David Stone; drums, backing vocals, John Lowery. The fully polyphonic guitar synthesizer developed by Bob Easton, 360 Systems L.A., contained six synthesizers, one for each string.


10. Alan Parsons Project, “I Robot” from I Robot (1977 Arista). Producer, engineer, guitar, keyboards, Projectron, vocoder, backing vocals, Alan Parsons; executive-producer, keyboards, synthesizer, vocoder, backing vocals, Eric Woolfson; drums, percussion, backing vocals, Stuart Tosh; guitar, backing vocals, Ian Bairnson; keyboards, Duncan Mackay. Chorus: The New Philharmonia Chorus, The English Chorale. The Projectron was a Mellotron-like device built by Alan Parsons. It was a 24-track tape device with each playback channel addressable by a keyboard. Parsons could easily switch-out the sounds for whatever effect he wanted and play them repeatedly as a sound loop.


11. Alan Parsons Project, “Nucleus” from I Robot (1977 Arista). Producer, engineer, guitar, keyboards, Projectron, vocoder, backing vocals, Alan Parsons; executive-producer, keyboards, synthesizer, vocoder, backing vocals, Eric Woolfson; drums, percussion, backing vocals, Stuart Tosh; guitar, backing vocals, Ian Bairnson; keyboards, Duncan Mackay. Chorus: The New Philharmonia Chorus, The English Chorale.


The Archive Mix included the following two tracks played at the same time:

  • Symphonic Slam, “Summer Rain” from Symphonic Slam (1976 A&M).

  • Munich Machine (Giorgio Moroder), “A White Shade of Pale” from A White Shade of Pale (1978 Oasis). Vocals, Chris Bennett; electronics, synthesizers, Giorgio Moroder


Music used for background: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “When The Apple Blossoms Bloom In The Windmills Of Your Mind I'll Be Your Valentine,” from Works (Volume 2) (1977 Atlantic).

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Electronic and Experimental Music

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