Fruupp and the petty story of pretty prog

fruup wise as wisdom

Both rock and pop come in various states of rigidity.

Most obviously, there is hard rock of course – it can also be heavy or full-on metal. But there is also soft rock as its polar opposite.

The pop world has a similar toughness grading. Power pop on the one hand, and soft pop on the other.

However, when it comes to prog there isn’t much talk about anything being soft., for example, lists heavy prog, progressive metal and tech/extreme prog metal as different official sub-genres, but makes no mention of anything even remotely related to soft, delicate, balmy, gentle, mild or even light. Nada. Nichts.

Which is a shame because it is certainly as difficult to make good music that could be described using such adjectives rather than just stoking the fire, as it were. Going rough is just taking the “gentle” out of the man, how hard can that really be?

You might say that Canterbury is a soft prog genre and while that could sometimes be applied to bands like Caravan or Hatfield & the North, the genre contains a lot of stuff that isn’t soft as well. Not least by the Soft Machine…

Enter Fruupp; delicately and without much fanfare. With harpsichords rather than distorted organs; and whispers not screams. That is not to say there are no organs or screams on Fruupp’s albums; there are plenty, we are just inverting the power scale here.

And while on the topic of instruments, Fruupp is unusually a prog rock band conceived by a guitarist, namely Irishman Vincent McCusker. Just don’t expect any solos. Or power chords. For what Vince doesn’t do, he is really is a guitar hero.

Fruupp’s debut album ‘Future Legends’ is the only of their four efforts that gets a four star rating on Progarchives, the others all get a meagre three stars.

To me, that is a bit like giving ‘Trespass’ by Genesis a higher rating than their subsequent albums. But even though Fruupp’s debut is of high standard, reviewers fail to appreciate that the band then progressed beyond the conventional prog-rock fold, and, in many ways, left comparisons behind.

While second album ‘Seven Secrets’ is good yet somewhat transitional, Fruupp find their true voice on ‘The Prince of Heaven’s Eyes’. While you get what by now is almost a signature dial-in of the music, opener ‘It’s All Up Now’ makes it quite clear that Fruupp are no longer the slightest afraid to be cute. Not camp in any way, just plain pretty. 

Prince of Heavens Eyes

But that gives them a more colourful palette and a broader range to draw from than most other bands. The album manages to constructively build on that dynamic, and is not only my clear favourite in their catalogue but also one of the unique moments in prog. Fabulous stuff. Their final album ‘Modern Masquerades’ is almost as great, even though it is more of the same rather than another big leap forward.

Although I have all their original vinyl albums as well as the original Japanese CD reissues from 1990, the Japanese paper sleeve editions of the first three albums on Arcangelo from 2004 together with ‘Modern Masquerades’ on my own Strange Days label in 2006, and the Esoteric remasters from 2009, I still think it is great that Esoteric have now collected the albums in a box with a name taken from a track on the second album, ‘Wise As Wisdom’.

Mind you, there is nothing new on this box: no hitherto unreleased material, and the masters seem to be the same ones that were used by Esoteric last time round. Also, if you want quality replicas you still need the Japanese paper sleeves.

But Fruupp are a band that deserves every reissue they get!

The pop listener’s fear of the pollen count

Now that abnormal weather is the new normal, it feels like it has been a loooong sneezy season. I have been doing little more than popping antihistamins and hitting the beach; with summery pop music in my ears most of the time, of course!

The eagerly anticipated Francis Lung album ‘A Dream is U’ was released in the beginning of August and it is different both to the more experimental indie rock stuff he did as a member of Wu Lyf and the laid back home recorded pop of his two more recent EP’s ‘Vol I (Faeher’s Son)’ and ‘Vol II (Mother’s Son)’. However, the difference to the EPs is more in production than necessarily in songwriting. The sound here is layered and incredibly lush. The music is quite introvert and deal with, among other things, very contemporary identity problems. It all feels both intimate and unhurried. The effect is that of a bedroom recording done in a big studio, which gives the album a unique touch. The songs are great too, and show a strong Beach Boys influence.

Speaking of the Beach Boys, it is impossible not to hear their influence also on Roger Heathers on his latest album, ‘Next Week In Münster’, although there is also a lot of other stuff going on here. In fact, the standout feature of this album is exactly that over-the-topiness; songs stop and start and are full of instruments and ideas in a mid 70s way that make you feel rather overwhelmed the first time around. But I love this type of energetic and intelligent pop a lot and have been playing this album to death. Amazingly, it is only about 25 minutes long but you really have to double check that timing when you’ve listened because there is so incredibly much on offer here.

Speaking of much to offer in a small package, it is impossible to not mention the new EP by The Martial Arts, ‘I Used To Be’. The music here also shows its mid 70s influences but has a much more commercial sheen, more Elton John than Cockney Rebel if you get my point. And spice that with an ABBA influence or two. But that certainly does not mean lightweight as the songs on this EP are complex and grow with every listen. Although The Martial Arts sounds like a band (which I believe they were at the time of their sole 2006 LP, ‘Your Sinclair’), but this is the work of a single person, Paul Kelly, who has played with several other great Scottish acts such as How To Swim and The Radiophonic Tuckshop.

Check out the video below where Paul plays all the parts, and then make sure to get a copy of the EP, it is incredibly worthwhile. Unfortunately the EP is not on The Martial Arts Bandcamp site (but the album is, just a few copies left!!) but you can get it directly from the label, Last Night From Glasgow.

Another small package is of course John Myrtle’s debut EP simply called ‘Here’s John Myrtle’. Although Myrtle also references that musical past, it is the quintessentially English side of that past that is at the fore here. The instrumentation is also much simpler, focusing on acoustic guitars, and there are few if any production flourishes. But all of this works to great effect as the songs themselves are allowed to take the front seat and show off their considerable quality.

if there is anything that disappoints with ‘Here’s John Myrtle’ it is that there are only four new songs, as the track ‘Cyril the slug’ already appeared on the excellent ‘Two Minute Bugs’ digital single last March. I honestly had hoped for more from Mr. Myrtle by now. But what is here absolutely raises expectations for a full LP through the roof. Classy stuff!

And you can’t of course talk about classy in this context without mentioning John Howard. As opposed to the other artists introduced in this post, he was there back then and debuted with ‘Kid In A Big World’ already in 1975. Very much an archetypal pop singer/songwriter of the era, combining the pop sensibilities and vocal capabilities of someone like the already mentioned Elton John, albeit with his own signature theatrical touch, his debut went nowhere on release. Although its reputation has been growing slowly and steadily ever since, I remember picking up a vinyl copy in the early 90s and it still cost next to nothing.

Even though John Howard is over 65 years old now, he is still making music, and his latest album ‘Cut The Wire’ is as classy as they get. While also being quite sparse, there is much more instrumental variation from track to track compared to John Myrtle. It is also soon obvious that Howard knows all the tricks in the book: Although the recording budget probably was not very big, the arrangements are great, the vocals are never less than superb, and Howard certainly has the musical ideas to go along with the craftsmanship.

Overall, an album full of songs that are every bit as good as they were in the 70s from an artist who no-one might really expect more from, yet turns out to be at the top of his powers.  Not only does Howard often run circles around younger musicians, strangely, he doesn’t sound a day older than them either. A little gem.

These records have been on repeat in my ears as I have been anxiously keeping an eye on the pollen count. But even though the pollen season is over now, I am still playing the music. You should be too!