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TRACKLISTING:
1. New Frontier (10:12)
2. Take a Moment (8:56)
3. Mr. Wishbone (3:31)
4. Elegy (6:07)
5. Love and Inspiration (14:05)

LINEUP:
Jerry Beller – drums, vocals
Matt Brown – keyboards. vocals
Kerry Chicoine – bass, vocals
Scott Jones – lead vocals
Mike Matier – guitars

A couple of years ago, the sudden demise of LA-based quartet Mars Hollow deprived the US progressive rock scene of one of its most promising bands. However, volcanic bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine was not one to keep away from the limelight for too long, and – together with drummer Jerry Beller – he soon teamed up with former Ten Jinn guitarist Mike Matier, gifted keyboardist Matt Brown (also a member of Genesis tribute band Gabble Ratchet) and vocalist Scott Jones to form a new band that was given the high-sounding name of Heliopolis. Indeed, “City of the Sun” (the English translation of the Ancient Greek name, which also refers to one of the capitals of ancient Egypt) is a very appropriate name for an outfit hailing from sun-drenched southern California.

The cover of City of the Sun, released in the late summer of 2014 on 10T Records, is graced by the photo of an elaborate structure that looks like a modern version of the obelisks for which their eponymous city was known. The music inside embodies the band’s own description of “progressive rock, LA style”: based on strong melodies and catchy hooks as much as on instrumental skill, though with less of an AOR bent than Mars Hollow, it also reflects the band members’ optimistic outlook.

Clocking in at around 42 minutes, City of the Sun is carefully balanced, with the two longest tracks bookending the album, and the only instrumental track – also the disc’s shortest number – strategically placed in the middle. Writing credits are equally shared by all the band members, which contributes to the overall solidity of the album. While the individual performances are very strong, the emphasis is clearly placed on ensemble playing, and the result is remarkably cohesive, though with enough variety to keep the listener’s attention. Indeed, for such a compact running time, a lot seems to be going on in each of the five tracks.

The music on City of the Sun fits the description of modern symphonic prog, clearly influenced by Yes, but successfully avoiding the overt plagiarism that mars the production of other similar outfits. The ultra-heavy intro to “New Frontier”, with its nod to Black Sabbath (or also Yes’ “Machine Messiah”), slowly morphs into a more melodic scenario, introducing Scott Jones’ Jon-Anderson-meets-Geddy-Lee vocals, as well as Kerry Chicoine’s pneumatic Rickenbacker, aided and abetted by a Jerry Beller in top form. Seamless vocal harmonies and an infectious chorus soften the complexity of the musical fabric, while Mike Matier’s guitar adds bite and a touch of dissonance to the concoction. Matt Brown’s array of keyboards steps up to the plate in “Take a Moment”, which introduces some spacey, atmospheric elements as well as jazzy hints in a rather more somber context than the opening track.

The interlude provided by the unexpectedly angular, almost Crimsonian instrumental “Mr Wishbone” (complete with a guest appearance from a dog, Ricky Chihuahua) contrasts sharply with the melodic “Elegy”, an oddly upbeat song considering its subject matter (it is dedicated to the memory of drummer and composer Shaun Guerin, who passed away in 2003), and definitely the most mainstream number on the album. Things are brought to a close by the mini-epic “Love and Inspiration”, an ambitious piece that lacks the edge and complexity of “New Frontier”, spotlighting instead the band’s flair for grandiosity and the elegance of their vocal harmonies. Matier and Chicoine are in fine fettle on this track, again adding some jazzy overtones to the proceedings.

With some festival appearances (NorCalProg and the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend) under their belt, and a prestigious slot as openers of the ROSfest 2015 weekend before Spock’s Beard, Heliopolis are one of those bands who are most at ease when playing live, which makes their music truly come alive. Though they will never try to sell themselves as the most innovative of bands, their engaging manner and obvious enjoyment of their craft has already won them a lot of fans; additionally, City of the Sun puts a lot of potentially interesting ideas on display. Even if, in the past few years, my personal tastes have veered away from conventional prog towards more challenging fare, I have found a lot to enjoy in Heliopolis’ debut, and can warmly recommend it to those who are looking for a contemporary take on the traditional symphonic approach.

Links:

http://www.heliopolisband.com/

http://www.10trecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Dystopian Fiction (2:01)
2. Entropy of the Century (2:53)
3. Regression to the Mean (3:50)
4. Welcome to the Solar Flares (3:04)
5. Friday Night Dreams (4:06)
6. Letting Go of Life (4:47)
7. We Machines (4:36)
8. Benefits (3:21)
9. Raze the Maze (2:38)
10. Confectioner’s Curse (3:03)
11. Where the Truth Lies (4:49)
12. The Unknowable (6:26)

LINEUP:
Moorea Dickason – vocals
Tarik Ragab – bass, vocals
Matt Lebofsky – keyboards
Matthew Charles Heulitt – guitar
David M Flores – drums

With:
Jonathan Herrera – synthesizer (1-3, 5, 7, 9, 11)

A couple of years ago, Bay Area quintet MoeTar first took the somewhat jaded progressive rock world by surprise with their debut album, From These Small Seeds - released in 2010, but reissued by Magna Carta in 2012. A perfect example of modern art-rock, the album offered a scintillating blend of super-catchy hooks and sinuous complexity – all crammed into 4-5-minute songs driven by Moorea Dickason’s jaw-dropping vocal prowess. Four years later, and following a successful crowdfunding campaign, MoeTar are back with their sophomore effort, Entropy of the Century.

A second album is always a tricky proposition, and even more so when a band’s debut has attracted as much attention as From These Small Seeds. MoeTar’s lively concert activity (which included a short but very successful East Coast foray in the summer of 2012, and a slot at the 2013 edition of ROSfest) has made many prog fans aware of the band’s highly individual take on the old prog warhorse. The success of their Kickstarter campaign (and the invitation to perform at the third edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend in October 2015) is proof enough of the positive impression they have left in the past couple of years.

So, does Entropy of the Century live up to expectations? The answer is a qualified yes. In terms of visual presentation, the album comes with a stunning cover by bassist and main songwriter Tarik Ragab, whose apparently drab shades of beige and grey complement the intricate mandala-like design. The artwork’s baroque feel is amply reflected in the music’s sophisticated arrangements, built around Moorea Dickason’s vertiginous vocals, but tightly executed by the other band members (augmented by talented keyboardist Jonathan Herrera). Keyboardist Matt Lebofsky’s tenure with cutting-edge bands such as Secret Chiefs 3 and miRthkon is reflected in the album’s subtle but recognizable forays into Avant territory.

Compared to its predecessor, Entropy of the Century is clearly more ambitious, and its impact consequently not as immediate. Ragab’s trademark “brainy” lyrics (based around an elaborate concept illustrated on the band’s website, and delivered by Moorea with remarkable aplomb, though most other singers would be daunted by their density) with their correspondingly esoteric titles provide an oddly fitting centerpiece for the busy musical accompaniment – so busy as to sometimes leave the listener craving a little space. The unmistakable Avant influence sneaks into the grandiose, melodic fabric of the songs, unexpected bits of keyboard-led dissonance creating a mesmerizing, head-spinning effect redolent of circus music.

Opener “Dystopian Fiction” sums up those characteristics in barely 2 minutes, introduced by an infectiously tinkling tune and unfolding in dramatic fashion – soothing and intense at the same time. While built along similar lines, the title-track comes across as more “mainstream”, though things take on more of an edge towards the end. After that, the album kicks into high gear with the angular “Regression to the Mean” – spiced up by Lebofsky’s wacky keyboards and Matthew Heulitt’s intensely heavy guitar complementing Moorea’s vocal acrobatics

The influence of Broadway musicals – as well as art-rock icons Queen – emerges in the central part of the album, with the theatrical sweep of “Welcome to the Solar Flares” (in contrast with its muted, melodic beginning), the jauntily energetic pace of “Friday Night Dreams” (a showcase for Heulitt and Lebofsky’s two-pronged action), and the triumphant, then soothing “Letting Go of Life” – which soon shifts into Avant-tinged atmospherics with its superb instrumental coda (proving that MoeTar are much more than just a backing band for Moorea’s magnificent pipes). Similarly, with “We Machines”, the skewedly memorable melody of the chorus coexists with an exhilarating jazzy coda, spotlighting David M. Flores’ extravagant drumming and Heulitt’s chiming guitar, and, once again, revealing the album’s ambitiousness in these details.

The final part of the album is introduced by the subdued torch-song of the piano-laced “Benefits”, the only song on the album written by Matt Lebofsky. Things pick up again with the vocal bravura piece of “Raze the Maze”, peppered by weird electronics, and the dramatic, circusy tune of “Confectioner’s Curse”. Darker and heavier, “Where the Truth Lies” sounds like Queen with an Avant flavour, once again showcasing Heulitt’s remarkable mastery of the six strings; while closer “The Unknowable” (at over 6 minutes the longest track on the album) starts out in a subdued mood, deceptively restful after the intensity of the previous song – then gains momentum and drama, wrapping things up with a majestic instrumental coda.

Albeit lacking its predecessor’s easy accessibility, Entropy of the Century captures the growing self-confidence of an immensely talented outfit. Though you may not be able to sing along to some of the songs as it was the case with From These Small Seeds, the great songwriting, effortless instrumental brilliance, and – most of all – Moorea’s astounding vocal performance are more than enough to make this album one of the highlights of 2014 for fans of non-mainstream music. As I often say in my reviews, this may not be your parents’ prog, but it certainly represents what is exciting and vital about the genre in this second decade of the 21st century.

Links:

http://www.moetar.com/

http://www.magnacarta.net

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In the autumn of 1994, Michigan native and long-time Baltimore resident Mike Potter started on a venture that has brought many moments of joy to progressive rock fans all over the US. With a name inspired by Potter’s lifelong passion for astronomy, the Orion Sound Studios – located in the middle of an industrial park in a rather unprepossessing part of Baltimore – has provided not only an invaluable resource for up-and-coming musicians in search of rehearsal and recording space, but a veritable magnet for lovers of non-mainstream music in that densely populated area.

In the past twenty years, the Orion’s legendary Trapezoid Room has been a haven for bands, both domestic and international, and a home away from home for the small but thriving “prog community” of the Eastern Seaboard. The venue’s cult status was cemented by its central role in Romantic Warriors – A Progressive Music Saga, which made the Orion’s name familiar to people living in other parts of the world. Even if Potter jokingly refers to the start of his venture as “the worst decision in my life”, his dedication to the Studios is complete, and his skills as a sound engineer have contributed to the success of many progressive rock events.

Therefore, it was only natural for such a milestone date to be celebrated in the most appropriate fashion – with a one-day festival that encapsulated all the aspects that have made the Orion Live Music Showcases such an unqualified success: some of the best progressive music the US scene has to offer, a great social vibe, and – last but not least – plenty of excellent food and drink. Even the notoriously unreliable East Coast weather had decided to cooperate, blessing the event with a perfect fall day, crisp but sunny. The riot of gorgeous foliage that accompanied our drive from our Northern Virginia home was a fitting prelude to the wonderful afternoon and evening that awaited us at the Orion.

As the Trapezoid Room – filled with white folding chairs to seat the 80 or so people who had booked tickets (and I am happy to report that the event was sold out!) – was to be used solely for performances and soundchecks, the rooms across the parking lot had been appointed for the breaks, and were soon filled with a huge selection of food (in many cases homemade) and drink brought by the attendees. The nice weather also encouraged people to linger outside, enjoying a welcome breath of fresh autumn air after the intensity of each performance. For the occasion, the stage area had been remodeled, the high ceiling now fully on display to create an impression of spaciousness that was previously missing, enhancing the effect of the multi-coloured lights.

Though the performances had been scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., there was a substantial delay that, while allowing for more socialization, pushed the whole schedule nearly an hour forward. Each band had been allotted about one hour and a half for their set – longer than most festivals usually allow for anyone except the headliners. At first, the audience did not mind the delay, but at the end of a long musical marathon fatigue started to set in. However, with many people coming from other parts of the country, having the event start earlier would have posed other problems.

The organizers had put together a lineup featuring some of the finest US-based bands currently active, with no whiff of nostalgia in sight – unlike the bigger festivals, which have to cater to the average US prog fan’s obsession with the Seventies. Even though most of the bands selected have already been around for a number of years (in the case of headliners Discipline, for even longer than the Orion Studios themselves!), they have not been resting on their laurels, and kept their music fresh and relevant.

The lone exceptions were openers The Knells – a recently-formed, NYC-based ensemble led by guitarist/composer Andrew McKenna Lee, who had wowed the Orion crowd last year in a breakthrough performance immediately following the release of their eponymous debut album. Having reviewed said album earlier this year, I was looking forward to seeing the band in action, and my expectations were not disappointed. Introduced by a solo spot by McKenna Lee – two acoustic guitar pieces and an oddly riveting, effect-laden 15-minute homage to Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, The Knells played a jaw-dropping set that did full justice to the complexity of the compositions, masterfully executed by the eight-piece lineup. With its hypnotic post-rock cadences blended with heady psychedelia, angular Avant stylings and the hauntingly beautiful, yet somewhat eerie neo-Gregorian chanting of the three female vocalists, The Knells’ music is clearly not a proposition for everyone, and those in the audience who are more inclined towards the melodic end of the prog spectrum found it hard to relate to it. Personally, I loved every minute of the band’s performance, and hope to have the opportunity to see them again soon.

New Yorkers Frogg Café – longtime favourites of the US prog community, with a number of high-profile appearances under their belt – have all but recently emerged from the long hiatus that followed the 2010 release of Bateless Edge. Their first live performance in years, at the first edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend, in October 2013, had been rather impressive because of the talent involved, but still somewhat touched by the “rust” of inactivity. At the Orion, however, it was a completely different ballgame: though minus guitarist Frank Camiola (who is, once again, on sabbatical, pursuing more left-field musical interests), the band delivered a stunner of a performance, marching on stage from the back of the room to the strains of Franz Zappa’s “Inca Roads”. As the loss of Camiola’s electric edge required a stronger focus on the jazzier side of the band’s material to make up for the, Bill Ayasse took upon himself to replace the guitar with his electric violin and mandolin (putting his expertise as a bluegrass player to good use). The dynamic duo of brothers Nick and John Lieto provided comic relief as well as a buoyant big-band feel with their boisterous horns – and Nick proved no slouch in the vocal department. Andrew Sussman on bass and James Guarnieri on drums anchored the performance with a skillful mix of solidity and virtuosity. Besides some older favourites (which included the poignant “Terra Sancta” from Bateless Edge), Frogg Café treated the audience to some material from their long-awaited new album, plus a hilarious rendition of Zappa’s iconic “I’m the Slime”.

After a longer break for dinner, it was time to head inside once again for Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores. My introduction to the band dated back from 2011, when they had opened the Rock Day at the first and only edition of Cuneifest, and they easily won my personal award for best act of the day. The Providence outfit, led by charismatic, long-haired 21st-century minstrel Alec K. Redfearn – a gifted storyteller with a penchant for the weird and the macabre (not surprising for someone hailing from HP Lovecraft’s home town) – are purveyors of music whose RIO/Avant tag feels too restrictive for its genuinely eclectic nature. With a very idiosyncratic configuration – centred around Redfearn’s accordion (not the most typical of prog instruments), and featuring French horn, contrabass and percussion as well as a more traditional guitar (wielded by the very pretty and talented Gillian Chadwick) – The Eyesores’ music is strongly influenced by European folk, but also infused by an experimental vibe evident in the array of effects used by Redfearn to create an intensely haunting, drone-like atmosphere. Though their set was (at slightly over one hour) the shortest of the day, it offered such a concentration of intriguing compositions and pristine performances – further enhanced by Alec’s witty anecdotes – that even some of the more musically conservative members of the audience were won over by this truly unique outfit.

By the time headliners Discipline hit the stage, it was about 11:30 pm, and many attendees were already beginning to feel the strain of the late hour. Though the Detroit band were by far the most mainstream act on the lineup, and therefore the biggest draw for many attendees, the dark, intense nature of their music has also won them many admirers among the fans of the more left-field fringes of prog. Unfortunately, the late hour did the band no favours, and they ended up losing part of their audience midway through their set because of sheer exhaustion. We were among those who left early, though having seen the band onstage less than one month ago at the NJ Proghouse lessened our disappointment. Discipline played most of the same setlist (sadly devoid of the magnificent epic “Rogue”, from 2011’s To Shatter All Accord), though with the bonus encore of the über-creepy “The Nursery Year”, which at the Proghouse had been performed by Echolyn’s Ray Weston. From the first hour of the set, I got the impression of a heavier, more powerful (as well as distinctly louder) sound, complemented by Matthew Parmenter’s dramatic (albeit never overwrought) vocals. The band was tighter than ever, and new guitarist Chris Herin fit seamlessly with the original members, his sharp yet melodic guitar lines adding a keen edge to the band’s own brand of dark symphonic prog. As I had already noticed at the Proghouse, he is also a rather attractive man, obviously as comfortable on stage as his bandmates. Hopefully Discipline will be back on the East Coast some time next year, and possibly release a new album soon.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience, and my only regret is that the original idea of a two-day event did not come to fruition. It felt great to be back at the Orion after such a long absence, and spend time with the many friends we had missed during the past year or so. As always, my most heartfelt thanks go to Mike Potter and the rest of the organizing committee for having allowed us to experience such a great day of music and friendship. The celebration of the Orion Studios’ 20th Anniversary offered everything that makes the independent, non-mainstream music scene so exciting. It was also a brilliant example of the “small is beautiful” ethos that has replaced the more ambitious (and much less financially viable) festivals. Indeed, it was heartening to see a full house for bands that, for once, were not throwbacks of the Seventies in any way, and that – each in its own way – represent the best of the modern progressive rock scene.

Links:

http://www.orionsound.com

http://theknells.com

http://www.froggcafe.com

http://www.aleckredfearn.com/

http://www.strungoutrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Mustardseed (3:11)
2. Skein (3:52)
3. Fountain of Euthanasia (3:25)
4. Gnashville (4:12)
5. In That Distant Place (6:20)
6. Synecdoche (3:52)
7. The Earth Is an Atom (5:12)
8. Waylaid (7:20)
9. Spiritual Gatecrasher (7:18)
10. The Okanogan Lobe (7:41)

LINEUP:
AliciaDeJoie – electric violin
James DeJoie – baritone saxophone, flute
Kevin Millard – NS stick bass
Dennis Rea – guitar, electronic interventions, Mellotron
Tom Zgonc – drums

Four years after their recording debut, Manifest Density – followed by a career-defining appearance at NEARfest 2010, captured on their second album, Metamorphic Rock – Seattle quintet Moraine are back with Groundswell, their long-awaited third release. In the past couple of years, there have been some remarkable events for the band – namely the entry of drummer Tom Zgonc (a longtime associate of guitarist and mainman Dennis Rea) to replace Stephen Cavit, and appearances at West Coast festivals SeaProg and NorCalProg.

Introduced by a striking aerial photograph of the Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha – one of the loneliest places on Earth – Groundswell shows a band firing on all cylinders. While the backing of Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records label remains a reliable constant in the band’s career, Moraine are clearly not the kind of outfit that thrives on playing it safe, and this third chapter in their recording history clearly points forward rather than backward. With renowned sound engineer Steve Fisk (of Nirvana and Soundgarden fame) at the helm, the album sounds powerful yet clear, gritty in all the right places, yet almost ethereal when needed. Though some of the tracks had already appeared on Metamorphic Rock, they are not mere duplicates of already available material, but are integrated into the fabric of an album that stands out for its compositional tightness.

Clocking in around a very sensible 52 minutes, Groundswell bears all the hallmarks of classic Moraine, in particular their signature device of using a main theme in their compositions that brings them full circle. The music is powered by the tireless engine of Tom Zgonc’s drums and Kevin Millard’s stick bass, but also clustered around the shifting, intersecting lines of James DeJoie’s sax, Alicia DeJoie’s violin, and of course Dennis Rea’s guitar. This core trio is also responsible for the majority of the writing, with two of the 10 tracks written by other Seattle-based musicians. Indeed, the opening track, “Mustardseed”, a composition by composer and conductor Daniel Barry, is redolent of the warmth of faraway countries with its lazy, sauntering violin and sax duet, into which Rea’s sharp, meandering guitar interjects. On the other hand, the muted, rarefied elegance of “In a Distant Place” (written by Jon Davis of Zhongyu, whose members also include Rea and the DeJoies) owes a lot to Chinese music, though a burst of distinctly Western energy enlivens its texture towards the end.

The jaunty-paced “Skein” blends Moraine’s trademark sound with the almost big-band swagger of the main sax line, until an almost tempestuous climax of crashing drums and echoing guitar riffs. “Synecdoche” emphasizes adrenaline-drenched energy rather than melody, allowing Rea’s guitar free rein; whereas “Gnashville” does suggest country music (albeit in a very skewed fashion) in the starring role accorded to Alicia DeJoie’s violin, which engages in some Paganini-like acrobatics complemented by the distinctly hard rock vibe of Rea’s low-toned, growling guitar. “Fountain of Euthanasia” strikes a middle ground, its briskly upbeat opening shading into a pensive violin study offset by gently chiming guitar; similarly, “The Earth Is an Atom” juxtaposes an overall meditative mood with the sax’s more assertive exertions.

The album culminates with a trio of 7-minute-plus tracks that showcase the development of Moraine’s musical identity through the past few years. The deceptively lively beginning of “Waylaid” fades into a middle section that brings to mind Pink Floyd circa A Saucerful of Secrets – a sparse, hauntingly beautiful electronic storm infused with the violin’s ethereal touch. “Spiritual Gatecrasher” brings back that heady Oriental flavour, mixed with a witty, Canterbury-like bounce, the dreamy softness of James DeJoie’s flute spiced up by a sprinkling of guitar effects. Then, Rea’s love for geology emerges once again in the album’s closing track, “The Okanogan Lobe” (a reference to an ancient glacier of the Columbia River Valley) – Moraine’s own version of a symphonic poem, whose majestic pace seems to mimic the movement of the ice throughout the eras. Rea’s guitar is at its most lyrical in the intense, slo-mo climax that follows a lively jazz-rock workout.

Groundswell marks Moraine’s triumphant return to the progressive rock fray. The band successfully weave their diverse influences together in a seamless whole that highlights their uniqueness with every twist and turn of the music. Moraine are among the foremost standard-bearers of a modern form of jazz-rock that yearns to break free from the ponderous heritage of the Seventies. A near-perfect blend of lyricism, atmosphere and raw energy, Groundswell embodies, in many ways, the modern progressive ethos. Highly recommended to all open-minded prog listeners, this is essential listening for lovers of instrumental progressive rock.

Links:

http://www.moraineband.com/

http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/groundswell

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Nadir (9:31)
2. Dandelion (4:47)
3. Seth Zeugma (5:48)
4. Dua (5:44)
5. Tiglath (8:28)
6. Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta (Pt.2) (3:21)

LINEUP:
Cristian Franchi – drums
Giovanni Parmeggiani – Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ, minimoog, acoustic piano
Daniele Piccinini – bass guitar
Marco Marzo Maracas – electric and acoustic guitar

With:
Vladimiro Cantaluppi – violin (3), viola (6)
Marina Scaramagli – cello (6)
Enrico Guerzoni – cello (3)

For my first album review after over four months of silence, what better choice than the new album of one of the most interesting new bands of the past few years – Bologna’s own Accordo dei Contrari, who managed to impress the ProgDay crowd in 2012 in spite of performing at the hottest time of a truly sweltering day? Three years after the highly praised Kublaione of my top albums for 2011 – the young but immensely talented Italian quartet have made their comeback with an album whose title is as minimalistic as its striking artwork (courtesy of drummer Cristian Franchi and Dario D’Alessandro of fellow AltrOckers Homunculus Res). AdC also marks the band’s return to the AltrOck roster, as they their debut, Kinesis (at present unfortunately still out of print), had been released in 2006 by the Milan-based label.

Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, AdC is highly concentrated, and in many ways different from its predecessor – though there are some unmistakable signs of continuity to be found. According to the English-language liner notes, the album was recorded over a very short period of time, in an almost “live in the studio” situation. While “Dua” and “Seth Zeugma” date back from the time the band was working on Kublai (though they did not find a place on that album), the remaining four tracks were all composed in the intervening years. Although far from unusual, this state of affairs might have resulted in a patchy effort, but fortunately AdC – no matter how chequered its history may be – has turned out to be remarkably cohesive.

Completely instrumental (unlike Kublai, which saw the participation of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair on one track), and with only two tracks over the 6-minute mark, it leaves very little room for self-indulgence – a danger often lurking in a subgenre like jazz-rock, which thrives on technical proficiency. The four band members weave a tight web of sound, each contributing his own individual imprint, but always keeping an eye an eye to the final result. As a whole, AdC comes across as heavier than its predecessor, with Marco Marzo’s electric guitar playing a leading role and lending a keen edge to keyboardist Giovanni Parmeggiani’s sophisticated writing. This time around, one can definitely hear less Canterbury and more Area in Accordo dei Contrari’s music.

The almost 10-minute “Nadir” opens the album with the ominous, cinematic impact of surging synths, then all the other instruments chime in, foregrounding guitar and drums in a well-paced, jazzy romp that blends energy and melody. The exhilarating contrast between Marzo’s gritty guitar and Parmeggiani’s liquid piano demonstrates the band’s excellent control of quiet-loud dynamics. Marzo’s six strings, offset by discreet Hammond organ, step forward right from the start of the shorter but punchy “Dandelion”, while Daniele Piccinini and Cristian Franchi’s flawless rhythm backbone imparts a choppy, energizing pace to the composition. Introduced by the lovely classical feel of grand piano and strings, “Seth Zeugma” soon veers into hard rock territory, guitar and organ sparring in a fashion reminiscent of classic Deep Purple or Colosseum II.

Piano and drums take firmly the lead in “Dua”, with melodic flurries and a gentle, waltz-like pace at the beginning, then a choppy, stop-start movement that culminates in a driving, insistent coda. In the 8-minute “Tiglath”, the band carefully build up a crescendo from a very sparse, atmospheric opening, with a vaguely Oriental tune followed by some intense, gritty guitar and organ exertions made more interesting by asymmetrical rhythm patterns. The short and sweet “Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta (Pt.2)” closes the album on a very different note, the somber drone of the cello underpinning lyrical violin and pensive guitar arpeggios.

Enhanced by Udi Koomran’s expert mastering, and produced by AltrOck’s own founder, Marcello Marinone, AdC may be over a bit too soon, but it definitely makes up in quality for what it may lack in running time. The album shows a band at the top of their game, capable of engaging in unbridled jazz-rock workouts as well as laying down understated, classical-tinged melodies. Highly recommended to lovers of instrumental progressive rock, AdC will please the band’s following, while wetting their appetite for Accordo dei Contrari’s next release.

Links:

http://accordodeicontrari.bandcamp.com/album/adc-2014

http://www.accordodeicontrari.com/

http://www.altrock.it

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After our highly enjoyable experience at Dunellen’s quaint Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse during last year’s Columbus Day weekend, this year we were looking forward to a repeat – and that in spite of the stress of the past 12 months. The stellar lineup, friendly vibe and gorgeous, early fall weather had made the first edition of New Jersey’s own “small is beautiful” festival an unforgettable occurrence, and things looked very promising for its sophomore edition when the lineup was announced – featuring two iconic US bands such as Echolyn and Discipline as headliners, together with a wealth of up-and-coming progressive talent.

Unfortunately, the unexpected withdrawal of Echolyn not even two months before the event had threatened to put the festival in severe jeopardy, and definitely impacted the overall attendance. US prog fans – even more so than those from other countries – need to see big names on a bill before they will commit money and vacation time, as the sorry tale of ambitious yet aborted ventures such as NEARfest 2011 and FarFest more than abundantly proved. The turnout, however, even if obviously lower than last year, was satisfactory – which (as a silver lining of sorts) allowed a more intimate seating arrangement that made for a more comfortable viewing experience.

Saturday morning felt more like November than early October, with rain, grey skies and rather chilly temperatures that did not encourage lingering outside. In spite of that, a nice crowd gathered before noon to witness the performance of openers Pinnacle, a group of seasoned musicians well known in the North East prog community, with ties to the NJ Proghouse organization. The quartet introduced their newest member, vocalist/keyboardist Matt Francisco, who handled his frontman duties with remarkable aplomb, doing justice to the band’s accomplished songwriting. Of all the bands who trod the Roxy and Dukes stage on Saturday, Pinnacle were probably the only one that could be labeled as “traditional” prog, and they rose well to the occasion, interspersing their own original material with an homage to Marillion’s “Script for a Jester’s Tear”. Although their music (a modern take on the classic Neo-Prog sound) is not exactly my cup of tea (being a modern take on classic Neo-Prog), their enthusiasm, professionalism and warm stage presence won over the audience.

South Jerseyans Out of the Beardspace were already a known quantity for those who (like us,) had attended ProgDay 2013. At the time, I had found them promising and quite entertaining, albeit a tad unfocused. However, the youthful six-piece (none of them is older than 24) had grown by leaps and bounds in the intervening months, with the help of a massive amount of gigging. In fact, they had played until 4 a.m. that morning, and were headed for another show a couple of hours after their NJ Proghouse set. Brimming with energy, the band members bounced unceasingly about the stage; their music, however, while retaining the jammy, spontaneous vibe that had endeared them to the ProgDay crowd, was noticeably tighter. Fronted by the charismatic Kevin Savo – whose impressive stage presence and piercing vocals belie his diminutive size – these modern-day hippies, staunch supporters of a DIY ethos and dedicated environmentalists, showed that there is ample room for the younger generations on the stage of a prog festival – provided the audiences are willing to step out of their comfort zone. Chock full of psychedelic goodness, the band’s musical approach is occasionally reminiscent to that of jam bands, but is clearly evolving in a more focused direction from a compositional point of view. While out of the Beardspace may not be your parents’ prog, they definitely belong under the ever-growing umbrella of modern progressive rock.

Though vaguely familiar with the name, I had not heard any of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music prior to the event, and lack of time prevented me from exploring further. In fact, the comments I had heard about their music being more in singer-songwriter vein than in a conventional prog one proved to be at least partly true. The quartet fronted by young and gifted guitarist/vocalist Randy McStine (also a member of Sound of Contact’s touring lineup) deals in song-based, prog-tinged rock that on more than one occasion reminded me of U2, though without the Irish band’s flamboyance and charisma. While a couple of tracks towards the end of their set contained some interesting instrumental passages, the bulk of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music failed to connect with me, in spite of the band members’ obvious enthusiasm and skill. The crowd, on the other hand, seemed to really appreciate their set, and treated them to a standing ovation.

As I wrote in my review of ProgDay 2014, I was curious to see whether California-based power trio Travis Larson Band’s music would work better in a more intimate setting than it had in the tropical heat of Storybook Farm at 3 p.m. My hunch proved to be correct, as the trio’s set was for me the highlight of a rather low-key day. Travis Larson’ engagingly friendly between-songs banter added interest to the blistering yet fluid music – driving rock-fusion with some warm bluesy undertones, always tight and never descending into pointless shredding. Larson’s on-stage chemistry with diminutive dynamo Jennifer Young – a gifted bassist genuinely in love with her instrument, and a heartwarming example of an attractive woman using her musical talent rather than her looks to impress – was a joy to behold, while powerhouse drummer Dale Moon made quite a few members of the audience wonder whether he was related to another drum legend bearing the same surname. The band’s stagecraft is obviously honed to perfection, and their set provided a welcome shot of pure rock energy.

After a delicious (and way too plentiful for us to finish) dinner at a Peruvian restaurant a few miles down the road, in the company of our friend Robert James Pashman of 3RDegree fame (whom we had not seen in quite a while), we got back to Roxy and Dukes just one or two minutes after The Sensational Francis Dunnery Band had taken to the stage. At the end of a long day of music (and, in my case, not having got enough sleep the previous night), it would have taken something special to hold our attention until 11 pm, but unfortunately this was not the case, and we ended up leaving about half an hour later in order to get some rest. While Dunnery is a very accomplished musician, songwriter and frontman (even when sporting blue tracksuit pants, as he did on this occasion) of a very eclectic persuasion, his music did not particularly resonate with us, and his constant complaints about the sound system came across as rather jarring after a while. On the other hand, having had to replace Echolyn as the Saturday headliner would undoubtedly have been a thankless task for anyone.

After a much better night’s sleep, on Sunday morning I was feeling refreshed and ready to tackle another day of music. The much nicer weather also encouraged us to arrive early to spend some time outside the venue, chatting with people and enjoying the sunshine. I was looking forward to opening act Schooltree – a band I had selected as one of my earliest contributions to DPRP’s Something for the Weekend? feature, and recommended to a few people. The Boston-based quartet, led by another pocket-sized, yet hugely charismatic young woman – the very talented Lainey Schooltree, decked in a half-demure, half-provocative outfit of white blouse and black, tightly laced corset – delivered an hour of delightful art-rock with intriguing Baroque arrangements that owed to Kate Bush and Queen as much as to classic prog. Lainey’s powerful, expressive vocals and keyboard mastery often made me think of a more carefree version of Tori Amos. Alongside songs from the band’s excellent debut album, Rise, we were treated to some very promising material from their forthcoming ‘rock opera’. Lainey and her bandmates deservedly made many fans with their exciting music and friendly, engaging demeanour.

Of all of the bands on the lineup, MVP (Meridian Voice Project) were definitely the most obscure, though I had managed to find enough information about them to learn that they were a jazz-rock-oriented four-piece from New York City who had performed at the NJ Proghouse in 2013. Led by ebullient keyboardist Lloyd Landesman, an obviously experienced, very accomplished artist with and the added bonus of a talent for stand-up comedy, the band played a fiery set of classic, keyboard-driven jazz-rock with plenty of melody and energy that featured a lot of their own material, as well as a few covers (such as Bruford’s famed “Hell’s Bells”, a showcase for the amazing talent of drummer Dana Hawkins) and. With their seamless musicianship and easy stage manner, the band made a splash with the crowd, and many rushed to buy CDs after the show.

The East Coast debut of Los Angeles five-piece Heliopolis was eagerly awaited by many an audience member – especially those who had loved Mars Hollow’s soaring melodies and exhilarating stage presence, and mourned the quartet’s untimely demise. The band did not disappoint, delivering a set that (while somewhat shorter than we were expecting) showcased both the individual members’ considerable skills and their collective chemistry, doing ample justice to the material featured on their recently released debut CD, City of the Sun. With irrepressible bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine prowling the stage, tawny locks swinging and faithful Rickenbacker getting a good workout, and Jerry Beller pounding away at his drum kit, the band went through the five tracks of their album with panache. Keyboardist Matt Brown – looking as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself – lorded over his keyboard rig with abandon, while guitarist Michael Matier cut a more sedate figure, and vocalist Scott Jones swung his microphone stand about in tried-and-true rock fashion, his well-modulated high tenor well suited to the band’s intricate yet upbeat music. Heliopolis also regaled the crowd with an encore – a barnstorming version of The Beatles’ “Help”.

Even though Echolyn had pulled out of the festival, their vocalist Ray Weston had stayed on the lineup to provide a short but well-attended interlude before the Sunday headliners came on. Known for his songwriting skills as well as his soulful, somewhat plaintive voice, the long-haired and bespectacled Weston – accompanied by a sizable acoustic guitar – looked very much as if he had stepped out of grunge’s heyday. His 40-minute set – which included stripped-down versions of Echolyn’s “Headright” and “The End Is Beautiful”, as well as Discipline’s very creepy “The Nursery Year” – offered a break from the orgy of instrumental complexity that is at the heart of every self-respecting prog festival, and was occasionally arresting, though as a whole it probably went on a bit too long.

As I wrote in my review of their 2011 album To Shatter All Accord, I am a relative newcomer to Discipline, one of the trailblazers (together with Echolyn) of the US prog renaissance in the Nineties. However, that long-awaited album was enough to make me a convert, and I spent the past two years kicking myself for having missed the Detroit band’s performance at ROSFest 2012. The praise heaped upon them by some of my friends made me even more impatient to experience them on stage. I am glad to say that my patience was amply rewarded, because on Sunday night Discipline played a blinder that made me forget my ever-present tiredness and the slight burnout that often follows a weekend full of music. The black-clad figure of Matthew Parmenter (wearing his customary white makeup) sitting behind the keyboards was a magnet for everyone’s eyes. His singing voice (quite different from his speaking one) is simply one of the best I have heard in a long time, and his oddly endearing, deadpan humour contrasts with his somewhat forbidding appearance. With distinguished-looking Tiles guitarist Chris Herin subbing for Jon Preston Bouda, and Mathew Kennedy and Paul Dzendzel providing a flawless rhythmic background – ideal for the band’s complex, yet often crushingly heavy mid-tempos – Discipline delivered a perfect two hours of music as powerful as it was devoid of unnecessary flash. Having left his costumes and Gabrielesque performances behind, Parmenter now relies on his measured gestures and facial expressions to convey a depth of emotion than makes many other frontmen seem hopelessly overwrought. Needless to say, I will be counting the days until I see the band again at the Orion Studios on November 8.

As a whole, the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend was as successful as the first, even though I believe that having five bands instead of four in an indoor setting can be somewhat taxing for the average music fan’s attention span. On the other hand, the organizers are to be commended for reaching outside the boundaries of conventional prog, and showcasing the many different forms of the genre in this second decade of the 21st century – even if I would have liked to see at least one “cutting-edge” band on the Roxy and Dukes stage. In any case, the third edition of the festival is already in the works, and the first two bands were announced on Sunday night – MoeTar and Necromonkey, both firm favourites of mine.

As usual, at the end of my review I would like to thank the NJ Proghouse “staph” for all their hard work and for allowing us to enjoy a wonderful weekend of music and companionship with like-minded people in very friendly surroundings. I hope that, sometimes during the next 12 months, we will find the time to head to Dunellen again.

Index-MrSax
In many ways, the present review is an unexpected little “miracle”, which only a week ago seemed highly unlikely to happen. Though it will be noticeably shorter and not as detailed as those I wrote for past events, I fervently hope that my readers will not be too disappointed.

When ProgDay started, in the late summer of 1994, no one would have probably thought it would become the world’s longest-running progressive rock festival. As for myself, I was living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and would have never imagined that I would one day move to the United States. Since 2010, however, it has become for me and my husband an appointment that we would not miss for anything in the world. Unfortunately, due to an accumulation of stress (caused by a seemingly endless series of setbacks, professional and otherwise), I was in such poor shape that I doubted the wisdom of attending the festival at all. For almost the whole of 2014’s first eight months I felt as if I was being swallowed by a black hole, slowly losing interest in many of the things that I normally enjoy – music being the chief victim of this state of affairs. I dropped out of the East Coast prog scene completely, shunning concerts and avoiding contact with people. Though I tried to keep up with new releases, most of the music I heard just went over my head, and did not make any lasting impression.

Even if, a mere couple of days before the event, I had regained most of my enthusiasm for it, this year did feel different. For one thing, I felt much less inclined to be a “social butterfly”, and spent a lot of time in my lawn chair, safely sheltered from the sun under the main pavilion, with a book to keep me company and help me concentrate on the music – while my notebook stayed safely tucked in one of the pockets of my tote bag. After a surprisingly mild summer with very pleasant temperatures, Labor Day weekend seemed to concentrate most of the season’s worth of heat and humidity, and being on the field for two days did take its toll, though I was wise enough not to overextend myself, and get enough rest at the end of the day.

To be perfectly honest, my lack of enthusiasm for this year’s festival was not only the product of negative personal circumstances, but was also related to the line-up. Compared to the previous editions I had attended, this was surely the most “conservative” line-up assembled by the organizers, and had become even more so when Mexican outfit Luz de Riada (featuring Ramsés Luna, formerly of the brilliant Cabezas de Cera) were forced to withdraw almost at the very last moment because of a visa-related snag (oh, the joys of the US immigration system!). However, unlike those prog fans I so much like to bash, I know that a band should be seen on stage before being dismissed, and that the apparently unassuming Storybook Farm stage has a way to bring out the best in the artists that tread it. Indeed, I am glad to say that none of the bands invited for 2014 disappointed in that sense, even when their music was not exactly my cup of tea.

On Saturday morning we were once again welcomed by the lush greenery and comforting familiarity of Storybook Farm – a bucolic, relaxed setting that took openers Zombie Frogs, clearly much more used to the unrelenting intensity of metal-based events, by surprise. The youthful (and obviously talented) Boston quintet were more impressive for their stage presence (which included a guitarist with a superb head of reddish-blond dreadlocks) and infectious enthusiasm than for their riff-heavy music, which I found rather hard to get into, and a tad too reminiscent of Dream Theater for comfort. However, they were just what the audience needed to get going at a relatively early hour – and let us not forget that progressive metal (like it or not) remains the best vehicle to introduce the younger generations to the prog scene.

Highly awaited Spanish quintet Kotebel – among the foremost standard-bearers of modern symphonic prog, with enough of an edge to appeal to the notoriously hard to please Avant-Prog set – came on stage next, providing that sharp contrast that is one of the hallmarks of a successful prog festival. Fronted by the engaging father-daughter keyboard duo of Carlos and Adriana Plaza, they performed their latest CD opus, the marvelous Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble, holding the audience captive with the sheer beauty and effortless complexity of their music – which completely eschews the pretentiousness all too often associated with classical-inspired prog.

Minnesota’s Galactic Cowboy Orchestra proved to be one of the highlights of the festival for me – in spite of the limitations of occupying the dreaded third slot, when most of the audience are feeling the effects of the increasing heat. A four-piece fronted by the dazzling smile and chops of violinist/vocalist Lisi Wright (whose voice reminded me at times of the incomparable Moorea Dickason of MoeTar), those rightful heirs to Dixie Dregs were probably the most eclectic band on this year’s line-up. Most importantly, they are one of those bands whose music (though already good on CD), truly comes alive on stage, emphasizing the individual members’ skills as well as their flawless ensemble playing.

Though founded by Florentine guitarist/composer Franco Falsini, and part of the original RPI scene of the Seventies, Sensation’s Fix have always been more of an international venture than a genuinely Italian one – and that was also reflected in a sound that evoked historic Krautrock bands such as Ashra Tempel and Agitation Free. Even if perhaps not the best choice as a closing act on a hot and humid day, the Italian-American quartet (again featuring a talented female musician, keyboardist Candace Miller) performed with evident pleasure, the hypnotic, laid-back vibe of the music and Falsini’s riveting guitar tone occasionally bringing to mind Pink Floyd circa Meddle. The band also stayed for the whole of the festival, and seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly.

Climate-wise, Sunday was very much a repeat of the previous day – tolerable in the morning, much less so as the day progressed. The musical menu started somewhat earlier, as openers Backhand had asked for an extra 15 minutes to play all the material they had put together for the occasion. To me and most of the audience, the Venezuelan outfit were an unknown quantity, though each of its members could boast of an impressive résumé. The songs on the ProgDay website pointed to a prog-flavoured classic rock/AOR outfit, and their performance did not belie that impression – though they sounded immensely better on stage, with Dutch-born keyboardist Adrianus van Woerkom a particular highlight. Vocalist Phil Naro proved a consummate frontman in the Robert Plant/David Coverdale mould, his high tenor sharply bringing to mind the Led Zeppelin singer. Although his trim, lion-maned presence (complete with large belt buckle and mirrored shades) may have been quite at odds with the stereotypical prog canon, there is no denying that it added entertainment value to a context that tends to take itself way too seriously.

With a modern prog legend such as drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson at the helm, it is no wonder that Necromonkey were eagerly awaited – especially by those members of the audience who favour the more experimental side of the genre. The presence of two out of four members of the wonderful Gösta Berlings Saga (keyboardist David Lundberg, who is the other official half of Necromonkey, and guitarist Einar Baldursson) created an unmistakable link with the haunting post-rock-meets-Zeuhl sound of the quartet that in 2012 took NEARfest by storm. As good as Necromonkey’s two studio albums are, being performed by a four-piece band (including bassist Kringle Harmonist) took their music to the next level, lending it a well-rounded, quasi-orchestral quality. Though driven by Olsson’s uncannily precise time-keeping and Lundberg’s mellotron and other keyboards, the band’s performance also spotlighted Baldursson’s stunningly beautiful guitar work. For all their very low-key stage presence (quite a contrast with Backhand’s flamboyance), Necromonkey’s set delivered all we were expecting, and more.

In spite of a 15-year-long career and six albums, Travis Larson Band are not exactly a household name in prog circles – very probably because their music is not exactly what most people would call prog. A classic power trio fronted by the tall, lanky Travis Larson, they delivered an energetic, enthusiastic performance that emphasized not only Larson’s dazzling six-string work, but also Jennifer Young’s stunning skills in wielding a bass almost as big as she was, and Dale Moon’s seamless drumming. Unfortunately, by that time the heat and humidity were taking their toll on the audience, and after a while I started finding it hard to concentrate on the music. Thankfully, I will have the opportunity to see the band again in October at the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend, and I am quite sure that an indoor setting might do more justice to their music.

The celebration of a milestone such as a 20th anniversary needed to end with a bang, and I am happy to report that my fellow Italians Alex Carpani Band (featuring legendary ex-VDGG saxophonist David Jackson) provided plenty of fireworks. Again, while their latest album, 4 Destinies, had not made much of an impression on me, in spite of its obvious quality, the live dimension brought the very best out of the Bologna-based quintet. Fronted by the charismatic Joe Sal, whose impressive pipes were honed by his early years as a hard rock singer, the band performed 4 Destinies in its entirety, though alternating their own material with VDGG classics such as Darkness, Killer and Man-Erg. In spite of that, and possibly because of Jackson’s endearing yet unconventional character, ACB’s set avoided the feel of a nostalgia-fest – also because of the remarkable stage craft of each of its members. They sent the crowd into fits of ecstasy by performing PFM’s timeless Impressioni di settembre, followed by an exhilarating version of George Martin’s Theme One. Though the solo spots were a tad overlong, Jackson’s performance alone was worth the price of admission.

As cheesy as it may sound, this 20th edition of ProgDay marked a sort of rebirth for me, after a long period of darkness in which music had become a mere footnote. In the past few years, my tastes have gradually evolved, and I have found myself moving away from a lot of “traditional” prog. On the other hand, though this year’s ProgDay line-up was definitely lighter on the cutting-edge side of things, the overall level of quality was as high as in previous years, offering a nicely balanced mix of subgenres that reflected modern prog’s increasingly diversified nature. And then, the beauty of the setting and the genuinely friendly vibe of the festival have fortunately stayed the same, getting newcomers hooked so that every year there are new additions to the event’s core of loyal supporters.

In any case, in spite of this year’s less than auspicious circumstances, my ProgDay experience was an all-round success, and I want to thank the organizers from the bottom of my heart for their hard work on behalf of non-mainstream music (or, as Travis Larson put it, non-commercial – a better definition to me than the ever-debated “prog” label). As usual, it was wonderful to see friends (that we had not seen for quite a while, and spend quality time with them – which included sampling the delights of local Mexican and Indian restaurants. A special mention goes to HT Riekels and Melissa Palmer, two of the newest converts to the joys of ProgDay, and both also excellent music writers.

This review was written, first and foremost, as a tribute to all the people who made ProgDay’s 20th anniversary such a memorable occasion. I do not yet know whether I will ever go back to writing on a regular basis, as (besides having other priorities) the kind of pace I kept for the past few years is likely to get anyone burned out after a while. However, what truly matters is that the “curse” seems to have been broken, and that I can still appreciate music and feel the inclination to write about it – even if not as much in detail as before. In the meantime, I will continue contributing to the weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, doing my best to spotlight new bands and artists who deserve to be heard. We will see what happens next…

Links:
http://www.progday.net

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