The Long Circle I/One Cloud
The Long Circle II
Rob Martino/Phideaux Xavier:
Vultures & Mosquitoes (with Cyndee Lee Rule)
Darkness At Noon/Prequiem/Coda 99
Thank You For The Evil
Snowtorch Part 1 Extract/Dormouse – An End [instrumental]
The Search For Terrestrial Life
Doom Suite [Micro Softdeathstar/Doctrine Of Ice 1/Candybrain/Crumble]
Waiting For The Axe/The Claws Of A Crayfish
Coronal Mass Ejection
Tempest Of Mutiny
In spite of its relative closeness to our Northern Virginia home, my husband and I are not frequent visitors to the Orion Studios – much to our detriment, because the very distinctive atmosphere of the legendary Baltimore venue and the constant excellence of its musical offer never fail to make for a memorable experience. It might be said that the Orion is an indoor equivalent of the beautiful surroundings of Storybook Farm (the ProgDay venue), with the audience bringing their own chairs and drinks and mingling with the artists in a way that is light years removed from those overpriced “Meet and Greets” that allow mainstream concert promoters to rake in the big bucks. Sadly, even a niche event like the Two of a Perfect Trio gig of September 24 was not exempt from attempts to cash in on the two bands’ relative notoriety.
The concert planned for the evening of Saturday, October 1 was one of those that manage to draw out even the laziest member of the prog community of the Baltimore/DC area, and even further afield – especially as it was a one-off performance by one of the highest-rated bands on the current prog scene. On a rainy, chilly autumnal evening more suited to mid-November than early October, nearly 100 people flocked to the Orion Studios, some of them having travelled considerable distances; the small space in front of the stage was crowded with folding chairs, and anticipation was running high for what promised to be a night to remember. Phideaux were about to wrap up a very favourable year – which had seen the release of their spectacular eighth album, Snowtorch, followed by a career-defining appearance at ROSfest 2011 in the month of May – with what was expected to be their last performance for quite a while. In fact, the band had announced they would be taking a lengthy break in order to concentrate on the completion of Infernal, the final episode of the trilogy begun in 2006 with The Great Leap and continued with Doomsday Afternoon.
Even though Phideaux’s career as a live outfit started relatively recently, with their participation in the 2007 edition of the Crescendo Festival in France, they seem to have a natural affinity with the stage – in spite of the obvious practical difficulties involved in setting up a tour with 10 people living in different areas of a large country such as the US. However, those who had been able to attend one of their shows had commented enthusiastically, and Phideaux’s ROSfest appearance consolidated their reputation as one of those acts whose music acquires a whole new dimension in a live setting. A group of uncommonly talented people, most of whom have known each other since childhood, Phideaux’s unique configuration allows each of the members to bring his or her individual contribution to the table in a heady mix of melody, power and passion. Their deeply literate concepts eschew the trite fantasy-based topics often associated with prog, following instead in the footsteps of artists such as Roger Waters, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Peter Gabriel in offering a complete package of music and thought-provoking lyrical content.
The show started right on schedule at 8 p.m. with Rob Martino’s short but delightful Chapman stick solo set. Like Phideaux, Martino had appeared in the Romantic Warriors documentary – whose authors, the indefatigable Adele Schimidt and José Zegarra Holder, were also present, filming the event. While single-instrument sets can sometimes overstay their welcome, Martino’s skill and engaging presence made for compulsive watching and listening. After having witnessed Tony Levin’s astonishing performance just one week earlier, I was looking forward to some more Chapman stick action, this time unencumbered by the presence of other instruments. In spite of his modest, unassuming attitude – he was visibly delighted at having been invited to open for one of his favourite bands – Martino is a real virtuoso, and also a gifted composer. His tightly structured pieces (showcased on his 2010 debut album, One Cloud) describe haunting soundscapes full of melody and complexity, exploiting the considerable possibilities offered by his distinctive instrument, and avoiding any semblance of pointless noodling.
At the end of his set, Martino invited Phideaux Xavier and Pennsylvania-based violinist Cyndee Lee Rule (a classically-trained musician with an impressive discography under her belt) to join him on stage. Rule’s handsome signature instrument, called the Viper, bestowed a stately yet lyrical touch to the interplay between Martino’s stick and Phideaux’s acoustic guitar. The trio played a beautiful version of “Vultures and Mosquitoes” (from Fiendish), followed by a rendition of “Universal” (from Phideaux’s debut album Ghost Story) performed only by Martino and Xavier. While Rob’s solo spot was quite striking, seeing him perform with other artists led me to believe that he would be a great asset to any band.
After a short break for refreshments and social interaction, the time came for Phideaux the band to take the stage. While by no means small in comparison to other venues (including the Jammin’ Java), the Orion stage must have felt somewhat cramped to the 10 members of the band after the ample room provided by the Majestic Theatre in Gettysburg. However, they arranged themselves in a perfectly conceived triangular shape, with the two keyboardists, Johnny Unicorn and Mark Sherkus, positioned on both sides of “Bloody Rich” Hutchins’ drum kit, bassist Matthew Kennedy sitting on the drum riser, and the rest of the members forming the base of the triangle at the front of the stage. Unicorn, Sherkus and Kennedy’s quiet, unassuming mien was nicely offset by the flamboyance of drummer Hutchins, with his heavily tattooed arms and jaunty hat, while the front line – together with Phideaux the man’s boyish smile and engaging stage manner, and tall, serious-looking guitarist Gabriel Moffat (who is also the producer of all the band’s releases) – displayed a formidable assembly of female talent: diminutive violinist/vocalist Ariel Farber, willowy lead vocalist Valerie Gracious, and identical twin sisters Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldawsky, purveyors of vocals and various metal percussion. Gracious’ pure yet forceful voice (particularly in evidence on “Crumble” and “Helix”) was a perfect foil for Phideaux’s warm tones, with their slightly rough around the edges note, the harmonies soaring in exhilarating fashion, complementing the crescendo-like structure of most of the songs.
Enhanced by excellent sound quality (even if the drums sounded perhaps a bit too loud in that limited space), Phideaux’s set offered a selection of tracks taken from all their albums except Chupacabras (with pride of place given to their three most recent releases, Doomsday Afternoon, Number Seven and Snowtorch) presented in a somewhat different format than their CD equivalents. This time around, the Snowtorch material was given a starring role, the sheer beauty of the music and vocal performances unfolding in the warm, intimate setting of the venue, brimming with poignancy and intensity; while the rousing encore, the maritime-themed “Tempest of Mutiny”, brought to mind echoes of Jethro Tull and vintage English folk-rock. The folk element of the band’s sound was particularly evident throughout the performance, validating the comparisons with The Decemberists that I had chanced upon in the past few days. Like Colin Meloy’s crew, Phideaux offer a complete artistic experience; moreover, both bands seem to concentrate on both the masculine and the feminine element – the yin and the yang – though dispensing with any tiresome peddling of mere sex appeal. As I observed in my review of the ROSfest set, Phideaux also manage not to sound like anyone else – pace the remarkably wrong-headed label of “regressive rock” that some nitpickers have stuck on them. While no one in their right mind would state that the band are the second coming of Magma (though, in some odd way, they do resemble them when on stage, especially as regards the central role of women), they transcend any of the influences detectable in their compositions.
It is really unfortunate that practical considerations stand in the way of a full-fledged tour, because Phideaux are tailor-made for the stage. The chemistry between the members is impressive, and the genuine affection and gratitude with which Phideaux the man introduced each of his bandmates, highlighting their contribution to the band’s musical architecture and revisiting the beginnings of his acquaintance with each of them, was extremely moving. Unlike many other bands (prog or otherwise), Phideaux are a tightly-knit group of friends who genuinely care about each other, and because of that they have managed to put together a sort of “cottage industry” that allows them to produce albums almost without relying on outside help
On the whole, the show – nearly three solid hours of utterly brilliant music – was everything that a prog concert should be: not only outstanding from a purely musical point of view, but also full of warmth and a genuine collaborative spirit, enhanced by the intimate, unpretentious setting of the Orion. It also reinforced my conviction that Phideaux have the full potential to become the next “big name” on the modern progressive rock scene – if the fans will allow such a thing to happen, and stop pining for the past. The evening of October 1 proved that, with bands such as Phideaux, prog can still look forward to a bright future.