After pulling off the remarkable feat of bringing two progressive rock legends such as Magma and Univers Zéro to Washington DC for the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival, cult independent label Cuneiform Records has done it again. Even if November is generally not as thriving on the live music front as the spring and summer months, the label has brought excitement to fans of genuinely progressive music (of both the rock and the jazz variety) with two events: Cuneiform Curates the Stone, a series of concerts taking place from November 15 to November 30 at John Zorn’s avant-garde space in NYC’s East Village, and a more concentrated, two-day bash aptly called CuneiFest, organized on November 19-20 at the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore.
While RIO/Avant-Prog (as the subgenre is often called for ease of reference, though somewhat inaccurately) does have a hard core of dedicated supporters in the US, it lacks the following it enjoys in Europe, where the Rock In Opposition Festival, organized in southern France in September, has now reached its fourth edition. The presence of one or more bands identified with this particular subgenre is guaranteed to send people literally running for the exits at any US prog festival, and even the bigger names like the above-mentioned Magma or Univers Zéro have often proved controversial. No one, therefore, expected crowds of hundreds of people to show up at the Orion on Saturday, November 19. Indeed, Cuneiform mainman Steve Feigenbaum had put a mere 65 tickets on sale, and expected to sell no more than exactly that number. I am happy to report that Rock Day was sold out: the small, cozy space of the Orion was nicely filled by people convened from various parts of the country, as well as farther afield (like Israel and Norway), comfortably sitting on the chairs provided by the Cuneiform crew. On each chair a bright yellow flyer was draped, containing detailed information not only on the day’s schedule, but also on the surrounding area (as well as the lunch and dinner menu).
For such a small, family-run enterprise, the Cuneiform team (consisting of Steve, his wife Joyce and her right-hand man Javier Diaz, both in charge of the promotional department, plus various interns) did an extremely impressive job in organizing the day. The main stage area was not as cluttered as it usually is when people bring their own chairs and coolers, leaving hardly any room to move around, and the lights festooning the walls created a festive feel in that small, high-ceilinged space. As the Orion is located at the far end of an industrial park, with very few amenities within walking (or even driving) distance, the organizers had contacted a local Italian restaurant in order to make a selection of food, both hot and cold, available to the attendees for a very reasonable price – set up buffet-style in the space opposite the Orion’s main body. The beautiful, relatively mild weather encouraged people to eat their lunch outside, enjoying the sunshine and the community atmosphere already inherent to most Orion events. To me, music and food are a quintessentially perfect pairing, and the convivial aspect was one of the highlights of the event, providing the attendees with the opportunity to chill out and socialize after each intensity-packed set.
The six bands selected for the Rock Day emphasized the amazing diversity within a subgenre that is all too often dismissed as over-intellectual (even within a non-mainstream genre like progressive rock) or just plain noisy. While none of those bands could ever be described as catchy or accessible, and very clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, most of them belied the fearsome reputation of avant-prog as a bunch of purveyors of jarring, melody-free fare. All of them were also homegrown, hailing from such diverse environments as Colorado, New York, New England and California – a very significant move on the part of Cuneiform, and probably not just motivated by the inevitable financial considerations. In spite of many US prog fans’ obsession with foreign bands, it is easy to forget that in a such a large country, especially in these times of economic strictures, witnessing a performance of any act based on the other side of the country, or even a couple of states away, is anything but a frequent occurrence.
Steve Feigenbaum opened the festival, greeting the audience and introducing the first band, the quaintly-named Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores – one of the projects in which Redfearn, a singer-songwriter from the historic New England town of Providence, has been involved for a number of years. The six-piece that graced the Orion stage had one of the most distinctive configurations I have ever seen in progressive rock, actually featuring almost no typical rock instrumentation. With contrabass, horn, organ, percussion and assorted objects, and the accordion (played by Redfearn himself) used as a pivotal element, the band’s profoundly fascinating sound possessed an unmistakable Old World flavour. Out of the six bands on the lineup, they had the highest melodic quotient, though a subtly skewed kind of melody, with a mournful, hypnotic quality intensified by the drone of Orion Rigel Dommisse’s organ and her plaintive vocals. While the strong folk component of the band’s music reminded me of modern acid-folk outfits like Espers, with hints of The Decemberists (especially as regards the Americana element and the dark lyrical matter), the many different ingredients of such a heady musical mixture made it quite unique. The longish, complex songs were surprisingly easy to follow, with “Wings of the Magpie” coming across as a particular highlight. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores are a band that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone willing to dip their toes in the avant-prog waters, but still find the prospect somewhat daunting.
When, after an half-hour break for more socializing and refreshments, Los Angeles quartet Upsilon Acrux took to the stage, the contrast with the previous set could not have been greater. In an evening that presented a number of interesting band configurations, Upsilon Acrux’s minimalistic two-guitar, two-drummer approach easily won first prize – at least in the sheer energy and volume stakes. Having reviewed the band’s most recent album, 2009’s Radian Futura, I knew what to expect – an angular, dissonant aural onslaught, with enough manic energy coming out of the two drummers (Dylan Fuijoka and Mark Kimbrell) to light up a whole town, and a conspicuous absence of melody. In fact, Upsilon Acrux delivered a 30-minute performance that – while riveting to watch, particularly on account of the drummers’ uncanny precision in laying down jaggedly intricate patterns in perfect unison – bordered dangerously close to white-noise territory. The two guitarists, founder (and only constant member in a band known for its revolving-door policy) Paul Lai and his sidekick Noah Guevara, churned out slashing, piercing chords of almost unbearable intensity. It was math-rock in its purest form, so brutally intense to make the likes of Don Caballero sound tame – and, needless to say, it left a sizable part of the audience rather perplexed. Even those who listen to RIO/Avant-Prog as a matter of course found the band’s uncompromising approach a bit hard to take, and almost everyone agreed that a longer set would have discouraged at least some of the attendees. The band’s somewhat dour presence, with little or no interaction with the audience, also seemed to parallel the spiky, bristling nature of their music. On the other hand, Upsilon Acrux were definitely worth watching (albeit in small doses), and an excellent addition to a lineup that showcased the wide-ranging musical offer to be found under the Cuneiform umbrella.
Next on the bill were New York-based quintet Afuche, who had recently released their first album, Highly Publicized Digital Boxing Match. In a way, the title is an accurate representation of the band itself – another high-energy outfit, though imbued with a sheer sense of enthusiasm, as well as a distinct Latin flavour (the band’s name actually refers to a very distinctive percussion instrument used in Latin jazz). Their 30-minute set, while full of sonic clashes and crashes, was also spirited and entertaining, with a charismatic focal point in keyboardist/vocalist/percussionist Ruben Sindo Acosta – a wiry, diminutive dynamo with a rakish mustache and a curtain of black hair, jumping up and down when pounding the keys of his rig, or bashing his drums with unadulterated gusto. His facial expressions were a sight to behold, while his vocal style owed a lot to traditional Afro-Cuban music, though infused with a manic energy all of his own. Saxophonist Andrew Carrico also cut quite an interesting figure – tall and lanky with long hair and an impressive mustache, wielding his blaring baritone sax with a bit of a swagger, while guitarist Zach Ryalls, bassist Denny Tek and drummer Ian Chang (all three looking very young) kept a lower visual profile, though laying down the groundwork for Ruben’s unflagging energy and showmanship. With plenty of groovy, infectious rhythms and a genuinely omnivorous attitude, Afuche were for many the true revelation of the evening.
New York power trio Zevious had been one of the highlights of ProgDay 2011, so I was looking forward to seeing them again – as were those in the audience who had also attended the North Carolina festival in September. Those expecting a repeat of that astonishing Sunday-morning set, however, were in for a treat, because the band’s CuneiFest set felt markedly different – as tight as ever, but with a sense of almost claustrophobic intensity derived by the indoor setting. In the compact, dimly lit space of the Orion, the unrelenting, yet seamlessly flowing stream of music produced by the band’s three members created a veritable wall of sound, endowed with a mesmerizing quality akin to the best King Crimson instrumentals, with hints of the primeval heaviness of Black Sabbath in the slower passages – always loud and powerful, yet never one-dimensional (unlike Upsilon Acrux no-holds-barred assault). While my playful description of “King Crimson on steroids” might be fitting in some ways, Zevious are definitely much more than that. Possibly taking to heart my criticism about their lack of interaction with the audience at ProgDay (mostly motivated by the early hour and the unfamiliar situation of playing outdoors and in broad daylight), they had gained in terms of both mobility and communication, the triangular shape of the stage perfectly suited to their configuration. Drummer extraordinaire Jeff Eber, the powerhouse at the heart of Zevious’ sound, propelled the music along with a smile on his face, his stunning polyrhythms meshing with Johnny DeBlase’s muscular bottom end and the electric fireworks of Mike Eber’s guitar. All in all, it was an almost career-defining performance, and the festival’s finest hour as far as I am concerned.
After such a scintillating set, dinner break was upon us, giving the audience a much-needed respite and more opportunities for bonding before plates of tasty food. Then, at about 7.20 (almost right on schedule), Hamster Theatre begun their set, enthusiastically introduced by Steve Feigenbaum – who pointed out that the band had only performed three times on the East Coast since their inception, almost 20 years ago. Based in Colorado, the band shares three members with headliners Thinking Plague – multi-instrumentalist (and founder) Dave Willey, guitarist Mike Johnson and vocalist/reedist Mark Harris – so it is not surprising to hear similarities in their sounds, which share a highly eclectic bent. However, the foundation of Hamster Theatre’s music – mostly instrumental, unlike Thinking Plague’s – lies in folk, as the central role played by Dave Willey’s accordion shows quite clearly. Their set started in a rather subdued, almost soothing fashion, than things became gradually more complex, with jazzy touches creeping in, and then all of a sudden evoking reminiscences of Univers Zéro and their eerily mesmerizing brand chamber-prog. In spite of the problems caused by a dodgy guitar amp, the set flowed on smoothly, each instrument finely detailed, the sharpness of the guitar tempered by the wistful tone of the reeds and. Hamster Theatre’s music sounds big and often upbeat, with a strong Old World flavour and unexpectedly spiky moments. Even if my appreciation of their set was somewhat marred by the sleepiness that inevitably follows a meal (I am also much more of a morning than an evening person), I was impressed by the fine balance of eclecticism and discipline in the band’s music, and also by their warm, engaging stage manner, as befits seasoned performers. While, with the exception of bassist Brian McDougal, the band members performed sitting down, the lack of physical dynamics was amply compensated by the agile versatility of the music.
Highly awaited headliners Thinking Plague took the stage almost 20 minutes late on schedule because of soundcheck-related problems. They also had to contend with another emergency situation – the illness of singer Elaine DiFalco (who has been a member of the band for the past four years), who, however, soldiered on, dosing herself with aspirin in order to be able to perform (albeit in a limited capacity), and taking a bottle of water on stage with her in order to keep her vocal chords hydrated. As a teacher, I could relate to her plight quite well, and could not help admiring her mettle. Petite, with a striking, high-cheekboned face, Elaine possesses a surprisingly commanding stage presence, her husky, well-modulated voice oddly seductive though light years removed from the trite clichés that so many female singers feel obliged to follow. Before the festival, I had heard her on Dave Willey and Friends’ stunning Immeasurable Currents, and had been deeply impressed. Though I have some reservations on the way her haunting vocals fit into the multilayered texture of Thinking Plague’s music, I am sure the less than ideal conditions in which she performed contributed to my impression. Never the most prolific of outfits, they are releasing a new studio album (the first since 2003’s A History of Madness), titled Decline and Fall, in the early months of 2012, and the Orion set provided them with a great opportunity to showcase some of their new material, as well as some of their older compositions. Among the über-eclectic, intricate bulk of Thinking Plague’s output, there was also time for the humorously-introduced, never-played-before “The Fountain of All Tears”, a slow-burning ballad in 4/4 that very few would associate with one of the dreaded “Avant” bands. With legendary drummer Dave Kerman having relocated to Switzerland, the drum stool was occupied by Robin Chestnut, introduced by Mike Johnson as the only band member under 40; he also joked about Robin’s forthcoming Ph.D in Mathematics, which makes him the ideal drummer for a band like Thinking Plague. Keyboardist Kimara Sajn manned his rig with an unobtrusive but engaging mien, his delight in music-making obvious from his body language. I was barely acquainted with the band’s output before the festival, and their set encouraged me to delve into their back catalogue.
By way of a conclusion, I would like to stress that, as good as all of these bands are on CD, the live setting really makes their music come alive, and also gives them a more “human” dimension that helps debunk the myth of their brainy inaccessibility. For all their dedication to the production of challenging music, these are people who, first and foremost, enjoy what they do, and obviously love being on stage as much as any “mainstream” rock band.
All in all, it was a wonderful day of music and social interaction with like-minded people, and the perfect way to spend the third anniversary of my arrival in the US – even though my husband was unable to share it with me because of work commitments, which also prevented us from attending the festival’s Jazz Day. My sincerest thanks go to Steve, Joyce and their tireless team: though all of them were looking quite exhausted at the end of the day, their happiness and satisfaction was also palpable. The gorgeous (and delicious) layer cake served just before the Thinking Plague set was a very nice touch to celebrate the effort and care that had gone into the organization of the event. Kudos also to Mike Potter and his collaborators for the state-of-the-art sound quality of each performance, and also for getting the Orion premises in tip-top shape. Even if it will very probably remain a one-off, CuneiFest will be long remembered in the annals of the US progressive rock community as the very embodiment of the old “small is beautiful” adage.
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