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Archive for September, 2011

A few months ago, fans of King Crimson had reason to rejoice when the amusingly-named Two of a Perfect Trio tour was announced – an extensive North American tour that would feature Adrian Belew and Tony Levin with their respective bands, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio (AB3 for short) and Stick Men. Many of those fans (including myself) had been waiting in vain for a full-fledged 40th anniversary tour, and in 2009 news of its cancellation had caused widespread consternation among the ranks of those who had been unable to attend any of the four 2008 concerts. Even if the release of A Scarcity of Miracles earlier this year brought some respite to the starved Crimson fans, the lack of live action and the uncertainty about the future of the band were discouraging to say the least.

Not surprisingly, about a week before the event, tickets for the date in the Washington DC metro area were already sold out . While other dates of the tour had been booked in medium-sized theatres, the DC gig was slated to take place at a rather unlikely venue, considering the relative fame of the artists involved. In fact, the Jammin’ Java  (as its name suggests) is a café/bar that doubles up as a music club with a regular schedule of evening concerts. Incidentally, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio had performed there in the summer of 2009 (a week or so after the near-legendary performance of Eddie Jobson’s U-Z with Marco Minnemann, Simon Phillips, Greg Howe and Trey Gunn), so the venue was a known quantity at least to one of the artists involved.

Anyway, though rather unconventional and far from capacious, the Jammin’ Java is very conveniently situated for anyone living in the DC metro area, and also quite pleasant and full of character – even if the dim, cellar-like lighting does not allow for a lot of social interaction. For the occasion, though, the venue had been redesigned in order to allow as many people inside as possible: the seating had been removed, with the exception of the small, fenced “VIP area” and the bar benches at the entrance for those who were partaking of food bought on the premises. On my two previous visits to the club, the volume of the music had approached eardrum-shattering proportions; this time around, however, the sound system operated at a manageable decibel level, rendering the use of earplugs unnecessary even when standing very close to the stage. To be perfectly honest, I would have enjoyed the concert even more if I had been able to sit down, but the music was so incredibly good (and plentiful) that even the mild discomfort of having to stand up was considerably lessened.

The morning before the concert, as a warm-up, my husband and I had played the complete “red-blue-yellow” trilogy, and were expecting  an evening to remember, encouraged by some of the comments already available on the Internet. However, the concert exceeded those expectations, with nearly three hours of incredible music and a very warm, friendly atmosphere – and that in spite of its rather stripped-down nature. With no gimmicks or special effects besides a few well-placed lights, the two trios relied only on their considerable experience and creativity – letting the music do the talking, as clichéd as it may sound.

Though the music associated with King Crimson projects an aura of intellectualism and near-unapproachability, and is often indicted of being very “masculine”, lacking the necessary melodic quotient to attract women, there was quite a fair number of ladies crowding around the stage, and none of them appeared to be suffering. Personally, I believe that melody is a very important component of music, and do not generally enjoy “noise” for its own sake. However, King Crimson and its related projects simply transcend any specious conflict between  “accessible” and “difficult” progressive rock. Indeed,  the concert proved once again that King Crimson’s music possesses a freshness and cutting-edge appeal that have not been dimmed one whit by time. Not surprisingly, the music of both trios is indebted to the “mother band”, though not in an overtly derivative way, but rather as a form of development. I firmly believe that, while it is perfectly feasible to sound identical to Yes or Genesis (check the latest Wobbler album for confirmation), sounding exactly like King Crimson is next to impossible – due to the fluid, ever-evolving nature of the band’s musical output.

The concert was opened by Tony Levin’s Stick Men, introducing their new member Markus Reuter, who had replaced Michael Bernier earlier this year. Levin’s warm, gracious interaction with the enthusiastic crowd subtly complemented the sheer intensity of the music – as did his vocals, definitely not “beautiful” in any conventional sense, but still an oddly successful fit for the  band’s sound. Alongside tracks from his 2007  solo album Stick Man and the trio’s latest release, Soup, Levin surprised the audience with a blistering version of “VROOM” that  anticipated what would happen in the last half an hour or so of the show. The trio’s astonishing rendition of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite proved once again progressive rock’s affinity for the works of the great Russian composer; while the rap intro and funky suggestions of  “Soup” were also warmly greeted by an audience clearly more open to all sorts of contaminations than the average fan of traditional prog. Markus Reuter, his serious mien occasionally softened by a friendly smile, with his touch guitar (designed and built by himself) offered a perfect foil for Levin’s acrobatic excursions on the Chapman stick – which included using a bow, Jimmy Page-style, as well as his famed “funk fingers”. With the supreme ease and confidence born of a long partnership, Pat Mastelotto provided an impeccable backbeat, meshing with the riveting patterns woven by the two string instruments, and creating textures of astounding beauty.

After a short break, Adrian Belew and his cohorts – Julie Slick on bass and Tobias Ralph (who had replaced Julie’s brother, Eric) on drums – took to the stage for some more humour-laced mayhem. Belew, ever the genial host, looked in excellent shape, his voice still capable of delivering the goods with confidence and flair, while the instrumental firepower unleashed by the three musicians was quite awe-inspiring.  In some ways, AB3’s music has an even sharper edge than Stick Men’s, as amply proved by the almost 10 minutes of  e, the title-track of the trio’s latest recording effort. Adrian’s twangy, trebly guitar tone, like his voice, may be an acquired taste, but makes for a gripping listening experience, especially when assisted by such an impeccable rhythm section – redefining the old warhorse of the power trio in thoroughly modern terms. As far as I am concerned, however, the real focal point of the trio’s performance was Julie Slick, a monster bassist with an uncanny sense of rhythm, perfectly integrating with Tobias Ralph’s powerful yet restrained drumming– and a refreshing example of a new generation of women artists who are in the business of making great music rather than flaunting their physical charms. Though a very attractive young woman, with her bare feet and mop of curly hair, Julie is a musician first and foremost, who amply deserves all the respect due to any musician as skilled and dedicated as she is.

And then it was time for the “extended Crim-centric encore” everyone in the audience had been waiting for. Though I am usually a bit harsh on people whom I perceive as “living in the past” – failing thus to appreciate the excellent music put out by modern acts – I will proudly admit to not practicing what I preach when it comes to anything King Crimson-related. Having never been so lucky as to see them perform live (when they played in Rome in 2003 I had to give the concert a miss because I was not feeling well), this was the closest I had got to “real” Crimson live action. Moreover, unlike some more conservative proggers, I am a staunch fan of the Eighties trilogy, and Discipline ranks as one of my all-time favourite albums –  so I was understandably stoked at the very idea of witnessing a live performance of some of those classic songs.

The third part of the show began with only the three tenured KC members on stage, effortlessly running through the funky pace and engagingly nonsensical vocals of “Elephant Talk” (in which the influence of Talking Heads’ take on afrobeat was hard to miss) and the more laid-back strains of “Three of a Perfect Pair”. When the trio was joined by Reuter, the audience was treated to a barnstorming rendition of the iconic “Red”, beefed up by the distinctive contribution of the touch guitar. The infectious “Dinosaur” and the angular “Frame by Frame” had the crowd eating out of the two combined trio’s hands; while  the eerie soundscapes and double-drum spot of “B’Boom” (the latter reminding me of Simon Phillips and Marco Minnemann’s drum duel during the Eddie Jobson set in 2009) and the soothing, almost seductive “One Time” laid the groundwork for the show’s white-hot climax.

Though women are not generally expected to like such stuff, “Indiscipline” ranks as one of my all-time favourite King Crimson tracks, so you can imagine my delight when I heard Levin (assisted by Slick and Reuter) sketch the song’s unmistakable intro – this time stretched into an almost unbearable build-up of tension and false starts, then exploding into a maelstrom of slashing, wailing guitar. Heavier than the heaviest metal, and totally mind-blowing, the song oozed with the pure beauty of chaos. After briefly bowing out, leaving the audience wrung out but deliriously happy, the two bands came back on stage and got everyone to dance and sing along with the irrestistible “Thela Hun Ginjeet”. Who said you cannot dance at a prog gig?

If I wanted to nitpick, I might say that I missed some of my favourites – particularly “Level Five” and “Sleepless” with its killer bass line – but I suppose that, after such a performance, quibbling would sound a bit excessive. Almost three hours of music at that level of quality and intensity are anything but an everyday occurrence, and the two trios delivered everything their dedicated fans were expecting – and then some. They made music written over 30 years ago sound as fresh and relevant as if it had been released today, reaffirming King Crimson’s essential role in the continuing evolution of progressive rock.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Repeat It (4:33)
2. In A Sense (5:24)
3. A (Post-Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story (5:07)
4. Chrysalis:
Part 1: In Between The Lines (2:53)
Part 2:  The Pundits (3:00)
Part 3: The Muse Returns (1:41)
Part 4: Free to Fall (3:15)
5. The Projectionist (4:40)
6. Tear Gas (4:46)
7. Higher Than Mountains (4:19)
8. Gravity (10:12)
9. Gravity (instrumental – bonus track) (10:02)

LINEUP:
Eric Sands – fretted and fretless bass, electric guitars
Jeff Hodges – vocals, piano, organ, synth, samples, percussion
Elise Testone – vocals
Quentin Ravenel – drums
Cameron Harder Handel – trumpet
Jenny Hugh – violin
Steve Carroll – lyrics, imagery

With:
Keith Bruce – electric guitar (1, 5)
Oliver Caminos – guitar (2, 3)
Alexandra Hodges – backing vocals (5)
Tim Hodson – acoustic guitar (2, 8 )
Vitaly Popeloff – guitar (1, 4/1, 4/2)
Dan Wright – guitar (4/4, 6)

Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, where they were founded by multi-instrumentalists Eric Sands and Jeff Hodges, Man On Fire first appeared on the music scene in 1998 with the release of their eponymous debut album. It was followed by The Undefined Design (2003), which featured Kansas’ David Ragsdale on violin, and Habitat (2006), with Adrian Belew guesting on guitar (as well as  Ragsdale’s return). Chrysalis, their long-awaited fourth album, sees the band expanded to a six-piece, with lyrics provided once again by 10T Records president Steve Carroll.

Though I was familiar with the band’s name, my only contact with Man On Fire prior to Chrysalis occurred when I had the opportunity to listen to Undercover, a compilation of cover versions of famous progressive rock songs released by 10T Records in 2009. Man On Fire’s contribution to the album, Japan’s “Visions of China”, obviously attracted my attention, as the song is a great favourite of mine; however, in the intervening months I was so overwhelmed with music to review that I all but forgot about it. The comments I had heard about the band were all largely positive, but most of them pointed out that Man On Fire were not “really” prog – meaning they did not sound like Yes or Genesis, and had at least some “mainstream” potential, which made them somewhat suspect in the eyes of purists.

When, a couple of weeks ago, I received a promo copy of Chrysalis in the mail, I did expect a measure of accessibility from the band. What took me completely by surprise, however, was the sheer brilliance of the music that came out of my speakers once I put the CD into my player. Fresh and exhilarating, brimming with memorable melodies and stunning vocal performances, it took me back to that time – the early to mid-1980s – when I spent most of my days glued to the radio, soaking in all the newest releases. In spite of that period’s grim reputation of being a wasteland for progressive rock, the ‘80s were rife with incredible talent, both as regards quality pop and more experimental fare (not to mention the wealth of classic heavy metal albums). The essence of that musical bounty – so undeservedly reviled by the snobs of this world – came back in full force when I first heard Chrysalis. The album was that rare beast – a perfect marriage between the cream of the ‘80s’ musical crop and a genuinely progressive attitude, made of technical brilliance and unabashed eclecticism.

Indeed, to borrow a metaphor from the world of cooking, Chrysalis is definitely not “your mom’s prog” Though the very mention of  the ‘80s and prog in the same breath may conjure memories of extremely divisive albums such as Yes’ 90125 or the whole of Genesis’ output in that decade, Chrysalis possesses a warm, organic sound that avoids some of the excesses of that decade (such as the over-reliance on electronic drums), all the while keeping that inimitable blend of accessibility and subtle complexity. Unlike so many “real” prog releases, which seem to adopt a “more is more” approach often resulting in bloated, pretentious affairs, this is an album that makes listening a pleasure rather than a chore. Chrysalis is a lean, mean machine offering 58 minutes of perfectly balanced music – with the majority of the tracks between 4 and 5 minutes, a 4-part epic that, in spite of its very restrained running time (10 minutes), manages to hold the attention much better than its twice-as-long counterparts, and a stunner of a closing track that sums up the album and lays the groundwork for the future developments of the band’s career.

Right from the opening strains of “Repeat It” it becomes obvious that Chrysalis is not your average symphonic prog album with a Seventies fetish. Its funky swagger, with Eric Sands’s meaty bass lines enhanced by synth bursts, provides a perfect foil for Jeff Hodges’ occasionally gruff, immensely expressive vocals. Organ flurries and airy keyboards, accented by guitar (courtesy of From.uz mainman Vitaly Popeloff), add layers of texture to the catchy yet intriguing fabric of the song. The haunting folksy beauty of Jenny Hugh’s violin refrain joins the mix of pneumatic bass and weird electronics – so reminiscent of Japan’s best moments – to make “In a Sense” one of the highlights of the album, driven to an exhilarating pace by the soulful vocal interplay between Hodges and Elise Testone, and tempered by more atmospheric moments. The Japan influence is unmistakable on most of the album, though Hodges’ voice is definitely not as languid as David Sylvian’s, often coming across as more Motown than standard prog. The skewed ballad of “A (Post-Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story”, bolstered by the flawless work of the rhythm section and peppered with trumpet bursts underscoring the intensity of the vocals, reminded me of another exquisitely boundary-crossing outfit – New Jersey’s own 3RDegree, who share Man On Fire’s appreciation of eclectic acts such as Rush. The Canadian trio’s influence crops up in the most accessible track on the album, the upbeat “Higher Than Mountains”, whose mainstream appeal is subtly spiked by a slightly chaotic ending.

The title-track offers a nice twist on the old warhorse of the multi-part epic, with short sections strung together by a main theme, and made especially memorable by the wistful voice of Cameron Harder Handel’s trumpet. Eric Sands is again joined by Vitaly Popeloff on guitar, providing both clean, melodic lines with an almost Gilmourian touch and  harsh riffs, while the mood runs the gamut from hauntingly melancholy (as in Pt 3, “The Muse Returns”) to dynamic and muscular (as in Pt 4, “Free to Fall”), with distinct echoes of bands such as Tears for Fears or Talk Talk as well as Rush or Pink Floyd. With “The Projectionist” the band dive headlong into pure ‘80s territory with an irresistibly funky, slightly angular number propelled by Quentin Ravenel’s drums, spiced up by bits of dissonance and softened by lovely vocal harmonies and entrancing keyboard washes,  hinting at some of Duran Duran’s best output. “Tear Gas” goes even further, regaling the listener with a prime example of “progressive dance” that  evokes both Madonna and the “red/blue/yellow” period of King Crimson’s career – throwing in weird electronic effects, razor-sharp riffing, slinky bass lines, soulful trumpet and haunting female backing vocals. Then, when you thought things could not get more interesting, “Gravity (also included in an instrumental-only version) kicks in, wrapping up the album with 10 minutes of absolute bliss, and the splendid voice of Elise Testone (bringing back memories of Alison Moyet or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Holly Johnson) as the icing on the cake. The song is so funky and exhilarating that it makes you want to dance, the synergy between the instruments nothing short of astonishing, while the trumpet solo at the end, followed by sparse, wistful piano and recorded voices, is alone worth the price of admission.

As many of the references I have used in the previous paragraphs make abundantly clear, those who believe that the 1980s were a dismal time for interesting music would do very well to steer clear of Chrysalis. While, from a compositional point of view, the album has enough complexity to sustain any comparisons with  more “traditional” prog releases,  the music featured on Chrysalis is quite unlikely to appeal to purists or staunch ‘70s worshippers. On the other hand, anyone into art rock/crossover (labels that are often used condescendingly to define something that cannot fully aspire to the hallowed “prog” tag), and, obviously, devotees of ‘80s music will not fail to appreciate the brilliance of Man On Fire’s latest effort. With striking artwork and photography and Steve Carroll’s literate, thought-provoking lyrics rounding off a thoroughly modern package, Chrysalis is another strong contender for my personal Top 10 of 2011. Hopefully the band will not keep us waiting for another six years before their next release.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/manonfireband

http://10trecords.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Seamripper (& The Blanket Statement) (8:13)
2. Tip-Toe the Fault-Line (6:57)
3. Ashes To Ear (5:18)
4. Shades Of Hades (5:43)
5. Reductio Ad Absurdum (6:18)
6. On Again/Off Again (7:25)
7. Lotus (6:17)
8. Ashtamangala (The 8 Auspicious Symbols):
Pt. 1 – Pareidolized (The Ocean In The Shell) (10:00)
Pt. 2 – Parasol (1:43)
Pt. 3 – Wave The Banner (1:41)
Pt. 4 – Fish Afraid Of Drowning (2:14)
Pt. 5 – Moebius Knot (2:26)
Pt. 6 – Full Circle (1:55)
Pt. 7 – Let it Wash Away (The Lotus Effect) (5:49)

LINEUP:
Paul Adrian Villarreal – vocals, guitars
Marcel Coenen – guitars
Daniel Kohn – bass
Rene Kroon – keyboards
Roel Van Helden – drums

Dutch quintet Sun Caged was first formed in 1999 by guitarist Marcel Coenen and drummer Dennis Leeflang. Their self-titled debut album (mixed by Arjen Lucassen of Ayreon) was released in 2003, followed by Artemisia in 2007 (with new lead singer Paul Adrian Villareal on board), and then by The Lotus Effect in the early summer of 2011 (the first with new bassist Daniel Kohn). All of the band’s albums have been released on Finnish label Lion Music. Sun Caged have also toured in support of established bands such as Vanden Plas and Fates Warning.

As some of my regular readers may already know, I am not the biggest fan of “classic” progressive metal – that is, the subgenre that was made popular by Dream Theater with their 1992 album Images and Words, and since then attracted adoration and abuse in almost equal proportion. While I have always had a lot of time for classic heavy metal, I find its marriage with progressive rock (mostly of the symphonic persuasion) largely uninspiring, with very few exceptions. For this reason, I generally refrain from reviewing albums by bands that follow in the wake of the New York quintet – as it is not always easy to keep our personal tastes and inclinations from getting in the way of objectivity.

Though firmly placed in the classic prog metal tradition of soaring vocals, guitar fireworks and majestic keyboard sweeps, Sun Caged’s third studio album has got enough individuality to separate it from the mass of run-of-the-mill Dream Theater clones that are flooding the market with their CDs. While the album, running at about 72 minutes, and complete with rather esoteric titles (though tinged with a sort of skewed humour that is not too usual in the genre), is undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking, the band’s cohesion allows them to come across as a unit rather than a random collection of virtuosos. Moreover, this ambition does not result in an unchecked proliferation of sprawling pieces with more twists and turns than the average listener can effectively digest. In fact, the songs are all quite tight in compositional terms, making the most of the instrumental and vocal expertise of the members, yet keeping to a relatively straightforward structure.

The vast majority of the tracks feature vocals, making the most of Paul Adrian Villareal’s impressive range and clarity. While a high tenor like most singers in the genre, his powerful, yet melodic voice adapts to the music with remarkable adroitness, rarely if ever indulging in over-the-top antics, and – most importantly – never sounding strained, as unfortunately it is often the case with Dream Theater’s James LaBrie. Though voices such as Villareal’s can be much of an acquired taste, his consistently solid performance on The Lotus Effect show that is very much in control of everything that is going on around him. His skill and confidence  are especially spotlighted in “On Again/Off Again”, his voice soaring above the relentless tapestry of riffs and keyboards, and the mellow “Reductio Ad Absurdum” , a ballad in the tradition of Dream Theater’s “Another Day” or “Space Dye Vest”.

The Lotus Effect has a rather distinctive structure, featuring 7 stand-alone tracks and the 7-part epic “Ashtamangala (The 8 Auspicious Symbols)”, most of the tracks striking a nice balance between melody and heaviness. Though driven by often harsh, aggressive guitar riffs, the music relies on the contribution of keyboards for texture and depth, and the piano tempers  the high level of energy with its gentle, fluid touch. While Marcel Coenen’s guitar is always at the forefront, its interplay with Rene Kroon’s sweeping, piercing synth gives distinction to tracks such as “Tip-Toe the Fault Line”, the intense but melodic “Pareidolized” and the ultra-heavy “Moebius Knot” (the only completely instrumental track on the album), which borders on extreme metal with its dense riffing and Roel Van Helden’s frantic drumming. Opener “Seamripper (& The Blanket Statement)” is also high on the heaviness quotient, with its energetic riffing reminiscent of classic thrash metal. Here and there, however, other influences crop up, such as in the funky slap bass line in the middle of “Shades of Hades”, and the Eastern echoes in the synth line and percussion pattern of “Lotus”; while “Parasol” has a relaxed, almost Latin feel. On the other hand, closing track “Let It Wash Away (The Lotus Effect)”, with its lush keyboard parts, exudes that sense of melodic grandiosity that is typical of a lot of classic prog.

While The Lotus Effect may not be exactly my cup of tea, it is undoubtedly a finely-crafted production that will not fail to appeal to the many followers of “traditional” progressive metal. A tad overlong for my tastes, but much better structured than many efforts of comparable length and scope, the album offers a nice mix of melody, heaviness and virtuosity – the latter hardly ever descending into mere showing off. Band founder Marcel Coenen is also to be commended for the versatility of his guitar playing, and his avoidance (for the most part) of the dreaded pitfalls of shredding. That said, as talented a band as Sun Caged undeniably are, The Lotus Effect is quite unlikely to convert any naysayers to the joys of prog metal

Links:
http://www.suncaged.com/home.html

http://www.myspace.com/suncaged

http://www.reverbnation.com/suncaged

http://www.lionmusic.com/

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You cannot get lucky all the time, as this year’s edition of ProgDay abundantly proved. Indeed, while last year the weather had been  as perfect for early September as anyone could have wished – sunny yet cool, breezy and dry, which made spending two days outdoors a real delight – this time, especially on the festival’s first day, we got a nice taste of typical Southern US summer weather, with relatively high temperatures made much worse by humidity close to 80% . Every time I checked the weather forecast in the days before the event, my heart sank lower and lower, and I have to admit that – as a staunch hot-weather-hater – I was more than a bit worried. Thankfully, nothing bad happened, at least to me (one of my fellow attendees suffered heatstroke and had to be taken to hospital), though most people’s enjoyment was somewhat marred by the unrelenting onslaught of the heat and humidity.

Despite the lack of cooperation on the part of the weather (which, considering the recent hurricane threats on the US East Coast, might have been far worse), ProgDay 2011 was an unqualified success. With a top-notch lineup representing the very best of modern-day prog, plenty of variety to satisfy even the most jaded fan, and – most important of all – lashings of humour and pure fun (two words that are not often associated with the prog scene), the festival managed to wipe out the bad taste still lingering months after the traumatic cancellation of NEARfest (whose future, at the time of writing, still hangs in the balance), and restore at least in part my faith in the future of progressive rock. No event can survive for 16 uninterrupted years without good reason – in this particular case, a healthy mix of humility, dedication and open-mindedness. Even if ProgDay has never aspired to the grandeur of other events, with their state-of-the-art theatres and “prestigious” lineups, it has acted as a showcase for a wide range of subgenres within the prog spectrum, and provided a springboard for up-and-coming bands, both domestic and international. And then, last but not least, the festival has been able to create – much more so than its higher-end cousins – an authentic community spirit, where everyone brings something to the table, avoiding the cliquish atmosphere that has often spoiled the experience of other events for those who are in some ways outsiders.

This year we set out on Friday morning, in order to avoid the Labour Day weekend traffic later in the afternoon, so were able to spend some quality time with friends at the renovated Comfort Inn Hotel – and eat way too much food, as often happens in such happy occasions. The anticipation for the event ran high, and attendance was noticeably up from last year, when the festival had been penalized by the lack of the coveted “international” bands, in spite of a superb lineup showcasing some of the finest acts on the North American scene. This year, the NEARfest cancellation had encouraged more people to head South, and – even if still far from the record highs reached on previous editions – the increase was noticeable as soon as we reached the festival grounds on Saturday morning. In spite of their constant fight with financial strictures, the organizers had managed to put together an incredibly tight lineup, catering to all progressive tastes. Even the two cancellations – first Czech band Uz Jsme Doma, then Sunday headliners Quantum Fantay  – did not undermine the strength of the musical offer.

The heat building up on Friday afternoon did not show any promise of abating the following day, though when we reached the beautiful festival location at Storybook Farm things were still relatively pleasant. Photographs do not do full  justice to the beauty of the surroundings, the green field ringed by woods where you can hear the echo of the music if you walk far enough from the stage area. The lack of rain in the summer months was made particularly evident by the clouds of dust raised by the cars approaching the festival premises (hence the title of my review), and the dry, prickly feel of the grass. Thankfully, in the morning and early evening a breeze blowing from the trees made things bearable, and my lightweight folding chair allowed me to move around in order to catch it. There was no respite from the sun, however, and leaving the shelter of the covered pavilion meant being hit by the full force of its rays, especially in the early hours of the afternoon.

Half of the bands on this year’s lineup were instrumental, and Milwaukee-based quartet Fibonacci Sequence introduced the festival in style. After having braved a 15-hour drive to reach North Carolina, the four musicians treated the crowd to almost 90 minutes of intricate yet effortlessly flowing music that showed an impressive level of maturity. Though their debut album, the excellent Numerology, had been recorded as a trio with a guest bassist (former Portal/Cynic member Chris Kringel), the band now feature the considerable talents of bassist Chad Novell, who looked more like a member of a modern metal outfit than a prog musician. However, for all the keen edge present in their compositions, Fibonacci Sequence are a full-fledged progressive rock band whose remarkably clean sound was flattered by excellent acoustics that allowed each instrument to be heard clearly and distinctly. As I wrote in my review of Numerology, they are one of those rare bands that have managed to achieve a sound of their own – even if they jokingly refer to themselves as “Rush with keyboards”. Like the Canadian trio, their music is eclectic but deeply cohesive, built on the solid foundation of the outstanding rhythm section of Novell and drummer Tom Ford (whose sleek interplay was riveting to watch), which allows Mike Butzen’s guitar to unfold all its melodic range, with Jeff Schuelke’s keyboards adding layers of depth. Their warm yet inobtrusive interaction with the crowd revealed their experience as a live act, and their heartfelt tribute to Kopecky drummer Paul Kopecky, who passed away two years ago, was particularly touching. In today’s materialistic, cutthroat world, it is heartwarming to see musicians from a particular region form a bond and work together towards the diffusion of non-mainstream music. Kudos to Fibonacci Sequence for being part of this trend, and for sharing their appreciation of their fellow Wisconsin artists with the ProgDay crowd. All in all, they are a very tight unit, who deserve as much exposure as they can get, especially among devotees of instrumental prog.

Another fine example of the thriving New Jersey prog scene, The Tea Club had been the last band to be announced, a mere couple of weeks before the event. Having followed them for the past three years, I had hoped to be able to see them on stage for a while, and was elated on their behalf at the announcement, as a festival slot can be a turning point for a band, exposing them to a much larger audience than their normal live appearances. In spite of their collective young ages, the fresh-faced members of The Tea Club – now extended to a six-piece – are accomplished musicians and songwriters, their music astonishingly complex and multilayered, even if not always conforming to traditional prog standards. After the departure of drummer (and founding member) Kyle Minnick, brothers Pat and Dan McGowan recruited a new bassist (Charles Batdorf), drummer (Joe Rizzolo) and third guitarist (Jim Berger), while original bassist Becky Osenenko (a classically-trained pianist) took charge of the keyboards, which on their second album Rabbit had been provided by Tom Brislin. Because of Minnick’s involvement in the writing of their 2008 debut album, General Winter’s Secret Museum, they chose not to play any tracks from it, and concentrated instead on Rabbit and some new material. While The Tea Club clearly tread the post-prog path of bands like The Pineapple Thief and Oceansize, with bouts of intensity that may bring The Mars Volta to mind, the complexity of their songwriting goes way beyond most alternative bands.While I had found Rabbit a bit of a step backwards, as it sounded somewhat one-dimensional if compared to the boundless energy of General Winter’s Secret Museum, the material taken from the band’s sophomore effort came positively alive on stage. Enhanced by the seamless instrumental dynamics and the striking stage presence of the McGowan brothers, each of the songs possessed a deeply intriguing quality, with “The Night I Killed Steve Shelley” deserving a special mention. Even the relentless assault of the heat and humidity could not detract from the band’s brilliant set. The new songs reprised the atmospheric, laid-back mood evidenced on Rabbit, though spiked by instrumental surges exuding a keen sense of tension. The McGowan brothers are also fine vocalists, capable of delivering soothing harmonies as well as more aggressive parts, while steering clear of the excessively plaintive tone of post-prog icons such as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or The Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord. With their sheer enthusiasm and obvious dedication to their music, The Tea Club have enormous potential, and their performance won them many new fans.

Though the weather certainly did no favours to The Rebel Wheel, the Ottawa-based quartet, led by guitarist David Campbell and featuring a highly awaited guest appearance by keyboardist Guy LeBlanc (of Nathan Mahl and Camel fame) delivered a stunning (though somewhat short) set, featuring a slightly modified version of the 30-minute epic “The Discovery of Witchcraft”, the centrepiece of their 2010 album We Are in the Time of Evil Clocks. Being familiar with the album, undoubtedly one of the standout releases of last year, I was looking forward to the band’s set, which was a delight to start to finish – even if, by the time they got on stage, I was feeling somewhat faint, and lay half-slumped in my chair. The music, however, was so riveting that it was impossible not to listen intently. Like a well-oiled machine, the band churned out flawless tune after flawless tune, their choppy, jazzy Crimsonian vibe well complemented by Campbell’s powerful, expressive vocals and LeBlanc’s masterful keyboard sweeps and rumbling organ flurries, while relentlessly driven forward by the splendidly pneumatic rhythm section of Andrew Burns and Aaron Clark. The dark, angular “Death at Sea”, from a 2005 Gentle Giant tribute album, was a particular highlight, with echoes of King Crimson’s “The Great Deceiver”. Though the epic was adapted to the absence of vocalist/saxophonist Angie McIvor (on leave following the birth of her first child), it lost none of its punchy, gutsy effectiveness. An impressively professional outfit, oozing confidence and flair, The Rebel Wheel manage to sound thoroughly modern while paying homage to the great Seventies tradition. I really hope to see them again in the very near future, and will be looking forward to their new album.

In the interval between the third and the fourth set we were treated to an impromptu acoustic guitar solo spot by Jimmy Robinson of Woodenhead (whovwere due to play the traditional festival pre-show at a local club, this year extended also to the Saturday evening). Robinson displayed an astonishing mastery of the instrument, his short but intense performance including versions of Led Zeppelin’s classics “Kashmir” and “When the Levee Breaks”. It was a fitting introduction to another dazzling display of guitar fireworks, this time of the electric variety – courtesy of Mörglbl, introduced by one of the festival’s elder statesmen, Paul Sears of The Muffins. A classic power trio in which Christophe Godin’s scintillating guitar is supported by the hyper-dynamic rhythm section of Ivan Rougny and Aurélien Ouzoulias, the French outfit have often been tagged as jazz-metal, and, while the metal element is an unmistakable component, there is a lot more to their music than just ultra-technical noodling. While listening to their set (in spite of my extreme physical weariness) I could hear a lot of different influences in Mörglbl’s sound, such as funk, blues, Latin music and reggae, besides the obvious rock matrix. Technically awesome and very tight from a compositional point of view, their set was highly energetic, heavy but consistently fluid and never jarring, and, above all, extremely entertaining. With his shaved head, distinctive white goatee and fluorescent yellow guitar, Godin is a consummate frontman, throwing all sorts of funny shapes during his solos, his warm, amusing on-stage banter delivered in excellent English. The band are known for concluding their shows with covers of rock classics reinterpreted in their own inimitable style, and this time was no exception – their  lounge-jazz version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” (the only number featuring Godin’s excellent vocals) was one of the most hilarious moments of the weekend.

After a good night’s sleep, on Sunday morning we felt ready to face another day of great music, and this time the weather was definitely more helpful, with lower humidity levels and a nice breeze making things more comfortable. And a good thing it was, because the second day of the festival promised a lot of intensity, and the audience had better be in their best shape to fully enjoy what was on the musical menu. Opening act Zevious also belonged to the group of bands I had had the pleasure of reviewing in the past two years or so, and I had found their second album, After the Air Raid, one of the most impressive releases of 2009. A power trio based in New York, unlike Mörglbl they projected a rather serious image, in spite of their youth, and proceeded to deliver a set of astounding complexity, chock full of asymmetrical rhythm patterns overlaid by Mike Eber’s clear, piercing guitar, and propelled by Jeff Eber’s monstrous drumming. While not too high on melody, the band’s music never once descended into mere dissonance, and the sheer amount of sound produced by a trio of musicians employing very basic instrumentation was nothing short of astonishing.  The unceasing flow of dynamic bottom end provided by Johnny DeBlase’s Fender Jazz bass complemented Jeff Eber’s unbelievable polyrhythms, delivered with effortless simplicity, without the antics that might have been expected from such a gifted drummer. As good as they sounded on CD, Zevious’ music acquired a new dimension on stage, and, when fully unleashed, the band sounded like King Crimson  to the power of 3 – despite the “math-rock” or “RIO/Avant” tags so often (and awkwardly) stuck onto them. They are clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, and, although incredibly nice offstage,  they were not as communicative towards the audience as most of the other bands – hence my use of the term “serious” at the beginning of the paragraph. Their music, however, speaks for itself, and they have all the time in the world to hone their stagecraft.

Those who, like me, were sitting under the pavilion during Zevious’s set had the opportunity to watch the members of Persephone’s Dream set up their gear on one side of the stage. Though I was not familiar with the Pittsburgh-based outfit’s music prior to the festival, I had read enthusiastic accounts of their latest album, Pan: An Urban Pastoral, released in 2010 – which I knew the band were going to perform in its entirety for the very first time. I anticipated a treat when I saw the incredibly elaborate array of percussion instruments being carefully arranged on the lawn, including a gong and bells and chimes of every description. And, indeed, a treat it was, both musically and visually, even if – as can be expected – the show suffered a bit from being squeezed on a relatively small stage without the use of lightning and the appropriate backdrop trappings. The band, a seven-piece, might have used a little more space, especially the two female vocalists, Josie Crooks (a really beautiful voice, powerful yet melodic) and Leah Martell (who twirled and danced all over the place), who had to change costumes, chase each other and run up and down the stage for most of the set. However, Persephone’s Dream pulled it off superbly. Though by far the most conventionally “prog” of the bands on this year’s bill, they were anything than the kind of derivative, snooze-inducing neo/symphonic fare that sends some fans into fits of ecstasy – as a matter of fact, their sound was quite heavy at times, with Jim Waugaman’s powerful keyboard excursions almost out of ELP’s heyday,  accented by John “JT” Tallent’s brilliant percussion work (which has elicited comparisons with Jamie Muir of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic fame). The “urban pastoral” setting – reminiscent in some ways of Peter Gabriel’s vision in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – was also imbued with genuinely menacing overtones, offset by pauses of quiet and gentle birdsong. The dramatic, larger-than-life music had more than a whiff of Italian prog to it – as well as nods to Celtic folklore and even early 20th-century classical music – and the band as a whole sounded more European than American. While those festival attendees who favour the more left-field stuff assessed the band’s performance rather harshly for being a collection of all the worst prog clichés – such as the mythological inspiration and the over-the-top instrumentation (in stark contrast to the minimalistic approach of bands like Zevious or Mörglbl), Persephone’s Dream’s set had an often mesmerizing quality, their music obviously tailor-made for the live dimension.

When people were still in a relaxed mood, following lunch and the consumption of quite a few excellent beers (which, unfortunately, I could not enjoy because, for me, heat and alcohol do not mix well), German quintet Panzerballett, ontheir first US visit, took the stage, and woke everyone up with their unique brand of “wellness death jazz” (I kid you not). In the seven years since their inception, the young but extremely proficient outfit have already earned a fearsome reputation among lovers of the more experimental branches of progressive rock for their highly energetic brand of avant-garde, metal-tinged jazz-rock served with liberal helpings of humour – debunking the commonly held myth of the dour, humourless Germans. Some of the song titles alone were worth the price of admission – “A Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”, anyone? The on-stage banter of guitarist Jan Zehrfeld (whose English may not have been as fluent as Christophe Godin’s, but still effective in interacting with the audience) was delivered in quiet, polite tones that contrasted with the manic urgency of the music – unabashedly eclectic, cramming a lot of diverse influences in the space of a single number, and spiced with a healthy pinch of irreverence. Nothing is safe from Panzerballett’s imaginative reinterpretations (or rather deconstructions) – the love theme from Dirty Dancing, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (rechristened “Fake Five”, and played simultaneously in two different tempos), Weather Report’s “Birdland”, all got the Panzerballett treatment, to the audience’s delight. As in the case of Zevious, their music is clearly not for the faint-hearted or those who crave melody and catchy hooks, but their enthusiasm is infectious, and you have to admire a band that proudly claims to improvise every time they are on stage, dispensing with setlists. Though all of the band members were brilliant, powerhouse drummer Sebastian Lanser deserves a particular mention for his unflagging energy and perfect time-keeping.

After such an exhilarating performance, as the evening drew near and the temperature cooled down, the audience was well stoked for headliners Freak Kitchen – currently touring the US as Mörglbl’s opening act, and drafted in at the very last moment after Quantum Fantay’s cancellation (due to airline woes following in the wake of Hurricane Irene). Though I was not familiar with their music, what I had read around the Internet had whetted my curiosity, and I realized that we were in for a pyrotechnic conclusion. Yet another power trio, active since 1992, with seven albums under their belt, the band consists of a guitarist (Mattias Eklundh, aka The Axemaster of Sweden) and drummer (Björn Fryklund) that embody the Scandinavian archetype of tall, lean frames and flowing blonde manes, and a bassist (Christer Ortefors) that was a sight to behold, with his heavily tattooed arms, braided beard, combat helmet and low-slung bass in pure Lemmy style. All in all, Freak Kitchen are the opposite of every prog stereotype, looking (and sounding) like an Eighties thrash metal band with progressive undertones. Extremely gifted in a technical sense, they wrapped up the festival with a bang, combining sheer heaviness with plenty of infectious hooks and a bit of a funky swagger, whipping the crowd to a frenzy, getting the notoriously staid prog fans to get up and dance, headbang and sing along in a cathartic explosion of pure fun. With song titles as wacky as “Teargas Jazz”  and “Chest Pain Waltz” (one of the highlights of their set), and influences ranging from Megadeth and Metallica to King’s X and Living Colour with a sprinkling of punk rawness (mostly evident in the vocals), they have a commanding frontman in the soft-spoken Eklundh, who treated the audience to a constant stream of funny quips and anecdotes (like the one about the vibrating dildo belt), and poking gentle fun at the average progger’s obsession with odd time signatures. A memorable ending to ProgDay 2011, even though purists would have been positively horrified.

Although the lovely bucolic setting and general laid-back vibe, reminiscent of a family picnic complete with children, games and dogs, might lead outside observers not to take ProgDay too seriously in musical terms, the consistently high quality of the lineups assembled by the organizers throughout the years gives the lie to this impression. The members of the band selection committee are to be commended for their forward-thinking attitude, which allows attendees to sample a broad range of the many subgenres to be found under the welcoming “prog” umbrella, always striking a perfect balance between accessibility and cutting-edge potential. Unfortunately, it is also true that ProgDay can get away with having a full-fledged metal act as a headliner only because it is basically perceived as not quite as prestigious as the indoor festivals. The cancellation of NEARfest 2011 proved all too clearly the danger of overestimating the open-mindedness of prog fans, and booking anything with dubious prog status can be the kiss of death for even the highest-profile event. However, in spite of the overall lack of support from the US prog community, ProgDay soldiers on, thanks to the help (financial and otherwise) of a core of loyal patrons, and getting better and better with time, as demonstrated by this year’s stellar lineup. This past weekend, on the stage at Storybook Farm, I saw the future of progressive rock – a future that may not look like the Seventies bands that are still widely worshipped, but that is surely every bit as exciting and musically worthwhile. It is up to us to let it prosper, or kill it slowly but inexorably with our obsession with the past.

At the end of my review, I wish to thank everyone involved in the success of ProgDay 2011 – first and foremost the organizers, the band selection committee and all the volunteers (a particularly big thumbs-up for providing a “quiet room” for the numerous prog ladies present at Storybook Farm). Then, as usual, a shout out to all the great people that made our weekend special: the collective members of Fibonacci Sequence, The Tea Club, The Rebel Wheel, Mörglbl and Zevious, John Tennant of Persephone’s Dream, ProgDay founder (and purveyor of musical goodies) Peter Renfro, Michael McCormack, Alan and Amy Benjamin, Helaine Carson Burch, Debi Byrd, Lew Fisher, Doug Hinson, Michael Bennett, Jeff Wilson, Paul and Debbie Sears, Mike Visaggio of Kinetic Element, Rick Dashiell, Eyal Amir – and, last but not least, our dear friends Michael Inman and Djalma Carvalho. Here’s to ProgDay 2012, and many more years of great music!

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