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Archive for November, 2011

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.

Links:
http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

http://bkrstk.com/alec-k-redfearn-and-the-eyesores/

http://www.myspace.com/upsilonacrux

http://www.myspace.com/afuche

http://zevious.com/

http://www.generalrubric.com/hamster/main.html

http://www.generalrubric.com/thinkingplague/main.html

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Rome (14:11):
I. Prologue
II. Back To The Future (Part 1)
III. The Sands of Time (Part 1)
IV. The Final Word
V. Playing With Fire
2.  Fly (6:47)
3. Carpe Diem (5:47)
4. Vikings (17:28)
I.  Lindisfarne Abbey 793 AD.
II.Mercia 877 AD
III.Along The Fjords
IV.A Price To Pray
5. Epiphany (5:54)
6. Egypt (23:52):
I.  The Sands of Time
II. The End and The Beginning
III. Along The Nile
IV. Back To The Future
V.  The Sands of Time (Reprise)

LINEUP:
Barry Thompson- guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, lyrics (5)
George Andrade – lyrics, arrangements
Ryo Okumoto – keyboards, arrangements
Per Fredrik “Pellek” Åsly – lead vocals

With
:
Gerald “Mully” Mulligan – drums
Gordon Tittsworth –  lead vocals (5), backing vocals
Plini – lead guitar (1, 4, 5)
Brian Hong – violin (1, 5)
Lee Abraham – bass guitar (2, 3)
Jeroen Hendrix – keyboards (2, 3)
Brick Williams – lead guitar (3)
Christopher James Harrison – lead guitar  (4)
Stefan Artwin  – lead guitar (6)
Josh Sager – lead guitar (6)
Mark Higgins, Nicolette Collard-Andrade, Hannah Andrade, Taylor Andrade, George Andrade – spoken words

In spite of my long-standing relationship with progressive rock, I have never been a huge proponent of concept albums or rock operas. With few exceptions, these ventures are often underwhelming, resulting in overambitious pastiches that do no favours to the career or reputation of any act. For this and other reasons, I could not help approaching The Anabasis’ debut album, Back From Being Gone, with a feeling of trepidation.

Born in 2009 from the collaboration (and personal friendship) between two New England residents – multi-instrumentalist and composer Barry Thompson and professional writer George Andrade – The Anabasis is a project that was conducted and developed almost completely over the Internet. Though neither Thompson nor Andrade may be household names for the majority of prog fans, their extensive network of contacts on the international scene has helped them to gather a sterling team for the realization of their debut album. While the presence of keyboardist extraordinaire Ryo Okumoto (of Spock’s Beard and K2 fame) – as well as the support of 10T Records, one of the leading independent labels on the current scene –  is the most likely to attract the average prog fan, the other musicians on board are all equally talented, though perhaps not as well-known.

The Anabasis’ very name rings familiar to those who, like me and many of my contemporaries, have got years of classical studies under their belt. Meaning “advance”, it is mostly known as the title of Greek historian Xenophon’s most renowned work, concerning the feats of Persian prince Cyrus the Younger  and his army of ten thousand Greek mercenaries. Though Back From Being Gone bears no direct relation to Xenophon’s work, the connection with ancient history is very much in evidence on the album –right from the lush imagery contained in the stylish, very thorough booklet. The artwork superimposes Roman architecture and sculpture, Egyptian pyramids and Viking swords with computers and other trappings of modernity, and the striking cover suggests that our own very advanced civilization may soon go the same way as its predecessors.

The whole album, indeed, is a reflection on modern society and the legacy of the past, with its seemingly endless cycles of ascent, decline and fall – closely intertwined with an intensely personal story of fall and redemption. The six songs are split between three historically-themed epics and three shorter numbers based on the main character’s individual journey. Although such a concept might have turned out into a terminally cheesy, contrived mess, it radiates instead a palpable sense of  genuine emotion that characterizes a true labour of love, but all too often eludes undertakings of a similar nature

For an album entirely recorded over the Internet, Back From Being Gone is a surprisingly cohesive, organic-sounding effort. While the three epics follow very much the traditional, multi-part template, employing a recurring leitmotiv (both musical and lyrical) to emphasize the fil rouge running through them, the three free-standing songs, though obviously connected by topic, are quite distinct from each other in musical terms. “Fly”, with its sprightly, dance-like pace and bright guitar/synth alternation, is followed by the melodic yet riff-heavy texture of “Carpe Diem”; while the dramatic “Epiphany” veers sharply into metal territory, propelled by Gerald Mulligan’s acrobatic drumming and slashed by sharp guitar and whistling synth, Gordon Tittsworth’s ominous growl providing a perfect foil to Pellek Åsly’s melodic, well-modulated high tenor.

At 14 minutes, “Rome” is the shortest of the epic pieces, and also the most cohesive, with a haunting, Middle Eastern-influenced theme developed slowly but steadily by violin, guitar and Okumoto’s tapestry of keyboards – including the unmistakable rumble of the Hammond organ. A series of quotes from ancient and modern historical characters (from Julius Caesar to George W. Bush) anchor the lyrical content to present times, providing ample food for thought; the grandiosity of the piece, appropriate to its topic, never descends into mere pretentiousness, and the instrumental interplay always keeps melody at the forefront. “Vikings”, introduced by Gregorian chant and a narrating voice, takes on a darker, more aggressive tone – culminating with a dramatized account of the attack on a village in Mercia underscored by tense, cinematic riffs and crashing drums. Guest guitarists Plini and Christopher James Harrison contribute blistering fretwork, complementing Pellek’s passionate vocal performance. “Egypt”., at almost 24 minutes, is the longest and most ambitious number on the album, and, in my view, also the one that would have benefited from some editing (especially as regards the last part, catchy and upbeat but also a bit run-of-the-mill). Not surprisingly, it reprises the Eastern influences of “Rome”, though in a heavier key, with plenty of riffing and dramatic tempo changes; guest guitarists Josh Sager and Stefan Artwin (of German outfit Relocator) provide solos that range from shreddy, almost discordant to slow and melodic, with echoes of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

Clocking in at about 74 minutes, Back From Being Gone is a long album, even for today’s standards. As clearly illustrated in the previous paragraphs, it also possesses a solidly traditional vibe that might put off those looking for more left-field listening material. It is, however, a lovingly-crafted effort, full of genuine warmth and enthusiasm, as well as outstanding musicianship – and a cut above the rest in terms of lyrical content, which is genuinely thought-provoking and accurately researched without being overly pretentious. Even if I am generally oriented towards more challenging stuff, I found Back From Being Gone a very enjoyable listen, and I cannot but applaud the effort and vision behind it. It is a pity that we will probably never be able to see this work performed on stage… Then again, who knows?

Links:
http://www.theanabasisproject.com/Home.aspx

http://10trecords.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bogus (7:41)
2. Dead Man Walking (6:26)
3. De Rerum Natura (7:42)
4. Follow the Weaver (7:49)
5. Ride the Owl (4:26)
6. Avoid Feelings (6:40)
7. That Night (7:04)
8. Ultraworld (9:45)

LINEUP:
Barbara Rubin – vocals
Francesco Salvadeo – guitars
Giordano Mattiuzzo – bass
Lorenzo Marcenaro – keyboards
Claudio Cavalli – drums

Hailing from Alessandria, in north-western Italy, Loreweaver began their career in 2008, when vocalist Barbara Rubin (a classically-trained violinist) joined  a quartet of musicians that had been playing together for some time – guitarist Francesco Salvadeo, keyboardist Lorenzo Marcenaro, bassist Giordano Mattiuzzo and drummer Andrea Mazza (later replaced by Claudio Cavalli). Imperviae Auditiones (which in English sounds more or less like “difficult listening”) their recording debut, was first released in 2009 by the band themselves; then, in the spring of 2011, after Loreweaver got signed by SG Records (an Italian label specializing in heavy metal, punk and alternative rock), the album finally got an official release.

As my readers may know, I am not a fan of progressive metal, and most of my contacts with this subgenre have been through reviewing rather than personal choice. In particular, anything that might remind me of subgenre icons Dream Theater leaves me quite cold. However, I also pride myself on being as objective as possible, and, even if an album may not be my listening material of choice, I make a point of giving quality its due  – and Loreweaver’s debut, in spite of the almost inevitable rough edges, is quite a remarkable effort.

While Italy is home to an impressive number of progressive metal bands, the genre is somehow perceived as “foreign”, and not only on account of the widespread practice of using English for both lyrics and band names. In the Eighties, a few Italian metal bands adopted their native language, but nowadays this trend seems to have faded almost completely. The choice of English is undoubtedly crucial for all those bands that want to travel outside their home country and make a name for themselves on the international market (as fellow Italians Lacuna Coil did with unqualified success). This strategy certainly helped Loreweaver, whose appearance at the 2011 edition of the Fused Festival in Lydney (UK) drew a lot of attention to this distinctive version of a female-fronted prog-metal band.

Indeed, Loreweaver’s ace in the hole, the single factor that prevents them from sounding just like another of the many Dream Theater disciples, is the presence of Barbara Rubin behind the microphone. My first contact with her came in 2009, when I reviewed her debut solo album, Under the Ice, and was impressed by her voice, a warm, self-assured contralto with enough versatility to tackle both out-and-out rockers and gentler, more intimate pieces. On a music scene overrun with pseudo-operatic wailers or cloyingly sweet, cutesy sopranos, Barbara’s clear, powerful pipes sound refreshingly different – as does her avoidance of either femme-fatale or tough-chick affectations. Her classical training has clearly influenced her singing technique, and her voice sounds perfectly in control, negotiating the often wild shifts in tempo and mood typical of the genre in an almost effortless, authoritative manner. Although her voice is unmistakably feminine, her approach is more masculine, steering well clear of mawkishness and saccharine-sweetness even in the  obligatory, piano-infused power ballad That Night. Indeed, Rubin comes across as a heavier version of Janis Joplin or Grace Slick rather than yet another Tarja Turunen clone, decked in corsets and lace.

The songs, all between 6 and almost 10 minutes (with the exception of the lone instrumental Ride the Own, at barely over 4 minutes the shortest track on the album), blend riff-driven heaviness with synth sweeps, eerie electronics and occasional bouts of mellowness provided by piano and acoustic guitar. Bogus kicks off  with a slice of classic of prog-metal, in which the hissing synthesizers and inevitable spots of rapid-fire drumming  receive a welcome injection of remarkably un-cheesy melody from Rubin’s powerful, yet astonishingly controlled vocals. In Dead Man Walking an atmospheric, slightly sinister component prevails, with Rubin’s voice alternately soothing and shouting, and Francesco Salvadeo’s sharp, clear guitar solo drawing things to a close with just a touch of shredding; while De Rerum Natura is grandiosely dramatic, with so many changes to make the average listener’s head spin, veering from doomy slowness to a more upbeat, dance-like pace. Follow the Weaver, on the other hand, seems to take the contrast between melody and aggression to extremes, with an airy, melodic middle section decidedly at odds with the rest of the track. Avoid Feelings has a similar structure, though more nuanced, and lashings of whistling, wheezing sound effects offset by wistful piano. The album is then wrapped up by the sci-fi-tinged epic Ultraworld, complete with ominous recorded voices and strident electronics, and propelled by Rubin’s sensational vocal performance, whose intensity is paralleled by the smooth guitar-keyboard interplay.

Professionally packaged with suitably disturbing artwork, liner notes and lyrics (which are, however, somewhat difficult to read), Imperviae Auditiones does not stray far from the template, of “traditional” progressive metal, either musically or lyrically. However, Barbara Rubin’s vocals are enough to make a difference, and attract the interest of those fans of the genre that are a bit weary of run-of-the-mill, Gothic/symphonic bands fronted by the token siren-voiced temptress. Loreweaver are a promising band with the potential to develop an even more personal sound in their future releases.

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

http://www.sgrecords.it

 

 

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After months of speculation and restless waiting, barely a month ago NEARfest’s comeback in 2012 was finally announced. Unfortunately, only a few days later, the enthusiasm of US progressive rock fans was dampened again when the organizers unequivocably stated that the  fittingly- titled NEARfest Apocalypse would signal the end of the festival that for 12 years had occupied a prominent place in the calendar of devotees of all things progressive. On the Internet discussion board that has been providing the main support for the festival since its inception, the organizing committee (now down to 3 members) promised a bash to be remembered in the annals of the international prog community – sparking off thread after thread of suggestions, speculations and the occasional attempt at levity.

On the evening of Saturday, October 29, the eagerly-awaited lineup was officially announced on the Philadelphia-based Gagliarchives online radio station. Having followed the debate, and mulled over the organizers’ outspoken statements about pleasing the crowd with strong headliners – in order to avoid a repeat of this year’s cancellation, as well as cater to expectations about bowing out with a bang – I had few illusions about the lineup, which I expected to be a collection of “classic” bands from the Seventies (those that some of my acquaintances, much less charitably, would call “museum” or “dinosaur” acts) with a handful of newer bands thrown in to appease those with more cutting-edge tastes. Three years of regular contact with the US prog scene have taught me that, for most people, new or obscure bands are a wonderful resource to gain “cool” credentials in online discussions, but this does not extend to supporting their live endeavours, especially as regards festival appearances.

Unfortunately, in spite of the USA’s reputation as a cradle of progress and modernity, prog fans, musically speaking, are by and large a surprisingly conservative bunch. While this may be related to the country’s somewhat marginal status in the “prog explosion” of the Seventies, the way US prog fans seem to cling desperately to the past never fails to unsettle me. There is an obvious disconnect between the vibrant, variegated scene – comprising hundreds of bands of all ages that compose and perform outstanding examples of progressive rock, from symphonic to avant-garde to prog-metal, and have long since overtaken the genre’s cradle, the UK, in terms of quality – and its often hidebound audience. The dismal state of the economy may not have helped, but (as I pointed out in one of the articles I wrote in the aftermath of NEARfest 2011’s cancellation) it has not prevented festivals of every description from springing up all over Europe. In the summer of 2011, my native Italy (despite its well-known economic woes) was teeming with prog festivals that encompassed both “old glories” and modern acts – in some cases allowing seasoned veterans and up-and-coming musicians to share a stage, as in the case of the collaboration between Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair and the excellent jazz-rock outfit Accordo dei Contrari.

Anyway, I was rather taken aback by how the lineup announcement was greeted by the prospective attendees on their discussion board of choice. While the previous days had seen a proliferation of threads containing the inevitable speculations, nostalgia-drenched reminiscences, and the obligatory sniping, on the “day after” the tone of the discussion was oddly subdued. Although there was a measure of gushing praise (including definitions of “dream lineup” and the like), on the whole it felt a bit hollow, as if the enthusiasm was somewhat forced, and – at least judging by the limited number of responses – not too widely shared. Knowing that the 2012 bash will be the last edition of the festival has undoubtedly put a damper on the fans’ enthusiasm, in spite of their attempts to rationalize things and turn NEARfest’s final curtain into a celebration. To make matters worse, the decision to call it quits has resulted in a sort of protracted wake with rather creepy overtones. Life can be sad enough without having to commemorate the passing of something that was dear to us almost a year in advance, wallowing in the expectation of dissolving in tears when the curtain will fall for the last time. While I am all too aware that everything must end, I do not think it is particularly healthy to spend months anticipating something that will ultimately cause sadness.

On any account, I am quite sure that people (though most of them will never admit it) are very much aware that the festival’s demise might have been avoided. I realize that, back in the spring, the organizers were left with little choice but cancel, unless they wanted to risk losing large amounts of their own money; nonetheless, such a traumatic event caused a visible rift in the US prog community, one that may never heal completely. NEARfest’s disappearance will mean the loss of one of the most important showcases for bands old and new, as well as a means for artists to network and sell their music and merchandise. I know for a fact that, in the community of artists, there is widespread resentment against the close-mindedness of those who were supposed to support them, and the splintering of the prog audience into parochial, subgenre-focused events is certainly not going to improve things for anyone looking for gigs. NEARfest’s greatest strength lay in its eclectic nature, and the mere suspicion that this very eclecticism may have contributed to its demise is very sobering.

As to the lineup itself – though my aim here is not to criticize the organizers, who had to deal with the strictures of having to satisfy an audience largely and firmly stuck in the past – it left me more than a tad perplexed, and definitely underwhelmed. Some of the historic Seventies bands that are still active on the live front, such as Yes and Jethro Tull, are too expensive for the organization’s budget, and the same applies to some of the icons of the modern scene, like Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree or Dream Theater. Then, after last spring’s cold shower, the close-mindedness of the prog community as a whole had become quite evident, so it seemed wise to rule out acts with roots in heavy metal or alternative rock; even RIO/Avant bands might be considered a risky choice, bound as they are to appeal to a “fringe”.

However, as aware as I was of the quest for the “big draw”, I found the choice of Sunday headliner particularly puzzling. While Eloy seem to be great favourites with some prominent members of the community, I fail to see how, in the grand scheme of things, they can be seen as less obscure than Curved Air or New Trolls, or more influential for the development of the genre than Van Der Graaf Generator (one of the few “vintage” acts that are still very much relevant nowadays).  On the other hand, Eloy have never performed in the US before, which will make their performance an historic occurrence of sorts, and their European origins make them automatically superior to any homegrown band. Another rather puzzling choice was the inclusion of Gösta Berlings Saga, one of the bands that were on this year’s aborted lineup. In my view, it would have been best to start completely from scratch, as the Swedish band’s inclusion will inevitably feel like a slight to the other bands that were damaged by NEARfest 2011’s sudden cancellation.

Some of my readers might wonder why I am so invested in the matter, and have made the effort of writing some rather extensive opinion pieces. After all, I am not a musician, and – though I have been living in the US for three years – I am not a native of the country, and will probably move away some time in the future. True, I might qualify as a “prog fan”, though I like to see myself rather as a fan of interesting music. However, the main cause lies in my own psychological makeup. I tend to embrace causes that I deem worthy,  even if my personal investment in the matter is not particularly strong. Getting in touch with so many recording artists, and in quite a few cases meeting them personally and forming friendships, has undoubtedly been one of the most rewarding aspects of my move to the US (otherwise somewhat frustrating for a number of reasons). Paralleled by my collaboration as a reviewer with some established websites dedicated to progressive rock, this has given me an insider’s view of the struggles of non-mainstream musicians in this day and age. Being aware of what these talented people often have to endure in order to practice their artistic calling has driven me to champion their cause, and I have no problem in admitting that I would definitely like to do more – like investing some time and money in the organization of even a small-scale event, in spite of not being exactly business-minded.

Indeed, I believe that scaling things back, instead of calling it quits altogether, might have been an alternative worth exploring. Choosing a smaller venue (with consequently lower prices, more affordable for people badly hit by the recession), at least for a couple of years, would have avoided a cancellation that, to all intents of purposes, sounded the festival’s death knell. As for many people the attraction of those events is social as much as musical, they might have appreciated the possibility to hang out with their friends without risking bankruptcy. That would have also allowed the organizers a broader range of choices.

At risk of sounding overly pessimistic, I do not hold much hope for the US prog scene, in spite of the wealth of great bands and artists that go through all sorts of struggles to get their music across. Bluntly put, even the highest-rated modern US-based band may attract 100 people at a venue like the Orion Studios (as witnessed by the Phideaux gig of October 1), but will always be considered second- or third-tier if compared to any foreign band, and certainly not worthy as a festival headliner. The lack of performing opportunities, coupled with people’s apathy, will advantage studio-only projects, and the illegal downloading culture may well do the rest – stunting the amazing revival of progressive music that has been going on for over a decade. Those of us who are in the reviewing “business” in order to help the artists and not just to get music for free may end up feeling (as I do sometimes) that our work is like Sisyphus’ endless, pointless task. Still, I will try to keep a positive outlook, and hope that, after NEARfest 2012 is archived, the US prog community will regroup in order to prevent the scene from dying a slow death. For the time being, I would be satisfied if the NEARfest parable had taught people not to take anything for granted – especially those few things that bring joy into our lives.

Links:
http://www.nearfest.com

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