Theme from Top Gun
Harvest Aorta Part I
Winter Has No Mercy
Harvest Aorta Part II
Whosit, Whatsit & Witch
Make Way for the Big Show
The Long Road
The Seduction of Harold Lauder
As I announced a couple of months ago, the DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR) has organized two shows at the Orion Studios in Baltimore to raise funds for its activity, which hinges on the promotion of progressive music in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the US. The first of the two events, scheduled for November 3, 2012, was to have been a triple bill, featuring New Jersey bands Shadow Circus and 3RDegree, as well as Northern Virginia’s finest, Ephemeral Sun. Unfortunately, 3RDegree had to pull out due to conflicts between their professional and family lives and the inevitable need for rehearsals, but the show went ahead as a double bill.
While the presence of 3RDegree would have made the show an even bigger draw, the two bands treated the audience to excellent performances, which highlighted both the differences and the similarities in their approach. In spite of its fundraising status, the gig was sparsely attended (which is the rule rather than the exception, unless the bill features a foreign band or one of the few domestic acts with a relatively strong following), but the 30-odd people who turned out more than made up with their obvious enthusiasm. Although some technical problems occurred during the soundcheck, the actual performances were characterized by outstanding sound quality (thanks to Mike Potter’s tireless work), which brought out each of the band’s strengths and detailed every instrument’s contribution.
As I pointed out in my review of ProgDay 2012, Ephemeral Sun’s music is more suited to the dark than the light, and the dimly lit setting of the Orion Studios enhanced the rivetingly cinematic quality of their music. After the turmoil of the past years, the band have now found a stability that is clearly reflected in the synergy between the four members, whose individual input is equally essential in the fabric of he sound. The pulsating power of Charles Gore and Jeff Malone’s rhythm section unfolds a rock-solid, yet subtly shifting foundation for Brian O’Neill’s sharp yet elegant guitar exertions and John Battema’s dramatic layers of keyboards. Ephemeral Sun treated the audience to a mix of older material (such as the metal-edged “Winter Has No Mercy” from their debut album Broken Door) and more recent offerings, such as the majestic “Harvest Aorta” suite (split in two halves) from their eponymous second album, and a couple of new compositions still without an official title – as well as a rousing version of Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic theme from Top Gun at the very opening of their set.
The quartet’s collective performance was flawless as usual, their music deploying all of its powerful emotional punch in the small, intimate premises. One of the most striking elements of Saturday night’s show was the band members’ impressive handling of the frequent tempo shifts in their generally lengthy compositions, keeping an eye on internal coherence so that the music flowed effortlessly without ever coming across as patchy. And then, the passage in which Battema let rip on the organ in true Emerson fashion was alone worth the price of admission. All in all, Ephemeral Sun seem to be going from strength to strength, and their new material sounds extremely promising – even if it will be some time before their new album finally sees the light of day.
With a name inspired by the traveling carnival in Ray Bradbury’s iconic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Shadow Circus’ theatrical streak comes as no surprise, and makes good use of frontman David Bobick’s degree in musical theatre. The band’s founders, Bobick and guitarist John Fontana, are also fans of fantasy, science fiction and horror, and this interest is reflected in the subject matter of the majority of their songs. Saturday night’s show offered Shadow Circus the opportunity to showcase some of the material (no less than 7 songs) from their forthcoming third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night, which will be released on 10T Records in early December. Shadow Circus had played at the Orion almost exactly 2 years ago, opening for Italian band The Watch, though with a different line-up. The band’s new configuration – comprising, besides mainstays Fontana and Bobick, original bassist Matt Masek, keyboardist David Silver and drummer Jason Brower, augmented by backing vocalist Paroo Streich – blazed through new and older material with assurance and flair, displaying chops and heart in equal measure.
Although all of the band members cite progressive rock as their main source of inspiration, Shadow Circus’s music is also deeply rooted in classic and hard rock, and the influence of the likes of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Led Zeppelin is unmistakable. As is the case with Ephemeral Sun, keyboards play a very prominent in Shadow Circus’ sound. With his impassive mien and slight frame, David Silver proved an essential foil for Fontana’s guitar, his love of Keith Emerson evident throughout the set, especially in the fiery Hammond runs that enhanced stunning instrumentals such as “Overture” and “Tesseract”; indeed, the latter may easily be the best thing that the band has ever recorded. he dramatic intensity of the instrumentals was balanced by the catchy quality of the songs featuring David Bobick’s expressive vocal delivery and flamboyant stage presence, with Paroo Streich’s backing vocals providing a pleasing contrast. The rhythm section of Matt Masek and Jason Brower anchored the sound with power and style, the two musicians complementing each other perfectly. Always attentive to the visual aspect of their performance, the band members were all decked in black with a touch of red (a special mention for Bobick’s beard and the large red flower sported by Streich, who also provided a bit of eye candy for the predominantly male audience), and also employed a few stage props to enhance the impact of their music with a quirky theatrical touch thankfully devoid of cheesiness.
By way of a conclusion, I have to admit that I found the not exactly stellar turnout quite depressing, especially on a weekend night. Even if the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the north-eastern corridor cannot be discounted, neither can the well-known apathy of many of those who think supporting progressive rock means getting embroiled in pointless discussions on some Internet forum. While modern technology offers almost any band or solo artist the possibility to record and release their own material with relatively little expense, it has also emphasized the lack of quality control of many such projects. Therefore, live performance has increasing become the benchmark by which to judge a band’s real worth. However, the diminishing opportunities – compounded by the cliquish mentality of a large part of the already fragmented prog audience –will probably to lead to the demise of many a fine outfit, discouraged and frustrated by the lack of support. It is immensely sad to see such gifted musicians grateful for the opportunity to play before a handful of people.
This situation has also impacted my own enthusiasm for writing about music, There is only so much that a reviewer/critic can do to support the scene, when it is the fans themselves who seem to be hell-bent on destroying the motivation of artists who already face considerable struggles in getting their music across in an oversaturated market while dealing with the demands of real life. As much as I like to listen to music at home, nothing beats the experience of a live show, and it will be a sad day when only big (i.e. commercially successful) names will be able to perform on stage.