Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Concert’ Category

1375991_786211718411_1345542378_n

SETLISTS:

Shadow Circus
Overture
Daddy’s Gone
Whosit, Whatsit and Which
Make Way for the Big Show
Tesseract
Uriel
Camazotz
The Battle for Charles Wallace
Willoughby

Edensong
To See But Not Believe
Reunion
Cold City
Water Run
Nocturne
Years in the Garden of Years
In the Longest of Days
The Sixth Day
Beneath the Tide

After the successful outcome of their first festival, just one month ago, the unstoppable NJ Proghouse ‘staph’ have not been resting on their laurels, and have continued in their commendable mission of providing a showcase for the best progressive music at the local, national and international level. With an impressive series of shows already planned for the next few months (and some more yet to be confirmed) the group of passionate music fans based in New Jersey’s Raritan Valley have turned into a force to be reckoned with – especially now that they can count on the quaint yet welcoming premises of Dunellen’s Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse as a regular venue.

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I decided to head north from my Northern Virginia home (though this time on my own) to attend the highly awaited debut of Shadow Circus at the NJ Proghouse, which also coincided with their very first outing with their new lineup. I had last seen the band one year ago at the Orion Studios, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and a few weeks before the official release of their critically acclaimed third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night – a show that had been plagued by a number of technical issues and had seen a less than stellar turnout. Unexpected lineup changes had prevented the band from performing again for quite a long time, in spite of the album’s positive reception. Understandably, this show right on their home turf was of paramount importance for the band led by guitarist John Fontana and vocalist David Bobick. For the occasion, they had teamed up with another local band, Edensong (who had performed at ProgDay 2009) – a very interesting pairing, seen as the two outfits’ approach to progressive rock is at the same time similar and different.

It felt oddly comforting to be back at Roxy and Dukes after a month that, for me, had been fraught with stressful events. The low-ceilinged, dimly lit interior of the venue, with its endearingly kitschy décor, looked much roomier with the tables arranged in groups of two or three  rather than in long rows, making it easier for people to move around. The turnout was not too bad for a late Sunday afternoon, and there were quite a few familiar faces among the audience. Indeed, the  Proghouse ‘staph’, together with the Roxy and Dukes staff, have created a warm, friendly ambiance for both performers and attendees, so that every show feels like a house party that invites people to linger rather than depart abruptly when the music is over.

Shadow Circus had been announced as performing their latest album in its entirety – which turned out to not to be strictly true, as the lovely, ethereal “Ixchel” was omitted for technical reasons (i.e. the lack of a female backup vocalist). However, the album’s overall impact was not lessened in the least, and the band’s two newest members – bassist Chris Valentine and drummer Campbell Youngblood-Petersen – looked perfectly at ease, projecting enthusiasm and self-confidence  as well as showing considerable skill with their respective instruments.

Decked in black as usual – with only keyboardist David Silver’s snazzy jacket’s bright red lapels adding a touch of colour – Shadow Circus delivered an energetic performance, deploying all the theatrical flair of their material and their trademark blend of classic symphonic prog and hard rock, powerful yet melodic and accessible. John Fontana – looking highly concentrated and just a bit tense – cranked out riffs and blistering solos on his trusty blue axe, while Silver’s impassive mien belied the exuberance of his Emerson-inspired keyboard runs (and that in spite of a few technical glitches). Sporting a purple-dyed beard and round mirrored shades, his microphone decorated with a large silver cross in pure Black Sabbath style, David Bobick handled his master-of-ceremonies duties with consummate ease. He introduced the album’s back story as soon as he appeared on stage at the end of the grandiose instrumental “Overture”, then put his theatrical training to good use while belting out the songs with gusto. The band wrapped up their set with one of their undisputed crowd-pleasers, “Willoughby”, which got the audience to sing along to the infectious chorus.

Originally formed in 2002 by guitarist/composer James Byron Schoen when attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Edensong have been through a myriad of lineup changes before and after the release of their full-length debut, The Fruit Fallen (2008), which included songs dating back from the early days of the band. Though not exactly prolific, they are very eclectic in their approach, blending classic prog with a host of other influences ranging from Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel to modern progressive metal. This eclecticism was amply displayed on the Roxy and Dukes stage, where Edensong proved that they are not just a heavier version of Jethro Tull (as some have labeled them). Obviously, the prominent role of the flute – used as a lead instrument as much as the guitar or the keyboards – will elicit comparisons with Ian Anderson’s crew, but Edensong’s music also possesses a keen contemporary edge  and an intriguingly dark, mysterious vibe.

Though I was somewhat tired when they got on stage, I could not help admiring the dramatic intensity of their sound (albeit with a strong undercurrent of melody) and their impressive stage presence. The youthful quintet’s bohemian appearance, which reminded me a bit of The Tea Club, intensified the music’s emotional impact.  Bare-chested flutist Barry Seroff very physical approach to his instrument matched the engaging antics of bassist TD Towers (a dead ringer for a young Ian Anderson, clothes included), and keyboardist Stefan Paolini drew the eye with his bright red pants. Drummer Tony Waldman kept up with Towers’ unflagging energy, while James Byron Schoen himself, though more sedate in demeanor, cut a striking figure with his red beard, jaunty hat and Steven Wilson-like bare feet. While his voice may be a bit of an acquired taste, I found it fit the music really well, and his edgy yet melodic guitar playing was not at all affected by this double duty. The band performed a selection of songs from The Fruit Fallen and their 2010 EP Echoes of Edensong, plus three songs (“Cold City”, “Years in the Garden of Years” and “In the Longest of Days”) from their forthcoming new album, which will be based on the concept of time.

As usual, attendance could have been higher, especially considering that the show ended no later than 9.15 p.m. Unfortunately, it seems that any band who does not feature attractive young women or members of prog’s old guard will have to be content with drawing no more than 50 people. On the other hand, it was heartening to see two bands sharing the stage on equal footing (no headliners and openers, and the same time allotted to both) and obviously admiring and supporting each other’s work. This was my fourth time seeing Shadow Circus perform live, and I am glad to say that the band has grown both in self-assurance and musical stature. As for Edensong, I will be looking forward to their new album, and hope to see them again on stage soon. On the whole, the evening was definitely worth the trip, and my only regret is that Roxy and Dukes is not closer to our home.

Links:
http://www.njproghouse.com

Read Full Post »

TLDtourGalgano

SETLISTS:

IZZ Quad
Late Night Salvation
This Is How It Happens
Long Distance Runaround/The Fish
Lucky for Me
Celtic Cross
Breathless
Never Remember
House
Rose-Colored Lenses
John Galgano’s Solo Spot
Paul Bremner’s Solo Spot
Three of a Perfect Pair
Light From Your Eyes
23 Minutes

3RDegree
Cautionary Tale
Top Secret
Televised
Apophenia
You’re Fooling Yourselves
Free For All
Memetic Pandemic
The Socio-Economic Petri Dish
Incoherent Ramblings
Leave This Place Forever
Human Interest Story

After a rather barren winter season concert-wise, the evening of Saturday, May 18 saw us back at the Orion Studios for a show that we had been expecting ever since 3RDegree cancelled their participation in the DC-SOAR fundraiser back in November 2012. With guitarist Patrick Kliesch, one of their founding members, currently living on the West Coast, the New Jersey band needed to find a second guitarist to complete their melodic yet powerful sound, Though it took some time before guitarist Bryan Zeigler joined the fold, in the early spring of 2013 3RDegree were finally ready to embark on a four-date tour that saw them return to the Baltimore/DC area after a three-year absence.

Robert James Pashman

Robert James Pashman

Though some bad luck kept dogging the band when co-headliners Oblivion Sun had to pull out of the NJ Proghouse and Orion dates due to Frank Wyatt’s wrist injury, they soldiered on and managed to make things happen – much to the delight of those who had enjoyed their critically acclaimed 2012 album, The Long Division. Thankfully, a scaled-down version of celebrated New York outfit IZZ (rechristened for the occasion “IZZ Quad” to emphasize their quartet formation), led by multi-instrumentalist/songwriter John Galgano, stepped in to fill the void, allowing those who, like myself, had missed the complete lineup’s show in October 2012, to enjoy the music of one of the most talented modern prog bands in the US and beyond.

481597_571424586222338_485901925_n

John Galgano

Without co-founder Tom Galgano and percussionist Greg DiMiceli, and former band member Laura Meade (who is also John Galgano’s wife) replacing vocalist Anmarie Byrnes, IZZ Quad concentrated on acoustic or otherwise subdued pieces rather than full-fledged epics, highlighting their impressive songwriting skills though keeping an eye on the instrumental component. Their setlist also included a number of classic prog covers, the first of which in particular elicited the audience’s approval. Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround” came with Chris Squire’s iconic bass solo piece, “The Fish”, tacked at the end just like in the original recorded version – though with Paul Bremner’s guitar replacing some of the multi-tracked bass lines; while King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” was softened by Laura Meade’s melodious vocals (reminiscent of Phideaux’ Valerie Gracious), quite different from Adrian Belew’s rather idiosyncratic tones. The highlight of the set, however, came in the shape of  “House”, Marillion’s somewhat obscure foray into trip-hop, with Meade’s hauntingly intimate interpretation bringing to mind Tori Amos or even Joni Mitchell.

Laura Meade

Laura Meade

As Galgano jokingly pointed out, referring to the quartet’s initial handle of “IZZ Lite”, there was nothing “lite” about IZZ Quad’s performance, which married melody and accessibility with full-blown prog modes, highlighting each of the members’ considerable talent. Paul “Brems” Bremner’s boisterous “Celtic Cross” and John Galgano’s low-key existentialist musings in “1000”, followed by an exhilarating piano rendition of ELP’s “Eruption”, complemented some of the band’s classic songs, such as opener “Late Night Salvation”. For a near-newcomer such as myself, the IZZ Quad set was an excellent introduction to the band. The quality of the playing was consistently outstanding, with Galgano handling acoustic guitar and keyboards as well as his striking black-and-silver bass, Bremner contributing crystal-clear, elegantly atmospheric guitar parts, and drummer Brian Coralian laying down a subtle, jazz-inflected backbeat. The band also demonstrated their unusually tight songwriting skills, effortlessly shifting from full-blown progressive workouts to mellow pieces in a singer-songwriter vein.

Paul Bremner

Paul Bremner

My first and only experience of 3RDegree on stage had been in the late spring of 2009, when they had performed at a DC-SOAR sponsored gig at Vienna’s Jammin’ Java together with local outfits Brave and Ephemeral Sun. Their third album, Narrow-Caster, had been released the previous year, marking the band’s comeback after a lengthy hiatus. Though I had found their set very enjoyable at the time, the band I saw on stage at the Orion had definitely grown in stature in the past three years. The Long Division had made many reviewers’ personal “best of 2012” lists (including mine), but sometimes there can be a disconnect between what is committed to record and a band’s actual stage-worthiness. 3RDegree, however, are perfectionists, and would have never undertaken a tour without being 100% confident of being able to deliver the goods. With a solid foundation in terms of material, and countless rehearsal sessions to ensure that everything was fine-tuned, the band treated the rather sparse audience to a blistering set that, while drawing mostly upon The Long Division, also found room for their previous albums.

Eric Pseja

Eric Pseja

While 3RDegree have always proudly proclaimed their allegiance to the prog rock ethic, their take on the genre is a very individual one, firmly rooted in the traditional song form rather than focused on the production of instrumental fireworks. Indeed, George Dobbs’ powerful, versatile voice is the engine that drives the 3RDegree machine. Sitting behind his keyboard rig (decorated for the occasion with an elaborate sporting the colours of the US flag), the band’s very own “mad scientist” bounced and gestured with almost manic energy, shaking his distinctive mane of hair and tearing through the songs with a style that owed more to Stevie Wonder or Glenn Hughes than Jon Anderson, assisted by the smoothly flowing vocal harmonies contributed by his bandmates.

George Dobbs

George Dobbs

The twin-axe attack of Eric Pseja and Bryan Zeigler added a keen hard rock edge, while Robert James Pashman’s nimble, pulsating bass lines and Aaron Nobel’s dynamic drumming often took a funky direction that evoked shades of Trapeze or King’s X. In a top-notch setlist that included the impossibly catchy yet thought-provoking “You’re Fooling Yourselves” (“#7 in North Korea!”), the barnstorming “Apophenia” and “Top Secret” (both showcases for Dobbs’ impassioned vocals) and the wistful mini-epic “Memetic Pandemic”, the bluesy, Deep Purple-meets-Steely Dan swagger of “The Socio-Economic Petri Dish” summed up 3RDegree’s unique brand of 21st century art rock: music that makes you think, but at the same time makes you want to sing along, liberally seasoned with a healthy dose of humour. In particular, new guy Bryan Zeigler’s infectious enthusiasm – culminating in a hilarious cowbell-wielding turn in “Incoherent Ramblings” – was a welcome addition to the band’s stage presence.

Bryan Zeigler

Bryan Zeigler

As my readers will probably guess, the only downside of the evening was the rather poor turnout: no more than 30 people altogether, and that on a Saturday evening. In a perfect world, both bands would be superstars and sell CDs by the truckload – not to mention perform before a crowd as large as the one drawn by Steven Wilson only one month ago. Unfortunately, many so-called prog fans prefer to pay lip service to the genre on Internet discussion boards rather than go out and attend a show – even when the price is a mere $15. In any case, those who bothered to turn out enjoyed an evening of stellar progressive rock by two bands with outstanding songwriting skills (something that has become increasingly rare) and enough instrumental flair to please the most demanding fans. I, for one, hope to have the opportunity to see both IZZ and 3RDegree again very soon.  Finally, a big thank you to  Helaine Carson Burch for the photos that accompany this article.

Links:
http://www.3rdegreeonline.com

http://www.izznet.com

Read Full Post »

379797_10201125238841250_1916443635_n

Setlist:
Luminol
Drive Home
The Pin Drop
Postcard
The Holy Drinker
Deform to Form a Star
The Watchmaker
Index
Insurgentes
Harmony Korine
No Part of Me
Raider II
The Raven That Refused to Sing

Encore:
Medley: Remainder the Black Dog/No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun

As my readers will not have failed to notice, my love affair with music – especially progressive rock – has cooled down considerably over the past few months. A combination of personal issues and the inevitable burnout caused by the punishing pace maintained for over three years forced me to take a break after I realized that writing reviews had become a chore. Though I had previously experienced periods of writer’s block, this time around it had impaired my enjoyment of music to the point that I was dreading, rather than anticipating, the evening of April 20, when the celebrated Steven Wilson and his “all-star” band were slated to grace the stage of Washington DC’s historic Howard Theatre. I will therefore apologize if this piece is more of a collection of personal impressions than my usual detailed account.

Most of my readers are well aware that – while recognizing the man’s talent and unstinting work ethic – I have never subscribed to the Steven Wilson cult, and most of his output (whether solo or with his many projects, including Porcupine Tree) has always failed to fully resonate with me. Though I had meant to get Wilson’s latest opus, the highly acclaimed The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) to familiarize myself with the material before the show, my disenchantment with music (coupled with other, unrelated issues) prevented me from doing so, and I went in expecting to be somewhat underwhelmed. However, I am glad to say that the concert vastly exceeded my expectations, and I walked out of the theatre with a renewed appreciation for music of the progressive persuasion, even if not yet fully converted to the “Wilson cult”.

Mainly known as a temple of jazz and soul music, the renovated Howard Theatre (opened in 1910, but gone into a decline that forced it to close for decades after the 1968 riots) has already hosted a number of rock concerts since its 2012 rebirth. While its stylish, dimly lit interior does not allow for a lot of socialization, and its bar and restaurant menu are not exactly good value for money, the theatre’s superb acoustics, state-of-the-art lighting and spacious stage are designed to enhance any music performed there. What better setting, then, for über-perfectionist Steven Wilson, the high priest of pristine sound quality, the man behind a slew of 5.1 reissues of progressive rock classics?

430293_559540897410707_481630043_n

I am generally rather suspicious of supergroups, which can often be a triumph of style over substance, and the all-star cast assembled by Wilson for his latest album and tour brought back memories of Eddie Jobson’s Ultimate Zero Project’ rather sterile headlining performance at NEARfest 2010. In spite of being prepared for the worst – that is, an ultimately soulless display of technical fireworks – the opening strains of “Luminol” put my fears to rest, immediately pushing  Nick Beggs’ impossibly nimble bass lines and Marco Minnemann’s thunderous yet intricate drumming into the limelight, though at the same time emphasizing their contribution to the  composition as a whole Indeed, the extremely tight outfit allowed very little room for solo spots, and each of the musicians put his own considerable expertise at the service of the songs.

400746_559541244077339_1356460751_n

In the centre of the stage, slight and dressed in black, the obligatorily barefoot Wilson, flanked by Beggs and guitarist Guthrie Govan,  switched between guitar, keyboards and 5-string bass, with Minnemann, keyboardist Adam Holzman and reedist Theo Travis positioned at the back. Though I fully expected Govan to launch into lengthy shred-fests, his understated role was undoubtedly one of the show’s most positive surprises. In spite of his standard guitar-hero image (complete with flowing locks and the occasional shape-throwing), his performance was remarkably restrained, his trademark scorching fretboard work delivered on rare occasions, such as at the end of “Drive Home”. The impassive Theo Travis’ blaring saxophone injected a jazzy, almost frantic  note, while his flute’s meditative tones complemented some of the more subdued passages. Adam Holtzman’s magnificent keyboard textures laid out a rich foundation, in turn atmospheric and dramatic, according to the needs of each composition.

61934_559541384077325_922302977_n

Over nearly 2 and a half hours,  Wilson’s latest album was performed in its entirety, the seven songs interspersed with tracks from the artist’s two previous solo efforts, Insurgentes (2008) and Grace for Drowning (2011) – with no references whatsoever to Porcupine Tree, who seem to have been put on ice for the time being. While this might be bad news for the band’s many fans, I feel that The Raven That Refused to Sing features much stronger material than most of PT’s albums from In Absentia onwards. Indeed, in Wilson’s solo output any overt metal or alternative rock references are eschewed or toned down, though a keen edge is always lurking around the corner. Even in the longer compositions, any excesses are reined in by keeping the emphasis firmly placed on the songwriting. Drawing upon the wide range of diverse experiences of his band members – jazz, avant-garde, metal, pop, classic rock and, of course, “traditional” prog – Wilson as a solo artist has built a sound in which his very vocals become an additional instrument, with lyrics kept to a minimum taking a back seat to the music. The unrelentingly gloomy subject matter (cleverly targeted by Wilson’s surprisingly laid-back stage banter) is reinforced by a skillful use of visuals that develops and refines Pink Floyd’s ground-breaking paradigm, conjuring disquieting, often nightmarish images out of an H.P. Lovecraft story (in particular the ones accompanying “Harmony Korine”), and proves a necessary complement to the music.

11920_559541507410646_434742071_n

While Wilson’s music is not exactly innovative (and very little of what is released nowadays can be called so), he succeeds in the feat of updating the classic prog sound, using King Crimson, Yes and Genesis as a springboard rather than as a template. Veering between the brooding, haunting atmosphere of the likes of “Drive Home” or “Deform to Form a Star” and jagged, frantic-paced moments in which all the instruments strive together to build up an increasing sense of tension, his compositions sound as carefully structured as any of the Seventies classics, though not as blatantly contrived as a lot of modern prog. From a personal point of view, I found those driving, dynamic pieces far more involving and emotionally charged than the quieter, moodier ones, which tended to sound somewhat alike after a while. In a show characterized by a consistently high level of quality, two songs stood out: the creepy, chilling “Raider II” (from Grace for Drowning) and the mesmerizing “The Watchmaker”, during which the band played behind a semi-sheer curtain used as a screen for the stunning visuals.

313748_559541737410623_1286742117_n

Considering Wilson’s tireless activity as a producer and sound engineer, it was a fortunate coincidence that April 20 also celebrates a cherished institution that is stubbornly resisting the encroachment of online sales – record stores. Not surprisingly, the venue was packed, with many far younger attendees than the average prog gig or festival – a testimony to Wilson’s appeal to a large cross-section of the concert-going, music-buying public, even to those who are not necessarily into “progressive rock”. Watching the crowd, and reflecting on the poor attendance of most prog shows, I thought that Steven Wilson must be doing something right in order to attract such large numbers, even if his band (no matter how talented) does not include any of the Seventies icons, and his performances showcase very recent original material rather than the ever-popular tributes and covers. Moreover (and rather ironically), now that he has stopped rejecting the “prog” tag  and fully embraced the genre, his music has gained in appeal. Not being a PR expert, I have no ready explanation for this phenomenon, but I am sure there must be a lesson somewhere for the multitude of prog bands that struggle to draw a crowd larger than 30 people.

391146_559541664077297_516553176_n

Even if I cannot see myself resuming the same pace of the past couple of years as regards writing reviews – at least not in the foreseeable future – I am grateful to Steven Wilson and his outstanding crew for showing me that music can still have an important role in my life as a source of enjoyment. By way of a conclusion, I would like to thank friends Michael Inman and Helaine Carson Burch for putting some of their outstanding photographs at my disposal for this article.

 

Read Full Post »

Ephemeral Sun
Theme from Top Gun
Untitled #1
Prism
Harvest Aorta Part I
Untitled #2
Winter Has No Mercy
Harvest Aorta Part II

Shadow Circus
Overture
Daddy’s Gone
Whosit, Whatsit & Witch
Make Way for the Big Show
Tesseract
Uriel
Camazotz
Shadow Circus
Captain Trips
The Long Road
Big Fire
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.

Links:
http://www.ephemeralsun.com

http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com

http://www.dc-soar.org

Read Full Post »

The DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR)  has been active for the past nine years in the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area of the US, organizing concerts and other events for those who share a love for progressive music in all its forms. DC-SOAR, which is a non-profit educational organization, currently counts nearly 200 members, and its activities are entirely funded through donations and ticket sales rather than through conventional membership fees.

In order to give exposure to the Society’s activity and support its future projects, in the month of November DC-SOAR will be holding two fundraising concerts at Baltimore’s famed Orion Studios that will showcase some of the best progressive/art rock bands currently active in the north-eastern part of the US.

The first concert, scheduled for  November 3 at 7 p.m. (admission: $20), will feature Northern Virginia’s own Ephemeral Sun (recently appeared at ProgDay 2012), alongside two New Jersey-based bands, 3RDegree and Shadow Circus, also ProgDay alumni (in 2009 and 2010 respectively). 3RDegree have recently released their fourth studio album, The Long Division, which has been received in very positive terms, while Shadow Circus’ third studio album, A Dark and Stormy Night, will be released in a few weeks on Georgia-based label 10T Records. All-instrumental quartet Ephemeral Sun are presently working on the follow-up of their critically acclaimed 2010 album, Harvest Aorta. The different styles and approaches of the three bands will offer the audience a cross-section of some of the most interesting trends in modern progressive rock.

The second concert, scheduled for November 17 at 7.p.m. (admission: $ 15), will present new Baltimore-based outfit Prophet Code (featuring Iluvatar’s keyboardist Jim Rezek), Washington art/music collective Zero Mercury, and genre-bending quartet Kabob-O-Taj, hailing from Gaithersburg (MD). Though these three bands may not be as well-known as the ones previously mentioned, anyone interested in discovering new music should check them out.

Both shows are open to people of all ages. As usual, members of the audience are encouraged to bring small folding chairs and coolers.

Address:
Orion Studios,
2903 Whittington Ave., Suite C,
Baltimore, MD 21230

Admission:
$ 20 (Nov 3)
$ 15 (Nov 17)

Links:
http://www.dc-soar.org

http://www.ephemeralsun.com

http://www.3rdegreeonline.com

http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com/

http://www.facebook.com/ProphetCode

http://www.facebook.com/ZeroMercuryMusic

http://kabobotaj.com/

Read Full Post »

SETLIST:

MoeTar
Butchers of Baghdad
Dichotomy
Infinitesimal Sky
Regression to the Mean
Random Tandem
Entropy of the Century
New World Chaos
Never Home
Ist or an Ism
Friction

miRthkon
Zhagunk
Automaton
Daddylonglegz
Kharms Way
Coven of Coyotes
Nocturne
Bag
Banana
Cascades
Honey Key Jamboree
QX1
Hapax Legomena
Encore (?)

In the slightly unlikely timeframe of mid-August, two of Oakland’s finest bands, miRthkon and MoeTar, finally landed on the East Coast for their first-ever tour in this part of the country. Although the heat and humidity must have come as a shock to residents of a region blessed (at least in the eyes of this hot-weather hater) with a permanently mild, cool climate, the bands’ members – in spite of the inevitable tiredness and the less-than-ideal temperature inside the notoriously AC-less Orion Studios – acquitted themselves splendidly, and inaugurated their long-awaited tour with a bang.

Not surprisingly, seen the high level of praise garnered by both bands’ debut albums – miRthkon’s Vehicle (2009) and MoeTar’s From These Small Seeds (2010, reissued in 2012 with a new cover) – the venue was almost packed to capacity, with its usual “house party” atmosphere in full swing – folding chairs, coolers and small buffet of refreshments included. The lower-than-average temperature, helped by an almost strategically-timed summer storm that allowed some pleasantly cool air to waft into the crowded stage area from the open bay, made things more bearable – at least for the audience, because the bands had to cope not only with the intense humidity, but also with the heat generated by the stage lights. However, none of these adverse circumstances had any impact on the quality of either performance, which exceeded the attendees’ already high expectations.

Five-piece MoeTar had already elicited very positive reactions by West Coast prog fans, opening for the likes of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Allan Holdsworth in the past few months. Fronted by vocalist extraordinaire Moorea Dickason (aka Moe) – simply put, one of the best female voices I have had the privilege to hear in a long time – they share one member with miRthkon, multi-instrumentalist Matt Lebofsky. With his highly focused, somewhat serious mien, Lebovsky (who plays keyboards in MoeTar, and bass in miRthkon) was a perfect foil to Moorea’s boundless energy and thoroughly engaging stage presence. Sporting streaks of bright blue face paint that gave her an endearingly childlike look, she commanded the audience’s attention right from the first notes of opener “Butchers of Baghdad” with her jaw-dropping vocal acrobatics. While many female singers adopt a stereotypical melodic approach, often with rather tiresome operatic touches (and equally often sounding alarmingly alike), Moorea bends the music to her will, tackling vertiginous scales with seemingly no effort at all. MoeTar’s songs, built around her interpretation of Tarik (aka Tar) Ragab’s quirky, literate lyrics, offer a heavily eclectic mix of accessibility and complexity, with influences as far-ranging as traditional jazz, iconic acts such as XTC and Kate Bush, and a healthy pinch of RIO/Avant spice. Together with other modern North American bands such as 3Rdegree or Half Past Four, MoeTar are at the vanguard of what I call the “new frontier” of progressive rock, embracing the song form and giving it a much-needed overhaul, all the while shunning the blatant AOR leanings of other bigger-name bands or artists.

During their hour-long set, MoeTar treated the audience to a selection of tracks from their debut – including the haunting torch song for the 21st century “Never Home” and the superbly intense, hard-edged “Ist or an Ism” – plus a couple of tantalizing previews of their new album, which revealed a more experimental bent while remaining true to the band’s song-based approach. Individual performances were top-notch – from Matthew Heulitt’s assertive but consistently melodic guitar to Tarik Ragab and David M. Flores’ dynamic rhythm section and Lebofsky’s seamless handling of organ, synth and piano – but MoeTar are very much an ensemble operation, even if Moorea’s vocals may be the most obvious draw. Most importantly, the band members looked completely at ease on stage, conveying a genuine sense of enjoyment that reinforced the intelligent, yet down-to earth appeal of their music.

After a leisurely break dedicated to social interaction and purchase of CDs and assorted merchandise, miRthkon – that self-professed “amplified chamber ensemble masquerading as a rock band” – took to the stage, and proceeded to blow the roof off the venue with their highly energized, highly technical blend of almost everything under the sun (including classical music, with an unrecognizable version of Samuel Barber’s “Nocturne”). Possibly the most qualified pretenders to the Frank Zappa throne, with an idiosyncratic lineup that dispenses with keyboards but boasts a dual-guitar, dual-reed attack, they reinterpret the sometimes overly serious Avant-Prog aesthetic with a lightness of touch and oodles of absurdist humour that belie the mind-boggling complexity of their music. Indeed, miRthkon are not by any means minimalistic, and a glorious sense of bombast occasionally runs through their brilliantly-titled and –executed compositions.

Though dealing with the effects of a kidney stone discovered during the 3000-mile coast-to-coast drive, guitarist and founder Wally Scharold fulfilled his frontman duties with aplomb, his endearingly whimsical between-song banter adding to the entertainment value of the evening. Since the release of Vehicle, the band have replaced guitarist and co-founder Rob Pumpelly with Travis Andrews, who looked a bit shy at first, but then got nicely into the swing of things, proving an excellent sparring partner for Scharold. While drummer Matt Guggemos was hidden behind his bandmates, due to the distinctive configuration of the Orion stage, his often thunderous, but always creative drumming, in perfect synergy with Matt Lebofsky’s powerful yet sleek bass lines, lent both texture and dynamics to the band’s dazzlingly unpredictable sound. However, the duo of alto saxophonist Jamison Smeltz, with his impressive sideburns and amusing facial expressions, and “Goddess of the Cane” Carolyn Walter, in a bright blue dress and a funny head ornament that looked like a pair of small goat horns, were the true focus of attention. Both seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and their visual appeal went hand-in-hand with their boisterous musical contribution. For a band that calls itself by the slightly daunting tagline of “Oaklandish chambercore”, miRthkon were a lot of fun and, in their own peculiar way, much more approachable than many outfits bearing the RIO/Avant label. In fact, the music was never noisy or gratuitously chaotic, and the band’s inimitable sense of humour enhanced its appeal, avoiding the dour, needlessly convoluted stance that often gives Avant-Prog a bad rap.

As usual, the sound quality – masterfully engineered by Mike Potter, who looked as pleased as punch throughout the evening – was excellent, and brought out each of the bands’ distinctive qualities without beating the attendees’ eardrums into submission. A special mention goes to the selection of music played before and between sets – I never thought I would hear James Brown played alongside Blue Öyster Cult and more traditional fare at a progressive rock concert! I was also glad to see quite a few women and younger people among the audience. Indeed, the evening was also a celebration of female talent, with Moorea Dickason’s incredible vocal performance and Carolyn Walter’s masterful handling of her “forest of horns” – both talented, attractive women with a friendly, engaging attitude who manage to shine without capitalizing on their looks.

All in all, it was definitely one of the best shows of the past few years, and a very uplifting moment after the setbacks suffered by the US prog scene in recent times. These two bands are a brilliant example of proactive behaviour and genuine creative spirit, and deserve to have their efforts crowned with success. If they are playing anywhere near you, do yourselves a favour and make sure you do not miss them: their performance will dispel any doubts you might harbor about the future of progressive rock.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com

http://www.mirthkon.com

Read Full Post »

Regular readers of my blog will by now be familiar with my frequent references to the plight of US bands and their struggles to find an audience for their live shows. The 1000-odd people who, only two weeks ago, filled a state-of-the-art venue such as the Zoellner Arts Center for the final edition of NEARfest are very much the exception in a country where non-mainstream bands and artists (especially of the progressive rock persuasion) see their efforts to perform live increasingly frustrated by their potential audience’s apathy. When playing before 50 people is already considered a successful outcome, you know that there is a problem – which may soon force an increasing number of artists to turn their efforts to studio-only projects, no matter how much they love being on stage.

For this reason – even if, generally speaking, any band tagged as “neo-prog” would not exactly set my musical pulse racing – my husband and I decided to attend one of Baltimore-based quintet Ilúvatar’s rare live performances after a hiatus that kept them away from the scenes for over a decade. In spite of the suffocating blanket of 100-degree heat (around 40º C for non-Americans) and the threat of thunderstorms later in the evening, we headed towards the ever-reliable Jammin’ Java, and found that a few of our fellow attendees had driven considerable distances for the occasion. Considering the circumstances (including the rather awkward 7 p.m. scheduling), the 50 people or so who attended the DC-SOAR-sponsored gig at the dimly-lit, comfortably air-conditioned venue may be seen as a reasonably successful turnout.

Named after the supreme being (“father of all”) in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, and with beginnings that can be traced back to 1983, Ilúvatar  are nowhere as pretentious as their handle might lead one to believe, and definitely not about the dreaded “pixies and unicorns” all too often associated with prog. In the Nineties, they enjoyed a moderate amount of success as one of the leading US prog bands, which landed them a number of high-profile appearances (such as ProgDay 1996, Baja Prog 1998 and NEARfest 2000) before they went on hiatus. Over the years Ilúvatar have built a loyal following in the Baltimore/Washington metro area, and are clearly one of those outfits for whom the studio will never be enough.

Due to my limited affinity with neo-prog, I was not familiar with Ilúvatar’s output, but – in spite of the ready availability of music samples in the age of the Internet – I had decided to go in cold to avoid any bias, having learned that many acts are best experienced in a live setting. The almost two-hour set left me positively surprised, unlike some much-touted names whose shows I have witnessed in the past few years. With four-fifths of the line-up featured on their last album to date, 1999’s A Story Two Days Wide, on board (original vocalist Glenn McLaughlin left in 2011, and was replaced by Jeff Sirody earlier this year), the members all looked quite personable (it was hard to believe that they have been around for 25 years!), and genuinely happy to be back on stage. Most importantly, though, their performance was focused on delivering tightly composed songs rather than showing off their chops. As seasoned performers, the band members handled the rather cramped stage with aplomb, eliciting the enthusiasm of their loyal fans.

As a whole, the music was deceptively straightforward, declining to punch the listener in the face with its complexity. Solo spots were kept to a bare minimum, lending cohesiveness to the overall sound. Jim Rezek (who was the lead keyboard tech at NEARfest) chiefly employed his impressive bank of keyboards to add texture and melody to the sound, effectively supported by Dennis Mullin’s fluid, often fiery guitar; while Dean Morekas powerful bass lines and Chris Mack’s energetic drumming provided a solid backbone with a bit of a heavy edge. My only gripe was the occasional whistling tone of the synthesizers, which is one of the trademarks of the neo-prog subgenre – though it was never overdone. New vocalist Jeff Sirody brought to bear his extensive experience as a frontman in a number of local classic rock and glam metal bands to inject a stronger rock vibe into the band’s sound, and also dispel any criticism about their resemblance to Genesis. His strong, confident tenor managed to be heard in spite of the rather loud volume, and, though long-time Ilúvatar followers may have noticed the difference in style and delivery when Sirody tackled the older material, they were clearly happy with the results.

All in all, even if I generally prefer edgier, more challenging music, I found the band’s performance very enjoyable. If US prog fans did not cultivate a stubborn “the grass is greener” attitude to the detriment of homegrown acts, Ilúvatar would have been a much better fit for some of the festivals I have recently attended than some bigger-name foreign bands. The fact that Saturday’s gig was only their second in our area – a mere 30 miles south of their home town of Baltimore – bears witness to the sad fact that US-based bands are still children of a lesser God in the eyes of their prospective audiences. The growing divide within the prog scene is not helping either, with people refusing to try a band or artist from the opposite camp even when the ticket to a gig amounts to a whopping $ 10. Ironically, while modern technology has made it possible for anyone to record and release an album – and consequently brought about the saturation of an already niche market – lack of support is in danger of killing the live scene for good. However, no matter how great an album may be, nothing beats live music, especially when accompanied by the right combination of enthusiasm and skill. Progressive rock fans should support live music whenever and wherever they can – do not let the scene die out, or retreat within the four walls of a studio.

Links:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Iluvatar/117765760211

http://www.myspace.com/iluvatar2006

http://www.dc-soar.org

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »