Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Festival’ Category

theater-banner

With the final curtain fallen on NEARfest in June 2012, a void has been left in the once-thriving US progressive rock festival scene. In the past couple of years, the increasing fragmentation of  the target audience – as well as other factors such as the lingering economic downturn – have provided a brusque reality check to anyone daring enough to invest time and money in this often unrewarding task  While the cottage-industry organization of ProgDay is still going strong (probably because of its unpretentious structure), and ROSfest keeps attracting a steady number of devotees to its Gettysburg premises, other more ambitious efforts have ended in failure before they even started. The enthusiasm about Baja Prog’s return after a four-year hiatus was tempered by a lineup that penalizes US bands, and is in many ways a duplicate of the last NEARfest  – not to mention that the festival takes place in a part of the continent that is not exactly convenient for many US dwellers.

However, almost unexpectedly, a new event has stepped in at that particular time of the year, though in no way aiming to fill  NEARfest’s daunting shoes by offering a range of reasonably high-profile bands, including some “bucket list”ones. In fact,  the organizers of Seaprog Music Festival seem to have taken the ProgDay template even further, concentrating almost exclusively on US acts and spotlighting local talent. The event is scheduled for June 28-30,  2013, at Columbia City Theater, a nearly 100-year-old venue in the iconic Pacific Northwest metropolis of Seattle – home to such diverse acts as Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Queensryche and the grunge bands of the early Nineties. Starting on the evening of Friday, June 28, with a free show, the festival proper will be spread over the whole of Saturday and Sunday, showcasing a total of 11 bands.

Seaprog comes with the uncompromising tagline of “not your parents’prog” and a well-articulated manifesto that invites people to be open-minded in their approach to the world of non-mainstream music. In spite of the many attempts to separate “prog” from the original meaning of the word “progressive”, and turn it into nothing more than a codified genre complete with plenty of sarcasm-inducing mannerisms, there are still those who want “progressive” to be much more than a byword for self-indulgence and worship of the past.

The members of the organizing committee are dedicated musicians with years of experience under their belt: guitarist Dennis Rea (of Moraine and Iron Kim Style fame), drummer John Reagan (formerly of Harlequin Mass, now with Dissonati) and stick player Jon Davis (currently a member of Zhongyu with Rea and Moraine’s Alicia and Jim DeJoie). All three of them share similar views on what constitutes “prog”, which may not necessarily resonate with those who espouse the “prog as a genre” theory, but will instead find support in genuinely adventurous listeners. The event is a strictly non-profit venture, and the organizers’s main aim in undertaking this effort, as stated at the bottom of every page of Seaprog’s excellently crafted website, is to offer a world-class music event in a city that is better known for heavy rock and trendy alternative/indie bands.

As can be expected after reading the festival’s manifesto, Seaprog is heavily geared towards the cutting-edge side of the progressive rock spectrum, with seminal RIO/Avant band Thinking Plague  in the coveted spot of Sunday headliner for their first-even Seattle show. The Colorado-based outfit’s latest recording effort, Decline and Fall, was one of the defining albums of 2012, and their triumphant appearance at last year’s RIO Festival helped to consolidate their reputation as purveyors of difficult but highly rewarding music. Thinking Plague’s Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco will also appear on stage with Hughscore Revisited, a quartet that will perform compositions by legendary Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper, who passed away in 2009. Not surprisingly, Moraine, Zhongyu and Dissonati will also be on board. The other names on the lineup are less familiar to the majority of prog fans: local outfits Alex’s Hand, Monkey Bat Operation ID and Trimtab (originally formed in Minneapolis, but now based in Seattle), and  Italian multi-instrumentalist Jolanda. At the time of writing, the Saturday headliner remains to be announced. Links to all of the artists’ webpages are available on the event’s site. A Kickstarter campaign will also be launched to finance recording of the shows.

After so much fretting about the future of the US festival scene following the demise of NEARfest and the cancellation of OhioProg and FarFest, it is heartwarming to see people take things into their own hands in order to promote homegrown talent, even though on a much smaller scale than NEARfest, ROSfest or Baja Prog. As I have often written on these pages, this is probably the most viable model, which allows the organizers not to be bound by the necessity of filling a larger venue, therefore having to budget for inevitably more expensive “international” bands. Hoping for a healthy turnout that will allow the festival to continue at least in 2014, I applaud the organizers for their bravery and dedication to the cause of progressive music.

Links:
http://www.seaprog.org/

Read Full Post »

fim_fiera_musica

 

On May 25-26, 2013, the Italian “prog hub” of Genoa and its surrounding region of Liguria will be the undisputed protagonist of an event of international scope targeted to anyone who is in the business of making and promoting music. The FIM (Fiera Internazionale della Musica), the largest event of its kind organized in Italy, will take place at the Ippodromo dei Fiori in the medieval hill town of Villanova d’Albenga. The town lies about 50 km (31 miles) west of Genoa, in the hinterland of the famed Riviera di Ponente, the western stretch of the Italian Riviera, curving towards the French border and following the route of the Via Aurelia, the longest of the original Roman roads.

Over two whole days, the event will offer a unique showcase to up-and-coming bands and artists from all over Italy. Four stages and other dedicated spaces will allow musicians to perform with their own instruments, and the participants will also have a wide range of workshops, seminars and other happenings to attend – all covered by a daily entrance fee of € 15.

One of the core events of the fair, the Riviera Prog Festival will host a total of 13 bands (as well as the symphonic orchestra of the neighbouring town of Sanremo, known internationally for its Festival della Canzone Italiana)  in the afternoon and evening of both days, starting from 3 p.m. The bands that will take turns on stage during this event-within-the-event represent some of the best that Italian progressive rock has to offer, with an eye to its glorious past and another to the thriving contemporary scene – an example that US organizers would do well to follow, instead of focusing on foreign acts to the detriment of homegrown talent.

Though most of the bands and artists on the lineup are based in Liguria, other parts of Italy have not been neglected: Goad and Le Porte Non Aperte hail from Tuscany, while Claudio Simonetti/Daemonia and Biglietto per l’Inferno  (both protagonists of the original RPI movement in the early Seventies) are based respectively in Rome and Milan. The local talent includes veterans such as The Trip (who counted one Ritchie Blackmore among its early members), Latte E Miele (who were slated to headline the sadly cancelled Farfest 2012), DeliriumGarybaldi and Il Cerchio d’Oro, and modern bands such as Il Tempio delle Clessidre (whose career-defining NEARfest appearance endeared them to the US prog community), G.C. Neri Band, La Coscienza di Zeno and newcomers Flower Flesh.

FIM has been sponsored by a number of local agencies, including the region of Liguria, and partnered by media outlets such as local radio and TV stations, as well as the association Centro Studi per il Progressive Italiano (CSPI), independent label Black Widow Records and recording studio Maia (all based in Genoa). The event’s website (unfortunately only in Italian, at least for the time being) contains detailed information on the event, including tips for anyone who would like to combine the pleasures of music with those of sightseeing.

Links:
http://www.fimfiera.it/

http://cspigenova.blogspot.com/

http://www.blackwidow.it

http://www.maiagroup.it/maia/studio-di-registrazione

Read Full Post »

yugen mirrors

TRACKLISTING:
1. On the Brink (0:59)
2. Brachilogia7  (3:09)
3. Catacresi5 (6:39)
4. La Mosca Stregata ( 0:57)
5. Overmurmur (5:30)
6. Industry (7:50)
7. Cloudscape (10:38)
8. Ice (1:55)
9. Becchime (12:38)
10. Corale Metallurgico (9:19)

LINEUP:
Paolo Ske Botta – organ, electric piano, synth
Valerio Cipollone – soprano sax, clarinets
Jacopo Costa – marimba, vibes
Maurizio Fasoli – piano
Matteo Lorito – bass
Michele Salgarello – drums
Francesco Zago – guitar

Founded in 2004 in Milan (Italy) by guitarist/composer Francesco Zago and AltrOck Productions mainman Marcello Marinone, Yugen (a core concept of  Japanese aesthetics that can be roughly translated as “profound grace and beauty”) took the progressive rock scene by storm with the 2006 release of their debut album, Labirinto d’Acqua – a supremely accomplished slice of chamber rock following in the footsteps of the original Rock in Opposition movement. Their second album, Uova Fatali, came two years later, and was based on music composed by Stormy Six’s Tommaso Leddi; while their third effort, Iridule (2010), was widely hailed as a masterpiece of the RIO/Avant subgenre.

An ensemble rather than a conventional band, Yugen revolve around a core group of Zago, keyboardist Paolo Ske Botta (often mentioned in this blog for his work as AltrOck’s in-house graphic artist) and pianist Maurizio Fasoli, joined in 2008 by reedist Valerio Cipollone, and augmented by a number of high-profile guest artists (including  mainstays of the US Avant Progressive scene such as Dave Kerman, Dave Willey, Elaine DiFalco and Mike Johnson,  and Guy Segers of Univers Zéro fame) In September 2011, almost exactly one year after Iridule’s release, the band appeared at the fourth edition of the Rock in Opposition festival, organized in the southern French town of Carmaux. Their performance as a seven-piece –a short excerpt of which is featured in Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s documentary Romantic Warriors II – was captured on CD with the assistance of Orion Studios owner Mike Potter, and released at the tail end of 2012 with the title of Mirrors.

Though some may have wondered about Yugen’s ability to recreate Zago’s astonishingly intricate, painstakingly orchestrated compositions as a mere seven-piece rather than as an ensemble of up to 18 musicians (as in their studio albums), any doubts will immediately be dispelled by the sheer quality of the performances recorded on Mirrors. In spite of the constraints –  such as the allegedly short time dedicated to rehearsal – the band as a whole handle the complexities of the music with remarkable flair, without sounding cold or clinical as the highbrow quality of the material might suggest. While Zago’s main sources of inspiration as a composer (as pointed out by Sid Smith in his excellent liner notes) lie in both Renaissance and 20th-century classical music, his earlier rock roots often surface. His dense guitar riffs provide a backdrop for the constantly shifting dialogue between reeds and keyboards, bolstering the impeccable work of Michele Salgarello and Matteo Lorito’s rhythm section – which tackles daunting tempo changes with admirable composure. The music blends sharp angles and smooth curves, flowing naturally even at its most intricate, with melody lurking in the most unexpected places and revealing the unmistakable Italian imprint of this quintessentially cosmopolitan outfit.

The almost 60-minute album features 10 tracks drawn from Labirinto d’Acqua and Iridule, rearranged so as to adapt to the more rigid configuration of a live band. The longest, more intense compositions are concentrated in the second half of the album, which is introduced by a stunning version of Henry Cow’s iconic “Industry” (from the English band’s final release, 1979’s Western Culture). With their deeply intellectual titles reflecting the nature of the music, the compositions are arrestingly complex, though with a sense of organic warmth that is sometimes lacking in the production of highly celebrated bands belonging to the same movement.

Introduced by the dramatic drums and piercing, sustained guitar of “On the Brink”, the set unfolds with two tracks from Labirinto d’Acqua. The shorter “Brachilogia” weaves a sinuous, slightly dissonant tune, beefed up by guitar riffs and high-energy drumming, in which clarinet and marimba share the spotlight, interspersed by subdued piano passages; while “Catacresi” fully deploys Paolo Botta’s arsenal of keyboards, ranging from the sharp whistle of the synth to airy, atmospheric passages that would not be out of place on a Genesis album, creating a sort of cinematic tension. The instruments at times converge in perfect unison, at others pursue their individual paths, though with a constantly perceptible sense of inner discipline.

After the brief respite of “La Mosca Stregata”, “Overmurmur” barges in with an almost strident, apparently chaotic development, each instrument thrown in sharp relief, gradually mellowing out towards the end. The aforementioned “Industry” renders the martial, intense mood of the original, though softening its abrasive quality and spotlighting the deep, slightly hoarse rumble of the organ. On the other hand, “Cloudscape” reveals a different facet of Zago’s creative inspiration, its 10 minutes a masterpiece of skillfully handled atmospherics that paint a breathtaking sonic picture of the title. The track develops fluidly and elegantly, its sounds beautiful and melodic albeit not in a conventional, mainstream sense, slowing down almost to a whisper before the end. In the short, entrancing “Ice” – originally conceived as a showcase for Elaine DiFalco’s distinctive contralto, with lyrics by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney  – the vocals are replaced with a wistful clarinet line redolent of Debussy, preparing the listener for the one-two punch of “Becchime” and “Corale Metallurgico”. The former is the kind of composition that is likely to send fans of melodic prog running for the exits, and makes indeed for demanding listening. Unabashedly cerebral and gloriously intricate (and twice as long as the studio version featured on Iridule) its multiple, angular twists and turns and bristling sound effects evoke the squawking of the chickens referenced in the title (becchime means “chicken feed” in Italian). Also true to its title, album closer “Corale Metallurgico” conveys a powerful industrial feel, with peaks of intensity ebbing into rarefied pauses, and moments of almost unbridled chaos suddenly morphing into a dynamic flow.

Presented in a visually stylish package with outstanding artwork and photography (courtesy of Paolo Botta, Lutz Diehl and Alessandro Achilli), as well as Sid Smith’s thought-provoking liner notes, Mirrors captures one of the foremost standard-bearers of contemporary cutting-edge progressive rock at the very height of its creative powers. Although the music may not always be what one would term accessible, even staunch followers of the more traditional branches of prog might find something to appreciate in the album’s pristine beauty. An absolute must for fans of RIO/Avant –Prog and chamber rock, Mirrors is sure to go down as one of the standout releases of 2012.

Links:
http://us.myspace.com/yugenband

https://www.facebook.com/Yugentheband

http://production.altrock.it/

Read Full Post »

Though the title of this review is not meant to spark a debate on climate change, it is an apt description of the kind of atmosphere that characterized the 18th consecutive edition of ProgDay. If my first time at the festival, back in 2010, had been perfect climate-wise, and the second marred by a rather uncomfortably hot and humid Saturday, this year was record-breaking, and not in a good way. To put it bluntly, the past weekend on the lovely grounds of Storybook Farm felt like being  in Bangkok or Singapore in the middle of the summer, with temperatures in the mid-90s (especially on Saturday), and humidity close to 90%. For a hot-weather hater such as myself, it was a nightmare scenario. After this weekend, I believe I know how chocolate must feel when melted slowly on the stove… The last hurrah of this long, hot summer – quite unexpected after a rather mild August – might have wreaked some serious havoc on the festival, and indeed the unrelenting heat affected many people’s enjoyment of a spectacular weekend of music.

Adverse climatic conditions notwithstanding, ProgDay 2012 was fulfilling in every sense, and even the physical discomfort of trying to find relief from the onslaught of the heat pales in comparison to the wonderful musical offer and overall atmosphere of the 18th edition of the world’s longest-running progressive rock festival. Many of the observations I made in my review of the 2011 edition hold true for this one as well, so I will spare my readers a repeat and try to include some new insights. If last year’s ProgDay had been a success, this one was nearly a triumph, from many different points of view. The musical aspect, of course, is fundamental in any such event, and the festival seems to be going from strength to strength in assembling lineups that manage to capture the best of the contemporary progressive rock scene. However, no event can exist in a vacuum, and the human factor is of paramount importance whenever the arts are concerned.

On Friday morning, the leisurely, four-hour drive from our Northern Virginia home took us down the familiar, tree-lined corridor of Highway 85, a quiet and sparsely frequented route in comparison to the unceasing bustle of the Baltimore/Washington area. For long stretches of the road, no cars could be seen ahead of us, and the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere was somewhat eerie, but also deeply charming in its own way. The last two hours of the drive prepared us for the unique ambiance of the festival, where the attractions of nature and music are magically fused together, and nourished by friendship and the joy of being almost removed from “civilization” and the demands of everyday life.

We reached Durham in the early afternoon, just in time for a satisfying lunch at the BBQ place across the road from the hotel. Then, after some well-deserved rest, it was time for us to meet friends that, while separated from us by geography, are a constant part of our lives thanks to modern technology. Unfortunately, the oppressive heat was getting worse by the hour, and on Saturday morning it was immediately clear that things were going to be anything but pleasant weather-wise. That suffocating blanket of humidity was something I had hardly ever experienced before – and I come from a country where summers can get quite hot. When we got to Storybook Farm, the grass was wet with dew, and a very faint breeze blew from the trees. The high humidity made the surroundings even more beautiful than usual, and the occasional hawks circling overhead added to the almost magical atmosphere. However, as the day progressed, the discomfort caused by the heat was compounded by the misery of feeling sticky and dirty. Beneath the corrugated metal roof of the stage, the heat must have been unbearable, and a large fan had been strategically placed at the back of the stage in an attempt to make things marginally more comfortable for the bands and the crew.

Though they had landed the somewhat awkward opening slot at 10.30 in the morning, the music of Northern Virginia’s finest, Ephemeral Sun, would have made a perfect soundtrack for what T.S. Eliot called “the violet hour”. The young and personable quartet, led by the impossibly fresh-faced John Battema (an outstanding keyboardist and a real gentleman) have transitioned from a Gothic-metal, female-fronted outfit to a much more distinctive, hard to label brand of cinematic, ambient-laden instrumental prog, rich in melody yet laced with heaviness. In some ways, they reminded me of last year’s opening act, Fibonacci Sequence – though the Wisconsin band’s sound is more muscular and not as atmospheric. The band as a whole proved to have an impressive mastery in the build-up of surging waves of sound, driven by the impeccable rhythm section of Charles Gore and Jeff Malone, with Gore’s deep, powerful bass lines occasionally reminiscent of Geezer Butler’s genre-defining style. Guitarist Brian O’Neill’s occasional bouts of razor-sharp riffing injected a healthy dose of remarkably uncheesy heaviness in the fabric of Battema’s lush keyboards – at times unleashed to resemble a modern-day Keith Emerson, at others relying on stately mellotron samples to bolster and lend symphonic fullness to the soaring, Gilmour-tinged lead guitar parts. While at first communication with the audience was kept to a minimum, it did not take long for the band to open up, and for Battema to display some of his endearingly self-deprecating sense of humour. All in all, it was an excellent opening set from a band that has definitely a lot of potential for future greatness.

John Battema of Ephemeral Sun

By the time Montreal-based quartet Karcius got on stage, the heat and humidity were starting to get out of control. Before the start of their set, I had forced myself to eat some of the rather tasty food on offer, then sat down again with my notepad – only to realize that the heat was badly sapping my enjoyment of the music. I had heard a lot of praise about the band, who – in spite of their young age – already have four albums and a number of high-profile live appearances under their belt. Though I had seen them described as jazz-rock, they sounded all over the place, reminding me of those bands  who, like Umphrey’s McGee, straddle the line between the jam scene and progressive rock proper. The jazz-rock matrix was conveyed by the emphasis on the sleek interplay between Sylvain Auclair’s bass and Thomas Brodeur’s drums, but other influences cropped up with regularity. While Auclair’s blues-tinged voice was undoubtedly good, I felt that it did not actually gel with the rest of the sound, and the instrumental parts (such as the excellent opening track) were a much better representation of Karcius’ collective strength. While I usually appreciate eclecticism, there was a sense of lack of cohesion in the way the band handled their diverse sources of inspiration, which ranged from metal (with a couple of frantic passages verging on speed metal) to King Crimson by way of Steely Dan, and a lot of other stuff – including hints of reggae and other ethnic music, as well as evident pop touches conveyed by the vocals. On the other hand, the chemistry between the four musicians was outstanding, with the ease born of a long collaboration and plenty of stage experience. Mingan Sauriol manned the keyboards with aplomb, rounding out the dynamic rhythm section, while guitarist Simon L’Espérance contributed a nice rock edge. The band also catered to the nostalgia-inclined members of the crowd by performing a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” (perhaps not the best choice, seen the song’s running time and somewhat depressing subject matter) almost at the end of their set.

Simon L’Espérance and Sylvan Auclair of Karcius

After waxing lyrical for months about Kublai, their sophomore release, and raging about their aborted participation to the ill-fated 2011 edition of NEARfest, I had been elated to learn of my fellow Italians Accordo dei Contrari being selected for Progday 2012. Needless to say, theirs was my most anticipated set of the whole festival, and – even if they had the bad luck to perform in the worst slot of such a miserably hot day (though a breeze made things temporarily more bearable in the afternoon, before the blanket of humidity descended again) – the Bologna-based quartet delivered the goods in abundance. The audience was held captive for the best part of their 90-minute set, which comprised a selection of tracks from their two albums, plus two new numbers that will be featured on their third release. With its trademark blend of jazzy, Canterbury-inspired elegance, uniquely Italian melodic flair and sinuous exotic touches, solidly anchored by Cristian Franchi and Daniele Piccinini’s seamless rhythm section and spiced by Marco Marzo’s fluid guitar, the band’s music manages to sound modern even when paying homage to the past. Keyboardist Giovanni Parmeggiani (the band’s main composer and driving force) acquitted himself splendidly in handling unfamiliar gear (kindly provided by Ephemeral Sun’s John Battema, in an admirable example of cooperation between musicians from different backgrounds), and his rich, heady textures were at the heart of  Accordo dei Contrari’s complex yet smoothly flowing sound. Their exhilarating jam with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic’s Ken Field guesting on saxophone was definitely one of the highlights of the whole weekend. Though their music may elicit comparisons with  D.F.A. (especially for those who had witnessed the latter band’s highly acclaimed American performances), Accordo dei Contrari sound even tighter and more focused in their approach. The band members were absolutely elated to be there, and – even if a bit shy at first – won the hearts of the audience with their professional yet warm attitude. On a personal level, it was a real pleasure to meet them at last, and to have the opportunity to speak my native tongue with like-minded people.

Giovanni Parmeggiani of Accordo dei Contrari

When Birdsongs of the Mesozoic – another instrumental quartet, though one with considerable experience and a respectable back catalogue (their first incarnation dates back from the early Eighties) – took to the stage, the breeze had died out, and the majority of the attendees were wilting in their seats. Of all the past weekend’s performances, this was the one most negatively affected by the hostile weather conditions, as people seemed to have no energy left – which obviously did no favours to the Boston ensemble’s beautiful, highly idiosyncratic music. I was feeling so drained that, about half an hour through their set, my attention started to wander  – even though my brain perceived the beauty of the music and desperately wanted to enjoy it. In any case, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic are one of the most genuinely intriguing musical offers I have heard in the past few years. Blending jazz, rock, minimalism and classical music, they have all the hallmarks of a chamber ensemble without using classical instruments, privileging instead Rick Scott’s eerie electronic effects and Erik Lindgren’s stunning piano, whose rippling, liquid sound gently accompanied the slow setting of the sun. Michael Bierylo’s guitar and Ken Field’s woodwinds complemented the keyboard textures with elegance and emotion; while percussion was added rather sparingly by a drum machine and, very occasionally, a floor tom. The hypnotic, often soothing cadence of their sound – intricate but without the knotty, daunting feel of the average RIO/Avant band – had a cinematic yet touchingly intimate quality. When I was still able to concentrate on the music, I mentally compared them to The Muffins, who had headlined my first ProgDay in 2010. Though the Baltimore band have more of a rock flair, with percussion playing a bigger role, the two outfits’ approach is in some ways similar. All in all, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic regaled the audience with some astonishingly beautiful moments, and I would love to listen to them again in more favourable circumstances.

Erik Lindgren and Michael Bierylo of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic

Like other attendees, we had bought tickets for the Dead Can Dance concert in Durham on the same evening. However, we both realized that we were so exhausted that all we wanted was a quiet meal followed by some well-deserved rest. In any case, we were in no shape to enjoy the show, even in the comfort of an air-conditioned theatre. So we headed back to the hotel, had dinner and went to bed, in order to be in properly refreshed for the following day.

On Sunday morning, the temperature was marginally more comfortable than on the previous day, and the cloudy sky promised at least some respite from the sun. The humidity level, however, was still very high, and did not encourage moving around too much. At 10.30, right on schedule, New Hampshire trio Dreadnaught took to the stage, and treated the audience to a set that someone aptly described as “how Yes would sound if they played country music”. Led by Bob Lord’s massive Rickenbacker sound, the trio are one of the best-kept secrets of the US progressive rock scene – in spite of having been around for over 10 years. Clearly comfortable in a live setting, the three members moved around with plenty of energy, and their highly eclectic take on the classic power trio format combined sterling chops with a friendly, relaxed attitude that put the crowd at ease. The American roots of their sound –  country, bluegrass and also a hint of blues – got added spice from some heavier touches (which occasionally put me in mind of Rush’s instrumental output) – somewhat similar to Karcius in approach, though more focused and with better songwriting. Drummer Rick Habib complemented Lord’s powerful yet intricate lines with his dynamic though never overstated drumming, and also supplied occasional lead vocals. As in the case of Karcius, Dreadnaught work best as an instrumental trio, with Justin Walton’s guitar contributing melody and a bit of a sharp edge to the complex patterns laid out by the rhythm section. Such demanding music can easily become a chore for listeners if not supported by an adequately light-hearted attitude, but Dreadnaught looked as if they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, and communicated their visible enthusiasm to the crowd in spite of the draining heat.

Dreadnaught

By the time Doctor Nerve made their appearance on stage, the sky had turned very dark.  Sparse drops of rain began to fall, thunder rumbled overhead, and the sense of relief from the heat mingled with worry. Summer storms in that region are not to be taken lightly, as they can be extremely violent, and being caught by one of them in an open field was a potentially dangerous situation. However, the New York-based ensemble’s pyrotechnic performance managed to drive the clouds away. Led by charismatic guitarist Nick Didkovsky – a consummate frontman with an endearingly spunky attitude and wacky sense of humour –  the veteran eight-piece had been introduced as a brain-melting experience, which was not far from the truth. Definitely the kind of band that is bound to send traditional-minded prog fans running from the exits at high speed, they delivered a set that, while characterized by a high level of energy, also offered moments of exquisite beauty – as in the slow, meditative track dedicated to the memory of Niall Coti-Sears, Paul Sears’ son, killed in Afghanistan at the end of June. Doctor Nerve was also the only band that included a woman in their lineup – keyboardist Kathleen Supove, a classically-trained pianist with a remarkable stage presence in spite of her petite frame. While Didkovsky’s blistering guitar infused a strong metal component in the band’s music, the impressive horn section (featuring Yves Dubois on soprano sax, Ben Herrington on trombone, Rob Henke on trumpet and Michael Lytle on bass clarinet) propelled the sound in a thoroughly exhilarating way, while the rhythm section of Jesse Krakow (bass) and Leo Ciesa (drums) adroitly set the pace, keeping up with the music’s unpredictable shifts. Indeed, in my mind I described Doctor Nerve as “a big band with a solid foundation of metal riffs, mixed with some seriously punk attitude.” Though their music is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, many of the attendees thought they were one of the undisputed highlights of the festival.

Nick Didkovsky of Doctor Nerve

With a storm threat successfully averted, the heat and humidity had already made their comeback when Consider The Source’s turn on the stage arrived. The three young band members, all dressed in white, loose-fitting clothing that gave a nod to the Eastern component so prominent in their music, were not exactly well-known to most of the crowd, in spite of being very active on the live circuit of the New York/New Jersey region. Like other bands invited to perform at prog festivals for the first time, they were not familiar with the progressive rock scene, as they had previously associated the genre with the symphonic bands of the Seventies and their devoted followers. With four albums under their belt, and extensive touring experience both in the US and abroad, they were obviously very much at home on a stage. Dashing guitarist Gabriel Marin, his blonde mane hidden beneath a quirky cap, sported an obviously custom-made contraption – a fretless double-necked guitar – that allowed him to produce a wide range of sounds. Like many modern instrumental bands, they had a hard, almost metal edge that elicited comparisons with the likes of ProgDay alumni Canvas Solaris and Scale The Summit, though tempered by the warm, organic sound of ethnic percussion. The Indian influence, though less evident than in a quintessential “Indo-prog” band like Shakti, came often to the fore, seamlessly intertwined with fiery fusion and hypnotic space-rock cadences, driven along by bassist John Ferrara and drummer Louis Miller, who tackled elaborate, King Crimson-style polyrhythms with consummate skill. Like a bare-bones Mahavishnu Orchestra (stripped of violin and keyboards) on massive amounts of steroids, modern enough to appeal to the younger, jam-band set, but also with a clear jazz-rock bent – occasionally laced with a funky swagger – that emerged particularly towards the end of their set, Consider The Source took no prisoners, and their blistering performance earned them many new fans.

Gabriel Marin of Consider the Source

We had seen headliners Ilúvatar barely two months ago at the Jammin’ Java, so when their turn came (somewhat late on schedule) we were in a relaxed mood, knowing that their set would be not as demanding than most of the other bands, though definitely every bit as good in terms of quality. The Baltimore quintet were the only band on the lineup to fit the conventional prog mould, though laced with classic and hard rock influences, and solidly song-based – in this respect almost paralleling 2010 Saturday headliners Flash. This was in some ways an even stronger performance than the one witnessed in early July, with lead vocalist Jeff Sirody increasingly at ease in his frontman role. The set opened with longer, more complex compositions, where the influence of Genesis (especially their late Seventies period) was unmistakable, and Jim Rezek’s masterful keyboards got their chance to shine and wow the audience, then moved on to the more streamlined material, in which Sirody’s voice was allowed to rock out. The rhythm section of Dean Morekas (the barefoot bassist) and Chris Mack provided a solid foundation for Rezek and Dennis Mullin’s clear, melodic lead guitar. Unlike other so-called “neo-prog” bands, Ilúvatar avoid sounding cheesy or overtly derivative, and their keen sense of melody makes them eminently listenable, even for those who – like myself – prefer more spice than sugar with their music. With extensive experience as a live outfit (festivals included), Ilúvatar were like a well-oiled machine, and each member gave his best on stage. All in all, it was a very enjoyable performance – which ended when the sun had already disappeared from the horizon and darkness was setting in – and the perfect conclusion to a day characterized by a high intensity quotient.

Dean Morekas and Jim Rezek of Ilúvatar

After helping with the clean-up, we headed back to the hotel to get changed and have some dinner before the customary end-of-festival poolside party. Unfortunately, the weather was not yet done with us, and treated us to a veritable display of pyrotechnics – a fierce heat storm with wild streaks of lightning in the night sky, copious rainfall, and the added excitement of a tornado warning. Needless to say, there was no going near the pool in that weather, but – thanks to the kindness of the staff – the party was held in the hotel lobby, and a great time was had by all.

It was with a touch of sadness that we said goodbye to our friends on Monday morning, before we headed home again. The past weekend was not one that will be easily forgotten, in spite of the weather’s lack of cooperation. Everything else had been perfect, from the music (as usual, enhanced by the pristine sound quality) to the choice of caterers, far superior to the previous years. However, probably the most positive feeling I brought home from the festival was seeing the much-reviled US prog community rally together and decree the edition’s unqualified success, with an almost unprecedented amount of tickets sold, and the presence of some new, younger faces among the audience. The realization that NEARfest is over for good and the FarFest cancellation must have sounded a wake-up call for those who want the scene to thrive, and it was enough to guarantee the festival’s survival for at least another year – and hopefully much longer.

Interestingly, the majority of the bands on this year’s lineup were not easily tagged as “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. On the other hand, their music owed very little to the newfangled (and often soporific) “post-prog” trend spearheaded by Porcupine Tree and their ilk, and offered instead an exciting blend of raw energy, endearing quirkiness and serious chops, liberally spiced with world-music influences. In particular, the power trio format seems to be a perfect fit for the ProgDay stage, as proved by this year’s lineup as well as last year’s, which saw spectacular performances from the likes of Mörglbl, Zevious and Freak Kitchen.

Even more so than the previous editions I had attended, ProgDay 2012 was a celebration of the sheer power and joy of live music. The very atmosphere of the festival, by encouraging bands and audience members to mingle before and after each set (and not just at the hotel bar for the often cliquish “after-parties”), does not foster  the self-centered antics that have occasionally marred higher-profile events. Spending a whole weekend together reinforces the impression of an almost family-like occasion that the larger scale of the other festivals does not allow. And then, even if the open-air setting makes it easy to “tune out”, so to speak, it is also much easier to concentrate by just sitting in your chair and letting the music sink in without the restrictions of a theatre – however comfortable it might be. There is also very little resembling the painstaking dissection of every single note or stage moment that accompanies the bigger festivals. Even if ProgDay may look like a country picnic rather than a “serious” event, the people who attend it year after year are as seriously into the music as those who crowd the hallowed halls of the Zoellner Arts Center.

As usual in my event reviews, the final paragraph is dedicated to all the people who made the festival a success – first of all, chief organizer Michael Bennett and his far-reaching vision, the organizing committee, all the volunteers who worked hard in spite of the punishing heat, the ultra-professional sound and stage crew, and obviously all of the bands. On a personal level, I would also like to thank the collective members of Ephemeral Sun and Accordo dei Contrari, Kathleen Supove of Doctor Nerve, Bob Lord of Dreadnaught, John Ferrara and Louis Miller of Consider The Source, Debi Byrd, Paul and Debbie Sears, “Romantic Warriors” José Zegarra Holder, Adele Schmidt and their daughter Paloma, Mike Potter of Orion Studios, Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records, Lew Fisher, Jeff and Coralita Wilson, Rick Dashiell, Jon and Andrea Reed, Noel Levan and Laura Dent, fellow Stranglers fan Steve Astley, Chris Lamka, Chris Buckley, John Hagelbarger, Mike Visaggio Missy Ferguson, Connie from Missouri (with whom we had a nice talk about cooking), Judson J. Patterson and his fantastic Italian-style sodas, our dear friends Michael Inman and Djalma Carvalho, and – last but not least – the lovely Helaine Carson Burch, who provided some of her outstanding photos for this review.

Links:
http://www.progday.net

Read Full Post »

While other progressive rock festivals have been experiencing problems, or even folded altogether, ProgDay – the world’s longest-running event of this kind –  still soldiers on, and is about to celebrate its 18th anniversary. As usual, the 2012 edition of the “proggers’ picnic” is scheduled to take place on Labor Day Weekend (September 1-2) on the tree-ringed grounds of Storybook Farm, Chapel Hill (North Carolina).

This year’s lineup places a heavy emphasis on homegrown bands, with the whole of the Sunday lineup hailing from the  East Coast of the US  – a bold move indeed, and one  that will afford a unique opportunity for those outfits to showcase their talent  before an appreciative audience in an idyllic setting. The Washington/Baltimore region will be represented by local favourites Ephemeral Sun and Ilúvatar, the lively New York scene by avant-proggers Doctor Nerve and über-eclectic trio Consider The Source, and New England by another couple of label-defying acts, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic (from Boston) and Dreadnaught (from New Hampshire).  Only two non-US acts are scheduled to perform: Italian outfit Accordo dei Contrari, whose 2011 album Kublai garnered the approval of the prog community on both sides of the Atlantic, and Montreal-based quartet Karcius. On the whole, ProgDay’s 2012 sums up all the distinctive features of modern progressive rock, ranging from time-honoured tradition to cutting-edge trends.

Those who are interested in attending will be able to purchase patron passes ($ 140) or ordinary weekend passes ($ 90) in advance from the festival’s website (until August 15). Both kinds of tickets, as well as single-day passes, will also be available at the gate. Detailed information on the event, including music samples, a link to the official hotel and other practical tips, can be found at http://www.progday.net.

Read Full Post »

After a wait that felt even longer than usual (and some disturbances in between), the big day finally dawned, accompanied by a wave of stiflingly humid heat. Unlike our last time at NEARfest, two years ago, when our car broke down the day before the event and we had to rent one in order to make it, this time everything went smoothly. The scenic route that we took, through Pennsylvania Dutch country and the lovely city of Lancaster,  caused us to reach our destination somewhat later than expected, but it was well worth it. Highways are undeniably very convenient, but they often leave a lot to be desired if one wants to see some interesting sights.

As I made it abundantly clear in the three essays I wrote last year after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, I was a bit skeptical about the whole “going out with a bang”  affair. However, the past weekend turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences I have had in a long time – and a sort of watershed moment on a personal level. Indeed, it was so packed with excitement, friendship and great music that it ended up being even more exhausting than usual – especially as the constant adrenaline rush caused me to miss out on sleep for two out of three nights. All in all, though, it was an unforgettable weekend, even if somewhat marred by a rather anticlimactic ending.

After a one-year gap, there was a poignant sense of familiarity when we drove from our hotel to the Zoellner Arts Centre. It was sad to think that it would be the last time (though, of course, you never know how such things are going to pan out), but still we resolved to enjoy the event to the fullest. After visiting the vendor rooms and reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances for a couple of hours, at 7 p.m. we sat down in our comfortable seats (located at the edge of one of the orchestra rows, which meant not getting a 100% complete view of the stage, though with the advantage of being able to move freely) and got ready for the first set of the weekend.

Having heard some music from Belgian chamber rock outfit Aranis prior to the festival, I knew I was going to like them a lot, but I was not prepared for the sheer triumph that was their performance. Judging from the crowd’s reaction, they are the kind of band that – even if tagged as “RIO/Avant” (a label likely to send quite a few prog fans running for the exits) – have a powerful cross-subgenre appeal on account of the strongly melodic nature of their music. The presence of legendary drummer Dave Kerman (a veteran of the NEARfest stage)  added a more definite rock note to the supremely elegant sound of the band – a seven-piece led by Joris Vanvinckenroye, and featuring three very talented female instrumentalists (flutist Jana Arns, accordionist Marjolein Cools and violinist Liesbeth Lambert). With only an amplified nylon-string guitar to anchor the band to the rock ethos, they delivered a positively mesmerizing set, oozing with diverse influences – the biggest of which, to my ears, being Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, together with their fellow Belgians Univers Zero and 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky and Ravel, and a generous sprinkling of Old World folk music. Their compositions, of varying length and understated complexity, were at times almost infectious, with whimsical titles such as “Tomatissimo” or “Spaghetti Polonaise”. Most importantly the band members seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, introducing the songs with liberal helpings of humour, while their outstanding musicianship created a tightly woven flow of beautiful sounds. Dave Kerman’s role in the band was much closer to an orchestra percussionist than a traditional rock drummer, more textural than propulsive; he delighted the audience with an array of exotic instruments, including one that looked like some creature’s jawbone. Aranis provided an amazing start to the festival, and a big hit with the crowd – witnessed by the seemingly never-ending line of people at the post-set signing session.

When I saw Van Der Graaf Generator for the first time at NEARfest 2009, I was extremely impressed by their set. Though I cannot really call myself a fan, I have a lot of respect for them, as they are one of the few Seventies bands that have not turned into a parody of themselves, and are still very much relevant. This was borne out by their choice of playing quite a few items from their latest album, A Grounding in Numbers, alongside the older material that everyone was expecting. However, as much as I wanted to love their set, it left me a bit cold, mainly for reasons related to the setlist. The central part of the performance was taken up by a revamped version of “Flight”, a Peter Hammill solo piece originally included in his 1980 album A Black Box. At over 21 minutes, it went on a bit too long, and was a turn off of sorts for anyone who was not a devoted Hammill fan. Even their choice of  classics was not thoroughly convincing, with the exception of the barnstorming “Scorched Earth” that opened the set. In spite of these misgivings, however, the band were in fine form, with Hammill’s voice every bit as strong as in his Seventies heyday, and Guy Evans and Hugh Banton offering a stunning display of skill and precision coupled with genuine emotion. After a while, however, tiredness got the best of me, and I started drifting off. On the other hand, though Hammill’s voice can be a bit hard to put up with for nearly two hours, he was a delight to watch, and a true gentleman, joking with the audience and looking as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Not bad for a man who almost died of a heart attack nine years ago… Besides his customary piano, Hammill also played electric guitar on a few songs, showing how the band and their songwriting have adapted to the trio format. Though not the highlight I expected the set to be, it was a fine performance nonetheless.

As tired as I was, I did not get much sleep that night, and on Saturday morning I was not feeling exactly my best. We got early to the venue, and spent a pleasant couple of hours checking out the vendors and chatting with various people before we sat down for the opening act of the day – Connecticut jazz-rock quartet Helmet of Gnats, who were one of the bands I was most interested in seeing. I had got acquainted with their material through their MySpace site and Progstreaming, and their set confirmed my early impressions: stunning chops and potentially great music, but not too strong on the songwriting front. It took them a while to warm up, and for the first couple of songs they hardly communicated with the audience, which brought back memories of Astra’s dismal set in 2010. However, this was clearly due to the overwhelming emotion of having finally fulfilled their dream of performing at the festival after an 11-year wait. After the first awkward 15 minutes or so, the band hit their stride, and guitarist Chris Fox proved to be a warm and endearing frontman, especially when he introduced the band and explained the ties of family and friendship binding its members. The music – which at times reminded me, in style if not in actual content, of the sadly disbanded D.F.A. – had moments of riveting beauty, especially when keyboardist Matthew Bocchino fired up the Hammond organ and seamlessly meshed with Fox’s beautifully clear, fiery guitar in a fashion that made me think of Colosseum II. The tracks, all quite long, tended to ramble a bit, with highly exhilarating moments alternating with lulls that caused the attention to wander somehow. People who are not into jazz-rock/fusion may have found them a bit hard to follow, due to the overall lack of cohesion at the compositional level. However, they are an extremely talented bunch of musicians who genuinely enjoy playing together, with a keen sense of humour as displayed by their song titles and rather hilarious name – whose origin I finally learned later during the day, when I got to meet the band in the lobby. I hope to have the pleasure to see them again in the future, and perhaps review their next album.

Having never having been a follower of the original neo-prog scene (with the sole exception of Marillion in their early incarnation), I was barely familiar with Twelfth Night, and my expectations were also quite low. My increasing tiredness prevented me from staying longer than the first three songs (at that point, I really needed to take a break), but I would be lying if I said they were the worst band I have ever seen, as other attendees instead claimed. With only one of the original members left (drummer Brian Devoil), and two members of fellow UK band Galahad on board, they mostly sounded like a cross between an Eighties synth-pop band and a glam-metal one, with some occasional symphonic prog influences thrown in for good measure. Their look was also a throwback to the Eighties, with a penchant for the use of visuals and stage props; the mannequin in the 19-minute epic “We Are Sane”, accompanied by politically-charged images on the screen, made me think of Pink Floyd circa The Wall and The Final Cut. In spite of the not exactly enthusiastic reception on the part of the audience, and plagued by a host of technical issues, the guys in the band were delighted to be there (it was their first ever US appearance) and gave their best. Though Andy Sears is undeniably a good frontman, I did not care for his vocals, nor did the piercing, whistling sound of the synthesizer do anything for me; however, the band’s brash, punk-tinged energy held the attention of those who stuck around. Though some attendees thought that Twelfth Night were out of place in the lineup, there is a sizable part of the prog audience that enjoys their particular take on progressive rock, and one of the reasons for NEARfest’s success in the past 14 years has been precisely their “big-tent” approach.

With a new album (titled Viljans Öga) about to be released, 18 years after Epilog, and a 9-year hiatus since their last tour, Swedish legends Änglagård were probably the most highly anticipated act on the lineup. While I was familiar with their seminal debut, Hybris, I had never really connected with their music as I did with their contemporaries Anekdoten. When we sat down for their set (which started somewhat late on schedule), my head was almost drooping with weariness, and I feared I would be forced to sit it out. However, things changed rather quickly once the band started playing.  An extremely tight unit performing exclusively instrumental music, they often bordered on Avant territory, and their new material sounded angular and occasionally menacing. In spite of their reputation as a “retro-symphonic” act, Änglagård were anything but a nostalgia-fest, and easily transcended any attempts at pigeonholing – even if the two Mellotrons gracing the stage were enough to send hardcore proggers into fits of delight. After the three talented ladies in Aranis, it was great to see more female talent in the guise of Anna Holmgren, who effortlessly switched from flute to sax to Mellotron. The band performed all but one track from their forthcoming new album, plus two from Epilog and the iconic “Jordrök” – the manifesto of the Swedish prog renaissance of the early Nineties. Although all of the five band members delivered impressive performances, the true star of the set was drummer Mattias Olsson, a pint-sized concentrate of flawless technique, inventiveness and humour – the real engine at the heart of the band’s intricate yet seamless sound, duly assisted by Johan Brand’s booming, muscular bass lines. All in all, it was a truly riveting set by a band that amply deserves its near-legendary status.

My habitual readers, who are used to reviews of rather left-field material, will probably be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed Renaissance’s set. While many prog fans love their output, others (including many of my fellow attendees) consider it terminally cheesy. In my case, though I do tend towards more challenging  material, I have also been exposed from a young age to all kinds of music, including opera and musicals, and will readily admit to having a soft spot for Renaissance’s classic Seventies albums. Though my favourite female vocalists tend to be assertive rather than angelic, I find Annie Haslam – the voice who launched a thousand  imitators – a delightful listen, and their lush melodies appeal to what you might call my typically feminine side (as well as my Italian heritage). Having missed last year’s tour, we were happy to see the band perform Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories in their entirety. At the beginning Annie’s voice may not have been as smooth or self-assured as it was in the second half of the set, but then it became an effortless thing of beauty. In my view, Renaissance were the perfect choice to follow the demanding complexity of Änglagård – a very relaxing, enjoyable listen, made even more pleasing by Annie’s gracious manner and positive aura (even if her reference to God fell a bit flat). As much as I love the edgier stuff, sometimes it is nice to kick back and sing along to gorgeous tunes such as “A Trip to the Fair” or “Carpet of the Sun” (performed by Haslam and Michael Dunford as an acoustic duo, and dedicated to the organizers). The set ended with new track “The Mystic and the Muse” – an interesting composition with some breathtaking vocal acrobatics.

After all the praise I had heaped on their third album, Glue Works, Gösta Berlings Saga were the act I was most looking forward to – and that in a festival that featured much higher-profile names. My rave review had turned some of my friends on to the band’s music, while my husband had so far remained impervious to their charms. However, last Sunday he walked out of Baker Hall as a convert, as did most of the 1,000-odd people that witnessed that career-defining performance. Simply dressed in black, the four fresh-faced Swedes, in spite of a grueling trip (they missed their connecting flight, and arrived in Bethlehem in the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday), put up a show that summed up everything great music should be about. Although some people are desperately trying to put a label on them (are they post-rock, avant-prog, Zeuhl, or what?), they are one of those rare outfits who manage to sound like no one else. Fuelled by genuine passion, they literally brought the house down, eliciting standing ovation after standing ovation, and transmitted their passion to the audience, affecting many of us on a physical level. The powerfully exhilarating swell of the music was interspersed by pauses of gentle quiet, like the calm before (or after) the storm, and their use of repeated build-up patterns created an uncannily mesmerizing effect. Einar Baldursson’s guitar sliced through the dense web of sound emanating from David Lundberg’s bank of keyboards (employed for texture rather than as the main event, as in so much “traditional” prog); while Gabriel Tapper’s deep-toned Rickenbacker bass, together with Alexander Skepp’s electrifying drumming – a veritable tumultuous waterfall of sound – drove the music along relentlessly. In a set of astonishing perfection, two tracks stood out: the jaw-droppingly beautiful modified blues of “Västerbron 5.30” (with a haunting vibraphone passage that brought me close to tears), and the sensational rendition of “Island” at the close of the set – a sonic poem dedicated to the land of ice and fire, a “Starless” for the 21st century, further enhanced by a supercharged guest appearance by Mattias Olsson on assorted sound effects.

Though for completely different reasons, Il Tempio delle Clessidre were high on my list of bands to see at NEARfest. I had been in contact with them for some time after their participation was announced, and a touch of patriotic pride in me wanted them to be a great success. Even if Gösta Berlings Saga would have been a tough act to follow for everyone, the five-piece from Genoa more than proved their worth. Led by the lovely and talented Elisa Montaldo – a young Siouxsie Sioux dressed in a black Victorian-style outfit – and featuring the warm, rugged vocals of former Museo Rosenbach vocalist Stefano “Lupo” Galifi, they owned the stage for 90 minutes. Blending the feel of vintage Italian prog with harder-edged vibes (provided by bassist Fabio Gremo and guitarist Giulio Canepa’s energetic, metal-inspired stage presence, as well as Paolo Tixi’s rock-solid drumming), their music was powerful, flawlessly executed yet rich in emotional content. Galifi’s voice owes more to blues and soul (he cited James Brown and Wilson Pickett as major influences) than to opera, in spite of the common misconception that any music coming out of Italy has to be “operatic” to some degree. Many in the audience were expecting to be treated to the whole of Zarathustra, Museo Rosenbach’s renowned 1973 album, though they had to content themselves with an extract of stunning intensity. Together with most of their self-titled debut album, the band performed three excellent new songs, as well as a cover of Kansas’ “Paradox” that segued into “L’Attesa”. One of the highlights of the set was the mostly instrumental “Danza Esoterica di Datura/Faldistorum”, which saw the band don masks and Elisa perform a sort of esoteric ritual that included a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Those who (probably forgetting about Peter Gabriel and his fox mask) indicted them of cheesiness were clearly not familiar with the ancient Greek and Roman tradition of wearing masks on stage, nor with the rich body of witch-related lore of the band’s home region of Liguria. Visibly moved by the experience of playing before such a crowd in a state-of-the-art venue, the band members brought to bear the skills acquired in their extensive live activity, and their performance was full of the sheer joy of sharing such a career-defining moment.

Alongside Twelfth Night, Mike Keneally Band were the only other act on the lineup I was not familiar with, though I had listened to a couple of songs on YouTube prior to the event. Like Änglågard on the previous day, they took to the stage somewhat late on schedule (around 5 p.m.), and finished equally late. Like the English band, they have their dedicated following, but left a sizable number of attendees rather cold, though for completely different reasons. An extremely talented outfit, led by guitarist/composer Mike Keneally (known for his stint with Frank Zappa, as well as a solo career) and featuring, among others, bassist Bryan Beller and (in a touch of exquisite irony) Umphrey McGee’s drummer Kris Myers, they play the kind of music that is undeniably progressive, but not in the way that will usually appeal to the average traditional prog fan. On a personal level, I was quite drained after the one-two punch of the first two sets, and had to leave after the first hour or so because of prior commitments. Moreover, in spite of its evidently high quality, I found that I could not relate to the music – even though liking the band’s eclectic, mainly song-based approach, with its emphasis on guitar rather than keyboards and warm jazz and blues influences. Mike Keneally proved a genial frontman, though his vocals were a bit of an acquired taste, as well as an outstanding guitarist. The band played some of the songs written by Keneally together with one of the most respected songwriters on the modern music scene, Andy Partridge of XTC fame; while Chris Buzby of Echolyn joined them on stage  for “Dolphins Medley”. Unfortunately, the billing did somewhat hurt an otherwise excellent band, as people were tired and hungry at that time of the day. I hope to have the opportunity to see them again when I am in better shape to appreciate their considerable talent.

Unlike many other attendees, my husband and I had not been particularly looking forward to Eloy as a headliner, and their almost last-minute replacement with UK was more to our taste (though we were obviously very sorry about Frank Bornemann’s health issues). As the Washington DC date had been cancelled due to poor ticket sales, we were glad to be able to see the band in such a historic occasion. Unfortunately, what happened on Sunday night gave new meaning to the saying “careful what you wish for”.  Due to technical issues, the band appeared on stage nearly 2 hours late (it was close to 11 p.m.), and then,  when everyone was seated and the lights went down, nothing happened for about 10 minutes – so that the crowd got restless, and some boos were heard. At that point, I was exhausted, and my husband even more so, and so annoyed that I contemplated leaving even before the start of the set (which was preceded by the obligatory round of credits to everyone involved in the making of the festival). Though we ended up staying for the first half an hour or so, I found myself completely unable to enjoy anything – even when the band played “Starless”, one of my favourite pieces of music ever – and started finding fault with almost everything. The very loud volume did not help to relieve our sense of exhaustion, so – even if  I knew I was going to miss some songs I have always adored – there was no choice for us but to leave and try to get some rest before heading back home the following day. It was deeply saddening, but in some ways also quite cathartic. To me, it felt as if that performance (which, in any case, most of the audience seemed to love) signaled the end of an era, and showed that it was time for the prog community to shed its Seventies obsession and move forward.

As we walked out of the venue, a few drops of rain were falling, and everything was quiet. On the way back to our hotel, we reflected that perhaps that was a fitting conclusion to a spectacular run of festivals, and in a way represented the current state of the progressive rock scene – torn between the glory days of the past and the fresh, irrepressible energy and creativity of the new guard. A band like Änglagård, in many ways, embodies the best of both worlds, and this is why they would have amply deserved that headliner spot that, unfortunately, seems to be denied to anyone not originating from the Seventies.

When we headed back home on Monday morning – still exhausted but happy – it was raining heavily, and the magnificent “Island” was playing in our car, reminding us of the moments of true glory of the past weekend. Even as relative newcomers to the festival scene, it was hard not to feel a pang of sadness for what had just ended; however, it was compounded by a sense of hope that something might soon be rising from the ashes.  Many thoughts have been running through my head in the past few days, but I will keep them for a separate article that will hopefully come some time in the next few weeks.

Anyway, it was encouraging to see many other women (even if there were no lines for the ladies’ restrooms), and also a few younger attendees, some of them barely out of their teens, and already so knowledgeable about progressive rock. As for myself, perhaps for the first time since I moved to the US, three and a half years ago, I felt as if I might finally feel at home in this country, especially when I saw so many people interested in my welfare after my recent immigration-related woes. I was also positively surprised to see my name mentioned at least twice in the programme (which I got Roger Dean to sign, as you can see from the photo above): it is always good to see your hard work pay off, even if not in monetary terms.

Before I wrap up my review, I would like to thank organizers Rob LaDuca, Chad Hutchinson and Kevin Feeley (as well as all their collaborators) for an unforgettable weekend, and for all the effort they put out to make the festival a reality, in spite of headaches such as having to find a suitable replacement for Eloy barely one month before the event, and having to deal with an occasionally troublesome bunch of “customers”. I understand why they are throwing in the towel, and hope that someone will be there to pick up from there. Kudos to them for the tribute to DFA’s keyboardist Alberto Bonomi (who tragically passed away one year ago) included in the programme.  Frank Bornemann’s touching video salute to the audience did not fail to move even those who were not Eloy fans, and the plugs for two forthcoming festivals – ProgDay and FarFest – were also a welcome touch that showed a commendable community spirit.

As usual, I also wish to mention all the great people I met during this amazing weekend: the collective members of Aranis, Gösta Berlings Saga and Helmet of Gnats, and of course my fellow Italians of Il Tempio delle Clessidre, as well as other great artists such as Raimundo Rodulfo, Dan Britton, Lynnette Shelley of The Red Masque with her gorgeous medieval-inspired art, Cyndee Lee Rule, the members of Echolyn, Matthew Parmenter and Matthew Kennedy of Discipline, and my friends Robert James Pashman and George Dobbs of 3RDegree, Phideaux Xavier, Ariel Farber and Linda Ruttan-Moldavsky of Phideaux, and Alan Benjamin (with his lovely wife Amy) and Joe D’Andrea of Advent. Then , Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder – whose latest venture Romantic Warriors II – About RIO was a big hit with the crowd, MoonJune Records head honcho Leonardo Pavkovic and his friend Sasha, Cuneiform Records’ Steve Feigenbaum and his wife Joyce, Greg Walker and his treasure trove of music, my DC-SOAR cohorts Tom Hudon, Mark Chapman and Debi Byrd, Steven Berkin of Exposé magazine, Mike Potter of the Orion Studios, Jeff and Coralita Wilson, Laura A. Dent and her husband Noel Levan, David Gaines, Helaine Carson Burch, Terri Simmons, Ian Carss (with his daughter Alex), John Hagelbarger, Rick Dashiell, Buster Harvey, über Italian prog fan Leo Hadley Jr. and his wife, and everyone else I may have forgotten to mention. Thanks also to everyone who stopped by and complimented me on my writing, and a special mention to our friend H.T. Riekels. It was great to see him again after two years.

This review is dedicated to two friends who, while we were having such a great time, were experiencing the worst moment of their lives – The Muffins’ drummer Paul Sears, whose son Niall lost his life in Afghanistan last Friday, and his wife Deborah. There is nothing I can say that will comfort them in their loss, but I hope to meet them again when they have regained a measure of peace.

Read Full Post »

Greg Walker is a well-known name in the international community of progressive rock fans as the man behind Syn-Phonic, one of the biggest online purveyors of CDs and other musical goodies – possibly the one offering the widest range of material, and definitely one of the most knowledgeable (and friendly) people in the business. US-based fans will also remember him as the organizer of ProgFest, a successful run of festivals that took place between 1993 and 200o in the Los Angeles area.

After retiring from the festival business, and spending  the next decade concentrating on the promotion of progressive rock through his extensive catalogue (including regular appearances at the major prog festivals such as NEARfest and RoSfest), in 2011 Walker decided to throw his hat into the arena once again. A self-professed fan of European prog, with a particularly soft spot for the Italian scene of the Seventies, Walker planned a pull-out-all-the-stops extravaganza that would offer to the US prog audience  the unique opportunity of seeing a number of cult Seventies bands together on the same stage.

Though his original plans of holding the event in 2011 as a replacement of sorts for NEARfest 2011 (hence the punning name of Farfest), even if somewhat later during the year, were foiled by the impossibility of  finding a suitable venue at a rather short notice, Walker took advantage of the extra time allowance to assemble a line-up that sounds like a dream come true for fans of the European scene of the golden age of prog. The event,  spread over 4 days, and scheduled to take place at the impressive Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware (pictured above) – a very convenient location, situated halfway between Washington DC and New York City, and close to major airports such as Baltimore and Philadelphia – will host a whopping 13 bands, some of them still active, others reformed just for the occasion.

True to his passion for Italian prog, Walker has given pride of place to Italian bands, with the recently reunited Latte E MieleLocanda Delle Fate, Alphataurus and Maxophone. Three French bands of the Seventies – Atoll, Pulsar and Shylock – will also appear, as well as Poland’s SBB  and “Prog Andaluz” standard-bearers Mezquita. The only two bands from English-speaking countries will be legendary US outfit Cathedral (who will perform their famed 1978 album Stained Glass Stories in its entirety) and London-based  band Cressida, one of the protagonists of the early English scene. The lineup will be completed by two highly-rated bands from more recent years, Anekdoten from Sweden and Wobbler from Norway.

As the above paragraphs make it abundantly clear, Farfest 2012’s main target are not fans of progressive rock in its more contemporary incarnations. The event is geared towards the “nostalgia crowd” – those people who think the Seventies will never be equalled in terms of musical output, and who have a personal “bucket list” of bands to see before they throw in the towel for good. Even if one might disagree with this direction, there is no denying that event will be remembered for a long time, and may well provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the ailing US festival scene. It  remains to be seen if a successful response in terms of audience will convince Walker to repeat the event (originally planned as a one-off) in the future.

Patron tickets – which, at $ 350 are rather expensive, though they give access to the best seats, as well as providing financial support to the event, increasing the chance of its survival – have been put on sale in mid-April. General ticket sales will open on May 21 at 10 a.m.. The Grand Opera House has 1,200 seats, so there should be enough room for everyone interested in attending. Farfest 2012 has its own website featuring very thorough information on the event, as well as pages on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, which can be accessed from the main site.

Links:
http://www.farfest.com


http://synphonic.8m.com/index.htm

Read Full Post »

Bassist Michael Schetter (born in Poland as Michał Pruchnicki) moved to Germany with his family at the age of 7, and his now based in the German city of Nürnberg  (known to English speakers as Nuremberg), in the south-eastern region of Bavaria.  He made his recording debut in 2010 with the multi-national progressive fusion band Relocator, whose self-titled first album featured keyboardist extraordinaire Derek Sherinian as a special guest, and was very positively received on the prog scene.

The difficulties encountered by modern, non-mainstream bands and artists in finding live gigs spurred Schetter to try his hand at organizing his own festival, Generation Prog – a two-day event that took place in Nürnberg  in September 2011. A few months later, Schetter unveiled his latest venture – a brand-new label, called Generation Prog Records. To further the debate on the future of progressive rock, and support the endeavours of those who are striving to move the genre forward, I have approached Michael and asked him a few questions about his experience as a festival organizer and independent label owner.

————————-

First of all, what prompted you to take the plunge and organize your own festival? Was it a spur-of-the-moment decision, or rather something that developed in your mind over time?

 It was something that developed over time. The original idea was just to play a few gigs with my own band Relocator – preferably with a decent number of people in the audience! And how do you do that when you have just one album out? You team up with other bands. We had already been working on plans for a small tour with a couple of other bands in late 2010 and, while that didn’t quite work out, we ended up using some of the contacts from that time to lay the groundwork for the festival. In early 2011 we put together a gig that teamed Relocator with fellow German proggers Effloresce and Dante as a test run. After that we figured that if we were going to do this, we should be going for something bigger than just two or three bands. After all, the ads in magazines and the posters all around town cost us the same, no matter whether it’s a tiny gig or a full-blown weekend festival.

Effloresce

Though the European situation, in spite of the well-publicized debt crisis, is quite different from the one in the US, I am sure my readers on this side of the Atlantic will be curious about the steps you took to make the festival come to fruition. Can you expand a bit upon that?

 We had been talking to a few bands about possible gigs together – Exivious (even back in late 2009!), Haken, Andromeda. When all of them had signaled interest in playing a possible prog festival in Nürnberg, I was convinced that we had a potential lineup special enough to attract people from quite far away.

The next step was finding a suitable venue. We had been talking to the staff of the Luise in Nürnberg before and my enthusiasm for this international festival finally won them over. It’s a great venue, but since it’s a youth center first and foremost, it can be quite hard to land a gig there – unless you’re a punk band composed of local 16-year-olds.

Then came the search for sponsors. We got some great press for the Relocator/Effloresce/Dante gig and I think that helped a lot – I managed to secure some financial support from the city of Nürnberg, and then some local music companies (Meinl, BTM Guitars, Musik Klier) helped us out with gear –it’s not easy to find a rental drum kit that will satisfy the typical prog metal drummer!

I also managed to secure a collaboration with our biggest local newspaper, the Nürnberger Nachrichten, and both Eclipsed magazine and local radio afk max officially presented the event, so we had quite a bit of support from the media.

Exivious

 

I remember that, when you were in the process of putting the lineup together, you stressed that you did not want any old-timers on the bill. What can you tell me about the band selection process?

The initial idea was simply to team Relocator with some bands where our music wouldn’t seem totally out of place. As a fellow instrumental band, Exivious were always my first choice, so I was very happy to have them on board. But I didn’t want too many instrumental bands on the bill, so the idea was to add bands who have great singers, but who also know how to write gripping instrumental sections within their songs – that way we’d satisfy those fans who want vocals in their prog while (hopefully) having many of their fans appreciate our material as well.

There were other considerations as well: If I was going to stage a prog festival, it would have to be a platform for the newer bands shaping the prog scene right now! If people want to see any of the more established bands play, they can just attend their tours anyway. But if you look at a band like Andromeda, who I think are easily one of the best progressive metal bands on the scene, they had four albums out when the festival took place – and yet the last time they had played a gig in Germany was in 2006! Haken were lucky enough to score a slot at the Night of the Prog festival last July, but other than that there was no way to see them live in Germany, and Exivious played their first gig on German soil at our festival. So it was a pretty special combination! People easily forget how unique these things can be – maybe the next time you’ll get to see a band, they won’t be playing those great songs from their current album anymore? Or maybe some key members will have left? Or they will break up before you ever get a chance to see them? People like to get nostalgic about gigs from some prog legend’s classic period – well, for some bands that future “classic period” is right now! Maybe if people were supporting them instead of buying some 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition reissue of an album they’ve already bought twice, there would be more gigs for the current bands to get nostalgic about a few decades down the road.

Andromeda

So I was very aware how few good opportunities there are for bands to present their music to an appreciative audience, both as a musician and as a fan myself. Most of the time, the bigger bands who can afford to tour either bring their own support act (often picked by the label and not a particularly good fit musically) or just play all by themselves. I think it’s a shame and it makes it really difficult for newer bands to get noticed. That leads to another idea that played a part in the band selection: Since a prog festival won’t draw thousands of people, adding local bands with a following can really make a difference. So in the end we ended up with a 50/50 ratio of international and local bands. I’m not sure it’ll be possible to do that again without too many repeats (the regional prog scene here isn’t too big), but we certainly take our local bands seriously.

Ocean Spout

The festival lineup was mostly oriented towards progressive metal, which is somewhat controversial among older prog fans. As you are also a jazz and fusion fan, what made you decide to keep to more or less to a single subgenre, rather than branch out?

First of all, I somewhat disagree with this assessment. We had only three bands who were decidedly metal: Andromeda, Effloresce and Exivious – the latter even with a strong fusion element to their sound. The other five bands had some metal elements to their sound, but I wouldn’t say those were predominant. For example, Subsignal are hardly a heavy metal band, but they don’t shy away from a nice riff if it works for the song. And I think that actually goes to show why metal had such a presence in the overall sound: It’s just quite hard to find a modern prog band who doesn’t assimilate at least some of that into its sound. After all, being open to different musical styles is what leads many people to prog in the first place!

Subsignal

But all that aside, I think your preface already answers the question: prog fans tend to be picky and often dismissive of certain subgenres. If you mix things up too much, there will be a lot of coming and going between bands. With really large events that is not much of an issue, but with the smaller audiences that prog gigs usually draw it can be a real problem. I didn’t want an event where the total numbers were satisfactory while individual bands ended up playing to just a tiny fraction of the audience. I’ve seen that happen at local gigs too many times, it’s just frustrating for the musicians. I wanted a lineup that maximizes turnout while keeping the audience somewhat homogeneous throughout. I might actually put together some fusion festival at some point, it would just have to be separate from the prog metal stuff.

 If you had to mention the most frustrating and the most rewarding aspect of the whole festival organizing experience, which would you choose?

Most frustrating: Doing accounting work in the back office while Haken were playing their headlining set on Friday was pretty frustrating. But the worst was clearly the fact that not ONE website, magazine or newspaper actually sent anyone to cover the whole event. Quite a few told us they were going to, but for various reasons in the end none of them came. So while we ended up with lots of photos from the event, there was not a single review. Very disappointing!

Most rewarding: Getting off the stage with my own band Relocator and getting our backs patted (literally and figuratively) by the guys from Andromeda. It was quite daring to schedule our set right between the two main bands on Saturday, but rather than flee the scene, the audience stayed with us until the end and gave us a huge applause. It was great!

Haken

Have you already started planning the 2012 edition of the festival? Will you be implementing any changes, or are you happy with the way things worked in 2011?

I’ve been working on some plans, but it’s too early to tell if there’s going to be a 2012 festival. I don’t necessarily want to stage an annual event at all costs. Sure, it would be nice, but if I can’t get the right lineup together for a 2012 festival, I’d rather skip one year than put on a show that I don’t fully believe in. It’s just too much work – to a certain degree, I am doing this for myself.

How did you get the idea of starting your own label? Was it a consequence of the festival’s success, or something that you had already been thinking about?

It had nothing to do with the festival, although obviously expanding the “Generation Prog” brand to include the label was the logical decision once it all got started. No, the idea was born out of the experience with promoting the Relocator album on our own and from discussions with some other artists (especially Effloresce, who became the first to join the label). It’s pretty hard for a single band to generate some media interest all on its own and buying magazine ads just for a single album (with little distribution) rarely makes sense financially. A label can run ads for several bands at the same time and it has more than just one CD to advertise and to distribute, so it makes a lot more sense. The idea was for this to be beneficial for everyone involved.

Theory of Elements

You have two bands signed to Generation Prog Records so far – Relocator and Effloresce. Have you already approached other bands or solo artists? Are you planning to concentrate on local acts, or provide a haven for bands from other parts of Europe (or even outside Europe)?

I don’t care if the band is local or European. I have been talking to some artists and I have been approached by a staggering number of bands, but I don’t want to rush things, my day only has 24 hours, and on top of that I am pretty picky when it comes to the music. But there’s one band in particular that I would really like to work with and unless they get snatched up by a bigger label first, we might well end up putting out their album later this year.

On the label’s Facebook page it is stated that Generation Prog Records specializes in “modern progressive music”, and, as also pointed out on its official website, Relocator and Effloresce occupy different ends of the prog spectrum. Are you planning to sign even more diverse acts, or rather concentrate on the fusion and prog metal side of things?

I’m open to all sorts of things, but I tend to dismiss bands that I would classify as more regular (non-prog) metal or pop, for example. It’s not necessarily because I don’t like the music, but the whole label idea only works when there’s some sort of synergy. If I promote a bunch of stylistically somewhat similar bands, I can deal with mostly the same media in promoting them, and hopefully some fans of one band will discover a few of the others through the label affiliation. Ideally, you end up with a label whose name implies a certain style and quality level. That won’t work if I end up working with death metal and pop/rock bands, no matter how good they may be, and they would be worse off because in many cases I wouldn’t even know where to promote them.

Are you planning to release physical CDs, or rather opt for a digital format?

Ideally we would always have a physical CD release, but I could imagine some things like live recordings being download only.

Are there any independent record labels that you would like to take as an example for your venture, or would you rather want to provide something unique?

I don’t want to emulate anyone, but I’ve always been a fan of Ken Golden’s labels – The Laser’s Edge, Sensory and Free Electric Sound.

You will agree with me that it takes some courage to start a new independent label at a time when artists are threatened by the seemingly uncontrollable (and uncontrolled) diffusion of illegal downloading. Do you think it is still worth bothering with record labels in this day and age? Do you see Generation Prog Records as a sort of mission to help fellow artists?

1. Yes (don’t even get me started…).

2. Yes, if both the label’s and the artist’s expectations are realistic – then it can be mutually beneficial. If not, it can be a very bad idea.

3. Yes, but there’s only so much we can do, and it has to be a collaborative effort.

What are Relocator’s plans for 2012, and possibly beyond that?

Right now we are preparing for a couple of gigs – on April 13 we’ll be playing at a smaller Generation Prog live event (a bit of a mini-festival, if you will) with Dreamscape, Counter-World Experience and Effloresce in Nürnberg, and on April 14 we’ll be joining the mighty Haken and Flaming Row in Rüsselsheim. Two gigs in a row – for us that’s a record!

After that, we’ll hopefully start working on our second album. Stefan [Artwin, Relocator guitarist and co-founder] has been writing new material, and right now there are six tracks in various states of completion. It might be enough for an album, especially once everyone starts adding ideas to the basic demos, but it’s too early to tell.

Relocator

And now for the million-dollar question… From your unique perspective as an artist/festival organizer/label owner, how do you see the future of the progressive rock scene? Do you think that the genre’s popularity has already reached its apex, and a decline is inevitable, or do you still keep an optimistic outlook?

First of all, there’s probably no such thing as *the* progressive rock scene, which is what makes these events so much more difficult. You have various sub-groups of people who all consider themselves prog fans but who couldn’t agree on anything. But I think the music itself is doing quite well. There’s a lot of variety to the prog of today and no matter whether you want your prog to be adventurous and fresh, or just the way you know it from the 70s, there’s a lot of music being released. I think one of the most interesting aspects of prog is the openness to new influences, so I think (the retro bands aside) the music remains as interesting and modern as ever if you know where to look – especially since the technological advances make it possible for even obscure bands to put out albums that sound quite professional. So there’s no lack of interesting new music. If anything, I’d say these days the abundance of well-produced recordings is becoming a problem – there’s only so much music that listeners have the time to deal with! And with every year, a new band has to compete with even more classic albums out there.

But while there’s a lot of recorded music coming out, I think there’s a striking lack of gigging opportunities for prog bands, especially the newer ones. It’s pretty bad, because so many people have been convinced that playing live is where bands make money these days (a popular excuse for piracy). The reality is very different for most prog bands. Decent gigs are rare. Decent gigs that you don’t lose any money on are even rarer. But at least I’ve seen quite a few new people promoting prog gigs in their region recently, so maybe the situation is about to improve?

 Thank you very much for your patience in answering my questions, and all my best wishes for your new label! I will be looking forward to reviewing some of your releases.

Links:

http://www.generation-prog.com/

http://www.relocator-project.com/

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »