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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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As the title of this post suggests, 2013 was another bumper year for progressive music – perhaps without as many peaks of excellence as the two previous years, but still offering a wide range of high-quality releases to the discerning listener. On the other hand, it was also a year in which the need for some form of quality control emerged quite sharply. The sheer number of releases that might be gathered under the “prog” umbrella made listening to everything a practically impossible feat – unless one wanted to risk some serious burnout. As modern technology has afforded the tools to release their own music to almost anyone, it has also fostered a sense of entitlement in some artists as regards positive feedback, even when their product is clearly not up to scratch. 2013 also evidenced the growing divide within the elusive “prog community”, with the lingering worship of anything Seventies-related in often sharp contrast with the genuine progressive spirit of many artists who delve deep into musical modes of expression of a different nature from those that inspired the golden age of the genre.

While, on a global level, 2013 was fraught with as many difficulties as 2012, personally speaking (with the exception of the last two or three months) the year as a whole was definitely more favourable – which should have encouraged me to write much more than I actually did. Unfortunately, a severe form of burnout forced me into semi-retirement in the first few months of the year, occasionally leading me to believe that I would never write a review ever again. Because of that, I reviewed only a small percentage of the albums released during the past 12 months; however, thanks to invaluable resources such as Progstreaming, Progify and Bandcamp, I was able to listen to a great deal of new music, and form an opinion on many of the year’s highlights.

I apologize beforehand to my readers if there will be some glaring omissions in this essay. As usual, my personal choices will probably diverge from the “mainstream” of the prog audience, though I am sure they will resonate with others. This year I have chosen to use a slightly different format than in the previous two years, giving more or less the same relevance to all the albums mentioned in the following paragraphs. Those who enjoy reading “top 10/50/100” lists will be better served by other websites or magazines: my intent here is to provide an overview of what I found to be worthy of note in the past 12 months, rather than rank my choices in order of preference.

Interestingly, two of my top 2013 albums (both released at the end of January) came from the UK – a country that, in spite of its glorious past, nowadays rarely produces music that sets my world on fire. Although the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Guapo’s History of the Visitation and the lyricism and subtle complexity of Thieves’ Kitchen’s One for Sorrow, Two for Joy may sound wildly different, they both represent a side of the British progressive rock scene where the production of challenging music is still viewed as viable, and image-related concerns are a very low priority.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK was prodigal with interesting releases for every prog taste. Among the more left-field offerings coming from the other side of the pond, I will mention Sanguine Hum’s multilayered sophomore effort, The Weight of the World – one of those rare albums that are impossible to label; Godsticks’ intricate, hard-hitting The Envisage Conundrum; the unique “classical crossover” of Karda Estra’s Mondo Profondo; The Fierce and the Dead’s fast and furious Spooky Action (think King Crimson meets punk rock); Tim Bowness’ Henry Fool with Men Singing, their second album after a 12-year hiatus; and Brighton-based outfit Baron (who share members with Diagonal and Autumn Chorus) with their haunting Columns. A mention is also amply deserved by volcanic multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson’s projects Jumble Hole Clough and Churn Milk Joan – whose numerous albums are all available on Bandcamp. The prize for the most authentically progressive UK release of the year, however, should probably be awarded to Chrome Black Gold by “experimental chamber rock orchestra” Chrome Hoof, who are part of the Cuneiform Records roster and share members with their label mates Guapo.

The US scene inaugurated the year with the late January release of Herd of Instinct’s second album, Conjure, a completely instrumental effort that saw the basic trio augmented by Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards fleshing out the band’s haunting, cinematic sound. Ellett’s main gig (who will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2014) also made their studio comeback with The Trip, featuring a single 47-minute track combining ambient, electronics-laden atmospheres (as per self-explanatory title) with a full-tilt psychedelic rock jam. Later in the year, Little Atlas’ solid Automatic Day and Sonus Umbra’s brooding Winter Soulstice brought back two bands that had long been out of the limelight. From the US also came a few gems that, unfortunately, have almost flown under the radar of the prog fandom, such as The Knells’ eponymous debut with its heady blend of post-rock, classical music and polyphony; Jack O’The Clock’s intriguing American folk/RIO crossover All My Friends; Birds and Buildings’ über-eclectic Multipurpose Trap; The Red Masque’s intensely Gothic Mythalogue; and the ambitious modern prog epic of And The Traveler’s The Road, The Reason.

The fall season brought some more left-field fireworks from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions and Cuneiform Records. miRthkon’s Snack(s) and ZeviousPassing Through the Wall, both outstanding examples of high-energy modern progressive rock by two veritable forces of nature in a live setting, were preceded by Miriodor’s long-awaited eighth studio album, Cobra Fakir, premiered at ProgDay in an utterly flawless set. More RIO/Avant goodness came from Europe with Humble Grumble’s delightfully weird Guzzle It Up, Rhùn’s Zeuhl workout Ïh, October Equus’s darkly beautiful Permafrost, and Spaltklang’s unpredictable In Between. From Sweden came Necromonkey’s self-titled debut, an idiosyncratic but fascinating effort born of the collaboration between drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson and Gösta Berlings Saga keyboardist David Lundberg.

Among the myriad of prog-metal releases of the year, another UK band, Haken, stood head and shoulders above the competition: their third album The Mountain transcended the limitations of the subgenre, and drew positive feedback even from people who would ordinarily shun anything bearing a prog-metal tag. Much of the same considerations might apply to Kayo Dot’s highly anticipated Hubardo, though the latter album is definitely much less accessible and unlikely to appeal to more traditional-minded listeners. Fans of old-fashioned rock operas found a lot to appreciate in Circle of Illusion’s debut, Jeremias: Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms, a monumentally ambitious, yet surprisingly listenable album in the tradition of Ayreon’s sprawling epics, rated by many much more highly than the latter’s rather lacklustre The Theory of Everything.

Some of the year’s most intriguing releases came from countries that are rarely featured on the prog map. One of my personal top 10 albums, Not That City by Belarus’ Five-Storey Ensemble (one of two bands born from the split of Rational Diet) is a sublime slice of chamber-prog that shares more with classical music than with rock. Five-Storey Ensemble’s Vitaly Appow also appears on the deeply erudite, eclectic pastiche of fellow Belarusians (and AltrOck Productions label mates) The Worm OuroborosOf Things That Never Were. The exhilarating jazz-rock-meets-Eastern-European-folk brew provided by Norwegian quintet Farmers’ Market’s fifth studio album, Slav to the Rhythm, was another of the year’s highlights, guaranteed to please fans of eclectic progressive music. From an even more exotic locale, Uzbekistan’s own Fromuz regaled their many fans with the dramatic Sodom and Gomorrah, a recording dating back from 2008 and featuring the band’s original lineup.

In the jazz-rock realm, releases ran the gamut from modern, high-adrenalin efforts such as The AristocratsCulture Clash, Volto!’s Incitare by (featuring Tool’s drummer Danny Carey), and keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni’s debut Keystone (produced by Derek Sherinian) to the multifaceted approach of French outfit La Théorie des Cordes’ ambitious, all-instrumental double CD Singes Eléctriques, the sprawling, ambient-tinged improv of Shrunken Head Shop’s Live in Germany, and the hauntingly emotional beauty of Blue Cranes’ Swim. Trance Lucid’s elegantly eclectic Palace of Ether and the intricate acoustic webs of Might Could’s Relics from the Wasteland can also be warmly recommended to fans of guitar-driven, jazz-inflected instrumental music.

Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records, however, proved throughout the year as the most reliable single provider of high-quality music effortlessly straddling the rock and the jazz universe, with the triumphant comeback of Soft Machine Legacy and their superb Burden of Proof, The Wrong Object’s stunning slice of modern Canterbury, After the Exhibition, and Marbin’s sophisticated (if occasionally a a bit too “easy”) Last Chapter of Dreaming. Pavkovic’s frequent forays into the booming Indonesian scene brought masterpieces such as simakDialog’s fascinating, East-meets-West The 6th Story, and I Know You Well Miss Clara’s stylish Chapter One – as well as Dewa Budjana’s ebullient six-string exertions in Joged Kahyangan. Dialeto’s contemporary take on the power trio, The Last Tribe, and Dusan Jevtovic’s high-octane Am I Walking Wrong? also featured some noteworthy examples of modern guitar playing with plenty of energy and emotion.

Song-based yet challenging progressive rock was well represented in 2013 by the likes of Half Past Four’s second album, the amazingly accomplished Good Things, propelled by lead vocalist Kyree Vibrant’s career-defining performance; fellow Canadians The Rebel Wheel’s spiky, digital-only concept album Whore’s Breakfast;  Simon McKechnie’s sophisticated, literate debut Clocks and Dark Clouds; and newcomers Fractal Mirror with their moody, New Wave-influenced Strange Attractors. New Jersey’s 3RDegree also released a remastered, digital-only version of their second album, Human Interest Story (originally released in 1996). Iranian band Mavara’s first international release, Season of Salvation, also deserves a mention on account of the band’s struggles to carve out a new life in the US, away from the many troubles of their home country.

Even more so than in the past few years, many of 2013’s gems hailed from my home country of Italy, bearing witness to the endless stream of creativity of a scene that no economic downturn can dampen. One of the most impressive debut albums of the past few years came from a young Rome-based band by the name of Ingranaggi della Valle, whose barnstorming In Hoc Signo told the story of the Crusades through plenty of exciting modern jazz-rock chops, without a hint of the cheesiness usually associated with such ventures. Another stunning debut, the wonderfully quirky Limiti all’eguaglianza della parte con il tutto by Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res, delighted fans of the Canterbury scene; while Not A Good Sign’s eponymous debut blended the angular, King Crimson-inspired melancholia of Änglagård and Anekdoten with that uniquely Italian melodic flair. After their successful NEARfest appearance in 2012, Il Tempio delle Clessidre made their comeback with  AlieNatura, an outstanding example of modern symphonic prog recorded with new vocalist Francesco Ciapica; while fellow Genoese quintet La Coscienza di Zeno made many a Top 10 list with their supremely accomplished sophomore effort, Sensitività. Another highly-rated Genoese outfit, La Maschera di Cera, paid homage to one of the landmark albums of vintage RPI – Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona – by releasing a sequel, titled Le Porte del Domani (The Gates of Tomorrow in its English version). Aldo Tagliapietra’s L’angelo rinchiuso saw the legendary former Le Orme bassist and frontman revert to a more classic prog vein, while iconic one-shot band Museo Rosenbach followed the example of other historic RPI bands and got back together to release Barbarica. Even PFM treated their many fans to a new double album, though scarce on truly new material: as the title implies, PFM in Classic: Da Mozart a Celebration contains versions of iconic classical pieces performed by the band with a full orchestra, as well as five of their best-known songs. Among the newcomers, Camelias Garden’s elegant You Have a Chance presents a streamlined take on melodic symphonic prog, while Unreal City’s La crudeltà di Aprile blends Gothic suggestions with the classic RPI sound; on the other hand, Oxhuitza’s self-titled debut and Pandora’s Alibi Filosofico tap into the progressive metal vein without turning their backs to their Italian heritage. Il Rumore Bianco’s Area-influenced debut EP Mediocrazia brought another promising young band to the attention of prog fans.

However, some of the most impressive Italian releases of the year can be found on the avant-garde fringes of the prog spectrum. Besides Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days (featuring contributions by Thinking Plague’s Elaine DiFalco, as well as most of his Yugen bandmates), OTEME’s superb Il giardino disincantato – a unique blend of high-class singer-songwriter music and Avant-Prog complexity – and the sophisticated, atmospheric jazz-rock of Pensiero Nomade’s Imperfette Solitudini deserve to be included in the top albums of the year. To be filed under “difficult but ultimately rewarding” is Claudio Milano’s international project InSonar with the double CD L’enfant et le Ménure, while Nichelodeon’s ambitious Bath Salts (another double CD) will appeal to those who enjoy vocal experimentation in the tradition of Demetrio Stratos.

My readers will have noticed a distinct lack of high-profile releases in the previous paragraphs.n Not surprisingly for those who know me, some of the year’s top-rated albums (such as The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, The Flower KingsDesolation Rose and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) are missing from this list because I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to them. Others have instead been heard, but have not left a positive enough impression to be mentioned here, and I would rather focus on the positives than on what did not click with me. In any case, most of those albums have received their share of rave reviews on many other blogs, websites and print magazines. I will make, however, one exception for Steven Wilson’s much-praised The Raven Who Refused to Sing, as I had the privilege of seeing it performed in its entirety on the stage of the Howard Theatre in Washington DC at the end of April. Though the concert was excellent, and the stellar level of Wilson’s backing band undoubtedly did justice to the material, I am still not completely sold about the album being the undisputed masterpiece many have waxed lyrical about.

In addition to successful editions of both ROSfest and ProgDay (which will be celebrating its 20th  anniversary in 2014), 2013 saw the birth of two new US festivals: Seaprog (held in Seattle on the last weekend of June) and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (held in Dunellen, New Jersey, on October 12-13). As luckily both events enjoyed a good turnout, 2014 editions are already being planned. There were also quite a few memorable concerts held throughout the year, though we did not attend as many as we would have wished. In spite of the often painfully low turnout (unless some big name of the Seventies is involved), it is heartwarming to see that bands still make an effort to bring their music to the stage, where it truly belongs.

On a more somber note, the year 2013 brought its share of heartache to the progressive rock community. Alongside the passing of many influential artists (such as Peter Banks, Kevin Ayers and Allen Lanier), in December I found myself mourning the loss of John Orsi and Dave Kulju, two fine US musicians whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing in the past few years. Other members of the community were also affected by grievous personal losses. Once again, even in such difficult moments, music offers comfort to those who remain, and keeps the memory of the departed alive.

In my own little corner of the world, music has been essential in giving me a sense of belonging in a country where I will probably never feel completely at home. Even if my enjoyment of music does have its ups and downs, and sometimes it is inevitable to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of new stuff to check out, I cannot help looking forward to the new musical adventures that 2014 will bring.

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For most up-and-coming progressive rock bands, while recording an album may be relatively easy because of the advantages offered by modern technology, giving exposure to their music has become increasingly difficult and frustrating. Indeed, as I have often pointed out in these pages, the market is oversaturated, opportunities to play live can be few and far between, and gigs often poorly attended. However, there are some brave souls who have made a mission out of helping new artists gain recognition, making full use of the many possibilities offered by the Internet.

One of these people is Nikola Savić, founder of the thriving ProgSphere website, to which I have been contributing articles for the past couple of years. The site, besides the usual reviews, interviews and other assorted news items on the progressive rock universe (with an eye to modern developments such as prog metal, but also a healthy respect for the icons of the genre and its decades-long history), has produced a number of podcasts and 12 compilations of new music, called Progstravaganza, launched in August 2010. With over 22,000 downloads, these compilations  have had a remarkable success for an independent endeavour, presenting a wide range of bands and artists – from standard-bearers of the modern psychedelic space-rock scene such as Astra or My Brother the Wind to the elegant jazz-rock of D.F.A. and Forgas Band Phenomena, from the cutting-edge jazz-metal of Exivious and Blotted Science to the heady eclecticism of Moraine, Herd of Instinct and Gösta Berlings Saga. A massive 79-track sampler of tracks taken from the first 11 Progstravaganza compilations has recently been made available on the site’s Bandcamp page.

Less than two weeks ago, ProgSphere has announced that a 13th Progstravaganza compilation is in the pipeline, and invited bands and artists to submit their music for inclusion. It is an opportunity not to be missed, as Progstravaganza XIII – to be released at the end of July – will be promoted by more than 50 radio stations, and every participant will be covered in depth in the compilation’s digital booklet. The contact information for anyone interested in participating in the initiative can be found in the first of the links below.

Links:
http://www.prog-sphere.com/news/prog-sphere-announces-new-progstravaganza-compilation-and-calls-on-bands-to-take-part/

http://prog-sphere.bandcamp.com/album/progstravaganza-i-ix

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No doubt about it: 2012 was a difficult year for most of us. True to the Italian saying about leap years being unlucky, 2012 ran the gamut from weather-related disasters, wars and other acts of random violence to political malfunction and economic near-collapse, sparing almost no part of the world. There was no lack of disruption in my own little world either. In spite of all my good resolutions, the year started with a few weeks of less than stellar physical condition (nothing serious, but enough to grind most of my projects to a halt), and then I was hit by a double-whammy of bureaucracy-related problems that –  while obviously not tragic – caused enough distress to cast a pall over the remaining months.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 2012 I have been less prolific a reviewer than in previous years, or that the views on this blog have somehow decreased, though not dramatically so. Constant stress can wreak havoc on inspiration, and at times it was hard to come up with a coherent sentence – let alone an 800-word review. However, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of worry and general annoyance, music has remained a source of delight and (as the title of this essay points out) comfort when things got really tough.

The number of progressive rock-related albums released during 2012 was nothing short of staggering. The second decade of the 21st century started indeed with a bang in 2011, and, at least for the time being, the trend does not show any signs of being reversed. Many of those albums were made available for streaming (at least for a limited time) by websites such as Progstreaming, Bandcamp or Soundcloud, allowing the often cash-strapped fans a “test run”. On the other hand, the sheer volume of new releases made it necessary to pick and choose to avoid being overwhelmed. While confirming the vitality of the genre, this also showed one of the downsides of the digital age – the oversaturation of the market, and frequent lack of quality control.

As my readers know, I do not do “top 10/20/50/100” lists, leaving this exercise to people who are interested in arranging their choices according to a more or less strict order of preference. From my perspective, there have been milestone releases, and others that – while perhaps not equally memorable – still deserve a mention. On any account, even more so than in the previous year, 2012 has emphasized the ever-widening gulf between the retro-oriented and the forward-thinking components of the prog audience. Sometimes, while looking at the reviews pages of some of the leading websites of the genre, I have had the impression that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) the twain shall hardly ever meet. In the US, such a split has been detrimental to the festival scene – though the void left by NEARfest’s demise may lead organizers to step out of their typical audience’s comfort zone in order to attract a more diverse crowd.

Though I am most familiar with albums that I have reviewed, or otherwise own, there are others that have left enough of an impression to deserve a mention in this post. As my choices have been mainly informed by personal taste, I will apologize beforehand for any major omissions. While I may consider those albums essential listening, some of my readers will certainly disagree with me, and suggest their own personal picks –and this is exactly how things should be. Indeed, as the French would say, vive la différence!

Although I have built a reputation as a fan of the more “difficult” stuff, one of my favourite albums of the year (and one that is likely to be featured in many top 10 lists) is an album that, in many respects, is not even “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. However, Echolyn’s self-titled eighth studio album – unlike so many true-blue prog releases – is a masterpiece of songwriting, instrumentally tight without any concessions to self-indulgence, and packing a huge emotional punch. Another highly awaited, almost unexpected comeback – 18 years after the band’s previous studio effort – Änglagård’s third studio album, Viljans Öga, reveals a keen, almost avant-garde edge beneath its pastoral surface, well highlighted in their impeccable NEARfest appearance.

2012 was a milestone year for what I like to call the “new frontier” of prog – less focused on epic grandeur and more song-oriented. In the second decade of the 21st century, “progressive rock” and “song” are not antithetic concepts any longer, and going for 5 minutes instead than 15 is not a sign of sell-out. Three albums in particular stand out: 3RDegree’s The Long Division, a perfect combination of great melodies, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship with the added value of George Dobbs’ Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals; the Magna Carta reissue of MoeTar’s 2010 debut From These Small Seeds, a heady blend of catchy hooks, edgier suggestions and Moorea Dickason’s stellar, jazz-inflected voice; and Syd Arthur’s delightful “modern Canterbury” debut, On And On – infused with the spirit of early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

As in the previous years, in 2012 the ever-growing instrumental prog scene produced some outstanding albums. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson wowed devotees of high-energy jazz-rock with Imposing Elements, the second installment of his one-man project – inspired by the industrial Gothic paintings of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. In the early months of 2012, French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena made a triumphant recording comeback with the exhilaratingly accomplished Acte V. Another two excellent Cuneiform releases, Ergo’s second album If Not Inertia and Janel & Anthony’s lovely debut, Where Is Home, while not immediately approachable, will gradually win over the discerning listener with their deep emotion and lyricism. In a similar vein, A Room for the Night by drummer extraordinaire John Orsi (the mind behind Providence-based collective Knitting By Twilight) provides a veritable aural feast for percussion lovers. On the cusp of prog, jazz and metal, the aptly-titled Brutal Romance marks the thunderous return of ebullient French power trio Mörglbl, led by Christophe Godin’s humour-laden guitar acrobatics. Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records specializes in instrumental music of a consistently high standard of quality, and this year’s landmark releases were no exception: Indonesian powerhouses Ligro (Dictionary 2) and Tohpati Bertiga (Riot), Canadian quartet Mahogany Frog’s rivetingly eclectic Senna, and douBt’s towering Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love – all of them true melting pots of rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelia. Also very much worthy of exploration, Kotebel’s Concert for Piano and Electric Ensemble revisits and updates the marriage of classical music and progressive rock with a heady dose of traditional Spanish flavour.

The left-field fringe of the progressive rock spectrum was spearheaded by the tireless efforts of dedicated labels such as Cuneiform Records and AltrOck Productions. One of  2012’s musical milestones – the long-awaited sixth studio album by seminal US Avant outfit Thinking Plague, titled Decline and Fall – was released in the very first weeks of the year. Mike Johnson’s monumentally intricate, intensely gloomy reflection on humankind’s impending Doomsday was complemented by a Thinking Plague-related project of a vastly different nature  – the charming, Old-World whimsy of 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard, Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco’s transatlantic collaboration with Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille. By an intriguing coincidence, almost at the tail end of the year came the stunning live album by one of the foremost modern RIO/Avant outfits, Yugen’s Mirrors – recorded at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux (France). A special mention is also deserved by Cuneiform’s touching tribute to RIO icon Lars Hollmer, With Floury Hand (sketches), released four years after the artist’s untimely passing.

On the Zeuhl front, founding fathers Magma made their comeback with the short and unusually low-key Félicité Thosz, proving once again Christian Vander’s versatility and seemingly endless reservoir of ideas; while the US produced an astonishing example of Zeuhl inspired by Aztec mythology – multi-national outfit Corima’s second album Quetzalcoatl. Eclectic albums such as Cucamonga’s Alter Huevo, Inner Ear Brigade’s Rainbro (featuring another extremely talented female vocalist, Melody Ferris) and Stabat Akish’s Nebulos – as well as chamber-rock gems such as Subtilior’s Absence Upon a Ground  and AltrOck Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes RIO – reinforced AltrOck’s essential role in the discovery of new, exciting talent on the cutting edge of the progressive rock scene. Also worthy of a mention as regards the Avant-Progressive field are the politically-charged Songs From the Empire by Scott Brazieal, one of the founding fathers of the US Avant scene; the exhilarating Sleep Furiously by English outfit Thumpermonkey;  the wacked-out return of cult Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat, titled Valta; and French quartet Jack Dupon’s energetic double live CD set, Bascule A Vif . The Avant-Progressive scene was also celebrated in the second episode of José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt’s documentary film series dedicated to progressive rock , Romantic Warriors II – About Rock in Opposition.

The year was also noted for hotly anticipated comebacks from high-profile acts:  first of all, Rush, who were also finally inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the joy of their substantial following. Their Clockwork Angels, while not a life-altering masterpiece, is definitely their strongest effort in almost 20 years. 2012 also saw the release of Ian Anderson’s Thick As a Brick 2, mixed by none other than Steven Wilson (also responsible in 2012 for the 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson’s seminal Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) – a solid, well-crafted album, though not on a par with the original. While King Crimson seem to have been put on hold indefinitely, Robert Fripp has not been idle, and the elegant Travis/Fripp CD/DVD package Follow offers a complete aural and visual experience – suitably rarefied yet spiked by almost unexpected electric surges – to diehard fans of the legendary guitarist.

On the “modern prog” front, standard-bearers The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album Noctourniquet marks a return to form for the band, as it is their tightest, most cohesive effort in quite a long time. The Tea Club’s third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly confirms the status of the New Jersey band (now a trio) as one of the most interesting modern outfits, with a respectful eye towards the golden age of the genre; while Gazpacho’s deeply atmospheric March of Ghosts offers another fine example of English label KScope’s “post-progressive” direction. In a more accessible vein, Canadian/Ukrainian duo Ummagma’s  pair of debut albums, Ummagma and Antigravity,  will appeal to fans of Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins with their ethereal yet uplifting feel.

Though I cannot call myself a fan of progressive metal, the debut albums by female-fronted German band Effloresce (Coma Ghosts) and Israeli outfit Distorted Harmony (Utopia) made enough of an impression to deserve a mention here; while Diablo Swing Orchestra’s Pandora’s Piñata – the band’s most mature effort to date – transcends the boundaries of the genre.  At the very beginning of the year, Steve Brockmann and George Andrade’s opus AIRS: A Rock Opera updates the classic rock opera format while deftly avoiding the cheesiness of other similar efforts, concentrating on a moving tale of guilt and redemption interpreted by an array of considerable vocal and instrumental talent.

The thriving contemporary psychedelic/space rock scene also produced a slew of fine albums that combine modernity and eclecticism with an unmistakable retro touch: among many others, Øresund Space Collective’s mellow West, Space and Love, Earthling Society’s eerie pagan-fest Stations of the Ghost, Colour Haze’s Krautrock-influenced double CD set She Said, Diagonal’s fiery The Second Mechanism, Astra’s highly awaited (though to these ears not as impressive as the others) second album, The Black Chord. Fans of Krautrock, and Can in particular, should also check out Black and Ginger by Churn Milk Joan, one of the many projects by volcanic English multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson (of Big Block 454 fame); while Australian band Tame Impala’s Lonerism will appeal to those who like psychedelic rock in a song-based format.

As prolific and varied as ever, the Italian progressive rock scene produced a number of remarkable albums ranging from the classic symphonic prog of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Pt. 1, Alphataurus’ comeback AttosecondO and Locanda delle Fate’s The Missing Fireflies (featuring both older and new material) to more left-field fare such as Nichelodeon’s live album NO, Stereokimono’s Intergalactic Art Café and Daal’s Dodecahedron. Another of Fabio Zuffanti’s many projects besides Höstsonaten, L’Ombra della Sera, presents an appealingly Gothic-tinged, almost completely instrumental homage to the soundtracks of cult Italian TV series of the Seventies. Aldo Tagliapietra’s Nella Pietra e Nel Vento, his first release after his split from Le Orme, a classy, prog-tinged singer-songwriter effort, boasts a splendid cover by Paul Whitehead. The prize of most impressive RPI album of the year, however, goes to Il Bacio della Medusa’s ultra-dramatic historical concept Deus Lo Vult, with side project Ornithos’ eclectic debut La Trasfigurazione a close second.

Of the many “traditional” prog albums released in 2012, one in particular stands out on account of its superb songwriting: Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1, an effort of great distinction though not as impressive as its predecessor, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Autumn Chorus’ debut The Village to the Vale also celebrates the glories of England’s green and pleasant land with a near-perfect marriage of pastoral symphonic prog and haunting post-rock; while Israeli outfit Musica Ficta’s A Child & A Well (originally released in 2006) blends ancient and folk music suggestions with jazz and symphonic prog. Released just three weeks before the end of the year, Shadow Circus’ third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night (their first for 10T Records), based on Madeleine L’Engle’s cult novel A Wrinkle in Time, fuses symphonic prog with classic and hard rock in an exhilarating mixture. On the other hand, Pacific Northwest trio Dissonati’s debut, Reductio Ad Absurdum, gives classic prog modes a makeover with influences from new wave and avant-garde. Highly touted outfit District 97’s sophomore effort, Trouble With Machines, proves that the Chicago band is much more than a nine days’ wonder, showcasing their  tighter songwriting skills, as well as vocalist/frontwoman Leslie Hunt’s undeniable talent and charisma.

With such a huge wealth of releases, it was materially impossible for me to listen to everything I would have wanted to, and my personal circumstances often impaired my enjoyment of music, as well as my concentration. Among the releases of note that I missed in 2012 (though I still hope to be able to hear in 2013), I will mention Beardfish’s The Void, Anathema’s Weather Systems, Dead Can Dance’s comeback Anastasis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (another comeback, released after a 10-year hiatus), AranisMade in Belgium, The Muffins’ Mother Tongue, Alec K. Redfearn and the EyesoresSister Death, and Motorpsycho’s The Death-Defying Unicorn. All of these albums have been very positively received by the prog community, even if they will not necessarily appeal to everyone.

As was the case with my 2011 retrospective, quite a few highly acclaimed prog albums will be missing from this article. This implies no judgment in terms of intrinsic quality, but is simply determined by personal taste. Albums such as The Flower KingsBanks of Eden, Marillion’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made or IZZ’s Crush of Night (to name but three) –although thoroughly professional and excellent from a musical point of view – failed to set my world on fire. A pure matter of chemistry – as further demonstrated by my lack of enthusiasm for Storm Corrosion’s self-titled album (which reflected my reaction to Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning in 2011), or Mike Keneally’s undoubtedly outstanding Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC fame.

2012 was also a great year for live music, with both big names and new talent hitting the road. While we missed some of the former (such as Rush and Peter Gabriel), as well as this year’s edition of RoSfest,  the one-two punch of NEARfest Apocalypse and ProgDay 2012 more than made up for it. Unfortunately, the all-out Seventies bash named FarFest, organized by a veteran of the US prog scene such as Greg Walker, and planned for early October 2012 – was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, reinforcing the impression that the era of larger-scale prog festivals may well be coming to an end (in spite of the announcement of Baja Prog’s return in the spring of 2013). On the other hand, the much less ambitious ProgDay model is likely to become the way forward, as are the smaller, intimate gigs organized by people such as Mike Potter of Orion Studios, the NJ Proghouse “staph”, and our very own DC-SOAR.

With an impressive list of forthcoming releases for every progressive taste, 2013 looks set up to be as great a year as the previous two. In the meantime, we should continue to support the independent music scene in our best capacity – not just by buying albums or writing about them, but also attending gigs and generally maintaining a positive, constructive attitude. I would also like to thank all my friends and readers for their input and encouragement, which has been invaluable especially whenever the pressures of “real life” became too hard to bear. If this piece has seen the light of day, it is because you have made me feel that it was still worth it.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Gnocchis On The Block (5:22)
2. Brutal Romance (4:54)
3. Le Surfer d’Argentine (6:42)
4. Golden Ribs (6:47)
5. Fidel Gastro (6:48)
6. Oh P1 Can Not Be (4:54)
7. Cantal Goyave (5:09)
8. Glucids In The Sky (6:12)
9. Wig Of Change (5:24)
10. Metal Khartoom (5:23)
11. 11 Casse (3:49)

LINEUP:
Christophe Godin – guitars
Ivan Rougny – bass
Aurélien Ouzoulias – drums and percussion

Hailing from the south-eastern French town of Annecy, Mörglbl are one of the vehicles for guitarist Christophe Godin’s considerable talent.  With five studio albums under their belt (the first released in 1998 under the band’s original name of Mörglbl Trio), they revisit the time-honoured rock staple of the power trio with dazzling technique and liberal doses of tongue-in-cheek humour. This has earned them a loyal following all over the world, especially in the US, where they have toured frequently in the past few years: in fact, they were one of the  headliners of the 2011 edition of ProgDay, and managed to energize the crowd in spite of the relentless heat and humidity.

The absurdist, pun-laden titles of the 11 tracks featured on Brutal Romance are so entertaining that almost make you regret the absence of vocals (which are instead present on Godin’s excellent 2011 album with Gnô, Cannibal Tango). The music, however, is definitely nothing to laugh at, combining often unrelenting heaviness in the shape of dense, crunchy riffs with a laid-back, jazzy feel and even occasional exotic influences like reggae or Latin and Eastern rhythms. While comparisons aplenty have been made with the likes of Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and a host of other guitar luminaries, Mörglbl have their own distinctive approach, which privileges actual composition over empty displays of technical fireworks.

As a band whose output is not easily categorized, the “prog” label never fails to amuse the members of Mörglbl– which is understandable to anyone who is aware of the average prog fan’s seemingly boundless desire to pigeonhole anything they can lay their hands on. While their music is complex and extremely proficient from a technical point of view, Mörglbl do not follow the conventional prog template: they do not use keyboards, and their compositions tend to be rather short. However, even a superficial listen to Brutal Romance will reveal undeniable progressive characteristics, such as eclecticism and unpredictability. Moreover, even if the instrumental format can often lead to rambling, Godin and his cohorts keep a tight rein on the compositional aspect, and avoid an unstructured feel even in those tracks that feature plenty of variation.

Opener “Gnocchis on the Block” introduces both the harder-edged and the jazzy component of Mörglbl’s sound – reminding me somehow of a heavier version of Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow or Wired. Unlike what you might expect by a band featuring a “guitar hero”, Godin’s guitar acrobatics do not overwhelm the contributions of his bandmates: indeed, Aurélien Ouzoulias’ drums and Ivan Rougny’s bass are not just wallpaper for Godin’s fireworks. In that, Mörglbl may bring to mind Rush, whose influence can be detected in quite a few tracks, such as the mid-paced, riff-heavy title-track. The heavy fusion of “Glucids in the Sky” and the funk-metal workout of “Cantal Goyave” rely on Rougny’s nimble, rumbling bass lines and Ouzoulias’ assertive drum patterns as much as on Godin’s dazzling guitar. On the other hand, “Oh P1 Can Not Be” veers squarely into Black Sabbath territory with its deep, harsh riffing only marginally relieved by more melodic guitar passages.

One of three tracks approaching the 7-minute mark, “Le Surfer d’Argentine” – which, as its title suggests, features a nod to a well-known tango tune alongside the driving riffs – offers an intriguing blend of melody and heaviness with a distinctly eclectic bent. “Golden Ribs” and “Fidel Gastro” alternate mellow passages with piercing, shred-like guitar parts – the latter starting out with an almost danceable, upbeat tune. Echoes of King Crimson emerge in the steady, insistent guitar line of “Wig of Change”, which also allows Ivan Rougny’s bass to shine; while “Metal Khartoom”, as the title suggests, blends fast and heavy riffing with a haunting Eastern tinge and jazzy bass-drum interplay. The album is then brought to a close by the lovely mood piece of “Casse”, where Godin’s unusually sensitive guitar brings to mind some of Gary Moore’s slow, emotional compositions.

Though, as hinted in the opening paragraph, Mörglbl are best experienced in a live setting – which allows them to display both their skills and their zany sense of humour – their latest release will satisfy lovers of instrumental music that successfully combines eclecticism, light-heartedness and serious chops. Challenging without being overwrought, hard-edged but eschewing the cerebral excesses of some jazz-metal bands, Mörglbl are one of the few bands of their kind that manage to make instrumental music entertaining. While it can be said that the band stick to a tried-and-true formula, and therefore there are no real surprises in Brutal Romance, they also do it with the right amount of flair, and manage to keep the listener’s attention. The album is highly recommended to fans of guitar-based instrumental progressive rock – though tolerance for some heaviness is a must.

Links:
http://www.christophegodin.com/

http://www.myspace.com/christophegodin

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Crib (8:12)
2. Spectre Pt. 1: Zorya´s Dawn (10:34)
3. Pavement Canvas (8:58)
4. Undercoat (2:54)
5. Swimming Through Deserts (7:11)
6. Shuteye Wanderer (16:31)

LINEUP:
Nicki Weber – vocals, growls, flute
Dave Mola – guitars, keyboards
Sebastian Ott – bass
Tobi Süß – drums, djembé
Tim Ivanic – guitars

My readers will probably have noticed the near-lack of progressive metal reviews on my blog if compared to other blogs and sites. Indeed, even if I am a longtime fan of classic heavy metal, the cross-fertilization of the genre with progressive rock has always left me rather cold – with very few exceptions. On the other hand, I believe it is essential for a reviewer to be exposed to a variety of subgenres within the broader spectrum of prog, and to recognize quality even when a particular subgenre does not exactly set our world on fire. Like it or not, prog metal is here to stay, and its role in reviving a genre that is very much at risk of becoming stale or simply irrelevant – as well as drawing the younger generations to it – cannot be understated.

Based in the historic Bavarian city of Nuremberg, five-piece Effloresce were formed in 2008 by guitarist/keyboardist Dave Mola and drummer Tobi Süß after the demise of their previous band, Falling Nature. After releasing an EP titled Shades of Fate in 2009, the band appeared at the first edition of the Generation Prog festival (it was their first gig with new bassist Sebastian Ott), and were subsequently signed by the new Generation Prog record label, founded by Relocator bassist Michael Schetter. Their full-length debut, Coma Ghosts – mixed and mastered by Dan Swanö (of Edge of Sanity fame) – was released in February 2012. They were also scheduled to appear at the 2012 edition of Fused Festival in the UK, but unfortunately the event was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. A couple of months after the album’s release, guitarist Tim Ivanic had to leave the band, but was promptly replaced by Chris Steingen.

Female-fronted prog metal bands are a dime a dozen these days, and listeners might be forgiven for thinking that Effloresce are yet another outfit in the popular yet somewhat tired “Beauty and the Beast” vein. Now, while vocalist Nicki Weber (who also plays flute, and is responsible for all the lyrics) is definitely an attractive young woman, she can play both roles and deliver some mean death-metal growls to offset her clear, soaring tones. Though it would be easy to lump her with the ever-growing crowd of Tarja Turunen followers, her voice often suggests a folk background rather than an operatic one – especially when she tackles more subdued material such as the ballad-like “Swimming Through Deserts”. To be honest, I generally have little time for gothic/symphonic metal bands: however, I found Nicki’s singing genuinely pleasing to the ear, and could not help admiring her for engaging in one of the most controversial routines on the music scene, especially as far as prog is concerned. While her growling (very judiciously used) is not as ferocious as Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow’s, it does add an unexpected edge to the band’s overall sound – which is undeniably heavy, but always melodic and tuneful.

Though it is not easy for “traditional” prog metal acts to escape the all-powerful influence of Dream Theater, Effloresce manage to avoid the blatant plagiarism that dooms so many productions. They pay their dues to the New York titans mainly in the album’s opening track, “Crib”, where Dave Mola’s keyboards (including mellotron) play a more relevant role than in the rest of the album, while the catchy chorus anchors the song to the more accessible side of  symphonic/progressive metal. However, the Opeth influence emerges in the 10-minute “Spectre Pt 1: Zorya’s Dawn”, whose heavy. Sabbathian opening flows into a tense, guitar-led section relieved by the ethereal tone of the vocals and the gentle note of Nicki’s flute; growls, riffs and fast drum beats keep the heaviness quotient going. Similarly, “Pavement Canvas” juxtaposes melodic guitar with harsh riffing and blast beats, with percussion adding a faint ethnic flavour.

The short instrumental “Undercoat”, based on majestic keyboard washes overlaid with bell-like percussion and creaky guitar sounds, introduces the haunting “Swimming Through Deserts”, a melancholy piece inspired by Opeth’s Damnation album, with poignantly sweet vocals and lovely, mellow guitar work. The album is brought to a close by the epic-length “Shuteye Wanderer”, a remarkably cohesive, 16-minute piece that brings together the melodic and aggressive strains of the previous songs, spanning a range of such diverse influences as Opeth, Metallica, Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd, and spotlighting Nicki’s versatility as a vocalist.

Clocking in at about 54 minutes, Coma Ghosts goes against the current trend for long albums (particularly evident in the prog metal field), and its 6 tracks are tightly composed and quite filler-free. For a debut album from a young band, it definitely impresses, even if it is unlikely to convert those who are still on the fence as regards the progressive metal subgenre. Effloresce surely have enough talent to develop an even more personal style, and the potential to branch out and try something more challenging for their next recording effort. A special mention  goes to the professional quality of the album’s packaging, with a comprehensive booklet including lyrics and outstanding artwork (by Nicki and guitarist Dave Mola) and photography.

Links:
http://www.effloresceonline.com/

http://effloresce.bandcamp.com/

http://www.myspace.com/effloresceonline

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

http://www.sunflowermedia.de/

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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.

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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/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://10trecords.com/

 

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