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Archive for the ‘Progressive Rock’ Category

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Canterbury Bells (4:50)
2. Duke Street (4:47)
3. Muffin Man Redux (7:23)
4. Lost in a Photograph (4:21)
5. Blind Eye (4:56)
6. Shwang Time (4:58)
7. Rovian Cue (4:10)

LINEUP:
Dave Newhouse – keyboards, woodwinds, drums
Billy Swann – bass
Paul Sears – drums
Mark Stanley – guitar
George Newhouse – drums
Steve Pastena – French horn

As wonderfully illustrated by Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder’s superb documentary Romantic Warriors III – Canterbury Tales, the Canterbury scene expanded well beyond the borders of Great Britain, spawning a number of excellent bands in other countries. One of those outfits was The Muffins, a four-piece with an idiosyncratic configuration (drums, bass and double woodwinds) originally established in 1973 in the Maryland/Washington DC area, and reformed in the late Nineties after a lengthy hiatus. Though drummer Paul Sears’ move to Arizona in 2010 has curtailed the band’s live appearances, their recording activity has not ground to a halt, with two albums released in the past five years. The band members have also been contributing to several interesting projects in the field of progressive music.

Named after The Muffins’ 1978 debut album – one of the essential Canterbury-related releases – Manna/Mirage is the newest project by founding member Dave Newhouse (one of the band’s two woodwind players). Not surprisingly, fellow Muffins Billy Swann and Paul Sears are also on board, as well as Newhouse’s son George, guitarist Mark Stanley (of Chainsaw Jazz and Thee Maximalists), and newest recruit, Steve Pastena, on French horn. The ensemble’s debut, released in the autumn of 2015, bears the title of Blue Dogs – a title inspired by a painting by artist and RIO/Canterbury fan Gonzalo Fuentes Riquelme (aka Guerrilla Graphics), which graces the CD cover. The album was mixed and produced by none other than Mike Potter of Orion Studios – probably the most important venue for progressive music in the US, and the setting of The Muffins’ most recent performance to date, in May 2015.

As related in detail on Manna/Mirage’s website, Blue Dogs was originally meant as half of a big- band album by The Muffins. Clocking in at a mere 35 minutes, the album is such a rewarding listen that it almost feels like the appetizer before a full meal – jam-packed with buoyant horns and woodwinds, energetic yet stylish drumming, multilayered keyboards and keen-edged guitar. While the imprint of Newhouse’s mother band is clearly stamped all over it, Blue Dogs goes one step further, bearing witness to the artist’s love of classic jazz, as well as the Canterbury sound’s trademark blend of elegance and whimsy.

In the aptly-titled opening track “Canterbury Bells”, the titular bells are provided by a gently lilting glockenspiel, while Newhouse’s jaunty keyboards and woodwinds flesh out the sound. Dedicated to Duke Ellington (whose recorded voice can be heard at the end), the jazzy “Duke Street” starts out in an upbeat mood, then turns sparser and looser, the instruments’ staggered interplay of the especially riveting. Newhouse’s expressive woodwinds take centre stage in the exhilarating “Shwang Time”, where the big-band origin of the music is clearly on display. In contrast, “Lost in a Photograph” (whose title hints at nostalgia for things past) provides a foil for the album’s more dynamic compositions, with its stately, almost melancholy mood, while closing track “Rovian Cue” starts out brightly, and then mellows out, the piano and the woodwinds complementing each other.

That leaves Blue Dogs’ two most distinctive tracks, which increase the interest value of an already outstanding album. At over 7 minutes, “Muffin Man Redux” is propelled by Paul Sears’ pyrotechnic drumming, while leisurely bass and guitar mesh together to complement the spirited call of the saxes. A citation of the gospel classic “When the Saints Go Marching In” leads the way to a fuzzed-organ passage in true Steward-Ratledge style, followed by an amusing rendition of the nursery rhyme that lends its title to the song. On the other hand, after a slow, sedate beginning, “Blind Eye” veers into Avant/Zeuhl territory, with its many tempo changes, meandering guitar and blaring saxes.

Although Blue Dogs is obviously a must-listen for any self-respecting fan of the Canterbury scene, the album will provide 35 minutes of bliss to everyone who loves great music. Newhouse’s love of his craft and his knowledge of different genres are all brought to bear in what is definitely one of the top releases of 2015 – though, unfortunately, not one that will have received as much exposure as other (and, in my view, inferior) albums. I hope this review will in some way redress the situation, or at least create some curiosity. Those who appreciate the album will be glad to know that Manna/Mirage’s follow-up effort has already been composed and halfway recorded, and will see the light in 2017. In the meantime, what about some live shows?

Links:
http://www.mannamirage.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Entering the Sub Levels of Necroplex (11:00)
2. Everybody Likes Hornets But Nobody Likes Hornet Egg (5:00)
3. The Rage Within the Clouds (10:43)
4. The Electric Rectum Electoral (7:06)
5. Like Fun You Are (7:05)
6. The Current Beneath the Squarewave (5:54)

LINEUP:
David Lundberg, Mattias Olsson and Kristian Holmgren – keyboards, drum machines, electronics, sound effects

One year after the release of their acclaimed second album, A Glimpse of Possible Endings, the ever-busy duo of Mattias Olsson and David Lundberg (aka Necromonkey) are back with an album that may come as a surprise (or possibly even a shock) to all those who were expecting them to stick to their prog roots. In fact, whereas the supremely punny-titled Show Me Where It Hertz may well prove to be one of 2015’s landmark releases, it is also very much of an acquired taste.

Introduced by Henning Lindahl’s striking artwork and the band’s elegantly minimalistic logo, Show Me Where It Hertz stems from a performance that took place in January 2015 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Fylkingen, a club in Necromonkey’s home town of Stockholm. The show involved a specially-tailored setlist to honour the venue’s commitment to synth-based music, Krautrock and psychedelia. Olsson and Lundberg – joined for the occasion by Kristian Holmgren (who also guested on A Glimpse of Possible Endings) – swapped their rock instrumentation for drum machines and an array of mostly modular synthesizers, rearranging and reshaping their material to fit this new configuration.

The result of this experiment is 48 minutes of electronic progressive music, recorded shortly afterwards at Olsson’s own Roth-Händle studios – that bear the band’s unmistakable imprint of sweeping, mellotron-infused soundscapes on a backdrop of pulsating drum machines. Those who are familiar with Necromonkey’s previous albums will occasionally recognize a tune amongst the swirls and surges of the synths – as hinted by the titles of the six tracks. This almost Futurist exercise in deconstruction and reconstruction of a band’s own material is rarely encountered in a mainstream prog context – which often privileges note-perfect renditions – and bears witness to Olsson and Lundberg’s commitment to the creation of boundary-pushing music.

Despite the perception many people have of electronic music, Show Me Where It Hertz us anything but uniform. Opener “Entering the Sub Levels of Necroplex” – the longest track on the album at 11 minutes – chugs along, propelled by the almost danceable throb of the drum machine amidst the mad howls and whooshes of the synths, and the eerie, disembodied treated vocals muttering in the background, reminiscent of Kraftwerk, though not as glacially impassive. In the much shorter “Everybody Likes Hornets But No One Likes Hornets’ Eggs”, the melodic, airy sweep of the mellotron coexists with the robotic rhythm – a modus operandi that is further explored in the almost 11-minute “The Rage Within the Clouds”, where majestic, airy soundscapes lurk beneath the steadily pulsing synths and rhythm devices. This juxtaposition of icy, technical precision and atmospheric warmth (which brings to mind the work of Franco Battiato in the early Seventies) also characterizes “The Electric Rectum Electoral”, with its almost symphonic mellotron and drone-like synths, and the slow, stately closing track “The Current Beneath the Squarewave”. “Like Fun You Are”, on the other hand, delves deep into experimental territory, building up from spacey, hypnotic atmospheres towards a frantically pulsating ending.

Make no mistake, Show Me Where It Hertz is not for everyone. A high level of tolerance for the lack of traditional rock (or classical, for that matter) instruments is required in order to fully appreciate the album– as well as a taste for the electronic-driven subsets of the progressive universe, such as space rock and Krautrock. In any case, Necromonkey deserve kudos for their genuinely forward-thinking attitude, and their desire not to remain imprisoned in the cage of their followers’ expectations. I cannot think of a better summation of a genuine progressive spirit than their remark about the life-altering quality of the experience that led to the recording of this album. Though Show Me Where It Hertz is very far removed from anything that Änglagård or Gösta Berlings Saga have produced over the years, I would gladly recommend it to every open-minded prog listener.

Links:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Necromonkey/109218875773387

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Last Song (8:20)
2. Heavy Lifting (6:20)
3. Discourse on Method (5:38)
4. Drum Roe (1:06)
5. Halfway to Salem (7:36)
6. Still Life (7:01)
7. Talking Points (3:52)
8. Like Me (6:18)
9. Into the Night (2:20)
10. Shards (3:16)
11. Alis Volat Propiis (4:48)
12. This and That (4:23)
13. Busy Signal (11:31)

LINEUP:
Skip Durbin – woodwinds, exotics
John Rousseau – drums
Rex Bozarth – Chapman Stick, bass, cello, background vocals
Martin McCall – drums, percussion
Shannon Day – vintage and contemporary keyboards
Mark Cook – Warr guitar, bass, guitar, keyboards, drums, percussion, devices
Steve Powell – bass, additional keyboards, background vocals, noises
Ernie Myers – vocals, guitars

When discussing the somewhat obscure US prog scene of the Seventies, Hands will likely not be among the first names that spring to mind. However, the Texas band – founded by guitarist Ernie Myers and keyboardist Michael Clay (both members of jazz-rock outfit Prism) – has been around since 1977, more or less as long as higher-profile bands such as The Muffins and Happy the Man. Their first two albums, Hands and Palm Mystery, though released in the late Nineties, feature material dating back from the band’s early years, before their 2002 reunion with the aptly titled Twenty-Five Winters – followed in 2008 by the excellent Strangelet.

Seven years later, Hands are back with the elegantly-packaged, cryptically-titled Caviar Bobsled, and a revamped lineup that comprises no less than eight members. Founder Michael Clay and drummer John Fiveash have left, replaced by Skip Durbin, Rex Bozarth, Shannon Day and John Rousseau, all involved in the band’s previous incarnations. With Myers and bassist Steve Powell at the helm, the 2015 version of Hands amounts more to a small orchestra than a mere rock band, as the array of instruments employed on the album (duly detailed in the extensive liner notes) is nothing short of astonishing.

While all too often such ambitious undertakings turn out to be triumphs of style over substance, Caviar Bobsled is nothing of the sort, delivering instead a lesson on how modern progressive rock should sound like, and handling the inevitable references to prog’s “golden oldies” in such a way as to provide fleeting reminders rather than blatantly obvious homages. In fact, there is very little on Caviar Bobsled that can be termed derivative.

Clocking in at almost 73 minutes, Caviar Bobsled is a long, densely packed album. While I usually consider running times in excess of 60 minutes a drawback rather than an asset, Hands’ latest effort holds together admirably well, with a minimal amount of filler. Though Myers (whose polite, well-modulated vocals fit the music to a T) is responsible for writing most of the 13 songs, other band members get their chance in the spotlight. Individual times are also well-balanced, with the two longest tracks bookending the album, and the shorter, catchier numbers located closer to the middle.

Musically speaking, Caviar Bobsled is a veritable rollercoaster ride, running the gamut of styles and deftly blending various sources of inspiration to achieve a strikingly original result. Eclecticism is the name of the game: I can think of very few albums in which echoes of Queen and The Beatles rub elbows with angular patterns in pure King Crimson style – often in the space of the same song, as borne out by the brilliant “Heavy Lifting”, a song that packs more in barely over 6 minutes than many epics do in 20, or the deceptively accessible “Discourse on Method”.

In opener “The Last Song”, the rugged appeal of Shannon Day’s Hammond B3 organ injects shades of Deep Purple in a richly arranged texture that brings to mind Belew-era King Crimson. Warm folksy traits emerge in the playful, largely acoustic “Talking Points”, “Shards” and “This and That”, the latter also reminiscent of Gentle Giant and Caravan with its pastoral flute and jaunty percussion. On the flip side, the intricately orchestrated “Still Life” with its dramatic, surging intro, mercurially shifts from ethereal sparseness to roaring organ and guitar passages with a more classic prog feel. Closer “Busy Signal” encompasses all of the album’s characteristics, veering from nostalgic to majestic to atmospheric in the space of 11-odd minutes, and putting each band member’s skill on display in a breathtakingly multifaceted whole.

My personal highlight, however, is one of the three instrumental interludes that add a further layer of interest to the album. With its poetic title and gorgeously hypnotic sounds, “Alis Volat Propiis” (“Flies With Its Own Wings” – I will always be partial to a bit of Latin!) turns the spotlight on Mark Cook (of Herd of Instinct and Spoke of Shadows fame), whose Warr guitar recreates the spellbinding atmospheres that characterize his work with those bands. Though Cook plays only on 5 songs out of 13, his contribution to the fabric of those composition is essential – as in the elegiac “Halfway to Salem” (where he plays 12-string electric guitar), or in the instrumental sections of “Still Life” and “Busy Signal”. Though shorter, the other two instrumentals hold their own – “Drum Roe” showcasing drummer Martin McCall’s skills, and Rex Bozarths’s lovely, mournful cello solo spot “Into the Night” treading in chamber music territory.

Those prog fans who are often frustrated in their search for new music that is fresh and interesting – though not as openly challenging or potentially offputting as anything with metal elements or avant-garde leanings – are warmly encouraged to check out Caviar Bobsled. The care and dedication that have gone into its writing and recording are evident, and the album offers something to almost everyone. Although Hands are still one of the best-kept secrets of the thriving US prog scene, this highly rewarding effort deserves to be known to a larger audience, and will definitely find a place in my personal Best of 2015 list.

Links:
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/hands3
http://www.shroomangel.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Magnet (6:07)
2. Remember Where You Were (7:43)
3. Dr. Abraham (8:11)
4. The Fox in the Hole (4:45)
6. Wasp in a Wig (6:16)
7. The White Book (9:57)

LINEUP:
Patrick McGowan – vocals, guitars, keyboards
Dan McGowan – vocals, guitars, keyboards
Jamie Wolff – bass, violin, cello
Reinhardt McGeddon – keyboards
Tony Davis – drums

Though the band originally intended to release the follow-up to 2012’s highly acclaimed Quickly, Quickly, Quickly just one year later – as, like Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac, the albums were seen as two halves of a whole rather than separate items – the wait for The Tea Club’s fourth album turned out to be much longer. Now, in the last quarter of 2015, the New Jersey outfit’s latest effort has finally surfaced.

As is often the case, extensive line-up changes were involved in the delay. While the band’s mainstays, brothers Dan and Pat McGowan, are a reliable constant, the new blood brings something valuable to the equation. So, enter Joe Dorsey (aka Reinhardt McGeddon) with his array of keyboards, as well as bassist Jamie Wolff and drummer Tony Davis providing a solid yet flexible rhythmic backbone.

The aptly-titled Grappling – a fitting caption for the career of any progressive rock act in this age of disposable music – clearly reveals its close kinship with The Tea Club’s earlier effort, but, at the same time, also sheds a light on the band’s development in the course of the past three years. Though there are enough immediately recognizable elements in the sound – the explosive crescendos, driven by the McGowan brother’s vertiginous vocals, balanced by low-key, almost meditative passages – there is also the feeling of a band striving to get out of its own comfort zone.

Indeed, in some ways, Grappling is the “proggiest” album the band has ever recorded, the one that most will remind the listener of the classics, whose influence is skillfully combined with that of modern progressive rock icons such as Radiohead, Dredg and The Mars Volta. The drums – very prominent in the mix – are a true propulsive force, almost dominating the proceedings with the sheer power of their presence, while the major role of the organ evokes shades of Yes and ELP, though without any overt concessions to the “retro” craze.

If I had to summarize Grappling in just one word, I would choose “ambitious”. Right from the first notes of opener “The Magnet”, it is quite evident that The Tea Club have spared no effort in the making of their fourth album, and that their attention to detail has reached unprecedented heights. On the other hand, the album clocks in at a very restrained 42 minutes. After the experiment of the 16-minute epic “Firebears”, which opened Quickly Quickly Quickly, here the band went for a different route, packing a lot into the album’s six tracks while keeping their individual running time under 10 minutes.

With this sort of introduction, it will not come as a surprise that the individual songs are not easy to describe adequately. In fact, the music is so multifaceted and mercurial as to be occasionally hard to grasp. Opening with the bang of “The Magnet”, a catchy yet intricately woven song that introduces all the album’s distinctive elements in dramatic fashion, Grappling unfolds in a riot of sound, each song packed with unpredictable twists and turns. Things slow down at the beginning of “Remember Where You Were”, which starts out as a ballady mid-tempo before shifting into high gear, the volume surging and the vocals almost roaring, a hint of dissonance spicing the melodic texture and bringing Yes to mind. The grandiosely symphonic intro of “Dr Abraham” also evokes memories of vintage prog, though the song later unfolds in wildly unpredictable fashion, with ominous whispered vocals, atonal piano flurries and pounding drums – sounding like a 21-century version of Relayer-era Yes jamming with The Mars Volta.

Grappling’s second half is introduced by the charming “The Fox in the Hole”, a relatively understated piece with hints of Celtic folk, and plenty of opportunity for drummer Tony Davis to deploy his percussive skills. “Wasp in a Wig” initially brings to mind a traditional rock power ballad, but quickly turns into a chameleon-like display of classic Tea Club tactics, going into slo-mo, then gaining momentum again, and ending with a very engaging vocal and instrumental coda. The mellotron-drenched “The White Book” (the album’s longest track at nearly 10 minutes) closes the album on a stately, melodic note, occasionally reminiscent of Echolyn (another recognizable influence on the band’s sound), though still displaying their distinctive use of quiet-loud dynamics.

With Grappling, The Tea Club prove they have reached their full maturity as a compositional force, and are ready to assume a leading role in the overcrowded modern prog scene. The album has the potential to bridge the ever-growing gap between nostalgia-bound fans and those more rooted in the present (and the future) of the genre, and is therefore highly recommended to all lovers of progressive rock – except, of course, those for whom anything produced after 1989 is immediately disqualified.

Links:
http://www.theteaclub.net/

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Our highly-awaited yearly appointment with ProgDay came at the end of a very trying 12 months, which had drained a lot of strength and enthusiasm out of me. Though when we came back from last year’s edition things in my life had looked promising, they took a turn for the worse at the beginning of 2015, resulting in depression, burnout, and estrangement from people. As my followers will have noticed, this sorry state of affairs resulted in an unprecedented dearth of posts (only three between January and August), which reflected my gradual loss of interest in music. Though I forced myself to keep up to date by listening to new releases on Progstreaming and Bandcamp, most of the time it felt like going through the motions, and most of those albums left very little impression.

After dealing with so much negativity, I was understandably worried about not enjoying the event as much as I wanted to, even if I had been looking forward to it much more than the previous year. However, I should not have worried about feeling uncomfortable around people, as I felt definitely more inclined to be sociable than I had in 2014, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of good friends I had not seen for a while.

During the weeks leading up to ProgDay, I had been dreaming of walking in the dew-drenched grass, enjoying the cool breeze of the morning hours – instead of gasping in the heat and wilting in the humidity as in the past four years. My wishes were to be almost miraculously fulfilled, as, weather-wise, things could not have been more perfect. Sandwiched between two spells of hot, humid weather, Labor Day weekend brought pleasantly cool temperatures that made being outdoors a real delight. The threat of thunderstorms (especially on Saturday) made us hold our breath for a while, but for some mysterious coincidence Storybook Farm managed to avoid the turbulence that affected most of the area. We only saw rain on Sunday evening, and even then it did not last long. After a couple of years of near-neglect, the farm had finally new owners who seemed to be taking much better care of the place (I particularly loved the chicken coop, and the soft, carpet-like grass). The lush greenery was polished to a bright sheen by this year’s abundant rainfall, which also kept the ever-bothersome dust to a minimum.

Though attendance was somewhat down from last year, and a few familiar faces were missing, the festival still felt like a family reunion. Band announcements had come a bit later than usual, but that had not put any dent in the enthusiasm of ProgDay’s core of staunch supporters. For many of us, the festival is the high point of the year, a near-magical time spent almost on a different plane, away from the turmoil of everyday life, with a group of like-minded people that we have come to see as family of sorts. This feeling was never put so much to the test as in the past 12 months, with the untimely deaths of the wife of Phil Stauffer Todd (one of the festival’s most loyal supporters) the day after the end of last year’s fest, and of 23-year-old Sarah Jean Tatum, who with her twin sister and parents had stood behind the merch table since ProgDay’s beginning, in February 2015. Unfortunately, more sorrow was to come our way during this edition – but more about that later.

Opening act Eccentric Orbit found most of the attendees basking in the morning breeze and reconnecting with old friends. The Boston-based instrumental quartet, led by the husband-and-wife team of Bill and Madeleine Noland (whose MIDI wind controller attracted a lot of attention) offers an intriguing modern take on symphonic prog, inspired by classic science-fiction movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. In spite of having sustained a grievous loss in 2010, with the untimely passing of drummer and founding member Mark Cella (replaced by Tamandua’s Rick Landwehr), they resurfaced in 2014 with their positively-received second album, Creation of the Humanoids. While their swirling, deeply cinematic keyboard soundscapes might translate better in an indoor setting (perhaps with the aid of visuals), and the band as a whole need to work a bit on their stage presence (often a sore point with prog bands), the majestic, heavy yet melodic music was undeniably top-notch, with Tom Benson’s violin adding even more interest to the overall texture. Their confidence grew steadily throughout their set, whose second half was particularly impressive, featuring a cracking version of Genesis’ “Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers… In This Quiet Earth”. Indeed, an excellent opening to ProgDay 2015 by yet another fine representative of the thriving US progressive rock scene .

Louisville’s own Ut Gret (my biggest discovery of the past few years) took to the stage next, highly anticipated by most of the audience after the splash made by their stunning 2014 album, Ancestor’s Tale. I was elated when they were announced earlier this year, knowing their reputation as a very entertaining live act. Though the belly dancer that appears in some of their YouTube videos was not part of the ProgDay expedition, their ace in the hole was the presence of singer/violinist Cheyenne Mize – a beautiful, charismatic young lady in a flowing, caftan-like gown, provided of an absolutely mesmerizing voice. Ut Gret’s definition of their music as “pan-idiomatic” is no idle boast, as they seamlessly combine multiple influences in an organic – and highly individual – whole, supported by a varied instrumentation centered around Jackie Royce’s tireless bassoon. Their set – by far the longest of the festival – included most of Ancestor’s Tale, as well as material from their previous albums (such as the gorgeous “Souvenir City”), and a tribute to King Crimson (one of leader Joee Conroy’s main sources of inspiration, together with The Muffins and the whole Canterbury scene) – all performed flawlessly, but with oodles of warmth. They closed their set with an exhilarating version of “Walk the Plank”, and the standing ovation they got at the end was fully deserved. Without any doubt, Ut Gret were one of the very best bands to grace the Storybook Farm stage in the six years we have been attending the festival, and I hope to have the opportunity to see them again soon.

When the weather is as hot as it was for the past 4 editions of the festival, the 3 p.m. slot is generally the worst, as people’s enjoyment of music is impaired by the unrelenting assault of the heat and humidity. This year’s mild weather made things easier for all the bands on the lineup; however, as far as I am concerned, Portland’s The Mercury Tree were the only disappointment (in relative terms, seen the overall high level of quality) of this year’s edition. I was familiar with the youthful trio’s music, as I had reviewed their debut album, Pterodactyls, for DPRP, and listened to their more recent output on Bandcamp. They have talent, energy and plenty of good ideas, but – for some reason – on the ProgDay stage they felt compelled to sacrifice to the current trend for over-the-top vocal antics, and infused their songs with totally out-of-the-blue, bloodcurdling shrieks that were unlikely to endear them to the more conservative members of the audience. Other attendees also noticed their over-reliance on loops and other effects. On the other hand, the band members clearly enjoy being on stage, and already handle their instruments remarkably well. Their youth will allow them plenty of time to develop their musical approach though I would definitely prefer them as an instrumental band.

Though I am reasonably well-informed about the current prog scene, Saturday’s headliners were an unknown quantity to me. Chilean outfit Tryo, however, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in its home country, spanning almost 30 years. The energetic three-piece from Valparaíso were perfect as a closing act because the high adrenalin quotient of their sound – a powerful, eclectic blend of rock, jazz and metal with recognizable touches of Chilean folk music, and a natural flow that made even epic-length tracks such as “Fuenteovejuna” easy to follow – kept people on their toes at the end of a long day of music. With their impressive stage presence and seamless interplay, guitarist Ismael Cortez, bassist Francisco Cortez and drummer Felix Carbone regaled the crowd with a sizzling performance. Though their command of English was sketchy at best, they had no trouble communicating their infectious enthusiasm to the audience. Their first US appearance, made possible by the support of the Chilean Ministry of Culture, was definitely an unqualified success, and made US prog fans aware of the wealth of interesting progressive music coming from Chile and the rest of the South American continent.

At the end of the set, we headed back to the hotel, and had an excellent dinner at a lovely Korean restaurant – then sat through the first hour of Romantic Warriors III – Canterbury Tales, Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder’s outstanding documentary about the Canterbury scene. After a good night’s sleep (better than I expected anyway, having been plagued by sleep problems for the past few months), we were ready for another day of music.

Sunday’s opening act was probably the only truly unfamiliar one for most attendees – though two out of its three members were old acquaintances of US prog fans. Veteran French Chapman stickist Pascal Gutman’s latest project avails itself of the contribution of two talented Mexican musicians – drummer Kiko King (formerly of Cast) and multi-instrumentalist Ramsés Luna (formerly of Cabezas de Cera). In contrast with the brash energy of the previous day’s closing band, Pascal Gutman Trio’s music was understated yet riveting, and exquisitely beautiful – suffused with the warmth of world music influences, the stately elegance of jazz and the muted atmospheres of ambient. Kiko King, who had played at ProgDay with Cast in 2003, acted as a spokesman, conveying the band’s delight at having been invited to perform. The crowd responded in kind, expressing their appreciation in no uncertain terms – proving that the discovery hitherto unknown music is a big part of what prog festivals should be about. As a Chapman stick fan, I will be definitely looking forward to their forthcoming album.

Alongside Ut Gret, Avant-Folk ensemble Jack O’The Clock was my most anticipated band on the lineup. When I discovered them in 2013 through their second album, All My Friends, I hoped I would get a chance to see them on stage. My expectations were not disappointed, as the black-clad Oakland quintet (featuring two very talented ladies in bassoonist/flutist/vocalist Kate McLoughlin and violinist Emily Packard) delivered a career-defining performance, mostly based on unreleased material. Their interpretation of the prog lexicon is highly individual, and – like leader Damon Waitkus’ androgynous voice – may be somewhat of an acquired taste. With their unusual instrumentation (which included a gently lilting dulcimer, but no keyboards) and subtly multilayered, gorgeously melancholy compositions that blend Americana, chamber music, avant-garde and many other elements in a unique tapestry, this 21-century version of traditional storytellers was mesmerizing to watch. Even if they do not sound remotely like “classic” prog, bands such as Jack O’The Clock represent the future of progressive rock. It remains to be seen whether the notoriously nostalgia-bound fandom will get behind them.

Next were Marbin, the Chicago-based quartet known as one of the busiest bands in the US (with over one thousand shows played since its inception), and the brainchild of ultra-talented Israeli musicians Dani Rabin (guitar) and Danny Markovitch (sax). They took to the stage almost unannounced, at a time when I was struggling to stay awake. Being familiar with most of their music, I was expecting a highly technical, high-energy performance, and was not disappointed, as the band’s stagecraft is honed to perfection, and the cliché “well-oiled machine” seems to be tailor-made for them. On the other hand, there were no surprises, as their music has always failed to fully connect with me, and this time was no exception. Based on Rabin’s fiery guitar solos and Markovitch’s gutsy sax forays, the band’s sound is hard-driving yet accessible, with some intense bluesy moments highlighted their versatility. However, the most entertaining aspect of Marbin’s set were the main duo’s storytelling skills. Their rather wild tale of how their forthcoming album came to be titled Aggressive Hippies was hilarious, and created a bond with the audience that belied the slightly daunting quality of their chops-heavy music.

Belgian quartet Quantum Fantay was the only band in the lineup that I had already seen, at our first NEARfest in 2009. Though their participation to ProgDay 2011 had been sabotaged by Hurricane Irene, the band were obviously keen to make up for lost time, and many in the audience seemed to have a soft spot for their brand of pulsating, ethnic-tinged space rock. Undoubtedly excellent musicians and seasoned performers, brimming with enthusiasm and an effortlessly easygoing stage manner, the band delivered the goods and encouraged people to get up and dance – in itself no mean feat after a full day of music. As to myself, by the time they stepped on stage I was feeling even sleepier, and found myself almost dozing off in my lawn chair. Just like Ozric Tentacles (to whom they have often been compared), Quantum Fantay play the kind of music that holds my interest in small doses, and after a while their pulsating rhythms and whooshing keyboards started to sound a bit samey. In spite of these drawbacks, however, theirs was a very entertaining performance, and a good send-off to ProgDay’s 21st edition.

The following day, after having taken our leave from our friends, in the hope of meeting them again in 2016, we headed north feeling tired but in many ways regenerated after such a wonderful weekend. This was particularly true of myself, who felt the festival had been the start of a new, hopefully more positive chapter for me in my life.

While in the six ProgDay editions we have attended the band selection committee has always delivered in terms of quality, I believe this year was particularly bountiful, with top-notch performances and a wide range of musical styles to please the most demanding fans. As it has often been the case in the past few years, ProgDay 2015 showcased a wealth of female talent, with five outstanding ladies gracing the Storybook stage over the weekend: Madeleine Noland (Eccentric Orbit), Jackie Royce and Cheyenne Mize (Ut Gret), Kate McLoughlin and Emily Packard (Jack O’The Clock). The two bassoonists, who once again proved the enduring charm of the combination of rock and chamber/classical instruments, deserve a special mention – hence the title of this review. The performances of Jackie Royce, with her engaging manner and talent for comedy, and the elfin Kate McLoughlin were among the highlights of the whole weekend. So much for all the tiresome Internet discussions about women and progressive rock being mutually exclusive…

At the end of my review, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the organizers for all their hard work and dedication, and state once again that they can always count on our support. For the sake of the US progressive rock scene, it is essential that ProgDay continues, even if it will never draw the crowds that NEARfest used to. Besides the consistently great musical offer, the sense of community is a heartwarming reminder of the truly important things in life.

This year’s edition was a bittersweet one, in the light of the heartbreaking news we received on Saturday afternoon. During the Ut Gret set, we learned that our dear friend Djalma Carvalho (a regular reader and supporter of this blog) had passed away in the days before the festival. We had first met him at Progday 2011, and hoped to see him again some time this year, as he was due to come to the US again after a two-year hiatus. Though we will never see him again sitting in his customary place, right in front of the stage, his gentle nature and deep, abiding love of music will live forever in our hearts. Therefore, I wish to dedicate this review to him and to his best friend, Michael Inman, hoping he will find comfort in my words.

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3RDegree

TRACKLISTING:
1. Hello, World! (0:15)
2. The Gravity (7:50)
3. This Is the Future (4:28)
4. Life (2:38)
5. The Best & Brightest (of the Dimmest Bulbs) (4:05)
6. Circuit Court (5:10)
7. Life at Any Cost (7:58)
8. What It Means to Be Human (5:30)
9. We Regret to Inform You (5:22)
10. More Life (5:33)

LINEUP:
George Dobbs – lead vocals, keyboards, percussion
Robert James Pashman – bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Patrick Kliesch – electric guitars, acoustic 6-string guitars, backing vocals, synth
Eric Pseja – electric guitars, 12-string acoustic guitars, backing vocals, voice of Valhalla Customer Service Agent (1, 3, 9)
Aaron Nobel – drums, percussion
Bryan Zeigler – electric guitars, backing vocals

With:
Jason Davis – announcer (4)
Kevin Cummings – college lecturer (5)
Tim Donnelly – newscaster (7)
Kyree Vibrant – backing vocals (8, 10)
Daniel Tracey – joint lead vocals (9)

Although New Jersey combo 3RDegree’s very first incarnation dates back from the early 1990s, it was their 2012 album The Long Division that finally put them on the map for the majority of prog fans – even more so than their excellent 2008 comeback, Narrow-Caster. Three years after The Long Division – an album that garnered its fair share of critical praise in a year noted for a slew of high-profile releases – comes 3RDegree’s fifth studio album, an ambitious opus by the title of Ones & Zeros Volume 1.

Recorded as a six-piece, with the involvement of second guitarist Bryan Ziegler (recruited in 2012 to replace Patrick Kliesch, who is currently based in California, in their live shows), Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 was written by the band’s core members – Kliesch, bassist Robert James Pashman, and vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs, plus guitarist Eric Pseja (who joined 3RDegree for The Long Division). The album’s release will be followed by the band’s first international tour, with dates in The Netherlands, Germany and the UK (the latter including am appearance at Summers End Festival).

Although The Long Division had an overarching theme – the increasingly polarized world of US politics – it could not be called a true concept album. On the other hand, Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 draws on the rich Anglo-American tradition of dystopian fiction in its rather chilling depiction of a future dominated by a Big Brother-like mega-corporation named Valhalla Biotech (a name with intentionally “otherworldly” implications), which – under the guise of improving life for humans – ends up controlling every aspect of our existence. The pervasive presence of this all-encompassing entity is conveyed through jingles, lectures and announcements (provided by a cast of guest actors) that interact with the music, at first unobtrusively, then taking an increasingly larger role.

Tackling such an ambitious project, 3RDegree prove they are not afraid of taking risks, and deliver an album that – while superficially paying homage to one of prog’s old chestnuts – is quite far removed from the traditional prog modes followed by many modern artists. The song format is still at the core of the band’s compositional approach, though a couple of songs reach the 8-minute mark, and display a distinctly more complex structure. The inner coherence of the story is reinforced by the use of recurring musical and lyrical themes. With George Dobbs channeling his inner Stevie Wonder, and multilayered vocal harmonies that recall Queen, Steely Dan and The Beatles as much as Yes, the band depict a rather disturbing scenario thinly disguised by their trademark bright melodies and catchy hooks.

Not surprisingly for an album dealing with such weighty issues, Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 may need repeated listens in order to be fully appreciated. In a daring move, 3RDegree have placed the second-longest track – the almost 8-minute “The Gravity”, a mini-epic packing many twists and turns, and not as readily accessible as “Apophenia” or “You’re Fooling Yourselves” – right at the opening at the album. Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 ’s tightly constructed 50 minutes shift between overtly poppy, ear-friendly items such as the sunny “This Is the Future” or the eminently hummable “Life”, which is reprised in the lushly orchestrated ending, “More Life”, and subtly intricate centerpieces such as the Steely Dan-influenced “Circuit Court” and the mercurial, multilayered “Life at Any Cost”, driven by Pashman’s stellar performance on bass. Pashman also shines in the funky yet ominous “We Regret to Inform You”, in which the energetic, almost anthemic harmony vocals alternate with robotic announcements eventually stating that “your father has been deleted”. “What It Means to Be Human” initially promises to be the album’s most mainstream-oriented track, but its second half veers into much heavier territory, and the deceptively upbeat tone of “The Best & Brightest (of the Dimmest Bulbs)” is like a velvet glove hiding Valhalla Biotech’s iron fist.

With thought-provoking lyrics (all included in the CD package, wrapped in brightly-coloured, semi-abstract artwork by Russian artist Sasha Kouznetsov) complementing the sophisticated, 21st-century art rock of the music, Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 will certainly be featured in many a “Best of 2015” list – though some dyed-in-the-wool “proggers” will still object to the poppy overtones that are such an integral part of the band’s sound. It is also 3RDegree’s most mature album to date: the band amply deserve kudos for having resisted the all-too-common (especially in prog circles) temptation of releasing a 100-minute behemoth. 3RDegree fans will be glad to know that the release of Ones & Zeros Volume 2 is planned for 2016.

Links:
http://www.3rdegreeonline.com/3RDegree/Home.html

http://10trecords.com/artists/genres/progressive-experimental/3rdegree/discography-3

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A documentary film by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Total time: 118 minutes

Located in Kent, the south-eastern county nicknamed “Garden of England” for its bucolic beauty, Canterbury is a city of barely over 50,000 people, dominated (not just in a physical sense) by the sprawling mass of its stunning Gothic cathedral. For all its rich history, it is easy to imagine how stifling such a place might have felt to its younger denizens in the late Sixties. Its very Englishness, in some ways, explains many of the distinctive features of the musical movement that originated there in those heady years.

Even within a quintessentially niche context such as progressive rock, the Canterbury scene has acquired a cult status that transcends its unassuming beginnings. With often mind-boggling connections and ramifications that would make the task of drawing a family tree rather daunting, this “movement” – born, in a polite, understated English way, from the early musical pursuits of a handful of middle-class teenagers – became extremely influential, though never achieving any of the commercial success that was awarded (albeit briefly) to some of the original prog bands.

Well over two years in the making, and nearly two hours long, the third chapter in Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s Romantic Warriors saga is at the same time similar and different from its predecessors. Though by far the most technically polished of the three documentaries – its pristine photography providing a perfect foil to the grainy footage from the Seventies – it is also the one with the strongest emotional impact. Meticulously researched, yet somewhat hampered by the unwillingness of some of the key protagonists of the scene to release material, or even just show up, the film occasionally feels like a story told from a third-person point of view. This, however, proves to be a strength rather than a weakness, lending an almost mythical quality to the narration.

In spite of some glaring defections, many of the exponents of the early Canterbury scene agreed to contribute to the film, providing their unique insights on the birth and development of the movement. Their contributions are supported by those of three modern-day experts: Aymeric Leroy, who maintains the most complete and informative website on the Canterbury scene; Bruce Gallanter of Downtown Music Gallery, one of New York City’s few surviving independent music stores; and Leonardo Pavkovic, head of Moonjune Records.

The story unfolds in chronological order, its very dense content sometimes hard to follow even for those who are familiar with the ins and outs of the scene – lively and colourful, yet tinged with an inescapable feeling of sadness. Because of the unavailability of a lot of the material recorded in those years, the music often takes a back seat: in fact, Canterbury Tales is the first film in the series to have a score written expressly by an outsider to the movement itself – the very talented, Maryland-based multi-instrumentalist/composer Dan Britton, who appeared in the first Romantic Warriors. On account of this and other factors, the film’s focus on people rather than music comes across even more strongly than in the previous two episodes of this “progressive music saga”.

If I had to sum up Canterbury Tales in few words, I would say that it is, first and foremost, about absence and loss. The story of Soft Machine – probably the best-known and most influential of the Canterbury acts – is mostly told by people who (with the sole exception of Daevid Allen) were not involved in the original incarnation of the band, though the availability of plentiful footage makes the extremely intricate tale come alive. Some of the protagonists of the scene seem to view their connection to Canterbury more like an embarrassment than a badge of honour: iconic keyboardist Dave Stewart’s image is hard to discern even in photo stills, while Robert Wyatt’s 1995 interview makes it quite clear that he is not interested in revisiting the past (“I am not a museum”).

In most other cases, however, the absence is a direct consequence of death: in fact, over the years the Canterbury scene has lost a larger share of its protagonists than other prog subgenres. The slight, pixie-like figure of Daevid Allen – with his lined face and uncannily young eyes and smile – weaves in and out of the narration, his untimely passing (occurred while the film was in post-production) reinforcing its melancholy, elegiac mood. In the whirlwind of images, the headline of Charlie Hebdo – the French satirical magazine that gained notoriety after the tragic events of a few months ago – flashes by a couple of times, perhaps easily missed, but adding to the pervasive sense of loss.

On the other hand, Canterbury’s trademark sense of humour and whimsy – a blend of quintessentially English nonsense, slightly risqué puns and highbrow suggestions – is suitably emphasized, in stark contrast with the stereotyped idea of progressive rock as an overly serious genre. Those characteristics are embodied by some of the musicians who appear in the film: Richard Sinclair’s gently eccentric, almost luminous presence, Mont Campbell’s charismatic allure and self-deprecating wit, Daevid Allen’s endearing quirkiness stand out, while others come across as more serious, but as a whole all the original protagonists give the impression of being content with their life, and still very much involved in artistic creation.

One of the most appealing features of Canterbury Tales lies in its “travelogue” aspect, apparently at odds with the narrow geographical focus of the original scene. Alongside Canterbury Cathedral’s majestic towers and pinnacles, the immaculately beautiful images of different locales – London’s Tower Bridge by night, Paris’ stately boulevards, the silver-grey North Sea shore, the peaceful greenery of the Apulian countryside, the bustling streets of Barcelona, the bright lights of the theatre district in Kyoto – illustrate the wide-ranging sweep of a movement that over the years managed to spread its influence well beyond the borders of its humble beginnings. Accordingly, the activity of non-English Canterbury bands such as Moving Gelatine Plates, The Muffins and Supersister is given ample recognition.

While watching Canterbury Tales, it is often hard not to feel that – unlike the first two chapters of the saga – the film’s main focus is on the past rather than the present. Daevid Allen’s enthusiastic endorsement of Gong’s newest member, maverick guitarist/composer Kavus Torabi, contrasts with the film’s final shot of David Sinclair’s deeply moving interpretation of his own signature piece, “Nine Feet Underground”, while the camera lingers over hands that, in spite of the evident marks of age, are as nimble as ever over the keys. Even if enough space is granted to those modern bands and artists who have picked up the baton (Forgas Band Phenomena, Planeta Imaginario, The Wrong Object and Syd Arthur), it is not enough to dispel the looming presence of the past, and the underlying poignancy so superbly conveyed by the opening and closing shots of Allen’s solitary figure on the sea shore. The dedication of the film to Zegarra’s mother and all the musicians who have passed away compounds the impression that Canterbury Tales is, in many ways, an epitaph.

Even if someone may find its relative lack of original music disappointing, Canterbury Tales is a beautiful, deeply touching (though not depressing) piece of filmmaking, a warm-hearted tribute to those protagonists of the scene who are no longer with us. While the film’s subdued mood reflects the impermanence of things, the lasting legacy of the music created by that handful of young people from a provincial corner of England is given its due, and the unavoidable sadness implied in Daevid Allen’s fateful parting words is somewhat mitigated. Highly recommended to every self-respecting progressive rock fan, Canterbury Tales is also an encouragement to delve deep into the treasure trove of this highly idiosyncratic subgenre’s rich output.

Links:
http://www.progdocs.com/Progdocs.com/Home.html
http://calyx.perso.neuf.fr/index.html
http://www.moonjune.com
http://www.downtownmusicgallery.com/Main/index.htm

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