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Art-ProgDay2015
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.

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

candle

While searching for a suitable title for my customary “year in review” essay, I thought of something that would convey the general mood of my 2014 while emphasizing the role that music had in helping me out of a bout of potentially severe depression. This is how I came out with this title (shared by a song from Rainbow’s iconic Rising album) and the image that goes with it. The first six months of the year were spent in a sort of daze, in which I tried to keep up with listening and reviewing new music, but was increasingly consumed by a job assignment that ultimately got me burned out. Over the summer months I gradually withdrew from social life, and lost most of my interest in music – to the point that, when ProgDay was approaching, I almost decided to bail out and stay home. The low number of posts on my blog bears witness to this sorry state of affairs – which was thankfully brought to an end by a very enjoyable ProgDay experience. Music, as usual, did help me out of a black hole, and so did the friendships I have made over the years thanks to this lifelong passion of mine.

After such an introduction, it will not come as a surprise that many of this year’s highly regarded albums escaped my attention, and even those I did manage to hear did not impress as much as they would have in a different situation. This 2014 overview may therefore contain some glaring omissions, for which I apologize. Keeping track of the staggering number of new releases in the progressive realm is difficult under normal circumstances, and even harder when real life gets in the way.

Although my full-length reviews have become a much rarer item, since February 2014 I have been regularly providing recommendations for an excellent new feature (the brainchild of DPRP longtime collaborator and editor Andy Read) by the name of Something for the Weekend?. Dedicated exclusively to progressive music available for free streaming on invaluable resources such as Progstreaming or Bandcamp, this weekly feature has allowed me to promote the work of many outstanding artists – as well as exploring a lot of exciting new music that might have otherwise flown under the radar. Going back to ProgArchives, the thriving website where I started my career as a reviewer back in 2005 (and also met my husband), after a four-year absence has also been very beneficial in terms of discovering new music and cultivating fulfilling relationships.

The past year saw my personal tastes shift even further away from traditional prog, and wholeheartedly embrace the new incarnations of the genre. While this does not mean I have stopped enjoying classic prog, I recognize that, in the second decade of the 21st century, the genre needs to look forward rather than backward if it is to survive. Speaking of which, having resolutely moved underground is probably the best thing to happen to progressive rock in the past few years. In spite of the many difficulties they face, many progressive artists now produce music to please themselves first and foremost. Without having to obey the constraints of the “market”, artistic creativity can be given free rein, so that we can expect the next few years to be generous with high-quality releases.

My personal “best of 2014” spans different subgenres of prog, with a pronounced emphasis on the eclectic and experimental side of things. Though often labeled as RIO/Avant, my album of the year – Ut Gret’s marvelous Ancestor’s Tale – is the best Canterbury album to be released in a long while (though the band hail from Louisville, Kentucky), and introduced the prog audience to the stunning vocal talents of songstress Cheyenne Mize. Incidentally, another two of my favourite 2014 albums came from bands that have occasionally been associated with the Canterbury sound – though. Like Ut Gret, neither hails from that part of the world. Moraine’s  Groundswell, is their most mature work to date, showcasing the Seattle quintet’s unique brand of ethnic-tinged, contemporary jazz-rock. On the other hand Italian quartet Accordo dei Contrari’s comeback album, AdC , saw them explore heavier territories, though retaining the exquisite sense of melody that distinguishes Giovanni Parmeggiani’s compositional style.

As a whole, 2014 was an uncommonly good year for eclectic releases that avoided the “old wine in new bottles” syndrome. Knifeworld’s sophomore release, The Unraveling, spearheaded this highly individual approach to the creation of progressive rock. Also appearing on Gong’s latest effort, I See You, Knifeworld mainman Kavus Torabi seems poised to replace Steven Wilson as the busiest man in prog, though with a much more genuinely innovative attitude. Torabi’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Emmett Elvin’s Bloody Marvels was true to its title, delivering a series of deeply cinematic, atmospheric pieces mostly performed on acoustic instruments, released on independent British label Bad Elephant Music – which in 2014 distinguished itself as one of the foremost purveyors of interesting progressive fare. Together with Elvin’s album, guitarist Matt Stevens’ Lucid and Trojan Horse’s “pronk” assault World Upside Down proved that the British isles have got more to offer than endless variations on the neo-prog gospel. As for Sound Mirror, the highly touted second album by “new Canterburians” Syd Arthur (their first for the revamped Harvest label), I only managed to get hold of it when I had already started writing this piece: my initial impression is positive, though the album is definitely in a more mainstream vein.

One of the biggest surprises of the year, mentioned as a favourite by many prog fans, came from Norwegian outfit Seven Impale: their furiously sax-driven, full-length debut, City of the Sun, combines echoes of King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator with an endearingly zany sense of humour. Fellow Norwegians Major Parkinson’s “cabaret rock” opus Twilight Cinema also drew a lot of rave reviews, as did Swedes Pingvinorkestern’s heady melting pot Push. Spain’s ebullient Cheeto’s Magazine offered more Zappaesque, genre-bending goodness with their debut, Boiling Fowls, while French outfit PoiL’s Brossaklitt went beyond Magma and their offspring, with lyrics in an invented language set to an explosive mixture of punk, jazz and RIO/Avant. From the eastern reaches of Europe, Russian quartet Uphill Work’s third album, Missing Opportunities, struck a fine balance between the traditional song form and eccentric avant-garde.

The sprawling US scene achieved its fair share of cliché-busting releases, such as Atomic Ape’s frenetic debut, Swarm (introducing a revamped lineup of Orange Tulip Conspiracy), or Jack O’The Clock’s mysterious Night Loops, a rather different album from last year’s folksy All My Friends. Bent Knee’s Shiny-Eyed Babies reinterprets art rock in thoroughly modern fashion -occasionally reminiscent of their fellow Bostonians Schooltree, though in a darker, more experimental vein. The Pacific Northwest scene produced the melancholy folk-prog of The Autumn Electric’s Flowers for Ambrosia (featuring Phideaux’s keyboardist Johnny Unicorn) as well as the furious “pronk” of Alex’s Hand’s The Roaches and Badwater Fire Company’s eponymous debut, the elegant eclecticism of The Mercury Tree’s Countenance, and the experimental jazz-rock of Fang Chia’s Where Would You That We Gather?. From New York City came the dirty funk of Tauk’s Collisions and the Zappa-inflected jazz-rock of Trout Cake’s EP Ultrasounds (recommended to fans of Frogg Café). Somewhat more appealing to prog traditionalists, Resistor’s To the Stars blends a lot of diverse influences (think Kansas, Iron Maiden and Jethro Tull jamming together with a very 21st-century attitude) for one of the year’s most intriguing “crossover” offerings, while Dream the Electric Sleep’s powerful second album Heretics treads in grunge/alternative territory. Minneapolis quartet  Galactic Cowboy Orchestra also released a new album, Zombie Mouth, and at the end of August wowed the ProgDay crowd with their sparkling brand of “jazzgrass art-rock”.

Instrumental progressive rock in its many forms continues to be a source of interest and delight. After 2013’s psychedelic opus, The Trip, Djam Karet celebrated their 30th anniversary with the über-laid-back Regenerator 3017, while their label Firepool Records brought to the prog audience’s attention the riveting self-titled debut by Spoke of Shadows, the latest project by Warr guitar wizard Mark Cook (of Herd of Instinct fame) in collaboration with renowned session drummer Bill Bachman. One of the year’s undisputed highlights, however, came once again from the cold climes of Sweden, with Necromonkey’s mesmerizing second album, A Glimpse of Possible Endings – complemented later in the year by a career-defining appearance at ProgDay.

Alongside Moraine’s pristine album, the ever-reliable Moonjune Records provided at least another entry to my personal “best of 2014” list: Belgian songstress Susan Clynes’s delightful debut, Life Is… – a must-listen for fans of Kate Bush and Tori Amos, but also for lovers of contemporary jazz. Keeping up his efforts at promoting the Indonesian progressive jazz-rock scene, Leonardo Pavkovic also brought us the latest opuses from established guitar heroes Tohpati (Tribal Dance) and Dewa Budjana (Surya Namaskar), as well as rising star Tesla Manaf’s self-titled debut, and simakDialog’s Live at Orion (capturing a gig that I was lucky to attend). Another live album, The Third Set, came from Chicago whizz kids Marbin, one of the busiest bands on the planet; while the European scene gave us drummer Xavi Reija’s thunderous Resolution and the majestic modern jazz-rock tour de force of Machine Mass Trio’s Inti.

Milan-based label AltrOck Productions kept its unflagging tradition of delivering high-class material to sophisticated prog listeners looking for distinctive musical experiences: besides the already-mentioned Ut Gret, Accordo dei Contrari and PoiL, the re-release of Geranium by Russian folksy RIO/Avant outfit Vezhlivyi Otkaz, the jazz-rock-meets-space-rock craziness of Wrupk Urei’s Kõik Saab Korda, the almost impenetrable, yet fascinating Avant of Factor Burzaco’s 3, enhanced by Carolina Restuccia’s vertiginous vocals.

Indeed, 2014 was a great year for bands fronted by female vocalists. One of the most anticipated releases of the year was undoubtedly MoeTar’s scintillating Entropy of the Century, a quintessential modern art rock effort showcasing Moorea Dickason’s jaw-dropping vocal skills. Kate Bush fans certainly found a lot to love in Russian duo iamthemorning’s delicate, haunting Belighted. In a similar vein, the debut of Swedish band Nomads of Hope (including two former members of late Seventies band Kultivator), Breaking the Circles for a While, marries folk and medieval music with haunting trip-hop suggestions, while Finnish outfit Aalto’s Ikaro introduces elements of Tuvan throat singing and North Indian raga. Many accolades were also received by Homínido‘s debut Estirpe Litica, another highly eclectic effort featuring some former members of Chilean band La Desoorden.

Plenty of interesting new releases came both from newcomers and seasoned protagonists of the thriving Italian scene: among the many worth mentioning, Fabio Zuffanti’s somberly ambitious La quarta vittima, Alex Carpani Band’s modern symphonic 4 Destinies, FEM’s lush concept Sulla bolla di sapone, Nodo Gordiano’s intricate Nous, Agora’s lovely slice of acoustic jazz-rock Ichinen, Greenwall’s melodic yet whimsical Zappa Zippa Zuppa Zeppa, the space-tinged classic RPI of LogosL’enigma della vita, Tacita Intesa’s dramatic, self-titled debut. On the other hand, Lagartija’s Amore di vinile and Marco Machera’s Dime Novels explored the successful union of prog and singer-songwriter music, while Periplo’s debut, Diario di un malessere passeggero, offered an intriguing slice of stylish chamber rock. Sadly, the Italian prog scene suffered an irreparable loss in February, when legendary Banco vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo was killed in a car crash.

Even if I have grown away from classic symphonic prog, a few 2014 releases brought a breath of fresh air in a subgenre that can often sound stale. Kant Freud Kafka’s No Tengas Miedo brought to mind The Enid’s unique brand of majestic, classical-inspired prog, while Deluge Grander’s powerfully choral Heliotians – printed in only 205 hand-numbered, hand-painted LP copies –distilled the very essence of the modern DIY ethos. Those disappointed with Yes’ recent lackluster recording efforts found a lot of enjoyment in Heliopolis’ bright, feel-good debut, City of the Sun. Australia’s The Merlin Bird’s offered lovely female vocals and pastoral textures in their second album, Chapter and Verse, while Eccentric Orbit went for an all-out, ELP-style keyboard assault in Creation of the Humanoids.

2014 also brought some interesting solo projects, with the brilliant heavy fusion of Dean Watson’s Fantasizer!, the eclectic jazz-rock concept of Superfluous Motor’s Shipwrecked, the hauntingly intimist album by  Bodies Floating Ashore (aka Matt Lebofsky of miRthkon/MoeTar/Secret Chiefs 3 fame), and Simon McKechnie’s brainy, Crimsonian tour de force, Newton’s Alchemy.

Unfortunately, some of this year’s notable releases still remain unheard to this day: for instance, Univers Zéro’s Phosphorescent Dreams (released by an obscure Japanese label, and therefore very hard to find), Gong’s I See You, Secret Chiefs 3’s Ishraqiyun: Perichoresis, KaukasusI, and all of Cuneiform Records’ 2014 output. Other high-profile albums have been discussed in detail by most prog websites, but will not be mentioned here for a number of reasons. I have also refrained from mentioning albums I did not particularly enjoy, because I find negativity ultimately pointless, and also because quite a few fellow music writers have already published comprehensive “year in review” pieces covering many of the albums that have not found a place here.

No “year in review” piece would be complete without a mention of live performances. Even if my personal concert-going activity was very limited in comparison to previous years, 2014 was quite generous in terms of festivals and shows, with the continuing success of ROSfest, the return of Baja Prog (unfortunately suspended for 2015), the second editions of SeaProg and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (both confirmed for 2015), ProgDay’s 20th edition, and the Orion Studios‘ marvelous 20th anniversary celebration – as well as the welcome addition of A Day of Prog Art Rock Showcase, organized by the New England Art Rock Society(NewEARS) in the Boston metropolitan area, and Chicago’s two-day Progtoberfest.

My commitment to Something for the Weekend? provided the incentive to explore and actively look for new music to recommend to the feature’s steadily increasing number of readers (50,000 were reached a couple of weeks before the end of the year). What I jokingly call my “collection” of interesting new music bookmarks is also steadily growing. Bandcamp, in particular, is like an underground treasure trove that more and more artists are using to give exposure to their music, embracing a model that rules out any kind of financial gain, but thrives on positive feedback and direct communication with fans. Actively seeking out challenging new music, and making a point of listening to at least one album a day (preferably early in the morning, before I start getting ready to go to work) has become a pleasant routine that has helped me to keep in touch with the scene.

Since many of the albums mentioned in this essay are available for streaming, I hope this lengthy feature will encourage at least some of my readers to click on the hyperlinks and listen to those artists, and perhaps invest a few dollars (or any other currency) to buy a CD or two. As much as I enjoy the classics, I firmly believe that the future of progressive music lies with these people, whose dedication to music often means struggling with less than favourable circumstances, including the lack of support on the part of their intended audience. This essay is dedicated to them, with my most heartfelt thanks for the gift of music and its positive effect on my life.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. New Frontier (10:12)
2. Take a Moment (8:56)
3. Mr. Wishbone (3:31)
4. Elegy (6:07)
5. Love and Inspiration (14:05)

LINEUP:
Jerry Beller – drums, vocals
Matt Brown – keyboards. vocals
Kerry Chicoine – bass, vocals
Scott Jones – lead vocals
Mike Matier – guitars

A couple of years ago, the sudden demise of LA-based quartet Mars Hollow deprived the US progressive rock scene of one of its most promising bands. However, volcanic bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine was not one to keep away from the limelight for too long, and – together with drummer Jerry Beller – he soon teamed up with former Ten Jinn guitarist Mike Matier, gifted keyboardist Matt Brown (also a member of Genesis tribute band Gabble Ratchet) and vocalist Scott Jones to form a new band that was given the high-sounding name of Heliopolis. Indeed, “City of the Sun” (the English translation of the Ancient Greek name, which also refers to one of the capitals of ancient Egypt) is a very appropriate name for an outfit hailing from sun-drenched southern California.

The cover of City of the Sun, released in the late summer of 2014 on 10T Records, is graced by the photo of an elaborate structure that looks like a modern version of the obelisks for which their eponymous city was known. The music inside embodies the band’s own description of “progressive rock, LA style”: based on strong melodies and catchy hooks as much as on instrumental skill, though with less of an AOR bent than Mars Hollow, it also reflects the band members’ optimistic outlook.

Clocking in at around 42 minutes, City of the Sun is carefully balanced, with the two longest tracks bookending the album, and the only instrumental track – also the disc’s shortest number – strategically placed in the middle. Writing credits are equally shared by all the band members, which contributes to the overall solidity of the album. While the individual performances are very strong, the emphasis is clearly placed on ensemble playing, and the result is remarkably cohesive, though with enough variety to keep the listener’s attention. Indeed, for such a compact running time, a lot seems to be going on in each of the five tracks.

The music on City of the Sun fits the description of modern symphonic prog, clearly influenced by Yes, but successfully avoiding the overt plagiarism that mars the production of other similar outfits. The ultra-heavy intro to “New Frontier”, with its nod to Black Sabbath (or also Yes’ “Machine Messiah”), slowly morphs into a more melodic scenario, introducing Scott Jones’ Jon-Anderson-meets-Geddy-Lee vocals, as well as Kerry Chicoine’s pneumatic Rickenbacker, aided and abetted by a Jerry Beller in top form. Seamless vocal harmonies and an infectious chorus soften the complexity of the musical fabric, while Mike Matier’s guitar adds bite and a touch of dissonance to the concoction. Matt Brown’s array of keyboards steps up to the plate in “Take a Moment”, which introduces some spacey, atmospheric elements as well as jazzy hints in a rather more somber context than the opening track.

The interlude provided by the unexpectedly angular, almost Crimsonian instrumental “Mr Wishbone” (complete with a guest appearance from a dog, Ricky Chihuahua) contrasts sharply with the melodic “Elegy”, an oddly upbeat song considering its subject matter (it is dedicated to the memory of drummer and composer Shaun Guerin, who passed away in 2003), and definitely the most mainstream number on the album. Things are brought to a close by the mini-epic “Love and Inspiration”, an ambitious piece that lacks the edge and complexity of “New Frontier”, spotlighting instead the band’s flair for grandiosity and the elegance of their vocal harmonies. Matier and Chicoine are in fine fettle on this track, again adding some jazzy overtones to the proceedings.

With some festival appearances (NorCalProg and the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend) under their belt, and a prestigious slot as openers of the ROSfest 2015 weekend before Spock’s Beard, Heliopolis are one of those bands who are most at ease when playing live, which makes their music truly come alive. Though they will never try to sell themselves as the most innovative of bands, their engaging manner and obvious enjoyment of their craft has already won them a lot of fans; additionally, City of the Sun puts a lot of potentially interesting ideas on display. Even if, in the past few years, my personal tastes have veered away from conventional prog towards more challenging fare, I have found a lot to enjoy in Heliopolis’ debut, and can warmly recommend it to those who are looking for a contemporary take on the traditional symphonic approach.

Links:
http://www.heliopolisband.com/
http://www.10trecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Dystopian Fiction (2:01)
2. Entropy of the Century (2:53)
3. Regression to the Mean (3:50)
4. Welcome to the Solar Flares (3:04)
5. Friday Night Dreams (4:06)
6. Letting Go of Life (4:47)
7. We Machines (4:36)
8. Benefits (3:21)
9. Raze the Maze (2:38)
10. Confectioner’s Curse (3:03)
11. Where the Truth Lies (4:49)
12. The Unknowable (6:26)

LINEUP:
Moorea Dickason – vocals
Tarik Ragab – bass, vocals
Matt Lebofsky – keyboards
Matthew Charles Heulitt – guitar
David M Flores – drums

With:
Jonathan Herrera – synthesizer (1-3, 5, 7, 9, 11)

A couple of years ago, Bay Area quintet MoeTar first took the somewhat jaded progressive rock world by surprise with their debut album, From These Small Seeds – released in 2010, but reissued by Magna Carta in 2012. A perfect example of modern art-rock, the album offered a scintillating blend of super-catchy hooks and sinuous complexity – all crammed into 4-5-minute songs driven by Moorea Dickason’s jaw-dropping vocal prowess. Four years later, and following a successful crowdfunding campaign, MoeTar are back with their sophomore effort, Entropy of the Century.

A second album is always a tricky proposition, and even more so when a band’s debut has attracted as much attention as From These Small Seeds. MoeTar’s lively concert activity (which included a short but very successful East Coast foray in the summer of 2012, and a slot at the 2013 edition of ROSfest) has made many prog fans aware of the band’s highly individual take on the old prog warhorse. The success of their Kickstarter campaign (and the invitation to perform at the third edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend in October 2015) is proof enough of the positive impression they have left in the past couple of years.

So, does Entropy of the Century live up to expectations? The answer is a qualified yes. In terms of visual presentation, the album comes with a stunning cover by bassist and main songwriter Tarik Ragab, whose apparently drab shades of beige and grey complement the intricate mandala-like design. The artwork’s baroque feel is amply reflected in the music’s sophisticated arrangements, built around Moorea Dickason’s vertiginous vocals, but tightly executed by the other band members (augmented by talented keyboardist Jonathan Herrera). Keyboardist Matt Lebofsky’s tenure with cutting-edge bands such as Secret Chiefs 3 and miRthkon is reflected in the album’s subtle but recognizable forays into Avant territory.

Compared to its predecessor, Entropy of the Century is clearly more ambitious, and its impact consequently not as immediate. Ragab’s trademark “brainy” lyrics (based around an elaborate concept illustrated on the band’s website, and delivered by Moorea with remarkable aplomb, though most other singers would be daunted by their density) with their correspondingly esoteric titles provide an oddly fitting centerpiece for the busy musical accompaniment – so busy as to sometimes leave the listener craving a little space. The unmistakable Avant influence sneaks into the grandiose, melodic fabric of the songs, unexpected bits of keyboard-led dissonance creating a mesmerizing, head-spinning effect redolent of circus music.

Opener “Dystopian Fiction” sums up those characteristics in barely 2 minutes, introduced by an infectiously tinkling tune and unfolding in dramatic fashion – soothing and intense at the same time. While built along similar lines, the title-track comes across as more “mainstream”, though things take on more of an edge towards the end. After that, the album kicks into high gear with the angular “Regression to the Mean” – spiced up by Lebofsky’s wacky keyboards and Matthew Heulitt’s intensely heavy guitar complementing Moorea’s vocal acrobatics

The influence of Broadway musicals – as well as art-rock icons Queen – emerges in the central part of the album, with the theatrical sweep of “Welcome to the Solar Flares” (in contrast with its muted, melodic beginning), the jauntily energetic pace of “Friday Night Dreams” (a showcase for Heulitt and Lebofsky’s two-pronged action), and the triumphant, then soothing “Letting Go of Life” – which soon shifts into Avant-tinged atmospherics with its superb instrumental coda (proving that MoeTar are much more than just a backing band for Moorea’s magnificent pipes). Similarly, with “We Machines”, the skewedly memorable melody of the chorus coexists with an exhilarating jazzy coda, spotlighting David M. Flores’ extravagant drumming and Heulitt’s chiming guitar, and, once again, revealing the album’s ambitiousness in these details.

The final part of the album is introduced by the subdued torch-song of the piano-laced “Benefits”, the only song on the album written by Matt Lebofsky. Things pick up again with the vocal bravura piece of “Raze the Maze”, peppered by weird electronics, and the dramatic, circusy tune of “Confectioner’s Curse”. Darker and heavier, “Where the Truth Lies” sounds like Queen with an Avant flavour, once again showcasing Heulitt’s remarkable mastery of the six strings; while closer “The Unknowable” (at over 6 minutes the longest track on the album) starts out in a subdued mood, deceptively restful after the intensity of the previous song – then gains momentum and drama, wrapping things up with a majestic instrumental coda.

Albeit lacking its predecessor’s easy accessibility, Entropy of the Century captures the growing self-confidence of an immensely talented outfit. Though you may not be able to sing along to some of the songs as it was the case with From These Small Seeds, the great songwriting, effortless instrumental brilliance, and – most of all – Moorea’s astounding vocal performance are more than enough to make this album one of the highlights of 2014 for fans of non-mainstream music. As I often say in my reviews, this may not be your parents’ prog, but it certainly represents what is exciting and vital about the genre in this second decade of the 21st century.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com/
http://www.magnacarta.net

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In the autumn of 1994, Michigan native and long-time Baltimore resident Mike Potter started on a venture that has brought many moments of joy to progressive rock fans all over the US. With a name inspired by Potter’s lifelong passion for astronomy, the Orion Sound Studios – located in the middle of an industrial park in a rather unprepossessing part of Baltimore – has provided not only an invaluable resource for up-and-coming musicians in search of rehearsal and recording space, but a veritable magnet for lovers of non-mainstream music in that densely populated area.

In the past twenty years, the Orion’s legendary Trapezoid Room has been a haven for bands, both domestic and international, and a home away from home for the small but thriving “prog community” of the Eastern Seaboard. The venue’s cult status was cemented by its central role in Romantic Warriors – A Progressive Music Saga, which made the Orion’s name familiar to people living in other parts of the world. Even if Potter jokingly refers to the start of his venture as “the worst decision in my life”, his dedication to the Studios is complete, and his skills as a sound engineer have contributed to the success of many progressive rock events.

Therefore, it was only natural for such a milestone date to be celebrated in the most appropriate fashion – with a one-day festival that encapsulated all the aspects that have made the Orion Live Music Showcases such an unqualified success: some of the best progressive music the US scene has to offer, a great social vibe, and – last but not least – plenty of excellent food and drink. Even the notoriously unreliable East Coast weather had decided to cooperate, blessing the event with a perfect fall day, crisp but sunny. The riot of gorgeous foliage that accompanied our drive from our Northern Virginia home was a fitting prelude to the wonderful afternoon and evening that awaited us at the Orion.

As the Trapezoid Room – filled with white folding chairs to seat the 80 or so people who had booked tickets (and I am happy to report that the event was sold out!) – was to be used solely for performances and soundchecks, the rooms across the parking lot had been appointed for the breaks, and were soon filled with a huge selection of food (in many cases homemade) and drink brought by the attendees. The nice weather also encouraged people to linger outside, enjoying a welcome breath of fresh autumn air after the intensity of each performance. For the occasion, the stage area had been remodeled, the high ceiling now fully on display to create an impression of spaciousness that was previously missing, enhancing the effect of the multi-coloured lights.

Though the performances had been scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., there was a substantial delay that, while allowing for more socialization, pushed the whole schedule nearly an hour forward. Each band had been allotted about one hour and a half for their set – longer than most festivals usually allow for anyone except the headliners. At first, the audience did not mind the delay, but at the end of a long musical marathon fatigue started to set in. However, with many people coming from other parts of the country, having the event start earlier would have posed other problems.

The organizers had put together a lineup featuring some of the finest US-based bands currently active, with no whiff of nostalgia in sight – unlike the bigger festivals, which have to cater to the average US prog fan’s obsession with the Seventies. Even though most of the bands selected have already been around for a number of years (in the case of headliners Discipline, for even longer than the Orion Studios themselves!), they have not been resting on their laurels, and kept their music fresh and relevant.

The lone exceptions were openers The Knells – a recently-formed, NYC-based ensemble led by guitarist/composer Andrew McKenna Lee, who had wowed the Orion crowd last year in a breakthrough performance immediately following the release of their eponymous debut album. Having reviewed said album earlier this year, I was looking forward to seeing the band in action, and my expectations were not disappointed. Introduced by a solo spot by McKenna Lee – two acoustic guitar pieces and an oddly riveting, effect-laden 15-minute homage to Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, The Knells played a jaw-dropping set that did full justice to the complexity of the compositions, masterfully executed by the eight-piece lineup. With its hypnotic post-rock cadences blended with heady psychedelia, angular Avant stylings and the hauntingly beautiful, yet somewhat eerie neo-Gregorian chanting of the three female vocalists, The Knells’ music is clearly not a proposition for everyone, and those in the audience who are more inclined towards the melodic end of the prog spectrum found it hard to relate to it. Personally, I loved every minute of the band’s performance, and hope to have the opportunity to see them again soon.

New Yorkers Frogg Café – longtime favourites of the US prog community, with a number of high-profile appearances under their belt – have all but recently emerged from the long hiatus that followed the 2010 release of Bateless Edge. Their first live performance in years, at the first edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend, in October 2013, had been rather impressive because of the talent involved, but still somewhat touched by the “rust” of inactivity. At the Orion, however, it was a completely different ballgame: though minus guitarist Frank Camiola (who is, once again, on sabbatical, pursuing more left-field musical interests), the band delivered a stunner of a performance, marching on stage from the back of the room to the strains of Franz Zappa’s “Inca Roads”. As the loss of Camiola’s electric edge required a stronger focus on the jazzier side of the band’s material to make up for the, Bill Ayasse took upon himself to replace the guitar with his electric violin and mandolin (putting his expertise as a bluegrass player to good use). The dynamic duo of brothers Nick and John Lieto provided comic relief as well as a buoyant big-band feel with their boisterous horns – and Nick proved no slouch in the vocal department. Andrew Sussman on bass and James Guarnieri on drums anchored the performance with a skillful mix of solidity and virtuosity. Besides some older favourites (which included the poignant “Terra Sancta” from Bateless Edge), Frogg Café treated the audience to some material from their long-awaited new album, plus a hilarious rendition of Zappa’s iconic “I’m the Slime”.

After a longer break for dinner, it was time to head inside once again for Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores. My introduction to the band dated back from 2011, when they had opened the Rock Day at the first and only edition of Cuneifest, and they easily won my personal award for best act of the day. The Providence outfit, led by charismatic, long-haired 21st-century minstrel Alec K. Redfearn – a gifted storyteller with a penchant for the weird and the macabre (not surprising for someone hailing from HP Lovecraft’s home town) – are purveyors of music whose RIO/Avant tag feels too restrictive for its genuinely eclectic nature. With a very idiosyncratic configuration – centred around Redfearn’s accordion (not the most typical of prog instruments), and featuring French horn, contrabass and percussion as well as a more traditional guitar (wielded by the very pretty and talented Gillian Chadwick) – The Eyesores’ music is strongly influenced by European folk, but also infused by an experimental vibe evident in the array of effects used by Redfearn to create an intensely haunting, drone-like atmosphere. Though their set was (at slightly over one hour) the shortest of the day, it offered such a concentration of intriguing compositions and pristine performances – further enhanced by Alec’s witty anecdotes – that even some of the more musically conservative members of the audience were won over by this truly unique outfit.

By the time headliners Discipline hit the stage, it was about 11:30 pm, and many attendees were already beginning to feel the strain of the late hour. Though the Detroit band were by far the most mainstream act on the lineup, and therefore the biggest draw for many attendees, the dark, intense nature of their music has also won them many admirers among the fans of the more left-field fringes of prog. Unfortunately, the late hour did the band no favours, and they ended up losing part of their audience midway through their set because of sheer exhaustion. We were among those who left early, though having seen the band onstage less than one month ago at the NJ Proghouse lessened our disappointment. Discipline played most of the same setlist (sadly devoid of the magnificent epic “Rogue”, from 2011’s To Shatter All Accord), though with the bonus encore of the über-creepy “The Nursery Year”, which at the Proghouse had been performed by Echolyn’s Ray Weston. From the first hour of the set, I got the impression of a heavier, more powerful (as well as distinctly louder) sound, complemented by Matthew Parmenter’s dramatic (albeit never overwrought) vocals. The band was tighter than ever, and new guitarist Chris Herin fit seamlessly with the original members, his sharp yet melodic guitar lines adding a keen edge to the band’s own brand of dark symphonic prog. As I had already noticed at the Proghouse, he is also a rather attractive man, obviously as comfortable on stage as his bandmates. Hopefully Discipline will be back on the East Coast some time next year, and possibly release a new album soon.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience, and my only regret is that the original idea of a two-day event did not come to fruition. It felt great to be back at the Orion after such a long absence, and spend time with the many friends we had missed during the past year or so. As always, my most heartfelt thanks go to Mike Potter and the rest of the organizing committee for having allowed us to experience such a great day of music and friendship. The celebration of the Orion Studios’ 20th Anniversary offered everything that makes the independent, non-mainstream music scene so exciting. It was also a brilliant example of the “small is beautiful” ethos that has replaced the more ambitious (and much less financially viable) festivals. Indeed, it was heartening to see a full house for bands that, for once, were not throwbacks of the Seventies in any way, and that – each in its own way – represent the best of the modern progressive rock scene.

Links:
http://www.orionsound.com
http://theknells.com
http://www.froggcafe.com
http://www.aleckredfearn.com/
http://www.strungoutrecords.com