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Posts Tagged ‘3RDegree’

Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

SDC14875

First off, I feel the need to apologize to my readers for the string of rather depressing titles given to my “Year in Review” posts. No matter how optimistic I try to be at the beginning of a new year, life always finds a way to disappoint my expectations. 2015, though, was special – for all the wrong reasons. Even now that things are going somewhat better (though far from ideal), I still occasionally feel the urge to withdraw from everyone – hence the not exactly uplifting title of this piece.

This sorry state of affairs obviously impacted my inspiration as regards writing reviews and the like. My blog was neglected for most of the year, with only 9 posts in 12 months, and the few label owners who regularly sent me their material took me off their mailing lists – which contributed to my feelings of isolation, even if I cannot blame them for that. Music remained nevertheless a constant source of comfort, thanks to the ready availability of new (and not so new) material on streaming services such as Progstreaming and Bandcamp. This allowed me to listen to most of the albums I was interested in, and keep in touch with a scene that I have been steadily supporting for the past few years. Some days I had to force myself to listen, but thankfully things got easier with time.

Although full-length reviews were thin on the ground, I kept up my collaboration with Andy Read’s excellent weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, as well as my activity as a member of the RIO/Avant/Zeuhl genre team (also known as ZART) at my “alma mater”, ProgArchives. In the second half of the year i was able to resume writing longer reviews, not only for my blog, but also for DPRP – though not yet on a regular basis. On the other hand, our concert attendance hit an all-time low. To be fair, ProgDay 2015’s extremely high level of quality more than made up for the many other gigs that we ended up missing. The only other show we attended was The Muffins’ one-off performance at the Orion Studios in mid-May, which unfortunately I was unable to enjoy as much as it would have deserved.

As usual, the amount of new music released in 2015 under the ever-expanding “prog” umbrella was staggering, and required a rather selective approach. The year just ended further proved that the scene is splintering in a way that, while it may help people more effectively to find music that appeals to their tastes, may also in the long run cause harm – especially as regards the live scene. Festivals in the US have further shrunk in number, with the cancellation (and apparent demise) of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend leaving only ROSfest and ProgDay still standing. Europe seems to be faring somewhat better (though one has to wonder how long this will last), and festivals appealing to a broad range of tastes within the prog spectrum continue to be reasonably well-attended.

On a positive note, websites dedicated to prog are going strong, as is the rather controversial Prog magazine (whose fan I am definitely not). It remains to be seen if what has always been a niche market (even in the Seventies, when bands that enjoyed commercial success were just the tip of a very large iceberg) will be able to keep up with such a vast output in the following years. In some ways, as I also observed in last year’s post, going underground has freed progressive rock from the constraints of appealing to market tastes, but (in my view at least) the opportunity for almost everyone to produce an album and put it on Bandcamp or Soundcloud poses a lot of questions as regards quality control.

Some of my readers will undoubtedly notice the absence of some of the year’s higher-profile releases. As I did last year, I decided to avoid mentioning albums I had found disappointing or just plain uninteresting, as well as those I have not yet managed to hear. A lot of other people have mentioned those albums in their own Year in Review pieces, and I think there is no use in pointing out the negative instead of concentrating on the positive. Compared with some of the previous years, 2015 started out in rather low-key fashion, with many highly anticipated releases concentrated in its second half. On the other hand, the first part of the year brought albums that are very well worth checking out, though they may never enjoy the status of other discs. It was also a year that, while prodigal with very good releases, mostly lacked genuine masterpieces. On the whole, I feel I have just scratched the surface, as perusing the myriad of Best of 2015 lists published on the web constantly reveals some album I have not heard of before.

As I mentioned in last year’s post, my tastes have been steadily moving away from “standard” prog, though a few albums that qualify as such have been included here. In fact, my personal #1 album of the year was released by a band that first got together in the late Seventies, and is probably closer to “conventional” prog than people would expect from me. However, Hands’ masterful Caviar Bobsled is a unique album that does not really sound like anything else, definitely fresher and more modern than a lot of highly praised albums by artists who have been active for a much shorter time.

Having promoted US prog for a while now, I am glad to report that the American scene produced some fine specimens over the past few months – with the NY/NJ region being again very much in evidence. Brilliant releases from The Tea Club (Grappling), 3RDegree (Ones & Zeros Vol. 1) and Advent (Silent Sentinel) highlighted the work of bands that have reached full maturity in terms of musicianship and compositional flair. To this outstanding trio I would also add Echolyn’s I Heard You Listening (more of a slow grower than their career-defining 2012 album) IZZ’s stylish Everlasting Instant, as well as a couple of well-crafted albums with a more traditional bent, both recommended to keyboard lovers – Kinetic Element’s sophomore effort, Travelog, and Theo’s debut, the dystopian concept The Game of Ouroboros.

All of the above-mentioned albums offer plenty of sophisticated music with great melodic potential, standing at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. The contemporary US scene, however, is also rife with cutting-edge artists that constantly challenge the perceptions of their intended audience. Works such as Upsilon Acrux’s highly charged Sun Square Dialect, the hypnotic math-rock of BattlesLa Di Da Di, Stern’s gloomily haunting Bone Turquoise, The Nerve Institute’s idiosyncratic Fictions (containing previously unreleased material), Ben Levin Group’s “pronk” opus Freak Machine (featuring most members of Bent Knee), Jack O’The Clock’s Outsider Songs (a collection of quirky covers), and Andrew Moore Chamber Works’ intriguing debut Indianapolis (steel drums meet chamber rock) proved the vitality of the US avant-garde scene. Thinking Plague (whose new album is expected in 2016), reissued their seminal debut, In This Life, while two albums involving previous or current members of the band – Ligeia Mare’s Amplifier and +1’s Future Perfect (the latter one of the many projects of keyboardist/composer Kimara Sajn) – helped to make the wait more bearable. Another fine Avant-related album (though in a more song-based vein), Omicron, came from former Alec K Redfearn and the Eyesore’s vocalist, Orion Rigel Dommisse.

New, highly eclectic releases by “jazzgrass proggers” Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (Earth Lift) and Yes-meets-country trio Dreadnaught (the EP Gettin’ Tight With Dreadnaught), Marbin’s fiery Aggressive Hippies, Djam Karet’s supremely trippy Swamp of Dreams, Fernwood’s delightful acoustic confection Arcadia, Mammatus’s monumental stoner-prog opus Sparkling Waters, and ethereal chamber-folk duo Fields Burning’s eponymous debut also illustrated the versatility  of a scene that is all too often associated with heavily AOR-tinged music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British scene has been experiencing a renaissance in terms of creative modern progressive rock. Top of the heap, and definitely one of the best 2015 releases as far as I am concerned, were two Cardiacs-related albums: William D. Drake’s superb Revere Reach, one of those rare discs that are impossible to label, as well as being a delight from start to finish, and Guapo’s hypnotic, surging Obscure Knowledge. Thieves’ Kitchen’s stately, poignant The Clockwork Universe, with its original take on “classic” prog modes, completed my personal trinity of top 2015 British releases.

The runners-up, however, are all quite deserving of attention from discerning prog fans. Richard Wileman’s über-eclectic Karda Estra regaled its followers with a whopping three releases – the full-length Strange Relations (recorded with the involvement of The Muffins’ drummer extraordinaire Paul Sears), and the EPs The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds (the latter also featuring Sears). Guitarist Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead made a comeback with the intense EP Magnet, and A Formal Horse’s second EP, Morning Jigsaw, provided a British answer to Bent Knee and MoeTar. John Bassett (of Kingbathmat fame) produced an exciting follow-up (simply titled II) to the 2014 debut of his instrumental, stoner-prog solo project, Arcade Messiah; in a similar vein, the cinematic psych/space of Teeth of the Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. To further prove that the modern British prog is definitely not steeped in nostalgia, Colin Robinson’s Jumble Hole Clough brought us more of his quirky, electronics-infused antics with A List of Things That Never Happened, and Firefly Burning a heady dose of drone-folk with their latest effort, Skeleton Hill.

Plenty of great music also came out of continental Europe. From Scandinavia, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums – Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts Are Gone – delivered amply in the quality stakes, as did the scintillating electro-jazz of Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire, Pixel’s warmer, more organic Golden Years, the rambling, keyboard-based jazz-rock of Hooffoot’s debut, Agusa’s space-rock workout Två, the quirky Avant-Prog of Simon Steensland’s A Farewell to Brains, Necromonkey’s all-electronic extravaganza Show Me Where It Hertz, and another long-overdue comeback – Dungen’s sunny Allas Sak – as well as guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s highly original effort Variety of Live, recorded with an international cast including Pat Mastelotto and Richard Barbieri. Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske, also appeared on elephant9’s highly praised Silver Mountain – the only album mentioned here that I have not yet managed to hear. Heading east, the intriguing, though not widely known, Russian scene produced the haunting psychedelic rock blended with shamanistic chanting of Ole Lukkoye’s Dyatly, The Grand Astoria’s ambitious crossover The Mighty Few, and the lush symphonic-Avant of Roz VitalisLavoro d’Amore.

The thriving French scene presented Avant fans with Unit Wail’s psyche-Zeuhl opus Beyond Space Edge, Ni’s electrifying Les Insurgés de Romilly, Ghost Rhythms’ elegant Madeleine, and Alco Frisbass’ Canterbury-inspired debut. Switzerland, on the other hand, seems to have become a hotbed for all forms of “post-jazz”, with two outstanding Cuneiform releases – Schnellertollermeier’s exhilarating X, and Sonar’s more understated Black Light – as well as IkarusEcho and Plaistow’s Titan. Germany brought the omnivorous jazz-metal of Panzerballett’s Breaking Brain, and Belgium Quantum Fantay’s pulsating space trip Dancing in Limbo. From the more southern climes of Greece and Spain came Ciccada’s lovely, pastoral sophomore effort, The Finest of Miracles, the intriguing Mediterranean math rock of El Tubo Elástico’s eponymous debut, and Ángel Ontalva’s sublime, Oriental-tinged Tierra Quemada.

Italy, as usual, did its part, turning out a panoply of albums of consistently high quality. Fans of the classic RPI sound found a lot to appreciate in La Coscienza di Zeno’s third effort, La Notte Anche di Giorno, Ubi Maior’s ambitious Incanti Bio-Meccanici, and also the harder-edged Babylon by VIII Strada. Not A Good Sign’s comeback, From A Distance, combined Italian melodic flair and Crimsonesque angularity, while Pensiero Nomade’s Da Nessun Luogo introduced haunting female vocals into jazzy/ambient textures. The very title of Slivovitz’s All You Can Eat illustrated the boisterous eclecticism of the Naples-based outfit, and feat.Esserelà’s classy debut Tuorl was a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz-rock.

2015 was a great year for fans of the Canterbury sound, witnessing the release of the third installment of the Romantic Warriors documentary series (aptly titled Canterbury Tales) just a few months after the passing of Daevid Allen, one of the scene’s most iconic figures. Moreover, two outstanding Canterbury-related albums came from two vastly different parts of the world: Blue Dogs, the debut by Manna/Mirage, The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse’s new project, and Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res’ brilliant second album, Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era (with Newhouse guesting on the epic “Ospedale Civico”). The latter is one of the finest 2015 releases from my native Italy, a distinction shared with the supremely elegant chamber-rock of Breznev Fun Club’s second album, Il Misantropo Felice (both albums were released on the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions label), and with OTEME’s beautiful comeback, L’Agguato. L’Abbandono. Il Movimento.

AltrOck (whose 2016 schedule looks mouthwatering, to say the least) is also responsible for two of the year’s most distinctive albums: the ultra-eclectic, vocal-based Everyday Mythology by Loomings, a French-Italian ensemble put together by Yugen’s Jacopo Costa, and multinational quintet Rêve Général’s stunning debut Howl (the latest endeavour by former Etron Fou Leloublan drummer Guigou Chenevier). Another debut related to the original RIO scene came with Logos, by English-based quartet The Artaud Beats, featuring drummer Chris Cutler and bassist John Greaves; while Stepmother’s wacky, Zappaesque Calvary Greetings spotlights another multinational outfit, which includes legendary drummer Dave Kerman.

Though in 2015 the latest incarnation of King Crimson released Live at the Orpheum (recorded in LA during their 2014 US tour), there seems to be hardly any new material in sight from the legendary band. Luckily, last year brought a few KC-related albums that are well worth exploring – especially for those who favour the band’s harder-edged output: namely, Pat Mastelotto’s new trio KoMaRa’s dark, gritty self-titled debut (with disturbing artwork by Tool’s Adam Jones), Chicago-based math-rock trio Pavlov3 (featuring Markus Reuter) with Curvature-Induced Symmetry…Breaking, and Trey Gunn’s haunting, ambient-tinged The Waters, They Are Rising.

Other, less widely exposed countries also yielded a wealth of interesting music during the past year. Out of Chile (one of the most vital modern prog scenes) came the good-time Avant-Prog of Akinetón Retard’s Azufre; while, on the other side of the Pacific, Indonesia continues to produce high-quality music, brought to light by Moonjune Records’ irrepressible Leonardo Pavkovic. Guitar hero Dewa Budjana’s Hasta Karma and Joged Kahyangan , and keyboardist Dwiki Dharmawan’s So Far, So Close showcase the unique fusion of Western jazz-rock and the island nation’s rich musical heritage.

No 2015 retrospective would be complete without a mention of the many losses sustained by the music world during the past year. The passing of legendary Yes bassist and founder Chris Squire was undoubtedly a traumatic event for prog fans, while the demise of heavy rock icon (and former Hawkwind member) Lemmy a few days before the end of the year was mourned by the rock community at large. Though, of course, the heroes of the Seventies are not getting any younger, neither of these seminal figures was old for today’s standards – unlike jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman and bluesman B.B. King, who had both reached respectable ages.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, most of the music I have recommended would not qualify as “real prog” for many listeners. It does, however, reflect the direction my tastes have taken in the past few years, and I hope it will lead to new discoveries. Whenever possible, I have provided links to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, where my readers will be able to stream the albums (and hopefully also buy them). For the vast majority of the artists mentioned in this article, music is a labour of love rather than a day job. Though progressive music is alive and well in the second decade of the third millennium, and 2016 already looks very promising in terms of new releases, the scene – now more than ever – needs to be supported if we really want it to survive.

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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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After our highly enjoyable experience at Dunellen’s quaint Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse during last year’s Columbus Day weekend, this year we were looking forward to a repeat – and that in spite of the stress of the past 12 months. The stellar lineup, friendly vibe and gorgeous, early fall weather had made the first edition of New Jersey’s own “small is beautiful” festival an unforgettable occurrence, and things looked very promising for its sophomore edition when the lineup was announced – featuring two iconic US bands such as Echolyn and Discipline as headliners, together with a wealth of up-and-coming progressive talent.

Unfortunately, the unexpected withdrawal of Echolyn not even two months before the event had threatened to put the festival in severe jeopardy, and definitely impacted the overall attendance. US prog fans – even more so than those from other countries – need to see big names on a bill before they will commit money and vacation time, as the sorry tale of ambitious yet aborted ventures such as NEARfest 2011 and FarFest more than abundantly proved. The turnout, however, even if obviously lower than last year, was satisfactory – which (as a silver lining of sorts) allowed a more intimate seating arrangement that made for a more comfortable viewing experience.

Saturday morning felt more like November than early October, with rain, grey skies and rather chilly temperatures that did not encourage lingering outside. In spite of that, a nice crowd gathered before noon to witness the performance of openers Pinnacle, a group of seasoned musicians well known in the North East prog community, with ties to the NJ Proghouse organization. The quartet introduced their newest member, vocalist/keyboardist Matt Francisco, who handled his frontman duties with remarkable aplomb, doing justice to the band’s accomplished songwriting. Of all the bands who trod the Roxy and Dukes stage on Saturday, Pinnacle were probably the only one that could be labeled as “traditional” prog, and they rose well to the occasion, interspersing their own original material with an homage to Marillion’s “Script for a Jester’s Tear”. Although their music (a modern take on the classic Neo-Prog sound) is not exactly my cup of tea (being a modern take on classic Neo-Prog), their enthusiasm, professionalism and warm stage presence won over the audience.

South Jerseyans Out of the Beardspace were already a known quantity for those who (like us,) had attended ProgDay 2013. At the time, I had found them promising and quite entertaining, albeit a tad unfocused. However, the youthful six-piece (none of them is older than 24) had grown by leaps and bounds in the intervening months, with the help of a massive amount of gigging. In fact, they had played until 4 a.m. that morning, and were headed for another show a couple of hours after their NJ Proghouse set. Brimming with energy, the band members bounced unceasingly about the stage; their music, however, while retaining the jammy, spontaneous vibe that had endeared them to the ProgDay crowd, was noticeably tighter. Fronted by the charismatic Kevin Savo – whose impressive stage presence and piercing vocals belie his diminutive size – these modern-day hippies, staunch supporters of a DIY ethos and dedicated environmentalists, showed that there is ample room for the younger generations on the stage of a prog festival – provided the audiences are willing to step out of their comfort zone. Chock full of psychedelic goodness, the band’s musical approach is occasionally reminiscent to that of jam bands, but is clearly evolving in a more focused direction from a compositional point of view. While out of the Beardspace may not be your parents’ prog, they definitely belong under the ever-growing umbrella of modern progressive rock.

Though vaguely familiar with the name, I had not heard any of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music prior to the event, and lack of time prevented me from exploring further. In fact, the comments I had heard about their music being more in singer-songwriter vein than in a conventional prog one proved to be at least partly true. The quartet fronted by young and gifted guitarist/vocalist Randy McStine (also a member of Sound of Contact’s touring lineup) deals in song-based, prog-tinged rock that on more than one occasion reminded me of U2, though without the Irish band’s flamboyance and charisma. While a couple of tracks towards the end of their set contained some interesting instrumental passages, the bulk of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music failed to connect with me, in spite of the band members’ obvious enthusiasm and skill. The crowd, on the other hand, seemed to really appreciate their set, and treated them to a standing ovation.

As I wrote in my review of ProgDay 2014, I was curious to see whether California-based power trio Travis Larson Band’s music would work better in a more intimate setting than it had in the tropical heat of Storybook Farm at 3 p.m. My hunch proved to be correct, as the trio’s set was for me the highlight of a rather low-key day. Travis Larson’ engagingly friendly between-songs banter added interest to the blistering yet fluid music – driving rock-fusion with some warm bluesy undertones, always tight and never descending into pointless shredding. Larson’s on-stage chemistry with diminutive dynamo Jennifer Young – a gifted bassist genuinely in love with her instrument, and a heartwarming example of an attractive woman using her musical talent rather than her looks to impress – was a joy to behold, while powerhouse drummer Dale Moon made quite a few members of the audience wonder whether he was related to another drum legend bearing the same surname. The band’s stagecraft is obviously honed to perfection, and their set provided a welcome shot of pure rock energy.

After a delicious (and way too plentiful for us to finish) dinner at a Peruvian restaurant a few miles down the road, in the company of our friend Robert James Pashman of 3RDegree fame (whom we had not seen in quite a while), we got back to Roxy and Dukes just one or two minutes after The Sensational Francis Dunnery Band had taken to the stage. At the end of a long day of music (and, in my case, not having got enough sleep the previous night), it would have taken something special to hold our attention until 11 pm, but unfortunately this was not the case, and we ended up leaving about half an hour later in order to get some rest. While Dunnery is a very accomplished musician, songwriter and frontman (even when sporting blue tracksuit pants, as he did on this occasion) of a very eclectic persuasion, his music did not particularly resonate with us, and his constant complaints about the sound system came across as rather jarring after a while. On the other hand, having had to replace Echolyn as the Saturday headliner would undoubtedly have been a thankless task for anyone.

After a much better night’s sleep, on Sunday morning I was feeling refreshed and ready to tackle another day of music. The much nicer weather also encouraged us to arrive early to spend some time outside the venue, chatting with people and enjoying the sunshine. I was looking forward to opening act Schooltree – a band I had selected as one of my earliest contributions to DPRP’s Something for the Weekend? feature, and recommended to a few people. The Boston-based quartet, led by another pocket-sized, yet hugely charismatic young woman – the very talented Lainey Schooltree, decked in a half-demure, half-provocative outfit of white blouse and black, tightly laced corset – delivered an hour of delightful art-rock with intriguing Baroque arrangements that owed to Kate Bush and Queen as much as to classic prog. Lainey’s powerful, expressive vocals and keyboard mastery often made me think of a more carefree version of Tori Amos. Alongside songs from the band’s excellent debut album, Rise, we were treated to some very promising material from their forthcoming ‘rock opera’. Lainey and her bandmates deservedly made many fans with their exciting music and friendly, engaging demeanour.

Of all of the bands on the lineup, MVP (Meridian Voice Project) were definitely the most obscure, though I had managed to find enough information about them to learn that they were a jazz-rock-oriented four-piece from New York City who had performed at the NJ Proghouse in 2013. Led by ebullient keyboardist Lloyd Landesman, an obviously experienced, very accomplished artist with and the added bonus of a talent for stand-up comedy, the band played a fiery set of classic, keyboard-driven jazz-rock with plenty of melody and energy that featured a lot of their own material, as well as a few covers (such as Bruford’s famed “Hell’s Bells”, a showcase for the amazing talent of drummer Dana Hawkins) and. With their seamless musicianship and easy stage manner, the band made a splash with the crowd, and many rushed to buy CDs after the show.

The East Coast debut of Los Angeles five-piece Heliopolis was eagerly awaited by many an audience member – especially those who had loved Mars Hollow’s soaring melodies and exhilarating stage presence, and mourned the quartet’s untimely demise. The band did not disappoint, delivering a set that (while somewhat shorter than we were expecting) showcased both the individual members’ considerable skills and their collective chemistry, doing ample justice to the material featured on their recently released debut CD, City of the Sun. With irrepressible bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine prowling the stage, tawny locks swinging and faithful Rickenbacker getting a good workout, and Jerry Beller pounding away at his drum kit, the band went through the five tracks of their album with panache. Keyboardist Matt Brown – looking as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself – lorded over his keyboard rig with abandon, while guitarist Michael Matier cut a more sedate figure, and vocalist Scott Jones swung his microphone stand about in tried-and-true rock fashion, his well-modulated high tenor well suited to the band’s intricate yet upbeat music. Heliopolis also regaled the crowd with an encore – a barnstorming version of The Beatles’ “Help”.

Even though Echolyn had pulled out of the festival, their vocalist Ray Weston had stayed on the lineup to provide a short but well-attended interlude before the Sunday headliners came on. Known for his songwriting skills as well as his soulful, somewhat plaintive voice, the long-haired and bespectacled Weston – accompanied by a sizable acoustic guitar – looked very much as if he had stepped out of grunge’s heyday. His 40-minute set – which included stripped-down versions of Echolyn’s “Headright” and “The End Is Beautiful”, as well as Discipline’s very creepy “The Nursery Year” – offered a break from the orgy of instrumental complexity that is at the heart of every self-respecting prog festival, and was occasionally arresting, though as a whole it probably went on a bit too long.

As I wrote in my review of their 2011 album To Shatter All Accord, I am a relative newcomer to Discipline, one of the trailblazers (together with Echolyn) of the US prog renaissance in the Nineties. However, that long-awaited album was enough to make me a convert, and I spent the past two years kicking myself for having missed the Detroit band’s performance at ROSFest 2012. The praise heaped upon them by some of my friends made me even more impatient to experience them on stage. I am glad to say that my patience was amply rewarded, because on Sunday night Discipline played a blinder that made me forget my ever-present tiredness and the slight burnout that often follows a weekend full of music. The black-clad figure of Matthew Parmenter (wearing his customary white makeup) sitting behind the keyboards was a magnet for everyone’s eyes. His singing voice (quite different from his speaking one) is simply one of the best I have heard in a long time, and his oddly endearing, deadpan humour contrasts with his somewhat forbidding appearance. With distinguished-looking Tiles guitarist Chris Herin subbing for Jon Preston Bouda, and Mathew Kennedy and Paul Dzendzel providing a flawless rhythmic background – ideal for the band’s complex, yet often crushingly heavy mid-tempos – Discipline delivered a perfect two hours of music as powerful as it was devoid of unnecessary flash. Having left his costumes and Gabrielesque performances behind, Parmenter now relies on his measured gestures and facial expressions to convey a depth of emotion than makes many other frontmen seem hopelessly overwrought. Needless to say, I will be counting the days until I see the band again at the Orion Studios on November 8.

As a whole, the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend was as successful as the first, even though I believe that having five bands instead of four in an indoor setting can be somewhat taxing for the average music fan’s attention span. On the other hand, the organizers are to be commended for reaching outside the boundaries of conventional prog, and showcasing the many different forms of the genre in this second decade of the 21st century – even if I would have liked to see at least one “cutting-edge” band on the Roxy and Dukes stage. In any case, the third edition of the festival is already in the works, and the first two bands were announced on Sunday night – MoeTar and Necromonkey, both firm favourites of mine.

As usual, at the end of my review I would like to thank the NJ Proghouse “staph” for all their hard work and for allowing us to enjoy a wonderful weekend of music and companionship with like-minded people in very friendly surroundings. I hope that, sometimes during the next 12 months, we will find the time to head to Dunellen again.

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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In spite of the brutal heat and humidity that marred last year’s edition, ProgDay had got us so well and truly hooked that we had started counting the days a good three months before this year’s event. The morning of Friday, August 29 saw us head south to North Carolina for the fourth time in as many years to attend the festival’s 19th consecutive edition – a true feat considering the fickle and finicky nature of the US prog audience. Over the years, ProgDay has built a loyal fanbase that, while never reaching the size of the audiences that have attended other prog festivals, has never failed to deliver quality-wise, and constantly attracted new attendees. Indeed, ProgDay XIX brought quite a few new faces to the green, tree-ringed sward of Storybook Farm, and a new batch of people won over by an event that, while unpretentious almost by definition, has become the ideal showcase for all kinds of challenging music.

After an uneventful car ride from our Northern Virginia home, we reached the hotel in time for lunch, followed by some well-needed rest. Then it was time for us to reconnect with the many friends we have made through our mutual love of music. This year was made even more special by the presence of some people we had not yet managed to meet in person, though we already considered them good friends.

As a complement to the main event, the Labor Day weekend also offered two “pre-show” gigs at Chapel Hill’s Local 506, all involving ProgDay alumni: Half Past Four, Dreadnaught and 3RDegree on Friday, Mörglbl on Sunday. Unfortunately, Canadian quintet Half Past Four had were stopped at the border and had to be replaced by outstanding Chapman Stick specialist Rob Martino. Since the Friday night show promised to go on until late, and we wanted to be in good shape for the following day, we decided to have dinner and then get a good night’s sleep.

While not as unrelentingly hot and humid as last year, the weekend weather was still typical of North Carolina at the tail end of summer, with high levels of humidity throughout the day. When we got to the Farm on Saturday morning, the grass was drenched with dew, and some early attendees were pitching their tents and canopies on the field. A cool early morning breeze tempered the intense humidity and brought the relief of some occasional clouds, but the strength of the sun already promised to make things somewhat uncomfortable later in the day. We hung out with various friends, browsed the CD stands, then sat down and waited for the first band to come on the stage.

As some rescheduling had been necessary on the part of the organizers, the festival was inaugurated by the band that had been announced last, a mere couple of weeks ago. Though Mavara (meaning “beyond everything you think”) hail originally from Iran (their only non-Iranian member being drummer Jim Welch), they have been living in the US for some time – for reasons that are not hard to fathom for anyone who knows the situation of that history-laden part of the world. Led by keyboardist Farhood Ghadiri, they enjoyed widespread success in their home country before circumstances forced them to move to the US, where they currently reside in the New England region. Having heard a few samples on the ProgDay website, I knew their music was probably not going to be my cup of tea; I am experienced enough to know that the stage can transform any kind of music into something different. Though obviously a bit nervous when they first took to the stage, they gradually warmed up and became more communicative, though a certain stiffness remained throughout their set. With two keyboardists (Ghadiri and a young woman, petite blonde Anis Oveisi), their sound was heavily skewed towards 80’s Rush (especially circa Power Windows), Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd (the latter especially in the lead guitar parts), as well as a touch of early Dream Theater. Lead vocalist Ashkan Hamedi belted out the songs out with impressive power and confidence coupled to a strong sense of melody that suited the music well. Though Mavara are by far one of the most “mainstream” bands I have seen on the PD stage, their music – while somewhat generic –  has the potential to appeal to a lot of people, and they seemed to be well received by the crowd. Moreover, they certainly deserve a shot in the limelight after all they have been through – especially being away from their native country, and living in a place that is not always welcoming to outsiders (a situation I know all too well).

The contrast between the first and the second band on the Saturday bill could not have been greater, as around lunchtime French Canadian Avant-Prog veterans Miriodor proceeded to take no prisoners as soon as they got on stage. One of the most eagerly anticipated acts on the lineup – particularly by those who (like us) had witnessed their career-defining show at the DC French Embassy in 2010, the band were now down to a quartet, with founding members Remi Leclerc and Pascal Globensky and longtime guitarist Bernard Falaise very recently joined by bassist Nicolas Lessard. The increasing humidity notwithstanding, the scholarly-looking quartet of soft-spoken gentlemen delivered a blinder of a set, often sweepingly atmospheric and laced with eerie electronic effects, but consistently full of outstanding beauty. Though all the instruments sounded pristine, I found Remi Leclerc’s drumming especially riveting, setting  an effortlessly flowing pace and lending the music a natural rhythm that belied its complexity. Falaise’s guitar displayed a finely honed edge, while Globensky’s keyboards contributed an aura of mystery. Besides some tracks from their marvelous 2009 album Avanti!, Miriodor regaled the audience with some new material, taken from their soon-to-be-officially-released album Cobra Fakir. Like everything else, the new tracks – though somewhat darker , with a slight Gothic undertone – possess the kind of effortless grace and calm intensity that has made Miriodor a byword for stellar quality on the progressive rock scene – balancing quiet and loud moments with seamless perfection, and maintaining a keen sense of melody even when treading on more experimental territory. The band’s professional yet unassuming attitude was also reflected in their gentle sense of humour.

With such a tough act to follow, the organizers proved once again their brilliance when they scheduled Los Angeles-based multinational quintet Corima for the third slot of the day. Even if I was already familiar with their second album, Quetzalcoatl (released by French label Soleil Zeuhl), I was not prepared for such a relentless sonic assault. A blast of sound during the soundcheck provided a taste of things to come, as the young, black-clad band members proceeded to tear up the stage during their performance. As my husband put it, you got exhausted just watching them bounce up and down with an irrepressible energy starkly at odds with the usually staid mien of many mainstream prog bands. Fronted by the diminutive dynamo Andrea Itzpapalotl on vocals and violin, Corima are clearly influenced by Magma, and might also remind the listener of a more melodic version of Koenjihyakkei (incidentally, the bassist and saxophonist are of Japanese descent), but infused with the manic energy of West Coast punk and the aggression of metal. Occasional moments of respite – such as a serene, classically-influenced piano solo – dotted this 70-minute adrenalin rush, characterized by a form of deliberate repetitiveness that built up a hypnotic crescendo of intensity, driven by drummer Sergio Sanchez-Revelo’s insane polyrhythms and Patrick Shiroishi’s blaring sax. Needless to say, they did not suffer one bit from having to follow Miriodor’s immaculate set, because their music was so different. Even people who generally do not care for Zeuhl or anything too cutting-edge were won over by Corima’s show – though I could very well visualize people running for the exits in an indoor setting.

After such a one-two punch, Saturday headliners and big East Coast favourites Oblivion Sun provided a definite change of pace. The quartet, founded by former Happy The Man members Frank Wyatt and Stanley Whitaker in the early 2000’s, had already appeared at ProgDay in 2007, and I had witnessed their performance at the 2009 edition of NEARfest. Frank Wyatt’s wrist injury had forced them to cancel a few live appearances in the past few months, but the keyboardist/reedist was in fine form for this special occasion. Just like I had in 2009, I found their music very melodic and pleasing to the ear, as well as impeccably executed, though as a whole hard to truly connect to. The four members of the band – Whitaker, Wyatt, drummer Bill Brasso and new bassist David Hughes – handled their instruments with seasoned proficiency, and their music  flowed smoothly – perhaps even too much so. Some of their material had a folksy ring, while some heavier undertones occasionally cropped up. The warm rapport the band has built over the years with its loyal following showed in the jokes about the notorious “Cruise the Edge” floating prog festival, as well as in Wyatt’s moving dedication of a song to his wife for her birthday. Unfortunately, while I liked the instrumentals at the beginning of their set, when vocals made their appearance I started losing interest, and halfway through their set the 8-hour exposure to heat and humidity had finally got to both of us, so we decided to head back to the hotel for some rest before dinnertime.

After a refreshing night’s sleep and leisurely breakfast, we headed back to the field for another day of music and good company. Because of the cool breeze blowing from the trees, the heat and humidity felt less oppressive than they had on the previous day, and I was able to enjoy what promised to be a consistently great lineup. However, we were yet unaware of being in for some weather-related excitement later during the day.

At 10.30 a.m., right on schedule, youthful South Jersey six-piece Out of the Beardspace took to the stage. A bit of an unknown quantity for the mainstream prog audience, the band have already earned their stripes through a brisk concert activity in their home region, and have recently released their third, self-titled CD. Earlier this year, in the month of May, they even hosted their own festival (named Beardfest), which featured ProgDay alumni The Tea Club and Consider The Source, as well as the band that would follow them on the Storybook Farm stage, Thank You Scientist. With their emphasis on environmental awareness and community enrichment, their very informal, laid-back appearance (some band members were playing barefoot) and sprawling, eclectic approach to music, they bridged the gap between jam bands such as Umphrey’s McGee and progressive rock proper. Guitar and keyboards were well in evidence, supported by a powerful rhythm section, and exuding a vintage psychedelic vibe with a keen edge, and some intriguing funky and jazzy elements. While bassist Kevin Savo’s vocals – best described as a male version of Björk –  might be called an acquired taste, they also blended very effectively with the music. Though not as manic as Corima, the energy and enthusiasm of each member was hard to miss, and their stage presence, with its modern hippy vibe, endeared them to the audience as much as their genre-bending sound. Though I felt their instrumental pieces were more interesting than the ones with vocals, they are a band I would definitely not mind seeing again, as they put up a very entertaining show and obviously enjoy themselves immensely on stage.

Thank You Scientist had already wowed audiences in the North-East Corridor with their energetic performance of the past month or so with fellow New Jerseyans The Tea Club, and had already created a lot of expectations in the attendees thanks to the strength their debut full-length album, Maps of Non-Existent Places (which boasts of some of the finest artwork I have seen in the past few years). With a seven-piece configuration – including saxophone, trumpet and violin as well as the traditional rock instruments – the young, hyperactive band crowded the stage, their boundless supply of energy matching that already displayed by Corima and Out of the Beardspace. Fronted by the charismatic Sal Marrano, sporting mirrored shades and a jaunty beach hat, Thank You Scientist are unashamedly modern in their approach to progressive rock, coming across as a more melodic, less rambling version of The Mars Volta – or, if you prefer, a much heavier, beefed-up Steely Dan. Marrano’s high-pitched but well-modulated voice, in particular, often sounded very much like Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s, albeit not as potentially abrasive. Propelled by irresistibly funky. Latin-infused rhythms (courtesy of unstoppable drummer Odin Alvarez and bassist Greg Colacino) coupled with punk-inspired intensity, a bit of a metal edge and jazzy horns, the band’s sound is complex but never contrived, and genuinely exhilarating. With the right promotion, they could very well break into the mainstream in the same way as The Mars Volta did in the early 2000’s, appealing to the younger generations as well as to more open-minded old-timers. Obviously, there were people in the audience who pompously declared that Thank You Scientist were “not a prog band”, but those naysayers were more than balanced out by those who thoroughly enjoyed the band’s set – wrapped up by an irresistible cover of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”, which was a big hit with everyone.

In the hottest hour of the day, my personal most-awaited band of the weekend – unlikely Texans Herd of Instinct – took to the stage, introduced by ominous recorded voices. The band members, with old friend and collaborator Mike McGary replacing Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards, were  perceivably tense (probably scared by some of the horror stories heard about the prog audience), and that impacted their stage presence to the point that they occasionally came across as standoffish. Drummer and official spokesperson Jason Spradlin, a striking figure with his long, flowing dark hair, had chosen to use his own electronic drum kit rather than an acoustic one – a choice that, while puzzling for part of the audience, lent an eerily mechanical dimension to the music which complemented it unexpectedly well. As a supporter of the band from the time I heard their debut album, I wanted them to make a good impression, and the quantity of CDs sold at their merch table certainly bore witness to the fact that the majority of the audience appreciated their set, even if they were somewhat thrown off by the almost complete lack of stage banter and the abrupt ending of the songs (as well as the oddly muffled quality of the sound). Their music, however – though better suited to the twilight hour than the bright light of an early September afternoon – spoke for itself. Mark Cook’s Warr guitar’s eerie wail intersected and meshed with Mike Davison’s Fender Stratocaster and McGary’s discreet keyboards, driven by the engine of Spradlin’s drumming. Powerful and mesmerizing – and described by a friend as a cross between King Crimson and Tangerine Dream – Herd of Instinct’s sound is unique, its cinematic quality emphasized in their rendition of the theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween (a couple of months early on the actual date), as well as in their cover of Radiohead’s “National Anthem”. They also performed some material from Spradlin and Cook’s previous band, 99 Names of God. As a whole, I found that the live dimension enhanced their music immensely, and appreciated the subtle variations they brought to the material from their two studio albums. However, in spite of their years of experience of playing live on their home turf, they need to work on their stagecraft in order to develop their full potential and allow their music to come truly alive.

Headliners simakDialog’s long-overdue set was the weekend’s most highly-awaited performance – as the Indonesian outfit’s plans to play in the US were foiled twice in as many years. Their set started half an hour early, in a very informal way – perfectly suited to their laid-back, yet extremely proficient music –  and the plan was to let them play for about two hours, providing a soundtrack for the late hours of the afternoon, when the temperature goes down together with the sun and people kick back to enjoy the breeze. Unfortunately, said breeze quickly turned into a brisk wind, and the massed dark clouds brought a downpour that had people scrambling for cover in a hurry. The band – used to this kind of weather in their tropical homeland – were at first unfazed, and continued to play in their unhurried, supremely elegant East-meets-West take on classic jazz-rock – characterized by the use of twin Sundanese kendang drums instead of a traditional drum kit, blending perfectly with Riza Arshad’s fluid electric piano and Tohpati’s understatedly brilliant guitar. However, nature had different plans, and a second spate of wind and rain put an abrupt end to the show, which had lasted about an hour when the band and stage crew finally decided to call it quits. Thankfully, this time simakDialog have a full set of East Coast dates planned, and many of the attendees will be able to catch them in an indoor setting in the days following the festival.

Finally, the weather allowed the attendees to pack up their gear, and everyone headed back to the hotel for dinner and the subsequent “non-pool” (for the second year in a row) party, held in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms, with plenty of drinking and merriment on offer before bedtime. Then, on the following day, it was time to say goodbye to our friends – not without some sadness – and head north and back to real life after three days in paradise.

Like last year, 2013 seems to have brought an almost record attendance to ProgDay, which bodes very well for the festival’s 20th anniversary (whose planning is already under way). Interestingly, with the exception of Mavara and Oblivion Sun, none of the bands that performed at Storybook Farm on the past Labor Day weekend can be labeled as prog in a conventional sense – which, as I have already stated on previous occasions, proves the forward-thinking strategy of the organizers as regards the choice of performers. The presence of three young, up-and-coming US bands also brought some new blood to the field (as it also was the case in 2012), together with the hope that progressive music may soon start to gain a broader appeal and escape the confines of its aging niche audience.

As usual, at the end of my review I would like to thank all of the people involved in the organization of the festival, especially all those who volunteered time, money and energy in order to ensure the success of the event. Of all the wonderful people we met over the weekend, a special thought goes to some very special people whose friendship means a lot to me, even if we cannot meet in person on a regular basis. Even if this year I have decided not to mention any names, you know who you are. Thank you for a wonderful time, and hope to see you again very soon!

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As every year for the past 19 years, ProgDay – the world’s longest-running progressive rock festival – will be taking place on Labor Day weekend in the beautiful setting of Storybook Farm in Chapel Hill (North Carolina). With a superb lineup of 8 bands, both international and homegrown, augmented by two exciting pre-festival shows scheduled for Friday and Saturday night at the 506 Club in Chapel Hill (featuring respectively Half Past Four, 3RDegree and Dreadnaught, and French power trio Mörglbl – all of them ProgDay alumni), the festival is going from strength to strength, and is already preparing for the fireworks of its 20th anniversary celebration in 2014.

Links:
http://www.progday.net

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TLDtourGalgano

SETLISTS:

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

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

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

Robert James Pashman

Robert James Pashman

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

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John Galgano

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

Laura Meade

Laura Meade

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

Paul Bremner

Paul Bremner

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

Eric Pseja

Eric Pseja

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

George Dobbs

George Dobbs

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

Bryan Zeigler

Bryan Zeigler

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

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

http://www.izznet.com

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