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Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

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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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Though the “big” progressive rock festival scene in the US – generally limited to the late spring and summer months – seems to be on the wane, with the demise of NEARfest and the failure of other ambitious events to take off, some fans seem to have taken the old “small is beautiful” adage to heart, and their efforts seem to be paying so far. While the group of close friends and music lovers affectionately known as the NJ Proghouse “staph” are old hands at organizing concerts, the two-day event that took place on the second weekend of October 2013 was a potential baptism of fire that, however, was passed with flying colours.

On a rainy Friday morning we drove from our Northern Virginia home to New Jersey. It had been a relatively late decision, but events had  made it easier for us to take the time off and head north for two solid days of music and good company. Having often written about the need to scale things down as regards the organization of prog festivals in the US, I felt I needed to follow my own advice, and support this venture. As harrowing as the drive was, through occasional spells of heavy rain and equally heavy traffic, the event more than rewarded our patience.

Though the gorgeous fall weather – cool yet not excessively so, with sun and clear skies enhancing the beauty of the multihued foliage – would have made a perfect setting for an outdoor festival, the venue chosen for the occasion was so endearingly quaint and cheerful that even spending so much time indoors did not feel like a chore. Conflating lounge bar, restaurant and music venue in a dimly-lit, low-ceilinged space decorated with an impressive collection of vintage curios, Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse is located on a picturesque, tree-lined road in the heart of New Jersey, close to New York City yet seemingly removed from its hustle and bustle. Though certainly no state-of-the-art theatre like Bethlehem’s Zoellner Arts Centre or Gettysburg’s Majestic (and therefore a bit uncomfortable after a while), it can boast of amazingly good acoustics, and its friendly vibe makes it the ideal setting for non-mainstream music events. Even if the stage may have been a bit cramped for any band with more than four members, none of the eight sets was in any way affected by the relative lack of space.

For a rather low-key event, scheduled away from the main festival season, the Homecoming Weekend was very well-attended, and the venue packed to capacity for most of Sunday, as the organizers had wisely offered the opportunity to buy tickets for single bands as well as the whole weekend. Many of the attendees came from the neighbouring areas, but others (like us) had taken a longer trip in order to be present at the launch of the event and ensure its viability for the future.  With only one exception, the lineup included bands that had already performed at concerts organized by the NJ Proghouse “staph” in the past few years – most of them hailing from the New Jersey/New York region. While the only two acts coming from outside were (as it often happens) also the biggest draws, all the bands drew a respectable and appreciative crowd. The presence of keyboardist Tom Brislin (a NJ Proghouse regular), who contributed musical interludes during the breaks, and also joined some bands during theirsets, added further interest to the already outstanding lineup.

Advent, opening act and “in-house” band of sorts (as guitarist Alan Benjamin, together with his lovely wife Amy, is one of the most active members of the Proghouse “staph”), were one of my own personal draws. While not exactly prolific either as a studio or a live act, the quintet founded in the late Eighties by Benjamin and keyboardist/composer Henry Ptak have a distinctive approach that would be too easy to dismiss as a lesser version of Gentle Giant. In fact, while the influence of the iconic Seventies band was unmistakable in the material from their self-titled debut album, their quietly refined sound, tinged with the haunting beauty of medieval and Renaissance music, as well as jazzy suggestions and  hints of English folk, is redolent with Old World charm. Their gorgeous, multi-part vocal harmonies – masterfully arranged by Henry Ptak, drawing on his experience as a choir director – blend seamlessly with the instrumentation rather than dominating it; the keyboards – manned by Ptak and his brother Mark – and Benjamin’s guitar work together with the ease of a long partnership, weaving fascinating musical textures. New bassist Brian Mooney brings his jazz-rock background to the table, lending a more dynamic element to the band’s stately sound, in unison with Joe D’Andrea’s crisp, elegant drumming. The band looked elated to be back on stage, and the material from their forthcoming third album sounds very promising indeed. Hopefully, next time I see them they will be able to play a longer set.

Advent

The Tea Club are part of a restricted number of bands whose career I have been following since its inception. The outfit led by brothers Daniel and Patrick McGowan, though plagued by growing pains (i.e. frequent lineup changes) has been going from strength to strength, adding layers of complexity to the energetic punch of their debut album, and blending a boldly modern direction with their very personal homage to the past. Young and good-looking in their fashionably bohemian attire, with the McGowan brothers and drummer Joe Rizzolo (a very talented musician with a jazz background) sporting flowing locks that would have looked great in a shampoo commercial, they played a set that emphasized their mastery of quiet-loud dynamics. Intense electric flare-ups, packed with frantic riffs, effortlessly morphed into soothing passages embellished by Renée Pestritto’s pastoral flute, while the brothers’ strong, high-pitched voices – Dan’s more melodic, Pat’s assertive, with a touch of banshee wail – merged smoothly with the instruments. New bassist Jamie Wolff complemented Rizzolo’s agile, accomplished drumming style, propelling the band’s trademark crescendos and beefing up the guitars’ relentless riffage. While the influence of the likes of Radiohead is clearly detectable, The Tea Club have woven subtle but hard to miss classic prog elements into their sound – particularly evident in the material from their latest CD, Quickly Quickly Quickly, performed here in its entirety. Some entertaining visual props – in the shape of a large, top-hatted wolf stuck to Dan’s back – were also introduced during their performance of “The Eternal German Infant” at the close of their set.

The Tea Club

Having been absent from the stage for quite a few  years, Long Islanders Frogg Café were certainly one of the most highly anticipated bands of the weekend. Indeed, while their highly praised 2010 album, Bateless Edge, had made many Top 10 lists, no one had had the pleasure of seeing any of its material performed live. After their career-defining performance at NEARfest 2005, the band had made a lot of fans both inside and outside the US, but had dropped off the radar after their latest album’s release, giving rise to rumours of their demise. Thankfully, the six-piece born as a Frank Zappa cover band called Lumpy Gravy, and later developed into a highly inventive entertaining jazz-rock outfit, are still alive and very much kicking. Frogg Café are also one of those quintessential live bands whose full potential does not truly shine on CD, as their preference for long, jam-like compositions suits the stage much better. They also have the ability not to take themselves too seriously, in spite of their outstanding musical background. Lined up at the front of the stage, with  music stands before each member but drummer James Guarnieri,  their presence brimmed with deadpan humour  – especially evident in guitarist Frank Camiola’s attire of pork pie hat, shorts and mirrored shades, matched by a stony countenance. Dynamic horn duo of Nick and John Lieto, soberly dressed in slacks and dress shirts, went about their comedy routine while playing their respective instruments with gusto, supported by Bill Ayasse’s more sedate violin-wielding turn; while bassist Andrew Sussman’s striking, confident presence marked him as the “rockstar” character of the band. Frogg Café’s set consisted of a number of extended pieces that featured lots of improvisation, engaging Zappaesque vocals and occasional reflective moments. Fans of the Canterbury scene also appreciated the homage to Mike Ratledge’s “Backwards” (part of Caravan’s “A Hunting We Shall Go” instrumental suite, though originally included in Soft Machine’s “Slightly All the Time”).

Frogg Café

The outstanding Saturday programme was wrapped up by New York sextet IZZ, another favourite of prog audiences. After having had a taste of their excellence in the late spring of this year, when their “Quad” version opened for 3RDegree at the Orion Studios, I was looking forward to seeing the full band on stage, and I am glad to say that they did not disappoint. Opening their 2-hour set with an energetic cover of The Beatles’ classic “Ticket to Ride”, IZZ treated the audience to a selection of their best material, including epics “Late Night Salvation”, “Can’t Feel the Earth” and “Crush of Night”, as well as one song from bassist John Galgano’s solo album and a cover of King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair”. The distinctive two-drummer configuration, with Brian Coralian handling acoustic and electronic percussion and Greg DiMiceli a traditional kit, lent both texture and dynamics to the music, boosting John Galgano’s flawless bass lines and providing a solid backdrop for Paul “Brems” Bremner’s exhilarating, often hard-edged guitar work. Tom Galgano manned the keyboards with energy and aplomb, his voice tackling the band’s melodic yet complex compositions effectively, assisted by Anmarie Byrnes’ pure, soaring tones. Though IZZ’s music is clearly influenced by the golden age of prog, it has enough personality to stand on its own.  Extremely professional in their approach, yet warm and engaging, IZZ are one of those bands whose material – as good as it is in recorded form – takes on a completely new dimension when performed live, its impressive balance of melody, intricacy and electricity fully unfolding on the stage.

IZZ

After a refreshing night’s sleep, on Sunday morning we were back at Roxy and Dukes for another day of great music and friendship. Though the Sunday opening act was the only unknown quantity to the vast majority of the audience,  Tammy Scheffer’s Morning Bound, an experimental trio of voice, bass and drums led by extremely talented Israeli-born singer Tammy Scheffer,  proved to be the real surprise of the festival. Drafted in a few months ago to replace Oblivion Sun, they provided that genuine boundary-breaking element that progressive rock seems all too often to have left by the wayside. When the slight, curly-haired Scheffer stepped on stage and started to sing, my jaw dropped to the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the band’s set. Her voice soared effortlessly, pitch-perfect and smooth as honey, bending the music to its will and twining with the intricate patterns laid out by bassist Russ Flynn and drummer Ronen Itzik. Tape loops were used sparingly but effectively to add further layers of interest to her performance, but she would have caused a stir even if she had sung without any accompaniment at all. With her graceful posture and charmingly measured gestures punctuating her astonishing vocal exertions, Tammy offered a performance that while devoid of any references to classic prog, was as progressive as they come. One of the undisputed highlights of an hour of musical excellence was her deconstruction of Suzanne Vega’s wistful “Marlene on the Wall”. Tammy’s flawless set proved once again that it is not necessary to rely on overly complex arrangements and large instrumentation to produce authentically forward-looking music, and celebrated the power and beauty of the human voice.

Tammy Scheffer’s Morning Bound

The contrast between the first and the second act on the bill could not have been greater, as Morning Bound’s jazzy elegance left the stage to Thank You Scientist – another local band that we had first seen in action barely over one month ago at ProgDay. Although somewhat constrained by the size of the stage, the explosive seven-piece led by charismatic singer Sal Marrano delivered an energy-packed, highly entertaining set with hardly a moment of respite. Odin Alvarez’s relentless drumming, aided and abetted by bassist Greg Colacino, pummeled the audience into submission, while Russell Lynch’s distinctively-shaped violin added a melodic touch to the band’s hard-driving sound. The irresistible horn duo of Andrew Digrius and Ellis Jasenovich blared their way through the setlist, providing swing and entertainment value, while guitarist Tom Monda anchored the band’s wildly eclectic sound to the rock aesthetics. Marrano, sporting a jaunty beret, almost jumped off the stage on several occasions, his engaging stage presence owing more to punk than prog, and his high, expressive voice never flagging in spite of the demanding nature of his vocal parts. The Beatles’ anthemic “I Am the Walrus”, enthusiastically cheered by the audience, wrapped up their hyper-energetic set. As I noted in my ProgDay review, these guys have serious potential to win over the considerably broader audience of indie/alternative rock – those who do not care for the “prog” tag even if many of their favourite bands have clear progressive features (The Mars Volta, Tool and The Decemberists all being a case in point).

Thank You Scientist

For all the abundance of awesome modern talent on display during the weekend, it cannot be denied that most of the attendees ( prog fans being what they are) were looking forward to one act in particular – Chicago hotshots District 97 with Seventies legend John Wetton as a special guest, performing some of King Crimson’s most popular compositions. The band had played in our neck of the woods a few days before the festival, and garnered very positive feedback, so I was open to be surprised – even if the events of last year’s NEARfest had somewhat soured my attitude towards Wetton. It was my third time seeing District 97, and last year at the Orion I had been positively impressed by their new material and their improved songwriting skills. Unfortunately, the band’s own music was dealt with rather hurriedly to leave room for Wetton’s appearance – which happened in very understated fashion, with the singer stepping on stage during “The Perfect Young Man”. To be fair, his voice was in amazing shape, and his interpretation of the King Crimson classics was in many ways even better than the original versions (I am especially thinking of “Book of Saturdays” and “The Night Watch”). However, he looked quite uncomfortable on stage, his hands obviously itching to play his bass and being instead forced to gesture in a way he was obviously not used to. In spite of the unexpected surprise of “Great Deceiver”, things started going seriously downhill when the marvelous “Starless” (one of the true manifestos of progressive rock in my view) was cut short at the end of the vocal section to morph into “Easy Money” – a medley that did neither of those iconic songs any justice. I would also have gladly done without Leslie Hunt’s duets with Wetton, which did not add anything to the songs, and her constant posturing was ultimately annoying. In stark contrast, the other band members were serious to the point of grimness, and guitarist Jim Tashjian’s shreddy flourishes during some of the Crimson material sounded quite jarring. On the whole, the performance – while spotlighting the band’s undeniable technical proficiency – left a bad taste in my mouth. Those King Crimson songs are among my favourite pieces of music of all time, but their rendition by District 97 lacked the fine balance between sublime melody and jagged edges that made the originals so unique.

District 97 with John Wetton

Unfortunately, when the time came for headliners Beardfish to hit the stage, tiredness had already crept upon us, and the very crowded room – with scarcely enough space to breathe – did not look very inviting. While the Swedish band (the only international outfit on the lineup) have long been a firm favourite of the US prog community, I have always been rather impervious to their charms, and my only experience of seeing them live at NEARfest 2009 left me a bit underwhelmed. However, the audience seemed to love them, and the feedback I heard on the following day was overwhelmingly positive. As they have often visited the US in the past few years, we can expect to see them again relatively soon, and the next time I will make a point not to miss them.

All in all, in spite of Friday’s troublesome drive, it was a perfect weekend. The lovely weather, the outstanding hotel accommodation arranged by the organizers, the welcoming venue, the availability of great food and drink (including the delicious home-baked cupcakes kindly offered by Anita Redondo Wilson), the great company and, last but not least, the top-notch musical programme all contributed to make the first Homecoming Weekend an unforgettable experience. My heartfelt thanks go to the “staph” for the seamless organization, and for all their hard work on behalf of the cause of progressive rock. Small is beautiful indeed, and  we will definitely be looking forward to Homecoming Weekend # 2 in 2014.

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homecominglide2

Though I have often commented on the sorry state of the progressive rock concert scene in the US (with particular reference to NEARfest’s untimely demise), 2013 has been a much more positive year than the previous two, and has brought unexpectedly good news. With the possible exception of ROSfest, which draws hundreds of attendees every year  (even if it has never enjoyed NEARfest’s instant sell-outs), festivals held in 1000-seater theaters seem to have become a thing of the past, as proved by the failure of a couple of attempts to organize events on a similar scale. However, some people who are well aware of the importance of live performances to keep non-mainstream music alive have not been deterred by those failures, and have taken the plunge. Adopting the model that has allowed ProgDay to survive without interruption for 18 years by being able to count on a core of loyal supporters, they have scaled things down, choosing smaller, less pretentious venues, and giving preference to mostly homegrown acts instead of relying on “big names” to attract a larger number of attendees.

Seaprog, which took place in Seattle on the last weekend of June 2013, proved that a smaller-scale event can be reasonably successful, even in a location not generally known as a “prog hub”. Less than one month ago, the year’s second “mini-festival” was announced by the group of volunteers and dedicated prog fans (affectionately nicknamed “staph”) behind the NJ Proghouse, a venture started by James Robinson in central New Jersey, back in 1999. In its various incarnations, the organization has been hosting high-quality progressive rock shows in different venues for the past 15 years, building a dedicated following in that densely-populated region of the US East Coast, and offering concert opportunities to both established and up-and-coming bands.

The two-day festival – named NJ Proghouse’s Homecoming Weekend – intends to celebrate the organization’s 15th anniversary with a top-notch selection of Proghouse alumni. It will be hosted by Roxy and Duke’s Roadhouse in Dunellen (NJ), which has been the group’s venue of choice for the past year or so, on the weekend of October 12 and 13, 2013. Eight bands will take turns on the stage, four per day, starting at 12.30 p.m. Single-day tickets and weekend passes (as well as other relevant information) are available from the organization’s website in the link below.

With the sole exception of Sunday headliners, Swedish outfit Beardfish (a firm favourite of the US prog audience), the bands invited to perform at the event are all based in the US, most of them hailing from the New York/New Jersey area. Vocalist/composer Tammy Scheffer (originally from Belgium, but currently residing in NYC) and her band Morning Bound have been drafted in to replace Oblivion Sun, who had to pull out because of scheduling conflicts. Together with young but already established bands such as The Tea Club, Thank You Scientist (who are also on the ProgDay lineup) and Chicago hotshots District 97, and Saturday headliners IZZ, the festival will also offer the return to the stage of two local glories: renowned jazz-rock band Frogg Café after a six-year hiatus, and Advent, who are putting the finishing touches to their long-awaited third album.

While neither Seaprog nor the Homecoming Weekend may fill the gap left by NEARfest for those who expect a festival to be a showcase of “bucket list” bands and artists, it is heartening to see that some US prog fans are willing to follow the example set by the UK and continental Europe by going the “small is beautiful” route. Even if the music world has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades, no amount of albums recorded with the most sophisticated techniques will ever replace the experience of a live concert – neither for the fans nor for the artists.

Links:
http://www.njproghouse.com/2013/06/13/nj-proghouse-homecoming-weekend-october-12th-and-13th-2013/

http://www.roxyanddukes.com/

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Based in New Jersey, Advent are one of the most distinctive bands on the current US progressive rock scene—though not one of the most prolific, having released only two albums since their inception in 1989. Now, nearly six years after the release of their second album, the highly acclaimed Cantus Firmus, Advent are busy writing material for their forthcoming third album. With a return gig that took place on December 11 (together with another talented New Jersey outfit, The Tea Club), and some recent lineup changes, the band are set to begin 2012 with a bang. Some time ago, I contacted core members Alan Benjamin and Henry and Mark Ptak, who have been so kind as to provide exhaustive answers to  my questions.

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Let’s start with the usual, very boring question on Advent’s beginnings, for those of my readers that are not yet familiar with you.

Alan: I moved to New Jersey in 1987 and very quickly formed my first prog band, Tangent, with an old friend from high school. Within a year and a half, though, the project imploded and I went into a phase of trying to find an established group that had an opening—but that only led to a series of auditions for bands that I knew I would never be happy joining (usually something I could tell within the first 30 seconds). Once the realization hit that there probably wouldn’t be a satisfactory group to join, I decided to place an ad in a local (New Jersey) musician’s magazine called The E.C. Rocker to see if I could at least find any compatible collaborators—and, thankfully, Henry answered.

With the previous series of “nightmare auditions” looming in recent memory (at that time), I thought it best to schedule a preliminary meeting where we would do nothing more than listen to recorded samples of each other’s music and discuss our mutual interests. It only took a few measures of hearing Henry’s first tune on tape—a solo version of “Rear View Mirror”—for me to realize that this was exactly the type of person I wanted to work with. Fortunately, he seemed to like the tapes of my music as well, and Advent was born. Mark (Henry’s talented brother) graduated from Berklee the following year and immediately joined to complete the three-member core that has existed for over 20 years now.

What are your respective musical backgrounds and main influences?

Henry: My earliest influences were probably popular recordings of Polish songs my folks used to listen to—and they also had some classical stuff around (mostly Chopin, and things like Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto), some of which I’d wind up hearing in popular-rendition form on Liberace’s TV show at that time. Like most people, my exposure to rock ‘n’ roll was from the local radio stations—Duane Eddy was an early favorite, followed by Elvis Presley, Hank Ballard, and Roy Orbison. By the time the Beatles arrived, I was already taking guitar lessons at the local music store. J.S. Bach, Procol Harum, and Keith Emerson got me into keyboards a few years later, and Genesis and Gentle Giant cemented the relationship. I got back into the classics mostly because of them—and Blood, Sweat & Tears (D. Clayton-Thomas era) also got me into jazz. Once the classical and jazz fields were opened up for me, I just devoured whatever my teachers (and anyone else whose opinions I valued) recommended. I listened to everything—a lot of the record stores back then had very knowledgeable staff in each department, and when they were unavailable, you could always look through the Schwann catalogs for a listing of those works most commonly performed by the best-known pianists and orchestras. In addition to Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Ravel were big favorites.

Alan: Having grown up with an intensely musical mother (who was quite an accomplished pianist and songwriter), music was everywhere in my early life. My mom likes to brag about how I “begged her for piano lessons” when I was two, but she forced me to wait until I turned three to start. Although dabbling with chord patterns from simple song books on my dad’s old F-hole Vega acoustic guitar, I eventually decided to take up the violin (around age eight) and became a bit of a child prodigy on the instrument, playing classical music with what had to be the best elementary school orchestra in New York City and also taking on extracurricular ensemble work.

My entire world became disrupted at age 12, however, by being sent (against my will) to boarding school in Pennsylvania—and, for some strange reason that I’m sure I’ll never uncover at this point, I was not permitted to bring my violin with me. On the bright side, though, my second roommate there obsessively played three albums that, almost immediately, shifted my primary interest toward rock music (in order of importance): Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack, Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard, and Kimono My House by Sparks. My mom bought me a Conn acoustic guitar that Christmas (which I was actually allowed to keep at school) and that ended up representing my ultimate change of primary instrument.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just list some of the artists I discovered between that time and the end of the 1980s, in chronological, that each had a lasting impact on my musical psyche (in addition to Queen, the one that had really stuck from my roommate’s initial exposure): Rush, Kansas, Genesis, Dixie Dregs, Gentle Giant, Saga, and Pekka Pohjola. The most significant long-term inspiration came from Gentle Giant in the early days followed a bit later on by Pekka Pohjola. I should also add that purchasing Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells when it was brand new (over a year before going to boarding school) also seems to have had a lasting impact in the way I approach composition and arrangement, although this is something that generally seems to manifest itself in a more structural/logistical manner.

Mark: I’m going to work backwards here. Lately, it’s been a good deal of sacred music. Singing in a number of church choirs over the years (some with Henry) has opened up the door to some wonderfully beautiful music that I would never have known was out there otherwise. Before that, there was my training from Berklee in Boston. Over there I honed my music theory, arranging, and jazz harmony skills, while also learning how to get around technical aspects of the studio. And Henry stands behind all that, actually—because it was from him that I received exposure, at a very early age, to Gentle Giant, Procol Harum, Genesis, ELP, Weather Report, and various baroque, romantic, and classical composers. He was also my first music-theory and piano teacher—and a tough one at that. Of course, it didn’t hurt to look at all that cool ’70s keyboard gear he had amassed by the time I was about five or so. That’s probably what started the ball rolling, really.

What is the story behind your name, short and sweet like many of the names of historic prog bands?

Mark:  I believe Alan’s wife, Amy, suggested the name. And naturally, Henry and I being practicing Roman Catholics, identified with its liturgical significance in the Church as one of expectation, or “coming,” as it were, of Christ’s Nativity. So that felt positive, we thought. Plus, it had a nice, short, and “final” kind of ring to it when pronounced. So yeah, I think it works well.

Alan: Yes, the name originated from Amy (my beautiful and musical wife), who used to be a rather serious keyboard player in her younger days. She came up with the idea of naming a band Advent back in college, but never had the opportunity to put it to use. When we were starting to think about band names, she shared the idea and we immediately thought it was perfect.

Though Advent have been in existence for almost three decades, there have been long breaks between your CD releases. What is the reason for that?

Alan: There are actually several factors that have conspired to keep things moving so slowly in this regard. The fact that we’ve always been a band of married guys with families and day jobs is probably the most significant factor—often resulting in having very little time available to actually work on music. Beyond that, a combination of several lineup changes and, for an extended period, trying to focus on too many activities simultaneously, set us back quite a bit. In fact, I don’t think we would have ever finished Cantus Firmus had we not made a conscious decision to stop looking for new band members and dedicate virtually all our time to making the album. Additionally, our material is often very complex and intricate, and it just takes a significant amount of time and effort to get the tunes written, arranged, rehearsed, recorded, and mixed to our mutual satisfaction.

Henry: The short, brutal truth of it is that we have to continue to support ourselves while attempting to keep Advent moving forward. As wonderfully supportive, generous, and dedicated as the people in the prog scene have shown themselves to be in their commitment to keeping the music alive, there simply aren’t enough ways to sustain a full-time living from writing/performing exclusively, so we all have to do other things to keep the electricity turned on in what has proven to be an increasingly precarious economic environment. I teach piano full-time, and perform with an all-Beatles show called Mystical Majesty Band in addition to writing and playing in Advent, and it’s still a daily struggle to maintain the kind of sustained attention and focus that work as detailed as ours tends to require. When something is finally finished, we’re all happy with the results, but getting there (especially today) often demands the kinds of interruptions such as are required for simple survival.

What about your recent lineup changes? Have they influenced the writing of your new material?

Alan: We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful players in the band over the years. Drew Siciliano (drums) and Benjamin Rose (bass), representing our previous rhythm section, were both amazing players that came from more of a jazz background. Our new drummer Joe D’Andrea, an old friend (that found out about the opening via my venting on Facebook), has a very diverse set of influences but approaches the music from a solid progressive-rock perspective—and is also a very gifted vocalist who plays violin quite well. We also had a new bass player for about a year and a half, but I’m afraid that things didn’t quite work out in the end and we just parted ways in early 2012. (We’re actively looking for a suitable candidate to fill this new opening, but I’m already making preparations to start recording bass parts for the new CD if we can’t find someone quickly.)

Although I can’t really say these changes have dramatically influenced the way we’re writing or arranging new material for the album, we are starting to think about optimizing some of the arrangements for a single guitarist due to the fact that Greg (Katona, our second guitarist) is not planning on participating in future live performances with the band at this point. I’m very happy to say that Greg is still very actively involved in both our creative and recording processes, though, and has already laid down some beautiful guitar work for the third Advent album.

Mark:  Maybe it’s influenced us a little bit. I don’t know, I think we still approach writing mostly the same way we always have, only now we’ve been able to try things live during rehearsals with the full band and see what worked and what didn’t. That’s a nice thing to have happen because it makes the transition to live performance a lot easier. Much of the re-arranging gets cut down, which speeds things up for us—somewhat. (Ha ha.)

You have been called the most European-sounding of American bands, and especially Cantus Firmus shows your fascination with the Old World and its centuries-old musical tradition. Can you expand a bit on this particular subject?

Henry: I think the way we approach form has a lot to do with that. Most popular music (including many jazz standards) follows either a 12-bar form, or a standard “verse/chorus/middle eight/what-have-you” formula, which is very well-suited to shorter works. With longer pieces you have to consider how to sustain musical interest as you stretch out. I have nothing against the solution of extended soloing to fill the time, especially in the hands of great players like Pat Metheny, Joe Zawinul, or Herbie Hancock. However, I’m not drawn to that particular solution in the same way that I am to models which are more in line with the European classics, and if you go down that road, it’s inevitable that you’ll “discover” sonata form, counterpoint, thematic development, and all the rest of it—and pretty soon you find yourself referencing musical antecedents that lead all the way back to Gregorian chant. I’ve always been of the opinion that the audience which grew up on a diet of the simple pop tunes of early rock ‘n’ roll eventually wanted something a little deeper by the mid-sixties, which would account for all of the classical/jazz/folk/rock hybrids comprising much of the early prog catalog that became popular soon afterwards. I personally think it represented a hunger to reconnect with musical roots that ran deeper than the weekly chart-breaker—and, for me at least, that meant European music, which I believe is the best we have.

Do you see yourselves as “retro-prog”, and what is your opinion of such a label? Do you see it as unfair, or do you wear it as a badge of pride?

Alan: I don’t think the “retro-prog” label can accurately be applied to Advent—at least not based on any music the band has released up to this point. That being said, I believe our musical ethos to be more in line with many of the classic prog bands than most of the acts who fall quite squarely into that “retro” category. To further qualify, I think virtually all these (retro-prog) bands feature arrangements—especially from the standpoint of timbre—that sound as though their recordings could have been made in the 1970s. Our music, however, does not favor that approach at all and contains at least as many textures that would never have been heard back in prog’s heyday. Or, to put it another way, I like to think that we expand rather significantly on the retro sound, while still leveraging at least some of the elements that made classic prog music so appealing—but I don’t think anyone would ever mistake any Advent tune for having been recorded over 35 years ago.

Henry: If, as I suspect, “retro” is to be understood as describing a musical approach with influences directly traceable to the best work of earlier practitioners of a particular genre, I suppose I’m OK with that. Even to call what we do an “homage”, or “in the manner of” is in my opinion misleading, because (as Alan has already expressed), there’s other things of a more eclectic nature in what we do. The influences are there, sure, but the problem with the word “retro” is that it leaves one wide open to the philological mischief it affords to self-styled iconoclasts (like the chain-smoking Marxist motormouths of my college days),who want to bury the past altogether. I would oppose the use of the term to the extent that it is used with a subtly dismissive spin, the intent of which seems (to me at least), to suggest a want of imagination, or to put it another way, an absence of “progress”, if “progress” is to be measured along the same tired old deconstructionist/Socialist/Satanist agitprop measuring stick some of these people would confine it to.

Mark: You know, I really don’t care what you call us, as long as you listen to the darn music. What’s being said musically is what’s most important, in my mind. There’s a certain eternal connection your soul has with music, and that’s what Henry and I (at least) try to tap into. We try to knock on that door and make an impression on you that lasts – hopefully for a lifetime. Some music has done that to me, and it doesn’t matter one bit what its label is, or how people identify it. I just know that when I listen to it, it does something beautiful inside that words can never describe. My badge of pride would be to have that happen to at least one person with even a few bars of a tune that I wrote or helped to arrange.

And now, the obligatory question about your songwriting process. How do you go about it? Does writing new material come easy to you?

Mark: Very seldom does any one idea blossom into an entire tune for me. We’ve all got bits and pieces left over from other things, or short snippets of ideas that we constantly try to mix and match with each other’s fragments to see what fits. The cool thing that Henry and I like to do sometimes is to take an existing idea, throw it into a sequencer and flip it backwards or upside down, or even in retrograde inversion. That produces a lot of caca sometimes, and a good belly laugh other times—but every once in a while you get something really interesting that sticks. The middle section of “Awaiting the Call…” is actually an idea I had that was played in reverse, or upside down … I forget now. After a little revising, that became the dual acoustic guitar/mandolin part. Funny thing is, the original idea was just as good as far as I’m concerned. Who knows? You might hear that show up somewhere at some point.

Henry:  It varies. For most of Advent’s existence, we’ve tended to treat rehearsals as something of a songwriting workshop, where we’d each come in with sections of material prepared—sometimes collectively, though mostly individually—and try to move things forward section by section. Since we’ve got two locations equipped with recording facilities, that occasionally involves recording some of what we have in varying stages of completion to try to get more of a sense of how the final song is going to sound, and then make the inevitable adjustments where required. Starting from nothing, of course, tends to slow things down a bit—and since so much of the compositional process depends on finding the right arrangement for whatever raw material we’ve started with, it’s important to know early on whether the song idea in front of you has possibilities or not.

Alan:  We all approach the creative aspects of this task quite differently in my opinion—although I would also say that Henry, Mark, and I are all fairly consistent about wanting to develop our basic compositional structures and arrangements independently (before bringing the pieces into the group for additional input). I tend to spontaneously write small ideas on a regular basis, but it takes a concerted effort to turn one or more of these snippets into a complete piece of music—and this process typically involves a significant amount of time, effort, and discipline. In this regard, it really helps to have some kind of goal in mind which drives a commitment to get the piece done on some sort of schedule.

On the next Advent CD, I also composed two short pieces with (our other guitar player) Greg. This was a very collaborative process that started with my beginning each composition, transcribing what I had into Sibelius (the music-notation program), and sending both scores and Sibelius-generated audio to Greg. He would listen to the results and compose his parts to match what I started—and then, upon reaching a certain point, Greg would take the lead and develop the following section of the tune, for which I’d have to go back and write my parts to match. Once in a while we’d come to some form of disagreement, but that would eventually get worked out. In the end, though, I’ve been tremendously pleased with the final results and really hope that Greg and I can continue to work in this fashion well into the future.

As I wrote in my review, my first contact with the music of Advent was your contribution to Musea Records’s Dante’s Inferno 4-CD set. How did that collaboration come about, and what was your experience? Are you familiar with the literary work at all?

Alan: If memory serves, Marco Bernard (Colossus) reached out to us directly and solicited our involvement in the project. Although Henry and Mark were a lot more familiar with the text than I, we all thought it sounded like something which could be right up our alley. The assignment also provided our first opportunity to collaborate with Greg on an original composition—something that went very well in my opinion. I also think Henry’s daughter (Thérèse) did a wonderful job on the vocals.

Henry:  I was already acquainted with The Inferno, having read it in college and once or twice since then—so when Alan informed us about the Colossus-based project to do a prog collection encompassing the first canticum of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I thought it would make for an interesting subject around which to build a composition. Happily, we were all in agreement about doing it, even though we knew it involved another redirection of focus away from the new CD. First of all, it was the initial (and only) Advent studio recording featuring the six-piece ensemble that had been gigging since the release of Cantus Firmus—and the tune also provided an opportunity to showcase Greg Katona’s formidable skills on classical guitar, for which he wrote his own part. The style of writing was quite a bit darker than is typical for us, which one might expect given the subject matter. Coming up with a “visual” program to describe the events in “Canto XXVI” took a few tries, but when it was completed, I was amazed at how compellingly Greg’s contribution captured Dante’s “lament” over Florence at the outset of the work. I would have enjoyed being a part of the Purgatorio and Paradiso collections as well, but there just wasn’t time for additional detours from writing our new CD. Congratulations to Marco, Colossus, Musea, and all involved, though—great idea!

Mark: It was a very welcome experience as Alan and Henry have already pointed out. It was a little out of the way in terms of what we do, but the subject matter was an interesting one for all of us and enabled the band to stretch out a bit, compositionally. I’ve been aware of Dante’s Divine Comedy for years, but never read any of it until we signed on for the Musea/Colossus project. I read Inferno in preparation for what we were going to create, and I think that helped me a lot in the mixing stage. I started to read Purgatorio shortly after that and got through a decent part of it, but never finished. I’m confident I’ll get to the rest of it, and Paradiso, at some point. I’m a bit too busy right now, though.

You seem to have a keen interest in literature as an inspiration for your lyrics. Can you tell me something more about it?

Henry: I think we sometimes find it easier to form a compositional image when we have some sort of preexisting template to work from. Some people have difficulty visualizing a musical analog for a vibe communicated by a painting or a literary work, but we seem to manage it somehow. Perhaps growing up hearing everything from movies, to TV shows, to Warner Bros. cartoons, so skillfully set to music has left its mark. (I’m not sure.) Whatever the reason, the operation of transitioning from words-to-mental-picture-to-music seems a pretty natural one. I think it also helps that we all, by disposition, seem to have a preference for a type of lyric that most resembles poetry, where the images and references tend to be both varied and colorful. It seems to afford more room for the imagination to latch onto something useful in regard to projecting an atmosphere. Lyricists who write in that manner have a gift for finding ironic peculiarities in everyday things that most of us would miss—especially if things were not framed in quite the same way. I always felt that Arthur Hoffman (Advent’s lyricist on our earlier works) definitely had that “poet’s eye” and it made his imagery very easy to visualize musically.

Alan, Henry and Mark play a number of instruments, and also sing. Which instrument do you privilege, and what is your approach to playing live and in the studio?

Alan: While I play a fair number of instruments, I’m definitely most comfortable with guitar and bass, followed by Stick, violin, and mandolin. Beyond that, I tinker with things like recorder and flute—and still like sitting at a keyboard as often as time permits. I also love playing drums, but doubt that I’ll ever fulfill my fantasy of becoming the next Marco Minnemann. J Also, now that Advent has three impressively strong vocalists, I’m definitely the weakest link in this regard—but, like other things that extend beyond my natural abilities, I tend to compensate by practicing a lot.

We generally record most parts individually—and, in these instances, I tend to favor recording multiple looped takes of sections that are generally of a short-to-medium length. Since I have to double as recording engineer in virtually all cases, this approach allows me some time after starting the recording (and sometimes having to jump into position following that) to “get into the zone” and deliver a truly musical performance. When I have to record something live with one or more band mates, though, my tendency is to just practice like crazy to internalize the parts as much as possible in advance—which is really the same strategy I use to prepare for performing on stage.

Henry: I’m primarily a keyboardist who occasionally dabbles on the mandolin and guitar. Since a lot of what we do, both live and in the studio, involves fairly elaborate arrangements, we tend to use our instruments with an orchestral scope in mind. At present, we basically just try to reproduce, in a live setting, quite a bit of what we liked most about the recorded arrangements, with the occasional surprise worked in just to keep things interesting. Since this approach usually means rather involved performance demands on all of us, it tends to make for very busy hands (and sweaty palms) at gig time. That said, we all seem to prefer that to losing any part which one or more of us has come to enjoy hearing in the original, and the execution of the tricky bits seems to get better with each successive gig.

Mark:  Henry and Alan (and Joe, our drummer) are the real multi-instrumentalists in this group. I pretty much stick to keyboards and singing. If you put some percussion stuff in front of me, I can bang on it well enough to give you something pretty cool. And I can program a pretty mean drum part, but that’s about it. Actually, come to think of it, I do play the radio pretty well (and pretty loud). As far as live-vs.-studio approach is concerned, it’s the same thing in both situations for me, with the exception of missing the audience in the one case (and sometimes in both, LOL). Honestly, I try to keep things the same for both instances to make the transition easy and smooth—same gear, same setup, etc. The less surprises, the better, as far as I’m concerned. The keyboards are hard enough as it is without adding to the complexity of the performance itself. Even as a group, the performance mirrors the rehearsal, really. We haven’t consciously tried to deviate from that up to this point. There hasn’t been a need to in our minds, I think.

What have been your experiences as a live band?

Alan: That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, actually. On one hand, I think we’ve enjoyed many special moments and have been very fortunate, at least on occasion, to connect rather significantly with our audience. Given the complexity of the music and the corresponding amount of preparation necessary for each show, though, it’s really a shame that we haven’t been able to perform more than three times a year thus far—and I’d really like to be able to play a series of gigs in a row (or, ideally, book a short tour) where we could leverage all this hard work and make the kind of performance-related refinements that only seem to come from playing in front of a live audience on a fairly consistent basis. On the bright side, I’m very happy that we played out again, for the first time in over two years now (and with the debut of our great new drummer, Joe D’Andrea), at the NJ Proghouse on December 11th  – and having our talented young friends in The Tea Club on the bill as well was also a particularly special treat.

Mark: We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderfully talented people in this band over the years. But as with any ongoing project with which you may be involved, especially if you’re at its foundational level, there tends to be a few revolving-door positions as people come and go, which is fine. It makes it a little harder and things tend to take a bit longer as a result, but we still manage to put together an interesting show. All members, past and present, have really put in a lot of hard work for full-band rehearsals and countless hours of home preparation for material that is not very easy to get around. Believe me, for that we.re very thankful. When everyone is in the pocket and the energy is high, it really is a mind-blower. And that just goes to show that the material is good, in my mind. When you can get excited all over again with different people playing the same arrangements, I think that says a lot about the tunes and their arrangements.

Henry:  In general, quite good. Audiences have been wonderfully supportive, especially through all those critical first few performances when we were all sort of still finding our feet as a live band. Our second gig ever was at ProgDay, and the people there were most forgiving and kind—especially considering the jitters and mental lapses we were so vulnerable to in performing things like “Ramblin’ Sailor” in its entirety for the first time. We’ve also had nothing but good experiences with those people entrusted with getting us a good live sound, in what can only be described as a very difficult mix to get just right. Special thanks to Jim Zipf and also Kevin Feeley for their fantastic work and patience on this count.

What is your relationship with the thriving New Jersey prog scene?

Alan: Well, I’d say it’s all very much centered around the NJ Proghouse, all the organization’s incredible “staph” and leadership, and the network of amazing fans, musicians, and venues that support it all. Amy and I started as concertgoers, actually, first attending the (pre-Proghouse) Flower Kings/After the Fall show that took place in New Brunswick over a decade ago. After attending quite a few gigs and getting to know Jim and the gang, we were so appreciative to have the opportunity to hold Advent’s live debut at the Proghouse—and, since that time, Amy and I have both become very active “staph” members ourselves, helping to put on some of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen. On top of that, our great friendship with Jim, Ray, and all the other “staph” members is probably the best part of it all.

On a related note, how do you see the future of the US prog scene, especially after the announced demise of NEARfest after its 2012 edition?

Alan: That’s another tough question. I think it’s getting increasingly harder for anyone to monetize their music in general, much less that which clearly falls outside of any commercially viable genre—and, while we’re based out of New Jersey, I get the sense that this is a global phenomenon (at least in general). NEARfest coming to an end is merely indicative of the larger problem, in my opinion. Inspired composers and musicians will always strive to make great music and I think that intelligent, imaginative, open-minded listeners will always seek something new to hear—and, hopefully, own. It’s a complicated subject, though, and there are a lot of factors that come into play, including things like declining disposable income, increasing availability of free music (whether legitimately streamed or illegally downloaded), and the fact the market for nostalgia-based fandom is starting to dry up (due to most of the prominent old-school acts already having performed big festivals like NEARfest or simply not playing anymore).

When do you expect to release your new album? Have you already thought of a title?

Mark: As has been already mentioned, we’ll be shooting for a 2012 release, and hopefully earlier in the year than later. We’ll see. It’s never an easy task with Advent compositions and arrangements, but we’re working hard to get it done as quickly as we can. There are a few titles floating around in our heads, but nothing that’s been discussed openly yet, I think. That will probably come as we get closer to the end of the mixing stage. I should also add that we will be using Michael Phipps again for cover art. He did an absolutely gorgeous job on Cantus Firmus and I can’t wait to start working with him again on the concept for the new release.

Alan: I agree that we’re pretty well committed to having the album done in 2012, although I must confess to being a little less optimistic than Mark about the specifics and have a feeling that the second half of the year may be more likely. (I hope he proves me wrong, though.) Most of the tunes are fairly complete in terms of composition and arrangement at this point and quite a bit of recording has already taken place. As such, I think we have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to sound, but I wasn’t aware of any serious thoughts about the album title yet. I’ll have to see what the other guys are thinking.

Do you have other plans for 2012?

Henry: As of now, only two—release the best album we possibly can, and play in front of more people!

Mark: Something tells me it’s going to be practice, practice, and more practice.

Alan: From an Advent perspective, I’d say finishing up and releasing the new CD is definitely the top priority. After that, though, I really hope we can get back on stage and play a bunch of gigs. On a personal note, I hope to get a few collaborations into high gear and, perhaps, start working on recording some solo material.

All: Thanks so much for the interview, Raffaella! We really hope that you and your readers enjoy it. All the best!

Thank you for your time, and best wishes for the completion of your new album!

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TRACKLISTING:

1. GK Contramundum (2:00)
2. Awaiting the Call. (5:10)
3. Parenting Parents (6:45)
4. Utter Once Her Name (5:30)
5. Remembering When (4:00)
6. Ramblin’ Sailor (18:14)
7. Your Healing Hand (8:18)
8. Firmus Finale (4:40)

Bonus tracks (previously unreleased 24-track recordings):
9. Rear View Mirror (3:34)
10. Alison Waits (A Ghost Story) (10:40)

LINEUP:
Alan Benjamin – guitars, basses, stick, mandolin, recorder
Henry Ptak – keyboards, lead vocals, backing vocals, percussion
Mark Ptak – keyboards, backing vocals, percussion
Drew Siciliano – drums

With:
Shunji Saegusa –  bass (6)
Ken Serio – drums (10)

My first contact with Advent’s music dates back from a couple of years ago, when I reviewed Dante’s Inferno, the first instalment of the monumental The Divine Comedy project released by Musea Records. The band’s contribution, a song called “Canto XXVI – The Evil Counselors”, impressed me as one of the most interesting tracks on that 4-CD set; therefore, I eagerly grasped at the opportunity to review their second album, Cantus Firmus – which, even if released exactly five years ago, is still recent enough not to qualify as a ‘vault’ review.

While quite a few North American bands have taken the classic English progressive rock sound of the Seventies as their blueprint, no one, when listening to this album for the first time,  would ever associate Advent with the bustling, overcrowded and down-to-earth East Coast of the US. Though hailing from New Jersey (home of a number of fine prog outfits, such as Shadow Circus, The Tea Club and 3rd Degree), here is a band that sounds more English than most contemporary English bands. Their love for the Old Country is evident right from cover artwork and logo (by artist and illustrator Michael Phipps), inspired by the stunning illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Formed in 1989 by two highly accomplished multi-instrumentalists with a wide range of musical interests, Alan Benjamin and Henry Ptak (whose brother Mark joined the band some time later), Advent released their self-titled debut album in 1997, and then dropped off the radar for nine years. After the inevitable line-up changes (notably the addition of drummer Drew Siciliano), in 2006 Cantus Firmus finally appeared, to a very warm reception. The album’s title, meaning ‘fixed song’ in Latin, refers to a pre-existing melody that forms the base of a polyphonic composition – another nod to medieval and Renaissance musical tradition.

Like most acts, modern or otherwise, Advent have their own strong set of references, and are refreshingly honest about it. Though modern bands that openly pay homage to one or more of the prog greats of the Seventies are neither new nor surprising, Advent distinguish themselves from the myriad of Genesis or Yes-inspired outfits by having a rather unlikely pair of bands like Gentle Giant and Procol Harum as their main source of inspiration. Indeed, the band’s name brings to mind one of Gentle Giant’s most iconic songs, “The Advent of Panurge”. With such influences, it is not surprising that the music on Cantus Firmus is sophisticated, understated and devoid of hard edges – as well as admirably tight in compositional terms. Indeed, while not a concept, the album projects a sense of cohesiveness, with the first eight tracks acting much like the movements of a symphony. On the other hand, the two bonus tracks (both originally featured on the band’s debut album), though bringing the album’s running time close to a rather hefty 70 minutes, are not unwelcome additions, as they bear witness to Advent’s gradual but steady development of their own artistic personality.

Advent’s love for everything Gentle Giant immediately surfaces in the opening track, the short but sweet “GK Contramundum”, dedicated to English 20th-century author Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and sung entirely a cappella. The song flows directly into “Awaiting the Call”, a lovely instrumental number with hints of Genesis and Camel in Alan Benjamin’s stately, melodic guitar solo and the lush, elegant sweep of the Ptak brothers’ keyboards. “Parenting Parents” and its companion piece “Your Healing Hand”, both dealing with the topic of the relationship between parents and their children, share the same keenly sentimental quality (which thankfully never descends into mawkishness): while the latter is very sparse, almost hymn-like in tone with its whispered vocal harmonies, the former couples lilting, madrigal-like passages of touching sensitivity with instrumental surges led by Benjamin’s fluid, crystal-clear guitar.

“Utter Once Her Name”, a sparse, meditative number with a strong Gentle Giant vibe, and the hauntingly beautiful instrumental “Remembering When”, featuring some really inspired acoustic and electric guitar work, introduce the album’s centrepiece, the 18-minute “Ramblin’ Sailor”. Featuring the participation of Japanese band Kenso’s bassist, Shunji Saegusa, it is based on a traditional English folk song called “The Rambling Sailor”; the stunning complexity of its instrumental parts is relieved by the sprightly, cheerful nature of  the contrapuntal vocal parts, including a chorus of ‘carousing sailors’. The magnificent central section is occasionally reminiscent of the stately yet riveting pace of Genesis’ instrumental compositions, while the titular sailor’s farewell to the sea is conveyed by a slower, more sedate passage enhanced by the distinctive sound of the recorder. The core of the album is then brought to a close by the upbeat, fanfare-like “Firmus Finale”, in which hints of Gryphon’s quirky take on medieval music join the Genesis and Gentle Giant influences.

Though some might complain that Cantus Firmus is not a truly original proposition, and wave the dreaded ‘retro’ word around, the album – far from being a mere tribute-like effort – simply oozes class and dedication. In spite of the individual band members’ impressive chops, in this case technical skill is put at the service of the music, and not the other way round. Moreover, the emotional content is conveyed with grace and delicacy rather with the self-indulgent angst typical of may higher-profile bands. Gentler and more meditative than the output of bands in a similar vein such as Änglagård or Wobbler, Cantus Firmus will definitely appeal to fans of vintage prog of an eclectic bent – though some listeners might be turned off by its unabashed sentimentality and occasional church-like gravity. At the time of writing, Advent are working on their third album, which will hopefully be released within the year.

Links:
http://www.adventmusic.net

http://www.michaelphipps.net/

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