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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR)  has been active for the past nine years in the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area of the US, organizing concerts and other events for those who share a love for progressive music in all its forms. DC-SOAR, which is a non-profit educational organization, currently counts nearly 200 members, and its activities are entirely funded through donations and ticket sales rather than through conventional membership fees.

In order to give exposure to the Society’s activity and support its future projects, in the month of November DC-SOAR will be holding two fundraising concerts at Baltimore’s famed Orion Studios that will showcase some of the best progressive/art rock bands currently active in the north-eastern part of the US.

The first concert, scheduled for  November 3 at 7 p.m. (admission: $20), will feature Northern Virginia’s own Ephemeral Sun (recently appeared at ProgDay 2012), alongside two New Jersey-based bands, 3RDegree and Shadow Circus, also ProgDay alumni (in 2009 and 2010 respectively). 3RDegree have recently released their fourth studio album, The Long Division, which has been received in very positive terms, while Shadow Circus’ third studio album, A Dark and Stormy Night, will be released in a few weeks on Georgia-based label 10T Records. All-instrumental quartet Ephemeral Sun are presently working on the follow-up of their critically acclaimed 2010 album, Harvest Aorta. The different styles and approaches of the three bands will offer the audience a cross-section of some of the most interesting trends in modern progressive rock.

The second concert, scheduled for November 17 at 7.p.m. (admission: $ 15), will present new Baltimore-based outfit Prophet Code (featuring Iluvatar’s keyboardist Jim Rezek), Washington art/music collective Zero Mercury, and genre-bending quartet Kabob-O-Taj, hailing from Gaithersburg (MD). Though these three bands may not be as well-known as the ones previously mentioned, anyone interested in discovering new music should check them out.

Both shows are open to people of all ages. As usual, members of the audience are encouraged to bring small folding chairs and coolers.

Address:
Orion Studios,
2903 Whittington Ave., Suite C,
Baltimore, MD 21230

Admission:
$ 20 (Nov 3)
$ 15 (Nov 17)

Links:
http://www.dc-soar.org

http://www.ephemeralsun.com

http://www.3rdegreeonline.com

http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com/

http://www.facebook.com/ProphetCode

http://www.facebook.com/ZeroMercuryMusic

http://kabobotaj.com/

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Regular readers of my blog will by now be familiar with my frequent references to the plight of US bands and their struggles to find an audience for their live shows. The 1000-odd people who, only two weeks ago, filled a state-of-the-art venue such as the Zoellner Arts Center for the final edition of NEARfest are very much the exception in a country where non-mainstream bands and artists (especially of the progressive rock persuasion) see their efforts to perform live increasingly frustrated by their potential audience’s apathy. When playing before 50 people is already considered a successful outcome, you know that there is a problem – which may soon force an increasing number of artists to turn their efforts to studio-only projects, no matter how much they love being on stage.

For this reason – even if, generally speaking, any band tagged as “neo-prog” would not exactly set my musical pulse racing – my husband and I decided to attend one of Baltimore-based quintet Ilúvatar’s rare live performances after a hiatus that kept them away from the scenes for over a decade. In spite of the suffocating blanket of 100-degree heat (around 40º C for non-Americans) and the threat of thunderstorms later in the evening, we headed towards the ever-reliable Jammin’ Java, and found that a few of our fellow attendees had driven considerable distances for the occasion. Considering the circumstances (including the rather awkward 7 p.m. scheduling), the 50 people or so who attended the DC-SOAR-sponsored gig at the dimly-lit, comfortably air-conditioned venue may be seen as a reasonably successful turnout.

Named after the supreme being (“father of all”) in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, and with beginnings that can be traced back to 1983, Ilúvatar  are nowhere as pretentious as their handle might lead one to believe, and definitely not about the dreaded “pixies and unicorns” all too often associated with prog. In the Nineties, they enjoyed a moderate amount of success as one of the leading US prog bands, which landed them a number of high-profile appearances (such as ProgDay 1996, Baja Prog 1998 and NEARfest 2000) before they went on hiatus. Over the years Ilúvatar have built a loyal following in the Baltimore/Washington metro area, and are clearly one of those outfits for whom the studio will never be enough.

Due to my limited affinity with neo-prog, I was not familiar with Ilúvatar’s output, but – in spite of the ready availability of music samples in the age of the Internet – I had decided to go in cold to avoid any bias, having learned that many acts are best experienced in a live setting. The almost two-hour set left me positively surprised, unlike some much-touted names whose shows I have witnessed in the past few years. With four-fifths of the line-up featured on their last album to date, 1999’s A Story Two Days Wide, on board (original vocalist Glenn McLaughlin left in 2011, and was replaced by Jeff Sirody earlier this year), the members all looked quite personable (it was hard to believe that they have been around for 25 years!), and genuinely happy to be back on stage. Most importantly, though, their performance was focused on delivering tightly composed songs rather than showing off their chops. As seasoned performers, the band members handled the rather cramped stage with aplomb, eliciting the enthusiasm of their loyal fans.

As a whole, the music was deceptively straightforward, declining to punch the listener in the face with its complexity. Solo spots were kept to a bare minimum, lending cohesiveness to the overall sound. Jim Rezek (who was the lead keyboard tech at NEARfest) chiefly employed his impressive bank of keyboards to add texture and melody to the sound, effectively supported by Dennis Mullin’s fluid, often fiery guitar; while Dean Morekas powerful bass lines and Chris Mack’s energetic drumming provided a solid backbone with a bit of a heavy edge. My only gripe was the occasional whistling tone of the synthesizers, which is one of the trademarks of the neo-prog subgenre – though it was never overdone. New vocalist Jeff Sirody brought to bear his extensive experience as a frontman in a number of local classic rock and glam metal bands to inject a stronger rock vibe into the band’s sound, and also dispel any criticism about their resemblance to Genesis. His strong, confident tenor managed to be heard in spite of the rather loud volume, and, though long-time Ilúvatar followers may have noticed the difference in style and delivery when Sirody tackled the older material, they were clearly happy with the results.

All in all, even if I generally prefer edgier, more challenging music, I found the band’s performance very enjoyable. If US prog fans did not cultivate a stubborn “the grass is greener” attitude to the detriment of homegrown acts, Ilúvatar would have been a much better fit for some of the festivals I have recently attended than some bigger-name foreign bands. The fact that Saturday’s gig was only their second in our area – a mere 30 miles south of their home town of Baltimore – bears witness to the sad fact that US-based bands are still children of a lesser God in the eyes of their prospective audiences. The growing divide within the prog scene is not helping either, with people refusing to try a band or artist from the opposite camp even when the ticket to a gig amounts to a whopping $ 10. Ironically, while modern technology has made it possible for anyone to record and release an album – and consequently brought about the saturation of an already niche market – lack of support is in danger of killing the live scene for good. However, no matter how great an album may be, nothing beats live music, especially when accompanied by the right combination of enthusiasm and skill. Progressive rock fans should support live music whenever and wherever they can – do not let the scene die out, or retreat within the four walls of a studio.

Links:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Iluvatar/117765760211

http://www.myspace.com/iluvatar2006

http://www.dc-soar.org

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After pulling off the remarkable feat of bringing two progressive rock legends such as Magma and Univers Zéro to Washington DC for the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival, cult independent label Cuneiform Records has done it again. Even if November is generally not as thriving on the live music front as the spring and summer months, the label has brought excitement to fans of genuinely progressive music (of both the rock and the jazz variety) with two events: Cuneiform Curates the Stone, a series of concerts taking place from November 15 to November 30 at John Zorn’s avant-garde space in NYC’s East Village, and a more concentrated, two-day bash aptly called CuneiFest, organized on November 19-20 at the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore.

While RIO/Avant-Prog (as the subgenre is often called for ease of reference, though somewhat inaccurately) does have a hard core of dedicated supporters in the US, it lacks the following it enjoys in Europe, where the Rock In Opposition Festival, organized in southern France in September, has now reached its fourth edition. The presence of one or more bands identified with this particular subgenre is guaranteed to send people literally running for the exits at any US prog festival, and even the bigger names like the above-mentioned Magma or Univers Zéro have often proved controversial. No one, therefore, expected crowds of hundreds of people to show up at the Orion on Saturday, November 19. Indeed, Cuneiform mainman Steve Feigenbaum had put a mere 65 tickets on sale, and expected to sell no more than exactly that number. I am happy to report that Rock Day was sold out:  the small, cozy space of the Orion was nicely filled by people convened from various parts of the country, as well as farther afield (like Israel and Norway), comfortably sitting on the chairs provided by the Cuneiform crew. On each chair a bright yellow flyer was draped, containing detailed information not only on the day’s schedule, but also on the surrounding area (as well as the lunch and dinner menu).

For such a small, family-run enterprise, the Cuneiform team (consisting of Steve, his wife Joyce and her right-hand man Javier Diaz, both in charge of the promotional department, plus various interns) did an extremely impressive job in organizing the day. The main stage area was not as cluttered as it usually is when people bring their own chairs and coolers, leaving hardly any room to move around, and the lights festooning the walls created a festive feel in that small, high-ceilinged space. As the Orion is located at the far end of an industrial park, with very few amenities within walking (or even driving) distance, the organizers had contacted a local Italian restaurant in order to make a selection of food, both hot and cold, available to the attendees for a very reasonable price – set up buffet-style in the space opposite the Orion’s main body. The beautiful, relatively mild weather encouraged people to eat their lunch outside, enjoying the sunshine and the community atmosphere already inherent to most Orion events. To me, music and food are a quintessentially perfect pairing, and the convivial aspect was one of the highlights of the event, providing the attendees with the opportunity to chill out and socialize after each intensity-packed set.

The six bands selected for the Rock Day emphasized the amazing diversity within a subgenre that is all too often dismissed as over-intellectual (even within a non-mainstream genre like progressive rock) or just plain noisy. While none of those bands could ever be described as catchy or accessible, and very clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, most of them belied the fearsome reputation of avant-prog as a bunch of  purveyors of jarring, melody-free fare. All of them were also homegrown, hailing from such diverse environments as Colorado, New York, New England and California – a very significant move on the part of Cuneiform, and probably not just motivated by the inevitable financial considerations. In spite of many US prog fans’ obsession with foreign bands, it is easy to forget that in a such a large country, especially in these times of economic strictures, witnessing a performance of any act based on the other side of the country, or even a couple of states away, is anything but a frequent occurrence.

Steve Feigenbaum opened the festival, greeting the audience and introducing the first band, the quaintly-named Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores – one of the projects in which Redfearn, a singer-songwriter from the historic New England town of Providence, has been involved for a number of years. The six-piece that graced the Orion stage  had one of the most distinctive configurations I have ever seen in progressive rock, actually featuring almost no typical rock instrumentation. With contrabass, horn, organ, percussion and assorted objects, and the accordion (played by Redfearn himself) used as a pivotal element, the band’s profoundly fascinating sound possessed an unmistakable Old World flavour. Out of the six bands on the lineup, they had the highest melodic quotient, though a subtly skewed kind of melody, with a mournful, hypnotic quality intensified by the drone of Orion Rigel Dommisse’s organ and her plaintive vocals. While the strong folk component of the band’s music reminded me of modern acid-folk outfits like Espers, with hints of The Decemberists (especially as regards the Americana element and the dark lyrical matter), the many different ingredients of such a heady musical mixture made it quite unique. The longish, complex songs were surprisingly easy to follow, with “Wings of the Magpie” coming across as a particular highlight. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores are a band that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone willing to dip their toes in the avant-prog waters, but still find the prospect somewhat daunting.

When, after an half-hour break for more socializing and refreshments, Los Angeles quartet Upsilon Acrux took to the stage, the contrast with the previous set could not have been greater. In an evening that presented a number of interesting band configurations, Upsilon Acrux’s minimalistic two-guitar, two-drummer approach easily won first prize – at least in the sheer energy and volume stakes. Having reviewed the band’s most recent album, 2009’s Radian Futura, I knew what to expect – an angular, dissonant aural onslaught, with enough manic energy coming out of the two drummers (Dylan Fuijoka and Mark Kimbrell) to light up a whole town, and a conspicuous absence of melody. In fact, Upsilon Acrux delivered a 30-minute performance that – while riveting to watch, particularly on account of the drummers’ uncanny precision in laying down jaggedly intricate patterns in perfect unison – bordered dangerously close to white-noise territory. The two guitarists, founder (and only constant member in a band known for its revolving-door policy) Paul Lai and his sidekick Noah Guevara, churned out slashing, piercing chords of almost unbearable intensity. It was math-rock in its purest form, so brutally intense to make the likes of Don Caballero sound tame – and, needless to say, it left a sizable part of the audience rather perplexed. Even those who listen to RIO/Avant-Prog as a matter of course found the band’s uncompromising approach a bit hard to take, and almost everyone agreed that a longer set would have discouraged at least some of the attendees. The band’s somewhat dour presence, with little or no interaction with the audience, also seemed to parallel the spiky, bristling nature of their music. On the other hand, Upsilon Acrux were definitely worth watching (albeit in small doses), and an excellent addition to a lineup that showcased the wide-ranging musical offer to be found under the Cuneiform umbrella.

Next on the bill were New York-based quintet Afuche, who had recently released their first album, Highly Publicized Digital Boxing Match. In a way, the title is an accurate representation of the band itself – another high-energy outfit, though imbued with a sheer sense of enthusiasm, as well as a distinct Latin flavour (the band’s name actually refers to a very distinctive percussion instrument used in Latin jazz). Their 30-minute set, while full of sonic clashes and crashes, was also spirited and entertaining, with a charismatic focal point in keyboardist/vocalist/percussionist Ruben Sindo Acosta – a wiry, diminutive dynamo with a rakish mustache and a curtain of black hair, jumping up and down when pounding the keys of his rig, or bashing his drums with unadulterated gusto. His facial expressions were a sight to behold, while his vocal style owed a lot to traditional Afro-Cuban music, though infused with a manic energy all of his own. Saxophonist Andrew Carrico also cut quite an interesting figure – tall and lanky with long hair and an impressive mustache, wielding his blaring baritone sax with a bit of a swagger, while guitarist Zach Ryalls, bassist Denny Tek and drummer Ian Chang (all three looking very young) kept a lower visual profile, though laying down the groundwork for Ruben’s unflagging energy and showmanship. With plenty of groovy, infectious rhythms and a genuinely omnivorous attitude, Afuche were for many the true revelation of the evening.

New York power trio Zevious had been one of the highlights of ProgDay 2011, so I was looking forward to seeing them again – as were those in the audience who had also attended the North Carolina festival in September. Those expecting a repeat of that astonishing Sunday-morning set, however, were in for a treat, because the band’s CuneiFest set felt markedly different – as tight as ever, but with a sense of almost claustrophobic intensity derived by the indoor setting. In the compact, dimly lit space of the Orion, the unrelenting, yet seamlessly flowing stream of music produced by the band’s three members created a veritable wall of sound,  endowed with a mesmerizing quality akin to the best King Crimson instrumentals, with hints of the primeval heaviness of Black Sabbath in the slower passages – always loud and powerful, yet never one-dimensional (unlike Upsilon Acrux no-holds-barred assault). While my playful description of “King Crimson on steroids” might be fitting in some ways, Zevious are definitely much more than that. Possibly taking to heart my criticism about their lack of interaction with the audience at ProgDay (mostly motivated by the early hour and the unfamiliar situation of playing outdoors and in broad daylight), they had gained in terms of both mobility and communication, the triangular shape of the stage perfectly suited to their configuration. Drummer extraordinaire Jeff Eber, the powerhouse at the heart of Zevious’ sound, propelled the music along with a smile on his face, his stunning polyrhythms meshing with Johnny DeBlase’s muscular bottom end and the electric fireworks of Mike Eber’s guitar. All in all, it was an almost career-defining performance, and the festival’s finest hour as far as I am concerned.

After such a scintillating set, dinner break was upon us, giving the audience a much-needed respite and more opportunities for bonding before plates of tasty food. Then, at about 7.20 (almost right on schedule), Hamster Theatre begun their set, enthusiastically introduced by Steve Feigenbaum – who pointed out that the band had only performed three times on the East Coast since their inception, almost 20 years ago. Based in Colorado, the band shares three members with headliners Thinking Plague –  multi-instrumentalist (and founder) Dave Willey, guitarist Mike Johnson and vocalist/reedist Mark Harris – so it is not surprising to hear similarities in their sounds, which share a highly eclectic bent. However, the foundation of Hamster Theatre’s music – mostly instrumental, unlike Thinking Plague’s – lies in folk, as the central role played by Dave Willey’s accordion shows quite clearly. Their set started in a rather subdued, almost soothing fashion, than things became gradually more complex, with jazzy touches creeping in, and then all of a sudden evoking reminiscences of Univers Zéro and their eerily mesmerizing brand chamber-prog. In spite of the problems caused by a dodgy guitar amp, the set flowed on smoothly, each instrument finely detailed, the sharpness of the guitar tempered by the wistful tone of the reeds and. Hamster Theatre’s music sounds big and often upbeat, with a strong Old World flavour and unexpectedly spiky moments. Even if my appreciation of their set was somewhat marred by the sleepiness that inevitably follows a meal (I am also much more of a morning than an evening person), I was impressed by the fine balance of eclecticism and discipline in the band’s music, and also by their warm, engaging stage manner, as befits seasoned performers. While, with the exception of  bassist Brian McDougal, the band members  performed sitting down, the lack of physical dynamics was amply compensated by the agile versatility of the music.

Highly awaited headliners Thinking Plague took the stage almost 20 minutes late on schedule because of soundcheck-related problems. They also had to contend with another emergency situation – the illness of singer Elaine DiFalco (who has been a member of the band for the past four years), who, however, soldiered on, dosing herself with aspirin in order to be able to perform (albeit in a limited capacity), and taking a bottle of water on stage with her in order to keep her vocal chords hydrated. As a teacher, I could relate to her plight quite well, and could not help admiring her mettle. Petite, with a striking, high-cheekboned face, Elaine possesses a surprisingly commanding stage presence, her husky, well-modulated voice oddly seductive though light years removed from the trite clichés that so many female singers feel obliged to follow. Before the festival, I had heard her on Dave Willey and Friends’ stunning Immeasurable Currents, and had been deeply impressed. Though I have some reservations on the way her haunting vocals fit into the multilayered texture of Thinking Plague’s music, I am sure the less than ideal conditions in which she performed contributed to my impression. Never the most prolific of outfits, they are releasing a new studio album (the first since 2003’s A History of Madness), titled Decline and Fall, in the early months of 2012, and the Orion set provided them with a great opportunity to showcase some of their new material, as well as some of their older compositions. Among the über-eclectic, intricate bulk of Thinking Plague’s output, there was also time for the humorously-introduced, never-played-before “The Fountain of All Tears”, a slow-burning ballad in 4/4 that very few would associate with one of the dreaded “Avant” bands. With legendary drummer Dave Kerman having relocated to Switzerland, the drum stool was occupied by Robin Chestnut, introduced by Mike Johnson as the only band member under 40;  he also joked about Robin’s forthcoming Ph.D in Mathematics, which makes him the ideal drummer for a band like Thinking Plague. Keyboardist Kimara Sajn manned his rig with an unobtrusive but engaging mien, his delight in music-making obvious from his body language. I was barely acquainted with the band’s output before the festival, and their set encouraged me to delve into their back catalogue.

By way of a conclusion, I would like to stress that, as good as all of these bands are on CD, the live setting really makes their music come alive, and also gives them a more “human” dimension that helps debunk the myth of their brainy inaccessibility. For all their dedication to the production of challenging music, these are people who, first and foremost, enjoy what they do, and obviously love being on stage as much as any “mainstream” rock band.

All in all, it was a wonderful day of music and social interaction with like-minded people, and the perfect way to spend the third anniversary of my arrival in the US – even though my husband was unable to share it with me because of work commitments, which also prevented us from attending the  festival’s Jazz Day. My sincerest thanks go to Steve, Joyce and their tireless team: though all of them were looking quite exhausted at the end of the day, their happiness and satisfaction was also palpable. The gorgeous (and delicious) layer cake served just before the Thinking Plague set was a very nice touch to celebrate the effort and care that had gone into the organization of the event. Kudos also to Mike Potter and his collaborators for the state-of-the-art sound quality of each performance, and also for getting the Orion premises in tip-top shape.  Even if it will very probably remain a one-off, CuneiFest will be long remembered in the annals of the US progressive rock community as the very embodiment of the old “small is beautiful” adage.

Links:
http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

http://bkrstk.com/alec-k-redfearn-and-the-eyesores/

http://www.myspace.com/upsilonacrux

http://www.myspace.com/afuche

http://zevious.com/

http://www.generalrubric.com/hamster/main.html

http://www.generalrubric.com/thinkingplague/main.html

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SETLIST:
1. Irreducible Complexity
2. Manifest Density
3. Nacho Sunset
4. Kuru
5. Disillusioned Avatar > Dub > Ephebus Amoebus
6. Skein
7. Synecdoche
8. Okanogan Lobe
[Break]
9. Bagua > Kan Hai De Re Zi > Third View
10. Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds
11. Fountain of Euthanasia
12. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari
13. Blues for a Bruised Planet
14. Waylaid
15. Middlebräu [encore]

Last year at NEARfest I had my first taste of Moraine’s music, even if in the months prior to the event I had often been tempted to check out their debut album, Manifest Density, after reading some flattering comments around the Internet. Unfortunately, my commitments as a reviewer did not allow me a lot of room for ‘recreational listening’, so to speak, so the day of Moraine’s performance found me still completely unfamiliar with their considerable talent. Those who have read my review of the festival will know that I considered Moraine to be probably the most authentically progressive band of the whole weekend, and one of my personal highlights together with Forgas Band Phenomena (an outfit whose music has some similarities with Moraine’s, though more noticeably influenced by the Canterbury sound). Even though they had been placed in the awkward slot of Sunday openers, and faced with an audience many members of which swooned at The Enid’s somewhat cheesy antics and thought that The Pineapple Thief were not ‘prog enough’ for the hallowed halls of the Zoellner Arts Center, they managed to gain quite a few fans – including my husband and myself. Indeed, we were so impressed by their performance that we went to meet the band after their set. In the following months, that first contact blossomed into a treasured friendship.

Even if somebody might think that my judgment as regards Moraine’s performance on the night of Saturday, April 30 (the third date of a 4-date Northeast tour) might be clouded by my personal feelings, I am quite capable of being objective, and would not spare any criticism if I believed it was in any way warranted. However, I am happy to say that Saturday’s gig at the Orion was an unqualified success. Having had almost a whole year to become familiar with Moraine’s output,  this time I was able to appreciate every nuance of the show, as well as the subtle but noticeable modifications in their sound brought about by the line-up change that followed the release of Manifest Density. In spite of the hurdles faced by almost every independent outfit these days – lack of touring opportunities, real-life commitments and such – on the Orion stage Moraine came across as a well-oiled machine, the chemistry between the five members nothing short of amazing.

Those who have watched the seminal documentary Romantic Warriors will remember the Orion Studios, a former warehouse located in a decidedly unglamorous neighbourhood on the outskirts of Baltimore, yet possessed of a unique, club-like character. With a couple of couches, a few folding chairs and a table generally laid out with snacks and drinks, countless posters and flyers decorating the walls, a couple of weird figures hanging from the ceiling, it reminds me of the basements (or ‘cellars’) in the centre of Rome which, in the Eighties, functioned as both rehearsal spaces for bands and meeting points for their friends and supporters. In spite of the diminutive size of the main stage area, the place is like a maze, offering valuable recording and rehearsing spaces to local musicians. This quirky yet intimate backdrop was ideal for a band like Moraine, even more so than the immaculate NEARfest stage. As regards attendance, I judged about 50 people to be present – more than the band are used to attracting in their home town of Seattle,  and a satisfactory turnout for a single-bill evening – even though last year I had seen twice as many people line up outside the venue in order to see a tribute band. This, unfortunately, seems to be the nature of the ‘prog community’ in the US Northeast, as I pointed out in the two essays I wrote after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation.

Though often tagged as ‘avant-garde’ (much to their amusement), like all truly progressive bands Moraine defy description. Their variegated backgrounds converge very effectively both on stage and on record, instead of resulting in a patchy mess: while their compositions – often penned by individual members rather than shared efforts – showcase their different approaches. With the dry, slightly self-deprecating humour that characterizes their interaction with the public, the band describe themselves as ‘omnivorous’. On the other hand, at least from what was seen at the Orion, they have not abandoned their rock roots – though of course there is not even a whiff of the time-honoured, though somewhat corny antics of the typical rock musician in Moraine’s stage presence. Even if towards the end of the set we were treated to a short drum solo, it was blessedly devoid of the cheesiness often inherent to such spots.

Coming on stage at about 8.30 p.m., the band delivered an extremely tight performance, richly eclectic and riveting in its intensity, interspersed by Dennis Rea’s brief but humorous introductions. A short break allowed both the band and audience to recharge their batteries, and from comments overheard during that time it was clear that the audience was won over by Moraine’s blend of chops and sheer enthusiasm. This was progressive rock with a capital P, fresh and innovative even when occasionally hinting at some ‘golden oldies’. Unlike far too many modern prog bands, Moraine manage not to sound like anyone else: the closest term of comparison would be King Crimson circa Red, though more in terms of attitude than actual sound, especially as regards the coexistence of melody and angularity, and the presence of both violin and reeds coupled with the conspicuous absence of prog’s ‘sacred cow’, the keyboards. The departure of cellist and band founder Ruth Davidson (a fan of Univers Zéro, as evidenced by her composition “Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”) has also altered the ‘chamber’ nature of the band in favour of a more dynamic approach, powered by Jim DeJoie’s assertive sax (which on Saturday night was a bit low in the mix).

To those who had read reviews of the band’s NEARfest performance described as ‘noise-drenched’ (something that, coupled with the ‘avant-garde’ tag, is guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the more conservative set of prog fans), the melodic quotient of Saturday night’s show is likely to have come as a surprise. The medley featuring Alicia DeJoie’s gorgeous “Disillusioned Avatar” and Kevin Millard’s “Ephebus Amoebus” aptly displayed the band’s more sensitive side; while the overtly jarring chaos of “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari” (wittily introduced as a ‘romantic ballad’, and probably the one track actually deserving of the ‘avant-garde’ tag) was followed by the melancholy beauty of “Blues for a Bruised Planet”. Millard’s distinctive-looking, customized Chapman stick (dubbed ‘baliset’ by the bassist, a long-time fan of Frank Herbert’s iconic Dune) meshed seamlessly with Stephen Cavit’s complex yet remarkably unflashy drum patterns, and Alicia DeJoie’s shiny purple violin caught the eye as well as the ear. Jim DeJoie (Alicia’s husband) expertly wielded his impressive saxophone, coming across as the most ‘physical’ member of the band. In fact, if I had to level one criticism at Moraine’s performance, it would concern their somewhat static presence, at least partially due to the size of the stage. Not that anyone was expecting Dennis Rea to start throwing guitar-hero-style shapes, though his solos revealed a definitely sharper rock bent than evidenced either on Manifest Density or in his other recent projects. Besides the jazz, rock and avant-garde influences, fans of world music were also catered for by the enchanting “Asian Suite”, featuring themes from three of the five tracks included on View from Chicheng Precipice, Rea’s first solo venture.

The show also provided Moraine with the opportunity to present some of the new material they had been working on in the past year or so – namely three intense, hard-hitting yet multifaceted numbers titled “Skein”, “Synecdoche” and “Fountain of Euthanasia”, which showed a band growing by leaps and bounds both in cohesion and on the compositional level. Like the material on Manifest Density, those new tracks are rather short for prog standards, yet brimming with energy and a kind of creative impulse divorced from sterile displays of technical skill. On the other hand, unlike the debut’s compositions, which in many ways represented each member’s temperament, the new numbers sound more clearly shaped by collective input.  As impressive as Moraine’s debut was, their future – judging by what was heard on Saturday night – looks even brighter.

The wonderful musical experience was wrapped up by a night out in downtown Baltimore, complete with a walk through the city’s rather seedy red-light district and a late-night dinner (or perhaps early breakfast, since it was 2 a.m. when we sat down) at an ‘Italian’ restaurant – the kind that serves filling but rather unauthentic dishes such as spaghetti with meatballs. We also managed to get the last of the T-shirts and mugs designed expressly for the tour by David Gaines, a friend of the band and talented musician himself, based like us in the DC metro area. All in all, it was an evening that packed the friendly, laid-back vibe of a get-together at someone’s house with a select group of friends, as well as that community spirit that I have often mentioned in my reviews. Hopefully Moraine will be able to return to the Northeast soon after the release of their second album, which will mainly feature music recorded live at NEARfest.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.orionsound.com/

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