Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘DC-SOAR’

1505

No doubt about it: 2012 was a difficult year for most of us. True to the Italian saying about leap years being unlucky, 2012 ran the gamut from weather-related disasters, wars and other acts of random violence to political malfunction and economic near-collapse, sparing almost no part of the world. There was no lack of disruption in my own little world either. In spite of all my good resolutions, the year started with a few weeks of less than stellar physical condition (nothing serious, but enough to grind most of my projects to a halt), and then I was hit by a double-whammy of bureaucracy-related problems that –  while obviously not tragic – caused enough distress to cast a pall over the remaining months.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 2012 I have been less prolific a reviewer than in previous years, or that the views on this blog have somehow decreased, though not dramatically so. Constant stress can wreak havoc on inspiration, and at times it was hard to come up with a coherent sentence – let alone an 800-word review. However, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of worry and general annoyance, music has remained a source of delight and (as the title of this essay points out) comfort when things got really tough.

The number of progressive rock-related albums released during 2012 was nothing short of staggering. The second decade of the 21st century started indeed with a bang in 2011, and, at least for the time being, the trend does not show any signs of being reversed. Many of those albums were made available for streaming (at least for a limited time) by websites such as Progstreaming, Bandcamp or Soundcloud, allowing the often cash-strapped fans a “test run”. On the other hand, the sheer volume of new releases made it necessary to pick and choose to avoid being overwhelmed. While confirming the vitality of the genre, this also showed one of the downsides of the digital age – the oversaturation of the market, and frequent lack of quality control.

As my readers know, I do not do “top 10/20/50/100” lists, leaving this exercise to people who are interested in arranging their choices according to a more or less strict order of preference. From my perspective, there have been milestone releases, and others that – while perhaps not equally memorable – still deserve a mention. On any account, even more so than in the previous year, 2012 has emphasized the ever-widening gulf between the retro-oriented and the forward-thinking components of the prog audience. Sometimes, while looking at the reviews pages of some of the leading websites of the genre, I have had the impression that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) the twain shall hardly ever meet. In the US, such a split has been detrimental to the festival scene – though the void left by NEARfest’s demise may lead organizers to step out of their typical audience’s comfort zone in order to attract a more diverse crowd.

Though I am most familiar with albums that I have reviewed, or otherwise own, there are others that have left enough of an impression to deserve a mention in this post. As my choices have been mainly informed by personal taste, I will apologize beforehand for any major omissions. While I may consider those albums essential listening, some of my readers will certainly disagree with me, and suggest their own personal picks –and this is exactly how things should be. Indeed, as the French would say, vive la différence!

Although I have built a reputation as a fan of the more “difficult” stuff, one of my favourite albums of the year (and one that is likely to be featured in many top 10 lists) is an album that, in many respects, is not even “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. However, Echolyn’s self-titled eighth studio album – unlike so many true-blue prog releases – is a masterpiece of songwriting, instrumentally tight without any concessions to self-indulgence, and packing a huge emotional punch. Another highly awaited, almost unexpected comeback – 18 years after the band’s previous studio effort – Änglagård’s third studio album, Viljans Öga, reveals a keen, almost avant-garde edge beneath its pastoral surface, well highlighted in their impeccable NEARfest appearance.

2012 was a milestone year for what I like to call the “new frontier” of prog – less focused on epic grandeur and more song-oriented. In the second decade of the 21st century, “progressive rock” and “song” are not antithetic concepts any longer, and going for 5 minutes instead than 15 is not a sign of sell-out. Three albums in particular stand out: 3RDegree’s The Long Division, a perfect combination of great melodies, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship with the added value of George Dobbs’ Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals; the Magna Carta reissue of MoeTar’s 2010 debut From These Small Seeds, a heady blend of catchy hooks, edgier suggestions and Moorea Dickason’s stellar, jazz-inflected voice; and Syd Arthur’s delightful “modern Canterbury” debut, On And On – infused with the spirit of early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

As in the previous years, in 2012 the ever-growing instrumental prog scene produced some outstanding albums. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson wowed devotees of high-energy jazz-rock with Imposing Elements, the second installment of his one-man project – inspired by the industrial Gothic paintings of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. In the early months of 2012, French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena made a triumphant recording comeback with the exhilaratingly accomplished Acte V. Another two excellent Cuneiform releases, Ergo’s second album If Not Inertia and Janel & Anthony’s lovely debut, Where Is Home, while not immediately approachable, will gradually win over the discerning listener with their deep emotion and lyricism. In a similar vein, A Room for the Night by drummer extraordinaire John Orsi (the mind behind Providence-based collective Knitting By Twilight) provides a veritable aural feast for percussion lovers. On the cusp of prog, jazz and metal, the aptly-titled Brutal Romance marks the thunderous return of ebullient French power trio Mörglbl, led by Christophe Godin’s humour-laden guitar acrobatics. Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records specializes in instrumental music of a consistently high standard of quality, and this year’s landmark releases were no exception: Indonesian powerhouses Ligro (Dictionary 2) and Tohpati Bertiga (Riot), Canadian quartet Mahogany Frog’s rivetingly eclectic Senna, and douBt’s towering Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love – all of them true melting pots of rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelia. Also very much worthy of exploration, Kotebel’s Concert for Piano and Electric Ensemble revisits and updates the marriage of classical music and progressive rock with a heady dose of traditional Spanish flavour.

The left-field fringe of the progressive rock spectrum was spearheaded by the tireless efforts of dedicated labels such as Cuneiform Records and AltrOck Productions. One of  2012’s musical milestones – the long-awaited sixth studio album by seminal US Avant outfit Thinking Plague, titled Decline and Fall – was released in the very first weeks of the year. Mike Johnson’s monumentally intricate, intensely gloomy reflection on humankind’s impending Doomsday was complemented by a Thinking Plague-related project of a vastly different nature  – the charming, Old-World whimsy of 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard, Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco’s transatlantic collaboration with Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille. By an intriguing coincidence, almost at the tail end of the year came the stunning live album by one of the foremost modern RIO/Avant outfits, Yugen’s Mirrors – recorded at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux (France). A special mention is also deserved by Cuneiform’s touching tribute to RIO icon Lars Hollmer, With Floury Hand (sketches), released four years after the artist’s untimely passing.

On the Zeuhl front, founding fathers Magma made their comeback with the short and unusually low-key Félicité Thosz, proving once again Christian Vander’s versatility and seemingly endless reservoir of ideas; while the US produced an astonishing example of Zeuhl inspired by Aztec mythology – multi-national outfit Corima’s second album Quetzalcoatl. Eclectic albums such as Cucamonga’s Alter Huevo, Inner Ear Brigade’s Rainbro (featuring another extremely talented female vocalist, Melody Ferris) and Stabat Akish’s Nebulos – as well as chamber-rock gems such as Subtilior’s Absence Upon a Ground  and AltrOck Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes RIO – reinforced AltrOck’s essential role in the discovery of new, exciting talent on the cutting edge of the progressive rock scene. Also worthy of a mention as regards the Avant-Progressive field are the politically-charged Songs From the Empire by Scott Brazieal, one of the founding fathers of the US Avant scene; the exhilarating Sleep Furiously by English outfit Thumpermonkey;  the wacked-out return of cult Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat, titled Valta; and French quartet Jack Dupon’s energetic double live CD set, Bascule A Vif . The Avant-Progressive scene was also celebrated in the second episode of José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt’s documentary film series dedicated to progressive rock , Romantic Warriors II – About Rock in Opposition.

The year was also noted for hotly anticipated comebacks from high-profile acts:  first of all, Rush, who were also finally inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the joy of their substantial following. Their Clockwork Angels, while not a life-altering masterpiece, is definitely their strongest effort in almost 20 years. 2012 also saw the release of Ian Anderson’s Thick As a Brick 2, mixed by none other than Steven Wilson (also responsible in 2012 for the 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson’s seminal Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) – a solid, well-crafted album, though not on a par with the original. While King Crimson seem to have been put on hold indefinitely, Robert Fripp has not been idle, and the elegant Travis/Fripp CD/DVD package Follow offers a complete aural and visual experience – suitably rarefied yet spiked by almost unexpected electric surges – to diehard fans of the legendary guitarist.

On the “modern prog” front, standard-bearers The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album Noctourniquet marks a return to form for the band, as it is their tightest, most cohesive effort in quite a long time. The Tea Club’s third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly confirms the status of the New Jersey band (now a trio) as one of the most interesting modern outfits, with a respectful eye towards the golden age of the genre; while Gazpacho’s deeply atmospheric March of Ghosts offers another fine example of English label KScope’s “post-progressive” direction. In a more accessible vein, Canadian/Ukrainian duo Ummagma’s  pair of debut albums, Ummagma and Antigravity,  will appeal to fans of Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins with their ethereal yet uplifting feel.

Though I cannot call myself a fan of progressive metal, the debut albums by female-fronted German band Effloresce (Coma Ghosts) and Israeli outfit Distorted Harmony (Utopia) made enough of an impression to deserve a mention here; while Diablo Swing Orchestra’s Pandora’s Piñata – the band’s most mature effort to date – transcends the boundaries of the genre.  At the very beginning of the year, Steve Brockmann and George Andrade’s opus AIRS: A Rock Opera updates the classic rock opera format while deftly avoiding the cheesiness of other similar efforts, concentrating on a moving tale of guilt and redemption interpreted by an array of considerable vocal and instrumental talent.

The thriving contemporary psychedelic/space rock scene also produced a slew of fine albums that combine modernity and eclecticism with an unmistakable retro touch: among many others, Øresund Space Collective’s mellow West, Space and Love, Earthling Society’s eerie pagan-fest Stations of the Ghost, Colour Haze’s Krautrock-influenced double CD set She Said, Diagonal’s fiery The Second Mechanism, Astra’s highly awaited (though to these ears not as impressive as the others) second album, The Black Chord. Fans of Krautrock, and Can in particular, should also check out Black and Ginger by Churn Milk Joan, one of the many projects by volcanic English multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson (of Big Block 454 fame); while Australian band Tame Impala’s Lonerism will appeal to those who like psychedelic rock in a song-based format.

As prolific and varied as ever, the Italian progressive rock scene produced a number of remarkable albums ranging from the classic symphonic prog of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Pt. 1, Alphataurus’ comeback AttosecondO and Locanda delle Fate’s The Missing Fireflies (featuring both older and new material) to more left-field fare such as Nichelodeon’s live album NO, Stereokimono’s Intergalactic Art Café and Daal’s Dodecahedron. Another of Fabio Zuffanti’s many projects besides Höstsonaten, L’Ombra della Sera, presents an appealingly Gothic-tinged, almost completely instrumental homage to the soundtracks of cult Italian TV series of the Seventies. Aldo Tagliapietra’s Nella Pietra e Nel Vento, his first release after his split from Le Orme, a classy, prog-tinged singer-songwriter effort, boasts a splendid cover by Paul Whitehead. The prize of most impressive RPI album of the year, however, goes to Il Bacio della Medusa’s ultra-dramatic historical concept Deus Lo Vult, with side project Ornithos’ eclectic debut La Trasfigurazione a close second.

Of the many “traditional” prog albums released in 2012, one in particular stands out on account of its superb songwriting: Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1, an effort of great distinction though not as impressive as its predecessor, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Autumn Chorus’ debut The Village to the Vale also celebrates the glories of England’s green and pleasant land with a near-perfect marriage of pastoral symphonic prog and haunting post-rock; while Israeli outfit Musica Ficta’s A Child & A Well (originally released in 2006) blends ancient and folk music suggestions with jazz and symphonic prog. Released just three weeks before the end of the year, Shadow Circus’ third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night (their first for 10T Records), based on Madeleine L’Engle’s cult novel A Wrinkle in Time, fuses symphonic prog with classic and hard rock in an exhilarating mixture. On the other hand, Pacific Northwest trio Dissonati’s debut, Reductio Ad Absurdum, gives classic prog modes a makeover with influences from new wave and avant-garde. Highly touted outfit District 97’s sophomore effort, Trouble With Machines, proves that the Chicago band is much more than a nine days’ wonder, showcasing their  tighter songwriting skills, as well as vocalist/frontwoman Leslie Hunt’s undeniable talent and charisma.

With such a huge wealth of releases, it was materially impossible for me to listen to everything I would have wanted to, and my personal circumstances often impaired my enjoyment of music, as well as my concentration. Among the releases of note that I missed in 2012 (though I still hope to be able to hear in 2013), I will mention Beardfish’s The Void, Anathema’s Weather Systems, Dead Can Dance’s comeback Anastasis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (another comeback, released after a 10-year hiatus), AranisMade in Belgium, The Muffins’ Mother Tongue, Alec K. Redfearn and the EyesoresSister Death, and Motorpsycho’s The Death-Defying Unicorn. All of these albums have been very positively received by the prog community, even if they will not necessarily appeal to everyone.

As was the case with my 2011 retrospective, quite a few highly acclaimed prog albums will be missing from this article. This implies no judgment in terms of intrinsic quality, but is simply determined by personal taste. Albums such as The Flower KingsBanks of Eden, Marillion’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made or IZZ’s Crush of Night (to name but three) –although thoroughly professional and excellent from a musical point of view – failed to set my world on fire. A pure matter of chemistry – as further demonstrated by my lack of enthusiasm for Storm Corrosion’s self-titled album (which reflected my reaction to Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning in 2011), or Mike Keneally’s undoubtedly outstanding Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC fame.

2012 was also a great year for live music, with both big names and new talent hitting the road. While we missed some of the former (such as Rush and Peter Gabriel), as well as this year’s edition of RoSfest,  the one-two punch of NEARfest Apocalypse and ProgDay 2012 more than made up for it. Unfortunately, the all-out Seventies bash named FarFest, organized by a veteran of the US prog scene such as Greg Walker, and planned for early October 2012 – was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, reinforcing the impression that the era of larger-scale prog festivals may well be coming to an end (in spite of the announcement of Baja Prog’s return in the spring of 2013). On the other hand, the much less ambitious ProgDay model is likely to become the way forward, as are the smaller, intimate gigs organized by people such as Mike Potter of Orion Studios, the NJ Proghouse “staph”, and our very own DC-SOAR.

With an impressive list of forthcoming releases for every progressive taste, 2013 looks set up to be as great a year as the previous two. In the meantime, we should continue to support the independent music scene in our best capacity – not just by buying albums or writing about them, but also attending gigs and generally maintaining a positive, constructive attitude. I would also like to thank all my friends and readers for their input and encouragement, which has been invaluable especially whenever the pressures of “real life” became too hard to bear. If this piece has seen the light of day, it is because you have made me feel that it was still worth it.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Ephemeral Sun
Theme from Top Gun
Untitled #1
Prism
Harvest Aorta Part I
Untitled #2
Winter Has No Mercy
Harvest Aorta Part II

Shadow Circus
Overture
Daddy’s Gone
Whosit, Whatsit & Witch
Make Way for the Big Show
Tesseract
Uriel
Camazotz
Shadow Circus
Captain Trips
The Long Road
Big Fire
The Seduction of Harold Lauder

As I announced a couple of months ago, the DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR) has organized two shows at the Orion Studios in Baltimore to raise funds for its activity, which hinges on the promotion of progressive music in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the US. The first of the two events, scheduled for November 3, 2012, was to have been a triple bill, featuring New Jersey bands Shadow Circus and 3RDegree, as well as Northern Virginia’s finest, Ephemeral Sun. Unfortunately, 3RDegree had to pull out due to conflicts between their professional and family lives and the inevitable need for rehearsals, but the show went ahead as a double bill.

While the presence of 3RDegree would have made the show an even bigger draw, the two bands treated the audience to excellent performances, which highlighted both the differences and the similarities in their approach. In spite of its fundraising status, the gig was sparsely attended (which is the rule rather than the exception, unless the bill features a foreign band or one of the few domestic acts with a relatively strong following), but the 30-odd people who turned out more than made up with their obvious enthusiasm. Although some technical problems occurred during the soundcheck, the actual performances were characterized by outstanding sound quality (thanks to Mike Potter’s tireless work), which brought out each of the band’s strengths and detailed every instrument’s contribution.

As I pointed out in my review of ProgDay 2012, Ephemeral Sun’s music is more suited to the dark than the light, and the dimly lit setting of the Orion Studios enhanced the rivetingly cinematic quality of their music. After the turmoil of the past years, the band have now found a stability that is clearly reflected in the synergy between the four members, whose individual input is equally essential in the fabric of he sound. The pulsating power of Charles Gore and Jeff Malone’s rhythm section unfolds a rock-solid, yet subtly shifting foundation for Brian O’Neill’s sharp yet elegant guitar exertions and John Battema’s dramatic layers of keyboards. Ephemeral Sun treated the audience to a mix of older material (such as the metal-edged “Winter Has No Mercy” from their debut album Broken Door) and more recent offerings, such as the majestic “Harvest Aorta” suite (split in two halves) from their eponymous second album, and a couple of new compositions still without an official title – as well as a rousing version of Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic theme from Top Gun at the very opening of their set.

The quartet’s collective performance was flawless as usual, their music deploying all of its powerful emotional punch in the small, intimate premises. One of the most striking elements of Saturday night’s show was the band members’ impressive handling of the frequent tempo shifts in their generally lengthy compositions, keeping an eye on internal coherence so that the music flowed effortlessly without ever coming across as patchy. And then, the passage in which Battema let rip on the organ in true Emerson fashion was alone worth the price of admission. All in all, Ephemeral Sun seem to be going from strength to strength, and their new material sounds extremely promising – even if it will be some time before  their new album finally sees the light of day.

With a name inspired by the traveling carnival in Ray Bradbury’s iconic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Shadow Circus’ theatrical streak comes as no surprise, and makes good use of frontman David Bobick’s degree in musical theatre. The band’s founders, Bobick and guitarist John Fontana, are also fans of fantasy, science fiction and horror, and this interest is reflected in the subject matter of the majority of their songs. Saturday night’s show offered Shadow Circus the opportunity to showcase some of the material (no less than 7 songs) from their forthcoming third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night, which will be released on 10T Records in early December. Shadow Circus had played at the Orion almost exactly 2 years ago, opening for Italian band  The Watch, though with a different line-up. The band’s new configuration – comprising, besides mainstays Fontana and Bobick, original bassist Matt Masek, keyboardist David Silver and drummer Jason Brower, augmented by backing vocalist Paroo Streich – blazed through new and older material with assurance and flair, displaying chops and heart in equal measure.

Although all of the band members cite progressive rock as their main source of  inspiration, Shadow Circus’s music is also deeply rooted in classic and hard rock, and the influence of the likes of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Led Zeppelin is unmistakable. As is the case with Ephemeral Sun, keyboards play a very prominent in Shadow Circus’ sound. With his impassive mien and slight frame, David Silver proved an essential foil for Fontana’s guitar, his love of Keith Emerson evident throughout the set, especially in the fiery Hammond runs that enhanced stunning instrumentals such as “Overture” and “Tesseract”; indeed, the latter may easily be the best thing that the band has ever recorded. he dramatic intensity of the instrumentals was balanced by the catchy quality of the songs featuring David Bobick’s expressive vocal delivery and flamboyant stage presence, with Paroo Streich’s backing vocals providing a pleasing contrast. The rhythm section of Matt Masek and Jason Brower anchored the sound with power and style, the two musicians complementing each other perfectly. Always attentive to the visual aspect of their performance, the band members were all decked in black with a touch of red (a special mention for Bobick’s beard and the large red flower sported by Streich, who also provided a bit of eye candy for the predominantly male audience), and also employed a few stage props to enhance the impact of their music with a quirky theatrical touch thankfully devoid of cheesiness.

By way of a conclusion, I have to admit that I found the not exactly stellar turnout quite depressing, especially on a weekend night. Even if the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the north-eastern corridor cannot be discounted, neither can the well-known apathy of many of those who think supporting progressive rock means getting embroiled in pointless discussions on some Internet forum. While modern technology offers almost any band or solo artist the possibility to record and release their own material with relatively little expense, it has also emphasized the lack of quality control of many such projects. Therefore, live performance has increasing become the benchmark by which to judge a band’s real worth. However, the diminishing opportunities – compounded by the cliquish mentality of a large part of the already fragmented prog audience –will probably to lead to the demise of many a fine outfit, discouraged and frustrated by the lack of support. It is immensely sad to see such gifted musicians grateful for the opportunity to play before a handful of people.

This situation has also impacted my own enthusiasm for writing about music, There is only so much that a reviewer/critic can do to support the scene, when it is the fans themselves who seem to be hell-bent on destroying the motivation of artists who already face considerable struggles in getting their music across in an oversaturated market while dealing with the demands of real life. As much as I like to listen to music at home, nothing beats the experience of a live show, and it will be a sad day when only big (i.e. commercially successful) names will be able to perform on stage.

Links:
http://www.ephemeralsun.com

http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com

http://www.dc-soar.org

Read Full Post »

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/

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

One of the biggest advantages of living in an otherwise crowded, ‘pressure-cooker’ area such as the US Northeast is the staggering variety of music on offer. With an impressive choice of venues of every size and description, as well as a thriving underground scene, the region has become one of the most important hubs for progressive rock, as illustrated by the documentary film Romantic Warriors (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). While gigs are organized more or less throughout the year, things are definitely quieter in the colder months (mainly because of the unavailability of the outdoor venues) – while the summer months offer such a wide range of gigs that fans are obliged to pick and choose, unless they have a unlimited supply of time and cash.

2009 was my first full year in the USA, so Michael, my husband, and I were finally able to start sampling the musical delights offered by our area. Our season included our first participation to NEARfest, four visits to the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion (the last one particularly poignant in retrospect, being the last time that we saw the great Ronnie James Dio on stage before his untimely passing), as well as what has now gone down in the annals of concert history as ‘the monsoon on the Potomac’ – the ill-fated Asia/Yes gig at the National Harbor. At the time, I had just started my reviewing tenure with ProgressoR, and as such was very much a ‘newbie’ of the whole scene. This year, though, was quite a different story…

With my review count growing and my reputation as a reviewer spreading around the prog fandom (helped by the reactivation of my Facebook account), I made friends among musicians, built an increasing network of contacts, slowly but steadily became part of the scene. For a basically shy person as I am, this made me feel much less self-conscious when attending gigs and festivals, and boosted my enjoyment of those functions. While I am very human and enjoy the attention generated by my reviews, I also feel I am helping those who need it the most – the artists – by covering their work and encouraging their efforts.

This year, our season of music was fittingly inaugurated at the very end of May, on Memorial Day weekend (which here in the US marks the beginning of the summer season), with the annual concert organized by the DC Society of Art Rock at the Jammin’ Java. We were already familiar with the venue, as we had seen Eddie Jobson and his band play there last year. A small, friendly coffeehouse, notorious for the ear-shattering volume of its gigs, this year it hosted two local bands, Brave and Ephemeral Sun, plus one of our favourite new acts – New Jersey’s very own 3rd Degree. Though all three bands put up excellent performances, 3rd Degree were our personal highlight of the evening – an extremely tight outfit very much in the vein of vintage Steely Dan, fronted by the amazing talents of vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs and bassist Robert James Pashman.

A couple of weeks later, it was the turn of two legendary bands such as Jethro Tull and Procol Harum, in the beautiful setting of the Wolf Trap Foundation – a striking wooden pavilion surrounded by deep woods, and the only National Park in the USA dedicated to the performing arts. While Ian Anderson may have lost most of his vocal power, he and his crew are still mightily entertaining to watch, and their back catalogue has very few equals in the rock word. However, the real surprise of the evening were Procol Harum. Unlike Anderson’s, Gary Brooker’s inimitable voice is still in pristine shape, and they wowed the audience with a mix of older and newer material, including the goosebump-inducing “A Salty Dog” and the much-awaited “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.

Our second time at NEARfest, which took place on the third weekend of June, is documented in the lengthy account I wrote for ProgressoR when I was still on board. Since all my articles for said website are covered by copyright, I will post a link to it at the end of this piece. Two days after our return from Pennsylvania, we were back at Wolf Trap for the Yes/Peter Frampton double bill – another great concert from two historic acts, though this time marred by the stiflingly humid heat. After last year’s monsoon, which had literally driven Yes off stage, we had bought tickets for their February concert at the Warner Theatre in DC. It was not, however, meant to be, since the event was first rescheduled because of the heavy snowfall; then – on the evening it was finally going to happen – Michael came home from work with a touch of the flu, so we kissed goodbye to our tickets, and patiently waited for the next opportunity to see the band. In spite of all you can say about the Jon Anderson-less Yes, they did not disappoint, and I was particularly excited by their performance of “Close to the Edge”, which I had never previously seen them play live.

After almost a month’s gap, on July 20 we headed to a venue we were not yet familiar with – the Jiffy Lube arena (formerly Nissan Pavilion) – to see another formidable double bill, firm favourites Iron Maiden with Dream Theater as openers. Unlike either Wolf Trap or the Merriweather Post Pavilion, Jiffy Lube is a largely unprepossessing space, located somewhat in the middle of nowhere and totally devoid of atmosphere. Though we were seated in the covered area, we managed to get relatively wet when a thunderstorm broke out (quite appropriately, seen the title of their latest release) just as Dream Theater took to the stage, and the wind drove the rain beneath the roof of the pavilion. While I found the New York band tolerable at best (their set was mercifully short!), Iron Maiden delivered in spades as usual. With three decades of activity under their belt, they are still one of the most energetic, entertaining live bands in the business, and I was thrilled with their choice to perform some of their more recent material alongside their undisputed classics.

Fast forward to the first weekend of September, and my first time at ProgDay – as described in detail in the review linked below. Barely two weeks of rest, so to speak, and the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits festival was upon us – with the organizers having pulled out all the stops by securing the participation of three major draws such as Magma, Univers Zéro and Miriodor, as well as veterans The Muffins and electronic pioneers Richard Pinhas and Merzbow. Though we had bought passes for the whole week, we were only able to attend the opening and closing shows, both held in the gorgeous premises of the Maison Française, the cultural centre of the French Embassy in DC. The marathon-like opening event culminated with a simply incredible performance by Zeuhl legends Magma, a band every self-respecting progressive rock fan should experience at least once. A week later, the festival was closed in style by the utterly stunning musicianship and compositional mastery of Miriodor and Univers Zéro – a once-in-a-lifetime double bill.

Our season of music came to a close last Saturday, with our first-ever visit to the Orion Studios in Baltimore to see Italian band The Watch (who were performing Genesis’ iconic Foxtrot album in its entirety) supported by Shadow Circus – one of the Northeast’s finest new bands, and very good friends of ours. The Orion is indeed one of those places that seem to have come out of a bygone era – a warehouse in a suburban area of Baltimore converted into a temple of progressive music, somewhat small and cramped, but brimming with character and a ‘family’ atmosphere of sorts, with people bringing their own chairs, drinks and food. Unfortunately, tiredness prevented us from attending the whole of The Watch’s performance, though we managed to enjoy all of Shadow Circus’ set. Those guys are going from strength to strength, and will hopefully soon reap the rewards of all their hard work.

In the coming months there will probably be other concerts for us to attend in the area, though not with the same frequency. At any rate, we already have some gigs lined up for next spring, and will also try to attend all three of the big festivals organized on the East Coast. Until then, I will continue to support up-and-coming bands with my reviews and feedback. Watch this space!

Links:

NEARfest 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/nearfest2010.html)
ProgDay 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/progday2010.html)

Read Full Post »