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Posts Tagged ‘Discipline’

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Though 2016, unlike the past couple of years, has been a relatively positive year for me, I am still suffering from an overload of stress. As a consequence, in the weeks leading to the festival I was not really “feeling” it as I usually do. Coupled with a few minor physical issues, this state of affairs might have resulted in a definitely lower-key ProgDay. However, I am happy to report that, even if I was not at my best, my enjoyment of the festival as a whole did not suffer at all. Things might have been much worse if the weather had been a repeat of 2012, with its killer heat and humidity – something I deeply feared, after two very hot months. However, the weather was the best I have ever experienced in my seven years as a ProgDay attendee – even better than last year. Being able to wear a lightweight jacket on Saturday morning and evening felt almost like a luxury, and even Sunday’s warmer temperature was thoroughly pleasant and comfortable.

The days leading to what has become one of the bright spots of the year for us and a lot of other people were rife with uncertainty because of the whims of Mother Nature, embodied by a pesky hurricane/tropical storm named Hermine. Forums and social media abounded with posts of people following every twist and turn of the weather situation, while the organizers, already on site, were pondering whether to move the first day of the festival to the back-up venue – something that could have proved to be a much bigger headache than the rain. While we had left our Northern Virginia home under a sunny sky, the cloud cover intensified as we drove south, though the rain only made its appearance as we were nearing the hotel. On Friday afternoon, it rained on and off, but never excessively, and everyone was elated when the decision to hold the first day at the farm was announced. ProgDay’s idyllic outdoor setting is one of the festival’s biggest charms, especially for people who come from urban areas and see too much asphalt and concrete in their everyday life.

Entering the lobby of the Comfort Inn and seeing familiar faces after a year or more is always a rewarding experience. This year we were particularly happy to find our friend Michael Inman, back in the fold after a year’s absence. The afternoon was spent reconnecting with friends and acquaintances, as well as a bit of shopping. We left early for dinner at our regular Friday night spot – the excellent Mexican restaurant just down the road – and, after some more after-dinner socializing in the lobby, we headed off to bed.

Saturday morning dawned nice and cool, cloudy but with no rain in sight. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the first day was impaired by an almost sleepless night, and during the second set I was feeling rather down. Thankfully the cool breeze helped clear my head a bit, though I would be lying if I said that I was able to revert completely to my normal self.

Though Luz De Riada had been scheduled to perform two years ago, some snag intervened to prevent their participation. A project by former Cabezas de Cera member Ramsés Luna with  a revolving cast of gifted musicians from Mexico and other Latin American countries, the band has released a trilogy of albums titled Cuentos y Fábulas. Since everything Ramsés touches seems to turn into gold (as witnessed by Pascal Gutman Trio’s stellar performance at last year’s edition), they were one of the bands I was most interested in seeing. The presence of bassist Luis Nasser (of Sonus Umbra/Might Could fame) was an added bonus, as I had never been able to see him on stage, despite having known him for a few years. My expectations were not disappointed, because Luz De Riada played an outstanding set. Luis’ spirited introductions were entertaining as well as informative, and the music possessed all the qualities I look for in a progressive rock band – mysterious, edgy yet melodic, and full of tantalizing ethnic influences, not to mention very original. Though some echoes of King Crimson surfaced at times (not a bad thing at all in my book), there was no whiff of derivativeness in the band’s performance. They also put up a great show, with Ramsés playing woodwinds and at the same time triggering intriguing MIDI effects, and Luis dominating the scene with his impressive bass playing and charismatic figure. Guitarist Aaron Geller (also a member of acoustic guitar quartet Might Could) and drummer Brandon Cameron were no slouches either, each of them contributing to the tight, heady fabric of the music. Luz De Riada were definitely one of the best openers ever seen at ProgDay, and  a band I hope to see on stage again soon.

The second band on the Saturday menu was a completely unknown quantity to me and to most of the other attendees – rather unusual for a group of people who tend to be knowledgeable about the most obscure acts under the “progressive” umbrella. Jonathan Scales Fourchestra brought to the ever-eclectic ProgDay roster the sound of an instrument not generally associated with “our” genre, the steel pan drums. The talented trio (not a quartet, in spite of the name!) from Asheville – featuring Scales together with bassist Jay White and drummer Chaisaray Schenk – played a set of eclectic jazz-rock driven by the distinctive sound of the steel pans – a mainstay of Caribbean musical genres such as calypso. Like most other idiophones, the steel pans can be rather overpowering, and after a while my attention started to wander a bit – a situation not helped by the fact that I was suffering from lack of proper sleep. However, a lot of people (including my husband) loved them, and I believe they were a great way to expose the ProgDay crowd to something different from the usual progressive rock fare.

As I had committed to helping José and Adele (of Romantic Warriors fame) with interviewing the members of Deus Ex Machina for their upcoming RPI feature, I completely missed Eye’s set. Judging by the music I could hear from the back of the field, where we had retreated to find a quieter spot, I could detect Hawkwind, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath influences – which, as a fan of classic hard rock, made me regret what I was missing, especially after hearing about how keyboardist Lisa Bella Donna had rocked the Hammond organ, one of my favourite rock instruments. What I had heard of the band’s recorded output had left me rather cold, but I suspected (and rightly so) that they would deliver the goods on stage. Most of the people I spoke to when I came back to the field found them hugely entertaining, and thought they were an excellent addition to the festival. Retro-oriented music, when done properly, and with an eye (pardon the pun) to entertainment, is something I can enjoy as much as more modern stuff.

Because of the above-mentioned interview, I had got to know my fellow Italians Deus Ex Machina quite well before they stepped on stage for their long-awaited set – the first on US soil in over 10 years, and 20 years after their first ProgDay. With an excellent new album (Devoto) out, the first after an eight-year hiatus, the Bologna-based six-piece had lost none of the energy and  drive that had made them firm favourites of the US prog audience. Fronted by charismatic vocalist Alberto Piras, the band performed at the top of their game, their flawless proficiency put at the service of the music rather than the other way around. While they would never claim to be the most innovative of bands, their intense yet melodic brand of Mediterranean-flavoured jazz-rock (with an emphasis on the second part of the word) translated seamlessly to the stage, and provided a perfect closer to the day. As a native Italian speaker, I especially appreciated the way Alberto wraps his stunning voice (reminiscent of the late, great Demetrio Stratos, but also very much his own) around the syllables of the often long, complex words he uses in the song lyrics. All the six members interacted with the ease of a long association (made even stronger by the bonds of friendship), without once giving the impression of sacrificing spontaneity on the altar of technical skill. All in all, Deus Ex Machina’s performance was every bit as good as I expected, and ended the day on a very satisfying note. For me it was also a real pleasure to spend time with the band members, speaking my native tongue and exchanging impressions on a wide range of subjects.

After a lovely Japanese-Korean dinner with a group of friends, we retired relatively early, and I was able to enjoy a refreshing night’s sleep, which definitely made the festival’s second day more enjoyable. The weather was as gorgeous as it can be in early September – sunny yet breezy, and blissfully dry. By 10.30, the first band of the day – Philadelphia quartet In the Presence of Wolves – were ready to take to the stage. As usual on Sunday mornings, people were somewhat sleepy, and the organizers had chosen the opening act with that in mind. As with Eye, the music I had heard prior to the festival had not made much of an impression; however, as it is generally the case with young bands, I was expecting them to deliver the goods live – and they did. A couple of songs into their set, everyone on the field was wide awake, some even headbanging and throwing shapes. The band’s boundless energy was a pleasure to watch, and their hard-hitting music had enough sophistication to please those prog fans open-minded enough not to cringe at the very mention of metal. Though they were obviously not used to prog audiences, the members of In the Presence of Wolves were thrilled at the opportunity to perform at ProgDay. To be perfectly honest, I found the vocals a bit of a turn-off at first (in part due to the sound problems that plagued most of the day); however, as a whole I enjoyed  the set, whose high point was a cracking cover of The Mars Volta’s “Goliath”, one of my favourite songs by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s crew.

Among the last bands to be announced, Long Island quartet Ad Astra was another band I had not been acquainted with before the festival. Led by guitarist Joe Nardulli, they play a brand of instrumental prog that might be labeled as “symphonic fusion”, based on the interplay between guitar and keyboards. Unfortunately, the sound issues that had started rearing their ugly head during the previous set came into full force while Ad Astra were on stage, especially affecting the keyboards, whose tinny, Eighties-style sound did not do the music any favours. Though the band members’ technical skill could not be faulted, and their enthusiasm at being part of the festival was palpable, Ad Astra’s music was fluid and pleasant but hardly memorable. The compositions blended into each other without a lot of variation, eventually fading into the background, and the band’s rather static stage presence compounded the issue. On the other hand, while I and other friends found it hard to connect with the music, many other attendees seemed to appreciate what they were hearing – which is just how things should be. One of ProgDay’s strengths lies in its eclectic lineups, offering something for everyone. As much as I would love a whole lineup made of cutting-edge bands, a good festival needs variety, and ProgDay has always offered variety in spades.

Together with Deus Ex Machina and, to a certain extent, rising stars Bent Knee, Discipline were ProgDay 2016’s biggest draw, and not only for sentimental reasons. The return of the “house band” of the festival’s first six years accounted for much of this year’s above-average attendance. The only “traditional” prog band on the lineup, Discipline bring to the genre that sense of angst and darkness perfected by Van Der Graaf Generator in prog’s heyday. Though these days Matthew Parmenter sits behind the keyboards, his white face paint and all-black garb his only concessions to theatricality, he lets his measured gestures and facial expressions speak as effectively as his whole body did when he was a full-fledged frontman. At ProgDay he was at the top of his game, at times wielding his voice like a weapon, at others whispering almost soothingly. With a longer than average set that comprised a whopping three epics – the magnificent “Rogue”, as well as “Crutches” and “Canto IV” – they pulled out all the stops. Guitarist Chris Herin (also a member of fellow Detroit outfit Tiles) finally got to put his stamp on the material, especially during the aforementioned “Rogue”, which relies a lot on the interaction between keyboards and guitar. While the new track premiered for the benefit of the ProgDay audience, “Life Imitates Art”, left me somewhat cold, the overall strength of the material, coupled with the band’s flawless performance, made for a deeply satisfying experience, which not even the ever-present sound issues could affect. The set’s emotional punch was intensified by Peter Renfro’s warm-hearted introduction, reminiscing about the festival’s early years, especially that edition of 20 years ago that saw Discipline and Deus Ex Machina share the Storybook Farm stage for the first time.

Hot on the heels of their first European tour, Boston sextet Bent Knee arrived on the ProgDay stage surrounded by high expectations. In the past year or so, they have come from being an unknown quantity to reaping huge amounts of praise, fast becoming one of the modern prog scene’s highest-touted acts. I actually was one of the first people to discover them through their second album, Shiny-Eyed Babies (mentioned in my 2014 year in review article), and was glad to see that I was not wrong about their potential. Having heard of their stellar performance at ROSfest 2016, when I saw them at Orion Studios in May, my expectations were not disappointed, as their show there packed a visceral punch that left my hands aching for some time because of too much enthusiastic clapping. However, their ProgDay set did not connect with me in the same way, even though I am quite sure most of the problem lay with me rather than the band. Not only was I feeling tired at the end of the day, but the sound (again!) did not do the band justice, especially as regards Courtney Swain’s powerful vocals. A Kate Bush for the 21st century, this young lady is possessed of  remarkable pipes, of which she is in full control. Unfortunately, the sound overemphasized her voice’s piercing quality, with rather uncomfortable (occasionally even painful) results. I was also a bit puzzled by their choice of playing most of their songs without pausing to interact with the audience as they had done at Orion – whose intimate setting provided a more suitable frame for their highly individual take on edgy “wonky pop”. That being said, Bent Knee were a big hit with most of the crowd, and deservedly so. The front line of Courtney, violinist Chris Baum, guitarist Ben Levin and bassist Jessica Kion, assisted by Gavin Wallace-Ainsworth’s textural drumming, was a delight to watch – particularly during their blistering rendition of “Way Too Long”, complete with a Pete Townsend-like jump from Levin, rousing chorus and all-round antics not frequently seen in a prog milieu – a fitting climax to an outstanding edition of the festival.

Though the female presence on stage was not as noticeable as in past years, the bands that performed at ProgDay 2016 were remarkable for their ethnic diversity – which unfortunately does not yet extend to the audience. The growing involvement of a younger generation of musicians also bodes well for the future of the progressive scene, even if a lot of the music played at ProgDay does not conform to the standard prog template. In my view, this is one of the festival’s greatest strengths. Over the years, ProgDay has become a showcase for the finest new progressive music, and its bucolic quaintness does not disguise the fact that its musical offer has consistently been top-notch in every sense. Dispensing with the trappings that have proved to be the weakness of other events (which means not having to rely on big-name draws), and having secured the unwavering support of a strong core of attendees, the festival has come out of the shadows, and displayed a staying power few people would have bet on when it first started. I am also glad to say that this year’s attendance was definitely more than satisfactory, so much that I even managed to miss a couple of people in the crowd!

As usual at the end of my review, I would like to thank the organizers, the volunteers and everyone involved in making ProgDay 2016 an unqualified success. The experience is always so intense that, upon getting back home, it feels as if we have been gone for a month instead of a mere three days. Knowing that ProgDay 2017 will happen, and that the first three bands have already been secured (though only one was officially announced) makes the long wait for next year’s Labor Day weekend both harder and easier to bear. It was a wonderful, restorative weekend, and I am happy to have made some new friends during this edition. The definition of “family reunion” that is often applied ProgDay was never more apt. It is also heartening to see a growing number of young participants (such as the very cool Thomas, the son of our dear friend HT Riekels), as well as a strong contingent of  “prog ladies”, immortalized this year in a group photo that should put paid to the tired old cliché that women do not like progressive music. The only negative (besides the lack of bassoons)? That it was over way too soon!

Links:
http://www.progday.net

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Circuitry (6:16)
2. When the Walls are Down (7:29)
3. Dead City (5:15)
4. When She Dreams She Dreams in Color (13:40)
5. Rogue (24:04)

LINEUP:
Matthew Parmenter – vocals, keyboards, descants
Jon Preston Bouda – guitars
Mathew Kennedy – bass
Paul Dzendzel – drums, percussion

In spite of its long-standing tradition as one of the music capitals of the US, Detroit  is not exactly known as a hotbed progressive rock. However, Discipline have almost single-handedly put the city on the prog map. Since their inception in the late Eighties, and  through the release of two albums – Push and Profit (1993) and the celebrated Unfolded Like Staircase (1997) – they have become one of the highest-rated acts on the US prog scene, where their powerful live shows earned them five consecutive appearances at Progday, from 1995 to 1999.  At the beginning of the new century, the band folded, though frontman Matthew Parmenter went on to release two solo albums, and three live recordings were also released between 2000 and 2005.  Discipline made their official comeback at the 2008 edition of NEARfest, Three years later, To Shatter All Accord, their highly awaited third studio album  (the first in 14 years), came out in the autumn of 2011 on the band’s own label, Strung Out Records.

Though often mislabeled as “neo-prog”, with the theatrical approach of keyboardist/vocalist Matthew Parmenter (aka Magic Acid Mime) drawing comparisons to the likes of Fish and Peter Gabriel, Discipline’s darkly intense musical and lyrical approach has more in common with Van Der Graaf Generator than with Marillion and their ilk. In spite of the lengthy pause between studio recordings, having kept the same lineup for over 20 years (no mean feat in itself) has allowed them to hone their distinctive sound, which runs the gamut from brooding harshness to soothing, almost pastoral melody.

While Parmenter’s dramatic vocals and tortured lyrics provide the main focus of attention, they are only one of the factors that make Discipline’s music so riveting. In fact, Parmenter’s voice often works as an additional instrument, and complements the other instruments instead of overwhelming them (as it is occasionally the case with Peter Hammill’s vocals in VDGG).  Discipline handle the frequent transitions in the fabric of their songs with seamless skill, avoiding the lack of cohesion that often mars the most ambitious prog productions, and the dramatic quality inherent to their music is conveyed so as to enhance the emotional content without becoming jarring or bombastic.

Out of the five tracks featured on To Shatter All Accord, the first two date back from the mid-Nineties, and will be familiar to those who have followed Discipline’s live career. Both songs were included in the double CD set Live Days (2010), as well as in the DVD Live 1995 (released in 2005). The hard-edged mid-tempo of “Circuitry” opens the album with a bang: forceful organ introduces Parmenter’s intense vocals, which bookend a magnificent instrumental section where piano, sax, organ and finally Jon Preston Bouda’s incisive guitar solo take turns in the spotlight. “When the Walls Are Down” hinges on superb interplay between Bouda’s guitar and Parmenter’s voice, in turns pleading and sneering; then sax and guitar engage in an exhilarating duel until the end of the song. Strategically placed in the middle of the album, “Dead City” introduces Discipline’s new material on a deceptively upbeat note. The distorted guitar and spacey-industrial electronics at the opening of the song are offset by a melodic guitar solo in the bridge, while a snippet of a radio broadcast announcing a zombie invasion is tagged at the end as a wry commentary on the lyrics.

The band, however, pull out all the stops for the last two tracks, which make up more than two-thirds of the 56-minute album. “When She Dreams She Dreams in Color” starts out in an understated manner, with a lilting pace that brings to mind a tango with jazzy undertones, supported by Paul Dzendzel and Mathew Kennedy’s impeccable rhythm section. Almost theatrical bursts of intensity, driven by vocals and sax, are followed by moments of quiet, leading to a spectacular finale in which Parmenter’s hauntingly lyrical violin, backed by solemn guitar and drums, evokes shades of King Crimson’s “Starless”. The 24-minute “Rogue” is a textbook example of how to write an epic that never outstays its welcome. With plenty of mood and tempo changes, yet remarkably cohesive, it is a harrowing existentialist tale in 10 scenes – almost like a 21st century take on VDGG’s “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”-  that might have resulted in an overblown mess, but is instead deeply involving. Parmenter’s vocal tour-de-force (complete with disturbing shrieks) enhances the stunning instrumental texture, made of powerful organ runs, tensely atmospheric interludes and dazzling guitar solos, full of melody and emotion, which relieve the intensity of the crescendo-like passages.

Though its release date, almost at the tail end of 2011 – a year noted for its many high-profile releases – has kept the album out of many “best of” lists, there is no doubt that To Shatter All Accord fully deserves to be mentioned alongside those albums that have drawn critical attention in the past year. Though not substantially different from its predecessors, it showcases a band that embodies the best of traditional prog without sounding either dated or derivative, and that seems to have gained polish and maturity in spite of the many years of inactivity. To Shatter All Accord is one of those rare efforts will potentially appeal to prog fans of every stripe, and marks a triumphant return to form for one of the top acts of the US scene.

Links:
http://www.strungoutrecords.com/

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