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Posts Tagged ‘District 97’

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

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

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

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

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

Advent

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

The Tea Club

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

Frogg Café

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

IZZ

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

Tammy Scheffer’s Morning Bound

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

Thank You Scientist

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

District 97 with John Wetton

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

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

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homecominglide2

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.roxyanddukes.com/

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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.

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Since I moved to the USA two and a half years ago, progressive rock festivals have always been one of the highlights of the year for me and my husband. However, we had skipped both of the previous editions of the Rites of Spring Festival (aka ROSfest) – mainly on account the general musical direction of the event, since our tastes tend to lean more towards the more adventurous side of prog. We both pride ourselves on our open-mindedness, though, and the cancellation of this year’s edition of NEARfest was the catalyst that made us decide to take the plunge. As it is often the case in life, a very positive experience came out of a negative (and quite unexpected) occurrence.

The 2011 edition of ROSFest was organized, for the second year in a row, in the small historic town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. One of the prime US tourist sites, Gettysburg is known worldwide for one of the bloodiest battles of its time, the clash between the Union and Confederate armies that occurred on July 1-3, 1863, and pretty much decided the final outcome of the Civil War (hence the title of my review). The town itself exudes a quaint, out-of-time vibe, with plenty of antique and craft shops, as well as fine eating and drinking establishments, though hardly any stores catering for everyday needs (such as pharmacies or grocery stores), and no taxis or any public transportation except for some vintage-looking blue buses.  The drive from the official festival hotel to the town centre goes through part of the huge battlefield, a sobering sight dotted with markers commemorating all the different regiments that fought on those fateful three days, said to be haunted by the ghosts of the over 50.000 soldiers who lost their lives there. In the month of May, the countryside is at its very best, the colours fresh and bright, flowers growing by the roadside, the road lined with quaint houses and bright red barns: however, it is hard not to think of the bloodshed and wholesale slaughter, and when driving through the battlefield at night it is easy to imagine ghosts wandering in the misty darkness.

The festival venue was a treat – a gorgeous Art Deco theatre with an excellent seating arrangement, crystal chandeliers and plenty of that old-fashioned charm that seems to have been banished by the spread of modern multiplexes. Though not as spacious as Bethlehem’s Zoellner Arts Centre, and lacking in enough seats for people waiting in the lobby between sets, it offered nicely appointed spaces, with the gallery taken over by vendors and band merchandising (though I think the bands might have used a bit more room), and a nice table set up in the lobby for CD signing after each show. The abundance of eating places in the immediate vicinity, as well as the generous breaks between sets, made it easier for the attendees to take their time without having to rush about in order not to miss anything; the bar was also fairly priced as things go, and manned (or perhaps I should say ‘womanned’) by a couple of very nice ladies. The theatre also employed a group of equally nice ladies as ushers (something I had not seen for a long time), though I have to admit I missed the very convenient wristband system implemented by other events.

Unfortunately, in spite of the NEARfest cancellation having redirected some would-be attendees to ROSfest, there were quite a few empty seats in the theatre. The crowd, however, made up in enthusiasm what was lacking in numbers. Some people had chosen to get tickets only for Saturday and Sunday, but there was still a fair attendance on Friday night, mainly on account of headliners Moon Safari. On the whole, it can be estimated that the Majestic Theatre was 70-75% full – not bad per se, but neither the sell-out that some were anticipating. Times are still tough for many people in the US, and the splintering of the ‘prog community’ in a myriad of sub-groups does not help matters. Not all the NEARfest orphans had  chosen to support ROSfest, and for a very simple reason: as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, ROSfest mainly caters to what I often call the more conservative set of prog fans, those who like melody, vocal-oriented compositions, and, more often than not, anything that seems to recreate the magic of the Seventies (a slant that was reflected by many of the CDs on sale in the vendor area). Nothing wrong with that, of course: there are plenty of bands and artists on the current scene that prefer to look to the past for their main inspiration, and many of them do it very well. Even if my loyal readership might sometimes get the idea that I am biased against ‘retro-prog’, there are quite a few acts falling under this category that I enjoy a lot, as long as their music ‘speaks’ to me somehow.

This year, organizers George Roldan and Krista Phillips and their team had made a somewhat bold move, and dispensed with any nostalgia acts in favour of a rather intriguing range of relatively new bands, about half of them hailing from the US (which, knowing the audience, might have been a factor in the relatively low attendance). In particular, Sunday headliners Quidam, though familiar to devotees of neo-prog and Polish prog in general, did not possess the clout or vintage credentials of last year’s headliners Renaissance. However, judging from what was seen on stage over the past weekend, in musical terms it was a move that paid in spades. Both my husband and I were impressed by the diversity of the acts selected for this year’s edition, and were also pleasantly surprised on several occasions. Needless to say, the sound quality and the lighting were first-rate, and the intimate feel of the venue made for a nice community experience, further enhanced by the warmth and professional attitude of the organizers.

The festival kicked off at 5 p.m. of Friday, May 20, with local band Epiicycle, featuring George’s son Anthony Roldan. A young quartet, though already with three albums under their belt, they sounded somewhat out of synch with the event’s general musical direction, sounding more akin to the likes of Porcupine Tree, Tool and other ‘alt-prog’ bands than Yes or Genesis (though their last song, which featured violin and cello, had a more conventional proggy feel with shades of Anekdoten). In spite of some obvious weaknesses, especially in the vocal department, their enthusiasm was endearing, and the event obviously provided a great chance for them to play in front of a considerable audience, as well as to grow and refine their sound.

Though I was not familiar with Tinyfish’s music, I remembered guitarist/vocalist Simon Godfrey as one of the old-time members of the progressive rock forum where I started my ‘career’, and had often seen the band mentioned there. However, even if I had never had the opportunity to check them out, their set (which, regrettably, we had to leave early due to a prior engagement) was one of the real surprises of the weekend for both of us. Simply put, Simon Godfrey is an incredible vocalist, probably the best heard over the weekend (no mean feat, since there was quite a bunch of fine singers on display), with a strong, passionate voice that adds depth and interest to the band’s classy musical output. With a sound harking back to the glory days of vintage Neo-Prog, clean and melodic yet with a nicely sharp edge – more Pink Floyd than Genesis – immaculate musicianship, a powerhouse of a drummer in Leon Camfield,  and a liberal sprinkling of that wonderful English humour, they delivered a flawless set that left the audience deeply impressed.  The narration (courtesy of lyricist Rob Ramsay) of the background story to their latest album, The Big Red Spark =  an elaborate sci-fi concept that has gained a lot of critical acclaim since its release – also injected a welcome dose of theatrics into the proceedings. Tinyfish would definitely have deserved to play a longer set, and I would love to see them again in the future.

After a two-hour dinner break, the theatre filled up nicely for the eagerly awaited Friday headliners, Swedish six-piece Moon Safari, ROSfest alumni (they had performed at the 2009 edition of the festival) and firm favourites of the audience. A bunch of tall, good-looking young men with impressive stage craft and a bit of a swagger, they were greeted deliriously by the crowd, who seemed to lap up every single note they played and sung. Unfortunately, I have to admit that their set was one of the low points of the event for me, though not due to any lack of talent on the part of the band. Having read reviews of their three albums, I was aware that their music was probably not going to be my cup of tea – and, in spite of my open mind, this time I was not wrong. True, the band members are extremely gifted, and their vocal harmonies – hinting at early Yes, Queen and (obviously) The Beatles and The Beach Boys –  are nothing short of stunning, with some state-of-the-art a cappella parts; while the impeccably executed instrumental passages reminded me of Collins-era Genesis. Even if some might view Moon Safari as purveyors of ‘prog for the ladies’ (a stereotyped definition that I loathe), they seemed to appeal in equal proportion to many of the men in the audience. Their music is a melodic, airy confection, easy on the ear, with a smooth, nearly effortless flow – yet not enough to hold my attention, though I liked the nod to Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” (a rather unlikely artist to be quoted by a prog band). Anyway, even if their optimistic, upbeat set came across to me as rather underwhelming, it was undeniably performed with genuine enthusiasm and flair, and anyone who is into melodic, accessible prog should definitely give Moon Safari a try.

Due to physical tiredness (I was never at my best over the whole weekend, which occasionally affected my enjoyment of the music and the company), we missed Going for the One’s performance at the after-show party, though we heard quite a bit of commotion from our room, which was located close to the party premises. Though I am personally not a big fan of tribute bands, I have read some very positive comments on their show, and I am glad their show went down so well, especially in these times when it seems so hard for bands to find gigs.

The Saturday bill was introduced by Polish quartet Osada Vida, whose latest album, Uninvited Dreams, I had reviewed for the website with which I was previously involved. As was to be expected after the night’s partying, many people skipped their set, which was a pity, because the band – a group of seasoned performers with an interesting contemporary bent to their sound – put up an excellent show. As I pointed out in my review, the closest term of comparison would be their fellow countrymen Riverside, whose outstanding performance I had enjoyed at last year’s edition of NEARfest – though Osada Vida have less of a metallic edge, the occasional bouts of heaviness in their music used as a complement rather than the main event. Obviously overjoyed at having been invited to play in the US in front of a sizable crowd, the band treated the audience to a nice selection of tracks from their back catalogue, interspersed by bassist/vocalist Lukasz Lisiak’s friendly, self-deprecating banter. He was quick to stress that he was not a true singer (something that I had observed when listening to Uninvited Dreams), his voice perhaps more suited to metal than prog. However, he acquitted himself well,  while the instrumental interplay was superb, with searing guitar leads, and hard-hitting drums complementing Lisiak’s fluid bass lines, everything rounded up by Rafal Paluszek’s unobtrusive but essential keyboards. All in all, it was a very enjoyable set from a band that I would not mind seeing again soon.

In the past five years or so, especially owing to their appearance in the Romantic Warriors documentary and the sheer quality of their releases, Phideaux have attracted a lot of attention in the prog world, and – judging from what was seen on the Majestic stage – very deservedly so. As far as I was concerned, they were one of the main draws of the whole event, and they did not disappoint me at all. Led by the volcanic mind and considerable songwriting talent of Renaissance man Phideaux Xavier (an extremely nice, articulate gentleman whom I met at breakfast together with some other members of the band), they are a mini-orchestra of 10 people rather than a conventional band, which makes for a full, genuinely symphonic sound, very melodic but never cheesy or overtly poppy, enhanced by consistently thought-provoking lyrical concepts. Though not necessarily to everyone’s taste, it is hard to deny that they do not really sound like anyone else, which is a rarity in this day and age. While watching their show, I kept being reminded of Roger Waters – not so much for the actual musical content as for the emphasis placed on the creation of veritable concept-based ‘rock operas’, as well as the presence of an extended lineup. With a wonderfully humorous twist on the supposed ‘end of the world’ that was expected to occur at 6 p.m. on that same day, their set revolved around their breakthrough 2006 album, Doomsday Afternoon, and also included a sizable chunk from their most recent release, the critically acclaimed Snowtorch. In any case, Phideaux’s performance was one of the undisputed highlights of the festival. With splendid vocals, top-notch instrumental performances, Phideaux’s set was a big, ambitious achievement with lots of depth, many of the songs driving to exhilarating crescendos and featuring plenty of light and shade. While there are hardly any sharp edges to Phideaux’s music, it comes across as deeply emotional rather than overly sweet, definitely melodic yet powerful, with a nice balance between the acoustic and electric component and a gentle folksy edge tempering the intensity of the more orchestral parts. Definitely one of the high points of the weekend, it was magnificent performance from one of the most distinctive acts on the current prog scene.

After a nice (and much needed) late lunch at a nearby Irish pub, it was time for us to head back to our seats for the following performance – which might have been the biggest surprise of the whole weekend for both of us. Erik Norlander and his Galactic Collective, a group of fine musicians from the Cleveland area, were introduced by Michelle Moog-Koussa of the Bob Moog Foundation, as Norlander’s appearance was meant as a celebration of what would have been Moog’s 77th birthday on Sunday, May 22. The right side of the stage was taken up by a huge stack of modular synthesizers, affectionately dubbed ‘ the wall of doom’ by Norlander himself (a truly warm and genial host) – which led us to expect an orgy of electronic music in the style of Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze. We could not have been more wrong, because, after three rather interesting instrumental tracks, Norlander introduced on stage his wife Lana Lane (as well as another backing vocalist), and things took a decidedly heavy turn. Accompanied by a sci-fi-themed slideshow which complemented the music quite nicely, the musical offer might be described as ‘Pink Floyd on steroids meets ELP backed by an 80’s hair metal band’. It was bombastic, over-the-top, with more than a whiff of cheese, and as subtle as a sledgehammer – the guitarist even played a brief solo spot with his teeth! – but, in some perverse way, hugely entertaining. Though I found the instrumental stuff more captivating in purely musical terms (especially the excellent “Trantor Station”, inspired by Asimov’s Foundation series), as a staunch hard rock/classic metal fan I could not help being impressed by the “Astrology Suite”, a powerful, anthemic number showcasing Lana Lane’s bold yet clear vocals that sounded like something out of the Rainbow/Ronnie James Dio songbook. Pity that the band finished their set some ten minutes late on schedule – the only instance in an event characterized by superb time management.

Led by legendary keyboardist and composer Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin fame), Daemonia might be construed as a tribute band of sorts, with a repertoire based on Simonetti’s iconic horror-movie soundtracks as well as homages to other influential musicians. Mainly a live act, they have a strong progressive metal bias, powered by Titta Tani’s thunderous drums complementing the dramatic sweep of Simonetti’s keyboards. A classically-trained musician, risen to international fame thanks to his movie scores, Simonetti is a very nice, down-to-earth guy who obviously loves his craft, and is genuinely grateful for the success he has achieved over his career. Meeting him and the rest of the band was one of my personal highlights, as all of them hail from my hometown of Rome, and it was great to be able to exchange views and jokes in my native language. Since I was expecting an all-instrumental set, I was somewhat surprised when Simonetti introduced a singer on stage – a petite, very attractive young lady by the name of Silvia Specchio, who proceeded to belt out a few songs (including a Nightwish cover) with a powerful, self-assured voice. As impressive as she was, however, my preference went to the instrumentals, and I particularly appreciated the tributes to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” and Keith Emerson’s towering Gothic masterpiece, “Mater Tenebrarum” (from the soundtrack to Dario Argento’s Inferno). The impressively lit show, accompanied by footage of the movies themselves (including a favourite of American audiences, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), climaxed with the highly awaited main theme from Dario Argento’s cult thriller, Profondo Rosso, and its sinister, immediately recognizable keyboard riff. As in the case of Galactic Collective, perhaps not the most subtle music around, with a fair amount of bombast and a high heaviness quotient, but very powerful, and a fitting conclusion to the second day of the festival.

The Sunday opening spot – affectionately known as the Church of Prog – was reserved for our most eagerly awaited band, Los Angeles’ very own Mars Hollow. Having followed them right from the release of their debut album one year ago, through their first performance on the East Coast at last year’s edition of ProgDay, we were thrilled to be able to see them again. “Voices”, the preview track posted on the band’s Facebook page, promised great things to come. We had also been impressed by their high level of professionalism – coupled with a truly friendly, level-headed attitude. The Mars Hollow guys (who are all close to me in age, creating an even stronger personal bond) love making music with a passion, and this is very clearly reflected in their overall approach. Their set (which, in my opinion, would have deserved a higher billing) was a flawless combination of first-rate musicianship, gorgeous tunes, warmth and accessibility, showing a band that has grown by leaps and bounds since their already excellent debut. Fronted by the dynamic duo of vocalist/guitarist John Baker and irrepressible bassist/vocalist Kerry Chicoine, with stately yet magnificent keyboard work by Steve Mauk, and powered by Jerry Beller’s tireless, immaculate timekeeping, Mars Hollow treated the audience to a set comprising material from both their debut album and the new one, World in Front of Me. The growth and maturation of their sound was evidently displayed by their new material, definitely more challenging and subtly layered while keeping its listener-friendly quality. I found myself singing along the likes of “Midnight” (a song with serious airplay potential, at least in a perfect world) and the epic “Dawn of Creation”, which wrapped up the set accompanied by Mars-themed images. While Chicoine’s remarkable showmanship and the massive sound of his black-and-white, vintage Rickenbacker captivated the audience’s attention, Baker projected a more sedate presence, his soaring tenor perfectly in control, his lead guitar breaks clear and fluid. All in all, an absolutely superb performance, and the undisputed highlight of the whole event for me.

The presence on the bill of the much-touted District 97 was undeniably one of the biggest draws for a large part of the audience. After months of reading enthusiastic comments about the band being “the future of prog”, their debut album, Hybrid Child, had left me rather underwhelmed, in spite of the obvious talent involved. However, being aware that the live setting often brings out the best in a band or artist, lending more depth and dimension to music all too often emasculated by the recording process, I was looking forward to their set, even if not with the same attitude as their core of die-hard fans. The Chicago-based band, even though unable to avail themselves of the presence of cellist Katinka Kleijn) did not disappoint their followers’ high expectations, and delivered a very strong set that included some new material from their forthcoming second album, as well as excerpts from the “Mindscan” epic, the fast and furious “Termites” and  the superb power-pop tune “I Can’t Take You With Me”. The fresh-faced members of the band are indeed top-notch musicians, with a special mention for powerhouse drummer Jonathan Schang and guitarist Rob Clearfield, and the band as a whole is extremely tight, even if their musical output occasionally gave me the impression of being somewhat overambitious. At times the music suggested the frantic intensity of extreme metal, and it was funny to see the same people who thought Osada Vida were too heavy rave about District 97. The main focus of attention, however, lay in vocalist Leslie Hunt, a diminutive bundle of energy with an impressive stage presence that, in many ways, breaks the mould of the stereotypical female prog singer. I have to admit that, at first, I was a bit annoyed by her constant jumping and dancing about the stage, which seemed somewhat out of synch with the music, but, as the set progressed, the two aspect coalesced with striking results. Odd as it may sound, while watching the band on stage, I could not help thinking that District 97 might very well be considered a 21st-century version of Queen – on account of a very similar, fearlessly genre-bending attitude, blending theatricality, memorable tunes, finely-honed technical skills, melody and sheer heaviness. Like Freddie Mercury, Leslie is a very physical frontwoman, though her performance did not hinge on sex appeal even when wearing just duct tape from the waist up (a matter of comfort rather than titillation). On the whole, even if I cannot say to have been completely converted, now I view District 97 in a much more positive light, and am looking forward to hearing more from them.

Back to the theatre after another visit to the Irish pub, it was time for British band The Reasoning, another act eagerly awaited by quite a few attendees. Formed by bassist Matthew Cohen after his split from Magenta, and fronted by his wife Rachel Cohen (née Jones, formerly with Karnataka), it is one of those bands that I usually tend to bypass in spite of their undeniable talent, and  (as in the case of Moon Safari) their set did nothing to change my views. Though The Reasoning are clearly an accomplished band with plenty of experience under their collective belts, most of their set was marred by the piercingly loud guitar, which felt like having a hole drilled in your brain, and obviously covered the rest of the instruments, as well as the vocals. Rachel Cohen, an attractive young woman with long dark hair and an endearingly witty banter mostly focused on her brainy pursuits, danced around the stage on bare feet, banging her tambourine and delivering an excellent vocal performance, occasionally assisted by keyboardist Tony Turrell. Surely the most typically ‘feminine’ voice heard on stage during the weekend (together with Phideaux’s outstanding Valerie Gracious), her ethereal soprano, though lovely to hear, sounds a bit too similar to a number of other female vocalists. The band’s set hovered between a decidedly heavy direction (sometimes dangerously teetering on the edge of symphonic/Gothic metal) and more subdued, atmospheric numbers with a more melodic bent – skilfully executed and excellently interpreted by Cohen, but ultimately not exciting enough to keep my attention going for two hours. Anyway, even if they are not my cup of tea, The Reasoning are a very proficient outfit whose brand of prog has a dedicated following, and they deserve to find opportunities to perform away from their home turf.

As I already pointed out, Sunday headliners Quidam were not the kind of band that many of the festival regulars would have expected as a fitting conclusion to the event. Though excellent examples of the high level reached by Polish prog bands, as witnessed by their fellow countrymen Osada Vida the previous day, unlike former headliners such as Renaissance, Pendragon or Nektar they are not a household name – and, as proved by the unfortunate NEARfest cancellation, for many fans the names on the bill are the decisive factor, rather than the pleasure of discovery. As with Osada Vida, I had got acquainted with Quidam through my review of their live album, The Fifth Season, a well-rounded, very pleasing effort that had left me much more impressed than I had originally expected. Anyway, any misgivings on the part of some members of the audience notwithstanding, the band played an impressive set, though tinged with special poignancy on account of the news that frontman Bartek Kossowicz had received on the same day from Poland – his wife had lost their first child. With admirable professionalism, Kossowicz – a warm, appealing frontman with a strong voice and a stage presence reminiscent of an old-school metalhead rather than your typical progger – delivered a great performance, doing his best to involve the audience, and conveying the excitement and gratitude of the whole band for having been invited to the event. Their own classy compositions, sung both in English and Polish, blended stylish, Camel-influenced prog, enhanced by the contribution of flutist Jacek Zasada and violinist Tylda Ciołkosz, with classic rock and hard rock undertones in a strongly emotional, melodic package – magnificently embodied by their closing track, the stunning “Alone Together”, a low-key, somewhat somber number featuring a riveting dialogue between keyboards and violin. The band also performed a few covers, as they have been doing for some time during their concerts: King Crimson’s “Red”, The Doors’ magnificent “Riders on the Storm” (very enthusiastically greeted by the crowd), Deep Purple’s “Hush”, and a lovely version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, with the audience singing along in a very moving ending to a great weekend of music.

Before I wrap up this very long and detailed review, I would like to acknowledge the wealth of female musical talent seen on stage over the weekend. The ladies are really making headway into the progressive world, ad this is also borne out by the increasing number of women in the audience. Next time the old, worn out cliché of “girls don’t listen to prog” comes up, the facts will prove it wrong. I would also like to encourage the organizers to seriously think about having at least one American band as a headliner for the festival’s next edition. There are so many gifted artists in this country that deserve recognition for their tireless work on behalf of progressive music.

Now it is time to mention all the great people I met during the weekend: Chapman stick wizard Rob Martino, James Byron Schoen of Edensong, our dear friends John Fontana and David Bobick of Shadow Circus, Alan Benjamin of Advent and his lovely wife Amy, Mike Visaggio of Kinetic Element, Greg Walker of Syn-Phonic (with whom I talked about his recent visit to Rome), Jim Hoffman,  the lovely ladies Sonya Kukcinovich-Hill (aka Spock’s Babe), Amy V. Simmons, Evelyn Chote and Melissa Palmer, the indefatigable Jose Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt (who filmed the whole event, assisted by their daughter Paloma), the members of Phideaux, my fellow Romans of Daemonia, and, of course, our friends of Mars Hollow. Once again, a huge thank you to George, Krista and everyone else who worked hard for months in order to put together such a fantastic event, three unforgettable days of music and fun with like-minded people. We will be sure not to miss ROSfest 2012!

Links:
http://www.rosfest.com

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