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Posts Tagged ‘Gösta Berlings Saga’

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I hope my readers will forgive me if this post is somewhat less detailed than the ones I wrote in the past, as up to the very last moment I was not sure I felt up to writing my usual “Best of the Year” piece. However, I have tried my best to comment on the many highlights of a year that – while utterly dismal in terms of global events – was definitely a bumper year for interesting progressive music.

In my native Italy, leap years are considered unlucky, and 2016 did nothing to dispel this myth, crammed as it was with global turmoil and high-profile deaths. For prog fans, this year will go down in history for the double whammy of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake’s loss, as well as David Bowie’s passing a couple of days after the release of his Blackstar album. On the other and, while many of the protagonists of prog’s heyday have started leaving this planet, the younger generations – though faced with a world increasingly uncaring about music as an art form – have been forging a path ahead for the progressive genre, often displaying the barest of affiliations to the modes of the past. A few of the names that will appear in this post, as well as in many fans’ lists, have received warm accolades in the  “mainstream” press, and are therefore getting exposed to more diverse audiences. In many ways, these artists resemble the original prog generation in their desire to explore and experiment, rather than stick to a tried-and-tested formula as the “retro” acts do.

Even if lately my reviewing activity has been almost non-existent, I have kept in touch with new releases through my regular participation in DPRP’s Something for the Weekend? feature. On the other hand, a lot of highly rated 2016 albums have flown directly under my radar, so anyone who wishes to read further should take the absence of a rather large number of prog fans’ favourites into account – as the title of this post makes it quite clear. As usual, I have not had either the time or the inclination (or both) to listen to many of the albums that are prominently featured in many people’s Top 10 (or 20, or 50…) lists, because the amount of music released during the past 12 months under the increasingly broad “progressive” label was nothing short of staggering. And then, in all honesty, my tastes have been steadily drifting away from the traditional prog still enthusiastically embraced by both artists and fans. While I still have a lot of time for the classics, I am constantly on the lookout for modern music that will redefine the prog label without sounding derivative. In this respect, 2016 was like a 12-month Christmas.

For this edition, I have decided to adopt a similar format to the one used by my esteemed friend and fellow reviewer, Roger Trenwith, on his excellent Astounded by Sound! blog. In this way, I will still avoid the dreaded (though popular) numbered list, and at the same time make it somewhat easier for my readers to pick out albums. Although the order of appearance may partly reflect my own preferences, all the albums briefly described in the following paragraphs are well worth checking out. I have tried to include all those albums that have impressed me during the past 12 months, (many of which have already been recommended by me or my fellow reviewers on Something for the Weekend?) though obviously there are bound to be omissions for which I apologize beforehand. Links to Bandcamp or other streaming services are provided whenever available.

And here we go…

Knifeworld – Bottled Out of Eden (UK) – A real joy from start to finish, as intricate and eclectic as the best vintage prog,  Knifeworld’s third release is yet another winner from prog’s other busiest man, the one and only Kavus Torabi.

North Sea Radio OrchestraDronne (UK)  – Another Cardiacs-related effort, the fourth album by the ensemble led by Craig Fortnam is pure class, brimming with ethereal beauty and sterling performances.

Bent KneeSay So (USA) – The third full-length release from the Boston crew led by charismatic vocalist Courtney Swain boasts interesting songwriting and an almost punky edge, tempered by a sort of  confessional vibe.

Gong Rejoice! I’m Dead! (Multi-national) – Though Daevid Allen may be gone from this earthly plane, he left his beloved creature in the trusty hands of Kavus Torabi (again!), who gives the album a modern edge while paying homage to the band’s decades-long history.

Gösta Berlings SagaSersophane (Sweden) – Released just two weeks before the end of the year, the long-awaited fourth album from the magnificent Swedes (augmented, as usual, by Mattias Olsson) brings 2016 to a close with a bang. 40 minutes of stunningly hypnotic instrumental music by one of the finest bands in the business.

Deus Ex MachinaDevoto (Italy) – Another highly awaited comeback from one of Italy’s most distinctive bands, chock full of energy, melody and outstanding performances – though without any Latin in sight.

YugenDeath by Water (Italy) – The iconic Milan-based ensemble led by guitarist Francesco Zago is back with a dense, austere album that demands a lot from the listener. Modern Avant-Prog at its finest.

ZhongyuZhongyu (USA) –  Seamlessly blending jazz-rock, Avant-Prog, Far Eastern music and improvisation, the debut album by Jon Davis’ Seattle-based quintet (featuring three members of Moraine) is a must-listen for lovers of cutting-edge instrumental prog.

Richard Pinhas & Barry ClevelandMu (Multi-national) – Beautifully atmospheric music performed by a quartet of extremely gifted musicians – guitarists Pinhas and Cleveland plus the extraordinary rhythm section of Michael Manring and Celso Alberti.

Mamma Non PiangereN.3 (Italy) – The triumphant return of the veteran Italian RIO/Avant outfit will put a smile on your face,even if you do not understand the language. Stunning vocal performance from Laura Agostinelli of Garamond.

Jeremy FlowerThe Real Me (USA) – Carla Kihlstedt lends her vocals and violin to this lovely album from a gifted Boston-based musician. Top-class, surprisingly accessible chamber pop.

Finnegan ShanahanThe Two Halves (USA) – A charming, chamber prog-meets-Celtic folk debut for a talented young musician.

The WinstonsThe Winstons (Italy) – Three established indie musicians from Italy pay homage to early Soft Machine inone of the very few unabashedly retro efforts that actually works.

PanzerpappaPestrottedans (Norway) – Avant-Prog that will not scare first-timers away with a distinct new-Canterbury flavour from one of Norway’s most reliable bands

CorimaAmaterasu (USA) – Magma meets punk in the highly anticipated sophomore release of California’s electrifying Zeuhl-ers.

Chromb! – 1000 (France) – The Lyon scene is a real treasure trove of great bands exploring the many facets of the Avant universe – as illustrated by Chromb!’s outstanding third album.

UkandanzAwo (France) – What would happen if you crossed traditional Ethiopian music with RIO/Avant? The answer is Ukandanz –another winner from the seemingly inexhaustible  Lyon scene.

Herd of InstinctManifestation (USA) –  Intense and mysterious, yet pervasively melodic, the Texas band’s third album displays a stronger influence from their Djam Karet mentors than their previous releases.

Emmett ElvinAssault on the Tyranny of Reason (UK) – Proudly eclectic (and unexpectedly fun) effort from the man behind the keyboards of modern prog giants Knifeworld, Guapo and Chrome Hoof.

French TV –  Ambassadors of Health and Clean Living (USA) – Mike Sary’s veteran project’s comeback, recorded with the members of Japanese instrumental band TEE, offers a challenging  blend of RIO/Avant and jazz-rock.

Jack O’ The ClockRepetitions Of The Old City I (USA) – The latest effort from Damon Waitkus’ crew confirms their status as purveyors of unique-sounding chamber rock.

AmpledeedBYOB (USA) – The second album from the Californian band brings more top-notch art rock with plenty of diverse influences

Luz de RiadaCuentos y Fabulas 3 (Mexico) – Ramsés Luna’s collective sounds like almost nothing else, though of course fans of Cabezas de Cera will found a lot to love in this album.

Nicotina Es PrimaveraAnimal Cerámico (Argentina) – From the thriving Argentinian scene, sophisticated yet accessible Avant-Prog from an excellent new band.

Amoeba SplitSecond Split (Spain) – The Canterbury sound gets a 21-st century makeover in this outstanding instrumental album

Half Past FourLand of the Blind (Canada) – The irrepressible Canadians pack more into an EP than many bands in 80 minutes. Quirky, elegant and fun modern prog.

UlverATGCLVLSSCAP (Norway) – The mighty Norwegians’ homage to vintage Krautrock is pristinely beautiful.

a.P.A.t.T.Fun With Music (UK) – Just what the title says. Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink eclecticism rules!

Ill WickerUntamed (Sweden) – Dark, haunting acid-folk inspired by Comus and other Seventies cult bands.

VesperoLique Mekwas (Russia) – Russia’s answer to Ozric Tentacles deploy their whole arsenal of psych/space rock with intriguing world music touches.

PsychoyogiShrine (UK) – Short but sweet 2016 release from one of the UK scene’s hidden treasures – a must for “new Canterbury” fans.

Simon McKechnieFrom My Head to My Feet (UK) –  Another lesson on how to add interest and progressive quotient to the song format from one of the genre’s unsung heroes.

David BowieBlackstar (UK)  – Released just before his unexpected passing, Bowie’s swan song is a riveting testimony to his undimmed creative spirit.

N.y.X.The News (Italy) – Darkly Crimsonian vibes abound in the northern Italian trio’s second album.

Axon/NeuronMetamorphosis (USA) – An eclectic double CD for an excellent female-fronted band in the MoeTar vein.

iNFiNiENLight at the Endless Tunnel (USA) – Third album for another MoeTar-inspired band, with artwork from Tarik Ragab himself.

The Stargazer’s AssistantRemoteness of Light – Mesmerizing, multilayered soundscapes from Guapo drummer David J. Smith.

SternpostStatues Asleep (Sweden) – Ethereal, sophisticated chamber-pop reminiscent of Robert Wyatt.

Yawning ManHistorical Graffiti (USA) – A stunning instrumental “desert rock” album recorded in Argentina from an excellent southern California outfit.

Iron MountainUnum (Ireland) – Post-rock meets folk-metal  in this intriguing instrumental album.

Vaults of ZinKadath (USA) – HP Lovecraft-inspired Avant-Zeuhl-Metal.

Thank You ScientistStranger Heads Prevail (USA) – Energetic prog-pop from New Jersey’s wrecking crew.

The Mercury TreePermutations (USA) – Intricate, guitar-based modern prog from a band in constant development.

EdensongYears in the Garden of Years (USA) – The long-awaited second album from the New Jersey band will not disappoint fans of hard-edged prog.

ShamblemathsShamblemaths (Norway)  – Ambitious debut from another promising Norwegian outfit – eclectic prog at its finest.

Seven ImpaleContrapasso (Norway) – A darker, more intense follow-up to their highly praised debut.

Disen GageSnapshots (Russia) – Eclectic, guitar-based instrumental prog with a playful edge.

Factor Burzaco3.76 (Argentina) – New versions of older material from Argentina’s leading Avant-Prog outfit.

BubuResplandor (Argentina) – A short but highly satisfying comeback from a band that fully deserves its cult status.

GriotGerald (Portugal) – The concept album reinterpreted in modern art-rock terms.

Mothertongue – <em>Unsongs (UK) – Exhilarating, brass-led progressive pop.

AfenginnOpus (Sweden) – Haunting Scandinavian prog-folk.

Violeta de OutonoSpaces (Brazil) – Psych-space meets Canterbury with a South American flavour.

The Observatory – <em>August Is the Cruellest (Singapore) – Moody, melancholy post-rock inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

MacroscreamMacroscream (Italy) – The second album of this Roman six-piece hovers between tradition and quirkiness.

Il Rumore BiancoAntropocene (Italy) – RPI with an edge for the full-length debut of this band from Verona.

Syndone Eros e Thanatos (Italy)Cinematic RPI with echoes of Van Der Graaf.

Mad FellazII (Italy) – For fans of the jazzier, funkier side of Italian prog.

Alex’s HandKünstler Sch***e (USA) – Another Avant-punk opus from the Seattle crew.

Horse LordsInterventions (USA) – African-inspired polyrhythms and a saxophone that sounds just like a guitar. Oh my!

Za!Loloismo (Spain) – A percussion-driven mix of styles with an almost tribal flair.

GoatRequiem (Sweden) – African rhythms (again!) meet psychedelic rock with interesting results.

Sparkle in GreyBrahim Izdag (Italy) – A celebration of multiculturalism through rock, electronics and a lot more.

Savoldelli/Casarano/BardosciaThe Great Jazz Gig in the Sky (Italy) – One of the most brilliant ideas ever for a tribute album. Jazz and Dark Side of the Moon are a match made in heaven!

Pluck & RailTrigger (USA) – A fine roots/folk album featuring Frogg Café’s Andrew Sussman

TilesPretending 2 Run (USA) – The ambitious return of  the Detroit heavy proggers is a double CD package put together with the utmost care.

Sonus UmbraBeyond the Panopticon (USA) – Heavy yet melodic, atmospheric comeback from the Chicago-based septet led by Luis Nasser.

Mike KershawWhat Lies Beneath (UK) – Melancholy, atmospheric song-based progressive rock

Matthew ParmenterAll Our Yesterdays (USA) –  A collection of classy, deeply emotional songs from Discipline’s mainman.

Fractal MirrorSlow Burn 1 (The Netherlands) – Another laid-back album of song-based modern art rock

iamthemorningLighthouse (Russia) – Ethereal and delicate offering from the highly-regarded Russian duo.

MarbinGoat Man and the House of the Dead (USA) – Eclectic, high-energy fusion from one of the progressive scene’s busiest bands.

Though as a rule I generally mention albums I have heard in their entirety, this year I will make an exception for a handful of interesting albums that – for some reason or another – I have managed to listen to only partially:

Stick MenProg Noir (Multi-national) – Waiting for King Crimson to release some new material, here is a feast for lovers of touch guitars and intricate polyrhythms.

MoulettesPreternatural (UK) – Mythical creatures inspire this slice of  exciting, hyper-eclectic “wonky pop”.

The Sea NymphsOn the Dry Land (UK) – The second of the “lost” albums by Cardiacs’ spin-off trio is elegiac and whimsical.

Bob DrakeArx Pilosa (USA/France) – A collection of bite-sized Avant-Pop songs from one of Thinking Plague’s founders.

Free Salamander ExhibitUndestroyed (USA) – The much-anticipated return of some former members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum hits all the right buttons.

Three Trapped TigersSilent Earthling (UK) – Hypnotic yet surprisingly melodic take on math-rock.

Although, as I pointed out in the introduction,  in my list there are quite a few of what the average prog fan would consider glaring omissions, I believe that the majority of the music mentioned above has the potential to appeal to anyone but the most hidebound listeners. It might not be “your father’s prog”, but it is definitely worth a try if you want to expand your musical horizons – and support a bunch of highly deserving artists (and the independent labels that keep up the good work in spite of all the setbacks) in the process.

Before I bring this rather lengthy post to a close, I would like to spend a few words on the question of reviews, or lack thereof. As much as I would love to start reviewing again on a regular basis, I do not see myself resuming that activity – which was of great comfort to me in difficult times – on the scale of the earlier years of this decade. In a person’s life there is probably a time for everything, and my career as a reviewer was probably fated to be a short (though intense) one. I will keep this blog alive on behalf of the many bands and artists whom I wrote about in the past few years, and for publishing the occasional piece like this one. However, I believe it is time to pass the torch to other reviewers, who are much more prolific and reliable than I have been since 2013 or so. I will keep up my contributions to Something for the Weekend? as a means of spreading the word about new music, as well as occasionally adding some band to the ProgArchives database. In the meantime, while we wait for the first 2017 releases, I hope my readers will discover at least one new band or solo artist by browsing my suggestions. Happy listening, and a great 2017 to everyone!

 

 

 

 

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On the evening of June 24th, 2012, I had the pleasure to interview Alexander Skepp and Gabriel Tapper, respectively drummer and bassist of Swedish outfit Gösta Berlings Saga, whose career-defining performance on  the morning of the same day – the closing day of the festival – wowed the audience and earned them many new fans. While their bandmates, guitarist Einar Baldursson and keyboardist David Lundberg (who is also a member of Änglagård), remained downstairs to man the band’s vendor table, Gabriel and Alexander kindly answered my questions while sitting at an outside table on the Zoellner Arts Center’s third floor.

As it was my first attempt at a video interview, I apologize to my readers if the quality of the final product is not stellar. However, I hope the content of the interview will make up for any technical shortcomings.

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After a wait that felt even longer than usual (and some disturbances in between), the big day finally dawned, accompanied by a wave of stiflingly humid heat. Unlike our last time at NEARfest, two years ago, when our car broke down the day before the event and we had to rent one in order to make it, this time everything went smoothly. The scenic route that we took, through Pennsylvania Dutch country and the lovely city of Lancaster,  caused us to reach our destination somewhat later than expected, but it was well worth it. Highways are undeniably very convenient, but they often leave a lot to be desired if one wants to see some interesting sights.

As I made it abundantly clear in the three essays I wrote last year after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, I was a bit skeptical about the whole “going out with a bang”  affair. However, the past weekend turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences I have had in a long time – and a sort of watershed moment on a personal level. Indeed, it was so packed with excitement, friendship and great music that it ended up being even more exhausting than usual – especially as the constant adrenaline rush caused me to miss out on sleep for two out of three nights. All in all, though, it was an unforgettable weekend, even if somewhat marred by a rather anticlimactic ending.

After a one-year gap, there was a poignant sense of familiarity when we drove from our hotel to the Zoellner Arts Centre. It was sad to think that it would be the last time (though, of course, you never know how such things are going to pan out), but still we resolved to enjoy the event to the fullest. After visiting the vendor rooms and reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances for a couple of hours, at 7 p.m. we sat down in our comfortable seats (located at the edge of one of the orchestra rows, which meant not getting a 100% complete view of the stage, though with the advantage of being able to move freely) and got ready for the first set of the weekend.

Having heard some music from Belgian chamber rock outfit Aranis prior to the festival, I knew I was going to like them a lot, but I was not prepared for the sheer triumph that was their performance. Judging from the crowd’s reaction, they are the kind of band that – even if tagged as “RIO/Avant” (a label likely to send quite a few prog fans running for the exits) – have a powerful cross-subgenre appeal on account of the strongly melodic nature of their music. The presence of legendary drummer Dave Kerman (a veteran of the NEARfest stage)  added a more definite rock note to the supremely elegant sound of the band – a seven-piece led by Joris Vanvinckenroye, and featuring three very talented female instrumentalists (flutist Jana Arns, accordionist Marjolein Cools and violinist Liesbeth Lambert). With only an amplified nylon-string guitar to anchor the band to the rock ethos, they delivered a positively mesmerizing set, oozing with diverse influences – the biggest of which, to my ears, being Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, together with their fellow Belgians Univers Zero and 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky and Ravel, and a generous sprinkling of Old World folk music. Their compositions, of varying length and understated complexity, were at times almost infectious, with whimsical titles such as “Tomatissimo” or “Spaghetti Polonaise”. Most importantly the band members seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, introducing the songs with liberal helpings of humour, while their outstanding musicianship created a tightly woven flow of beautiful sounds. Dave Kerman’s role in the band was much closer to an orchestra percussionist than a traditional rock drummer, more textural than propulsive; he delighted the audience with an array of exotic instruments, including one that looked like some creature’s jawbone. Aranis provided an amazing start to the festival, and a big hit with the crowd – witnessed by the seemingly never-ending line of people at the post-set signing session.

When I saw Van Der Graaf Generator for the first time at NEARfest 2009, I was extremely impressed by their set. Though I cannot really call myself a fan, I have a lot of respect for them, as they are one of the few Seventies bands that have not turned into a parody of themselves, and are still very much relevant. This was borne out by their choice of playing quite a few items from their latest album, A Grounding in Numbers, alongside the older material that everyone was expecting. However, as much as I wanted to love their set, it left me a bit cold, mainly for reasons related to the setlist. The central part of the performance was taken up by a revamped version of “Flight”, a Peter Hammill solo piece originally included in his 1980 album A Black Box. At over 21 minutes, it went on a bit too long, and was a turn off of sorts for anyone who was not a devoted Hammill fan. Even their choice of  classics was not thoroughly convincing, with the exception of the barnstorming “Scorched Earth” that opened the set. In spite of these misgivings, however, the band were in fine form, with Hammill’s voice every bit as strong as in his Seventies heyday, and Guy Evans and Hugh Banton offering a stunning display of skill and precision coupled with genuine emotion. After a while, however, tiredness got the best of me, and I started drifting off. On the other hand, though Hammill’s voice can be a bit hard to put up with for nearly two hours, he was a delight to watch, and a true gentleman, joking with the audience and looking as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Not bad for a man who almost died of a heart attack nine years ago… Besides his customary piano, Hammill also played electric guitar on a few songs, showing how the band and their songwriting have adapted to the trio format. Though not the highlight I expected the set to be, it was a fine performance nonetheless.

As tired as I was, I did not get much sleep that night, and on Saturday morning I was not feeling exactly my best. We got early to the venue, and spent a pleasant couple of hours checking out the vendors and chatting with various people before we sat down for the opening act of the day – Connecticut jazz-rock quartet Helmet of Gnats, who were one of the bands I was most interested in seeing. I had got acquainted with their material through their MySpace site and Progstreaming, and their set confirmed my early impressions: stunning chops and potentially great music, but not too strong on the songwriting front. It took them a while to warm up, and for the first couple of songs they hardly communicated with the audience, which brought back memories of Astra’s dismal set in 2010. However, this was clearly due to the overwhelming emotion of having finally fulfilled their dream of performing at the festival after an 11-year wait. After the first awkward 15 minutes or so, the band hit their stride, and guitarist Chris Fox proved to be a warm and endearing frontman, especially when he introduced the band and explained the ties of family and friendship binding its members. The music – which at times reminded me, in style if not in actual content, of the sadly disbanded D.F.A. – had moments of riveting beauty, especially when keyboardist Matthew Bocchino fired up the Hammond organ and seamlessly meshed with Fox’s beautifully clear, fiery guitar in a fashion that made me think of Colosseum II. The tracks, all quite long, tended to ramble a bit, with highly exhilarating moments alternating with lulls that caused the attention to wander somehow. People who are not into jazz-rock/fusion may have found them a bit hard to follow, due to the overall lack of cohesion at the compositional level. However, they are an extremely talented bunch of musicians who genuinely enjoy playing together, with a keen sense of humour as displayed by their song titles and rather hilarious name – whose origin I finally learned later during the day, when I got to meet the band in the lobby. I hope to have the pleasure to see them again in the future, and perhaps review their next album.

Having never having been a follower of the original neo-prog scene (with the sole exception of Marillion in their early incarnation), I was barely familiar with Twelfth Night, and my expectations were also quite low. My increasing tiredness prevented me from staying longer than the first three songs (at that point, I really needed to take a break), but I would be lying if I said they were the worst band I have ever seen, as other attendees instead claimed. With only one of the original members left (drummer Brian Devoil), and two members of fellow UK band Galahad on board, they mostly sounded like a cross between an Eighties synth-pop band and a glam-metal one, with some occasional symphonic prog influences thrown in for good measure. Their look was also a throwback to the Eighties, with a penchant for the use of visuals and stage props; the mannequin in the 19-minute epic “We Are Sane”, accompanied by politically-charged images on the screen, made me think of Pink Floyd circa The Wall and The Final Cut. In spite of the not exactly enthusiastic reception on the part of the audience, and plagued by a host of technical issues, the guys in the band were delighted to be there (it was their first ever US appearance) and gave their best. Though Andy Sears is undeniably a good frontman, I did not care for his vocals, nor did the piercing, whistling sound of the synthesizer do anything for me; however, the band’s brash, punk-tinged energy held the attention of those who stuck around. Though some attendees thought that Twelfth Night were out of place in the lineup, there is a sizable part of the prog audience that enjoys their particular take on progressive rock, and one of the reasons for NEARfest’s success in the past 14 years has been precisely their “big-tent” approach.

With a new album (titled Viljans Öga) about to be released, 18 years after Epilog, and a 9-year hiatus since their last tour, Swedish legends Änglagård were probably the most highly anticipated act on the lineup. While I was familiar with their seminal debut, Hybris, I had never really connected with their music as I did with their contemporaries Anekdoten. When we sat down for their set (which started somewhat late on schedule), my head was almost drooping with weariness, and I feared I would be forced to sit it out. However, things changed rather quickly once the band started playing.  An extremely tight unit performing exclusively instrumental music, they often bordered on Avant territory, and their new material sounded angular and occasionally menacing. In spite of their reputation as a “retro-symphonic” act, Änglagård were anything but a nostalgia-fest, and easily transcended any attempts at pigeonholing – even if the two Mellotrons gracing the stage were enough to send hardcore proggers into fits of delight. After the three talented ladies in Aranis, it was great to see more female talent in the guise of Anna Holmgren, who effortlessly switched from flute to sax to Mellotron. The band performed all but one track from their forthcoming new album, plus two from Epilog and the iconic “Jordrök” – the manifesto of the Swedish prog renaissance of the early Nineties. Although all of the five band members delivered impressive performances, the true star of the set was drummer Mattias Olsson, a pint-sized concentrate of flawless technique, inventiveness and humour – the real engine at the heart of the band’s intricate yet seamless sound, duly assisted by Johan Brand’s booming, muscular bass lines. All in all, it was a truly riveting set by a band that amply deserves its near-legendary status.

My habitual readers, who are used to reviews of rather left-field material, will probably be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed Renaissance’s set. While many prog fans love their output, others (including many of my fellow attendees) consider it terminally cheesy. In my case, though I do tend towards more challenging  material, I have also been exposed from a young age to all kinds of music, including opera and musicals, and will readily admit to having a soft spot for Renaissance’s classic Seventies albums. Though my favourite female vocalists tend to be assertive rather than angelic, I find Annie Haslam – the voice who launched a thousand  imitators – a delightful listen, and their lush melodies appeal to what you might call my typically feminine side (as well as my Italian heritage). Having missed last year’s tour, we were happy to see the band perform Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories in their entirety. At the beginning Annie’s voice may not have been as smooth or self-assured as it was in the second half of the set, but then it became an effortless thing of beauty. In my view, Renaissance were the perfect choice to follow the demanding complexity of Änglagård – a very relaxing, enjoyable listen, made even more pleasing by Annie’s gracious manner and positive aura (even if her reference to God fell a bit flat). As much as I love the edgier stuff, sometimes it is nice to kick back and sing along to gorgeous tunes such as “A Trip to the Fair” or “Carpet of the Sun” (performed by Haslam and Michael Dunford as an acoustic duo, and dedicated to the organizers). The set ended with new track “The Mystic and the Muse” – an interesting composition with some breathtaking vocal acrobatics.

After all the praise I had heaped on their third album, Glue Works, Gösta Berlings Saga were the act I was most looking forward to – and that in a festival that featured much higher-profile names. My rave review had turned some of my friends on to the band’s music, while my husband had so far remained impervious to their charms. However, last Sunday he walked out of Baker Hall as a convert, as did most of the 1,000-odd people that witnessed that career-defining performance. Simply dressed in black, the four fresh-faced Swedes, in spite of a grueling trip (they missed their connecting flight, and arrived in Bethlehem in the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday), put up a show that summed up everything great music should be about. Although some people are desperately trying to put a label on them (are they post-rock, avant-prog, Zeuhl, or what?), they are one of those rare outfits who manage to sound like no one else. Fuelled by genuine passion, they literally brought the house down, eliciting standing ovation after standing ovation, and transmitted their passion to the audience, affecting many of us on a physical level. The powerfully exhilarating swell of the music was interspersed by pauses of gentle quiet, like the calm before (or after) the storm, and their use of repeated build-up patterns created an uncannily mesmerizing effect. Einar Baldursson’s guitar sliced through the dense web of sound emanating from David Lundberg’s bank of keyboards (employed for texture rather than as the main event, as in so much “traditional” prog); while Gabriel Tapper’s deep-toned Rickenbacker bass, together with Alexander Skepp’s electrifying drumming – a veritable tumultuous waterfall of sound – drove the music along relentlessly. In a set of astonishing perfection, two tracks stood out: the jaw-droppingly beautiful modified blues of “Västerbron 5.30” (with a haunting vibraphone passage that brought me close to tears), and the sensational rendition of “Island” at the close of the set – a sonic poem dedicated to the land of ice and fire, a “Starless” for the 21st century, further enhanced by a supercharged guest appearance by Mattias Olsson on assorted sound effects.

Though for completely different reasons, Il Tempio delle Clessidre were high on my list of bands to see at NEARfest. I had been in contact with them for some time after their participation was announced, and a touch of patriotic pride in me wanted them to be a great success. Even if Gösta Berlings Saga would have been a tough act to follow for everyone, the five-piece from Genoa more than proved their worth. Led by the lovely and talented Elisa Montaldo – a young Siouxsie Sioux dressed in a black Victorian-style outfit – and featuring the warm, rugged vocals of former Museo Rosenbach vocalist Stefano “Lupo” Galifi, they owned the stage for 90 minutes. Blending the feel of vintage Italian prog with harder-edged vibes (provided by bassist Fabio Gremo and guitarist Giulio Canepa’s energetic, metal-inspired stage presence, as well as Paolo Tixi’s rock-solid drumming), their music was powerful, flawlessly executed yet rich in emotional content. Galifi’s voice owes more to blues and soul (he cited James Brown and Wilson Pickett as major influences) than to opera, in spite of the common misconception that any music coming out of Italy has to be “operatic” to some degree. Many in the audience were expecting to be treated to the whole of Zarathustra, Museo Rosenbach’s renowned 1973 album, though they had to content themselves with an extract of stunning intensity. Together with most of their self-titled debut album, the band performed three excellent new songs, as well as a cover of Kansas’ “Paradox” that segued into “L’Attesa”. One of the highlights of the set was the mostly instrumental “Danza Esoterica di Datura/Faldistorum”, which saw the band don masks and Elisa perform a sort of esoteric ritual that included a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Those who (probably forgetting about Peter Gabriel and his fox mask) indicted them of cheesiness were clearly not familiar with the ancient Greek and Roman tradition of wearing masks on stage, nor with the rich body of witch-related lore of the band’s home region of Liguria. Visibly moved by the experience of playing before such a crowd in a state-of-the-art venue, the band members brought to bear the skills acquired in their extensive live activity, and their performance was full of the sheer joy of sharing such a career-defining moment.

Alongside Twelfth Night, Mike Keneally Band were the only other act on the lineup I was not familiar with, though I had listened to a couple of songs on YouTube prior to the event. Like Änglågard on the previous day, they took to the stage somewhat late on schedule (around 5 p.m.), and finished equally late. Like the English band, they have their dedicated following, but left a sizable number of attendees rather cold, though for completely different reasons. An extremely talented outfit, led by guitarist/composer Mike Keneally (known for his stint with Frank Zappa, as well as a solo career) and featuring, among others, bassist Bryan Beller and (in a touch of exquisite irony) Umphrey McGee’s drummer Kris Myers, they play the kind of music that is undeniably progressive, but not in the way that will usually appeal to the average traditional prog fan. On a personal level, I was quite drained after the one-two punch of the first two sets, and had to leave after the first hour or so because of prior commitments. Moreover, in spite of its evidently high quality, I found that I could not relate to the music – even though liking the band’s eclectic, mainly song-based approach, with its emphasis on guitar rather than keyboards and warm jazz and blues influences. Mike Keneally proved a genial frontman, though his vocals were a bit of an acquired taste, as well as an outstanding guitarist. The band played some of the songs written by Keneally together with one of the most respected songwriters on the modern music scene, Andy Partridge of XTC fame; while Chris Buzby of Echolyn joined them on stage  for “Dolphins Medley”. Unfortunately, the billing did somewhat hurt an otherwise excellent band, as people were tired and hungry at that time of the day. I hope to have the opportunity to see them again when I am in better shape to appreciate their considerable talent.

Unlike many other attendees, my husband and I had not been particularly looking forward to Eloy as a headliner, and their almost last-minute replacement with UK was more to our taste (though we were obviously very sorry about Frank Bornemann’s health issues). As the Washington DC date had been cancelled due to poor ticket sales, we were glad to be able to see the band in such a historic occasion. Unfortunately, what happened on Sunday night gave new meaning to the saying “careful what you wish for”.  Due to technical issues, the band appeared on stage nearly 2 hours late (it was close to 11 p.m.), and then,  when everyone was seated and the lights went down, nothing happened for about 10 minutes – so that the crowd got restless, and some boos were heard. At that point, I was exhausted, and my husband even more so, and so annoyed that I contemplated leaving even before the start of the set (which was preceded by the obligatory round of credits to everyone involved in the making of the festival). Though we ended up staying for the first half an hour or so, I found myself completely unable to enjoy anything – even when the band played “Starless”, one of my favourite pieces of music ever – and started finding fault with almost everything. The very loud volume did not help to relieve our sense of exhaustion, so – even if  I knew I was going to miss some songs I have always adored – there was no choice for us but to leave and try to get some rest before heading back home the following day. It was deeply saddening, but in some ways also quite cathartic. To me, it felt as if that performance (which, in any case, most of the audience seemed to love) signaled the end of an era, and showed that it was time for the prog community to shed its Seventies obsession and move forward.

As we walked out of the venue, a few drops of rain were falling, and everything was quiet. On the way back to our hotel, we reflected that perhaps that was a fitting conclusion to a spectacular run of festivals, and in a way represented the current state of the progressive rock scene – torn between the glory days of the past and the fresh, irrepressible energy and creativity of the new guard. A band like Änglagård, in many ways, embodies the best of both worlds, and this is why they would have amply deserved that headliner spot that, unfortunately, seems to be denied to anyone not originating from the Seventies.

When we headed back home on Monday morning – still exhausted but happy – it was raining heavily, and the magnificent “Island” was playing in our car, reminding us of the moments of true glory of the past weekend. Even as relative newcomers to the festival scene, it was hard not to feel a pang of sadness for what had just ended; however, it was compounded by a sense of hope that something might soon be rising from the ashes.  Many thoughts have been running through my head in the past few days, but I will keep them for a separate article that will hopefully come some time in the next few weeks.

Anyway, it was encouraging to see many other women (even if there were no lines for the ladies’ restrooms), and also a few younger attendees, some of them barely out of their teens, and already so knowledgeable about progressive rock. As for myself, perhaps for the first time since I moved to the US, three and a half years ago, I felt as if I might finally feel at home in this country, especially when I saw so many people interested in my welfare after my recent immigration-related woes. I was also positively surprised to see my name mentioned at least twice in the programme (which I got Roger Dean to sign, as you can see from the photo above): it is always good to see your hard work pay off, even if not in monetary terms.

Before I wrap up my review, I would like to thank organizers Rob LaDuca, Chad Hutchinson and Kevin Feeley (as well as all their collaborators) for an unforgettable weekend, and for all the effort they put out to make the festival a reality, in spite of headaches such as having to find a suitable replacement for Eloy barely one month before the event, and having to deal with an occasionally troublesome bunch of “customers”. I understand why they are throwing in the towel, and hope that someone will be there to pick up from there. Kudos to them for the tribute to DFA’s keyboardist Alberto Bonomi (who tragically passed away one year ago) included in the programme.  Frank Bornemann’s touching video salute to the audience did not fail to move even those who were not Eloy fans, and the plugs for two forthcoming festivals – ProgDay and FarFest – were also a welcome touch that showed a commendable community spirit.

As usual, I also wish to mention all the great people I met during this amazing weekend: the collective members of Aranis, Gösta Berlings Saga and Helmet of Gnats, and of course my fellow Italians of Il Tempio delle Clessidre, as well as other great artists such as Raimundo Rodulfo, Dan Britton, Lynnette Shelley of The Red Masque with her gorgeous medieval-inspired art, Cyndee Lee Rule, the members of Echolyn, Matthew Parmenter and Matthew Kennedy of Discipline, and my friends Robert James Pashman and George Dobbs of 3RDegree, Phideaux Xavier, Ariel Farber and Linda Ruttan-Moldavsky of Phideaux, and Alan Benjamin (with his lovely wife Amy) and Joe D’Andrea of Advent. Then , Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder – whose latest venture Romantic Warriors II – About RIO was a big hit with the crowd, MoonJune Records head honcho Leonardo Pavkovic and his friend Sasha, Cuneiform Records’ Steve Feigenbaum and his wife Joyce, Greg Walker and his treasure trove of music, my DC-SOAR cohorts Tom Hudon, Mark Chapman and Debi Byrd, Steven Berkin of Exposé magazine, Mike Potter of the Orion Studios, Jeff and Coralita Wilson, Laura A. Dent and her husband Noel Levan, David Gaines, Helaine Carson Burch, Terri Simmons, Ian Carss (with his daughter Alex), John Hagelbarger, Rick Dashiell, Buster Harvey, über Italian prog fan Leo Hadley Jr. and his wife, and everyone else I may have forgotten to mention. Thanks also to everyone who stopped by and complimented me on my writing, and a special mention to our friend H.T. Riekels. It was great to see him again after two years.

This review is dedicated to two friends who, while we were having such a great time, were experiencing the worst moment of their lives – The Muffins’ drummer Paul Sears, whose son Niall lost his life in Afghanistan last Friday, and his wife Deborah. There is nothing I can say that will comfort them in their loss, but I hope to meet them again when they have regained a measure of peace.

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Even though it comes slightly late in comparison to other blogs and websites, this retrospective of the past year has been in the pipeline for a while. It is a first time for me, though obviously I have participated in quite a few surveys of this kind in my time as a collaborator of various music sites. However, the year 2011 has been uncommonly rich in excellent releases covering the whole of the progressive rock spectrum – similar in this to 2009 rather than the somewhat lackluster 2010.

My activity as a reviewer has also reached an unprecedented level in the past 12 months, and this (as well as other factors) have allowed me to listen to a wider range and number of new albums than in previous years – though not all of the albums I will be mentioning in the following paragraphs have been the object of a review. I have also been actively involved on the prog scene, attending festivals and gigs and keeping up a steady network of contacts with artists, label owners and fellow reviewers and fans. As the end-of-year statistics point out, the total number of views received by this blog in 2011 exceeded any of the expectations I had at the start of this venture, one and a half years ago.

Obviously, I cannot claim to have heard each and every prog (and related) album released in 2011, and quite of few of the big-name releases of the past year will be conspicuously absent from this overview. I will also refrain from using the usual list format, let alone a “Top 10/20/100” one, in spite of its undeniable popularity with music fans. While I am sure that everyone will be very curious to learn about my # 1 album of 2011,  this curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied, because I hardly ever think in terms of “absolute favourites”, and would be hard put to name my favourite band or artist (or literary author, for that matter). Although most “year in review” pieces do contain a measure of narcissism, the main aim of this post is to stimulate people’s curiosity, as well as debate, rather than turning it into a pointless competition of the “my list is better than yours” sort. We are all adult enough to be aware of the mostly subjective nature of lists, overviews, retrospectives and the like, and hopefully no one here is out to change other people’s minds.

In 2011, the prog “revival” reached unparalleled proportions, bolstered by the many opportunities offered by the Internet. In spite of the loud cries of woe about a supposed “death of the CD”, the number of acts that keep releasing their material in physical format is still quite high, and many of them still choose to put extra care in the artwork and liner notes, with often remarkable results. While the oversaturation of what remains very much a niche market cannot be denied, it is also true that high-quality productions are far from scarce, and the advent of legal streaming sites like the excellent Progstreaming has made it possible for everyone to sample an album before taking the plunge. Unfortunately, the wealth of music available either in digital or physical form does not correspond to higher availability of performing opportunities for those acts who still believe in the power of live performances. The shocking announcement of NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, at the end of March, rocked the prog fandom for months, and even the subsequent announcement of NEARfest Apocalypse for June 2012 did not allay many people’s fears concerning the dwindling range of gigging opportunities, especially here in the US (Europe, in spite of the economic crisis, seems to be doing much better in this respect). The prog community is also splintering in a way that, coupled with a worryingly nostalgic attitude and increasing reluctance to leave one’s own comfort zone, might spell disaster for the future.

2011 marked not only the return of a number of high-profile acts, but also some outstanding recording debuts. If I was forced at gunpoint to choose a favourite, this award would probably go to Texas-based trio Herd of Instinct’s self-titled debut, the first album released on Firepool Records, legendary Californian band Djam Karet’s own label. An almost entirely instrumental effort with the exception of one (gorgeous) song, the Herd’s debut shares this format with another of the year’s milestones, Accordo dei Contrari’s Kublai (whose only song features the incomparable vocals of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair). These two albums, as well as Marbin’s classy Breaking the Cycle and Dialeto’s intriguing Chromatic Freedom, illustrate how the song form can be reinvented in such a way as not to disrupt the flow of the music, incorporating the vocals into a fabric that hinges on complex instrumental interplay.

In the realm of the purely instrumental releases, top marks go to Gösta Berlings Saga’s stunning third album, Glue Works (“Island” alone is worth the price of admission), alongside a trio of AltrOck Productions releases – Ske’s elegant 1000 Autunni (the first solo project by Yugen keyboardist Paolo Botta), Calomito’s intense Cane di Schiena and Camembert’s ebullient Schnörgl Attack – and a couple of outstanding offers from the ever-reliable MoonJune Records, the world-jazz of Slivovitz’s Bani Ahead and the superb testimony of Moraine’s NEARfest 2010 set, Metamorphic Rock. Lovers of creative percussion will surely enjoy Knitting By Twilight’s enchanting Weathering (and possibly check out the Providence collective’s previous releases); while Lunatic Soul’s Impressions (the third solo album by Riverside’s Mariusz Duda) will satisfy those addicted to haunting, ethnic-tinged soundscapes. On a more traditional note, Derek Sherinian’s Oceana presents a solid example of guitar- and keyboard-based progressive fusion, which spotlights ensemble playing rather than individual displays of technical fireworks.

The 2011 releases that feature vocals as an essential part run the gamut from experimental to melody- and song-oriented. Big Block 454’s quirky Bells and Proclamations, and another couple of AltrOck releases – The Nerve Institute’s multifaceted Architect of Flesh-Density, and Dave Willey and Friends’ moving homage to Willey’s father, the beautiful Immeasurable Currents (review forthcoming) – are outstanding instances of the first category. More in a jazz than a rock vein, Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan showcases the Italian artist’s superlative vocal technique, all the while offering music that is eminently listenable and upbeat. The ultra-eclectic Zappa homage that is Electric Sorcery’s Believe in Your Own Best Friend throws a lot of diverse influences into its heady mix of outrageous storyline and constantly challenging music. On the other hand, Man On Fire’s Chrysalis is a blueprint for modern “crossover prog”, seamlessly blending the accessibility of Eighties-style quality pop with some seriously intricate instrumental work; while fellow 10T Records band Mars Hollow make a true quantum leap with their second album, World in Front of Me, which follows in the footsteps of early Yes in terms of successfully marrying gorgeous pop melodies with instrumental flights of fancy. However, the crown for 2011 in the realm of “mainstream” progressive rock goes to Phideaux’s magnificent Snowtorch, an incredibly dense concentrate of haunting vocals, memorable tunes and thought-provoking lyrical content.

Some landmark albums released during the past year are at least tangentially related to progressive rock. In all probability, my personal award of most played album of the year should go to Black Country Communion’s 2, a more mature, well-rounded effort than its barnstorming predecessor. Thanks to the Glenn Hughes-led quartet, classic hard rock is undergoing a renaissance, with a recognizable yet subtly updated sound. BCC guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s latest opus, Dust Bowl, while not revolutionary in any sense, features scintillating guitar and soulful vocals in its modern treatment of time-honoured blues modes. In a completely different vein, Kate Bush’s ninth studio album (not counting the rather controversial Director’s Cut, released a few months earlier), 50 Words for Snow, shows an artist that still possesses the ability and the power to surprise her followers. English contemporary classical ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra’s I A Moon (one of the year’s biggest discoveries for me, thanks to a friend’s recommendation) offer a mesmerizing blend of Old-World folk, avant-garde and academic chamber music that is, in many ways, much more progressive than the slew of cookie-cutter acts so revered in prog circles.

Some other albums, while not quite making the cut, have attracted enough of my interest, and are very much worth checking out: AltrOck releases Sanhedrin’s Ever After, Abrete Gandul’s Enjambre Sismico, Humble Grumble’s Flanders Fields, Factor Burzaco’s II and October EquusSaturnal, Ozric TentaclesPaper Monkeys, CopernicusCipher and Decipher, and From.uz’s Quartus Artifactus; for the more conservatively-minded listeners, The AnabasisBack From Being Gone, La Coscienza di Zeno’s self-titled debut, and TCP’s Fantastic Dreamer also deserve a mention. There have also been a number of albums that, even though heard superficially, and mainly in the final weeks of the year, have left enough of an impression to make me want to write about them at some point – chief among those, Discipline’s To Shatter All Accord.

As I anticipated at the opening of this essay, my readers will be sure to notice some glaring omissions from this overview. The most noticeable ones  are probably Jakszyk Fripp CollinsA Scarcity of Miracles and Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning – undoubtedly two of the most highly rated releases of the year. Unfortunately, in spite of repeated listens, neither album has yet clicked with me, even if I clearly perceive their very high standard of quality. Though I hesitate to use the term “disappointment”, The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead did not resonate with me in the same way as its predecessors; its songs, however, acquired a new dimension when performed live.

Some other high-profile 2011 releases have failed to register on my personal meter. Such is the case of Opeth’s Heritage, Karmakanic’s In a Perfect World, and White Willow’s Terminal Twilight – all excellent albums, but lacking in that undefinable “something” that would kindle my enthusiasm. Others (such as Wobbler’s acclaimed Rites at Dawn or Glass Hammer’s Cor Cordium), though in no way displeasing to the ear, are too staunchly, unabashedly retro to truly impress,. As to YesFly from Here (possibly the year’s most eagerly awaited release), I am not ashamed to admit that I have refused to listen to it – even though I own most of the band’s back catalogue, and their earlier albums get regular spins in my player. With up-and-coming acts struggling to get their music across, I believe that spending too much time on the interpersonal dynamics of a band that do not particularly need to be supported is quite detrimental to the scene as a whole.

Some other albums that have been very positively received (at least by part of the fandom) have escaped my attention completely, in some cases for lack of interest (Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events), or simply for lack of listening opportunities (Agents of Mercy’s The Black Forest, Mastodon’s The Hunter, Van Der Graaf Generator’s A Grounding in Numbers, The Tangent’s COMM, among others). Hopefully I will manage to hear at least some of those discs in the near future, and possibly write reviews of them. With the overwhelming quantity of music released in the past year, the very concrete danger of getting burned out (and therefore becoming unable to appreciate anything at all) is always lurking around the corner.

2011 has also been an outstanding year for concerts, as witnessed by the live reviews I have published in these pages. Besides seeing my beloved Blue Oyster Cult not once but twice (after a 25-year wait), I was treated to an outstanding edition of ProgDay, a stunning “goodbye” performance by Phideaux at the Orion Studios, the electrifying Two of a Perfect Trio tour, and the highly successful one-off CuneiFest (to name but a few). While the NEARfest cancellation cast a pall on the prog scene for some time, bands and artists are still doing their best to bring their music on stage for the benefits of those fans who still love to attend live shows.

Unlike other sites, I will refrain from mentioning “prog personalities”, or awarding any other such dubious prizes. As I previously stated, the whole point of this piece is to encourage people to delve into the abundant musical output of the past year, especially in regard to those lesser-known acts that deserve more exposure. With a few highly-awaited releases already in the pipeline for the coming months, it remains to be seen if 2012 will be able to keep up with its predecessor. On behalf of the survival of non-mainstream music, we all hope this will be the case.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. 354 (6:00)
2. Icosahedron (3:13)
3. Island (12:26)
4. Gliese 581g (6:16)
5. Waves (2:45)
6. Geosignal (2:09)
7. Soterargatan 1 (12:45)

LINEUP:
Einar Baldursson –  guitars
David Lundberg-  Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, synthesizers
Alexander Skepp – drums, percussion
Gabriel Hermansson-  bass guitar, Moog Taurus

With:
Mattias Olsson –  additional hidden & lost sounds
Fredrik Carlzon – French horn, trumpet
Cecilia Linné – cello
Leo Svensson – musical saw
Ulf Åkerstedt – bass tuba, bass trumpet, contrabass trumpet, bass harmonica

Hailing from the Swedish town of Vällingby, on the outskirts of Stockholm, and named after one of the masterpieces of their home country’s literature – a Gothic romance about a defrocked priest written in 1891 by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf – Gösta Berlings Saga are quite different from the stereotypical retro/symphonic-oriented Scandinavian prog band. Their debut album, Tid Är Ljud, was released in 2006, two years after the band’s formation; however, it took their sophomore effort, 2009’s Detta Här Hänt, to put them on the map of the international prog community, garnering very positive critical attention. Glue Works, the band’s first album for Cuneiform Records , came out a couple of months after the cancellation of the 2011 edition of NEARfest, which would have been Gösta Berlings Saga’s first appearance outside Europe – an appointment that has only been delayed, as the band’s inclusion in the lineup of NEARfest’s final edition (scheduled for June 2012) was announced at the end of October.

Produced by Änglagård/White Willow drummer Mattias Olsson, Glue Works (the first Gösta Berlings Saga album to bear an English title) stands out even in a year characterized by a glut of impressive prog releases. Like the band’s previous releases, it is a completely instrumental effort, comprising 7 tracks running between 2 and 12 minutes, and, at a mere 46 minutes, shorter than either of its predecessors. Even a cursory listen to the album will make it clear that Gösta Berlings Saga do not need to fill a CD to capacity to convey their musical message, which hinges on cohesion, intensity and mood-building rather than copious amounts of padding. Though their sound displays an unmistakable Northern European imprint – blending mellowness and angularity with subtle brushstrokes –  and the presence of Mattias Olsson anchors the album to the Scandinavian prog “renaissance” of the early Nineties,  some distinctly modern features lurk beneath those Mellotron washes.

On a scene where, in spite of the “progressive” name, true originality is very often at a premium, Gösta Berlings Saga’s approach, while not forsaking the complexity that is synonymous with progressive rock, also relies on other factors to make an impact. Rather than hitting the listeners over the head with mind-boggling time signature changes and flashy solo spots, they balance the sheer emotional intensity of their compositions with a remarkably disciplined texture, where each instrument contributes to the whole instead of striving for the spotlight. With a classic configuration of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards augmented by cello, horns and some not so usual presences such as the musical saw and other assorted effects, the band produce an impressive volume of sound while keeping a tight rein on any temptation to overreach themselves.

Opener “354” develops from a main theme repeated in a tense, almost obsessive fashion, intensified by the piercing tone of Einar Baldursson’s guitar and David Lundberg’s sparse electric piano, building up to a climax whose hauntingly cinematic quality is emphasized by the eerie sound of the musical saw. Alexander Skepp’s forceful drumming, coupled with Gabriel Hermansson’s growling bass lines, propels the composition forward with a mesmerizing precision reminiscent of Univers Zéro’s Daniel Denis. This imperious, faintly menacing mood is reprised by the much shorter, but equally hard-hitting “Icosahedron”, whose wistful, autumnal-sounding piano bookends are offset by a jagged, slightly dissonant guitar solo.

It is with “Island”, however, that Glue Works really comes into its own. This towering, 12-minute wild ride – epic in the true sense of the word – packs a punch that is both emotional and intellectual, its relentless, wave-like surge reminiscent of post-rock/post-metal bands like Pelican or Ulver. The track opens with the steady, mournful drone of Cecilia Linné’s cello, bringing to mind Anekdoten and  creating that subdued, intimate mood so typical of “chamber rock”. Then lilting piano and keen-edged guitar add their voices to the heady instrumental stew, driven along by the commanding pace of the drums; the final section blends abrasive sounds with warmer, organic ones in an exhilarating climax. After such unadulterated intensity, the sparse, atmospheric texture of “Gliese 581g” (the name of a small planet in the constellation of the Libra) almost feels like a welcome respite; however, the track’s second half develops in a completely different direction, strongly rhythmic with razor-sharp guitar slashes.

Two short tracks, the atmospheric, synth-driven “Waves” with its solemn, almost tribal beat, and the tense, ominous “Geosignal” introduce the album’s final and longest number, “Sorterargatan 1” (named after a street in the band’s home town of Vällingby, and reprising a track featured on Detta Här Hänt). Though not as viscerally intense as “Island”, it is a dramatic slice of Crimsonian angularity interspersed with the imposing, martial stride of Magma, the powerful surge of the drums and bass bolstering the lead guitar’s unbridled exertions – until, all of a sudden, everything subsides, leaving the stage to sparse piano and gently chiming glockenspiel, later fleshed out by the addition of cello and horns in a poignant, melancholy-drenched coda.

With its minimalistic packaging and boldly eclectic approach, Glue Works manages to sound thoroughly modern without rejecting the influence of the “founding fathers” of prog. Indeed, it successfully marries the no-holds-barred intensity of King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator and Univers Zéro with the entrancing, layered textures of post-rock, achieving a nearly perfect mix of melody, atmospherics and aggression. Challenging without being inaccessible, impeccably executed yet devoid of self-indulgence, Glue Works is a must-listen for lovers of instrumental prog, and highly recommended to everyone else. Gösta Berlings Saga have established themselves as one of the bands to watch in this second decade of the 21st century, and their performance at NEARfest 2012 promises to be memorable.

Links:
http://www.gostaberlingssaga.se/

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After months of speculation and restless waiting, barely a month ago NEARfest’s comeback in 2012 was finally announced. Unfortunately, only a few days later, the enthusiasm of US progressive rock fans was dampened again when the organizers unequivocably stated that the  fittingly- titled NEARfest Apocalypse would signal the end of the festival that for 12 years had occupied a prominent place in the calendar of devotees of all things progressive. On the Internet discussion board that has been providing the main support for the festival since its inception, the organizing committee (now down to 3 members) promised a bash to be remembered in the annals of the international prog community – sparking off thread after thread of suggestions, speculations and the occasional attempt at levity.

On the evening of Saturday, October 29, the eagerly-awaited lineup was officially announced on the Philadelphia-based Gagliarchives online radio station. Having followed the debate, and mulled over the organizers’ outspoken statements about pleasing the crowd with strong headliners – in order to avoid a repeat of this year’s cancellation, as well as cater to expectations about bowing out with a bang – I had few illusions about the lineup, which I expected to be a collection of “classic” bands from the Seventies (those that some of my acquaintances, much less charitably, would call “museum” or “dinosaur” acts) with a handful of newer bands thrown in to appease those with more cutting-edge tastes. Three years of regular contact with the US prog scene have taught me that, for most people, new or obscure bands are a wonderful resource to gain “cool” credentials in online discussions, but this does not extend to supporting their live endeavours, especially as regards festival appearances.

Unfortunately, in spite of the USA’s reputation as a cradle of progress and modernity, prog fans, musically speaking, are by and large a surprisingly conservative bunch. While this may be related to the country’s somewhat marginal status in the “prog explosion” of the Seventies, the way US prog fans seem to cling desperately to the past never fails to unsettle me. There is an obvious disconnect between the vibrant, variegated scene – comprising hundreds of bands of all ages that compose and perform outstanding examples of progressive rock, from symphonic to avant-garde to prog-metal, and have long since overtaken the genre’s cradle, the UK, in terms of quality – and its often hidebound audience. The dismal state of the economy may not have helped, but (as I pointed out in one of the articles I wrote in the aftermath of NEARfest 2011’s cancellation) it has not prevented festivals of every description from springing up all over Europe. In the summer of 2011, my native Italy (despite its well-known economic woes) was teeming with prog festivals that encompassed both “old glories” and modern acts – in some cases allowing seasoned veterans and up-and-coming musicians to share a stage, as in the case of the collaboration between Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair and the excellent jazz-rock outfit Accordo dei Contrari.

Anyway, I was rather taken aback by how the lineup announcement was greeted by the prospective attendees on their discussion board of choice. While the previous days had seen a proliferation of threads containing the inevitable speculations, nostalgia-drenched reminiscences, and the obligatory sniping, on the “day after” the tone of the discussion was oddly subdued. Although there was a measure of gushing praise (including definitions of “dream lineup” and the like), on the whole it felt a bit hollow, as if the enthusiasm was somewhat forced, and – at least judging by the limited number of responses – not too widely shared. Knowing that the 2012 bash will be the last edition of the festival has undoubtedly put a damper on the fans’ enthusiasm, in spite of their attempts to rationalize things and turn NEARfest’s final curtain into a celebration. To make matters worse, the decision to call it quits has resulted in a sort of protracted wake with rather creepy overtones. Life can be sad enough without having to commemorate the passing of something that was dear to us almost a year in advance, wallowing in the expectation of dissolving in tears when the curtain will fall for the last time. While I am all too aware that everything must end, I do not think it is particularly healthy to spend months anticipating something that will ultimately cause sadness.

On any account, I am quite sure that people (though most of them will never admit it) are very much aware that the festival’s demise might have been avoided. I realize that, back in the spring, the organizers were left with little choice but cancel, unless they wanted to risk losing large amounts of their own money; nonetheless, such a traumatic event caused a visible rift in the US prog community, one that may never heal completely. NEARfest’s disappearance will mean the loss of one of the most important showcases for bands old and new, as well as a means for artists to network and sell their music and merchandise. I know for a fact that, in the community of artists, there is widespread resentment against the close-mindedness of those who were supposed to support them, and the splintering of the prog audience into parochial, subgenre-focused events is certainly not going to improve things for anyone looking for gigs. NEARfest’s greatest strength lay in its eclectic nature, and the mere suspicion that this very eclecticism may have contributed to its demise is very sobering.

As to the lineup itself – though my aim here is not to criticize the organizers, who had to deal with the strictures of having to satisfy an audience largely and firmly stuck in the past – it left me more than a tad perplexed, and definitely underwhelmed. Some of the historic Seventies bands that are still active on the live front, such as Yes and Jethro Tull, are too expensive for the organization’s budget, and the same applies to some of the icons of the modern scene, like Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree or Dream Theater. Then, after last spring’s cold shower, the close-mindedness of the prog community as a whole had become quite evident, so it seemed wise to rule out acts with roots in heavy metal or alternative rock; even RIO/Avant bands might be considered a risky choice, bound as they are to appeal to a “fringe”.

However, as aware as I was of the quest for the “big draw”, I found the choice of Sunday headliner particularly puzzling. While Eloy seem to be great favourites with some prominent members of the community, I fail to see how, in the grand scheme of things, they can be seen as less obscure than Curved Air or New Trolls, or more influential for the development of the genre than Van Der Graaf Generator (one of the few “vintage” acts that are still very much relevant nowadays).  On the other hand, Eloy have never performed in the US before, which will make their performance an historic occurrence of sorts, and their European origins make them automatically superior to any homegrown band. Another rather puzzling choice was the inclusion of Gösta Berlings Saga, one of the bands that were on this year’s aborted lineup. In my view, it would have been best to start completely from scratch, as the Swedish band’s inclusion will inevitably feel like a slight to the other bands that were damaged by NEARfest 2011’s sudden cancellation.

Some of my readers might wonder why I am so invested in the matter, and have made the effort of writing some rather extensive opinion pieces. After all, I am not a musician, and – though I have been living in the US for three years – I am not a native of the country, and will probably move away some time in the future. True, I might qualify as a “prog fan”, though I like to see myself rather as a fan of interesting music. However, the main cause lies in my own psychological makeup. I tend to embrace causes that I deem worthy,  even if my personal investment in the matter is not particularly strong. Getting in touch with so many recording artists, and in quite a few cases meeting them personally and forming friendships, has undoubtedly been one of the most rewarding aspects of my move to the US (otherwise somewhat frustrating for a number of reasons). Paralleled by my collaboration as a reviewer with some established websites dedicated to progressive rock, this has given me an insider’s view of the struggles of non-mainstream musicians in this day and age. Being aware of what these talented people often have to endure in order to practice their artistic calling has driven me to champion their cause, and I have no problem in admitting that I would definitely like to do more – like investing some time and money in the organization of even a small-scale event, in spite of not being exactly business-minded.

Indeed, I believe that scaling things back, instead of calling it quits altogether, might have been an alternative worth exploring. Choosing a smaller venue (with consequently lower prices, more affordable for people badly hit by the recession), at least for a couple of years, would have avoided a cancellation that, to all intents of purposes, sounded the festival’s death knell. As for many people the attraction of those events is social as much as musical, they might have appreciated the possibility to hang out with their friends without risking bankruptcy. That would have also allowed the organizers a broader range of choices.

At risk of sounding overly pessimistic, I do not hold much hope for the US prog scene, in spite of the wealth of great bands and artists that go through all sorts of struggles to get their music across. Bluntly put, even the highest-rated modern US-based band may attract 100 people at a venue like the Orion Studios (as witnessed by the Phideaux gig of October 1), but will always be considered second- or third-tier if compared to any foreign band, and certainly not worthy as a festival headliner. The lack of performing opportunities, coupled with people’s apathy, will advantage studio-only projects, and the illegal downloading culture may well do the rest – stunting the amazing revival of progressive music that has been going on for over a decade. Those of us who are in the reviewing “business” in order to help the artists and not just to get music for free may end up feeling (as I do sometimes) that our work is like Sisyphus’ endless, pointless task. Still, I will try to keep a positive outlook, and hope that, after NEARfest 2012 is archived, the US prog community will regroup in order to prevent the scene from dying a slow death. For the time being, I would be satisfied if the NEARfest parable had taught people not to take anything for granted – especially those few things that bring joy into our lives.

Links:
http://www.nearfest.com

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