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Posts Tagged ‘Herd of Instinct’

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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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herd

TRACKLISTING:
1. Manifestation Part Two (5:54)
2. Gridlock (3:37)
3. Baba Yaga (4:35)
4. Manifestation Part One (5:16)
5. Saddha (7:00)
6. Nocturne (1:48)
7. Dybbuk (6:08)
8. Time and Again (3:26)
9. Shatterpoint (6:34)
10. Waterfalls and Black Rainbows (3:46)

LINEUP:
Mark Cook – Warr guitar, fretted and fretless guitar, fretless bass, mellotron, thumb piano, synth, samples
Gayle Ellett – mellotron, moog, Hammond organ, guitar
Mike McGary: mellotron, Rhodes, organ, clavinet, synth, piano, bells
Rick Read – Chapman stick, fretted and fretless bass, Taurus pedals
Ross Young – drums

With:
Bill Bachman – drums (1, 3, 7)
Bob Fisher – flute (4-7), saxophone (2, 8)
Stephen Page – violin (2, 6, 9, 8)

Three years after Conjure, Herd of Instinct are back with a brand-new album, and an equally brand-new lineup. Only Mark Cook (recently in the spotlight on Hands’ outstanding 2015 album, Caviar Bobsled) remains of the original trio that released its self-titled debut in 2011, immediately awakening the interest of the progressive rock fandom. Drummer Jason Spradlin and guitarist Mark Davison have left, replaced by Ross Young and Rick Read,  a pair of excellent musicians from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, formerly with Cook in another local outfit named Minefield. The lineup is completed by multi-instrumentalist Gayle Ellett (of Djam Karet and Fernwood fame) and keyboardist Mike McGary. Drummer Bill Bachman (the other half of the Spoke of Shadows project), violinist Stephen Page and flutist/saxophonist Bob Fisher (who guested on the band’s previous albums) are also on board.

Released on Djam Karet’s Firepool Records label, Manifestation marks both a continuation and an evolution in the band’s approach. While its sound is almost immediately recognizable, based as it is on the versatile, hypnotic sound of the Warr guitar and other touch instruments, it has also acquired a dimension that I might call “symphonic” – though not exactly in the sense it is commonly meant when discussing prog. Indeed, Herd of Instinct may be one of the few currently active bands who have managed to forge their own individual sound, in which influences are incorporated into the fabric of the music without coming across as overtly derivative. The overall effect is one of effortless melody coupled with heady tempo shifts, where the sharper edges are softened by the lush, multilayered instrumental texture. In particular, Rick Read’s Chapman stick and the pervasive presence of prog’s iconic instrument, the mellotron, add depth and complexity – as well as that symphonic feel that sets the album apart from its more austere predecessors.

Clocking in at under 50 minutes, Manifestation continues with the band’s tradition of compositions whose short yet pithy titles evoke mental images. On three of the ten completely instrumental tracks, a somewhat longer running time than on the band’s previous albums allows the musicians to display a wide range of modes of expression, though leaving no room for self-indulgence.

Opener “Manifestation Part Two” introduces the “new” Herd of Instinct, successfully infusing  the band’s seamless ensemble dynamics and stunning solo spots with a haunting sense of melody. Interestingly, “Manifestation Part One” occupies the fourth slot, reprising most of the features of “Part One” (including a lovely Warr guitar solo towards the end), though in somewhat more streamlined fashion. In “Gridlock” the sleek interplay of violin, saxophone and guitar is supported by a brisk drum beat, while the Hammond organ and wailing guitar in the angular “Time and Again” blend vintage psychedelic suggestions with echoes of Eighties King Crimson. On the other hand, intriguing funky elements and an almost wild guitar solo coexist with sound effects and majestic mellotron washes in the energetic “Shatterpoint”.

Manifestation does not forget to tap into Herd of Instinct’s trademark Gothic vein, evoked by the weirdly bleak landscape depicted by the album’s cover art. While the strategically-placed, flute-and-violin interlude “Nocturne” turns from pastoral to almost dissonant in under two minutes, “Baba Yaga” paints a haunting, doom-laden picture in which gentle classical guitar arpeggios are juxtaposed with eerie keyboards and harsh riffs. The intense “Dybbuk” takes the listener on a rollercoaster ride, introducing elements of jazz (courtesy of Rick Read’s fretless bass) and metal into its foundation of interlocking guitar lines fleshed out by keyboards. The 7-minute “Saddha” (a Sanskrit word for “faith”, one of the central tenets of Buddhism)  makes use of a panoply of eerie, ominous sound effects (including a spoken reference to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis) to reinforce the darkly Crimsonian tapestry of guitar, mellotron and flute, backed by Ross Young’s uncannily precise drumming. Finally, “Waterfalls and Black Rainbows” starts out in almost subdued fashion, then increases its dramatic quotient to wrap up the album in style.

Although 2016 promises to be a bumper year for progressive releases, Manifestation is already poised to become a favourite for many of the genre’s devotees. With this album, Herd of Instinct prove they have finally reached their maturity, and have the potential to go on to even better things. Highly recommended to fans of  instrumental prog (especially the King Crimson-inspired brand),  Manifestation is also a must-listen for anyone interested in touch guitars, either as a listener or as a practitioner.

Links:
http://herdofinstinct.wix.com/herdofinstinct

https://www.facebook.com/Herd-of-Instinct-153462274689341/

 

 

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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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As the title of this post suggests, 2013 was another bumper year for progressive music – perhaps without as many peaks of excellence as the two previous years, but still offering a wide range of high-quality releases to the discerning listener. On the other hand, it was also a year in which the need for some form of quality control emerged quite sharply. The sheer number of releases that might be gathered under the “prog” umbrella made listening to everything a practically impossible feat – unless one wanted to risk some serious burnout. As modern technology has afforded the tools to release their own music to almost anyone, it has also fostered a sense of entitlement in some artists as regards positive feedback, even when their product is clearly not up to scratch. 2013 also evidenced the growing divide within the elusive “prog community”, with the lingering worship of anything Seventies-related in often sharp contrast with the genuine progressive spirit of many artists who delve deep into musical modes of expression of a different nature from those that inspired the golden age of the genre.

While, on a global level, 2013 was fraught with as many difficulties as 2012, personally speaking (with the exception of the last two or three months) the year as a whole was definitely more favourable – which should have encouraged me to write much more than I actually did. Unfortunately, a severe form of burnout forced me into semi-retirement in the first few months of the year, occasionally leading me to believe that I would never write a review ever again. Because of that, I reviewed only a small percentage of the albums released during the past 12 months; however, thanks to invaluable resources such as Progstreaming, Progify and Bandcamp, I was able to listen to a great deal of new music, and form an opinion on many of the year’s highlights.

I apologize beforehand to my readers if there will be some glaring omissions in this essay. As usual, my personal choices will probably diverge from the “mainstream” of the prog audience, though I am sure they will resonate with others. This year I have chosen to use a slightly different format than in the previous two years, giving more or less the same relevance to all the albums mentioned in the following paragraphs. Those who enjoy reading “top 10/50/100” lists will be better served by other websites or magazines: my intent here is to provide an overview of what I found to be worthy of note in the past 12 months, rather than rank my choices in order of preference.

Interestingly, two of my top 2013 albums (both released at the end of January) came from the UK – a country that, in spite of its glorious past, nowadays rarely produces music that sets my world on fire. Although the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Guapo’s History of the Visitation and the lyricism and subtle complexity of Thieves’ Kitchen’s One for Sorrow, Two for Joy may sound wildly different, they both represent a side of the British progressive rock scene where the production of challenging music is still viewed as viable, and image-related concerns are a very low priority.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK was prodigal with interesting releases for every prog taste. Among the more left-field offerings coming from the other side of the pond, I will mention Sanguine Hum’s multilayered sophomore effort, The Weight of the World – one of those rare albums that are impossible to label; Godsticks’ intricate, hard-hitting The Envisage Conundrum; the unique “classical crossover” of Karda Estra’s Mondo Profondo; The Fierce and the Dead’s fast and furious Spooky Action (think King Crimson meets punk rock); Tim Bowness’ Henry Fool with Men Singing, their second album after a 12-year hiatus; and Brighton-based outfit Baron (who share members with Diagonal and Autumn Chorus) with their haunting Columns. A mention is also amply deserved by volcanic multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson’s projects Jumble Hole Clough and Churn Milk Joan – whose numerous albums are all available on Bandcamp. The prize for the most authentically progressive UK release of the year, however, should probably be awarded to Chrome Black Gold by “experimental chamber rock orchestra” Chrome Hoof, who are part of the Cuneiform Records roster and share members with their label mates Guapo.

The US scene inaugurated the year with the late January release of Herd of Instinct’s second album, Conjure, a completely instrumental effort that saw the basic trio augmented by Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards fleshing out the band’s haunting, cinematic sound. Ellett’s main gig (who will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2014) also made their studio comeback with The Trip, featuring a single 47-minute track combining ambient, electronics-laden atmospheres (as per self-explanatory title) with a full-tilt psychedelic rock jam. Later in the year, Little Atlas’ solid Automatic Day and Sonus Umbra’s brooding Winter Soulstice brought back two bands that had long been out of the limelight. From the US also came a few gems that, unfortunately, have almost flown under the radar of the prog fandom, such as The Knells’ eponymous debut with its heady blend of post-rock, classical music and polyphony; Jack O’The Clock’s intriguing American folk/RIO crossover All My Friends; Birds and Buildings’ über-eclectic Multipurpose Trap; The Red Masque’s intensely Gothic Mythalogue; and the ambitious modern prog epic of And The Traveler’s The Road, The Reason.

The fall season brought some more left-field fireworks from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions and Cuneiform Records. miRthkon’s Snack(s) and ZeviousPassing Through the Wall, both outstanding examples of high-energy modern progressive rock by two veritable forces of nature in a live setting, were preceded by Miriodor’s long-awaited eighth studio album, Cobra Fakir, premiered at ProgDay in an utterly flawless set. More RIO/Avant goodness came from Europe with Humble Grumble’s delightfully weird Guzzle It Up, Rhùn’s Zeuhl workout Ïh, October Equus’s darkly beautiful Permafrost, and Spaltklang’s unpredictable In Between. From Sweden came Necromonkey’s self-titled debut, an idiosyncratic but fascinating effort born of the collaboration between drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson and Gösta Berlings Saga keyboardist David Lundberg.

Among the myriad of prog-metal releases of the year, another UK band, Haken, stood head and shoulders above the competition: their third album The Mountain transcended the limitations of the subgenre, and drew positive feedback even from people who would ordinarily shun anything bearing a prog-metal tag. Much of the same considerations might apply to Kayo Dot’s highly anticipated Hubardo, though the latter album is definitely much less accessible and unlikely to appeal to more traditional-minded listeners. Fans of old-fashioned rock operas found a lot to appreciate in Circle of Illusion’s debut, Jeremias: Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms, a monumentally ambitious, yet surprisingly listenable album in the tradition of Ayreon’s sprawling epics, rated by many much more highly than the latter’s rather lacklustre The Theory of Everything.

Some of the year’s most intriguing releases came from countries that are rarely featured on the prog map. One of my personal top 10 albums, Not That City by Belarus’ Five-Storey Ensemble (one of two bands born from the split of Rational Diet) is a sublime slice of chamber-prog that shares more with classical music than with rock. Five-Storey Ensemble’s Vitaly Appow also appears on the deeply erudite, eclectic pastiche of fellow Belarusians (and AltrOck Productions label mates) The Worm OuroborosOf Things That Never Were. The exhilarating jazz-rock-meets-Eastern-European-folk brew provided by Norwegian quintet Farmers’ Market’s fifth studio album, Slav to the Rhythm, was another of the year’s highlights, guaranteed to please fans of eclectic progressive music. From an even more exotic locale, Uzbekistan’s own Fromuz regaled their many fans with the dramatic Sodom and Gomorrah, a recording dating back from 2008 and featuring the band’s original lineup.

In the jazz-rock realm, releases ran the gamut from modern, high-adrenalin efforts such as The AristocratsCulture Clash, Volto!’s Incitare by (featuring Tool’s drummer Danny Carey), and keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni’s debut Keystone (produced by Derek Sherinian) to the multifaceted approach of French outfit La Théorie des Cordes’ ambitious, all-instrumental double CD Singes Eléctriques, the sprawling, ambient-tinged improv of Shrunken Head Shop’s Live in Germany, and the hauntingly emotional beauty of Blue Cranes’ Swim. Trance Lucid’s elegantly eclectic Palace of Ether and the intricate acoustic webs of Might Could’s Relics from the Wasteland can also be warmly recommended to fans of guitar-driven, jazz-inflected instrumental music.

Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records, however, proved throughout the year as the most reliable single provider of high-quality music effortlessly straddling the rock and the jazz universe, with the triumphant comeback of Soft Machine Legacy and their superb Burden of Proof, The Wrong Object’s stunning slice of modern Canterbury, After the Exhibition, and Marbin’s sophisticated (if occasionally a a bit too “easy”) Last Chapter of Dreaming. Pavkovic’s frequent forays into the booming Indonesian scene brought masterpieces such as simakDialog’s fascinating, East-meets-West The 6th Story, and I Know You Well Miss Clara’s stylish Chapter One – as well as Dewa Budjana’s ebullient six-string exertions in Joged Kahyangan. Dialeto’s contemporary take on the power trio, The Last Tribe, and Dusan Jevtovic’s high-octane Am I Walking Wrong? also featured some noteworthy examples of modern guitar playing with plenty of energy and emotion.

Song-based yet challenging progressive rock was well represented in 2013 by the likes of Half Past Four’s second album, the amazingly accomplished Good Things, propelled by lead vocalist Kyree Vibrant’s career-defining performance; fellow Canadians The Rebel Wheel’s spiky, digital-only concept album Whore’s Breakfast;  Simon McKechnie’s sophisticated, literate debut Clocks and Dark Clouds; and newcomers Fractal Mirror with their moody, New Wave-influenced Strange Attractors. New Jersey’s 3RDegree also released a remastered, digital-only version of their second album, Human Interest Story (originally released in 1996). Iranian band Mavara’s first international release, Season of Salvation, also deserves a mention on account of the band’s struggles to carve out a new life in the US, away from the many troubles of their home country.

Even more so than in the past few years, many of 2013’s gems hailed from my home country of Italy, bearing witness to the endless stream of creativity of a scene that no economic downturn can dampen. One of the most impressive debut albums of the past few years came from a young Rome-based band by the name of Ingranaggi della Valle, whose barnstorming In Hoc Signo told the story of the Crusades through plenty of exciting modern jazz-rock chops, without a hint of the cheesiness usually associated with such ventures. Another stunning debut, the wonderfully quirky Limiti all’eguaglianza della parte con il tutto by Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res, delighted fans of the Canterbury scene; while Not A Good Sign’s eponymous debut blended the angular, King Crimson-inspired melancholia of Änglagård and Anekdoten with that uniquely Italian melodic flair. After their successful NEARfest appearance in 2012, Il Tempio delle Clessidre made their comeback with  AlieNatura, an outstanding example of modern symphonic prog recorded with new vocalist Francesco Ciapica; while fellow Genoese quintet La Coscienza di Zeno made many a Top 10 list with their supremely accomplished sophomore effort, Sensitività. Another highly-rated Genoese outfit, La Maschera di Cera, paid homage to one of the landmark albums of vintage RPI – Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona – by releasing a sequel, titled Le Porte del Domani (The Gates of Tomorrow in its English version). Aldo Tagliapietra’s L’angelo rinchiuso saw the legendary former Le Orme bassist and frontman revert to a more classic prog vein, while iconic one-shot band Museo Rosenbach followed the example of other historic RPI bands and got back together to release Barbarica. Even PFM treated their many fans to a new double album, though scarce on truly new material: as the title implies, PFM in Classic: Da Mozart a Celebration contains versions of iconic classical pieces performed by the band with a full orchestra, as well as five of their best-known songs. Among the newcomers, Camelias Garden’s elegant You Have a Chance presents a streamlined take on melodic symphonic prog, while Unreal City’s La crudeltà di Aprile blends Gothic suggestions with the classic RPI sound; on the other hand, Oxhuitza’s self-titled debut and Pandora’s Alibi Filosofico tap into the progressive metal vein without turning their backs to their Italian heritage. Il Rumore Bianco’s Area-influenced debut EP Mediocrazia brought another promising young band to the attention of prog fans.

However, some of the most impressive Italian releases of the year can be found on the avant-garde fringes of the prog spectrum. Besides Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days (featuring contributions by Thinking Plague’s Elaine DiFalco, as well as most of his Yugen bandmates), OTEME’s superb Il giardino disincantato – a unique blend of high-class singer-songwriter music and Avant-Prog complexity – and the sophisticated, atmospheric jazz-rock of Pensiero Nomade’s Imperfette Solitudini deserve to be included in the top albums of the year. To be filed under “difficult but ultimately rewarding” is Claudio Milano’s international project InSonar with the double CD L’enfant et le Ménure, while Nichelodeon’s ambitious Bath Salts (another double CD) will appeal to those who enjoy vocal experimentation in the tradition of Demetrio Stratos.

My readers will have noticed a distinct lack of high-profile releases in the previous paragraphs.n Not surprisingly for those who know me, some of the year’s top-rated albums (such as The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, The Flower KingsDesolation Rose and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) are missing from this list because I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to them. Others have instead been heard, but have not left a positive enough impression to be mentioned here, and I would rather focus on the positives than on what did not click with me. In any case, most of those albums have received their share of rave reviews on many other blogs, websites and print magazines. I will make, however, one exception for Steven Wilson’s much-praised The Raven Who Refused to Sing, as I had the privilege of seeing it performed in its entirety on the stage of the Howard Theatre in Washington DC at the end of April. Though the concert was excellent, and the stellar level of Wilson’s backing band undoubtedly did justice to the material, I am still not completely sold about the album being the undisputed masterpiece many have waxed lyrical about.

In addition to successful editions of both ROSfest and ProgDay (which will be celebrating its 20th  anniversary in 2014), 2013 saw the birth of two new US festivals: Seaprog (held in Seattle on the last weekend of June) and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (held in Dunellen, New Jersey, on October 12-13). As luckily both events enjoyed a good turnout, 2014 editions are already being planned. There were also quite a few memorable concerts held throughout the year, though we did not attend as many as we would have wished. In spite of the often painfully low turnout (unless some big name of the Seventies is involved), it is heartwarming to see that bands still make an effort to bring their music to the stage, where it truly belongs.

On a more somber note, the year 2013 brought its share of heartache to the progressive rock community. Alongside the passing of many influential artists (such as Peter Banks, Kevin Ayers and Allen Lanier), in December I found myself mourning the loss of John Orsi and Dave Kulju, two fine US musicians whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing in the past few years. Other members of the community were also affected by grievous personal losses. Once again, even in such difficult moments, music offers comfort to those who remain, and keeps the memory of the departed alive.

In my own little corner of the world, music has been essential in giving me a sense of belonging in a country where I will probably never feel completely at home. Even if my enjoyment of music does have its ups and downs, and sometimes it is inevitable to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of new stuff to check out, I cannot help looking forward to the new musical adventures that 2014 will bring.

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In spite of the brutal heat and humidity that marred last year’s edition, ProgDay had got us so well and truly hooked that we had started counting the days a good three months before this year’s event. The morning of Friday, August 29 saw us head south to North Carolina for the fourth time in as many years to attend the festival’s 19th consecutive edition – a true feat considering the fickle and finicky nature of the US prog audience. Over the years, ProgDay has built a loyal fanbase that, while never reaching the size of the audiences that have attended other prog festivals, has never failed to deliver quality-wise, and constantly attracted new attendees. Indeed, ProgDay XIX brought quite a few new faces to the green, tree-ringed sward of Storybook Farm, and a new batch of people won over by an event that, while unpretentious almost by definition, has become the ideal showcase for all kinds of challenging music.

After an uneventful car ride from our Northern Virginia home, we reached the hotel in time for lunch, followed by some well-needed rest. Then it was time for us to reconnect with the many friends we have made through our mutual love of music. This year was made even more special by the presence of some people we had not yet managed to meet in person, though we already considered them good friends.

As a complement to the main event, the Labor Day weekend also offered two “pre-show” gigs at Chapel Hill’s Local 506, all involving ProgDay alumni: Half Past Four, Dreadnaught and 3RDegree on Friday, Mörglbl on Sunday. Unfortunately, Canadian quintet Half Past Four had were stopped at the border and had to be replaced by outstanding Chapman Stick specialist Rob Martino. Since the Friday night show promised to go on until late, and we wanted to be in good shape for the following day, we decided to have dinner and then get a good night’s sleep.

While not as unrelentingly hot and humid as last year, the weekend weather was still typical of North Carolina at the tail end of summer, with high levels of humidity throughout the day. When we got to the Farm on Saturday morning, the grass was drenched with dew, and some early attendees were pitching their tents and canopies on the field. A cool early morning breeze tempered the intense humidity and brought the relief of some occasional clouds, but the strength of the sun already promised to make things somewhat uncomfortable later in the day. We hung out with various friends, browsed the CD stands, then sat down and waited for the first band to come on the stage.

As some rescheduling had been necessary on the part of the organizers, the festival was inaugurated by the band that had been announced last, a mere couple of weeks ago. Though Mavara (meaning “beyond everything you think”) hail originally from Iran (their only non-Iranian member being drummer Jim Welch), they have been living in the US for some time – for reasons that are not hard to fathom for anyone who knows the situation of that history-laden part of the world. Led by keyboardist Farhood Ghadiri, they enjoyed widespread success in their home country before circumstances forced them to move to the US, where they currently reside in the New England region. Having heard a few samples on the ProgDay website, I knew their music was probably not going to be my cup of tea; I am experienced enough to know that the stage can transform any kind of music into something different. Though obviously a bit nervous when they first took to the stage, they gradually warmed up and became more communicative, though a certain stiffness remained throughout their set. With two keyboardists (Ghadiri and a young woman, petite blonde Anis Oveisi), their sound was heavily skewed towards 80’s Rush (especially circa Power Windows), Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd (the latter especially in the lead guitar parts), as well as a touch of early Dream Theater. Lead vocalist Ashkan Hamedi belted out the songs out with impressive power and confidence coupled to a strong sense of melody that suited the music well. Though Mavara are by far one of the most “mainstream” bands I have seen on the PD stage, their music – while somewhat generic –  has the potential to appeal to a lot of people, and they seemed to be well received by the crowd. Moreover, they certainly deserve a shot in the limelight after all they have been through – especially being away from their native country, and living in a place that is not always welcoming to outsiders (a situation I know all too well).

The contrast between the first and the second band on the Saturday bill could not have been greater, as around lunchtime French Canadian Avant-Prog veterans Miriodor proceeded to take no prisoners as soon as they got on stage. One of the most eagerly anticipated acts on the lineup – particularly by those who (like us) had witnessed their career-defining show at the DC French Embassy in 2010, the band were now down to a quartet, with founding members Remi Leclerc and Pascal Globensky and longtime guitarist Bernard Falaise very recently joined by bassist Nicolas Lessard. The increasing humidity notwithstanding, the scholarly-looking quartet of soft-spoken gentlemen delivered a blinder of a set, often sweepingly atmospheric and laced with eerie electronic effects, but consistently full of outstanding beauty. Though all the instruments sounded pristine, I found Remi Leclerc’s drumming especially riveting, setting  an effortlessly flowing pace and lending the music a natural rhythm that belied its complexity. Falaise’s guitar displayed a finely honed edge, while Globensky’s keyboards contributed an aura of mystery. Besides some tracks from their marvelous 2009 album Avanti!, Miriodor regaled the audience with some new material, taken from their soon-to-be-officially-released album Cobra Fakir. Like everything else, the new tracks – though somewhat darker , with a slight Gothic undertone – possess the kind of effortless grace and calm intensity that has made Miriodor a byword for stellar quality on the progressive rock scene – balancing quiet and loud moments with seamless perfection, and maintaining a keen sense of melody even when treading on more experimental territory. The band’s professional yet unassuming attitude was also reflected in their gentle sense of humour.

With such a tough act to follow, the organizers proved once again their brilliance when they scheduled Los Angeles-based multinational quintet Corima for the third slot of the day. Even if I was already familiar with their second album, Quetzalcoatl (released by French label Soleil Zeuhl), I was not prepared for such a relentless sonic assault. A blast of sound during the soundcheck provided a taste of things to come, as the young, black-clad band members proceeded to tear up the stage during their performance. As my husband put it, you got exhausted just watching them bounce up and down with an irrepressible energy starkly at odds with the usually staid mien of many mainstream prog bands. Fronted by the diminutive dynamo Andrea Itzpapalotl on vocals and violin, Corima are clearly influenced by Magma, and might also remind the listener of a more melodic version of Koenjihyakkei (incidentally, the bassist and saxophonist are of Japanese descent), but infused with the manic energy of West Coast punk and the aggression of metal. Occasional moments of respite – such as a serene, classically-influenced piano solo – dotted this 70-minute adrenalin rush, characterized by a form of deliberate repetitiveness that built up a hypnotic crescendo of intensity, driven by drummer Sergio Sanchez-Revelo’s insane polyrhythms and Patrick Shiroishi’s blaring sax. Needless to say, they did not suffer one bit from having to follow Miriodor’s immaculate set, because their music was so different. Even people who generally do not care for Zeuhl or anything too cutting-edge were won over by Corima’s show – though I could very well visualize people running for the exits in an indoor setting.

After such a one-two punch, Saturday headliners and big East Coast favourites Oblivion Sun provided a definite change of pace. The quartet, founded by former Happy The Man members Frank Wyatt and Stanley Whitaker in the early 2000’s, had already appeared at ProgDay in 2007, and I had witnessed their performance at the 2009 edition of NEARfest. Frank Wyatt’s wrist injury had forced them to cancel a few live appearances in the past few months, but the keyboardist/reedist was in fine form for this special occasion. Just like I had in 2009, I found their music very melodic and pleasing to the ear, as well as impeccably executed, though as a whole hard to truly connect to. The four members of the band – Whitaker, Wyatt, drummer Bill Brasso and new bassist David Hughes – handled their instruments with seasoned proficiency, and their music  flowed smoothly – perhaps even too much so. Some of their material had a folksy ring, while some heavier undertones occasionally cropped up. The warm rapport the band has built over the years with its loyal following showed in the jokes about the notorious “Cruise the Edge” floating prog festival, as well as in Wyatt’s moving dedication of a song to his wife for her birthday. Unfortunately, while I liked the instrumentals at the beginning of their set, when vocals made their appearance I started losing interest, and halfway through their set the 8-hour exposure to heat and humidity had finally got to both of us, so we decided to head back to the hotel for some rest before dinnertime.

After a refreshing night’s sleep and leisurely breakfast, we headed back to the field for another day of music and good company. Because of the cool breeze blowing from the trees, the heat and humidity felt less oppressive than they had on the previous day, and I was able to enjoy what promised to be a consistently great lineup. However, we were yet unaware of being in for some weather-related excitement later during the day.

At 10.30 a.m., right on schedule, youthful South Jersey six-piece Out of the Beardspace took to the stage. A bit of an unknown quantity for the mainstream prog audience, the band have already earned their stripes through a brisk concert activity in their home region, and have recently released their third, self-titled CD. Earlier this year, in the month of May, they even hosted their own festival (named Beardfest), which featured ProgDay alumni The Tea Club and Consider The Source, as well as the band that would follow them on the Storybook Farm stage, Thank You Scientist. With their emphasis on environmental awareness and community enrichment, their very informal, laid-back appearance (some band members were playing barefoot) and sprawling, eclectic approach to music, they bridged the gap between jam bands such as Umphrey’s McGee and progressive rock proper. Guitar and keyboards were well in evidence, supported by a powerful rhythm section, and exuding a vintage psychedelic vibe with a keen edge, and some intriguing funky and jazzy elements. While bassist Kevin Savo’s vocals – best described as a male version of Björk –  might be called an acquired taste, they also blended very effectively with the music. Though not as manic as Corima, the energy and enthusiasm of each member was hard to miss, and their stage presence, with its modern hippy vibe, endeared them to the audience as much as their genre-bending sound. Though I felt their instrumental pieces were more interesting than the ones with vocals, they are a band I would definitely not mind seeing again, as they put up a very entertaining show and obviously enjoy themselves immensely on stage.

Thank You Scientist had already wowed audiences in the North-East Corridor with their energetic performance of the past month or so with fellow New Jerseyans The Tea Club, and had already created a lot of expectations in the attendees thanks to the strength their debut full-length album, Maps of Non-Existent Places (which boasts of some of the finest artwork I have seen in the past few years). With a seven-piece configuration – including saxophone, trumpet and violin as well as the traditional rock instruments – the young, hyperactive band crowded the stage, their boundless supply of energy matching that already displayed by Corima and Out of the Beardspace. Fronted by the charismatic Sal Marrano, sporting mirrored shades and a jaunty beach hat, Thank You Scientist are unashamedly modern in their approach to progressive rock, coming across as a more melodic, less rambling version of The Mars Volta – or, if you prefer, a much heavier, beefed-up Steely Dan. Marrano’s high-pitched but well-modulated voice, in particular, often sounded very much like Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s, albeit not as potentially abrasive. Propelled by irresistibly funky. Latin-infused rhythms (courtesy of unstoppable drummer Odin Alvarez and bassist Greg Colacino) coupled with punk-inspired intensity, a bit of a metal edge and jazzy horns, the band’s sound is complex but never contrived, and genuinely exhilarating. With the right promotion, they could very well break into the mainstream in the same way as The Mars Volta did in the early 2000’s, appealing to the younger generations as well as to more open-minded old-timers. Obviously, there were people in the audience who pompously declared that Thank You Scientist were “not a prog band”, but those naysayers were more than balanced out by those who thoroughly enjoyed the band’s set – wrapped up by an irresistible cover of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”, which was a big hit with everyone.

In the hottest hour of the day, my personal most-awaited band of the weekend – unlikely Texans Herd of Instinct – took to the stage, introduced by ominous recorded voices. The band members, with old friend and collaborator Mike McGary replacing Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards, were  perceivably tense (probably scared by some of the horror stories heard about the prog audience), and that impacted their stage presence to the point that they occasionally came across as standoffish. Drummer and official spokesperson Jason Spradlin, a striking figure with his long, flowing dark hair, had chosen to use his own electronic drum kit rather than an acoustic one – a choice that, while puzzling for part of the audience, lent an eerily mechanical dimension to the music which complemented it unexpectedly well. As a supporter of the band from the time I heard their debut album, I wanted them to make a good impression, and the quantity of CDs sold at their merch table certainly bore witness to the fact that the majority of the audience appreciated their set, even if they were somewhat thrown off by the almost complete lack of stage banter and the abrupt ending of the songs (as well as the oddly muffled quality of the sound). Their music, however – though better suited to the twilight hour than the bright light of an early September afternoon – spoke for itself. Mark Cook’s Warr guitar’s eerie wail intersected and meshed with Mike Davison’s Fender Stratocaster and McGary’s discreet keyboards, driven by the engine of Spradlin’s drumming. Powerful and mesmerizing – and described by a friend as a cross between King Crimson and Tangerine Dream – Herd of Instinct’s sound is unique, its cinematic quality emphasized in their rendition of the theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween (a couple of months early on the actual date), as well as in their cover of Radiohead’s “National Anthem”. They also performed some material from Spradlin and Cook’s previous band, 99 Names of God. As a whole, I found that the live dimension enhanced their music immensely, and appreciated the subtle variations they brought to the material from their two studio albums. However, in spite of their years of experience of playing live on their home turf, they need to work on their stagecraft in order to develop their full potential and allow their music to come truly alive.

Headliners simakDialog’s long-overdue set was the weekend’s most highly-awaited performance – as the Indonesian outfit’s plans to play in the US were foiled twice in as many years. Their set started half an hour early, in a very informal way – perfectly suited to their laid-back, yet extremely proficient music –  and the plan was to let them play for about two hours, providing a soundtrack for the late hours of the afternoon, when the temperature goes down together with the sun and people kick back to enjoy the breeze. Unfortunately, said breeze quickly turned into a brisk wind, and the massed dark clouds brought a downpour that had people scrambling for cover in a hurry. The band – used to this kind of weather in their tropical homeland – were at first unfazed, and continued to play in their unhurried, supremely elegant East-meets-West take on classic jazz-rock – characterized by the use of twin Sundanese kendang drums instead of a traditional drum kit, blending perfectly with Riza Arshad’s fluid electric piano and Tohpati’s understatedly brilliant guitar. However, nature had different plans, and a second spate of wind and rain put an abrupt end to the show, which had lasted about an hour when the band and stage crew finally decided to call it quits. Thankfully, this time simakDialog have a full set of East Coast dates planned, and many of the attendees will be able to catch them in an indoor setting in the days following the festival.

Finally, the weather allowed the attendees to pack up their gear, and everyone headed back to the hotel for dinner and the subsequent “non-pool” (for the second year in a row) party, held in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms, with plenty of drinking and merriment on offer before bedtime. Then, on the following day, it was time to say goodbye to our friends – not without some sadness – and head north and back to real life after three days in paradise.

Like last year, 2013 seems to have brought an almost record attendance to ProgDay, which bodes very well for the festival’s 20th anniversary (whose planning is already under way). Interestingly, with the exception of Mavara and Oblivion Sun, none of the bands that performed at Storybook Farm on the past Labor Day weekend can be labeled as prog in a conventional sense – which, as I have already stated on previous occasions, proves the forward-thinking strategy of the organizers as regards the choice of performers. The presence of three young, up-and-coming US bands also brought some new blood to the field (as it also was the case in 2012), together with the hope that progressive music may soon start to gain a broader appeal and escape the confines of its aging niche audience.

As usual, at the end of my review I would like to thank all of the people involved in the organization of the festival, especially all those who volunteered time, money and energy in order to ensure the success of the event. Of all the wonderful people we met over the weekend, a special thought goes to some very special people whose friendship means a lot to me, even if we cannot meet in person on a regular basis. Even if this year I have decided not to mention any names, you know who you are. Thank you for a wonderful time, and hope to see you again very soon!

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As every year for the past 19 years, ProgDay – the world’s longest-running progressive rock festival – will be taking place on Labor Day weekend in the beautiful setting of Storybook Farm in Chapel Hill (North Carolina). With a superb lineup of 8 bands, both international and homegrown, augmented by two exciting pre-festival shows scheduled for Friday and Saturday night at the 506 Club in Chapel Hill (featuring respectively Half Past Four, 3RDegree and Dreadnaught, and French power trio Mörglbl – all of them ProgDay alumni), the festival is going from strength to strength, and is already preparing for the fireworks of its 20th anniversary celebration in 2014.

Links:
http://www.progday.net

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2P 4pg insert

TRACKLISTING:
1. Praxis (5:14)
2. Dead Leaf Echo (3:18)
3. Brutality of Fact (3:17)
4. Alice Krige pt.1 (5:54)
5. Solitude One (4:25)
6. Ravenwood (3:27)
7. Mother Night (4:23)
8. Vargtimmen (4:59)
9. Malise (3:15)
10. New Lands  (4:12)
11. A Sense of an Ending (5:30)
12. The Secret of Fire (5:16)

LINEUP:
Mark Cook – Warr guitar, ADG fretless bass, guitar, programming
Mike Davison – guitar, 12-string acoustic guitar, guitar synth
Gayle Ellett – Moog, Mellotron, Hammond organ, Rhodes, dilruba
Jason Spradlin – drums, programming

With:
Joel Adair – trumpet (4)
Joe Blair – lap steel guitar (4)
Colin Edwin – fretless bass (1, 11)
Bob Fisher – flute (1, 4)
Lisa Lazo – keyboards (5)

In the late spring of 2011, the self-titled debut album by Herd of Instinct  – a hitherto unknown outfit named after the only album by Talk Talk offshoot O’Rang –  was released on Firepool Records, the label created by Gayle Ellett and Chuck Oken Jr, founding members of veteran US progressive rock band Djam Karet. Based in the Dallas-Forth Worth area of Texas, the idiosyncratic “power trio” of Mike Davison, Mark Cook and Jason Spradlin was augmented by a number of guest musicians – some quite high-profile, such as drummers Jerry Marotta, Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto, and touch guitarist Markus Reuter and Gayle Ellett himself. After a few spins, the album – at first deceptively unassuming – quickly became one of my favourite albums of 2011, also earning and Herd of Instinct my personal “best new band” award.

In the months prior to the release of Conjure, their highly anticipated second album, some things have changed in the Herd of Instinct camp. The trio is now a quartet, with Ellett (an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and composer involved in a myriad of different projects)  now a full member, manning the keyboards and providing some exotic accents. While the debut featured vocals on two tracks out of 10, with Conjure Herd of Instinct have chosen a completely instrumental format. The album expands on the ideas presented on the debut, introducing subtle adjustments to the band’s distinctive sound rather than opting for a dramatic change in style – though avoiding the all too common syndrome of the sophomore effort being an inferior copy of its predecessor.

This time around, the presence of guest artists is kept to a minimum – with Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin the only household name on the list –  emphasizing Herd of Instinct’s status as a real band rather than a loose group of musicians. With Ellett’s keyboards used discreetly to accent the work of the other instruments, and a smattering of programmed drums to supplement Jason Spradlin’s deft work behind the kit, the musical texture is profoundly atmospheric, often hypnotic and occasionally hard-edged, each instrument meshing with the other to produce an organic flow. On Conjure – even more so than on Herd of Instinct’s debut – the four band members bring their wide range of influences and keenly eclectic attitude to full fruition

Clocking in at around 53 minutes, Conjure features 12 tracks, the longest of which falls short of the 6-minute mark. However, there is plenty of complexity for fans to sink their teeth into, and a lot of interesting details are packed into each of those apparently short numbers. The one criticism I might level at the album is that, though anything but overlong, it temporarily loses steam in its second half. In fact, a couple of somewhat repetitive tracks might have been omitted without any detriment to the rest of the material. On the other hand, the performances of all the artists involved are top-notch, possessing that effortless quality that is not always easy to achieve when playing highly complex music.

Immediately creating a connection with the band’s debut, “Praxis” successfully combines variety and fluidity, its many layers subtly and skillfully rendered. Gayle Ellett’s Mellotron – an essential ingredient of the album’s instrumental texture – fleshes out the sleek, intricate work of Mike Davison and Mark Cook’s guitars, blending with the liquid polyrhythms of the Warr guitar and contrasting with an array of eerie electronic effects, while flute adds a  soothing, pastoral note. “Dead Leaf Echo” introduces a keen metal-like edge reminiscent of King Crimson ‘s late Nineties incarnation; the many tempo changes are handled deftly, with peaks of riff-heavy intensity followed by low-key passages dominated by the evocative sound of Mellotron and Warr guitar. Starting out in similar fashion, “Brutality of Fact” soon turns solemn, tapping into that cinematic vein evidenced by the band’s debut, and pushing Mellotron and Hammond organ to the forefront together with the guitars and Jason Spradlin’s powerful drumming.

With the one-two punch of “Alice Krige pt. 1” and “Solitude One”, Conjure reaches its creative peak. The former explores the rarefied, atmospheric territory that had made Herd of Instinct’s debut such an intriguing proposition, with ethereal trumpet and flute complementing the echoing sound effects and sparse lap steel guitar, spiced by warm-sounding percussion; the latter, based on the Indian dilruba (one of the many exotic string instruments mastered by Ellett), juxtaposes haunting ambient and ethnic elements with trance-like electronics. The first half of the album closes with the clear, intersecting guitar lines and wistful Mellotron of “Ravenwood”, accented by a sprinkling of electronic effects.

The Mellotron takes a lead role again in the aptly titled “Mother Night”, a stately, faintly gloomy piece redolent of Scandinavian prog icons such as Anekdoten. “Vargtimmen”, based on a percussion sample from Steve Tibbetts’ Friendly Fire collection, is introduced by recorded voices that intensify its brooding, ominous quality; while the somewhat harsh-sounding “Malise”, rife with buzzing electronics, is in my view the weakest link on an otherwise strong album. Urgent drumming and sharp, assertive guitar lines propel the Morricone-influenced “New Lands, which also features a particularly expressive guitar solo (almost a rarity on an album based on a tight instrumental texture rather than on individual performances). Slow and measured, “A Sense of an Ending” hints at some episodes of Trey Gunn’s output, as well as the more sedate compositions of second- and third-phase King Crimson, while the airy, spacious melody in the first half of closer “The Secret of Fire” leads to an entrancing, almost slo-mo finale enhanced by piano and spacey sound effects.

Herd of Instinct have also upped the ante in terms of artwork, and Conjure comes with a strikingly sinister cover that suggests one of the Three Fates ready to sever the thread of life. Like its predecessor, the album may be a grower rather than a “love-at-first-listen” affair, and require more than a couple of absent-minded listens to make its full impact. On the other hand, with its sophistication and eclecticism, it strengthens the band’s reputation as one of the most interesting presences in the variegated “instrumental prog” universe, and will not disappoint those who had appreciated their debut. It is to be hoped that some festival organizers – either in the US or elsewhere – will also take notice.

Links:
http://www.herdofinstinct.com

http://www.djamkaret.com/firepoolrecords/herdofinstinct2/

https://progmistress.com/2012/03/21/interview-herd-of-instinct/

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In the past few years, rarely has a debut album by a completely unknown act taken me by surprise – and won my approval –so much as Herd of Instinct’s self-titled album, released in the late spring of 2011 on the brand-new label Firepool Records, legendary southern California outfit Djam Karet’s own label. With an impressive roster of guest musicians, and a sound that brings together atmospheric, cinematic and ethnic elements, the album garnered a lot of praise in the progressive rock community, though some people have tended to overlook the actual band members in favour of the high-profile names. However, the Texas-based trio  are experienced musicians who deserve much more exposure than they have got so far. While we wait for their second album to be released later in 2012, the three members of the band – Jason Spradlin, Mark Cook and Mike Davison –  joined by Gayle Ellett (Djam Karet founder and unofficial fourth member of Herd of Instinct),  have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

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Let us start from the basics, for those readers who are not yet familiar with your history. How was Herd of Instinct born?

Jason: Herd of Instinct formed in 2007. We’re from Arlington, Texas. Before Herd of Instinct, Mike Davison had played in a band called Nervewerks, while Mark Cook and I were in the band 99 Names of God. Both bands were friends, and we played many shows together. A few months before 99 Names broke up, I invited Mike to come out and jam with Mark and I. A great time was had by all. When it was official that 99 Names was done for good, the 3 of us decided to form a new group. Meanwhile, in a separate project, Mark Cook and Warr guitarist Dave Streett were writing and recording music and employing various guest musicians. At some point it was decided to merge our group with Mark and Dave’s project. That is basically the birth of Herd of Instinct.

Mike: As Jason mentioned, over several years both bands (99 Names and Nervewerks) had seen each other’s live performances, played shows together, enjoyed each other’s crafts. , when 99 Names had  a show on my side of town, 40 miles north-east of Mark and Jason’s home town, I would go see them play. It was after one of these shows, Jason asked me to come out and jam with Mark and himself. Nervewerks had already disbanded into a few different projects, and 99 Names had, unknowingly, played their last show the night Jason invited me out. The three of us have developed a great chemistry over the years, and with the addition of all these amazing players, it just took the CD over the top. There’s a lot of nice flavors being added to the Herd Trio on the upcoming album as well.

Gayle: My involvement began many years ago, when Dave Streett approached me about recording on some of his songs. And through Dave I later met Mark, their great drummer Jason Spradlin, Mike and the other members of Herd. And later I decided to release their debut CD on a new record label that I created with Chuck Oken jr., called Firepool Records. And we are very happy to be releasing their new Herd CD too. A few months ago Herd Of Instinct flew me down their studio in Dallas, Texas, for a week to record on their second album. That was really fun and productive, and it’s been very enjoyable for me to be working with these great musicians!

Your very striking name comes from an album that is somewhat of a cult item. What led you to choose it?

Mark: Jason and I are fans of O.Rang’s album Herd of Instinct. The recording is a masterpiece of texture. We spent some time trying to come up with a name that was open-ended. HoI just seemed to feel right.

Jason: Before we decided on the name Herd of Instinct, we were calling ourselves Mirror People. Just when you think you’ve picked a name no one else has used, a search engine reveals otherwise. Mark and I are fans of Talk Talk, and one of our favourite albums is by an off-shoot of them –  .O.Rang, and their 1997 LP Herd Of Instinct. The 3 of us each made lists of possible band names. As it turns out, Mark and I both had the name Herd of Instinct on our lists. We hope that Lee Harris and Paul Webb can find it in their hearts to forgive us!!

What is your musical background? Was the music of the 70’s (prog or otherwise) influential in your development as individual musicians and as a band?

Mark: I started playing guitar when I was very young and moved on to the Warr guitar. King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Rush have very much influenced HoI. Other musicians, outside of “prog”, that have influenced the way I approach music are John Zorn, Philip Glass, Bill Laswell, Ennio Morricone, Scott Walker, Brian Eno, and Miles Davis. I should also note other art mediums have had a major impact on my playing – Salvador Dali, Philip K. Dick, Kobo Abe, Margurite Duras, Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, William S. Burroughs, and David Cronenberg. The way these people approach their craft is a great source of inspiration.

Jason: My love of music has been snowballing since I first sat behind a drum kit in 1977. Music of the 60’s and 70’s was very influential to me as I learned the basics of rock drumming. As the 1980’s rolled in I developed an obsession with hard rock and underground heavy metal. Along with some school friends, I helped formed the doom metal band Last Chapter. While I was in that band we released a CD called The Living Waters, which has become a minor cult favourite in doom metal circles. I guess it was the late 80’s when I developed a love for jazz, prog rock, Krautrock, and psychedelic music.

Mike: For me I think it was the “Whole Lotta Love” solo that started my guitar addiction. I learned as much Zeppelin as I could, which for a study is good with the wide range, acoustic guitars, open tunings, the picking techniques, blues, rock, metal, folk, and so on. Hendrix, Floyd, Jeff beck, rush,  I couldn’t get enough of it. I was into everything from SRV to Metallica. It was the early 90’s when I fell heavily into King Crimson, early Genesis, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and on and on. From Townes Van Zandt to Porcupine Tree, classical to jazz, night to day, it’s all influential. I’ve played with rock, jazz, pop, folk, prog, and flamenco bands. That’s been some of the best influence and inspiration for me. Playing the different, and with many great players, you can’t beat it!

Gayle: I was a teenager in the 1970’s, and the music of your teen years is always very influential and significant to a person’s view and appreciation of music that stays with you for the rest of your life. So I am heavy influenced by the music of the 1970’s, especially groups such as Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gentile Giant, Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Return To Forever and others.

Your debut album took four years to complete, which is not unusual nowadays. What prevented you from releasing it sooner?

Mark: HoI builds songs slowly. It’s a process that takes time, and when a piece “feels” finished we move on. Sometimes it’s a waiting game for a piece of music to settle.

Jason: The musical tastes within this band go in many directions. So much so, that our music goes through several evolutionary phases. An aging process occurs with the music as well. The politics of merging our band with the side project, along with job schedules, and just the ups and downs of everyday life all combined in such a way that it took forever to complete our debut album in a timely fashion. It was a learning experience for all. We now work at a quicker pace.

How did you manage to involve artists such as Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison in your debut?

Mark: Dave Streett and I began collaborating on a recording project that included material with Gavin. When HoI was formed, the approach was very close to the music Dave and I were writing. Dave was also participating in the material HoI was developing. We eventually came to the conclusion to combine the material and focus on making it a band effort instead of two separate projects. Dave would periodically fly to Texas to work with the core band. Pat got involved because Dave and I were working with Markus Reuter on the track “Anamnesis”. Markus was in Texas working with Pat a few days before he came to our studio to work on music. He mentioned Pat might be interested in participating. We were honored to have musicians of their caliber collaborating with us. They both created some amazing parts that really took the track to another level.

Touch guitars seem to be an essential component of your sound. What is that first attracted you to those instruments? What about their role in the musical context of Herd of Instinct, both live and in the studio?

Mark:  Initially the attraction to touchstyle instruments was the expanded range. Having very low notes and high notes increases the palette and choices I have when writing. Warr guitars are stereo, which allows me to play two distinct parts or utilize two radically different processed signals. HoI’s live sound is very full for a trio. I’m usually doing two parts. Mike plays guitar and guitar synth, so he can also have two distinct sounds happening at the same time. This layering of sound can give the impression of a lot bigger band.

One of the most intriguing features of your sound lies in the world-music suggestions, particularly evident in tracks such as “Road to Asheville”. What role does ethnic music play at the compositional level?

Mark: The harmonic and rhythmic characteristics of non-Western music have been very influential on our melodic writing and our use of repetition. How we incorporate the influences varies. On “Road to Asheville” the approach was to blend the Middle Eastern tonalities with other genres. The whole approach of the track “Possession” was basically influenced by dub music.  The new material continues to have strong elements of ethnic music. A few tracks feature Gayle playing the dilruba, which is a bowed Indian instrument.

Jason: As a band, we are very curious about music from around the world. We try to incorporate various ethnic elements into our compositions when we feel it will make the music more interesting. When I first began playing with Mark in 99 Names of God, they were already using drone techniques and Eastern-flavoured sounds. Naturally we continued this tradition when we formed Herd of Instinct. Some of the most beautiful music can be found outside the Western world, and we do not shy away from these influences.

Mike: I’m a huge fan of what artists like Bill Laswell and John McLaughlin do with combining Eastern and Western music and musicians…..or whatever it may be.  Having easy access to the sounds of  instruments from all over the world through a guitar synth has  opened new paths for me personally.

Recording mainly instrumental albums with only one or two vocal tracks seems to have become increasingly fashionable. Why did you decide to do so on your debut, instead of going the totally instrumental route?

Mark: The voice is something people immediately connect with. We placed “Blood Sky” in the middle to break the cd into two instrumental halves. The piece is kind of like a pacing element for the listener to latch on to something sonically very different from the previous tracks and also to lead into the 2nd half of the album.

Jason: For the kind of music we play, I prefer taking the all- instrumental path. However, the human voice, whether it is spoken word, vocalizations, or singing actual lyrics, does seem to be a necessary ingredient for most music lovers. Unless the singer is very good, or charmingly unusual, I prefer instrumental. Kris Swenson’s vocals on the track “Blood Sky” are, in my opinion, beautiful, and are what absolutely MAKE this song. For us, vocals are another color to paint with, and they are not used as a device to make a song more accessible.

Mike: Some of my favorite songs that I’ve been listening to for 30 years, I still couldn’t tell you how the words go. Usually the words are the last thing i focus on. When I’m listening to music, i never think, this has a voice or words…or it doesn’t. Not to demise the importance of a singer or vocals in a song. It usually ends up being the most important ingredient. It can certainly make or break a tune.

Your second album is already well under way. Is it going to sound noticeably different from its predecessor, and, if so, in which way?

Mark: We’re still trying to take the listener on a journey with lots of twists and turns. There will definitely be some sonic surprises. We’re very happy that Gayle’s elegant keyboard playing is heavily featured in the new music.

Jason: The album is coming along nicely, but is very challenging for me in that an attempt to play outside my comfort zone has been established. Old habits die hard. Having said that, the new album will contain many of the hallmarks of our debut. There’ll be more use of various electronics and programming, and less involvement of hi-profile guests. Gayle Ellett from Djam Karet is providing most of the keyboards for this album, so expect a more pronounced dynamic there. My one word description for our new album: cinematic.

Gayle: To my ears, the new Herd CD will be similar to their debut album, and that’s a good thing! Their music seamlessly combines elements of electronic space, with lots of strong grooves, beautiful melodies, and wailing solos, all in equal share. Their music is dynamic and interesting. But it is always flowing smoothly along in a very natural way. It’s a real treat to record with this great group (and yes, I am biased).

This question is mainly meant for Gayle Ellett. How did Firepool Records come to be, and why were Herd of Instinct chosen for the label’s “test drive”, so to speak?

Gayle: Dave and I had been talking about the new CD they were recording. And while they were working on their debut album, they asked me for help in finding them a record label to release it. We tried approaching a few labels, but then I thought “HEY, Chuck Oken jr. and I should just form a new record company and we could release their CD for them.” And so, Firepool Records was born, initially to release their CD. Then Chuck and I thought we’d use that label to release some other CDs, and so far that has included the Henderson/Oken album Dream Theory in the IE, and a CD by my free improvisation group Hillmen (named after our jazz drummer Peter Hillman) called The Whiskey Mountain Sessions. So far we have been VERY happy with our relationship with the members of Herd of Instinct. They are really nice guys, but more importantly, they are all GREAT MUSICIANS! So its been a real pleasure to work with professional players such as them. And now we are recording music for their second CD, and it is all going very well.

Are any of you professional musicians? Are you involved in other projects besides Herd of Instinct?

Mark: Jason and I participated in a Liquid Sound Company CD last year, called Acid Music for Acid People, with John Perez (Solitude Aeturnus). This is John’s psychedelic solo project. I’ve also recently worked on music for the gaming company Acceleroto.

Jason: We all still have day jobs for now. Since 1996 I’ve been the drummer for Liquid Sound Company with my friend John Perez, of Solitude Aeturnus. We’ve released 3 albums, the most recent being 2011’s Acid Music For Acid People, which includes Herd of Instinct’s Mark Cook on Warr guitar. It would be nice to see Liquid Sound Company become a live act, and those details are being worked out. I know for certain we’ll be making another album.

Mike: There is the day job….must support the music habit. I’m currently playing some nylon guitar and guitar synth in a Nuevo Flamenco band with an amazing guitarist, David Gallegos, and some old mates from Nervewerks. 

Gayle: I’m a full-time professional musician, I’ve played on over 90 CDs, and currently I am playing/recording with 6 bands: Djam Karet, Herd Of Instinct, Hillmen, Fernwood, Joee Corso Band, and the Jim Crawford Band. I also write music for TV shows such as General Hospital  and Knock First on ABC-TV, Swingtown and Rebecca’s Garden on CBS-TV, Next and Exposed on MTV, The Osbournes Reloaded on FOX-TV, Bad Girls Road Trip on Oxygen-TV, House Hunters International on HGTV, Surfer and Powder on ESPN-TV, Clark Howard on CNN/HLN, etc. And I’ve also written music for such projects such as Brad Pitt’s feature film Year Of The Dog, Kiss The Bride (with Tori Spelling), The Devil’s Muse (directed by Ramzi Abed), and others. I’ve also written a lot of music for TV commercials, art installations, animations, music libraries, computer games, educational websites, and numerous corporate applications.

As I have often pointed out in my writings, finding gigs is becoming increasingly difficult for non-mainstream bands. What have your experiences been in this respect? What is your local scene like, and have you ever had the opportunity to perform outside your home turf?

Jason: In the Dallas/Fort Worth area there is a thriving metal and indie scene. For progressive rock, however, the bands that play this music, or anything avant-garde, it is difficult to build a dedicated following. We are still able to book shows for ourselves, but we are rarely on a bill with like-minded bands. To give you an example of this, at the last show Herd of Instinct played, a mariachi band opened the show, followed by HoI, and then after us there was a metal-ish cover band. It begs the question: whatever happened to continuity? As far as playing away from our home turf, this has not happened yet. We hope to one day play at one the prog festivals that happen annually.

GE: Speaking of Los Angeles, where I live, I’d say that finding any good-paying gigs is difficult these days. But there are also many places where you could perform live, if you did not mind not being paid any money. I think that it is better for a band to spend a year making a new CD, instead of spending a year just doing live performances.

And now, a loaded question to wrap up this interview… A little bird told me that you do not like to be tagged as “prog”.While I cannot blame you for a number of reasons, this attitude seems to be increasingly common in artists that, nevertheless, keep on sending their material to prog websites and magazines for review. Can you expand a bit on this topic?

Mark: Definitely there is a contradiction there. If “prog”defines an approach to making music then it’s a positive thing. If the label “prog” sets up a list of rules to follow then it’s a negative thing. I think most artists generally do not like being limited by the expectations of a specific label. On the other hand, if a band is tagged with a label this can bring a certain acceptance and openness to what you create.

Jason: Haha!! I think I know who that little bird is! Well let’s face it: The progressive rock community is the one audience that would most likely connect with Herd of Instinct’s music. We don’t sit around and play Yes, Genesis, or Gentle Giant albums exclusively, but we do own those albums. We’re not musically trapped in a world of aerie faerie nonsense. What we play is a kind of hybrid music that fuses together many ingredients. We are definitely progressive and moving forward.

Mike: Unfortunately, everything in this world has to be labeled, categorized, and narrowed down. Louis Armstrong said “There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good.”  When it comes down to it, that’s all that matters. How old or new it is, who or where it comes from, what matters is…..is it good, or is it bad? 

Gayle: If the term “prog” included the style of music known as Art Rock (music made as an art-form, not towards commercial success), then I would say Herd of Instinct is a prog band (and Djam Karet is as well). You could also say that the term progressive rock is about rock music that has been pushed forward (progressed) by the composers into new and complex forms. And if prog rock has “progressed forward”, from the early years of Genesis and Yes (and Marillion and Dream Theater), to now include new groups that really don’t sound like them at all, such as Herd of Instinct, then you could say that Herd is a prog band. Speaking just for myself and my group Djam Karet, we do not refer to ourselves as a prog band because we feel that a large amount of our music falls outside of that category. In Djam Karet there are influences of surf guitar music, electronic, hard rock and other styles.

Thank you very much to all of you for your patience in answering my questions. Looking forward to your new album!

Mark:  Raffaella, thank you very much for all your support.

Jason: Thank you for giving us this opportunity Raff! We are extremely grateful.

Mike: Thank you for all you do!

Gayle: Many thanks for giving Herd of Instinct the exposure I believe they truly deserve.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/herdofinstinctband

http://www.wix.com/herdofinstinct/herdofinstinct

http://www.djamkaret.com/firepoolrecords/herdofinstinct/

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