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With the final curtain fallen on NEARfest in June 2012, a void has been left in the once-thriving US progressive rock festival scene. In the past couple of years, the increasing fragmentation of  the target audience – as well as other factors such as the lingering economic downturn – have provided a brusque reality check to anyone daring enough to invest time and money in this often unrewarding task  While the cottage-industry organization of ProgDay is still going strong (probably because of its unpretentious structure), and ROSfest keeps attracting a steady number of devotees to its Gettysburg premises, other more ambitious efforts have ended in failure before they even started. The enthusiasm about Baja Prog’s return after a four-year hiatus was tempered by a lineup that penalizes US bands, and is in many ways a duplicate of the last NEARfest  – not to mention that the festival takes place in a part of the continent that is not exactly convenient for many US dwellers.

However, almost unexpectedly, a new event has stepped in at that particular time of the year, though in no way aiming to fill  NEARfest’s daunting shoes by offering a range of reasonably high-profile bands, including some “bucket list”ones. In fact,  the organizers of Seaprog Music Festival seem to have taken the ProgDay template even further, concentrating almost exclusively on US acts and spotlighting local talent. The event is scheduled for June 28-30,  2013, at Columbia City Theater, a nearly 100-year-old venue in the iconic Pacific Northwest metropolis of Seattle – home to such diverse acts as Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Queensryche and the grunge bands of the early Nineties. Starting on the evening of Friday, June 28, with a free show, the festival proper will be spread over the whole of Saturday and Sunday, showcasing a total of 11 bands.

Seaprog comes with the uncompromising tagline of “not your parents’prog” and a well-articulated manifesto that invites people to be open-minded in their approach to the world of non-mainstream music. In spite of the many attempts to separate “prog” from the original meaning of the word “progressive”, and turn it into nothing more than a codified genre complete with plenty of sarcasm-inducing mannerisms, there are still those who want “progressive” to be much more than a byword for self-indulgence and worship of the past.

The members of the organizing committee are dedicated musicians with years of experience under their belt: guitarist Dennis Rea (of Moraine and Iron Kim Style fame), drummer John Reagan (formerly of Harlequin Mass, now with Dissonati) and stick player Jon Davis (currently a member of Zhongyu with Rea and Moraine’s Alicia and Jim DeJoie). All three of them share similar views on what constitutes “prog”, which may not necessarily resonate with those who espouse the “prog as a genre” theory, but will instead find support in genuinely adventurous listeners. The event is a strictly non-profit venture, and the organizers’s main aim in undertaking this effort, as stated at the bottom of every page of Seaprog’s excellently crafted website, is to offer a world-class music event in a city that is better known for heavy rock and trendy alternative/indie bands.

As can be expected after reading the festival’s manifesto, Seaprog is heavily geared towards the cutting-edge side of the progressive rock spectrum, with seminal RIO/Avant band Thinking Plague  in the coveted spot of Sunday headliner for their first-even Seattle show. The Colorado-based outfit’s latest recording effort, Decline and Fall, was one of the defining albums of 2012, and their triumphant appearance at last year’s RIO Festival helped to consolidate their reputation as purveyors of difficult but highly rewarding music. Thinking Plague’s Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco will also appear on stage with Hughscore Revisited, a quartet that will perform compositions by legendary Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper, who passed away in 2009. Not surprisingly, Moraine, Zhongyu and Dissonati will also be on board. The other names on the lineup are less familiar to the majority of prog fans: local outfits Alex’s Hand, Monkey Bat Operation ID and Trimtab (originally formed in Minneapolis, but now based in Seattle), and  Italian multi-instrumentalist Jolanda. At the time of writing, the Saturday headliner remains to be announced. Links to all of the artists’ webpages are available on the event’s site. A Kickstarter campaign will also be launched to finance recording of the shows.

After so much fretting about the future of the US festival scene following the demise of NEARfest and the cancellation of OhioProg and FarFest, it is heartwarming to see people take things into their own hands in order to promote homegrown talent, even though on a much smaller scale than NEARfest, ROSfest or Baja Prog. As I have often written on these pages, this is probably the most viable model, which allows the organizers not to be bound by the necessity of filling a larger venue, therefore having to budget for inevitably more expensive “international” bands. Hoping for a healthy turnout that will allow the festival to continue at least in 2014, I applaud the organizers for their bravery and dedication to the cause of progressive music.

Links:
http://www.seaprog.org/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Can You Hear Me? (10:11)
2. Middle Man (6:41)
3. Age of Foeces (4:09)
4. MindWarp (4:31)
5. Senescence (6:59)
6. Driver (5:25)
7. The Sleeper (13:39)

LINEUP:
John Hagelbarger – keyboards, saxes, woodwinds, lead vocals (3)
John Reagan – drums
Ron Rutherford – guitar, guitar synth, keyboards, bass, lead and backing vocals

Dissonati are a trio based in the Pacific Northwest region of the US. In the spring of 2006 drummer John Reagan (formerly of late Seventies outfit Harlequin Mass) formed a band called Elsewhen with Portland-based multi-instrumentalist John Hagelbarger; later that same year the duo teamed up with Ron Rutherford, another talented multi-instrumentalist (who is also the main composer of the music featured on this album). A couple of years later bassist Bill Bainbridge joined the band, which in early 2010 changed its name to Dissonati. The band have recently enlisted the services of bassist Ryan Hankins to replace Bainbridge in their live performances.

In spite of their undeniable chops and extensive experience, Dissonati do not claim to be the best thing since sliced bread, but rather a group of people who share a common love of writing and performing music in the progressive rock vein. Although the band members grew up with the historic bands of the “golden age” of prog, Reductio Ad Absurdum successfully avoids overt derivativeness, and  manages to sound fresh and original almost against the odds – something that often eludes younger, more ambitious acts. In fact, the many prog fans who constantly feel the urge to label anything they can lay their hands on will find themselves baffled by this album, which combines the experimental bent of RIO/Avant prog with a somewhat skewed, but very present sense of accessibility.

With the exception of the two longer (though not exactly “epic-length”) tracks that bookend the album, the bulk of Reductio Ad Absurdum consists of songs between 4 and 7 minutes with a recognizable verse-chorus-verse structure, though spiced with subtly idiosyncratic details that give their music a definitely unconventional twist. For one thing, quite unusually for a band whose members have reached their full maturity, Dissonati incorporate influences that go beyond the usual Seventies icons. Indeed, nods to Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson – those standard-bearers of modern prog – can be detected in some of the more atmospheric passages of the album. However, if I had to compare Dissonati to one or more non-Seventies acts, I would mention Discipline and The Rebel Wheel,  two North American bands that share the Pacific Northwest trio’s obvious love of Van Der Graaf Generator, but have also manage to establish their own individual sound. Interestingly, it is John Hagelbarger who sounds closest to Peter Hammill in the only track where he sings, the quirky “Age of Foeces”; while Ron Rutherford’s voice is more in an understated singer-songwriter, sounding slightly hoarse and occasionally flat – which, even if not beautiful in any canonical sense, fits the music like a glove.

Opener “Can You Hear Me?” introduces the listener to Dissonati’s peculiar musical universe with doomy, industrial-sounding electronics and tense synth that blend almost seamlessly with melodic, almost catchy elements, and plenty of those mood and tempo changes that any prog fan would expect from a 10-minute track. Ron Rutherford’s dry but highly effective vocals follow the development of the musical thread, and the haunting keyboard washes and drawn-out guitar discreetly hint at Porcupine Tree, though with a personal touch. In “Middle Man” Rutherford’s deep, powerful bass lines come into their own, supported by John Reagan’s dramatic drumming and Hagelbarger’s eerie, slightly dissonant synth runs, while the chorus injects an element of catchiness that effectively blends mainstream and experimental tendencies. Hagelbarger’s solo spot, the above-mentioned “Age of Foeces”, brings to mind VDGG in the theatrical tone of the vocals, but the band’s strong individual imprint surfaces in the hammering harpsichord, twangy bass and echoing, distorted guitar solo.

With its almost infectious chorus and spacey suggestions, “MindWarp” is Rutherford’s own moment as a solo-pilot, as he handles all the instruments besides vocal duties; while “Senescence” and “Driver” juxtapose accessibility and complexity in a fashion reminiscent of Yes at their best – an impression reinforced by Rutherford’s stunningly versatile bass work offset by Reagan’s effortless drumming, often veering into jazz-rock territory. However, the album’s highlight comes right at the end, with “The Sleeper”, Dissonati’s own version of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” – similar in structure to the legendary VDGG epic, but more cohesive and (most importantly) purified of any filler. In the 13-minute track, a haunting, almost cinematic instrumental section – sparse and darkly ominous at first, then culminating in dramatic guitar/keyboards interplay propelled by thunderous drums – is bookended by half-spoken vocals and subdued instrumental accompaniment.

With top-notch musicianship and solid compositional skills – an element that has become increasingly scarce on today’s oversaturated progressive rock scene – as well as a very sensible running time of about 50 minutes, Reductio Ad Absurdum manages to be original without trying too hard to reinvent the wheel (which is a common problem with younger bands). Eclectic without being rambling or overambitious, the album is an outstanding example of true “crossover” prog –successfully striking that elusive balance between the past and the present – and a genuinely enjoyable listen, with enough quirkiness to please those that do not like their music to take itself too seriously. The striking cover artwork, a painting (titled “Bridgehouse”) by Portland artist Brin Levinson, rounds out this unassuming but highly satisfying package.

Links:
http://www.dissonati.com/

http://brinlevinson.com

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