Posts Tagged ‘Mars Hollow’


1. New Frontier (10:12)
2. Take a Moment (8:56)
3. Mr. Wishbone (3:31)
4. Elegy (6:07)
5. Love and Inspiration (14:05)

Jerry Beller – drums, vocals
Matt Brown – keyboards. vocals
Kerry Chicoine – bass, vocals
Scott Jones – lead vocals
Mike Matier – guitars

A couple of years ago, the sudden demise of LA-based quartet Mars Hollow deprived the US progressive rock scene of one of its most promising bands. However, volcanic bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine was not one to keep away from the limelight for too long, and – together with drummer Jerry Beller – he soon teamed up with former Ten Jinn guitarist Mike Matier, gifted keyboardist Matt Brown (also a member of Genesis tribute band Gabble Ratchet) and vocalist Scott Jones to form a new band that was given the high-sounding name of Heliopolis. Indeed, “City of the Sun” (the English translation of the Ancient Greek name, which also refers to one of the capitals of ancient Egypt) is a very appropriate name for an outfit hailing from sun-drenched southern California.

The cover of City of the Sun, released in the late summer of 2014 on 10T Records, is graced by the photo of an elaborate structure that looks like a modern version of the obelisks for which their eponymous city was known. The music inside embodies the band’s own description of “progressive rock, LA style”: based on strong melodies and catchy hooks as much as on instrumental skill, though with less of an AOR bent than Mars Hollow, it also reflects the band members’ optimistic outlook.

Clocking in at around 42 minutes, City of the Sun is carefully balanced, with the two longest tracks bookending the album, and the only instrumental track – also the disc’s shortest number – strategically placed in the middle. Writing credits are equally shared by all the band members, which contributes to the overall solidity of the album. While the individual performances are very strong, the emphasis is clearly placed on ensemble playing, and the result is remarkably cohesive, though with enough variety to keep the listener’s attention. Indeed, for such a compact running time, a lot seems to be going on in each of the five tracks.

The music on City of the Sun fits the description of modern symphonic prog, clearly influenced by Yes, but successfully avoiding the overt plagiarism that mars the production of other similar outfits. The ultra-heavy intro to “New Frontier”, with its nod to Black Sabbath (or also Yes’ “Machine Messiah”), slowly morphs into a more melodic scenario, introducing Scott Jones’ Jon-Anderson-meets-Geddy-Lee vocals, as well as Kerry Chicoine’s pneumatic Rickenbacker, aided and abetted by a Jerry Beller in top form. Seamless vocal harmonies and an infectious chorus soften the complexity of the musical fabric, while Mike Matier’s guitar adds bite and a touch of dissonance to the concoction. Matt Brown’s array of keyboards steps up to the plate in “Take a Moment”, which introduces some spacey, atmospheric elements as well as jazzy hints in a rather more somber context than the opening track.

The interlude provided by the unexpectedly angular, almost Crimsonian instrumental “Mr Wishbone” (complete with a guest appearance from a dog, Ricky Chihuahua) contrasts sharply with the melodic “Elegy”, an oddly upbeat song considering its subject matter (it is dedicated to the memory of drummer and composer Shaun Guerin, who passed away in 2003), and definitely the most mainstream number on the album. Things are brought to a close by the mini-epic “Love and Inspiration”, an ambitious piece that lacks the edge and complexity of “New Frontier”, spotlighting instead the band’s flair for grandiosity and the elegance of their vocal harmonies. Matier and Chicoine are in fine fettle on this track, again adding some jazzy overtones to the proceedings.

With some festival appearances (NorCalProg and the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend) under their belt, and a prestigious slot as openers of the ROSfest 2015 weekend before Spock’s Beard, Heliopolis are one of those bands who are most at ease when playing live, which makes their music truly come alive. Though they will never try to sell themselves as the most innovative of bands, their engaging manner and obvious enjoyment of their craft has already won them a lot of fans; additionally, City of the Sun puts a lot of potentially interesting ideas on display. Even if, in the past few years, my personal tastes have veered away from conventional prog towards more challenging fare, I have found a lot to enjoy in Heliopolis’ debut, and can warmly recommend it to those who are looking for a contemporary take on the traditional symphonic approach.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1. Walk On Alone (12:31)
2. Voices (6:24)
3. Weapon (6:52)
4. What I Have Done (5:56)
5. Mind Over Matter (2:38)
6. Prelude (1:48)
7. World in Front of Me (11:19)

John Baker – lead and backing vocals, guitars, guitar synthesizer, mandolin
Kerry Chicoine – bass, backing vocals
Steve Mauk – keyboards, backing vocals
Jerry Beller – drums, percussion, backing vocals

A quartet of experienced musicians based in Los Angeles, Mars Hollow were brought to the attention of progressive rock fans by the release of their self-titled debut album, almost one year ago. The highly awaited disc did not disappoint, and the band were immediately invited to perform at the 2010 edition of ProgDay, where I had the pleasure to meet them and see them on stage. In spite of the dreaded word ‘hype’ rearing its ugly head, or of those who may point out that Mars Hollow’s music does not really bring anything new to the prog table, and that it is also too poppy for its own good, the band’s dedication to music-making is undeniable, as is their professional attitude.

These days it is certainly not usual for artists to release an album a year, and long waits are often in order for fans of any musical genre. This seems to be even truer in the world of prog, when it is not uncommon for acts to let at least three years pass between releases – mainly due to those practical issues that I have often mentioned in my writing. Mars Hollow, however, chose to buck the trend by going into the studio a mere two months after their successful ProgDay appearance – with a well-respected musician and producer like Billy Sherwood (of Yes, Conspiracy and Circa fame) at the helm, and a strong commitment to delivering the goods in an even more impressive manner than their debut. Needless to say, the band’s sophomore effort – heralded by another prestigious live appearance, this time at the 2011 edition of ROSfest – was even more highly awaited than their debut, though the anticipation was tinged with the kind of anxiety engendered by far too many examples of anything but lucky second times.

While Mars Hollow, with refreshing honesty, have never claimed to be purveyors of daringly cutting-edge music (as is the case with some acts that, in my opinion, are nowhere as consistently good), World in Front of Me rises way above any considerations of innovation, progression, or whatever you choose to call it. Even though their self-titled debut was a hugely enjoyable slice of catchy, melodic prog with modern production values and all-round excellent performances, World in Front of Me is, simply put, pure gold – an album possessed of an almost timeless quality, a flawlessly executed homage to the best that progressive rock has to offer that, in many ways, transcends the very definition of prog. Odd as it may sound, I would compare it with another recent release that has left a lasting impression on me – Black Country Communion’s debut. Now, while the latter are definitely more of a classic hard rock act than a progressive one, their first album is also one of those very rare efforts that manage to reach a very high standard of quality without reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Clocking in at a perfect 47 minutes, World in Front of Me is bookended by two 10-minute-plus tracks which – like “Dawn of Creation” on their debut album – eschew the tired, worn-out template of the ultra-convoluted (and ultimately patchy) ‘epic’ in favour of an orgy of enchanting melodies, splendid vocal parts, and scintillating instrumental interplay. With consummate sense of balance, the five tracks sandwiched between those two display a variety of moods, from the melancholy, mainly acoustic “Mind Over Matter” to the jagged, somewhat tense “Voices” – shorter, yet no less dense and involved. To use a cliché, Mars Hollow are like a well-oiled machine, their individual skills honed by years of experience and a genuine love of their craft, creating layer upon layer of lovely sounds that, while sustaining that uplifting quality so evident in their debut, are tinged with a hint of gentle sadness suggesting the wisdom that comes with maturity. And mature is probably one of the most effective descriptions for World in Front of Me: though lacking anything as infectious as “Midnight”, it is hard not to find yourself singing along the title-track or “Walk on Alone”, as well as listening raptly to the seamless ebb and flow of the instrumental passages.

As was the case with the band’s debut, World in Front of Me is strongly keyboard-based, with John Baker’s guitar used in a supporting (though indispensable) role rather than as the star of the show. However, Sherwood’s crystal-clear production has given the rhythm section a much more prominent role. Jerry Beller’s dynamic yet sophisticated drumming is not merely propulsive, but adds a lot of dimension to the music, sometimes following the melody laid out by the keyboards and guitar, sometimes playing in a sort of counterpoint; while Kerry Chicoine’s rumbling, pneumatic Rickenbacker bursts out of the densely woven fabric of the sound in a way rarely heard since Chris Squire introduced his ‘lead bass’ approach to the instrument. Indeed, Yes might be mentioned as probably the biggest influence on this album – though, rather than the toweringly unapproachable Yes of Close to the Edge fame, Mars Hollow bring to mind the band that, with their first three albums, gave the music world a textbook-perfect example of contamination between classic pop-rock and the fledgling progressive trend.

Steve Mauk handles his array of keyboards with impressive aplomb, supported by the relentless work of the rhythm section. While the gorgeously wistful, rippling piano piece that is “Prelude” puts him directly in the spotlight, his lush yet sedate contribution to the overall sound perfectly complements John Baker’s understated guitar work and commanding vocal performance. As I stated in my review of Mars Hollow’s debut, Baker’s voice – a soaring, admirably controlled tenor reminiscent of a smoother Geddy Lee, with touches of early Steve Walsh – may not be to everyone’s taste, but his handling of the somewhat downbeat, meditative lyrics (mostly focusing on the end of a relationship) is nothing short of masterful, and the harmony sections suggest the effortless grace of vintage Yes and, occasionally, even Gentle Giant.

As regards the individual tracks, opener “Walk On Alone” and the title-track are classic prog heaven, blending memorable melodies – catchy, though in a very subtle fashion, and dispensing with a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure – with instrumental passages of stunning elegance and understated complexity. While the former number is more airy and relaxed, the latter seems to slowly build up to a climax, with a sense of tension occasionally surfacing. “Voices” and “Weapon”, though shorter, are conceived along similar lines, successfully merging haunting vocal sections with intense instrumental passages; while “What I Have Done”, with its more streamlined approach and catchy harmony vocals, comes closest to the spirit of Mars Hollow’s debut, though without the bold airplay potential of songs like “Midnight” or “Eureka”.

Down to its stylish cover photo, depicting the stark beauty of the Death Valley desert, World in Front of Me is a supremely elegant album that succeeds in the task of combining accessibility with dazzling technical proficiency and a genuine feeling of warmth. Let us forget for a moment about ‘retro-prog’ or any such ultimately pointless labels. Mars Hollow’s intention was never to revolutionize the music world, but rather to produce an album that people will enjoy, cherish, and possibly relate to in terms of their own experience. A pleasure from start to finish, this is definitely a very serious contender for album of the year.






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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I apologize to my readers for having neglected my blog once again, but my ‘official’  reviewing job has kept me very busy, and then there have been some distractions – such as the wonderful event mentioned in the title of this post.

Last year (my first year in the USA) we had toyed with the idea of heading down to North Carolina for ProgDay, since one of our favourite new bands – New Jersey’s 3rd Degree – were on the bill, and the whole of the lineup was very interesting to say the least.  On the other hand, the heat and humidity often prevalent in the area at this time of year discouraged us. Neither of us is a hot weather person, and my husband (who used to live in that part of the country) had to cut short his participation to ProgDay 2006 because of heat exhaustion. However, this year our concerns proved to be unfounded, as the weather this past Labour Day weekend was nothing short of perfect – cool in the morning and evening, pleasantly breezy, and not at all humid – perfect for spending two days in a beautiful outdoor space ringed by lush woods, with grass as soft as a carpet.

I will present my impressions of the event in a more professional manner in the review I am writing for the ProgressoR website. This is just a taster for all of you who were there, and for those who are curious about the longest-running progressive rock festival in the world, but have never had the pleasure of attending it. Suffice it to say that we had a thoroughly wonderful time, feeling part of a small but stalwart community of people for whom music is much more than something to be consumed quickly like a Big Mac, or just left to run in the background when doing something else.

Besides the great music (this year’s lineup was way better than those offered by both the ‘big’ North-Eastern prog festivals), the highlight of the event was meeting so many great people, some of whom had been our ‘virtual’ friends for many months. On Saturday we spent a fantastic evening in the company of the Mars Hollow guys, who on the following day proceeded to rock the ‘house’ down with their perfectly honed blend of classic prog, catchy hooks and vocal harmonies to die for. Then, on Sunday morning we finally got to meet the Shadow Circus guys, who also put on one hell of a show.  We had been regularly in touch with John and David for a long time, and being finally able to talk to them in person felt wonderful, but it was also great to meet the band’s newer members, Felipe, Gino and Andy – all of them very nice guys, and excellent musicians. Their symphonic-meets-vintage hard rock take on prog is exhilarating and highly dramatic, and I cannot wait to see them in full stage regalia when they play on our home turf  (The Orion, Baltimore) on October 28th.

I was also looking forward to seeing Half Past Four in action – since I was one of the first people to be aware of them when they released their brilliant debut album, Rabbit in the Vestibule.  They did not disappoint one bit, and even exceeded expectations. Kyree is an astonishing frontwoman with a commanding, versatile voice, and drummer Ann Brody flies the flag for female musicians who rely on their chops rather than on their looks (though both her and Kyree are very attractive women).

Though the rest of the lineup was of equally high quality, I will save any further details for my ‘real’ review (which should be published before the end of September – watch this space and my Facebook page). This post is mainly intended as a more personal, less polished  account of a really intense weekend – one of those experiences to remember for a lifetime.


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