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Posts Tagged ‘Mike Potter’

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Canterbury Bells (4:50)
2. Duke Street (4:47)
3. Muffin Man Redux (7:23)
4. Lost in a Photograph (4:21)
5. Blind Eye (4:56)
6. Shwang Time (4:58)
7. Rovian Cue (4:10)

LINEUP:
Dave Newhouse – keyboards, woodwinds, drums
Billy Swann – bass
Paul Sears – drums
Mark Stanley – guitar
George Newhouse – drums
Steve Pastena – French horn

As wonderfully illustrated by Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder’s superb documentary Romantic Warriors III – Canterbury Tales, the Canterbury scene expanded well beyond the borders of Great Britain, spawning a number of excellent bands in other countries. One of those outfits was The Muffins, a four-piece with an idiosyncratic configuration (drums, bass and double woodwinds) originally established in 1973 in the Maryland/Washington DC area, and reformed in the late Nineties after a lengthy hiatus. Though drummer Paul Sears’ move to Arizona in 2010 has curtailed the band’s live appearances, their recording activity has not ground to a halt, with two albums released in the past five years. The band members have also been contributing to several interesting projects in the field of progressive music.

Named after The Muffins’ 1978 debut album – one of the essential Canterbury-related releases – Manna/Mirage is the newest project by founding member Dave Newhouse (one of the band’s two woodwind players). Not surprisingly, fellow Muffins Billy Swann and Paul Sears are also on board, as well as Newhouse’s son George, guitarist Mark Stanley (of Chainsaw Jazz and Thee Maximalists), and newest recruit, Steve Pastena, on French horn. The ensemble’s debut, released in the autumn of 2015, bears the title of Blue Dogs – a title inspired by a painting by artist and RIO/Canterbury fan Gonzalo Fuentes Riquelme (aka Guerrilla Graphics), which graces the CD cover. The album was mixed and produced by none other than Mike Potter of Orion Studios – probably the most important venue for progressive music in the US, and the setting of The Muffins’ most recent performance to date, in May 2015.

As related in detail on Manna/Mirage’s website, Blue Dogs was originally meant as half of a big- band album by The Muffins. Clocking in at a mere 35 minutes, the album is such a rewarding listen that it almost feels like the appetizer before a full meal – jam-packed with buoyant horns and woodwinds, energetic yet stylish drumming, multilayered keyboards and keen-edged guitar. While the imprint of Newhouse’s mother band is clearly stamped all over it, Blue Dogs goes one step further, bearing witness to the artist’s love of classic jazz, as well as the Canterbury sound’s trademark blend of elegance and whimsy.

In the aptly-titled opening track “Canterbury Bells”, the titular bells are provided by a gently lilting glockenspiel, while Newhouse’s jaunty keyboards and woodwinds flesh out the sound. Dedicated to Duke Ellington (whose recorded voice can be heard at the end), the jazzy “Duke Street” starts out in an upbeat mood, then turns sparser and looser, the instruments’ staggered interplay of the especially riveting. Newhouse’s expressive woodwinds take centre stage in the exhilarating “Shwang Time”, where the big-band origin of the music is clearly on display. In contrast, “Lost in a Photograph” (whose title hints at nostalgia for things past) provides a foil for the album’s more dynamic compositions, with its stately, almost melancholy mood, while closing track “Rovian Cue” starts out brightly, and then mellows out, the piano and the woodwinds complementing each other.

That leaves Blue Dogs’ two most distinctive tracks, which increase the interest value of an already outstanding album. At over 7 minutes, “Muffin Man Redux” is propelled by Paul Sears’ pyrotechnic drumming, while leisurely bass and guitar mesh together to complement the spirited call of the saxes. A citation of the gospel classic “When the Saints Go Marching In” leads the way to a fuzzed-organ passage in true Steward-Ratledge style, followed by an amusing rendition of the nursery rhyme that lends its title to the song. On the other hand, after a slow, sedate beginning, “Blind Eye” veers into Avant/Zeuhl territory, with its many tempo changes, meandering guitar and blaring saxes.

Although Blue Dogs is obviously a must-listen for any self-respecting fan of the Canterbury scene, the album will provide 35 minutes of bliss to everyone who loves great music. Newhouse’s love of his craft and his knowledge of different genres are all brought to bear in what is definitely one of the top releases of 2015 – though, unfortunately, not one that will have received as much exposure as other (and, in my view, inferior) albums. I hope this review will in some way redress the situation, or at least create some curiosity. Those who appreciate the album will be glad to know that Manna/Mirage’s follow-up effort has already been composed and halfway recorded, and will see the light in 2017. In the meantime, what about some live shows?

Links:
http://www.mannamirage.com

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In the autumn of 1994, Michigan native and long-time Baltimore resident Mike Potter started on a venture that has brought many moments of joy to progressive rock fans all over the US. With a name inspired by Potter’s lifelong passion for astronomy, the Orion Sound Studios – located in the middle of an industrial park in a rather unprepossessing part of Baltimore – has provided not only an invaluable resource for up-and-coming musicians in search of rehearsal and recording space, but a veritable magnet for lovers of non-mainstream music in that densely populated area.

In the past twenty years, the Orion’s legendary Trapezoid Room has been a haven for bands, both domestic and international, and a home away from home for the small but thriving “prog community” of the Eastern Seaboard. The venue’s cult status was cemented by its central role in Romantic Warriors – A Progressive Music Saga, which made the Orion’s name familiar to people living in other parts of the world. Even if Potter jokingly refers to the start of his venture as “the worst decision in my life”, his dedication to the Studios is complete, and his skills as a sound engineer have contributed to the success of many progressive rock events.

Therefore, it was only natural for such a milestone date to be celebrated in the most appropriate fashion – with a one-day festival that encapsulated all the aspects that have made the Orion Live Music Showcases such an unqualified success: some of the best progressive music the US scene has to offer, a great social vibe, and – last but not least – plenty of excellent food and drink. Even the notoriously unreliable East Coast weather had decided to cooperate, blessing the event with a perfect fall day, crisp but sunny. The riot of gorgeous foliage that accompanied our drive from our Northern Virginia home was a fitting prelude to the wonderful afternoon and evening that awaited us at the Orion.

As the Trapezoid Room – filled with white folding chairs to seat the 80 or so people who had booked tickets (and I am happy to report that the event was sold out!) – was to be used solely for performances and soundchecks, the rooms across the parking lot had been appointed for the breaks, and were soon filled with a huge selection of food (in many cases homemade) and drink brought by the attendees. The nice weather also encouraged people to linger outside, enjoying a welcome breath of fresh autumn air after the intensity of each performance. For the occasion, the stage area had been remodeled, the high ceiling now fully on display to create an impression of spaciousness that was previously missing, enhancing the effect of the multi-coloured lights.

Though the performances had been scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., there was a substantial delay that, while allowing for more socialization, pushed the whole schedule nearly an hour forward. Each band had been allotted about one hour and a half for their set – longer than most festivals usually allow for anyone except the headliners. At first, the audience did not mind the delay, but at the end of a long musical marathon fatigue started to set in. However, with many people coming from other parts of the country, having the event start earlier would have posed other problems.

The organizers had put together a lineup featuring some of the finest US-based bands currently active, with no whiff of nostalgia in sight – unlike the bigger festivals, which have to cater to the average US prog fan’s obsession with the Seventies. Even though most of the bands selected have already been around for a number of years (in the case of headliners Discipline, for even longer than the Orion Studios themselves!), they have not been resting on their laurels, and kept their music fresh and relevant.

The lone exceptions were openers The Knells – a recently-formed, NYC-based ensemble led by guitarist/composer Andrew McKenna Lee, who had wowed the Orion crowd last year in a breakthrough performance immediately following the release of their eponymous debut album. Having reviewed said album earlier this year, I was looking forward to seeing the band in action, and my expectations were not disappointed. Introduced by a solo spot by McKenna Lee – two acoustic guitar pieces and an oddly riveting, effect-laden 15-minute homage to Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, The Knells played a jaw-dropping set that did full justice to the complexity of the compositions, masterfully executed by the eight-piece lineup. With its hypnotic post-rock cadences blended with heady psychedelia, angular Avant stylings and the hauntingly beautiful, yet somewhat eerie neo-Gregorian chanting of the three female vocalists, The Knells’ music is clearly not a proposition for everyone, and those in the audience who are more inclined towards the melodic end of the prog spectrum found it hard to relate to it. Personally, I loved every minute of the band’s performance, and hope to have the opportunity to see them again soon.

New Yorkers Frogg Café – longtime favourites of the US prog community, with a number of high-profile appearances under their belt – have all but recently emerged from the long hiatus that followed the 2010 release of Bateless Edge. Their first live performance in years, at the first edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend, in October 2013, had been rather impressive because of the talent involved, but still somewhat touched by the “rust” of inactivity. At the Orion, however, it was a completely different ballgame: though minus guitarist Frank Camiola (who is, once again, on sabbatical, pursuing more left-field musical interests), the band delivered a stunner of a performance, marching on stage from the back of the room to the strains of Franz Zappa’s “Inca Roads”. As the loss of Camiola’s electric edge required a stronger focus on the jazzier side of the band’s material to make up for the, Bill Ayasse took upon himself to replace the guitar with his electric violin and mandolin (putting his expertise as a bluegrass player to good use). The dynamic duo of brothers Nick and John Lieto provided comic relief as well as a buoyant big-band feel with their boisterous horns – and Nick proved no slouch in the vocal department. Andrew Sussman on bass and James Guarnieri on drums anchored the performance with a skillful mix of solidity and virtuosity. Besides some older favourites (which included the poignant “Terra Sancta” from Bateless Edge), Frogg Café treated the audience to some material from their long-awaited new album, plus a hilarious rendition of Zappa’s iconic “I’m the Slime”.

After a longer break for dinner, it was time to head inside once again for Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores. My introduction to the band dated back from 2011, when they had opened the Rock Day at the first and only edition of Cuneifest, and they easily won my personal award for best act of the day. The Providence outfit, led by charismatic, long-haired 21st-century minstrel Alec K. Redfearn – a gifted storyteller with a penchant for the weird and the macabre (not surprising for someone hailing from HP Lovecraft’s home town) – are purveyors of music whose RIO/Avant tag feels too restrictive for its genuinely eclectic nature. With a very idiosyncratic configuration – centred around Redfearn’s accordion (not the most typical of prog instruments), and featuring French horn, contrabass and percussion as well as a more traditional guitar (wielded by the very pretty and talented Gillian Chadwick) – The Eyesores’ music is strongly influenced by European folk, but also infused by an experimental vibe evident in the array of effects used by Redfearn to create an intensely haunting, drone-like atmosphere. Though their set was (at slightly over one hour) the shortest of the day, it offered such a concentration of intriguing compositions and pristine performances – further enhanced by Alec’s witty anecdotes – that even some of the more musically conservative members of the audience were won over by this truly unique outfit.

By the time headliners Discipline hit the stage, it was about 11:30 pm, and many attendees were already beginning to feel the strain of the late hour. Though the Detroit band were by far the most mainstream act on the lineup, and therefore the biggest draw for many attendees, the dark, intense nature of their music has also won them many admirers among the fans of the more left-field fringes of prog. Unfortunately, the late hour did the band no favours, and they ended up losing part of their audience midway through their set because of sheer exhaustion. We were among those who left early, though having seen the band onstage less than one month ago at the NJ Proghouse lessened our disappointment. Discipline played most of the same setlist (sadly devoid of the magnificent epic “Rogue”, from 2011’s To Shatter All Accord), though with the bonus encore of the über-creepy “The Nursery Year”, which at the Proghouse had been performed by Echolyn’s Ray Weston. From the first hour of the set, I got the impression of a heavier, more powerful (as well as distinctly louder) sound, complemented by Matthew Parmenter’s dramatic (albeit never overwrought) vocals. The band was tighter than ever, and new guitarist Chris Herin fit seamlessly with the original members, his sharp yet melodic guitar lines adding a keen edge to the band’s own brand of dark symphonic prog. As I had already noticed at the Proghouse, he is also a rather attractive man, obviously as comfortable on stage as his bandmates. Hopefully Discipline will be back on the East Coast some time next year, and possibly release a new album soon.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience, and my only regret is that the original idea of a two-day event did not come to fruition. It felt great to be back at the Orion after such a long absence, and spend time with the many friends we had missed during the past year or so. As always, my most heartfelt thanks go to Mike Potter and the rest of the organizing committee for having allowed us to experience such a great day of music and friendship. The celebration of the Orion Studios’ 20th Anniversary offered everything that makes the independent, non-mainstream music scene so exciting. It was also a brilliant example of the “small is beautiful” ethos that has replaced the more ambitious (and much less financially viable) festivals. Indeed, it was heartening to see a full house for bands that, for once, were not throwbacks of the Seventies in any way, and that – each in its own way – represent the best of the modern progressive rock scene.

Links:
http://www.orionsound.com
http://theknells.com
http://www.froggcafe.com
http://www.aleckredfearn.com/
http://www.strungoutrecords.com

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TLDtourGalgano

SETLISTS:

IZZ Quad
Late Night Salvation
This Is How It Happens
Long Distance Runaround/The Fish
Lucky for Me
Celtic Cross
Breathless
Never Remember
House
Rose-Colored Lenses
John Galgano’s Solo Spot
Paul Bremner’s Solo Spot
Three of a Perfect Pair
Light From Your Eyes
23 Minutes

3RDegree
Cautionary Tale
Top Secret
Televised
Apophenia
You’re Fooling Yourselves
Free For All
Memetic Pandemic
The Socio-Economic Petri Dish
Incoherent Ramblings
Leave This Place Forever
Human Interest Story

After a rather barren winter season concert-wise, the evening of Saturday, May 18 saw us back at the Orion Studios for a show that we had been expecting ever since 3RDegree cancelled their participation in the DC-SOAR fundraiser back in November 2012. With guitarist Patrick Kliesch, one of their founding members, currently living on the West Coast, the New Jersey band needed to find a second guitarist to complete their melodic yet powerful sound, Though it took some time before guitarist Bryan Zeigler joined the fold, in the early spring of 2013 3RDegree were finally ready to embark on a four-date tour that saw them return to the Baltimore/DC area after a three-year absence.

Robert James Pashman

Robert James Pashman

Though some bad luck kept dogging the band when co-headliners Oblivion Sun had to pull out of the NJ Proghouse and Orion dates due to Frank Wyatt’s wrist injury, they soldiered on and managed to make things happen – much to the delight of those who had enjoyed their critically acclaimed 2012 album, The Long Division. Thankfully, a scaled-down version of celebrated New York outfit IZZ (rechristened for the occasion “IZZ Quad” to emphasize their quartet formation), led by multi-instrumentalist/songwriter John Galgano, stepped in to fill the void, allowing those who, like myself, had missed the complete lineup’s show in October 2012, to enjoy the music of one of the most talented modern prog bands in the US and beyond.

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John Galgano

Without co-founder Tom Galgano and percussionist Greg DiMiceli, and former band member Laura Meade (who is also John Galgano’s wife) replacing vocalist Anmarie Byrnes, IZZ Quad concentrated on acoustic or otherwise subdued pieces rather than full-fledged epics, highlighting their impressive songwriting skills though keeping an eye on the instrumental component. Their setlist also included a number of classic prog covers, the first of which in particular elicited the audience’s approval. Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround” came with Chris Squire’s iconic bass solo piece, “The Fish”, tacked at the end just like in the original recorded version – though with Paul Bremner’s guitar replacing some of the multi-tracked bass lines; while King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” was softened by Laura Meade’s melodious vocals (reminiscent of Phideaux’ Valerie Gracious), quite different from Adrian Belew’s rather idiosyncratic tones. The highlight of the set, however, came in the shape of  “House”, Marillion’s somewhat obscure foray into trip-hop, with Meade’s hauntingly intimate interpretation bringing to mind Tori Amos or even Joni Mitchell.

Laura Meade

Laura Meade

As Galgano jokingly pointed out, referring to the quartet’s initial handle of “IZZ Lite”, there was nothing “lite” about IZZ Quad’s performance, which married melody and accessibility with full-blown prog modes, highlighting each of the members’ considerable talent. Paul “Brems” Bremner’s boisterous “Celtic Cross” and John Galgano’s low-key existentialist musings in “1000”, followed by an exhilarating piano rendition of ELP’s “Eruption”, complemented some of the band’s classic songs, such as opener “Late Night Salvation”. For a near-newcomer such as myself, the IZZ Quad set was an excellent introduction to the band. The quality of the playing was consistently outstanding, with Galgano handling acoustic guitar and keyboards as well as his striking black-and-silver bass, Bremner contributing crystal-clear, elegantly atmospheric guitar parts, and drummer Brian Coralian laying down a subtle, jazz-inflected backbeat. The band also demonstrated their unusually tight songwriting skills, effortlessly shifting from full-blown progressive workouts to mellow pieces in a singer-songwriter vein.

Paul Bremner

Paul Bremner

My first and only experience of 3RDegree on stage had been in the late spring of 2009, when they had performed at a DC-SOAR sponsored gig at Vienna’s Jammin’ Java together with local outfits Brave and Ephemeral Sun. Their third album, Narrow-Caster, had been released the previous year, marking the band’s comeback after a lengthy hiatus. Though I had found their set very enjoyable at the time, the band I saw on stage at the Orion had definitely grown in stature in the past three years. The Long Division had made many reviewers’ personal “best of 2012” lists (including mine), but sometimes there can be a disconnect between what is committed to record and a band’s actual stage-worthiness. 3RDegree, however, are perfectionists, and would have never undertaken a tour without being 100% confident of being able to deliver the goods. With a solid foundation in terms of material, and countless rehearsal sessions to ensure that everything was fine-tuned, the band treated the rather sparse audience to a blistering set that, while drawing mostly upon The Long Division, also found room for their previous albums.

Eric Pseja

Eric Pseja

While 3RDegree have always proudly proclaimed their allegiance to the prog rock ethic, their take on the genre is a very individual one, firmly rooted in the traditional song form rather than focused on the production of instrumental fireworks. Indeed, George Dobbs’ powerful, versatile voice is the engine that drives the 3RDegree machine. Sitting behind his keyboard rig (decorated for the occasion with an elaborate sporting the colours of the US flag), the band’s very own “mad scientist” bounced and gestured with almost manic energy, shaking his distinctive mane of hair and tearing through the songs with a style that owed more to Stevie Wonder or Glenn Hughes than Jon Anderson, assisted by the smoothly flowing vocal harmonies contributed by his bandmates.

George Dobbs

George Dobbs

The twin-axe attack of Eric Pseja and Bryan Zeigler added a keen hard rock edge, while Robert James Pashman’s nimble, pulsating bass lines and Aaron Nobel’s dynamic drumming often took a funky direction that evoked shades of Trapeze or King’s X. In a top-notch setlist that included the impossibly catchy yet thought-provoking “You’re Fooling Yourselves” (“#7 in North Korea!”), the barnstorming “Apophenia” and “Top Secret” (both showcases for Dobbs’ impassioned vocals) and the wistful mini-epic “Memetic Pandemic”, the bluesy, Deep Purple-meets-Steely Dan swagger of “The Socio-Economic Petri Dish” summed up 3RDegree’s unique brand of 21st century art rock: music that makes you think, but at the same time makes you want to sing along, liberally seasoned with a healthy dose of humour. In particular, new guy Bryan Zeigler’s infectious enthusiasm – culminating in a hilarious cowbell-wielding turn in “Incoherent Ramblings” – was a welcome addition to the band’s stage presence.

Bryan Zeigler

Bryan Zeigler

As my readers will probably guess, the only downside of the evening was the rather poor turnout: no more than 30 people altogether, and that on a Saturday evening. In a perfect world, both bands would be superstars and sell CDs by the truckload – not to mention perform before a crowd as large as the one drawn by Steven Wilson only one month ago. Unfortunately, many so-called prog fans prefer to pay lip service to the genre on Internet discussion boards rather than go out and attend a show – even when the price is a mere $15. In any case, those who bothered to turn out enjoyed an evening of stellar progressive rock by two bands with outstanding songwriting skills (something that has become increasingly rare) and enough instrumental flair to please the most demanding fans. I, for one, hope to have the opportunity to see both IZZ and 3RDegree again very soon.  Finally, a big thank you to  Helaine Carson Burch for the photos that accompany this article.

Links:
http://www.3rdegreeonline.com

http://www.izznet.com

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yugen mirrors

TRACKLISTING:
1. On the Brink (0:59)
2. Brachilogia7  (3:09)
3. Catacresi5 (6:39)
4. La Mosca Stregata ( 0:57)
5. Overmurmur (5:30)
6. Industry (7:50)
7. Cloudscape (10:38)
8. Ice (1:55)
9. Becchime (12:38)
10. Corale Metallurgico (9:19)

LINEUP:
Paolo Ske Botta – organ, electric piano, synth
Valerio Cipollone – soprano sax, clarinets
Jacopo Costa – marimba, vibes
Maurizio Fasoli – piano
Matteo Lorito – bass
Michele Salgarello – drums
Francesco Zago – guitar

Founded in 2004 in Milan (Italy) by guitarist/composer Francesco Zago and AltrOck Productions mainman Marcello Marinone, Yugen (a core concept of  Japanese aesthetics that can be roughly translated as “profound grace and beauty”) took the progressive rock scene by storm with the 2006 release of their debut album, Labirinto d’Acqua – a supremely accomplished slice of chamber rock following in the footsteps of the original Rock in Opposition movement. Their second album, Uova Fatali, came two years later, and was based on music composed by Stormy Six’s Tommaso Leddi; while their third effort, Iridule (2010), was widely hailed as a masterpiece of the RIO/Avant subgenre.

An ensemble rather than a conventional band, Yugen revolve around a core group of Zago, keyboardist Paolo Ske Botta (often mentioned in this blog for his work as AltrOck’s in-house graphic artist) and pianist Maurizio Fasoli, joined in 2008 by reedist Valerio Cipollone, and augmented by a number of high-profile guest artists (including  mainstays of the US Avant Progressive scene such as Dave Kerman, Dave Willey, Elaine DiFalco and Mike Johnson,  and Guy Segers of Univers Zéro fame) In September 2011, almost exactly one year after Iridule’s release, the band appeared at the fourth edition of the Rock in Opposition festival, organized in the southern French town of Carmaux. Their performance as a seven-piece –a short excerpt of which is featured in Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s documentary Romantic Warriors II – was captured on CD with the assistance of Orion Studios owner Mike Potter, and released at the tail end of 2012 with the title of Mirrors.

Though some may have wondered about Yugen’s ability to recreate Zago’s astonishingly intricate, painstakingly orchestrated compositions as a mere seven-piece rather than as an ensemble of up to 18 musicians (as in their studio albums), any doubts will immediately be dispelled by the sheer quality of the performances recorded on Mirrors. In spite of the constraints –  such as the allegedly short time dedicated to rehearsal – the band as a whole handle the complexities of the music with remarkable flair, without sounding cold or clinical as the highbrow quality of the material might suggest. While Zago’s main sources of inspiration as a composer (as pointed out by Sid Smith in his excellent liner notes) lie in both Renaissance and 20th-century classical music, his earlier rock roots often surface. His dense guitar riffs provide a backdrop for the constantly shifting dialogue between reeds and keyboards, bolstering the impeccable work of Michele Salgarello and Matteo Lorito’s rhythm section – which tackles daunting tempo changes with admirable composure. The music blends sharp angles and smooth curves, flowing naturally even at its most intricate, with melody lurking in the most unexpected places and revealing the unmistakable Italian imprint of this quintessentially cosmopolitan outfit.

The almost 60-minute album features 10 tracks drawn from Labirinto d’Acqua and Iridule, rearranged so as to adapt to the more rigid configuration of a live band. The longest, more intense compositions are concentrated in the second half of the album, which is introduced by a stunning version of Henry Cow’s iconic “Industry” (from the English band’s final release, 1979’s Western Culture). With their deeply intellectual titles reflecting the nature of the music, the compositions are arrestingly complex, though with a sense of organic warmth that is sometimes lacking in the production of highly celebrated bands belonging to the same movement.

Introduced by the dramatic drums and piercing, sustained guitar of “On the Brink”, the set unfolds with two tracks from Labirinto d’Acqua. The shorter “Brachilogia” weaves a sinuous, slightly dissonant tune, beefed up by guitar riffs and high-energy drumming, in which clarinet and marimba share the spotlight, interspersed by subdued piano passages; while “Catacresi” fully deploys Paolo Botta’s arsenal of keyboards, ranging from the sharp whistle of the synth to airy, atmospheric passages that would not be out of place on a Genesis album, creating a sort of cinematic tension. The instruments at times converge in perfect unison, at others pursue their individual paths, though with a constantly perceptible sense of inner discipline.

After the brief respite of “La Mosca Stregata”, “Overmurmur” barges in with an almost strident, apparently chaotic development, each instrument thrown in sharp relief, gradually mellowing out towards the end. The aforementioned “Industry” renders the martial, intense mood of the original, though softening its abrasive quality and spotlighting the deep, slightly hoarse rumble of the organ. On the other hand, “Cloudscape” reveals a different facet of Zago’s creative inspiration, its 10 minutes a masterpiece of skillfully handled atmospherics that paint a breathtaking sonic picture of the title. The track develops fluidly and elegantly, its sounds beautiful and melodic albeit not in a conventional, mainstream sense, slowing down almost to a whisper before the end. In the short, entrancing “Ice” – originally conceived as a showcase for Elaine DiFalco’s distinctive contralto, with lyrics by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney  – the vocals are replaced with a wistful clarinet line redolent of Debussy, preparing the listener for the one-two punch of “Becchime” and “Corale Metallurgico”. The former is the kind of composition that is likely to send fans of melodic prog running for the exits, and makes indeed for demanding listening. Unabashedly cerebral and gloriously intricate (and twice as long as the studio version featured on Iridule) its multiple, angular twists and turns and bristling sound effects evoke the squawking of the chickens referenced in the title (becchime means “chicken feed” in Italian). Also true to its title, album closer “Corale Metallurgico” conveys a powerful industrial feel, with peaks of intensity ebbing into rarefied pauses, and moments of almost unbridled chaos suddenly morphing into a dynamic flow.

Presented in a visually stylish package with outstanding artwork and photography (courtesy of Paolo Botta, Lutz Diehl and Alessandro Achilli), as well as Sid Smith’s thought-provoking liner notes, Mirrors captures one of the foremost standard-bearers of contemporary cutting-edge progressive rock at the very height of its creative powers. Although the music may not always be what one would term accessible, even staunch followers of the more traditional branches of prog might find something to appreciate in the album’s pristine beauty. An absolute must for fans of RIO/Avant –Prog and chamber rock, Mirrors is sure to go down as one of the standout releases of 2012.

Links:
http://us.myspace.com/yugenband

https://www.facebook.com/Yugentheband

http://production.altrock.it/

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Ephemeral Sun
Theme from Top Gun
Untitled #1
Prism
Harvest Aorta Part I
Untitled #2
Winter Has No Mercy
Harvest Aorta Part II

Shadow Circus
Overture
Daddy’s Gone
Whosit, Whatsit & Witch
Make Way for the Big Show
Tesseract
Uriel
Camazotz
Shadow Circus
Captain Trips
The Long Road
Big Fire
The Seduction of Harold Lauder

As I announced a couple of months ago, the DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR) has organized two shows at the Orion Studios in Baltimore to raise funds for its activity, which hinges on the promotion of progressive music in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the US. The first of the two events, scheduled for November 3, 2012, was to have been a triple bill, featuring New Jersey bands Shadow Circus and 3RDegree, as well as Northern Virginia’s finest, Ephemeral Sun. Unfortunately, 3RDegree had to pull out due to conflicts between their professional and family lives and the inevitable need for rehearsals, but the show went ahead as a double bill.

While the presence of 3RDegree would have made the show an even bigger draw, the two bands treated the audience to excellent performances, which highlighted both the differences and the similarities in their approach. In spite of its fundraising status, the gig was sparsely attended (which is the rule rather than the exception, unless the bill features a foreign band or one of the few domestic acts with a relatively strong following), but the 30-odd people who turned out more than made up with their obvious enthusiasm. Although some technical problems occurred during the soundcheck, the actual performances were characterized by outstanding sound quality (thanks to Mike Potter’s tireless work), which brought out each of the band’s strengths and detailed every instrument’s contribution.

As I pointed out in my review of ProgDay 2012, Ephemeral Sun’s music is more suited to the dark than the light, and the dimly lit setting of the Orion Studios enhanced the rivetingly cinematic quality of their music. After the turmoil of the past years, the band have now found a stability that is clearly reflected in the synergy between the four members, whose individual input is equally essential in the fabric of he sound. The pulsating power of Charles Gore and Jeff Malone’s rhythm section unfolds a rock-solid, yet subtly shifting foundation for Brian O’Neill’s sharp yet elegant guitar exertions and John Battema’s dramatic layers of keyboards. Ephemeral Sun treated the audience to a mix of older material (such as the metal-edged “Winter Has No Mercy” from their debut album Broken Door) and more recent offerings, such as the majestic “Harvest Aorta” suite (split in two halves) from their eponymous second album, and a couple of new compositions still without an official title – as well as a rousing version of Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic theme from Top Gun at the very opening of their set.

The quartet’s collective performance was flawless as usual, their music deploying all of its powerful emotional punch in the small, intimate premises. One of the most striking elements of Saturday night’s show was the band members’ impressive handling of the frequent tempo shifts in their generally lengthy compositions, keeping an eye on internal coherence so that the music flowed effortlessly without ever coming across as patchy. And then, the passage in which Battema let rip on the organ in true Emerson fashion was alone worth the price of admission. All in all, Ephemeral Sun seem to be going from strength to strength, and their new material sounds extremely promising – even if it will be some time before  their new album finally sees the light of day.

With a name inspired by the traveling carnival in Ray Bradbury’s iconic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Shadow Circus’ theatrical streak comes as no surprise, and makes good use of frontman David Bobick’s degree in musical theatre. The band’s founders, Bobick and guitarist John Fontana, are also fans of fantasy, science fiction and horror, and this interest is reflected in the subject matter of the majority of their songs. Saturday night’s show offered Shadow Circus the opportunity to showcase some of the material (no less than 7 songs) from their forthcoming third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night, which will be released on 10T Records in early December. Shadow Circus had played at the Orion almost exactly 2 years ago, opening for Italian band  The Watch, though with a different line-up. The band’s new configuration – comprising, besides mainstays Fontana and Bobick, original bassist Matt Masek, keyboardist David Silver and drummer Jason Brower, augmented by backing vocalist Paroo Streich – blazed through new and older material with assurance and flair, displaying chops and heart in equal measure.

Although all of the band members cite progressive rock as their main source of  inspiration, Shadow Circus’s music is also deeply rooted in classic and hard rock, and the influence of the likes of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Led Zeppelin is unmistakable. As is the case with Ephemeral Sun, keyboards play a very prominent in Shadow Circus’ sound. With his impassive mien and slight frame, David Silver proved an essential foil for Fontana’s guitar, his love of Keith Emerson evident throughout the set, especially in the fiery Hammond runs that enhanced stunning instrumentals such as “Overture” and “Tesseract”; indeed, the latter may easily be the best thing that the band has ever recorded. he dramatic intensity of the instrumentals was balanced by the catchy quality of the songs featuring David Bobick’s expressive vocal delivery and flamboyant stage presence, with Paroo Streich’s backing vocals providing a pleasing contrast. The rhythm section of Matt Masek and Jason Brower anchored the sound with power and style, the two musicians complementing each other perfectly. Always attentive to the visual aspect of their performance, the band members were all decked in black with a touch of red (a special mention for Bobick’s beard and the large red flower sported by Streich, who also provided a bit of eye candy for the predominantly male audience), and also employed a few stage props to enhance the impact of their music with a quirky theatrical touch thankfully devoid of cheesiness.

By way of a conclusion, I have to admit that I found the not exactly stellar turnout quite depressing, especially on a weekend night. Even if the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the north-eastern corridor cannot be discounted, neither can the well-known apathy of many of those who think supporting progressive rock means getting embroiled in pointless discussions on some Internet forum. While modern technology offers almost any band or solo artist the possibility to record and release their own material with relatively little expense, it has also emphasized the lack of quality control of many such projects. Therefore, live performance has increasing become the benchmark by which to judge a band’s real worth. However, the diminishing opportunities – compounded by the cliquish mentality of a large part of the already fragmented prog audience –will probably to lead to the demise of many a fine outfit, discouraged and frustrated by the lack of support. It is immensely sad to see such gifted musicians grateful for the opportunity to play before a handful of people.

This situation has also impacted my own enthusiasm for writing about music, There is only so much that a reviewer/critic can do to support the scene, when it is the fans themselves who seem to be hell-bent on destroying the motivation of artists who already face considerable struggles in getting their music across in an oversaturated market while dealing with the demands of real life. As much as I like to listen to music at home, nothing beats the experience of a live show, and it will be a sad day when only big (i.e. commercially successful) names will be able to perform on stage.

Links:
http://www.ephemeralsun.com

http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com

http://www.dc-soar.org

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SETLIST:

MoeTar
Butchers of Baghdad
Dichotomy
Infinitesimal Sky
Regression to the Mean
Random Tandem
Entropy of the Century
New World Chaos
Never Home
Ist or an Ism
Friction

miRthkon
Zhagunk
Automaton
Daddylonglegz
Kharms Way
Coven of Coyotes
Nocturne
Bag
Banana
Cascades
Honey Key Jamboree
QX1
Hapax Legomena
Encore (?)

In the slightly unlikely timeframe of mid-August, two of Oakland’s finest bands, miRthkon and MoeTar, finally landed on the East Coast for their first-ever tour in this part of the country. Although the heat and humidity must have come as a shock to residents of a region blessed (at least in the eyes of this hot-weather hater) with a permanently mild, cool climate, the bands’ members – in spite of the inevitable tiredness and the less-than-ideal temperature inside the notoriously AC-less Orion Studios – acquitted themselves splendidly, and inaugurated their long-awaited tour with a bang.

Not surprisingly, seen the high level of praise garnered by both bands’ debut albums – miRthkon’s Vehicle (2009) and MoeTar’s From These Small Seeds (2010, reissued in 2012 with a new cover) – the venue was almost packed to capacity, with its usual “house party” atmosphere in full swing – folding chairs, coolers and small buffet of refreshments included. The lower-than-average temperature, helped by an almost strategically-timed summer storm that allowed some pleasantly cool air to waft into the crowded stage area from the open bay, made things more bearable – at least for the audience, because the bands had to cope not only with the intense humidity, but also with the heat generated by the stage lights. However, none of these adverse circumstances had any impact on the quality of either performance, which exceeded the attendees’ already high expectations.

Five-piece MoeTar had already elicited very positive reactions by West Coast prog fans, opening for the likes of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Allan Holdsworth in the past few months. Fronted by vocalist extraordinaire Moorea Dickason (aka Moe) – simply put, one of the best female voices I have had the privilege to hear in a long time – they share one member with miRthkon, multi-instrumentalist Matt Lebofsky. With his highly focused, somewhat serious mien, Lebovsky (who plays keyboards in MoeTar, and bass in miRthkon) was a perfect foil to Moorea’s boundless energy and thoroughly engaging stage presence. Sporting streaks of bright blue face paint that gave her an endearingly childlike look, she commanded the audience’s attention right from the first notes of opener “Butchers of Baghdad” with her jaw-dropping vocal acrobatics. While many female singers adopt a stereotypical melodic approach, often with rather tiresome operatic touches (and equally often sounding alarmingly alike), Moorea bends the music to her will, tackling vertiginous scales with seemingly no effort at all. MoeTar’s songs, built around her interpretation of Tarik (aka Tar) Ragab’s quirky, literate lyrics, offer a heavily eclectic mix of accessibility and complexity, with influences as far-ranging as traditional jazz, iconic acts such as XTC and Kate Bush, and a healthy pinch of RIO/Avant spice. Together with other modern North American bands such as 3Rdegree or Half Past Four, MoeTar are at the vanguard of what I call the “new frontier” of progressive rock, embracing the song form and giving it a much-needed overhaul, all the while shunning the blatant AOR leanings of other bigger-name bands or artists.

During their hour-long set, MoeTar treated the audience to a selection of tracks from their debut – including the haunting torch song for the 21st century “Never Home” and the superbly intense, hard-edged “Ist or an Ism” – plus a couple of tantalizing previews of their new album, which revealed a more experimental bent while remaining true to the band’s song-based approach. Individual performances were top-notch – from Matthew Heulitt’s assertive but consistently melodic guitar to Tarik Ragab and David M. Flores’ dynamic rhythm section and Lebofsky’s seamless handling of organ, synth and piano – but MoeTar are very much an ensemble operation, even if Moorea’s vocals may be the most obvious draw. Most importantly, the band members looked completely at ease on stage, conveying a genuine sense of enjoyment that reinforced the intelligent, yet down-to earth appeal of their music.

After a leisurely break dedicated to social interaction and purchase of CDs and assorted merchandise, miRthkon – that self-professed “amplified chamber ensemble masquerading as a rock band” – took to the stage, and proceeded to blow the roof off the venue with their highly energized, highly technical blend of almost everything under the sun (including classical music, with an unrecognizable version of Samuel Barber’s “Nocturne”). Possibly the most qualified pretenders to the Frank Zappa throne, with an idiosyncratic lineup that dispenses with keyboards but boasts a dual-guitar, dual-reed attack, they reinterpret the sometimes overly serious Avant-Prog aesthetic with a lightness of touch and oodles of absurdist humour that belie the mind-boggling complexity of their music. Indeed, miRthkon are not by any means minimalistic, and a glorious sense of bombast occasionally runs through their brilliantly-titled and –executed compositions.

Though dealing with the effects of a kidney stone discovered during the 3000-mile coast-to-coast drive, guitarist and founder Wally Scharold fulfilled his frontman duties with aplomb, his endearingly whimsical between-song banter adding to the entertainment value of the evening. Since the release of Vehicle, the band have replaced guitarist and co-founder Rob Pumpelly with Travis Andrews, who looked a bit shy at first, but then got nicely into the swing of things, proving an excellent sparring partner for Scharold. While drummer Matt Guggemos was hidden behind his bandmates, due to the distinctive configuration of the Orion stage, his often thunderous, but always creative drumming, in perfect synergy with Matt Lebofsky’s powerful yet sleek bass lines, lent both texture and dynamics to the band’s dazzlingly unpredictable sound. However, the duo of alto saxophonist Jamison Smeltz, with his impressive sideburns and amusing facial expressions, and “Goddess of the Cane” Carolyn Walter, in a bright blue dress and a funny head ornament that looked like a pair of small goat horns, were the true focus of attention. Both seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and their visual appeal went hand-in-hand with their boisterous musical contribution. For a band that calls itself by the slightly daunting tagline of “Oaklandish chambercore”, miRthkon were a lot of fun and, in their own peculiar way, much more approachable than many outfits bearing the RIO/Avant label. In fact, the music was never noisy or gratuitously chaotic, and the band’s inimitable sense of humour enhanced its appeal, avoiding the dour, needlessly convoluted stance that often gives Avant-Prog a bad rap.

As usual, the sound quality – masterfully engineered by Mike Potter, who looked as pleased as punch throughout the evening – was excellent, and brought out each of the bands’ distinctive qualities without beating the attendees’ eardrums into submission. A special mention goes to the selection of music played before and between sets – I never thought I would hear James Brown played alongside Blue Öyster Cult and more traditional fare at a progressive rock concert! I was also glad to see quite a few women and younger people among the audience. Indeed, the evening was also a celebration of female talent, with Moorea Dickason’s incredible vocal performance and Carolyn Walter’s masterful handling of her “forest of horns” – both talented, attractive women with a friendly, engaging attitude who manage to shine without capitalizing on their looks.

All in all, it was definitely one of the best shows of the past few years, and a very uplifting moment after the setbacks suffered by the US prog scene in recent times. These two bands are a brilliant example of proactive behaviour and genuine creative spirit, and deserve to have their efforts crowned with success. If they are playing anywhere near you, do yourselves a favour and make sure you do not miss them: their performance will dispel any doubts you might harbor about the future of progressive rock.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com

http://www.mirthkon.com

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After pulling off the remarkable feat of bringing two progressive rock legends such as Magma and Univers Zéro to Washington DC for the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival, cult independent label Cuneiform Records has done it again. Even if November is generally not as thriving on the live music front as the spring and summer months, the label has brought excitement to fans of genuinely progressive music (of both the rock and the jazz variety) with two events: Cuneiform Curates the Stone, a series of concerts taking place from November 15 to November 30 at John Zorn’s avant-garde space in NYC’s East Village, and a more concentrated, two-day bash aptly called CuneiFest, organized on November 19-20 at the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore.

While RIO/Avant-Prog (as the subgenre is often called for ease of reference, though somewhat inaccurately) does have a hard core of dedicated supporters in the US, it lacks the following it enjoys in Europe, where the Rock In Opposition Festival, organized in southern France in September, has now reached its fourth edition. The presence of one or more bands identified with this particular subgenre is guaranteed to send people literally running for the exits at any US prog festival, and even the bigger names like the above-mentioned Magma or Univers Zéro have often proved controversial. No one, therefore, expected crowds of hundreds of people to show up at the Orion on Saturday, November 19. Indeed, Cuneiform mainman Steve Feigenbaum had put a mere 65 tickets on sale, and expected to sell no more than exactly that number. I am happy to report that Rock Day was sold out:  the small, cozy space of the Orion was nicely filled by people convened from various parts of the country, as well as farther afield (like Israel and Norway), comfortably sitting on the chairs provided by the Cuneiform crew. On each chair a bright yellow flyer was draped, containing detailed information not only on the day’s schedule, but also on the surrounding area (as well as the lunch and dinner menu).

For such a small, family-run enterprise, the Cuneiform team (consisting of Steve, his wife Joyce and her right-hand man Javier Diaz, both in charge of the promotional department, plus various interns) did an extremely impressive job in organizing the day. The main stage area was not as cluttered as it usually is when people bring their own chairs and coolers, leaving hardly any room to move around, and the lights festooning the walls created a festive feel in that small, high-ceilinged space. As the Orion is located at the far end of an industrial park, with very few amenities within walking (or even driving) distance, the organizers had contacted a local Italian restaurant in order to make a selection of food, both hot and cold, available to the attendees for a very reasonable price – set up buffet-style in the space opposite the Orion’s main body. The beautiful, relatively mild weather encouraged people to eat their lunch outside, enjoying the sunshine and the community atmosphere already inherent to most Orion events. To me, music and food are a quintessentially perfect pairing, and the convivial aspect was one of the highlights of the event, providing the attendees with the opportunity to chill out and socialize after each intensity-packed set.

The six bands selected for the Rock Day emphasized the amazing diversity within a subgenre that is all too often dismissed as over-intellectual (even within a non-mainstream genre like progressive rock) or just plain noisy. While none of those bands could ever be described as catchy or accessible, and very clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, most of them belied the fearsome reputation of avant-prog as a bunch of  purveyors of jarring, melody-free fare. All of them were also homegrown, hailing from such diverse environments as Colorado, New York, New England and California – a very significant move on the part of Cuneiform, and probably not just motivated by the inevitable financial considerations. In spite of many US prog fans’ obsession with foreign bands, it is easy to forget that in a such a large country, especially in these times of economic strictures, witnessing a performance of any act based on the other side of the country, or even a couple of states away, is anything but a frequent occurrence.

Steve Feigenbaum opened the festival, greeting the audience and introducing the first band, the quaintly-named Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores – one of the projects in which Redfearn, a singer-songwriter from the historic New England town of Providence, has been involved for a number of years. The six-piece that graced the Orion stage  had one of the most distinctive configurations I have ever seen in progressive rock, actually featuring almost no typical rock instrumentation. With contrabass, horn, organ, percussion and assorted objects, and the accordion (played by Redfearn himself) used as a pivotal element, the band’s profoundly fascinating sound possessed an unmistakable Old World flavour. Out of the six bands on the lineup, they had the highest melodic quotient, though a subtly skewed kind of melody, with a mournful, hypnotic quality intensified by the drone of Orion Rigel Dommisse’s organ and her plaintive vocals. While the strong folk component of the band’s music reminded me of modern acid-folk outfits like Espers, with hints of The Decemberists (especially as regards the Americana element and the dark lyrical matter), the many different ingredients of such a heady musical mixture made it quite unique. The longish, complex songs were surprisingly easy to follow, with “Wings of the Magpie” coming across as a particular highlight. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores are a band that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone willing to dip their toes in the avant-prog waters, but still find the prospect somewhat daunting.

When, after an half-hour break for more socializing and refreshments, Los Angeles quartet Upsilon Acrux took to the stage, the contrast with the previous set could not have been greater. In an evening that presented a number of interesting band configurations, Upsilon Acrux’s minimalistic two-guitar, two-drummer approach easily won first prize – at least in the sheer energy and volume stakes. Having reviewed the band’s most recent album, 2009’s Radian Futura, I knew what to expect – an angular, dissonant aural onslaught, with enough manic energy coming out of the two drummers (Dylan Fuijoka and Mark Kimbrell) to light up a whole town, and a conspicuous absence of melody. In fact, Upsilon Acrux delivered a 30-minute performance that – while riveting to watch, particularly on account of the drummers’ uncanny precision in laying down jaggedly intricate patterns in perfect unison – bordered dangerously close to white-noise territory. The two guitarists, founder (and only constant member in a band known for its revolving-door policy) Paul Lai and his sidekick Noah Guevara, churned out slashing, piercing chords of almost unbearable intensity. It was math-rock in its purest form, so brutally intense to make the likes of Don Caballero sound tame – and, needless to say, it left a sizable part of the audience rather perplexed. Even those who listen to RIO/Avant-Prog as a matter of course found the band’s uncompromising approach a bit hard to take, and almost everyone agreed that a longer set would have discouraged at least some of the attendees. The band’s somewhat dour presence, with little or no interaction with the audience, also seemed to parallel the spiky, bristling nature of their music. On the other hand, Upsilon Acrux were definitely worth watching (albeit in small doses), and an excellent addition to a lineup that showcased the wide-ranging musical offer to be found under the Cuneiform umbrella.

Next on the bill were New York-based quintet Afuche, who had recently released their first album, Highly Publicized Digital Boxing Match. In a way, the title is an accurate representation of the band itself – another high-energy outfit, though imbued with a sheer sense of enthusiasm, as well as a distinct Latin flavour (the band’s name actually refers to a very distinctive percussion instrument used in Latin jazz). Their 30-minute set, while full of sonic clashes and crashes, was also spirited and entertaining, with a charismatic focal point in keyboardist/vocalist/percussionist Ruben Sindo Acosta – a wiry, diminutive dynamo with a rakish mustache and a curtain of black hair, jumping up and down when pounding the keys of his rig, or bashing his drums with unadulterated gusto. His facial expressions were a sight to behold, while his vocal style owed a lot to traditional Afro-Cuban music, though infused with a manic energy all of his own. Saxophonist Andrew Carrico also cut quite an interesting figure – tall and lanky with long hair and an impressive mustache, wielding his blaring baritone sax with a bit of a swagger, while guitarist Zach Ryalls, bassist Denny Tek and drummer Ian Chang (all three looking very young) kept a lower visual profile, though laying down the groundwork for Ruben’s unflagging energy and showmanship. With plenty of groovy, infectious rhythms and a genuinely omnivorous attitude, Afuche were for many the true revelation of the evening.

New York power trio Zevious had been one of the highlights of ProgDay 2011, so I was looking forward to seeing them again – as were those in the audience who had also attended the North Carolina festival in September. Those expecting a repeat of that astonishing Sunday-morning set, however, were in for a treat, because the band’s CuneiFest set felt markedly different – as tight as ever, but with a sense of almost claustrophobic intensity derived by the indoor setting. In the compact, dimly lit space of the Orion, the unrelenting, yet seamlessly flowing stream of music produced by the band’s three members created a veritable wall of sound,  endowed with a mesmerizing quality akin to the best King Crimson instrumentals, with hints of the primeval heaviness of Black Sabbath in the slower passages – always loud and powerful, yet never one-dimensional (unlike Upsilon Acrux no-holds-barred assault). While my playful description of “King Crimson on steroids” might be fitting in some ways, Zevious are definitely much more than that. Possibly taking to heart my criticism about their lack of interaction with the audience at ProgDay (mostly motivated by the early hour and the unfamiliar situation of playing outdoors and in broad daylight), they had gained in terms of both mobility and communication, the triangular shape of the stage perfectly suited to their configuration. Drummer extraordinaire Jeff Eber, the powerhouse at the heart of Zevious’ sound, propelled the music along with a smile on his face, his stunning polyrhythms meshing with Johnny DeBlase’s muscular bottom end and the electric fireworks of Mike Eber’s guitar. All in all, it was an almost career-defining performance, and the festival’s finest hour as far as I am concerned.

After such a scintillating set, dinner break was upon us, giving the audience a much-needed respite and more opportunities for bonding before plates of tasty food. Then, at about 7.20 (almost right on schedule), Hamster Theatre begun their set, enthusiastically introduced by Steve Feigenbaum – who pointed out that the band had only performed three times on the East Coast since their inception, almost 20 years ago. Based in Colorado, the band shares three members with headliners Thinking Plague –  multi-instrumentalist (and founder) Dave Willey, guitarist Mike Johnson and vocalist/reedist Mark Harris – so it is not surprising to hear similarities in their sounds, which share a highly eclectic bent. However, the foundation of Hamster Theatre’s music – mostly instrumental, unlike Thinking Plague’s – lies in folk, as the central role played by Dave Willey’s accordion shows quite clearly. Their set started in a rather subdued, almost soothing fashion, than things became gradually more complex, with jazzy touches creeping in, and then all of a sudden evoking reminiscences of Univers Zéro and their eerily mesmerizing brand chamber-prog. In spite of the problems caused by a dodgy guitar amp, the set flowed on smoothly, each instrument finely detailed, the sharpness of the guitar tempered by the wistful tone of the reeds and. Hamster Theatre’s music sounds big and often upbeat, with a strong Old World flavour and unexpectedly spiky moments. Even if my appreciation of their set was somewhat marred by the sleepiness that inevitably follows a meal (I am also much more of a morning than an evening person), I was impressed by the fine balance of eclecticism and discipline in the band’s music, and also by their warm, engaging stage manner, as befits seasoned performers. While, with the exception of  bassist Brian McDougal, the band members  performed sitting down, the lack of physical dynamics was amply compensated by the agile versatility of the music.

Highly awaited headliners Thinking Plague took the stage almost 20 minutes late on schedule because of soundcheck-related problems. They also had to contend with another emergency situation – the illness of singer Elaine DiFalco (who has been a member of the band for the past four years), who, however, soldiered on, dosing herself with aspirin in order to be able to perform (albeit in a limited capacity), and taking a bottle of water on stage with her in order to keep her vocal chords hydrated. As a teacher, I could relate to her plight quite well, and could not help admiring her mettle. Petite, with a striking, high-cheekboned face, Elaine possesses a surprisingly commanding stage presence, her husky, well-modulated voice oddly seductive though light years removed from the trite clichés that so many female singers feel obliged to follow. Before the festival, I had heard her on Dave Willey and Friends’ stunning Immeasurable Currents, and had been deeply impressed. Though I have some reservations on the way her haunting vocals fit into the multilayered texture of Thinking Plague’s music, I am sure the less than ideal conditions in which she performed contributed to my impression. Never the most prolific of outfits, they are releasing a new studio album (the first since 2003’s A History of Madness), titled Decline and Fall, in the early months of 2012, and the Orion set provided them with a great opportunity to showcase some of their new material, as well as some of their older compositions. Among the über-eclectic, intricate bulk of Thinking Plague’s output, there was also time for the humorously-introduced, never-played-before “The Fountain of All Tears”, a slow-burning ballad in 4/4 that very few would associate with one of the dreaded “Avant” bands. With legendary drummer Dave Kerman having relocated to Switzerland, the drum stool was occupied by Robin Chestnut, introduced by Mike Johnson as the only band member under 40;  he also joked about Robin’s forthcoming Ph.D in Mathematics, which makes him the ideal drummer for a band like Thinking Plague. Keyboardist Kimara Sajn manned his rig with an unobtrusive but engaging mien, his delight in music-making obvious from his body language. I was barely acquainted with the band’s output before the festival, and their set encouraged me to delve into their back catalogue.

By way of a conclusion, I would like to stress that, as good as all of these bands are on CD, the live setting really makes their music come alive, and also gives them a more “human” dimension that helps debunk the myth of their brainy inaccessibility. For all their dedication to the production of challenging music, these are people who, first and foremost, enjoy what they do, and obviously love being on stage as much as any “mainstream” rock band.

All in all, it was a wonderful day of music and social interaction with like-minded people, and the perfect way to spend the third anniversary of my arrival in the US – even though my husband was unable to share it with me because of work commitments, which also prevented us from attending the  festival’s Jazz Day. My sincerest thanks go to Steve, Joyce and their tireless team: though all of them were looking quite exhausted at the end of the day, their happiness and satisfaction was also palpable. The gorgeous (and delicious) layer cake served just before the Thinking Plague set was a very nice touch to celebrate the effort and care that had gone into the organization of the event. Kudos also to Mike Potter and his collaborators for the state-of-the-art sound quality of each performance, and also for getting the Orion premises in tip-top shape.  Even if it will very probably remain a one-off, CuneiFest will be long remembered in the annals of the US progressive rock community as the very embodiment of the old “small is beautiful” adage.

Links:
http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

http://bkrstk.com/alec-k-redfearn-and-the-eyesores/

http://www.myspace.com/upsilonacrux

http://www.myspace.com/afuche

http://zevious.com/

http://www.generalrubric.com/hamster/main.html

http://www.generalrubric.com/thinkingplague/main.html

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