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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRACKLISTING:
1. La roue (3:43)
2. Cobra Fakir (8:53)
3. RVB7 (3:56)
4. Paris-Roubaix (2:14)
5. Titan (4:17)
6. Un cas sibérien (2:28)
7. Speed-dating sur Mars (7:07)
8. Tandem (8:23)
9. Maringouin (3:41)
10. Space Cowboy (3:11)
11. Expérience 7 (2:27)

LINEUP:
Pascal Globensky – keyboards, synths, piano
Rémi Leclerc – drums, percussion, keyboards, turntable
Bernard Falaise – guitars, bass, keyboards, banjo, turntable

Born in 1980 from the meeting of keyboardist Pascal Globensky and multi-instrumentalist François Émon, French Canadian band Miriodor can be counted amongst the veterans of the current progressive rock scene. Surprisingly, despite the many changes the lineup has undergone in the past three decades, Globensky and drummer Rémi Leclerc, another of the band’s earliest members, are still on board – as is guitarist Bernard Falaise, who has been with the band for 20 years even if not part of its original configuration.

Never a prolific outfit, with only eight studio albums released since their inception and lengthy breaks between each new release, Miriodor seem to have embraced the old tenet about quality trumping quantity. They have also maintained a healthy level of concert activity throughout the years, with high-profile performances at international events such as NEARfest in 2002, FMPM in 2007 and 2008, the Rock in Opposition Festival in Carmaux (France) and Sonic Circuits in Washington DC (where they opened for Univers Zéro) in 2010. Cobra Fakir, their eighth studio album, was finally released on Cuneiform Records at the end of September 2013, a few weeks after their appearance at the 19th edition of ProgDay. Though the album was recorded as a trio, Miriodor have gone back to being a quartet with the addition of bassist Nicolas Lessard, who replaced longtime member Nicolas Masino.

As one of the landmark progressive rock releases of the first decade of the 21st century, Miriodor’s 2009 album, Avanti!, was a tough act to follow. Cobra Fakir, however, though it obviously shares a lot with its predecessor, it also shows the band moving in a somewhat different direction. While their sound – sometimes described as the “happy” counterpart to Univers Zéro austere gloom – is immediately recognizable, the band have made some changes to their compositional approach. Unlike Avanti!, which featured six longish tracks, Miriodor’s latest effort presents a wider range of running times, from the almost 9 minutes of the title-track to 2-minute interludes such as “Paris-Roubaix” (a perfect sonic rendition of the titular bicycle race with its layers of slightly atonal keyboards) and the appealingly noisy, almost improvisational “Un cas sibérien”. A longer track list also means a more noticeable diversity –  with the shorter compositions providing an outlet for experimentation, often involving an array of inventive sound effects. Though there are no guests contributing to Cobra Fakir, this does not necessarily result in a more stripped-down sound, and very few listeners will miss Avanti!’s richer instrumentation.  In fact, the album perfectly demonstrates how multilayered keyboards, far from becoming a byword for bombast, can be used for rhythmic as well as melodic and textural purposes.

Leisurely acoustic guitar introduces “La roue”, whose upbeat main theme – as its title (“The Wheel”) suggests – hints at carnival music, offset by angular, somewhat darker patterns around the middle, and reinforced by sounds of clanging metal, breaking glass and the scratchy turntable effects that crop up throughout the album. The title-track sums up the album’s many faces in its 9 minutes of musical whirlwind – the sedate, meditative first half rendering in sonic terms the tale of the cobra and the fakir outlined in the liner notes, followed by a myriad of tempo and mood changes, often sharply veering towards dissonance yet always informed by an internal logic, then coming full circle with its melancholy, acoustic close. Only a handful of seconds shorter, “Tandem” has a more cohesive structure and an almost classical feel, with sampled flute and harpsichord complementing the piano and synth, and a plethora of sound effects intensifying the trippy, guitar-heavy mood of the ending.

In “RVB7”, assorted percussive effects and the crystalline tinkle of the vibraphone create an amazing blend of sounds that enhances the keyboards and guitar in a lively, dance-like pace; while “Titan” hinges on a brooding, cinematic crescendo punctuated by organ, solemn drum rolls, and surging, distorted guitar, creating a Gothic atmosphere that evokes Univers Zéro. Without any need for words, “Speed-dating sur Mars” tells an entertaining tale through  spacey effects and a sprightly, keyboard-led rhythm, as well as a brief, romantic piano interlude. More spacey goodness (as the title makes it quite obvious) is offered by “Space Cowboy”, where electronic effects hold sway, while melody, infused with a nostalgic Old-World flavour and the gentle sway of a waltz, is the key word in “Maringouin”, easily the most “mainstream” piece on the album. “Experiénce 7” wraps up the album with a short yet intense exercise in atmospheric buildup, conducted almost solely by surging keyboard washes and eerie sound effects.

With its intriguing cover art juxtaposing Hindu mysticism and their native Québec’s winter landscape, Cobra Fakir may well confirm Miriodor’s status as the RIO/Avant band that – on account of their keen melodic flair coexisting with more boundary-pushing tendencies – manages to appeal even to staunch symphonic/neo fans. Balancing edgy dissonance and  haunting atmospheres, engaging circus-like tunes and moments of reflection, the album will benefit from repeated listens in order to let its magic unfold, but will amply reward the listener’s patience. Another outstanding effort from one of the best live bands I have seen in the past few years – their understated mastery of their instruments as close to perfection as it gets – Cobra Fakir does not disappoint expectations, and will certainly feature in many “best of 2013” lists.

Links:
http://miriodor.com/wp/

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

 

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ProgDay2013-art-550

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:
http://www.progday.net

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TRACKLISTING:
Disc One (CD)
1.  Beat Mm (3:16)
2.  Siska (2:02)
3.  Crazy Stuff (1:05)
4. Tyskromans (3:15)
5.  Nyfin (2:23)
6.  Mellan Stol Och Bord (2:30)
7.  Skrona (1:24)
8.  Tages (2:01)
9.  Kanske (1:08)
10.  Den Arga Kvinnan (1:08)
11.  Tivolimarsch (3:32)
12.  Forutbestämningen (Predestinator) (2:50)
13.  Vendelvarianter (2:34)
14.  Okjak (2:41)
15.  Ukuleles (2:33)
16.  Bam ba ra (0:33)
17.  Antilobo (1:31)
18.  Innanpop (2:49)
19.  Proggövergång (0:12)
20.  Talrika (original) (4:36)
21.  Radioyl (2:07)
22.  Aningar (1983) (2:45)
23.  Go to Africa (3:58)
24.  Vandelmässa (1:11)
25.  Franklåt (original) (3:01)
26.  In the R.I.O. (concept) (1:37)

Disc Two (DVD)
Live: Gouveia Art Rock Festival 2005
1. Viandra (3:52)
2. Simfågeldans (4:48)
3. Moro (1:45)
4. Dron (4:20)
5. Tama-Chan Snoa (3:40)
6. Höstvisa (4:09)
With Michel Berckmans (bassoon):
7. Portaletyde (3:41)
8. Nåt (4:13)
9. Utflykt Med Damcykel (6:04)
10. Inte Quanta (2:54)
With Miriodor:
11. Talrika (4:59)

Live: Houwiesse, Weite, Switzerland 2005 (with Fizzè [accordion])
  1. Portaletyde (4:03)
2. Franska Valsen (2:47)
3. Nåt (4:27)
4. Höstvisa (3:42)
5. Boeves Psalm (3:26)
6. Dron (4:31)
7. Inte Quanta (3:02)

LINEUP:
Lars Hollmer – accordion, keyboards, melodic, ukulele, mandolin, percussion, voices, and more

With:
Eino Haapala – guitar (14)

The release of With Floury Hand (English translation of the Swedish Med Mjölad Hand) in the summer of 2012 – three and a half years after Lars Hollmer’s untimely passing on Christmas Day, 2008 – came as a boon to all the devoted followers of the influential Swedish artist who had still not come to terms with his demise. The presence of a 72-minute DVD, capturing Hollmer on stage on two different occasions, both in 2005, makes the album an even more valuable document of the creativity of a musician who, in the almost forty years of his career, managed to carve a niche for himself even when playing music that never pandered to commercial trends.

The album’s quirky title, derived from a recipe that Hollmer’s daughter was reading aloud during a family dinner in 2007, highlights the artist’s keen sense of humour, always a prominent feature of his musical output. As pointed out by its bracketed subtitle, With Floury Hand is a collection of sketches – 26 short tracks (the longest clocking in at slightly over 4 minutes), belonging to different periods of Hollmer’s career, some of them still in a draft state, which showcase the artist’s zest for inventive, boundary-pushing music-making. As both the CD and the DVD poignantly illustrate, Hollmer’s creative spark was clearly far from being extinguished: indeed, unlike in the case of many of his contemporaries, his wide-ranging inspiration and brilliantly eclectic vein had not been dimmed by the passing years.

A year or so after his father’s passing, when the worst of the grief had run its course, Hollmer’s son Gabriel started to delve into the extensive archives that the artist himself had been exploring when, in May 2008, he was diagnosed with the advanced-stage lung cancer that took his life a few months later. The result of this not always comfortable, yet ultimately cathartic process was released three years later thanks to the intervention of Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records, who helped Gabriel give shape to the project. Some of the material that Hollmer had intended for the follow-up to 2007’s somber, subdued Viandra – an album that was to have a very different tone, reflecting the more upbeat, whimsical side of the artist’s creativity – has been included on With Floury Hand. As Gabriel explains in his thorough liner notes, the album as a whole blends finished and unfinished material, experimentation and tradition, melody and  endearing silliness – summing up Hollmer’s artistic personality in under an hour’s running time.

With Floury Hand is introduced by the bracing tune of “Beat Mm”, a jam built around a sequencer theme that Hollmer had conceived as a “car song”. Jaunty, folksy accordion showcases such as “Siska” or the infectious, circus-like “Tivolimarsch” alternate with more sedate, gently melancholy pieces reminiscent of another master of the instrument, Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla – such as the melancholy “Tages”, “Nyfin” or “Vendelvarianter”. The warm tone of the accordion is often complemented by neat percussion patterns, while the liberal use of electronics introduces modernity in a traditional context. Nods to Hollmer’s role as one of the founders of the RIO movement appear in the more left-field offerings, such as “Den Arga Kvinnan” (The Angry Woman”), with its clashing sounds, the eerie electronics of “Radioyl” , and the multilayered, synth-driven “Mellan Stol Och Bord”.

The few tracks that feature vocals reveal Hollmer’s playful side,  like the ‘fake German lied’ of “Tyskromans”, or the ‘stupid and funny’ “Kanske”. On the other hand, the very aptly-titled “Aningar” (Premonitions” exemplifies Hollmer’s darker vein, its menacing. cinematic pace hinting at Univers Zéro; while “Go to Africa”, as the title implies, is a vocal jam over a steady arpeggiator beat that pays homage to the African musical tradition. Finally, the exhilarating “Okjak” – a fine specimen of ‘happy’ RIO/Avant composition – sees Hollmer flanked by his former Von Zamla bandmate Eino Haapala on guitar.

The two performances featured on the  DVD, while quite different from each other, will delight Hollmer’s fans in equal measure. The first half shows Hollmer on stage at the Gouveia Art Rock Festival – first on his own, accompanied only by his faithful accordion and melodica, then by his friend and longtime collaborator Michel Berckmans (of Univers Zéro fame) on bassoon, and finally with Miriodor, for a stunning rendition of “Talrika” (featured on the French Canadian band’s 2005 album Parade, and whose original version appears on the CD). In the second half of the DVD, the artist is captured in the small, intimate setting of Swiss club Heuwiesse, performing as a duo with Swiss accordionist Fizzè.

With its colourful cover artwork (by Hollmer’s daughter Rinda) and heartfelt liner notes, With Floury Hand is a touching homage to a gifted artist who never compromised his integrity, and who would have continued to produce great music if fate had not decreed otherwise. The album is obviously recommended to fans of the original RIO/Avant movement, as well as European folk; however, it can be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in quality rather  than labels or tags.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/artist/lars-hollmer-mn0000783767

http://www.myspace.com/larshollmer

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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One of the biggest advantages of living in an otherwise crowded, ‘pressure-cooker’ area such as the US Northeast is the staggering variety of music on offer. With an impressive choice of venues of every size and description, as well as a thriving underground scene, the region has become one of the most important hubs for progressive rock, as illustrated by the documentary film Romantic Warriors (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). While gigs are organized more or less throughout the year, things are definitely quieter in the colder months (mainly because of the unavailability of the outdoor venues) – while the summer months offer such a wide range of gigs that fans are obliged to pick and choose, unless they have a unlimited supply of time and cash.

2009 was my first full year in the USA, so Michael, my husband, and I were finally able to start sampling the musical delights offered by our area. Our season included our first participation to NEARfest, four visits to the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion (the last one particularly poignant in retrospect, being the last time that we saw the great Ronnie James Dio on stage before his untimely passing), as well as what has now gone down in the annals of concert history as ‘the monsoon on the Potomac’ – the ill-fated Asia/Yes gig at the National Harbor. At the time, I had just started my reviewing tenure with ProgressoR, and as such was very much a ‘newbie’ of the whole scene. This year, though, was quite a different story…

With my review count growing and my reputation as a reviewer spreading around the prog fandom (helped by the reactivation of my Facebook account), I made friends among musicians, built an increasing network of contacts, slowly but steadily became part of the scene. For a basically shy person as I am, this made me feel much less self-conscious when attending gigs and festivals, and boosted my enjoyment of those functions. While I am very human and enjoy the attention generated by my reviews, I also feel I am helping those who need it the most – the artists – by covering their work and encouraging their efforts.

This year, our season of music was fittingly inaugurated at the very end of May, on Memorial Day weekend (which here in the US marks the beginning of the summer season), with the annual concert organized by the DC Society of Art Rock at the Jammin’ Java. We were already familiar with the venue, as we had seen Eddie Jobson and his band play there last year. A small, friendly coffeehouse, notorious for the ear-shattering volume of its gigs, this year it hosted two local bands, Brave and Ephemeral Sun, plus one of our favourite new acts – New Jersey’s very own 3rd Degree. Though all three bands put up excellent performances, 3rd Degree were our personal highlight of the evening – an extremely tight outfit very much in the vein of vintage Steely Dan, fronted by the amazing talents of vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs and bassist Robert James Pashman.

A couple of weeks later, it was the turn of two legendary bands such as Jethro Tull and Procol Harum, in the beautiful setting of the Wolf Trap Foundation – a striking wooden pavilion surrounded by deep woods, and the only National Park in the USA dedicated to the performing arts. While Ian Anderson may have lost most of his vocal power, he and his crew are still mightily entertaining to watch, and their back catalogue has very few equals in the rock word. However, the real surprise of the evening were Procol Harum. Unlike Anderson’s, Gary Brooker’s inimitable voice is still in pristine shape, and they wowed the audience with a mix of older and newer material, including the goosebump-inducing “A Salty Dog” and the much-awaited “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.

Our second time at NEARfest, which took place on the third weekend of June, is documented in the lengthy account I wrote for ProgressoR when I was still on board. Since all my articles for said website are covered by copyright, I will post a link to it at the end of this piece. Two days after our return from Pennsylvania, we were back at Wolf Trap for the Yes/Peter Frampton double bill – another great concert from two historic acts, though this time marred by the stiflingly humid heat. After last year’s monsoon, which had literally driven Yes off stage, we had bought tickets for their February concert at the Warner Theatre in DC. It was not, however, meant to be, since the event was first rescheduled because of the heavy snowfall; then – on the evening it was finally going to happen – Michael came home from work with a touch of the flu, so we kissed goodbye to our tickets, and patiently waited for the next opportunity to see the band. In spite of all you can say about the Jon Anderson-less Yes, they did not disappoint, and I was particularly excited by their performance of “Close to the Edge”, which I had never previously seen them play live.

After almost a month’s gap, on July 20 we headed to a venue we were not yet familiar with – the Jiffy Lube arena (formerly Nissan Pavilion) – to see another formidable double bill, firm favourites Iron Maiden with Dream Theater as openers. Unlike either Wolf Trap or the Merriweather Post Pavilion, Jiffy Lube is a largely unprepossessing space, located somewhat in the middle of nowhere and totally devoid of atmosphere. Though we were seated in the covered area, we managed to get relatively wet when a thunderstorm broke out (quite appropriately, seen the title of their latest release) just as Dream Theater took to the stage, and the wind drove the rain beneath the roof of the pavilion. While I found the New York band tolerable at best (their set was mercifully short!), Iron Maiden delivered in spades as usual. With three decades of activity under their belt, they are still one of the most energetic, entertaining live bands in the business, and I was thrilled with their choice to perform some of their more recent material alongside their undisputed classics.

Fast forward to the first weekend of September, and my first time at ProgDay – as described in detail in the review linked below. Barely two weeks of rest, so to speak, and the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits festival was upon us – with the organizers having pulled out all the stops by securing the participation of three major draws such as Magma, Univers Zéro and Miriodor, as well as veterans The Muffins and electronic pioneers Richard Pinhas and Merzbow. Though we had bought passes for the whole week, we were only able to attend the opening and closing shows, both held in the gorgeous premises of the Maison Française, the cultural centre of the French Embassy in DC. The marathon-like opening event culminated with a simply incredible performance by Zeuhl legends Magma, a band every self-respecting progressive rock fan should experience at least once. A week later, the festival was closed in style by the utterly stunning musicianship and compositional mastery of Miriodor and Univers Zéro – a once-in-a-lifetime double bill.

Our season of music came to a close last Saturday, with our first-ever visit to the Orion Studios in Baltimore to see Italian band The Watch (who were performing Genesis’ iconic Foxtrot album in its entirety) supported by Shadow Circus – one of the Northeast’s finest new bands, and very good friends of ours. The Orion is indeed one of those places that seem to have come out of a bygone era – a warehouse in a suburban area of Baltimore converted into a temple of progressive music, somewhat small and cramped, but brimming with character and a ‘family’ atmosphere of sorts, with people bringing their own chairs, drinks and food. Unfortunately, tiredness prevented us from attending the whole of The Watch’s performance, though we managed to enjoy all of Shadow Circus’ set. Those guys are going from strength to strength, and will hopefully soon reap the rewards of all their hard work.

In the coming months there will probably be other concerts for us to attend in the area, though not with the same frequency. At any rate, we already have some gigs lined up for next spring, and will also try to attend all three of the big festivals organized on the East Coast. Until then, I will continue to support up-and-coming bands with my reviews and feedback. Watch this space!

Links:

NEARfest 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/nearfest2010.html)
ProgDay 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/progday2010.html)

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