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Posts Tagged ‘NJ Proghouse’

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After our highly enjoyable experience at Dunellen’s quaint Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse during last year’s Columbus Day weekend, this year we were looking forward to a repeat – and that in spite of the stress of the past 12 months. The stellar lineup, friendly vibe and gorgeous, early fall weather had made the first edition of New Jersey’s own “small is beautiful” festival an unforgettable occurrence, and things looked very promising for its sophomore edition when the lineup was announced – featuring two iconic US bands such as Echolyn and Discipline as headliners, together with a wealth of up-and-coming progressive talent.

Unfortunately, the unexpected withdrawal of Echolyn not even two months before the event had threatened to put the festival in severe jeopardy, and definitely impacted the overall attendance. US prog fans – even more so than those from other countries – need to see big names on a bill before they will commit money and vacation time, as the sorry tale of ambitious yet aborted ventures such as NEARfest 2011 and FarFest more than abundantly proved. The turnout, however, even if obviously lower than last year, was satisfactory – which (as a silver lining of sorts) allowed a more intimate seating arrangement that made for a more comfortable viewing experience.

Saturday morning felt more like November than early October, with rain, grey skies and rather chilly temperatures that did not encourage lingering outside. In spite of that, a nice crowd gathered before noon to witness the performance of openers Pinnacle, a group of seasoned musicians well known in the North East prog community, with ties to the NJ Proghouse organization. The quartet introduced their newest member, vocalist/keyboardist Matt Francisco, who handled his frontman duties with remarkable aplomb, doing justice to the band’s accomplished songwriting. Of all the bands who trod the Roxy and Dukes stage on Saturday, Pinnacle were probably the only one that could be labeled as “traditional” prog, and they rose well to the occasion, interspersing their own original material with an homage to Marillion’s “Script for a Jester’s Tear”. Although their music (a modern take on the classic Neo-Prog sound) is not exactly my cup of tea (being a modern take on classic Neo-Prog), their enthusiasm, professionalism and warm stage presence won over the audience.

South Jerseyans Out of the Beardspace were already a known quantity for those who (like us,) had attended ProgDay 2013. At the time, I had found them promising and quite entertaining, albeit a tad unfocused. However, the youthful six-piece (none of them is older than 24) had grown by leaps and bounds in the intervening months, with the help of a massive amount of gigging. In fact, they had played until 4 a.m. that morning, and were headed for another show a couple of hours after their NJ Proghouse set. Brimming with energy, the band members bounced unceasingly about the stage; their music, however, while retaining the jammy, spontaneous vibe that had endeared them to the ProgDay crowd, was noticeably tighter. Fronted by the charismatic Kevin Savo – whose impressive stage presence and piercing vocals belie his diminutive size – these modern-day hippies, staunch supporters of a DIY ethos and dedicated environmentalists, showed that there is ample room for the younger generations on the stage of a prog festival – provided the audiences are willing to step out of their comfort zone. Chock full of psychedelic goodness, the band’s musical approach is occasionally reminiscent to that of jam bands, but is clearly evolving in a more focused direction from a compositional point of view. While out of the Beardspace may not be your parents’ prog, they definitely belong under the ever-growing umbrella of modern progressive rock.

Though vaguely familiar with the name, I had not heard any of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music prior to the event, and lack of time prevented me from exploring further. In fact, the comments I had heard about their music being more in singer-songwriter vein than in a conventional prog one proved to be at least partly true. The quartet fronted by young and gifted guitarist/vocalist Randy McStine (also a member of Sound of Contact’s touring lineup) deals in song-based, prog-tinged rock that on more than one occasion reminded me of U2, though without the Irish band’s flamboyance and charisma. While a couple of tracks towards the end of their set contained some interesting instrumental passages, the bulk of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music failed to connect with me, in spite of the band members’ obvious enthusiasm and skill. The crowd, on the other hand, seemed to really appreciate their set, and treated them to a standing ovation.

As I wrote in my review of ProgDay 2014, I was curious to see whether California-based power trio Travis Larson Band’s music would work better in a more intimate setting than it had in the tropical heat of Storybook Farm at 3 p.m. My hunch proved to be correct, as the trio’s set was for me the highlight of a rather low-key day. Travis Larson’ engagingly friendly between-songs banter added interest to the blistering yet fluid music – driving rock-fusion with some warm bluesy undertones, always tight and never descending into pointless shredding. Larson’s on-stage chemistry with diminutive dynamo Jennifer Young – a gifted bassist genuinely in love with her instrument, and a heartwarming example of an attractive woman using her musical talent rather than her looks to impress – was a joy to behold, while powerhouse drummer Dale Moon made quite a few members of the audience wonder whether he was related to another drum legend bearing the same surname. The band’s stagecraft is obviously honed to perfection, and their set provided a welcome shot of pure rock energy.

After a delicious (and way too plentiful for us to finish) dinner at a Peruvian restaurant a few miles down the road, in the company of our friend Robert James Pashman of 3RDegree fame (whom we had not seen in quite a while), we got back to Roxy and Dukes just one or two minutes after The Sensational Francis Dunnery Band had taken to the stage. At the end of a long day of music (and, in my case, not having got enough sleep the previous night), it would have taken something special to hold our attention until 11 pm, but unfortunately this was not the case, and we ended up leaving about half an hour later in order to get some rest. While Dunnery is a very accomplished musician, songwriter and frontman (even when sporting blue tracksuit pants, as he did on this occasion) of a very eclectic persuasion, his music did not particularly resonate with us, and his constant complaints about the sound system came across as rather jarring after a while. On the other hand, having had to replace Echolyn as the Saturday headliner would undoubtedly have been a thankless task for anyone.

After a much better night’s sleep, on Sunday morning I was feeling refreshed and ready to tackle another day of music. The much nicer weather also encouraged us to arrive early to spend some time outside the venue, chatting with people and enjoying the sunshine. I was looking forward to opening act Schooltree – a band I had selected as one of my earliest contributions to DPRP’s Something for the Weekend? feature, and recommended to a few people. The Boston-based quartet, led by another pocket-sized, yet hugely charismatic young woman – the very talented Lainey Schooltree, decked in a half-demure, half-provocative outfit of white blouse and black, tightly laced corset – delivered an hour of delightful art-rock with intriguing Baroque arrangements that owed to Kate Bush and Queen as much as to classic prog. Lainey’s powerful, expressive vocals and keyboard mastery often made me think of a more carefree version of Tori Amos. Alongside songs from the band’s excellent debut album, Rise, we were treated to some very promising material from their forthcoming ‘rock opera’. Lainey and her bandmates deservedly made many fans with their exciting music and friendly, engaging demeanour.

Of all of the bands on the lineup, MVP (Meridian Voice Project) were definitely the most obscure, though I had managed to find enough information about them to learn that they were a jazz-rock-oriented four-piece from New York City who had performed at the NJ Proghouse in 2013. Led by ebullient keyboardist Lloyd Landesman, an obviously experienced, very accomplished artist with and the added bonus of a talent for stand-up comedy, the band played a fiery set of classic, keyboard-driven jazz-rock with plenty of melody and energy that featured a lot of their own material, as well as a few covers (such as Bruford’s famed “Hell’s Bells”, a showcase for the amazing talent of drummer Dana Hawkins) and. With their seamless musicianship and easy stage manner, the band made a splash with the crowd, and many rushed to buy CDs after the show.

The East Coast debut of Los Angeles five-piece Heliopolis was eagerly awaited by many an audience member – especially those who had loved Mars Hollow’s soaring melodies and exhilarating stage presence, and mourned the quartet’s untimely demise. The band did not disappoint, delivering a set that (while somewhat shorter than we were expecting) showcased both the individual members’ considerable skills and their collective chemistry, doing ample justice to the material featured on their recently released debut CD, City of the Sun. With irrepressible bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine prowling the stage, tawny locks swinging and faithful Rickenbacker getting a good workout, and Jerry Beller pounding away at his drum kit, the band went through the five tracks of their album with panache. Keyboardist Matt Brown – looking as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself – lorded over his keyboard rig with abandon, while guitarist Michael Matier cut a more sedate figure, and vocalist Scott Jones swung his microphone stand about in tried-and-true rock fashion, his well-modulated high tenor well suited to the band’s intricate yet upbeat music. Heliopolis also regaled the crowd with an encore – a barnstorming version of The Beatles’ “Help”.

Even though Echolyn had pulled out of the festival, their vocalist Ray Weston had stayed on the lineup to provide a short but well-attended interlude before the Sunday headliners came on. Known for his songwriting skills as well as his soulful, somewhat plaintive voice, the long-haired and bespectacled Weston – accompanied by a sizable acoustic guitar – looked very much as if he had stepped out of grunge’s heyday. His 40-minute set – which included stripped-down versions of Echolyn’s “Headright” and “The End Is Beautiful”, as well as Discipline’s very creepy “The Nursery Year” – offered a break from the orgy of instrumental complexity that is at the heart of every self-respecting prog festival, and was occasionally arresting, though as a whole it probably went on a bit too long.

As I wrote in my review of their 2011 album To Shatter All Accord, I am a relative newcomer to Discipline, one of the trailblazers (together with Echolyn) of the US prog renaissance in the Nineties. However, that long-awaited album was enough to make me a convert, and I spent the past two years kicking myself for having missed the Detroit band’s performance at ROSFest 2012. The praise heaped upon them by some of my friends made me even more impatient to experience them on stage. I am glad to say that my patience was amply rewarded, because on Sunday night Discipline played a blinder that made me forget my ever-present tiredness and the slight burnout that often follows a weekend full of music. The black-clad figure of Matthew Parmenter (wearing his customary white makeup) sitting behind the keyboards was a magnet for everyone’s eyes. His singing voice (quite different from his speaking one) is simply one of the best I have heard in a long time, and his oddly endearing, deadpan humour contrasts with his somewhat forbidding appearance. With distinguished-looking Tiles guitarist Chris Herin subbing for Jon Preston Bouda, and Mathew Kennedy and Paul Dzendzel providing a flawless rhythmic background – ideal for the band’s complex, yet often crushingly heavy mid-tempos – Discipline delivered a perfect two hours of music as powerful as it was devoid of unnecessary flash. Having left his costumes and Gabrielesque performances behind, Parmenter now relies on his measured gestures and facial expressions to convey a depth of emotion than makes many other frontmen seem hopelessly overwrought. Needless to say, I will be counting the days until I see the band again at the Orion Studios on November 8.

As a whole, the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend was as successful as the first, even though I believe that having five bands instead of four in an indoor setting can be somewhat taxing for the average music fan’s attention span. On the other hand, the organizers are to be commended for reaching outside the boundaries of conventional prog, and showcasing the many different forms of the genre in this second decade of the 21st century – even if I would have liked to see at least one “cutting-edge” band on the Roxy and Dukes stage. In any case, the third edition of the festival is already in the works, and the first two bands were announced on Sunday night – MoeTar and Necromonkey, both firm favourites of mine.

As usual, at the end of my review I would like to thank the NJ Proghouse “staph” for all their hard work and for allowing us to enjoy a wonderful weekend of music and companionship with like-minded people in very friendly surroundings. I hope that, sometimes during the next 12 months, we will find the time to head to Dunellen again.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Introduction (1:49)
2. How Wonderful (7:03)
3. Her Voice (10:08)
4. Airtight (5:13)
5. The Knowledge Enterprise – Overture (3:19)
6. The Knowledge Enterprise – Conceivers and Deceivers (4:53)
7. The Knowledge Enterprise – Tonight (6:22)
8. The Knowledge Enterprise – With These Eyes (5:29)
9. The Knowledge Enterprise – Finale (1:26)

LINEUP:
Geoffrey Langley – vocals, keyboards
Steve Kostas – lead guitar
Justin Carlton – vocals, guitars
Richmond Carlton – bass, harp
Joe Henderson – vocals, drums

Founded in early 2012 by vocalist/keyboardist Geoffrey Langley, five-piece The Twenty Committee are the newest entry in the thriving progressive rock scene of the Philadelphia/New Jersey region. A few months after the band’s formation, Langley went to Nashville to audition for Neal Morse’s touring band, and the quality of his material attracted Morse’s attention. In July 2012, Langley went back to Nashville with the rest of the band to record their debut album at Radiant Studios. A Lifeblood Psalm, produced by Morse’s long-time collaborator Jerry Guidroz, was released in April 2013, and followed by a number of live shows (including one at the NJ Proghouse in March 2013).

Like other bands from the same geographical area (notably Shadow Circus, 3RDegree and IZZ, but also the edgier The Tea Club and Thank You Scientist), The Twenty Committee straddle the line between progressive and pop – their lush, multilayered arrangements coexisting with catchy melodies, topped off by Geoffrey Langley’s impeccable vocals. In a genre where the majority of vocalists are either idiosyncratic (cue the many Geddy Lee clones) or so discreet as to be almost nondescript (as in the Steven Wilson school), Langley impresses for his smooth, clear tones, never sounding strained or cheesy, and truly a perfect fit for the band’s material. From the instrumental point of view, the presence of a second guitar (not frequent in prog), together with the strings provided by renowned session orchestra The Nashville String Machine, flesh out the sound and lend it a symphonic dimension.

Unlike those “crossover” prog bands who focus on the reinterpretation of the song form rather than on prog’s old warhorse, the epic, The Twenty Committee pay tribute to the genre’s time-honoured tradition by featuring a 10-minute track and a five-part suite. In spite of that, the album’s running time is kept to a very restrained 45 minutes, which allows the listener to enjoy the music without feeling overwhelmed. Though the Neal Morse connection, as well as the album’s general catchy-meets-symphonic allure, have elicited comparisons with Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard, many times while listening to A Lifeblood Psalm I was reminded of Echolyn, especially their self-titled 2012 album.

A recorded radio broadcast leads into the short “Introduction”, where Langley’s soothing voice and piano are complemented by strings and guitar. Then “How Wonderful” reveals The Twenty Committee’s approach to crossover prog, with echoes of classic Genesis in the lush yet smoothly flowing interplay of keyboards and guitar (both acoustic and electric), elegant vocal harmonies and plenty of emotion, culminating in a dramatic guitar solo by the excellent Steve Kostas. The Echolyn influence surfaces strongly in the 10 minutes of “Her Voice”, which is also the most likely to appeal to those with a more left-field bent on account of the atmospheric “controlled chaos” of its middle section, as well as its evident jazz influences emphasized by brisk electric piano – definitely a very ambitious offering with lots of twists and turns and outstanding performances throughout. The gentle ballad “Airtight”, its autumnal feel enhanced by strings and harp, closes the album’s first half on a low-key note, reprising the mood of the opener.

Presented as five separate tracks, the unconventional suite of “The Knowledge Enterprise” (a title with a strong “modern prog” flavour, just like the album’s cover artwork) introduces some new elements in the mix – such as the metal-tinged riffs and whistling moog of the energetic instrumental “Overture”. “Conceivers and Deceivers” blends tradition and modernity, piano punctuating the ebb and flow of the music, and sudden surges of intensity adding a dramatic, almost cinematic dimension reminiscent of The Tea Club. The brothers McGowan’s outfit is also evoked by the masterful handling of quiet-loud dynamics of “Tonight”, enhanced by the strings’ stateliness. On the other hand, while the melodic development of “With These Eyes” is somewhat more predictable, Langley’s exquisite vocals and the dreamy, waltzy moog at the end add interest. The suite is then wrapped up by a short, upbeat “Finale”.

While A Lifeblood Psalm is somewhat more “mainstream” than most of the albums I generally review, the outstanding musicianship and excellent production values make for a very rewarding listening experience. For a debut, it certainly sounds extremely accomplished (though not so much as to come across as contrived), and establishes The Twenty Committee as a great new addition to the roster of young US bands that embrace the ethos of prog’s “new frontier”.

Links:
http://thetwentycommittee.com/
http://thetwentycommittee.bandcamp.com/

 

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SETLISTS:

Shadow Circus
Overture
Daddy’s Gone
Whosit, Whatsit and Which
Make Way for the Big Show
Tesseract
Uriel
Camazotz
The Battle for Charles Wallace
Willoughby

Edensong
To See But Not Believe
Reunion
Cold City
Water Run
Nocturne
Years in the Garden of Years
In the Longest of Days
The Sixth Day
Beneath the Tide

After the successful outcome of their first festival, just one month ago, the unstoppable NJ Proghouse ‘staph’ have not been resting on their laurels, and have continued in their commendable mission of providing a showcase for the best progressive music at the local, national and international level. With an impressive series of shows already planned for the next few months (and some more yet to be confirmed) the group of passionate music fans based in New Jersey’s Raritan Valley have turned into a force to be reckoned with – especially now that they can count on the quaint yet welcoming premises of Dunellen’s Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse as a regular venue.

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I decided to head north from my Northern Virginia home (though this time on my own) to attend the highly awaited debut of Shadow Circus at the NJ Proghouse, which also coincided with their very first outing with their new lineup. I had last seen the band one year ago at the Orion Studios, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and a few weeks before the official release of their critically acclaimed third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night – a show that had been plagued by a number of technical issues and had seen a less than stellar turnout. Unexpected lineup changes had prevented the band from performing again for quite a long time, in spite of the album’s positive reception. Understandably, this show right on their home turf was of paramount importance for the band led by guitarist John Fontana and vocalist David Bobick. For the occasion, they had teamed up with another local band, Edensong (who had performed at ProgDay 2009) – a very interesting pairing, seen as the two outfits’ approach to progressive rock is at the same time similar and different.

It felt oddly comforting to be back at Roxy and Dukes after a month that, for me, had been fraught with stressful events. The low-ceilinged, dimly lit interior of the venue, with its endearingly kitschy décor, looked much roomier with the tables arranged in groups of two or three  rather than in long rows, making it easier for people to move around. The turnout was not too bad for a late Sunday afternoon, and there were quite a few familiar faces among the audience. Indeed, the  Proghouse ‘staph’, together with the Roxy and Dukes staff, have created a warm, friendly ambiance for both performers and attendees, so that every show feels like a house party that invites people to linger rather than depart abruptly when the music is over.

Shadow Circus had been announced as performing their latest album in its entirety – which turned out to not to be strictly true, as the lovely, ethereal “Ixchel” was omitted for technical reasons (i.e. the lack of a female backup vocalist). However, the album’s overall impact was not lessened in the least, and the band’s two newest members – bassist Chris Valentine and drummer Campbell Youngblood-Petersen – looked perfectly at ease, projecting enthusiasm and self-confidence  as well as showing considerable skill with their respective instruments.

Decked in black as usual – with only keyboardist David Silver’s snazzy jacket’s bright red lapels adding a touch of colour – Shadow Circus delivered an energetic performance, deploying all the theatrical flair of their material and their trademark blend of classic symphonic prog and hard rock, powerful yet melodic and accessible. John Fontana – looking highly concentrated and just a bit tense – cranked out riffs and blistering solos on his trusty blue axe, while Silver’s impassive mien belied the exuberance of his Emerson-inspired keyboard runs (and that in spite of a few technical glitches). Sporting a purple-dyed beard and round mirrored shades, his microphone decorated with a large silver cross in pure Black Sabbath style, David Bobick handled his master-of-ceremonies duties with consummate ease. He introduced the album’s back story as soon as he appeared on stage at the end of the grandiose instrumental “Overture”, then put his theatrical training to good use while belting out the songs with gusto. The band wrapped up their set with one of their undisputed crowd-pleasers, “Willoughby”, which got the audience to sing along to the infectious chorus.

Originally formed in 2002 by guitarist/composer James Byron Schoen when attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Edensong have been through a myriad of lineup changes before and after the release of their full-length debut, The Fruit Fallen (2008), which included songs dating back from the early days of the band. Though not exactly prolific, they are very eclectic in their approach, blending classic prog with a host of other influences ranging from Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel to modern progressive metal. This eclecticism was amply displayed on the Roxy and Dukes stage, where Edensong proved that they are not just a heavier version of Jethro Tull (as some have labeled them). Obviously, the prominent role of the flute – used as a lead instrument as much as the guitar or the keyboards – will elicit comparisons with Ian Anderson’s crew, but Edensong’s music also possesses a keen contemporary edge  and an intriguingly dark, mysterious vibe.

Though I was somewhat tired when they got on stage, I could not help admiring the dramatic intensity of their sound (albeit with a strong undercurrent of melody) and their impressive stage presence. The youthful quintet’s bohemian appearance, which reminded me a bit of The Tea Club, intensified the music’s emotional impact.  Bare-chested flutist Barry Seroff very physical approach to his instrument matched the engaging antics of bassist TD Towers (a dead ringer for a young Ian Anderson, clothes included), and keyboardist Stefan Paolini drew the eye with his bright red pants. Drummer Tony Waldman kept up with Towers’ unflagging energy, while James Byron Schoen himself, though more sedate in demeanor, cut a striking figure with his red beard, jaunty hat and Steven Wilson-like bare feet. While his voice may be a bit of an acquired taste, I found it fit the music really well, and his edgy yet melodic guitar playing was not at all affected by this double duty. The band performed a selection of songs from The Fruit Fallen and their 2010 EP Echoes of Edensong, plus three songs (“Cold City”, “Years in the Garden of Years” and “In the Longest of Days”) from their forthcoming new album, which will be based on the concept of time.

As usual, attendance could have been higher, especially considering that the show ended no later than 9.15 p.m. Unfortunately, it seems that any band who does not feature attractive young women or members of prog’s old guard will have to be content with drawing no more than 50 people. On the other hand, it was heartening to see two bands sharing the stage on equal footing (no headliners and openers, and the same time allotted to both) and obviously admiring and supporting each other’s work. This was my fourth time seeing Shadow Circus perform live, and I am glad to say that the band has grown both in self-assurance and musical stature. As for Edensong, I will be looking forward to their new album, and hope to see them again on stage soon. On the whole, the evening was definitely worth the trip, and my only regret is that Roxy and Dukes is not closer to our home.

Links:
http://www.njproghouse.com

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Though the “big” progressive rock festival scene in the US – generally limited to the late spring and summer months – seems to be on the wane, with the demise of NEARfest and the failure of other ambitious events to take off, some fans seem to have taken the old “small is beautiful” adage to heart, and their efforts seem to be paying so far. While the group of close friends and music lovers affectionately known as the NJ Proghouse “staph” are old hands at organizing concerts, the two-day event that took place on the second weekend of October 2013 was a potential baptism of fire that, however, was passed with flying colours.

On a rainy Friday morning we drove from our Northern Virginia home to New Jersey. It had been a relatively late decision, but events had  made it easier for us to take the time off and head north for two solid days of music and good company. Having often written about the need to scale things down as regards the organization of prog festivals in the US, I felt I needed to follow my own advice, and support this venture. As harrowing as the drive was, through occasional spells of heavy rain and equally heavy traffic, the event more than rewarded our patience.

Though the gorgeous fall weather – cool yet not excessively so, with sun and clear skies enhancing the beauty of the multihued foliage – would have made a perfect setting for an outdoor festival, the venue chosen for the occasion was so endearingly quaint and cheerful that even spending so much time indoors did not feel like a chore. Conflating lounge bar, restaurant and music venue in a dimly-lit, low-ceilinged space decorated with an impressive collection of vintage curios, Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse is located on a picturesque, tree-lined road in the heart of New Jersey, close to New York City yet seemingly removed from its hustle and bustle. Though certainly no state-of-the-art theatre like Bethlehem’s Zoellner Arts Centre or Gettysburg’s Majestic (and therefore a bit uncomfortable after a while), it can boast of amazingly good acoustics, and its friendly vibe makes it the ideal setting for non-mainstream music events. Even if the stage may have been a bit cramped for any band with more than four members, none of the eight sets was in any way affected by the relative lack of space.

For a rather low-key event, scheduled away from the main festival season, the Homecoming Weekend was very well-attended, and the venue packed to capacity for most of Sunday, as the organizers had wisely offered the opportunity to buy tickets for single bands as well as the whole weekend. Many of the attendees came from the neighbouring areas, but others (like us) had taken a longer trip in order to be present at the launch of the event and ensure its viability for the future.  With only one exception, the lineup included bands that had already performed at concerts organized by the NJ Proghouse “staph” in the past few years – most of them hailing from the New Jersey/New York region. While the only two acts coming from outside were (as it often happens) also the biggest draws, all the bands drew a respectable and appreciative crowd. The presence of keyboardist Tom Brislin (a NJ Proghouse regular), who contributed musical interludes during the breaks, and also joined some bands during theirsets, added further interest to the already outstanding lineup.

Advent, opening act and “in-house” band of sorts (as guitarist Alan Benjamin, together with his lovely wife Amy, is one of the most active members of the Proghouse “staph”), were one of my own personal draws. While not exactly prolific either as a studio or a live act, the quintet founded in the late Eighties by Benjamin and keyboardist/composer Henry Ptak have a distinctive approach that would be too easy to dismiss as a lesser version of Gentle Giant. In fact, while the influence of the iconic Seventies band was unmistakable in the material from their self-titled debut album, their quietly refined sound, tinged with the haunting beauty of medieval and Renaissance music, as well as jazzy suggestions and  hints of English folk, is redolent with Old World charm. Their gorgeous, multi-part vocal harmonies – masterfully arranged by Henry Ptak, drawing on his experience as a choir director – blend seamlessly with the instrumentation rather than dominating it; the keyboards – manned by Ptak and his brother Mark – and Benjamin’s guitar work together with the ease of a long partnership, weaving fascinating musical textures. New bassist Brian Mooney brings his jazz-rock background to the table, lending a more dynamic element to the band’s stately sound, in unison with Joe D’Andrea’s crisp, elegant drumming. The band looked elated to be back on stage, and the material from their forthcoming third album sounds very promising indeed. Hopefully, next time I see them they will be able to play a longer set.

Advent

The Tea Club are part of a restricted number of bands whose career I have been following since its inception. The outfit led by brothers Daniel and Patrick McGowan, though plagued by growing pains (i.e. frequent lineup changes) has been going from strength to strength, adding layers of complexity to the energetic punch of their debut album, and blending a boldly modern direction with their very personal homage to the past. Young and good-looking in their fashionably bohemian attire, with the McGowan brothers and drummer Joe Rizzolo (a very talented musician with a jazz background) sporting flowing locks that would have looked great in a shampoo commercial, they played a set that emphasized their mastery of quiet-loud dynamics. Intense electric flare-ups, packed with frantic riffs, effortlessly morphed into soothing passages embellished by Renée Pestritto’s pastoral flute, while the brothers’ strong, high-pitched voices – Dan’s more melodic, Pat’s assertive, with a touch of banshee wail – merged smoothly with the instruments. New bassist Jamie Wolff complemented Rizzolo’s agile, accomplished drumming style, propelling the band’s trademark crescendos and beefing up the guitars’ relentless riffage. While the influence of the likes of Radiohead is clearly detectable, The Tea Club have woven subtle but hard to miss classic prog elements into their sound – particularly evident in the material from their latest CD, Quickly Quickly Quickly, performed here in its entirety. Some entertaining visual props – in the shape of a large, top-hatted wolf stuck to Dan’s back – were also introduced during their performance of “The Eternal German Infant” at the close of their set.

The Tea Club

Having been absent from the stage for quite a few  years, Long Islanders Frogg Café were certainly one of the most highly anticipated bands of the weekend. Indeed, while their highly praised 2010 album, Bateless Edge, had made many Top 10 lists, no one had had the pleasure of seeing any of its material performed live. After their career-defining performance at NEARfest 2005, the band had made a lot of fans both inside and outside the US, but had dropped off the radar after their latest album’s release, giving rise to rumours of their demise. Thankfully, the six-piece born as a Frank Zappa cover band called Lumpy Gravy, and later developed into a highly inventive entertaining jazz-rock outfit, are still alive and very much kicking. Frogg Café are also one of those quintessential live bands whose full potential does not truly shine on CD, as their preference for long, jam-like compositions suits the stage much better. They also have the ability not to take themselves too seriously, in spite of their outstanding musical background. Lined up at the front of the stage, with  music stands before each member but drummer James Guarnieri,  their presence brimmed with deadpan humour  – especially evident in guitarist Frank Camiola’s attire of pork pie hat, shorts and mirrored shades, matched by a stony countenance. Dynamic horn duo of Nick and John Lieto, soberly dressed in slacks and dress shirts, went about their comedy routine while playing their respective instruments with gusto, supported by Bill Ayasse’s more sedate violin-wielding turn; while bassist Andrew Sussman’s striking, confident presence marked him as the “rockstar” character of the band. Frogg Café’s set consisted of a number of extended pieces that featured lots of improvisation, engaging Zappaesque vocals and occasional reflective moments. Fans of the Canterbury scene also appreciated the homage to Mike Ratledge’s “Backwards” (part of Caravan’s “A Hunting We Shall Go” instrumental suite, though originally included in Soft Machine’s “Slightly All the Time”).

Frogg Café

The outstanding Saturday programme was wrapped up by New York sextet IZZ, another favourite of prog audiences. After having had a taste of their excellence in the late spring of this year, when their “Quad” version opened for 3RDegree at the Orion Studios, I was looking forward to seeing the full band on stage, and I am glad to say that they did not disappoint. Opening their 2-hour set with an energetic cover of The Beatles’ classic “Ticket to Ride”, IZZ treated the audience to a selection of their best material, including epics “Late Night Salvation”, “Can’t Feel the Earth” and “Crush of Night”, as well as one song from bassist John Galgano’s solo album and a cover of King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair”. The distinctive two-drummer configuration, with Brian Coralian handling acoustic and electronic percussion and Greg DiMiceli a traditional kit, lent both texture and dynamics to the music, boosting John Galgano’s flawless bass lines and providing a solid backdrop for Paul “Brems” Bremner’s exhilarating, often hard-edged guitar work. Tom Galgano manned the keyboards with energy and aplomb, his voice tackling the band’s melodic yet complex compositions effectively, assisted by Anmarie Byrnes’ pure, soaring tones. Though IZZ’s music is clearly influenced by the golden age of prog, it has enough personality to stand on its own.  Extremely professional in their approach, yet warm and engaging, IZZ are one of those bands whose material – as good as it is in recorded form – takes on a completely new dimension when performed live, its impressive balance of melody, intricacy and electricity fully unfolding on the stage.

IZZ

After a refreshing night’s sleep, on Sunday morning we were back at Roxy and Dukes for another day of great music and friendship. Though the Sunday opening act was the only unknown quantity to the vast majority of the audience,  Tammy Scheffer’s Morning Bound, an experimental trio of voice, bass and drums led by extremely talented Israeli-born singer Tammy Scheffer,  proved to be the real surprise of the festival. Drafted in a few months ago to replace Oblivion Sun, they provided that genuine boundary-breaking element that progressive rock seems all too often to have left by the wayside. When the slight, curly-haired Scheffer stepped on stage and started to sing, my jaw dropped to the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the band’s set. Her voice soared effortlessly, pitch-perfect and smooth as honey, bending the music to its will and twining with the intricate patterns laid out by bassist Russ Flynn and drummer Ronen Itzik. Tape loops were used sparingly but effectively to add further layers of interest to her performance, but she would have caused a stir even if she had sung without any accompaniment at all. With her graceful posture and charmingly measured gestures punctuating her astonishing vocal exertions, Tammy offered a performance that while devoid of any references to classic prog, was as progressive as they come. One of the undisputed highlights of an hour of musical excellence was her deconstruction of Suzanne Vega’s wistful “Marlene on the Wall”. Tammy’s flawless set proved once again that it is not necessary to rely on overly complex arrangements and large instrumentation to produce authentically forward-looking music, and celebrated the power and beauty of the human voice.

Tammy Scheffer’s Morning Bound

The contrast between the first and the second act on the bill could not have been greater, as Morning Bound’s jazzy elegance left the stage to Thank You Scientist – another local band that we had first seen in action barely over one month ago at ProgDay. Although somewhat constrained by the size of the stage, the explosive seven-piece led by charismatic singer Sal Marrano delivered an energy-packed, highly entertaining set with hardly a moment of respite. Odin Alvarez’s relentless drumming, aided and abetted by bassist Greg Colacino, pummeled the audience into submission, while Russell Lynch’s distinctively-shaped violin added a melodic touch to the band’s hard-driving sound. The irresistible horn duo of Andrew Digrius and Ellis Jasenovich blared their way through the setlist, providing swing and entertainment value, while guitarist Tom Monda anchored the band’s wildly eclectic sound to the rock aesthetics. Marrano, sporting a jaunty beret, almost jumped off the stage on several occasions, his engaging stage presence owing more to punk than prog, and his high, expressive voice never flagging in spite of the demanding nature of his vocal parts. The Beatles’ anthemic “I Am the Walrus”, enthusiastically cheered by the audience, wrapped up their hyper-energetic set. As I noted in my ProgDay review, these guys have serious potential to win over the considerably broader audience of indie/alternative rock – those who do not care for the “prog” tag even if many of their favourite bands have clear progressive features (The Mars Volta, Tool and The Decemberists all being a case in point).

Thank You Scientist

For all the abundance of awesome modern talent on display during the weekend, it cannot be denied that most of the attendees ( prog fans being what they are) were looking forward to one act in particular – Chicago hotshots District 97 with Seventies legend John Wetton as a special guest, performing some of King Crimson’s most popular compositions. The band had played in our neck of the woods a few days before the festival, and garnered very positive feedback, so I was open to be surprised – even if the events of last year’s NEARfest had somewhat soured my attitude towards Wetton. It was my third time seeing District 97, and last year at the Orion I had been positively impressed by their new material and their improved songwriting skills. Unfortunately, the band’s own music was dealt with rather hurriedly to leave room for Wetton’s appearance – which happened in very understated fashion, with the singer stepping on stage during “The Perfect Young Man”. To be fair, his voice was in amazing shape, and his interpretation of the King Crimson classics was in many ways even better than the original versions (I am especially thinking of “Book of Saturdays” and “The Night Watch”). However, he looked quite uncomfortable on stage, his hands obviously itching to play his bass and being instead forced to gesture in a way he was obviously not used to. In spite of the unexpected surprise of “Great Deceiver”, things started going seriously downhill when the marvelous “Starless” (one of the true manifestos of progressive rock in my view) was cut short at the end of the vocal section to morph into “Easy Money” – a medley that did neither of those iconic songs any justice. I would also have gladly done without Leslie Hunt’s duets with Wetton, which did not add anything to the songs, and her constant posturing was ultimately annoying. In stark contrast, the other band members were serious to the point of grimness, and guitarist Jim Tashjian’s shreddy flourishes during some of the Crimson material sounded quite jarring. On the whole, the performance – while spotlighting the band’s undeniable technical proficiency – left a bad taste in my mouth. Those King Crimson songs are among my favourite pieces of music of all time, but their rendition by District 97 lacked the fine balance between sublime melody and jagged edges that made the originals so unique.

District 97 with John Wetton

Unfortunately, when the time came for headliners Beardfish to hit the stage, tiredness had already crept upon us, and the very crowded room – with scarcely enough space to breathe – did not look very inviting. While the Swedish band (the only international outfit on the lineup) have long been a firm favourite of the US prog community, I have always been rather impervious to their charms, and my only experience of seeing them live at NEARfest 2009 left me a bit underwhelmed. However, the audience seemed to love them, and the feedback I heard on the following day was overwhelmingly positive. As they have often visited the US in the past few years, we can expect to see them again relatively soon, and the next time I will make a point not to miss them.

All in all, in spite of Friday’s troublesome drive, it was a perfect weekend. The lovely weather, the outstanding hotel accommodation arranged by the organizers, the welcoming venue, the availability of great food and drink (including the delicious home-baked cupcakes kindly offered by Anita Redondo Wilson), the great company and, last but not least, the top-notch musical programme all contributed to make the first Homecoming Weekend an unforgettable experience. My heartfelt thanks go to the “staph” for the seamless organization, and for all their hard work on behalf of the cause of progressive rock. Small is beautiful indeed, and  we will definitely be looking forward to Homecoming Weekend # 2 in 2014.

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Though I have often commented on the sorry state of the progressive rock concert scene in the US (with particular reference to NEARfest’s untimely demise), 2013 has been a much more positive year than the previous two, and has brought unexpectedly good news. With the possible exception of ROSfest, which draws hundreds of attendees every year  (even if it has never enjoyed NEARfest’s instant sell-outs), festivals held in 1000-seater theaters seem to have become a thing of the past, as proved by the failure of a couple of attempts to organize events on a similar scale. However, some people who are well aware of the importance of live performances to keep non-mainstream music alive have not been deterred by those failures, and have taken the plunge. Adopting the model that has allowed ProgDay to survive without interruption for 18 years by being able to count on a core of loyal supporters, they have scaled things down, choosing smaller, less pretentious venues, and giving preference to mostly homegrown acts instead of relying on “big names” to attract a larger number of attendees.

Seaprog, which took place in Seattle on the last weekend of June 2013, proved that a smaller-scale event can be reasonably successful, even in a location not generally known as a “prog hub”. Less than one month ago, the year’s second “mini-festival” was announced by the group of volunteers and dedicated prog fans (affectionately nicknamed “staph”) behind the NJ Proghouse, a venture started by James Robinson in central New Jersey, back in 1999. In its various incarnations, the organization has been hosting high-quality progressive rock shows in different venues for the past 15 years, building a dedicated following in that densely-populated region of the US East Coast, and offering concert opportunities to both established and up-and-coming bands.

The two-day festival – named NJ Proghouse’s Homecoming Weekend – intends to celebrate the organization’s 15th anniversary with a top-notch selection of Proghouse alumni. It will be hosted by Roxy and Duke’s Roadhouse in Dunellen (NJ), which has been the group’s venue of choice for the past year or so, on the weekend of October 12 and 13, 2013. Eight bands will take turns on the stage, four per day, starting at 12.30 p.m. Single-day tickets and weekend passes (as well as other relevant information) are available from the organization’s website in the link below.

With the sole exception of Sunday headliners, Swedish outfit Beardfish (a firm favourite of the US prog audience), the bands invited to perform at the event are all based in the US, most of them hailing from the New York/New Jersey area. Vocalist/composer Tammy Scheffer (originally from Belgium, but currently residing in NYC) and her band Morning Bound have been drafted in to replace Oblivion Sun, who had to pull out because of scheduling conflicts. Together with young but already established bands such as The Tea Club, Thank You Scientist (who are also on the ProgDay lineup) and Chicago hotshots District 97, and Saturday headliners IZZ, the festival will also offer the return to the stage of two local glories: renowned jazz-rock band Frogg Café after a six-year hiatus, and Advent, who are putting the finishing touches to their long-awaited third album.

While neither Seaprog nor the Homecoming Weekend may fill the gap left by NEARfest for those who expect a festival to be a showcase of “bucket list” bands and artists, it is heartening to see that some US prog fans are willing to follow the example set by the UK and continental Europe by going the “small is beautiful” route. Even if the music world has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades, no amount of albums recorded with the most sophisticated techniques will ever replace the experience of a live concert – neither for the fans nor for the artists.

Links:
http://www.njproghouse.com/2013/06/13/nj-proghouse-homecoming-weekend-october-12th-and-13th-2013/

http://www.roxyanddukes.com/

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 In spite of their young age, New Jersey band The Tea Club have already been around in various incarnations for almost a decade, and have already attracted the attention of the progressive rock fandom both in the US and in Europe. Their brilliant set at the 2011 edition of ProgDay confirmed them as one of the most exciting acts on the modern prog scene, and the recent release of their third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly, is quite likely to consolidate their position. To celebrate this new milestone in their promising musical career, brothers/band founders Dan and Pat McGowan and drummer Joe Rizzolo have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the past, the present and the future of the band.

As your site includes some very thorough biographical info about The Tea Club, I will skip the usual introductory question about the origins of the band, and go instead for something less usual (and perhaps loaded). Why did you decide to play progressive rock, instead of opting for a trendier – and possibly more financially profitable – genre?

Dan: The music that we wrote when we first started the band was a little more accessible, but that might be because the songs we wrote when we first started out were simpler. We took a whole bunch of different influences. Some of it was King Crimson and Yes. But our whole thing was that we weren’t hearing the kind of music that we wanted to hear coming from new bands, so we tried to make it ourselves. We saw a lot of other people in bands that were trying to intentionally do something in a style that was trendy or popular, and instead of achieving any popularity, they would just wind up looking like people who were pretending to be a popular band, and it was just uncomfortable for everyone involved. There are a billion bands that already have that exact idea. Bands that are in a better position than you are. Bands that have more money, who are better- looking, who are already connected in the business. So in our experience, there seemed to be no point in dumbing down our music to be more accessible and make something that isn’t all that it could be. We decided that it’s better to just make music for ourselves, and chances are, there are people who are just as crazy as we are who are going to get it. And they might even give you some of their money to support you because you have the balls to try to make something unique.

Joe: I enjoy composing and performing all styles of music and progressive rock lends itself to including many of these styles in a rock setting. Harking to what Dan said, composing music, in my humble opinion, is done best by throwing out all genres and gates that are put around it. To truly create something unique and interesting, you must draw from all experiences musical and otherwise and include them in your music. Whether you end up being described as a progressive group or a techno-pop-rock-indie band is up to those who listen.

Pat: I think a lot of bands are afraid of the word “prog” and all it entails. I am not. I fully embrace it because in my mind all it means is that we are “progressing”. Everything else associated with “prog” is for people to argue about in forums. I’m only interested in getting better as a musician/artist and having the freedom to do so.

 

Let’s talk a bit about names. Why did you choose that particular name for your band?

 

Dan: Pat came up with The Tea Club and it was the one name that everyone in the band liked. We are notoriously terrible at naming things.

 

Pat: I didn’t want a band name that gave you a hint as to what our music was gonna sound like. Some bands names kind of give it away but I wanted a more ambiguous name so we could do whatever the hell we wanted to.

 

Judging from the eclecticism of your sound, you listen to a lot of different music. What are your main influences, inside and outside the prog spectrum?

 

Dan: When it comes to prog rock, I love pretty much everything that King Crimson has ever done. I love 70’s Yes and Genesis, Gentle Giant, PFM, Magma, Van Der Graaf Generator… I think even a lot of the bands that I like that aren’t “prog” are still kind of “proggy”. Bands like Trail of Dead, Sunny Day Real Estate, Flaming Lips, Doves, Radiohead, Björk… bands that are in that twilight area where it’s not quite prog rock epic but it’s still adventurous and extremely emotionally moving. What else… Well, I love Nick Drake, The Beatles, Tom Waits, Jeff Buckley… I like a lot of old 90’s grunge like Soundgarden and Nirvana and Alice in Chains. I’m a pretty big Michael Jackson fan too. I’m also really into old video game music. Koji Kondo, Keiichi Suzuki, Dave Wise, Grant Kirkhope, these are all guys that are musical geniuses in my eyes. And I love Danny Elfman’s film scores from the 80’s and 90’s too.

 

Pat: I’m pretty much gonna second everyone Dan mentioned. I’ve been listening to a lot of Todd Rundgren lately as well as The Tubes and The Cardiacs. I love a lot of classical music, jazz, Motown and R&B. Some of my favorites are Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Heartbeats, The Orioles, and James Brown. Some of my favorite composers at the moment are Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, Handel, Shostakovich, Bartok, Schubert, Shoenberg, Berlioz, and Wagner.

 

Joe: Everything and everyone.

 

Though I am aware that this is a bit of a hot-button issue, this is a question that I find it hard to resist. I saw you perform as a six-piece, and I thought that the additional band members added a lot to your sound. What is the deal with all those lineup changes? Do they affect your songwriting process?

 

Dan: Well, it’s been a different situation for every person who’s been in the band and then left. Being in a band is a relationship, and any kind of relationship with other human beings is going to be an extremely complicated thing. Everyone’s different. You can’t predict what’s going to happen when you have a group of people playing music together. It’s all part of the craziness that comes with being an artist.As far as the songwriting goes, everyone who’s ever been in the band has contributed to the music and brought their own unique personality and soul into it. But that’s part of the beauty of being in a band; how people interact with each other and what they bring out in each other. It’s unpredictable. All I know is that I’m extremely excited about the lineup that we have right now. I’m really looking forward to writing music with these guys.

 

Pat: A fluctuating line-up has its blessings and its curses. The first 5 King Crimson records are great examples of them all. You can hear the triumphs and failures in those albums of what comes with re-inventing a band from record to record. You also get a very powerful glimpse of what can happen with a (semi) stable line-up in the last three records of that period. The Beatles would be the go-to example for that. So we’ve had to balance those blessings and curses over the years.  The goal is to be always balancing, but never achieving balance (my fortune cookie philosophy moment of the interview…). The vision that Dan and I share for The Tea Club is a musical world where things are constantly changing, and moving, and (dare I say) progressing. For some musicians that’s a terrible place to be, for others (like Joe) it’s the only place they want to be. So, sometimes things happen and you don’t all see eye to eye and a decision has to be made. All the musicians who have passed through this band are great players and gave their all to help us make some great music. I respect them all and the decisions we made.

 

Are you planning to continue as a trio, or have you already contacted some prospective new members?

 

Dan: We have a new bassist named Jamie Wolff and a new keyboardist named Renee Pestritto, and it’s going really well. Right now we’re just focusing on playing the stuff from Quickly Quickly Quickly and Rabbit, but we’ve already started to throw around some new stuff, and I’m extremely encouraged by the sounds that we’re making.

 

Pat: It’s a very exciting time right now. There are all kinds of ideas and music flying around. Jamie and Renee are wonderful players with big ears and at this moment the sky’s the limit. I’m looking forward to seeing how touring will grow the band and develop the ideas into new music.

 

Are any of you professional musicians, or otherwise involved with the music industry for your day job? What is your view of the current state of affairs that, to all intents and purposes, does not allow most non-mainstream artists to make a living out of their music?

 

Dan: Me and Pat don’t have any kind of musical training, so basically everything that we’ve done musically has gone into The Tea Club. So far it’s been easier for us to work a simple job during the day, just make the money to pay for rent so we have a place to make music and art. If that’s what I have to do to make sure that the band has a place to practice, then so be it. As long as it isn’t interfering with my music, or something that makes me start treating the band like it’s something that needs to take a back seat.

 

Pat: Whoa, those are loaded questions! Again, I believe it’s a matter of balancing the good and the bad. In some ways I’m immensely grateful we’ve had to work dead -end day jobs. There are things that you learn from being ‘in the kitchen’ that you would absolutely never understand without spending some time there. And for a musician/artist those lessons can enrich your art in a way that cannot be imitated. I think popular or ‘mainstream’ music in general could benefit from spending some time pumping gas.Of course the downside is the toll it takes on your personal life. But it forces you to be real and if this is your path it separates the hobbyists from the lifers. For some it’s a price you must be willing to pay. No one is making us do this. We are CHOOSING to endure all the insanity. But very good things are starting to happen for us and there does come a time to get out of ‘the kitchen’ because staying there too long can become a trap. Once you get past the fear of not ‘making it’ you come to terms with the real reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing. And, in my opinion that’s when you become dangerous.

 

The current state of the non-mainstream music scene encourages artists to stick together in order to promote and perform their music. Do you have any ongoing collaboration with other bands or artists in your area, or elsewhere in the US?

 

Dan: Sure, there’s a bunch! There’s some amazing music happening around us. And for me, it’s easier to believe in the music when you know the people and you see the hard work they’re putting into it. Rexedog, Thank You Scientist, Goodnight Lights, Suit of Lights, Craig van Hise, Banned Books, Advent, Changing Modes, and Rasputin’s Secret Police are some of my favorite acts that we’ve played with. And of course, those Echolyn gents.

 

Performing live is an essential part of your activity, as anyone who has seen you on stage will not fail to realize. Is it hard for you to find gigs (as it usually is for prog musicians), or does the “modern” component of your music give you access to a wider range of opportunities?

 

Dan: We’ve been able to play some really great shows. We’ve played with some interesting bands in these cool little venues in Philly. I suspect that some people might find it kind of hilariously awesome when they see us play, and they might be thinking, whoa these guys are in their 20’s and they have the balls to sabotage their careers and sound like Yes! There are apparently some clubs in Philly who literally refuse to book “prog rock” bands though, which is pathetic. There is still a hilarious stigma about “prog rock”. I still read it in certain music magazines and reviews. You can’t do this or that because that’s “proggy” and you’re not allowed to sound like prog rock or else no one will like you. It’s kind of like, well you want to sit at the cool kids table right? But I think that limiting what you are and are not allowed to like or write or play will ALWAYS suck. All I know is that when prog rock is great and it hits, it hits hard and it leaves a lasting impression. Like Close to the Edge or “Gates of Delirium” or “Supper’s Ready”. Those moments where imagination and musicianship come together to create something that is almost impossible not to be moved by. Maybe college kids don’t dance to it, but I don’t think any form of rock music has EVER moved me the way that prog rock has at its best.

 

Pat: I’m consistently surprised by the shows we get and the shows we don’t get that we really thought we would get. We manage to get away with a lot and play places I never thought we would, but we do tend to stand out musically just about everywhere we play. Sometimes it can be quite hilarious.

 

What about your most important live experiences so far – your ProgDay appearance and the mini-tour with Beardfish?

 

Pat: There are countless things to learn at every show and if you want to be a great live band you must look for them. Years ago we did a live radio show and minutes before we began the vocal monitoring system died. We were in a small room with all our gear playing at full volume singing into mics that were plugged directly into the radio station’s soundboard and going live over the air without being able to hear our voices AT ALL. We had to play for 90 minutes like that. We overcame it and played a pretty damn good show but you can’t prepare for things like that. You have to get through it and each show builds your confidence.ProgDay was a challenge because it’s a very smart crowd and they know your music and are expecting you to be great. Many, many great bands have played that festival and much of the audience comes back year after year. They’ve seen good bands and they’ve seen truly great bands and the burden was on us to rise to the occasion.The Beardfish shows taught us many things. Watching how they play to their audience was incredible. It forever changed my understanding of the relationship between audience and performer. They were brilliant and I learned a lot.Our most recent NJ Proghouse show was something of a milestone for me. We did not play it safe in preparation for that show. It was our first performance since releasing Quickly Quickly Quickly and we went for broke. There were 4 part vocal harmonies, multiple keyboard players, improvisation without any visual cues: stuff that we avoided in the past. I learned a lot from that show as well, but most importantly I learned that we must be progressing as a live band just as much as we are as a studio band. A musician at the end of the day is a performer and that is an art all to itself.

 

Let us talk a bit about your new album – starting with its title. As I wrote in my review, I applaud your decision of not releasing 80 minutes of music, though other artists would have done so without too many qualms. How did you end up writing so much material?

 

Dan: Well, like I mentioned earlier, we are horrible at naming things. It took forever to name Quickly Quickly Quickly. No exaggeration, there were probably about 100 titles we were throwing around that would have been really good titles, but we just couldn’t decide on one. With naming an album, just like naming a band, there’s a lot of pressure. It has to be memorable, it has to sum up the album or at least fit with the album in some way, and everyone has to agree on it. And it had to match the album cover that Kendra DeSimone made too, and that album cover is just beautiful. For me, there was so much riding on it that eventually I started coming up with really silly names because I wasn’t having any fun. “Canine Suspect” was one I came up with. “Fleas on a Crab” was another one. When I get to that point I’m pretty much out of the picture, I just become useless.

 

Pat: Dan and I always have to be working on “the next thing” whatever that may be. More often than not it’s new music and the compulsion can borderline on mania. For me personally I have difficulty with down time. If a few days go by and I don’t have anything creative I’m working on I start to get very anxious. Being productive is essential and after we finished Rabbit it was essential to our survival. There were a lot of difficulties going on at that time (both band related and not) and we had no outlet that felt productive other than to write. So we wrote a lot of music. The band could have very easily ceased to be during that time but the new music would not be denied.That’s a reason why I love the album title so much. It sums up what we were going through. Also, just to go on the record, there was a night or two there where I actually considered “Fleas on a Crab” as an album title.

 

Unlike many other prog bands, you put a lot of attention into the lyrics. Where do you get your inspiration?

 

Dan: From my experience, inspiration is an extremely mysterious and spiritual thing. It can come from anywhere and everywhere and I can’t force it to happen. When I’m writing lyrics, I tend to feel like it’s not good unless it feels like it has come through me and not from me. Like I’m just guiding words together that are supposed to come together. I think more than anything, I’m good at recognizing what’s inspired and what’s not. Sometimes there will be weeks where I create absolutely nothing of worth, because I have no inspiration. And then suddenly it’s there. And it can come from something as serious as a panic attack or the death of a loved one, to something as silly as an old cartoon or an inside joke. Or just from nowhere at all. I don’t understand it. I believe that it comes from God. It’s one of the most important ways that I can connect with God. But I don’t understand it.

 

Pat: I read a lot and I read on a variety of subjects. I love to pick weird topics that interest me and drink them in with the goal of mixing them all together and seeing what comes out of it. It’s that fascinating struggle between discerning randomness and specific intent. It’s really just a lot of fun to give your conscious and subconscious a voice and try to navigate your way through the insanity. For me, going to that place is a bizarre way of worshiping God. But it’s very important for the words to be meaningful. I love poetry that is nonsensical but I also love poetry that seems nonsensical or whimsical but is really loaded with deep meaning. We’ve tried to provide many a long and mystical night for those interested in such things.

 

The visual aspect of your albums also deserves a mention. Do you see the artwork as a necessary complement to your music?

 

Dan: Definitely. It’s totally essential to creating our own little Tea Club world. I plan on integrating it more and more for years to come. I’ve been working a lot on music videos for our songs, messing around with things like stop motion animation and puppets. I don’t really know what I’m doing, I don’t have any experience with animation or film, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s turning out surprisingly well. But it’s SO much work if you really want it to turn out even remotely watchable, and I have the utmost respect for people who can really do it well.

 

Pat: My favorite records are ones where you are pulled into the weird little microcosm the band creates. I love the cover to the King Crimson album Lizard. I would stare at that cover all night as I listened to the record and try to find the hidden meanings and references to the lyrics. I was pulled into that record. The same thing could be said for Kid A by Radiohead. The art for that record is nightmarish and perfectly fits the atmospheres created by the music. I remember the first time we discovered the hidden booklet behind the disc tray, it was like Thom Yorke had accidentally included his diary in our CD. My connection with the music only deepens when I find those little breadcrumb trails bands leave behind. I want to offer that experience to our audience and it’s been especially enjoyable for us since we do almost all the art ourselves. 

 

Have you ever been in touch with a label, or are you happy with releasing your music independently?

 

Dan: I’d like to work with a label, but it would have to be a label that can legitimately do something for us that we can’t do ourselves. And if that doesn’t happen, we’re just going to have to keep going, even if people think we’re completely delusional in the idea of trying to make a career out of a supposedly unmarketable product. We have faith that people will get what we’re doing.

 

Pat: We’ve had contact with a number of labels but the right offer hasn’t come our way yet. I’m certainly open to the idea of working with a good label that understands what we’re doing. But we’ll keep doing this on our own whether anyone helps us or not.

 

When can we expect to hear the second half of the recording sessions that produced Quickly, Quickly, Quickly?

 

Dan: Soon, but probably not as soon as we were originally thinking!

 

Pat: A lot has happened since QQQ was released. Plans have changed many times but the music endures. We hope to have a new record out sometime next year. 

 

What are your plans for the next few months? Are there any live appearances in the pipeline?

 

Dan: We’ll be playing the Terra Incognita Festival in Quebec City this May, which is extremely exciting! This will be the first time that we’ve ever played a show outside of the United States, so we’re really looking forward to that.

 

Pat: We’re booking a lot of shows right now and will be doing some touring in the summer. We also hope to be back in the studio by the end of the year. There’s a lot going on right now and it’s a very busy time for us but that’s just how we like it. QQQ has done us a lot of good and there’s plenty more on the horizon for us and for the fans.

 

Thank you so very much for your answers, and all the best for your future ventures!

 

Dan: Thank you Raff!

 

Pat: Great questions, this was a lot of fun!

Links:

http://www.theteaclub.net/

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1505

No doubt about it: 2012 was a difficult year for most of us. True to the Italian saying about leap years being unlucky, 2012 ran the gamut from weather-related disasters, wars and other acts of random violence to political malfunction and economic near-collapse, sparing almost no part of the world. There was no lack of disruption in my own little world either. In spite of all my good resolutions, the year started with a few weeks of less than stellar physical condition (nothing serious, but enough to grind most of my projects to a halt), and then I was hit by a double-whammy of bureaucracy-related problems that –  while obviously not tragic – caused enough distress to cast a pall over the remaining months.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 2012 I have been less prolific a reviewer than in previous years, or that the views on this blog have somehow decreased, though not dramatically so. Constant stress can wreak havoc on inspiration, and at times it was hard to come up with a coherent sentence – let alone an 800-word review. However, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of worry and general annoyance, music has remained a source of delight and (as the title of this essay points out) comfort when things got really tough.

The number of progressive rock-related albums released during 2012 was nothing short of staggering. The second decade of the 21st century started indeed with a bang in 2011, and, at least for the time being, the trend does not show any signs of being reversed. Many of those albums were made available for streaming (at least for a limited time) by websites such as Progstreaming, Bandcamp or Soundcloud, allowing the often cash-strapped fans a “test run”. On the other hand, the sheer volume of new releases made it necessary to pick and choose to avoid being overwhelmed. While confirming the vitality of the genre, this also showed one of the downsides of the digital age – the oversaturation of the market, and frequent lack of quality control.

As my readers know, I do not do “top 10/20/50/100” lists, leaving this exercise to people who are interested in arranging their choices according to a more or less strict order of preference. From my perspective, there have been milestone releases, and others that – while perhaps not equally memorable – still deserve a mention. On any account, even more so than in the previous year, 2012 has emphasized the ever-widening gulf between the retro-oriented and the forward-thinking components of the prog audience. Sometimes, while looking at the reviews pages of some of the leading websites of the genre, I have had the impression that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) the twain shall hardly ever meet. In the US, such a split has been detrimental to the festival scene – though the void left by NEARfest’s demise may lead organizers to step out of their typical audience’s comfort zone in order to attract a more diverse crowd.

Though I am most familiar with albums that I have reviewed, or otherwise own, there are others that have left enough of an impression to deserve a mention in this post. As my choices have been mainly informed by personal taste, I will apologize beforehand for any major omissions. While I may consider those albums essential listening, some of my readers will certainly disagree with me, and suggest their own personal picks –and this is exactly how things should be. Indeed, as the French would say, vive la différence!

Although I have built a reputation as a fan of the more “difficult” stuff, one of my favourite albums of the year (and one that is likely to be featured in many top 10 lists) is an album that, in many respects, is not even “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. However, Echolyn’s self-titled eighth studio album – unlike so many true-blue prog releases – is a masterpiece of songwriting, instrumentally tight without any concessions to self-indulgence, and packing a huge emotional punch. Another highly awaited, almost unexpected comeback – 18 years after the band’s previous studio effort – Änglagård’s third studio album, Viljans Öga, reveals a keen, almost avant-garde edge beneath its pastoral surface, well highlighted in their impeccable NEARfest appearance.

2012 was a milestone year for what I like to call the “new frontier” of prog – less focused on epic grandeur and more song-oriented. In the second decade of the 21st century, “progressive rock” and “song” are not antithetic concepts any longer, and going for 5 minutes instead than 15 is not a sign of sell-out. Three albums in particular stand out: 3RDegree’s The Long Division, a perfect combination of great melodies, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship with the added value of George Dobbs’ Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals; the Magna Carta reissue of MoeTar’s 2010 debut From These Small Seeds, a heady blend of catchy hooks, edgier suggestions and Moorea Dickason’s stellar, jazz-inflected voice; and Syd Arthur’s delightful “modern Canterbury” debut, On And On – infused with the spirit of early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

As in the previous years, in 2012 the ever-growing instrumental prog scene produced some outstanding albums. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson wowed devotees of high-energy jazz-rock with Imposing Elements, the second installment of his one-man project – inspired by the industrial Gothic paintings of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. In the early months of 2012, French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena made a triumphant recording comeback with the exhilaratingly accomplished Acte V. Another two excellent Cuneiform releases, Ergo’s second album If Not Inertia and Janel & Anthony’s lovely debut, Where Is Home, while not immediately approachable, will gradually win over the discerning listener with their deep emotion and lyricism. In a similar vein, A Room for the Night by drummer extraordinaire John Orsi (the mind behind Providence-based collective Knitting By Twilight) provides a veritable aural feast for percussion lovers. On the cusp of prog, jazz and metal, the aptly-titled Brutal Romance marks the thunderous return of ebullient French power trio Mörglbl, led by Christophe Godin’s humour-laden guitar acrobatics. Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records specializes in instrumental music of a consistently high standard of quality, and this year’s landmark releases were no exception: Indonesian powerhouses Ligro (Dictionary 2) and Tohpati Bertiga (Riot), Canadian quartet Mahogany Frog’s rivetingly eclectic Senna, and douBt’s towering Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love – all of them true melting pots of rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelia. Also very much worthy of exploration, Kotebel’s Concert for Piano and Electric Ensemble revisits and updates the marriage of classical music and progressive rock with a heady dose of traditional Spanish flavour.

The left-field fringe of the progressive rock spectrum was spearheaded by the tireless efforts of dedicated labels such as Cuneiform Records and AltrOck Productions. One of  2012’s musical milestones – the long-awaited sixth studio album by seminal US Avant outfit Thinking Plague, titled Decline and Fall – was released in the very first weeks of the year. Mike Johnson’s monumentally intricate, intensely gloomy reflection on humankind’s impending Doomsday was complemented by a Thinking Plague-related project of a vastly different nature  – the charming, Old-World whimsy of 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard, Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco’s transatlantic collaboration with Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille. By an intriguing coincidence, almost at the tail end of the year came the stunning live album by one of the foremost modern RIO/Avant outfits, Yugen’s Mirrors – recorded at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux (France). A special mention is also deserved by Cuneiform’s touching tribute to RIO icon Lars Hollmer, With Floury Hand (sketches), released four years after the artist’s untimely passing.

On the Zeuhl front, founding fathers Magma made their comeback with the short and unusually low-key Félicité Thosz, proving once again Christian Vander’s versatility and seemingly endless reservoir of ideas; while the US produced an astonishing example of Zeuhl inspired by Aztec mythology – multi-national outfit Corima’s second album Quetzalcoatl. Eclectic albums such as Cucamonga’s Alter Huevo, Inner Ear Brigade’s Rainbro (featuring another extremely talented female vocalist, Melody Ferris) and Stabat Akish’s Nebulos – as well as chamber-rock gems such as Subtilior’s Absence Upon a Ground  and AltrOck Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes RIO – reinforced AltrOck’s essential role in the discovery of new, exciting talent on the cutting edge of the progressive rock scene. Also worthy of a mention as regards the Avant-Progressive field are the politically-charged Songs From the Empire by Scott Brazieal, one of the founding fathers of the US Avant scene; the exhilarating Sleep Furiously by English outfit Thumpermonkey;  the wacked-out return of cult Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat, titled Valta; and French quartet Jack Dupon’s energetic double live CD set, Bascule A Vif . The Avant-Progressive scene was also celebrated in the second episode of José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt’s documentary film series dedicated to progressive rock , Romantic Warriors II – About Rock in Opposition.

The year was also noted for hotly anticipated comebacks from high-profile acts:  first of all, Rush, who were also finally inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the joy of their substantial following. Their Clockwork Angels, while not a life-altering masterpiece, is definitely their strongest effort in almost 20 years. 2012 also saw the release of Ian Anderson’s Thick As a Brick 2, mixed by none other than Steven Wilson (also responsible in 2012 for the 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson’s seminal Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) – a solid, well-crafted album, though not on a par with the original. While King Crimson seem to have been put on hold indefinitely, Robert Fripp has not been idle, and the elegant Travis/Fripp CD/DVD package Follow offers a complete aural and visual experience – suitably rarefied yet spiked by almost unexpected electric surges – to diehard fans of the legendary guitarist.

On the “modern prog” front, standard-bearers The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album Noctourniquet marks a return to form for the band, as it is their tightest, most cohesive effort in quite a long time. The Tea Club’s third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly confirms the status of the New Jersey band (now a trio) as one of the most interesting modern outfits, with a respectful eye towards the golden age of the genre; while Gazpacho’s deeply atmospheric March of Ghosts offers another fine example of English label KScope’s “post-progressive” direction. In a more accessible vein, Canadian/Ukrainian duo Ummagma’s  pair of debut albums, Ummagma and Antigravity,  will appeal to fans of Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins with their ethereal yet uplifting feel.

Though I cannot call myself a fan of progressive metal, the debut albums by female-fronted German band Effloresce (Coma Ghosts) and Israeli outfit Distorted Harmony (Utopia) made enough of an impression to deserve a mention here; while Diablo Swing Orchestra’s Pandora’s Piñata – the band’s most mature effort to date – transcends the boundaries of the genre.  At the very beginning of the year, Steve Brockmann and George Andrade’s opus AIRS: A Rock Opera updates the classic rock opera format while deftly avoiding the cheesiness of other similar efforts, concentrating on a moving tale of guilt and redemption interpreted by an array of considerable vocal and instrumental talent.

The thriving contemporary psychedelic/space rock scene also produced a slew of fine albums that combine modernity and eclecticism with an unmistakable retro touch: among many others, Øresund Space Collective’s mellow West, Space and Love, Earthling Society’s eerie pagan-fest Stations of the Ghost, Colour Haze’s Krautrock-influenced double CD set She Said, Diagonal’s fiery The Second Mechanism, Astra’s highly awaited (though to these ears not as impressive as the others) second album, The Black Chord. Fans of Krautrock, and Can in particular, should also check out Black and Ginger by Churn Milk Joan, one of the many projects by volcanic English multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson (of Big Block 454 fame); while Australian band Tame Impala’s Lonerism will appeal to those who like psychedelic rock in a song-based format.

As prolific and varied as ever, the Italian progressive rock scene produced a number of remarkable albums ranging from the classic symphonic prog of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Pt. 1, Alphataurus’ comeback AttosecondO and Locanda delle Fate’s The Missing Fireflies (featuring both older and new material) to more left-field fare such as Nichelodeon’s live album NO, Stereokimono’s Intergalactic Art Café and Daal’s Dodecahedron. Another of Fabio Zuffanti’s many projects besides Höstsonaten, L’Ombra della Sera, presents an appealingly Gothic-tinged, almost completely instrumental homage to the soundtracks of cult Italian TV series of the Seventies. Aldo Tagliapietra’s Nella Pietra e Nel Vento, his first release after his split from Le Orme, a classy, prog-tinged singer-songwriter effort, boasts a splendid cover by Paul Whitehead. The prize of most impressive RPI album of the year, however, goes to Il Bacio della Medusa’s ultra-dramatic historical concept Deus Lo Vult, with side project Ornithos’ eclectic debut La Trasfigurazione a close second.

Of the many “traditional” prog albums released in 2012, one in particular stands out on account of its superb songwriting: Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1, an effort of great distinction though not as impressive as its predecessor, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Autumn Chorus’ debut The Village to the Vale also celebrates the glories of England’s green and pleasant land with a near-perfect marriage of pastoral symphonic prog and haunting post-rock; while Israeli outfit Musica Ficta’s A Child & A Well (originally released in 2006) blends ancient and folk music suggestions with jazz and symphonic prog. Released just three weeks before the end of the year, Shadow Circus’ third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night (their first for 10T Records), based on Madeleine L’Engle’s cult novel A Wrinkle in Time, fuses symphonic prog with classic and hard rock in an exhilarating mixture. On the other hand, Pacific Northwest trio Dissonati’s debut, Reductio Ad Absurdum, gives classic prog modes a makeover with influences from new wave and avant-garde. Highly touted outfit District 97’s sophomore effort, Trouble With Machines, proves that the Chicago band is much more than a nine days’ wonder, showcasing their  tighter songwriting skills, as well as vocalist/frontwoman Leslie Hunt’s undeniable talent and charisma.

With such a huge wealth of releases, it was materially impossible for me to listen to everything I would have wanted to, and my personal circumstances often impaired my enjoyment of music, as well as my concentration. Among the releases of note that I missed in 2012 (though I still hope to be able to hear in 2013), I will mention Beardfish’s The Void, Anathema’s Weather Systems, Dead Can Dance’s comeback Anastasis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (another comeback, released after a 10-year hiatus), AranisMade in Belgium, The Muffins’ Mother Tongue, Alec K. Redfearn and the EyesoresSister Death, and Motorpsycho’s The Death-Defying Unicorn. All of these albums have been very positively received by the prog community, even if they will not necessarily appeal to everyone.

As was the case with my 2011 retrospective, quite a few highly acclaimed prog albums will be missing from this article. This implies no judgment in terms of intrinsic quality, but is simply determined by personal taste. Albums such as The Flower KingsBanks of Eden, Marillion’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made or IZZ’s Crush of Night (to name but three) –although thoroughly professional and excellent from a musical point of view – failed to set my world on fire. A pure matter of chemistry – as further demonstrated by my lack of enthusiasm for Storm Corrosion’s self-titled album (which reflected my reaction to Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning in 2011), or Mike Keneally’s undoubtedly outstanding Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC fame.

2012 was also a great year for live music, with both big names and new talent hitting the road. While we missed some of the former (such as Rush and Peter Gabriel), as well as this year’s edition of RoSfest,  the one-two punch of NEARfest Apocalypse and ProgDay 2012 more than made up for it. Unfortunately, the all-out Seventies bash named FarFest, organized by a veteran of the US prog scene such as Greg Walker, and planned for early October 2012 – was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, reinforcing the impression that the era of larger-scale prog festivals may well be coming to an end (in spite of the announcement of Baja Prog’s return in the spring of 2013). On the other hand, the much less ambitious ProgDay model is likely to become the way forward, as are the smaller, intimate gigs organized by people such as Mike Potter of Orion Studios, the NJ Proghouse “staph”, and our very own DC-SOAR.

With an impressive list of forthcoming releases for every progressive taste, 2013 looks set up to be as great a year as the previous two. In the meantime, we should continue to support the independent music scene in our best capacity – not just by buying albums or writing about them, but also attending gigs and generally maintaining a positive, constructive attitude. I would also like to thank all my friends and readers for their input and encouragement, which has been invaluable especially whenever the pressures of “real life” became too hard to bear. If this piece has seen the light of day, it is because you have made me feel that it was still worth it.

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