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Posts Tagged ‘Orion Studios’

SETLIST:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:
http://www.moetar.com

http://www.mirthkon.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Dichotomy (3:57)
2. Infinitesimal Sky  (3:02)
3. Butchers of Baghdad  (4:19)
4. Random Tandem  (4:12)
5. Ist or an Ism (4:58)
6. Morning Person (2:54)
7. New World Chaos (5:40)
8. Screed (Pt. 2) (4:40)
9. Never Home (4:50)
10. From These Small Seeds (5:20)
11. Friction (3:08)

LINEUP:
Moorea Dickason – vocals
Tarik Ragab – bass
Matt Lebofsky – keyboards
Matthew Heulitt – guitar
David M Flores – drums

Bay Area-based quintet MoeTar was founded in 2008 by the two artists it is named after –  vocalist Moorea Dickason (Moe) and bassist Tarik Ragab (Tar) –  after the demise of their previous band, politically-charged pop-funk outfit No Origin.  After the entrance of miRthkon keyboardist Matt Lebofsky, in the spring of 2009 MoeTar started  an intense concert activity. Their debut album, From These Small Seeds, engineered by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s Dan Rathburn and originally released in 2010, was reissued by Magna Carta Records in 2012 with new artwork.  At the time of writing, MoeTar are about to embark on their first Eastern US tour, which will kick on August 11, 2012, at the Orion Studios in Baltimore, where they will open for miRthkon.

Even if a sizable chunk of its audience still clings to progressive rock’s conventional modes of expression, “crossover” acts are increasingly making headway on the scene, redefining and sometimes even reinventing the rules of a genre that – for all of its touted renaissance in recent years – was very much in need of an overhaul. Trimming down song lengths without sacrificing prog’s trademark complexity, and introducing melodies that can be infectious and daringly innovative at the same time, those bands draw from a number of other genres whose input provides a veritable shot in the arm for a genre often at risk of turning into a parody of itself (see the glut of tribute/nostalgia bands).

Even in a niche teeming with interesting acts, MoeTar’s fearless blend of sunny, uplifting pop tunes, angular Avant stylings, spacey guitar jams and a bit of heaviness, propelled by Moorea Dickason’s stunningly versatile voice, comes across as quite unique. As a fellow reviewer pointed out, MoeTar overturn the clichés attached to female-fronted prog bands, pushing decidedly away from the tired stereotype of the angelic-voiced siren and offering instead a heady mix of melody, power and endearing quirkiness. Moe’s voice, fitting Tarik’s thought-provoking, stream-of-consciousness lyrics like a glove, often becomes another instrument , bending the music to her will or following its intricate patterns with a striking adroitness that brings Kate Bush to mind – as well as avant-prog icons Elaine DiFalco and Deborah Perry, or Melody Ferris of fellow Oakland outfit Inner Ear Brigade. The general bent of the album may also elicit comparisons with District 97, another female-fronted act that has attracted a lot of attention in the past couple of years. However, unlike the Chicago band, MoeTar steer clear of overambitious productions, and are also minimally influenced by the prog metal trend.

For an album clocking in at a very reasonable 50 minutes, there is quite a lot going on in From These Small Seeds. The short running time of the songs (all under the 6-minute mark) belies their density, the sudden shifts in mood and tempo that can turn a catchy pop ditty into something more riveting and intense. Opener “Dichotomy” illustrates MoeTar’s modus operandi quite aptly –  Moorea’s voice underpinned by Matt Lebofsky’s buoyant piano flurries, while Matthew Heulitt delivers a rather offbeat guitar solo in the slower, atmospheric bridge; the song also introduces what is probably the most noticeable influence on MoeTar’s sound – Andy Partridge’s XTC.

After that, the album deploys a veritable feast of unabashed eclecticism – from the dramatic, almost theatrical flair of “Butchers of Baghdad” (which reminded me of Canadians Half Past Four, another interesting female-fronted crossover prog band with their charismatic singer Kyree Vibrant) to the torch-song-meets-psychedelic-jam of “Never Home”. “Ist or an Ism” meshes the hard-rock suggestions of driving organ, massive riffs and piercing guitar with a vocal line at the end that would not be out of place on a Thinking Plague album. In the title-track – definitely one of the more left-field offerings on the album – voice and piano emote in parallel, creating a sense of palpable tension that culminates in a searing guitar solo. David M Flores’ imperious drumming in “Screed” lays the groundwork for Moorea’s oddly distant-sounding voice and Lebofsky’s almost percussive piano; while “New World Chaos” (the album’s longest track) is pushed into Avant territory by its asymmetrical guitar line, tempered by soothing vocals.

A prime example of art rock in the original sense of the definition, From These Small Seeds manages to be accessible and adventurous at the same time. Those who want to see progressive rock remain true to its name – rather than turn into a caricature of the Seventies – will not fail to appreciate the album, in spite of the lack of epics or any of the conventional distinguishing features of the genre. A highly rewarding, entertaining listen, recommended to everyone but the most conservative prog fans.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com/

http://magnacarta.net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:
http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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

http://www.myspace.com/upsilonacrux

http://www.myspace.com/afuche

http://zevious.com/

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

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

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SETLIST
Rob Martino:
The Long Circle I/One Cloud
Conscious Dream
Differential
The Long Circle II

Rob Martino/Phideaux Xavier:
Vultures & Mosquitoes (with Cyndee Lee Rule)
Universal

Phideaux:
Darkness At Noon/Prequiem/Coda 99
Thank You For The Evil
Snowtorch Part 1 Extract/Dormouse – An End [instrumental]
The Search For Terrestrial Life
Doom Suite [Micro Softdeathstar/Doctrine Of Ice 1/Candybrain/Crumble]
Waiting For The Axe/The Claws Of A Crayfish
Abducted
Helix
Coronal Mass Ejection
Microdeath Softstar

Encore:
Tempest Of Mutiny

In spite of its relative closeness to our Northern Virginia home, my husband and I are not frequent visitors to the Orion Studios – much to our detriment, because the very distinctive atmosphere of the legendary Baltimore venue and the constant excellence of its musical offer never fail to make for a memorable experience. It might be said that the Orion is an indoor equivalent of the beautiful surroundings of Storybook Farm (the ProgDay venue), with the audience bringing their own chairs and drinks and mingling with the artists in a way that is light years removed from those overpriced “Meet and Greets” that allow mainstream concert promoters to rake in the big bucks. Sadly, even a niche event like the Two of a Perfect Trio gig of September 24 was not exempt from attempts to cash in on the two bands’ relative notoriety.

The concert planned for the evening of Saturday, October 1 was one of those that manage to draw out even the laziest member of the prog community of the Baltimore/DC area, and even further afield – especially as it was a one-off performance by one of the highest-rated bands on the current prog scene. On a rainy, chilly autumnal evening more suited to mid-November than early October, nearly 100 people flocked to the Orion Studios, some of them having travelled considerable distances; the small space in front of the stage was crowded with folding chairs, and anticipation was running high for what promised to be a night to remember. Phideaux were about to wrap up a very favourable year – which had seen the release of their spectacular eighth album, Snowtorch, followed by a career-defining appearance at ROSfest 2011 in the month of May – with what was expected to be their last performance for quite a while. In fact, the band had announced they would be taking a lengthy break in order to concentrate on the completion of Infernal, the final episode of the trilogy begun in 2006 with The Great Leap and continued with Doomsday Afternoon.

Even though Phideaux’s career as a live outfit started relatively recently, with their participation in the 2007 edition of the Crescendo Festival in France, they seem to have a natural affinity with the  stage – in spite of the obvious practical difficulties involved in setting up a tour with 10 people living in different areas of a large country such as the US. However, those who had been able to attend one of their shows had commented enthusiastically, and Phideaux’s ROSfest appearance consolidated their reputation as one of those acts whose music acquires a whole new dimension in a live setting. A group of uncommonly talented people, most of whom have known each other since childhood, Phideaux’s unique configuration allows each of the members to bring his or her individual contribution to the table in a heady mix of melody, power and passion. Their deeply literate concepts eschew the trite fantasy-based topics often associated with prog, following instead in the footsteps of artists such as Roger Waters, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson  and Peter Gabriel in offering a complete package of music and thought-provoking lyrical content.

The show started right on schedule at 8 p.m. with Rob Martino’s short but delightful Chapman stick solo set. Like Phideaux, Martino had appeared in the Romantic Warriors documentary – whose authors, the indefatigable Adele Schimidt and José Zegarra Holder, were also present, filming the event. While single-instrument sets can sometimes overstay their welcome, Martino’s skill and engaging presence made for compulsive watching and listening. After having witnessed Tony Levin’s astonishing performance just one week earlier, I was looking forward to some more Chapman stick action, this time unencumbered by the presence of other instruments. In spite of his modest, unassuming attitude – he was visibly delighted at having been invited to open for one of his favourite bands – Martino is a real virtuoso, and also a gifted composer. His tightly structured pieces (showcased on his 2010 debut album, One Cloud) describe haunting soundscapes full of melody and complexity, exploiting the considerable possibilities offered by his distinctive instrument, and avoiding any semblance of pointless noodling.

At the end of his set, Martino invited Phideaux Xavier and Pennsylvania-based violinist Cyndee Lee Rule (a classically-trained musician with an impressive discography under her belt) to join him on stage. Rule’s handsome signature instrument, called the Viper, bestowed a stately yet lyrical touch to the interplay between Martino’s stick and Phideaux’s acoustic guitar. The trio played a beautiful version of “Vultures and Mosquitoes” (from Fiendish), followed by a rendition of “Universal” (from Phideaux’s debut album Ghost Story) performed only by Martino and Xavier. While Rob’s solo spot was quite striking, seeing him perform with other artists led me to believe that he would be a great asset to any band.

After a short break for refreshments and social interaction, the time came for Phideaux the band to take the stage. While by no means small in comparison to other venues (including the Jammin’ Java), the Orion stage must have felt somewhat cramped to the 10 members of the band after the ample room provided by the Majestic Theatre in Gettysburg.  However, they arranged themselves in a perfectly conceived triangular shape, with the two keyboardists, Johnny Unicorn and Mark Sherkus, positioned on both sides of “Bloody Rich” Hutchins’ drum kit, bassist Matthew Kennedy sitting on the drum riser, and the rest of the members forming the base of the triangle at the front of the stage. Unicorn, Sherkus and Kennedy’s quiet, unassuming mien was nicely offset by the flamboyance of drummer Hutchins, with his heavily tattooed arms and jaunty hat, while the front line – together with Phideaux the man’s boyish smile and engaging stage manner, and tall, serious-looking guitarist Gabriel Moffat (who is also the producer of all the band’s releases) –  displayed a formidable assembly of female talent: diminutive violinist/vocalist Ariel Farber, willowy lead vocalist Valerie Gracious, and identical twin sisters Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldawsky, purveyors of vocals and various metal percussion. Gracious’ pure yet forceful voice (particularly in evidence on “Crumble” and “Helix”) was a perfect foil for Phideaux’s warm tones, with their slightly rough around the edges note, the harmonies soaring in exhilarating fashion, complementing the crescendo-like structure of most of the songs.

Enhanced by excellent sound quality (even if the drums sounded perhaps a bit too loud in that limited space), Phideaux’s set offered a selection of tracks taken from all their albums except Chupacabras (with pride of place given to their three most recent releases, Doomsday Afternoon, Number Seven and Snowtorch) presented in a somewhat different format than their CD equivalents. This time around, the Snowtorch material was given a starring role, the sheer beauty of the music and vocal performances unfolding in the warm, intimate setting of the venue, brimming with poignancy and intensity; while the rousing encore, the maritime-themed “Tempest of Mutiny”, brought to mind echoes of Jethro Tull and vintage English folk-rock. The folk element of the band’s sound was particularly evident throughout the performance, validating the comparisons with The Decemberists that I had chanced upon in the past few days. Like Colin Meloy’s  crew, Phideaux offer a complete artistic experience; moreover, both bands seem to concentrate on both the masculine and the feminine element – the yin and the yang – though dispensing with any tiresome peddling of mere sex appeal. As I observed in my review of the ROSfest set, Phideaux also manage not to sound like anyone else – pace the remarkably wrong-headed label of “regressive rock” that some nitpickers have stuck on them. While no one in their right mind would state that the band are the second coming of Magma (though, in some odd way, they do resemble them when on stage, especially as regards the central role of women), they transcend any of the influences detectable in their compositions.

It is really unfortunate that practical considerations stand in the way of a full-fledged tour, because Phideaux are tailor-made for the stage. The chemistry between the members is impressive, and the genuine affection and gratitude with which Phideaux the man introduced each of his bandmates, highlighting their contribution to the band’s musical architecture and revisiting the beginnings of his acquaintance with each of them, was extremely moving. Unlike many other bands (prog or otherwise), Phideaux are a tightly-knit group of friends who genuinely care about each other, and because of that they have managed to put together a sort of “cottage industry” that allows them to produce albums almost without relying on outside help

On the whole, the show – nearly three solid hours of utterly brilliant music – was everything that a prog concert should be: not only outstanding from a purely musical point of view, but also full of warmth and a genuine collaborative spirit, enhanced by the intimate, unpretentious setting of the Orion. It also reinforced my conviction that Phideaux have the full potential to become the next “big name” on the modern progressive rock scene – if the fans will allow such a thing to happen, and stop pining for the past. The evening of October 1 proved that, with bands such as Phideaux, prog can still look forward to a bright future.

Links:
http://www.robmartino.com

http://www.bloodfish.com

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SETLIST:
1. Irreducible Complexity
2. Manifest Density
3. Nacho Sunset
4. Kuru
5. Disillusioned Avatar > Dub > Ephebus Amoebus
6. Skein
7. Synecdoche
8. Okanogan Lobe
[Break]
9. Bagua > Kan Hai De Re Zi > Third View
10. Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds
11. Fountain of Euthanasia
12. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari
13. Blues for a Bruised Planet
14. Waylaid
15. Middlebräu [encore]

Last year at NEARfest I had my first taste of Moraine’s music, even if in the months prior to the event I had often been tempted to check out their debut album, Manifest Density, after reading some flattering comments around the Internet. Unfortunately, my commitments as a reviewer did not allow me a lot of room for ‘recreational listening’, so to speak, so the day of Moraine’s performance found me still completely unfamiliar with their considerable talent. Those who have read my review of the festival will know that I considered Moraine to be probably the most authentically progressive band of the whole weekend, and one of my personal highlights together with Forgas Band Phenomena (an outfit whose music has some similarities with Moraine’s, though more noticeably influenced by the Canterbury sound). Even though they had been placed in the awkward slot of Sunday openers, and faced with an audience many members of which swooned at The Enid’s somewhat cheesy antics and thought that The Pineapple Thief were not ‘prog enough’ for the hallowed halls of the Zoellner Arts Center, they managed to gain quite a few fans – including my husband and myself. Indeed, we were so impressed by their performance that we went to meet the band after their set. In the following months, that first contact blossomed into a treasured friendship.

Even if somebody might think that my judgment as regards Moraine’s performance on the night of Saturday, April 30 (the third date of a 4-date Northeast tour) might be clouded by my personal feelings, I am quite capable of being objective, and would not spare any criticism if I believed it was in any way warranted. However, I am happy to say that Saturday’s gig at the Orion was an unqualified success. Having had almost a whole year to become familiar with Moraine’s output,  this time I was able to appreciate every nuance of the show, as well as the subtle but noticeable modifications in their sound brought about by the line-up change that followed the release of Manifest Density. In spite of the hurdles faced by almost every independent outfit these days – lack of touring opportunities, real-life commitments and such – on the Orion stage Moraine came across as a well-oiled machine, the chemistry between the five members nothing short of amazing.

Those who have watched the seminal documentary Romantic Warriors will remember the Orion Studios, a former warehouse located in a decidedly unglamorous neighbourhood on the outskirts of Baltimore, yet possessed of a unique, club-like character. With a couple of couches, a few folding chairs and a table generally laid out with snacks and drinks, countless posters and flyers decorating the walls, a couple of weird figures hanging from the ceiling, it reminds me of the basements (or ‘cellars’) in the centre of Rome which, in the Eighties, functioned as both rehearsal spaces for bands and meeting points for their friends and supporters. In spite of the diminutive size of the main stage area, the place is like a maze, offering valuable recording and rehearsing spaces to local musicians. This quirky yet intimate backdrop was ideal for a band like Moraine, even more so than the immaculate NEARfest stage. As regards attendance, I judged about 50 people to be present – more than the band are used to attracting in their home town of Seattle,  and a satisfactory turnout for a single-bill evening – even though last year I had seen twice as many people line up outside the venue in order to see a tribute band. This, unfortunately, seems to be the nature of the ‘prog community’ in the US Northeast, as I pointed out in the two essays I wrote after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation.

Though often tagged as ‘avant-garde’ (much to their amusement), like all truly progressive bands Moraine defy description. Their variegated backgrounds converge very effectively both on stage and on record, instead of resulting in a patchy mess: while their compositions – often penned by individual members rather than shared efforts – showcase their different approaches. With the dry, slightly self-deprecating humour that characterizes their interaction with the public, the band describe themselves as ‘omnivorous’. On the other hand, at least from what was seen at the Orion, they have not abandoned their rock roots – though of course there is not even a whiff of the time-honoured, though somewhat corny antics of the typical rock musician in Moraine’s stage presence. Even if towards the end of the set we were treated to a short drum solo, it was blessedly devoid of the cheesiness often inherent to such spots.

Coming on stage at about 8.30 p.m., the band delivered an extremely tight performance, richly eclectic and riveting in its intensity, interspersed by Dennis Rea’s brief but humorous introductions. A short break allowed both the band and audience to recharge their batteries, and from comments overheard during that time it was clear that the audience was won over by Moraine’s blend of chops and sheer enthusiasm. This was progressive rock with a capital P, fresh and innovative even when occasionally hinting at some ‘golden oldies’. Unlike far too many modern prog bands, Moraine manage not to sound like anyone else: the closest term of comparison would be King Crimson circa Red, though more in terms of attitude than actual sound, especially as regards the coexistence of melody and angularity, and the presence of both violin and reeds coupled with the conspicuous absence of prog’s ‘sacred cow’, the keyboards. The departure of cellist and band founder Ruth Davidson (a fan of Univers Zéro, as evidenced by her composition “Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”) has also altered the ‘chamber’ nature of the band in favour of a more dynamic approach, powered by Jim DeJoie’s assertive sax (which on Saturday night was a bit low in the mix).

To those who had read reviews of the band’s NEARfest performance described as ‘noise-drenched’ (something that, coupled with the ‘avant-garde’ tag, is guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the more conservative set of prog fans), the melodic quotient of Saturday night’s show is likely to have come as a surprise. The medley featuring Alicia DeJoie’s gorgeous “Disillusioned Avatar” and Kevin Millard’s “Ephebus Amoebus” aptly displayed the band’s more sensitive side; while the overtly jarring chaos of “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari” (wittily introduced as a ‘romantic ballad’, and probably the one track actually deserving of the ‘avant-garde’ tag) was followed by the melancholy beauty of “Blues for a Bruised Planet”. Millard’s distinctive-looking, customized Chapman stick (dubbed ‘baliset’ by the bassist, a long-time fan of Frank Herbert’s iconic Dune) meshed seamlessly with Stephen Cavit’s complex yet remarkably unflashy drum patterns, and Alicia DeJoie’s shiny purple violin caught the eye as well as the ear. Jim DeJoie (Alicia’s husband) expertly wielded his impressive saxophone, coming across as the most ‘physical’ member of the band. In fact, if I had to level one criticism at Moraine’s performance, it would concern their somewhat static presence, at least partially due to the size of the stage. Not that anyone was expecting Dennis Rea to start throwing guitar-hero-style shapes, though his solos revealed a definitely sharper rock bent than evidenced either on Manifest Density or in his other recent projects. Besides the jazz, rock and avant-garde influences, fans of world music were also catered for by the enchanting “Asian Suite”, featuring themes from three of the five tracks included on View from Chicheng Precipice, Rea’s first solo venture.

The show also provided Moraine with the opportunity to present some of the new material they had been working on in the past year or so – namely three intense, hard-hitting yet multifaceted numbers titled “Skein”, “Synecdoche” and “Fountain of Euthanasia”, which showed a band growing by leaps and bounds both in cohesion and on the compositional level. Like the material on Manifest Density, those new tracks are rather short for prog standards, yet brimming with energy and a kind of creative impulse divorced from sterile displays of technical skill. On the other hand, unlike the debut’s compositions, which in many ways represented each member’s temperament, the new numbers sound more clearly shaped by collective input.  As impressive as Moraine’s debut was, their future – judging by what was heard on Saturday night – looks even brighter.

The wonderful musical experience was wrapped up by a night out in downtown Baltimore, complete with a walk through the city’s rather seedy red-light district and a late-night dinner (or perhaps early breakfast, since it was 2 a.m. when we sat down) at an ‘Italian’ restaurant – the kind that serves filling but rather unauthentic dishes such as spaghetti with meatballs. We also managed to get the last of the T-shirts and mugs designed expressly for the tour by David Gaines, a friend of the band and talented musician himself, based like us in the DC metro area. All in all, it was an evening that packed the friendly, laid-back vibe of a get-together at someone’s house with a select group of friends, as well as that community spirit that I have often mentioned in my reviews. Hopefully Moraine will be able to return to the Northeast soon after the release of their second album, which will mainly feature music recorded live at NEARfest.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.orionsound.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Le Labyrinthe Du Cochon (9:15)
2. Jeudi (De) Poisson (10:34)
3. Sombre Trafic Sur Le Nil (3:40)
4. La Marmite Du Pygmée (8:55)
5. Le Château De L’Eléphant (6:26)
6. Cravate Sauvage (9:27)
7. Oppression, Dépression, Les Valeurs Du Cool (13:37)

LINEUP:
Arnaud M’Doihoma – bass, vocals
Gregory Pozzoli – guitars, vocals
Thomas Larsen – drums, percussion, vocals
Philippe Prebet – guitars, vocals

Just like Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd (“by the way, which one’s Pink?”), Jack Dupon is not a solo artist, but a French quartet whose debut album, L’Echelle du Désir, was released in the second half of 2008. It is also the name of the fictitious character whose picaresque stories are told in the band’s songs and live performances. Formed in 2001 by three school mates, Arnaud M’Doihoma, Gregory Pozzoli and Thomas Larsen (now in their late twenties), in 2004 Jack Dupon was joined by an older, more experienced musician, guitarist Philippe Prebet.  In September 2010 the band embarked on their first US tour, playing in venues such as the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore, as well as the ProgDay Festival Pre-Show – their quirky, theatrical performances leaving a strong impression on American audiences.

My first contact with Jack Dupon occurred in 2009, when I reviewed L’Echelle du Désir, and was left with mixed feelings. While I could not help appreciating the band’s eclecticism and the undeniable impact of their music, I also felt they had been overambitious in recording an album that clocked in at nearly 75 minutes, and opened with a 30-minute epic. It seemed that the members of Jack Dupon, as talented and inventive as they obviously were, had not yet learned the valuable lesson that sometimes less is more – with the result that the album, after a while, overstayed its welcome. This time around, however, they seem to have heeded the advice of most reviewers, and gone for a relatively pared-down offering, slightly over an hour long, and avoiding the over-indulgence of L’Echelle du Désir’s two sprawling epics.

Unlike other bands placed under the RIO/Avant umbrella (a subgenre that is much more diverse than its detractors might think), Jack Dupon use a very traditional rock instrumentation – which means no strings, no woodwinds, no saxes, and even no keyboards. Indeed, their configuration (two guitars plus rhythm section) closely resembles King Crimson’s in the Eighties and onward – and Fripp’s crew, together with Frank Zappa, are clearly one of the main inspirations behind Jack Dupon’s output. However, the theatrical bent of the band, as well as the ‘mythology’ on which their music is based,  possess an unmistakably European flavour. While their French origins bring to mind concept-based bands like Magma and Gong (as well as Ange, a clear blueprint for the vocal department), some Italian bands of the Seventies are also evoked, especially those that, like Jumbo and the short-lived Pholas Dactylus, pushed the dramatic element at the forefront of their sound.

One of the biggest obstacles for people who approach Jack Dupon’s music are undeniably the vocals, mostly handled by bassist Arnaud M’Doihoma with the assistance of his bandmates. Harsh, grating and exaggerated, reminiscent of Ange’s Christian Descamps or even Jumbo’s Alvaro Fella, M’Doihoma’s singing style fits the music like a glove, but is likely to put off those who like a more traditional approach. Personally, I see the vocals very much as another instrument.  From the instrumental point of view, though there is plenty of razor-sharp riffing, Jack Dupon’s sound hardly ever suggests the heaviness of metal, but rather the angularity of King Crimson – with interlocking guitar lines very much in Fripp/Belew style, insistent to the point of occasional monotonousness, and frequent surges followed by pauses of relative calm that create sonic peaks and valleys. The undercurrent of zany, Dadaist humour running through the album (also reflected by the titles, as well as by the nonsensical lyrics and distinctive artwork suggestive of German Expressionism) – echoes not only Zappa, but also Gong (whose flying teapots are referenced in “Le Château de l’Eléphant”), RIO/Avant bands like Samla Mammas Manna and Höyry-Kone, and borderline progressive bands like Primus and Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade.

The tracks on Démon Hardi (“Bold Demon”), with the sole exception of the Middle-Eastern-tinged instrumental “Sombre Trafic Sur le Nil”, an unusually melodic, guitar-driven piece, are all over 6 minutes in length, though this time the longest number is strategically placed at the album’s close. The remaining tracks are prevailingly similar in structure, with an ‘ebb and flow’ movement that alternates slow, almost ominous passages and frantic ones, the vocals used sparingly but forcefully to add further intensity to the musical texture. The Zappa influence clearly surfaces in the more upbeat sections, as in the almost cheerful “Le Château de l’Eléphant”, a veritable drum tour de force with a classic rock feel in the guitar parts and occasionally funky touches. “Cravate Sauvage”, on the other hand, is somber and somewhat monotonous, spiced up with effects-laden guitars seemingly ‘conversing’ with the drums in the style perfected by King Crimson in their Eighties period; while “La Marmite du Pygmée” drags a bit at times, but features some outstanding guitar work. The longer tracks (such as opener “Le Labyrinthe du Cochon” or the jazz-meets-King-Crimson “Jeudi (de) Poisson”) offer plenty of changes, even though an impression of patchiness may occasionally emerge – as on closing track “Oppression, Dépression, Les Valeurs du Cool” (at 13 minutes the longest track on the album), whose riff-driven intro hints at metal and is then followed by a sedate, melodic section with a bluesy guitar solo, then climaxes with a choppy, funky passage.

As other reviewers have pointed out, Jack Dupon’s music seems to be tailor-made for the stage – which means that its effectiveness is not always as strong as one might expect when heard on CD. While the vocals are undeniably an acquired taste, they go hand-in-hand with the music and the concept behind it, and it is not hard to imagine that a live setting would increase their impact exponentially. The somewhat repetitive, jam-like nature of the music, with its often hypnotic pacing, also seems to be much more suited to live performance than more or less ‘passive’ listening. On any account, even if clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, Démon Hardi is definitely an interesting album, and Jack Dupon a very promising band that have obviously grown a lot since their debut. Though their musical offer may not be to everyone’s taste, and needs the right disposition on the part of the listener to be appreciated in full, they manage to deliver a product in which the various influences are reworked in a genuinely personal manner. At the time of writing, Jack Dupon are about to embark on a European tour, and are scheduled to appear at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition Festival (Carmaux, France) in September.

Links:
http://www.jack-dupon-rock-progressif.net/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Save The Yuppie Breeding Grounds (4:12)
2. Ephebus Amoebus (4:55)
3. Nacho Sunset (4:29)
4. $9 Pay-Per-View Lifetime TV Movie (5:51)
5. Manifest Density (3:55)
6. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (4:01)
7. Disillusioned Avatar (5:15)
8. Kuru (5:02)
9. Revenge Grandmother (5:11)
10. Staggerin’ (4:41)
11. Middlebräu (6:46)

LINEUP:
Dennis Rea – electric guitar
Ruth Davidson – cello
Alicia Allen – violin
Kevin Millard – bass guitar, baliset
Jay Jaskot – drums

The city of Seattle has long been known as a hotbed for innovative music, from Jimi Hendrix to the grunge movement through progressive metal pioneers Queensryche. For several decades, it has also been the home of globe-trotting guitarist and composer Dennis Rea, originally from upstate New York, but now a full-fledged member of the Pacific Northwest artistic community. While Rea, in  his many years of tireless activity in the realms of creative music-making, has gathered an impressive discography (especially in terms of quality), he has never become a household name as he would have amply deserved. Luckily, the release of Moraine’s debut album in 2009, as well as his first solo album proper, View from Chicheng Precipice, and Iron Kim Style’s debut in 2010, have contributed to putting Rea’s name on the sprawling map of the progressive music scene.

Indeed, Moraine were selected for the 2010 edition of NEARfest, where they elicited quite a lot of interest – in spite of having been described as ‘avant-garde’ on the festival’s press material, a definition which (coupled with their placement in the opening Sunday slot, also known as the ‘rude awakening’, and generally reserved for rather idiosyncratic bands) kept the more conservative members of the audience away from their set. The members of the band, and Rea in particular, were somewhat amused at having been lumped together with much more ‘mainstream’ bands under the all-encompassing prog banner. In these times of derivative acts being peddled as the best thing since sliced bread, Moraine were possibly the most genuinely progressive band on the bill – though, as purveyors of hard-to-pinpoint music, they left some of the more label-happy members of the audience a tad baffled.

Although instrumental albums are seemingly a dime a dozen these days, Manifest Density (a brilliant pun on one of the most obnoxious aspects of US history) is not your average cookie-cutter instance of amazing chops unencumbered by soul and emotion. With a total of 11 tracks averaging 5 minutes in length  (the longest running at under 7 minutes),  and all of the five band members but drummer Jay Jaskot contributing to the compositional process, it is very much an ensemble effort, a collection of contemporary chamber rock pieces that comes with a liberal helping of almost Canterbury-like dry wit – though more geared to 21st-century American society. The essential input of the violin may draw comparisons with bands such as King Crimson circa Larks’ Tongue in Aspic or Mahavishnu Orchestra, while the pervasive presence of the cello may bring to mind Swedish Gothic proggers Anekdoten. However, in Moraine’s sound the cello’s unmistakable drone does not create the same kind of claustrophobic atmosphere, but rather adds that kind of depth that is generally supplied by the keyboards in the output of more conventional prog bands.

Since the individual members of Moraine have parallel involvements in a number of very diverse projects, ranging from jazz to stoner rock, it will not come as a surprise that eclecticism is the name of the game on Manifest Density. However, those anticipating a hodge-podge of disparate ideas that ultimately do not coalesce would be making the wrong assumption: the album as a whole impresses for its cohesion, even allowing for the different compositional styles of each band member. While Dennis Rea’s compositions (such as “Kuru” or “Staggerin’”) tend to favour a jazzier, more experimental style, two of the three tracks penned by co-founder Ruth Davidson (“$9 Pay-Per-View Lifetime TV Movie” and “Revenge Grandmother”) possess a wistful, low-key quality, shared by Alicia Allen’s deeply lyrical “Disillusioned Avatar”. On the other hand, album opener “Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”, also written by Davidson, is an energetic yet haunting number with a strong Crimsonian vibe; while bassist Kevin Millard’s “Ephebus Amoebus” opens in a slow, atmospheric fashion, then develops into a frenzied workout, with guitar and violin sparring with each other.

The quirky track titles inject a welcome dose of humour into the proceedings – a recurring feature in the work of other modern instrumental bands, but which Moraine (and especially Dennis Rea) seem to have got down to a fine art. Actually, the titles fit the musical content astonishingly well: “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari” is suitably dissonant, at times chaotic, with subtle Gothic undertones; while the upbeat “Nacho Sunset”, embellished by stunningly clear, lilting guitar work and gentle violin, has a relaxed, almost Latin feel. Though the album’s sound is mostly driven by the flawlessly intricate interplay between Rea’s distinctive guitar and Allen’s versatile violin lyrical and assertive in turns, none of the other instruments is confined to a mere supporting role, and each of them contributes in keeping the sonic texture tight. An excellent example of this is album closer (and personal favourite) “Middlebräu”: after a funky first half, propelled by magnificent bass and drums (very much in classic jazz-rock vein),  a pause signals an abrupt change of pace, and the beginning of a simply magnificent, almost slo-mo coda featuring an intense, meditative guitar solo (the closest Rea comes to a traditional rock solo).

When Moraine performed at NEARfest, their lineup had changed, with obvious consequences for their sound. Ruth Davidson and Jay Jaskot had moved away from Seattle, and been replaced by  drummer Stephen T Cavit (also an award-winning composer of film and TV scores), and woodwind player Jim DeJoie ( now Alicia Allen’s husband). The switch from cello to woodwinds lent the music a brighter, but also slightly more angular quality, reminiscent of those bands, such as Henry Cow, on the more experimental end of the Canterbury scene. This bodes well for the band’s second album, which is already in the works at the time of writing. In the spring of 2011 Moraine will also embark on a tour of the US East Coast, with dates at the New Jersey Proghouse and the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore already confirmed. Catch them if you can – they are a very entertaining live act, and Manifest Density qualifies as one of the most promising debut albums of the past decade in the progressive music field.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.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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Produced and directed by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Total time: 95 minutes

A clever pun on the title of the 1976 jazz-rock-meets-symphonic-prog album by Return To Forever, Romantic Warriors can claim to be the first documentary film that focuses not so much on the musical protagonists of the progressive rock scene, but rather on the people without whose loyalty and dedication the genre would have completely died out at the end of the Seventies, after its ‘glory days’ of critical and commercial success had waned. Born, almost by chance, from the professional and personal partnership between a dedicated prog fan (Peruvian-born José Zegarra Holder) and an award-winning filmmaker (German-born Adele Schmidt), the film is set on the East Coast of the USA, in a small yet thriving corner of a much wider scene. While neither of the authors is native to the US, their location right in the midst of things, in the Washington DC area (where their production company, Zeitgeist Media LLC, is also based) allows them an ideal vantage point as inside observers.

Divided into five main sections, the documentary mostly revolves around the three major prog festivals organized every year in the area under scrutiny (ROSfest, NEARfest and ProgDay) – as well as one of the main hubs for devotees of the genre, the near-legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore, Maryland. Besides a number of bands and artists from different milieus, both homegrown and international, some key figures of the scene provide the viewers with their invaluable, first-hand insight into the progressive rock phenomenon. Mike Potter, owner of Orion Studios, illustrates his activity on behalf of both local bands and acts coming from all over the globe – offering them not just a place to rehearse and perform, but also to spend the night; while Steve Feigenbaum, founder and owner of Cuneiform Records and the online music store Wayside Records, weighs in with his experience of running a niche enterprise, motivated by passion rather than any hope of substantial financial gain.

The acts featured in Romantic Warriors cover most of the bases of the current progressive rock scene – from the über-eclectic, avant-garde approach of Cheer-Accident to the orchestral, multilayered sound of Phideaux, from the sleek jazz-rock of DFA (whose magnificent “Baltasaurus” is used at the opening of the film) to Cabezas de Cera’s highly individual take on world music. The central section of the film pays homage to one of the seminal bands of the original movement, Gentle Giant,  both through the words of guitarist Gary Green, and some intriguing live footage dating back from1974 – which will not just appeal to the nostalgia-steeped brigade, but also to the younger fans who want to see what prog looked like in its heyday. The musicians interviewed range from established protagonists of the scene such as Roine Stolt to the extremely talented Dan Britton, the fresh-faced mastermind behind up-and-coming bands such as Deluge Grander and Birds and Buildings. Moreover, the documentary’s strong international bias (in keeping with the filmmakers’ personal history) sheds some light on how bands and artists originating from a wide range of geographical locations – from the US to Japan – share the same struggles and concerns, as well as the same musical vision.

As befits a true documentary, Romantic Warriors is not glamorous, nor does it aim to be. While  most of the people involved are middle-aged and average-looking (not tarted up to look their best  as they would be in most TV programmes), they are also very real people to whom music means much more than just a flavour-of-the-month pursuit. The film touches upon a number of hot-button issues, from the possibility (or lack thereof) for musicians to make a living from their craft (with wry yet good-natured commentary from The Muffins’ Paul Sears and the members of Cheer-Accident) to the more technical aspects of the music, such as instrumentation and recording. While the ground-breaking importance of the Internet is given due recognition, Internet discussion forums are mentioned all but shortly, in spite of the major role these virtual communities play in the diffusion of the genre. On the other hand, the extensive, tightly-knit underground network that allows prog to prosper in spite of lack of major financial support and/or widespread commercial success is given the proper emphasis, as is the community atmosphere of the major prog festivals. I particularly appreciated the (albeit brief) reference to the much-debated ‘women and prog’ question – the alleged lack of interest of women in the genre disproved by the contribution of people like radio DJ Debbie Sears.

Those who expect a music video with some occasional commentary are going to be inevitably disappointed, because Romantic Warriors is a bare-bones account of the scene, filmed on location in an almost cinema-verité style that completely rules out the presence of the two filmmakers: in fact, all the viewer can see is the people who answer their questions – musicians, fans, and everything in between.  The musical content, while undeniably important,  is mainly meant to reinforce the verbal message. While it all feels very natural and unstaged, it can also leave some viewers rather puzzled – especially those who, having had little or no previous exposure to the scene, may end up struggling to put labels on people and situations. The film does not really offer any detailed explanation of how the whole progressive rock movement originally came about – except when, in the first part of the documentary, geo-historical maps of the genre are briefly displayed. However, as a true documentary should do, it encourages the viewers to delve deeper into the topic, and explore both the music and the history on their own. I personally found this approach very enjoyable as well as effective, though I can understand how some people might instead find the filmmakers’ unadorned style a bit on the dry side. Another criticism that might be levelled at Romantic Warriors is that it seems to hover between ‘preaching to the converted’ (that is, taking it for granted that the audience will be aware of much of the information presented) to a more instructional bent,  targeted to newcomers to the genre rather than long-time followers.

Though released in the late spring of 2010, Romantic Warriors is only now starting to get the recognition it deserves outside the restricted community of prog fans. Its screening on the evening of September 10, 2010,  at the Mexican Cultural Centre in Washington DC, offered a prime opportunity to ‘prog virgins’ to get acquainted with the music. Indeed, the film whetted people’s curiosity, which led to some interesting questions being asked. The evening was wrapped up by Dan Britton and Mauricio Sotelo’s astonishing performance (respectively on piano and Chapman stick), which offered the audience a real-time taster of some of the distinctive features of prog – the technical brilliance, the flair for improvisation, the input of classical and world music in the creation of the progressive sound. Those who, before the screening, were unaware of the whole scene could not help being fascinated (as well as moved) by the variety of the musical offer, the colourful appearance of the crowds at the festivals, the everyday struggles of the artists, and the overall sense of dedication that could be gleaned from the documentary. The audience’s reaction should remind the often insular and cliquish ‘prog community’ that it is not a good idea to look down upon those who are not yet in the know. This attitude might very well stifle some people’s budding interest in the music – which, after all, beyond any pledges of allegiance to a common cause, is the only thing that really counts.

Links:
http://www.progdocs.com

http://www.zeitgeistmedia.tv

http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Romantic-Warriors-A-Progressive-Music-Saga/136452959730143

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