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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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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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TRACKLISTING:
1. One Cloud  (3:35)
2. The Long Circle (11:05)
3.Conscious Dream (5:15)
4. Cloud Dispersed   (2:16)
5. Differential (5:27)
6. Turbulence (1:25)
7. Mighty Distant Star  (6:10)
8. The Third Enigma (13:15)

LINEUP:
Rob Martino – Chapman stick

Released in May 2010, One Cloud is the recording debut of Chapman stick virtuoso Rob Martino, a talented artist who came to the attention of prog fans for his appearance in the documentary film Romantic Warriors – though he also guested on Phideaux’s career-defining Doomsday Afternoon in 2007, and participated in the 2009 edition of the 3RP Prog Festival. A fellow resident of Northern Virginia (as well as a fellow cat lover), Rob is very active on the live front around the US Northeast, performing both his own material and covers of other artists’ music. While an accomplished multi-instrumentalist with an extensive musical background, since 2004 he has chosen to focus exclusively on the Chapman stick, one of the most versatile instruments on the current music scene, which has been enthusiastically adopted by many progressive artists.

Though Rob Martino is first and foremost a dedicated follower of progressive rock, the music showcased on One Cloud transcends the boundaries of prog as it is commonly perceived, its distinctive style hard to label. In fact, his compositions display a wide range of influences, from folk to classical music, which makes them more likely to appeal to a broader audience than  just the so-called “prog community”. In any case, the artist’s personal imprint emerges quite clearly, so that the music does not feel as derivative as is unfortunately the case with a rather large slice of current “mainstream” prog releases. More than anything, however, the album spotlights the enormous expressive potential of an instrument that can, to all intents and purposes, almost replace a whole band. Its unique nature (it is played with both hands by tapping the strings, rather than plucking or strumming them) allows for multi-part arrangements, in which the Chapman stick acts the role of piano and percussion, as well as guitar and bass.

Even though I had already experienced music played solely on the Chapman stick, I was deeply impressed by the the sheer beauty of the compositions featured on One Cloud. Understated, yet fluid and full of melody, the music possesses surprising clarity coupled with a feel of engaging warmth. While there is plenty of complexity involved, the tracks often as multilayered as anything you would find on most full-fledged prog albums, the music suggests a sense of elegance and purity rather than the sometimes overblown lushness of symphonic prog. All in all, the album is anything but a showcase for empty virtuosity, the focus being on composition rather than technique.

Clocking in at about 48 minutes, the album strikes a nearly perfect balance between shorter pieces and longer numbers with an almost epic scope. A superficial listen may give the impression that the tracks sound rather similar to one another, and somehow this may hold true even after repeated listens, as  One Cloud (whose title is in itself very suggestive of the music’s nature) – unlike albums that involve conventional instrumentation – hinges on subtle contrasts of light and shade, rather than on the impact of powerful guitar riffs, soaring vocals or towering keyboard sweeps. While, in some ways, it is more accessible than the average prog album, at the same time it demands the listener’s full attention in order to avoid fading into the background – as is often the case with “mood” music.

The title-track opens the album with a tune that, while not exactly upbeat, is quite catchy in its own way, and immediately introduces the listener to the captivating textures that the Chapman stick allows a musician to create. The two “epics”, 10-minute “The Long Circle” and 13-minute“The Third Enigma”, share a similar structure, gradually gaining intensity from a sparse, subdued start; both exude a melancholy, meditative feel, and the frequent tempo changes that break up the flow of the music add further interest, together with the quasi-orchestral effects that help to flesh out the sound. On the other hand, on a couple of tracks, notably “Conscious Dream” and the aptly-titled “Turbulence”, the instrument takes on a sharp, almost percussive tone.

Though, if you felt inclined to nitpick, One Cloud may occasionally come across as slightly one-dimensional (which is probably inevitable for an album based on a single instrument), it is also a lovingly-crafted effort with a strong crossover appeal, and an outstanding example of committed music-making. Highly recommended to fans of the Chapman stick and its close relative, the Warr guitar, as well as anyone who appreciates any recordings featuring acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments, it will offer a deeply satisfying listening experience to lovers of instrumental music.

Links:
http://robmartino.com/

http://www.myspace.com/robmartino

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Snowtorch – Part One (19:39)
a) Star of Light
b) Retrograde
c) Fox on the Rocks
d) Celestine
2. Helix (5:54)
3. Snowtorch – Part Two (16:11)
a) Blowtorch Snowjob
b) Fox Rock 2
c) Coronal Mass Ejection
4. ” … ” (2:34)

LINEUP:
Phideaux Xavier – acoustic guitar, piano, vocals
Ariel Farber – vocals, violin
Valerie Gracious – vocals
‘Bloody’ Rich Hutchins – drums
Mathew Kennedy – bass guitar
Gabriel Moffat – electric guitar
Linda Ruttan Moldawsky – vocals, metal percussion
Molly Ruttan – vocals
Mark Sherkus – keyboards, piano
Johnny Unicorn – keyboards, saxophone, vocals

With:
Stephanie Fife – cello
Chris Bleth – flute, soprano saxophone

With 7 albums released since 2003 (not counting Ghost Story, originally released in 1997 and reissued in 2004, and mostly consisting of material dating from a previous project called Satyricon) Phideaux need  no introduction to prog fans. Based on a group of childhood friends who grew up together in the New York area, but are now scattered all over the US territory, they are a proudly independent outfit, a group of gifted musicians coming from diverse backgrounds led by the remarkable talent of Phideaux Xavier, whose highly individual approach to the production of progressive rock has turned them into firm favourites of a wide-ranging, yet rather volatile scene.

Throughout the years the band have perfected a format that, while not exactly uncommon in the prog world, has been given a new twist by Phideaux Xavier’s fertile mind and keen awareness of social matters. All of the band’s albums since 2006’s The Great Leap have been based on elaborate concepts that, eschewing the  often formulaic fantasy topics that are still quite popular with prog bands and their fans, present reflections on the state of  the modern world – albeit coached in metaphorical terms. In some ways, Phideaux has become a 21st-century equivalent of Roger Waters, down to the configuration of the band – which, with its ten members, plus various collaborators, is a veritable mini-orchestra. Everything, so to speak, is done in the family, with guitarist Gabriel Moffat in the role of the producer, and backing vocalists (and twin sisters) Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldavsky responsible for the elegantly minimalistic artwork.

Released in the spring of 2011, a couple of months before Phideaux’s appearance at the 2011 edition of ROSfest, Snowtorch is a compact, 45-minute offering that  manages to pack more content in its streamlined running time than most of the sprawling behemoths favoured by some artists. Featuring the same line-up as its predecessor, 2009’s  Number Seven, it is, in Phideaux’s own words, “a musing on life, language and solar flares”, conceived as single suite in various movements, though split in two separate halves connected by a stand-alone song also based on the composition’s main theme.This strategy of building the album’s musical content around a recurring theme is what makes Snowtorch a symphonic offering in the truest sense of the word. With a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental parts, and the added bonus of thought-provoking lyrics, the album stakes its claim as the rightful heir of the great classics of the Seventies – though bringing a definitely modern twist to those old prog warhorses, the epic and the concept album.

In fact, listening to Snowtorch may evoke strong comparisons with classical music, on account of both the structure and the nature of the compositions, which combine the powerful surge of exhilarating crescendos with intimate, low-key moments. However, Phideaux’s sound is quite far removed from the somewhat cheesy grandiosity of bands such as The Enid. With two keyboardists (plus Phideaux himself on piano) providing a lush, yet tightly-woven background tapestry, bolstered by Ariel Farber’s violin and guest artist Stephanie Fife’s cello, Chris Bleth’s flute adding a pastoral touch to some of the quieter sections, the music possesses a dramatic fullness that complements the harmonious beauty of the vocal parts.

The first half of the “Snowtorch” suite opens with the subdued melody of “Star of Light”, introduced by piano, organ and Phideaux’s husky, expressive voice; then it soon gains intensity, the intricate, orchestral keyboards and relentless drumming driving the vocals along towards a climax. The main theme is introduced, and brought to fruition in a splendid, organ-driven section peppered by guitar excursions, the two instruments sparring in a peaks-and-valleys pattern. “Retrograde” revolves around a lovely, emotional duet between Phideaux and the band’s other lead vocalist, Valerie Gracious, whose soaring soprano shows more than a hint of steel without any trace of saccharine – an enthralling song almost out of a classic Broadway musical. The entertaining ditty “Fox on the Rocks” (with lyrics penned by keyboardist Johnny Unicorn), sung by Phideaux in a near-falsetto register, prepares the listener for  instrumental “Celestine”, a veritable keyboard tour-de-force,  pastoral and stormy in turns, where solemn mellotron washes underpin the sparring of piano, synth and organ, with violin, metal percussion and sax joining the fray.

As previously hinted, “Helix” bridges the gap between the two parts of the titular suite – a majestic, powerful piece sustained by Valerie Gracious’ commanding performance, with all the instruments working together to produce a solid wall of sound  – which reminded me of the dramatic sweep of some episodes of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. “Snowtorch Part Two” – shorter and somewhat edgier than Part One – opens in almost upbeat fashion with the funnily (and punnily)-titled instrumental “Blowtorch Snowjob”, then culminates in the explosive, ELP-influenced keyboard-and-drum orgy of “Fox Rock 2” (with an unbridled organ solo that would sit quite comfortably on Tarkus). Things finally mellow out with the sedate, Pinkfloydian atmosphere of “Coronal Mass Ejection”, an ominous, somber piece which reprises the album’s main theme, briefly climaxes with guitar slashes and intense vocals, then ends with sparse piano. The short “ghost track” included at the end as a sort of instrumental summary wraps things up with a cheery feel that seems to release the tension built up throughout the album.

Effortlessly marrying superb musicianship and genuine passion, Snowtorch brims with gorgeous melodies, the kind that stick in your mind for quite a while. While often pervaded by a sense of impending doom, it can also be oddly jaunty; for all its lush, multilayered arrangements, it is never gratuitously pretentious. With all-round flawless performances, excellent songwriting and beautiful singing, it has quickly established itself as one of the strongest releases of the year so far. Though influenced by the great tradition of the golden age of prog, unlike the myriad of “retro” acts Phideaux manage to sound like no one else on the current scene. An album such as Snowtorch is living proof of how they are almost single-handedly dragging symphonic prog right into the 21st century.

Links:
http://www.bloodfish.com/

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:
http://www.rosfest.com

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