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Posts Tagged ‘ProgDay’

TRACKLISTING:
1. Circuitry (6:16)
2. When the Walls are Down (7:29)
3. Dead City (5:15)
4. When She Dreams She Dreams in Color (13:40)
5. Rogue (24:04)

LINEUP:
Matthew Parmenter – vocals, keyboards, descants
Jon Preston Bouda – guitars
Mathew Kennedy – bass
Paul Dzendzel – drums, percussion

In spite of its long-standing tradition as one of the music capitals of the US, Detroit  is not exactly known as a hotbed progressive rock. However, Discipline have almost single-handedly put the city on the prog map. Since their inception in the late Eighties, and  through the release of two albums – Push and Profit (1993) and the celebrated Unfolded Like Staircase (1997) – they have become one of the highest-rated acts on the US prog scene, where their powerful live shows earned them five consecutive appearances at Progday, from 1995 to 1999.  At the beginning of the new century, the band folded, though frontman Matthew Parmenter went on to release two solo albums, and three live recordings were also released between 2000 and 2005.  Discipline made their official comeback at the 2008 edition of NEARfest, Three years later, To Shatter All Accord, their highly awaited third studio album  (the first in 14 years), came out in the autumn of 2011 on the band’s own label, Strung Out Records.

Though often mislabeled as “neo-prog”, with the theatrical approach of keyboardist/vocalist Matthew Parmenter (aka Magic Acid Mime) drawing comparisons to the likes of Fish and Peter Gabriel, Discipline’s darkly intense musical and lyrical approach has more in common with Van Der Graaf Generator than with Marillion and their ilk. In spite of the lengthy pause between studio recordings, having kept the same lineup for over 20 years (no mean feat in itself) has allowed them to hone their distinctive sound, which runs the gamut from brooding harshness to soothing, almost pastoral melody.

While Parmenter’s dramatic vocals and tortured lyrics provide the main focus of attention, they are only one of the factors that make Discipline’s music so riveting. In fact, Parmenter’s voice often works as an additional instrument, and complements the other instruments instead of overwhelming them (as it is occasionally the case with Peter Hammill’s vocals in VDGG).  Discipline handle the frequent transitions in the fabric of their songs with seamless skill, avoiding the lack of cohesion that often mars the most ambitious prog productions, and the dramatic quality inherent to their music is conveyed so as to enhance the emotional content without becoming jarring or bombastic.

Out of the five tracks featured on To Shatter All Accord, the first two date back from the mid-Nineties, and will be familiar to those who have followed Discipline’s live career. Both songs were included in the double CD set Live Days (2010), as well as in the DVD Live 1995 (released in 2005). The hard-edged mid-tempo of “Circuitry” opens the album with a bang: forceful organ introduces Parmenter’s intense vocals, which bookend a magnificent instrumental section where piano, sax, organ and finally Jon Preston Bouda’s incisive guitar solo take turns in the spotlight. “When the Walls Are Down” hinges on superb interplay between Bouda’s guitar and Parmenter’s voice, in turns pleading and sneering; then sax and guitar engage in an exhilarating duel until the end of the song. Strategically placed in the middle of the album, “Dead City” introduces Discipline’s new material on a deceptively upbeat note. The distorted guitar and spacey-industrial electronics at the opening of the song are offset by a melodic guitar solo in the bridge, while a snippet of a radio broadcast announcing a zombie invasion is tagged at the end as a wry commentary on the lyrics.

The band, however, pull out all the stops for the last two tracks, which make up more than two-thirds of the 56-minute album. “When She Dreams She Dreams in Color” starts out in an understated manner, with a lilting pace that brings to mind a tango with jazzy undertones, supported by Paul Dzendzel and Mathew Kennedy’s impeccable rhythm section. Almost theatrical bursts of intensity, driven by vocals and sax, are followed by moments of quiet, leading to a spectacular finale in which Parmenter’s hauntingly lyrical violin, backed by solemn guitar and drums, evokes shades of King Crimson’s “Starless”. The 24-minute “Rogue” is a textbook example of how to write an epic that never outstays its welcome. With plenty of mood and tempo changes, yet remarkably cohesive, it is a harrowing existentialist tale in 10 scenes – almost like a 21st century take on VDGG’s “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”-  that might have resulted in an overblown mess, but is instead deeply involving. Parmenter’s vocal tour-de-force (complete with disturbing shrieks) enhances the stunning instrumental texture, made of powerful organ runs, tensely atmospheric interludes and dazzling guitar solos, full of melody and emotion, which relieve the intensity of the crescendo-like passages.

Though its release date, almost at the tail end of 2011 – a year noted for its many high-profile releases – has kept the album out of many “best of” lists, there is no doubt that To Shatter All Accord fully deserves to be mentioned alongside those albums that have drawn critical attention in the past year. Though not substantially different from its predecessors, it showcases a band that embodies the best of traditional prog without sounding either dated or derivative, and that seems to have gained polish and maturity in spite of the many years of inactivity. To Shatter All Accord is one of those rare efforts will potentially appeal to prog fans of every stripe, and marks a triumphant return to form for one of the top acts of the US scene.

Links:
http://www.strungoutrecords.com/

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Based in New Jersey, Advent are one of the most distinctive bands on the current US progressive rock scene—though not one of the most prolific, having released only two albums since their inception in 1989. Now, nearly six years after the release of their second album, the highly acclaimed Cantus Firmus, Advent are busy writing material for their forthcoming third album. With a return gig that took place on December 11 (together with another talented New Jersey outfit, The Tea Club), and some recent lineup changes, the band are set to begin 2012 with a bang. Some time ago, I contacted core members Alan Benjamin and Henry and Mark Ptak, who have been so kind as to provide exhaustive answers to  my questions.

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Let’s start with the usual, very boring question on Advent’s beginnings, for those of my readers that are not yet familiar with you.

Alan: I moved to New Jersey in 1987 and very quickly formed my first prog band, Tangent, with an old friend from high school. Within a year and a half, though, the project imploded and I went into a phase of trying to find an established group that had an opening—but that only led to a series of auditions for bands that I knew I would never be happy joining (usually something I could tell within the first 30 seconds). Once the realization hit that there probably wouldn’t be a satisfactory group to join, I decided to place an ad in a local (New Jersey) musician’s magazine called The E.C. Rocker to see if I could at least find any compatible collaborators—and, thankfully, Henry answered.

With the previous series of “nightmare auditions” looming in recent memory (at that time), I thought it best to schedule a preliminary meeting where we would do nothing more than listen to recorded samples of each other’s music and discuss our mutual interests. It only took a few measures of hearing Henry’s first tune on tape—a solo version of “Rear View Mirror”—for me to realize that this was exactly the type of person I wanted to work with. Fortunately, he seemed to like the tapes of my music as well, and Advent was born. Mark (Henry’s talented brother) graduated from Berklee the following year and immediately joined to complete the three-member core that has existed for over 20 years now.

What are your respective musical backgrounds and main influences?

Henry: My earliest influences were probably popular recordings of Polish songs my folks used to listen to—and they also had some classical stuff around (mostly Chopin, and things like Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto), some of which I’d wind up hearing in popular-rendition form on Liberace’s TV show at that time. Like most people, my exposure to rock ‘n’ roll was from the local radio stations—Duane Eddy was an early favorite, followed by Elvis Presley, Hank Ballard, and Roy Orbison. By the time the Beatles arrived, I was already taking guitar lessons at the local music store. J.S. Bach, Procol Harum, and Keith Emerson got me into keyboards a few years later, and Genesis and Gentle Giant cemented the relationship. I got back into the classics mostly because of them—and Blood, Sweat & Tears (D. Clayton-Thomas era) also got me into jazz. Once the classical and jazz fields were opened up for me, I just devoured whatever my teachers (and anyone else whose opinions I valued) recommended. I listened to everything—a lot of the record stores back then had very knowledgeable staff in each department, and when they were unavailable, you could always look through the Schwann catalogs for a listing of those works most commonly performed by the best-known pianists and orchestras. In addition to Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Ravel were big favorites.

Alan: Having grown up with an intensely musical mother (who was quite an accomplished pianist and songwriter), music was everywhere in my early life. My mom likes to brag about how I “begged her for piano lessons” when I was two, but she forced me to wait until I turned three to start. Although dabbling with chord patterns from simple song books on my dad’s old F-hole Vega acoustic guitar, I eventually decided to take up the violin (around age eight) and became a bit of a child prodigy on the instrument, playing classical music with what had to be the best elementary school orchestra in New York City and also taking on extracurricular ensemble work.

My entire world became disrupted at age 12, however, by being sent (against my will) to boarding school in Pennsylvania—and, for some strange reason that I’m sure I’ll never uncover at this point, I was not permitted to bring my violin with me. On the bright side, though, my second roommate there obsessively played three albums that, almost immediately, shifted my primary interest toward rock music (in order of importance): Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack, Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard, and Kimono My House by Sparks. My mom bought me a Conn acoustic guitar that Christmas (which I was actually allowed to keep at school) and that ended up representing my ultimate change of primary instrument.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just list some of the artists I discovered between that time and the end of the 1980s, in chronological, that each had a lasting impact on my musical psyche (in addition to Queen, the one that had really stuck from my roommate’s initial exposure): Rush, Kansas, Genesis, Dixie Dregs, Gentle Giant, Saga, and Pekka Pohjola. The most significant long-term inspiration came from Gentle Giant in the early days followed a bit later on by Pekka Pohjola. I should also add that purchasing Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells when it was brand new (over a year before going to boarding school) also seems to have had a lasting impact in the way I approach composition and arrangement, although this is something that generally seems to manifest itself in a more structural/logistical manner.

Mark: I’m going to work backwards here. Lately, it’s been a good deal of sacred music. Singing in a number of church choirs over the years (some with Henry) has opened up the door to some wonderfully beautiful music that I would never have known was out there otherwise. Before that, there was my training from Berklee in Boston. Over there I honed my music theory, arranging, and jazz harmony skills, while also learning how to get around technical aspects of the studio. And Henry stands behind all that, actually—because it was from him that I received exposure, at a very early age, to Gentle Giant, Procol Harum, Genesis, ELP, Weather Report, and various baroque, romantic, and classical composers. He was also my first music-theory and piano teacher—and a tough one at that. Of course, it didn’t hurt to look at all that cool ’70s keyboard gear he had amassed by the time I was about five or so. That’s probably what started the ball rolling, really.

What is the story behind your name, short and sweet like many of the names of historic prog bands?

Mark:  I believe Alan’s wife, Amy, suggested the name. And naturally, Henry and I being practicing Roman Catholics, identified with its liturgical significance in the Church as one of expectation, or “coming,” as it were, of Christ’s Nativity. So that felt positive, we thought. Plus, it had a nice, short, and “final” kind of ring to it when pronounced. So yeah, I think it works well.

Alan: Yes, the name originated from Amy (my beautiful and musical wife), who used to be a rather serious keyboard player in her younger days. She came up with the idea of naming a band Advent back in college, but never had the opportunity to put it to use. When we were starting to think about band names, she shared the idea and we immediately thought it was perfect.

Though Advent have been in existence for almost three decades, there have been long breaks between your CD releases. What is the reason for that?

Alan: There are actually several factors that have conspired to keep things moving so slowly in this regard. The fact that we’ve always been a band of married guys with families and day jobs is probably the most significant factor—often resulting in having very little time available to actually work on music. Beyond that, a combination of several lineup changes and, for an extended period, trying to focus on too many activities simultaneously, set us back quite a bit. In fact, I don’t think we would have ever finished Cantus Firmus had we not made a conscious decision to stop looking for new band members and dedicate virtually all our time to making the album. Additionally, our material is often very complex and intricate, and it just takes a significant amount of time and effort to get the tunes written, arranged, rehearsed, recorded, and mixed to our mutual satisfaction.

Henry: The short, brutal truth of it is that we have to continue to support ourselves while attempting to keep Advent moving forward. As wonderfully supportive, generous, and dedicated as the people in the prog scene have shown themselves to be in their commitment to keeping the music alive, there simply aren’t enough ways to sustain a full-time living from writing/performing exclusively, so we all have to do other things to keep the electricity turned on in what has proven to be an increasingly precarious economic environment. I teach piano full-time, and perform with an all-Beatles show called Mystical Majesty Band in addition to writing and playing in Advent, and it’s still a daily struggle to maintain the kind of sustained attention and focus that work as detailed as ours tends to require. When something is finally finished, we’re all happy with the results, but getting there (especially today) often demands the kinds of interruptions such as are required for simple survival.

What about your recent lineup changes? Have they influenced the writing of your new material?

Alan: We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful players in the band over the years. Drew Siciliano (drums) and Benjamin Rose (bass), representing our previous rhythm section, were both amazing players that came from more of a jazz background. Our new drummer Joe D’Andrea, an old friend (that found out about the opening via my venting on Facebook), has a very diverse set of influences but approaches the music from a solid progressive-rock perspective—and is also a very gifted vocalist who plays violin quite well. We also had a new bass player for about a year and a half, but I’m afraid that things didn’t quite work out in the end and we just parted ways in early 2012. (We’re actively looking for a suitable candidate to fill this new opening, but I’m already making preparations to start recording bass parts for the new CD if we can’t find someone quickly.)

Although I can’t really say these changes have dramatically influenced the way we’re writing or arranging new material for the album, we are starting to think about optimizing some of the arrangements for a single guitarist due to the fact that Greg (Katona, our second guitarist) is not planning on participating in future live performances with the band at this point. I’m very happy to say that Greg is still very actively involved in both our creative and recording processes, though, and has already laid down some beautiful guitar work for the third Advent album.

Mark:  Maybe it’s influenced us a little bit. I don’t know, I think we still approach writing mostly the same way we always have, only now we’ve been able to try things live during rehearsals with the full band and see what worked and what didn’t. That’s a nice thing to have happen because it makes the transition to live performance a lot easier. Much of the re-arranging gets cut down, which speeds things up for us—somewhat. (Ha ha.)

You have been called the most European-sounding of American bands, and especially Cantus Firmus shows your fascination with the Old World and its centuries-old musical tradition. Can you expand a bit on this particular subject?

Henry: I think the way we approach form has a lot to do with that. Most popular music (including many jazz standards) follows either a 12-bar form, or a standard “verse/chorus/middle eight/what-have-you” formula, which is very well-suited to shorter works. With longer pieces you have to consider how to sustain musical interest as you stretch out. I have nothing against the solution of extended soloing to fill the time, especially in the hands of great players like Pat Metheny, Joe Zawinul, or Herbie Hancock. However, I’m not drawn to that particular solution in the same way that I am to models which are more in line with the European classics, and if you go down that road, it’s inevitable that you’ll “discover” sonata form, counterpoint, thematic development, and all the rest of it—and pretty soon you find yourself referencing musical antecedents that lead all the way back to Gregorian chant. I’ve always been of the opinion that the audience which grew up on a diet of the simple pop tunes of early rock ‘n’ roll eventually wanted something a little deeper by the mid-sixties, which would account for all of the classical/jazz/folk/rock hybrids comprising much of the early prog catalog that became popular soon afterwards. I personally think it represented a hunger to reconnect with musical roots that ran deeper than the weekly chart-breaker—and, for me at least, that meant European music, which I believe is the best we have.

Do you see yourselves as “retro-prog”, and what is your opinion of such a label? Do you see it as unfair, or do you wear it as a badge of pride?

Alan: I don’t think the “retro-prog” label can accurately be applied to Advent—at least not based on any music the band has released up to this point. That being said, I believe our musical ethos to be more in line with many of the classic prog bands than most of the acts who fall quite squarely into that “retro” category. To further qualify, I think virtually all these (retro-prog) bands feature arrangements—especially from the standpoint of timbre—that sound as though their recordings could have been made in the 1970s. Our music, however, does not favor that approach at all and contains at least as many textures that would never have been heard back in prog’s heyday. Or, to put it another way, I like to think that we expand rather significantly on the retro sound, while still leveraging at least some of the elements that made classic prog music so appealing—but I don’t think anyone would ever mistake any Advent tune for having been recorded over 35 years ago.

Henry: If, as I suspect, “retro” is to be understood as describing a musical approach with influences directly traceable to the best work of earlier practitioners of a particular genre, I suppose I’m OK with that. Even to call what we do an “homage”, or “in the manner of” is in my opinion misleading, because (as Alan has already expressed), there’s other things of a more eclectic nature in what we do. The influences are there, sure, but the problem with the word “retro” is that it leaves one wide open to the philological mischief it affords to self-styled iconoclasts (like the chain-smoking Marxist motormouths of my college days),who want to bury the past altogether. I would oppose the use of the term to the extent that it is used with a subtly dismissive spin, the intent of which seems (to me at least), to suggest a want of imagination, or to put it another way, an absence of “progress”, if “progress” is to be measured along the same tired old deconstructionist/Socialist/Satanist agitprop measuring stick some of these people would confine it to.

Mark: You know, I really don’t care what you call us, as long as you listen to the darn music. What’s being said musically is what’s most important, in my mind. There’s a certain eternal connection your soul has with music, and that’s what Henry and I (at least) try to tap into. We try to knock on that door and make an impression on you that lasts – hopefully for a lifetime. Some music has done that to me, and it doesn’t matter one bit what its label is, or how people identify it. I just know that when I listen to it, it does something beautiful inside that words can never describe. My badge of pride would be to have that happen to at least one person with even a few bars of a tune that I wrote or helped to arrange.

And now, the obligatory question about your songwriting process. How do you go about it? Does writing new material come easy to you?

Mark: Very seldom does any one idea blossom into an entire tune for me. We’ve all got bits and pieces left over from other things, or short snippets of ideas that we constantly try to mix and match with each other’s fragments to see what fits. The cool thing that Henry and I like to do sometimes is to take an existing idea, throw it into a sequencer and flip it backwards or upside down, or even in retrograde inversion. That produces a lot of caca sometimes, and a good belly laugh other times—but every once in a while you get something really interesting that sticks. The middle section of “Awaiting the Call…” is actually an idea I had that was played in reverse, or upside down … I forget now. After a little revising, that became the dual acoustic guitar/mandolin part. Funny thing is, the original idea was just as good as far as I’m concerned. Who knows? You might hear that show up somewhere at some point.

Henry:  It varies. For most of Advent’s existence, we’ve tended to treat rehearsals as something of a songwriting workshop, where we’d each come in with sections of material prepared—sometimes collectively, though mostly individually—and try to move things forward section by section. Since we’ve got two locations equipped with recording facilities, that occasionally involves recording some of what we have in varying stages of completion to try to get more of a sense of how the final song is going to sound, and then make the inevitable adjustments where required. Starting from nothing, of course, tends to slow things down a bit—and since so much of the compositional process depends on finding the right arrangement for whatever raw material we’ve started with, it’s important to know early on whether the song idea in front of you has possibilities or not.

Alan:  We all approach the creative aspects of this task quite differently in my opinion—although I would also say that Henry, Mark, and I are all fairly consistent about wanting to develop our basic compositional structures and arrangements independently (before bringing the pieces into the group for additional input). I tend to spontaneously write small ideas on a regular basis, but it takes a concerted effort to turn one or more of these snippets into a complete piece of music—and this process typically involves a significant amount of time, effort, and discipline. In this regard, it really helps to have some kind of goal in mind which drives a commitment to get the piece done on some sort of schedule.

On the next Advent CD, I also composed two short pieces with (our other guitar player) Greg. This was a very collaborative process that started with my beginning each composition, transcribing what I had into Sibelius (the music-notation program), and sending both scores and Sibelius-generated audio to Greg. He would listen to the results and compose his parts to match what I started—and then, upon reaching a certain point, Greg would take the lead and develop the following section of the tune, for which I’d have to go back and write my parts to match. Once in a while we’d come to some form of disagreement, but that would eventually get worked out. In the end, though, I’ve been tremendously pleased with the final results and really hope that Greg and I can continue to work in this fashion well into the future.

As I wrote in my review, my first contact with the music of Advent was your contribution to Musea Records’s Dante’s Inferno 4-CD set. How did that collaboration come about, and what was your experience? Are you familiar with the literary work at all?

Alan: If memory serves, Marco Bernard (Colossus) reached out to us directly and solicited our involvement in the project. Although Henry and Mark were a lot more familiar with the text than I, we all thought it sounded like something which could be right up our alley. The assignment also provided our first opportunity to collaborate with Greg on an original composition—something that went very well in my opinion. I also think Henry’s daughter (Thérèse) did a wonderful job on the vocals.

Henry:  I was already acquainted with The Inferno, having read it in college and once or twice since then—so when Alan informed us about the Colossus-based project to do a prog collection encompassing the first canticum of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I thought it would make for an interesting subject around which to build a composition. Happily, we were all in agreement about doing it, even though we knew it involved another redirection of focus away from the new CD. First of all, it was the initial (and only) Advent studio recording featuring the six-piece ensemble that had been gigging since the release of Cantus Firmus—and the tune also provided an opportunity to showcase Greg Katona’s formidable skills on classical guitar, for which he wrote his own part. The style of writing was quite a bit darker than is typical for us, which one might expect given the subject matter. Coming up with a “visual” program to describe the events in “Canto XXVI” took a few tries, but when it was completed, I was amazed at how compellingly Greg’s contribution captured Dante’s “lament” over Florence at the outset of the work. I would have enjoyed being a part of the Purgatorio and Paradiso collections as well, but there just wasn’t time for additional detours from writing our new CD. Congratulations to Marco, Colossus, Musea, and all involved, though—great idea!

Mark: It was a very welcome experience as Alan and Henry have already pointed out. It was a little out of the way in terms of what we do, but the subject matter was an interesting one for all of us and enabled the band to stretch out a bit, compositionally. I’ve been aware of Dante’s Divine Comedy for years, but never read any of it until we signed on for the Musea/Colossus project. I read Inferno in preparation for what we were going to create, and I think that helped me a lot in the mixing stage. I started to read Purgatorio shortly after that and got through a decent part of it, but never finished. I’m confident I’ll get to the rest of it, and Paradiso, at some point. I’m a bit too busy right now, though.

You seem to have a keen interest in literature as an inspiration for your lyrics. Can you tell me something more about it?

Henry: I think we sometimes find it easier to form a compositional image when we have some sort of preexisting template to work from. Some people have difficulty visualizing a musical analog for a vibe communicated by a painting or a literary work, but we seem to manage it somehow. Perhaps growing up hearing everything from movies, to TV shows, to Warner Bros. cartoons, so skillfully set to music has left its mark. (I’m not sure.) Whatever the reason, the operation of transitioning from words-to-mental-picture-to-music seems a pretty natural one. I think it also helps that we all, by disposition, seem to have a preference for a type of lyric that most resembles poetry, where the images and references tend to be both varied and colorful. It seems to afford more room for the imagination to latch onto something useful in regard to projecting an atmosphere. Lyricists who write in that manner have a gift for finding ironic peculiarities in everyday things that most of us would miss—especially if things were not framed in quite the same way. I always felt that Arthur Hoffman (Advent’s lyricist on our earlier works) definitely had that “poet’s eye” and it made his imagery very easy to visualize musically.

Alan, Henry and Mark play a number of instruments, and also sing. Which instrument do you privilege, and what is your approach to playing live and in the studio?

Alan: While I play a fair number of instruments, I’m definitely most comfortable with guitar and bass, followed by Stick, violin, and mandolin. Beyond that, I tinker with things like recorder and flute—and still like sitting at a keyboard as often as time permits. I also love playing drums, but doubt that I’ll ever fulfill my fantasy of becoming the next Marco Minnemann. J Also, now that Advent has three impressively strong vocalists, I’m definitely the weakest link in this regard—but, like other things that extend beyond my natural abilities, I tend to compensate by practicing a lot.

We generally record most parts individually—and, in these instances, I tend to favor recording multiple looped takes of sections that are generally of a short-to-medium length. Since I have to double as recording engineer in virtually all cases, this approach allows me some time after starting the recording (and sometimes having to jump into position following that) to “get into the zone” and deliver a truly musical performance. When I have to record something live with one or more band mates, though, my tendency is to just practice like crazy to internalize the parts as much as possible in advance—which is really the same strategy I use to prepare for performing on stage.

Henry: I’m primarily a keyboardist who occasionally dabbles on the mandolin and guitar. Since a lot of what we do, both live and in the studio, involves fairly elaborate arrangements, we tend to use our instruments with an orchestral scope in mind. At present, we basically just try to reproduce, in a live setting, quite a bit of what we liked most about the recorded arrangements, with the occasional surprise worked in just to keep things interesting. Since this approach usually means rather involved performance demands on all of us, it tends to make for very busy hands (and sweaty palms) at gig time. That said, we all seem to prefer that to losing any part which one or more of us has come to enjoy hearing in the original, and the execution of the tricky bits seems to get better with each successive gig.

Mark:  Henry and Alan (and Joe, our drummer) are the real multi-instrumentalists in this group. I pretty much stick to keyboards and singing. If you put some percussion stuff in front of me, I can bang on it well enough to give you something pretty cool. And I can program a pretty mean drum part, but that’s about it. Actually, come to think of it, I do play the radio pretty well (and pretty loud). As far as live-vs.-studio approach is concerned, it’s the same thing in both situations for me, with the exception of missing the audience in the one case (and sometimes in both, LOL). Honestly, I try to keep things the same for both instances to make the transition easy and smooth—same gear, same setup, etc. The less surprises, the better, as far as I’m concerned. The keyboards are hard enough as it is without adding to the complexity of the performance itself. Even as a group, the performance mirrors the rehearsal, really. We haven’t consciously tried to deviate from that up to this point. There hasn’t been a need to in our minds, I think.

What have been your experiences as a live band?

Alan: That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, actually. On one hand, I think we’ve enjoyed many special moments and have been very fortunate, at least on occasion, to connect rather significantly with our audience. Given the complexity of the music and the corresponding amount of preparation necessary for each show, though, it’s really a shame that we haven’t been able to perform more than three times a year thus far—and I’d really like to be able to play a series of gigs in a row (or, ideally, book a short tour) where we could leverage all this hard work and make the kind of performance-related refinements that only seem to come from playing in front of a live audience on a fairly consistent basis. On the bright side, I’m very happy that we played out again, for the first time in over two years now (and with the debut of our great new drummer, Joe D’Andrea), at the NJ Proghouse on December 11th  – and having our talented young friends in The Tea Club on the bill as well was also a particularly special treat.

Mark: We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderfully talented people in this band over the years. But as with any ongoing project with which you may be involved, especially if you’re at its foundational level, there tends to be a few revolving-door positions as people come and go, which is fine. It makes it a little harder and things tend to take a bit longer as a result, but we still manage to put together an interesting show. All members, past and present, have really put in a lot of hard work for full-band rehearsals and countless hours of home preparation for material that is not very easy to get around. Believe me, for that we.re very thankful. When everyone is in the pocket and the energy is high, it really is a mind-blower. And that just goes to show that the material is good, in my mind. When you can get excited all over again with different people playing the same arrangements, I think that says a lot about the tunes and their arrangements.

Henry:  In general, quite good. Audiences have been wonderfully supportive, especially through all those critical first few performances when we were all sort of still finding our feet as a live band. Our second gig ever was at ProgDay, and the people there were most forgiving and kind—especially considering the jitters and mental lapses we were so vulnerable to in performing things like “Ramblin’ Sailor” in its entirety for the first time. We’ve also had nothing but good experiences with those people entrusted with getting us a good live sound, in what can only be described as a very difficult mix to get just right. Special thanks to Jim Zipf and also Kevin Feeley for their fantastic work and patience on this count.

What is your relationship with the thriving New Jersey prog scene?

Alan: Well, I’d say it’s all very much centered around the NJ Proghouse, all the organization’s incredible “staph” and leadership, and the network of amazing fans, musicians, and venues that support it all. Amy and I started as concertgoers, actually, first attending the (pre-Proghouse) Flower Kings/After the Fall show that took place in New Brunswick over a decade ago. After attending quite a few gigs and getting to know Jim and the gang, we were so appreciative to have the opportunity to hold Advent’s live debut at the Proghouse—and, since that time, Amy and I have both become very active “staph” members ourselves, helping to put on some of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen. On top of that, our great friendship with Jim, Ray, and all the other “staph” members is probably the best part of it all.

On a related note, how do you see the future of the US prog scene, especially after the announced demise of NEARfest after its 2012 edition?

Alan: That’s another tough question. I think it’s getting increasingly harder for anyone to monetize their music in general, much less that which clearly falls outside of any commercially viable genre—and, while we’re based out of New Jersey, I get the sense that this is a global phenomenon (at least in general). NEARfest coming to an end is merely indicative of the larger problem, in my opinion. Inspired composers and musicians will always strive to make great music and I think that intelligent, imaginative, open-minded listeners will always seek something new to hear—and, hopefully, own. It’s a complicated subject, though, and there are a lot of factors that come into play, including things like declining disposable income, increasing availability of free music (whether legitimately streamed or illegally downloaded), and the fact the market for nostalgia-based fandom is starting to dry up (due to most of the prominent old-school acts already having performed big festivals like NEARfest or simply not playing anymore).

When do you expect to release your new album? Have you already thought of a title?

Mark: As has been already mentioned, we’ll be shooting for a 2012 release, and hopefully earlier in the year than later. We’ll see. It’s never an easy task with Advent compositions and arrangements, but we’re working hard to get it done as quickly as we can. There are a few titles floating around in our heads, but nothing that’s been discussed openly yet, I think. That will probably come as we get closer to the end of the mixing stage. I should also add that we will be using Michael Phipps again for cover art. He did an absolutely gorgeous job on Cantus Firmus and I can’t wait to start working with him again on the concept for the new release.

Alan: I agree that we’re pretty well committed to having the album done in 2012, although I must confess to being a little less optimistic than Mark about the specifics and have a feeling that the second half of the year may be more likely. (I hope he proves me wrong, though.) Most of the tunes are fairly complete in terms of composition and arrangement at this point and quite a bit of recording has already taken place. As such, I think we have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to sound, but I wasn’t aware of any serious thoughts about the album title yet. I’ll have to see what the other guys are thinking.

Do you have other plans for 2012?

Henry: As of now, only two—release the best album we possibly can, and play in front of more people!

Mark: Something tells me it’s going to be practice, practice, and more practice.

Alan: From an Advent perspective, I’d say finishing up and releasing the new CD is definitely the top priority. After that, though, I really hope we can get back on stage and play a bunch of gigs. On a personal note, I hope to get a few collaborations into high gear and, perhaps, start working on recording some solo material.

All: Thanks so much for the interview, Raffaella! We really hope that you and your readers enjoy it. All the best!

Thank you for your time, and best wishes for the completion of your new album!

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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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Now that the dust has settled, and life is slowly getting back to normal for the ‘prog community’ after a lengthy wound-licking session, it is time to draw some conclusions, and see if there is any way forward for the whole scene after such a traumatic, unexpected event – or else, if we have to consider the possibility that NEARfest’s cancellation might spell the genre’s upcoming demise. The many thoughtful responses to my original article go to show that this unfortunate occurrence had a strong impact on the far-flung community of progressive rock fans. However, it is probably much too soon to gauge if this impact will have a destructive effect on the prog scene, or rather help people to understand that nothing can be taken for granted, and that the music which we all claim to love should be cherished and nurtured.

When the full import of the cancellation finally sank in, some long-time NEARfest attendees reacted as if they had experienced the loss of a loved one, or, at the very least, of something precious and unique. Some, believing that the festival (like the Titanic) was unsinkable, and would always break even, had been completely blindsided the situation. Others, conversely, stood by their conviction that the organizers had somehow ‘asked for it’ by assembling a weak line-up, and claimed their right to bail out if the programme was not attractive enough. All in all, it was not a particularly pretty sight.

Those outside the core group of stalwart festival-goers had rather different insights to provide. While the news made no one happy, most of the ‘outsiders’ contested the motivations that had led the organizers to their decision, and – almost unanimously – laid the blame on the lack of support on the part of the community. After a few days from the announcement, people’s façades of goodwill and equanimity began to slip. Instead of pulling together, the community showed that the cracks were deepening, and none more noticeably than the one between the two main ‘factions’ – those still steeped in nostalgia, and those who choose to look forward. It feels like, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, the twain shall never meet, at least not for some time.

One of the biggest implications of the whole débacle is that the prog scene has been left with a metaphorical black eye – even if now, some two weeks after the fact,  everything seems to be back to ‘business as usual’ in the extensive network of prog-related sites. With prog fans’ long-standing reputation for elitism and ‘living in the past’, this is not going to do them any favours with the rest of the underground music scene. In spite of the negative comments that had accompanied the announcement of their headliner status, the members of Umphrey’s McGee had been looking forward to performing for the NEARfest audience, and  the statement posted on their own website after the cancellation made their disappointment quite obvious.

Unfortunately, in their stubborn close-mindedness, many prog fans do not realize that even a relatively successful band like Umphrey’s McGee might be glad to be involved in something that might expose them to a new audience and pose them a challenge of sorts. Caught up in endless, hair-splitting debates about the nature of prog, and obsessed with putting a label on everything they hear, they seem to forget that in their beloved Seventies the music scene was much more open and accepting. It was normal at the time to see bands as diverse as ELP, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, The Eagles and Earth, Wind and Fire share a stage at California Jam without people having hissy fits –a trend that seems to have made a comeback in recent years, as proved by last year’s High Voltage festival in London. Many festival-goers also seem to have forgotten about the “Art Rock” present in the NEARfest acronym in their cries of woe over the booking of anything that does not fit their own narrow definition of progressive rock.

Indeed, the adventurous spirit of the late Sixties and early Seventies seems to have deserted a large slice of the prog community, in spite of the almost idealized portrait painted by last year’s documentary Romantic Warriors. To paraphrase Genesis, far too many fans seem to know what they like, and like what they know – and, in times of severe economic crisis, this has made them even more suspicious of leaving their individual comfort zones. Therefore, the need for ‘big names’ (a musical equivalent of designer labels) in order to draw the crowds, even when they do not necessarily mean better quality. The 2010 edition of NEARfest was headlined by Eddie Jobson and his Ultimate Zero Project (an impressive collection of gifted musicians), which, against all expectations, left a good part of the audience cold, when not positively frustrated. Indeed, the complaining about the band coming on stage late (with accusations of ‘star behaviour’ liberally thrown around), or just not delivering from a musical point of view, went on for days – just like any discussion brimming with negative comments about Yes’ latest incarnation or Phil Collins’ alleged destruction of Genesis usually does.

Yet, it seems the lesson has not been learned. At least here in the US, any ‘vintage’ band will always have the edge over modern bands, no matter how good the latter may be. The comments that I have often come across about bands or artists not being as good live as they are on CD are quite revealing of this suspicious (for lack of a better word) attitude towards anything new. Moreover, bands or artists who try to publicize their activity on discussion boards may end up being accused of ‘spamming’ – not to mention the deplorable attitude that seems to consider ‘international’ acts the only ones worth spending money on. Apparently, for quite a few prog fans, so-called ‘obscure’ bands are interesting only as additions to their already extensive CD or vinyl collections.

At the time of writing, only three of the major US prog festivals are still standing. ROSfest (which mainly appeals to a more ‘conservative’ audience) will be taking place on the third weekend of May, and has indeed has taken advantage of NEARfest’s cancellation by attracting at least some of its ‘orphans’ (including myself and my husband), especially those living in the Northeast. The ProgDay lineup seems to have already been finalized, though only two bands have been announced so far; while the future of CalProg is still uncertain. In the meantime, Europe, in spite of the economic crisis, is teeming with prog and other music festivals, most of them featuring up-and-coming bands.

As I observed in my opening paragraph, my original essay received a lot of feedback, both from artists and fans. Interestingly (though not surprisingly), the points of view of these two groups often differ quite sharply. While the fans displayed a range of feelings that went from censure to disappointment and even outright sadness, the musicians’ attitude as a whole expressed worry about the future of the scene, especially as regards opportunities for live performances. Having met many of those people in the past few years, and knowing about the constant struggles they face in order to get their music to be heard, I have no qualms in stating that I am completely on their side – even if I have never played a note in my whole life. Here are a few of the points that have emerged from the discussion of the past two weeks.

  • Promoters and independent label owners are growing disenchanted with the overall attitude of the fandom. Bringing international artists to the USA is neither cheap nor fast, and a snag in the visa process may cause a cancellation of a band or artist’s appearance (as it already did several times in the past). Moreover, those who work behind the scenes are quite likely to sustain financial losses in the event of a cancellation, as well as damage to their reputation of reliability – on top of the inevitable practical headaches. Promoters have already started wondering whether is worth going through all that hassle in order to bring bands to the US with the looming risk of seeing  an event evaporate if their prospective audience do not find their names appealing enough.
  • Home-grown acts are growing increasingly frustrated with being relegated to the status of stopgaps to fall back on when international names defect – ignoring the struggles they have to go through in order to find gigs outside the narrow borders of their home states or regions. Some of the comments about last year’s amazing ProgDay line-up being second-rate because of the lack of international bands were rather enlightening, as well as profoundly depressing. The US are currently home to a large number of exciting acts, ranging from the retro-oriented to those of a more avant-garde bent.  Quite a few of them have also produced genuinely challenging music, which does not deserve being dismissed so offhandedly. It is not like any of those bands are able to perform every weekend somewhere around the country. Such a blinkered attitude is not only deeply unfair towards those talented, hard-working musicians, but unmotivated as well. The oversaturation of the market that I so often mention in my reviews does not help either, as it causes a staggering number of bands or solo artists to compete for a handful of live spots.
  • A number of interesting suggestions have come from the ranks of the artists, who in some cases have had direct experience of organizing events. The almost unanimous advice was to stop catering solely to a niche audience, and consider the idea of multi-genre festivals, like the above-mentioned High Voltage, Reading Festival and other lower-profile events taking place in Europe and on the American continent. In spite of the jaded, world-weary attitude of many members of the community, who blithely foresee the death of live performances, people still enjoy live music quite a lot, and multi-genre events have the advantage of offering something to everyone. While most musicians would welcome the opportunity to perform at a festival covering a broader range of genres, they are also aware of the often unbending mindset of many fans. There is a clear disconnect between the two camps, with the fans standing their ground and claiming their right to support only the music they find worthwhile, and musicians feeling increasingly marginalized and taken for granted.
  • The disconnect between the organizers and their prospective audience also played a large role in the festival’s demise. Having been able to rely for years on end on a core of regular attendees, the organizers put too much faith in them, and were caught off guard when support dropped as sharply as it did this year. Practically no efforts were made to reach outside this restricted group, and the tools offered by the Internet were not deployed to their full effect. Not only did the organizers neglect to advertise the event on other progressive sites than their privileged channel (a US-based forum), but they declined to use the three public Facebook pages dedicated to the event, or even their own board. The latter has been down for over a year, and their dedicated mailing list is only accessible to those who register from the event’s website – not as visible as the social networking sites of which other events make widespread use. Since patron sales were the festival’s cornerstone, no efforts should have been spared to gain new supporters – possibly among forward-thinking people who would have jumped at the opportunity of seeing the bands on the bill, instead of turning up their noses because they were not famous or not ‘prog’ enough.
  • A number of NEARfest attendees (including myself and my husband) have often been left with the feeling of intruding on a private club meeting. Some have felt definitely rebuffed, and complained about a borderline hostile atmosphere – an impression that the core community has tried to refute in every way, even to the point of denying the evidence. In my humble opinion, when organizers rely so heavily on patrons’ donations in order to keep the festival going, they cannot afford to give part of the audience the impression of a high-school-style clique that keeps interlopers at bay. Last year’s incident with my review made me briefly consider not to attend in 2011, no matter how much I liked most other aspects of the festival. Other people had decided to stop attending altogether after one snub too many. Unfortunately, it seems that the members of the core group are either unaware of their attitude, or have decided not to care about other people’s opinions.
  • Some people from both camps have also suggested alternative methods of funding events, such as using funding platforms like Kickstarter or CrowdFund – as well as scaling back the size of the events, at least until the economy recovers. Indeed, as illustrated by the previous paragraphs, it is not wise to rely too much on the goodwill of patrons, especially when such reliance implies damaging the prospects of younger bands in order to craft a more attractive line-up. This might be a viable option to pursue in a country like the US, where public funding for the arts is not as widespread as in Europe and other Western countries.

To be perfectly honest, many of the reactions I have come across in the past two weeks do not bode well for the future of the US progressive rock scene. Thanks to the Internet, bands and artists would still be able to get their material across to interested listeners – but the opportunities for live performances would get even more scarce than they currently are, which would favour those bands who are chiefly studio-based projects. The frustration may eventually put an end to the existence of many bands, and the competition for the very few remaining live slots may well become unsustainable. Even worse, many of the more cutting-edge bands that in the past few years have been welcomed under the prog umbrella might decide to seek greener pastures, and disassociate themselves from the scene. That would leave prog as the preserve of those bands that, with their conservative, even ‘regressive’ approach,  are still capable of attracting crowds. The gap between ‘Prog’ and ‘progressive’ would inevitably widen, and become almost impossible to bridge – as a few enlightened people realize. Anyway, even if it is probably too soon to give in to pessimism, as long as the majority of the fans are unwilling to step out of their comfort zones, the future of the scene looks anything but bright.

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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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