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Posts Tagged ‘ROSfest’

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While searching for a suitable title for my customary “year in review” essay, I thought of something that would convey the general mood of my 2014 while emphasizing the role that music had in helping me out of a bout of potentially severe depression. This is how I came out with this title (shared by a song from Rainbow’s iconic Rising album) and the image that goes with it. The first six months of the year were spent in a sort of daze, in which I tried to keep up with listening and reviewing new music, but was increasingly consumed by a job assignment that ultimately got me burned out. Over the summer months I gradually withdrew from social life, and lost most of my interest in music – to the point that, when ProgDay was approaching, I almost decided to bail out and stay home. The low number of posts on my blog bears witness to this sorry state of affairs – which was thankfully brought to an end by a very enjoyable ProgDay experience. Music, as usual, did help me out of a black hole, and so did the friendships I have made over the years thanks to this lifelong passion of mine.

After such an introduction, it will not come as a surprise that many of this year’s highly regarded albums escaped my attention, and even those I did manage to hear did not impress as much as they would have in a different situation. This 2014 overview may therefore contain some glaring omissions, for which I apologize. Keeping track of the staggering number of new releases in the progressive realm is difficult under normal circumstances, and even harder when real life gets in the way.

Although my full-length reviews have become a much rarer item, since February 2014 I have been regularly providing recommendations for an excellent new feature (the brainchild of DPRP longtime collaborator and editor Andy Read) by the name of Something for the Weekend?. Dedicated exclusively to progressive music available for free streaming on invaluable resources such as Progstreaming or Bandcamp, this weekly feature has allowed me to promote the work of many outstanding artists – as well as exploring a lot of exciting new music that might have otherwise flown under the radar. Going back to ProgArchives, the thriving website where I started my career as a reviewer back in 2005 (and also met my husband), after a four-year absence has also been very beneficial in terms of discovering new music and cultivating fulfilling relationships.

The past year saw my personal tastes shift even further away from traditional prog, and wholeheartedly embrace the new incarnations of the genre. While this does not mean I have stopped enjoying classic prog, I recognize that, in the second decade of the 21st century, the genre needs to look forward rather than backward if it is to survive. Speaking of which, having resolutely moved underground is probably the best thing to happen to progressive rock in the past few years. In spite of the many difficulties they face, many progressive artists now produce music to please themselves first and foremost. Without having to obey the constraints of the “market”, artistic creativity can be given free rein, so that we can expect the next few years to be generous with high-quality releases.

My personal “best of 2014” spans different subgenres of prog, with a pronounced emphasis on the eclectic and experimental side of things. Though often labeled as RIO/Avant, my album of the year – Ut Gret’s marvelous Ancestor’s Tale – is the best Canterbury album to be released in a long while (though the band hail from Louisville, Kentucky), and introduced the prog audience to the stunning vocal talents of songstress Cheyenne Mize. Incidentally, another two of my favourite 2014 albums came from bands that have occasionally been associated with the Canterbury sound – though. Like Ut Gret, neither hails from that part of the world. Moraine’s  Groundswell, is their most mature work to date, showcasing the Seattle quintet’s unique brand of ethnic-tinged, contemporary jazz-rock. On the other hand Italian quartet Accordo dei Contrari’s comeback album, AdC , saw them explore heavier territories, though retaining the exquisite sense of melody that distinguishes Giovanni Parmeggiani’s compositional style.

As a whole, 2014 was an uncommonly good year for eclectic releases that avoided the “old wine in new bottles” syndrome. Knifeworld’s sophomore release, The Unraveling, spearheaded this highly individual approach to the creation of progressive rock. Also appearing on Gong’s latest effort, I See You, Knifeworld mainman Kavus Torabi seems poised to replace Steven Wilson as the busiest man in prog, though with a much more genuinely innovative attitude. Torabi’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Emmett Elvin’s Bloody Marvels was true to its title, delivering a series of deeply cinematic, atmospheric pieces mostly performed on acoustic instruments, released on independent British label Bad Elephant Music – which in 2014 distinguished itself as one of the foremost purveyors of interesting progressive fare. Together with Elvin’s album, guitarist Matt Stevens’ Lucid and Trojan Horse’s “pronk” assault World Upside Down proved that the British isles have got more to offer than endless variations on the neo-prog gospel. As for Sound Mirror, the highly touted second album by “new Canterburians” Syd Arthur (their first for the revamped Harvest label), I only managed to get hold of it when I had already started writing this piece: my initial impression is positive, though the album is definitely in a more mainstream vein.

One of the biggest surprises of the year, mentioned as a favourite by many prog fans, came from Norwegian outfit Seven Impale: their furiously sax-driven, full-length debut, City of the Sun, combines echoes of King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator with an endearingly zany sense of humour. Fellow Norwegians Major Parkinson’s “cabaret rock” opus Twilight Cinema also drew a lot of rave reviews, as did Swedes Pingvinorkestern’s heady melting pot Push. Spain’s ebullient Cheeto’s Magazine offered more Zappaesque, genre-bending goodness with their debut, Boiling Fowls, while French outfit PoiL’s Brossaklitt went beyond Magma and their offspring, with lyrics in an invented language set to an explosive mixture of punk, jazz and RIO/Avant. From the eastern reaches of Europe, Russian quartet Uphill Work’s third album, Missing Opportunities, struck a fine balance between the traditional song form and eccentric avant-garde.

The sprawling US scene achieved its fair share of cliché-busting releases, such as Atomic Ape’s frenetic debut, Swarm (introducing a revamped lineup of Orange Tulip Conspiracy), or Jack O’The Clock’s mysterious Night Loops, a rather different album from last year’s folksy All My Friends. Bent Knee’s Shiny-Eyed Babies reinterprets art rock in thoroughly modern fashion -occasionally reminiscent of their fellow Bostonians Schooltree, though in a darker, more experimental vein. The Pacific Northwest scene produced the melancholy folk-prog of The Autumn Electric’s Flowers for Ambrosia (featuring Phideaux’s keyboardist Johnny Unicorn) as well as the furious “pronk” of Alex’s Hand’s The Roaches and Badwater Fire Company’s eponymous debut, the elegant eclecticism of The Mercury Tree’s Countenance, and the experimental jazz-rock of Fang Chia’s Where Would You That We Gather?. From New York City came the dirty funk of Tauk’s Collisions and the Zappa-inflected jazz-rock of Trout Cake’s EP Ultrasounds (recommended to fans of Frogg Café). Somewhat more appealing to prog traditionalists, Resistor’s To the Stars blends a lot of diverse influences (think Kansas, Iron Maiden and Jethro Tull jamming together with a very 21st-century attitude) for one of the year’s most intriguing “crossover” offerings, while Dream the Electric Sleep’s powerful second album Heretics treads in grunge/alternative territory. Minneapolis quartet  Galactic Cowboy Orchestra also released a new album, Zombie Mouth, and at the end of August wowed the ProgDay crowd with their sparkling brand of “jazzgrass art-rock”.

Instrumental progressive rock in its many forms continues to be a source of interest and delight. After 2013’s psychedelic opus, The Trip, Djam Karet celebrated their 30th anniversary with the über-laid-back Regenerator 3017, while their label Firepool Records brought to the prog audience’s attention the riveting self-titled debut by Spoke of Shadows, the latest project by Warr guitar wizard Mark Cook (of Herd of Instinct fame) in collaboration with renowned session drummer Bill Bachman. One of the year’s undisputed highlights, however, came once again from the cold climes of Sweden, with Necromonkey’s mesmerizing second album, A Glimpse of Possible Endings – complemented later in the year by a career-defining appearance at ProgDay.

Alongside Moraine’s pristine album, the ever-reliable Moonjune Records provided at least another entry to my personal “best of 2014” list: Belgian songstress Susan Clynes’s delightful debut, Life Is… – a must-listen for fans of Kate Bush and Tori Amos, but also for lovers of contemporary jazz. Keeping up his efforts at promoting the Indonesian progressive jazz-rock scene, Leonardo Pavkovic also brought us the latest opuses from established guitar heroes Tohpati (Tribal Dance) and Dewa Budjana (Surya Namaskar), as well as rising star Tesla Manaf’s self-titled debut, and simakDialog’s Live at Orion (capturing a gig that I was lucky to attend). Another live album, The Third Set, came from Chicago whizz kids Marbin, one of the busiest bands on the planet; while the European scene gave us drummer Xavi Reija’s thunderous Resolution and the majestic modern jazz-rock tour de force of Machine Mass Trio’s Inti.

Milan-based label AltrOck Productions kept its unflagging tradition of delivering high-class material to sophisticated prog listeners looking for distinctive musical experiences: besides the already-mentioned Ut Gret, Accordo dei Contrari and PoiL, the re-release of Geranium by Russian folksy RIO/Avant outfit Vezhlivyi Otkaz, the jazz-rock-meets-space-rock craziness of Wrupk Urei’s Kõik Saab Korda, the almost impenetrable, yet fascinating Avant of Factor Burzaco’s 3, enhanced by Carolina Restuccia’s vertiginous vocals.

Indeed, 2014 was a great year for bands fronted by female vocalists. One of the most anticipated releases of the year was undoubtedly MoeTar’s scintillating Entropy of the Century, a quintessential modern art rock effort showcasing Moorea Dickason’s jaw-dropping vocal skills. Kate Bush fans certainly found a lot to love in Russian duo iamthemorning’s delicate, haunting Belighted. In a similar vein, the debut of Swedish band Nomads of Hope (including two former members of late Seventies band Kultivator), Breaking the Circles for a While, marries folk and medieval music with haunting trip-hop suggestions, while Finnish outfit Aalto’s Ikaro introduces elements of Tuvan throat singing and North Indian raga. Many accolades were also received by Homínido‘s debut Estirpe Litica, another highly eclectic effort featuring some former members of Chilean band La Desoorden.

Plenty of interesting new releases came both from newcomers and seasoned protagonists of the thriving Italian scene: among the many worth mentioning, Fabio Zuffanti’s somberly ambitious La quarta vittima, Alex Carpani Band’s modern symphonic 4 Destinies, FEM’s lush concept Sulla bolla di sapone, Nodo Gordiano’s intricate Nous, Agora’s lovely slice of acoustic jazz-rock Ichinen, Greenwall’s melodic yet whimsical Zappa Zippa Zuppa Zeppa, the space-tinged classic RPI of LogosL’enigma della vita, Tacita Intesa’s dramatic, self-titled debut. On the other hand, Lagartija’s Amore di vinile and Marco Machera’s Dime Novels explored the successful union of prog and singer-songwriter music, while Periplo’s debut, Diario di un malessere passeggero, offered an intriguing slice of stylish chamber rock. Sadly, the Italian prog scene suffered an irreparable loss in February, when legendary Banco vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo was killed in a car crash.

Even if I have grown away from classic symphonic prog, a few 2014 releases brought a breath of fresh air in a subgenre that can often sound stale. Kant Freud Kafka’s No Tengas Miedo brought to mind The Enid’s unique brand of majestic, classical-inspired prog, while Deluge Grander’s powerfully choral Heliotians – printed in only 205 hand-numbered, hand-painted LP copies –distilled the very essence of the modern DIY ethos. Those disappointed with Yes’ recent lackluster recording efforts found a lot of enjoyment in Heliopolis’ bright, feel-good debut, City of the Sun. Australia’s The Merlin Bird’s offered lovely female vocals and pastoral textures in their second album, Chapter and Verse, while Eccentric Orbit went for an all-out, ELP-style keyboard assault in Creation of the Humanoids.

2014 also brought some interesting solo projects, with the brilliant heavy fusion of Dean Watson’s Fantasizer!, the eclectic jazz-rock concept of Superfluous Motor’s Shipwrecked, the hauntingly intimist album by  Bodies Floating Ashore (aka Matt Lebofsky of miRthkon/MoeTar/Secret Chiefs 3 fame), and Simon McKechnie’s brainy, Crimsonian tour de force, Newton’s Alchemy.

Unfortunately, some of this year’s notable releases still remain unheard to this day: for instance, Univers Zéro’s Phosphorescent Dreams (released by an obscure Japanese label, and therefore very hard to find), Gong’s I See You, Secret Chiefs 3’s Ishraqiyun: Perichoresis, KaukasusI, and all of Cuneiform Records’ 2014 output. Other high-profile albums have been discussed in detail by most prog websites, but will not be mentioned here for a number of reasons. I have also refrained from mentioning albums I did not particularly enjoy, because I find negativity ultimately pointless, and also because quite a few fellow music writers have already published comprehensive “year in review” pieces covering many of the albums that have not found a place here.

No “year in review” piece would be complete without a mention of live performances. Even if my personal concert-going activity was very limited in comparison to previous years, 2014 was quite generous in terms of festivals and shows, with the continuing success of ROSfest, the return of Baja Prog (unfortunately suspended for 2015), the second editions of SeaProg and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (both confirmed for 2015), ProgDay’s 20th edition, and the Orion Studios‘ marvelous 20th anniversary celebration – as well as the welcome addition of A Day of Prog Art Rock Showcase, organized by the New England Art Rock Society(NewEARS) in the Boston metropolitan area, and Chicago’s two-day Progtoberfest.

My commitment to Something for the Weekend? provided the incentive to explore and actively look for new music to recommend to the feature’s steadily increasing number of readers (50,000 were reached a couple of weeks before the end of the year). What I jokingly call my “collection” of interesting new music bookmarks is also steadily growing. Bandcamp, in particular, is like an underground treasure trove that more and more artists are using to give exposure to their music, embracing a model that rules out any kind of financial gain, but thrives on positive feedback and direct communication with fans. Actively seeking out challenging new music, and making a point of listening to at least one album a day (preferably early in the morning, before I start getting ready to go to work) has become a pleasant routine that has helped me to keep in touch with the scene.

Since many of the albums mentioned in this essay are available for streaming, I hope this lengthy feature will encourage at least some of my readers to click on the hyperlinks and listen to those artists, and perhaps invest a few dollars (or any other currency) to buy a CD or two. As much as I enjoy the classics, I firmly believe that the future of progressive music lies with these people, whose dedication to music often means struggling with less than favourable circumstances, including the lack of support on the part of their intended audience. This essay is dedicated to them, with my most heartfelt thanks for the gift of music and its positive effect on my life.

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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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