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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Feigenbaum’

TRACKLISTING:
Disc One (CD)
1.  Beat Mm (3:16)
2.  Siska (2:02)
3.  Crazy Stuff (1:05)
4. Tyskromans (3:15)
5.  Nyfin (2:23)
6.  Mellan Stol Och Bord (2:30)
7.  Skrona (1:24)
8.  Tages (2:01)
9.  Kanske (1:08)
10.  Den Arga Kvinnan (1:08)
11.  Tivolimarsch (3:32)
12.  Forutbestämningen (Predestinator) (2:50)
13.  Vendelvarianter (2:34)
14.  Okjak (2:41)
15.  Ukuleles (2:33)
16.  Bam ba ra (0:33)
17.  Antilobo (1:31)
18.  Innanpop (2:49)
19.  Proggövergång (0:12)
20.  Talrika (original) (4:36)
21.  Radioyl (2:07)
22.  Aningar (1983) (2:45)
23.  Go to Africa (3:58)
24.  Vandelmässa (1:11)
25.  Franklåt (original) (3:01)
26.  In the R.I.O. (concept) (1:37)

Disc Two (DVD)
Live: Gouveia Art Rock Festival 2005
1. Viandra (3:52)
2. Simfågeldans (4:48)
3. Moro (1:45)
4. Dron (4:20)
5. Tama-Chan Snoa (3:40)
6. Höstvisa (4:09)
With Michel Berckmans (bassoon):
7. Portaletyde (3:41)
8. Nåt (4:13)
9. Utflykt Med Damcykel (6:04)
10. Inte Quanta (2:54)
With Miriodor:
11. Talrika (4:59)

Live: Houwiesse, Weite, Switzerland 2005 (with Fizzè [accordion])
  1. Portaletyde (4:03)
2. Franska Valsen (2:47)
3. Nåt (4:27)
4. Höstvisa (3:42)
5. Boeves Psalm (3:26)
6. Dron (4:31)
7. Inte Quanta (3:02)

LINEUP:
Lars Hollmer – accordion, keyboards, melodic, ukulele, mandolin, percussion, voices, and more

With:
Eino Haapala – guitar (14)

The release of With Floury Hand (English translation of the Swedish Med Mjölad Hand) in the summer of 2012 – three and a half years after Lars Hollmer’s untimely passing on Christmas Day, 2008 – came as a boon to all the devoted followers of the influential Swedish artist who had still not come to terms with his demise. The presence of a 72-minute DVD, capturing Hollmer on stage on two different occasions, both in 2005, makes the album an even more valuable document of the creativity of a musician who, in the almost forty years of his career, managed to carve a niche for himself even when playing music that never pandered to commercial trends.

The album’s quirky title, derived from a recipe that Hollmer’s daughter was reading aloud during a family dinner in 2007, highlights the artist’s keen sense of humour, always a prominent feature of his musical output. As pointed out by its bracketed subtitle, With Floury Hand is a collection of sketches – 26 short tracks (the longest clocking in at slightly over 4 minutes), belonging to different periods of Hollmer’s career, some of them still in a draft state, which showcase the artist’s zest for inventive, boundary-pushing music-making. As both the CD and the DVD poignantly illustrate, Hollmer’s creative spark was clearly far from being extinguished: indeed, unlike in the case of many of his contemporaries, his wide-ranging inspiration and brilliantly eclectic vein had not been dimmed by the passing years.

A year or so after his father’s passing, when the worst of the grief had run its course, Hollmer’s son Gabriel started to delve into the extensive archives that the artist himself had been exploring when, in May 2008, he was diagnosed with the advanced-stage lung cancer that took his life a few months later. The result of this not always comfortable, yet ultimately cathartic process was released three years later thanks to the intervention of Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records, who helped Gabriel give shape to the project. Some of the material that Hollmer had intended for the follow-up to 2007’s somber, subdued Viandra – an album that was to have a very different tone, reflecting the more upbeat, whimsical side of the artist’s creativity – has been included on With Floury Hand. As Gabriel explains in his thorough liner notes, the album as a whole blends finished and unfinished material, experimentation and tradition, melody and  endearing silliness – summing up Hollmer’s artistic personality in under an hour’s running time.

With Floury Hand is introduced by the bracing tune of “Beat Mm”, a jam built around a sequencer theme that Hollmer had conceived as a “car song”. Jaunty, folksy accordion showcases such as “Siska” or the infectious, circus-like “Tivolimarsch” alternate with more sedate, gently melancholy pieces reminiscent of another master of the instrument, Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla – such as the melancholy “Tages”, “Nyfin” or “Vendelvarianter”. The warm tone of the accordion is often complemented by neat percussion patterns, while the liberal use of electronics introduces modernity in a traditional context. Nods to Hollmer’s role as one of the founders of the RIO movement appear in the more left-field offerings, such as “Den Arga Kvinnan” (The Angry Woman”), with its clashing sounds, the eerie electronics of “Radioyl” , and the multilayered, synth-driven “Mellan Stol Och Bord”.

The few tracks that feature vocals reveal Hollmer’s playful side,  like the ‘fake German lied’ of “Tyskromans”, or the ‘stupid and funny’ “Kanske”. On the other hand, the very aptly-titled “Aningar” (Premonitions” exemplifies Hollmer’s darker vein, its menacing. cinematic pace hinting at Univers Zéro; while “Go to Africa”, as the title implies, is a vocal jam over a steady arpeggiator beat that pays homage to the African musical tradition. Finally, the exhilarating “Okjak” – a fine specimen of ‘happy’ RIO/Avant composition – sees Hollmer flanked by his former Von Zamla bandmate Eino Haapala on guitar.

The two performances featured on the  DVD, while quite different from each other, will delight Hollmer’s fans in equal measure. The first half shows Hollmer on stage at the Gouveia Art Rock Festival – first on his own, accompanied only by his faithful accordion and melodica, then by his friend and longtime collaborator Michel Berckmans (of Univers Zéro fame) on bassoon, and finally with Miriodor, for a stunning rendition of “Talrika” (featured on the French Canadian band’s 2005 album Parade, and whose original version appears on the CD). In the second half of the DVD, the artist is captured in the small, intimate setting of Swiss club Heuwiesse, performing as a duo with Swiss accordionist Fizzè.

With its colourful cover artwork (by Hollmer’s daughter Rinda) and heartfelt liner notes, With Floury Hand is a touching homage to a gifted artist who never compromised his integrity, and who would have continued to produce great music if fate had not decreed otherwise. The album is obviously recommended to fans of the original RIO/Avant movement, as well as European folk; however, it can be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in quality rather  than labels or tags.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/artist/lars-hollmer-mn0000783767

http://www.myspace.com/larshollmer

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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A documentary film by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Total time: 98 minutes

In the summer of 2010, the release of Romantic Warriors – A Progressive Music Saga took the music scene by surprise, putting a semi-official seal on the much-touted renaissance of progressive rock in the early 21st century. Retracing the origins of the genre while detailing its development in more recent times, the documentary’s no-frills style and unabashed sincerity captured the attention of viewers beyond the usual circles of prog stalwarts. However, Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder did not rest long on their laurels, and, a mere few months after the film’s release, they were already busy working on a follow-up – this time dedicated to the Rock in Opposition movement, a subset of progressive rock with unique characteristics and a devoted following.

In spite of the common misconception that attaches a political meaning to the “opposition” part of the name, the RIO movement was one of the first attempts by a group of bands to break free of the shackles imposed by major record labels and distribution companies and take matters into their own hands. In a way, the five bands that initiated the short-lived, though hugely influential movement (Henry Cow, Univers Zéro, Etron Fou Leloublan, Stormy Six and Samla Mammas Manna, hailing from five different European countries) were forerunners of the current endeavours of non-mainstream bands and artists.

For two solid years, Adele and José worked unceasingly at the second installment of a planned series of documentary films on the progressive rock scene, travelling from their home in the Washington DC metro area to Europe and other parts of the US to meet the protagonists of the original RIO movement and those who have followed in their footsteps. Romantic Warriors II relies on interviews and concert footage (both archival and recent) for the bulk of the narration, though with the addition of elements that had not been fully exploited the first time around. Roland Millman’s judiciously used voice-over lends narrative cohesion to a storyline that might have otherwise come across as somewhat rambling. While in the first Romantic Warriors both authors remained constantly behind the camera, this time the viewer can catch glimpses of José in a few scenes – either behind the wheel, or interacting with the artists. Most of the interviews were conducted on location, though the filmmakers also made use of modern technology by using Skype to conduct video interviews with some of the movement’s main actors.

Romantic Warriors II retraces the history of Rock in Opposition, from its inception in 1978 – when the original progressive rock movement was already on the wane – to its demise and long-lasting legacy. The original protagonists of the scene and their heirs take turns in the spotlight, offering not just a historical perspective, but also a lesson on how the artists can take control by implementing various forms of collaboration. As was also the case with the first Romantic Warriors, the film is as much about the social and historical aspect of the movement and its ramifications as about the music itself – making it more approachable for outsiders. A very interesting mention of the cross-fertilization between the post-RIO bands and the post-punk scene in the early Eighties drives another nail in the coffin of the commonly held myth of the irreconcilable enmity between punk and progressive rock.

For all the undeniable similarities to the first film, both in concept and format, Romantic Warriors II represents a quantum leap in terms of quality. The slightly gritty, warts-and-all approach of the original has been replaced by a more polished brand of realism that, while retaining its objectivity, also leaves room for artistry. The location shots, while often stunning, avoid the pitfalls of a tourist-brochure effect – whether it is a starkly beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains – a very apt visual complement to Thinking Plague’s music – or bustling views of London or Paris (including a breathtaking shot of the Tour Eiffel at night). Those “travelogue” scenes lend a coherent “road-movie” feel to the whole, and also emphasize the quintessentially cosmopolitan nature of the RIO movement. The use of concert-related ephemera (posters, tickets and newspaper clippings) and vintage photos brings the story to life and anchors it to reality. On the other hand, the striking fantasy sequence in which a cloaked and masked figure moves through the medieval alleys of Prague’s Old Town as a visual embodiment of Univers Zéro’s iconic “Jack the Ripper” adds a touch of weirdness and drama to the basically matter-of-fact fabric of the narration.

Not surprisingly, the film features a very broad cast of characters, ranging from the main actors of the original RIO movement to those who have been carrying the torch up to the present day – fans included. Those who are familiar with the first Romantic Warriors will recognize some familiar faces, such as Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records and Paul Sears of The Muffins. Of the many musicians that appear in the film, Henry Cow’s drummer Chris Cutler (who will be present at the Washington DC premiere of the film, on September 28, 2012) is the one who gets the longest time in the spotlight, his testimony providing almost a running commentary to the development of the story – augmented by each of the other contributions until all the pieces of the mosaic fall into place. Thinking Plague’s Mike Johnson’s musings about the sorry state of Planet Earth (with the endless vistas of the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop) add new layers of meaning to the “opposition” part of the movement’s name, anchoring its present developments to some of the most urgent concerns of contemporary society. The last word, however, is left for Magma’s charismatic Christian Vander – an artist who, while never part of the RIO movement, almost embodies the definition of “groundbreaking”. His final quote, reminding the viewer that “something is always possible, even in the worst circumstances”, conveys a strongly inspirational message to anyone who believes in what they do.

Festival and concerts play as large a role as in the original Romantic Warriors. The historic joint performance of Belgian outfits Univers Zéro, Présent and Aranis at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival sets the scene, right before the opening credits; the once-in-a-lifetime event, named “Once Upon a Time in Belgium”, also gets ample coverage towards the end of the documentary. The film includes footage from the equally historic performances of Magma and Univers Zéro at the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival, as well as scenes from 2011’s CuneiFest at the Orion Studios. The “new guard” of the Avant-Progressive scene is represented by an international cast of bands from both Europe and America.

While the first Romantic Warriors may have been chiefly conceived for the benefit of the prog audience, the second episode of Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s progressive rock saga holds a much wider appeal. The music’s very combination of the arty, the quirky and the academically austere will attract people who appreciate forms of non-mainstream music that do not necessarily fall under the “progressive rock” umbrella – including modern classical. The amount of care and attention that have gone into the making of this documentary is also reflected in the DVD’s stylish, scrapbook-like cover photo. Regardless of the intrinsically niche nature of the music, Romantic Warriors II is an outstanding piece of filmmaking in its own right, with the potential to kindle the interest of any lover of the tenth Muse.

Links:
http://www.progdocs.com

http://www.zeitgeistmedia.tv

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TRACKLISTING:
CD 1 – Studio:
The Pocket Orchestra Tape 1983:
1. Imam Bialdi (6:24)
2. R. V. (7:04)
3. Regiments (14:59)
4. Letters (13:53)
The Knēbnagäujie Tape 1978-1979:
5. Blueing (7:10)
6. White Organ Meats (7:03)
7. Grandma Coming Down The Hall With A Hatchet (5:32)
8. Bagon (16:52)

CD 2 – Live:
1. Annex (5:56)
2. Bagon/Wandering Aimlessly (14:48)
3. Blirt (4:05)
4. Blueing (12:01)
5. Letters (19:12)
6. Parade (5:23)
7. Regiments (Parts 1, 2 and 3) (11:32)
8. Corn Fed (5:37)
9. Sound Check Bonus (0:43)

LINEUP:
Craig Bork – keyboards
Joe Halaijan (aka Joe Who)- clarinets, saxes, incidental vocals
Bill Johnston – cello
Tim Lyons – bass
Tim Parr – guitars
Bob Stearman – drums

With:
Craig Fry – flute (CD 1, 7)
Warren Ashford – tablas (CD 1, 7)
Jack Chandler – saxes (CD 2,  5-6)

If a contest was held for the unluckiest band on the progressive rock scene, Pocket Orchestra would have quite a few chances of winning first prize. In fact, only three members are left of the original six-piece lineup that recorded two demos between 1979 and 1984. What looked like a promising career for one the trailblazers of the RIO/Avant movement in the United States was cut short first by saxophonist Joe Halajian’s family problems (which led to the band going into hiatus), then by guitarist and main composer Tim Parr’s untimely demise in 1988. Thanks to the unstinting effort of Scott Brazieal, leader of Cartoon and a personal friend of the band, the material they had recorded in those short but intense five years finally saw the light in 2005, with the release of the CD Knēbnagäujie (the original name of the band). In the meantime, bassist Tim Lyons had passed away in 1998,  while drummer Bob Stearman (who had had a stroke in 2004) followed suit in 2010.

In spite of those unfortunate circumstances, Pocket Orchestra’s reputation remained very high in RIO/Avant circles, lending them a near-legendary aura in a context that often thrives on cult status. In 2011, Marcello Marinone and Francesco Zago of Italian label AltrOck Productions , assisted by such luminaries as Cuneiform Records’ Steve Feigenbaum and renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran, brought to light some of Pocket Orchestra’s unreleased recordings – including almost 80 minutes of live material – which eventually became the double CD set Phoenix, released in the second half of the year.

The album’s title, reinforced by Paolo “Ske” Botta’s striking cover artwork,  refers to the band’s hometown in Arizona, as well as to the almost miraculous reemergence of recordings that had seemed fated to remain buried in oblivion. Since Knēbnagäujie was sold out, the release of Phoenix was greeted enthusiastically by dedicated RIO/Avant followers, especially those interested in the US scene. While such archival operations rarely claim to present material in truly organic and cohesive form, Koomran’s state-of-the-art mastering has given new life to those 30-year-old live tapes, as well as to the contents of the original Knēbnagäujie  CD. Brazieal’s detailed liner notes, complemented by vintage photos of the band on stage and other memorabilia, complete this lovingly assembled tribute to the “Phoenix reborn”.

As can be expected from their checkered history, while undeniably gifted and dedicated to their craft, Pocket Orchestra had not yet fully developed their potential when circumstances forced them to call it a day. Their compositions suffer from occasional bouts of patchiness, added to some of those features that generally make the whole RIO/Avant subgenre so daunting (often unnecessarily so) to newcomers. Indeed, both the eight tracks on the studio CD and the nine on the live CD are nothing but ambitious and unpredictable, packed with twists and turns of every description.

While the founding fathers of the RIO movement such as Henry Cow and Univers Zero are inevitably referenced, the main influence that can be detected on Phoenix is that of Samla Mannas Manna,  another band belonging to the original RIO contingent – something that earned Pocket Orchestra the tag of “Samla of the desert”. However, Pocket Orchestra’s music is completely instrumental, and also decidedly less melodic, though imbued by a similar brand of playful light-heartedness, embodied by the use of circus music in “Grandma Coming Down the Hall With a Hatchet” .  Sudden blasts of saxophone and clarinet and wailing, piercing guitar excursions seem to be the rule, with Bob Stearman engaging in a mind-boggling range of intricate rhythmic patterns to propel the sound forward.

The word “anarchic” is probably the best description of Pocket Orchestra’s approach. The average composition can suddenly shift from a laid-back, almost meditative pace to unrelieved chaos – as exemplified by “R.V”, whose first half is deceptively mellow, then erupts into an intense, free-form maelstrom of sound. The sedate, piano-driven passages in the 14-minute, Canterbury-influenced “Letters” are bound to bring to mind the easy elegance of Hatfield and the North or National Health, offset by Parr’s aggressive guitar solo at the end. On the other hand, album closer “Bagon” marries the lovely, melodic Canterbury feel with more typical RIO features such as blaring sax and strident guitar.  As a whole, the first four tracks –dating back from 1983, immediately before Pocket Orchestra went on hiatus – come across as more accomplished, showing a band well on its way to reining in the in-your-face dissonance and chaos that instead emerge in the studio CD’s second half.

The second CD offers an invaluable testimony of the band’s brisk live activity in the years 1980-1984, and includes a number of previously unreleased tracks, as well as noteworthy versions of “Letters” and “Regiments”. Udi Koomran’s experience in the studio managed to bring out the best in recordings whose original quality was less than ideal, presenting a band that was definitely at home on stage. While some of the longer tracks may still reveal a bit of self-indulgence, the shorter ones, such as “Parade” or “Corn Fed”,  show how Pocket Orchestra were gradually but clearly finding their own unique voice and direction, and at the same time tightening up on the compositional aspect.

Though somewhat clichéd, the definition of “rollercoaster ride” seems to be a perfect fit for an album like Phoenix, which probably should come with a warning sticker. While its blend of dignified chamber rock, wild, wacky all-out experimentation and the occasional foray into sophisticated, Canterbury-style jazz-rock will not fail to appeal to fans of everything RIO/Avant, even a cursory listen to opener “Imam Bialdi” will send the average “mainstream” prog fan running for the exits. While bands like Miriodor or Yugen might have a broader crossover appeal and win over staunch devotees of symphonic prog, Pocket Orchestra, as captured on this double set, were definitely raw and uncompromising. All in all, though not exactly a comfortable listen, Phoenix is a moving tribute to a band that might have grown into a force to be reckoned with, had not fate got in the way.

Links:
http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=ita_&id=171&id2=172

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/pocket-orchestra-p876979/biography

 
 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:
http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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

http://www.myspace.com/upsilonacrux

http://www.myspace.com/afuche

http://zevious.com/

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

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

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