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Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

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First off, I feel the need to apologize to my readers for the string of rather depressing titles given to my “Year in Review” posts. No matter how optimistic I try to be at the beginning of a new year, life always finds a way to disappoint my expectations. 2015, though, was special – for all the wrong reasons. Even now that things are going somewhat better (though far from ideal), I still occasionally feel the urge to withdraw from everyone – hence the not exactly uplifting title of this piece.

This sorry state of affairs obviously impacted my inspiration as regards writing reviews and the like. My blog was neglected for most of the year, with only 9 posts in 12 months, and the few label owners who regularly sent me their material took me off their mailing lists – which contributed to my feelings of isolation, even if I cannot blame them for that. Music remained nevertheless a constant source of comfort, thanks to the ready availability of new (and not so new) material on streaming services such as Progstreaming and Bandcamp. This allowed me to listen to most of the albums I was interested in, and keep in touch with a scene that I have been steadily supporting for the past few years. Some days I had to force myself to listen, but thankfully things got easier with time.

Although full-length reviews were thin on the ground, I kept up my collaboration with Andy Read’s excellent weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, as well as my activity as a member of the RIO/Avant/Zeuhl genre team (also known as ZART) at my “alma mater”, ProgArchives. In the second half of the year i was able to resume writing longer reviews, not only for my blog, but also for DPRP – though not yet on a regular basis. On the other hand, our concert attendance hit an all-time low. To be fair, ProgDay 2015’s extremely high level of quality more than made up for the many other gigs that we ended up missing. The only other show we attended was The Muffins’ one-off performance at the Orion Studios in mid-May, which unfortunately I was unable to enjoy as much as it would have deserved.

As usual, the amount of new music released in 2015 under the ever-expanding “prog” umbrella was staggering, and required a rather selective approach. The year just ended further proved that the scene is splintering in a way that, while it may help people more effectively to find music that appeals to their tastes, may also in the long run cause harm – especially as regards the live scene. Festivals in the US have further shrunk in number, with the cancellation (and apparent demise) of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend leaving only ROSfest and ProgDay still standing. Europe seems to be faring somewhat better (though one has to wonder how long this will last), and festivals appealing to a broad range of tastes within the prog spectrum continue to be reasonably well-attended.

On a positive note, websites dedicated to prog are going strong, as is the rather controversial Prog magazine (whose fan I am definitely not). It remains to be seen if what has always been a niche market (even in the Seventies, when bands that enjoyed commercial success were just the tip of a very large iceberg) will be able to keep up with such a vast output in the following years. In some ways, as I also observed in last year’s post, going underground has freed progressive rock from the constraints of appealing to market tastes, but (in my view at least) the opportunity for almost everyone to produce an album and put it on Bandcamp or Soundcloud poses a lot of questions as regards quality control.

Some of my readers will undoubtedly notice the absence of some of the year’s higher-profile releases. As I did last year, I decided to avoid mentioning albums I had found disappointing or just plain uninteresting, as well as those I have not yet managed to hear. A lot of other people have mentioned those albums in their own Year in Review pieces, and I think there is no use in pointing out the negative instead of concentrating on the positive. Compared with some of the previous years, 2015 started out in rather low-key fashion, with many highly anticipated releases concentrated in its second half. On the other hand, the first part of the year brought albums that are very well worth checking out, though they may never enjoy the status of other discs. It was also a year that, while prodigal with very good releases, mostly lacked genuine masterpieces. On the whole, I feel I have just scratched the surface, as perusing the myriad of Best of 2015 lists published on the web constantly reveals some album I have not heard of before.

As I mentioned in last year’s post, my tastes have been steadily moving away from “standard” prog, though a few albums that qualify as such have been included here. In fact, my personal #1 album of the year was released by a band that first got together in the late Seventies, and is probably closer to “conventional” prog than people would expect from me. However, Hands’ masterful Caviar Bobsled is a unique album that does not really sound like anything else, definitely fresher and more modern than a lot of highly praised albums by artists who have been active for a much shorter time.

Having promoted US prog for a while now, I am glad to report that the American scene produced some fine specimens over the past few months – with the NY/NJ region being again very much in evidence. Brilliant releases from The Tea Club (Grappling), 3RDegree (Ones & Zeros Vol. 1) and Advent (Silent Sentinel) highlighted the work of bands that have reached full maturity in terms of musicianship and compositional flair. To this outstanding trio I would also add Echolyn’s I Heard You Listening (more of a slow grower than their career-defining 2012 album) IZZ’s stylish Everlasting Instant, as well as a couple of well-crafted albums with a more traditional bent, both recommended to keyboard lovers – Kinetic Element’s sophomore effort, Travelog, and Theo’s debut, the dystopian concept The Game of Ouroboros.

All of the above-mentioned albums offer plenty of sophisticated music with great melodic potential, standing at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. The contemporary US scene, however, is also rife with cutting-edge artists that constantly challenge the perceptions of their intended audience. Works such as Upsilon Acrux’s highly charged Sun Square Dialect, the hypnotic math-rock of BattlesLa Di Da Di, Stern’s gloomily haunting Bone Turquoise, The Nerve Institute’s idiosyncratic Fictions (containing previously unreleased material), Ben Levin Group’s “pronk” opus Freak Machine (featuring most members of Bent Knee), Jack O’The Clock’s Outsider Songs (a collection of quirky covers), and Andrew Moore Chamber Works’ intriguing debut Indianapolis (steel drums meet chamber rock) proved the vitality of the US avant-garde scene. Thinking Plague (whose new album is expected in 2016), reissued their seminal debut, In This Life, while two albums involving previous or current members of the band – Ligeia Mare’s Amplifier and +1’s Future Perfect (the latter one of the many projects of keyboardist/composer Kimara Sajn) – helped to make the wait more bearable. Another fine Avant-related album (though in a more song-based vein), Omicron, came from former Alec K Redfearn and the Eyesore’s vocalist, Orion Rigel Dommisse.

New, highly eclectic releases by “jazzgrass proggers” Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (Earth Lift) and Yes-meets-country trio Dreadnaught (the EP Gettin’ Tight With Dreadnaught), Marbin’s fiery Aggressive Hippies, Djam Karet’s supremely trippy Swamp of Dreams, Fernwood’s delightful acoustic confection Arcadia, Mammatus’s monumental stoner-prog opus Sparkling Waters, and ethereal chamber-folk duo Fields Burning’s eponymous debut also illustrated the versatility  of a scene that is all too often associated with heavily AOR-tinged music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British scene has been experiencing a renaissance in terms of creative modern progressive rock. Top of the heap, and definitely one of the best 2015 releases as far as I am concerned, were two Cardiacs-related albums: William D. Drake’s superb Revere Reach, one of those rare discs that are impossible to label, as well as being a delight from start to finish, and Guapo’s hypnotic, surging Obscure Knowledge. Thieves’ Kitchen’s stately, poignant The Clockwork Universe, with its original take on “classic” prog modes, completed my personal trinity of top 2015 British releases.

The runners-up, however, are all quite deserving of attention from discerning prog fans. Richard Wileman’s über-eclectic Karda Estra regaled its followers with a whopping three releases – the full-length Strange Relations (recorded with the involvement of The Muffins’ drummer extraordinaire Paul Sears), and the EPs The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds (the latter also featuring Sears). Guitarist Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead made a comeback with the intense EP Magnet, and A Formal Horse’s second EP, Morning Jigsaw, provided a British answer to Bent Knee and MoeTar. John Bassett (of Kingbathmat fame) produced an exciting follow-up (simply titled II) to the 2014 debut of his instrumental, stoner-prog solo project, Arcade Messiah; in a similar vein, the cinematic psych/space of Teeth of the Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. To further prove that the modern British prog is definitely not steeped in nostalgia, Colin Robinson’s Jumble Hole Clough brought us more of his quirky, electronics-infused antics with A List of Things That Never Happened, and Firefly Burning a heady dose of drone-folk with their latest effort, Skeleton Hill.

Plenty of great music also came out of continental Europe. From Scandinavia, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums – Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts Are Gone – delivered amply in the quality stakes, as did the scintillating electro-jazz of Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire, Pixel’s warmer, more organic Golden Years, the rambling, keyboard-based jazz-rock of Hooffoot’s debut, Agusa’s space-rock workout Två, the quirky Avant-Prog of Simon Steensland’s A Farewell to Brains, Necromonkey’s all-electronic extravaganza Show Me Where It Hertz, and another long-overdue comeback – Dungen’s sunny Allas Sak – as well as guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s highly original effort Variety of Live, recorded with an international cast including Pat Mastelotto and Richard Barbieri. Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske, also appeared on elephant9’s highly praised Silver Mountain – the only album mentioned here that I have not yet managed to hear. Heading east, the intriguing, though not widely known, Russian scene produced the haunting psychedelic rock blended with shamanistic chanting of Ole Lukkoye’s Dyatly, The Grand Astoria’s ambitious crossover The Mighty Few, and the lush symphonic-Avant of Roz VitalisLavoro d’Amore.

The thriving French scene presented Avant fans with Unit Wail’s psyche-Zeuhl opus Beyond Space Edge, Ni’s electrifying Les Insurgés de Romilly, Ghost Rhythms’ elegant Madeleine, and Alco Frisbass’ Canterbury-inspired debut. Switzerland, on the other hand, seems to have become a hotbed for all forms of “post-jazz”, with two outstanding Cuneiform releases – Schnellertollermeier’s exhilarating X, and Sonar’s more understated Black Light – as well as IkarusEcho and Plaistow’s Titan. Germany brought the omnivorous jazz-metal of Panzerballett’s Breaking Brain, and Belgium Quantum Fantay’s pulsating space trip Dancing in Limbo. From the more southern climes of Greece and Spain came Ciccada’s lovely, pastoral sophomore effort, The Finest of Miracles, the intriguing Mediterranean math rock of El Tubo Elástico’s eponymous debut, and Ángel Ontalva’s sublime, Oriental-tinged Tierra Quemada.

Italy, as usual, did its part, turning out a panoply of albums of consistently high quality. Fans of the classic RPI sound found a lot to appreciate in La Coscienza di Zeno’s third effort, La Notte Anche di Giorno, Ubi Maior’s ambitious Incanti Bio-Meccanici, and also the harder-edged Babylon by VIII Strada. Not A Good Sign’s comeback, From A Distance, combined Italian melodic flair and Crimsonesque angularity, while Pensiero Nomade’s Da Nessun Luogo introduced haunting female vocals into jazzy/ambient textures. The very title of Slivovitz’s All You Can Eat illustrated the boisterous eclecticism of the Naples-based outfit, and feat.Esserelà’s classy debut Tuorl was a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz-rock.

2015 was a great year for fans of the Canterbury sound, witnessing the release of the third installment of the Romantic Warriors documentary series (aptly titled Canterbury Tales) just a few months after the passing of Daevid Allen, one of the scene’s most iconic figures. Moreover, two outstanding Canterbury-related albums came from two vastly different parts of the world: Blue Dogs, the debut by Manna/Mirage, The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse’s new project, and Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res’ brilliant second album, Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era (with Newhouse guesting on the epic “Ospedale Civico”). The latter is one of the finest 2015 releases from my native Italy, a distinction shared with the supremely elegant chamber-rock of Breznev Fun Club’s second album, Il Misantropo Felice (both albums were released on the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions label), and with OTEME’s beautiful comeback, L’Agguato. L’Abbandono. Il Movimento.

AltrOck (whose 2016 schedule looks mouthwatering, to say the least) is also responsible for two of the year’s most distinctive albums: the ultra-eclectic, vocal-based Everyday Mythology by Loomings, a French-Italian ensemble put together by Yugen’s Jacopo Costa, and multinational quintet Rêve Général’s stunning debut Howl (the latest endeavour by former Etron Fou Leloublan drummer Guigou Chenevier). Another debut related to the original RIO scene came with Logos, by English-based quartet The Artaud Beats, featuring drummer Chris Cutler and bassist John Greaves; while Stepmother’s wacky, Zappaesque Calvary Greetings spotlights another multinational outfit, which includes legendary drummer Dave Kerman.

Though in 2015 the latest incarnation of King Crimson released Live at the Orpheum (recorded in LA during their 2014 US tour), there seems to be hardly any new material in sight from the legendary band. Luckily, last year brought a few KC-related albums that are well worth exploring – especially for those who favour the band’s harder-edged output: namely, Pat Mastelotto’s new trio KoMaRa’s dark, gritty self-titled debut (with disturbing artwork by Tool’s Adam Jones), Chicago-based math-rock trio Pavlov3 (featuring Markus Reuter) with Curvature-Induced Symmetry…Breaking, and Trey Gunn’s haunting, ambient-tinged The Waters, They Are Rising.

Other, less widely exposed countries also yielded a wealth of interesting music during the past year. Out of Chile (one of the most vital modern prog scenes) came the good-time Avant-Prog of Akinetón Retard’s Azufre; while, on the other side of the Pacific, Indonesia continues to produce high-quality music, brought to light by Moonjune Records’ irrepressible Leonardo Pavkovic. Guitar hero Dewa Budjana’s Hasta Karma and Joged Kahyangan , and keyboardist Dwiki Dharmawan’s So Far, So Close showcase the unique fusion of Western jazz-rock and the island nation’s rich musical heritage.

No 2015 retrospective would be complete without a mention of the many losses sustained by the music world during the past year. The passing of legendary Yes bassist and founder Chris Squire was undoubtedly a traumatic event for prog fans, while the demise of heavy rock icon (and former Hawkwind member) Lemmy a few days before the end of the year was mourned by the rock community at large. Though, of course, the heroes of the Seventies are not getting any younger, neither of these seminal figures was old for today’s standards – unlike jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman and bluesman B.B. King, who had both reached respectable ages.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, most of the music I have recommended would not qualify as “real prog” for many listeners. It does, however, reflect the direction my tastes have taken in the past few years, and I hope it will lead to new discoveries. Whenever possible, I have provided links to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, where my readers will be able to stream the albums (and hopefully also buy them). For the vast majority of the artists mentioned in this article, music is a labour of love rather than a day job. Though progressive music is alive and well in the second decade of the third millennium, and 2016 already looks very promising in terms of new releases, the scene – now more than ever – needs to be supported if we really want it to survive.

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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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