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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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As the title of this post suggests, 2013 was another bumper year for progressive music – perhaps without as many peaks of excellence as the two previous years, but still offering a wide range of high-quality releases to the discerning listener. On the other hand, it was also a year in which the need for some form of quality control emerged quite sharply. The sheer number of releases that might be gathered under the “prog” umbrella made listening to everything a practically impossible feat – unless one wanted to risk some serious burnout. As modern technology has afforded the tools to release their own music to almost anyone, it has also fostered a sense of entitlement in some artists as regards positive feedback, even when their product is clearly not up to scratch. 2013 also evidenced the growing divide within the elusive “prog community”, with the lingering worship of anything Seventies-related in often sharp contrast with the genuine progressive spirit of many artists who delve deep into musical modes of expression of a different nature from those that inspired the golden age of the genre.

While, on a global level, 2013 was fraught with as many difficulties as 2012, personally speaking (with the exception of the last two or three months) the year as a whole was definitely more favourable – which should have encouraged me to write much more than I actually did. Unfortunately, a severe form of burnout forced me into semi-retirement in the first few months of the year, occasionally leading me to believe that I would never write a review ever again. Because of that, I reviewed only a small percentage of the albums released during the past 12 months; however, thanks to invaluable resources such as Progstreaming, Progify and Bandcamp, I was able to listen to a great deal of new music, and form an opinion on many of the year’s highlights.

I apologize beforehand to my readers if there will be some glaring omissions in this essay. As usual, my personal choices will probably diverge from the “mainstream” of the prog audience, though I am sure they will resonate with others. This year I have chosen to use a slightly different format than in the previous two years, giving more or less the same relevance to all the albums mentioned in the following paragraphs. Those who enjoy reading “top 10/50/100” lists will be better served by other websites or magazines: my intent here is to provide an overview of what I found to be worthy of note in the past 12 months, rather than rank my choices in order of preference.

Interestingly, two of my top 2013 albums (both released at the end of January) came from the UK – a country that, in spite of its glorious past, nowadays rarely produces music that sets my world on fire. Although the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Guapo’s History of the Visitation and the lyricism and subtle complexity of Thieves’ Kitchen’s One for Sorrow, Two for Joy may sound wildly different, they both represent a side of the British progressive rock scene where the production of challenging music is still viewed as viable, and image-related concerns are a very low priority.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK was prodigal with interesting releases for every prog taste. Among the more left-field offerings coming from the other side of the pond, I will mention Sanguine Hum’s multilayered sophomore effort, The Weight of the World – one of those rare albums that are impossible to label; Godsticks’ intricate, hard-hitting The Envisage Conundrum; the unique “classical crossover” of Karda Estra’s Mondo Profondo; The Fierce and the Dead’s fast and furious Spooky Action (think King Crimson meets punk rock); Tim Bowness’ Henry Fool with Men Singing, their second album after a 12-year hiatus; and Brighton-based outfit Baron (who share members with Diagonal and Autumn Chorus) with their haunting Columns. A mention is also amply deserved by volcanic multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson’s projects Jumble Hole Clough and Churn Milk Joan – whose numerous albums are all available on Bandcamp. The prize for the most authentically progressive UK release of the year, however, should probably be awarded to Chrome Black Gold by “experimental chamber rock orchestra” Chrome Hoof, who are part of the Cuneiform Records roster and share members with their label mates Guapo.

The US scene inaugurated the year with the late January release of Herd of Instinct’s second album, Conjure, a completely instrumental effort that saw the basic trio augmented by Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards fleshing out the band’s haunting, cinematic sound. Ellett’s main gig (who will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2014) also made their studio comeback with The Trip, featuring a single 47-minute track combining ambient, electronics-laden atmospheres (as per self-explanatory title) with a full-tilt psychedelic rock jam. Later in the year, Little Atlas’ solid Automatic Day and Sonus Umbra’s brooding Winter Soulstice brought back two bands that had long been out of the limelight. From the US also came a few gems that, unfortunately, have almost flown under the radar of the prog fandom, such as The Knells’ eponymous debut with its heady blend of post-rock, classical music and polyphony; Jack O’The Clock’s intriguing American folk/RIO crossover All My Friends; Birds and Buildings’ über-eclectic Multipurpose Trap; The Red Masque’s intensely Gothic Mythalogue; and the ambitious modern prog epic of And The Traveler’s The Road, The Reason.

The fall season brought some more left-field fireworks from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions and Cuneiform Records. miRthkon’s Snack(s) and ZeviousPassing Through the Wall, both outstanding examples of high-energy modern progressive rock by two veritable forces of nature in a live setting, were preceded by Miriodor’s long-awaited eighth studio album, Cobra Fakir, premiered at ProgDay in an utterly flawless set. More RIO/Avant goodness came from Europe with Humble Grumble’s delightfully weird Guzzle It Up, Rhùn’s Zeuhl workout Ïh, October Equus’s darkly beautiful Permafrost, and Spaltklang’s unpredictable In Between. From Sweden came Necromonkey’s self-titled debut, an idiosyncratic but fascinating effort born of the collaboration between drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson and Gösta Berlings Saga keyboardist David Lundberg.

Among the myriad of prog-metal releases of the year, another UK band, Haken, stood head and shoulders above the competition: their third album The Mountain transcended the limitations of the subgenre, and drew positive feedback even from people who would ordinarily shun anything bearing a prog-metal tag. Much of the same considerations might apply to Kayo Dot’s highly anticipated Hubardo, though the latter album is definitely much less accessible and unlikely to appeal to more traditional-minded listeners. Fans of old-fashioned rock operas found a lot to appreciate in Circle of Illusion’s debut, Jeremias: Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms, a monumentally ambitious, yet surprisingly listenable album in the tradition of Ayreon’s sprawling epics, rated by many much more highly than the latter’s rather lacklustre The Theory of Everything.

Some of the year’s most intriguing releases came from countries that are rarely featured on the prog map. One of my personal top 10 albums, Not That City by Belarus’ Five-Storey Ensemble (one of two bands born from the split of Rational Diet) is a sublime slice of chamber-prog that shares more with classical music than with rock. Five-Storey Ensemble’s Vitaly Appow also appears on the deeply erudite, eclectic pastiche of fellow Belarusians (and AltrOck Productions label mates) The Worm OuroborosOf Things That Never Were. The exhilarating jazz-rock-meets-Eastern-European-folk brew provided by Norwegian quintet Farmers’ Market’s fifth studio album, Slav to the Rhythm, was another of the year’s highlights, guaranteed to please fans of eclectic progressive music. From an even more exotic locale, Uzbekistan’s own Fromuz regaled their many fans with the dramatic Sodom and Gomorrah, a recording dating back from 2008 and featuring the band’s original lineup.

In the jazz-rock realm, releases ran the gamut from modern, high-adrenalin efforts such as The AristocratsCulture Clash, Volto!’s Incitare by (featuring Tool’s drummer Danny Carey), and keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni’s debut Keystone (produced by Derek Sherinian) to the multifaceted approach of French outfit La Théorie des Cordes’ ambitious, all-instrumental double CD Singes Eléctriques, the sprawling, ambient-tinged improv of Shrunken Head Shop’s Live in Germany, and the hauntingly emotional beauty of Blue Cranes’ Swim. Trance Lucid’s elegantly eclectic Palace of Ether and the intricate acoustic webs of Might Could’s Relics from the Wasteland can also be warmly recommended to fans of guitar-driven, jazz-inflected instrumental music.

Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records, however, proved throughout the year as the most reliable single provider of high-quality music effortlessly straddling the rock and the jazz universe, with the triumphant comeback of Soft Machine Legacy and their superb Burden of Proof, The Wrong Object’s stunning slice of modern Canterbury, After the Exhibition, and Marbin’s sophisticated (if occasionally a a bit too “easy”) Last Chapter of Dreaming. Pavkovic’s frequent forays into the booming Indonesian scene brought masterpieces such as simakDialog’s fascinating, East-meets-West The 6th Story, and I Know You Well Miss Clara’s stylish Chapter One – as well as Dewa Budjana’s ebullient six-string exertions in Joged Kahyangan. Dialeto’s contemporary take on the power trio, The Last Tribe, and Dusan Jevtovic’s high-octane Am I Walking Wrong? also featured some noteworthy examples of modern guitar playing with plenty of energy and emotion.

Song-based yet challenging progressive rock was well represented in 2013 by the likes of Half Past Four’s second album, the amazingly accomplished Good Things, propelled by lead vocalist Kyree Vibrant’s career-defining performance; fellow Canadians The Rebel Wheel’s spiky, digital-only concept album Whore’s Breakfast;  Simon McKechnie’s sophisticated, literate debut Clocks and Dark Clouds; and newcomers Fractal Mirror with their moody, New Wave-influenced Strange Attractors. New Jersey’s 3RDegree also released a remastered, digital-only version of their second album, Human Interest Story (originally released in 1996). Iranian band Mavara’s first international release, Season of Salvation, also deserves a mention on account of the band’s struggles to carve out a new life in the US, away from the many troubles of their home country.

Even more so than in the past few years, many of 2013’s gems hailed from my home country of Italy, bearing witness to the endless stream of creativity of a scene that no economic downturn can dampen. One of the most impressive debut albums of the past few years came from a young Rome-based band by the name of Ingranaggi della Valle, whose barnstorming In Hoc Signo told the story of the Crusades through plenty of exciting modern jazz-rock chops, without a hint of the cheesiness usually associated with such ventures. Another stunning debut, the wonderfully quirky Limiti all’eguaglianza della parte con il tutto by Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res, delighted fans of the Canterbury scene; while Not A Good Sign’s eponymous debut blended the angular, King Crimson-inspired melancholia of Änglagård and Anekdoten with that uniquely Italian melodic flair. After their successful NEARfest appearance in 2012, Il Tempio delle Clessidre made their comeback with  AlieNatura, an outstanding example of modern symphonic prog recorded with new vocalist Francesco Ciapica; while fellow Genoese quintet La Coscienza di Zeno made many a Top 10 list with their supremely accomplished sophomore effort, Sensitività. Another highly-rated Genoese outfit, La Maschera di Cera, paid homage to one of the landmark albums of vintage RPI – Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona – by releasing a sequel, titled Le Porte del Domani (The Gates of Tomorrow in its English version). Aldo Tagliapietra’s L’angelo rinchiuso saw the legendary former Le Orme bassist and frontman revert to a more classic prog vein, while iconic one-shot band Museo Rosenbach followed the example of other historic RPI bands and got back together to release Barbarica. Even PFM treated their many fans to a new double album, though scarce on truly new material: as the title implies, PFM in Classic: Da Mozart a Celebration contains versions of iconic classical pieces performed by the band with a full orchestra, as well as five of their best-known songs. Among the newcomers, Camelias Garden’s elegant You Have a Chance presents a streamlined take on melodic symphonic prog, while Unreal City’s La crudeltà di Aprile blends Gothic suggestions with the classic RPI sound; on the other hand, Oxhuitza’s self-titled debut and Pandora’s Alibi Filosofico tap into the progressive metal vein without turning their backs to their Italian heritage. Il Rumore Bianco’s Area-influenced debut EP Mediocrazia brought another promising young band to the attention of prog fans.

However, some of the most impressive Italian releases of the year can be found on the avant-garde fringes of the prog spectrum. Besides Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days (featuring contributions by Thinking Plague’s Elaine DiFalco, as well as most of his Yugen bandmates), OTEME’s superb Il giardino disincantato – a unique blend of high-class singer-songwriter music and Avant-Prog complexity – and the sophisticated, atmospheric jazz-rock of Pensiero Nomade’s Imperfette Solitudini deserve to be included in the top albums of the year. To be filed under “difficult but ultimately rewarding” is Claudio Milano’s international project InSonar with the double CD L’enfant et le Ménure, while Nichelodeon’s ambitious Bath Salts (another double CD) will appeal to those who enjoy vocal experimentation in the tradition of Demetrio Stratos.

My readers will have noticed a distinct lack of high-profile releases in the previous paragraphs.n Not surprisingly for those who know me, some of the year’s top-rated albums (such as The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, The Flower KingsDesolation Rose and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) are missing from this list because I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to them. Others have instead been heard, but have not left a positive enough impression to be mentioned here, and I would rather focus on the positives than on what did not click with me. In any case, most of those albums have received their share of rave reviews on many other blogs, websites and print magazines. I will make, however, one exception for Steven Wilson’s much-praised The Raven Who Refused to Sing, as I had the privilege of seeing it performed in its entirety on the stage of the Howard Theatre in Washington DC at the end of April. Though the concert was excellent, and the stellar level of Wilson’s backing band undoubtedly did justice to the material, I am still not completely sold about the album being the undisputed masterpiece many have waxed lyrical about.

In addition to successful editions of both ROSfest and ProgDay (which will be celebrating its 20th  anniversary in 2014), 2013 saw the birth of two new US festivals: Seaprog (held in Seattle on the last weekend of June) and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (held in Dunellen, New Jersey, on October 12-13). As luckily both events enjoyed a good turnout, 2014 editions are already being planned. There were also quite a few memorable concerts held throughout the year, though we did not attend as many as we would have wished. In spite of the often painfully low turnout (unless some big name of the Seventies is involved), it is heartwarming to see that bands still make an effort to bring their music to the stage, where it truly belongs.

On a more somber note, the year 2013 brought its share of heartache to the progressive rock community. Alongside the passing of many influential artists (such as Peter Banks, Kevin Ayers and Allen Lanier), in December I found myself mourning the loss of John Orsi and Dave Kulju, two fine US musicians whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing in the past few years. Other members of the community were also affected by grievous personal losses. Once again, even in such difficult moments, music offers comfort to those who remain, and keeps the memory of the departed alive.

In my own little corner of the world, music has been essential in giving me a sense of belonging in a country where I will probably never feel completely at home. Even if my enjoyment of music does have its ups and downs, and sometimes it is inevitable to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of new stuff to check out, I cannot help looking forward to the new musical adventures that 2014 will bring.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Attend to Your Configuration (2:47)
2. Was Solis (6:02)
3. Pantocyclus (4:07)
4. White Minus Red (6:55)
5. Crime of Separate Action (6:32)
6. Entanglement (4:19)
7. A Tiller in a Tempest (3:15)
8. Passing Through the Wall (4:22)
9. This Could Be the End of the Line (2:23)
10. Plying the Cold Trade (8:02)

LINEUP:
Mike Eber – guitars
Jeff Eber – drums
Johnny DeBlase – bass

Four years after their barnstorming second album, the aptly-titled After the Air Raid, New York-based trio Zevious are back with their long-awaited third full-length CD, Passing Through the Wall, also released on Cuneiform Records. In the intervening years the band have maintained a brisk schedule of live performances – including the 2011 edition of ProgDay and, a couple of months later, Cuneifest at Baltimore’s Orion Studios. All three Zevious members are also involved in other projects, which pits them against the likes of Steven Wilson as the most hard-working people in progressive rock.

Zevious, like miRthkon and many of the bands and artists featured on these pages, stand on the outer limits of the progressive rock spectrum – that twilight zone that some would label as “progressive but not prog”, a definition that shows how for many fans the genre has become nothing more than a collection of dated mannerisms. The trio’s musical approach, however, is every bit as complex as the average “mainstream” prog band’s, though relying only on the essential rock instrumentation to create an impressive volume of sound characterized by a very high level of energy. Indeed, Zevious are definitely not for everyone, especially those who believe that the “progressive” in “progressive rock” has been stripped of its original meaning.

The definition of “King Crimson on steroids” that I used in my previous reviews of the band still holds true for Passing Through the Wall – perhaps even more so than for its predecessor. Zevious take the hauntingly repetitive, angular structure of pieces like “Red” or “Discipline” as a springboard, and inject it with an almost manic energy that owes a lot to metal and punk. As drummer Jeff Ebert, whose mind-boggling polyrhythms are at the core of the band’s sound, is also a member of hyper-technical metal band Dysrhythmia (with whom Zevious played some shows in November 2013), Zevious are seriously heavy, though in a different way than, for instance, miRthkon or Guapo – two bands that, like Zevious, straddle the line between Avant Progressive and experimental metal.

Clocking in at about 48 minutes, and packaged in a minimalistic, black-and-white cover with an Escherian feel, Passing Through the Wall comprises 10 tracks ranging from 2 to 8 minutes – a structure both similar and different from their previous album. The shorter tracks emphasize energy and dynamic pacing, while the longer ones allow for more variation. However, those who are looking for dramatic shifts within the same track  in classic prog tradition are in for a disappointment, because at a first listen the compositions on the album may sound all rather alike. Tempo changes are handled subtly as a whole, and the music’s hard-driving intensity does not disguise the complexity of the instrumental interplay.

The imperiously-titled and –paced “Attend to Your Configuration” barges in with its relentless web of interlocking bass and guitar lines driven by Jeff Ebert’s acrobatic drumming, then slows down to an almost Sabbathian plod in the second half. In  the considerably longer “Was Solis” Mike Ebert’s clear-toned guitar weaves sinuously in and out the rumbling backdrop of Johnny DeBlase’s bass, sparring with the drums and occasionally going into slo-mo mode for atmospheric effect. “Pantocyclus” melds skewed melody and haunting, insistent pattern peppered by piercing guitar effects, while the strikingly Crimsonian “White Minus Red” is powered by a superb performance by DeBlase, the rhythmic foundation steadily surging and flowing, then gaining momentum towards the end. The slow, ominous strains of “Crime of Separate Action” wrap up the first half of the album, again showcasing DeBlase’s astonishing propulsive/textural bass work supporting Mike Eber’s eerily chiming guitar.

The first half of“Entanglement” pulls out all the stops in terms of escalating guitar assault,  with drums all over the place; in contrast, “A Tiller in the Tempest” slower, somewhat rarefied pauses relieve the tension of the tight instrumental work. The short, fast-paced “This Could Be the End of the Line” acts as an interlude of sorts between the two most distinctive pieces on the album – the title-track, with its uncharacteristically muted guitar-bass-drum pattern, whose understated intensity creates a heady, drone-like texture; and 8-minute closing track “Plying the Cold Trade”, whose dirge-like pace and somber, Gothic feel offer a rather sharp departure from the unrelenting energy of the previous numbers.

Obviously, Zevious are not going to encounter the favour of the average melodic prog fan, while their music should prove to be far more appealing to the younger generations, weaned on a diet of post/math rock, technical metal and crossover bands such as The Mars Volta. They are also one of those bands who – as good as they sound on CD – have to be experienced live to be fully appreciated, as their hard-driving yet sophisticated music gains a whole new dimension on stage. In any case, Passing Through the Wall is a riveting slice of modern progressive music, powerful and intricate though not devoid of melody, and definitely deserving to be heard with some measure of concentration. Highly recommended to all adventurous prog fans, this album is sure to be featured in many “best of 2013” lists.

Links:
http://zevioustrio.blogspot.com/

http://cuneiformrecords.com

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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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You cannot get lucky all the time, as this year’s edition of ProgDay abundantly proved. Indeed, while last year the weather had been  as perfect for early September as anyone could have wished – sunny yet cool, breezy and dry, which made spending two days outdoors a real delight – this time, especially on the festival’s first day, we got a nice taste of typical Southern US summer weather, with relatively high temperatures made much worse by humidity close to 80% . Every time I checked the weather forecast in the days before the event, my heart sank lower and lower, and I have to admit that – as a staunch hot-weather-hater – I was more than a bit worried. Thankfully, nothing bad happened, at least to me (one of my fellow attendees suffered heatstroke and had to be taken to hospital), though most people’s enjoyment was somewhat marred by the unrelenting onslaught of the heat and humidity.

Despite the lack of cooperation on the part of the weather (which, considering the recent hurricane threats on the US East Coast, might have been far worse), ProgDay 2011 was an unqualified success. With a top-notch lineup representing the very best of modern-day prog, plenty of variety to satisfy even the most jaded fan, and – most important of all – lashings of humour and pure fun (two words that are not often associated with the prog scene), the festival managed to wipe out the bad taste still lingering months after the traumatic cancellation of NEARfest (whose future, at the time of writing, still hangs in the balance), and restore at least in part my faith in the future of progressive rock. No event can survive for 16 uninterrupted years without good reason – in this particular case, a healthy mix of humility, dedication and open-mindedness. Even if ProgDay has never aspired to the grandeur of other events, with their state-of-the-art theatres and “prestigious” lineups, it has acted as a showcase for a wide range of subgenres within the prog spectrum, and provided a springboard for up-and-coming bands, both domestic and international. And then, last but not least, the festival has been able to create – much more so than its higher-end cousins – an authentic community spirit, where everyone brings something to the table, avoiding the cliquish atmosphere that has often spoiled the experience of other events for those who are in some ways outsiders.

This year we set out on Friday morning, in order to avoid the Labour Day weekend traffic later in the afternoon, so were able to spend some quality time with friends at the renovated Comfort Inn Hotel – and eat way too much food, as often happens in such happy occasions. The anticipation for the event ran high, and attendance was noticeably up from last year, when the festival had been penalized by the lack of the coveted “international” bands, in spite of a superb lineup showcasing some of the finest acts on the North American scene. This year, the NEARfest cancellation had encouraged more people to head South, and – even if still far from the record highs reached on previous editions – the increase was noticeable as soon as we reached the festival grounds on Saturday morning. In spite of their constant fight with financial strictures, the organizers had managed to put together an incredibly tight lineup, catering to all progressive tastes. Even the two cancellations – first Czech band Uz Jsme Doma, then Sunday headliners Quantum Fantay  – did not undermine the strength of the musical offer.

The heat building up on Friday afternoon did not show any promise of abating the following day, though when we reached the beautiful festival location at Storybook Farm things were still relatively pleasant. Photographs do not do full  justice to the beauty of the surroundings, the green field ringed by woods where you can hear the echo of the music if you walk far enough from the stage area. The lack of rain in the summer months was made particularly evident by the clouds of dust raised by the cars approaching the festival premises (hence the title of my review), and the dry, prickly feel of the grass. Thankfully, in the morning and early evening a breeze blowing from the trees made things bearable, and my lightweight folding chair allowed me to move around in order to catch it. There was no respite from the sun, however, and leaving the shelter of the covered pavilion meant being hit by the full force of its rays, especially in the early hours of the afternoon.

Half of the bands on this year’s lineup were instrumental, and Milwaukee-based quartet Fibonacci Sequence introduced the festival in style. After having braved a 15-hour drive to reach North Carolina, the four musicians treated the crowd to almost 90 minutes of intricate yet effortlessly flowing music that showed an impressive level of maturity. Though their debut album, the excellent Numerology, had been recorded as a trio with a guest bassist (former Portal/Cynic member Chris Kringel), the band now feature the considerable talents of bassist Chad Novell, who looked more like a member of a modern metal outfit than a prog musician. However, for all the keen edge present in their compositions, Fibonacci Sequence are a full-fledged progressive rock band whose remarkably clean sound was flattered by excellent acoustics that allowed each instrument to be heard clearly and distinctly. As I wrote in my review of Numerology, they are one of those rare bands that have managed to achieve a sound of their own – even if they jokingly refer to themselves as “Rush with keyboards”. Like the Canadian trio, their music is eclectic but deeply cohesive, built on the solid foundation of the outstanding rhythm section of Novell and drummer Tom Ford (whose sleek interplay was riveting to watch), which allows Mike Butzen’s guitar to unfold all its melodic range, with Jeff Schuelke’s keyboards adding layers of depth. Their warm yet inobtrusive interaction with the crowd revealed their experience as a live act, and their heartfelt tribute to Kopecky drummer Paul Kopecky, who passed away two years ago, was particularly touching. In today’s materialistic, cutthroat world, it is heartwarming to see musicians from a particular region form a bond and work together towards the diffusion of non-mainstream music. Kudos to Fibonacci Sequence for being part of this trend, and for sharing their appreciation of their fellow Wisconsin artists with the ProgDay crowd. All in all, they are a very tight unit, who deserve as much exposure as they can get, especially among devotees of instrumental prog.

Another fine example of the thriving New Jersey prog scene, The Tea Club had been the last band to be announced, a mere couple of weeks before the event. Having followed them for the past three years, I had hoped to be able to see them on stage for a while, and was elated on their behalf at the announcement, as a festival slot can be a turning point for a band, exposing them to a much larger audience than their normal live appearances. In spite of their collective young ages, the fresh-faced members of The Tea Club – now extended to a six-piece – are accomplished musicians and songwriters, their music astonishingly complex and multilayered, even if not always conforming to traditional prog standards. After the departure of drummer (and founding member) Kyle Minnick, brothers Pat and Dan McGowan recruited a new bassist (Charles Batdorf), drummer (Joe Rizzolo) and third guitarist (Jim Berger), while original bassist Becky Osenenko (a classically-trained pianist) took charge of the keyboards, which on their second album Rabbit had been provided by Tom Brislin. Because of Minnick’s involvement in the writing of their 2008 debut album, General Winter’s Secret Museum, they chose not to play any tracks from it, and concentrated instead on Rabbit and some new material. While The Tea Club clearly tread the post-prog path of bands like The Pineapple Thief and Oceansize, with bouts of intensity that may bring The Mars Volta to mind, the complexity of their songwriting goes way beyond most alternative bands.While I had found Rabbit a bit of a step backwards, as it sounded somewhat one-dimensional if compared to the boundless energy of General Winter’s Secret Museum, the material taken from the band’s sophomore effort came positively alive on stage. Enhanced by the seamless instrumental dynamics and the striking stage presence of the McGowan brothers, each of the songs possessed a deeply intriguing quality, with “The Night I Killed Steve Shelley” deserving a special mention. Even the relentless assault of the heat and humidity could not detract from the band’s brilliant set. The new songs reprised the atmospheric, laid-back mood evidenced on Rabbit, though spiked by instrumental surges exuding a keen sense of tension. The McGowan brothers are also fine vocalists, capable of delivering soothing harmonies as well as more aggressive parts, while steering clear of the excessively plaintive tone of post-prog icons such as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or The Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord. With their sheer enthusiasm and obvious dedication to their music, The Tea Club have enormous potential, and their performance won them many new fans.

Though the weather certainly did no favours to The Rebel Wheel, the Ottawa-based quartet, led by guitarist David Campbell and featuring a highly awaited guest appearance by keyboardist Guy LeBlanc (of Nathan Mahl and Camel fame) delivered a stunning (though somewhat short) set, featuring a slightly modified version of the 30-minute epic “The Discovery of Witchcraft”, the centrepiece of their 2010 album We Are in the Time of Evil Clocks. Being familiar with the album, undoubtedly one of the standout releases of last year, I was looking forward to the band’s set, which was a delight to start to finish – even if, by the time they got on stage, I was feeling somewhat faint, and lay half-slumped in my chair. The music, however, was so riveting that it was impossible not to listen intently. Like a well-oiled machine, the band churned out flawless tune after flawless tune, their choppy, jazzy Crimsonian vibe well complemented by Campbell’s powerful, expressive vocals and LeBlanc’s masterful keyboard sweeps and rumbling organ flurries, while relentlessly driven forward by the splendidly pneumatic rhythm section of Andrew Burns and Aaron Clark. The dark, angular “Death at Sea”, from a 2005 Gentle Giant tribute album, was a particular highlight, with echoes of King Crimson’s “The Great Deceiver”. Though the epic was adapted to the absence of vocalist/saxophonist Angie McIvor (on leave following the birth of her first child), it lost none of its punchy, gutsy effectiveness. An impressively professional outfit, oozing confidence and flair, The Rebel Wheel manage to sound thoroughly modern while paying homage to the great Seventies tradition. I really hope to see them again in the very near future, and will be looking forward to their new album.

In the interval between the third and the fourth set we were treated to an impromptu acoustic guitar solo spot by Jimmy Robinson of Woodenhead (whovwere due to play the traditional festival pre-show at a local club, this year extended also to the Saturday evening). Robinson displayed an astonishing mastery of the instrument, his short but intense performance including versions of Led Zeppelin’s classics “Kashmir” and “When the Levee Breaks”. It was a fitting introduction to another dazzling display of guitar fireworks, this time of the electric variety – courtesy of Mörglbl, introduced by one of the festival’s elder statesmen, Paul Sears of The Muffins. A classic power trio in which Christophe Godin’s scintillating guitar is supported by the hyper-dynamic rhythm section of Ivan Rougny and Aurélien Ouzoulias, the French outfit have often been tagged as jazz-metal, and, while the metal element is an unmistakable component, there is a lot more to their music than just ultra-technical noodling. While listening to their set (in spite of my extreme physical weariness) I could hear a lot of different influences in Mörglbl’s sound, such as funk, blues, Latin music and reggae, besides the obvious rock matrix. Technically awesome and very tight from a compositional point of view, their set was highly energetic, heavy but consistently fluid and never jarring, and, above all, extremely entertaining. With his shaved head, distinctive white goatee and fluorescent yellow guitar, Godin is a consummate frontman, throwing all sorts of funny shapes during his solos, his warm, amusing on-stage banter delivered in excellent English. The band are known for concluding their shows with covers of rock classics reinterpreted in their own inimitable style, and this time was no exception – their  lounge-jazz version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” (the only number featuring Godin’s excellent vocals) was one of the most hilarious moments of the weekend.

After a good night’s sleep, on Sunday morning we felt ready to face another day of great music, and this time the weather was definitely more helpful, with lower humidity levels and a nice breeze making things more comfortable. And a good thing it was, because the second day of the festival promised a lot of intensity, and the audience had better be in their best shape to fully enjoy what was on the musical menu. Opening act Zevious also belonged to the group of bands I had had the pleasure of reviewing in the past two years or so, and I had found their second album, After the Air Raid, one of the most impressive releases of 2009. A power trio based in New York, unlike Mörglbl they projected a rather serious image, in spite of their youth, and proceeded to deliver a set of astounding complexity, chock full of asymmetrical rhythm patterns overlaid by Mike Eber’s clear, piercing guitar, and propelled by Jeff Eber’s monstrous drumming. While not too high on melody, the band’s music never once descended into mere dissonance, and the sheer amount of sound produced by a trio of musicians employing very basic instrumentation was nothing short of astonishing.  The unceasing flow of dynamic bottom end provided by Johnny DeBlase’s Fender Jazz bass complemented Jeff Eber’s unbelievable polyrhythms, delivered with effortless simplicity, without the antics that might have been expected from such a gifted drummer. As good as they sounded on CD, Zevious’ music acquired a new dimension on stage, and, when fully unleashed, the band sounded like King Crimson  to the power of 3 – despite the “math-rock” or “RIO/Avant” tags so often (and awkwardly) stuck onto them. They are clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, and, although incredibly nice offstage,  they were not as communicative towards the audience as most of the other bands – hence my use of the term “serious” at the beginning of the paragraph. Their music, however, speaks for itself, and they have all the time in the world to hone their stagecraft.

Those who, like me, were sitting under the pavilion during Zevious’s set had the opportunity to watch the members of Persephone’s Dream set up their gear on one side of the stage. Though I was not familiar with the Pittsburgh-based outfit’s music prior to the festival, I had read enthusiastic accounts of their latest album, Pan: An Urban Pastoral, released in 2010 – which I knew the band were going to perform in its entirety for the very first time. I anticipated a treat when I saw the incredibly elaborate array of percussion instruments being carefully arranged on the lawn, including a gong and bells and chimes of every description. And, indeed, a treat it was, both musically and visually, even if – as can be expected – the show suffered a bit from being squeezed on a relatively small stage without the use of lightning and the appropriate backdrop trappings. The band, a seven-piece, might have used a little more space, especially the two female vocalists, Josie Crooks (a really beautiful voice, powerful yet melodic) and Leah Martell (who twirled and danced all over the place), who had to change costumes, chase each other and run up and down the stage for most of the set. However, Persephone’s Dream pulled it off superbly. Though by far the most conventionally “prog” of the bands on this year’s bill, they were anything than the kind of derivative, snooze-inducing neo/symphonic fare that sends some fans into fits of ecstasy – as a matter of fact, their sound was quite heavy at times, with Jim Waugaman’s powerful keyboard excursions almost out of ELP’s heyday,  accented by John “JT” Tallent’s brilliant percussion work (which has elicited comparisons with Jamie Muir of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic fame). The “urban pastoral” setting – reminiscent in some ways of Peter Gabriel’s vision in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – was also imbued with genuinely menacing overtones, offset by pauses of quiet and gentle birdsong. The dramatic, larger-than-life music had more than a whiff of Italian prog to it – as well as nods to Celtic folklore and even early 20th-century classical music – and the band as a whole sounded more European than American. While those festival attendees who favour the more left-field stuff assessed the band’s performance rather harshly for being a collection of all the worst prog clichés – such as the mythological inspiration and the over-the-top instrumentation (in stark contrast to the minimalistic approach of bands like Zevious or Mörglbl), Persephone’s Dream’s set had an often mesmerizing quality, their music obviously tailor-made for the live dimension.

When people were still in a relaxed mood, following lunch and the consumption of quite a few excellent beers (which, unfortunately, I could not enjoy because, for me, heat and alcohol do not mix well), German quintet Panzerballett, ontheir first US visit, took the stage, and woke everyone up with their unique brand of “wellness death jazz” (I kid you not). In the seven years since their inception, the young but extremely proficient outfit have already earned a fearsome reputation among lovers of the more experimental branches of progressive rock for their highly energetic brand of avant-garde, metal-tinged jazz-rock served with liberal helpings of humour – debunking the commonly held myth of the dour, humourless Germans. Some of the song titles alone were worth the price of admission – “A Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”, anyone? The on-stage banter of guitarist Jan Zehrfeld (whose English may not have been as fluent as Christophe Godin’s, but still effective in interacting with the audience) was delivered in quiet, polite tones that contrasted with the manic urgency of the music – unabashedly eclectic, cramming a lot of diverse influences in the space of a single number, and spiced with a healthy pinch of irreverence. Nothing is safe from Panzerballett’s imaginative reinterpretations (or rather deconstructions) – the love theme from Dirty Dancing, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (rechristened “Fake Five”, and played simultaneously in two different tempos), Weather Report’s “Birdland”, all got the Panzerballett treatment, to the audience’s delight. As in the case of Zevious, their music is clearly not for the faint-hearted or those who crave melody and catchy hooks, but their enthusiasm is infectious, and you have to admire a band that proudly claims to improvise every time they are on stage, dispensing with setlists. Though all of the band members were brilliant, powerhouse drummer Sebastian Lanser deserves a particular mention for his unflagging energy and perfect time-keeping.

After such an exhilarating performance, as the evening drew near and the temperature cooled down, the audience was well stoked for headliners Freak Kitchen – currently touring the US as Mörglbl’s opening act, and drafted in at the very last moment after Quantum Fantay’s cancellation (due to airline woes following in the wake of Hurricane Irene). Though I was not familiar with their music, what I had read around the Internet had whetted my curiosity, and I realized that we were in for a pyrotechnic conclusion. Yet another power trio, active since 1992, with seven albums under their belt, the band consists of a guitarist (Mattias Eklundh, aka The Axemaster of Sweden) and drummer (Björn Fryklund) that embody the Scandinavian archetype of tall, lean frames and flowing blonde manes, and a bassist (Christer Ortefors) that was a sight to behold, with his heavily tattooed arms, braided beard, combat helmet and low-slung bass in pure Lemmy style. All in all, Freak Kitchen are the opposite of every prog stereotype, looking (and sounding) like an Eighties thrash metal band with progressive undertones. Extremely gifted in a technical sense, they wrapped up the festival with a bang, combining sheer heaviness with plenty of infectious hooks and a bit of a funky swagger, whipping the crowd to a frenzy, getting the notoriously staid prog fans to get up and dance, headbang and sing along in a cathartic explosion of pure fun. With song titles as wacky as “Teargas Jazz”  and “Chest Pain Waltz” (one of the highlights of their set), and influences ranging from Megadeth and Metallica to King’s X and Living Colour with a sprinkling of punk rawness (mostly evident in the vocals), they have a commanding frontman in the soft-spoken Eklundh, who treated the audience to a constant stream of funny quips and anecdotes (like the one about the vibrating dildo belt), and poking gentle fun at the average progger’s obsession with odd time signatures. A memorable ending to ProgDay 2011, even though purists would have been positively horrified.

Although the lovely bucolic setting and general laid-back vibe, reminiscent of a family picnic complete with children, games and dogs, might lead outside observers not to take ProgDay too seriously in musical terms, the consistently high quality of the lineups assembled by the organizers throughout the years gives the lie to this impression. The members of the band selection committee are to be commended for their forward-thinking attitude, which allows attendees to sample a broad range of the many subgenres to be found under the welcoming “prog” umbrella, always striking a perfect balance between accessibility and cutting-edge potential. Unfortunately, it is also true that ProgDay can get away with having a full-fledged metal act as a headliner only because it is basically perceived as not quite as prestigious as the indoor festivals. The cancellation of NEARfest 2011 proved all too clearly the danger of overestimating the open-mindedness of prog fans, and booking anything with dubious prog status can be the kiss of death for even the highest-profile event. However, in spite of the overall lack of support from the US prog community, ProgDay soldiers on, thanks to the help (financial and otherwise) of a core of loyal patrons, and getting better and better with time, as demonstrated by this year’s stellar lineup. This past weekend, on the stage at Storybook Farm, I saw the future of progressive rock – a future that may not look like the Seventies bands that are still widely worshipped, but that is surely every bit as exciting and musically worthwhile. It is up to us to let it prosper, or kill it slowly but inexorably with our obsession with the past.

At the end of my review, I wish to thank everyone involved in the success of ProgDay 2011 – first and foremost the organizers, the band selection committee and all the volunteers (a particularly big thumbs-up for providing a “quiet room” for the numerous prog ladies present at Storybook Farm). Then, as usual, a shout out to all the great people that made our weekend special: the collective members of Fibonacci Sequence, The Tea Club, The Rebel Wheel, Mörglbl and Zevious, John Tennant of Persephone’s Dream, ProgDay founder (and purveyor of musical goodies) Peter Renfro, Michael McCormack, Alan and Amy Benjamin, Helaine Carson Burch, Debi Byrd, Lew Fisher, Doug Hinson, Michael Bennett, Jeff Wilson, Paul and Debbie Sears, Mike Visaggio of Kinetic Element, Rick Dashiell, Eyal Amir – and, last but not least, our dear friends Michael Inman and Djalma Carvalho. Here’s to ProgDay 2012, and many more years of great music!

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TRACK LISTING:
1. Where’s the Captain? (5:11)
2. Coma Cluster (4:42)
3. Mostly Skulls (5:12)
4. That Ticket Exploded  (5:54)
5. The Noose (4:28)
6. iNCITING (4:39)
7. Gradual Decay (4:45)
8. The Ditch (5:49)
9. After the Air Raid (3:20)
10. The Children and the Rats (4:59)
11. Glass Tables (4:35)

LINEUP:
Mike Eber – guitars
Jeff Eber – drums
Johnny DeBlase – electric and upright bass

Another impressive find from the ever-reliable Cuneiform Records, Zevious hail from New York City.  Formed in 2006 by guitarist Mike Eber, his cousin, drummer Jeff Eber (formerly of experimental progressive metal band Dysrhythmia) and bassist Johnny DeBlase, they started out as a straight-ahead jazz trio before they decided to take a more innovative direction.  Their self-titled debut album was released in 2008, followed one year later by After the Air Raid, recorded and mixed by Colin Marston of tech/extreme prog-metal band Behold…The Arctopus. Following a successful US tour in the spring of 2011, Zevious have been invited to perform at the 2011 edition of ProgDay (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), the longest-running progressive rock festival in the USA.

The three members of the band have been active on the music scene for over ten years, and their collective experience is clearly brought to bear in After the Air Raid, a high-energy blend of sleek jazz/fusion, angular math-rock, and a spicy sprinkling of metal – challenging without being overtaxing, thoroughly modern without turning its back to the old-school progressive rock tradition. Not as spiky and impenetrable as their label mates Upsilon Acrux, Zevious have managed not to banish melody altogether, though it is handled in a very unconventional manner.  For all its cutting-edge allure, Zevious’ music is not meant to be abrasive or forbidding, and draws much of its power from being able to keep the listener on their toes, though without wearying them out with a relentless barrage of wildly clashing sounds.

A cutting-edge permutation of that old classic rock stalwart, the power trio, Zevious manage to produce a huge volume of sound without the use of any keyboards or other props. Theirs is also a fully collaborative effort, as it would be hard to single out any of the three members as the star of the album. While Mike Eber’s guitar weaves dazzling webs, avoiding the ever-present pitfalls of mindless shredding, Johnny DeBlase’s fluid yet powerful bass provides a solid layer of bottom end for Jeff Eber’s stunning drum patterns, displaying the experience gained as a member of avant-progressive metal band Dysrhythmia in an array of head-spinning polyrhythms – though the influence of more “classic” drummers, such as Bill Bruford, can also be detected.

The 11 tracks featured on After the Air Raid are rather short from a prog-purist point of view, but pack more twists and turns in their restrained running time than many “epics”, though without descending into the excesses to which the more experimental prog acts are often prone. While most of the compositions clearly point to math-rock’s hypnotic, multilayered angularity, the band’s original jazz foundation adds a welcome touch of melody that is often lacking in otherwise outstanding bands like Don Caballero or Battles. With such a consistently high level of quality, it is difficult to pick out any standout tracks; however, I was particularly impressed by the brilliant, Black Sabbath-meets-jazz/fusion workout of That Ticket Exploded, or the Rush-on-steroids, bass-driven extravaganza that is iNCITING. The Noose and The Ditch both steer towards heavier territory – the former strongly reminiscent of a jazzier version of King Crimson with its devastatingly effective bass-drum interplay; the latter more aggressive, with an almost punk intensity, Mike Eber’s guitar let loose over thundering drums and a steady bass line. In sharp contrast, the title-track reveals the more subdued side of the band’s sound, a hauntingly melancholy piece revolving around Mike’s muted, atmospheric guitar work.

Clocking in at 51 minutes, this is a very dense album, and perhaps just a tad overlong on account of the unabated intensity of the music. In fact, those who prefer a more traditional approach to prog, as well as those who object to a lack of vocals, may find it a somewhat stressful listen. On the other hand, with stellar performances all round, and a brilliant combination of diverse influences and creative ideas, After the Air Raid is highly recommended to anyone with a keen interest in contemporary progressive rock.

Links:
http://zevious.com/

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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