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Sonus Umbra: Prior to my trip to Chicago, crossover prog-band Sonus Umbra is one that had caught my attention. They delivered a powerful live performance that far surpassed my expectations. Originally from Mexico, the band is now based out of Chicago. Their music is a marvelous harmonious journey, mixing cinematic elements with acoustic and progressive folk rock; alongside passages that arguably have more of a symphonic oriented expression and even hard rock nuances. The remarkable 2016 release “Beyond the Panopticon” suggests they have a huge potential and a great musical identity and vision. A very reassuring discovery.
Pavlov(3): Pavlov(3) is a project by Chicago composer Matt Tate. Typically focusing around the Chapman stick, Tate’s music is always evolving. While the songs performed at Progtoberfest were originally written for a trio, Pavlov(3) rearranged them for a 6-piece, even adding violin parts.
Infinite Spectrum: Taking influence from Dream Theater and Symphony X, this New York based prog-metal band began in 2007 as a project between two college kids. Infinite Spectrum’s compositions are highly technical with lyrics focusing on conceptual, and theatrical story-driven themes. I have heard of them previously as their last album was released on Ken Golden’s label Sensory Records, but reality is I hadn’t have the chance to catch up with their music. I was delightfully surprised to hear that “Haunter of the Dark” brings legendary master of horror H. P. Lovecraft’s short story to life through ambitious compositions featuring an abundance of dynamic, virtuosic playing, and powerful, melodic vocals. Their short set was an outstanding musical voyage with a captivating sense of energy. Bravo!
Metaphonia: This young 6-piece group from North Carolina is clearly a live band. The mostly instrumental, often grungy compositions are driven by bass and brass. It’s Zappa-esque with heavy nods to Parliament funk. Even if that’s not your thing, you’ll find yourself grooving along to the high energy output. This is a band about having fun and not taking things too seriously.
Edensong: Orchestral progressive band Edensong sounds like a modernized cross between Jethro Tull and early Dream Theater. After a rocky journey beginning about 20 years ago that saw repeated changes to the line-up, Edensong now features a solid cast of players and the 2016 release “Years in the Garden of Years” is a must-have for fans of the genre. Their music has been described as an enchanting excursion off the beaten path, and truth be told they reminded me of the progressive rock glory days, with their unique style of juxtaposing textures, memorable melodies, powerful riffs and the imaginative and propulsive sound of the flute.
Necromonkey: Necromonkey is a two men piece, featuring keyboardist David Lundberg and drummer Mattias Olsson (Who I met and had a delightful conversation with earlier that day). They had embarked in their four North American Tour and put together a three song EP to awaken the fan’s appetite for the live shows. Their music might feel at first like a modern electronic experiment, yet it elevates through the inclusion of both acoustic and electric instruments and integrating elements of symphonic and post rock. One thing is to try to describe it and a very different one is to witness it. Their on stage presence could be described by two simple words “organized chaos”. The Music Joint’s walls trembled and reverbed while they took every member of the audience into a frantic, mind-blowing journey. Born in Hong Kong to Swedish parents, and better known as a longtime member of Swedish progressive rock pioneers Änglagård, Matthias pounded his drum kit with an eerie combination of virtuosity and controlled fury, leaving the audience completely astounded. Their set also featured an improvisational guest appearance by guitarist Mike Keneally.
IZZ: This New York based group is an institution within the American prog-rock circuit. IZZ pulls influences from many of the same bands as Spock’s Beard, such as Gentle Giant, Yes, and the Beatles, resulting in satisfying similarities, but with a fresh feel due to the vocal harmony of both male and female voice. Founding brothers Tom (keyboards, vocals) and John Galgano (bass, guitars, vocals) are quite personable on stage, delivering humorous banter between songs.
Circuline: Fairly new to the prog-scene Circuline recently released their brilliant second album “Counterpoint” which has been getting lots of attention. I’ve enjoyed the heck of their set during RoSfest this year, and I knew what they had in stock. Their approach to songwriting has been truly collaborative; resulting in a variety of soundscapes that could only be described as broad label of crossover-prog, blending classic progressive elements with cinematic rock. Is worth mentioned they faced sound problems throughout their presentation, nonetheless managed to offer the audience with a consistent and outstanding musicianship, often bordering in grandiloquent (It was the first time I see new bassist Joel Simches to perform with the band and the guy nailed it). Their adventurous musical palette is pleasantly wrapped by Andrew Colyer’s lavish symphonic keys, Bele Beledo’s bombastic riffs and soulful solos, and Billy Spillane and Natalie Brown’s impactful voices; which expertly blend together offering a particular storytelling twist to the meaningful lyrics. This is a band you don’t want to stop paying attention to, “Counterpoint” is easily one of the best prog-rock releases of the year and I know they are just warming their engines.
The Fringe: Another band I had the pleasure to witness during RoSfest this year, The Fringe is a what you could call a “supergroup” comprised of Randy McStine (Lof-Fi Resistance) on guitars and vocals, Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings, Karmakanic) on bass and vocals, and Nick D’Virgilio (Big Big Train, ex-Spock’s Beard) on drums and vocals. For their eponymous debut offering, the band put their prog-roots to the side and focused on delivering tight, straight-forward rock grooves with plenty of hooks and pop-laden melodies. A perfectly executed blend with still some progressive elements thrown in, their performance was once again top-notch. There’s so much musical pedigree in this trio and such an impressive progressive background in Nick and Jonas, yet they managed to come-up with this new twist and clearly defined new flavor for an album which I am enjoying immensely. Another festival highlight for me, I can’t wait to catch them again next February during Cruise to the Edge.
Rikard Sjöblom / Gungfly: Accomplished Swedish songwriter Rikard Sjöblom is known mostly as the front-man and keyboardist for the now (sadly) dissolved progressive rock/metal band Beardfish. For this performance he stripped the music down a bit, leaving the keys at home and picking up the guitar to deliver a more forthright, in-your-face, crunchy rock performance of solo material and songs by his lesser known project Gungfly. Rikard’s show was the winner of the top performance of the weekend for both Kris and myself. Kris commented about it: “Beardfish is one of my all-time favorite bands, making Rikard Sjöblom one of my all-time favorite songwriters. His songs shift from serious to absurdly comical in both lyric and instrumentation, stirring inside me a musical rejuvenation I haven’t felt since I discovered the modern age of progressive rock with Spock’s Beard in the late 90s”. I added: “I could try to use few words and describe Rikard’s set as stupefying. I’ve loved Beardfish’s music since day zero and Rikard has been probably one of the most intelligent and resourceful composers I’ve ever enjoyed listening to (besides being an accomplished multi-instrumentalist); however little I knew he was such a terrific guitar player. Accustomed to see him driving Beardfish from behind the keyboards, this time around he knocked my socks off on the six strings. Such a tremendous trio of musicians deserving three thousand times more recognition for their music. I am excited to see what the upcoming Gungfly album will bring”.
Mike Keneally & Beer for Dolphins: Pinning Mike Keneally down to any specific genre is useless. After touring with Frank Zappa’s band in 1988 as a guitarist and keyboard player, Keneally eventually began releasing solo albums in 1992. There was a lot of buzz amongst the fans leading up to this performance. The legendary guitarist and multi-instrumentalist proved why he has been mainstay in the rock scene with credits too many to name here, displaying his musical excellence, accompanied by one of my favorite bass players in the current musical scene (spanning through all genres): Bryan Beller.
The Security Project: Celebrating the earlier solo work of Peter Gabriel, The Security Project re-imagines the material from Gabriel’s first several albums, creating a new experience. The band features former Peter Gabriel drummer Jerry Marotta and former King Crimson 10-string touch guitarist Trey Gunn alongside other performers with ties to the Gabriel history.
Riddle House: Riddle House is an instrumental progressive rock trio I didn’t know about. Started by the musical passion of brothers Ben and Rob Lerner, they have played together for over ten years. Guitar, bass and drums interlock with excellent dexterity and proficiency, they ripped through a true thinking man’s metal set of around 45 minutes long with ease and confidence; balancing hyper-technical passages with dreamy, textured soundscapes. My good friend Richard Reyes recommended them and reality is they started the last day of the festival on a high note.
Wave Mechanics Union: Wave Mechanic Union was a complete jaw-dropping surprise. They were scheduled to play at The Music Joint (All the Sunday’s performances happened there, but Carl Palmer’s band) and I couldn’t believe my eyes when 16 musicians took the small platform, leaving no possible room for vibraphone guy who had to set up his instrument near the dinner tables to the left hand side of the stage. But I was even more surprised when I found out they are a 30-piece unit and this was their first ever live presentation! It was quite a spectacle to behold so many instruments in such a little podium: drums, trombone, piano, flute, clarinet, accordion, saxophone, guitar, violin, cello… you name it. Kevin Pollack had mentioned their set will be quite special and he was dead right. The band’s repertoire is based on jazz-rock arrangements of very well-known cuts from bands like The Beatles, King Crimson, Yes, and Rush while at the same time touches jazz friendly songwriters like Ben Folds, Paul Simon and Tom Waits, as well as art-rocking strangers to jazz like Queen (“The Show Must Go On”). Lydia McAdams vocals are remarkable, she does a commendable job selling the songs in their new yet familiar packages; however all the performers shine in their own right, offering authentic and impressive renditions, embodied in striking arrangements combining big jazz band traditions with the layered density of progressive rock. Simply timeless pieces of rock history cleverly transformed into something new and fresh.
Origin of Animal: This was another band which was completely new for my ears. Since 2010 they have performed with anywhere from five to twenty members; written and recorded original compositions with as many as thirty musicians; and collectively, since forming in 2007, have worked with a total of about 80 people. Their genre definition? Something along the lines of “classical, jazz, baroque, progressive, transbluesion, metal, bullshit”. Does that work for you? Let me tell you it did for me. Despite such a bizarre heap of words to describe themselves, the Chicago ensemble (Bass, cello, clarinets, saxophones, piano, drums, guitars, flute and trumpet) proved to be another of Chicago’s best kept musical secrets.
Consider the Source: NYC trio Consider the Source defied easy description. They introduced themselves as “Sci-Fi Middle Eastern Fusion” while the audience laughed at the interesting description. Drawing from progressive rock, fusion and jazz, with alien sounds soaked in Indian and Middle Eastern styles, the band’s music strikes a rare balance between cerebral and emotional, intellectual and primal blends parts mashed up into a striking, utterly original whole. Gabriel Marin on fretless double-neck guitar, bassist John Ferrara, and drummer/percussionist Jeff Mann showcased over-the-top chops in the form of freewheeling polyrhythms drumming, percussive bass lines attack, equally suited to simple grooves and impossible chords, and wailing guitar melodies, kaleidoscopic soundscapes and bone-shaking riffs. His show felt shorter than it was and they received standing ovations after the last song. Definitely more homework to do discovering their prolific back catalog.
Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy: Emerson, Lake and Palmer drummer Carl Palmer has been paying tribute to the group’s late keyboardist, Keith Emerson, on his current North American tour with the ELP Legacy band. Palmer was already planning a tour to celebrate his 50th year in music, but changed its focus after Emerson took his own life on March 11th. Carl Palmer has always been known as one of rock’s great drummers, sometimes named as “a drummer’s drummer”. Accompanied by guitarist Paul Bielatowicz and bassist Simon Fitzpatrick, he put together a set-list of 15 songs that covered the spectrum of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Carl looked fit for a man of 67 and sat behind the drum set centered as the focal point of the stage. Holding his sticks old school; he played with such passion and intensity like it he was back in his 30s, the speed and timing of the drum strokes were incredible, and the audience cheered in amazement. Between songs he came off his drum-kit to grab a mic and share anecdotes and stories with a crowd that yelled, screamed, and gave generous applause as classic like “Karn Evil 9”, “The Barbarian”, “Hoedown” and “Pictures at an Exhibition” dropped one after another for the two hours long concert.
After Carl Palmer performance we left, even when The Reign of Kindo was preparing to close the night. Three days in a row had taken away most of our energies, and our minds had processed way too many notes per second. Progtoberfest is a complete musical behemoth, one that can knock you down on your feet easily. The vast array of bands ranged from jazz fusion to symphonic metal, a mix of young modern bands alongside 40 year veterans. There were small rock trios followed by huge orchestras struggling to all fit on the stage. The juxtapositions within the festival itself seem to parallel those you expect to find on any truly great progressive rock album.
Unlike massive festivals, the musicians at Progtoberfest were very approachable. They mingled with the fans, ate barbecue in the Music Joint, enjoyed a drink at the bar, played pool on the rooftop deck, and cheered on fellow musicians. They never shied away at the opportunity to pose for a photo with a fan. This (besides the vast amount of music one can enjoy) is what makes Progtoberfest a truly special celebration. Kevin Pollack has officially announced Progtoberfest III for next October 2017. Will he be able to top off himself? It’ll be a Herculean task, but one thing is for sure: Kris and I will be there to live through it.