Once again I’ll try and describe some highlights of this five star festival, which Rene Janssen and his team put on for our annual entertainment and delight. The plan changed this year as Mrs D and I decided that instead of heading straight back to the UK, we would stay “on the continent”, and discover what this Europe thing is all about, aside of course from the rigid bureaucracy, wastage and immigration issues. The Little Englander (ref: David Cameron) in me meant that I had to be back for Cambridge United v Grimsby Town, but my memories are still fresh (and aided by a few notes) of another wonderful ProgPower Europe.
Friday 30th September.
In fact the European adventure started before Friday 30th September, because my friend Erik had suggested two days earlier that we go to watch Obsidian Kingdom, a 2015 ProgPower alumnus, in The Hague. That’s the subject of a separate report but the point is that this is the way that ProgPower Europe has evolved. Everyone is welcome, and concert goers are increasingly teaming up, going to gigs together beforehand and/or travelling up together.
Mindful that a number of spectators, including all the Swedish contingent, arrive on the Thursday, a pre-party and concert were staged in the unlikely setting of the chapel at the nearby Castle de Berckt where most of the festival goers stay for the weekend. The band giving the concert was Dreamwalkers Inc, a local prog rock/metal band. What I heard was an acoustic, violin-infused set of originals and covers. It was an evening with friends with some dark musical moments but our genial host and ProgPower regular Tom de Wit guided us through and provided personality to the show and the songs.
It was party time. 8pm on Friday. The eight musicians of Subterranean Masquerade bounced around enthusiastically. Seven of these musicians are from Israel and provided the ethnic dress and sounds to go with it, while the other was the redoubtable Kjetil, of Green Carnation and Tristania fame, from Norway. The guitarist on the right was a ringer for Eden Hazard, while the one on the left jumped up and down incessantly as if he was bursting for a pee. Musically I thought of Trail of Tears with the growls and everything, but in truth the end product was all over the place. It was only when Kjetil gave way to an instrumental jam, as he called it, that I realised where the problem lay. Much as I like Kjetil’s vocals, I preferred the moody and multi-coloured instrumental sounds in their raw and ethnic form. I sensed that the new songs were matched to Kjetil’s voice, so there was an imbalance. It was a case of too many people trying to do too much. At least it was joyous, and for the final song Kjetil introduced a random lady to increase the on-stage throng to nine and take part in a mass sing-a-long.
A cool-looking gentleman, or I guess he thought so, came on stage with three more ordinary-looking guys. This was Jolly from the USA. Mr Cool, who reminded me in appearance of Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, wore a smart fedora hat and jacket. He gave the impression of loving himself, so that’s nice. Jolly proceeded to play a set of well-polished songs with heavy passages. The songs were pop-like and catchy, sometimes anonymous but with a fuzzy sound which didn’t help. Nevertheless as the music powered up and down, I felt an atmosphere of night club music with heavy progressive twists. This was a band who could be hard and heavy when they wanted to be. Growls weren’t used much and were sampled, which just detracts from the live experience. Mr Cool introduced a nice song with a catchy chorus called “Ava”. Jolly deserve credit for managing to capture its emotion through the thick sound mix. The drummer mouthed the words and followed this up with an eloquent and humorous tribute to Grudz of Riverside, who sadly died this year. A fittingly sombre song followed, and then Jolly decided to launch their bid to win the award for the world’s most middle of the road prog rock band by playing some highly anonymous slushy numbers. Mr Cool, who gave off the air of a self-professed demi god, was not deterred and swaggered and wriggled and minced and twisted like a salsa dancer. Next stop Strictly Come Dancing. This was painful and just when I thought that all hope was being lost, the band came back with a ten minute long hypnotising and electrifying prog passage. After the smoochy “Solstice”, Mr Cool made a wise move by stopping “The Great Utopia” after a few seconds because of sound problems from the keyboard. What followed was an unimpeded big emotional song. After the most stage-managed encore in history, the band came back. Mr Cool now had dark glasses and a Bohemian scarf. For what reason this was, I don’t know, but the song they played had great tension and a vibrant atmosphere. It was a good way to end. To be fair to Jolly, they interacted with the audience well, especially the bassist and drummer, and musically there were good moments and good songs but this was a bit hit and miss for me.
Saturday 1st October
There was a sweet smell. I realised it’s the Dutch passion for cinnamon – biscuits, cakes, spreads and even shower gel. Cinnamon even comes with helpful instructions on the bottle, you know. “Take orally four times a day”, or something like that. The future is bright, the future is cinnamon. No such issues with Saturday’s opening band Atmospheres, who are from neighbouring Belgium. The scene was dark. An illuminated globe served as background. This was the ideal setting for moody and djenty prog with post metal tendencies and a hearty core. The set became increasingly post metal in style. This was impressive. There were mellower moments, accompanied by handclapping from the audience, and a haunting but not overpowering vocal line from the keyboard player. Sod Godiva, Neuhaus and all that, this was solid like that lovely Cote d’Or chocolate that they do in Belgium. Tight and well structured, this performance was also … atmospheric.
I reviewed the album “Deadly Scenes” by French band 6:33, so I knew to expect something off the wall. One singer, a guitarist, a bass player and two keyboard players appeared on stage. Face-painted and masked, this was a collective of characters from Nightmare from Elm Street, Jurassic Park and the Halloween party of your choice. Ultimately this was more a grotesque circus act than a musical experience. In fact the music got completely lost in the extravagant gestures of the livewire vocalist and his deathly chums.
The ProgPower Europe experience has expanded in musical style from the template prog rock or power metal bands that you might expect to take part. Distorted Harmony fall into the classic prog metal mould. These Israelis were pleasant enough and showed plenty of passion but ultimately this was generic prog metal. The darker moments didn’t reach the heights or depths, so it was mostly lightweight and anonymous without highlights. I went outside after half an hour and had a nice chat with Kenneth, the creator of the Finnish dark ambient project Owt Kri – far more interesting.
The visual display on the screen at the back showed a stormy sea. Sweden’s In Mourning whipped up a greater storm with their ferocious brand of melodic death metal. The three guitarists created a massive wall of sound. It was like being hit by a brick. It was so tight. The guitarists crossed over on stage like a game of musical chairs. Two growlers matched the fury of the instrumentalists. In Mourning’s set was big, heavy and intense. “The Smoke” is one of the band’s most anthemic songs. It demonstrates that their music is not all hammering. The quiet passages were handled with care, but have no fear – it remained powerful. The set rumbled on like a juggernaut. Crisp and heavy atmospheric passages mixed with modern djent and post metal infusions. This was an immaculate performance. Varied techniques, impressive intensity, tightness and epic structures made sure of that. In Mourning capped it all off with a climactic and uplifting finish. On the screen there was now a picture of a sea dragon. In Mourning slayed the dragon.
I missed Chaos Divine when they played at this event seven years ago, and went into this set blind, as I knew nothing by these Australians. What a pleasant surprise! Here was a set of well structured, strong, big sound heavy rock songs, all well supported by the vocalist. Now I’ve seen this kind of band before. Many of them drown themselves in bombast, but not here. It was all in the interesting shapes and patterns of the music. Great rhythms and occasional hints of Pink Floyd were supplemented with well-timed bursts of heaviness. “Don’t fall to sleep”, advised the vocalist as he introduced what he called chilled-out songs. There was no such danger. They were not so soft anyway and had plenty of interest and power. There was an air of mystery about these songs. This for me was everything that Distorted Harmony hadn’t been. The famous David Attenborough sample preceded a great cover of “Africa”. Three heavy songs followed. What was striking was the band’s great movement and co-ordination, so we got the best from the vocalist and the guitarist and a pungent beat to keep us enthralled. The songs slowed down when necessary. Chaos Divine were not frightened to mix heaviness with softer vocals and occasional growls. Full blown djent featured in the band’s final contribution. The hooks were great, the groove was impressively heavy and the performance was full-on. And what was more remarkable was that the vocalist revealed in conversation with me afterwards was that he was sick. Not only did Chaos Divine’s show go on, but it was spectacularly professional.
I was really interested in seeing headlining band and local heroes Textures, as I’d always had difficulties with the technical structures of their music. I’d heard that they had become more accessible. Let’s put this one to bed straightaway: what my friends had told me was true. On the basis of this set, those heavy technical structures were matched to the songs and weren’t apparent ends in themselves. A problem that all this punchy, occasionally djenty heaviness created was that when the vocalist sang emotional clean choruses, he had to shout above the wall of noise. This did get better. At times I felt a similarity with Swedish melodic death metal, but there were hardcore bashes too as well as those familiar technical twists and turns. The growly aggression was controlled. I loved “New Horizons”. “Asking the questions that will change our lives” is a very prog lyric, but it was still as heavy as hell. “Illuminate the Trail” was faster and harder. The five Texturians banged their heads furiously. The band had a really cool stage presence and orchestrated themselves well, but this is perhaps not so surprising in their country of cool people. I did hear afterwards the criticism that they were too slick in their movements, but I’d personally equate this to professionalism. In between these pulsating riffs, marching melodies, instrumental subtleties from the keyboards and guitars, and the occasional emotion, which appeared through the thundery clouds, the band engaged with their audience. The vocalist started his commentary in Dutch, which was fine by me as we were in their country, but was reminded that 60% of his audience don’t know their kaneel from their hagelslag, and switched to impeccable English. I was totally into these songs and their gargantuan structures. This is so much better than raw technicality. This was sophisticated metal at its best.
Review Andrew Doherty, Photos Hakan Lundbom and Deb Halford