Sunday was a cold and chilly day. Some Progpeople went for a run in the morning, while others just … chilled out. First up at the JC Sjiwa club today was Atlantis from the host country. An electro-ambient rhythm ran through the room. With a drummer supplying a steady beat, 3 guitarists and a bassist, you have the seeds of spooky post-metal. Guitarist #3 – I guess he has a name but that’s not the point in this type of metal – looked downwards and swayed. Sampled vocals came from the background. Accompanying persistent drums, they sounded distant as if passing through a narrow tunnel. As the vocals became increasingly disturbing, the guitarists bowed their heads and immersed us in sound. A mere wave of the hand counted as recognition of applause. This was no place for largesse. If not the apocalypse, there’s a dark chasm to represent here. The post metal then took a brighter twist. Maybe there are flowers in the imaginary fields after all. Atlantis are more akin to Isis than Cult of Luna. The scene transformed into electro-industrial. The front-man had little to say. Distorted waves of sound created a melancholic and mystic world. Plodding drums signalled deep reflection. There was a threat of colour breaking through again. It was hypnotic. Guitarist #3 drilled his instrument as is the norm for this genre. Another distant voice was unable to drown out the guitars which were operating in unison. A constant drone ran through the ponderous doom. There are not many moods that haven’t been explored in this genre but Atlantis were having a go. After a guitar change which was so slick that it would be worthy of a Formula 1 pit stop team, they returned to bleak landscapes – I surmised in my twisted mind that maybe they were depicting the endless horizons of Holland’s flat lands. While repetitious and hypnotic, this wasn’t total gloom. I liked this. Atlantis didn’t dig themselves deeper in search of the apocalypse as many bands of this ilk do. Instead they explored industrial processes, distant visions and I even sensed humanity on occasions. It wasn’t all black, and I thought that this interesting band made a good fist of playing in a genre which has been well covered elsewhere.
Thurisaz come from Belgium. They appeared today as a late stand-in for another band who dropped out. In the past, I’ve never found this to be an obstacle at ProgPower. Having listened to the first song, I realised we were dealing with a heavy metal band with a number of tricks up their sleeve. Ferociously delivered from the centre with a growler and a screamer, the keyboards seemed to part of another song and the clean vocals were poor. This needed to level out. The fire continued, and the keys which became increasingly Celtic in style, became more integrated and even held this mish-mash together. Between songs, a dark ambient sound could be heard like a metal heartbeat. I could imagine the winds whistling. Rock n roll came back, and in another twist a form of symphonic metal was developing. The screams had a distinctly black metal tinge. I even detected a trace of early Dimmu Borgir in the background of this essentially death metal sound. Thurisaz’s method was to section their passages, leave them on the wall and return to them later. They were great when in full metal flow, and the symphonic parts were ok but there was too much messing about and no continuity. I wondered if the clean vocals were supposed to be “pagan” as the disharmonious style is often called. “Pagan” also seems to be a euphemism for “bad singing”. Whatever these vocals were, they were partly responsible for detracting from this disjointed performance. The drummer tried to provide some sense out of it all. “Point of No Return” was announced as being “for the headbangers”. Good blackened death was once again spoilt by the “pagan” vocals. As the set went on, the Celtic tone increased, and I appreciated the atmospheres which came from these passages. Predictably the track was ruined by a short pagan vocal section at the end – a pointless return, you could say. By the end, Thurisaz were going to war. They were impressive when they stuck to the task, which wasn’t very often and they do need to eliminate or improve those pagan vocals.
I’d heard good things about Uneven Structure from France and the clips I saw before coming to ProgPower gave the strong impression that their work has a certain electricity about it. Four guitarists lined up like a firing squad, suggesting at the same time a very even structure. They certainly took advantage of the firepower available. Out came Matthieu Romarin, who I knew from his work with Ananta. He made his presence felt with a thunderous roar, then pumped up out furious the familiar (to me, anyway) metalcore vocals, combining them with clean harmonies in the style of Soilwork. The instrumentalists dug a deep groove and were playing like they were driving a juggernaut forward. The deep and rumbling sound of the guitars and drums quickly gets in your head. Matthieu sang cleanly. Everyone can take something from this, I thought. The music is played on a number of levels, which makes it all the more sophisticated and impressive. It’s heavy metal, there are progressive melodies, that thing called djent and modern metalcore. Matthieu’s vocals became chant-like. If this were a train, Matthieu would be our conductor. But conductors don’t normally display unbridled anger and aggression. Matthieu does that as well. The chunky, crunchy sound was then matched by vocals on an emotive level. The mood changes are abundant but all the time there’s that chunk-chunk-chunk as if the guitarists were digging ground. Getting this all to work together is a finely-balanced process. Uneven Structure, the relevance of whose name was now clear, get it exactly right. This is all the more remarkable, I learned afterwards from one of the band members, for the fact that they live on opposite sides ofFrance. But there’s total commitment here from the members of this band, like an Olympic athlete going for gold after years of training.
The guitarist spoke of finding the alchemy. Uneven Structure have found it. The sound was massive. Matthieu looks at his audience. Driven by the drum, an exotic mood develops. It is dark. Matthieu chants in an airy, hypnotic way. The faint sound of post-metal appears through the noise. The music is on so many levels. The trance-like technical djent is broken by impressive growls. This is exhilarating. Matthieu’s cheeks unsurprisingly go red as he growls some more. “Show us what you’ve got” he advises the audience. Hey, it’s modern metalcore at ProgPower! 5 minutes of furious headbanging but there’s space for clean vocals too of course. We’re now 40 minutes into the set and the band hasn’t paused. A moving passage follows. It’s like the rising of the dawn. Matthieu sings distantly and plaintively but the motion is constant. It’s always heavy. Dance, headbang, cry, laugh, look on in amazement – what do you do? It’s not all chunk-chunk-chunk. There’s so much melody and feeling – 100% French feeling. Technical wizardry apart, it is as if the band has been narrating a story. I did ask Matthieu about this later and he confirmed that indeed there is a full story which is represented artistically and lyrically in their “Februus” album. Matthieu sat down with a well-deserved drink before this intense experience continued. The drummer pumped us up for more action. Bam-bam-bam: the guitarists built up a wall of sound, their axes subtly reaching skywards. Matthieu screamed and implored us. The set came to an end. This was a breathtaking performance of boundless energy and exceptionally well co-ordinated technical skill from Uneven Structure. As I walked out of the club, I was still shaking with the intensity. It was like spending an hour in a washing machine, but as an experience it was so uplifting that I would like to do it again.
Before ProgPower, I knew nothing about the music of Borealis from Canada even though they have released two albums. After the technicality of Uneven Structure, this was more conventional power-prog. It was heavy but still very palatable after dinner – in common with cricket, ProgPower is punctuated by meal breaks, which I think is jolly civilised. Nice and melodic too, there was a touch of flamboyance about the music but it wasn’t overdone as can be the way with purveyors of power metal. This was in fact a mix of power and traditional heavy metal. The band played their album title track “Fall from Grace”. I thought there was a strong similarity to Masterplan here (early Evergrey in fellow Progman Marcel’s opinion) in the style. There was real co-ordination between the musicians. It was fluid, tight and entirely lacking in cheese, not the scrumptious Dutch culinary version but the power metal type. Groans … a slower song was announced. Make or break time now. The lady in front of me nearly burnt herself with her lighter. Aside from mishaps in the audience, the song was well sung and properly developed into a big power metal number. Borealis had passed the power ballad test. The singer struggled in the upper ranges but the musical canvas remained exciting. There was bombast but this band exuded warmth, not arrogance.
The singer received great support from the instrumentalists, who worked well as a team. Another slower track “Watch the World Collapse” was presented. Again this was a nice song which was given identity through magical keyboard moments, delicate guitar work and darkness from the drums. Then it burst into irrepressible heaviness. In defiance of their name, Borealis evidently don’t do boring power ballads. Their song structures are intelligent and interesting. What we needed most was heaviness at this point and that’s what we got. The drummer led the charge into another thoughtful and pulsating power metal track. A member of the audience had “happy birthday” sung to them – a personal touch from these modest and likeable Canadians. “Regeneration” fell between rock n roll and controlled power metal. It was only at this point that I noticed a guitar solo, so integrated had the music been. The solo was brilliant. Technical skill and personality combined well here. Moreover, this was real fun. I concluded that Borealis are a top quality band.
If you can get a whole audience to spontaneously sing the line of a song you don’t know in a language you don’t know, then you must have got something right. This is what happened during the set of Akphaezya from France. But more of that later. My first encounter with this band was in 2008, when I heard their album “Anthology II: Links from the Dead Trinity” album. No description could do justice to its genre crossovers or style. Unfortunately I missed ProgPower in 2009 (note to self: don’t miss ProgPower) so I didn’t see them play but I’m told their performance caused amazement and admiration. Now was my chance to make up. A well-turned out lady in an orange flowery dress sat at the keyboards and sang in a voice somewhere between Edith Piaf and Eartha Kitt. The song had an Arabian feel. A metal band played around her. It was like a story being told. The lady was positioned diagonally across the stage and turned her head to the crowd. How suggestive. Her voice was sweet, it was operatic, it was powerful – what a breathtaking voice. The instrumentalists supplied a dramatic backdrop. The sound pumps up. All eyes are on the lady. She stands up. She sings classically, then out of the blue she headbangs and growls ferociously. It’s like a hungry lion being let out of its cage. The growls are 100% pure and would pierce girders. If this isn’t avant-garde music, I don’t know what is. Do you know what – I think there’s more than a hint of insanity. Let’s call it creativity. The crowd smiles and laughs appreciatively. Dark clouds descend. The lady plays manically. It’s jazz time. She stands up. The lion is out again. She roars and then goes quiet. Her voice is soft, remarkably like Kate Bush. That was the first song.
“You are expected to dance”, the French lady states dominantly in her very French way. So there is a Latin dance tune of course with a metal riff. It makes no sense. She dances on stage. Is that the Charleston? I think we’re in the 1920’s now. People in the crowd are headbanging. The lady roars thunderously. Her lungs are in impeccable working order. A black metal riff accompanies the cha-cha-cha. An Arabian dance starts. The lady’s head falls to one side theatrically like a rag doll. She wants locking up, as my father would have said. Heavy doom now is the prelude to a haunting vocal. The atmosphere is moody. Jazz prevails. The work from the instrumentalists is sharp – let’s not forget them in all this. They set the jazzy scene. The section is prolonged. It’s still off centre. The lady launches into a classical piano piece. There is rapturous applause. The lady has deep, staring eyes. She is acting out her roles. This is all like a brain dump of someone’s musical fantasies. Total heavy metal erupts. There’s manic dancing to go with it. The lady launches into a wild tirade. You’d hear those vocals on a Tristania album, but their lady doesn’t wear orange or sing as an accompaniment to rampant heavy metal. Jazz metal returned. The lady, full of Gallic gestures, bounced and danced. It’s impossible not to look at her and be amazed. Driving metal returned, and the not-so-angelic angel sang. “Maybe you will sing with me attentively”, she announced. A bit of linguistic mangling can be forgiven. She’s French, after all. And so the moment came. It started with a classical rhythm and a classical song. It was dreamy and beautifully sung. She split the room and gave a brief Spanish lesson. We had our line to sing. A South American dance rhythm started. Fluid, sexy movements accompanied the song on stage. “OK, you are continuing”. The audience, the Dutch, the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Poles, the Italians, the Czechs, the Brits and all the other assorted representatives of the world all joined in, totally oblivious to what we were singing. The room exploded with joy and happiness. “You dance together” she declared uncompromisingly, matching this statement by proceeding to growl to ultra heavy metal. This was total theatre come circus. The 1920’s re-appeared but were quickly overtaken by more fierce growls. The lady sang darkly. She looked sultry. She sounded like Kate Bush once more. Do-do-do she chanted as if she had regressed to childhood. This woman was in la-la land. There was no return to normality but we had come to expect this.
The set ended with the first “proper” song, at least by Akphaezya’s standards. Starting moody and expansive, the tension heightened. The lady screamed. A Latin rhythm broke out. She danced. The audience clapped. The song was highly charged and full of emotion. We were told that what they had played here was a representation of their latest work “Anthology IV: The Tragedy of Nerak”. It couldn’t end there. We wanted more. They came back and treated us to “Secret of Time” off the first album, a potent combination of Arabic spices and metal. This was pure musical theatre. The lady was the principal actress, responding like a chameleon to the parts she needed to play. “Refreshing” was a word I heard to describe this show. Yes, we witnessed something special here. The members of this band are lovely people too, as I found out later, but that is true of all ProgPower people. ProgPower brings a freedom of expression and an unbridled joy. We saw plenty of that in Akphaezya’s performance.
The final band to perform this year was Norway’s Circus Maximus. Off stage they have a reputation for zany videos and for being amiable nutcases in general. Musically they have released three albums since 2012 so there was plenty of material to exploit. I had seen them play before, and while I appreciated the melodic quality of their music and the talents of the vocalist, I didn’t find their songs very interesting. As a result, I haven’t listened to them since and so I don’t really know their material. Most of the songs weren’t announced during the set so that didn’t help very much but I do know that a number of the songs were from the latest album “Nine”.
Circus Maximum had a 90 minute set ahead of them and took advantage by building up the atmosphere patiently. The singer’s voice was as lush as I remembered it and the guitar work was good. The crowd appreciated what they heard. The band was capable of aggressive prog too, and there was even growling from the drummer but that was short-lived. The harmless warfare returned to prog finery. The band played a couple of tracks off “Isolate”. There was a little bit of momentary oom-pah and I liked the marching quality. Explosive in its way, this was good heavy metal. “Abyss” was played and again the musicianship was of a high quality. There were however no goose-bump moments and I sense correctly there weren’t going to be any. In fact the song was a bit cheesy. I was starting to struggle with all this. It’s never a good sign when the listener is trying to engage with the music and this is what was happening. It just wasn’t capturing me. A nicely structured pop style song followed. A pattern was starting to emerge where an obligatory guitar solo followed the main body of the song, so when I heard whale noises coming from the keyboards man and growly guitars, I started to enjoy it more. Circus Maximus showed they were capable of dark sections, power metal and moodily heavy parts but as the show went on, it became increasingly formulaic.
“Let’s see all of you on the dancefloor” announced the singer. I suppose that if taken literally it wasn’t an invitation to do anything, which is just as well because a soft prog track followed. We were invited to join in the chorus – fine, if you know what the song and its chorus are. Not many did so. The keyboard player for me was becoming the star attraction. I liked the “Tubular Bells” type rhythm in the background. In the foreground, it was all getting to be the same. “Game of Life” was an improvement, deviating marginally from the template. This was a good, catchy song, easy to hang on to and with a pleasant shape. The keyboarder and, inevitably, the guitarist had their solo moments and the song powered up nicely towards the end. The band were doing ok with the crowd but I didn’t really sense mutual love, while at the same time we weren’t in a business relationship either. I heard the sound of hammer on anvil but it faded away and served no obvious purpose. Melodic metal resumed. There was a slow song, faintly reminiscent of Green Carnation in its sadness and all the more interesting for it, but in spite of momentary uplifts, there was nothing here that I hadn’t seen or heard before. There was some entertainment value, but I didn’t feel any engagement and the formula was the same: a song which amounted to the extension of a power ballad, a guitar solo and then back to the song again to finish. The call for an encore wasn’t as voluble as some I’ve heard, but out they came. From the guitar sound, I thought I was listening to U2 but it amounted to the usual formula. It was “The Last Goodbye” of a fantastic weekend.
Well done, ProgPower! What a wonderful occasion. I know I say this every year but we mustn’t take this for granted. I was privileged to enjoy superb entertainment, superb organisation, a superb atmosphere and the company of superb people.
All that is left for me is to record some thanks and other highlights. My sincerest thanks go as usual to Rene, Martijn, Christian and the rest of the crew for organising the event as a whole, including the excellent accommodation arrangements.
My heroes of the weekend are:
Hero 1: Rene (for too many reasons to specify)
Hero 2: Marcel Slamen for taking action to organise a tribute on behalf of the Progpeople as part of the Mikko Laine memorial.
Hero 3: Gary who came all the way from Christchurch, New Zealand for the event.
National Drinking Award: with 57% proof whisky, 10.7% beer and overall sustained and committed drinking, this prestigious award has to go to Finland.
Humanitarian Award:Sweden’s Håkan Lindbom for arranging to supply thirsty Irishman Sean Murphy with beer during the Shattered Skies set.
Most Comical Facial Expression:Holland’s Marcel Slamen when it dawned on him that I speak more than one language. Some Brits do you know, Marcel!
Musical Knowledge: Peter (Sweden) for not realising his own country had won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Respect!
Toast of the Weekend: Myself and Peter (Sweden) for celebrating our good fortune at our countries not being in the Eurozone.
From the stage:
Slickest Guitar Changeover: Atlantis
Least Successful Guitar Changeover: Nightingale (twice)
Mystery of the Weekend: The Russian hat.
.And of course my selections for Bands of the Weekend:
Friday: Anubis Gate
Saturday: A Liquid Landscape
Sunday: Uneven Structure (close winners over Akphaezya)
Overall: Uneven Structure.
That’s all! It’s time now to go and listen to all the cds I bought.
Review Andrew Doherty
Photos very special thanks to Paul van der Wolf and Håkan Lundbom