ProgPower Europe 2019 – The Music

What can I say? I am overwhelmed by the comments, the love and the support shown to me following the publication of my first blog post in over eight months, a somewhat incoherent gathering of thoughts about the atmosphere, the fun, the friendship and the magic of ProgPower Europe 2019.

But I must put all that to one side though, steel myself and plough on with my next article, an in-depth look at the one thing that last post deliberately omitted: the music.

Prior to the festival, I will admit to a certain amount of disappointment at the news that Redemption had cancelled for reasons unknown. Knowing the gentlemen in that band as I am fortunate to do, I know that it was not a decision taken lightly but it did mean that I’d miss out on meeting up with Tom Englund and Nick van Dyk, not to mention a first face-to-face meeting with Vikram Shankar. Bummer.

But, with Lost In Thought and Ghost Ship Octavius added to the bill to compensate, and after undertaking a little homework on the bands with which I was unfamiliar, I was convinced that the 2019 line-up was going to be one of the best.

The question was: did the music live up to the potential?

The answer: Read on to find out!

Note: I’m not a photographer, so if you’re looking for great shots of the bands, I suggest you head over to The ProgSpace over the next week or so, where you should find everything to satisfy those needs.

With a day job to navigate, I was unable to join the early revelry on the Thursday evening and consequently missed the set by Ragnar Solberg. From what I heard, it was an enjoyable evening of acoustic music, an ideal way to set the festival in motion.

For me then, the first band of the weekend was an absolute corker. I have had the pleasure of seeing Voyager before and so I knew what the Aussies were capable of in the live arena. This show however, was even better than I had previously witnessed. The quintet from Perth, Western Australia, are a class act, oozing professionalism from every pore whilst also able to light up the stage with their unique brand of fun and light heartedness.

Of course, it also helps if you have the music to back it all up and that’s where Voyager succeed with aplomb. Their brand of heavy, progressive tunes with groove, swagger and a wonderfully uplifting dose of 80s pop choruses and melodies is nothing short of infectious and incredibly powerful on stage. Speaking of ‘infectious’, the same could be said of the guys themselves; smiles everywhere, loads of energy bursting from the seams, inter-band banter – it’s all present and correct and thoroughly engrossing. The famous red keytar of Daniel Estrin made it’s inevitable appearance, as did Simone Dow’s myriad guitar faces – a Voyager gig wouldn’t be the same without them.

The new tracks aired, namely ‘Colours’ and ‘Water Over The Bridge’, translated well and bode extremely well for the new record, ‘Colours In The Sun’, due to be released on 1 November 2019.

Headliners for day one were none other than Diablo Swing Orchestra and, if I’m honest, was the one band of the weekend that I had literally no interest in seeing or hearing. Those that know me, know that I have a tough job accepting brass instruments in my music, let alone a full-on embrace of swing music. The very thought has me writhing in agony. However, ever the true professional, I remained in the venue to see if my instincts were wrong or if I could be converted to the cause.

The stage never looked smaller as a trumpet, trombone and electric cello vied for room alongside the usual guitars, bass and drums, creating a striking visual display. I will also admit that the reaction from the crowd was very warm and favourable, with plenty of dancing and partying to be seen in front of me. The mix was clear and the songs were delivered with vibrancy and energy. However, that said, I lasted for three songs before I bailed in search of alcohol in the basement bar. I am in no doubt that DSO made many friends that night and rightly so. But for me? I’m sorry, but they’re just not my thing.

Day two started incredibly strongly thanks to the Tilburg-based Scarlet Stories, a band that was unfamiliar to me until I undertook my homework a week before heading to the festival. It is always a tradition to start the Saturday with a Dutch band and Scarlet Stories grasped the opportunity with both hands. Led by the enchanting voice of Lisette van den Berg, theirs is a brand of Gothic-tinged, dark rock with a hint of progressiveness and a sense of the epic.

Starting out as a duo that re-worked metal songs into acoustic pieces, it came as no surprise that the heavy stuff was frequently punctuated by softer, more gentle passages, albeit with a dark, occasionally twisted lyrical content and imagery. I was entertained from start to finish with the standout moment easily being the anthemic crescendo to ‘Vingt Mille Lieues Sous Les Mers’, which sent a shiver or two up my spine. Sufficiently impressed, I bought their debut disc, ‘Necrologies’ straight after they left the stage.

If there was a prize given out for the band with the most enthusiasm, then the award would easily have been won by Anima Tempo. The very first Mexican band to grace the PPEU stage, we were left in no doubt that the quintet were here to have fun and to live their dream. The diminutive musicians may have lacked the physical stature of others, but their energy and sense of fun was the stuff of giants.

They bounced around the stage with youthful exuberance and held the crowd in the palm of their hands for the full hour. The musicianship was out of the top drawer and the compositions that contained plenty of killer riffs, flamboyance and technicality, painted bold vistas on the minds of the audience who watched on, thoroughly captivated. Whilst the entire band put on an amazing show, a special mention has to go to Dante Granados for his virtuosic lead guitar work which added another level of dynamism to the music emanating from the stage.

My knowledge of the UK’s Voices From The Fuselage was limited but from what I had previously heard, I remember being struck by a unique and engaging voice, that of Ashe O’Hara. And most certainly, his talents translated to the live arena, where he was able to allow his voice to soar through the venue. Unfortunately, his talents did not extend to inter-song crowd banter, with many of the things he said just making my toes curl.

I also found the actual songs themselves a little on the dull side, perhaps because of the stark contrast between them and the Mexicans that preceded them. There was nothing wrong per se with the performance, it just didn’t wow me as I hoped. And judging by the way the crowd thinned considerably as their slot wore on, I suspect that I wasn’t alone with my thoughts.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the performance of the entire weekend belonged to Kingcrow. I had been impressed with the Italians when I caught up with them in the UK recently, supporting Pain of Salvation but this was on a completely new level. I don’t use the word often in reviews, but this was bordering on sonic perfection for my tastes.

Firstly, the sound was arguably the best of any of the bands over the three days. I could hear every instrument within a mix that had clarity and sufficient punch without being too loud. I was delighted because it meant that I could enjoy the compositions in all their glory and boy, were the songs glorious. Over the course of the past three or four albums, Kingcrow have kept getting better and better, culminating in the magnificent ‘The Persistence’, a record that is close to my heart.

The songs off this masterpiece were delivered beautifully with skill and with an energy that surprised me. Yes, they aren’t always the most visual of bands but as I commented on social media at the time, their intricate blend of ‘melody, intensity and subtle progressiveness speaks to my soul’. With the monstrous title track from ‘In Crescendo’ getting an airing too, alongside crowd favourite ‘The Moth’, I and many others lapped it up, utterly captivated under their powerful spell. I can’t remember the last time I experienced so many goosebumps and chills at a live show. And the constant smiles and looks of intense gratitude emanating from the musicians on stage just added to the magic of what was a stellar performance and one that will live long in my memory. I even have a copy of the setlist to cherish from a very special 75 minutes of progressive mastery.

Despite a protesting back that begged me to retreat to a seated position, I remained at the barrier for Ghost Ship Octavius, one of my most anticipated artists of the entire weekend. I had been blown away by their most recent album, ‘Delirium’, in particular and was incredibly excited to see the material performed live on stage. If I’m honest, I was also very eager to hear the legendary Van Williams behind the drum kit once again.

All-in-all, GSO did not disappoint, although I dearly wished for a better sound. The whole thing was just a touch too loud and lacking in sufficient definition as Williams’ thumping threatened to overpower the more intricate elements of the bands’ sound. As such, it was tricky at times to hear the glorious melodies that so typifies the GSO sound.

That said, it is hard not to be impressed by such a juggernaut of a band who clearly have skill in abundance and the material to match. Bedecked in their traditional face paint for that theatrical edge, this was unbelievably their second live performance of the day having travelled directly from nearby Eindhoven after appearing at Das Oktober Metalfest festival. But the energy and commitment shown by the quartet was never in question, with vocalist/bassist Adon Fanion impressing with his monstrous voice and Matthew Wicklund churning out the riffs and solos effortlessly from behind an unreadable mask of concentration. All my personal favourites from ‘Delirium’ were aired including the stunning ‘Turned To Ice’ and I just hope the band continue on their upward trajectory going forward.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I absolutely hate it when a band struggles because everything just feels uncomfortable; for the fans watching on and for the musicians themselves. It is especially horrible when the band in question is the headliner of the day and who has such a rich history within progressive music circles. Admittedly, I have never been the biggest fan of Psychotic Waltz but even I knew something was wrong almost from the beginning. Problems with the backing tracks didn’t help either, leading to a lengthy period of awkward near silence after the completion of two tracks. But those two tracks were enough to announce to the crowd that in Devon Graves, Psychotic Waltz had a singer in turmoil. His vocals were abysmal, all over the place and it was a painful struggle to watch. With a heavy heart, I gave up and in a repeat of the night before, headed in search of a beer or two in the basement bar.

The final day could not have started in a better way. I’ve long been an admirer of Wales’ Lost In Thought, delighting in the fact that the quintet returned after an eight-year hiatus to deliver an incredible sophomore album that still receives regular rotation in the Mansion of Much Metal™.

Before the show starts, I’m given a warm handshake by drummer Chris Billingham from the stage but things just get better from then on. I’m delighted to see, somewhat unbelievably for a prog festival, the first keyboard of the weekend on stage. I’m even more delighted to discover that it is high enough in the pretty decent mix to be heard too.

After the show, the perfectionists were bemoaning the various mistakes they made, but from where I was standing, the music sounded great; tight and powerful, not to mention beautifully melodic in places, just the way I like it. Vocalist Dean Lazenby announced after the close of the first track that the band would treat us to ‘Renascence’ in its entirety and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Yes, it was a shame not to hear ‘Blood Red Diamond’ from the debut but frankly, this is a small gripe when the show was as good as it was. It never ceases to amaze me just how bands of this incredible quality and professionalism are a) so low on a festival bill and b) not taking the world by storm. Based on this performance and the content of their two records released to date, the future looks very rosy indeed for Lost In Thought. If you ever get the chance to see this band on stage, just do it, you won’t be disappointed.

Prior to the festival, I had literally no idea about Prehistoric Animals. However, after a hasty bit of homework, I was pleasantly surprised by what the Swedes had to offer. A blend of 80s style melodies and synths, blended with a strong hard rock centre, the music on YouTube found favour with me.

Apparently, this was only the band’s fourth live show in their history but that simply didn’t show. Using the giant monitor to good effect behind them, theirs was a very visual performance to accompany their aural offering. And I have to say I was as impressed as I hoped I would be. The melodies soared and there was a sense of fun within the generally bright and breezy-sounding compositions. The sound was good from where I stood midway back in the venue, with Stefan Altzar’s voice impressing me in particular, and I felt a tinge of disappointment when they announced their last song. Mind you, the excellent ‘Never Thought I Was a Monster’ delivered an excellent finale and once again, I found myself at the merch stand with wallet in hand.

Rendezvous Point are a band that, on paper, I should like more than I do. A supremely talented group of musicians, including Baard Kolstad (Leprous) on drums, they produce the kind of technical yet accessible enough progressive metal that I should lap up. For some reason, they have never fully clicked, with their new record ‘Universal Chaos’ not really hitting the mark.

On stage, they are simply incredible, however. Tight as a duck’s backside, they produced a performance that actually reduced some of the Norwegian contingent to tears. It was powerful, it was electric and it was thoroughly impressive, with singer Geirmund Hansen surprising me with his unexpectedly strong voice. The whole thing was professional in the extreme and slick. And yet, I didn’t find myself as absorbed and engrossed as I felt I should have been. ‘Not quite enough melody’ was the phrase I lamely babbled when others asked me to explain my slight misgivings.

As a side note, I listened to ‘Universal Chaos’ on my journey home. And do you know what? It clicked. Damnit! I now wish I could go back to Saturday afternoon and re-witness the show through my new ears. Instead, I’ll just have to wait until next time.

Instrumental bands have to go some to impress me and so Kong had their work cut out with me from the get-go. I generally find music without vocals to become a tad boring and onstage, it always feels like there is an invisible barrier between the band and the audience, a disconnect that is usually bridged by the lead singer.

To their credit, Kong did deliver a decent set, although I would be lying if I said that I stayed for the entirety of their performance. Similarly, I’d be telling untruths if I didn’t admit to liking the visuals on the screen below, everything from whales swimming in the ocean to bird’s eye views of busy urban streets. Without these to punctuate the music, I may have left even earlier. But, to be fair and reasonable, I did find myself nodding along to a couple of the tracks that featured some weighty riffs and a fair amount of hypnotic groove. Oh and standing next to the Welsh when the image of a herd of sheep popped up on the screen was priceless – worthy of a top five comedy moment from the weekend.

I only discovered Australian band Teramaze with the release of ‘Her Halo’ in 2015. However, I love that record and I’m beginning, albeit more slowly, to fall for the charms of their latest disc, ‘Are We Soldiers’. So I was chuffed to see the band on the bill and also amazed upon finding out that they had travelled halfway across the world just to play one set at this festival.

The synth-drenched melodic prog metal is the kind of thing that I tend to thoroughly enjoy and for those unfamiliar, I’d loosely liken them in style to the likes of Darkwater. Longer compositions, generally mid-paced and with strong choruses, melodies and vocal harmonies; that’s the Teramaze modus operandi and, to my mind it worked rather well on stage. As others commented, I’d agree that the set needed a little more in the light and shade or tempo departments to keep the crowd fully engaged. However, the strength of band mastermind Dean Wells is that he knows a good melody and so nearly every time one of these emanated from the stage, I was drawn back to their cause. Oh and with Nathan Peachey, they are blessed with a hugely talented singer, with charm and charisma there for all to see. As far as I was concerned, the 60 hour round trip was well worth it.

I will admit that I raised an eyebrow some months ago when Persefone were named as the festival headline act. I absolutely adore their latest offering ‘Aathma’, but I wasn’t quite convinced that the Andorran metal band would be a popular choice at the top of the tree. With growled vocals and a pronounced death metal edge, they were clearly not going to be to everyone’s taste but by hell did they give their all.

I’m seriously gutted for the sextet that they suffered with their sound. The compositions were too often dogged by a muddy and indecipherable mix, not to mention the fact that the monitors weren’t turned off and so vocalist Marc Martins Pia sounded like an alien robot when addressing the crowd between songs.

The technicality and complexity of their material deserved a clearer mix, to allow the subtle nuances to shine through. And to allow the beautifully melodic passages to wash over the crowd with their undeniable majesty.

But, for all that, I still thoroughly enjoyed the show and based on the effort and the skill that was on display, they cemented their place in my affections. Gruff vocalist Pia was a bundle of energy, standing atop speakers and running around interacting with his bandmates; he even managed to get the first moshpit I have ever seen at a prog concert going before diving in himself to throw some shapes. I’m not sure this enamoured him with some sections of the crowd, but I can’t fault his enthusiasm. The applause that greeted Persefone at the end of their set from the hardcore that had made it to the end of the festival, was testament to the high esteem in which they are rightly held. A few enemies maybe, but Persefone left ProgPower Europe with many more friends and, judging by the action at the merch stand, a few quid in their pockets too.

And with that, ProgPower Europe 2019 was at an end. But what a ride it was, with some high class music at almost every turn. Whether or not it was the best edition I have been to is open for much debate but I left the small Dutch town of Baarlo with a huge smile on my face and a determination to return the following year whatever the line-up. Long live ProgPower Europe!

One thought

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s