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Ground and Sky » Prog
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Understandably, this whole Progressive Nation thing is a big deal in prog-rock (or at least prog-metal) land. At one point I think there were four separate threads going on about this tour over at ProgressiveEars, and who knows how much activity there’s been on Mike Portnoy’s forum, the Opeth forum, or the various relevant Yahoo! groups. The tour made its stop in Washington, DC on Monday night, and I went to see what the hubbub’s all about, camera in hand (all photos are at Flickr).
Of the four bands participating — Dream Theater, Opeth, Between the Buried and Me and 3 — I’ve seen the first two (2-3 times each, I can’t remember anymore), am a big fan of the third’s new album Colors, and am totally unfamiliar with the last. Overall I was most excited to see BTBAM; I haven’t been a Dream Theater fan for a long time now, and once I started getting into the more extreme end of extreme metal, Opeth started seeming a little less interesting to me as well (though I still quite enjoy their stuff when I get the hankering to give it a spin).
In any case, I showed up at the venue, DAR Constitution Hall (a 3,700 seat theater), a little before 7pm. I’ve never photographed a show at DAR before, so I spent a few minutes wandering around figuring out what to do. I picked up my photo pass and then got conflicting instructions from staff about where to go from there. I ended up going through some backstage door and getting led to the stage area by a friendly member of BTBAM (I was too distracted by wondering where the hell I was going to engage him in much conversation, but did find out that he’s one of the members from my hometown, Winston-Salem). He actually led me to the stage itself — and I found myself at the very back of the stage just as 3 were beginning their set. Uh, not exactly what I had planned, but ok. I made my way around the wings and got down to the audience area where I was supposed to be. DAR has no photo pit, but I was told I could shoot from the aisles, and found out later (during Opeth’s set) that I could also shoot from the front row of seats right up against the stage, which were unoccupied.
For more on the photography end of this show, check out my photography blog. Now that we’ve gotten to the point in the story that I’m in the venue, what about the music? I was mildly interested in 3, mostly because people have been absolutely raving about their opening set for this tour. In the past I never read anything about their music that made me think I would particularly like them. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure whether I particularly like them, as their music made almost no impression on me. Most of that is my own fault; I was paying attention to getting my bearings in the venue instead of listening. So, put that one down as an incomplete with apologies from the grader. Circumstances were only slightly better for BTBAM as I had to spend the first half of their 30-minute set working out a pass issue, but I did get to see them do “Viridian” and “White Walls” and they fucking blew my head off. Colors was an album that I thought was just ok at first but has really grown on me, and in the live setting these guys pulled it all off with aplomb: the quick shifts in mood, the tricky time changes, the range of styles from Floydlike shoegazing to death metal volume and intensity. The bass solo in “Viridian” raised the tension just enough for them to bring the house down with “White Walls.” The crowd seemed fairly responsive, but then again I was in the front, where folks were bound to be most engaged.
After BTBAM I figured I’d seen my highlight of the show already, and I was more or less right. Opeth put on a solid set — interestingly, thanks to the compressed time limits (they only had an hour to play), they opened with “Demon at the Fall,” which was actually a little disconcerting to me. I kept expecting them to walk off the stage at the end of the song, since that’s what they usually do. They played a range of stuff from their career, including one of the snoozers from Damnation and a song from the forthcoming album Watershed. I don’t really do the illegal downloading thing, so I haven’t heard the leaked version of Watershed that’s been making the rounds for a few months, but I liked the new song (”Heir Apparent,” I think) with reservations. There were some awesome riffs but it probably could have been cut shorter by a couple minutes (really I could say this about a lot of Opeth songs, so that’s nothing new).
Otherwise, it was Opeth and not a lot more needs to be said. Lots of slow sections that burst into killer riffs and death-metal growls. Lots of banter from Mikael Åkerfeldt. Someone yelled “Freebird.” (Someone always yells “Freebird.” Seriously, I think we need legislative action here. Note to people who like to yell “Freebird” - you are not anywhere near as clever or funny as you think you are.) The sound was awful. Like, really awful; the bass drum overwhelmed everything, especially the vocals. This seems to be the case every time I see this band and it makes me sad.
Apart from the sound, though, I dug Opeth’s set and waited for Dream Theater satisfied that I’d already seen two pretty good sets, with absolutely no expectations for the last. Just to clarify: I used to love Dream Theater. Images and Words and Awake are two of the albums that originally got me into the whole prog thing, and by association into adventurous music in general. Even as recently as Scenes From a Memory (and especially Live Scenes from New York) I would count myself a fan. But things went quickly downhill from there, and I can’t really say I much like anything that came after Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. It’s telling that the last time I saw the band live (a long time ago in 2002, back when Usenet was apparently still relevant judging from my old post), I thought the best stuff they did was a medley of old material and a cover of Metallica’s Master of Puppets.
This time around, I went in with no expectations and came away pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Dream Theater’s set. I think I would have liked it even more if I stuck around for the encore, in which they played, well, a medley of old stuff. But what I saw was pretty decent; the new material still doesn’t do a whole lot for me, but these guys have the showmanship thing down, and even if I don’t really dig what they’re playing, at least they are entertaining. When they played “Take the Time” I was really, really reminded of how much better I like the odd-time riffing from the old albums as opposed to the mile-a-minute shredding on some of the newer ones; and some of the songs they played from Scenes From a Memory also came off quite well.
I did start getting a little restless after Jordan Rudess pulled out his wireless keytar thing and played a shredding duo with John Petrucci, and when James LaBrie’s voice started going from somewhat coherent and controlled to, uh, less so. So I booked out of there before I was reminded of all the reasons I don’t like this band as much as I used to. It seems to have worked, as I look back on the concert now with good feelings. The highlight for me was definitely BTBAM — and I would really like to see them on a headlining tour sometime — but the rest of the sets were pretty solid as well. The venue seemed pretty full and folks were getting into the bands, though the turnout for Dream Theater was way, way higher than for anyone else, which was understandable but still made me a little sad to see. It was interesting to see the tension of folks who were there for Dream Theater listening to metal with growled/screamed vocals — not surprisingly, during the BTBAM and Opeth sets there were a fair number of people that retreated to the concourse and downstairs lounge.
Wow, the “new” Dream Theater album, Systematic Chaos (which I just picked up because it was super-cheap and I am a masochist), is really pretty terrible. Not in the same way that Train of Thought was aggressively awful, but more in a I’m-bored-out-of-my-mind kind of way. I sort of feel bad reviewing their albums these days (even though Octavarium was really okay, nothing too bad) since it’s a bit like poking a stick in the eyes of fanboys around the Internet, but I’ll probably review this one anyway for the sake of comprehensiveness. In the meantime, feast on this amusing review of it at PopMatters.
Once upon a time, I owned more Pink Floyd CDs than CDs by any other artist — combined. I was depressed because I thought I’d never find a band whose music was as transcendently amazing or that affected me in such an emotional way. I put up posters at my school celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dark Side of the Moon. I bought or downloaded “RoIOs” (seems like only Pink Floyd fans use this term instead of “bootleg”) and became familiar with tens of different performances of the same few songs. When I was a junior in high school, I once told a class that the one thing I wanted to do before I died was to see Pink Floyd live.
Needless to say, I’ve since set my life goals slightly higher, and Pink Floyd has slipped considerably in my list of favorite bands. Still, when I found out that The Australian Pink Floyd Show (hereafter “Aussie Floyd”) were going to play in the DC area, it was with only mild hesitation that I ponied up fifty bucks for a ticket. And I somewhat guiltily slipped out of work an hour or so early — it was a late night tonight as a bill we’ve been working to kill for over years now is going to a vote tomorrow — to make it to the show.
When I got to the theater, 45 minutes late, the band was just wrapping up what sounded like a killer version of “Us and Them” and seguing into the finale of Dark Side of the Moon. It looked like the first set was that album in its entirety; despite my poster shenanigans in high school, Dark Side has never been one of my favorite Floyd albums and so I wasn’t overly bummed about missing out on most of the set. However, to my surprise I did nearly get chills listening to “Brain Damage/Eclipse,” so things were looking good.
After a brief intermission, the second set kicked off with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” much to my delight (Wish You Were Here remains my favorite Floyd album). I won’t list out the whole setlist, but suffice it to say that it drew from a wide variety of albums, although the only pre-Dark Side songs were “One Of These Days” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” The latter was godly. The live rendition was trancelike at the beginning and ending, but unlike the original, added in an absolutely crushing middle section, with a pair of white-hot solos courtesy of the guitarist and saxophonist. Easily the highlight of the show for me. The pro-shot YouTube video below is good, but doesn’t do the performance I saw justice.
Elsewhere were some totally unsurprising selections like “Wish You Were Here,” “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2″ (with a nifty guitar solo section), “Comfortably Numb,” etc. If I had a complaint it would be that there were too many songs from The Wall. The vocalists in Aussie Floyd did a decent job with Gilmour’s rich vocal parts, but couldn’t pull of Waters’ reedy, tortured-soul vocals nearly as convincingly. In fact, overall their vocal performances, while technically sound, were emotionally a little flat. Some of the songs from The Wall (in addition to not being my favorites in the first place) suffered as a result.
An odd highlight for me was “Learning to Fly” off of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, which was played in a form closer to the funkier Delicate Sound of Thunder version. Momentary Lapse is not an album that most Floyd fans would ever call one of their best, but I have a bit of a soft spot for it. It was the first Floyd album I ever heard; I stayed up all night on a long bus ride from North Carolina to the Florida Keys on a seventh-grade school trip, listening to this album over and over again. When Aussie Floyd played “Learning to Fly” — my favorite song on the album then and now — I closed my eyes and I was 12 years old again, watching the nighttime landscape zoom past under the light of the moon as a whole world of music was opened up to me thanks to an old cassette tape in a borrowed Sony Walkman.
Last night I had the chance to see The Plastic People of the Universe, which was great because I missed them here two years ago when they were guests at the Czech embassy. I’m not all that familiar with these guys — I have Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned and Muz bez uší, the album of their earliest live recordings. I’m not very well-acquainted with the latter, but I think pretty highly of Egon Bondy. Regardless, given that the bandleader Milan Hlavsa passed away in 2001, I really had no idea what to expect from this incarnation of the band.
What I was treated to was a melodic, accessible brand of sorta-avant-rock — still a little out there and experimental, but not enough to scare off anyone even moderately familiar with dissonant music, and nowhere near as edgy as their early stuff, at least the stuff I’m familiar with. There were tons of catchy themes, bouncy rhythms and melodic guitar solos; the most out-there stuff were the vocals (mostly chanted or spoken), the sometimes weird keyboard harmonies, and the occasional white-hot sax solos. I was a little surprised at how prominent a role the guitarist was given; he’s a very good player but many of his solos were a little too straightforward for my taste. The sax solos were more up my alley, soulful and searching; and the highlight of the entire set was definitely a rendition of “Apocalyptic Bird” from Egon Bondy, which dispensed with the annoying keyboard squalls present at the beginning and end of the studio version, but faithfully rendered the funky beat and blistering sax work.
This was a really fun show; if not the most compelling one I’ve seen this year, it was great to see these guys looking so hale and hearty and having a great time. Also nice to see that they were able to draw a crowd of probably over 100 folks (and interestingly enough, I think more than half of the audience was female). I might have to pick up some more of their material at some point.
A Triangle area, NC paper had a really nice writeup of last weekend’s ProgDay yesterday — figured I’d share it as it’s one of the very few mainstream articles on prog that completely avoids poking fun of the scene in any way. Either the writer is a fan or he demonstrates admirable restraint. Hell, if I wrote that article, there’d be more poking. For one thing, the writer calls prog “a stable stone in the rushing river of mainstream trends,” which is sort of ironic given the much-maligned “progressive” nomenclature. I probably couldn’t resist making that dig, at least.
Newsflash: Seventh Records has put four albums up on eMusic, including two Magma live albums! The two albums are Théâtre du Taur and BBC 1974 Londres, though oddly the former omits the second disc (which consists of MDK in its entirety). The other two albums include one by Simon Goubert and one by Collectif Mu, with whom I am not familiar.
Hopefully Seventh puts some more Magma up in the near future — their albums would be particularly downloader-friendly in that many consist only of a couple tracks. I would love to round out my Magma collection with some of the more obscure live albums that I have no intention to purchase at anywhere close to full price.
The promised NEARfest post, one week late. Although I’m sure anyone who has been reading any US-centric prog rock forum is probably sick and tired of these things, here are my few cents.
I drove up Saturday morning from DC, a not entirely pleasant trip up I-95 that involves $10+ in tolls one way even though it really isn’t that far (around three hours or so). I skipped Izz’s set in the morning, got to Zoellner in time to pop into the vendor rooms and buy a copy of the new Magma DVD and pick up my ticket from John Reagan (whose Big Balloon Music is having a going-out-of-business blowout sale you should really pick through, there are good deals to be found still). Then it was time for NeBeLNeST.
I am a big fan of this band’s last couple albums, Nova Express and ZePTO, so I came in with pretty high expectations, having heard also that they pretty much tear it up live. They did, but I was a little disappointed nevertheless: the sound was pretty lousy, and in particular the guitars were kind of buried in the mix. So what should have been a jaw-droppingly powerful show came up a little lame, though it was still intense and quite enjoyable. They closed their set with “Nova Express,” which was a joy, although they fucked around with the ending a bit, which threw me off — I think the studio cut of that song has one of the most perfect endings of any 15-minute spacy epic out there, and what they did instead wasn’t nearly as cathartic.
After a short break, Bob Drake treated a few of us to a highly entertaining set that was clearly not meant to be taken very seriously. Of his albums, I only have The Skull Mailbox and was never really able to get into it very much. I had a similar problem with his live set, just wasn’t quite sure how to approach it to get maximum enjoyment, so I ended up just laughing my way through it. Enjoyed it a lot but it wasn’t the most memorable concert I’ve ever seen. Still, I’d guess I took away what Bob intended the audience to take away: that is, I had fun.
Then came the real surprise of the festival for me, which was the fact that I really enjoyed Magenta’s set. If ever there was a subset of prog that really doesn’t do it for me, it’s modern UK prog-by-numbers. Magenta has that style down pat, with lots of melodic guitar lines, fat keyboard leads, straightforward, sunny lyrics and a fair amount of bombast. These guys confound me, because I inexplicably like their music — and not only that, but I like their stuff that’s most bombastic and traditionally “proggy.” I really can’t explain this one. Their new album, Home, is much less “pretentious” in the prog style, more down-to-earth, and I find it dreadfully dull; whereas their proggy stuff with all the keyboard cheese, soaring guitar solos and cliches I somehow really dig.
In any case, their music aside, as performers Magenta put on a fabulous show. Their frontwoman, Christina Booth, is reasonably charismatic (and reasonably attractive) and has a great voice, but it was guitarist Chris Fry who stole the spotlight, showboating to the crowd and playing some beautiful solos with great tone and phrasing. The rest of the band were no slouches either, so basically it came down to this: if you were in the mood for neo-prog cliché, you probably really liked this show. If not, well, probably you didn’t. Shockingly I found myself in the former frame of mind. I really liked all the material they played from New York Suite and Seven; was less enthused by the Home songs and by the epic they closed out with from Revolutions.
Hawkwind was the headliner for Saturday night; I am totally unfamiliar with their music, so I went in as a completely blank slate. Unfortunately, I was never captivated by their set, which seemed like fairly anonymous space-rock riddled with totally ridiculous science-fiction/neo-hippie imagery and narration. I felt neither particularly positive nor negative about anything in the set, so I ended up leaving after a little more than an hour to get some much-needed sleep. I don’t regret this decision at all, as it seems that all but the die-hard Hawkwind fans thought the set was anywhere from laughable to mediocre.
One of the three reasons I came to NEARfest this year was Indukti, who played the Sunday morning slot that seems traditionally reserved for lesser-known bands that can rock the shit out of half-asleep progheads (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Guapo, etc). Indukti rocked the shit out of me. Their show was a little more metal than I expected, but combined with some very nice Frippish guitar atmospherics and violin accents (no harp, sadly). It did being to sound samey after a while, but that might be because I only recognized two songs from S.U.S.A.R., with the rest presumably being new material that I’m eager to hear on record. Great show, great energy.
I kind of took Sunday afternoon off. After a few songs of La Maschera di Cera, I decided I just really wasn’t feeling it. Unlike Saturday when Magenta put me in the mood for prog, LMdC did the opposite. The flamboyant vocalist and aggressive use of stock prog flourishes turned me off instead of on, so although everyone seemed to really dig this show, I don’t really regret leaving early. I also skipped Robert Rich and Pure Reason Revolution, using the afternoon to run some errands and explore the historic district of downtown Bethlehem (I am fascinated by Moravians, being from Winston-Salem, NC, the other home base of Moravians in the United States). I’m a little dismayed about skipping PRR after hearing all the reviews and discussions of their set after the fact, but I’m glad that I saved my energy for Magma.
After a very enjoyable dinner with some folks from rmp and ProgressiveEars, I felt ready. I’ve never seen Magma before, having missed all their previous appearances in the United States. Regarding Magma concerts, Greg Northrup said something like, “not to get your hopes up too high, but… well, they really can’t be too high.” Needless to say, I was excited, and from the moment Antoine Paganotti yelled, “Hamatai!” to kick off “Kohntarkosz,” I was grinning. Paganotti’s opening yelp was immediately followed by Christian Vander’s crashing drums, and let me tell you: even the various Magma DVDs do absolutely no justice to just how physically dominating a presence Vander is on his drum kit. When he’s pounding away at full blast, it’s absolutely mesmerizing, and the rest of the band might as well be his backing musicians. Even when he’s tapping out a skeletal beat on the cymbals, letting the vocalists or soloists take the spotlight, his intensity is riveting.
“Kohntarkosz” and “Emehntet-Re” made up the majority of the show (”Hhai” and “Lihns” were the other two pieces they played) and while the former was jaw-dropping all the way through, I got lost at times in the latter, not knowing the music all that well. I wished they’d played some of “K.A,” just because I know it so well and could have followed much better. Compounding the problem was that where I was sitting, the vocals were way too low, and we all know the vocals are second only to Vander’s drumming in importance for Magma music. More often than not, Emmanuel Borghi’s Rhodes totally drowned out the vocals, which kind of ruined some of the more meditative parts for me. Still, my attention never wandered, and the effect of these extremely lengthy compositions was mesmerizing. Intense yet spiritual — the word I want to use is “peaceful,” although not in any literal or obvious sense (Vander’s drumming was often rather violent, of course).
So while the poor mix combined with my unfamiliarity with “Emehntet-Re” conspired to make this, for me, somewhat short of the transcendent experience that others had, I still thought it was an excellent show, and I will never forget how Vander exerted such complete command of the stage and the music, both from behind his drumkit at up front at the mic. Hopefully this will be merely the first of many chances I get to see this band live, but if not, at least all those DVDs I own have taken on new meaning for me.
So I went to my first NEARfest in seven years. Saw some good music and some mediocre music, but no bad music. Also no transcendently great music, although Magma at times got close (but they were compromised by an atrocious mix, at least from where I was sitting). I’ll post at length when I have time, but for now here is the box score:
NeBeLNeST was the first band I saw (drove in Saturday morning), and they were good, but the mix seemed a little flat and that robbed them of some power.
Bob Drake was hilarious.
Magenta was surprising. As you probably know, I’m not exactly a certified neo-head, but I found myself really enjoying their performance.
Hawkwind was ehhhhh (but then, I am totally unfamiliar with their material). I left after a few songs.
Indukti was the first real highlight for me. They were great and their drummer is a beast!
La Maschera di Cera, like Hawkwind, I didn’t know beforehand and the concert didn’t inspire me to learn more.
Robert Rich and Pure Reason Revolution I skipped to run some errands, although from the reports I’m actually kind of bummed that I missed the latter.
Magma was intense, exhausting, overwhelming. And the keyboardist was way too loud and drowned out all the vocals, damnit.
The vendor rooms were dangerous. I kept myself mostly in check, though. And I picked up a copy of the rather OOP first Lard Free album from Dave Kerman.
The people were both great and hilarious (in all sorts of ways), met a bunch of characters I hadn’t met before, and missed meeting many more.
The drive home was uneventful, well except for the beginnings of a high-speed chase I witnessed outside of (where else?) Baltimore.
It’s official: I’m going to NEARfest. This will be my first NEARfest since I was blown away by Thinking Plague and DFA in 2000. Thanks to John Reagan for hooking me up with a last-minute ticket. I’m stoked to see Magma, NeBeLNeST, Indukti and Bob Drake, but really there isn’t a single band in the lineup that I think I’ll actively dislike, which is pretty damn good considering run-of-the-mill prog no longer does anything for me.
In other news, the new power supply did wonders for my computer (I can overclock again!) and so we’re back up and running. Should have some more reviews to come this week, so stay tuned.
Well, last night Sleepytime Gorilla Museum put on the best show of the three I’ve seen thus far. Maybe it was just that I’m now familiar with all the songs — with very few exceptions they played stuff from In Glorious Times, as they have been doing for the past two years. But despite a surprisingly small crowd (smaller than in 2005, when they didn’t start until nearly midnight, and much smaller than three months ago, when they barely made it to DC thanks to a nasty ice storm), they were really on, both musically and theatrically.
They opened with “The Companions,” which they’ve been doing since I first saw them in 2005. Actually, technically they opened with a gimmick, parading slowly from the back of the club while playing some kind of brassy fanfare, walking straight into the middle of the crowd, finishing the fanfare, and then taking the stage. It was a highly amusing stunt and set the tone for the rest of the night. It’s amazing how these guys can be so creepy one moment and then completely and genuinely funny the next. After “The Companions” — which I found much more enjoyable after hearing it on the album, and I picked out some subtleties I’d never noticed before, like Carla Kihlstedt’s ghostly wordless backing vocals — they brought down the house with “The Widening Eye,” just as they did last time. I described this song last time (which was the first time I ever heard it) as a more metallic take on “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2″ — it’s easily my favorite song on the album, and it’s a real crowd-pleaser live.
After playing most of the songs on In Glorious Times, the band surprised me by playing some stuff from Of Natural History — previously I’d only heard them do “Phthisis,” but this time they played “The Freedom Club,” “Hymn to the Morning Star” (Nils’ voice in this song is just astonishing) and “The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity.” All of these songs killed and this reminded me that, as much as I dig the new album, Of Natural History is still easily my favorite of theirs. They did an encore of their new, tripped-out version of “Sleep Is Wrong,” which despite its funkiness I actually don’t like nearly as much as the original version, which is much more lean, mean and heavy.
Theatrically, the whole band was funnier and more animated than I’ve seen them, which is definitely saying something. This is even though the crowd was probably half as big as their last show at the Black Cat, which must have been disappointing.
Openers Stinking Lizaveta I found mildly disappointing; I’ve heard great things about them but aside from a couple songs I thought were great, they mostly played songs consisting of odd-time riff after odd-time riff, and I ended up finding them rather tiresome. Great musicians to be sure, but I just wasn’t a huge fan of the compositions.