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.