Center Stage, Atlanta, GA
September 7-10, 2016
Jen and I have been attending ProgPower for a long time, 16 consecutive years to be exact. The festival is impressive and unique in the US for its lengthy track record of superior organization, evangelistic devotion amongst the fanbase, and commercial success, as the Fest sells out the 1,200-capacity Center Stage facility nearly every year and attracts metalheads and music lovers from across the country and around the globe. Where the festival falls short is in aligning with my personal, selfish, narrow-ass musical tastes. I am not now and have never been a prog guy, so the concept of a festival evenly divided between prog and power metal means I’m going to be stoked for only about half the bands on the bill each year. My workaround for that particular dilemma is to go watch the bands I care about, and hang out in the lobby socializing and drinking beer (not necessarily in that order) the rest of the time. The system works well enough for me, although my liver and my voice (which never remains intact until the festival’s end) might disagree. Nonetheless, what that means for our immediate purposes is that this review is in no way a comprehensive narrative of every performance. I didn’t watch around half the bands because I knew I wouldn’t enjoy them. You might say that makes me a closeminded ass, and I wouldn’t disagree. I prefer a more positive spin that, after 3+ decades of being a metalhead, I know what I like and what I don’t. Lots of other folks saw the bands I missed out on, and surely some of them have written detailed reviews of those performances, so go seek them out if you are so inclined. My take focuses on the traditional / power side of the equation, and makes no pretense of being anything more than that.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
The ProgPower USA festival was originally conceived as a two-day event spanning a Friday and Saturday, with six or seven bands each day. Over the years, it has expanded into four nights of music, all held at the same 1,200-capacity venue in midtown Atlanta. The Wednesday and Thursday programs are limited to four bands each night, as compared to the six bands apiece on Friday and Saturday. I guess Wednesday and Thursday are still nominally a warm-up to the main event, but the caliber of acts represented on days 1 and 2 is certainly commensurate with that of days 3 and 4, so Jen and I came for the entire four-day spectacle this year.
Kicking off ProgPower XVII in front of a nearly full house at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday were Lord, joining us all the way from Sydney, Australia, as part of this year’s Australian invasion. For the benefit of the uninitiated, Lord is the musical continuation of well-known Aussie heavy/power/melodic metal act Dungeon, with guitarist/vocalist Lord Tim Grose remaining firmly at the helm throughout; thus, Lord’s debut American performance in Atlanta tonight was the culmination of 27 years of blood, sweat and tears under the combined Dungeon and Lord banners. And a triumphant gig it was. Grose, hulking behemoth guitarist Mark Furtner, and bassist Andy Dowling all hit the stage in Lord t-shirts (each, it should be noted, a different design), revved up and firing on all cylinders. They worked the stage like the seasoned pros they are and made the most of their 60-minute time slot, touching on all eras of the band (with the notable and a bit odd exception of their most recent studio album, 2013’s ‘Digital Lies’). Everything sounded great, but I have to admit the old Dungeon tunes were the most fulfilling for me since I’ve been listening to them for so long. Two tracks in particular (“Resurrection” and “Legend of Huma”) took me back to my bachelor days when I was living in a postage-stamp sized apartment in Boston and an Australian penpal named Gareth Ross mailed me a cassette advance of ‘Resurrection’ to review for a long-defunct zine called The Koffin. Yessir, I’ve been living with and loving these songs for many years, and it was amazing to hear them performed live. The band were in fine spirits, and nailed the songs with energy and exuberance. Their joy at performing on American soil was both obvious and infectious, as witnessed by the terrific reception that Lord received from the PPUSA faithful. After nine originals, Lord closed out the set with a blistering romp through Metallica’s “Creeping Death,” Furtner providing the lead vocals in a rougher, more aggressive Hetfieldish manner in lieu of Grose’s cleaner approach. Wow. It’s hard to imagine a better performance to ignite ProgPower XVII than the one turned in by Lord. I hope they make it back to the US before another 27 years go by. At any rate, Lord (along with Vanishing Point) managed to win the “life of the party” award for this year’s PPUSA. I swear, you couldn’t turn around all weekend without bumping into one of the Lord or VP guys. They were ubiquitous and never stopped having fun. That, my friends, is ProgPower done right, and the festival was better for it. Setlist: Freedom, Netherlife (Black Roses Die), Set in Stone, Redemption, Tarranno del Mar, Resurrection, Legend of Huma, Through the Fire, Footsteps in the Sand, Creeping Death.
After a lengthy break in the action, Jen and I returned to the hall in time for Dragonforce’s headlining performance. Now, I’m certainly not the world’s biggest Dragonforce fan, but I have always enjoyed their over-the-top speed metal blitzkrieg and catchy songwriting, trendy Guitar Hero fads and ironic hipsters be damned. A non-trivial minority of the PPUSA audience must have been less enthused, as there were more empty seats than I’ve seen for a ProgPower headliner in quite some time. Still, a robust and supportive audience remained on hand for the gig. Tonight marked my first time seeing the Brits with frontman Marc Hudson, who replaced ZP Theart five or so years ago. There was some concern about Hudson’s health going into the weekend, as he had skipped at least some of Dragonforce’s summer festival obligations in Europe to attend to an undisclosed medical issue. Any worries about Hudson’s physical abilities were put to rest during opener “Holding On,” as he sounded great, moved freely and easily around the stage, and definitely put full power into his performance. The stage itself was configured with drummer Gee Anzalone’s kit way over on stage right in order to accommodate two raised platforms installed at the front and rear of center stage. Guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman practically lived on the front center platform throughout the set, stepping up during the extended solo workouts so everyone could get a good look at their frantic fretboard handiwork. They were occasionally joined in these endeavors by Hudson, bassist Frederic Leclercq, and even keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov, who would abandon his post behind the stationary keyboards, strap on his keytar and come up front to join in the fun from time to time. Sometimes Pruzhanov had too much fun. Indeed, during “My Spirit Will Go On,” he slipped on what appeared loose carpet on the drum riser and had quite a spill. Ever the trooper though, Vadim hopped right back up and kept right on rocking (well, as much as a keytar-wielding guy with a backwards baseball cap can rock) for the rest of the set.
The setlist was designed to feature Dragonforce’s new 2-CD/1-DVD greatest hits package, ‘Killer Elite,’ with all songs except for the spastic, turbocharged Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire” cover being drawn from said album. I loved the band’s live energy and thought they sounded and played great, with songs like “Operation Ground and Pound” and my favorite “Fury of the Storm” delivered magnificently. “Fury of the Storm” was saved for the first encore, prompting a visibly fatigued Li to comment into the mike afterwards, “Now I know why we usually play that song at the beginning of the set rather than the end. It’s fucking hard.” For all of the glory, there are some aspects of the live performance that were a bit grating. Anzalone’s drawn-out drum solo, complete with a “beat box” segment in which he made noises with his mouth and drummed on a guitar behind held horizontally by a crew member, was tough to endure. The endless solos, complete with Totman making bored/yawning/dismissive gestures while Li played, are certainly part of the band’s schtick, but they wear thin over the course of an hour and 40 minutes. And while no one loves high-velocity metal more than I, the omnipresent speed (pausing for a more midtempo approach only in “Seasons” and “Cry Thunder”) of the Dragonforce attack eventually batters and numbs the senses into oblivion, transforming everything into an indistinguishable blur. So I understand the band’s detractors, for sure. But for a fun, overcaffeinated headlining set on a Wednesday night, Dragonforce suited me just fine. Setlist: Holding On, My Spirit Will Go On, Heroes of Our Time, Operation Ground and Pound, Symphony of the Night, Soldiers of the Wasteland, drum solo, Seasons, Ring of Fire, Cry Thunder, Valley of the Damned. Encores: Fury of the Storm, Through the Fire and Flames.
Thursday, September 8, 2016
The first band of interest to me on the Thursday roster was Pyramaze from Denmark. Truth be told, I’m no more than a casual fan of the band, who straddle the prog/power line while leaning a bit too much toward the former for my liking. I was especially unsettled by the change in direction on new album ‘Disciples of the Sun’ toward slicker Euro prog/AOR pastures and away from the more crushing demeanor of ‘Immortal.’ Still, tonight was a special show that was absolutely worth seeing. In addition to featuring current vocalist Terje Haroy, who sang on the ‘Disciples’ album, Pyramaze also had lined up former vocalists Lance King (who sang on their first two releases) and Iced Earth powerhouse Matt Barlow (who sang on their third album). Co-promoter Nathan Block announced at the beginning of the set that one of these vocalists (he didn’t say which one, though I know it isn’t King) had never performed live with Pyramaze before tonight. So Pyramaze brought three singers to Atlanta. They did not, however, bring a bassist or a keyboardist, which seemed more than a little strange. The concept for the night was for Haroy to start off the show by singing five songs off the new album, then have Barlow and King each come out for three songs from their respective eras of the band, and finally to bring all three vocalists onstage for a collective run through the song “Disciples of the Sun.” The execution of the concept was fascinating because the live personae of the band changed dramatically depending on who the frontman was. It was like seeing three different bands. Haroy was static and seemed uncomfortable onstage, whereas Barlow was a fireball of intense aggression and King was more like a traditional ‘80s melodic metal crooner. The results were fascinating in terms of the juxtaposition of one singer to the next, and I appreciate the effort and time it must have taken to line up this once-in-a-lifetime performance. In the end, though, the band’s obvious lack of live experience and apparent discomfort in the live setting (they even wrecked “Hope Springs Eternal” so badly that they stopped halfway through and started again from the beginning), and frankly my ambivalence toward much of the ‘Disciples of the Sun’ material, limited my enjoyment of the Pyramaze set. Others loved it, though, so I’m probably in the minority on this one. Setlist: The Battle of Paridas, Back for More, Fearless, Genetic Process, Hope Springs Eternal, Year of the Phoenix, A Beautiful Death, Caramon’s Poem, What Lies Beyond, Melancholy Beast, Souls in Pain, Disciples of the Sun.
Day 2’s headliners were none other than Blind Guardian, who arrived at Center Stage to kick off their 2016 North American tour. (Sadly, tourmates Grave Digger were not on tonight’s bill, even after Gloryhammer dropped off at the eleventh hour with visa woes, and even though there were multiple reported sightings of Grave Digger band members present at the festival site where they were meeting up with the Guardians for their tour. Too bad.) Of course, Blind Guardian just spent a month on U.S. and Canadian soil last fall promoting their current ‘Beyond the Red Mirror’ opus. Understandably, they wanted to do something different this time, so someone came up with the gimmick of playing the 1995 ‘Imaginations from the Other Side’ album in its entirety on this tour to help fluff up ticket sales. As the first tour stop, ProgPower was thus receiving the worldwide debut of the ‘Imaginations’ album performance. Singer Hansi Kursch noted this fact from the stage and commented that Atlanta had a nice tradition of getting Blind Guardian debuts, referencing the fact that the band performed “Curse of Feanor” live for the very first time in Atlanta on their last US tour. Great that he remembered, as did I and I’m sure, many others in attendance. Anyway, the last time I saw Blind Guardian – at that self-same Atlanta show in November 2015 – it was at the end of a grueling US/Canadian tour and the band members had been visibly worn down, sick and weary. How different to see them tonight, on the first night of a North American tour, with a gleam in their eye and a spring in their step, feeling lively and jaunty as the whole thing was brand new. Tonight the show kicked off as the last tour did, with the lengthy, brooding, but compelling “The Ninth Wave” off the latest album. Up next were a couple of ‘Nightfall in Middle Earth’ chestnuts (“Time Stands Still (at the Iron Hill)” and “Nightfall”), then it was time to segue into the ‘Imaginations’ part of the set. I am not enamored of the “play-a-full-album” trend going around the metal scene these days, although I do understand it’s an effective marketing ploy. The same held true tonight. As much fun as it was to hear deep cuts like “I’m Alive” or “Another Holy War,” and to catch both “Script for My Requiem” and “Born in a Mourning Hall” (which, while surfacing in BG setlists from time to time in recent years, ordinarily are not played together at the same gig), I couldn’t help but be a little bummed when weaker fare such as “Bright Eyes” or even “Mordred’s Song” was aired over, say, anything from the first four albums. But so it goes.
For the record, Blind Guardian played great tonight, and I spent the evening on the rail parked immediately in front of rhythm guitarist Marcus Siepen. The man’s tremendously fun to watch, all headbanging and snarling out the backing vocals with gusto. Coincidentally enough, it was also Marcus’s birthday, and the crew brought out fruity drinks for all band members during the encore to celebrate, prompting Hansi to offer up various amusing comments about the band getting “shitfaced” just like in the past, although the recovery was harder now. For an encore, the band predictably did “Valhalla” (including endless crowd singalong), “Bard’s Song” and the awesome traditional closer “Mirror Mirror,” but threw in a curve ball in between with the first ever live performance of “Holy Grail,” one of the stronger songs off the latest album, even if the crowd seemed unfamiliar with it. The end result was a nearly two hour set of Blind Guardian performing at an extremely high level, much to the delight of the ProgPower crowd (some of whom had inexplicably taken it upon themselves to crowdsurf during the tame “Bright Eyes” or the “Valhalla” singalong, demonstrating a total lack of understanding of decorum and custom – if you’re going to crowdsurf, do it when the band is raging, not during the peaceful bits, ya lunkheads). As the final notes of “Mirror Mirror” rang into the night, the PPUSA audience started a decidedly lame chant of “play more shit.” Hansi gazed upon the crowd, smiled that bemused smile of his, and said, “I’ve got a better idea. How about you all go home, and we *drink* more shit?” Haha, nice one, Hansi. All in all, another fine outing from the Guardians, even if I preferred last year’s setlist (which included “Banish from Sanctuary,” “Majesty” and “The Last Candle” plus “And Then There Was Silence” and “Fly”). Setlist: The Ninth Wave, Time Stands Still (at the Iron Hill), Nightfall, Imaginations from the Other Side, I’m Alive, Past and Future Secret, Script for my Requiem, Mordred’s Song, Born in a Mourning Hall, Bright Eyes, Another Holy War, And the Story Ends. Encore: Valhalla, Holy Grail, Bard’s Song, Mirror Mirror.
Friday, September 9, 2016
A funny quirk of ProgPower is that it takes until Day 3 to have the official beginning of the festival with vendors and fest t-shirts and goodie bags and all that fun stuff. (Days 1 and 2 are technically looked at as a warm-up, with separate tickets, separate policies, and even separate scheduling.) Some folks come for just a day or two, while others settle in for the duration. At any rate, Days 3 and 4 are much longer than their predecessors, with six bands each day and live music running from 2:00 p.m. until after midnight.
Australia’s Vanishing Point are very near and dear to my heart. True enough, their music is a hybrid of melodic power metal, prog metal, and even AOR tendencies, which you wouldn’t think would appeal to my crusty old-school, neanderthal sensibilities one whit. But I love Vanishing Point. Part of the reason is that they are amazingly skilled at what they do, with smooth catchy songwriting, otherworldly vocals courtesy of Silvio Massaro, high emotional content in their deeply personal lyrics and soul-baring, melancholy vibe, all delivered enough crunch and speed to keep me interested. Another part of the reason is that Jen and I have a long history with the lads, dating back to when guitarist Chris Porcianko and I celebrated our birthdays (we were born on the same day in the same year) together in Hamburg in 2000 with an all-night bender of beers and a Metallica tribute band at the Logo club. We toured around Eastern Europe together for a few memorable days the month after 9/11 took place, cementing our friendship and establishing a close personal bond. Then 15 years went by. With Melbourne, Australia being on the other side of the world from Alabama, USA, I feared I’d never see Vanishing Point again. Then they were announced for this year’s ProgPower. The reunion was every bit as happy as I’d hoped it might be, and the payoff was watching Vanishing Point play their first gig ever on U.S. soil. The show was an unqualified success, as Vanishing Point served up highlights from throughout their discography to an appreciative, knowledgeable audience. Newer songs like “Distant is the Sun” and “Denied Deliverance” went over beautifully, but the part that got me choked up was when the band played “Two Minds One Soul” and “Samsara” back-to-back. These were songs I heard them play live on that Euro tour in 2001, and the music transported me back to those days instantly. Jen was even commenting how she remembered Chris Porcianko’s stage moves from those long-past shows, and they’re still the same. But enough about that. Vocalist Massaro remains a world-class singer, with an emotional depth and richness to his voice that have not abated in the slightest with the passage of time. And the bald, goateed Porcianko wore his heart on his sleeve throughout the gig. He couldn’t stop smiling from ear to ear, and at the end of the set there were literally tears of joy in the man’s eyes as the crowd roared its approval. It couldn’t happen to a kinder, more deserving bloke. Only later did I learn that this show almost didn’t happen, thanks to a last minute personnel glitch that required Vanishing Point to enlist the services of a new drummer with just days to spare. I think I can speak for the entire assembled masses at ProgPower XVII in saying that I’m ever so happy the show happened. I am certain it will be remembered fondly in the hearts of many for years to come. Setlist: King of Empty Promises, When Truth Lies, Hope Among the Heartless, Distant is the Sun, Two Minds One Soul, Samsara, Season of Sundays, Surrender, Era Zero, Denied Deliverance.
The next band of interest to me today was Germany’s Freedom Call, the long-running melodic power metal act also making their debut on American soil. Those who like their metal serious, dark or angry would be well advised to leave the hall because Freedom Call do none of that. Their brand of German power metal is cheery, airy and bright, taking the Helloween “happy metal” concept to an extreme. For those who don’t mind major keys, big singalong choruses, or a frontman with a constant grin etched on his face, Freedom Call are a whole lot of fun onstage. I’ll confess to being partial to the early material, as some of the songs on the later albums are a bit too sugary and lacking in muscle (metal?) for my tastes. And vocalist Chris Bay sometimes got a touch carried away with his references to a “happy metal party.” But yeah, the operative word of Freedom Call’s performance was “fun.” Songs like opener “Union of the Strong,” “Freedom Call” and the epic “The Quest” are heavy enough to reel in the German power metal crowd, and newbie “Hammer of the Gods” (off the forthcoming ‘Master of Light’ album) sounded quite promising too. Elsewhere, though, things got a little silly/cheesy with the sugarsoaked “Farewell” and the goofy “Power and Glory,” complete with extended singalong to carry out the “happy metal party.” That said, I can’t knock the band or the performance. They were fun. Singer/guitarist Chris Bay is an engaging and entertaining frontman, and he was cracking me up during the crowd singalong when he kept revising upward the number of people in the 1,200 capacity venue. “So, there are approximately 10,000 of you here,” he announced, then later, “So it looks like there are maybe 40,000 people here today,” and so on, with the numbers getting more outlandish each time. Bay’s an easy guy to pull for, and Freedom Call are an easy band to enjoy if you can cut loose and give into the easygoing, fun singalong vibe for an hour. The only significant disappointment for me was that “We Are One,” my favorite Freedom Call song and the absolute highlight of their ‘Stairway to Fairyland’ debut album, was on the printed setlist before “Warriors,” but was not played for some reason. I’m guessing the happy metal party got carried away and there was a time overrun. Too bad. Setlist: Union of the Strong, Tears of Babylon, Freedom Call, Farewell, The Quest, Hammer of the Gods, 666 Weeks Beyond Eternity, Power and Glory, Warriors, Land of Light.
Tonight honestly felt palpably different than any other ProgPower festival I’ve ever attended. There was an excitement, a buzz, a level of breathless anticipation above and beyond the usual PPUSA enthusiasm. Moreover, there were a significant number of attendees in the house who obviously were not ProgPower regulars. They were my people, the old-school underground metalheads, decked out in patch jackets and singing the praises of ‘80s metal. Some were celebrities (among others, I spotted Oliver Weinsheimer, the Keep It True organizer; DJ Will; Tom Phillips of While Heaven Wept; and Steve Kachinsky of Steel Prophet). Others were friends of mine whom I see at many shows, but who do not typically make the journey to Atlanta. What could have caused this tumult to the usually placid ProgPower status quo? Fates Warning. More precisely, ‘Awaken the Guardian’-era Fates Warning. Tonight was one of just two Fates Warning shows booked in 2016 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ‘Awaken the Guardian,’ the other having taken place at Keep It True in Germany in April. It was, to paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden, a big fucking deal to have John Arch and Co. at Center Stage tonight. Hell, the line to buy the band’s event t-shirts for this show (a steal at just $20) stretched all the way across the lobby, and supplies were exhausted before many fans could make their purchases. (I managed to score a ‘Spectre Within’ shirt before that happened.) This was a very special night, indeed. The show had been hyped all to hell, and people were super-fired up. I was frankly concerned about being able to salvage a decent spot to watch the gig, so I endured the last 20 or so minutes of Scar Symmetry’s performance to worm my way into position across the floor, and managed to secure a rail spot in front of where Frank Aresti would be stationed. Perfect. Jen, meanwhile, sauntered up to the seats and found a spot to hang out with Steve Kachinsky, who went out of his way to be kind to her.
As the lights went down, my abiding fear was that Fates would not – hell, could not – live up to the hype machine. Thirty years is a long time. John Arch is mostly out of the music business now and has been for many years. He couldn’t possibly sing those crazy vocal lines like the old days, could he? Would the whole thing feel like a lame cash-grab? These were the anxieties running through my head. They lasted for about the first 90 seconds of opener “The Sorceress,” before being smashed to bits. The ‘Awaken the Guardian’ lineup – Arch on vocals, Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti on guitar, Joe DiBiase on bass, and Steve Zimmerman on drums – nailed this gig better than anyone could reasonably have expected. The musicians played damn near perfectly, overcoming a few minor technical issues (DiBiase’s bass sound had some trouble, and there were monitor problems) to run through the entirety of the ‘Awaken the Guardian’ album in order, plus a four-song encore consisting of “Damnation” from ‘Night on Brocken’ (the title track was also on one copy of the printed setlist I saw, but had a line drawn through it and was not played), plus all of Side 2 of ‘The Spectre Within’ (meaning, “The Apparition,” “Kyrie Eleison,” and “Epitaph”). Then there was John Arch. Oh my lord, there was John Arch. He looked unassuming enough, sporting a backwards ballcap that he winged into the crowd during “Fata Morgana” and replaced with a biker-style bandanna for the rest of the night. But to say he performed brilliantly would be a massive understatement. His voice was dead-on, and he was right on point with all the spine-tingling vocal melodies and slightly nasal high-pitched delivery that made him such a legend in the heavy metal underground for the last three decades. He hit nearly all the notes and never seemed to struggle with lyrics or melodies. The only times he faltered even slightly were when he couldn’t quite hold a note as long as he once did, but that’s an unavoidable lung capacity issue. Physiologically speaking, a human being’s lungs are neither as strong nor as capacious in one’s 50s than they were in one’s 20s. The cherry on top was that Arch almost never stood still, moving from one end of the stage to other and from the back to the front all night long, interacting with the audience, smiling and pointing, exhorting the crowd to sing key melody lines with him, and seemingly relaxed, utterly confident, and in control at all times. There was no shy, retiring, “I’ll-just-stand-in-front-of-my-wedge-monitors-and-teleprompter” stuff from this guy. (For the record, I saw no signs of a teleprompter, and the monitors were of the in-ear variety.) Arch was perhaps most animated during the encore, when he indicated that the setlist had a line for a “speech” he was supposed to give. “Here’s my speech,” he said, as he pointed the microphone at the crowd, which had been going utterly ballistic from the first note to the last. Arch then thanked everyone for the support, for being there, giving credit to the fans first and foremost.
The whole show was a mystical, almost spiritual experience. There was a sense of unabashed fervor in the crowd up front where I was. We all knew we were witnessing something special, something most of us had never seen before, and something that in all likelihood we will never witness again. It was magical. At times, the people around me were singing Arch’s vocal lines (okay, maybe not the lyrics, but at least the melodies) so loud that I had trouble hearing the man himself (he was, truth be told, a touch low in the mix, presumably by design to take some of the load off his shoulders). As for the other musicians on stage, some have commented about their static performance. Fair enough, Matheos and Aresti weren’t moving around much during the show, but mostly stood stone-faced and focused on their playing. Maybe in a perfect world they and DiBiase would have been running around like maniacs, headbanging feverishly and grinning with delight. But that’s not those guys’ personalities and besides, as someone wisely pointed out, this is technical, challenging material that they rarely ever play on stage. It had to be hard work for them to pull off these songs. All performed magnificently, if stoically, but I will single out Aresti for praise. I never realized the guy played the bulk of the solos on ‘Awaken the Guardian’ and wow, it was simply a joy to watch him play guitar directly in front of me the whole night.
When the grand finale of “Epitaph” came to a close and the Fates Warning show was over, I felt completely drained and dazed. Friends came up to me and started jabbering excitedly about how awesome it was, but I almost didn’t hear them. I needed a few minutes to process it all. It was that kind of a weighty, magical, emotionally devastating show. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last few days pondering it all. Yes, it was magnificent. Yes, it was a testament to the abiding power and strength of classic American heavy metal from the 1980s. Yes, it proved beyond any doubt that the old guys could still pull it off. And yes, it lived up to the hype, and then some. But, despite all the superlatives and breathless gushing you’ve read so far, here’s some nuance to my thinking about this gig. Later that night, I received a fascinating bit of perspective from someone (I’m not saying who) with whom I spoke about the ‘Awaken the Guardian’ show. This person was one of the few lucky attendees who had actually witnessed the ‘Awaken the Guardian’ lineup in their heyday, playing these songs in their prime some 30 years ago. His comments were that, of course, the show was great, but that he couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed. You see, he remembered what it was like to see Fates Warning three decades ago, and it’s different now. It has to be. Thirty years have gone by. It couldn’t possibly be what it was back then. That doesn’t mean it isn’t great now – it clearly is, he hastened to add – but it does mean that, try as you might, you can’t turn back time. I’ve thought long and hard about these sentiments. Fates Warning were stupendously, unbelievably fantastic on Friday night at ProgPower. But they were better 30 years ago, and I missed out on seeing ‘em back then. So did most of us. To me, the moral of the story is to seize the day, to live now. Maybe you’ll get to see that band you love later on at some festival somewhere, but it won’t be the same. It can’t be, because time keeps passing and everything (and every one of us) keeps changing. Live now. Or, in the words of Iron Maiden, realize you’re living in the golden years. Setlist: The Sorceress, Valley of the Dolls, Fata Morgana, Guardian, Prelude to Ruin, Giant’s Lore, Time Long Past, Exodus. Encore: Damnation, The Apparition, Kyrie Eleison, Epitaph.
Saturday, September 10, 2016
Okay, I’ve never done four days of ProgPower before, and I was feeling a little rough as Day 4 kicked off at Center Stage today. No, I wasn’t hung over (although I had definitely killed my share of beers over the last three days), but I hadn’t gotten much sleep and I’d gotten some bad pasta for lunch that definitely was not sitting well on my stomach. Still, I rallied and made my way inside the hall in time to see Savage Messiah’s set. I’m ever so glad I did. I’ve enjoyed all three albums from the London, England-based quartet, particularly their latest ‘The Fateful Dark’ from 2014, and their blend of thrash and dark traditional metal works well with my old-school tastes. You know what? It works even better live. Savage Messiah’s riffy, aggressive, but still quite melodic, clean and polished approach owes a great deal to old Metallica or early Testament, as well as some of the classic British metal bands like Toranaga, Xentrix, Onslaught, and maybe even a touch of NWoBHM. An old-fashioned, fast-paced, rifferama beatdown is exactly what the doctor ordered, and it’s exactly what Savage Messiah delivered. The stripped-down four-piece sonic attack was led by blond lead guitarist/vocalist Dave Silver, who sang great, played his ass off, and headbanged up a storm. All three guys out front were wearing basic black t-shirts and never stopped banging or moving around the stage in front of the giant banner featuring the ‘Fateful Dark’ artwork. Silver seemed a bit nervous, perhaps, in his between-song banter, somewhat sheepishly encouraging people to buy their special edition t-shirt if they wanted to, or not to buy if they don’t want to, because it’s all good. He also mentioned that the band are working on a new album, and this was something of an escape-from-the-studio gig for Savage Messiah. Given the circumstances, I would have expected the band to play some new material. Silver never said they were, but there was one song I didn’t recognize and it was listed on the printed setlist as “New Song,” so there you go. Most of the remainder of the set was culled from ‘The Fateful Dark,’ from uptempo smashers like “Hellblazer” or “Iconocaust” to crunchy, pounding midtempo fare like “Zero Hour.” I enjoyed the hell out of Savage Messiah’s gig. It’s awesome to see a young band playing this somewhat out-of-fashion style with so much skill and enthusiasm. Looking forward to hearing the new album. Setlist: Iconocaust, Cross of Babylon, Hellblazer, The Fateful Dark, New Song, Scavengers of Mercy, In Thought Alone, Zero Hour, The Cursed Earth, Minority of One, Insurrection Rising.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played a show in front of this many friends before,” commented Urban Breed of Serious Black from the stage during their set. He wasn’t kidding. Urban and his lovely wife Shaye (Roll Tide!) are mainstays at ProgPower year in and year out, and have been for nearly every installment since Urban first graced the PPUSA stage with Tad Morose back in 2004. This was a big show for Serious Black. From what I gather, this gig kicked off the live performances in support of their newly-released ‘Mirrorworld’ album on AFM Records, and was a springboard to their 15-date European headlining tour (with Sinbreed in support) commencing later this month. Just to have all six members in one place is something of a marvel, as Serious Black’s constituent parts hail from the USA, Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Germany. And what better place to begin the ‘Mirrorworld’ cycle than ProgPower USA, in front of a packed house of rabid fans and friends? Watching Serious Black from 10 or so rows back on the floor, I was struck by how polished and professional they are, which is certainly no surprise given their pedigree and wealth of experience. What did surprise me was how strong the material sounded. In all honesty, I hadn’t spent as much time as I should have with their ‘As Daylight Breaks’ debut, and I was caught off guard by the power and intensity of songs like “Akhenaton,” “Older and Wiser” or “I Seek No Other Life” (wow!). The setlist was heavily slanted toward the debut album, featuring seven tracks from ‘As Daylight Breaks’ and just two (“Castor Skies” and “As Long as I’m Alive”) from ‘Mirrorworld,’ although there was, oddly enough, a lengthy audience participation bit that appeared to have been drawn from the song “Mirrorworld” even though the band didn’t play it. One of the most talented vocalists in metal, Breed sounded fantastic today, and rightfully so, given his self-imposed exile of silence for much of the first three days of the fest to protect his voice. It also helps that keyboardist Jan Vacik has a top-shelf set of pipes of his own with which he contributes backing (and occasionally even lead) vocals. Serious Black looked to be having a great time on stage, especially wandering guitarist Bob Katsionis (of Firewind fame) who was constantly on the move. A hilarious moment happened midway through the set when guitarist Dominik Sebastian flicked a pick into the crowd. A woman nearby me was fiddling with her phone and, by happenstance, the pick landed on her phone as she futzed with it. I guess the pick interfered with her Facebook scrolling or Internet searching or whatever she was doing, so she simply handed the pick to me and went back to her phone. It was very kind and generous of her, I suppose, but man, it’s weird sometimes to be at a metal show in 2016. Anyway, my only regret about Serious Black was that, with a little judicious clock management, they probably could have fit an extra song or two into their allotted set parameters. But the gig was plenty solid, and the myriad Serious Black fans in attendance were outspoken in their appreciation of the performance. Setlist: Akhenaton, Castor Skies, Older and Wiser, Trail of Murder, As Long as I’m Alive, Sealing My Fate, I Seek No Other Life, Setting Fire to Earth, High and Low.
No disrespect to Fates Warning or anybody else, but my #1 most anticipated band of the weekend was Refuge, the classic Rage lineup of Peavy Wagner (vocals/bass), Manni Schmidt (guitar) and Chris Efthimiadis (drums) playing songs from the ‘Perfect Mind’ to ‘The Missing Link’ period (1988 to 1993). Rage has been one of my favorite bands for more than a quarter century, and the Peavy/Manni/Chris lineup is their pinnacle to me. Plus, Jen and I have become friends with Manni over the years, so there’s definitely a personal side to it too of wanting to see our friend the riff master get on stage and kick ass. We had witnessed the magic of Refuge on a scorching hot July day in Germany in 2015 at the Bang Your Head Festival, but we were excited to see how they would fare on the ProgPower stage. Their 75-minute set today was a shining endorsement of the abiding power and might of the old-school power trio, like their kindred spirits in Raven or Anvil or Night Demon or Widow or The Rods or Cauldron. No piped-in samples, no click tracks, no keyboards, no props, no BS. Hell, they didn’t even have a printed setlist on stage for the PPUSA crew to post on Twitter. It was just three dudes plugging in, cranking up, and rocking out, exactly like the good lord intended.
The songs were amazing, representing both the “hits” (“Solitary Man,” “Invisible Horizons,” “Don’t Fear the Winter”) and the obscure (“Power and Greed,” “Death in the Afternoon,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”) from that magical era of pure German heavy metal. But you want to know what the best thing is about watching Refuge in 2016? It’s that the band is visibly, deliriously happy to be onstage together. They’ve made it absolutely clear that Refuge is a hobby for them. After all, Peavy is busy with his full-time gig in Rage (forging ahead with different players), and Manni and Chris are busy with day jobs and personal lives. They’re doing Refuge just for fun, to get together and bash out the old classics on stage a few times per year in different countries around the world. (To be sure, things may get a bit more serious for Refuge in the future, as they’ve signed a deal with Frontiers Records and expect to release a new album in 2018.) The spirit of relaxed, fun energy is obvious looking at the three of them. Manni dishes out towering riffs and ripping solos with a smile on his face or, more often, the most goofy, contorted facial expressions he can muster. Peavy, never known for being a jovial guy on stage, was all smiles and laughs. Hell, at one point in between songs, a propos of nothing, Peavy said into the microphone, “You know, Manni, someone told me the other day that the bass guitar is the bacon of music.” Cue “bacon! Bacon!” chant from the audience and much laughter onstage. When the band messed up, and they did from time to time, there was no stress, no recriminations, no glaring or pointing fingers at one another. Instead, they’d look at each other, figure out how to get the song back on track, do it, then celebrate at the end of the song by grinning and giving each other fistbumps.
Short version: The boys in Refuge look to be having an absolute blast on stage, like kids on Christmas morning. They are playing some of the greatest German heavy metal songs ever written. Peavy sings with heart and power, Manni is the king of the riff, and Chris bashes the living hell out of his drumkit. And they’re doing it all with a wonderful feeling of happy camaraderie. Oh, it is amazing to have Refuge in the world today and to see them at ProgPower USA. I do wish there had been more people in the room (don’t misunderstand me, the crowd was more than respectable, but the place wasn’t packed like it should have been). And I do wish the stage manager hadn’t forced the band to cut “Firestorm” as their first encore by telling them they only had time for one more (“Refuge”) when there were still 8 minutes of their allotted set time remaining, easily enough time to play the both of them. But Refuge ruled. I was so happy to see ‘em upfront, on the rail, in my home country. Peavy pointed out my Missing Link long-sleeve shirt and smiled in approval. The icing on the cake was right after “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” when Manni went to the microphone, looked at Jen and me, pointed to us, and said, “Thanks to Jen and Kit for being here.” I was touched, I really was. We love you, Manni. What an unbelievable exclamation point to the musical portion of ProgPower XVII. Setlist: Solitary Man, Nevermore, Power and Greed, Death in the Afternoon, Enough is Enough, Invisible Horizons, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Waiting for the Moon, Shame on You, The Missing Link, Baby I’m Your Nightmare, Don’t Fear the Winter. Encore: Refuge.
Oh, ProgPower wasn’t really over yet. But Jen and I weren’t interested in the remaining bands (Haken and Devin Townsend Project), so we didn’t watch them. We hung out in the lobby and the vendor room, talked to friends, visited with Manni, then headed over to the Artmore Hotel Courtyard until the wee hours of the morning to party with the ProgPower fans, bands and anyone else who showed up. There were lots of beers, lots of laughs, and lots of good times with even better friends. Chalk up another outstanding year of ProgPower in the books. Well done and mission accomplished, all around.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~