Center Stage, Atlanta, Georgia
September 10-12, 2015
So Jen and I have been coming to ProgPower in Atlanta for 15 years in a row. Over the years, we have made many friends and many amazing musical memories. We are immensely thankful for what Glenn Harveston and his crew have built, and each installment of PPUSA affords us an opportunity to see bands we love in a big, packed room, on a big stage with killer lights and sound. That said, inherent in the concept of ProgPower ( ½ prog, ½ power) is the certainty that we won’t care for a significant chunk of the bands on any given roster. I freely admit that I’m a close-minded old-school bastard, so stuff like Riverside, Anathema or Native Construct is going to be totally lost on me. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t pretend to pen a comprehensive review of everything PPUSA. For several bands, I didn’t even step inside the hall while they were playing, but stayed out in the foyer drinking beer and talking with my pals. For other bands, I saw part of their set (voluntarily or involuntarily) and hated it because, well, it’s just not my thing. This review focuses on the bands I was interested in, that I actually saw, and that are more or less in line with my musical tastes. With no further ado, here goes …
Thursday, September 10, 2015
We missed the Wednesday night “Midweek Mayhem” start to the festival, which featured Evergrey, Voyager, Ashes of Ares, and Halcyon Way, because we were visiting friends in North Carolina. By early afternoon on Thursday, however, we arrived back in midtown Atlanta, got checked into our trusty no-frills budget hotel, made a food-and-beer run, and were ready to rock. The day actually began with an Evergrey acoustic show at 3:00 p.m. for a separate admission fee. Now, I’m not the world’s biggest Evergrey fan, by any stretch, but I was curious how Tom Englund’s distinctive voice would translate in an unplugged setting, so I plunked down my $15 and went inside. Evergrey’s 60-minute acoustic set was not only unique, but actually very cool, even for a casual fan like me. Stage setup was different than I would have expected, with guitarist and bassist both seated on stools on the drum riser with acoustic guitars, drummer stage right upfront, and keyboardist stage left upfront. Englund, sporting a gray Vans t-shirt, stood the whole time, with a music stand to his right that he used to shuffle lyric sheets. The 12-song set list was a nice mix of acoustic adaptations of songs they’d been playing on tour (“King of Errors,” “Broken Wings,” “Recreation Day,” etc.) plus a few numbers worked up just for this special occasion (“Hymn for the Broken,” “Soaked,” “Words mean Nothing”). As expected, Englund’s haunting and powerful voice carried the songs over their spartan arrangements as the adoring audience watched transfixed. Totally unexpected, however, was how funny Englund was. From the outset, he was cracking jokes about how it was way too early for this and how horrible he felt. When the audience laughed at a reference to him as an “old man,” Englund retorted in mock indignation, “What are you laughing about? You’re all just as old as me.” In between songs, he had the crowd in stitches as he playfully chastised his tour manager for bringing him crappy beer (“Camden, why am I still drinking Budweiser, the worst beer in the world according to me???”), poked fun at his diminished eyesight in trying to read the lyrics, criticized himself for writing too many lyrics (“when I wrote this song, I obviously didn’t know what I was doing, because the lyrics take up two pages”), and so on. He used the lyrics sheets as towels to wipe his brow after each song before crumpling them up and tossing them aside. At one point, he was laughing so hard that he couldn’t go on with “Soaked,” which he kept calling “the happiest song we ever wrote.” He urged the audience to buy their merch “because we need the money for our flights home – not really. Because we need to put our kids through school – not really. To pay for Rikard’s drug addiction – really.” Meanwhile, keyboardist Rikard sat there oblivious to the whole thing. You get the idea. The wisecracking self-effacing humor made a nice contrast with the somber, depressing, melancholy subject matter of the tunes, whose lyrics rang out all too clear with the stripped-down, acoustic presentation. To end things on a cheery note, the band finished up with an out-of-left-field cover of Maiden’s “Wasted Years.” Not sure how well that song worked, but it was a spectacle, that’s for sure. Overall, I was pleased to have witnessed this unique event, and walked out at the end more of an Evergrey fan than I was at the beginning. Setlist: Broken Wings, Hymn for the Broken, Barricades, Recreation Day, Blinded, Soaked, Words Mean Nothing, Missing You, These Scars, I’m Sorry, King of Errors, Wasted Years.
The regular Thursday night show commenced just after 5:00 p.m., with Brazil’s Almah making their U.S. debut. I haven’t really kept up with Edu Falaschi’s career since he parted ways with Angra a few years ago. The guy’s definitely a skilled frontman and was all smiles and positive energy throughout the gig, despite recurrent technical difficulties (i.e., microphones that never seemed to work). He kept talking about how good it was to be back in this building in front of this audience for the first time since his Angra appearances in 2002 and 2005. He surrounded himself with good players, with all musicians displaying impressive chops. Much of the Almah material drifted into more modern realms than I would have preferred but the songs were pleasant enough to listen to in the live setting. Also, interspersed in the setlist were three Angra tunes from Falaschi’s years with them: “Heroes of Sand,” “Angels and Demons,” and “Nova Era.” Falaschi struggled on some of these tracks, particularly “Heroes of Sand,” but then again he always sounded like he was straining when he sang for Angra, and admitted that he was trying to sing well outside his natural range. Still, it was good to hear these Angra tracks sung by the original voice, and the crowd welcomed them like old friends. Next up were Sweden’s Dragonland, who were given a sprawling 90-minute set to fill on their U.S. debut. True confessions time: Even during my most rabid power metal fandom days, I never really got into Dragonland, even though I tried. And in recent years my patience for this completely over-the-top, symphonic, conceptual, more-epic-than-thou, elves-and-fairies, keyboard-driven Italian-style stuff has waned. Add these factors to the band’s relative inexperience as a live unit (I read somewhere they’d played less than two dozen gigs ever before tonight), and Dragonland was guaranteed not to be a big hit with me tonight. To my ears, the songs mostly melted into each other. One highlight was when Brittney “Slayes” Hayes of Unleash the Archers came out to lend guest vocals to “Cassiopeia.” Another was the anthemic might and power of “Black Mare,” which represents everything awesome about Euro power metal (at least, if you can ignore the fact that the song’s more or less a love poem to a horse). The rest of it just kind of washed over me without making much of an impression. In fairness, though, a good number of people around me were going absolutely berserk throughout Dragonland’s set, and it’s obvious that their loyal fans were over the moon with their performance. Dragonland t-shirts were among the most popular apparel choices of PPUSA attendees for the entire weekend, so there you go.
This was the reason I was here. When announced headliner D.C. Cooper dropped off the bill a few months ago under frankly bizarre circumstances (he’s still here, playing with Royal Hunt on Saturday night, just not doing his solo thing tonight), promoter Nathan Block pulled a rabbit out of the hat by enticing the Saxon / Armored Saint tour to route its opening night through Atlanta. And what a triumphant event it was. Armored Saint are among my favorite U.S. metal bands of all time, and here they were promoting a solid new record, ‘Win Hands Down,’ which I enjoy greatly even though it can’t really compete with their first four LPs. Their reputation as a killer live band (which I had previously witnessed on three occasions, in 1991, 2000 and 2012) is well deserved, and they smoked the Center Stage crowd tonight from beginning to end. His stage wear (flannel shirt and khakis) may not exactly scream “METALLLLL,” but John Bush is a truly legendary frontman who doesn’t sing the songs as much as he attacks them with full power and unbridled energy. Add to that the Energizer bunny proclivities of bassist Joey Vera, the aggressive guitar tandem of Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan, and the force of nature that is Gonzo, and you have a recipe for mayhem. Sure, they were set up onstage as an opening band, with Gonzo playing the fest drumkit on the floor and all their backline set up in front of Saxon’s gear, but Armored Saint owned this room, delivering an incendiary set from top to bottom. Three new songs (title track, “An Exercise in Debauchery,” and “Mess”) were aired, and all went over like gangbusters. From the evergreens of their catalog, the band plucked both predictable (“Nervous Man,” “Last Train Home,” “March of the Saint”) and unpredictable (“Raising Fear,” which I don’t think I’d ever heard them play before) tracks. During “Reign of Fire,” Bush vacated the stage and worked his way through the audience, rocking out with the people in the seats a manner that I haven’t seen at PPUSA since Andy B. Franck (Brainstorm) did it a decade ago. And in “Can U Deliver,” Bush somehow clambered atop Vera’s bass rig as he surveyed the crowd at the beginning of the song, creating the visual image of the night as he stood engulfed in thick stage fog and bright red lights, singing the first verse. I love Armored Saint, and I’m ever so glad to have seen them tonight, still the masters of their craft, just a stupendous live act. Highlight of the festival for me, hands down. Setlist: Win Hands Down, March of the Saint, Nervous Man, An Exercise in Debauchery, Raising Fear, Last Train Home, Mess, Left Hook from Right Field, Reign of Fire, Can U Deliver, Madhouse. Saxon have been big dogs on the playground for more than 35 years. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Biff Byford and the boys are as vital, inspired and deadly as ever. It’s remarkable, really. Not only are Saxon’s live shows as powerful and energetic as those of bands half their ages, but the Brits keep pumping out quality new material every other year or so, like clockwork. Perhaps there’s no way to defeat Father Time in the long run, but Saxon have been cheating him pretty good. Tonight’s 90-minute headlining performance was a celebration of that fact. From the first notes of “Motorcycle Man” through the closing crescendo of “Denim and Leather,” Saxon took us in and delivered the kind of high-powered live show that most bands would kill to be capable of achieving. Byford, who performed the entire gig in a heavy long overcoat, hasn’t lost an iota of his vocal range or power, and is entertaining as hell to boot. At one point he asked if we wanted to hear “Dallas 1 p.m.,” then slyly revealed, “You know, it isn’t on the setlist. You’ve never seen anybody like us before, have you? We don’t like to follow rules.” Watching him fumble with an iPhone to try to film 15 seconds of Atlanta crowd footage “for our Facebook site” was hilarious. Guitarists Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt are reserved, almost stately, in their stage personae, but damned if they both don’t play up a storm. Meanwhile, over on the bass guitar, Nibbs Carter is an ageless wonder, a solid ball of rock running and headbanging and rocking out into oblivion like this was his last night on planet Earth. And behind the drums, Nigel Glockler proved that not even emergency brain surgery can stop him. Then there’s the song selection. In keeping with their ‘Warriors on the Road’ theme, Saxon relied heavily on the early material tonight, and goodness knows there were plenty of bonafide classics to be mined from that fertile soil. But they also threw in a few selected tracks that postdate the mid-80s, all well-chosen and frankly all awesome. The combination of “Broken Heroes” into “Solid Ball of Rock” was particularly unexpected and excellent. Yeah, you could nitpick things if you wanted to (no “747 (Strangers in the Night),” no “Strong Arm of the Law,” no “20,000 Ft,” almost nothing from the 2000s), but that’s inevitable for a band with as many stellar songs as Saxon has. It’s a nice problem to have, really. By the end of the night, I could only salute the relentless, precision rockin’ juggernaut that is Saxon. We are fortunate to have such an iconic band still firing on all cylinders, bringing their music to the masses. Go see them. Support them. And for God’s sake, buy the ‘Battering Ram’ album when it comes out. Saxon rule. Setlist: Motorcycle Man, Battering Ram, This Town Rocks, Sacrifice, Power and the Glory, Broken Heroes, Solid Ball of Rock, Heavy Metal Thunder, The Eagle Has Landed, Never Surrender, Backs to the Wall, Dallas 1 p.m., Wheels of Steel, Princess of the Night. Encores: Crusader, Denim and Leather.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Thanks to visa issues, Brazil’s Hibria were a last-minute scratch, definitely dampening my enthusiasm for the Friday slate of acts. (Visa problems wreaked havoc on the PPUSA lineup this year, forcing no fewer than 5 of the 12 announced bands to cancel. Of the other 4, Morgana LeFay and Dynazty, the latter of whom were forced to cancel literally the day before their gig when one or two of their members lacked the necessary paperwork, were particularly disheartening to me.) The promoter’s best solution to the problem of Hibria’s eleventh-hour difficulties was to expand Jeff Scott Soto’s set (JSS himself being a replacement act following Morgana LeFay’s cancellation) from 60 to 90 minutes; thus, there were only five bands gracing the PPUSA stage today. Of those five, two (Native Construct and Anathema) were definitely not for me, leaving just three acts for me to check out. This circumstance also left me with abundant beer-drinking and socializing time, which is never a bad thing. The net result was that I had a great, fun day, but not so much for musical reasons. Despite some misgivings, I decided to give Jeff Scott Soto’s set a long look. Don’t get me wrong: I do love the man’s voice, and his work with Yngwie Malmsteen and Jeff Scott Soto is held in extremely high regard in my household. I even like his W.E.T. stuff to a certain degree, although it is awfully wimpy for my tastes. Less interesting to me is most of JSS’s solo catalogue; unfortunately, that seemed to be the focal point of his set today. I spent nearly an hour watching him. Voice? Spot-on. Showmanship? Great. Backing band? Superb. Material? Ehhhh, not so much. It was nice to hear W.E.T.’s “Learn to Live Again,” a quality AOR song for sure, but most of the songs really didn’t do anything for me. When he started into a Seal cover song, Jen staged an intervention, sensing my discomfiture, and escorted me to the bar for some needed liquid sustenance. From the foyer, I could hear JSS trying to coach the audience through a singalong for a song they didn’t know (a Talisman track, I think?). Never heard a note of Soto’s Axel Rudi Pell-era material today (“Carousel” or “Fool Fool” would have gone down a storm I think). He did a little YJM, but only in the form of snippets of “I Am a Viking” and “I’ll See the Light Tonight,” not even the entire songs. That’s a shame, considering he had 90 minutes to work with. The “Stand Up” encore from the ‘Rock Star’ movie soundtrack kind of summarized everything I didn’t really enjoy about the Jeff Scott Soto show. Again, there’s no doubting the man’s talent or his effort, and many people were left gobsmacked by his performance. But it really overlooked the eras of his career in which I’m interested.
Australia’s Voyager aren’t the sort of band I listen to around the house, in the car, while working out, etc. Their stuff is too modern, too mashed-up, too poppish, too keyboardy, etc. for me to really appreciate. Live, however, is a totally different story. I’ve seen the band three times and have had a ball each and every time. Tonight the band kicked their showmanship and stagecraft up a notch, before an absolutely adoring PPUSA audience that was eating out of the palms of their hands. They were heavy, they were funny, they were energetic, and they easily won over the crowd from the start. Say what you want about the keytar (actually, the dude had two of them, one red and one white), the vocals that ranged from 80s pop to full-on death screams, and the jumping up and down bits. The fact remains that Voyager are an incredibly fun live act, never more so than on their cover tune medley that fuses together parts of “Ghostbusters,” the Backstreet Boys, Meatloaf (“I Would Do Anything for Love”), and a song that basically goes “America – f**k yeah” that everybody but me seemed to know. Good times, and a pleasant shot in the arm for 75 minutes to help me get through the long day.
The room was electric over Falconer’s Friday night-closing set, which had been advertised as the band’s final live performance ever. (To be sure, this was not to be Falconer’s farewell. They have been clear that they intend to move forward as a recording entity, but live shows will be no more.) I was pretty conflicted about the whole thing. On the one hand, I dearly love Falconer’s music. Always have, always will. I’ll never forget the magic of hearing their self-titled album in 2001, which remains one of my favorite albums to be released in the last 15 years. The combination of Stefan Weinerhall’s songs and Mathias Blad’s voice is, for me, sublime and utterly unique in the world of heavy metal. On the other hand, Falconer have never held themselves out as a live act and with good reason. They’re kind of awful on stage. I had the “honor” of witnessing Falconer’s very first live performance at the Bang Your Head Festival warm-up show in summer 2002. They were almost embarrassingly bad. Okay, songs sounded good, but Blad was visibly petrified, there was zero energy onstage, and it was painful to watch. So I expected the same experience tonight. And that’s basically what I got. The positives? Blad’s voice sounds, if anything, more mesmerizing live than it does on CD. The band was tight, well-rehearsed, and played the tunes magnificently. The set list was brilliantly chosen and spanned the Swedes’ entire career (save the Kristoffer Gobel years), including no fewer than six songs off the legendary debut album, four from ‘Northwind,’ three off ‘Chapters of a Vale Forlorn,’ one each from ‘Among Beggars and Thieves’ and ‘Armod,’ and three from the stellar latest album, ‘Black Moon Rising.’ There was a lovely acoustic mini-set in the middle, featuring “Wings of Serenity,” “Long Gone By” and “Portals of Light.” Honestly, it sent chills down my spine to hear Blad and damn near the entire floor of the venue singing the chorus of “Wings of Serenity” over a stripped-down acoustic accompaniment from Weinerhall and Jimmy Hedlund. And the closing salvo of “Royal Galley,” “Northwind,” “Mindtraveller” and “Clarion Call” was really as good as this kind of music gets, with the band thankfully a bit loosened up by then. The negatives? Sadly, unfortunately, Falconer are still a pretty terrible live band. The four dudes upfront were mostly rooted to their spots. Weinerhall seemed so uncomfortable in the spotlight that he kept a black ballcap pulled down way over his face, leaving only a small chunk of his salt-and-pepper beard (more salt than pepper) visible. Blad’s song introductions were every bit as awkward as his stage movements. As wonderful, energetic and passionate as the music sounded, the imagery on stage was almost the direct opposite. A buddy of mine at the fest sent me a text midway through the show that asked, “Who is less interested, band or people in seats?” A harsh criticism, but yeah, that’s kind of how it looked. At the end of the day, I’m still horribly conflicted about the whole thing. Am I glad I got to see Falconer’s last performance? Yeah. Am I relieved that I’ll never have to watch them again? Yeah. I do hope Weinerhall, Blad and the Falconer clan have 10 more albums of majestic folk-metal brilliance up their sleeves. But it’s a relief to know they won’t be stepping on any other stages. Setlist: Halls and Chambers, A Quest for the Crown, Locust Swarm, Enter the Glade, Catch the Shadows, Upon the Grave of Guilt, The Past Still Lives On, Age of Runes, Wings of Serenity (acoustic), Long Gone By (acoustic), Portals of Light (acoustic), Svarta Ankan, Himmel sa trind, Vargaskall, Royal Galley, Northwind. Encores: Mindtraveller, The Clarion Call.
Saturday, September 12, 2015
For my tastes, the Saturday lineup was more interesting than the Friday slate. The day began with Argentina’s Helker, playing their first gig outside their home country. It was especially nice to see them because Helker – like so many of this year’s international bands – had been bit by the visa bug, with their drummer being unable to enter the USA. Rather than cancel the gig, Helker lined up an emergency substitute drummer who came through bigtime and allowed Helker’s show to go on. (When introducing the drummer, frontman Diego Valdez publicly thanked him for “saving our asses.”) During their 55-minute set, Helker performed most of their ‘Somewhere in the Circle’ album (released on AFM Records in 2013) and also played one older song in Spanish, which they said marked the first time a Spanish-language tune had ever been performed at PPUSA. Helker had three major points going for them today. First, after yesterday’s uneven musical styles, it was really good to kick off Saturday with a band playing no-frills, basic Dio-style hard rock. Second, there’s vocalist Diego Valdez. A mountain of a man, Valdez well deserves his nickname as the Argentinian Dio. Man, he’s got a lot of power in his lungs, and just enough grit to hold it all together. At one point, Valdez led the crowd in an a capella singalong to the chorus of “Heaven and Hell” (oddly, the band didn’t play the whole song), and wow, his voice is superb. Third, the band members were visibly moved by the positive reaction they received on the ProgPower stage. This outpouring of hearfelt emotion, and Valdez’s attempts to overcome the language barrier to articulate how much this experience meant to them, made it very easy indeed to pull for Helker. Ultimately, the band did their homeland proud and made a fine opening band for the last day of ProgPower XVI.
As mentioned above, Sweden’s Dynazty had been forced to cancel at the last possible moment when one or two of their band members did not receive the necessary visa paperwork to enter the USA. This news happened literally the day before they were supposed to play. Under the circumstances, there was absolutely no way to bring in a new band to take Dynazty’s spot in the Saturday lineup. The promoter’s solution was to have Dragonland perform a second set, presumably in front of a larger crowd at the sold-out regular festival (rather than the not-sold-out Thursday kickoff show). I don’t fault the promoter, the bands or anybody for that decision. I will say, however, that I didn’t really have much interest in watching Dragonland play another set. Although I understand there were some different songs rotated in, today’s set (like Thursday’s) included “Cassiopeia” with Brittney Hayes guest appearance, “Black Mare” with guest fan vocals, etc. etc. The primary difference between Dragonland’s Thursday set and their Saturday set appeared to be that the singer was wearing a, hmmm, provocative t-shirt today bearing the slogan “F**k Me I’m Famous.” Okay then. Partway through, I decided my time was better spent at the bar, so there you go. That said, diehard fans seemed to get a big kick out of seeing Dragonland play again, so the move seemed to pay off as well as could have been hoped.
Although they had been confirmed to the festival just a couple of weeks before as a replacement band, Canada’s Unleash the Archers were my most eagerly anticipated band of the day. I enjoyed both of their self-released albums from 2009 and 2011, as UtA specialize in an interesting blend of fast guitar-driven Euro power metal with excellent female vocals and a few extreme influences cropping up in the form of black-metal style male vocals and occasional blastbeats. Their new album, ‘Time Stands Still,’ on Napalm Records amps up the power metal quotient, diminishes the black/death bits, and incorporates a few Manowarisms for good measure. Tonight was my first time seeing them, and they did not disappoint. From the outset, it was clear that Unleash the Archers were giving this performance their all. You see, the band had just embarked on what was supposed to be a 32-date North American co-headlining tour with Hibria, only Hibria had been unable to secure entry into the USA, leaving Unleash the Archers holding the bag. Rather than cancel the tour, the Canadians opted to slog ahead, with labelmates and fellow Canucks Crimson Shadows to join forces with them somewhere along the routing. The point is that Unleash the Archers were facing a lot of long drives to play small venues in front of (probably) meager audiences. To have the opportunity to play the big stage, with pro lights and sound, in front of 1,000+ receptive ProgPower attendees was a massive coup, and Unleash the Archers were determined to capitalize on it. Early on, vocalist Brittney “Slayes” Hayes (she of the Mad Max-style stage gear and maroon dyed hair) expressed sadness that so many bands had been forced to cancel, but vowed that Unleash the Archers would “play our hearts out” for us, and that’s exactly what they did. As expected, the set was heavy on ‘Time Stands Still’ material, with cuts like “Test Your Metal,” “Tonight We Ride,” and “Time Stands Still” going over extremely well. I was also pleased, however, to see the band not ignore their previous work, as three songs (including the outstanding “Realm of Tomorrow”) from ‘Demons of the Astrowaste’ made welcome appearances (sadly no “City of Iron,” my fave track, though). If the band were intimidated by the big stage and big crowd, they didn’t let on, showing plenty of energy and stage presence, and moving around like seasoned pros. Hayes nailed her vocal lines, the guitars were right on point, and everyone (both onstage and in the audience) seemed to have a blast. Hope to see these guys and girl again soon on a small sweaty clubstage somewhere soon. Setlist: Frozen Soul, Hail of the Tide, Test Your Metal, Tonight We Ride, Daughters of Winterstone, The Realm of Tomorrow, Dreamcrusher, Time Stands Still, General of the Dark Army.
Riverside was a dinner break band for Jen and me, but we came back into the hall in time for Royal Hunt’s second song of the night (missed opener “The Mission,” and shame on us for it). The big selling point for the Danes’ performance tonight was that they would be playing their ‘Paradox’ album from 1997 in its entirety, with on-again, off-again U.S. vocalist D.C. Cooper behind the mike. Royal Hunt are something of a “guilty pleasure” band for me. I own a half-dozen or so of their albums, all of which make for great easy-listening background music. Live, I had seen them before with John West and with Mark Boals, but I guess never with D.C. Cooper. The guy’s nothing if not an entertaining showman, with all of his costume changes and dramatic stage poses and flourishes. More importantly, Cooper’s voice has held up splendidly over the years, and he turned in the kind of rich, nuanced vocal performance tonight that would be the envy of most professional singers in rock and metal bands around the world. For me, though, his antics became a bit distracting from the music, whether he was stroking his own bare chest, playing with his nipples (not making this up, I swear), or tossing his hair back for dramatic effect. But that’s just me. Most people seemed to eat it up. As usual, keyboardist/bandleader Andre Andersen was surrounded by banks of keyboards on three sides. The guitarist was definitely channeling the Yngwie look, from the attire to the hair to the pale yellow Strat. I don’t love the ‘Paradox’ material, so I didn’t love the Royal Hunt set, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun to hear spot-on versions of tracks like “River of Pain” or “Message to God.” Definitely could have lived without the layers of piped-in backing vocals, though. It seemed like during every chorus of every song, there was no one anywhere near a microphone, yet a majestic choir of backing vocals could be heard loud and clear. Is it live, or is it Memorex? Unfortunately, we all know the answer. Still, it was an enjoyable set and a good time, for what it was. Crowd gave the band a huge reaction, as expected. Setlist: The Mission, Half-Past Loneliness, The Awakening, River of Pain, Tearing Down the World, Message to God, Long Way Home, Time Will Tell, Silent Scream, It’s Over. Encores: May You Never Walk Alone, A Life to Die For.
So at last, it was time for tonight’s headliner, Angra from Brazil playing their 1996 ‘Holy Land’ opus in its entirety. I generally like Angra. I have all their albums. I’ve seen them a handful of times before. But try as I might, I couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for their show tonight. Part of it is the ‘Holy Land’ full-album gimmick. Oh, I know lots of people worship that album, but for me (the closeminded trad / power guy) the only tracks I really enjoy are “Nothing to Say,” “Carolina IV,” “Z.I.T.O.” and to a lesser extent “Holy Land.” The idea of hearing live versions of stuff like “Silence and Distance” or “Deep Blue” didn’t thrill me. Besides, there was the whole Andre Matos factor, as in, he’s not there. Italian Fabio Lione is Angra’s singer now. While he’s a fantastic vocalist in his own right, Lione didn’t strike me as a great fit for the ‘Holy Land’ material. Add to these considerations the fact that I’m not terribly enthused about the band’s recent ‘Secret Garden’ album (or their last three albums, to be frank), and perhaps my ambivalence makes sense. All that is background. Angra came out and performed brilliantly tonight. Fantastic players, all of them. Outstanding renditions of the ‘Holy Land’ stuff delivered with professionalism and class. Lione sang his ass off, guitarists Kiko Loureiro and Rafael Bittencourt were outstanding, and the rhythm section was top-notch as well. But the whole thing left me kind of cold, because I’m not much of a fan of this kind of music (aside from “Nothing to Say” and a few others). Besides, it bugged me that the drums and flown-in keyboards/effects (there was no live keys player on stage) were way louder in the mix than everything else, with guitars and vocals damn near inaudible at times. And I thought it strange that Bittencourt handled a substantial portion of the lead vocals late in the set, despite Lione’s vastly superior voice. Why drive a Ford Pinto if you’ve got a Ferrari? Look, most of this is just me, I’m sure. The PPUSA crowd went totally nuts for Angra’s performance, so trust their word over mine. Setlist: Nothing to Say, Silence and Distance, Carolina IV, Holy Land, The Shaman, Make Believe, Z.I.T.O., Deep Blue, Lullaby for Lucifer, Newborn Me, Waiting Silence, Storm of Emotions, Final Light, Rebirth, Nova Era, You Really Got Me (Van Halen cover, with Jeff Scott Soto, D.C. Cooper and others).
So there you have it, another ProgPower in the books. Will I be back in 2016? You bet your ass. As I say, PPUSA is always a fun time. Fates Warning’s ‘Awaken the Guardian’ show and Refuge (the mighty Rage by another name) make it a no-brainer for me, and a number of other high-caliber acts sweeten the pot as well. Hope to see you in Atlanta next September!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~