Center Stage, Atlanta, GA
September 12-13, 2014
For the fourteenth (!) consecutive year, Jen and I made the trip to Atlanta to partake of the ProgPower festival. We have long since made our peace with the festival’s strengths and weaknesses, and no longer rage against it for not being something more or something different than it is. What it is, reliably and without fail, is an opportunity for us to catch up with friends (many of whom we only see once per year), drink some beer, and enjoy a few killer bands that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to see in a first-class venue with great lighting, sounds and sightlines. That said, I can’t recall ever attending a PPUSA where there were so many bands for whom I could muster precisely zero zip nada enthusiasm. Nonetheless, the excursion was validated musically by three strong performances each day, ranging in quality from good to exceptional. (Most of the others I watched for a song or two, then gave up because it was so obviously not my thing. I won’t waste time or energy trying to describe those here.)
Friday, September 12, 2014
The first noteworthy band of the fest for me was Germany’s ORDEN OGAN, which the band translates as “Order of Fear.” Whatever the name means, these guys have been steadily building a buzz in Euro metal circles as an up’n’coming power metal act and thus were a good fit for the Fest. I’ll be honest: The last three records (the only ones I’ve heard) include some stellar headbanging material influenced by Blind Guardian and other masters, but also some more atmospheric, boring kind of symphonic stuff that doesn’t really appeal to me. Fortunately, tonight’s set was heavy on the former and largely omitted the latter. The quartet came out in a post-apocalyptic costumed get-up (capes and rubber suits, with the singer also sporting a mystical black hood for most of the set, as well as a hunk of tire tread affixed to his shoulder). And they rocked hard from the start, showcasing their more uptempo, catchy, anthemic singalong tunes. Singer Seeb was funny as hell too. He told an amusing anecdote about how Orden Ogan are accustomed to playing festivals dominated by extreme metal bands, so he said, “When I say, ‘hello, my friends,’ you say, ‘fuck you, pussies.’” We did that a few times, to hilarious effect, then he deadpanned, “Here’s a song for all the girls,” as they launched into “Farewell,” the set’s lone ballad. Elsewhere, Seeb informed us that his upraised fist was the “fist of fate,” and that each time he raised it during “To the End,” we were to yell, “Fate!” It worked. And when Seeb asked the hundreds of people sitting comfortably in the stadium-style seating (not me, I was standing on the floor as always) if they were sleeping before goading them into a half-hearted, unsuccessful singalong, he then summarily dismissed them by saying, “Okay, you really are asleep.” Hah, I loved it.
The boys were clearly chuffed to be playing their first show in the USA, to a receptive audience that seemed highly familiar with their songs. They were all smiles for the entire show. I don’t think they were expecting as strongly positive a reaction as they actually received. I thought they were great. Songs like “To New Shores of Sadness,” and especially “We Are Pirates” and “Land of the Dead” and “To the End” were very convincing and highly effective in getting the pulse racing and the fists banging. The only thing that disappointed me about Orden Ogan’s set was that there were an awful lot of sounds emanating from the P.A. that were not being produced by the four gentlemen on stage. By that, I mean truckloads of backing choirs, keyboards, freaking accordions, and so on. I know it’s become industry standard for Euro power metal bands to do this, but it still irritates me every single time. I’d rather hear live music that’s performed 100% live, warts and all, then hear musicians playing along to backing tracks, slaves to their own prerecorded parts. But Orden Ogan did not create this system, and I should direct my venom at the game, not the players. Pet peeves aside, Orden Ogan played a very good, energetic set, and I left the venue more of a fan than I was when I entered. Setlist: To New Shores of Sadness, The Lords of the Flies, Land of the Dead, Farewell, We Are Pirates, To the End, Angels War, World of Ice, The Things We Believe In.
Next up for me was the day’s true highlight, OVERKILL, sandwiched between two prog bands about whom I collectively gave zero shits. Whilst some festival attendees were rolling their eyes that they’d seen the New Jersey thrashers a hundred times before, and others were bemoaning their “oddball” status as a thrash band at a prog fest, I was rubbing my hands with glee. You see, I’ve been an Overkill fan since first hearing the ‘Power in Black’ demo during my tape-trading days, and I had a nice run in the 1980s and early 1990s of seeing the band on every tour. But I hadn’t seen Overkill since April 1993 (the ‘I Hear Black’ tour if you’re wondering). That’s a long drought for missing one of my all-time favorite thrash acts. They came out swinging, kicking PPUSA in the teeth was a punishing version of “Armorist” off the new album. Unfortunately, despite the inordinately long set changeover, the beginning of Overkill’s set was plagued with technical problems. For the first couple of minutes, no guitars were audible, then DD’s bass kept cutting in and out, prompting him to storm off the stage and punch his mike stand in disgust. From my vantage point, however, the technical issues were corrected quickly, and Overkill sounded devastatingly awesome for the rest of their set. This set was really everything that I could have possibly dared to hope for from Overkill in anno 2014. The setlist was a terrific mix of the old and the new, the well-known and the obscure, with the band’s “groove” period being entirely omitted. I was surprised as hell to hear “Overkill” off ‘Feel the Fire’ aired second, and the likes of “Wrecking Crew,” “Rotten to the Core” and of course “Elimination” warmed the cockles of my frozen heart. Then there was the total curveball of “End of the Line” from ‘Under the Influence,’ a fantastic deep cut that I wouldn’t have predicted even if I’d been given 50 guesses. Of the newer songs, it’s hard to find fault with the likes of “Armorist,” “Electric Rattlesnake,” and “Ironbound,” although I might have picked something else over, say, “Black Daze” or “Bitter Pill,” which while good, are not among the stronger songs on those records. (I later learned to my chagrin that Overkill cut “Under One,” “Bring Me the Night,” and “Long Time Dyin’” from their regular headline set to cram into the allotted 75 minutes in Atlanta. Ouch.)
But it was more than what Overkill played, it was how they played it that made this gig magical. Despite being old bastards in their 50s, they played with as much power, energy and intensity as bands half their age. I was impressed by Dave Linsk’s attacking lead guitar work, and Ron Lipnicki was a beast behind the drumkit. Bathed in eerie green light with abundant stage fog and winged-skull mascot Chollie looking on benevolently from the backdrop, Overkill shredded the hell out of the ProgPower stage. There was no wasted time, no bullshit, no going through the motions, just a bona fide, full-on, unadulterated ass-kicking. It was a thing of beauty. I haven’t said anything about vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth yet. The guy just might be the greatest heavy metal frontman this side of Bruce Dickinson. I swear, Blitz hasn’t aged a day since I saw him last. He’s all lean muscle and sinew, sprinting across the stage at the last possible second at the end of every lead break to reach the mike stand just in time to deliver his next line. He hits every scream with full power and conviction, pulling no punches even though the band’s in the midst of a tour (i.e., this was no one-off gig for them – they had a show last night, and have another gig tomorrow). He punctuates the rapid-fire lyrics with hand gestures that match the venomous lines (Harry Conklin style). He dropped more f-bombs and shot more middle-finger salutes than had been done collectively in 15 years’ worth of ProgPower performances. And Blitz’s biting, wicked sense of humor permeates his stage raps. He said that we were witnessing the “progressive version of Overkill, all refined and shit.” He told us that “End of the Line” was written “before we had hair on our balls.” He said the words “I’m a pig” would be written on his tombstone. He said something about Overkill being so metal that “we shit roofing nails.” Yet, for all his tough-talking ways, Blitz has this charming undercurrent of sentimentality. When he asked if we were having fun, he followed up by observing, “You know, that’s the secret to life, having fun.” He said that the high chart positions of ‘White Devil Armory’ were as much for the fans as they were for the band. And he brought up 9/11, took a deep breath and murmured, “great fuckin’ country,” before dedicating “Ironbound” to unity in the heavy metal community and unity among us all.
By the end of Overkill’s 75-minute set, my voice was shot, my neck was sore, and I was a hot, sweaty mess out there on the floor. I’m not sure how many ProgPower attendees actually “get” this band, but I’m ever so happy they were here and ever so glad I got to see them. If you ever, ever have a chance to see this band, just go. They rule the night, indomitable and ironbound until the end. Setlist: Armorist, Overkill, Electric Rattlesnake, Wrecking Crew, Rotten to the Core, Black Daze, End of the Line, Pig, Hello from the Gutter, Ironbound. Encores: Bitter Pill, Elimination, Fuck You.
The third and final band of interest to me today was Finland’s STRATOVARIUS, occupying the headlining role in their first PPUSA experience since 2005, when they were supporting the disastrous self-titled album (remember “Maniac Dance”? shudder) at the height of Tolkki’s dysfunction. Watching them take the stage to bell-bottomed Lauri Porra’s fat bass grooves to kick off “Kiss of Judas” reminded me how drastic the changes in the Stratovarius camp have been since their “classic” period, with vocalist Timo Kotipelto and keyboardist Jens Johansson being the lone holdovers. Joerg Michael’s drum throne is now occupied by a bird-chested, pasty white pale kid with a blonde emo haircut who absolutely bashed the hell out of his kit for the entire set, and was actually great fun to watch. On the six-string, Matias Kupiainen may not be a particularly flashy player, but he is solid, skilled and reliable as he stands in place with his waist-length hair obscuring his face and most of his fretboard. The veteran Finns are performing a few special shows this fall in which they play their seminal 1997 ‘Visions’ opus in its entirety, and they wasted no time getting down to the business at hand. I was reminded why I’m not so enamored of this kind of gimmick. Even though ‘Visions’ is a terrific Stratovarius album, it is not a flawless one. It was less than thrilling to hear the likes of dull “Before the Winter” and bland “The Abyss of Your Eyes” in the running order as obligatory ‘Visions’ cuts, instead of much stronger numbers from elsewhere in the band’s deep discography. Overall, though, the “whole-album” gambit worked well here because ‘Visions’ is littered with great tunes, including my favorite Stratovarius song ever, “Legions.” Between that, “Forever Free,” “Black Diamond,” “Paradise” and the title track, all performed to perfection, I was a happy camper indeed. The diminutive Kotipelto has a reputation for uneven live performances, but he sounded spot-on tonight, hitting the highest of highs with ease as he smiled his easy smile, casually flipped the microphone from one hand to the other, and mouthed the words “thank you” to the audience at the end of each song. After the ‘Visions’ album was completed, Stratovarius filled out the remainder of their 100-minute set with six additional cuts, mostly of recent vintage, all of them well chosen. Highlights included the ridiculously catchy (and, yes, I know, poppy) “Unbreakable” and the speedier “Under Flaming Skies,” plus the evergreen “Hunting High and Low,” a feel-good singalong anthem if there ever was one.
Look, I’m not going to sit here and say that Stratovarius played a mind-blowing, earth-shattering set. These guys don’t do the high-energy, running-across-the-stage-headbanging-madly kind of thing, but instead go for a much more understated approach. Nonetheless, their gig was just really cool, with a laid-back, relaxed demeanor, excellent playing, well-written songs, and easy smiles on the faces and band members and audience alike. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Particularly endearing was Kotipelto’s admission late in the gig (which ended at 1:30 a.m.) that Stratovarius had to be at the Atlanta airport at 6:00 a.m. to catch their flight to Montreal for the next night’s show. When the crowd groaned its sympathies, Kotipelto just smiled, gave us a thumbs-up, and said, “That’s okay. We’ll all be feeling good because of you.” There was a sincerity in those words that rang true and lent a warm, fuzzy feeling to the proceedings. What a great vibe this show had. Setlist: Kiss of Judas, Black Diamond, Forever Free, Before the Winter, Legions, Abyss of Your Eyes, Holy Light, Paradise, Coming Home, Visions, Under Flaming Skies, Dragons, Deep Unknown, Eagleheart. Encore: Unbreakable, Hunting High and Low.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
The final day of ProgPower got off to slow start musically for me, so I dedicated myself to the selfless task of reducing the bar’s Sweetwater 420 beer stockpile by a couple of gallons during the afternoon. Things took a turn for the better at 5:30 p.m., with the arrival of VOODOO CIRCLE to the stage. If the band name is unfamiliar, the players should not be. Voodoo Circle is the brainchild of Primal Fear / Sinner / Silent Force guitar hero Alex Beyrodt, who has assembled a stellar cast of musicians, including most notably British-born powerhouse singer David Readman (Pink Cream 69) and stalwart bassist Mat Sinner (Primal Fear / Sinner). Style-wise, these guys are outside the box of traditional ProgPower fodder, as their sound is heavily steeped in the 70s and 80s sounds of Whitesnake, with some Deep Purple thrown in for good measure. Their albums include some more neoclassical Yngwie-type stuff; however, none of those songs were aired today. Instead, it was pure Whitesnake worship all the way, baby.
Now, I’m no huge fan of David Coverdale or Whitesnake or bluesy hard rock, but I do like ‘Broken Heart Syndrome,’ the one Voodoo Circle album in my collection. Almost immediately, Voodoo Circle hooked me live. The combination of Readman’s divine voice, Beyrodt’s fretboard wizardry, and the superb backing vocals of Sinner and the vertically challenged keyboard player worked wonderfully with this simple hard rock fodder. Can’t say the majority of the PPUSA faithful seemed to agree with me, however, as the hall emptied out and the remaining audience members seemed to look on impassively. It didn’t help matters that Readman was visibly fuming about his microphone situation. The mike kept cutting in and out on him, and he didn’t hesitate to let his feelings on the matter be heard in between songs. Eventually, the stage crew brought him a replacement microphone. Same problem. So Readman complained some more. Ultimately, a crew member grabbed Sinner’s microphone and handed it to Readman. Voila, problem solved, except that then another mike had to be found for Sinner. What the hell? This was all very distracting and unfortunate. My attention started to wander with the uniformity of the material (mid-paced bluesy rock’n’roll), the drum solo, the extended Blackmore-style guitar jam, and the set closing Zeppelin cover (“Rock’N’Roll”). I never gave a damn about Zeppelin, and I wasn’t about to start today.
Overall, then, Voodoo Circle’s performance was something of a mixed bag. With a shorter set, fewer technical problems, less self-indulgent wankery, and perhaps a better/more varied song selection, this could have been killer. Instead, it was only good. But I certainly enjoyed tracks like “No Solution Blues,” “King of Your Dreams,” and “This Could Be Paradise,” all of which showcased old-school guitar-based hard rock music at its best, with sublime playing and singing. So, yeah, Voodoo Circle gets a thumbs-up from me.
Immediately following Voodoo Circle were MASTERPLAN, the long-running multinational melodic metallers led by ex-Helloween guitarist Roland Grapow. Despite their lengthy pedigree and their ProgPower-tailored sound, this marked Masterplan’s debut at the festival, and indeed in the U.S. Initially, many might have wished that legendary vocalist Jorn Lande (who’s been in and out the band twice, and has appeared at PPUSA on multiple occasions) were still at the helm. However, current frontman Rick Altzi did his very best to have fest attendees asking “Jorn who?” during this set. Altzi’s something of a journeyman, having sung for various Euro metal acts, including At Vance, Herman Frank, and Frequency, among others. He’s a bit rougher and raspier than Lande, but my goodness he sounded fantastic today and really succeeded in making Jorn’s songs his own. Unfortunately, Masterplan’s performance was beset with technical difficulties from the outset, including more microphone and monitor issues onstage, with yet another singer unable to hear himself. In stark contrast to the pouty David Readman, however, Masterplan shrugged it off, with the genial Grapow smiling and reassuring us that it was okay and all would be fine.
Overall, the Masterplan set was a pleasant and enjoyable treat for me. I own the band’s five-album discography, but don’t really spend a great deal of time with it. Consequently, I’d frankly forgotten how many great songs they have, especially on their self-titled 2003 debut, from which no fewer than 7 tunes were culled this evening. All of the older numbers sounded like familiar friends, and were played flawlessly. Much like Stratovarius in the live arena, Masterplan may not get your pulse racing or your neck banging, but these are ultra-pro musicians who let the stellar songs do the heavy lifting and just give off this aura of relaxed positivity. Grapow even gets credit for one of the funniest likes of the weekend. The band were getting ready to start another song, when they noticed that Altzi had gone off stage to deal with some of the technical gremlins. Grapow laughed and said, “Looks like we’ve lost another singer.” It was hilarious. At any rate, by the time Masterplan was finished, all I wanted to do was go home and listen to their entire discography from front to back, focusing on the debut. I definitely have a renewed appreciation for this band after having seen them live, and am grateful for the experience.
Setlist: Enlighten Me, Heroes, Keep Your Dream Alive, Kind Hearted Light, Crystal Night, Black Night of Magic, Soulburn, Spirit Never Dies, Lost and Found, Crimson Rider, Time to Be King, Back from my Life, Crawling to Hell.
So the next band (pain of salvation) egregiously delayed the proceedings through a bunch of b.s. that I’m not going to bother discussing here. As a result, it was 11:45 (some 75 minutes after the scheduled time) when the curtain came up on tonight’s headliner, JON OLIVA’S PAIN. Now, the Mountain King is no stranger to ProgPower, having performed here on at least 3 previous occasions (counting his amazing songwriter workshop a couple of years ago). But we’d never seen him like this before. The marketing hook for this headlining gig was that it would mark the first (and, to date, only) time that Savatage’s legendary ‘Streets’ magnum opus had ever been performed from beginning to end. Word has it that Oliva and his bandmates spent four months rehearsing for this one show, and that they were super jacked up about it, with Oliva himself releasing a statement that he was more excited about this show than any that he’d ever done before. The evening was noteworthy for another reason too. Just two days earlier, an hour before the JOP traveling party was to begin its journey from Tampa to Atlanta, Jon Oliva, as he put it on stage, “tripped over [his] wife’s fucking dog” and cracked some ribs. He was in an immense amount of pain and discomfort for the entire set, and was, again in his words, “bandaged like a fucking mummy” under his stage clothes. Still, the show must go on, and so on it went.
Before getting to the music, here are a few words about Jon’s demeanor. Having watched the man onstage since 1989, I am well accustomed to the zaniness, the gleeful, unbridled insanity he brings to the table. But he was over the top tonight. Before the curtain even opened tonight, he was bellowing out zingers like “I love my fucking job” and “I hope no one has a date tonight,” seemingly in competition with Blitz from Overkill to win the festival’s f-bomb crown. He said so many laugh-out-loud funny things tonight that I couldn’t begin to remember them all. Whether he was badgering a crew member to bring him vodka (“camouflaged water”) onstage, interacting with audience members (“thank you, Helpy Helperton” or “how the fuck would you know whether I’m allowed back in Bradenton?”), teasing his bandmates (“what did you ever do, other than buy a stupid hat?” to his keyboard player, or “next time I take a shit, I’m going to take you to the bathroom and read you” to his tattooed guitarist), apologizing for not remembering the running order of the ‘Streets’ album (“do you know how many drugs I’ve done since 1991?”), telling the audience to chill out (“you don’t have to clap, just enjoy it, smoke a joint or something”), poking fun at promoter Glenn Harveston (“you bearded little fuck”), or just being loopy (“bitch, if you ever saw me naked, you’d never have sex again … except with me”), Jon was freakin’ on fire with the comedic routine tonight, offering an endless barrage of one-liners. He also was possessed to rise from behind his piano and move around the stage (rib pain and massive girth notwithstanding) more than I’ve seen him do in many years. The man put absolutely 100% of his heart and his soul into this performance, and was visibly fired up to make it so. God bless him.
What about the music? Interestingly, the set began not with the ‘Streets’ album, but with three of the more obscure tunes from the Savatage canon: “Surrender” (off ‘Poets and Madmen,’ not one of my favorites), “Of Rage and War” (with Jon squeezing out every single one of those piercing high shrieks like it was 1989 all over again), and “The Price You Pay” (maybe the weakest song on ‘Hall of the Mountain King,’ but a decent enough tune nonetheless). JOP picked up momentum after that, as Jon treated us to the piano beginning of “Mentally Yours” before switching gears into the evergreen “Gutter Ballet,” which well and truly won the crowd over for good. Then it was time for the long, emotional roller coaster ride that is the ‘Streets’ album, followed by a closing trifecta of stalwart “Hall of the Mountain King,” “Temptation Revelation” (a fond tribute to the fallen Criss Oliva), and the gut-wrenching “When the Crowds Are Gone.” That’s some seriously emotional musical content, and certainly the most unique JOP set that’s ever been performed, or that probably ever will be performed.
Notwithstanding the glorious one-night-only aspect of the gig, I could see why it would rub some people the wrong way. Those expecting note-perfect renditions of these songs would be substantially disappointed. Jon fumbled or outright botched lyrics any number of times, and somehow managed to forget to play “A Little Too Far” (track 5 on the ‘Streets’ album), for which he substituted ‘Heal My Soul’ (track 14 on the ‘Streets’ album), until the very end when one his band members pointed out the screw-up. The backing band was surely competent, but mistakes were audible on any number of occasions. I got particularly annoyed with Brazilian pretty-boy guitarist Bill Hudson, who’s a fine player and performed admirably tonight, yet didn’t seem to even try to play some of Criss’s solos the way they were originally written. When I’ve seen Chris Caffery or Matt LaPorte (R.I.P.) or Jerry Outlaw perform a set of Savatage classics, they’ve always managed to play those classic, fiery Criss Oliva solos in faithful renditions. Not Hudson. Sure, his playing was fluid, skillful and beautiful, but I couldn’t get past the fact that he was not playing the leads the way I’ve heard them for the last 20 years. There was also room to gripe that Jon kept injecting humor into the lyrics of these sacred songs, ad-libbing about how much his ribs hurt or how he couldn’t hear anything on stage or how Harveston owed him another grand or other such nonsense. Some would say that the somber, deeply emotional content of the ‘Streets’ material should be treated with reverence, and not sullied by cheap jokes and light-hearted jest. I get that, really I do, but to me the laughter helped to get through what was otherwise a pretty difficult emotional journey.
Despite all of that, the 135 minutes I spent watching this JOP performance was an experience to be treasured, and one that I’ll never forget. The ‘Streets’ songs are special to me; indeed, that album helped me through some extremely dark, lonely, confused times in college and graduate school. The lyrics resonated with me and penetrated my soul. Even though my life’s turned out better than I could have ever reasonably dared to dream in those dismal times, those memories and the songs that are intertwined with them are still lurking in a hermetically sealed dark corner of my heart that I don’t visit very often. JOP’s set took me there. And I was locked in a room with 1,000 people who had the same relationship with that collection of songs, and a madman, inspired singer doing his damnedest to do justice to that material. It was powerful, it was beautiful, it was emotional, it was angry, it was sad. It was ‘Streets.’ Jon performed magnificently. The high-energy stuff like rapid-fire “Sammy & Tex” or rockin’ “Jesus Saves” or violent “Agony& Ecstasy” scratched the metal itch. The sad stuff like “Tonight He Grins Again” or “St. Patrick’s” or “If I Go Away” or “Believe” packed an intense emotional wallop. At various times throughout the night, I felt myself tearing up, and goddammit I actually shed a couple of tears during “Believe.” Sissy. That’s never happened to me before at a gig. I’m a tough guy, a fistbanging MFer, and a hardened, grizzled, old-school dude who chugs beer, takes no shit and rocks like a son of a bitch. But Oliva got to me tonight. Me and 1,000 others. If you weren’t there, I don’t know how I could ever explain it. It was magic, that’s all. Setlist: Surrender, Of Rage and War, The Price You Pay, Mentally Yours (intro) / Gutter Ballet, Streets, Jesus Saves, Tonight He Grins Again, Strange Reality, Heal My Soul, You’re Alive, Sammy and Tex, St. Patrick’s, Can You Hear Me Now, New York City Don’t Mean Nothing, If I Go Away, Ghost in the Ruins, Agony and Ecstasy, Somewhere in Time, A Little Too Far, Hall of the Mountain King, Temptation Revelation, When the Crowds Are Gone.
~ Review by Kit Ekman~