ProgPower USA 2013 - Good-Natured Family Feud

September 17, 2013, a year ago

By Mark Gromen

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It's sort of like in New York, when after generations of supporting the Yankees/Giants, the offspring decides to root for the Mets/Jets. You can't hate them: they're part of the family. But you can't understand why they like this band, or that band more than your favorite. Not since the Hatfields & the McCoys have two "families," seemingly sprung from a common ancestor, been so diametrically opposed: the prog vs. power metal contingents. While there is some Mason jar moonshine being swilled on the premises, there's no real animosity between these groups, just some light-hearted back-and-forth ribbing, in-person and on the festival's online forum. One camp relishes the technical genius of polyphonic rhythms: the other thinks it devoid of emotion. Conversely, some devour the fun-loving energy in a simple 4/4 time signature, while the other side counters it's often sloppy (especially live), juvenile and disposable. Like the gourmet and fast-food junkie, neither would readily partake in the other's usual fare, but that's what I like about the smorgasbord that is the annual ProgPower USA festival, still the best run multi-day show in North America. Although I have access to thousands of musical releases a year, there's no way to listen to it all, thus my pilgrimage to Center Stage, in Atlanta, where organizer Glenn Harveston has pre-selected a menu of talent, some are known to me, other not. Unlike many of the attendees, I typically refrain from gorging on a steady diet of the performing acts beforehand. They are invested in knowing what to expect, while I enjoy some "surprises," hoping to experience that "Wow!" moment that's all too infrequent, the longer one stays around this business. Are they all to my liking? No, but only after sampling each. I don't know anyone who loves every flavor of ice cream, either. In some small way, that's probably what's ingratiated this gathering to scores of returning fans, as well as a healthy infusion of new blood, every year. When you don't enjoy a particular band, that makes it nice for intermittent socializing, or shopping in the vendor area. Rumor suggest 2014 might be the last domestic incarnation and if you consider yourself a metalhead, you really should check it out!
Day 1: Testament to the knowledgeable crowd, the venue was at least 2/3 full for a 2pm start, on a Friday. England's self described symphonic metallers DAMNATION ANGELS are a single guitar foursome, with wildly headbanging, bearded bassist Steven Averill. They offered a set that too often saw them standing around to piped in/synthesized passages and was otherwise minimalistic or a cappella. Not the best composition for a concert, relying too much on atmospheric, non-live elements. Didn't seem too seasoned onstage either, but their warm smiles (especially curly haired guitarist Wil Graney), thumbs up to the crowd and heartfelt thank yous helped the audience look beyond any momentary glitches. In stark contrast, Tunisia based MYRATH were consummate pros. Their homeland in the midst of political strife and assassinations, surely must have enjoyed a weekend where they didn't have to look over their shoulders (figuratively and literally). In light of the turmoil back home, who cares if someone pens a negative review? Doubtful anyone got such ammunition anyway! Even with airline losing a guitar and luggage, they slayed. With a heavy keyboard presence, the quintet won the opinionated ProgPower crowd, offering a standing ovation even before they were finished. No wonder singer Zaher Zorgati announced that he didn't want to leave the stage. Not sure if the belly dancer, in traditional dress, hanging in the photopit throughout their performance was directly connected to MYRATH, but had she been welcomed onstage for a number (ala BRAINSTORM's live rendition of 'Shiva's Tears'), it could only enhance the presentation. One of those shows that people will be talking about forever.
Female fronted Germans XANDRIA had the difficult task of following what will undoubtedly be “The” moment of the weekend, for most. The trilling, operatics recalls Tarja Turunen-era NIGHTWISH. Opener 'A Prophecy Of Worlds To Fall' proved somewhat prophetic, as they worked through some early technical issues: feedback squelches. 'Blood On My Hands' and personal fave 'Soulcrusher' were also in the mix. An electric fan, positioned center stage, between the monitors, was there to muss Manuella Kraller's hair, as well as blow her ruffled dress. By the closing 'Ravenheart', they'd won a considerable portion of the crowd. WOLVERINE are one of those prog act I just don't get: nowhere as frisky as their namesake would imply, a bunch of bald Swedes in black attire and matching Keds/Chuck Taylors they'd purchased since getting to the States. I have a sneaky (pun intended) suspicion I'd like the single guitar fivesome better if they were an entirely instrumental band (no vocals). Beginning under pink light, it wasn't very long before I started staring at the rafters, contemplating if a commemorative T-shirt would support my suspended weight. Sorry, time to commiserate with fellow metalheads at the bar.
Although their eponymous CD was recorded as a trio (singer Matt Barlow, former ICED EARTH bassist Freddy Vidales handling stringed instruments and ex-NEVERMORE drummer Van Williams), onstage ASHES OF ARES were a two-guitar quintet. Barlow, the Morgan Spurlock of metal, had his red hair cut in something of a 50s throwback flat-top (guess that's regulation for his policeman duties these days). His voice showed no such shortcomings, as the animated vocalist repeatedly pumped his fist and threw the horns, as they did a live run-through of the album. Kicking off with 'The Messenger', 'On Warrior's Wings' was dedicated to cops & military that have died in the line of duty. Because of this line-up, Internet buzz (falsely) announced the outfit as a second ICED EARTH, which is a disservice. To date, they lack both the dynamics and intensity of Schaffer's group. Barlow even toyed with organizer Glenn Harveston being a fanboy, offering the band a gig basically sight unseen/unheard. Later, Matt announced, “The next song is about a vampire, 'Chalice Of Man', which was bathed in blue/pink lights and proved cops can't headbang. Williams counted off the start of 'The Answer' and the audience sang along, as a smokey, blue lit stage housed this 70s hard rocker, in the vein of FREE or BAD COMPANY. 'What I Am' sees Vidales switch to 7-string guitar, hunched over and hair flailing. The 'One Eyed King' finale kicks off with a sustained high-pitched Barlow scream and featured synchronized head-bobbing. Given the limited opportunities to play out, ASHES OF ARES acquitted themselves well. Will look forward to our next encounter.
Had seen SOILWORK overseas, just a few weeks earlier. In Atlanta they were free to choose more songs than the usual Euro-festival set, nor were they promoting any specific release. Quite a few younger fans were leaning on the barrier, as the Swedes got ready. 'This Momentary Bliss' and 'Like The Average Stalker' sets off a frenzy of activity, even a few forbidden moshers, quickly quelled. "It's Friday night. You guys ready to go," asks bald behemoth of a frontman Bjorn "Speed" Strid. 'Weapon Of Vanity' sees the crowd chimes in. "Follow The Hollow' sees the sleeveless jean jacket wearing singer conducting a multi-voice Center Stage choir. Mainstay bassist Ola Flink somehow plays, while suffering what appear to be multiple severe seizures, throwing himself back & forth, bent in unimaginable angles. In a sign of the times, Strid thanked people for buying The Living Infinite CD, prior to 'Tongue'. Later, "Lots of people have followed our career. Thank you. We're going to go back 2001 ('Bastard Chain')." Cool, but not far enough. What about something off Steelbath Suicide? Prior to the 'Stabbing The Drama' last call, Strid, with white towel draped over his shoulder, said, "Time for one more. Let me one another beer before, just in case." Day 2: On paper, there was much more to my liking on Saturday, however it began with disappointing news. For the second year in a row, we drank the place dry of Yuengling . This time, in just one day (actually 10:30 Friday night, no replenishing)! Nice, people are stepping away from Busch/Coors products, but someone should tell the Tampa brewery (or better yet, the Pottsville, PA home office) to keep us stocked. DIVINITY COMPROMISED was a last minute replacement and as such did quite well. The heavy, staccato riffs on 'When Myth Becomes truth' and 'Termination Sequence' got heads bobbling, even before the suitably gruff cover of SAVATAGE's 'Hall Of The Mountain King' and the closing title track to World Torn Apart.
The twin guitar, French Canadian foursome HEAVEN'S CRY also split vocal duties between bassist Sylvain Auclair and guitarist Pierre St. Jean. After opening with 'Empire's Doll', it took a couple of songs before they hit their stride, with 'Realigning'. There was no real stage chemistry, like three guys doing their own thing (often facing the drummer), even stepping on one another as they both tried to talk to the crowd simultaneously. Orange lights and plenty of smoke greeted 'Out Of Me', off Food for Thought Substitute. The '96 debut re-appeared later, in the form of 'Gaia's Judgement' and 'The Alchemist' finale.
I love WOLF. Hell, I was the guy who brought them to North America first, ten years ago (and they'd only been back once, prior to ProgPower). However, the band has changed greatly (not just personnel-wise) in the last decade. Singer/guitarist Niklas Stålvind remains the lone constant. This was not a speedy, raw, fist-thrusting, run-about-the-stage set, but it was the perfect, career spanning (OK, nothing off the self-titled debut) setlist for the overall crowd. Shame the massive autograph line for SABATON, which began a half-hour earlier, made many miss at least part of the show. They opted to bring matching scrims and arena sized, logo backdrop, which surely sent them over the luggage weight allowance, but made it look that much more professional. Flying V at the ready, in black jeans with studs down the legs and vintage Halford studded belt, it's obvious that when the shirtless Stålvind's has been spending as many hours in the gym as in a studio. Charging into 'Make Friends With Your Nightmares', it was then on to 'Hail Caesar', more movement than all the day's bands, to that point. Blue lights and smoke, Niklas standing in a spotlight, ceter stage, kicked off 'Voodoo', where he had the crowd clap along and sing the titular phrase, offering, "In Sweden, we sing from the balls. Guys, grabs your balls. Girls, grab some guy's balls." Twin guitar leads on the ACCEPT-styled 'Skull Crusher' see Niklas' wet, stringy blond mane headbanging incessantly. 'Evil Star' began with a loop of the Twilight Zone music, ending with the Psycho shower scene. 'The bite' gave way to the tale of doomed Soviet sub, 'K141-Kursk', complete with sonar pings and the dive alarm heard in every U-boat movie ever made. During 'Venom' the diminutive singer mounted the drum riser, expecting a Kai Hansen flying dismount, which never materialized, before ending with 'Speed On'. Hopefully they'll be back on these shores in less than another seven years.
Yes Virginia, prog bands can put on a lively stageshow. Witness Norway's CIRCUS MAXIMUS! After rousing, majestic intro, 'Architect Of Fortune' falls to a single guitar and keyboard notes, sapping the grand entrance. No matter, they're soon milling about the stage. They almost had to, slotted between WOLF and eventual headliner, a whirlwind called SABATON. Couldn't help but wonder if the guitarist Mats Haugen's white Ibanez was borrowed for the weekend, as it was pristine, showing no signs of wear/usage. At times, their sound is very commercially viable. Personable frontman Michael Eriksen (a ProgPower veteran, with the Circus, as well as pinch-hitting with KAMELOT, in 2010) was pointing to the crowd and during the appropriate entitled 'Last Goodbye' closer, utilizing the mic stand as a prop. He claimed that 'The 1st Chapter' hadn't been played live since 2005. The intro to 'Reach Within' saw a slicked back hair, gold suit jacket interloper shimming across the stage. Upon closer inspection it was promoter Harveston, ditching his usual Hawaiian shirt & baseball cap to mug with one of his favorite bands. 90 seconds later, he was gone! As they were preparing to leave the stage, the "keyboards" (really just a prop, were dismantled and thrown into the audience. A big stadium rock antic. Fun stuff!
Since witnessing ARMORED SAINT in Germany, last summer, had been eagerly anticipating this show, as they'd smoked, pretty much just playing "the hits." Atlanta's had to wait 22 years for their return, ProgPower offering a longer set time, but pretty much the same mentality, beginning with 'March Of The Saint'. While the two guitarists (Jeff Duncan and Phil Sandoval) usually stayed on opposite ends of the stage, bassist Joey Vera bounced around, outdone by the cartoon character come to life, John Bush, stomp/hop, skanking and creating his own circle pit on and off the stage, as well as the drum riser! Just three songs from the last two decades (and some might say that was too many), good to see the under appreciated Symbol Of Salvation (released at the height of the grunge sweep metal purge) air just as many, including the proper set closing 'Reign Of Fire', where the ADD frontman was on/off the drum riser and around the stage with more energy than kids half his age. Bush dedicated 'Tribal Dance' to,"Syrian War. My sarcastic take on things," as Vera walked figure 8s into the hardwood.  Even the jaded psychopants of the upstairs VIP lounge got into 'Last Train Home'. Poised to be a guitar duel, Book Of Blood' saw Duncan take over, on the fly, when Sandoval's rig crapped out. Said Bush, "In this guitar battle, Jeff wins. Shit happens." when the sound finally returned, during 'Left Hook From Right Field', Vera threw both fists overhead, in triumphant Rocky pose. Addressing the crow, the singer asked, "How are my friends in the seats?" No response. "You scared?" Not much more. "Are the walking dead up there?" It was an accusation some might be laboring under a 'Chemical Euphoria'. 'Can U Deliver' rolled right into 'Reign Of Fire', even though they'd begun late and were pushing, if not exceeding the pre-described time limit. Thankfully Saturday is a little less restrictive. Chants of "Armored Saint" rain on a black, empty stage, until Sandoval, denied a moment in the spotlight earlier, launches into the encore. To start 'Madhouse', both ehe and Duncan chill, seated on the riser. Easy to forget how many great songs these guys have. Hopefully they'll have the opportunity to play out, more often, domestically.
SABATON has been advertising their appearance at ProgPower for months. Seen them several times in the last year, the Carolus Rex/Swedish Empire world tour has seen the band playing numerous songs from the Swedish history CD, at the expense of many classics. In Atlanta, they had the good sense to offer fans some options as to what they heard (similar to the double World War Live CD). No pyro, but still a wild ride, thanks to the comedic stylings of the vocalist. 'Ghost Division' saw the frenetic characters criss-crossing the stage repeatedly. Although flying in (from Puerto Rico) day of show, Joakim Brodén was in finest jocular form. “My English vocabulary is limited, so I sort of rely on four letter words. When we played here in 2009, I split my pants. The one thing you remember is my pants? Either you're really concerned, or have a dirty mind!” He ignored the taunts of “Noch ein bier,” the German festival drinking chant that has gone viral. '40:1' which has been absent in Europe, was a welcome addition, Broden leaping/kicking his bandmates in the ass, as he traversed the stage. Offered a choice between 'Midway' and 'Poltava', the latter was aired, everyone but temporary drummer Snowy Shaw singing back-up. Although it's a new line-up, only guitarist hadn't played ProgPower previously. Asked what he was going to do, he offered, “Get drunk.” 'White Death', another long absent returnee chosen (over 'Talviosta') by crowd volume. 'Cliffs Of Gallipoli' was mostly sung by the crowd, followed by 'Swedish Pagans'. 'Uprising' lost out to fellow war anthem 'Price Of A Mile', the singer realizing, “You always (pick) the second one.” He then experimented, seeing if it was “psychological or just predictable. I'll use Jedi Mind Tricks, switch the order”: 'Lion Of the North' winning out. Shaw objects to all the other members getting to pick a song, so he suggests (IRON MAIDEN's) 'Run To The Hills' and launches into the shuffle drumming intro. Brodén counters, “Never going to get the mic again!” Bassist Par Sundstrom suggested 'Attero Dominus' he and the singer synchronizing violently thrusts towards the crowd, stage front. Everyone clears out, as the song ends, leaving the stage empty and black. The voice-over for 'Art Of War' breaks the silence, hinting there's more to come, as the camouflaged crew returns, en masse. 'Primo Victoria' got people jumping, literally, pogoing vertically in-place, at the singer's insistence. Sporting mirror sunglasses throughout, Brodén usually removes them for the final number. In order to avoid fighting over the spoils, he turns away from the crowd, facing Shaw and tosses them overhead, into the crowd. Again thanking the crowd, he still seems pre-occupied with criticisms of frequent F-bombs, “To any kids here, don't ask mommy and daddy what those words mean. They're Swedish.” 'Metal Crue' brings another ProgPower, apart from the late night/early morning partying, back at the Artmore hotel, to a close. Tickets for ProgPower 15 go on sale October 1st. Hope to see you there. More photos from Day 1 can be seen here. Photos from Day 2 can be seen here. For more details visit Progpowerusa.com.

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