ProgPower USA 2017 – Changing Of The Guard?

September 13, 2017, 11 days ago

Mark Gromen

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Those of us who were in our late twenties or early thirties, when Glenn Harveston decided to undertake this grand idea, are now mid-40s or beyond. The class of bands we grew up with and help foster to the next level: Blind Guardian, Jon Oliva, Evergrey, Gamma Ray, Symphony X, Nightwish and Edguy, have all graced the Earthlink Live/Center Stage. Thanks, in large part to ProgPower showing them the viability of the American market, these acts no longer need a one-off showcase, as they regularly tour the continent. Today, with social media, bands rise to consciousness more quickly (often descending, just as fast) and over the last few years, Harveston has wisely broken the hard & fast progressive/power metal mold, first welcoming vintage thrashers, like Forbidden/Overkill, and in 2017, gambling by casting his net even farther afield. As a result, some of the diehard fans, who initially sustained the fest, have fallen by the wayside, fixated on other life priorities and/or feeling no real affinity for a newer crop of bands (to some extent, myself included). For me, this would all be about first impressions, as Katatonia was the only band on the bill I owned any music by. Sure, had just seen Angel Dust in Germany just two months earlier (as well as their previous Atlanta appearance) and experienced Pain a few times (European festivals and opening for Nightwish), as Peter Tagtgren has been an industry friend since the late ‘90s, but most of these acts were a clean slate, looking to make an impact. Outside this audience, some of these acts have been isolated from the public, less than 5,000 global Facebook followers (with attendance at sold out ProgPower about 1,200, everyone included), minimal live experiences and almost no presence on the Net. Tribute to the organizer's success, there are still plenty of new fans waiting in the wings, wishing to experience ProgPower, where North Americans flock for a sense of belonging and to investigate international acts that (probably) won't be available anywhere else, over here.

The festival has grown to four days, Wednesday through Saturday. However it is now booked by a trio of individuals, original promoter/impresario Harveston still responsible for the two weekend gigs, which will be detailed here. Music starts at 2 PM and lasts until "whenever," headliners given a blank check, in terms of time slot, that also allows for overruns, technical glitches and anything else that may accumulate during a 10+ hour day, thereby causing the schedule to run late. Thankfully, that was minimal this year. Highly touted newcomers Daydream XI hail from Brazil. A dual guitar five-piece who infuse their samba groove (ala Angra's Holy Land) with the keyboard melancholia of Evergrey. No wonder they went down so well at ProgPower. Odd seeing frontman/guitarist Tiago Masseti with eyeglasses, a decidedly un-metal accessory, despite plenty in the audience sporting same (myself included). To start, they went from prerecorded intro tape, to instrumental “Ticket 0000011” intro (guess to line check levels) to instrumental passage kicking off "Open The Curtains. Began to wonder why there were a trio of mics set up across the stage. Wouldn't call it energetic, the guys walking gently about the stage, the emphasis clearly on musicianship, not lyrics, but when they sang, it was often 3 or 4 part harmonies (even the drummer joining in). Later, they cleared the stage for a classical piano etude (solo). Enjoyable, glad I had the opportunity to witness it, but doubtful it will happen again, outside a return engagement in Atlanta.

Israel's Distorted Harmony (truth in that moniker!) opened with what those around me declared was their best tune, "Every Time She Smiles". It only brought a grimace to my face. Checked back in later only to see a drum accompanied keyboard solo. Lords Of Black was the most intriguing band on my list, for Friday. Have heard recordings of the trio of Rainbow shows from Germany/England, in 2016, where Ronnie Romero (also lead throat with Spain's Lords of Black) acquitted himself admirably, although handling the slower Gillan/Coverdale Deep Purple material better than the Ronnie James Dio classics. Shocker! There was more energy in the power chord intro from guitarist Tony Hernando than the entirety of the previous set. Quite the ham (but then probably just trying to be noticed next to the suddenly fabled Romero), he worked off the singer, frequently invading the center stage area. This was undoubtedly the first "metal" band of the day. Javier Garcia is from the Markus Grosskopf school of bass players, perpetually in motion, with metronomic headbanging. Make no mistake, Romero is the star (without the attitude, onstage, no mingling afterwards), using the mic stand as a prop for the purple tinged signature tune. Interesting "choice" of lighting, as at times the stage was completely black, as they played. Maybe they take their name too seriously? Final offering was rollicking "Neon Knights", a Black Sabbath composition, albeit from the days with Dio in their ranks. The next morning the band would perform a small scale, cover song set, offering standards by Queensryche ("Revolution Calling"), Thin Lizzy ("Cold Sweat"), Ark (!) and a half dozen Rainbow/Dio solo track, from all eras.

If not for ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy headlining, the return of Germany's Angel Dust, after a 16 year absence, would certainly have been the main act, in the eyes of many attendees. The best ProgPower sets are a mix of technical expertise and heartfelt emotion emanating from the band. In that regard the next two events will be long remembered (even with a couple of initial technical glitches). Had just seen a shorter, yet similar set from the Germans, in Balingen, for the warm-up night to Bang Your Head festival, in July. In the US, scraggly bearded frontman Dirk Thurisch removed his toque (stocking cap) a couple songs in, to madly headbang. He also added guitar for the first few songs. Appropriately, for "Follow Me", he called a female fan onstage, sat with her on the drum riser. Between song chants of "Angel Dust" made Thurisch drop to his knees, arms outstretched in the "We're not worthy" pantomime. He would again genuflect by the wedge monitors, during a robust and speedy "Come Into Resistance". Guitarist Bernd Aufermann offered jovial counterpoint to the more serious singer, recounting a harrowing tale of checking through immigration. Prior to largely crowd sung "Nightmare", he explain how he thought, "No one would recognize us and the signing session would be over in one minute." It took over an hour! Come the shows end, when Dirk asked for the photos, for his kids, the guitarist cracked, "For his wife, his ex-wives..." He was also serious, mentioning bassist Frank Banx' missing brother (keyboardist Steven) who was unable to attend, as he was dealing with his wife's cancer. Enjoying the reception and time onstage, in addition to the comedy improv, the Angels dusted off "Border Of Reality", "Black Rain" and crowd favorite "Bleed", which ended the proper set, before a two song encore. "Cross Of Hatred" finale sees Thurisch screaming lyrics into a megaphone.

Despite enjoying Tunisia-based Myrath's 2011 Tales Of The Sands CD, largely ignored their Atlanta appearance, two years later. Not this time. The photo pit and audience seats were packed, unlike earlier in the day. They opened with "Believer" and it didn't take long for singer, Zaher Zorgati to make a believer out of me. The performance was dynamic and kinetic. "Give Your Freedom Back" didn't dissipate the energy level, onstage or off. Apart from the singer (in blazing red), the band wore what appeared to be black silk waistcoats, ornately embroidered in silver, similar to what you might find on the staff in an Asian restaurant. Green lit "Storm Of Lies". Man were they loud! Stage goes blue for "Madness". Couldn't help but notice a pair of late-comers, adorned in John 5 and Lamb Of God t-shirts (Really? Do you know where you are Dorothy?), unaware of what they'd stumbled across. The latter half of the set was populated by 40% of Tales Of The Sands album. Metal truly is international.

As for the evening's headliner, gave Mike Portnoy's Shattered Fortress a chance, but was quickly gripped by the same ennui experienced with Dream Theater, even when seeing them outdoors, at a German metalfest. Couldn't see myself sitting through it. Yes, most ProgPower patrons are seated, in a ringed stadium seating amphitheater. When they arise, there are signing sessions in the hallways, an adjoining room (called Vinyl) used for vendors, an additional bar and food options, although pizza is available in Center Stage, nestled in an alcove between the long autograph lines.

Neutral country (Sweden) invaded Atlanta on the final day of ProgPower and had the Deep South yelling "Hail Satan" before it was all over. Dynazty were supposed to show up in 2015, but pulled a last minute cancellation (like the Aussies in Teramaze, schedule to open Saturday afternoon this year, but replaced by Boston area, female fronted Seven Spires at the 11th hour). Thankfully the high energy power metal, with a bit of ‘80s hair metal catchiness was worth the wait. The best moments were lively, poppy sing-along anthems, somewhere between countrymen H.E.A.T. and the abundant Swedish glam community. However, from a photography standpoint, not many things more difficult to shoot than a rammy bunch with flailing hair that won't stand still, apart from the wailing guitarists. Nils Molin (who would do double duty, also one of the three singers in Amaranthe) sports a head of curly hair straight out of a vintage Headbangers' Ball video. He split his pants just one song in, "Raise Your Hands" (and let everyone know about it). Both guitarists get a chance to showcase their talents, center stage, within the same song. "This Is My Life" is a short, power ballad. Not sure about the wisdom of a drum solo a half hour into your continental debut (and a bass interlude, later). People came to hear songs! Finished with "Salvation". Original? Hell no. Enjoyable? Definitely! Told friends in the crowd, I'd see them again, which is a high recommendation from a jaded old journo whose sees hundreds of bands a year.

Snowy Shaw was a spectacle, a bit of psychotic carnival. Not the first time he's been at ProgPower, having previously been part of Sabaton and Therion, but freed from behind the drums (to do whatever he wants), the corpse-painted blond (with black Fu Manchu mustache) played guitar, sang, even beat on a pair of floor toms, center stage, with oversized mallets. "Oversized" is a good description of the man, his imagination and his hour onstage. It began with a classic switcheroo, as the opening "Krampus" featured a horned, furry white beast, pentagram on its chest, looking suspiciously like the mainman, facially. The musical minions were a series of exaggerated cone heads, wearing black hooded dunce caps that rose to a point, three feet above their heads. One of these figures suddenly removed his hood (the lone time throughout the show) to reveal the real Showy Shaw, who banished the beast from the stage. Later, as a hooded guitarist continued to solo, as Shaw attempted to talk to the audience, he got the crowd to yell "Shut the fuck up," which made the shredder stop. His make-up and furry black, knee high boots initially made Shaw look like a pro-wrestler. Once he stripped bare chested, with should pads, Snowy resembled Canadian muscle man/singer Thor, mixed with Beetlejuice.



For the third song, he strapped on a guitar, announcing "This is the closest to a real heavy metal classic I've written" and with sustained piercing yelp, launched "Book Of Heavy Metal" (from Dream Evil, who will appear in Atlanta in 2018). Through, he sampled "other" bands' material, which he had a hand in, or personally enjoys. The minions out of the way, Shaw had the run of the complete stage, at one point even venturing behind the drummer. Demonstrating his best King Diamond falsetto, he pulled off Mercyful Fate's "Come To The Sabbath" (and later, next to last song of the night, “Black Funeral"). With stage lightning appropriately all red, he bashed the aforementioned drums during "Fire" (Crazy World Of Arthur Brown cover). When completed, he announced that the travel delays from Hurricane Irma prevented his special guest (King Diamond guitarist Pete Blakk) from attending, so he got Bill Hudson to pinch hit on "Twilight Symphony", off the King's 1988 Them CD. Cue more falsetto. Hard to believe, but this was the first time many of the attendees had ever heard a King Diamond/Mercyful Fate song, or growling vocals, live. Playing around with tunes from an album of metalized Swedish children's songs, Dimmu Borgir's "Progenies Of The Great Apocalypse" was next, Shaw singing (gruff & clean voices) while lying on his back, feet up on the drum riser. A toast (skol/cheers/prost) seemed appropriate before "Alcoholocaust" before announcing he had a choice, Mercyful or Justin Bieber, after which he got the crowd to repeatedly chant, "Hail Satan!" Could practically hear the natives rousting up their church councils to picket, protest, ban ProgPower. However, the publicity would all be for naught, as the event sells out each tear.

Pain, and later countrymen Katatonia, helped the venue save on their lighting bill, preferring a dim or darkened stage. In telltale straight jacket, sleeves untied, dangling to the floor, Peter Tagtgren (darkened circles made up around his eyes, although probably saw him with something similar, natural discoloration, back in the day!) led his band, including 19 year old son Sebastian, as substitute, on drums, through a greatest hits set, as the band's only played North America once prior, well over a decade ago. The thrashy, green/blue lit "It's Only Them" belies the "industrial" stereotype, Tagtgren concentrating more on the mic than guitar slung across his chest. The bassist wildly jumps in circles and when not headbanging at the center, Peter paces the width of the stage. He introduces the band, prior to "Dirty Woman", essentially a blues song, with electronic embellishments, including plenty of strobes. At the end, the lights again go black. Would have thought "Same Old Song", a big success overseas would have been the finale, but after a lot of flailing hair, that honor fell to "I'm Going In".  

Taking the stage to "Maximize", under orange lights and prerecorded voiceover, in pink leather jacket, hot pants and fishnets, ponytailed Elize Ryd was the focus of the three Amaranthe singers, which now include her current beau, Nils Molin (aka Dynazty singer). Sorry, still can't get past white haired guitarist Olof Mörck (also of Dragonland, who played ProgPower as well) looking like Harry Potter foil Draco Malfoy. Energetic, danceable pop, with the odd gruff vocal, seems a strange choice for ProgPower, but after the preponderance of heavy, traditional metal on Saturday, think lots of "progressive leaning" fans were just looking for something to latch onto. "Bommerbang" was up second in the running order. "On The Rocks" gave way to another drum solo, as the performance wound towards its close. "The Nexus", begun in a storm of strobes, saw all the singer and musicians in a (chorus?) line across the stage. For the encore, begun with "Digital World", just the boys onstage, Ryd would eventually return, donning knee high, red boots.

I brought Katatonia to North America, back in 2004, for the second BW&BK 6-Pack Weekend. The band has changed course a couple of times since then and finally seems to have garnered a sizable loyal fanbase. As if to prove the point, they only aired a few songs from the old days, "Teargas" going furthest into the vault, alongside "Criminals" and "Ghost Of The Sun" off '03 Viva Emptiness". Lighting for effect, dark and moody, with the occasional burst of blinding whites (just like their music), still can't see vocalist Jonas Renske, black hair draped over his face (Cousin Itt style), further preventing eye contact. Belying the restrained tempos, guitarist Anders 'Blakkheim' Nyström was thrashing about like he was playing with one of his black metal projects instead. Early on Renske asked if the crowd were tired of seeing Swedes and he repeatedly thanked the crowd for sticking around, always tough for the last act of a festival, especially with the final nightly party revving up in the Artmore Hotel courtyard, just down the street. 

The 2018 line-up has already been announced and tickets go on sale October 7th. Check out ProgPowerUSA.com for more details.

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