PROGPOWER USA – Highlights Of Day 3 And Day 4

September 13, 2019, a month ago

Mark Gromen

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Every year as the countdown to Glenn Harveston's abdication as festival owner/organizer gets closer, we bask in the success he's created, pushing off its eminent demise or worrying about the future. Will the event continue, once this soft spoken, loud Hawaiian shirt wearing, Southern gentleman is no longer involved? Without any insider knowledge, my gut tells me yes, although whether he sells the name/concept outright to Milton & Nathan (the duo who has booked the Wed/Thurs line-up for a number of years) or if it stays in Atlanta remains to be seen (the infrastructure already in place, thanks to a 2+ decade run, yet the Midwest & Northeast partners having no direct connection to ATL). As the scene begins to lose longtime fans and noted figures (stars, if you will, at least in the underground) a friend told me, these days, it's less about seeing every band (rare that I'd be interested in the entire line-up, top-to-bottom, anyway), but socializing, with fellow attendees, as well as the musicians. ProgPower is unique, as many of the foreign acts stay the weekend and can be seen, talked to, joked with, pose for selfies/photos, etc., while they mingle amongst the general public. Don't even get me started about the nightly after-parties at the Artmore. The lowkey availability of most "stars" is one of the reasons people head to Atlanta, year-after-year. 

Plagued by the US government denying visa applications (yet again), young local act Paladin were pressed into service. They made the most of the last-minute opportunity, deciding to professionally film their performance. Hope they got what they paid for, since neither the film crew, nor the band (for that matter) seemed to put much urgency into the shoot. Would have thought they'd tear it up live, but far too much fretboard gazing and remaining stationary, under red lights (the bane of any photographer) to make an interesting visual presentation. Shame if they were overwhelmed by the situation, because there were some decent tunes, from the clean vocal "Awakening", to open, as well as thrash, gruff vocals courtesy of the bassist. From the stage, they even announced, "Didn't think this would ever happen. It is an honor." Speedy "Shoot For The Sun" was more immediate. Prior to "Perfect Warrior" (who covers Lost Horizon? Wow!), they distributed a load of plastic swords to those down in front. Now THAT will look good on video!

Have had the pleasure of seeing Barren Earth, in their native Finland, on two previous occasions. Call it whatever you like, but the music is a "kitchen sink" approach, encompassing everything from brushes on snare style jazz, to intense, gruff throated death. Even if you've never heard of the band, good chance you know one or more of their members. Bassist Olli-Pekka Laine was an original member of Amorphis (going back to their death metal days) and after a 16 year hiatus, returned to them a couple of years ago. Likewise, guitarist Sami Yli-Sirniö has been with Kreator since 2001’s Violent Revolution. These days, singer Jón Aldará bears some physical resemblance to the late Layne Staley (Alice In Chains). Not sure if he was serious when he dedicated "The Rain Begins", saying, "This one's for the ladies". Early on, they were bathed in un-photogenic reds. A few purples added to the color scheme for "Set Alight". Strange dichotomy, the oddly dreary keyboard underpinning (almost violin sounding), yet overall, an aggressive intensity. Not an easy listen, more of vibe, best experienced live.

Been eight years since I've seen Psychotic Waltz, in Germany. In the meantime, drummer Norm Leggio did a stint in San Diego metallers, Cage, as there was precious little Psychotic activity (this was their first show in two years), and when there was, it's typically overseas. Each Waltz disc is somewhat different and there are many elements which make this band unlike others. First is bald, bell bottom jeans wearing flutist/mastermind Devon Graves (who went by the name Buddy Lackey, for the first three albums). Onstage, he contorts his body at obtuse angles to equally asymmetric rhythms. Then there's the inclusion of lead guitarist Brian MacAlpin, confined to a wheelchair, the technical mix of thrash and start-stop, strange time signatures would be difficult for anyone to play. Neither alone is enough to sustain a 2+ decade career. That would be the intriguing blend of sounds they produce. In later discussions of the show, someone joked, "I didn't bring any LSD", as the musical styles are not only trippy, but schizophrenic. This was a bucket list signing for Harveston. Early on, there's a pair off my favorite of theirs, and five, all told, off A Social Grace. Yes! First, a surprise, new track, "Pull The String", something that Primus would envy, complete with a bit of flute. Purple hued "Halo Of Thorns" varies between minimalist and sudden bursts of energy, Performing in the X, Y and Z axis simultaneously, Graves' arm outstretched, reaches towards the crowd, seemingly in search of (or channeling) some higher power. Icy blue lit "I Of The Storm" sees MacAlpin begin, with delicate notes. Graves' rubberized body flops around. During red lit "I Remember", following his double peace sign thrusting Ozzy impression, the frontman picks up his flute, once again. If you don't know, investigate.

My final band of the day was a return engagement by Orden Ogan, first time in Atlanta being '14. Seen them several times since (on 70000 Tons, as well as in their Deutche homeland). Still in support of Gunmen, albeit with less cowboy attire, although the log fortress backline (minus gun toting, animatronic sentries, as seen overseas) was intact, as were a pair of crossed pistol scrims. Same can't be said of the line-up. In fact, it's sort of amazing the band played at all. Single-named guitarist Tobi was back in Germany, attending to family matters. As a result, Niels Löffler temporarily moved from bass to guitar and a tech handled the four-string. The show must go on! Seeb Levermann (guitar/vocals) wore the remnants of his duster, beginning with fan sing-along “F.E.V.E.R.” He claims this was "the last time you'll see me playing guitar" (obviously pressed into service by the other personnel anomalies), as a result of a thumb injury that will restrict him solely to frontman duties. He captures some of the crowd response on his cellphone, as the rest of the guys play/headbang madly. In fact, he said, "where we come from, people bang their heads to heavy metal music." True that! Pulsating green lights greet the fun, crowd sung "We Are Pirates", complete with piped in concertina, (forget that it doesn't fit the current Wild West motif). Surreal that a cos-play attired Captain Morgan, with tri-corner hat, was situated in the photo pit/donor's watching area, at the front of the stage. Accusations of Blind Guardian -lite were leveled against early albums, but live they showcase a much harder sound. The lone, significantly noticeable, technical issue of the weekend occurred when the stage volume cut out, but the band's in-ear monitors continued. Thus, the guys had no idea the fans couldn't really hear any sound, but the Germans continued unabated, oblivious to the situation. Thrashy "Gunmen" is under red lights. Enjoyable, even more so given the "unique" circumstances surrounding this particular show.

Day 4
Reactivated Swedish doomsters, Sorcerer, thrilled to be making their North American debut, had the honor of opening the final day. While they began life in the ‘80s, and the only two albums of music (although a new one is on the way), often referenced as Candlemass Jr. like the better-known outfit, the music is not always slow, heavy and depressive. Anders Engberg came onstage, waving a black flag, with band logo. Centuries ago, his Viking ancestors may have planted a similar symbol (or something pointy & more lethal) to proclaim a new conquest. Following the “Sirens” opener, the singer offered, “Congrats to ProgPower for 20 years (even though it’s really only 19, having done two fests: the original in Chicago and one in Atlanta, in the same year, back in ’01 – editorial). We’re celebrating 30 years (not without a hiatus – snide editor), which means I’m definitely over 18.” “Lake Of The Lost Souls” begins with “whoa whoa” chant and features a military snare drum cadence. My apologies to Canuck bassist Justin (aka Johnny) Biggs, whom I misidentified, in my Bang Your Head review, and no it won’t earn you a personalized hockey jersey!

Green/purple lit “The Tower Of The Sorcerer” sees both guitarists offer backing vocals. Slower, guitar begun “Ship Of Doom” is more melancholy, bathed in green light. Punishingly heavy, it maintains the traditional doom structures. It ends in pink lights, Engberg on his knees, as sporadic/belabored guitar notes crash down, either side of him. Red lit “Exorcising The Demon” sees Biggs provide gruff vocals, as crash cymbal gets used in overdrive. “I hope you will sing along with the chorus,” Engberg demands, “The Crowning Of The Fire King” starting with a crack of thunder. The deep purple (almost dark) stage has red designs dancing against the black backdrop. The singer unveils his secret weapon, a piercing high pitch, come the end. Later, fans were marveling at the bearded/burly frontman’s hidden ability, making comparisons to some metal’s legendary voices! He’d soon regale us all with a more substantial dose, an initial volley, during “The Sorcerer” finale. As it was the last tune, of their first USA concert, they brought a pair of sponsors onstage, to sing-along, hug/high-five and bask in the glory of the moment (one carried the band’s flag, same as kicked off the show, other a banner, which the duo had made, welcoming the Swedes to Atlanta). One of the weekend’s highlights, for sure.

Early on, Harry 'The Tyrant' Conklin told those assembled to hold their applause to the end, as Jag Panzer wanted to get through as many songs as possible within their allotted hour. As it was, they had to drop two from the European set to make it work ("Generally Hostile" finale being one of the casualties). A blackened stage was greeted with prerecorded voiceover, as they kicked off with "Far Beyond All Fears". Old school "Licensed To Kill" quickly separated the Panzer diehards from those that were itching for more of the early 2000s catalog. Sorry, little, if any, was aired. When not singing, the long, gray-haired air raid siren ventured toward the drum riser and goes through a bunch of histrionics, including pantomiming chopping wood, during "The Scarlet Letter". Stage right, mainstay guitarist Mark Briody has adopted a Jeff Lynne (ELO) look: his tight perm cut short and goatee, all that's missing are the sunglasses. Several times, he walked over to check Ken Rodarte's lead work, inquisitively studying and once, even feigning to write down notes. Green/yellow illuminated "Harder Than Steel" was another welcomed vintage cut, as the singer, bassist (John Tetley) and Rodarte stood shoulder-to-shoulder, before the two guitars squared off, face-to-face. Harry's amazing high end sustain was on display, for that one. 

Piped in violin introduces a green lit "Black", which ends with The Tyrant flexing his biceps, body builder pose. "Iron Eagle" is sing-along time, Harry passing the mic stand overhead the crowd. Both guitarists are center stage, as Conklin retreats to chopping wood. Mid-song, his uninterrupted scream lasts several seconds! Red lit "King At A Price" begins with another ominous sounding voiceover. Crimson drenches stage as Briody and Conklin stand two abreast to begin "Shadow Thief", another fan favorite. First chorus, Mark again joins Harry, center stage, and eventually, the singer vacated the stage. He mimics play a violin, on the lilting, blue lit "Born Of The Flame". The ADHD singer runs from one side of the stage, to the other, as he's already done countless times tonight.Fast, punishing "Warfare" brings the show to a close. The band had special sugar cookies made, with the Deviant Chord artwork emblazoned on one side. There were also special one-off guitar picks (for those who are collectors), with the band logo and words "ProgPower 2019 Pound You With Metal Then Give You A Cookie". Thanks guys!

After the Jags, there were still almost six hours to Demons & Wizards, plenty of time to get into mischief. Sure, there were a couple other bands, in the interim, but the prospects seemed dim. Like I mentioned before, time to meet up with some who had already played, those soon to go on and lots of long-standing acquaintances, faces not seen since last year (and almost exclusively the only place we run into each other). So, over a couple of beers, we discussed music (reactions to the current show, opinions about the 2020 line-up...) watched college football or browsed the merch stalls, next-door in Vinyl) and shared some laughs. Periodically, stuck my head into the main room, to catch a glimpse of what was transpiring, or camped out for a couple of songs, in the VIP loft, overlooking the stage. Poets Of The Fall were described to me as ‘90s Duran Duran, which to these ears seemed a reasonable categorization. Visually, bit of Right Said Fred rumbling with Flock Of Seagulls over Simon Lebon's catalog? Bingo! That said, the room was packed (the Finns only North American gig, so people came from all over, regardless of their interest in the rest of the line-up), but my heavy metal battered ears didn't find much in the way of "rock", by my definition. Brave Words president/CEO Metal Tim Henderson is (somewhat surprisingly given his affinity for death & black metal) a fan of Threshold. Looking to keep the boss happy, shot a few photos and checked out a bit of their spacey, keyboard laden prog rock. Blue/green illuminated "The Man Who Saw Through Time" was up early, as were "Long Way Home" and "Into The Light".

Fans were rowdy for Demons & Wizards, screaming things atop Hansi's soft spoken between-song raps and not letting him finish. Tired of the incessant adulation, he good-naturedly said, "I think I should stop talking." It WAS the culmination of a long weekend and as some told me, "I've been waiting 20 years for this (band)." At one point, when the singer was about to reveal a heartfelt moment about this being the last show and having been honored to share the stage, and so many experiences, with these guys (although cracking he won't drink out of the same bottle as Jake Dreyer, who's also lead guitarist for Iced Earth), the crowd broken into a "Share!" chant. OK? Visually, Kürsch looks more like a teacher or accountant, than a rock star, but when his pace quickens, crossing the stage, and raises his hand, to exhort the crowd, he's sternly demanding, like a prowling headmaster/principal, ready to scold his charges. He's also got a wicked, understated sense of humor. Saying that the applause is what keeps him from heeding the late-night call of his bed, saying, "Don't think that we'd don't like it, because I honestly do. I can hear my bed calling already. I somehow get the feeling that you will be one of these audiences that won't show mercy!" The stage was littered with tombstones/grave markers, while a giant replica of the deadly fiddler looked down from the backdrop.

Storming "Heaven Denies" see Jon Schaffer (stage right) coming to the stage edge, to meet the fans, mouthing the words as he played. The song ends with the singer, arms outstretched, in crucifixion pose. He spent the early part of the set positioned center stage, sometimes foot up on the wedge monitor, but slightly arched backwards, using his arms/hands to elicit responses from the throng, at his command. Both Kürsch and Guardian guitarist-turned-bassist (for this tour) Marcus Siepen received individual chants: "Hansi", "Marcus" and just as the roar was dying down, Schaffer playfully put his hands to his ears, as if to say, "What about me?" Cue another interruption, to which the guitarist gave a thumbs up, of approval. For a yellow lit rendition of Iced Earth's "Burning Times", the crowd was nearly as loud as the stage volume. Neat to hear Hansi scream "You are a sinner," come the chorus. Segued seamlessly into purple lit/strobe accompanied "Welcome To Dying". Only fair to play one from Blind Guardian too. Later, they'd repeat the reciprocation. Come the titular chorus the voices, nearly a thousand strong, ratcheted up the volume a few more decibels. Upon completion, all leave the stage, apart from Kürsch, who kills time while a pair of highback bar stools are produced, one for him, the other, for the reemerging Schaffer, acoustic guitar in hand. There's piped in piano and female accompaniment, for "Wicked Witch". 

Deep blue/purple for "The Gunslinger". Barely visible, under purple lights, it was "I Died For You", a mellow begun Iced Earth track, that gets more aggressive, as it goes. Purposeful or accidental, as the pace quickened, the hues turned more illuminating, from red to chartreuse. Hansi added a snarl to the titular chorus, as Jon and Marcus share the backing mic, stage left. It melts into Blind Guardian speed metal fantasy, a sing-long "Valhalla". The proper song is over quite quickly. It's the repeated a cappella refrains, from the audience, that double or triple the length. Smiling (or was that a knowing smirk?) choir director Kürsch lets the lovefest continue ("Should I interrupt," he rhetorically asks Schaffer, as the clapping and singing seems unlikely to end). For the encore, not only did Dreyerd switch sides with Schaffer, during "Beneath The Waves", but there were a few crowd surfers, something of a no-no at ProgPower. The final performance (this show, as well as for who knows how much longer) was "Fiddler On The Green". To start, Schaffer played a stand-mounted acoustic, his electric guitar still draped across his shoulder. Appropriately lit (OK, maybe it was more aqua, than green), some swayed in time, others adding "oh oh" vocalizations, until the tempo/intensity increased, temporarily. On paper, a sort of lackadaisical finale, but not without emotion, both sides of the barricade. Afterwards, there were several minutes of cheers/acknowledgment, for the musicians. Hope it not another decade until Jon & Hansi's schedules coincide and they can tour again.

The 2020 installment of Progpower has already announced the full line-up. More info, including when tickets go on sale, can be found at ProgPowerUSA.com.

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