ProgPower USA XVI - Shock & Awe!

September 18, 2015, 3 years ago

Mark Gromen

gallery heavy metal progpower usa falconer angra royal hunt

Annually, we sit/stand in Center Stage and watch a video presentation revealing the next year's line-up. This was not the event promoter Glenn Harveston had originally conceived, back in 2014. Thanks to US Customs & Immigration hassles, five bands originally announced were denied entry visas. Two acts tried to make it, right up until the week of the event (in the case of Sweden's Dynazty, just a day before), necessitating 11th hour roster maneuvering. Hats off to Glenn for remaining sane, and keeping his usual good nature (at least in public); in the face of unthinkable odds. This recap is not directed towards the 1000+ fans who attended, as validation of your musical preferences. No one's opinion should enhance or detract from what you personally experienced. But for the tens of thousands unique viewers who visit BraveWords.com daily, some with only a passing knowledge of ProgPower USA and/or the bands herein, the intention is to offer a peek at some of what goes on in Atlanta every year. Still, it's truly best to visit in-person!

A hellacious Thursday afternoon flight, arriving at ATL (via Charlotte) 12 hours after my scheduled (then canceled, direct) departure, meant missing all the activities. Most notably, to me, were Armored Saint and the headlining Saxon. No John Bush singing as he toured through the crowd and into the seated amphitheater, and was unable to hear “Battering Ram”, the title track from the Brits' still unreleased CD. Thank goodness the same pair played NYC in May. The next day was spent gathering food for the duration of the stay and thus got to the venue in time to see Jeff Scott Soto play an extended 90 minute set, graciously stepping in, to help fill one of the vacancies.

Admittedly, the man has done a lot in his career (some use the term "journeyman," but that seems demeaning). Still it was a surprise that during his time onstage he didn't hit upon his days with Axel Rudi Pell and only a fleeting gesture to the Yngwie Malmsteen years (the initial two platters, still considered by most metalheads to be the Swedish guitarist's best work), with a snippet of “I Am A Viking” and most of “I'll See The Light Tonight”. Inexplicably, the drummer was given a short showcase that featured Iron Maiden, Twisted Sister and Queen... It began promisingly enough, standing still, in red shirt beneath black vest, gray cargo pants, with dangling parachute ties, and sunglasses, for the start of “Final Say”, which also kicks off his recent Inside The Vertigo release. A total of four newbies were aired. Smooth moves as he virtually glided across the stage, eventually flipping his shades to some lucky recipient in the crowd. A funky “21st Century” was followed by “Drowning”, where he sang with the handheld, wireless mic pointed toward the sky. The smoke started to cover the stage even before the earlier song was over. Orange lit “The Fall” segued into “Break”. ‘The 80s style synth of “Look Inside Your Heart” (off Damage Control) was co-written by Whitesnake's current guitarist, which could have been his audition tape. During a Talisman medley (which included “Crazy”, the Seal cover), Soto hilariously explained how the DVD would be edited: first prepping the audience on what to sing and after practicing, where the visuals will reappear: "OK, you guys ready to sing?" The final song was Steel Dragon's “Stand Up” (penned by Sammy Hagar). 

Has it really been four years since Australia's Voyager were last at ProgPower? In that time, in part due to a Big Apple gig, just a week before, gained a bit of an appreciation for the band, mostly down to their fan friendly live presence (something in which way too many bands are woefully weak). Redhead guitarist Simone Dow is not just the most "metal" of her bandmates, but also of the weekend. Tongue out, headbanging, perpetually pin-wheeling her hair, jump kicking: all while she's handling lead duties. As is renown from bands Down Under, they're serious musicians, but don't take themselves too seriously. Bassist Alex Canion donned a cotton candy pink wig, donated form the crowd. Speaking of the fans, an online poll selected the setlist. Later, singer Daniel Estrin, he of the one shaved side of the head, joked, "I prefer the white keytar to the red ones, because they sound better." They began with “Breaking Down”, almost a blur of activity from word go. Later, it was “Land Of Lies” and “Seize The Day”, before the well- loved (comedic) medley, which includes bits of Ghostbusters' theme, “What Is Love” (made famous by the SNL skit/Night At The Roxbury), Meatloaf's “I'd Do Anything For Love” and the Team America theme. How they decided to string those together must be a precious story! “Hyperventilating” worked well and “Fire Of The Times” saw DC Cooper (singer, Royal Hunt/ex-Silent Force) onstage, reprising the guest role he first performed on their Meaning Of I album. 

Although I'd seen Anathema twice in the last two years, headlining and opening for producer/Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, in Blackfield, was looking forward to seeing them again. However,another part of ProgPower called me away. A large portion of the experience is the friendships formed/renewed. Someone I've known for more than a decade learned of a death in the family, after deplaning from Europe. Over a few beers, we began a between bands conversation, the revelation and lending a set of sympathetic ears, seemed a little more important. Heard from trusted sources that the show was amazing and a glimpse of the setlist shows most of the same songs were aired, as on the last US run. Thus, the much anticipated Falconer show was my next trip back inside the venue. Just their second appearance in North America (and debut with original singer Mathias Blad, in dress vest and tie for this finale), this was to be the Swedes' last concert, anyway!

Don't get me wrong, I love the band and their music (Hell, I was the first one to bring them to North America, in 2003), but they've never been a strong live act, even though their popularity garnered them a couple of Wacken shows. Would like a little visual evidence I'm not just listening at home. Founder/guitarist Stefan Weinerhall emailed, earlier this year, asking for "proof" they'd been here before (reviews, ads, flyers, etc.), as part of the visa process. Never gave it a thought, sending him a few jpegs and screen shots. Who knows if it helped. For someone long involved with musical theater, sort of surprising how visibly uncomfortable Blad is in front of an audience. While his voice never wavered, even during the more intimate, seated, acoustic trio of songs, he was nearly immobile throughout. Not that his bandmates helped him out much, the reclusive, soft-spoken Weinerhall having forgone the bandanna head scarf for a baseball cap and graying beard disguise. During the career spanning set, there was also a threesome of native language tracks, hot on the heels of the acoustic segment.

Fans were in rapturous euphoria as the curtain pulled back. The galloping “Halls And Chambers” opener, followed by “A Quest For The Crown” only heightened the frenzy. A few smiles from the guys onstage. Old school favorite “Enter The Glade” showcased Blad's unique vocals, while “Upon The Grave Of Guilt” and somewhat prophetic entitled (given the significance of this particular show) “The  Past Still Lives On”, both off the '01 debut, continued the sonic love-in. The clap-along begun “Age Of Runes” was the last track before they all took a seat. The acoustic portion began with another cut off the beloved debut, “Wings Of Serenity”. Wisps of fog were evident from the stage right wing. The closing run was clearly the best/strongest material, chocked full of material from the initial pair, including “Royal Gallery” and the back-to-back closing duo of “Mindtraveller” and (perhaps their best known number) “The Clarion Call”. Glad to see the band (and more importantly, Stephan) once again. They will continue to record, just no more live dates. The king is dead. Long live the king!

Saturday began at 2pm, with a freight train from Argentina hitting Center Stage. No, not Lionel Messi, but Helker, their first foreign trip. Marshall stacks either side of the otherwise empty stage, strong-throated, bearded behemoth frontman Diego Valdez dwarfed his bandmates: long hair, leather vest, tattoos, the full biker look. His voice has been favorably compared to the late Ronnie James Dio and at times, the aural evidence was undeniable (“Flying”). Although present, they too experienced visa issues, which cost them their drummer. Thankfully a last minute replacement was found. Soon after the “Still Alive” kick-off, there was the more melodic 'Dreams'. Drum stick count-off, the bass heavy “Ghosts From The Past” was lit in pink, as the twin guitar harmonies power from the speakers. Fists clenched, legs splayed wide, the crash cymbal introduced a pummeling “Modern Roman Circus”. Receiving a warm welcome, Valdez was humble and repeatedly thanked all involved around the concert. "I could die today and be happy," he said. Prior to “Begging For Forgiveness” he self-deprecatingly mentioned that the original featured Ralf Scheepers (Primal Fear) and that he'd try to do his best today, "by himself." Undoubtedly their goodwill, humility and killer delivery will win them a return ProgPower USA engagement. He offered one tune in his native tongue and preceded “At The End Of The Journey” with a few a cappella verses of Dio-era Black Sabbath, specifically “Heaven & Hell”, before finally ended with (to the delight of at least one fan who shouted for the title, once Valdez announced they were at their last song), “No Chance To Be Reborn”, on a blood red drenched stage. Alongside Voyager, one of the most talked about sets of the weekend. Look forward to hearing more from Helker!

With 2/5 of Dynazty stuck in Sweden, unable to attend, with less than 24 hours’ notice, the decision was made to allow countrymen Dragonland (no, Testament guitarist Eric Peterson is not part of the band) to augment their Thursday performance, as there were (apparently) some issues that precluded them from playing their entire set. Over the course of their 16 year existence, they've only played about 25 dates and now there were two in as many days. By the way, moving forward, the festival will now be 4 days, with each of three promoters (who had dome their own Wed, Thurs., Fri-Sat shows) each selecting one band for the first two days. Sorry, but as soon as guitarist Olof Mörck strolled onstage, alone, shrouded in a swirl of fog, I couldn't see anything but Harry Potter villain Lucius Malfoy: the long, snowy mane and high forehead. The stage volume was unusually LOUD as the blazing power metal guitars (ala another "Dragon" band) screamed through “Majesty Of The Mithril Mountains”. Unleash the Archers' singer Brittney Slayes warmed up for her band's upcoming set, with a guest slot. Cutting through a fog shrouded stage as thick as an English moor, in April she helped out “Cassiopeia”. Other highlights included “Starfall” and “Fire And Brimstone”. Given their track record, doubtful I'll ever witness them again, but glad to have made their acquaintance. 

Interesting change of fate, as Unleash The Archers were supposed to be on a 40+ date tour with Hibria, and when one of the early bands cancelled, Harveston asked them to play ProgPower. As Slayes told us from the stage, they were going to be in Atlanta anyway, watching from the crowd. Then Hibria (and a couple others) became unavailable, so the search was narrowed to bands within arm's reach and the Canucks got the nod. Fresh from an Asian tour, it was four across the stage. The opening “Frozen Steel” sees Slayes' piercing highs (fuchsia streaks in her hair), joined by widdly guitar and the second coming of Dan Lilker on bass (tall, mop of curly hair, constantly headbanging). Sort of the Great Kat meets Municipal Waste, only better. The singer moved around the stage, although the youthful exuberance of her skip/dancing pirouette belies the spiked wristbands and shoulder pads attire. Off the Demons Of The Astrowaste sophomore effort, a heavier “Daughters Of Winterstone” contains less piercing highs and the occasional male growl. Onstage, there's plenty of synchronized headbanging. The bass begun “Dreamcrusher” gets the audience clapping along, the stage lights matching her highlights. Some were unwilling to embrace all the metal conventions, including a few stadium tricks (Ozzy's swaying hands overhead or splitting audience in half, to sing along): things that someone of their stature, especially as a last minute replacement (i.e., it’s not your crowd) shouldn't try. Regardless, Unleash The Archers offer fun music, from people who clearly enjoy making it. 

Really tried to get into Riverside (not the Poles' first time at ProgPower USA), but alas, not my thing. Thus, it was on to Royal Hunt, now with DC Cooper on the mic. The clothes horse made several costume changes through the night, ultimately appearing topless. “The Mission” opened, the expressive singer with exaggerated arm motions and zig-zagging from one side of the stage, to the other, as he did, most of the night. By the acoustic guitar begun (six string mounted on adapted mic stand) “River Of Pain”, Cooper was in a black (velvet?) dress jacket with spiral silver embroidered cuffs, the same pattern running down the front row of buttons/button holes, with no shirt underneath. The rest of the band looked gear for inclement weather, eventually losing their coats, Andreas Passmark was alone, one foot on the center monitor, as DC donned a red trimmed military jacket for the bass begun “Message To God”, Under a mix of purple, blues and greens, fog began to seep onstage. Wind and rain sound effects created a blue stage, a return of the mounted acoustic, for the “Long Way Home” power ballad. Cooper wore a black T for “Time Will Tell”. A bouncy “May You Never (Walk Alone)” saw the singer bare chested, the smoke still filtering in, from stage right, under pink hues. “A Life To Die For” was a robust closer.  

The Angra catalog is varied, from the power metal debut (personal favorite) and a progressive, follow-up, the Holy Land concept album (played here in its entirety) through eight studio efforts, with a trio of different singers. Ex-Rhapsody frontman Fabio Lione (who also did a brief stint with Kamelot) is now at the helm, leading the Brazilians (with soon to be Megadeth guitarist Kiko Loureiro) in a sequential run-through of the sophomore effort, plus a couple of others, including a trio of Secret Garden material (got to "sell" the new stuff!), a surprising duo off Rebirth, “Waiting Silence” and the oddball cover/closer. Over time, Lione has grown into a more confident frontman, capable of traversing the stage. The curtain was pulled back, to reveal a smoke filled stage, to the sounds of tropical birds. After “Nothing Left To Say”, the next highlight was lively, drum introduced “Carolina IV”, complete with dueling guitars. Pretty much everyone knew the running order and what to expect, from one song to the next. Pre-recorded keys began the pink/blue lit Holy Land title track, a slower audience sing/clap-along.

“Make Believe” kicked off with a pole mounted acoustic, even though the lighting guy missed an obvious cue (pink/purple?) “Deep Blue” saw guitarist Rafeal Bittencourt start the vocals, then hand them off to Lione, the stage going black during the pre-recorded choir/organ section. Afterwards, Bittencourt re-appeared, alone, seated, under a spotlight, He gave thanks to the promoter and fans who made it possible for them to return to Atlanta for the third time. He played acoustic guitar and sang the short “Lullaby For Lucifer”, the final album track. From there, he was rejoined by the rest of the guys for “Newborn Ma”', the first of the Secret Garden tunes. A few skyward fist thrusts commenced the unexpected “Waiting Silence”, off their Temple Of Shadows CD. 

The band returned for rousing “Rebirth” and orange tinted “Nova Era”, which gave Loureiro a chance to shred and then trade licks with Bittencourt. They closed out with a rendition of The Kinks' (even though incorrectly credited to Van Halen) “You Really Got Me” with Lione, DC Cooper and Jeff Scott Soto fighting for the limelight. Each tried to scat against Loureiro's riffs. As they said from the stage, "That's a party!" 

Hope to see you all there (again) next year!

Check out Mark’s two previous galleries from Progpower here and at this location.

Featured Audio

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BILLYBIO – “Rise And Slay” (AFM)

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TOMORROW'S EVE - "Welcome To The Show"

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