PROGPOWER USA 2022 - Welcome to Walley World. Sorry, We're Closed!

June 7, 2022, 3 weeks ago

By Mark Gromen

gallery heavy metal progpower

We can all probably sympathize with the Griswold Family, planning a vacation and then getting to the destination, only to discover the main attraction is inoperative/unavailable/temporarily closed. Such was the fate of the ProgPower faithful, deprived of the annual Atlanta-based confab since September, 2019. Thanks Covid! It's A Small World and the Teacups are not adequate substitutes for Space Mountain or The Haunted Mansion, but it's still Disney. It's not only about the attractions, it's the experience and you might even enjoy a particular ride you never wouldn't have taken in, had one of the more renowned options been in service. Approached 2022 with a similar philosophy. While organizer Glenn Harveston (a jovial Southern gentleman who works as a nurse, the other 51 weeks of the year: imagine his last two years!!) may not identify with the John Candy figure in National Lampoon's Vacation (held hostage at gun-point, blamed for the amusement park closure), there probably were a few times he wished the pandemic had "pulled the trigger" and blew the whole event away. Not that he'd ever publicly admit that the disappointing cancellations, wasted time, added expenses, line-up changes, visa hassles, national/state/venue health mandates, etc. were too much to bear. Hell, he planned to retire after the 25th anniversary and like Bill Murray, he's stuck in Groundhog Day...the 21st installment idling in neutral, for years!

Kudos to Harveston and his organization, having created a destination event, where the line-up is almost inconsequential: people just want to attend. Unlike previous years, there was a flurry of selling the long sold-out ticket, in the week leading up to the show, a combination of economic uncertainty, the ongoing pandemic/health concerns and a vaccination requirement, for admittance. If you build it, they will come...So with a cobbled line-up, a semblance of the one announced three years ago (typically a showcase of global acts, the final two days (Fri/Sat) were relegated to eight of the dozen acts being homegrown/USA based), once again Center Stage lived up to its name, becoming the focal point of the progressive/power metal world (although those genre confines continue to be tested and expanded upon, year over year). Actually, thanks to the airline re-arranging my planned itinerary, "had" to take an extra day off, in order to get to Atlanta at a reasonable hour, thereby allowing me to experience the entire Thursday show (which I typically can only see part of, like the last band or so).

Full disclosure, physically own albums by less than half the performers showcased over the last two days and of those, that doesn't count the solo outings by Ray Alder (Fates Warning), Ihsahn (Emperor) and Jason Bieler (Saigon Kick), all of whom were playing as solo artists, to say nothing of Jeff Scott Soto's Queen tribute. So why go then? What's the draw? The metallic spectrum is so vast, it's impossible to know everything and live music remains the backbone of this genre. It's a chance to experience new things, not all of them necessarily enjoyable, but that's life. It's unlikely that most of these acts, especially those making their North American debut, will ever receive similarly favorable conditions, as they do at ProgPower USA, in terms of lights, sound, adoring crowd. So it's probably the best place to check out unfamiliar territory, putting their best foot forward. It's also fun, for all attendees, either side of the barricade, and after the last couple years, we all need some good times. Fans get a professionally run show, low pressure show, with a chance to meet the stars, in formal signing sessions, as well as informal hangs, in the venue or the legendary, nightly post-gig parties at the nearby Artmore hotel. All the musicians are treated royally, even those that have truly not earned such status, yet. What's not to like?

First must see band on Friday was Witherfall, fronted by Joseph Michael (ex-White Wizzard) who is not only the singer (dare we say Warrel Dane's replacement?) in Sanctuary, as well as being the late Ronnie James Dio's cousin! Sort of an odd assortment onstage, the vocalist in black, crushed velvet smoking jacket, flashy guitarist Jake Dreyer something of a leather pants/open shirt, Yngwie protégée and black bassist Anthony Crawford, who has backed both Justin Timberlake and Allan Holdsworth. Drum and keys round out the line-up. Far reaching dynamic range, from the nearly a cappella/acoustic, to banshee wails. Case in point, "Ode To Despair", whose jangly guitar recalls Jim Croce's "Time In A Bottle", to start.

Jason Bieler... no, not Justin Beiber, nor (unfortunately) Dan Beehler, but one of the creative forces behind early-‘90s rockers Saigon Kick. Sporting a long gray beard and black bib jeans/overalls, he looked like a bluegrass mountain man more than a former longhaired rocker. It was obvious he was up there having fun, mugging to the front row and even poked fun at himself, for being under-dressed. Got to love a track inspired by Monty Python, the "Bring Out Your Dead" opener. Musically, this was FM radio rock, certainly neither “Metal” (by any definition of the word) nor even his former employer. He had the lyrics on a Kindle/Nook affixed to the mic stand, so he couldn't venture too far away, but when he did, often played off the bassist. His four piece band ("Orchestra is supposed to be 75 pieces," he exclaimed, before deadpanning, "Damn Covid!") included Andee Blacksugar, whose plied guitar for Blondie and KMFDM. Before ending with a double shot of Saigon Kick ("Hostile Youth" and "Love Is On The Way", claimed his friend (Queensrÿche singer) Todd La Torre said he'd be crazy not to play the Kick's big hit at ProgPower.

No one doubts Jeff Scott Soto's pedigree, but the idea of tonight's Queen cover band was widely discussed, myself and many others, fearing an evening of Americanized hits. While "We Will Rock You" began on solid footing, it was quickly into said territory: "Another One Bites The Dust", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love". Soto took the stage in parachute pants, and for the first number, bug-eyed shades: the red mic stand flashing a line of white lights. When he announced the youngest song in the set would be 31 years old, hopes for some ‘70s tunes improved. Almost on cue, "Fat Bottom Girls"! Throughout the set, a pair of bandmates provided backing vocals. "I Want It All" was followed by a driving "Stone Cold Crazy", seemingly everyone in the joint knew all the words to all the songs.

The stage clears as some piped in Queen floats from the speakers, as Soto moves to the piano/keyboard for "Now I'm Here", which becomes an audience clap-along. Acoustic guitar duet onstage for "Love Of My Life", although truly, the crowd sang most of it. Going beyond the hits, he related the next one was a Brian May penned tale of time travel, the glorious "'39', precisely the type of material I'd been hoping Soto would dust off. A medley would provide more of those, including bits of a rapid/aggro "Death On Two Legs", "Tenement Funster" and "I'm In Love With My Car". Seems someone else grew up listening to the Live Killers album. When the string came to a close, the singer genuflects and crossed himself. “Under Pressure" and (ugh!) "Radio Gaga" were yet to come. Wayne's World moment, 1000+ strong, with "Bohemian Rhapsody". The whole experience, bands & fans alike, singing along, backstage/upstairs recalls when Foreigner played Bang Your Head, in '06, armed almost exclusively with material from the first two albums. Seeing Tim "Ripper" Owens and others singing along, backstage, proved the universality of the catalog. Same thing with Queen standards. Only question was whether this glorified tribute/cover band deserved a #2 slot, direct support to the night's headliner, Conception. The next night Riot was a #3 and had to cut both "Warrior" and "Road Racin'" from the set. 

For many perennial ProgPower attendees, Conception is a bit like Ahab's White Whale, not just an infatuation, more like an obsession. June 3, many got their wish, as the Norwegians reprised their '05 appearance. In the intervening years, Roy Khan (singer, ex-Kamelot) gave up secular music, in a religious calling. Early on, most choices were from the recent catalog, specifically 2020's State Of Deception, including both video tracks, "Waywardly Broken" and "No Rewind". All the guys wore the floor length Scandinavian "skirts" that black metal bands made fashionable. Guitar wizard Tore Østby (man, can this guy pull faces!) weaves the brooding, emotions core, highlighted by Khan's warm (at times operatic) voice. The band has never been about a live show, so the play in lighting and dynamics is about as dramatic as it gets. A deep blue "A Virtual Lovestory" sees Khan singing from a catcher's squat, center stage, between the wedge monitors. Guy's smile is infectious. During green lit "The Mansion" (originally sung by Elize Ryd, of Amaranthe), Østby methodically strolled from his normal stage front stance, to share a brief laugh with bassist Ingar Amlien. Midway through, bar stools were produced and there was an impromptu, seated acoustic jam, during which Seven Spires singer Adrienne Cowan joined in "Silent Crying". People reverentially spoke in hushed whispers, as you could almost hear the proverbial pin drop. Drums and a driving guitar signal "Gethsemane", almost cathartic, after the self-imposed silence. By the finale, "Roll The Fire" got the blood pumping, on both sides of the stage. Amlien did a bit of headbanging, while Østby loosened up, played from behind drummer Arve Heimdal.

After a subdued, somewhat laidback Friday, the final day promised more fireworks, kicking off with Finnish youngsters Arion (not to be confused with the prolific Dutch guitarist/storyteller Ayreon), who were making their North American debut. Schooled in the COB mannerisms, especially red hair/bearded firebrand of a guitarist, Iivo Kaipainen, who offered an endless array of tapping/hammer-ons, sweeps, rock star poses/orgasmic faces and playing his axe at all angles, usually at blazing speed and high degree of dexterity. Amped up from jump, they did push the volume to bordering on painful, as they tore through early entries like "No One Stands In My Way" and the fitting entitled "Punish You". At one point, the over anxious Kaipainen nearly toppled into the photo pit, as a wedge monitor rolled over, as he jumped on it. Luckily he was able to remain upright (unlike the monitor), sharing a chuckle with singer Lassi Vääränen. As the twelve song set stretched beyond its initial fury, the aggressive histrionics dissipated into mid-tempo (or less) straight ahead rock, akin to the most recent works of countrymen Sonata Arctica. "Out Of My Life" sees the heaviness return, even with a brief drum solo. Surprisingly, given the proclivity, unlike their better known countrymen, the stage was devoid of liquor. Not even a beer bottle! Mobile phone/cigarette lighter moment, the ballad "You're My Melody" before the show ends much as it began, over-the-top antics for "At The Break Of Dawn", a sneaky little keyboard earworm wafting underneath.

Anyone whose had a decent upbringing knows that when you dine away from home it's impolite to exclaim, "Yuck, that's gross!" or "Ew, what's that?" when offered the likes of pickled herring, pig's feet or something indecipherable, smothered in Hershey's chocolate syrup. A different palette, even if popular elsewhere, a polite denial is all that's required. So when it comes to Thank You Scientist, an outfit whose genre splitting output is the aural equivalent of stirring together the aforementioned, seemingly divergent, culinary elements, I'll say, "No thank you" and move to the next course.

A third live helping of Riot, in just over six weeks (Houston, Chicago, ATL) and they still haven't played all the scheduled songs! As mentioned earlier, perhaps 15 songs is a bit over ambitious, given the hour time slot, but classics "Warrior" and "Road Racin'" were left on the cutting room floor, Riot making the edits on the fly. Still, they packed a lot into the tight window. Nick Lee was supercharged, sort of like warner Brothers cartoon Tasmanian Devil, tearing around the stage and playing off six-string co-conspirator Mike Flyntz, as well as bassist Donnie Van Stavern, the lone holdout from the Thundersteel era. As I've penned previously, that '88 platter has become the touchstone of a new/younger generation of power metal fans and the setlist reflects that adoration. Of the baker's dozen actually aired, three were from said disc and another pair from the Privilege Of Power follow-up (after which, Van Stavern left, yet Flyntz joined, the two not working together until Immortal Soul, in 2011). Todd Michael Hall accented "On Your Knees" with an impossible high note, to end. "Sign Of The Crimson Storm" also sees him launch into falsetto. Great to hear them pull out "Restless Breed" in Rhett Forrester's hometown. The guy was gunned down about a mile away from the venue. "Black Leather And Glittering Steel" is not one they'd played on our prior meetings, the guitar tandem together, stage right. Red hued "Angel Eyes" sees Hall use the mic stand as an air guitar. Mindmaze vocalist Sarah Teets reprised her role from the 2020 70K cruise, introducing flute to purple lit "Bloodstreets". It was not the last "guest" onstage tonight. "Swords & Tequila" brought out the voices, even Jeff Scott Soto, who joined the band, for a couple of choruses. Even with the old school omissions, the speeding pounder "Thundersteel" closed the show on a winning note. Great stuff. While watching most of the Riot set from the rafters, the band/VIP room that overlooks the stage, ended up accidentally dropping one of my camera lenses, an incident that not only physically hampered my ability to capture the remaining bands, but inadvertently took an emotional toll on my enjoyment of what was yet to come. So my apologies to fans of those acts, for the abbreviated coverage. 

Looking fit, in jeans and a black tee, Ray Alder had a female bassist and two guitarists in tow for his first solo performance (including Nick Van Dyke/Redemption, replacing Lords Of Black string bender Tony Hernando). They played stuff off his What The Water Wants album, as well as other entities he's been involved in, albeit not Fates Warning. Ray was personable and joked with the crowd throughout (he's been to ProgPower multiple times before, even attending the original, Chicago incarnation, along with Van Dyke). A blue bathed "Lost" was up early, bassist adding vocals. It was soon followed by "Monster", the first of two songs from the all-star Engine's eponymous release, on Metal Blade, in '99. A crunchy "Wait" shone through what had, to this point, been an underlit stage. "Crown Of Thorns" rectified the situation, everyone clearly visible, under clear/bright lights. "Falling Star" (engine was backed with Redemption's "Walls", a few recognizing it before the lyrics were eve out of his mouth. 

Have to admit that after Riot and Alder, the intricacies of Ihsahn's solo work was almost an afterthought. Looking more professorial than a rock star, the mainman was joined by the guitarist from Leprous. After struggling to get a few decent photos decided to use the time for a quick trip to the hotel, in (what ultimately proved a fruitless) attempt to rectify my camera situation. Thus an inauspicious end to an otherwise fun (sometimes trying) weekend.  

In 2023, ProgPower USA returns to its traditional early September date: 6-9. The all-international line-up for the final two days has already been announced. I'll be there, with new and improved photographic equipment (and reserves). See you there!

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