PROGPOWER USA 2023 - Countdown To Extinction: Fast, Loud & Rude!

September 15, 2023, 9 months ago

By Mark Gromen

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There's excitement, and yet, trepidation, as organizer Glenn Harveston ticks off another year, on the march towards a 25th anniversary, that will also be his swansong. In all honesty, he should all but be there, by now, but the pandemic forced a two year hiatus. Glenn, it's not so easy to kill off such a well-loved entity! Sure, the (promoter's) musical focus has shifted (at times, seismically!) over the years, but once established in Atlanta (the initial event was in suburban Chicago) the process has remained amazingly consistent. 

Very early on, there was a pre-show for early arrivals the night before the main event and eventually a couple of extras bands, on Wednesday. In '16, ProgPower USA "officially" became four days (Wednesday through Saturday), although Harveston only books the final two nights. The line-ups are increasingly diverse, stylistically, and a random sampling of attendees will undoubtedly produce a handful of answers to the question, "Who was the best band of the weekend?" Actually, you'd probably get an answer for every band on the bill.

THURSDAY

Most years, the concert coincides with the start of school, in NJ. Thus I can only get away in time to catch the final few acts on Day 2. As usual, some good stuff. The Halo Effect is basically former members of In Flames. As such, much of the debut recalls their former employer (and why not, since they helped flesh out that sound). In black leather jacket that would remain on, for the entire set, curly haired singer Mikael Stanne (Dark Tranquillity/original In Flames vocalist) is always amped up, moving/contorting at obtuse angles throughout (and thus tough to photograph), but tonight he's got a smile plastered to his face. 

At one point he jokes, "We're going to play the first album, in its entirety. Do you know how rare that is?" His laugh gives away the fact they've only released one disc! The rasp of snare and flash of strobes illuminate an otherwise empty, black stage, as the Swedes appear for the opening, green lit "Days Of The Lost". Blue is the hue for "Needless End" follow-up. The slower groove of "In Broken Trust" sees a return to the omnipresent greens. Hulking bassist Peter Iwers makes forays to stage left from his usual post. In fact, they travel in pairs or trios: Stanne, Iwers and guitarist Niclas Engelin. Amazing that in 2023 people still complain about gruff vocals and Mikael does employ the heavier end of the vocal spectrum, but also a warm, clean voice. 

Quick hitting "Conditional" recalls the old Flames. Periodically, Stanne announces, "This is awesome!". White strobes on green for "A Truth Worth Dying For", which picks up the pace, ultimately ending with crowd shouts of "whoa whoa." Stanne introduces each member, prior to the symphonic strings begun "The Last Of Our Kind". They end, once again in green (maybe a more creative LD next tour guys?) for "Shadowminds" where Stanne says, "Let's end with how it started, the first songs you heard from us." 

Didn't have time for Vola, a synth laden, one guitar foursome. Cool white vertical lighting effect though. Interesting that Beast In Black and the band guitarist Anton Kabanen founded, but was later ousted from, Battle Beast, were both on the same bill, albeit different days. Onstage, Kabanen looks like he stepped out of Turbo-era Judas Priest, while bald frontman Yannis Papadopoulos wears a floor length duster and neon green guitar wielding Kasperi Heikkinen (ex-U.D.O.) sports mirror sunglasses. Screaming vocals, guitars, pacing, there's nothing subtle about anything regarding Beast In Black. On either side of the drummer, is a sci-fi capsule, with the upper/naked torso of a female android. Grandiose build-up, then straight into punchy "Blade Runner", with plenty of guitar histrionics, from the pair. There's lots of purposeful posing, bouncing up & down, and synchronized moves, in groups of two or three, complete with electric fans blowing hair. The flamboyant drummer flails his hair and twirls the sticks. 

Even piped-in, keyboard dominated "Die By The Blade" has an infectious, pop rhythm that gets the crowd singing "whoa whoa." Green lit "True Believer" continues the onstage party, plenty of action and the band might be having more fun than the crowd. The title "Crazy, Mad, Insane" is apropos (even with simplistic, repetitive, syncopated disco beat and guest dancer). It does give Anton a spotlight solo. Just in case you missed the fact, prior to "Sweet True Lies" Papadopoulos admits, "I'm sober, (we're) not talking about heavy substances, but this is a Finnish band, so alcohol rules." Not directly related to his soliloquy, but "To The Last Drop Of Blood" begins without the singer offstage. The ballad "Oceandeep" is a swaying mobile phone (used to be cigarette lighter) moment, before "Dark New World" brings back the bombast. The signature tune features backing vocals from the founder. Like the Energizer Bunny, these guys keep going: wind 'em up, step back & get out of their way. The danceable "One Night In Tokyo" gives way to the day-glo green tinted "End Of The World" finale. End of the night. Fun to ingest, but good luck getting to sleep after all that high energy saccharine. 

FRIDAY

First up, The Cryptex. Unfortunately, for them, there were nearly as many people, waiting in line for a Kamelot signing session, as there were in front of the stage. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but the first band on is hampered by fans' merch shopping/autograph collecting addictions. No matter, Simon Moskon (trenchcoat wearing keyboardist/singer) led his troops through an eclectic set of music. Each of the four had a C armband on their right bicep. Mokon's keyboards were positioned at the lip of the stage, at a 90 degree angle to the crowd. The gruff/shouted vocal "Cobra" was up first, the lone such inclusion, thereafter settling into more melodic choices. The singer really threw himself into "Sugarleaf", literally cavorting on the floor. Would say its a language barrier, but most younger Germans are fluent in English, however the between song banter was often awkward, pigeon English rock cliches. 

Pulsating yellow lights compliment the staccato "Fall Down" and he finally sat at the keys, come "Haunted". Their vibe sort of reminded me of the (sadly) defunct Horisont. The guitarist had a full head of almost waist length hair, that he shook about under purple lights, as chartreuse spotlights swept across the crowd. Speaking of lights, their LD gave the board a workout seldom seen at ProgPower: a visual spectacle. In the end Moskon seemingly channeled Keith Moon (early Who) and repeatedly smashed a mic stand into the stage. Quite a performance. 

Vinyl, the attached room/bar next door once housed a host of CD vendors and proved a diversion, thinning of the herd, as people had somewhere to go when not watching a particular band, or not interested in standing on line for an autograph/selfie. As time goes by, the demand for product has rendered Vinyl a space most probably never visit. It was sparsely attended, apart from the odd, smaller act signing session. Thus the main corridor within the venue remained congested with food vendors, merch seekers and drinking fans. Thankfully everyone seemed polite enough and our less mobile friends, in wheelchairs, or otherwise in need of some additional space, were able to reasonably navigate the traffic. Speaking of the old days, didn't take long before you practically needed water wing flotation devices to get across the (temporarily) flooded men's room floor. A long way from when there was an attendant, handing out fresh paper towels and offering assorted toiletries. 

No side-stepping, when it comes to Battle Beast, the Finns, especially frontwoman Noora Louhimo, come on like a runaway train and never let up. What else would you expect from someone who has her hair styled into spiraling horns! Actually was surprised they entered to a more subdued "Circus Of Doom", Louhimo in a puffy, floor length, yellow/black dress. No worries, it was tear-away and when the song was over, she quickly removed the cumbersome length, to allow more freedom of movement. Good thing too, as traditional lead-off track, the fist pumping "Straight To The Heart" followed. The singer, danced about, fringe sleeves hanging loose from her "space suit," as she screams, trills and punches the air. Meanwhile, the crowd grunts out each emphasis. 

Noora, and much of the crowd, pogo up & down as the keytar moves to the foreground, on "Familiar Hell". Blue lit "No More Hollywood Endings" precedes "Eye Of The Storm", the singer almost constantly in motion. She tells the audience, "There are no lyrics, just make a lot of noise" as the four voices offer "Where Angels Fear To Fly". Blue lights, with white spots, for "Bastard Son Of Odin" re-energizes the singer, kicking and punching her way through the "Born to kick your ass" chorus. Guitarist and bassist also get into the high kicking, Rockettes chorus line antics. All headbang, to start, "Wings Of Light", a tune that should (legally) owe a writing credit to Tuomas Holopainen. It's that close to Nightwish. Funny scene, as bassist Eero Sipilä announces, "This place is a maze. Somewhere, out there, don't know where, we have a merch booth. If you see it, take a picture for us." The mid-tempo stomp to "Master Of Illusion" is almost a samba dance beat (from Finland)! At various points throughout the "Eden" finale, Louhimo kneels at the lip of the stage, acknowledging what has been a rabid fanbase.

Sort of pity Ad Infinitum, having to follow Battle Beast's rocket fueled set, as they have neither the material, nor intensity to "compete" and wisely opted for what they do best. A one guitar foursome, fronted by Melissa Bonny, who would also appear (as female counterpoint vocals) with touring mates, Kamelot, later this evening. Moody, it's also difficult for just three (non-drummers) to fill a bigger (non-club) stage. Green Carnation also inhibit an atmospheric serene, but there's more bodies to occupy the visual space. The Norwegians are something of returning "champions" in the ProgPower realm. Reportedly, this was the first time Trond Breen had performed on electric guitar, with the band, usually reserved for acoustic sessions (which they'd do, the following morning). Creating a setting, rather than a "rock vibe", the lighting was dark. 

After opening with "My Dark Reflections Of Life And Death", the melancholia of "The World Without A View" was blue, with spiral lights, long running bassist Stein Roger adding backing vocals. One of the cuts off the Acoustic Verses CD got the amplified treatment, in the shape of "Sweet Leaf" (not a Black Sabbath cover). Afterwards, bearded singer Kjetil Nordhus joked, "Last time ('16) we played one song. This time we'll play nine songs, so it will be nine times better." Cute. Later, he'd quip, "(Leaves Of Yesteryear) was our first album in 14 years, but we didn't tour (pandemic), so this is its North American debut." Cue the title track. Albeit mellow, blue toned "Lullaby In Winter" is the showstopper, but not as an intense display of emotion, nor musicianship. Always special.

Kamelot has a history of guest female vocalists, live and on record, including notables like Alissa White-Gluz (Arch Enemy) and Elize Ryd (Amaranthe). Lately, the task falls to Melissa Bonny (Ad Infinitum). Not sure why, but founder/guitarist Thom Youngblood likes to keep things dimly lit onstage, dark colors, fog shrouded and minimal visibility. Doesn't prevent him and cornrow dread-locked bassist Sean Tibbetts from jumping off the stage, to small road cases standing in the photo pit. Nearly got conked on the head by their swinging instruments! "Veil Of Elysium" kicks things off, with Bonny, in silver highlighted Catwoman bodysuit, situated on a riser, behind singer Tommy Karevik. 

As Tommy stands on a box/riser, center stage, a half dozen compressed fog eruptions fire off, across the width of the stage. Crimson lighting and blinding strobes, "Rule The World" is up second and then, the power cuts out temporarily (?). The singer, guitarist and bassist rotate between the trio of stage risers. More stagefront carbon dioxide eruptions, as "Opus Of The Night (Ghost Requiem)" starts. Bonny also returns. Photographers leave after three songs and "Insomnia" is decidedly brighter and more colorful, bathed in green and white, as Karevik directs everyone to jump in place. Tibbetts needs no such instructions, the man is almost always pirouetting or pogoing. 

While "Vespertine (My Crimson Bride)" is not color coordinated, the lighting is cool, with yellow lights, from the floor, shooting upward, against a blue backdrop. Youngblood walks to meet Tibbetts, stage left. Karevik flips up his hood, as the stage goes deep red, with a pair of faceless, hooded figures, flanking the singer, who is perched atop the back riser. More fog further obscures the stage, with only intense white spots cracking the darkness. Midway through, Bonny walks onstage, and for the first time, interacts directly with Tommy, front and center. She delivers deep guttural growls as well as more feminine vocals. The singer gets everyone to join in the yellow illuminated "Karma". Still a strong audience response, come the chorus. 

Maybe a second "oldie" next time around, Thom? The sound cuts out again, later in the set, right before the drum solo (which played along to a sample of Rush's "Tom Sawyer"). Bonny returned, as did the crimson, fog enveloped, veil, for "March Of Mephisto", complete with multiple smoke eruptions. Karevik leans into the crowd, to start "Forever" which finish the proper set (and my evening). Youngblood also glad hands from his perch in the pit. As a "Kamelot" chant begins, the guitarist retrieves a camera on a pole, to film the reaction. The lengthy, extended version includes introduction of each band member, so it felt like the end of the show, even though there'd be a couple more songs as an encore.
  
SATURDAY

For me, a soft opening today, sort of dabbling in the heretofore unknown German act, Poverty's No Crime. Maybe I've become more accustomed to the taste, but didn't strike me as overtly progressive, in fact, would say their songs could be heard on commercial radio. Having attended every ProgPower, can unequivocally state that there's never been as aggressive a performance as Evil Invaders delivered. In the promoter's widening scope of "who qualifies to play ProgPower" (i.e. his own personal tastes) there's the occasional "oddball" heavyweight. Cage were brash and loud. Classic thrashers Overkill and Forbidden did what they do, but in terms of volume, stage presence and speed, nothing tops the twin guitar Belgian foursome. Their brand of speed metal, bordering on melodic death, certainly breaks from the prog vs. power continuum. 

The maniacal Invaders (good choice of words) would seem out of place, with little crossover appeal, but the crowd was at least respectful of something that ran afoul of their eyes/ears/sensibilities. But a certain segment went absolutely bonkers. Well, not as much as guitar wielding frontman Joe. An unhinged glint in his eye, a dagger sheathed on each bicep and the skeletal remains of vertebrae affixed to the back of his black leather vest all belie the fact (offstage) he's a friendly, soft spoken individual: not the guy who shrieks, howls and screams throughout "In Deepest Black". Meanwhile, his and Max's guitars repeatedly squeal, squelch and perform whammy bar dive bombs. They even manage to get a small circle pit moving.

Opening salvo of better known/video tracks "Feed Me Violence" and "Mental Penitentiary" may have scared (scarred?) some of graybeards in the seats, but "Sledgehammer Justice" was dedicated to "the suit & tie guys, those assholes." As the three non-drummers scurry back n forth, across the stage, Joe went near falsetto during "Tortured By The Beast", which dates back to the original Ep. Nice to see an European act, making their North American debut, not forget about fans of the earliest material. Too often they just want to push the latest product, but (thankfully) Evil Invaders offered more of a career retrospective. "Forgotten Memories" is a slower grind, with piercing, high pitched vocals. Joe's facial expressions are priceless.

The repetitive lyrics to "Die For Me" make quick coverts of those looking to sing along. At its conclusion, the noisy response is instantly silenced, as Joe slices the air with his hands, making his best baseball umpire "Safe!" call. From there, it's the always welcome, completely over-the-top "Fast, Loud 'N' Rude". Great song. As the barrage continues, some are awestruck, as if they were witnessing Venom, circa '82. Speaking of yesteryear, a cover of Exciter's "Violence & Force" sort of encapsulates what has transpired, before the Invaders close with "Raising Hell". In a final fit of madness, the singer, guitar slung over his back (headstock pointed towards the ground), grabs the mic and repeatedly screams, as the other tear around the stage and/or jump off the drum riser. Now armed with a USA visa, hopefully we'll see more tour dates in the next year, before it expires!

From unscripted wild men, to high concept. With the deck of a sailing vessel on the backdrop and a fishing net covered riser, center stage, Visions Of Atlantis took the crowd on a joy ride, pirate style. Dual vocalists Clémentine Delauney (ex-Serenity) and, in a tri-corner hat, Michele Guaitoli wore sea wench and buccaneer attire, respectively. In fact, the entire band looked ready for a (seafaring theme) costume party! Not merely content to perform, in vintage outfits, Visions Of Atlantis opted for a bit of Broadway, acting out many of the lyrics (especially with interactions between the two singers). 

Opening with "Master The Hurricane", an electric fan, billowing Delauney's hair, furthered the impression of being onboard a ship. Breaking character, at one point the male voice said to his female companion, "You've been (to ProgPower) before, maybe they trust you (more)." Asking if we're ready for a pirate party, they launched into the blue bathed "A Journey To Remember". At one point, the lady wore the tri-corner hat, for a stretch. Onstage, Delauney has certainly grown into the role of a personable, operatic frontwoman, no longer the cold, stiff (but talented) persona of years gone by.

There's the comical skit, where Guaitoli (despite several tries) is unable to produce any notes from a penny whistle/flute, only to see the drummer stand up and much to the crowd's delight, delivers a flourish, first try. Cue the pre-recorded pipes accompanied "In My World". However, the audience interactive approach prompts some to heckle, offering their own narrative, including one puny gent, apparently enamored with Clémentine, who blurted out, "My ship is at full mast!" The cheery "Heroes Of The Dawn" see me-lady dance a lilt about the stage. Trilling, in halter top, she gets a clap along started on the blue lit "Pirates Will Return", but the best "crowd reaction" is yet to come, as Michele instructs everyone on the floor, to be seated, hands on the shoulders of those in front of them, and pretend to row a boat (ala Amon Amarth). Only issue, unlike a Viking galley, pirate sailed the seas, not propelled by oars. Minor point. For the closing "Legions Of The Seas", Delauney runs onstage waving a flag (white band logo, on black field), as she jumps atop the centrally located riser. Fun set. Question is, moving forward, is this the new Visions vision, or will the next album require a complete wardrobe makeover? 

After a half dozen shows, with the former line-up, my first experience with the "new" Delain. Diminutive singer Diana Leah is barely taller than the illuminated, center stage mic stand. She admits it’s her first time in America. I assume she means with the band, but perhaps not. During the first few songs (with photographers in the pit), she's constantly in motion. It's a learning process, but bands need to realize it's to their advantage to take a few extra seconds, to "pose" for photogs, at the start of the set. 

Standout "Suckerpunch" leads off, the stage in deep blue tones, apart from white vertical lighting, including the aforementioned mic stand. Leah working all corners of the stage, in a black leotard that bares one shoulder. Pulsating greens and gruff male vocals for "The Quest And The Curse". Even founder/keyboardist Martijn Westerholt's shimmering jacket couldn't brighten "The Hurricane", the crowd swaying arms overhead. A bit more juice on the lively, blue/purple lit "Queen Of Shadows" with a guest appearance by piasano, the Visions' Guaitoli, but sorry, the initial euphoria quickly faded, missing the more dynamic players of old: Charlotte Wessels (vox) and Merel Bechtold (guitar).The dark lighting and rather static presence didn't help.

No such issues with Unleash The Archers, who may have been the most anticipated band, judging by the lengthy merch line snaking throughout the Center Stage atrium, requiring a security guard to oversee that everyone kept moving orderly. When not punching the air, Brittney Slayes pin wheeled her hair and interacting with the crowd. It was a lovefest, as the audience sang virtually every word. The smile on her face, throughout the purple lit "Through Stars" told the story. When she knelt by the drum riser, for a water break, it was time for some synchronized stage moves, from the guys. Splayed legs, one ahead of the other, Slayes (ahem) unleashes a high pitched scream to commence a more upbeat "The Matriarch", the two guitars and bass momentarily meeting, center stage. 

She has a great voice, even with high pitch doubled/sampled backing tracks. "Soulbound" was a good headbanger, everyone onstage warming to the occasion, with rejuvenated antics (Kung Fu kicks, air guitar, headbanging, etc.). The heavy stomp of "Ghosts In The Mist", which debuted a couple of weeks back, at the Mad With Power festival, followed. While they have a song entitled "Faster Than Light", the descriptor equally applies to speedy "Tonight We Ride", which offers gruff male counterpoint (courtesy of both guitarists), to Slayes soaring voice. The Canucks finish with more sinister XY chromosome vocals, on the true metal gallop of "Afterlife". 

I thought the Archers was a lovefest (and while not wrong), nothing could prepare one for the outpouring of emotion surrounding the climactic event: Myrath. While not a big fan, understand the importance of ProgPower to the Tunisian band, all the more so, after witnessing the response they garnered. Strange, but both night's headliners now have an album entitled Karma. However, Myrath's version had only been released for a day. Didn't matter, as they performed four newbies, scattered throughout the set. Never going more than three cuts before trotting out another Karma classic. The stage had three separate platforms, one for drums, another keyboards and finally, centrally located, albeit lower in height, one for high pitched singer Zaher Zorgati (a Lebanese pop idol before relocating to the band's homeland). After opening with "Born To Survive" the frontman, in regal, floor-length robe, gets the crowd to sing along. Bathed in red/blue/purple lighting (plus strobes) the sound is a mix of later day Fates Warning meet Kamelot, with (forgive my Western ignorance, what sounds like) Mediterranean/Middle Eastern rhythms. Brooding "Tales Of The Sands", which intersperses Arabic and English lyrics, sees a "harem" dancer gyrating with the band throughout. 

Of the new material, purple/blue lit "Candles Cry" is a mid-paced number, with backing vocals, courtesy of the keyboardist. "Into The Light" began with chant (which I assume was in their native tongue) and for the lack of a better word, in Western terms, another "belly dancer," on an otherwise empty stage. Drum beats give rise to crowd clap-along, as the lady departs and the band reappears, Zorgati in regal, floor length robe. In terms of the more upbeat "Let It Go", the singer even joked it was not the well known song from the Frozen movie franchise. There's a little segment of individual embellishment from both guitar and bass. After a passing dig at the unpredictability of label release schedules, "Child Of Prophecy" begins with a sea of illuminated mobile phone displays, swaying overhead. Latter, under blue lights, with purple spots sweeping the crowd, the audience thrust fists, in unison. Altogether, to the end.

The 2024 line-up has already been announced. Hope to see you there.

More ProgPower USA 2023 coverage:
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

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