May 11, 2012

Friday Review: ROSFest 2012

For the second year running, I made the pilgrimage to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, last weekend for the Rites of Spring Festival, aka ROSFest. As I wrote in my review last year, Gettysburg seems like an odd choice for a prog festival, since it’s not exactly a huge population center. But between the venue and the small town amenities nearby, it’s probably the perfect place for such a thing. So how did this year’s fest measure up? Pretty damned well.

First up for the Friday night double header was British neo-proggers DeeExpus, who you may remember from a recent Friday Review. They led off with the killer title track epic from The King of Number 33, which was quite a bold choice. It’s always difficult to start off a set with 25 minutes worth a music, after all. Unfortunately for me, that choice meant that once that track was over, the rest of the set was downhill, as it’s by far my favorite of theirs. The rest of their set was enjoyable, but never hit the heights of their opener.

Friday night’s headliner was Sweden’s Karmakanic, one of numerous bands with links back to The Flower Kings that were part of this year’s ROSFest. Karmakanic is the project of bassist extraordinaire Jonas Reingold and owes more to his years with The Tangent that with The Flower Kings, bringing it more fusion and jazz elements. That being said, the almost annoyingly upbeat vibe of The Flower Kings pops up a lot, particularly in the lyrics. Their set was noteworthy for several lengthy jams that let Reingold, guitarist Krister Johnson (another alum of The Tangent), and keyboardist Lalle Larson to stretch out. Given ROSFest’s reputation for catering to the “safer” side of the prog spectrum, that may be as far out as any band’s been on that stage. They closed with a killer rendition of “Send a Message from the Heart” and an unexpected Genesis cover (“Undertow” from . . . and Then There Were Three – not exactly their proggiest moment). A highlight of the fest for me.

Opening up Saturday morning was the Aaron English Band, which I knew very little about, having only listened to a few samples here and there on the Web. My impression, confirmed by their set, was that they would be a good case study for the endless “what is prog?” debates, as their stuff sounded is more like well crafted grown up rock and roll than “prog” proper. In that way, their material reminded me a bit of Kevin Gilbert, whose stuff resides in that same region of progginess. Which has nothing to do with quality, of course. I enjoyed their set quite a bit and picked up a couple albums afterwards. They did several interesting covers (like this one) that really take the original and change it up in clever ways. A good opening to the day.

I picked up Resistor’s Rise prior to ROSFest, to get familiar with the band. It’s anchor is a whimsical 35-minute epic called “The Land of No Groove,” about four musicians who journey the world in search of real music. Not surprisingly, Resistor is a four-piece band (although the names have been changed to protect the innocent, I imagine)! Also, not surprisingly, their set led to a full presentation of “The Land of No Groove.” Resistor would be equally comfortable in the jam band camp, I think, with long instrumental excursions fueled by twin guitars (and, occasionally, flute or violin) and a loose, laid back feel. I enjoyed their set a bunch and will have to track down some more of their albums.

Hasse Froberg’s Musical Companion – HFMC – is the clunky moniker for the side project of Hasse Froberg, lead vocalist and secondary guitarist for The Flower Kings (see, there they are again). I hadn’t heard note one from them going into their set. On the heels of their just released second album, HFMC blasted through an energetic set of prog-tinged classic rock. They went over well, but I’ll admit they didn’t really do anything for me. I don’t think it’s a “not prog enough” situation (see above), there just wasn’t anything that jumped out to me about their set. It could also be that, on a late Saturday afternoon and five bands in, I was aurally drained.

Saturday’s headliner was IQ, one of the first bands I discovered when I plunged into the prog world back in college. I saw them at the late 3 Rivers Progressive Rock Festival outside Pittsburgh a few years ago and was stoked when they were announced for ROSFest. I was more stoked when they announced they would do their 1997 concept album Subterranea in its entirety. When they did, in its manifold multimedia entirety. Unfortunately, travel snafus got the band on late (killing planned encores) and things got a little rough in spots (Peter Nichols’s voice was going by the end), but those couldn’t take away from the epic sweep of the performance (aided, in one point, by Resistor main man Steve Unruh on violin). Great capper to a solid day of good music.

First up Sunday morning was British quartet Sanguine Hum, which would otherwise be the winner in the “best name” competition for the weekend if the previous version of the band hadn’t been called Antique Seeking Nuns. No kidding. This was another band I went into the festival without knowing anything about and was pleasantly surprised. Their keyboard player rocked a real Rhodes for their set, which set them off sonically in a different direction than anybody else. They were also the least epic of the bunch, which was a nice change of pace. If anything, they were a bit too laid back for the Church of Prog slot, but that’s hardly their fault.

IOEarth (also British) was the final blank slate for me this year. They went over like a house of fire and, no doubt, laid down a set full of energy, scorching guitar work, and powerful female vocals. Alas, their charms are mostly lost on me. I had the same reaction to the band in this slot last year – District 97 – which was also a minority viewpoint. They’re just too heavy, too riffy for my tastes. I was also put off by a lot of canned backing tracks early in the set. Having said that, it was an enjoyable enough set (the guitarist had a great rapport with the crowd). I just won’t be buying their back catalog.

Discipline is a band I’ve got a weird history with. Their 1997 release Unfolded Like Staircase was hailed as a classic (best album of the 1990s, I’ve read more than once), which meant that, by the time I got a hold of it, it was so dipped in hype that I was prejudiced against it. I’ve softened over the years, but I still wouldn’t call myself a huge fan. That being said, I wondered how they would come off live. Turns out, they came off really fucking well, by far the most intense set of the fest. Even with the guitar player having a decidedly off night (I heard someone say his hands were cramping), they were excellent. Whatever misgivings I’ve had in the past, I’m firmly a fan of Discipline now. Note the capital “D,” please!

Wrapping things up on Sunday night was Agents of Mercy, another Swedish offshoot of The Flower Kings, in this case including the King himself, Roine Stolt. Along for the ride are Jonas Reingold and Lalle Larson of Karmacanic. Agents is a little grittier and heavier than The Flower Kings, but otherwise you can see Stolt’s DNA woven throughout their symphonic prog. Confession time – I’ve never been a huge fan of The Flower Kings. They remind me of chicken soup for the progger’s soul, more than anything else. Not bad, mind you, but not particularly enthralling, either. So while I enjoyed Agents’ set, it wasn’t the high point of the festival.

What was a high point for a lot of people was the Agents encore, which became a kind of Flower Kings reunion, with Hasse Froberg joining Stolt and Reingold (among others). Neat to see and hear, if only for its uniqueness.

Some of these blurbs make it sound like I was less than enthused with ROSFest this year. That’s not really true. Fact is, none of the bands this year were “bad” in the sense that I thought of walking out and doing something else. And some of them were brilliant. In addition, I think there was a good deal of variety this year, within the bounds of the more melodic branch of prog that the fest caters to. You can’t ask for much more than that, can you?

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