May 10, 2013

Friday Review: ROSFest 2013

Last weekend, for the third year running, I trooped up to the rolling countryside of central Pennsylvania for the Rites of Spring Festival, aka ROSFest. Held at the lovely Majestic Theater in Gettysburg, the festival showcases the more melodic side of progressive rock. This was kind of an odd year for me, as there wasn’t anybody on the bill that I was completely ecstatic about having a chance to see – no IQ or Phideaux from prior years. In fact, going in I didn’t know a lot about many of the bands, but I was sort of intrigued by them. Would I find an unknown gem like Sanguine Hum or Tinyfish. Let’s find out!

First, a graphical note – your humble narrator screwed the pooch this year and left his camera at home, so none of the usual pictures of the Majestic marquee setting out each day’s schedule. I already feel your scorn and am remorseful about it.

Friday kicked off with Bolus, a four-piece (on stage, at any rate) from Canada. Aside from a couple of YouTube clips I didn’t know anything about them going in, but I liked their brand of energetic, tuneful, neo-prog. As with so many newer bands these days they occasionally lapsed into a metal riffage territory, but not so much as to ruin it. On their 2013 release Triangulate the band’s only a three-piece, but the live show had a fourth guy featuring mainly on keyboards (a Korg M50, to be precise – represent!), with some occasional guitar. The keys were so prevalent that I was surprised at their near total absence on the album. I also liked the bass player’s MacGeyver’d bass pedal setup (MIDI pedals into a MicroKorg?) – it literally made my hair move when he put a foot down!

Headliners for Friday night were the famous Flower Kings from Sweden. I’ve got a kind of an odd history with the Kings. I really love the Roine Stolt solo album that gave birth to them, but I don’t find their output all that interesting most of the time. I’ve called it “chicken soup for the prog lover’s soul” before, because it sort of hits all the right notes (so to speak) of classic symphonic prog, but doesn’t really thrill me. Having said that, they’re a stalwart of the “third wave” of prog that emerged in the 1990s, are a damned fine group of musicians, and I was glad to be able to see them live.

The first full day of music began with Jolly, a four-piece from New York City. There is a good story to this band. Their studio (and the drummer’s apartment) was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, which would have been bad enough anyway, but (a) the band had just finished a new album and (b) were getting ready to hit the road supporting Riverside. Luckily said drummer saved his computer (with the album on it – this is the 21st century) and their fans rose up to support them so that the tour went on (is going on, actually) without a hitch. Very cool. Musically, Jolly pumps out a tuneful near-prog in somewhat the same vein as Bolus, but with a much heavier, more metallic edge. Not really my thing, but they do it well – the road work they’ve done shows. Another nice touch – if you buy their current album The Audio Guide To Happiness - Part 2, you get a free download of the last one, The Audio Guide To Happiness - Part 1, so you can get the whole concept in one sitting.

Prog metal is not my favorite of the prog neighborhoods. I’ve got nothing against heaviness itself, but the “balls and chunk” metal riffing has never been my thing. So I was apprehensive about Sweden’s Pain of Salvation, given their stellar prog metal pedigree. I was more than pleasantly surprised by their set, which was one of the most diverse of the weekend. Yes, there was the prog metal riffing, but it was interwove with lots of effective dynamic shifts. The band carelessly skipped through a whole host of experiments with different styles, which I always admire. Some didn’t work (the disco tune and the quasi-rap one left me cold), but how can you not love a band that trots out a lounge/jazz/reggae version of Dio’s “Holy Diver”?

Believe, from Poland, turned out to be a good palate cleanser for Saturday evening. Amidst a day of fairly heavy music, their brand of solid, melodic neo-prog played well. They reminded me a lot of IQ and Camel, not to mention fellow countrymen Quidam. Guitarist Mirek Gil took lots of opportunities to stretch out and solo, getting fierier and more intense as the set progressed. The band had a violinist, but she was buried in most tunes, but it was a nice touch when she was more prevalent. Good, nice tunes, but nothing spectacular.

Fairly early in their headlining set Saturday night, Riverside bassist/vocalist Mariousz Duda joked how at first they were the “Polish Porcupine Tree,” then they became the “Polish Dream Theater.” As for now, maybe they’d become the “Polish . . .” – he let the answer hang until the keyboard player ripped off the first couple of riffs from Deep Purple’s “Perfect Strangers.” The Porcupine Tree comparisons were once valid (the Dream Theater ones not so much), but Riverside has forged their own path over the past decade. They’re heavy, yes, but not really in a metal way, but more in a thick, wall of sound kind of way. If anything, these days they sometimes seem like Spock’s Beard’s heavier Polish cousins. Regardless, they were excellent, easily surpassing my expectations. I had three of their five albums going into ROSFest and figured I wouldn’t need any more. I completed my collection on Sunday morning.

On a side note – this was the tenth edition of ROSFest and Riverside was the 100th band to take the stage at the festival. Congrats to George and everybody who puts on the fest for reaching that kind of milestone.

Sunday morning at ROSFest is dubbed the “church of prog,” since, well, it’s Sunday and all. Typically, the band chosen to kick off Sunday gives an energetic performance to help most people shake off the cobwebs of the partying done the night before. Dream the Electric Sleep – a great name and, since they hail from nearby Lexington, Kentucky, almost a local band for me – took the opposite approach. The slid into their set, opening with a pair of longish, spacey sounding tracks. More of a slow warming than a brilliant sunrise. To their credit, the first track had a similarly spacey quote from “Amazing Grace” to start off. I like DTES’s mix of space rock, jammy stuff, and even post-rock (if you squint a bit), but was disappointed by their presentation. Simply put – they need a fourth guy in the band. The power trio setup was augmented by a Macbook that handled not only the occasional intro or atmospheric sample, but also acoustic guitar, synths, and backing vocals. Seriously, I hope the Macbook had a union card, at least.

The key word to describing the set by Moetar (from prog hotspot Oakland, California) is “short.” As in the fact that many of their songs were conspicuously short. I’m not talking about a lack of stereotypical prog epics, I’m talking about a bunch of 2-3 minute tracks that barely get going before they’re over. Still and all, they pack an awful lot into those short bursts, probably too much. The music is really busy, with lots of lightning guitar and piano riffs, augmented by matching vocal lines (think Zappa or Keneally unison vocals, but performed by a powerful female vocalist). Fantastic musicians, but the end product left me a bit cold. The newer tracks seemed a little bit more well developed, so maybe in a few years they’ll really be hitting it out of the park.

Japan’s Asturias is the brain child of multi-instrumentalist Yoh Ohyama – it exists in the form of an acoustic chamber ensemble, an electric rock/fusion band, and the label for Ohyama’s more individual efforts (he’s the “Mike Oldfield of Japan”). It was the electric version that brought the house down at ROSFest. They ripped through a set of smoking instrumental prog, laced with streaks of fusion. As with Believe they had a female violinist (the violinist from Believe is even of Japanese extraction, I think), but she was much more front and center in the sound, providing a nice counterpoint to the guitar and keyboard leads. On top of all that, each band member addressed the audience as some sort of English as a Second Language assignment (guitar player’s response to a random shouted comment – “I don’t speak English”), each of which underlined their enthusiasm for playing half a world away from their home. Simply put, they were great.

Sunday’s headliner was Shadow Gallery, truly a local band, a prog-metal outfit who only played out live for the first time a few years ago. I understand how happy fans were to get to see them, but they’re not my cup of tea (it’s not just prog-metal, it’s cheesy prog-metal), they were running late, and, by that time, I was beat, so I just packed it in. No idea how they’re performance came off.

Going into ROSFest this year I didn’t really expect any “wow!” moments. It’s to the fest’s credit that I still got a couple and, even outside of those, the rest of the lineup was uniformly solid. Barring something untoward happening, I’ll be back in 2014 for the fourth time running. Hopefully, next year, my seat won’t disappear into the ether after I bought it!

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