Dario | Nov 15, 2023 | 0
Midsummer Prog. 23 – 24 June 2023. Valkenburg Open Air Theater, The Netherlands
Midsummer Prog Festival has been happening since 2017 and we’ve been wanting to visit the festival for quite a while, but the June 2023 edition was when Matt and I could finally enjoy this well organized festival at the beautiful Valkenburg Open Air Theater. Here is our report and photo galleries.
Friday – 23 June 2023
Many prog fans say that one of the most beautiful venues for a prog festival is the Valkenburg Open Air Theater in the southern tip of the Netherlands, located in the small and probably only area of “mountains” to be found in the notoriously flat country. The venue is the oldest Dutch outdoor theater (1916) with its foundations carved in the rock formation and its backstage area inside a cave. For those of us coming for the first time, it was a truly impressive view to walk around the old town, seeing the ruins of Valkenburg castle and learning about the prehistoric and Roman history of the region.
But the music called to us this time more than history and geography. The line-up for the 2-day festival being packed with excellent bands from Europe and USA promised to deliver a great first experience. During what was one of the hottest weekends in Western Europe, on Friday afternoon with scorching sun roasting us, we made our way up the hill to the impressive venue.
Starting with the Belgian prog metalcore band Cobra The Impaler, as confirmed by the host on their introduction, it was the first time Midsummer Prog had a heavier metal band and as a plus, opening the festival. I was wondering how the mainly prog rock fans would react, as I had seen the band before. It was certainly a kind of weird experience to hear proggy metalcore so early in the afternoon, under the bright sun, and even weirder seeing the crowd really enjoying and engaged in the experience. Cobra The Impaler, though they’re not playing my preferred style of music, left their mark with a solid and energetic show, leaving the audience quite impressed.
Next was the turn for the Norwegian darlings of Meer. One of my favourites of the recent years, and still dreamy from the incredible performance at ProgPower Europe 2022, this was going to be my 3rd time seeing their show (4th! if counting The Progspace Online Festival living room show they filmed for us!). We both had seen them at Haugaland Prog and Rock festival in Norway, because we just can’t get enough of the ensemble – we try to catch up with them and enjoy their always amazing shows whenever we can. The band started with ‘Valentina In The Sky’ from their first eponymous album and delighted everyone with a setlist mostly consisting of fan favourites from their highly acclaimed “Playing House” album.
The big surprise came with the name of ‘Today Tonight Tomorrow’, the premiere of a song from their upcoming album (still in the making) a catchy and all around great song, keeping in line with their already established sound and closing with the fantastic ‘Picking Up The Pieces’ to end with a standing ovation lasting for a couple of minutes with tears included from the eyes of the siblings and singers Johanne and Knut Kippersund Nesdal. Meer undoubtedly are headed for big things in the prog rock scene, as we’re witnessing the first steps for a band that has all the potential to lead in the progressive music universe.
After that marvellous experience, the break between bands gave me some minutes to recover my breath, to get myself prepared for one of the most expected bands for me personally (and as I noticed, for a lot more of people as well): Frost* from the UK, finally I’m going to see them live! Hearing their debut album back in 2006 was a sort of revelation for me, though I lost track of the band during the following years, this opportunity to see them live was something I was sure I was going to enjoy to the fullest even more since they had not played live for a long while! And the band didn’t disappoint.
Displaying not only a complete command of the stage and the audience, splashed by funny moments thanks to the wit of Jem Godfrey, but the superb musicianship of each one, from the perfect Swiss clock timing from the drum maestro Craig Blundell, to the rhythm bass of Nathan King and the leadership on guitars and vocals of prog legend John Mitchell. What a supergroup and what a show! As if it wasn’t enough to witness such musicians performing a couple of meters from me, when the first notes of ‘Milliontown’ filled the space, the audience went crazy. I was so dazed by the 26-minute magic unfolding on stage that I actually stopped taking pictures, absorbed in the absolutely unforgettable moment!
To close the first evening, then arrived the first headliner, the equally awesome Haken. I find it more and more difficult to describe or review a show from the Brits, since I’ve seen them so many times that the surprises are few now. Apart from the change of keyboardist, founding member Peter Jones is back on the keys and it was as if he had never left. The camaraderie with the rest of the band and the technical prowess matching that of his bandmates made clear the 5-piece work as 1 whenever they’re on stage. With a great light show and travelling through all their discography to the absolute delight of many fans, the Brits all clad in their tropical “Fauna” outfits delivering an impeccable show, crystal clear sound and perfect performance of the highly technical and complex music. Maybe that precisely is what has made me lose a bit of the appeal for Haken live, to see their live show is like playing the album.
I thank the energetic efforts from Ross Jennings leading the band and conducting the audience, but even if for many moments my eyes and mouth were popping open in astonishment wondering “how the heck are they playing that? Is that humanly possible?” Overall their show is so perfectly polished that instead of shining, for me, it tends to lack the “it’s a live show – surprise me!” factor. Nevertheless, every time I see them live, I thoroughly enjoy it!
Saturday – 24 June 2023
Early start at midday with the Norwegian prog rock veterans The Windmill. I confess I had not heard anything from them, so this was going to be a surprise. When the band went on stage, I thought immediately this was going to be like the Focus of Norway. Fine prog rock with nice costumes, including a sort of steampunk vibe .
The band opened their set to surprise the sold out venue, with a 25-minute song (!). To complete their opener set, 2 more songs followed, both previously unreleased and hailing from their yet to be released next album. Finest neoprog from the north. For fans of the art-rock, neoprog wave, keep an eye on The Windmill. Nice opener for a packed day of progressive goodies!
The day was already warm and the temperature rose up when the hottest Italian “art-rock meets prog metal” act of the moment stepped on stage: Kingcrow! I was so happy to see them live again and at this beautiful venue! The last time I saw them was in Hamburg, the last show we had just a couple of days before the pandemic locked down Europe. I’ve seen the band several times before, including ProgPower Europe 2019. So I knew that the quintet were going to leave many very happy.
The band have been around for quite a while, so it is a mystery to me that there were so many people who truly didn’t know them. Their hailed masterpiece “The Persistence” made it to the top of many “Album of the Year” lists back in 2018. Changes in management, label and the pandemic have delayed the release of their new album, but the band did manage to surprise us by including ‘Kintsugi’ from their upcoming album “Hopium” among classics mostly from their back catalogue. The band indeed left more than many happy with a well deserved standing ovation.
While I had a dose of headbangs alongside Kingcrow’s music, and despite keeping hydrated as much as I could, I felt increasingly tired by the extreme heat. Those who know me personally were even asking me if I was alright, to the point that even security staff were approaching me. Yes I was ok, just that my face goes red in warm weather, and the constant going up and down the many steps on the rock seats made the whole event not only one to enjoy in music, but also a steady workout! But that left me quite exhausted by the time one of my highly expected bands on this already awesome festival was due on stage.
The Dear Hunter from the USA came exclusively to Europe for this show! And it was about time I had the joy to see them live! I really like the music from this band, though I’ve lost track of them over the years despite a very prolific career. As I mentioned before, sadly their time slot was the worst for me and for many others as well, as I couldn’t help to notice. I had to seek refuge under the few trees at the entrance while missing part of the show. Many more were around me. Despite this I could enjoy most of the show even though it was difficult to put my head in sync with the music. The band clearly revolves around the figure of Casey Crescenzo, mastermind behind the conceptual music and incredible vocalist and guitarist leading the sextet and very nice approachable guy (as I had the opportunity to meet him briefly after the show). I wish I could say more, but the fact that they played ‘The Old Haunt’, one of my favourite songs from the band, made me really, really happy!
After a needed break and refreshment at the ice cream parlour nearby, I went back to the venue to enjoy the whirlwind that Von Hertzen Brothers can create on stage. I had seen the band before at ProgPower Europe 2022 and I sort of knew what was coming. Though it is not your “every day prog rock band”, they’re more like a pop band that went prog. Highly regarded and well known in their native country Finland, the 3 fronting brothers plus drummer and keyboard player are a force to reckon.
Their latest album “Red Alert in the Blue Forest” is a beauty, and their live show was as full of energy as if it was their first show ever. Though it mainly was the same musical experience I had at PPE some months before, the magic was a bit higher maybe because of the string of dedicated fans that arrived from Finland and were up front singing along, jumping and hailing their favourite band, it was contagious, the music was contagious, and the joy spread through the complete rows of seats as the air cooled down with the sun disappearing behind the trees.
As the air finally cooled down, it was as well time to lower the energy a bit with Airbag on stage. The last Norwegian band on the bill and acclaimed among the best prog rock / art-rock in the scene, and a kind of supergroup as well, lead by Bjørn Riis who has become a prog legend on his own. The calm and polished music was a blessing for the tired audience, though the music as well has its heavier moments, it is based on emotional vocal lines and guitar solos superbly and passionately executed by Riis and accompanying live guitarist, none other than Ole Michael Bjørndal, known for his project Caligonaut whose debut album “Magnified as Giants” is pure beauty from start to finish.
The band was completed by singer Asle Tostrup, drummer Henrik Bergan Fossum and as guest on the bass was Kristian Karl Hultgren from Wobbler! The band had a lot of fans in the audience enjoying every second of the superb show, which finished with the epic 17-minute long ‘Homesick’, a real treat for everyone! Airbag delivered a show to remember, a show I enjoyed thoroughly and surprisingly became one of my favourite of the festival.
And finally it was the turn for the absolute headliners of this edition, the mighty Riverside. It has been a joy to follow this band from their humble beginnings when I discovered their music back in 2003 with their debut album “Out of Myself”, until today, filling up big stages and headlining the most important prog festivals. The quality of their shows is a given, some of the songs you know they will play live, even if their music has changed a bit, while maintaining their own signature sound, on a live show you know they’re going to come back to some of their darkest music. Hence why Mariusz Duda jokes a bit about it during the show, but I think after the understandable and much needed change of direction, the jokes about the musical change are becoming a little too much. Riverside produce amazing music, and it is their natural right to evolve to whatever style they need to, so I think personally, there’s no need for the band to joke or sort of apologize about it. Some will always like more “this or that” album or style. BUT, I have to admit that I did laugh out loud with the jokes about +45 year-old men in the audience, and of course “Dark Mariusz” conducting the audience superbly in a series of “silent screams”. Perfect!
Back to the music: What can I say about a Riverside show that has not been said before? Difficult task. The Poles have reached stardom level in the Prog Universe, and with every show I attend, I witness a level of perfection on stage unmatched by others. Not only everything is flawlessly prepared, sound is just perfect, even with the booming bass sound and effects from Duda or the matching hammering from Piotr Kozieradzki’s drums. Guitars and synths are always in perfect harmony and levelled with everything else. It is hard to find a band that manages so well to have crystal clear live sound on each instrument plus vocals.
The light show was simple but elegant and well synchronized with the music and even the antics on stage from Duda and Maciej Meller as well as the euphoria Michał Łapaj displays behind his set of keyboards (of course with tiny George the Bird always present!). Riverside are worthy headliners on any festival, and here no less delivered the best closing possible for an already superb edition packed with incredible performances.
I had heard very positive reviews and comments from friends about Midsummer Prog Festival, that’s why we were eager to visit it at least once. I’m very happy we managed to do it this year, and surely it won’t be the last one. This edition was superb, perfect in many aspects if it wasn’t for the hot weather, but there’s nothing that can be said against the organization (maybe about the catering, to have more options, or more available of the options since the food sold out right after we could manage to grab the last burgers without buns already.)
The 2023 edition was sold out, while the early-bird pre-sale for next year’s edition started on the same Saturday of the festival and it was sold out already by the end of the day (300 tickets if I’m not wrong). The Festival has started to announce the 2024 edition line-up starting with the headliners: Steve Rothery Band and Karnivool! Follow them to receive updates and grab your tickets while you can as I’m sure you will have an amazing experience at the Open Air Theater in Valkenburg. I hope we’ll see you there!