ProgPower Europe 2016
The 18th annual ProgPower Europe Festival was held from the 29th of September until the 2nd of October in the tiny village of Baarlo in Limburg, that is a southern province of the Netherlands close to the german border. Despite going strong and steady for years now and ongoing success within the worldwide Prog Metal scene, the organizers decided to keep it down to a fairly reasonable size. The venue is nothing else than the local youth centre, called Sjiwa, were around 500 people fit and the mighty ProgPower Europe (PPE in short) triumvirat consisting of René Janssen, Martijn Balsters and Christian Radermaker managed to find the perfect headliners (at least during the 8 years I’ve visited) to fill it, occasionally also selling out one evening. So quality goes over quantity here, booking bands bigger than that would mean they had to relocate the festival to a bigger venue (probably even another city) and that would mean the festival would lose a big part of its flair, atmosphere and identity. And that is, together with top notch progressive sounds from all around the world, the core of the festival.
A big part of this unique atmosphere has to do with the regular visitors from all around the world, known as the ‘PPE Family’, and rightfully so. I have to admit it, I’m a little bit biased here, because I am a part of it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. But that part of ProgPower is worth a whole book on it’s own (which is actually in the making) so we will turn our attention to another big aspect for the atmosphere at PPE, namely the Kasteel de Berckt, were most visitiors AND most bands stay and meet up in the castle courtyard in the morning before going to Sjiwa and late at night upon returning after the last band of the day (and a subsequent first after party in the Sjiwa basement) for a merry so-called ‘after after party’ around a bonfire.
And that is also where the first band played in 2016. Well, not the castle courtyard, but the castle chapel. All those who arrived upon thursday evening already had the chance to see the live debut of a new dutch band called Dreamwalkers Inc. Led by vocalist Tom de Wit, they delivered a very solid semi-acoustic performance, mostly comprised of songs from Tom de Wit’s solo albums and the occasional surprise cover here and there. The acoustic arrangements of the original songs worked quite well, I only wished they would have relied more on the acoustic drum kit that was being played lived by a skilled drummer and eradicated the electronic percussions from the background track altogether. The covers though were an entirely different matter. As an avowed Hogarth-era Marillion fan, the Dreamwalkers version of ‘Runaway Girl’ brought the first tears of joy to my eyes as a result of the sheer melancholic beauty presented in both composition and performance, whereas the tears shed during the Tool cover ‘Aenema’ and Tom’s way of announcing it were entirely laughing induced. It was so hilarious and wrong on so many levels because of, well… Reasons! I’m sorry for all those who missed it, there is just no adequate way to describe it. So be sure you don’t miss the pre-party next year! Dreamwalkers Inc. most certainly earned and owned their spot at the pre-party opening the 2016 edition of the ProgPower Europe Festival.
For friday evening, there were two bands on the bill, Subterranean Masquerade from Israel/Norway and Jolly from the United States. First up was a jolly bunch of musicians dressed in oriental fashion, adding a saxophone/flute/percussions player to the traditional rock band set up comprised of drums, bass, keyboards and two guitars. Vocal duties were shared by Kjetil Nordhus (of Green Carnation and Tristania fame), who was in charge of the clean variety of human sounds, whereas Eliran Weizman added his distinctive growls. The two of them may make an unlikely duo optically, but the match of their voices was just perfect, as Eliran managed to sync his grunts perfectly to Kjetil’s warm baritone lead vocals to a startling effect. Subterranean Masquerade offers a wide pallette from Opeth-like atmospheric moods to middle-eastern dancy vibes to the occasional aggressive outburst. What will stay most of their performance however, is definitely going to be the mood they created, which was a cheerful party mood all the way through (quite weird for a band notably influenced by Opeth, huh?). Their enthusiasm and fun on stage was just contagious so they proved a perfect opener on the main stage.
Headliners of the day were the four gentlemen from Jolly, returning only 2 years after their triumphant PPE debut in 2014, where they played their conceptual masterpiece double album “The Audio Guide to Happiness” in it’s entirety. Having missed this much talked about performance, I was looking even more forward to seeing them doing a full headliner set, as the opening slot for the Bigelf tour 1 1/2 years ago, the only time I had the chance to see them before, just provided time for less than 40 minutes of music. So this time I was finally going to be treated with almost two hours worth of their happiness-inducing, catchy-but-not-mellow music. I think my enthusiasm level reached its peak already around the songs ‘Joy’ and ‘Where Everything’s Perfect’ pretty early in the set, even though much Jolly-ness was still to be had.
But not all was merry happiness this evening, and all for the best. ‘As Heard On Tape’, already quite a moving song on tape, errr album, proved to be a real gut-wrenching tearjerker played live, even more so given the introductory speech of drummer Louis Abramson commemorating a dear friend of the Jolly guys, Riverside-guitarist Piotr Grudzinski, who passed away all too sudden earlier this year. A truly moving interjection between all the Jolly-ness going on that evening. Further highlights of the set included the highly danceable ‘Ava’ from their upcoming album “Family” and the sing-along hymn that is “Dust Nation Bleak”. Jolly closed their regular set in grandiose fashion with the closing track from “The Audio Guide to Happiness”, ‘The Grand Utopia’. But they returned with a fierce rendition of ‘The Pattern’ which proved once more, that some Prog Rock bands can sound heavier than the heaviest metal shit. Well, Jolly can anyway. “Congratulations. You are now – happy!”
The saturday started out with what should become one of the big surprises of this year’s line-up for a lot of people. Atmospheres from Belgium filled the Sjiwa with some nice – forgive me the pun – atmospheres this early afternoon. I stepped in only 20 minutes before their set was finished, because I got distracted outside talking to lovely people, and instantly regretted that I missed the first part of the show. The stage was gleaming in a deep blue and the four belgians definitely knew how to build their songs to keep it interesting but not sacrificing the ambient moods, a tag that somehow put me off and lowered my expectations after reading about it, but truly undeserved as I can now confirm. Atmospheres definitely won over many new fans that afternoon.
Well, and now for something completely different, I’d say. The french weirdos of 6:33 probably were the most talked about band in the PPE Facebook group since their announcement and everybody seemed to have high expectations, but I think it’s safe to say that they exceeded them all. Except for one point, but more on that later. Their music is definitely not easy to categorize, since they are jumping between many genres within one song, sometimes even within seconds. A major influence easily to pin-point would be Mr. Bungle, Faith no More and just about anything vocal-acrobat Mike Patton ever released. (Later confirmed by their singer Rorschach, in an informal chat around the bonfire at the Kasteel de Berckt.) Avant-garde and swing leanings are undeniable, though tinged throughout with a distinctive extreme metal fervor.
Quite a carnivalesque affair, ever more present through their creepy costumes, masks and hyperactive, frightening stage antics. Mainly the singer was a sight to behold, extremely charismatic even though his face was hidden behind a mask. The musicians (guitarist, bass player and two keyboarders) provided a tight musical background and seemed to really enjoy the performance as well, as far as one could tell without seeing their faces. However, that brings me to my only point of criticism. And no, it’s not the masks, they are fun and fit excellently with the music. It was the lack of a drummer that carried a feeling of ‘something is missing here’ for me throughout the gig. Just the thought of how breathtaking it would be to see a real drummer play all that crazy shit we could hear from the (programmed) backing track… Ah well, I guess you can’t have it all. A thoroughly entertaining performance from 6:33 nevertheless.
Next up was a band a lot of PPE regulars had waited for years to finally see them on the Sjiwa stage: Distorted Harmony. A bunch of young guys from Israel playing their unique take on melodic prog metal with perfection and enthusiasm. The balance between heavier and softer parts works excellently and how it all comes together, with the technical aspect of prog present throughout but not losing focus on great melodies is just one of a kind. Most notably singer Misha Soukhinin stood out with his brilliant voice and a pitch perfect performance. However, as it happens sometimes when you enjoy the music and the time spent with friends and like-minded people who enjoy it just as much, it was over far too soon. Especially since they still would have had ten minutes playing time when they left the stage. Judging from the massive applause and incessant “we want more” screams, I think it is safe to say that I am not alone in the hope that Distorted Harmony will be back soon. (Or we just invade their own festival, taking place on January 5th 2017 in Tel Aviv. More info here.)
After the diner break it was time for something slightly more brutal with In Mourning from Sweden. Ok, that was quite an understate
ment. Three guitars plus bass and all four stringbenders are growling!?!? Sorry, that was simply too much for me. I did stay for some of it though, as their playing was tight as hell and so was the stage accordingly lit in a burning red, mostly due to the ‘digital’ backdrop displaying the cover artwork of their brand new record aptly titled “Afterglow”. Lots of people seemed to enjoy it though, so I left them to it and made sure to return in time for the long awaited return of Chaos Divine to the Sjiwa stage. Seven years, seven hells! How can time run so fast? And the lads from Australia didn’t age one penny. Their modern take on prog metal changes seamlessly from melodic to brutal as does vocalist David Anderton, switching effortlessly from soaring cleans to merciless growls in a second. Displayed impressively in songs like ‘One Door’, the opener from their breakthrough album “The Human Connection” and a seminal hit in it’s own right (at least as far as I’m concerned), and crowd pleaser back in 2009 as well as in 2016. They owned their long overdue return to Baarlo on the spot.
But as strong as their original material is, those familiar with Chaos Divine were all waiting for one song. Their rendition of Toto’s Über-Hit ‘Africa’, released in 2012 as a single, may not be waived. And they delivered big time to huge success and applause. Closing their set with ‘Landmines’ and ‘Mara’ from their latest album “Colliding Skies”, Chaos Divine presented their new solely melodic approach once more, as they dropped the growls almost altogether for “Colliding Skies”. And rightfully so, as their strength lies in the melodies, so skillfully and emotionally delivered by David Anderton. Oh wait, but the brutal parts in the older songs are awesome as well. And especially the shifts from brutal to melodic. Bugger it all, everything these Aussies touch turns to gold, no matter if old or new, brutal or melodic or both. Chaos Divine should be huge. Chaos Divine should come to Europe more often. Chaos Divine are awesome!
I can’t say anything about the saturday headliners Textures because I was part of a group who sneaked off for a free Agent Fresco midnight show in Tilburg, but we were back at the Kasteel in time for the after after party at the Kasteel around the bonfire and of course there was one more full day of music ahead.
That left only one day of this year’s ProgPower, so a massively hungover and sleep deprived Dario with almost no voice left stumbled into the Sjiwa about halfway through the set of the first Sunday band to the sights of an eerie alien on the dim lit stage and apparently some kind of archaic tribal ritual was going on. Smallman from Bulgaria impressed with intricate Tool-ish rhythms and enchanting vocals. Frontman Cvetan Hadzhiyski enhanced the sound further with traditional woodwinds and bagpipes. Some missed the lack of diversity after a while, but I for one thoroughly enjoyed the gig all the way to the end. Too bad I missed out on getting to the Merch stand in time since they sold out all the CDs they brought very quickly after the show. All the better for them and highly deserved!
Next up were the Italian tech death semi-legends of Sadist and I knew a lot of people were looking forward to their performance. And they delivered everything I’ve expected, good and bad. Instrumentally, the music was much to my liking, massive chops on display, all technicalities performed flawlessly and with seaming ease. Especially guitarist/keyboardist Tommy Talamanca turned a few heads and let some jaws drop with his quite often simultaneous playing of two instruments. At once! However, I find myself still put off when a band doesn’t have clean vocals at all, so it came to no surprise that I was stepping in and out of the venue during their show, in turns marveling at their skills, getting a massive grin from watching my friends enjoying the performance to the fullest and talking to other lovely people outside. All in all I think it’s safe to say that Sadist delivered big time, but they still won’t become the new favorite band of melody addicts like me.
The third Sunday band however was probably my most anticipated of the weekend. Klone fom France returned after 6 years, as they were opening the festival already in 2010, but it was like an entirely different band this time. Yes, from the line-up back then only singer Yann Ligner and guitarist/main songwriter Guillaume Bernard remained. But they developed their sound during those years significantly, and all for the better in my book. Quite aggressive modern groove metal gave way to melody driven, atmospheric rock, culminating in the sheer beauty of their latest album “Here Comes the Sun”. So they played mostly material from this album and the preceding one, “The Dreame
r’s Hideaway”, which already hinted in that direction. The sound at the Sjiwa was close to perfect, one of the best sounding sets I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing there. And the band gave it all – and won! From the goosebumps inducing melodies of the opener ‘Immersion’ and ‘Nebulous’ later in the set, to the headbang heavy modern metal onslaught of ‘Rocket Smoke’ to the psychedelic ‘The Last Experience’, Klone were on fire. And ending the show with a killer cover version of Björk’s ‘Army of Me’ wasn’t too shabby either. Skyrocketed expectations blown through the roof! Merci beaucoup mes amis!
After the last diner break for this year it was time for arguably the most bold booking in the entire history of ProgPower Europe. Nordic Giants from the UK are not merely a band.
They are performance artists and their live shows (or art installations, whatever you want to call it), are a genre-bending sight to behold. Projections with mostly dark and gruesome short films accompany the post rock-ish, piano centered music, played by two musicians in feathery costumes. I will leave the review of this performance to colleagues who have watched the entire show though, as I had to retreat after a couple of songs. It seems as if the combination of music and visuals hit me somewhere deep dark in my subconscious and I was more in the mood for a party and good times full of laughter and happiness. But what I saw left me intrigued and I hope I’ll have the chance to see them again.
Sunday co-headliner Wolverine were no strangers to frequent festival attendees. They played numerous times before, even opening the very first festival all the way back in 1999, so they are almost ‘furniture’, as they say. But, as far as I’m concerned, they could play every year. Despite rarely playing live at all, the Swedes seem to get better and better every time, most notably vocalist Stefan Zell, whose beautifully melancholy melodies stand at the center of their sound. Opening with the rather slow and mellow ‘Our Last Goodbye’ from the new album “Machina Viva” was quite a brave move, but they pulled it off perfectly. Fan favorites like ‘Communication Lost’ and ‘This Cold Heart of Mine’ let the time fly by like in a heartbeat and when they announced the last song, it felt like they just had started five minutes ago. Brilliant show of a brilliant band, and I’m already looking forward to seeing them again at PPE.
Last, but not least, the british melodic prog metal icons Threshold were back after 8 years to finish off the festival with a massive headliner set. And that they did with a bang. There are two ingredients that make a Threshold show great. For one thing that is their huge catalogue of hits, hits and hits, with many a chorus, bridge or even verse for eternity. And then they have one of the biggest entertainers in prog as their frontman. Damian Wilson, blessed with a stellar voice and an impressive return of his beard, was bound to make the whole Sjiwa a big prog party. Needless to say, he succeeded easily and he even paid the spectators on the balcony a surprise visit. So I scratched together my last remaining energy and what was left of my voice, to sing, headbang and jump along to hookline goldmines like ‘The Art of Reason’, ‘Sanity’s End’, ‘Pressure’ or ‘Pilot in the Sky of Dreams’. Final goosebump moments with ‘The Box’. A more upbeat encore with ‘Watchtower on the Moon’ and ‘Ashes’. Downstairs basement after party. After after party around the bonfire in the Kasteel courtyard. And that was it. ProgPower 2016, oh how I enjoyed thee! Is it October 2017 already?