A Spañerd Goes to Be Prog! My Friend 2017
A few weeks ago I unleashed my inner nerd (or innerd) a bit more than usual while attending an intimate-ish Prog Rock and Metal festival in Barcelona. How long did it take me to achieve my Honorary Dad Sandals? Find out below!
Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve
played the silver ball been exposed to classic Prog. My dad is a huge fan of bands like Yes, ELP and Genesis, so naturally I gravitated towards Rush, Dream Theater and Opeth when I started traversing down the metal hole. I like self-indulgent progressive music and I like metal festivals, so when I first heard of Be Prog! My Friend festival two years ago, I knew I had to go. So of course, I didn’t. And didn’t again the following year. But I finally managed to convince two other poor souls (my mom and brother) to journey with me on this most uncool quest, so it was ON. In weird time signatures, obviously.
A sunny, but not blisteringly hot day in Barcelona’s picturesque Poble Espanyol seemed the perfect backdrop for a few days of music, which proved to be true once Caligula’s Horse took the stage. The Australians played quite a few songs I was familiar with from 2015’s Bloom as well as some older material, and were as tight as the skin around a bite wound from one of those millions of poisonous beings from their homeland. They have a new album coming out soon, check them out for some great Prog Metal in the more traditional vein.
“Are you being Prog? And are you being friends?”, asked Tosin Abasi while taking a break from shredding right through my frontal lobe. Animals as Leaders turned up the midrange as the sun was hitting them square in the face, and still managed to plow through their set with grace and technical wizardry, leaving the crowed equal parts puzzled and satisfied. The set ranged from newer songs off The Madness of Many to classics like “CAFO” and my personal favorite, “Wave of Babies”. At one point Abasi even pulled out a classical guitar and ripped it up (figuratively) like I’ve never seen anyone do. Even if you think you don’t like AAL, they get the crowd moving live.
Next up was a moment I was cautiously optimistic about: Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress. For the non-initiated: Mike Portnoy was Dream Theater’s drummer since he co-founded the band in the 80s until his departure in 2010, after which he’s expressed his regret over not being able to perform his “Twelve-Step Suite” (a string of five songs dealing with his alcoholism written over almost 8 years) live in its entirety with the band. Fast-forward to his 50th birthday, and Portnoy has recruited the prog studs in Haken and master shredder Eric Gillette to serve as his band to do just that: perform the Suite and a selection of other Dream Theater songs to his fans’ delight. And boy, a delight it was.
The band opened with the first few movements of Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory, and from the get-go it was evident that Portnoy has chosen the right musicians for the job. Despite me singing every song at the top of my lungs, I could hear Portnoy’s signature fills, Ross Jennings not singing a single note off key, Diego Tejeda deliver ripping keyboard solos, Gillette replicating each of John Petrucci‘s complex solos note for note with the exact amount of emotion (and singing lead on a few tracks!), and the rest of the rhythm section playing the riffs like they wrote them themselves. It was pretty cathartic getting to finally hear these songs that have been a very important part of my life in a live setting, and I know it isn’t a competition but if it were… I saw Dream Theater this year and it wouldn’t even be a close race (sorry). Amazing set for any major DT dork.
After such a high-energy experience it was time to wind down with some Marillion. It’s funny, I’ve heard this band’s name A LOT in prog circles (they’ve been around since the 80s), but have never actually gotten around to checking them out. They seemed really interesting, with a very theatrical vocal performance from vocalist Steve Hogarth, great sound and intricate instrumentation. But not knowing any of their songs in a festival setting made their more subdued style a bit underwhelming to my ears (my brother used the term “Diet Queensrÿche“). I definitely want to check them out even more after seeing them, it’s just that now I really wish I had before the show.
And so, the last show rolled along: a late night set from Ulver. I’m mostly familiar with the band’s early black metal recordings, but also really enjoyed this year’s basically synthpop The Assassination of Julius Caesar. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, and then it ended up being a drummer and three dudes with laptops, sitting in the dark. At 1AM. After 8 hours of music. It was a bit much for me to handle, especailly considering I was (naively) hoping to see a guitar and amp or two. Their laser light show was cool and it sounded good, but the combination of everything was making me sleepy so I didn’t stay until the end. Sorry guys, maybe next time.
The sun hid behind the clouds on a wonderful Saturday to not suffocate fellow Spaniards Jardín de la Croix. I’d heard their name tossed around quite a bit and even checked out 2016’s Circadia, but as an instrumental band they shine tenfold in a live setting. They were seriously intense, shifting sonic pallettes and creating exciting crescendos that exploded with energy at their peak. Lots of guitar tapping and changes in feel (paired with moving erratically around the stage), but always with a sense of melody and structure. Very cool band worth checking out for any fan of instrumental/emotional music.
I’m not an enormous Devin Townsend fan, but he’s always seemed to be an immensely cool dude and I’d been pre-gaming Ocean Machine all month, so I was psyched to see the Devin Townsend Project perform said album in its entirety to commemorate its 20th anniversary. The band took the stage, and right away things seemed to be not 100% on the technological side of things. After a few minor mishaps (faulty monitors and radio packs), it appeared as if the problem was something bigger. What could have turned into 15 minutes of pure tediousness caused by a faulty and/or unwilling sentient laptop was instead 15 minutes of some of the funniest improv standup I’ve seen. Someone actually got the whole thing on video, so I’m not going to spoil any of it and let you enjoy it for yourselves:
After that, the actual set was highly enjoyable (if not nearly as hilarious). The band replicated the feel of Ocean Machine perfectly, with Devin delivering the most flawless vocal performance of the whole weekend. It’s a shame that, due to the technical issues at the beginning of their slot, they weren’t able to play any encores, but it was a worthwhile experience anyway. Bonus points for selling shirts that read “Lower-Mid-Tier Prog Metal” on the back. Gotta love this dude.
Much like Marillion the first day, Anathema were the designated “chill” band on Saturday. I’m more familiar with the band’s death/doom leanings than the prog rock/metal ones, so again, maybe this wasn’t the ideal setting for me to be exposed to them at. They were entertaining, had funny between song banter and (despite a few persistent technical issues) sounded very well-rounded. Despite having a hard time staying focused on their, I saw a lot of people in the crowd having genuine emotional moments, and that’s what I would like to take away from their set. Like with Marillion, I look forward to diving into Anathema’s discography in the near future.
The show my inner Dad was the most pumped about was Jethro Tull. In case you misread that: JETHRO. TULL. I’ve been listening to the legendary band since I was in diapers, and their music has been the soundtrack to maaaany a family car trip. Not quite a reunion, the lineup for this show was essentially founder/main composer/frontman/flautist Ian Anderson and his backing solo band made up of killer (and mostly younger) musicians. They played an assortment of Tull classics, the height of which was undoubtedly an abridged version of the epic “Thick as a Brick”. It was a very emotional set for my mom in particular, who finally got to see them after narrowly missing them in the 70s. Anderson was very energetic on stage (wikipedia tells me he’s turning 70 in less than a month) and generally worked up the crowd, which was good because his vocal performance was… a lot less than ideal. Still a very cool, well-performed show all around.
After everything, here was my most anticipated set of the weekend: Leprous, promising to play a career-spanning set with older songs the band rarely plays nowadays. And they did. And it was GLORIOUS. The setlist included some choice cuts from modern classic Bilateral (“Forced Entry”, “Restless” and “Mb. Indifferentia”) a few drone-y numbers from the plodding Coal (“The Valley”, “The Cloak”, “Echo” and “Contaminate Me”) and even “Passing” from Tall Poppy Syndrome. Notable was the live debut of new single “From the Flame”, which I have to admit sounded about 10 times better and more dynamic than the recorded version.
It was a really fun, high-energy show (with flawless performances and mix to boot) that everyone in the crowd was waaaaay into and that I belted out joyfully to. A great way to end the weekend if I must say so myself, but don’t take my word for it; Martin Mendez from Opeth was there and seemed to be enjoying himself, surrounded by nerds donning shirts with his band on it whilst completely oblivious to his presence (thanks for letting me talk awkwardly at you for about 20 seconds Martin, it meant a lot).
So that was that! Be Prog 2017 was a ton of fun, and I strongly recommend going if you can afford it and you like at least one band on the bill. Mostly full-length sets, great atmosphere, nice crowd, amazing sound… I’ll be back in 2018 if I can, for sure. Cap, sandals and all.