September 8th-11th, 2016
Center Stage Theater, Atlanta, GA
Scratch another one off of the bucket list because I was finally able to go to one of North America's pre-eminent metal events. I've been meaning to attend a ProgPower event for something like a decade but just could figure out the funds, logistics, whatever. I've watched bands come and go that I had every intention of seeing live at this event someday (Zero Hour, I'm especially referring to you), but now I was finally able to make it, and with an incredible lineup of bands this year that admittedly leaned a little heavy onto the 'power' side versus the 'prog,' but I promise you I had no objection.
For those that don't know or who have never looked into going, ProgPower is essentially divided into two, 2-day events. You get a Wednesday-/Thursday-night show, and then you get a Friday/Saturday show, so if you only feel like going to one group of bands versus the other you have the option to buy two different tickets. This year though, unlike previous years from what many patrons informed us, both events were held in the same, main theater area of the Center Stage in midtown Atlanta, as opposed to the first couple nights being in an adjacent bar/stage area in the same complex. The aforementioned tickets are not cheap, but what you get for the money makes it very worthwhile. You get to see a smaller show (mmmmmmaybe a thousand or so in the crowd, the venue is not large), with incredible, underground bands - many playing their first gigs stateside - who you probably will not have a chance to ever see again, truth-be-told. Add to that, there's a chance for some special sets to be announced for the show as well, with bands resurrection classic albums or even classic lineups for the crowd, and this year every. single. band did a signing session for their fans in attendance. Is it a little cost-prohibitive? Maybe, but you get a damn cool experience for your buck.
Wednesday, September 8th, 2016
Australia's Lord was one such band making their first-ever U.S. appearance. The band led by former Dungeon frontman Lord Tim made a glorious racket from the word go and set the tone for pretty much the entire weekend. Blisteringly fast guitar work, and rapid-fire drumming backed a powerful voice bellowing equally powerful vocal melodies. Not being as familiar with the band's work as I realized I should have been, I couldn't begin to tell you what material was performed except to say that it raged on through the 60-minute set and barely let up save for some slight technical issues. As the saying goes, the first band is the test to get the kinks out of the sound. Onward we go...
Taking a turn for the gothic, Dutch powerhouse Stream of Passion lit up the stage with a sound as equally vibrant as the light show. Ironically in keeping with the melancholic, gothic theme, not only was this slated as their first U.S. performance, but also as their last since the announcement of their imminent split after their final round of shows are completed. This particular style - femme-fronted prog-/goth-metal not too far from Epica, Sirenia, and Xandria - isn't necessarily my first choice of what to listen to in my free time, but the band's performance and style was at the very least done well and without losing the METAL focus that some of their peers sometimes go through. One thing of note that I thought was hilariously awesome is that they did a cover of a well-known, near-unlistenable Sonata Arctica song and turned it into something downright incredible! Major kudos for your arrangement skills, sirs and madam!
And now to first all-out progressive band of the weekend, Spock's Beard first had to contend with an hour-plus delay in the setup/soundcheck. Admittedly, there is a lot going on in this band and I'm sure that contributed, but whew it was a relief when they finally made it up there. Once up, there were a few interesting things going on ranging from Ted Leonard's superb multi-instramentalist, frontman role, to Ryo Okumoto's total and complete command of the ivories, to Alan Morse's fingerstyle rock guitar (imagine Lindsay Buckingham really letting loose and jamming in a much more rock setting, and you begin to get an idea). The technical issues plagued much of their set as they had a much broader sense of dynamics than many of the other bands would have the rest of the weekend, and this definitely contributed to an overall lack of enjoyment of what they were doing. I just had this vision in my head the entire time that they were up onstage of the band Toto, getting down to their most jammy, and their most eccentric, but without the incredible songwriting structure. It just tended to drag, and when it took you over an hour to get onstage in the first place, the last thing you should be doing is dragging. That being said, there was definitely some great humor taking place in that theater as the band quipped about how fast the night's headliner played and then drummer Jimmy Keegan attempted to play that fast. At least the band were good sports.
Speaking of the headliner, who do we have but the Guitar Hero-generations darlings, Dragonforce. Many will say this band is tons of schlock and gimmickry with how fast they play, and they would be right. Here's the thing though, Dragonforce have never ever hid that like a dirty secret. They know their shtick is to play insanely fast, make guitarists in the audience cry, do acrobatics, and hit fucking high notes. And they did it incredibly well throughout this greatest hits set of material from throughout their career. Rumors swirled that singer Marc Hudson was so freakishly ill in the days leading up to this performance that original singer ZP Theart was being considered to take his place strictly for this gig, but whatever the rumor mill may have swirled, Marc took the stage and his singing was on point the entire evening. Guitarist Herman Li shred his ass off on his signature Ibanez guitars with a great solo-ending move of bouncing his guitars off of his hip only to land on the next correct chord, and co-guitarist Sam Totman was certainly no slouch on his Ibbys either, raging through his more aggro lead style whilst staying plenty lubricated through the set with strategically placed beers onstage. The occasional acrobatic misstep from Herman or Keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov (who definitely hit the ground HARD after missing the drum riser) were laughed off with utmost professionalism. Every incredible staple of their past live sets was performed (highlight for me, "Valley of the Damned!"), and the only real weak point of their set came from probably the most lackluster metal drum solo I have seen this side of Lars Ulrich's 'Live Shit: Binge & Purge' ego-stroking romp. Oh well, one yawn-inducing moment from an otherwise ridiculously energetic set? we can all sit through that.
Thursday, September 9th, 2016
Ghost Ship Octavius should have been our saviors today. Gloryhammer was the only band that were unable to make the show due to visa issues. GSO came in with barely a moment's notice to ensure a full billing on the second day, and they were supporting a rather good album chock full of gothic-tinged power/prog metal not unlike a weird blend of old Nevermore, old Tad Morose, and Firewind at their slowest. But live it seemed like the material just didn't translate so well. A crying shame, as this supergroup definitely deserves a bigger following, but the lackluster and lethargic set didn't do them any favors.
Thankfully, the following set was destined to be historic. Pyramaze at this point is a near-legendary band with past and current members having pedigrees from across all genres of heavy music. The current lineup with Terje Harøy on lead vocals is already a powerhouse before you add in the fact that Jacob fucking Hansen is their current guitarist (he the metal super-producer/engineer whose credits span all manner of power, prog, death, and thrash metal), but now let's add in the fact that past vocalists Lance King (Nightmare Records, ex-Empire, ex-Balance of Power, among others) and Matt Barlow (Ashes of Area, ex-Iced Earth) also did a handful of songs each and this set was a once-in-a-lifetime show! All vocalists were incredible, the songs are incredibly impactful, and this was the kind of set that sets the bar for the entire ProgPower weekend.
Norway's Circus Maximus is another one of those stalwarts of the ProgPower set. They've played here before, you know they are going to kill it, and the set was incredible. Not far removed from the Dream Theater influence in terms of the riffage, but thankfully far removed the the penchant for long, drawn-out jams. Their set awash in a moody light show, and the performance was professional and tight, and I instantly regretted not knowing enough of their material in the past. Sometimes you see a band kill it so hard it turns you into an instant fan, and that is definitely the effect I had. Will be looking into their output with a bit more focus in the future.
The headliner tonight didn't need to prove anything. Having seen them before I knew full well that Blind Guardian. would not disappoint, but tonight was an exceptional night even for them. The performance opened with some newer material that I was not completely familiar with (but that was still excellent), and then threw in a small handful of fan favorites (including the always enthralling "Into the Storm" and "Time Stands Still" off the incredible "Nightfall in Middle Earth" record) but quickly got down to the business we in the crowd knew they were here to attend to...a full performance of their landmark "Imaginations From the Other Side" album. Start to finish. The 16-year-old me instantly rose up to attention and I suddenly knew all of the words again! From the powerful title track all the way to the anthemic closer "And The Story Ends," this album holds a strong place in my heart and there is really not a bad song on it. Hearing the songs live, you can also tell that this is the forum they were written for, in front of an enthusiastic live audience. It was very apparent that I was not the only one with a strong memory of the lyrics, as the place was consistently erupting for the backing vocals to essentially cover all the million backing tracks that Hansi Kursch records in the studio. Upon completion of those incredible nine songs, we were treated to a handful more of the greatest hits, including the crowd participation anthem "Valhalla" and of course final closer "Mirror, Mirror." They played for around-about two hours, and it just felt so short. The crowd was left wanting more. I could not have been satisfied with even another hour of hits.
Friday, September 10th, 2016
Day one of the main event began interestingly enough. The vendor room opened up where the Evergrey listening party was held the previous day, and there was lots of very cool stuff there. Great representation from some excellent power/classic metal distros for sure, including Nightmare records, the booth helmed by none other than Mr. Lance King, fresh off his frontman duties the day before. Upon finally making it into the venue itself though, first band of the day .Ascendia turned out to be a bit of a confusing band to peg. The sounds was decidedly progressive metal along the lines of Kamelot, very dark, very moody, strong focus on the vibe and melody. And although the music was rather good and the musicians more than capable, I just felt like I was watching some dudes who really wished they were a modern rock band, especially with the imagery.
Australia's Vanishing Point were another band making their stateside debut at this year's festival. Absolutely awesome...definitely in the same school as bands like Angra (minus the traditional Brazilian influence), Voyager, and maybe even Evergrey if they were a little less morose. The music was hook-laden and the players were definitely on point, but a highlight was definitely the vocal stylings of frontman Silvio Massaro. Dude is rockstar incarnate, one of those guys that you can tell totally embodies the metal vocalist persona, and he spent the better part of the set whipping us into a frenzy. Simply put, this band played like they were the headliners...and that's usually what sets apart the professionals from the wannabes. Major kudos.
I'll be the first person to tell you that there is just something special about German power metal. It's crazy, but if you look at virtually that entire scene you just get this idea that these guys enjoy the fact they are in metal bands more than most. Freedom Call definitely fits that bill. Are they the most original? Certainly not, taking a lot of cues from fellow countrymen Helloween, Edguy, and especially from Gamma Ray, which is not surprising considering how many ties they have with the latter. The music is fun, almost - dare I say it - happy! The energy is infectious too! All you needed to do was look at my wife, who admittedly is not the biggest fan of power metal, and she was having a goddamn blast when Freedom Call were on stage, pumping her fist in the air with a giant grin on her face! Omission of the super-catchy (albeit campy) "Hero on Video" from the set was admittedly a disappointment, but other cuts like "Hammer of Gods," "Union of the Strong," and the super anthem "Power & Glory" were met with so much enthusiasm from the crowd...this literally turned into a feel-good party in a big hurry. Bonus: it was very cool to finally see Ramy Ali kick major ass on the drumkit in one of the myriad of cool bands he plays in.
The Gentle Storm, for those that do not know, is essentially a project from Anneke Van Giersbergen and Arjen Anthony Lucassen. It's powerful symphonic metal with a very epic and almost medieval feel to it. Sadly, Arjen never really plays live ever these days, so he wasn't destined to take part in this performance, but a veritable all-star band was assembled with members of Stream of Passion, Ayreon, Leaves Eyes, and more all taking part in this performance. It was breathtaking to hear this material come to life in a live setting...except for the one guitarist. I can't even find any information on the guy online as to who it was, but this guitarist was hitting so many clams you would have thought it was a damn oyster bake. Good news is that he realized it and starting to REALLY fucking focus as the show went on to ensure it didn't happen any further, but the damage was already done to me.
One of my all-time favorite bands that I've never gotten to see, Scar Symmetry took the stage and just laid waste to everything. For a concert that is centered on the progressive and power metal side of things, this was probably as crazy brutal as it gets. The band has had some turnover in the past few years with only two original members remaining (primary songwriter and guitar genius Per Nilsson and the seemingly disinterested Henrik Ohlsson), but the lineup at this point is unmistakably a supergroup. The pedigree of growling vocalist Robert Karlsson alone is enough to make any Swedish death metal fan bow in homage (remember that incredible lone Edge of Sanity album that Dan Swano was NOT on?), but then you factor in guys who have been in Altered Aeon, Theory in Practice, and newest members coming from Bloodshot Dawn and Hypocrisy, and it almost guarantees this band can't lose...even given the occasionally technical issues and Per filling the space with guitar noodling a la the Top Gun soundtrack and Super Mario brothers. The set was all the hits; everything they've made into a video and easily the most memorable tunes from their albums, these guys know how to throw a set together, with set highlight being the incredible "Veil of Illusions" from the debut (that was a shock to hear that in the setlist!), but everything they played both old and new ("The Anomaly" absolutely KILLS in the live setting) really hit tonight.
Finally...we need to talk about something. Although there is definitely something cool and nostalgic about a band playing a classic album in it's entirety (like with Blind Guardian the night previous), that's definitely an experience that can be marred a rough interpretation of what constitutes and album being 'classic.' Such is the case with the set from Fates Warning tonight. Billed as a reunion show of the "Awaken the Guardian" reassembling to play that album front-to-back in it's entirety, the band proceeded to do exactly that. And while the sound quality was incredible, and seeing Frank Aresti completely fucking tear shit up is a real thrill (dude was a total aggro, shred metal guy before it was a popular thing to be), this set suffered from the fact that the "Awaken the Guardian" album is truly NOT a classic. It has not weathered age well, and although a lot of old school stuff took more liberty with the songwriting than the way things are polished and honed in modern times, these songs were so bad I just can't even fathom people listening to that old album, and catching a beat long enough to headbang to it. It just wasn't all that great, and hearing them tonight was just an exercise in hearing crap songs with modern sound quality. Not very enjoyable, not worthy of following Scar Symmetry after their god-tier set, and after about twenty minutes of it the wife and I had enough and bailed.
Saturday, September 11th, 2016
Final day of incredible music and equally incredible pizza from DaVinci's of Midtown just down the street (they also sold pizza at the venue). So let's start the day off right by weaseling our way into the Anneke Van Giersbergen solo acoustic set. Slightly delayed because she was soundchecking for the later set with Devin Townsend (first time the two have performed together in the U.S.), but once she got onstage it actually became very quickly apparent as to why those two have such a long storied history together, as she proceeded to tell more jokes and funny quips than a standup comedian ("He might play guitar better than me, but I have other assets than he doesn't...I have D cups"). In between some of the best onstage banter this side of...well, Devin Townsend...she played a set of mostly covers from the likes of Dolly Parton, Queen, Mr. Mister (her story about "Broken Wings" was hilarious, worthy of Ari Shaffir's "This Is Not Happening" show), U2, and others. Not normally my cup of tea, but it was fun for sure!
Almost out-of-place at this fest, the U.K.'s Savage Messiah have just enough classic-/power-influence amidst their thrashy foundation that the songs really sat well with the crowd. Songs like "All Seeing I" and the John Constantine-inspired "Hellblazer" really hit the spot for people who hold that soft spot for the likes of Rage and old-school Xentrix. Also pleased to hear this band sound substantially better in the live setting than they do on the recordings that they release. I'm sorry, I mean I was pleased to hear vocalist Dave Silver sound substantially better in the live setting than on record. Here onstage he sounded fucking metal! On record, he sounds pre-pubescent.
If justice is served, someday when they talk about the Greatest Metal Vocalists Ever, they will base the conversation on the merits of talent and timbre, and not on record sales. this will mean that Ronnie James Dio will be much revered over Ozzy, and then following shortly behind him will be the likes of Russell Allen, Jorn Lande, Michael Kiske...and then a somewhat unknown Swede by the name of Urban Breed. Listen to the likes of his amazing back catalogue with Bloodbound, Tad Morose, and his newest project, Serious Black, and you will not question his place in the pantheon. This band was absolutely incredible, a true supergroup assembled around Urban's vocal stylings that includes former and current members of Firewind, Rhapsody of Fire, Dreamscape, Blind Guardian, and more. Despite only two albums to their name, the band's music is finely honed, insanely catchy power metal that seems to bridge the gap between Tad Morose, Masterplan, and even Stratovarius. Further, despite how great the tunes all are, there is a very obvious highlight, and that would be set closer "High and Low," off of the debut. This band's set would be one to beat for the remainder of the evening.
Norway's Green Carnation is a band that try as I might in the past, I just couldn't get them. Back then, something so gothic and progressive. In the Woods never really resonated with me, so why should Green Carnation. Now that I'm older...eh, I still got very sleepy from watching them perform, but...and this is a huge BUT...I totally understand the appeal. There is a LOT going on here. Ambient guitar textures, emotive and epic vocals, and every manner of iconic keyboard instrument from a rhodes to a mellotron all weave their way in and out of the heaviness and make for an extremely interesting listen. The type of band that would probably sound incredible on vinyl.
Speaking of vinyl, let's take you back to the era when records were just about the only option, not just a collector's piece. Refuge is a reunion of the classic lineup of Rage, namely Peavy Wagner, a very haggard-looking Manni Schmidt, and Chris Efthemiadis. And they fucking opened with "Solitary Man!!!" So cool! They then proceeded to kill it through those five amazing albums they made together. Remember how amazing "Enough is Enough," "Don't Fear the Winter," and "Invisible Horizons" sounded back in the day? Now throw in modern sound quality and you have arguable the downright HEAVIEST set of the weekend, maybe even over Scar Symmetry the day before.
From the heaviest band of the event, to the band I've gotten in the most fights about online since this show. Fights along the lines of "what the hell are you even talking about bro?!? Haken is fucking awesome and you're an idiot for not thinking so!" Sigh...Haken is a band that I've attempted to get into a few times and while they definitely have some seriously cool moments that usually stem from their love of 8-string guitars and the kind of riffs that seem to always get played on them (yes, there is a little bit of 'Djent' here), this band just bored me to absolute tears. The best way I can describe them...is that it was so mind-numbingly dull that is was suicide-inducing. I've never, ever had that kind of emotion creep up in me while watching a band before, and I've seen a lot of godawful crap in my day (hey Doc...remember the coffeehouse?). I just remember watching them and thinking 'My god, this band is such an enormous, shoegaze-esque fucking ego-stroke of prog-metal that I can't find anything redeeming about it.' Now...to be fair, they DO come off a bit more lively on record. And also, to be fair...they DID play after one of the greatest German speed metal lineups ever, which proved to be rather impossible to follow. But still...if I never have the chance to see them again, I'd be greatly appreciative.
Thankfully, there was one final act that could totally wash away that bad experience. One man and his band of co-conspirators awesome enough to bring me back to my happy place. This is the moment we were waiting for...what brought us to Atlanta in the first place. The Devin Townsend Project is a downright incredible band that plays music that for lack of a better description is deceptively simple when taken from a straight-up rock standpoint, but then you factor in all the complexity of the orchestration, the arrangement, and the sometimes downright crazy and weird melody lines and everything that Devin Townsend and whoever his cohorts might be writes, records, and performs is an EXPERIENCE! As I mentioned earlier, this is the first time that Anneke Van Giersbergen had performed with DTP in the states, and hearing her vocals FOR REAL instead of from a backing track made it all that much more lively. Because she was there, the set definitely contained many songs that she is featured prominently on, and there seemed to be an abundance of tunes from the incredible "Addicted!" and "Epicloud" albums such as "Hyperdrive," "Supercrush," "Kingdom," "Where We Belong," and the tender acoustic ballad "Ih-Ah," which was performed slightly earlier in the set than intend due to technical difficulties, but was still exceptionally enthralling. Of course, Ziltoid fan-favorite "By Your Command" hit us like a brick in the chest, and the monumentally epic "Grace" closed the set, but there is something to be said for a particular song off of the new album which translated just sooooooooo well in the live setting, and that is the very Sonic Syndicate-esque "Offer your Light." I only hope this song becomes a staple of DTP's live performances to come because it just fucking rips! What can possibly match the power of this music? Well, Devin is a goddamn MASTER of onstage banter between songs and always has been. Highlight of the night was when he caught people LEAVING (who the hell does that when he's onstage? Fucking philistines.). His eyes lit up, and he just started yelling "BYE!!! BYE!!! SORRY TO HAVE OFFENDED BY NOT BEING PROGGY OR POWER-EY ENOUGH!!! OH WAIT ! HERE!" and then started to absolutely shred on some tasty guitar licks. "IS THAT PROG ENOUGH FOR YA?!?!?!?!" Oh my god...I was HOWLING in laughter!
Well, like a thief in the night, the whole thing was done. It literally seemed like it came and went. It's not like most concert fests. There's no multi-stage setup...if anything it's like a great concert passage every night for four nights straight, and I left feeling like that was the intention. Just give the crowd a great, well-cobbled-together experience every night and leave them wanting more. Well, to Glenn, Milton, and Nathan and all else who were involved...you did a damn fine job and I thoroughly enjoyed myself! I definitely hope to go back!
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