ProgPower USA – Girl Power! And Some Prog

September 17, 2018, a month ago

Mark Gromen

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The spice might not be what everyone really, really wants, but by coincidence, rather than trying to make a purposeful statement, the annual four-day Atlanta confab was flavored by a few legendary ladies, as well as rising newcomers. For years, the metal genre's been bemoaned, by outsiders, for being a boy’s club. Yet, for nearly two decades now, many of the biggest new artists (and surely some of the most exciting) have featured females. More than a third of the twenty bands gracing Center Stage fit that bill. Doubtful you'll find a more enlightened percentage, unless it's an event specifically catering to the fairer sex. Only Day 3 lacked onstage estrogen. The remaining evenings saw a woman atop the bill, or damn near, including Voyager (with guitarist Simone Dow), Doro, Tarja and don't forget about Ida Haukland (bass/vocals for Triosphere), ex-The Gathering vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen's latest creature, Vuur, Cammie Gilbert (vocals, Oceans Of Slumber) and former Eluveitie singer/hurdy-gurdy player Anna Murphy's new project, Cellar Darling. As the old cigarette ad used to say, "You've come a long way, baby!"

While the event itself continues to be a model for other North American festivals to emulate, fear the venue, Center Stage and their current management are taking ProgPower, and its fans for granted. Sure, they finally bought a new curtain (after a decade with one bearing a logo, long since defunct), added a fresh coat of paint to the walls (including a fancy logo, which also adorns commemorative shirts & bags for sale) and the wood panel bars are well lit. Shame they aren't well stocked (at least with beer) and the drop ceiling scaffolding has remained open/unfinished (duct work and electricity conduits visible) for more than two years now. But most disturbing to a vast portion of the thousand or so folks in attendance, was the beer. Metal = beer. So how do you run out on the first night and not replace? Blatant disregard! We've been coming to this place for the last 18 years.

Even the employees were bemoaning the lack of choices and management's refusal to restock (more concerns with an outdoor gig, elsewhere in the city, or so I'm told). Bud Light, PBR and five Terrapin (local micro) were the options. Many a beer snob in the crowd, but drinking hopped up hi-test (or switching to potent mixed drinks) is not for a multi-day, 10+ hour/day fest. Switching to the lone cider available, soon turned fruitless, as that too was diminished by Friday afternoon. Not sure how much the venue receives in a kickback from the Terrapin brewery, but people (including organizer Glenn Harveston) are dropping some serious coin this weekend and should have more friendly choices. Wisely, the promoter provided bands onstage and backstage guests with smooth drinking Yuengling. Glenn always has everyone's best interests in mind (and taste buds, apparently). Maybe next year will be a little more beer drinker friendly. 

The city of Atlanta continues to grow. Many of the establishments (Subway, Dominos, etc) that fest goers relied on, many moons ago, when we first descended on the city, have been replaced by residential high rises. My morning walk, from the Artmore to near the Braves' baseball stadium was constantly interrupted by entire blocks of sidewalk roped off for some construction project. This year, electric scooters and mopeds sat idle, ever couple of streets, yours for the rental, via smart phone. Bond to be even more changes by next year.

THURSDAY
After a half day of work and flight, saw only the end of Oceans Of Slumber, having long been friends with Nick Douglas (Bass) and Johnny Dee (drums), as well as repeatedly having met Ms. Pesch herself, seeing Doro was the day's main motivation. Apart from the aforementioned, this was not the band I saw, either time, in Germany, within the last month. Billy Hudson had been drafted, at the last minute, to cover for Chris Caffery and former Warlock guitarist Tommy Bolan was there in place of Bas Maas. The whole show was confirmed on just a couple weeks' notice. That said, it was the bulk of the Euro festival set, cut down to 65 minutes. Opening with the one-two punch of "Earthshaker Rock" and "I Rule The Ruins", they quickly served notice this was going to be high energy. Old school "Burning The Witches" did nothing to change that.

Doro mentioned she played the same venue (under different name), back in '88, with Megadeth & Sanctuary. She dedicated "Raise Your Fist In The Air" to recently departed singer Warrel Dane (also ex-Nevermore). Bolan's histrionics kicked off "East Meets West", the bearded string bender never met a camera he didn't like: guitar god poses at the ready. Under cover of strobes, Dee bashed out the start to speedster "Bastardos" one of a pair aired off the new Forever Warriors. Bolan bangs his head like a mad man. A pink lit "Für Immer" was the lone let-up, to this point, giving everyone onstage a chance to catch their collective breath, as both Douglas and Hudson trade in their usual instruments, for dueling keyboards. Might be the only moment Douglas was motionless, unable to jump about. Using fuzzy mallets on the cymbals, Dee got the crowd to rhythmically clap, before the "whoa whoa" sing-along.

The acceptance of "We Are The Metalheads", the Wacken hymn (a place maybe 1% of this crowd has personally visited), shows the power of the Internet. Fittingly, it was headbanging across the stage Still, would have preferred something like "Metal Racer", but that's just me. Following "All For Metal", Hudson starts the "Breaking The Law" solo, the rest join later. Flipping her hair, Doro is like a maestro, hands outstretched, seemingly conducting the fan reaction below her. "All We Are" sees Bolan drop to his knees, then bend over backwards. Unlike Spinal Tap, he was able to get back up, on his own. There were a bunch of options at the bottom of the setlist (as there usually are, the guys in her band need to be ready, should she call out any of about 40 tunes, although fewer this go-round, considering the last-minute nature of the line-up). Time constraints, some of the suggestions offered by the crowd, Doro deemed "too long", finally settling on a red lit "Hellbound" closer. 

In advance of arriving in ATL, it was decided Angra would play the new Omni alum, in its entirety, as well as handful of fan chosen favorites. It was not, however, specified when the full run through would occur. Some only moderately interested fans expected it straight off the top and thus missed a trio of goodies: "Newborn Me", "Angels And Demons" (Rafael Bittencourt with two guitars, to start) plus "Acid Rain". There's a lot of pre-recorded audio accompaniment with Angra, to flush out their rich (on record) song. Curly haired frontman Fabio Lione has an expressive face and was the lone point of movement onstage. Periodically checked back inside the amphitheater, between bouts of socializing/saying goodbye to members of Doro. At one point, Seven Spires (an 11th hour replacement last year) singer Adrienne Cowan joined Lione on tinkling ivories begun "Black Widow's Web", After a couple of initial microphone mishaps, she was able to unleash her growl. Not to be outdone, Bittencourt sang "The Bottom Of My Soul" and in duet with Doro for "Crushing Room", which closed the proper set. The guitarist reprised his second guitar, to begin/end the encore introducing "Rebirth". Always great to hear the Andre Matos era "Carry On". The two guitarists square off, face-to-face, to start the song that initially got so many into Angra.

More photos: Day 2.

FRIDAY
Manimal are a high pitched vocal, straight ahead metal outfit from Sweden. These raccoon/Hambergular eye make-up wearers are not to be confused with the three decades running Cleveland, Ohio based The Manimals led by Larry The Wolf. Coming in, knew almost nothing of the band. It's impossible to listen to everything, what with nearly 100 solicitations a day, for new music. Unlike most ProgPower attendees (who feast all year on the recordings of those they'll see the coming September), I often prefer a clean slate (no preconceived notions about a band's music) and let each act win/fail on the merits of the live set. In my book, Manimal are ones to investigate further. Opening with "Black Plague" the one guitar foursome were visibly surprised by the recognition/reaction to their music (a sentiment confirmed a day later, in conversation with frontman Samuel Nyman). Another early impression-maker was "Trapped In The Shadows", the title track to their second album. Given the response, as an opener, can foresee a future return, a slot or two up the runinng order.  

Sticking with Sweden, Bloodbound were up next, a power metal outfit first witnessed at the '17 Bang Your Head warm-up show. They were making their US debut and after "War Of Dragons" devil horned singer Patrick Johansson (not the more well known, Astral Doors singer Nils Patrik Johansson: Have a feeling one could get rich if remunerated for all the Patrik Johansson's in Sweden!) admitted, "Don't know anything about American metalheads," but by the end of their set (and sure the next day, in conversation by the bar) he'd come to love at least this subset. Red lit "The Name Of Metal" leads into a more mid-tempo "Stormborn", complete with pre-recorded intro, where Johansson points towards the crowd, to get fists thrusting. Four part vocals harmony on strobe laden "Majoria", which sees three in front of the drum riser. 

Upbeat begun "Nightmares From The Grave" utilizes a children's choir, whereas the lyrics to "Metalheads Unite" spells out M.E.T.A.L., plus plenty of Teutonic "whoa whoa" chants. While the singer continuously referred to American Metalheads, really not sure how many attendees truly identify as such. A speedy "Dragons Of Forever" sees guitarist Tomas Olsson alone, at the front of the stage, while Johansson suddenly appears behind drummer Daniel Sjögren. During the energetic, crimson hued "Nosferatu", Johansson genuflects, as horned, robed creature walks onto the stage, the crowd singing the accompanying "in the dark" lyric.

Alongside countrymen Rhapsody, Labyrinth were the pinnacle of Italian metal, adding a vitality and musicianship long thought dead in the vast wasteland of Nineties music. Fortunes, popularity (and sounds) often change, but a classic album (by its very designation) is timeless. Witness Return To Heaven Denied. Great to celebrate a 20 year old album, as long as you're not still stuck there and haven't moved on. There's been some amazing albums in the last two decades and ProgPower looks to laud those as well. Leaping, almost gymnastic singer Robert Tiranti (aka Ron Tyrant) was clearly thrilled to be onstage. Given the nature of the project, the keyboardist did more headbanging than playing, much of the set. Shame Angra frontman Fabio Lione (who sang on the initial Labyrinth releases under the name Joe Terry) had moved on to Florida, as there might have been time for a collaboration or two. "State Of Grace" and "Heaven Denied" still are standout cuts. Tiranti would blow kisses to the crowd and say "God Bless America" on more than one occasion. A bass driven instrumental segues into "Time After Time'. A fan provided the singer with a flag, adorned with the album artwork, which Tiranti wrapped around his shoulders, like a cape. A gritty "Falling Rain" ends as a stomp. 

Redemption have been part of ProgPower on three previous occasions, but have never given them much of a chance. However, the recruitment of Evergrey frontman Tom Englund made me listen to more Redemption than ever before. In a jacket that belied the 90 degree temps outside, Englund survived any initial nervousness ("Don't think I've been this nervous in all my life," he confirmed from the stage. Next day, he confided that after three songs, he forgot about the self-consciousness). Not bad for just his second show out front. Still, strange to see him minus his usual guitar. The band were not only filming a DVD with Patric Ullaeus (special guests to follow), but utilized a video wall, behind them, to augment the live performance with random astral projections and otherworldly images, previous band videos, etc. Great improvement for an otherwise, heretofore stationary/stoic group. During "Damaged" the Art Of Loss artwork, featuring spilled wine glass, shone behind the band, then a lyric video. Speaking of coordinated images, "Someone Else's Problem" was accompanied by a promotional vid, featuring the band playing in the desert, juxtaposed with the tale of some rich chicks. Got to be sort of surreal to sing and look behind, only to see yourself on the same track, in pre-recorded form.  

As if to confirm this wasn't some fly by night arrangement, Englund added, "Nick (van Dyk, guitar) and I met at the first ProgPower, in Chicago. Some of you weren't even born." Loosening up, he later inquired, "How many people have the new album," before quipping, "Guess who doesn't have one? Me. Thanks Nick! Knew being a musician means lousy pay, but guess I'll have to buy one." Following the moody Long Night's Journey Into Day title track (ethereal blue screen and as the song increases intensity, the lighting turns red and geometric shapes appear onscreen), from said disc, the band brought out former singer Ray Alder (Fates Warning) for "Threads". That alone would have been enough, but then former Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland was introduced. He stuck around for two songs ("Indulge In Color" and a cover of "Peace Sells"). The latter featured a backdrop mimicking the classic thrash album, but w/ Redemption replacing the Megadeth logo. Cool move.

Joey Tafolla's Out Of The Sun, Mind's Eye, by Vinnie Moore, Marty (Dragon's Kiss) Friedman & Jason (Perpetual Burn) Becker, separate or together in Cacophony, there are some of my favorite instrumental releases, along with other ‘80s Shrapnel albums. So the idea of musicality, with minimal (no) lyrics, is not foreign to the ears. However, not in some loge box seat at the orchestra, but standing (probably with beer in hand), in front of a mountain of PA speakers, for the live setting, I usually need something more. Let's rock! 

Bluebeard The Drummer aka Mike Portnoy had other ideas though, as Bumblefoot and Billy Sheehan took out double neck guitar and bass, respectively. Visions of ‘70s Rush, with all the fretboards! Hadn't photographed Billy since he was wearing a fox tail and singing for Talas. "God Of The Sun" was a double, double neck wank. The "Pink Panther Theme" led into the lengthy Opus Maximus instrumental. Between Dream Theater nuggets like "Just Let Me Breathe" and "Lines In The Sand, for people like myself (I'm guessing), they threw in musical signposts, a bit of Queen and Van Halen ("Cradle Will Rock", along with Derek Sherinian's "Eruption", on keyboards).

Additional photos: Day 3.

SATURDAY
Triosphere frontwoman/bassist Ida Haukland first gave me her debut CD, over a decade ago, when she was visiting a German festival with a bunch of Norwegians industry folk and I've been lucky enough to see the band on two prior occasions. Beginning with a hard charging "My Fortress", the diminutive lady headbanged (often swooshing her hair from side-to-side) throughout the performance. Not sure if the LD (lighting director) knew where anything other than the "blue" button was, during the first half of the show (eventually adding green and red to the mix), no matter, Haukland was just happy to be on US soil, for the first time. "We've been waiting to play here," she practically squealed after "Breathless", which saw fans clapping along, unprovoked. While the room was pretty empty to start, practically full as they wrapped it up. At their most melodic, her voice recalls the tuneful commercialism of the most aggro Heart material (think "Barracuda" or "Crazy On You"). They broke for a wedding proposal in the crowd, prior to a green lit "Sunriser". "Driven" gave way to the guitar opening "Worlds Apart". A strong kickoff to the final day, leaving a good taste in everyone's mouth.

Third time in about 13 months, seeing Eclipse, although this would be a little different than just the show, a month before, overseas. Bundle of energy, Erik Mårtensson runs side-to-side, always returning to his red mic stand, center stage. The likes of infectious "Never Look Back" are the offspring of high energy ‘80s party rock and typically the Swedes go there, full bore, but not today. While they rock, the extended, laidback acoustic mid-section (at the expense of two un-played tracks, due to time restrictions) makes for a subdued vibe. Mårtensson apes Coverdale's phallic use of the mic stand and eventually removes his band logo adorned leather jacket and straps on a guitar, for "Jaded". Drummer Philip Crusner is an octopus, spinning sticks as he plays, delivering hits from around his head, hair flailing and singing along. Slower newbie "Hurt" is followed by an acoustic rendition of "Battlegrounds", minus drums and bass, who actually exit the stage. There's an almost Celtic feel. The crowd offers up "whoa whoa" and claps along participation. Mårtensson had everyone sing "Happy Birthday" to his twelve year old son Leo, via live streaming cellphone .For at least the third time, Mårtensson says they'll play one of his favorites from the new album (at this point, "Downfall Of Eden"), then adds, "I always say, 'Let's play one of my favorites from the latest album.' I have a lot of favorites. If they weren't, they wouldn't have appeared on the album." Can't fight that logic. It's back to rocking out, with "Blood Enemies", before "Black Rain" brings it to a premature close (the handwritten setlist having originally included "I Don't Wanna Say" and "Runaways" finale). Maybe next time, as the response warrants a return.

Next year, VUUR founder/vocalist/guitarist Anneke van Giersbergen will celebrate 25 years onstage. Originally with The Gathering, she's gone on to collaborate with countless musicians and seems to form a new group almost annually. Creative dynamo! Half acoustic, half electric, Anneke sampled from many of her endeavors. Situated center stage, with red Angus Young guitar, after "Time", she went into the slow, heavy plod of "On Most Surfaces". For "The Storm" a song she played at ProgPower, back in '16, with The Gentle Storm, van Giersbergen lost the guitar. In fact, it was just the first of a trio of non-VUUR tunes previously aired in Atlanta, alongside "Fallout" (from her work with Devin Townsend, another festival alumni) and "Valley Of The Queens" (Aryeon). Adopting an acoustic, she was still and virtually alone for highlights like "Saturine" and the closing gathering classic, "Strange Machines".

Sixth time seeing Alestorm, since the end of January. The two of us were, seemingly, at every summer festival together and while I could predict a vast majority of what would be played next, this was by far, their longest set. Plenty of plastic swords and pirate garb, the last day of the fest has turned into something of a mini cos-play event anyway. In fact, there was one gent with entire Captain Morgan get-up: tri-corner hat, curly black wig, frilly shirt/cuffs and plush red waistcoat. "Keelhauled" basically explodes, the room is full of anticipation and pent up energy. Keytar toting singer Chris Bowes (who played earlier in the week, with Gloryhammer) is replete in the now standard flip-flops, ball cap, kilt and Gay Dolphin t-shirt. For a relatively small indoor space, was surprised to see the inflatable rubber duck onstage. Whether they'd launch it into the crowd (as per usual) would remain a mystery, but not without a plot twist. The signature tune, then "Magnetic North" had Bowes kicking up a storm (quite literally kicking, too high to prevent revealing he's not a kilt wearing traditionalist, thank God!), with a bit of disco dancing. "Mexico" is more of the lighthearted same, peppered by the frontman non sequitur, sometimes ribald, banter. Following "Shipwrecked", the stage goes black and the crowd chants "Alestorm!" even though that one was played long ago. I kid! So upon their return to the stage, they unleash "Drink", with its truthful, single-minded message ("We are here to drink your beer!") as well as the yellow duckie, who will tumble atop those down front (and nearly make it into the seats), until...it was ripped to shreds, at Bowes insistence! Can imagine pieces ending up, as souvenirs, on Ebay. They closed with the song that got them booked, promoter loving "Fucked With An Anchor", Harveston standing in the photo pit with a Cheshire grin.

Tarja defied gravity on two fronts. The first were her wobbly, can barely walk-in stiletto heeled shoe/boots that went with the studded bustier she initially wore (she changed costumes throughout the performance). Speaking of which, I first met Tarja almost 15 years ago and was lucky enough to see repeated performances on her final North American Nightwish trek, hitching a ride aboard the tour bus. Not sure whether it's solely due to the birth of her daughter, or maybe surgical augmentation, since going solo, but working in said bustier, arms waving all over the place, was "precarious". 

The band: guitar, bass, drums and both keyboard and cello players, take the stage. Tarja arrives a few seconds later (greeted by a friendly roar), as the first few notes of "No Bitter End" emanate from the speakers. An electric fan blows her hair around. There's initially a funky Primus vibe to "Demons In You". She dons a spiky black sequined crown for the trilling "Diva", surely a jab at her (falsely) perceived icy reputation. Best known for her connection to her former employer, as a solo artist, Nightwish music was minimal and reserved for a medley, only in the final third of the show. Let’s her hair down, figuratively and literally for the aforementioned medley, which is predominately "Ever Dream", and a bit of "Slaying The Dreamer", as the singer punches the air and throws the horns. An amazing voice, her performance was blunted by the preceding maelstrom and a late start on the final night of a four day endurance test. Shame.

The 2019 line-up has already been announced, headlined by Demons & Wizards. Let's meet in Atlanta!

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