By Keith Henderson
From Aural Innovations #7 (July 1999)
The proggers came from both near AND far to take in the inaugural North East Art Rock Festival (NEARfest) at the Foy Concert Hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Two full days of skillful musical performances, copious CD/T-shirt merchandising, and meetings with old friends and new acquaintances were enjoyed by all, despite the miserably hot and muggy weather. The potent air conditioning of the adjoining merchandising/cafeteria hall was a popular feature. Too bad it didn't work quite so well in the concert hall itself.
My journey to eastern Pennsylvania, a kind of homecoming for me as I lived there in the late 1980s, took me through my parents' home in State College (home of Penn State U., my alma mater). So early on Saturday morning, I hopped in the tired old jaloppy I use as a 'car' and headed for the Lehigh Valley. Of course, the road crews chose that particular day to close one lane of the main highway, so I arrived half an hour after the opening band took the stage. I had seen Alaska perform at ProgDay '98 in North Carolina, and enjoyed their style of cheerful, melodic progrock, impressed with the versatility of both members. Yep, they're but a duo. Their sound is fully orchestrated though, with John O'Hara contributing bass pedal work while playing various keyboards, and drummer Al Lewis doubling as vocalist. To keep it short... four out of five doctors recommend Alaska for those patients who enjoy Yes. If Lewis got a dime for every time someone mentions he sounds like Jon Anderson, well, you know.... Hand Farm is Scott McGill's project, a fusion guitarist from New Jersey that demonstrated his impressive talent in energetic works reminiscent of Mahavishnu Orchestra (or Alan Holdsworth I'm told). The trio slammed through over an hour of complex and busy compositions, most of which failed to speak to me in any way. "Death by DMV" was the lone tune that I fully appreciated, the rest numbing my brain into either overload or indifference. In fact, I fell asleep on several occasions. (Maybe that was just due to the heat though.) I know that there are all kinds out there, so if you're a fusion freak who enjoys rapid-fire fretwork, perhaps Hand Farm is for you after all.
After a short break, electronics guru Larry Fast (of Synergy) appeared on stage with a lone synthesizer (in the end, just a prop) and a tape machine. As I soon learned, his 'performance' was actually more of a lecture, telling of his experiences in the music profession and how electronics have evolved and shaped progressive music. At the outset, after some matter-of-fact name dropping (accompanied by hoots and hollers from their respective disciples in the crowd), I thought this was going to be quite silly. But soon, as he began to play music samples (in conjunction with still photos projected on a portable screen), Fast managed to really captivate (and educate) the audience with interesting anecdotes and detailed points about innovative recording methods and technical breakthroughs (some his own) through the years. The earliest digital synthesizers were shown in all their hand-crafted glory, and heard through the soundsystem as used on seminal works like Nektar's 'Recycled' and his own Synergy albums. But the best parts were the samples of Peter Gabriel's music; from his own notes and tapes, Fast was able to demonstrate how certain works evolved over several years until finally released. Some examples... "On the Air" was originally written in 6/8 time.... the 'gated drums' of Phil Collins on the track "The Intruder" was a trend-producing accident... Gabriel's minimalist ideas (characterized as the 'artful use of space') included the removal of all cymbals from some works. In the end, Fast's 'seminar' was one of the highlights of the weekend, and something that should be kept as part of future events (if comparable tutors could be found).
After a dinner break, things got heated up again with New Jersey's Mastermind. What used to be a trio has now grown into a quintet, including keyboardist Mickey Simmonds (who has played with Fish of Marillion and others) and guitarist/vocalist Lisa Bouchelle. I am familiar with their 1994 CD 'Tragic Symphony' but since then, they've obviously gone through an identity crisis. Which is still evident, sad to say. I really wasn't expecting any of the NEARfest performers to be fronted by a hot chick in tight leather singing like Pat Benatar (!), no matter what was being offered from the core members. But even during the songs when Bouchelle wasn't on stage, I couldn't follow what they were trying to do with their crunchy guitars and drums as backdrop for Simmonds' showy bits on his over-the-shoulder key-tars. The lone highlights from Mastermind were rendered in the few times the original trio turned really dark and foreboding á la Queensryche's 'Operation: Mindcrime.' Whenever it sounded like the Death Star was approaching (as during "The End of the World"), I perked up! THIS should be their new direction.
Day One wrapped up with Britain's iQ, one of the three 'pioneers' (if you will) of the so-called neo-prog movement of the early 1980's. Marillion (Pendragon is the remaining member of this triumvirate) is by far my personal favorite, but I have some affinity for iQ's distinctive color and style also. Their two-hour set featured some multimedia entertainment, as they showed interesting movie passages and fractal-type images on a large screen backdrop. The music covered virtually their entire career (nearing 20 years now), the best stuff culled from more recent works like 'Ever' (1993) and 'Subterranea' (1997). The title track from the latter was particularly dramatic and gripping, both aurally and visually. Vocalist Peter Nicholls (who has been with the band for two separate stints) has a slightly nasal quality to his voice which is occasionally distracting, but he came across very well live. While Nicholls is a bit aloof, bassist John Jowitt was very upbeat and active...Mike Holmes simply projected through the strings of his guitar. The finale was 'The Long something...', the opening track to their debut, 'Tales from the Lush Attic.' Accordingly, throughout the epic 20-minute composition, Martin Orford dutifully contributed the lushness from his phalanx of keyboards. I suppose I wouldn't have been all that impressed if this was a brand new group playing this collection of songs, but it was a highlight of the weekend to witness this rare performance on US soil by these relative old timers.
Day Two opened with the Canadian quartet named Nathan Mahl, who were identified in the program as 'one of the best kept secrets in progressive rock today.' Well, not any more. Their set commenced right on time at 11 AM, and I was amazed that the theatre was nearly full. Perhaps everyone had a premonition that this was something not to be missed? Well, their instincts were right on... they were the surprise group of the festival (and not just because they were a last-minute replacement). Few bands are able to produce complex and intricate music that still sounds musical at every point - but these folks can. Stylistically, Nathan Mahl has a strong similarity to the Canterbury sound, which means that the sounds and tonality of the instruments are of particular importance. And Jose Bergeron's guitar was tuned and strung just right, and he played with a fluid technique that really shined. But unlike the laid back jazzy style of say, Caravan, this bunch revved things up and came across more like a high octane Happy the Man. (And by that description, I mean I heard something I never had experienced before.) Given that space rock and Canterbury have a shared heritage, I would predict that AI readers with prog leanings would enjoy Nathan Mahl just as I did.
The prog metal quota was met with the performance of Long Island's Ice Age, appropriate I guess since the island itself is simply a large end moraine left over from the last glacial stage. Being a latent metalhead, I'm 'right there' when long-haired freaks come out and crank it up. But they all start to sound like Dream Theatre after awhile. As I was walking into the theatre, I overheard someone say "The singer (Josh Pincus) sounds like Dennis DeYoung." Sure enough he was right on, though I can't say I felt the need to wretch when listening to Pincus' voice! The bottom line is that Ice Age plays a metallic-melodic hybrid that is simply overdone. Hence, I enjoyed it as much as I could, given that it could've been any one of a dozen other bands on stage (all seemingly housed at the Magna Carta label) that day instead.
Connecticut's Crucible is one more act that has removed the true meaning of 'progressive' from the 'progrock' label. But I wouldn't call them 'neo-prog' either, more like 'retro-prog.' And since I'm not really a fan of the classic 70's prog giants (ELP, Genesis, Gentle Giant, etc.), a fact I was reluctant to admit on this particular weekend, there wasn't much about the music to get me excited. But they are talented musicians nonetheless and their use of vintage synthesizers (the uniformly-worshipped Mellotron in particular) was indeed a pleasant change of pace from the Rolands and Korgs of the other bands. But only if we could have heard Landberk, or someone else that did something novel with them. And of course, as required by the Progrock Constitution, Crucible rounded out their performance with a '20-minute epic' ('An Imp's Tale'). I'm convinced that half the audience liked this best simply because it was twice as long as anything else they did.
The lone maddening delay occurred just after the dinner break as we all sought sanctuary from the humid air in our own ways. I discovered the ice cream parlor within easy walking distance from the campus. Two scoops later, I returned and eventually we were let back in for the double-header finale. Hungary's Solaris was up first, and this is really the band that brought me to NEARfest '99. I suppose that's because they're the ones who have (Oh God, here comes a cliche) 'cross-over appeal' for space rock fans, especially with their 1984 debut 'The Martian Chronicles.' Since then, they've done a few other works (but not many) meaning that there was a good chance that this 15-year old material would appear in the set. I was not disappointed though they made me wait for a long time.
With the stage cloaked in darkness, the spooky intro to the brand new 'Nostradamus - Book of Prophecies' was piped in as the five members (armed with flashlights) found their places. When the lights came up, the band charged into the track in earnest, a deliberate-paced composition of majestic proportions. Solaris then quickly changed gears as they slid into a series of almost neo-classical pieces (presumably from the '1990' double CD), including the fugue-ish "Mickey Mouse," the rondo stylings of "Hungarian Dance," and the rock-chamber music of "Concerto in E Minor." For a taste of levity, the latter was 'conducted' by frontman vocalist/flautist Attila Kollár... but in actuality, the stop-start nature of the tune probably demanded it.
After a reprise of the Nostradamus theme and a long instrumental jam which featured solos by each member, Solaris then granted me my wish and offered "If the Fog Ascends" and "Mars Poetica" from 'The Martian Chronicles.' Here, Róbert Erdész switched his impressive bank of keyboards over into hyperspace drive, and the race for the Red Planet was on. However, Kollár's dreamy flute solo furnished the true cosmic essence in the first track. In "Mars Poetica," the entire band got into the act - an impressive tune displaying both chops and emotion. A bit more spaciness shined through on the two-part "The Moment of Truth" from the new album, before ending up the Mars portion with the fast riffing duel between Erdész and guitarist Csaba Bogdán on "Undefeatable." In the end, I was glad to have Solaris finish off their 110-minute performance with some of my personal favorites, though it made me nervous having to wait. I know my opinion is biased, but the elegance and grace of their astrally-projected compositions easily outshined their neo-classical works. (Judging from the audience response, not everyone agreed.) Months ago, when NEARfest was still being born, there was talk that Eloy might be featured. As amazing as that would have been, Solaris proved that they ain't no 'second choice.'
The Sunday headliner was Spock's Beard, a band that inexplicably is the hardcore progger's current flavor-of-the-month. I knew I was already going to be late getting back on the road for home and almost decided to depart before they went on, but I thought I'd give them a third chance. You see, I own two of their four CDs, but wasn't impressed with either (and cut them off, so to speak). But I hung out in the back of the theatre and watched as they bounded out on stage and charged into a handful of entirely uninteresting powerpop-prog tunes (four and a half songs was all I survived). Thankfully, they announced the third track as a Gentle Giant cover ("Gibberish"), as I couldn't tell the difference between that and their 'original' material. Like iQ before, the Beard's singer (Neal Morse) sounds better live than on record, though he's a bit of an ass in his role as frontman. To be totally honest, I can't say that this band is any less likeable than Crucible (or even distinguishable for that matter), but it puzzles and disappoints me that fans as knowledgeable and rabid as these festival-goers would kneel to this veritable footnote of a band. OK, so maybe I'm a bit guilty of enjoying the next Hawkwind clone a little too much (not that I can't think of too many...there's no money in it!), but I wouldn't feel comfortable having them headline Strange Daze for instance. The popularity of Spock's Beard is the signal that tells me there are more 'progressive' acts in the space and psych genres than in progrock. Too bad AI wasn't booking the artists. :)
But without question, NEARfest '99 was a positive experience and demonstrates that progressive music styles have a life, whether the mainstream culture wishes to join in or not. As always, the few individuals (in this case, Rob LaDuca and Chad Hutchinson) whose tireless effort is required to make these events come to pass are to be commended for a job well done. Of course, things never go without a hitch, and so there was the occasional awkward point. But the sound/mix was very good overall (only the snaredrum and cymbals were overloud, which is the way I almost always feel), the vendor/food areas were well-arranged (but for one poorly lit area), and the schedule was only set back significantly on Sunday evening. The venue itself was excellent, very comfortable and well-proportioned, if not large enough to accommodate all who wished to attend. Next year's event is scheduled for a 1,000-seat theatre just across the river, so there won't be any excuse for not coming. I hope to go back myself. I just hope they'll invite one or two more artists who actually take the meaning of the word 'progressive' literally! (And who also don't include drum solos!)