“New Prog for Old Ears and Old Prog for New Ears. ” That is the mantra for this year’s HRH PROG held at Hafn Y Mor, North Wales 20-22 March 2014.
On Saturday I met a short grey man called Mark. He was wearing a blue woollen top, a pair of smart M&S jeans and fresh yachting shoes, he looked rather out of place. He was feeding himself generously on bubbly beer. His friends in the crowd were urging him on, “Come on man, you sunk only 7 pints so far … ” It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
Mark has never even heard of a group called Focus. The only concert he has ever attended was a Status Quo gig held in a local neighbourhood park. He told me he was too young to ‘remember’ Pink Floyd. Up until this weekend he had never experienced a rock festival. But he he says he likes Muse – especially their more experimental instrumentations. So, I wondered, what did he make of some of the music thus far at this prestigious prog rock event?
“This whole weekend has really opened up my mind …” he told me, “ I don’t think I could ever have imagined so much diversity and so much quality.”
He may well have been referring to Brighton’s Physics House Band whose set we enjoyed on Friday. They are causing quite a stir at the moment with their ‘Titan’ release – which mixes a bundle of thumpety spirited keys with loosely abandoned bass clumps and spangles of gangly rhythm. This young band bring all their sounds together in a slalom of joyful colours and wonderful sauces. If someone could impress both young and old ears, then this trio of talented fusioneers could manage it. Their performance in the early afternoon was a high-octane cocktail that kept us going all weekend.
Later Luna Kiss took to the stage. Before their show, this band went flyer crazy around the site – slapping their posters on every flat surfacethey could find. And good for them – we say. “If everyone here – in this festival – bought a copy of our new single – then it would enter the charts next week. And imagine that. A prog rock single in the charts. Wouldn’t that be über -cool?” The Coventry-based guitar four-piece played a clean-cut yet charismatic set – full of brilliant melodic moments and clever-clever cliff hanging U-turns – their array of sounds kept us cognizant to start off, then gradually caused our minds to melt.
By 7 o’clock on Friday the house was full again. This time for The Pineapple Thief. Formed in 1999, Bruce Soord’s project still commands immense respect – and they played an absolutely incredible set at the HRH Prog stage.
Next up were the 1970’s legends Focus and their imaginatively fancy jazz. It had all of the twists and juxtapositions you might expect from a seventies prog-rock band – but it was only when those first Hammondy chords of “Sylvia” squeaked out of the speakers that the prog party properly started. It was probably the theme tune of the weekend. As sweet and colourful as fruit-gums.
The Swedish progressive rock group Flower Kings brought us the most dazzling and triumphant blues / prog of the day. It’s a long time since I last heard “Back in the World of Adventures” but I’ll be dusting it down again as soon as I get home. And I’ll be comparing it with their twelfth album ‘Desolation Rose’ which was released last autumn. One of the best moments of the weekend was seeing the veteran guitarist Roine Stolt warmly embrace Focus’s Thijs van Leer at the side stage – during some down-time. It was a touching moment – a meeting of sacred minds and fiery fingers.
Friday evening was completed in grand style by the coulrophobic cadavering of Deadly Circus Fire and their darkly demented deviations on a theme. Their set had all the theatrical pomp and sinister agony that you might expect from a bunch of crazed clowns with a devilish score to settle. It was a show that disturbed and unsettled. And it was overwhelmingly hypnotic.
Saturday began with the deeply tinged contemplations of September Code. Then later we witnessed the wonderful exotic glossiness of Crimson Sky and their Marillion meets Jefferson Starship shaped meanderings. Phonetics professor and singer Jane Setter is a shining example to us all. She is formidably intellectual and also a super-sexy cool. Most importantly, she’s a conduit for the most creative kind of music you can possibly imagine. Witnessing this band was like being lost inside the ‘Kit Kat Klub’ and trying to find a way out through a maze of coloured veils, eccentric loops and constricting chintz-works. Overall, this was one of the best performances of the festival – and a highlight of our weekend.
And speaking of psychedelic wanderings – Purson (who followed Crimson Sky) was also a throwback to those rare “White Rabbit” days of 1967 – with Rosalie Cunningham ( the Purson lead singer) ‘playing’ the part of a young Grace Slick. Sadly, their show was disconnected by a series of technical glitches and unexplained delays. During one mammoth gap in the process we saw a file of about 18-20 people leaving the auditorium in undisguised detachment. Which is a shame, because the band – when they were actually playing – delivered some good quality moments – full of sexy, electrifying passions and swirling rainbows.
Panic Room was also influenced by technical difficulties. It made us wonder if the stage timings at this year’s HRH Prog were a little too ambitious. The mood in the room started to become dispassionate. And it didn’t help that Panic Room came on late – after a fire alarm bleated inconsolably for 15 minutes or so before their grand entrance. (The alarm got the biggest applause of the night … but only once it was disconnected! ) This meant that all remaining acts were delayed by at least 30 minutes.
The Hawklords were extremely avant-garde and adequately Space Rocky. Once-upon-a-time it was not unusual to have a poetry recital at every rock concert. (The Moody Blues were supporters of this bold initiative.) And the Hawklords reintroduced us to this strange phenomenon. Theirs was a singularly distinctive performance – words + music + sounds – all bundled up into a tight doggy-bag. Then slung at the amused and befuddled crowd.
Arcane Roots were, of course, spectacular. In the best traditions of prog-rock – the audience could never quite predict where each song was going. Or imagine how each song would end. But the auditory journeys were confident and heavenly. From every juicy hook and dark stained bass note – to those dizzy high voices – this was a powerful performance provided by true masters of the genre.
As was the incomparable show from Robert John Godfrey’s project The Enid. At the first incarnation of HRH Prog (at the ‘Magna Centre’ in Rotherham 2013) – this ferociously talented ‘mini-orchestra‘ did not quite get the welcome nor the attention that I think they deserve. But at Prog 2 things were very different. A huge crowd were assembled. It was an astonishing throng. Their pieces had their titillating “feathery” moments and many wicked deviations and digressions. But these moments always lead to breathtaking climaxes. The Enid provided us with a truly remarkable performance. It was a real education. As one spectator shouted during the electrifying finale:
“Now this is what I call Prog Rock…”
Even the Enid had trouble with their technology. Their EWI (electronic wind instrument) went haywire – so the balding man-mountain we know and love as Fish came to the stage about 40 minutes late. But what a show! What a crowd! What a reception! It was a full throttle outing right from the opening. Fish’s performance was totally stimulating and thoroughly inspiring. And he earned his rightful place as this year’s best act. Bar none. And that’s what good progressive rock is all about. Stimulation and inspiration.
So a hearty thanks must go out to the organisers and all the talented team behind this year’s event. It opened up old ears to new sounds. And opened up new ears to old sounds. And I think that’s what is supposed to happen.
As I left the event, I noticed Mark in one corner of the show room. He was on his fourteenth pint ny now and he was now wearing a Prog Rock T-shirt. He was also practising his yodelling.
Mark is a changed man.
All photos by Neil Mach.