Big is not the word. The Magna building in Rotherham is absolutely colossal. A former steelworks, this vast 3/4 of a mile long building, looms across the South Yorkshire landscape like a science fiction version of Table Mountain. The building is so huge that it can easily accommodate an airship without you even noticing. This amazing steel hulk was the appropriately convoluted and undeniably extensive home to prog rock over the weekend of 6th and 7th April 2013. It was HRH’s first foray into the world of progressive rock music. (The HRH AOR festival was running concurrently at the same venue.)
Navigating the vast structure was part of the fun. But most hard-nosed proggers, on their arrival at Magna, were quite happy to find a bar, grab a bite to eat, then go directly into the appropriately named ‘Face of Steel’ arena – located right next to the main entrance.
The ‘Face of Steel’ arena – the main venue for the Prog programme – was situated within a space that would make even a star-ship seem insignificant. It had huge sliding doors at the back of the stage, and this input allowed the bands to load up their equipment quickly and efficiently. God it was cold! It’s a fair bet that the temperature never reached above zero over the two days.
Opening the Prog Festival were ‘Credo’ – presenting their lyrically challenging music to the very many fans who had come to HRH Prog expressly to see them. Playing a very short, yet accomplished set – with songs like ‘Round And Round’ – they managed to show off the genius and dexterity of Mike Varty (the CRS Keyboard Player of the Year) together with the clever artistry of Tim Birrell’s guitar-work. This was all brought together by Colton’s apocalyptic style of vocal, and his enigmatic gaze. This band were a formidable presence.
Later, the magnificent sounds from ‘The Reasoning’ overflowed into the vast expanse of empty metal cannister. Lead singer Rachel Cohen peeled off an outer jacket, and then bravely took the stage in a tiny skull and rose printed dress. She also suggested to the crowd that the outfit she was going to wear was to be even “skimpier” – but she reluctantly changed her mind at the last moment.
‘TesseracT’ were up next. One of our favourite bands of the weekend, they were boasting their operatic new vocalist Ashe O’Hara. For the sceptics out there, we have this to say: Ashe is simply extraordinary. He takes everything up to the next level. His voice is commanding, energising and exciting. If you have been listening to the band since before ‘Concealing Fate’ then, please believe us, you have nothing to fear. Their latest recorded project ‘Altered State’ will, no doubt, bring the band the riches and recognition that they so richly deserve.
‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ never disappoints. Nor do they ever fail to cause comment. Arthur commanded that bloody irritating smoke machines were turned off for the duration of his theatrical performance. (And it’s a shame that they were turned ON again later.) After pulling a pelt out from his underpants (well, that’s how he managed to keep warm) Arthur danced a tango with a flamenco dancer, before launching into ‘I Put A Spell On You’. The snake-like keyboard sounds eeled out and curled around the audience, just like his pungent fur piece. And Arthur, generous, intimate and winning as always, started to warm the cockles of our hearts. This was an enjoyable time. Of unity and generosity of spirit.
Another firm festival favourite was ‘Mostly Autumn’. Their ever-glamorous singer Olivia Sparnenn came to the frozen stage looking even more radiant than anyone could ever had expected. Their most popular piece ‘Evergreen’ was dramatic and epic. It was given for all, without reservation. Too heavenly and too melodic a sound to be set inside such a forbidding industrial-sized cookie tin.
Later, Dave Cousins told the crowd of vagabonds – who had somehow managed to find the ‘Strawbs’ show – that he felt like “A spare prick in this place”. Wearing his overcoat buttoned up to his neck, he welcomed the brave fans into the cold under belly of the maze-like structure. Down here, in the abyss (the ‘Earth Stage’) these folk-rock heroes were forced to play an acoustic show in an area which looked like a cross between a monk’s cell and a disused nuclear bomb shelter. The venue was so small that most of the crowd had to hang off of the gantry to witness it. So it was fitting that the band started their act with ‘Benedictus’ and the conscious line “Humble must [we] constant be…”
Sunday, and after the urgent purchase of new HRH Prog T-shirts and hoodies, we bravely ventured into the freezing hanger/foundry space to see the first prog act of the day. By now, reports were coming in that the AOR crowd over in the ‘Big Hall’ were the favoured sons of the weekend. “The AOR lot, over there, have got heating, carpets, food and seating. Plus it’s a real stage … basically it’s a lot nicer over there.” Thus began what soon became an hourly routine. The prog-rock crowd tried their hardest to endure the Spartan conditions at the ‘Face of Steel’ stage before giving up in shame, and trudging the half-a-mile or so to the AOR stage. There they could at least warm up for a while, and have a sit down. And prepare for the next expedition back to the subarctic conditions of the prog-arena.
Luckily, first band of the day at the Prog Stage was ‘Bad For Lazarus’ who were standing in for ‘IO Earth’. This Brighton based rock band – (they derive from the ‘Eighties Matchbox’ band) – boast the ‘Nine Inch Nails’ guitarist Rich Fownes amongst their talented number. Their psychedelic groove, and wall-of-sound richness, together with their wild stage antics, soon generated the same type of heat that can be found in a refractory-lined electro arc furnace. They were not exactly ‘prog-rock’, but still, it was an amazing start to the day.
Then ‘Haken’ (rhymes with bacon) came on stage. This technically proficient bunch from London played an invigorating set of fun, breathtaking skill and prodigious talent. They were followed by Uli Jon Roth on the prog stage. (He also played on the cosy AOR stage later.)
‘Sky Overture’ was, of course, brilliant. But Uli’s band never seemed to settle properly or to gel. And they were grieved by various technical difficulties. It was a stop-start set. We probably would have liked to hear far more from their adopted guitar prodigy Ali Clinton, but Ali kept away from the limelight and just churned out some half baked rhythms. Probably the best moments of this set- and of all weekend – came with Uli’s interpretations of the classic Hendrix tracks ‘All Along The Watchtower’ and ‘Little Wing’. In fact, these two pieces, performed flawlessly, led to many small icy tears forming on frozen cheeks around the room.
‘Magenta’ was bright and exuberant. Their singer, Christina Booth, gently powered through delicately dazzling songs like ‘I’m Alive’ with exquisite ease and intuitive intellect. When the glory of Chris Fry’s guitar gleamed in, it absorbed every heart-pain you had ever felt. It was enduring and exquisite.
‘The Enid’ were next. They opened with the colossal conception of ‘One And The Many’. At one point, Joe Payne’s choppily fluorescent falsetto vocals rippled and flew up into the gigantic metallic rafters – like an angel tongue rising heaven-bound.
Father like Robert John Godfrey watched all this with pride, as his latest incarnation showed the gathering of prog-rock die-hards that the genre is far from dead and may, indeed, be entering a new cycle of unselfishness and effort.
For a glimpse into the future, one need only look at ‘Enochian Theory’ and later ‘Antlered Man’ – who both performed on the abyss-stage ‘Earth’ at HRH Prog. ‘Enochian Theory’ formed in Portsmouth in 2004. Their new album “Life… And All It Entails” has already been praised by Steven Wilson, and has been voted by iTunes as one of the best Rock/Metal album of the year.
Then Damo, the lead singer with ‘Antlered Man’ cursed his rash decision to take off his shirt. Struggling to keep his limbs warm, he attacked his guitar with a wild and threatening energy – reminding us of a young Elvis Costello. These lads played a powerful and energetic show. They do not like to play ‘convenience’ music or ‘safe’ music, so perhaps this was the perfect place to see them perform.
Then over to the ‘Face of Steel’ stage to see the amazing ‘Von Hertzen Brothers’. These guys will happily take the genre to the next level. We haven’t been able to get their soaring and splendid ‘Flowers And Rust’ song out of minds since we first heard the track back in February. The band played this song (taken from the new album,) and audience faces lit up across the room.
And if they reached out to the masses, extending their blessings onto the adoring crowd with their “Diamonds to dust…” lyrics, then the Von Hertzen Brothers made even more friends with their choice of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ cover. It was a one-off moment. And truly a great choice.
With their final number, the VHB finally converted the crowd. Utterly and convincingly. We understood – as one – that prog-rock is here to stay. It will out-shine all of us. Into eternity.
HRH Prog 2013 was an incredible experience. For the brave, the pure and for the honest of heart. It was a major celebration of all that we hold so precious. Our common history, and our shared love of progressive rock music. It celebrated all that we have accomplished so far.
But more than that, it was also a celebration of what we can do next. It was about where we will be tomorrow, if we set our minds to it. Prog Rock is not dead. It is just beginning.
And it is for this reason that the Von Hertzen Brothers were able to sum up the sentiment so completely with their last song. “Let Thy Will Be Done”.
The Next HRH Prog Festival will take place on 20th and 23rd March 2014.