Progfest Melbourne. Ne Obliviscaris, Red Paintings, Chaos Divine, Mushroom Giant, Quiet Child, Toehider, Alithia, Kettlespider. 8 September 2012
This year’s Progfest Melbourne showcased 22 experimental, progressive, psychedelic and art rock and metal bands to a crowd of over a thousand. Amazingly this was nine less acts than last year and a good move in my view. I’ve reviewed a selection of the bands I saw but don’t take this to mean the others were less than great.
The good thing about the Espy at St Kilda is that it’s like the Tardis, and with the large front bar and band room just a short shuffle apart it makes for the perfect venue for an event like Progfest. With barely any overlap punters could in theory catch every single band. In theory that is, because if you hit the beer at 3:15 there was a good chance you wouldn’t last the eleven-odd hours till stumps. And if you did pace yourself you needed breaks anyway. What it did mean was that you didn’t have to compromise and could select a top three or a top 20 and anything in between.
My day started when I arrived soaking wet from the rain in time to catch one of my favourite relatively new bands, Kettlespider. In the short time since forming they have released a record and played enough gigs to strengthen their live sound. Playing their blend of instrumental post-metal, math and progressive rock, they showed how much their confidence in their ability has grown. Showing off the variety of tempos, dynamics and time signatures in their repertoire, Kettlespider slid into ‘Reflections’, a creeper that launches into some great metal riffs about two minutes in before another five or six minutes of dynamic mischief. Next up was a great new song from their upcoming second album “Samsara” called ‘Life’, before the chugging and technical goodness of ‘Avadante’. Rounding out were the slower paced ‘Comatose’, which shy nominal frontman Harris announced as; “for the ladies in the crowd tonight All seven of you”, and their infinity jam – a brilliant mathy track that showed off everyone’s skills. It was good to see the strong support they deserve with a few Kettlespider tees in the good sized crowd.
Alithia describe their sound as Astral Space Core, which extends beyond music to having a deep willingness and openness to explore everything around us with the result that we can come together with one consciousness. So if anyone was going to be suitable for progfest it was this trio, and their mix of psychedelic, post-punk, progressive rock was absolutely captivating. Opening with ‘WTFJ’, the drumming was complex and dramatic, the keys formed the backbone and the guitar of vocalist John flowed like a river of syrup through fuzzy reverb-laden passages and post-rock tremolo before explosive crescendos. Two new songs finished the set; ‘13’ and ‘Ripples’, which will both be on their next record. The vocals were clear and beautifully melodic, even when belted out with anger and despair but never took over and made themselves more important than the instruments. This is the first time I’d heard Alithia and it’s one of two great discoveries I made on the night. They will be touring Europe in a few weeks time and I reckon they’ll be very well received. Most bands took the opportunity to show off a range of their sounds in the 30-odd minutes they were on stage, and Toehider were no exception. If you’ve not seen or listened to the creations of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Mike, you really need to remedy this hole in your musical experience. Built on tuneful and proggy bass and inventive, diverse drumming, you’ll hear two brilliant guitarists sharing atypical rhythm and multifarious lead styles (though Lachlan generally handles the shredding) and one powerful voice. The four started of with the building riffage of ‘Lie Still’, to the appreciation of the Toehider cheer squad just off stage right, before Mike showed off his vocal strength further with the well-chosen ‘Jesuitmont’, which has an a cappella line or two that he belted out sans mic from the edge of the stage. Proudly wearing their love of Queen on their sleeves it was soon time for ‘The Most Popular Girl In School’ and the rest of the set included the ridiculously fast and frenzied new single ‘Smash it Out’ and another crowd sing-along favourite ‘To Hide Her’. My second great discovery of the night was Quiet Child, from my home town Adelaide. I hadn’t had the chance to see them live before and now that I have I’m hanging out for their next Melbourne gig. Like Alithia, their songs averaged ten minutes, which gave me plenty of time to immerse myself in each one. They took strong ideas and played around with them to develop great musical narratives supported by smooth vocals. This was true progressive guitar rock that grabbed your attention from the first bar of opener ‘The Arguments from Design’ with a strong post-rock feel at times, great vocals and thoughtful use of dynamics. ‘Flowers in the middle of the road’ was altogether heavier and louder with a pulse that pumped liquid music through its veins. The band continue to explore and expand on motifs as they rounded out the set with ‘The Cold Halls’ from ” Thumper” and new song ‘Hail of Stones’. Having sat near the fireplace for this set I was now nice and dry and ready for more. A delayed start to Quiet Child meant I missed the first couple of songs from Mushroom Giant, coming in at the end of ‘The Drake Equation’, one of my favourite songs from this year. Playing intense and expansive instrumental crescendocore, Mushroom Giant not only play well, but explore and constantly expand the sounds they get not only from their keys and synth, but from their guitars and bass as well. At times thick with metal chugging and melodic chord progressions, at others with post-rock’s three “O”s – tremolo, arpeggio and ebow – and yet others with psychedelic flashbacks to 1969, Mushroom Giant have that rare skill of holding your attention in a way that you completely lose any sense of time. The projected visuals matched the emotions of the music well and together they scooped you up and carried you away on the aural layers. ‘Comasphere’ and ‘Scars’ were up next, the set closing with ‘400 & Falling’; the sound of a giant chopper flying in created by Craig on bass before carefully bringing everyone out of their Mushroom-induced trance.
Chaos Divine made the journey over East from WA ready to play their remake of ‘Africa’ by Toto, but before that song we were treated to a good taste of their progressive metal and rock with extreme metal elements. Switching regularly from clean clear vocals and melodic prog rock guitar to ferocious growls, bursts of double-kick and technical metal guitar lines, they belted out a set that demonstrated the reason for the acclaim they’ve had heaped on them. When it was time to play ‘Africa’ the crowd loved it, although I’ve never liked the song and despite the metal treatment it wasn’t a highlight for me. Other than that I enjoyed the set.Red Paintings love to put on a bit of a show but the short sets and quick turn-arounds along with the nature of the venue meant we were not going to see them playing in the dark with their luminous costumes and laser lighting setup. Regardless, the costumes were there along with some paper on a giant easel for the guest artist, and two women waiting to have their bodies painted, already prepared in a white base coat. The first thing to say about the music is that it was ear-splittingly loud meaning it was earplug time for these old things on my head. The second thing to say is that it was an orchestral explosion of art rock that was highly inventive, experimental and unusual. Cello and violin join guitar, bass, drums and intense vocals of Trash – the essence of Red Paintings. Alas I could only catch three songs (I think it was three but it could have been one) before it was time for the band I had come to see more than any of the others. If you’ve seen Ne Obliviscaris live then you will know what I’m about to write. If you haven’t then yes, they are as good as you imagine they would be.
It took just seconds to fall under the spell of the progressive melodic metallers and remain their loyal subject along with all those around me until the final note had been heard. With a long, long lead up and the conglomerate of everything else I’d heard so far that night filling my head like a giant water balloon it was as though the guys had taken the longest, sharpest and shiniest pin and plunged it into my skull to release the pressure.Given the work that went into recording their album, NeO would have been forgiven for being a bit looser live, of not hitting every one of those notes, of not drumming like lightning backed by a full metal guitar assault then pulling back to the gentlest of classical guitar. But these guys have practiced and performed these songs until they are extensions of their very beings and they would no more drop a note than stop breathing. Entranced, the crowd feasted on the sight of Cygnus caressing every inch of that bass, Matt delivering the driving guitar wall and Dan extracting beats from his kit at a ridiculous range of speeds as the three controlled the dynamics and pace as though keeping a disembodied flame aloft through nothing but the power of their minds. Then there were the other three sharing an extraordinary relationship that twisted and turned, never stagnant as Tim would on one hand work vocal counterpoints and unison with Xen and with Benjamin when he switched to violin.
One or two in the crowd found it a little hard to not keep loudly expressing their desire to bear the band’s children while the rest stuck to cheering, shouting, singing along and a bit of devil horn action.
Songs like ‘Xenoflux’ and the opening of ‘Tapestry of the Starlet Abstract’ powered along with such tremendous ferocity, but amid the songs in the hour long set there were some moments of such incredible beauty standing in magnificent and stark contrast to the dominant emotions of anger and anguish. One was that exchange between Benjamin and Tim in ‘Tapestry..’ after a 90-odd second section of delicate classical tirando; the other the final vocal strains in ‘Of Petrichor Weaves Black Noise’, and mine would not have been the only eyes to well up.
Watching NeO live, it didn’t take long to confirm in my mind that despite the hundreds of new releases, despite Anathema, despite Alcest, despite Baroness and despite Mono (sorry boss), “Portal of I” is still the best new record I’ve heard this year. And when the set was over all I wanted to do was cut my ears off.
Posted by Gilbert Potts.
Footnote: Not having listened to Chaos Divide and Red Paintings much before I can’t tell you what they played but if someone wants to leave the setlist in the comments I’ll add it in. Same if I fucked up any names or song titles. Cheers.