HRH Prog 3
By: Gaz Cloud
Photos: Charlie Gardner
The recipe for a holiday camp music festival is a familiar one in 2015: take a heap of bands from the same genre, fill an out-of-season seaside chalet resort with fans and let the whole thing stew for a weekend. The quality of the ingredients in this mix marked out HRH Prog 3 as something special. Firstly, there’s the line-up. Prog is a broad church in 2015: by booking a mix of artists from across the breadth of the scene, from prog metal to progressive folk, the promoters ensured that many self-respecting fans simply couldn’t miss this event. Then there’s the location itself: Hafan y Môr is no Butlins or Pontins, but a Haven holiday camp located on the Llŷn Peninsula. Sure, it’s a long way for most of the attendees to travel, but this is a stunning location and well worth the drive.
It’s fair to say that prog has an older-than-average demographic, and as such a festival that affords the luxury of an apartment with running water, rather than a tent in a field, seems a perfect fit. Cooking facilities in the chalets help to keep costs down and there’s nothing quite like walking out of your temporary abode and finding yourself at the venue within a minute. The fans at Prog 3 are enthusiastic, which adds to the atmosphere no end. There’s also the added appeal of the festival sharing the site with the Sci-Fi Weekender.
You don’t need to be a Trekkie or in fact a nerd of any description to enjoy some of the creative costumes on display at the sister event to which Prog ticket holders are granted access. It’s a shame, though, that sci-fi appears to be more popular than prog. A quick glance inside the venue for the convention demonstrated ‘their’ space had better sound, lighting and a high ceiling that would have added tons to the vibe of ‘our’ music festival.
The decision to hold the event from Thursday to Saturday, rather than the more traditional Friday to Sunday, is a curious one, and this, plus the remote location, ensures many including this reviewer miss both The Osiris Club’s masked horror metal and Dream Circuit’s space rock. The hall is still only half full when Knifeworld take to the stage. Their set is delayed due to some technical issues, but from the moment the octet launch into their energetic, frenetic performance, the sound is perfect. Knifeworld are a unique, peculiar proposition, and it’s fair to say that not everyone present ‘gets’ it. It’s not just the music that’s polarising – one joke from frontman Kavus Torabi about LSD goes down particularly badly. Torabi is a showman, make no mistake, albeit one who doesn’t so much let his hair down as let his hair up.
Those onside are treated to a sublime blast of psychedelic intensity that combines brass, a bassoon, odd modes and time signatures, alongside plenty of rock and roll excess. The band draw heavily from last year’s superb LP The Unravelling, but find time to air a new song, dedicated to recently deceased Daevid Allen, Torabi’s former band mate in Gong. By the time the performance climaxes with ‘Me To The Future Of You’, the group’s anthem, a middle ground has opened up in the venue, separating the enthusiasts from the detractors. In short, Knifeworld are a talking point and to many an early weekend highlight.
With Knifeworld having set the bar so high, The Skys have a tough act to follow, but do so admirably. Lithuania’s most famous progressive export are relatively unknown in their home country but are very well received here. A more traditional approach sees them espouse verse/chorus compositions that then fly off into the ether, with some fantastic fretwork from Jonas Čiurlionis and mind-blowing saxophone contributed by guest member Darius Kodikas, from Lithuanian blues outfit The Road Band. It took the band three days to drive to North Wales in a van, putting to shame the gripes of many UK-based audience members who thought Pwllheli was out of the way. Given the warm reception they receive, this was a journey well worth making. The Skys have since wrapped up recording their latest album, and it’s safe to say based on this evening that said record will not disappoint.
Friday gets off to a stellar start thanks to the partial solar eclipse. Whilst much of the UK is covered in cloud, festival-goers are treated to an unobscured view of this phenomenon, with many flocking to the water’s edge to witness something truly remarkable. Make no mistake; the sun is a festival highlight and then some. Back on earth, things aren’t going quite so smoothly in the bar set aside for acoustic performances. We’d heard sound crew moaning the night before about the shortcomings of the technical spec on offer, and the sessions are delayed whilst crew hastily prepare for the slots. Perhaps Sylvester McCoy’s appearance at the Sci-Fi Weekender gave the promoters the impression that time travel would be possible. Otherwise, the proposed timetable for acoustic slots is unrealistic in the extreme.
It’s a shame, as this delay forces audience members to choose between the acoustic sets from Anna Phoebe and The Skys, or the chance to see Sanguine Hum, whose new opus Now We Have Light has seen them up the ante considerably. Opting to stick with The Owner’s Bar’s unplugged treats also means missing the prog-pop of Kitten Pyramid. What is evident during the wait for these sessions is the friendly, international nature of the crowd. The audience really know their stuff, and the levels of anticipation rise in tandem with the frustration at the delay.
Dream Circuit finally take to the small acoustic “stage” and perform a short set that suggests they have a lot to give. Amazingly this is the first time the band have ever played “unplugged” and it shows to an extent as their muscular compositions do feel a little odd in this setting. That said, with a little more time spent on the arrangements, a stripped back sound could suit the outfit.
Violinist Anna Phoebe’s acoustic set is, if anything, more incredible than her main stage performance that follows. At once virtuosic and considered, Phoebe’s main appeal is not her technique, which is saying something given she’s no slouch. What really makes her music such an attractive proposition is the subtle, exotic compositions and arrangements and these come to the fore in this intimate setting.
The Skys unplugged set is the most chaotic of the three offered on Friday afternoon. Jonas Čiurlionis’ acoustic guitar is sadly lacking from the amplified mix, whilst Božena Buinicka’s keyboard cuts out intermittently during the show. Buinicka favours a heady organ sound for this set and when audible, it gives the music a refreshing, retro feel. Understandably dissatisfied with the amplification on offer, saxophonist Kodikas takes matters into his own hands, walking out into the audience when intent on having his jazzy solos heard. Overcoming these technical demons goes some way to building the rapport between band and audience, and the crowd call out for more.
As with Dream Circuit, one gets the feeling that playing unplugged sets isn’t the band’s natural environment, an idea enhanced by Čiurlionis playing with such passion he nearly severs the leg from the stool on which he’s precariously balanced. The Skys leave the stage to rapturous applause, a sign of their ability as a band and also the generosity of the crowd. The team behind HRH Prog need to sort out this acoustic arrangement if they intend to proceed with the initiative next year.
Touchstone’s appearance at HRH Prog was made all the more poignant by the pre-gig announcement that Kim Seviour was to call it a day after the show due to ongoing health problems. Thankfully for the fans unable to make this far-flung location, some additional farewell appearances have been booked for later in the year. Based on this show-stealing turn, all fans of the band should grab a ticket for the London and Leamington appearances whilst they can.
Touchstone are a direct, heavy yet well balanced reminder that this ‘resurgence’ of progressive music is more a media invention than a matter of fact – they’ve been doing it now for over a decade.
Rob Cottingham favours digital keyboard wizardry but tonight some of his presets come over as a little trebly. On the whole, the sonic interplay between the five is impressive, whilst Seviour’s physical on-stage interaction with her musical brothers is touching. Touchstone close with a fantastic rendition of ‘Wintercoast’ that encapsulates all that’s great about the band: heavy in places, delicate where necessary and utterly engrossing. ‘No more sense exploding’ – indeed. Kim, you will be sorely missed.
Next onto the stage, Lifesigns are a four-piece this evening. With John Young relatively constrained behind his keyboards, it’s up to guitarist Niko Tsonev and bassist ‘Random’ Jon Poole (the latter formerly of Cardiacs and The Wildhearts) to jump around the stage like children in a soft play area, all without missing a note. The band’s appeal lies in their melodic, innovative compositions, but the sound during their set is the worst all weekend. This muddiness unfortunately stops some of their intricacies from shining through, but crucially there’s a sense of fun inherent in Lifesigns’ performance – it’s clear that these guys are having a great time on stage, and this translates well to the crowd.
Following her acoustic triumph earlier in the day, Anna Phoebe is next up. Her band, who also play and record as Jurojin, are a delight, particularly tabla player Simran Ghalley, who only appears on selected tracks during the set. Much of the music is taken from her most recent LP Between the Shadow and the Soul, and it’s a masterstroke of Phoebe to use her inter-set banter to take the audience on a global journey in their collective minds’ eye.
Much of the music has a Middle-Eastern flavour but there are a lot of other influences at play, with guitarist Nicolas Rizzi able to dive into flamenco passages at one moment, whilst at another the ensemble more closely resemble a funk band. Anna Phoebe’s violin playing has the crowd mesmerised and it’s a certainty that a lot of the audience are converted by the time she’s done.
It’s hard to know where to begin when assessing The Enid’s performance. For a start, their set competes with Knifeworld for the accolade of the most genuinely progressive of the weekend – not bad for a band in their fifth decade of existence. It’s the perception of many casual observers that Robert John Godfrey is The Enid. This evening proves nothing could be further from the truth. Nowadays, The Enid’s prominent on stage presence is singer Joe Payne.
This is not to denigrate Godfrey, or any of the current line-up’s contributions; it’s just that it’s impossible to take your eyes off the beautiful Payne, who pouts, mimes and stalks the stage, his movements deliberately exaggerated for effect. It’s also impossible to ignore his vocals – already this young man has developed a deserved reputation for his range, clarity and distinctive, operatic vocal style. Such is the brilliance of Payne’s delivery it’s now hard to believe The Enid were once an instrumental band. It’s well known that Godfrey’s Alzheimer’s will eventually see him step down and that the band intend to carry on regardless. Whilst losing Godfrey’s creative genius would be a blow to any ensemble, it’s to his credit, thanks to his canny recent recruitments, that The Enid have what it takes to succeed without him.
It’s not until the encore that Godfrey, Payne or any of The Enid addresses the audience directly – this is theatre in its purest form. Less a collection of tracks from the group’s back catalogue and more a definitive art statement, the set touches on pieces from The Bridge but also includes classic material such as ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’; set in the imaginary world of Eniland, there is an underlying thematic discussion of nationalism and its dangers throughout. Sonically, The Enid favour symphonic rock with an emphasis on the symphonic. Sure, it’s bombastic and easy to mock, but it’s enthralling and brings the house down. The Enid have now played at all three iterations of HRH Prog and are booked to perform next time around as well. It’s rare that effectively the resident band at any event should be the highlight, but that’s simply the case here. Whilst not to everyone’s taste, there’s nothing quite like The Enid, and their live show should be experienced by all.
For the second night in a row, the headliners have a tough task following an incredible slot from the main support. This time around it’s Mostly Autumn and their job isn’t made any easier when drummer Alex Cromarty breaks his hand in the set-up. That could have been enough to see many bands pull their set, but amazingly, Mostly Autumn go on to prosper under these difficult conditions, with Cromarty keeping perfect time and even attempting drum fills that some players would struggle to achieve with four functioning limbs.
In Touchstone, Mostly Autumn and Magenta, HRH Prog features three of the best female-fronted neo-prog bands out there. Whilst this trio have a similar sound and style, Mostly Autumn lean more towards classic rock, as evidenced by Bryan Josh’s Gilmour-esque guitar tone. It’s the sheer professionalism of Mostly Autumn that reminds the crowd why they’ve picked to headline proceedings, and ‘Evergreen’ provides the highlight of an accomplished set. Friday was, then, the pick of the days at this year’s festival, and it’s pleasing to see members of most of the aforementioned bands interacting with audience and sharing a drink or several before last orders are called.
Saturday’s daytime line-up faces competition from not only the unseasonably warm weather and the likes of Robert Rankin and the seventh Doctor. Alongside these treats, this year’s Six Nations rugby tournament came to a thrilling close, and as such the arena apparently remained quiet as some of the weekend’s loudest acts took to the stage: Collibus; Agent; Landskap; Black Peaks and JUMP all lost out as a result.
As do Wales, who narrowly lose out in spite of scoring 61 points against Italy. Magenta, proud of their Welsh nationality, make reference to this agonisingly close sporting contest from the stage.
Any fears that Rob Reed and Christina Booth’s solo endeavours have lessened their appetite for Magenta are quickly put to bed, and by the time they close their set with ‘Metamorphosis’, arguably their masterpiece, the rugby result is long forgotten and the home nation heroes are the Caerdydd five-piece on stage. Booth is in fine voice tonight and the band’s sound references their progressive idols without ever sounding derivative. The announcement that Magenta will act as support at Touchstone’s final shows later this year is fitting – Booth’s struggles and return from cancer will hopefully provide a template for Seviour’s own health battles.
It’s been noted that there are a broad range of musical styles on offer over the weekend. Steeleye Span exemplify this – there are elements to their sound that could be described as progressive, but to many they’re a folk act first and foremost. This takes nothing away from a spirited and thoroughly enjoyable turn from the veterans. Maddy Prior fronts the ensemble, eyes closed and lost in reverie, plus there’s some excellent fiddle added by Jessie May Smart, who brings a youthful vigour to the ensemble.
Lyrically, the set is dark and engrossing – Span effortlessly embodying the ‘folk music as storytelling’ aspect of their craft. Given the passing of Terry Pratchett a week earlier, it’s only natural that tracks from the Wintersmith LP based on his Discworld novels are given an airing, but these stand up well alongside the band’s 70s classics. Of course, the biggest reception is reserved for ‘All Around My Hat’, which prompts a raucous sing-a-long. The queue for the solitary real ale pump in the adjacent arena is, following their set, as long as at any point over the weekend’s proceedings.
It’s left to Rick Wakeman to round things off. Favouring a microphone and a grand piano over the array of synths he’s more usually associated with, Wakeman treats the crowd to long stories and humorous anecdotes between pieces.
Many would have expected a full-on assault on the senses to end three days of brilliant music, but instead we’re treated to sumptuous piano renditions of many of the former Yes man’s best collaborative efforts, plus a host of solo works. It’s true that Wakeman spends as much time on the mic as he does at the piano stool but this is part of his charm – a couple of his jokes would be considered misogynist were it not for the fact that he’s so self-deprecating elsewhere. Should musical work ever dry up for the Yorkshireman he can take comfort from the fact that a career in stand up would not be ill advised – Wakeman can tickle the ribs just as well as the ivories.
Condensing the whole of Journey To The Centre Of The Earth into one 5-minute burst was both inspired and as quirky as some of Wakeman’s storytelling. Selections from The Six Wives of Henry VIII are well received, as are his renditions of Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’ and The Beatles ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – the latter performed in the style of Prokofiev! If there’s a criticism of the music, it’s that his sterling piano technique sometimes leaves little room for subtlety, and in fact there is a lack of tempo variation in his breakneck renditions. During his spoken interpolations, it becomes clear the regard he has for many, if not all, of his former colleagues. Jon Anderson seems to hold the highest place in his affections, and he claims to speak to the singer on the phone every week to this day. It’s easy enough to tell which of the discourses are spontaneous, and which well-rehearsed and told a thousand times. But these are minor complaints. ‘The Meeting’ is a high point, and of course it’s Wakeman’s Yes-associated works that earned him a position at prog’s top table. A medley containing ‘And You And I’ and appropriately, given the nature of the set, ‘Wondrous Stories’, is undoubtedly the best received of all his pieces this evening, and prog fans head back to their chalets exhausted but elated.
HRH have already announced a line-up of comparable strength for next year’s festival and accommodation is already on the verge of selling out. On the basis of HRH Prog 3, fans of the genre would be well advised to put down a deposit soon and avoid disappointment. In spite of a few organisational issues, Prog 3 is a massive success and a great way to sample the depth and breadth of talent working under the progressive banner in 2015.