All photos by Simon Dunkerley, used with permission.
After continuous growth throughout its first four incarnations, the fifth coming of HRH’s North Wales prog extravaganza marks a new chapter for the festival. Now, rather than being sidelined by sci-fi into an arena that befits Hafan y Môr’s holiday camp status, the festival has moved to the far more professional looking and sounding main arena. The expansion has also seen the festival take in a second stage, meaning fans can take their pick between two bands throughout most of the three-day event and the festival is able to showcase a wider range of progressive talent than ever before.
The Thursday remains a warm-up event, in truth, with only enough fans on site to warrant opening one of the arenas. Many, including this correspondent, are still arriving and miss Jump’s opening electric salvo. Those fans who do make it down for The Enid witness a brand new, young line-up finding their feet on a big stage. The trio begin all on percussion with a sound that recalls Ummagumma. Once the drum intro is done, there are regular vocals throughout the set. Zack Bullock sings “this is my vision”, but of course in actuality now-retired band-leader Robert John Godfrey can be heard, if not seen. Godfrey’s sound is immediately recognisable in a set that favours brave reworkings of existing material. Bullock, for now at least, resembles a keyboardist who sings, rather than a fully-fledged vocalist, and it’s former singer Joe Payne that’s most sorely missed from the multiple recent departures, ‘Who Created Me’ particularly highlighting his absence. The Enid are proficient but in effect this is a brand new band, and the feeling is they may have been thrust into the limelight a little too soon.
The crowd swells considerably for Pendragon, who up the ante with their brand of well-honed, classic neo-prog. The ensemble’s balance of masculine and feminine energy is a delight from the start. New drummer Jan-Vincent Velazco fits in perfectly, performing confident solos and showing enough flashes of brilliance to ensure he becomes a fixture in Pendragon’s relatively stable line-up. The band mark the 21st anniversary of their Masquerade Overture album by performing bonus track ‘King Of The Castle’, a piece with haunting backing vocals. More recent material, such as ‘Beautiful Soul’, taken from Men Who Climb Mountains, shows off Clive Nolan’s keyboard heroics, and the whole thing is held together by Nick Barret’s distinctive vocal that can growl or soar as required.
Gong round out the first day’s festivities with an orgiastic set full of invention. ‘Can’t Kill Me’ shows the range this line-up possess when handling the 70’s material, moving from staccato riffs to heavy instrumental passages then jazzy interludes. Both Fabio Golfetti and Kavus Torabi relish an opportunity to play glissando guitar whilst Dave Sturt’s fretless bass creates a fluid style that sees compositions morph and change. ‘The Unspeakable Stands Revealed’ and ‘Kapital’ prove that the band’s recent work stands up very well alongside their established fare, but ‘Master Builder’ really steals the show tonight. Powered by Cheb Nettle’s furious drumming, it’s the Glorious Om Riff in attack mode.
Maschine make an impact with some guitar histrionics on Friday afternoon. They’re a young band with duelling parts at the fore: whether it’s Luke Machin and Elliott Fuller’s contrasting lead styles, or Machin and keyboardist Marie-Eve De Gaultier’s vocal parts, there’s a lot going on. Closing one’s eyes, one imagines the band on stage would be far more advanced in years, such is the interplay between the group. They’re not afraid to supplement material from Rubidium and Naturalis with a new composition, provisionally named ‘New Reality’ or ‘Weird Fish’. Like a school project come good, Maschine possess a great visual symmetry, an earnest vocal style and conclude with a 7/4 guitar jam with interesting tonality.
Panic Room are also unafraid to play new material, with Anne Marie Helder confessing they were finishing off the lyrics to a new track in the accommodation provided. Although Helder’s beautiful voice holds the crowd enrapt, the band err towards the heavier end of their spectrum this evening, with Dave Foster’s rock guitar upfront, and still the atmosphere fails to ignite. Next door, Dream Circuit serve up melodic, guitar-led prog rock before Davy O List plays a spritely, jazz infused set. Curved Air’s Sonia Kristina was unwell last year and unable to play. This evening she makes up for her absence with a spirited performance. Violinist Paul Sax and keyboardist Robert Norton also shine.
John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest are very well received, and what the ensemble lack in power, they make up for in pure, melodic clarity. ‘Mocking Bird’ perfectly demonstrates the line-up’s understated majesty. The David Cross Band are not just a solo vehicle for the violinist who fronts the band: they’ve a powerful rock sound with Van Der Graaf Generator’s David Jackson guesting on two saxes at once to add a second lead instrument. With Craig Blundell behind the kit the band are full of energy, but are at their best when the sound is spacious. After an amusing false start, ‘Rain’, taken from last year’s Sign Of The Crow, begins with a delicate pizzicato opening before dynamic slap bass from Mick Paul introduces Cross’ smoke-and-mirrors, heavily effected violin. This is followed by ‘Exiles’, taken from King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, a fitting and emotional tribute to the recently deceased John Wetton.
Hawkwind draw the biggest crowd of the entire festival for their Friday night performance. ‘Steppenwolf’ sounds crazed, barely in control, with bassist and childhood fan Haz Wheaton driving the sound forward with percussive, inventive playing as his mane flails wildly around him. Meanwhile, Mr Dibs enigmatic presence on howling vocals adds a touch of showmanship to the headline set. That they’re able to improvise to the extent they do, within relatively straightforward material, is part of the band’s appeal and ensures that, however bludgeoning its riffs, each composition takes off, ascending to the stratosphere. The results are overwhelming.
Space rock and prog sometimes appear to be odd bedfellows. With little or no virtuosity on stage this evening, Dave Brock’s ensemble rely instead on sheer force to get their message across. ‘Synchronised Blue’ is one of three songs taken from The Machine Stops, each using the album version as the blueprint for an extended jam. At times Hawkwind border on psy trance, with Richard Chadwick happy to play his kick on the downbeat, propelling the music forward. The packed auditorium laps up the hysterical melee, but remain stood still throughout, oddly. Only encore number ‘Silver Machine’ sees the crowd appear to let their hair down and match the intensity of the sonic onslaught with moves of their own.
Saturday begins with Bad Elephant signings Konchordat, whose sound is as direct as vocalist and guitarist Stuart Martin’s stage manner. Konchordat blow away the cobwebs effectively with heavy rock, a recurring theme on a weekend promoted by Hard Rock Hell, and with many of the crowd nursing hangovers from the day before, only a limited number make the earliest set time of the weekend. They close with ‘Panic Room’, their most memorable composition and also one of their most expansive numbers. Martin’s guitar and Neil Watts’ keyboards take turns to solo, before ending in a splendid unison.
Saturday afternoon is full of variety. Karnataka, like many of the acts booked, perform a second, acoustic set, effectively a vehicle for the angelic tones of Hayley Griffiths and Enrico Pinna’s intricate fretwork. Heights are a ponderous proposition and worthy of further investigation, but clash with The Strawbs, who draw the bigger crowd. Dave Cousins’ outfit opt to perform Hero and Heroine in its entirety, no bad move given it’s one of their most progressive-leaning albums. Whilst the sound is warm, the vocals struggle to cut through, and at times the effect is closer to pub rock than progressive folk. HRH have nailed this slot in the past and it’s hard not to draw unfavourable comparisons between The Strawbs and Steeleye Span’s triumphant showing in 2015.
Another big overlap between two top acts defines Saturday evening as a slot worthy of reserving energy for, with this correspondent dashing back and forth to catch as much of Gandalf’s Fist and IQ as is possible. The Fist take to the stage first with a fun approach to the genre that wins them many fans this evening. ‘Shadowborn’ sets out their stall – a steampunk aesthetic and a full, theatrical sound and appearance. IQ are, by contrast, a little quiet. They favour material from The Road Of Bones, their most recent LP, which is full of gothic threat and menace.
There’s no such subtlety in arena 2: Gandalf’s Fist unashamedly perform songs about goblins that bring humour to the fore (the songs, not the goblins). Dean Marsh is the weakest of their three vocalists, but there’s no shortage of power from Keri Farish and Luke Severn’s contributions are also delightful. The crowd roar in approval and persuade Gandalf’s Fist to don pirate costumes and return for a fully deserved encore. IQ close their set with ‘Headlong’, one of the finest neo-prog tracks of the 80s. It’s hard to take your eyes off Peter Nicholls, an engaging frontman. Perhaps it was the lack of a crossover hit that’s prevented IQ from filling stadiums. On tonight’s evidence, both bands deserve a bigger crowd and fanbase.
The crowd is noticeably thinner for Wishbone Ash’s headline set on Saturday than 24 hours’ previous for Hawkwind. Famed for Andy Powell and Ted Turner’s twin lead guitar sound during their 70’s heyday, Powell and Muddy Manninen recreate this effortlessly with great interplay between their instruments. There are welcome harmony vocals, too, plus audience participation encouraged during ‘Jailbait’. The band even venture away from their classic material, performing a 90s instrumental track before they focus in on their best album, Argus, to the delight of the crowd. ‘Warrior’ is a highlight and Powell and Manninen trade classy licks throughout this and the remainder of the set, receiving a standing ovation and earning their encore.
It’s left to The Enid to close proceedings. This turns out to be a very different incarnation of the band to that heard on Thursday night – Robert John Godfrey treats the dwindling punters to some improvised, classical solo piano material, in a booking reminiscent of Rick Wakeman’s closing set two year’s prior. It’s a short show, followed by a lecture, that puzzles many of the more inebriated in attendance. Yet contained within the reduced run-time are more progressive ideas that appear in some band’s extended outings over the weekend. There’s much to admire about HRH Prog, but the ageing crowd’s preference for music of their youth, plus a leaning towards classic rock bands over more experimental prog troupes is a shame.
HRH Prog V isn’t without its shortcomings. The festival’s policy of effectively letting the fans vote for the bands ensures the line-up errs on the side of caution. The next event, scheduled for November, has another strong billing, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that things are becoming a little rotational. In spite of the addition of a second stage, there are still only 29 bands performing – only one more than when the festival was first staged in 2013. In previous years, the acoustic sets have been over-subscribed and poorly organised. This has been resolved by limiting attendance to those with premium tickets and the media, which smacks of maximising revenue, literally at the expense of the fans. With noise restrictions governing what goes on in the chalets once the evening’s entertainment is through, it’s a shame that advertised after parties fail to take place. The sound is also far from perfect, although the improved staging helps here no end. Overall, HRH Prog V is a resounding success, made as much by the friendly crowd as the on-stage talent. If you’re a fan of progressive music, don’t let the accessibility of the stunning location put you off – it’s well worth the long trip to North Wales’ most remote corner.