The ethos of Be Prog! My Friend mirrors the space in which the festival is held. Poble Espanyol is a secluded sunspot that hovers over the bustling city, a haven for art and architecture with a sculpture garden adjacent to the action and characterful cafes hemming in the attendant progressive music fans into a charming courtyard. The venue’s confines dictate the number of stages; the organisers’ less-is-more booking policy is in keeping with Poble Espanyol’s geographical limitations. Merely 10 acts appear in 2017, giving each an opportunity to play an extended set. The selection of artists is as unique as the setting – in 2015 Be Prog! famously married Meshuggah and Camel. This year is no exception, strategically placing challenging music at the heart of a left-of-centre progressive bill, albeit one with a leaning toward the genre’s more metallic realms.
With the sun beating down on Friday afternoon and sangria being plentifully consumed, Caligula’s Horse opt not to air material from their forthcoming LP In Contact. Josh Griffin’s drumming suggests that the Australian’s recent personnel changes will only add to their growing reputation; Jim Grey is a charismatic frontman, rocking out whilst delivering plaintive vocals. Complex yet melodic, ‘Daughter of the Mountain’ features daring guitar from Sam Vallen, Dave Couper’s slap bass punctuating the detuned djent riffs. Testament to the affection felt towards this relatively new band, the crowd sing along throughout ‘Rust’, the band’s anthemic cessation.
Saturday’s openers Jardin De La Croix waste no time finding their groove – a heavy yet melodic blend that’s equal parts prog, post and math rock. Piercing lead lines and an apocalyptic rhythm section ensure the instrumental band receive a rapturous response from the partisan crowd.
Animals As Leaders performance on the Friday is as technical as it gets. The band blend the complexity of jazz with the intensity of metal. It’s a shame that early on, the mix buries Tosin Abasi’s guitar, leaving many cold to his virtuosic playing on a warm summer day. The mix improves and the widescreen flamenco experiments of ‘The Brain Dance’ reveal a rich rhythmic and harmonic language at the core of the trio’s sound.
Devin Townsend suffers from technical issues and resorts to comic entertainment prior to his performance. One of the quirks of Be Prog! is the opportunity to see acts performing material they might not otherwise. In this case, Townsend opts to play Ocean Machine: Biomech in its entirety. The LP is one of Devin Townsend Project’s more serious affairs, and although at times the sound veers towards straight power metal, there are hypnotic segments and ambient episodes that lend the material an epic edge. The second half of the LP is relatively calm after a bombastic onslaught early on.
Townsend was not the only star revisiting rarely heard parts of his back catalogue in Barcelona. Installed behind a sizeable kit, Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress sees the drummer joined by Eric Gillette, his companion in the Neal Morse Band, plus most of Haken, to tackle Dream Theatre’s 12 Step Suite for a limited run of shows. Putting the marketing spin about “exclusive markets” to one side, the music is very good, with Gillette taking lead guitar duties alongside some great keytar from Diego Tejeida. The set opens with material from Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, before ‘The Mirror’ precedes the suite itself.
Haken are clearly indebted to Dream Theatre and look to be relishing the opportunity to perform such classic material, although sometimes there’s little for the three guitars to do other than play one riff. It’s hard not to compare Haken to the counterparts who performed the material originally – Ross Jennings, for all his talent, is no James LaBrie, but with Portnoy and Gillette also weighing in with vocal contributions, the ensemble deliver sobriety anthems to a boozy crowd with great visuals of crawling ants to drive home the message. The band encore with more material from Scenes From A Memory, culminating in a spirited performance of ‘Finally Free’. Tonight Portnoy shines like the “brilliant white light” the song describes. The audience reaction to the set is incredible: the fans know they’re witnessing something special.
Anathema see in the dusk on Saturday and experience some technical issues early on, but these are ironed out by the time Lee Douglas’ beautiful vocals arrive during the second part of opener ‘Untouchable’. The band bravely opt to follow this with three tracks from new opus The Optimist. ‘Leaving It Behind’ has broken beats that recall turn-of-the-century Radiohead; ‘Endless Ways’ is expressive progressive rock; whilst by the epic end of the album’s title track, the relentless darkness of the material sees the crowd on the verge of emotional exhaustion. Performing the album in its entirety, as Anathema plan to do this autumn, should make for a fully immersive concert experience.
Vincent Cavanagh’s voice is as pure when he sings in falsetto as at is in his natural register. Daniel Cavanagh has reportedly been through a dark time of late. ‘Thin Air’, taken from We’re Here Because We’re Here, sees the guitarist and songwriter soaking up the love and applause on offer like a man who needs the audience’s adulation, before a crackling interference ruins the build up at the end of the tune. ‘Dreaming Light’, which Daniel proclaims as his favourite Anathema track, is a piano ballad that’s as far from the band’s black metal beginnings as it gets. ‘Can’t Let Go’ shows a more chirpy, indie rock flavour to The Optimist, before Daniel Cardoso takes a turn on keyboards during ‘The Beginning And The End’, taken from 2012’s Weather Systems.
As the clouds turn pink and the sun sets, the band ramp up into ‘Closer’, which with its incredible vocoders and on-the-beat kick drums, isn’t far removed from techno. There’s a sense of things really mattering to Anathema tonight, and the crowd sing and clap along obligingly, completely onside. Lee Douglas takes the spotlight for ‘Springfield and ‘A Natural Disaster before the band close with ‘Distant Satellites’. Cardoso’s juddering electro rock rhythms, Vincent Cavanagh’s melancholy vocals and the heaviness of three floor toms represent an amazing end to a top class set – the song is arguably the finest Anathema have ever penned and it represents the highpoint of the whole two-day festival.
On a bill full of excellent musicianship, and following standout sets by Mike Portnoy and Anathema respectively, headliners Marillion and Jethro Tull have a tough task of topping what’s come before. Marillion, seemingly able to rehearse and perform an entirely different set on any night of the week, keep with the festival’s philosophy, performing the entirety of their most recent album Fuck Everyone and Run, alongside three older pieces: opener ‘The Invisible Man’ sees Steve Hogarth make a grand entrance; he straps on an amped up cricket bat during ‘Strange Engine’ and reappears wearing a CND t-shirt for a daring encore of ‘Gaza’.
H is a commanding presence throughout and every member shines on the new, complex, multi-part material. It’s clear why Marillion are headliners – they’re mature, accomplished songwriters and, thanks to the political edge and sensitive lyrical handling of complex subject matter, relevant too. Based on tonight’s showing, the only thing that’s stopping the quintet being seen in the same league of progressive greats as their own heroes Genesis is that they came on the scene a decade too late for that “classic” status. It’s an epic performance that encompasses every side of the progressive spectrum except for metal, with electronic beats, silky solos from Steve Rothery and Mark Kelly set against visual backdrops that, as with Portnoy before them, really drive home the message in the music. It’s hard not to get teary when Hogarth proclaims “there’s so much more than binds us than divides us”.
Ian Anderson’s Jethro Tull promise a “best of”, and whilst that’s a very subjective selection criteria for a band with as rich a heritage as Tull, Be Prog! My Friend is treated to a superb set that includes ‘Thick As A Brick’, ‘Songs From The Wood’ and ‘Aqualung’. Anderson’s flute is great but sometimes Florian Ophale’s guitar is too technical, lacking the natural breath-like quality of Martin Barre’s playing. Orphale does a great turn on Bach’s ‘Boureé’, transposing the popular lute piece to electric guitar. Anderson bows, as though unworthy of the prodigious talent the young guitarist brings to his ensemble. Scott Hammond performs an equally interesting drum solo and the songs are accompanied by a light show befitting of headliners.
Anderson is the consummate showman, and whilst one wonders if he may have been a muse for the tragic prog star at the heart of Tim Bowness’ latest, Lost In The Ghost Light (on which Anderson guests), his star shines brighter this evening than it has during recent shows. If only Anderson’s ego would allow him to hire a singer to compliment his skills as a flautist…
It’s left to a Norwegian band with roots in black metal to close off the festivities on both days. Ulver are not ones to pander to an audience, and opt to perform solely their new album released just months prior to the festival. The Assassination of Julius Caesar is a departure for a band renown for left turns, with no hint of metal in a sound that favours synth tones, leans towards 80s new wave music and also at times betrays a free jazz influence. The lyrical subject matter deals with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the death of the countercultural dream alongside Anton La Vey, a Papal assassination attempt and ecstatic saints. Thematically most of this goes over the head of the now tipsy crowd. Drunk fans either depart prior to the outfit launching into their electronic excursions, or stay for the duration, some transfixed, others dancing wildly.
Leprous take a more obviously crowd-pleasing approach to compiling a set-list: they let the fans vote for their favourite material. Put simply, request shows work! Einar Solberg’s voice soars during a set that draws heavily from The Congregation, Coal and Bilateral albums but also finds space to preview a track from forthcoming LP Malina, entitled ‘From The Flame’. By the encore of ‘Slave’, those with the staying power to make it to the end of this extravaganza go wild as Be Prog! My Friend signs off its 2017 edition on a high. If the bill for the next year’s festival is as good as this year’s, it’ll be a date not to miss.