HRH Prog VIDates: November 16, 2017– November 19, 2017
Progressive rock fans are creatures of habit, and it’s no surprise to see many familiar faces have made the trek to North Wales’ furthest flung corner to partake in another three-day festival dedicated to the genre. Whilst Summer’s End may boast a more internationally diverse line-up, there can be little arguing that the strength in depth present at HRH Prog makes this the UK’s premier progressive music festival, and closest rival to continental cousins Be Prog! My Friend (Spain) and the Night Of The Prog event (Germany).
Having expanded at every turn until now, Prog VI sees the festival firmly in consolidation mode. The staging and format are both familiar to regular attendees – little surprise given it’s been only a little over half a year since the last festival. There’s still room for improvement – the empty acoustic slots, the swathes of often empty reserved seating for premium ticket-holders, and the unfortunate distance between stage and merchandise stalls that plagued past events all remain unresolved issues. These are minor gripes as on the whole the event is a slick operation by a team who have honed the chalet festival experience via the medium of heavy rock.
The line-up for this year’s event draws on past billings, with 12 of the 30 acts having previously performed at the festival, and half of these having done so more than once. Perhaps this is inevitable, given the six-month turnaround. What’s laudable is the rotational nature of the booking policy, which means only one act (David Cross Band) appeared at the event in March. Whilst a few more left-field bookings wouldn’t go amiss, there’s enough new talent on offer to keep things fresh; and it’s only fair to allow some of the hits-of-festivals-past an opportunity to hawk their wares on the louder, cleaner sound system afforded to HRH Prog since it divorced from the Sci-Fi event it formerly cohabited with.
IO Earth kick things off on the quieter Thursday night. ‘The Creation’ exemplifies what this band do best, which is a bit of everything: metal, epic rock, ethnic and cCeltic influences all take their turn to come to the fore in multifaceted compositions with catchy refrains. It’s not just founder members Adam Gough and Dave Cureton that shine during their early set, although Cureton certainly pulls the most memorable faces whilst playing. Jez King’s violins and Luke Shingler’s wind instruments both add to the instrumental dynamic, and in Rosana Lefevre, they’ve found a vocalist with confidence, power and sass to replace Linda Odinsen. This is all the more incredible given Lefevre is just 23 years old!
Krankschaft may not have youth on their side, and theirs is a well-worn sound, but it’s none the worse for it. Blending prog and punk is oh-so-fashionable in 2017, yet there’s nothing trendy about the high-octane, blistering space rock delivered by this power trio. The band have more in common with Inner City Unit than their more famous associates Hawkwind, but in truth are more fun than either of these peers. Theirs is a tight, appealing sound ably powered by Kevin Walker’s unfussy drumming and Alex Tsentides’ attention-grabbing basslines. For all the rhythm section’s ferocity, it’s band-leader Steve Pond, dressed in a jumpsuit, who provides the main focus, with countless searing guitar solos and sonic diversions throughout the set.
‘The Moon Rang Like a Bell’ is a beautiful piece; ‘Come Fly With Us’ is a direct attack that sounds exactly as its title suggests; ‘Binary Stars’ has an indie lope that demonstrates Krankschaft are not one-trick ponies. The robust ‘Who What Why’ is arguably their best performance tonight and although the chorus rhyming in ‘Interstellar Highway’ is best forgotten, thankfully the song has a guitar solo that ensures it’s forgiven, too. ‘Sheep’, described by Pond as the band’s “Marmite song”, is a good starting point for the uninitiated: Krankschaft are a cult act with conspiracy obsessed lyrics, a unique visual style and a sense of humour. They’re undoubtedly the highlight of Day One.
Mostly Autumn are one of those bands who perhaps deserve the improved staging at Prog VI. They’ve previously headlined the main event, and their relative demotion here only has to do with the growth of the festival – Mostly Autumn remain undiminished. Opening with the lengthy ‘Sight Of Day’, the title track of their latest opus, the seven-piece band play an extended set of prog that improves as the mix gives Olivia Sparnenn-Josh’s vocals more space to breathe. Bryan Josh’s guitar work is masterful from the start, of course, but perhaps the band would have benefited from a less stylistically diverse billing – they’re a million miles away from Krankschaft, and perhaps seem a little po-faced by comparison. With no Arena 2 on offer to provide a musical counterpoint, some fans head to their chalets before the conclusion.
The festival really comes into its own on the Friday, with the opening of the second stage. Kyros, first on, are as talented as they are young and draw the early risers away from the traders, eateries and CD shops. Six-strong and boasting three-part vocal lines, Adam Warne’s international ensemble possess all the ingredients to make the step up the bill in future years, with complex song structures, a rockstar in waiting in bassist Peter Episcopo, and a twin prog-metal guitar assault in the form of Sam Higgins and Joey Frevola, both of whom wear their influences proudly on their sleeves.
Edgar Broughton opens the main stage, dressed in black, with a plaintive performance including oldies such as ‘Hotel Room’. This acoustic triumph stands in stark contrast to the HRH Unplugged stage. Krankschaft miss their lunchtime slot, after having been led astray by HRH staff throughout the night. The Tirith’s four-song turn here is charming: ‘Laurelae’ is lovely and should act as an advert for their second stage appearance the following day, except there’s barely anyone here to hear them. Tim Cox and Dick Cory describe the performance from the stage as reminding them of being kids with acoustic guitars. It’s a delicate and intimate set that deserves a bigger audience.
Media commitments and scheduling issues meant this reviewer missed Heather Findlay’s solo set, which apparently raised smiles by revisiting Mostly Autumn favourites. Echoes and Dust were also absent for quality revivalists Third Quadrant, Finnish/English polyrhythmic rockers Wheel and exciting newcomers L’Anima, who add flamenco touches to their prog metal. Godsticks unfortunately clash with Hawklords, but impress with their aggressive, complex metallic riffing in a set drawn largely from their new album Faced With Rage. Sonic Tapestry favour a bluesy organ heavy sound, whilst the David Cross Band are as entertaining as ever, ending with the King Crimson classic ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ (although it’s not the best version of the piece heard this weekend).
Godsticks aren’t the only heavier band to make hay on Friday. Von Hertzen Brothers are fan favourites at this festival and have stunning new material to debut – they open with the epic title track from new album War Is Over, before launching into the record’s brilliant lead single ‘The Arsonist’. Von Hertzen Brothers are a slick rock act and present a clutch of older material alongside heaps of new album tracks, satisfying an entirely partisan crowd in the process. For a relatively young act in the prog scene (they were formed this millennium, just) they attract a devoted following.
Earlier in the evening, Caravan play another stunning set. Last time they performed here, our review suggested they should headline every year; and whilst they’re not as high up the bill this time around they still deliver in style. What’s notable is, even on newer, softer rock material, just what a tight ensemble they are. The In The Land Of Grey and Pink tracks receive the best reception this evening and the set culminates with a note-perfect rendition of ‘Nine Feet Underground’, Jan Schelhaas ably stepping into David Sinclair’s shoes.
Before that it’s Hawklords, whose turn is so convincing this writer happily bestows band of the day onto them there and then. Their set draws more heavily from last year’s Fusion LP than the newer Six but also finds time to pull in a few Hawkwind numbers – namely Robert Calvert’s ‘The Right Stuff’, and ‘Coded Languages’ (a track co-written by Harvey Bainbridge). What’s remarkable is how well the newer incarnation of Hawklords’ material stands up to these older tracks. ‘Out Of Phase’ is as creepy as it is mind-expanding; ‘Ghost In My Machine’ is cut from the same cloth; ‘Circus Freaks’ call-and-response vocal repetition sounds as good live as it does on record. It’s telling that the band are able to drop ‘We Are One’, their calling card, from the setlist and still deliver in spades. By the time the band climax with a spunky ‘SR-71’ and a final tribute to Calvert in the form of ‘Ground Control To Pilot’ and ‘Ejection’, they’ve won over the neutrals and surely found themselves a fair few new fans in the process.
Harvey Bainbridge plays synths and sings as though he’s fried his brain with acid in the best possible way. Jerry Richards acts as Bainbridge’s more sinister counterpart on guitar with dark, ghostly eyes. With effectively two great frontmen in Bainbridge and Richards the duo of Dave Pearce on percussion and Tom Ashurst on bass complement the former Hawkwind members with aplomb, and ensure Ron Tree’s absence isn’t felt too keenly. Pearce has been a key figure in writing the new album, whilst in Ashurt Hawklords have a bassist with the same youthful energy and commitment to performance that marks out Hawkwind’s Haz Wheaton as one to watch. Ashurt’s dynamism is all the more pleasing for his polite, theatrical bows at the end of each number.
With Hawklords, Caravan and Von Hertzen Brothers all appearing back to back on the main stage it’s easy to see why some fans have found their seats early and don’t appear inclined to give them up. Many are waiting for Uriah Heep’s headline show but, whilst the crowd lap it up, their heavy rock sound is too un-reconstituted and disappoints for those not in thrall to their 70s heyday.
Threshold close the second stage on the Friday night providing a more progressive end to proceedings than that available across the way. Reunited with former frontman Glynn Morgan, the band hit their stride from the start, Morgan prowling the stage and belting out his vocals with an assured confidence regardless of whether he originally sang on the material or not. Morgan also picks up a guitar frequently throughout the set providing rhythm and harmony lead-lines to complement Karl Groom’s playing. In a career-spanning set, heavy on new LP Legends Of The Shires, every tune is full of drama. It’s strange that Threshold haven’t been invited to perform at HRH Prog previously, something that’s remarked upon from the stage. On the basis of this evening’s show they should be invited back: Threshold firmly grasp the opportunity.
Saturday starts with a trio of talented acts on the second stage: Welsh neo-proggers Multi Story, and The Tirith (previously known as Minas Tirith) are both older bands that have reformed and revamped their sound. Both should be given credit for not resting on past glories but forging ahead into the 21st century. The Far Meadow are another melodic entity and go down well with a crowd whose natural inclination seems to err towards neo-prog sounds.
The biggest disappointment of the day, and perhaps the weekend, is the cancellation of Touchstone. The band played an emotional gig at HRH Prog in 2015 shortly after the band’s singer Kim Seviour had announced she was to step down from the band for health reasons. There was a great sense of anticipation surrounding their return to the festival with a new line-up, but the gig was not to be. The band have since announced the departure of Aggie, Seviour’s replacement, suggesting all was not well musically within the camp. Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate step in at the 11th hour to fill the vacant slot.
Magenta have perhaps the most pristine sound of the weekend. The Welsh band perform two tracks from their new three-song LP during their set, opening with a cut-down version of the truly gargantuan ‘Trojan’. ‘Colours’, itself clocking in at over 10 minutes, showcases the talents of the band’s core trio: Christina Booth’s vocals are clean and emotive; Chris Fry’s guitars are sympathetic to the rest of the ensemble yet capable of taking the spotlight when required; Rob Reed conducts and coordinates the ensemble from his keyboards and isn’t averse to flashes of brilliant showmanship when it’s his turn to solo.
Focus are a band with a sense of frivolity, captured in a strong opening duo of ‘Focus I’ (originally a Thijs van Leer solo track) and ‘House Of The King’, taken from their debut album. Then, something special happens: Focus take on ‘Eruption’, the complex, multipart composition from Moving Waves. Sure, this is the same opening trio of tracks as when the band last performed here in 2016, but few in the audience would complain at hearing a second outing for this number. The entirety of Kepler Ten’s set clashes with Focus, drastically reducing their pull. It’s a shame as they’re another band with a sense of fun, albeit in a more conventional style.
Back on the main stage Van Leer leads the band through an amusing jazzy call-and-response section; but it’s not just the band’s de facto leader who impresses this evening: Pierre van der Linden plays a long, musical drum solo (although it’s not the best, nor longest, drum solo of the weekend); Udo Pannekeet demonstrates he’s an able replacement for Bobby Jacobs on bass, whilst Menno Gootjes’ guitar expositions are as engaging as van Leer’s flute, organ and vocal contributions. Which other artist could move seamlessly from “introducing the band” to yodelling?! Inevitably, ‘Hocus Pocus’ concludes proceedings and brings the house down.
It’s wholly instrumental bands that steal the show on the Saturday, though. First up, The Fierce And The Dead perform another stand-out set of loud, creative, heavy guitar music (although it’s not the instrumental set of the weekend). Mixing older offerings with as-yet-unreleased material, their ethos of drinking beer, imagining strange bands in sound clashes and playing hard and fast strikes a chord with those attendees by now saturated with the overly complex and serious sounds heard elsewhere. Of course, the real truth is The Fierce And The Dead are much more intelligent musically than the lads let on, but don’t let the facts get in the way of a good riff or two. This is a sound well suited to festival stages. ‘666…6’ brings things to a close and ensures a raucous reception for the Northampton quartet.
Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy are far more than a tribute band. Their winning formula mixes up cover versions of orchestral tunes performed by Palmer’s former band, alongside compositions by Palmer and the recently deceased Emerson and Lake, all interspersed by witty anecdotes from the drum legend himself. After an opening classical twosome, we’re treated to some ELP originals, including ‘Trilogy’, a chance for Palmer’s young compatriots to show their stuff. This is a genuine trio and although guitarist Paul Bielatowicz pulls horrendously off-putting faces throughout the set, his playing is as quick as lightning. Simon Fitzpatrick switches between bass guitar and Chapman Stick, allowing him to take on his fair share of Emerson’s famous synth lines.
Palmer’s decision not to use a keys player is a brave one. This, plus the fact that ELP Legacy remain instrumental throughout, ensures a fresh take on well-known material. With a set that includes ‘Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2’, ELP’s Bartok interpolation ‘The Barbarian’, a rousing ‘America’ (dedicated to Emerson), ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, ‘Jerusalem’, an emotional ‘Lucky Man’ (dedicated to Lake), ‘O Fortuna’ and ‘Fanfare For A Common Man’, even stale interpretations would have gone down well.
Palmer, who looks genuinely touched by the reception the band receive, plays with an intensity belying his age. During ‘Fanfare…’, he launches into the most audacious yet musical drum solo this reviewer has ever heard: perfecting almost every technique there is to master on the kit, he plays the sticks, stands, gongs, finds time for humour and crucially mesmerises the audience for just shy of 10 minutes before his stringed cohorts come crashing back in. ‘Nutrocker’, to end, is just the icing on the cake in a set with heart and virtuosity upfront.
Over on Stage 2, two relatively new acts demonstrate they’ve a bright future ahead of them. Ghost Community favour a classic rock sound, whilst Cairo retain a sense of mystery in a strong showing. Alan Reed and the Daughters Of Expediency are the last act to perform, blending Reed’s own Celtic-sounding, lyrically incisive compositions with Pallas tracks including the pomp of ‘For The Greater Glory’.
The main stage is wound down by Magnum. Much like Uriah Heep the night before, Magnum might once have been considered a progressive band. Now, alas, they sound like rock dinosaurs. The problem with the line-up at Prog VI is limited to a poor choice of headliners. Perhaps designed to appeal more to HRH’s wider hard rock and metal fanbase than aficionados of the genre represented this weekend, both go down a storm with the majority of those present, but such regressive selections hint at an issue for the festival: the biggest names in prog are perhaps unwilling to appear, for whatever reason, and yet with a largely recurring stable of bands selected by conservative fans making up the majority of the bill, it’s necessary to find an act capable of pulling in punters and creating a certain “wow” factor.
Some festivals thrive on repeat bookings. Kozfest, for example, has largely the same bands appearing year in, year out; but by booking head-turning headliners with a real allure, the feel is more familial than frustrating. Rumours already abound as to who will top the bill at HRH Prog in 2018. Get this right and there’s no reason to suspect anything other than another bumper year ahead. Even if Prog VI feels like it’s treading water, it’s still a unique event and something that should be experienced at least once by any self-respecting UK-based prog rock fan.
All photos by Simon Dunkerley, used with permission.