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Various Artists (Concept albums & Themed compilations) - Progfest '95 CD (album) cover

PROGFEST '95

Various Artists (Concept albums & Themed compilations)

 

Various Genres

4.02 | 11 ratings

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Neu!mann
Prog Reviewer
4 stars The 3rd annual Los Angeles International Progressive Music Festival (Progfest, for short) is captured in all its idiosyncratic glory on two CDs, like the 1994 edition offering an invaluable introduction to the wider world of 1990s Prog Rock. There's fewer groups and less music than on the Progfest '94 double-disc, but it's a far more geographically diverse mix of talent, with bands from America (this year only one: the ubiquitous SPOCK'S BEARD), Scandinavia (of course), southern and eastern Europe, and the real novelty of the line-up: Japan's ARS NOVA.

All the featured bands were new to me at first, and none was more surprising than ARS NOVA: a gender-bent oriental analogue of EMERSON, LAKE AND PALMER (I kid you not). Maybe it's a cultural thing, or maybe it's the cold, clinical sound of all those modern digital keyboards, but even at their liveliest the ARS NOVA girls are a dispassionate bunch, only occasionally generating anything close to real musical excitement. But at least the trio is more original than other ELP clones (step forward Jürgen Fritz and TRIUMVIRAT).

Next up are three songs by LANDBERK, a now defunct and underappreciated Swedish combo (partially reformed as PAATOS, and still worth a listen) known for their melancholy spirit and surprising post-Punk guitar sound. Except for the mellotron I'd hesitate to even call it Progressive Rock, but never mind: this is galvanizing stuff, moving from the dense power chords of "Kontiki" to moments of subtlety (and in the same song!) so quiet you could almost hear a pin drop in the auditorium, all performed with an energy and emotion never dreamt of in a group like U2 (kindred spirits, believe or not).

Closing Disc One is the Italian outfit DEUS EX MACHINA, with four songs of incredibly complex, high-octane Jazz-Rock Fusion. This is clearly the most demanding and difficult music on either CD, not least because of the operatic tenor vocals of Alberto Piras (singing in Latin). But to patient ears it can prove in the long run to also be the most rewarding, despite a typically indulgent but mercifully brief drum solo during the otherwise rocket-fueled climax of "Si Tu Bene Valeas Ego Bene Valeo" (a song title unlikely to ever appear on a jukebox single, I think we can all agree).

After that it's a relief to sit back and soak up the (relatively) more relaxed ambience of WHITE WILLOW, then fresh from recording their debut album "Ignis Fatuus". This versatile group from Norway has a range extending from the atmospheric to the aggressive, with a lovely vocal performance (in English) by Sara Tronal on "Lord of Night", a song recalling the fabulous supernatural narratives of Anne Rice. Woodwinds and violins add a nice classical touch, but the band is still capable of the occasional no-holds-barred psychedelic freak-out, as in the 10+ minute "Cryptomenysis", which builds up to an apocalyptic climax of near-biblical proportions.

The popular and prolific Neo-Proggers (and local So Cal heroes) of SPOCK'S BEARD will likely need no introduction here. Like WHITE WILLOW, they were basking in the glow of their first album, "The Light", opening their set with the excellent 16+ minute title track (like many of the other invited bands, The Beard would later release their entire Progfest performance separately, in this case on the 1996 "Official Live Bootleg" CD).

I confess it took a long time and several listens for me to warm to the melodramatic vocal style of Neal Morse, but there's no denying the sheer instrumental power (and good old fashioned chops) of their music. I only wish more of their repertoire had been included here: with a miserly running time of only 55 minutes, there was certainly room on Disc Two for another epic multi-movement suite.

The final group of the two-CD set is SOLARIS, a muscular instrumental septet from Hungary, combining Keith Emerson-style keyboard histrionics, breathy Ian Anderson flute playing, and lots of macho guitar riffing. An energetic performance, and the distinct Magyar flavor of their music, properly wowed the receptive LA audience, and together with Ars Nova provided a fitting pair of likeminded international bookends to the festival.

One advantage of a live compilation like this is that none of the bands are allowed enough time to wear out its welcome: a moot issue anyway, with this collection of talent. But the real benefit is a chance to expand your horizons with a handy and generous one-stop sampling of new Progressive music from around the world. Judging from how my own CD collection began growing exponentially after first hearing this collection (and its 1994 predecessor), I can only say it became a much- valued cornerstone in one Proghead's music library.

Neu!mann | 4/5 |

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