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Various Artists (Concept albums & Themed compilations) - Progfest '94 CD (album) cover


Various Artists (Concept albums & Themed compilations)


Various Genres

3.67 | 15 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars We all had to start somewhere. There must have been a time when you first heard something from what would later become one of your favorite bands, that golden moment when a long-shuttered window to a bright new musical future suddenly opened in your mind. Sorry about the lavender prose, but in retrospect that's pretty close to the impression I remember getting from my first spin of this double- CD set, documenting the Progfest concerts of early November 1994 at the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles.

Veteran progheads will no doubt recognize most of the names involved, but at first exposure they were all new to me, a connoisseur of classic '70s Progressive Rock out of touch with re-emerging musical trends in the 1990s. At the time I was still in the early stages of re-discovering my own once-extensive Prog Rock roots, and this compilation was an invaluable step in the right aesthetic direction. Never mind the atrocious cover art, a strictly amateur update of every stale counter-culture cliché that ever gave Progressive Rock a black eye (fairies perched on mushrooms playing lutes, and so forth). Concentrate instead on the scope of the presentation: two discs, nine bands, 147 minutes of (then) new and (still) exciting music from the four corners of the globe.

Well, maybe not all four corners. Eight of the nine featured bands were from either Sweden, France, or the United States, with the U.S. accounting for fully half of that number. Keep in mind this was only the second annual Progfest concert, organized by Greg Walker and David Overstreet (of the Syn-Phonic and Art Sublime record labels, respectively), and in hindsight the event shows much of the same, simple grassroots appeal of a do-it-yourself backyard fundraiser.

Notice, for example, all the old, familiar songs, comforting touchstones for long- suffering fans who kept the faith after Progressive Rock fell so far out of mainstream favor. There's even the first of what would later become a busy industry of GENESIS tribute bands: GIRAFFE, a side project of the late Kevin Gilbert, and featuring SPOCK'S BEARD drummer Nick D'Virgilio. Like something out of a long- buried time capsule, Gilbert and company re-create a note-perfect facsimile (only excerpted here) of "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway", complete with props and costume changes, giving fans the uncanny experience of hearing classic GENESIS after a digital face lift.

The long-forgotten San Francisco Bay Area band EPISODE likewise plunders the Prog Rock archives, but it's hard to form an impression of the group from just one song: a pleasant but unessential abbreviation of PINK FLOYD's 1971 epic "Echoes", played with all the undemanding artistry of a weekend cover band.

More original is KALABAN, another now-defunct American outfit, inspired (judging by their song and album titles) by "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and the epic fantasy novels of Stephen R. Donaldson. KALABAN's music works best during the band's longer, more aggressive instrumental workouts (the 11+ minute "Mutants Over Miami" is a concert highlight), but they were never able to forge a musical identity strong enough to make a dent in the monolithic and still resolutely anti- Prog entertainment industry of the 1990s.

The real eye-opener among the local talent, and the only one of the four American bands still active as of this writing, is unquestionably ECHOLYN, kindred spirits to GENTLE GIANT at their most ornate and playful. The Pennsylvania quintet perform three songs here, each of them distinguished by airtight ensemble playing, intricate vocal harmonies, and a disarming sense of humor: listen as they attempt, gamely, to generate an audience sing-a-long while quoting from Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, in the chorus of "A Little Nonsense".

Meanwhile the Prog hotbed that was Sweden in the mid-1990s is represented by crowd favorites ÄNGLAGÅRD and ANEKDOTEN, as strong a musical one-two knockout punch as ever shared a stage. ÄNGLAGÅRD's LA performance marked the group's untimely swan song, but at least the band went out with a rousing bang. Only one track appears here: the 16-minute instrumental "Hostsejd (Rite of Fall)", a dynamic update of classic '70s symphonic Prog and a particular revelation to this pair of ears, sounding at first like an exercise in arid musical mathematics but revealing depths of unexpected power and emotion with each subsequent listen. (Their full set can be heard on the posthumous "Buried Alive" CD.)

The heavier sound of ANEKDOTEN, on the other end of the Neo-Prog spectrum, is a throwback to "Red" era KING CRIMSON, infused with dark Scandinavian energy. A brief, aimless improvisation leads to the muscular "Wheel" (featuring an evocative trumpet solo over Jan Erik Liljeström's brooding subterranean bass line), and then into a stirring arrangement of the old classical chestnut "Mars", a nod to the first KING CRIMSON, who often used the Holst tune as an apocalyptic encore.

You can draw several parallel lines between the two French bands in attendance: HALLOWEEN and MINIMUM VITAL, both on loan from the esteemed Musea record label, co-sponsors of the event and the folks to thank for the pristine digital sound of these CDs. Both groups follow a similar modern-classical style, and both employ the charms of an expressive female vocalist (Geraldine Le Cocq in HALLOWEEN, and MINIMUM VITAL's Sonia Nedelec). But the difference between the two bands can be heard in the fiery guitar and keyboard attack of MINIMUM VITAL's Payssan brothers, compared to the electric (and electrifying) gypsy violin of HALLOWEEN's Jean-Philippe Brun, who kicks off the first CD with his dramatic intro to "Outsider", a song possibly relating to the eerie H.P. Lovecraft short story, but don't quote me on that.

Closing out the twin-CD set is the single notable exception to the geographic limitations of the guest list: Australia's SEBASTIAN HARDIE, also the only band here active during Prog Rock's mid-1970s Golden Age. SH was the Antipode answer to YES, still proudly wearing the influence like a heart on their sleeve, from the arcane, uplifting lyrics to the sometimes all-too familiar symphonic splendor of their music, complete with the obligatory Rick Wakeman-inspired synthesizer solo. Like ÄNGLAGÅRD, they would later release their entire set separately (on the 1997 "Live in LA" CD), but the selections here, from their 1975 album "Four Moments", offer a welcome thematic and musical condensation of YES' "Tales From Topographic Oceans", ringing down the curtain of Progfest '94 in classic fashion.

This review has already taken up too much space, but even at such length it barely scratches the surface of these two CDs (ouch: not literally, please be reassured). Look again at the line up of talent, and try to imagine them all together on one stage, in a two-day celebration of worldwide musical diversity. Even today, more than ten years later, it's an experience worth re-living, whether by fans of the featured bands wanting to supplement their CD libraries, or (like myself at the time I first heard it) by freshmen students of Neo-Prog looking for new worlds to conquer.

Neu!mann | 4/5 |


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