Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"A penny for your heart, a penny for your dreams" - Welkin Entertainment presents Progfest 2011, Esplanade Hotel, 03/09/2011

Ahh, "prog". For the uninitiated, these four simple letters are short for "progressive", and of course refer to music of that nature - as the word "progressive" naturally implies, music that is forward-thinking, evolving, and boundary-breaking. Though the term has been around for decades and was initially grouped with the word "rock" to describe bands such as Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, King Crimson and Yes, it has since evolved to encompass an extremely wide spectrum of musical sounds - in fact, one could say that the musical definition of the word "progressive" continues to progress over the years. This was never more evident on this particular Saturday afternoon and night mini-festival at St Kilda's famous Espy - note that the event wasn't called "Prog Rock Fest" or "Prog Metal Fest", or anything like that, but simpy Progfest. The Welkin Entertainment booking agency assembled an impressive 31-band lineup of high-quality Australian talent, with an incredibly diverse range of acts to show just how broad the term "progressive" can be. Examining the lineup in closer detail, one could find acts playing grindcore, power metal, reggae-influenced hard rock, math metal, post-rock... need I go on?! No wonder the event apparently had over 900 attendees on the day!

With the event's total running time nearing TWELVE hours, and proceedings kicking off at 3 in the arvo, it wasn't surprising that the various band rooms in the Espy were a little sparsely populated early on, as most people were likely still engaged in other prior committments, or were just taking their time to arrive to conserve their energy for the more well-known and better appreciated acts later in the night. That meant that the promising talent of young Warrnambool-based shoegaze foursome Lunaire went pretty much unheard on this day, as they opened proceedings in the front bar. It was a real shame, as these guys certainly turned a few heads opening for Sydney post-rock powerhouse sleepmakeswaves at their recent Melbourne album launch show. Nonetheless, today they were playing to an almost empty room, something that wasn't helped by the fact that the venue doors didn't open until about ten minutes after 3 - although Lunaire were still playing to their allocated timeslot. "This is our last song" were certainly not the words that the few early punters were expecting to hear the second they walked in the door! A real shame indeed, as the youngsters are showing a lot of promise so early in their career, and with a bit more of a refined sound and a few more solid gigs under their belt, they could turn out to be something quite special.

The focus then shifted to the larger Gershwin Room, where Divine Ascension were due to play as a late replacement for Teramaze. The punters were still arriving quite slowly, but the band's onstage presence showed that despite the small crowd, they wanted to work hard to impress. Their style can best be described as gothic-infused power metal, and with the very talented Jennifer Borg fronting the band, it would be easy to put them under the typical "female-fronted metal" umbrella with the likes of Nightwish, Lacuna Coil, and After Forever. However, this certainly didn't work against the band, as they showed themselves to be very capable musicians - some very solid riffs and impressive keyboard theatrics seemed to impress the more metal-inclined in the room, and though they weren't playing to a big crowd, Divine Ascension didn't let that impact their performance, as it was quite obvious they were holding nothing back.

It was back to the front bar to catch the first of Progfest's interstate visitors, Adelaide's Quiet Child. The band's last major Melbourne appearance was late last year, warming the stage for Brisbane superstars Dead Letter Circus, and though they played their best and showed a lot of promise, they received a pretty lukewarm reaction. Today though, they showed signs of great improvement, even though they chose to play only three songs in what was billed as a half-hour set. Of course, appropriate considering that this was Progfest, these songs were all quite lengthy and from what vocalist Pete said between songs, it seemed that they were all taken from the band's recently released second album. Again, since that DLC support slot, the songwriting and musicianship in the band seems to have developed a whole lot; some songs approached a level of complexity and precision slightly reminiscent of Meshuggah, which is never a bad thing. The crowd in the front bar was now approaching considerable size, and most of those present clearly wanted more than three songs, if they were as exciting as the three that had been played!

Up next were local melodic metal five-piece Elysian, playing to, and getting a very good response from, a Gershwin Room crowd that was continuing to increase steadily. The melodeath sound might be a little dated these days, but clearly nobody told this particular band, as their passion and energy onstage was something quite impressive. Adding a unique element to their sound was vocalist Ben's occasional use of a floor tom, to build another layer of percussive heaviness on to an already very full sound. Definitely one of the heaviest acts on the day, the more metal-inclined in the crowd enjoyed this band immensely, and many headbanging heads were visible for the duration of their set. For a band that has only been gigging since February last year, Elysian sure look comfortable on a stage.

While the withdrawal of Okera the night before the event (due to band member illness) had certainly disappointed many, their replacement act on the bill pleased the many post-rock fans in the venue, as Queensland's Nikko stepped up to the plate so to speak. In town to appear at the Old Bar that night and at the Brunswick Hotel the night after, Nikko were a pretty logical choice to join the bill as there were quite a few similar-sounding acts on the bill. As expected, they got a fairly warm response for their music, which was a lot more vocal-oriented than some of their contemporaries and injected a slightly more complex set of influences than most bands in the genre can manage. Which is good.

The punters had arrived in droves by the time 6:30 rolled around, and quite a lot of them were in the front bar to check out A Lonely Crowd. There comes a point when genre labels just become ridiculous and confusing, which is probably why this underground Melbourne four-piece have decided to label themselves "acidmath", which somehow actually works. Drummer Scott Ancell was wearing a Mr Bungle shirt, and you can definitely hear that extreme sense of experimentation in the band's sound. Gentle clean-guitar based passages would abruptly give way to full-tilt thrash-outs, with rapid-fire and extremely technical rhythms being complemented nicely by the soaring voice of female vocalist Xen Pow. The band have played a few excellent gigs this year and also released their first album User Hostile, which is well worth checking out if you're a fan of this kind of music.

It was time for the bill to get considerably more heavy, with avant-garde grindcore crew A Million Dead Birds Laughing (or AMDBL for short) taking to the Gershwin Room stage in their usual formal shirt-and-tie attire. Though a few technical difficulties unfortunately presented themselves throughout the set, the fans of more extreme sounds still managed to enjoy a typically exciting performance from one of Melbourne's best-kept secrets, as they blasted and riffed their way through a healthy selection of material from this year's debut album, Force-Fed Enlightenment. They might have been a bit out of place considering some of the other acts on the lineup, but they made an impression on a receptive audience nonetheless.

Travelling all the way from Perth were the next act in the front bar, post-rockers Tangled Thoughts of Leaving, to put on their long-awaited debut live performance on Melbourne soil. The TToL name has certainly got around since they released a split with sleepmakeswaves in 2009 and this year they've followed it up with their debut album, Deaden the Fields, to much acclaim from fans. The front bar was now very much packed out and very much enjoyed the chance to finally see the Perth four-piece perform live. Though the more sceptical of you are reading this thinking, "ANOTHER Australian post-rock band, yawn", TToL definitely set themselves apart by frequently launching into complex math metal-esque sections. Their heavy use of keyboards and synthesizer also sets them apart from a lot of other bands in this scene, and in general, most punters were left in awe at the band's technical skills. One of the highlights of the day!

The post-rock theme of the evening continued with the next act in the Gershwin Room, Melbourne instrumental four-piece Mushroom Giant. Taking to the stage in front of the usual backdrop of visuals that suitably complement their atmospheric and ambient soundscapes, the four extremely capable musicians delivered a solid set of tunes, mixing up the older tracks from their Kuru album with some as-yet unreleased pieces. Their set also featured a welcome surprise guest appearance from violinist Tim Charles, member of the extreme metal collective Ne Obliviscaris and also the man in charge of running the show today (he's the director of Welkin). He lent his impressive talent on the violin to the track The Abyss, and the punters certainly appreciated this special performance. As they usually do, the band concluded their set with the Woman Heroin and Poor Tom medley, and a full Gershwin Room responded accordingly!
Intro (listed as unnamed on their setlist)
Graven Image
The Abyss
(with Tim Charles on violin)
The Drake Equation
400 and Falling
Woman Heroin / Poor Tom

Towards the end of the evening was an act that were certainly no strangers to the patrons at this gig, and you could see many familiar faces in the packed front bar as Twelve Foot Ninja got ready to take to the stage. Since the release of their 2010 EP Smoke Bomb, the band has just been going from strength to strength, and indeed a highlight of their career came just last month when they were handpicked to be the opening local band in Melbourne on the Periphery/TesseracT coheadlining tour. Periphery certainly had a few very nice words to say about the Ninjas, and they won themselves some new fans that night. The band have been hard at work on a long-awaited debut album this year, and as such haven't really been performing live as frequently as they used to, but their performance was still as tight as ever. They were getting into the "prog" spirit of the evening, donning some ridiculous wigs and vintage op-shop gear, while vocalist Kin announced that they had recently been voted the "fifteenth best prog rock band in the Eastern suburbs". Their set featured a good mixed bag of tunes from both EPs (and even a pair of newies that have been getting some heavy rotation lately) and the crowd ate it up as usual! Their set concluded on an unexpected note, with Ennis Tola members Karen Heath and Tomas Fitzgerald joining the band onstage for a very unique cover of The Police's Walking on the Moon.

Melbournians certainly haven't suffered a shortage of Sydonia gigs to go to this year, with the band performing almost monthly at various events around the city. However, you only need to look at their setlists over the past few months to know that they always put in an effort to mix their shows up and give the fans their moneys' worth every time they attend a Sydonia show. And tonight was no different; through their Facebook page during the week, the band were hinting at playing a very special set for the evening, which would feature some songs they hadn't played in a very long time. And as the set kicked off with guitarist Sam Haycroft and bassist Adam Murray positioned at their additional custom percussion kits, some of the band's older fans in the room smiled in delight; for the first time since 2009, it was the unreleased C: Thirteen that got the set off to a very heavy start! Now, it would be impossible to write a review of a recent Sydonia show without mentioning their long-overdue second album, but the band delivered some promising news on that front this evening, stating that drum tracking was due to start in a few weeks! Naturally, some newer material got an airing, including the very popular Sinner, and a return of Nobodies, which, again, hadn't been played in some time. But the band delighted many of their newer fans with a stellar rendition of the epic Lonely Soul, which hadn't been played for at least three years, and, making its return to the set after a similarly long absence was the brutally heavy closing number I Will Not Serve. It was a brilliant treat for the many people in the room that had never got the opportunity to hear these songs in a live format until now, and as the band left the stage, many shouted for an encore. They're a talented lot, Sydonia, and clearly don't believe in delivering sub-standard live performances.
C: Thirteen
3 Tongues
Lonely Soul
No Woman's Land
I Will Not Serve

There were a few other acts scattered around the venue, but it was now about 1am and most punters were dragging themselves out of the venue after a very long day! All the team at Welkin deserve the highest kudos for making this wonderful day so successful! Here's to Progfest 2012!