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FESTIVAL REPORT: Be Prog! My Friend
Jamie Skey , August 3rd, 2015 13:51

Jamie Skey reports on sets from Messenger, Ihsahn, Haken and more

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The festival pamphlet warns of "frenzied international crowd", "utter chaos" and, for the unlucky few, "casualties". I'm not in Catalonia to attend this weekend's legendary Running Of The Bulls, where thousands of bloodthirsty nutters chase tormented cattle through thronged streets before executing one or two of them gladiator style - yet said Running Of The Bulls literature could apply to proceedings at Barcelona's premier progressive rock one-dayer, held in the Iberian model village of Poble Espanyol. While the festival certainly pulls in an international crowd, the army of gathered prog fiends are hardly 'frenzied', due in part to the sheer searing heat that seems to stifle any would-be moshers. There is though, "utter chaos" in The Algorithm's mechanised metal mutations. And thankfully, while there aren't any "casualties" to speak of, there are shades of death pulsing through the dark-prog squalls of Emperor co-founder Ihsahn's mid-afternoon obsequy and Swedish goth-metallers Katatonia's dour histrionics.

Despite the name of the festival, not everything at Be Prog! My Friend is strictly "prog" in the classic sense (but, hell, this is a sphere of music well known for having liberated views in regard to boundaries). Katatonia lend ambient flourishes to their straight-laced solemnities and, performing solo for the first time ever, Anathema's Vincent Cavanagh, generating looped beats on his acoustic guitar while belting out melancholic hooks, basically sounds like a goth Ed Sheerhan. Meanwhile, the day's absolute highlight is Canada's most loveable weirdo, Devin Townsend, whose grandiose, sci-fi-worshipping aesthetics appear to belie the fact he's probably one of the most meat-and-potatoes riffers on the planet (and all the better for it).

Messenger are first to fire up the festival's second stage, a terracotta-tiled bandstand borne by Roman-style columns. Led by the corkscrew-tressed, honey-throated talents of Khaled Lowe, the folk-prog quintet unluckily get off to a shaky start due to PA gremlins, resulting in parping feedback eclipsing their dextrously psychedelic manoeuvres (annoyingly, the poor sound engineering is a pattern that re-emerges throughout the day). After quarter of an hour of technical arsing-about, the band eventually take flight, their simultaneous double-exposure of folk rusticity and cyclical space rock managing to touch down somewhere between Kashmir and the dark side of the moon.

By the time Ihsahn hit the mainstage, the mid-afternoon heat is such that liquid fire seems to gush from the heavens. I make a dash for the nearest square of shade, mercifully thrown down by the surrounding gothic marketplace. The ex-Emperor multi-instrumentalist's ferocious yet playful set encompasses a number of juxtapositions. Even though he co-founded one of the most influential black metal band's in history, he's slotted on one of the lower rungs of the bill and as a result his permanent-midnight orchestrations are pitched at odds with the bleaching daylight. The music itself, too, teems with contrasts: industrialised metal blasts give way to languorous folk-influenced zephyrs; almost-comical organ wig-outs butt up against grim-faced thrash. Flanked by a fresh-faced band, Ihsahn effortlessly demonstrates that pitch-black overtures needn't be no-fun zones.

There's a lot of exasperated debate on prog blogs as to whether or not London pomp-metallers Haken sound like Dream Theatre. Let me swiftly set the record straight: they do. Like it or not, there's definitely a clear-cut hereditary vein linking these two beasts. First of all, Haken's frontman Ross Jennings is a true vocal thespian in the mould of James LaBrie, thanks to his volley of prog-pantomime tropes. Secondly, the Londoners tend to take extended, finger-muddling solos to their logical extreme. There's also more than a whiff of arena-embracing fanfare to their hyper-speed format. But, much unlike DT, Haken don't seem to take their dramaturgy too seriously, proven by Diego Tejeida's hilariously dispatched keytar solo midway through prog modern classic 'The Coackroach King'. Moreover, their huge tracks of earth-shagging grandiosity are leavened with lashings of Mr. Bungle-esque cartoon irreverence. Whatever your opinion on the band, though, they seem to have garnered a strong, loyal fanbase over the last few years, evidenced by the huge turn out (many belt out every word) for their hour-long odyssey.

My travelling compadre flippantly claims of Katatonia: "They sound like the poor man's Opeth". It's difficult to disagree with the man. The Swedish doom-thrashers' set is stuffed with edgeless anthems that could benefit from a gear shift here and there. Frontman Jonas Renkse's quip that "we're Katatonia and we're playing in Catalonia' is just about as colourful as their set gets. Meanwhile, back on the second stage, Anathema's Vincent Cavanagh fumbles with faulty loop pedals during his solo set of grey, strummy anthemia.

Thank the Lord for the appearance of Devin Townsend, who injects proceedings with some (much-needed) daft exchange, his between-song banter every bit as entertaining as his ludicrously captivating, cyborg-shagging metal. Before launching into the surging 'Supercrush!', Townsend dispatches witticisms about matrimony and then jests that, despite the world being such a beautiful place, "we're all fucked anyway", "enough of the human emotion", he cries as a precursor to the intergalactic stomp of 'March Of The Poozers', taken from his hugely enjoyable 2014 double-LP . "You've all seen a smoking guitar before, right?" he enquires midway through his set, brandishing his now famous smoke-spewing 'Flying Z' guitar. Where there's smoke, there's fire, and boy Townsend blazes.

The band with the most distinguished prog stripes of the night is Guildford old boys, Camel, who, despite playing a significant part in second wave of prog in the early 70s, are decidedly pedestrian topliners. Their loose, jazzy style pales in comparison to some of the genuinely explosive virtuosos further down the bill.

On paper, the term djentstep is enough to make you want to violently jab a pencil in your own eye. But in practise, The Algorithm's digital Frakenstein blend of djent, dubstep, techno, gabba, breakcore and dub is pure big, dumb fun, like The Prodigy tweaking on some potent, alien rave poison. The German duo's dance floor-demolishing metal mash-up incites a festival first: a dance pit along the front row. This writer, by now tanked on litres of Estrella, hastily gets involved.

Swedish djent godfathers Meshuggah are left in charge of bringing the festival to a close, but due to yet more technical difficulties, strain to make their typically brutal mark. Frontman and syncopated barker Jens Kidman's vocal levels are so low that the band decide to leave the stage for half an hour while things are put right. When they eventually arrive back, the band, world renowned for their ruthless trailblazing, disappointingly go through the motions, dryly dispatching skull-splitting masterpieces like 'Future Breed Machine' and 'New Millenium Cyanide Christ' as if they were making cups of tea. Albeit cups of tea laced with additives fit for chemical warfare.

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