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ProgPower USA XV Review

It's been slightly more than a week since my 14th ProgPower officially ended. Hard to believe on both accounts: that it's been over for a week, and that I've now gone to fourteen of these, having only missed the first one in Chicago owing, I guess, mostly to my general obliviousness at the time. (Actually, I still don't know what motivated me to go to ProgPower II, but I'll forever be thankful that I did.)

After digesting the festival's events over the course of the succeeding week, I feel like I'm ready to review the sets with a keen, completely-biased eye toward what I like and what I don't like. And so, with the caveat that my tastes are unlikely to align perfectly—or at all—with yours, I present the official

Crows ProgPower USA XV Review

Day 1: Wednesday night Mid-week Mayhem show

I'll admit to not having paid much attention to either Vangough or Theocracy, as I was mostly reconnecting with old friends I had not seen at Lara's Sausagefest the night before. This always happens for me with the Wednesday night show, something that is often a good thing (see: Midnight's performance as the first opener for Circle II Circle in 2008, when he occasionally mumbled loudly enough for someone to hear him; RIP) but is often unfortunate (Mindcrime, the Chris Salinas-fronted Queensrÿche tribute band that can do the old songs much better than any incarnation of Queensrÿche/Fakerÿche can today).

Pain of Salvation I was ready for, but it was clear they did not take this show very seriously. After the band finally started playing music about 10 minutes into hitting the stage, with Daniel going on about something or other, they had some rousing performances of some old tunes, including "People Passing By" from Entropia, before Daniel did the worst drum solo I've ever heard in the history of boring drum solos (yes, you read that right: Daniel, on drums, doing a solo), after which I punted and headed back to the room for some late dinner. I don't mind some banter and screwing around, but (a) it has to be intelligible and (b) it should be in small doses. This would turn out to have put a bad taste in my mouth for PoS, as we'll revisit in my later review of their main-stage set.

Day 2: Thursday night Kickoff

In a show highly-anticipated by at least 50 people, Pagan's Mind was to play all of Celestial Entrance as the headliner of this show. While I don't really give a rat's ass about Pagan's Mind, I appreciate promoter Nathan Block's enthusiasm and wanted to support his efforts to bring high-quality bands to the Kickoff stage, so I again sponsored the Kickoff despite not being nearly as excited about any of the bands as for Luca Turilli's Rhapsody the previous year.

Draekon had a ton of energy and some great hooks, but they don't have a lot of material and there's nothing there that I haven't heard before. Between Pagan's Mind and DGM, DGM turned out to be the relative highlight for me. I don't have much to say about either band: I found both sets enjoyable, but I don't know either band's material enough to really comment on it besides that simple observation. The Kickoff for me this year was merely an appetizer for the main festival.

Day 3: Friday night main festival

This was easily my most anticipated day of music, having 2 of the 3 bands I most wanted to see: Stratovarius and, of course, Leprous. As a sponsor of Leprous, I caught only a few songs of Need and then the very end of Orden Ogan's set, punctuated by lunch, and after which I had to scurry downstairs to retrieve from Glenn the "Don't fuck with me, bro" badge that would allow me to remain in the photo pit for all of Leprous's set.

I got a high from this set that I don't know that I'll ever duplicate from watching a band perform: as Bilateral and Coal are both in my top 10 albums of the millennium, and Bilateral fighting with Ocean Machine as my favorite album of all time, I had very high expectations for this show, all of which were blown away by the actual set. This was the best performance I've ever seen by any band ever, and the crowd behind me seemed to agree as they chanted "Ho-ly shit" over and over after the closing performance of their magnum opus, "Forced Entry". As I remarked to several people, I'm pretty sure at points I was dancing around like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld and screaming lyrics—hopefully not too loudly or off-key—something that I pray was not captured more than fleetingly on video. The only two songs I really would have liked them to play in addition to what they included are "Dare You" from Tall Poppy Syndrome and "Mediocrity Wins" from Bilateral... though, of course, they could have played a completely random set of their songs and still been amazing, because (as Matt Lee says) they have no bad songs.

Upon meeting the band downstairs after the show, and missing most of Overkill's set to do so, we discovered that the show might have been even better had all their tech worked. Unfortunately, in a festival setting like ProgPower, breakdown/setup time between bands is limited, so the band has to make do with what is available: for Leprous, this meant foregoing their video screens and backing audio tracks, and having a few technical flubs during the performance, including two microphone swaps by the very capable ProgPower stage crew. I was not able to attend any of their other shows on this tour, the closest to Boston being in NYC the night before the writing of this blog entry, but I am curious as to what others thought of their show in comparison to the ProgPower performance, which I can't imagine suffered in any way by the absence of those things.

Following Leprous, I caught two of Overkill's set from the seats, followed by a few more from the lobby, followed by a return to my room to take a short nap. I returned in the middle of Seventh Wonder's set, mostly because I wanted to see the end result of the hype machine, because it seems like everyone but me really seems to like them. Perhaps it would have made more sense were I familiar with the story behind Mercy Falls, but I just don't find their music itself compelling emotionally, and at this point that's pretty much a requirement for me to care about a progressive metal band. This might just be a case of "I'm now old and out of touch", or it might be me just being cantankerous and/or contrarian, but either way I appreciate that a lot of people really enjoy their music while not really being able to get into it myself. 

Up last for the night was Stratovarius. Having seen them last at ProgPower VI in 2005, a set in which a seemingly-interminable 90 minute changeover was followed by a tedious 10 minute video, followed by a set dominated by the visual show rather than by the music, this was a remarkably subdued but still powerful Stratovarius without the Tolkki juggernaut steering the band in questionable artistic directions. Timo Kotipelto sounded great on the Visions material—frankly, he sounded almost exactly like he did when recording the album 17 years ago, without any of the loss of timbre or range that plagues some older soaring vocalists like Bruce Dickinson—and the rest of the band was more than up to the task of reproducing the classics from that album, all without the pomp that distracted from the 2005 show. It was a little strange seeing Kotipelto and Grandpa Johansson on stage with other musicians who probably weren't old enough to drive to the record store on Visions' release date in 1997, but the experience for the audience was great. It was satisfying to see this band perform with dignity a true classic of power metal.

Day 4: Saturday night main festival

The final day of the festival was almost a wind-down for me: I was really only interested in the two headliners, Pain of Salvation and Jon Oliva's Pain, but I did catch a bit of Divided Multitude, Voodoo Circle, and Masterplan, all of which were entertaining even though I was not super-familiar with their output. After several straight nights of partying until nearly dawn, and with some unfortunate drama precipitated by a douchebag in the Artmore courtyard the night before, I spent more time during the day sleeping than I otherwise would have.

When Pain of Salvation finally hit the stage after over an hour, they played halfway through their first song before Daniel stopped the music, made some vague comment about the crowd not really being into it, and asking the crew to close the curtain so they could reappear with more energy. A lot of feathers, including mine, were ruffled by this action, especially after the extended delay in getting their asses on stage in the first place. That said, there were mitigating factors (aren't there always?) that I was either unaware of at the time or oblivious to: (1) PoS were recording their set for a DVD, which meant that visual presentation was critical to the performance; (2) their in-ear monitors (IEMs) were not working, which meant that they could not hear themselves, making it very difficult to stay in-sync, especially critical when your performance is being recorded for posterity; and (3) Daniel is unable or unwilling to treat the audience as a group of mature adults, frankly informing us of the issues with some statement like "We are filming a DVD, and so we need to get the intro right, and our equipment is not functioning correctly, so we have to start over. My apologies for the delay."

At this point, because I have limited information and a lot of what I do have is contradictory, that is all I have to say on the matter.

And honestly, it doesn't really matter. After the amazing show they put on playing Remedy Lane in its entirety—a technically-challenging album played almost flawlessly live under less-than-ideal conditions—no one is going to remember the delay a few years hence. Their show was amazing enough to untwist even my panties. Remedy Lane is probably my second favorite PoS album after OHbtCL (I apparently have unusual tastes), and their live rendition was incredibly powerful, effectively bringing forth the raw emotions Daniel must have felt when writing it. Even 12 years later, with a few mediocre and some entirely forgettable The-Daniel-Gildenlöw-Project-in-all-but-name albums released in the meantime, Remedy Lane still packs the same punch it did when first released. It is a true classic of progressive metal, having pushed the boundaries of metal to a place few artists can emulate, much less build upon. I am very glad I stayed to watch this set after the long delay and false start, and I know a lot of other people are also. (Daniel probably also wins the award for funniest line of the festival, with his "So, now we're going to play some songs from other albums. (Audience grumbles.) Ok, I guess we're not" line.)

Last up was the Mountain King, Jon Oliva himself, performing Streets: A Rock Opera in its entirety with his touring band. This set was everything I expected and only a little more, which in this case was exactly perfect. Having seen Oliva perform several times at ProgPowers over the years, I was mostly surprised at how spry he's become, jumping up from his fake plywood piano to dance around stage with the microphone, all the while making fun of everyone from himself to his band to the audience to the frequently mispronounced "Glenn Harvester". Otherwise, the set was exactly what I expected, which means "amazing". In contrast to the technically-demanding Pain of Salvation set played mostly seriously and with intense concentration by DG and company, JOP clearly had a fun time not only playing an album from Oliva's past but sticking it perfectly, with barely a flaw. I admit to not being the hugest Savatage fan—my favorite album of theirs is probably Dead Winter Dead, hardly from their golden years—but even I was brought alternately to cries of laughter at Oliva's lovable-goof antics and to wonder at the emotion and power they brought to the stage. I'm kind of glad they broke the seal with "When the Crowds Are Gone" at the end of their set, because it means Glenn can't use that threat against us as the unique harbinger of ProgPower USA's demise when he finally decides to hang up his Hawaiian shirts for good.

Over the years, I've been blessed with final Saturday sets by bands I care not a whit about (e.g., Jorn, Iced Earth, Hammerfall, Sabaton), which means I get started partying a little early. I was determined this year, however, to make it through to the house lights turning on, as I felt that would give me a sense of closure about the festival that I frequently find lacking when I wake up on Sunday or Monday, thinking, "It's all over?" This seems to have mostly worked: the main feeling I've had over the past week is not one of emptiness but rather one of exhaustion, mixed with joy that I got to experience this amazing festival with amazing friends for another year. Thank you, Glenn Harveston and crew, for your hard work in putting this thing together and keeping it going through good times and bad. ProgPower USA forever.


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