HRH Prog 2016
By: Gaz Cloud / Charlie Gardner / Dave Brooks
Photos: Charlie Gardner
HRH Prog’s far-flung location may be spectacular, but it’s far from convenient and ensures Echoes and Dust arrive late to the party at this year’s progressive fest. As such, we miss Hammerhead’s derivative rock stylings and the technical virtuosity of Oktopus, leaving Third Quadrant to set the scene. The reformed neo-proggers retain Chris Dunn (keyboards and vocals) and Chris Hare (drums) from their 80s line-up, but augment their classic sound with the addition of new personnel, including Clive Mollart (synths) and Shaun Bailey (guitar), who together comprise ambient electronic duo Monkey Trial. Mollart’s spacey synths give the opening of the set a sci-fi tone sure to appeal to those present from the festival’s sister event, the Sci-Fi Weekender, which runs concurrently in Hafan y Môr’s larger arena.
It’s a shame that, especially early in Third Quadrant’s performance, the singing often fails to enhance the songs, and at times the ensemble appear to be more proficient than dazzling. After a naff second song (whatever happened to the adage of opening with your strongest material?!), the ensemble grow into the set. Their stand out number is ‘deadStar:1’, a lengthy track that belongs firmly on the Pink Floyd/Tangerine Dream axis. By the time the number closes with the intonation “I am the dead star” the band have won over the audience with a very good, polished performance.
The Friday night belongs to Arthur Brown, though. The 73 year old’s young band share their leader’s incredible energy and sense of style, although the guitarist veers a little too close to fancy dress and doesn’t feel like a member of the party. Ever the showman, his vocal abilities are seemingly unaffected by his layered outfit, which is removed throughout the first half of set like a prolonged striptease. A Butlins-style redcoat seems particularly apt, given the setting, and this is removed to reveal a blue dress, then red polka dots… By ‘I Put A Spell On You’, Brown’s down to a little black number, and there’s further costumed fun to come as he dons a flashing jacket for ‘Time Captives’. Meanwhile, dancer Angle Flame provides a theatrical foil for the music and further enhances the spectacle.
Throughout, the hyperactive keyboard player ensures the organ-heavy groove never lets up. This is particularly impressive during a brilliant trick, where Brown picks up the instrument and jolts it around the stage, whilst his furious-fingered instrumentalist ducks and stretches to avoid missing a note. But musically it’s the frontman’s amazing voice that steals the show. ‘I Put A Spell On You’ is electrifying and perfectly displays Brown’s power and control. ‘Want To Love’ and ‘Touched By All’, both from the recent Zim Zam Zim album, demonstrate this is not a performer living off his back catalogue alone, and his mid-song tirades to “dispossess the mind controllers”, plus inter-song banter (“fuck Cameron and Trump!”) give the impression of a man with his finger firmly on the pulse. There’s nothing contrived about this first rate performance and of course ‘Fire’ sends everyone away happy. The god of hellfire is still scorching hot.
Saturday opens with a heavy blast from The Fierce And The Dead. New track ‘91’ provides a tantalising glimpse at the direction the 4-piece are headed in and bodes well for the follow-up to acclaimed LP Spooky Action, the title track from which mixes melodicism with incisive riffs to great effect. ‘Chief’ sees guitarist Steve Cleaton and bassist Kevin Feazey’s solid playing offset by breezy, clean lead lines from Matt Stevens, whilst ‘Palm Trees’ suggests that for all the band’s destructive tendencies, they’ve a fine sense of humour, too. “If you’ve enjoyed this, we’ve been The Fierce And The Dead; if not, we’ve been Knifeworld”, quips Stevens, before closing with the chiming guitar lines of their new single. Overall, it’s too heavy and atonal for many of the crowd’s hangovers, but the muted reaction is firmly at odds with the artistry on stage.
September Code are up next, and their serious, portentous sound may be epic, but lacks any positive attributes whatsoever. Abel Ganz prove to be a much more suitable proposition, and are, in earnest, the first ‘prog’ band of the day. Another group who hail from the era of neo-prog, their finger-fest is blighted by technical issues but this barely shows – front of house, we’re treated to crystal clear sound and audible, insightful, lyrics although drummer Denis Smith’s vocals could have been a lot louder.
Showcasing the more stately moments from their back catalogue, Abel Ganz really delve into their recent, self-titled, album, but rein in some of that record’s wilder stylistic tendencies. It’s a 28-minute rendition of the multi part ‘Obsolescence’ that steals the show. Mick MacFarlane is a Great Scot indeed, and his vocals shine. Lyrics about the “innocence of a new born child” and “finding and rewinding yourself” are complemented by a pastoral sound, with all the guitarists taking shifts on acoustic instruments, changing guitars mid-song, and both a pedal steel guitar and an upright bass making an appearance. Whilst not obviously so, there’s something psychedelic about the Abel Ganz deft mix of prog and folk, and this beautifully crafted composition may be their finest yet.
Appearing without a band, accompanied by just a stool and guitar, Edgar Broughton spends almost as long regaling us with stories as he does playing and singing. This would be an irritation if it wasn’t for the man’s natural charm. Far from the psychedelic warrior he’s oft painted as, Broughton’s plaintive singing and demeanour are both down-to-earth and extremely likable. Closing with a song about sharing a plane journey with a religious fundamentalist, his shtick isn’t to everyone’s taste, but there’s an honesty and integrity to his performance that’s hard to criticise.
Curved Air were forced to cancel their festival appearance at short notice due to Sonja Kristina’s son being taken seriously ill. Meanwhile, Curved Air’s loss is Purson’s gain. The young band are not remotely phased by the occasion and peddle scintillating psychedelic fare, drawing heavily from their new album Desire’s Magic Theatre. Managing to shoehorn in a diverse range of classic rock stylings, it should be noted that they’re not remotely prog. They are, however, a great live band and whilst their sound doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it is so perfectly delivered that by the end of the performance everyone is taking about these new upstarts, and Curved Air’s absence is completely forgotten.
Purson look the part, too, with each member’s visual appearance complementing the heady stew served up: Rosalie Cunningham is a natural born frontwoman, guitarist George Hudson resembles an axe god of the Jeff Beck mould, organist Samuel Robinson is pleasingly androgynous and the rhythm section’s flailing hair couldn’t be better suited to the raucous thunder they draw up. Curved Air will be back next year to fill their slot. By that time, Purson’s meteoric rise will surely see them playing far more prestigious bills than this.
There’s a Canterbury Tale to be told on Friday evening, with Caravan and Soft Machine proving to be a wet-dream combination for fans of progressive rock’s jazz-inflected past. Caravan are up first and tasked with the tough job of upstaging Purson. Thankfully, they deliver the set of the weekend. Filled with classic album material (The Land Of Grey and Pink features heavily and ‘Nightmare’ is one of many highlights), the band also play newer compositions such as ‘Dead Man Walking’ and the sentimental ‘I’ll Be There For You’, both taken from 2013’s Paradise Filter. Pye Hastings’ voice may not be the strongest, but musically Caravan are in safe hands, with Geoffrey Richardson handling at least four instruments and proving that he’s as adept on mandolin and spoons as on his beloved viola.
Caravan’s back catalogue is full of charming, quintessentially English tunes, and it’s maybe this Englishness that’s prevented them from finding greater international acclaim. There’s a lot going on in their best tracks, the interesting polyrhythms and harmonies rarely interfering with the catchiness of the melody. Caravan combine the whimsy of The Kinks, the humour of Gong and the musicianship of Camel. In short, this is a triumphant set by one of England’s great bands, rounded off with a stunning rendition of ‘Nine Feet Underground’, perfectly executed complete with lengthy organ solos, the poignant “brings it all back” section and some heavy-rock riffing to finish. They encore, inevitably, with ‘Golf Girl’; Caravan should headline every year.
Soft Machine don’t fare quite so well with the crowd. Removing the ‘Legacy’ from their name may have increased the anticipation amongst casual observers, but there’s no change to the sound that John Etheridge (guitars), Roy Babbington (bass), Theo Travis (sax and flute) and John Marshall (drums) have been honing of recent years. Theirs is a mix of interpretations of classic Softs material alongside 21st century compositions. Classics such as Fourth’s ‘Kings and Queens’ and Bundles’ ‘Hazard Profile’ display the virtuosity and improvisational abilities of the quartet, whilst ‘The Last Day’ and ‘The Relegation Of Pluto’ prove that Travis is a perfect fit, reinvigorating the ensemble effortlessly.
Marshall is absent tonight due to ill health, and as such Nik France, drummer from Theo Travis’ Double Talk, stands in. He plays adequately but lacks the musical telepathy with Babbington that usually provides the solid foundations for Travis and Etheridge’s expositions. There are some great passages from both soloists, though, and at times the two engage in duals so fluid it’s hard for the listener to keep up. Indeed, for many, the jazzier end of the progressive spectrum proves too much and the crowd dwindles. It’s not really the fault of Soft Machine: always progressive in the most literal sense of the word, their set is a challenging listen, but not without reward. Attempting ‘Facelift’, a tune that predates any of the current member’s association with the band, proves to be their masterstroke and the piece’s backwards, delayed guitars are one of the few moments during their set when Etheridge’s fingers aren’t flying over the frets. A musical success, then, if not one that the audience is fully on board with.
A ninety minute postponement on Saturday’s early-afternoon acoustic sessions provides the perfect opportunity to nosy around the adjoining Sci-Fi Weekender. Eight-foot Space Marines and prowling Dredd squads may seem like enough to ward off even the most leather-clad progger, but as a Richter-bashing stand-off between a throat-singing Focus fan and bloodthirsty Uruk-hai demonstrates, they’re parties that bleed well together.
With the Owner’s Lounge doors eventually open for business, we find refuge among the polished harmonies of a stripped-back Messenger. The Londoners’ pastoral jaunts are well-rehearsed, well-executed and well-received in this intimate setting, and for a band soon to release their second album they demonstrate impressive versatility ahead of their fuzzier main stage set.
Ducking back into the central arena, Emirati post-metal outfit Empty Yard Experiment are christening the day with a menacing arsenal of hypertrophic mantras, hailing largely from their 2014 album Kallisti. Snarling opener ‘Greenflash’ balances bruising toms and grunting distortion to snake its way into a charged magnetic groove, whereas the engrossing ‘The Blue Eyes of a Dog’ lilts far closer to EYE’s expansive post-rock beginnings. Having gained an insight into the band’s visual output in our interview with frontman Bojan Preradovic and keyboardist Gorgin Asadi, HRH Prog’s AV shortcomings leave us ever so slightly disappointed not to have had the opportunity to experience Empty Yard Experiment’s live show in full flame. Still, Preradovic’s forlorn gravitas proves a captivating focal point for the band’s cinematic display, and by the time ‘Entropy’ reaches its writhing climax the room has filled out and is asking for more.
Fortunately, the opportunity arises next door, where EYE are ushered off to play their part in the festival’s unplugged programme. Second helpings are reserved only for those willing to stump up the VIP premium, and when combined with the day’s poor scheduling, both Messenger and EYE’s sets are criminally under-attended. To best exhibit the talent at their disposal, HRH must consider waiving the acoustic lounge’s bolt-on entry fee in years to come.
A clash with hotly-tipped Bristolian musos Schnauser brings us back to the main stage. Victims of some uncharacteristically poor mixing from HRH’s sound crew, the psych-pop outfit’s Sergeant Pepper harmonies never quite get the treatment they need to really hit the mark. This is a shame, because Schnauser’s tongue-in-cheek exploration of matters ranging from PPI to Walkers binges are genuinely very funny. It’s Adrian Mole-meets-Soft Machine: wry, eccentric, culturally crass and with plenty enough going on to keep it interesting. Unfortunately today, obstructive audio interference from the bass and keys prevents the band’s incisive humour and technical virtuoso from shining through, and many onlookers don’t quite know what to make of it. Determined to get the last laugh – and perhaps a little fed up with the sound team – Schnauser trade wit for slapstick: when frontman Alan Strawbridge dons a latex Granny mask and begins launching himself from stage apparatus, furrowed brows quickly make way for aching sides.
Scratching our heads, we head out for the first brew of the day. Entering the Mash & Barrel, we encounter a dressing-gowned Jedi council, who’ve convened to clop spoons over a few Hobgoblins. Enthusiastic but not entirely rhythmic, they’ve clearly drawn inspiration from Geoffrey Richardson’s prodigious dalliances the night before, though their newfound party-piece is a force probably best left to the confines of the caravan. Unless you’re in Caravan, that is. Still, it provides yet another entertaining example of the fantastic and unique interplay this dual-code congregation has to offer.
Messenger’s appearance at HRH Prog comes ahead of their sophomore release Threnodies, available now via InsideOut. Opening with ‘Midnight’ from 2014’s Illusory Blues, the band waste no time in continuing from where their acoustic set ended, interweaving fingerpicked guitars with chalky vocals before launching into a spunky three-axe crescendo, with Dan Knight ditching the keys to get in on the action. Hunched in a close-fitting horseshoe formation, they jam out ‘Midnight’ to some 13 minutes before slipping into a sweeping ‘Solimnoquist.’ It’s not until Messenger’s third song that the audience gets the opportunity to hear the new material up front, guitarist Barnaby Maddick donning the mike to deliver a Gilmour-esque rendition of leading single ‘Balearic Blue.’
The band are a tight set-up: mellow on the ear but highly focused to watch. Never missing a note, their commanding stage presence only falters between songs, and when frontman Khaled Lowe asks the audience to give themselves a round of applause after a hard-sell on the merch, more than one pair of Doc Martens will have shuffled uncomfortably. Nevertheless, Messenger show real promise in their performance, and their T-shirt sales will have suffered no setbacks as a result of this polished display.
With the sun setting on the Llyn Peninsula, Twinscapes make their way to the stage. A project between Naked Truth’s Lorenzo Feliciati and Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin, the bass-wielding duo incorporates fretless and fretted basses, E-bows and a stash of samples to produce a varied docket of sounds and textures. There’s hints of Jaco Pastorius’ moodier solo material here: atmospheric, proficient, slightly eerie, and featuring – as one punter put it – “interludes you could open a crypt to.” Though many will have been acquainted with the band’s former projects, Twinscapes enter the main space as relative unknowns. At ease onstage, they take the time to contextualise the band’s conception, and provide a few interesting insights into the driving forces behind their material. On the basis of this performance, Twinscapes’ eponymous debut, released on RareNoise Records in 2014, certainly warrants a listen.
In our 2015 festival review we marked The Enid out as one of the bands of the weekend, and also noted that in their new singer, Joe Payne, they have a personality to ensure they survive the eventual departure of founder Robert John Godfrey. Their 2016 set will be one of Godfrey’s last, and is similarly engrossing, although on this occasion feels less like a coherent work and more a collection of tracks, mostly taken from their recent catalogue. Opening with two tracks from this year’s Dust, Payne addresses the audience and is seemingly newly politicised. ‘Who Created Me’ taken from Invicta, follows an unexpected dedication to the Tories. ‘1,000 Stars’ continues the lyrical theme set out in ‘Leviticus’, dealing with nationalism over a military snare and trumpet fanfares.
‘One And The Many’ showcases Payne’s incredible voice, which possesses a range and tone unmatched by any prog vocalist in the world, let alone present at the festival. His falsetto is stronger than many vocalists’ modal voice – truly, a star is born and the Freddie Mercury comparisons look set to endure. Two tracks about love, both from Dust, follow, with ‘Trophy’ betraying a disco influence on the new album. ‘Someone Shall Rise’ ends the set – it’s interesting to see Godfrey’s avowed agnosticism allowing playful use of Christian symbolism to filter into The Enid’s lyrical worldview. Love or loathe their bombastic, symphonic rock, it’s hard to take your eyes off The Enid and Joe Payne, in particular. The Enid will be back next at HRH Prog, next March, for the fifth consecutive year – if you’re not a fan of the band, but attending the festival, do make an effort to catch them live as there is no other band quite like them.
The biggest clash of the weekend follows, with a possibility that Focus might lose a percentage of their crowd to the Sci-Fi arena. This is a taste of what’s to come in 2017, when we can expect many more such clashes at the festival, as Prog ousts Sci-Fi to take control of the entire site and both stages for the weekend. In 2016, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop take us way back into the past, using a mix of vintage analogue equipment alongside digital gear to recreate many of their greatest moments. Focusing on science fiction themes and Doctor Who incidental music, these scientists of sound sculpt chugging, Berlin School electronic music one minute, then Paddy Kingsland’s dynamic kid’s TV theme for The Changes the next.
BBC Radiophonic Workshop appearances are rare, and the members aren’t getting any younger. Let’s hope they’re booked again for next year’s iteration, or generally given the plaudits they deserve by the wider electronic music community. This is progressive electronica from days gone by, and far more innovative than many of the bands labelled ‘prog’ playing over the bridge in the smaller venue this weekend. A rocking version of The Doctor Who theme closes proceedings and could be the single musical highlight of the whole weekend – eerie and otherworldly, its familiarity hides its strangeness.
Pulling Focus back to HRH for the remainder of the evening, any worries that the classic, Dutch progsters might be upstaged by a doctor from Gallifrey prove unfounded in one of the sharpest sets of Saturday. It’s quite a feat to have built on the ‘sold out’ crowd for The Enid, but there’s no doubt that Focus have achieved it, with every gangway, airlock and escape hatch packed out in the TARDIS of a hall that is the Mash & Barrel. And this is no soft Focus: no vanilla walk-throughs to be found here – instead, a lush and vibrant version of ‘Focus I’ and an edgy re-take of ‘House of the King’ open, before ‘Eruption’ erupts, cueing some of the most joyful guitar soloing of the festival.
Like Caravan the night before, Focus are a band who have resisted the temptation of the time warp, choosing to play every number with their feet firmly planted in 2016, not 1972, in a programme that skilfully mixes back catalogue with 2015’s Focus X; a set that aptly mirrors the band’s line-up of two golden oldies – founder Thijs van Leer and drummer Pierre van der Linden – and two relative upstarts – guitarist Menno Gootjes and bassist Bobby Jacobs.
Peering through outsized spectacles over a wall of Hammond, a magnificent if battle-scarred instrument that appears to have been dragged down a motorway or two, van Leer makes for a curious mixture of hobbit and Harry Potter professor. A natural showman – dazzling us by playing the flute and the organ together on more than one occasion – but never (Ian Anderson take note) a show-off, the Dutch master senses just the right moment to build a rapport with the audience, dropping the umbilical cord of the keyboard and coming to the mic for some hilarious call-and-response scatting.
Gootjes, too, is the most unshowy of guitarists, only occasionally edging his demi-laced DMs into the spotlight, his casual, street-punk persona (suggesting a sessioner hired on the ferry over) belies that he has been in the band for a decade. But there’s nothing casual about his soloing: always respectful of the Aakerman classic riffs, yet reinterpreting them in his own self-effacing way, it’s a privilege to hear such soulful and sensitive playing.
In a beautifully planned programme, with a meticulous dynamic that allows the punny peculiarity of ‘All Hens on Deck’ to preface the classical jazziness of ‘Cathedral de Strasbourg’, there’s still room for some crowd pleasers; and Focus don’t disappoint, hitting the heights with a rendition of ‘Sylvia’ that includes a delightful double coda, hilariously drawing our premature applause.
And they’re not finished yet; van Leer toys and teases with flute and organ impro for five minutes or more before slipping seamlessly into their ‘magic’ signature riff to a roar of approval from the crowd. There follows a 20-minute version of ‘Hocus Pocus’ like you’ve never heard it before: chorus after chorus played at increasingly break-neck speed until one of van der Linden’s classic fills develops into an immaculate, six-minute solo, and a role-call prefaced finale leaves us in an ecstatic blur.
Focus have given us one of the highlights of the weekend: a masterclass of jazz-rock prog in a set that, like Arthur Brown on Friday, has put a spell on us from first to last. Hocus Pocus, indeed – this is pure magic!
Surely the biggest draw of the weekend, Ian Anderson’s set is a relative disappointment. Perhaps this is simply because expectation levels were so high, but in spite of covering off many of Tull’s finest moments, Anderson appears to be going through the motions. His voice sounds strained and for someone renown for their critical ear and careful approach to stagecraft, his mic technique is poor. There’s no faulting his skills as a flautist, of course, and he still commands the stage with energy and enthusiasm, but the performance is lacking that spark you’d expect from a headliner. In Florian Ophale, Anderson’s found a guitarist with ample technical ability, but Ophale lacks Martin Barre’s originality. In spite of all this, the crowd roar with approval and one fan can be heard proclaiming this to be the greatest musical performance he’d witnessed. It would appear the set list, and not the performance, sated the faithful here tonight.
The Von Hertzen Brothers occupy Saturday’s post-headliner slot. Unlike Soft Machine’s efforts 24 hours earlier, the Finns manage to retain the majority of the crowd who had turned out to worship at the altar of their 70s icons. The first half of their set followed a fairly straight-forward, rocky path, and wisely, they wait until they’ve got the tired audience on side before allowing their more progressive flourishes to shine. Good looking, clad in leather and in possession of the kind of tight vocal harmonies that come from a lifetime of singing together, they are consummate professionals and deliver a fine finale to three days of music.
HRH Prog IV had many high points: the sound quality was exceptional overall and in spite of a couple of poor performances, the calibre of the bands was very high. The 2017 bill has now been announced and sees Hawkwind, Barclay James Harvest and Wishbone Ash top the line-up alongside a raft of artists. Given the festival will next year take over the whole site of the Ll?n Peninsula venue, concerns exist that there’s not twice the talent on offer. A few more choice additions to the bill, plus improved notice, scheduling and access to the unplugged slots, will surely see 2017’s festival be as successful. The progressive renaissance continues to gather pace.