Poble Espanyol, literal translation “Spanish Town”, was built in 1929 as an open air architectural museum for the Barcelona International Exposition. The courtyard that plays host to Be Prog! My Friend is one of the most visually unique arenas in which one can watch progressive rock. Along with The Loreley Amphitheater it’s a venue that should be on every prog festival-goer’s bucket list. The architecture on display across the whole museum represents every autonomous region of mainland Spain at the time, including many replicas of local monuments and buildings, with the plaza in which the fans gather dominated by buildings from the central and northern parts of the nation.
Be Prog! prides itself on one of the best bills around, and with just 10 acts, each is special. Much like Poble Espanyol itself, the bands are shining examples of different strains of progressive but, like the more compact square in which those with festival tickets find themselves confined, favours one style of architecture; so the musical bill once again tends towards the more metallic side of the genre. The booking policy has its finger-on-the-pulse sufficiently to attract a far younger crowd than is oft seen at prog festivals where 70s’ stars find favour over contemporary bands, regardless of current form.
Whilst Poble Espanyol is prettier in the daylight, it’s more conducive to a top atmosphere after dark. It’s exceptionally warm when Persefone kick things off on the Friday afternoon, the sun beating directly down on those at the front. As a result, many opt for the shadows, but all those who arrived early are treated to a powerful and assured display from the Andorran band. With more and more people being turned on to Spiritual Migration, their brilliant fourth album, the band stick to this and their most recent opus during their relatively compact set.
‘Stillness is Timeless’ demonstrates Persefone’s versatility within one song – for all their aggression and death metal tendencies, Persefone are prog through and through, their extreme passages all the more enjoyable for breathing space and complexity in structure. Their appeal lies in the dual attack of guitarists Carlos Lozano and Filipe Baldaia alongside the mix of growled and clean vocals (Marc Martins and keyboardist Miguel Espinosa, respectively). Once Persefone get some more European festival slots under their belt they’ll further improve their growing reputation. A killer sixth album could see a very bright future for this sextet.
Oranssi Pazuzu round out Friday’s bill with an out-there set that opens with a dirge, ‘Kevät’, led by bassist Ontto. Discordant guitar and doom-laden drums and percussion add to the mix, before Jun-His emits a terrible scream and the psychedelic black metal juggernaut launches into life, setting its controls for the heart of the sun in a that set draws heavily on 2016’s Värähtelijä.
‘Saturaatio’ features clanging guitars and rising hysteria, each member’s intensity on an upward trajectory throughout the number as though entranced. Oranssi Pazuzu know that the scariest sets make good use of space and there’s plenty of this in their lengthy closing number ‘Vasemman käden hierarkia’. By the end the sweaty pit have fallen under Oranssi Pazuzu’s spell .
Earlier on, it takes a while for Baroness to find their swagger, perhaps also victims of the intense heat. As the sun becomes less intense, the band enter their home stretch with ‘Shock Me’. This acts like an electric jolt, sparking the set to life and waking up those who’d drifted off into conversation in the process, bringing Baroness into sharp focus. Perhaps the rhythm section tighten up, the mix improves or it’s just that a well-known tune provides a remedy to the effects of collective sunstroke.
There’s still time for one more song from each album: the guitar interplay between John Baizley and Gina Gleeson’s during ‘A Horse Called Golgotha’ (Blue) is mesmeric. ‘Chlorine & Wine’ (Purple) boasts a brooding intro and its rousing qualities are enhanced by Gleeson and Baizley’s co-lead vocals. The contemplative, chiming intro of ‘Eula’ (Yellow and Green) leads into a slow-burning firestorm, before the set’s oldest track, ‘Isak’ (Red) provides a more direct machine-gun sonic assault to close.
Friday’s headline performance comes from A Perfect Circle, whose stage crew erect the most impressive set-up of the weekend. This intentionally keeps vocalist Maynard James Keenan hidden away alongside drummer Jeff Friedel, leaving lots of room for Greg Edwards (of Failure, temporarily standing in for James Iha as he tours with Smashing Pumpkins), bassist Matt McJunkins and particularly Billy Howerdel to rock out.
The set comes days after Keenan was anonymously accused of rape on Twitter; regardless of whether he’s guilty or not, Keenan is famed for shunning the limelight, so it’s no surprise that banter is kept to a professional minimum. Of course vocalists don’t have to be frontmen, and what A Perfect Circle may lack in a personal connection with their audience is compensated for by an awesome digital visual show synced to the music.
The American quintet cover all bases in a phenomenal, hi-fidelity musical performance. It’s been noted that many of the tracks on comeback LP Eat The Elephant are more chilled out than past output. Whilst it’s true there’s not the same sonic intensity to these newer pieces, the 7 tracks aired are among the band’s most melodic and suggest on balance their best work to date.
Opener ‘Eat The Elephant’ sounds sweet but has bite, whilst ‘TalkTalk’ is far heavier live than on record, and arguably the standout track, a bile-fuelled put down of a messianic faker. Other highlights include a cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘People Are People’ and a rendition of ‘Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drum’ that takes no prisoners. The set is perfectly paced from start to finish and receives a massive response from the full auditorium.
If A Perfect Circle lacked for anything, it’s warmth, which made the contribution from Pain Of Salvation before them so vital. Where Keenan inspires bitterness and wrath, Daniel Gildenlöw’s lyrics are dark, but shot through with hope. Pain Of Salvation match A Perfect Circle for musical proficiency, hitting their stride early on with the rhythmic ‘The Reasons’, guitarist Johan Hallgren spinning his long hair behind him whilst executing the stuttering guitar parts.
The set favours material from In the Passing Light of Day. The album’s title track, their closer, is perfectly timed to catch the colours of the fading sun during its extended run time. There are a few tears around the arena during a track that performs the same stunt as Caravan’s ‘Nine Feet Underground’ – by housing it in a progressive rock shell, it affords a crowd otherwise averse to such sentiment a plaintive, bittersweet ballad, thereby creating the day’s most beautiful moment.
Burst close the festival on the Saturday night. Their set is all the more special for being a reunion show, and the crowd headbang and clap along with the last of their reserves during a set that serves up funky metal licks, near acoustic passages and soaring guitar lines, often within one song! Their comeback set features a decent amount of material from Lazarus Bird, including closing epic ‘City Cloaked’, plus three older songs including the psych roar ‘The Immateria’ and penultimate number ‘Rain’, a pained cascade of riffs.
The “hot slots” on Saturday are filled by Plini, the Australian guitarist and his band, and Gazpacho, the Norwegian art rock entity apparently one of the most requested acts by the Be Prog! faithful. Both acts suffer from the heat in terms of reception, but both put on top drawer professional performances that encourage the crowd to slap on a hat or some sunscreen to catch what they can.
Plini is first up and wows Barcelona with a display of guitar ingenuity. Opening with new track ‘Salt + Charcoal’, he works his way through lines full of jazzy intent offset against heavy djent rhythms from his band. The other three musicians on stage also shines brightly – make no mistake this is an ensemble performance. The short set closes with a rendition of ‘Electric Sunrise’ that features blistering harmonic fretwork of the highest order and ensures the queue for the signing tent extends significantly.
Gazpacho open with the contemplative and classy ‘Soyuz One’, lead single from their new album, which bursts into life as Jan-Henrik Ohme unleashes chaos behind his croon, before a delicate turn from Mikael Krømer on violin. The band delve into their back catalogue, favouring 2009’s Tick Tock, from which the aptly titled ‘Winter Is Never’ provides a mournful, coming of age anti-anthem to close their set.
Sons of Apollo have only one album to play from. Luckily, Psychotic Symphony is a killer. All of its tracks receive an airing this evening, alongside a couple of Dream Theater cover versions. It’s telling that the reaction to these classics is no greater than for each of the new tracks, with many fans having already learned all the lyrics and each chorus prompting a singalong.
‘God of the Sun’ hits the ground running and lays out the formula: crunching, powerful metallic verve with time changes and complexity through its core, alternating with chugging verses and anthemic choruses. The set closes with ‘I’m Coming Home’, which sees Jeff Scott Soto ditch the microphone and play call and response with the crowd, demonstrating both the audience’s involvement in the set and his incredible set of lungs. In between, ‘Signs of the Time’, ‘Alive’ and ‘Lost In Oblivion’ all provide more obvious thrills, whilst ‘Labyrinth’ enhances the band’s progressive credentials and ‘Opus Maximus’ shows them at their most dense.
Much has already been written regarding drummer Mike Portnoy’s latest project, reuniting him with Derek Sherinian, former Dream Theater keyboardist. Both of “The Del Fuvio Brothers” contributions are exceptional, but the other three members of the band are also deserving of the accolades being heaped upon them. Jeff Scott Soto was born to front this band. Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal is a one-off guitarist, closer in style to Allan Holdsworth than John Petrucci, with whom he’ll no doubt be compared. His trick of using one neck of his guitar for fretless soloing and one for chordal passages is inspired, and allows him an expression missing from many practitioner’s florid lines. Billy Sheehan is perhaps the band’s biggest unsung hero, driving their sound forward and providing a fluid backbone to the surrounding soloists. The only mystery surrounding Sheehan is what the bassist’s second neck on his twin-necked guitar is intended for, as he doesn’t appear to touch it at any point during the set!
If A Perfect Circle represented a relative outside choice as Friday’s headliner, Steve Hackett is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, and doesn’t disappoint one bit. Taking centre-stage for a solo set that features the relatively poppy GTR track ‘Where the Heart Rules the Mind’ alongside such heavyweight material as ‘Icarus Ascending’ and ‘Shadow of the Hierophant’, it’s a brilliant start to his show. Hackett surrounds himself with crack musicians but drummer Gary O’Toole deserves singling out for special attention. There aren’t many sticksmen who can take to the drum stool after Mike Portnoy has warmed the seat and become a talking point, but O’Toole manages this feat with his tasteful playing and remarkable feel.
“Can you tell me where my country lies?” sings Nad Sylvan, eliciting a massive noise from those assembled. Hackett’s switch to Genesis material was met with a cheer and why not?! Whilst youths partied to pop at Barcelona’s Pride festival just 100s of metres away, these were the tracks that young prog fans had hoped to hear performed by one of the elder statesmen of the genre: ‘Dancing with the Moonlit Knight’; ‘The Fountain of Salmacis’; ‘Firth of Fifth’; ‘The Musical Box’; ‘Supper’s Ready’ (in full) tells its own story as a setlist.
Throughout, Hackett plays brilliantly, whilst Nad Sylvan brings a performance element to proceedings. These often humorous songs are brought to life by the ultimate Genesis tribute act, who are faithful enough to the source material whilst confident enough in their abilities to allow themselves room to freshly interpret the repertoire. It’s a balancing act to rival bassist Jonas Reingold’s upended guitar at the climax of encore ‘Los Endos’, and ensures Hackett and his cohorts are an unqualified success at Be Prog! My Friend.