Artists: Avant Garden, Maudlin Of The Wel, Daemonia & Radio MAssacre International
Event: Day One of Progwest '02
Seeley-Mudd Theater
Claremont, California
Date of Show: Novemeber 9th, 2002
Reviewed by: Michael Alvarez


The Review:

ProgWest 2002 began on an uncharacteristically rainy Southern California afternoon. Upon entering the Seeley-Mudd Theater, one could immediately see the difference between this year's festival and its predecessor. Organizers David Robin, Bob Rosenthal, Scott Smith and Mike Thaxton must be congratulated for making a quantum leap in all areas. The hall was larger and more comfortable. The sound and lighting system were absolutely top-notch, aiding this year's performers in giving a very professional presentation. The one thing that might have been improved was the vendor area. It was difficult to maneuver and interact with the vendors because of the cramped conditions. The uncharacteristically rainy weather also forced most attendees indoors, thus compounding the problem. But it is perhaps pointless to belabor the issue, as most people appeared to get what they wanted.

Avant Garden

Sacramento's cleverly-named Avant Garden were the first act to hit the stage. Their lineup features sax and flute as the main lead instruments along with a guitar and rock rhythm section. They opened with an instrumental that fused a heavy groove with a jazzy sound. While they created a good psychedelic jam vibe, they also nailed the breaks and changes, demonstrating that they are a tight, well-rehearsed unit with good communication. Their aggressive, confident attack and no-nonsense stage demeanor were well-suited to their sophisticated sound. While Sax player and flautist Flamp Sorvari serves as the group's frontman, Avant Garden gives the overall impression that theirs is a unified group effort. Sorvari 's fluid playing shared the stage with the blistering guitar work of Brian Gould, and indeed the two disparate instrumental timbres complemented each other well in the band's overall sound. The rhythm section, drummer Jason Kenney and bassist J. D. Gardemeyer, is punchy and precise giving the soloists a solid and powerful foundation upon which to soar. Their set list borrowed heavily from their CD "Maelstrom" with tracks like "Path Of The Farwinds" and "Dragon Feed", but included some new material as well. They performed a new song that is as-yet untitled, and once again their confidence was a clear display of the pride and professionalism that they put into their music. They cover a wide spectrum of moods. Ethereal flute solos precede heavy rhythmic grooves. A melodic ballad morphs into an all-out prog smorgasbord featuring skillful tempo and time changes before turning into a hard rock jam. These extended pieces can be hypnotic and rhythmic, pastoral, bone-crunching and more-all in the space of one song! Toward the end of their set, Steve Roach lent an exotic flavor to their music by accompanying them on didjeridoo.

Avant Garden is a band with a strong musical vision, great players and a polished stage act. They garnered an enthusiastic crowd reaction as their performance built to a ferocious and tumultuous climax. I expect that we will hear more from this impressive ensemble in the future.

Maudlin Of The Well

Without a doubt, the most challenging band of the festival was Maudlin Of The Well. Their blurb in the ProgWest program describes their music as "astral metal", and indeed their sound stood astride both musical worlds. Songs alternated between delicate, atmospheric passages and heavily distorted de-tuned guitar riffs with death metal vocals (courtesy of vocalist and guitarist Jason Byron). Possibly because the performers in Maudlin Of The Well appeared to be a generation removed from most audience members, their chosen musical style caused a great number of people to scratch their heads in confusion or leave early for the dinner break. This was a shame because this band took a genre of music that they love and transmuted it into something new-surely a most progressive approach.

They are obviously skilled musicians, displaying great ability during the spacier, more melodic parts of the songs. The death metal sections were very precise and well-executed. They laid down a heavy groove when needed, and had an astonishing ability to switch musical gears on a dime. Particularly courageous was their inclusion of woodwind instruments in solo spots. I certainly didn't see that coming, and it lent one song an interesting jazzy flavor.

The one area in which I must find fault is their stage presentation. They were not as polished as Avant Garden, and indeed, one got the impression that we were witnessing a rehearsal as opposed to a stage show. Long and awkward pauses occurred between songs so that the guitars could be tuned. Oftentimes this took place without a front man's banter covering for them, and the tuning was done audibly through the sound system. There were a lot of jarring pops as cords were plugged and unplugged. One cannot help but think that a volume pedal and electronic tuner could have done wonders for them. During some of the harder, more distorted passages, pitches became indistinguishable anyway, so the whole tuning exercise seemed to be in vain. Also detracting from their stage show was the fact that some soloists did not take center stage. One could hear a guitar solo, but had to search amongst the three axe-men to find the one taking the lead. More often than not, he would be at an unlit part of the stage behind the keyboards!

Special mention and kudos must go to bassist Nick Kyte, whose broken right hand was taped and splinted. He was still able to provide adequate bottom to many songs by tapping the strings of his instrument with his left hand. One can't help but think that ProgWest may have inadvertently started a tradition of one-handed instrumentalists, seeing how last year's lineup included Glass whose keyboardist Greg Sherman is one-armed. Can Def Leppard be far behind?

For the most part, I must say that Maudlin Of The Well's sound and style did not appeal to me. However, I found them to be interesting and adventurous. I stayed for their entire performance and was never bored. If death metal guitars and vocals are part of your musical diet, then I recommend this band to you. They will deliver the goods and take you to some interesting places in the process.

Daemonia

Italy's Daemonia hit the stage after the dinner break, and hit it they did! They are a heavy, symphonic keyboard-based instrumental group whose powerful music was very true to its cinematic roots. Keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, a founding member of Goblin, fronts this band with an erudite and sophisticated air more suited to a James Bond nemesis than a rock musician. Every member of this band is a confident, competent player, and they performed like a well-oiled machine. Each man was a show unto himself, particularly guitarist Bruno Previtali, who dished up his stinging leads and crunchy riffs with a star quality that dared the audience not to adore him. The rhythm section of Federico Amoriso on bass and Titta Tani on drums was tight and powerful, giving the soloists solid ground upon which to amaze the crowd. The solo spots for the keyboardist and drummer were amazing displays of musical chops, but concise as well. Daemonia's soloists had the good sense to dazzle but not overstay their welcome. While I'm passing around the kudos, I have to mention that the sound mix was the best of the evening. At one point, Simonetti implored the audience to applaud their engineer.

At times, the music was interspersed with pre-recorded sound bites or vocal tracks. The song "Opera" had a melody that was completely carried by a female singer. This band was so well-rehearsed and polished that these embellishments were perfectly integrated into their performance. Other songs performed that night were "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" (from an upcoming CD), "Suspiria", "Sleepless", and "Zombi" (which in Simonetti's words was "dedicated to all zombies in the world."). Each one was played with an unvarnished and infectious joy by this very charismatic band. They made an excellent connection with the audience and earned the jubilant standing ovation that was given them. As a matter of fact, the audience demanded-and was granted-an encore. Daemonia easily stole the first evening of ProgWest. I was grinning from ear to ear throughout this absolutely riveting performance.

Radio Massacre International

Radio Massacre International is an electronic ambient ensemble from England whose music is very moody and atmospheric. Like Tangerine Dream, their material often relies more upon texture than rhythm. Visually, they were a little static, but the venue's professional lighting and smoke effects greatly enhanced the vibe they created by adding touches of dynamism to punctuate the music. Their lineup includes Steve Dinsdale and Duncan Goddard who share duties on keyboards and electronics. Occasionally, Dinsdale would play percussion or drums to provide rhythmic backing when there was no programmed rhythm track. Goddard doubled on bass guitar when one was required by the song. Rounding out RMI is Gary Houghton who plays guitar and keyboards. He also employed a mini theremin for interesting sound effects. During an extended piece entitled "The Frozen North", Houghton used some kind of loop sampler or delay to create a repeating effect over which he could solo.

A bit of unintentional humor occurred when a hand-held percussion instrument Dinsdale was playing bumped into a boom microphone, thus turning the mic into an impromptu percussion instrument itself. Instead of disrupting the mood, it gave the audience an unexpected glimpse at the joy these gentlemen take in creating their art. Their methodical exactness was a great contrast to the fiery Italian band that preceded them, so this moment was very important in establishing a connection with the audience.

When Dinsdale played drums on a few numbers, the sonic fabric assumed a more structured feel, showing that RMI can lay down a good rhythmic groove along with the best of them. This was especially noteworthy on the appropriately titled "Rainy Day Song", during which Radio Massacre International turned into a rock power trio comprised of guitar, bass and drums. A song they called "A Minute's Silence" could perhaps be described as "Floyd-esque", as it featured a bluesy Gilmour-style guitar solo.

This group's music requires patience and attentiveness from the listener. The experience is ultimately a rewarding one, as the music is very evocative, ebbing and flowing as it does through various electronic soundscapes. The moods created range from soothing to ominous. Many concert goers commented later that they enjoyed RMI's performance, but felt that they probably would have been even better-received had they played earlier in the evening. If they had they switched places with Daemonia, they would have been the perfect prelude to a grand finale for ProgWest's first evening. Yet, judged on its own merits, one must say that RMI's set was a sonic feast for cerebral ears.

~Michael Alvarez for ProgNaut.com on January 19th, 2003



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