Be Prog! My Friend 2016 - Poble Espanyol, Barcelona, Spain, 01-02.07.2016
|Event:||Be Prog! My Friend... Festival 2016|
Be Prog! My Friend 2016 - Poble Espanyol, Barcelona, Spain, 02.07.2016 by Ivor (90)
Be Prog! My Friend 2016 - Poble Espanyol, Barcelona, Spain, 01.07.2016 by Ivor (58)
at be prog my friend
amazing bands are playing
and it's blazing hot
17:30 - Exxasens
18:40 - Obsidian Kingdom
20:00 - Iamthemorning
21:25 - Agent Fresco
22:50 - The Pineapple Thief
16:30 - The Gentle Storm
17:50 - Between The Buried And Me
19:20 - Magma
20:50 - Opeth
23:20 - Steven Wilson
01:50 - Textures
Looking back on 2016, it's been a year of loss and tragic deaths (from Harper Lee and Carrie Fisher to Leonard Cohen and Lemmy Kilmister, we've lost some great film and music legends), but also a year of travel and adventure, good friends and food, and, last but not least, great music.
It's actually been a brilliant year for music, full of standout tracks on standout albums. As we approach the final ranking of the best albums of 2016, it's high time to talk about another 'best of' in the list of ways to experience music - live performances.
A live gig, in my opinion, shows what an artist is really made of - separates the men from the boys, so to speak - and when done right, it's something that can stay with you forever. I'm fortunate enough to have had the chance to visit Be Prog! My Friend in 2016. It proved to be the highlight of all highlights of the year - not only because of the music but also because of the experience as a whole.
Be Prog! is a Barcelona-based festival held in the central courtyard of Poble Espanyol, one of the most emblematic areas of Barcelona. The aptly-named "Spanish village" is quite literally a town in itself, synthesising the architectural and cultural wealth of Spain. It replicates squares, streets, and buildings from different Spanish regions, allowing you to basically visit a whole country in just one day.
In their own words, the festival "highlights the world's best progressive bands". Progressive music is known to have fairly liberated views in regard to boundaries (heck, how do you define something as broad and multifaceted as the progressive genre anyway?). Although Be Prog! certainly lives up to its promise (with well-known alumni such as Pain Of Salvation, Meshuggah, Riverside, Haken, and many more), it also welcomes bands that are not strictly 'prog' in the classic sense of the word.
Day 1 ↑
Here we go…
The festival kicks off right on time with three-fourths of the crowd still waiting outside the entrances. I'm not sure why the organisers seem to think that trying to let in two thousand people in approximately half an hour is not a crazy idea, but opening the doors just before the event is about to start seems to be a common thing for Spanish festivals, so perhaps it's best to try and not be bothered about it.
As always, as the crowd start pouring in, there's a bit of T-shirt posing going on, with everyone checking out everyone else (and occasionally judging others silently). I, with my very nondescript jersey tank top, feel slightly out of place. To ease my discomfort, I grab an Opeth beer from the stands and make my way to the merch area. If there ever was a good time to extend or revamp one's shirt collection, this would be it - the coolest stuff always seems to be low in volume and gone in the blink of an eye.
17:30 - Exxasens ↑
And so it begins. Let me start out by saying that I generally feel a bit wary about post-rock. For me, the genre focusses too much on repeating patterns and melodies, which means that it can sometimes feel like an instrumental loop repeated over and over ad nauseam. I also tend to enjoy it more in an intimate setting, such as a small dark room, not in bright daylight, full sunshine, and 35-degree heat.
However, having said that, I must admit that Exxasens are a pretty cool choice for an opener. This local band takes inspiration from the study of space and those who have voyaged into its heart of darkness. If you haven't listened to them before, try imagining the big names of the genre à la Mono, God Is An Astronaut, or Explosions In The Sky fused with post-metal styles à la Pelican.
Exxasens deliver a meditative and atmospheric set filled with spacey riffs and long echoes. The majority of the mostly instrumental set revolves around their last album, Back To Earth, and takes the listeners on a musical voyage across the solar system. The band makes full use of the giant screen at the back of the stage - their visuals of the cosmos and the solar system are perfectly synchronised to their music.
Both the background effects and the band itself do seem to lose some steam and impact in the Catalan sunshine, especially as the majority of the crowd is trying to find shade and escape from the aggressive heat. The sound feels a bit off as well, ringing too loud and undefined at times, particularly when the distorted guitars should really be shining through. Still, the band handles the tough intro situation they've been put into quite well. They give a soothing and relaxed opening to the festival and pave the way for other post-rock bands to follow in their footsteps in the future years.
18:40 - Obsidian Kingdom ↑
If Exxasens represents the lighter side of Spanish prog, Obsidian Kingdom is definitely the older brother with a dark side. They sound their very best when they're firing on all cylinders. Performing in the middle of the day does not really seem like their forte, as their heavy loudness and sombre violence seems better suited for night-time, but the band's presence, energy, and intensity on stage are awesome.
They have undergone some changes recently, but if you didn't know that before, you would never gather it from their performance. They really excel in their live shows, and the crowd gets swept along as well - a sizable number of people stand right in front of the stage, ignoring the liquid fire gushing from the heavens.
I especially applaud Rider G Omega, one of the band's founding members, and his sense of humour. Randomly, in the middle of the set, he goes, "Are you like a window?" (a brief pause) "Is your life … PANE?" And off they go, launching into the next song. Or, right after the title song of their latest album, "I know you'll find it hard to believe, but this year there is going to be. No. Summer!" Ha! Yeah, Omega, let me reflect on this quietly while I'm standing here soaking wet from the heat.
As with Exxasens, the visual montage is once again excellent - Obsidian match a different image to each composition, creating a unique sonic-visual landscape. Unfortunately, the sound quality is a bit poor at first, especially in "Last Of The Light", where the rhythm guitar is barely there and the guitar solo sounds weirdly creaky. The clean vocals alongside the distorted and metallic guitars also feel a bit off-balance to my ear at times, although I'm not entirely sure whether I should blame the sound guy or my terrible taste in music.
20:00 - Iamthemorning ↑
Iamthemorning, a chamber pop/prog duo from Russia, comprises Marjana Semkina on vocals and Gleb Kolyadin on piano (joined by the occasional guest musician). Although they don't sound like the majority of progressive rock bands, the prog audience has taken to the band in an extraordinary manner. As most prog artists, they love sophisticated structures, employ well thought-out arrangements, and require some emotional contribution. The band even won Album of the Year for their album Lighthouse at the 2016 Progressive Music Awards.
Extensive touring is complicated for them for several reasons, one being the need for special visas for both the EU and the UK, another having to mostly remain chamber for their live performances (as getting the 'full' production on board is near impossible), so being able to see them live is a huge thing for me as a long-time fan of the band. They say they are humbled to be invited to this kind of an event, but even though they are indeed very different from the rest of the line-up, I must admit that their performance is one of my favourites of the entire festival.
First of all, compared to the previous bands, they offer a nice change of pace. By the time they're done, they have twice as many people standing at the front of the stage as they do at the beginning of the concert. Gleb is a master virtuoso on the piano and Evan Carson blows me away behind the drums. They're ethereal, gentle, fragile, and delicate - a perfect accompaniment to the setting sun.
Secondly, Marjana, with her red dreadlocks and bare feet, is simply adorable. She wins the local crowd over by trying her hand at a tongue-twister, dazzles the rest of the crowd with her charisma and presence, and at one point even jokes that it must feel awkward to see her so cheery and upbeat between the songs, considering that all their music speaks about death and devastation.
When a bouquet of flowers is thrown on the stage, Marjana seems genuinely taken aback. It's nothing compared to the marriage proposal shout-out from the audience, though!
21:25 - Agent Fresco ↑
Agent Fresco is a truly exciting band. They combine math rock basics with the subtle gentleness and beauty of Sigur Rós and the intensity of a slightly more frantic version of The Mars Volta. The band's overall technical showmanship, plus Arnór Dan Arnarson's fragile vocals, coupled with the occasional gut-wrenching scream, on top of which artful sing-along melodies have been lain… They're a one-of-a-kind beast.
The show takes a little bit of time to get off the ground, but once they've eased into it - oh boy! Stuff from Fresco's latest album, Destrier, takes up just over half of the set. Five songs are also included from their full-length debut, A Long Time Listening, which is a concept album about the death of Arnarson's father. "He Is Listening", the second song of the set, is an absolute pleasure to behold.
Arnór has managed to catch pneumonia (which I can only imagine as being somewhat comparable to catching about twenty colds at the same time), but performs like a madman. He's a little short of breath, but not even a teensy bit out of tune, so I've no idea what the guy can do when he's at his very best. It really feels like this performance means a lot to him. The entire band is close with the audience, but Arnór takes it up another notch and even sings the last song standing among the cheering crowd.
22:50 - The Pineapple Thief ↑
With 14 albums behind them, these guys are undoubtedly true veterans. They mix prog with atmospheric and electronic rock - I believe they might just be the most 'conventional' and accessible band of the day - and have a huge fan base. I myself have been a fan of the band for about a decade now. Although I only discovered them sometime around 2006, I first listened to and fell in love with their earlier material (Abducting the Unicorn, 137). Unfortunately, most albums before their latest release, Your Wilderness, which came out just after the festival, have been leaning heavily toward the pop side of the sonic spectrum. That's not a bad thing per se, but for the more seasoned fans both Thief's 2016 album and Bruce Soord's own self-titled solo venture from 2015 are probably more captivating journeys.
The band's set is a combination of Magnolia and an eclectic mix of their "later earlier" stuff, alternating between quiet classics (e.g. "All The Wars"), full-on rockers ("Sense Of Fear") and electronic touches ("Nothing At Best"). The sound quality is impeccable throughout the entire show and the light guy has done an excellent job here.
However, Agent Fresco is a tough act to follow. After their raw power, The Pineapple Thief's tranquillity and stoic minimalism provides a striking contrast, but somehow feels a bit too clinical. There's a certain similarity to most of the songs that prevents any of them from standing out; it's as if the band was cruising on autopilot. I could probably reorder the set or swap out some songs entirely and still come out feeling the same.
Don't get me wrong - it's not that they're bad. They're just uneventful. Everything is almost perfect - studied, linear, with no real surprises. The foundations are present, but something about the utter refinement of the sound and lack of freshness in the set leaves me wanting to like it more than I actually do. Sure, they're letting their songs do the talking, and I can appreciate the technique and the elegance, but the Icelanders have very clearly stolen the limelight this evening.
The organisers have managed to follow the time schedule quite nicely - there are no major delays and everything feels very professional. There's a decent selection of food (which may or may not appeal to everyone's personal taste buds, but let's not digress…), the drinks are reasonably priced, and the location is undeniably and enviably beautiful.
Although the first day is called a 'warm-up day' and free access is granted to everyone who have ticket to Saturday's show, Iamthemorning and Agent Fresco have firmly held their ground and already managed to deliver two of the best performances of the festival. Nothing warm about this day - hot price, hot weather, hot music!
Day 2 ↑
16:30 - The Gentle Storm ↑
Like Day 1, Day 2 also starts right on time, so, unfortunately, by the time The Gentle Storm (albeit yet again without Arjen Lucassen) take the stage, many people are still queuing outside the gates, waiting in long lines.
Due to the slightly quieter nature of the project, I am half-expecting the show to be focussed on the lighter, acoustic arrangements, but what we actually get are the full-blown, bombastic, orchestral 'Storm versions' of most songs. The band basically gives the audience a prog rock musical. Their stuff can be quite similar to Townsend's at times, so it's no wonder they choose to do one of his songs ("Fallout", originally performed as a duet with Devin on Z2) towards the end of the set. We also hear over 11 minutes' worth of rhythmic and instrumental precision from Ayreon ("Isis And Osiris"), as well as older songs from Agua de Annique ("Witnesses") and The Gathering ("Strange Machines").
Every song is delivered with power and purposefulness. Anneke has an enormous positive attitude and she always looks incredibly grateful to be on stage, even though everyone already knows that she has an absolutely captivating voice and can anticipate the brilliance of seeing her perform. Anneke's voice is an obvious show-stealer - what could I possibly say about her that hasn't been said a thousand times already, really? - but Marcela Bovio, showing great technique, is not far behind.
Combined with tremendous songs and a superb band, there really isn't much that could go wrong here, except perhaps the day being blazing hot and everyone, especially the performers, really feeling the heat. Although Anneke is struggling with the sun and is occasionally trying to find shade on the platform Marcela is standing on, she is still a vocal powerhouse and an incredible performer. Ed Warby adds beautiful fills and small extra passages and embellishments that you don't hear on the album versions. Somehow, every song feels different and 'new'.
Besides "Strange Machines", which is the highlight of the show for me, my personal favourites are "Heart Of Amsterdam" and "Shores Of India", the latter of which the girls perform side by side, proving once again that they really are two of the most renowned female singers on the scene.
17:50 - Between The Buried And Me ↑
Between The Buried And Me are sophisticated, playful, and brutal. Their music is extremely varied, incorporating unusual time signatures and contrasting sections, and adding extreme vocals on top of that, so it's really a matter of taste whether you enjoy them or not. They're not easily digestible upon first listen and I've heard even long-time fans mention that new albums need a few listens before they can be properly appreciated. So, please forgive me when I say that although the band is often spoken of highly and I do respect their abilities and passion for their craft, I've never managed to quite 'get into them'.
BTBAM's set is mostly composed of songs of which an average casual fan would be aware. The live performance itself is so close to the album versions that it is almost terrifying. There's rarely a note out of place. The showmanship is undeniable, and the guys are very energetic up on the stage. They even get a mosh pit out of the crowd at one point.
However, while the selection gives a thorough and eclectic overview of their discography (which is nice), it also feels a bit like a promo reel. The sound is also somewhat muddled at times, making it difficult to tell songs apart, and the vocalist gets a little lost in the mix. Overall, they fail to leave an impression on me. (Sorry, guys, it's definitely me.)
19:20 - Magma ↑
Magma … don't do simple. They don't really do accessible, either. They employ ethnic melodies and tribal rhythms in creating evocative and spiritual songs, which sound original even now, almost 50 years after the band was originally founded. Magma's lyrics are in their own language, a whole music genre (zeuhl) has been named after them, and they've influenced a number of other bands (and fans, no doubt). They're psychedelic and progressive, utterly original, and still at the top of their game.
The younger crowd are probably less acutely aware of them, but they are definitely the highlight of the festival for those who know what to expect. I've never been too impressed by them, but am positively surprised by the performance and like them more than I would have thought. It's difficult to describe the absolute beast of an experience these old-school veterans can deliver. Christian Vander (the founder of the band, on drums) is almost 70, but is still full of energy and showing top form on the stage.
I do get the feeling that their final set isn't exactly to their liking. They take a while to set up - being the perfectionists that they are - so they might be running short on time, but instead of their usual favourite (also a fan-favourite) and one of their more legendary songs, "Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh", they opt for two shorter songs ("Zombies" and "Kobaïa") and complain a little about it. Still, despite not being given a larger cut of the show pie, I believe they manage to captivate the majority of the audience. They're an acquired taste, but they certainly know how to catch your attention.
20:50 - Opeth ↑
Although Opeth have been the talk of the town since their 2001's magnum opus Blackwater Park, they still say they feel intimidated to have to go on stage after the legendary Magma. Mikael also notes that the band haven't done any performances for the past eight months, so they're a little rusty, but that's only if you don't count them opening for Iron fucking Maiden - a minor little detail…
Although their last three albums have spooked off some of their fans, most people are starting to warm up to the new, mellower sound and the band is becoming increasingly popular. It's probably safe to say that Opeth are one of the most powerful and well-known bands of the progressive scene right now.
True to his style, Mikael speaks in a confident, unhurried fashion and seems fairly serious, but that doesn't stop him from joking around with the audience. At one point, he announces that the band is going to do a new song from the upcoming album - only to play a single chord and carry on with the old material. Miguelito, you sweet troll.
The middle part of the set blows me away: "The Leper Affinity" (Blackwater Park) is pure madness - it has guttural sounds, death guitars, and solos from hell; "Godhead's Lament" (Still Life), with its masterful dynamics and transitions from heavy riffs and formidable vocals into beautiful melodies, is simply a musical orgy of the highest calibre; and "To Rid the Disease" (Damnation) has just carried me through some dark days, so there. They also play two songs from Heritage, apologising beforehand for picking songs off their most hated record. For the critics who have been complaining about the band having gone soft, they let "Watershed" rip. Mikael has pointed out that he is suffering from a bad cold and isn't feeling 100%, but with the older stuff, they prove that the band (and Mikael's growling ability) is in great shape.
But they leave their pièce de résistance, their crème de la crème, for the very end. When we least expect it - "Deliverance", their most recognisable and beloved song. Man, that syncopated riff! After an already sublime performance (and years and years of listening to the band), the outro of this song still gives me goosebumps.
Opeth's songs are like tales that you could tell around a campfire - lengthy, intriguing, and awesome tales - and a collection of such tales in one book is every avid camper's dream come true. The only thing I find complaint-worthy is the length of the set. There's still 20 minutes left on the clock when the band walks off the stage. I mean, guys, you've showcased material from almost every album, there are still at least two more left to cover, how about… No…? Aww…
23:20 - Steven Wilson ↑
Steven Wilson has substantial experience and an impeccable track record. With Storm Corrosion, Blackfield, No-Man, Porcupine Tree, and many other acts under his belt, he is pretty much a musical King Midas. After a furious rise in popularity after his latest albums, The Raven That Refused To Sing and Hand. Cannot. Erase., he's earned himself a tremendous amount of respect, and with top quality performances on a regular basis, the extent of his fandom is entirely understandable.
These days, Wilson's live sets tend to lean towards the louder, heavier, and rockier side of things. With every member of the band getting a chance to showcase their skills, it is evident that he's put together a wonderful live group and that each and every one of the musicians on the stage is outrageously talented.
Wilson himself is usually very communicative and talkative on stage, giving the audience some background on the more personal aspects of the songs. Lights and video projections supporting the songs are dynamic and coordinated, transforming the whole performance into a magnificent audio-visual spectacle. I don't actually think the visuals are that necessary - the music is already powerful enough and the lyrics so unabashedly unsubtle in their meaning that you don't need the screen to steer you towards what you're supposed to be feeling - but it does add another layer to the spectacular Wilson-orchestrated extravaganza.
The set is mainly focussed on Hand. Cannot. Erase., which we hear almost in its entirety, but Wilson also includes four songs from Porcupine Tree (and pays homage to the late Bowie and Prince with "Lazarus"). This offers a nice combination of his latest creations and some of the earlier, more nostalgic stuff, although the set list is almost the same as the last time I saw him (in Helsinki), bordering on ringing slightly too familiar at times. Unfortunately, Ninet Tayeb was not present there, either, so although I hear some complaints regarding her absence from other members of the audience, I don't know what I'm missing here. I do hear she's making an appearance on Steven's next album as well, so I might still get a chance to catch her live somewhere.
Wilson continues to push himself and write more intricate music over time, but re-sets the bar higher and higher every time, so everyone has come to expect fantastic things from him. He has the confidence of a man who genuinely enjoys his music, and his live performances only reiterate the point he's made throughout his career: that melancholic tracks are often the most beautiful and uplifting, while happy songs tend to feel depressing due to their inauthenticity.
His live sound is as true to the recordings as it can possibly be. So why not just stay at home and listen to the recording? To not just hear the music - to feel the music. It's hard to not be emotionally torn by Wilson's performances, especially during such masterpieces as "Routine" (accompanied by Jess Cope's devastating video), "Don't Hate Me", "The Raven That Refused To Sing", or "Index" (which is a joy to hear performed live). It's a magical experience and I cannot help but lose myself in the moment until that moment is up.
01:50 - Textures ↑
Textures are left in charge of wrapping up the festival, but struggle to make a brutal mark. Their style is innovative and complex, fusing ambient soundscapes together with progressive riffs (and all that jazz) … but, alas, they've been given the post-headliners mop-up slot and get to go on stage around 2 a.m. The shining stars of the evening have already finished their sets by this point and the majority of the crowd has either already left or is on the verge of setting off.
Whatever is left of the mass of people who were cheering in front of the stage during the last two performances, the ones who have stayed, get to enjoy Textures from the very first row. And Textures do their best to deliver an incredible performance, not holding back on the groovy, heavy parts - it sounds like a proper metal rave party.
As for me, I'm sorry to say but my festival ended with Wilson. I prefer the quieter parts of the set (e.g. "Zman" or even "Timeless") that counter the harshness (e.g. "Laments Of An Icarus", the closing song, which is pure technical brutality), but, honestly, it's very late and I'm too tired to thoroughly enjoy the band's performance.
What else is there left to say?
Be Prog! My Friend is an elegant and eclectic festival of global significance. The sound is pretty good most of the time, save for some minor issues, which don't distract too much from the overall experience. The location and the setting are incomparable - it's worth taking the time to stroll around and discover the area, see the narrow streets lined with stone terraces and colourful plants, parakeets flying overhead, olive and palm trees all around… The tourism factor combined with everything the local gastronomy has to offer only adds to the mix.
I appreciate the fact that the festival has now been spread over two days instead of just one as in one of the previous years - we get the same number of bands without the nuisance of having to run between two stages, one tinier than the other. I also think this type of schedule allows for some rest between the concerts. However, while I do understand that it'd be difficult to start the day three or so hours later, I'm still not sure it's such a brilliant idea to roast the performers (and the audience) in the sun. Perhaps it can't be avoided.
FYI, the full line-up of the fourth instalment has just been announced. This year, Be Prog! will be hosting another interesting show: the legendary Jethro Tull and Marillion alongside other famous names such as Devin Townsend Project, Anathema, Leprous, and Ulver, accompanied by up-and-comers like Caligula's Horse and Animals as Leaders. Head on over to their website for a lot more information and a complete line-up.
Point of interest: Opeth was the first band to make their second appearance at Be Prog! last year; now, Leprous, Anathema, and Townsend are following the same pattern for 2017. It might not take long until we stumble across a line-up where all bands have already attended the festival at one point or another. For such a young event - this year is their fourth - it's definitely an intriguing potential development of which to keep track.
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