July 01, 2003

After-Action Report: NEARfest '03


Longer version: NEARfest rocks on toast. Two days of prog, ten bands, thousands of CDs with art calculated to produce the "Oooo, shiny!" response in the Yes-and-Crimson set, a breathtaking Roger Dean gallery, and more fat guys with ponytails than you can count. There's nothing quite like it for putting a feller into moog-solo and mellotron overload.

First off, though: Trenton sucks. If I hit you with the suckage of Trenton, you would die. There is very nearly nowhere to eat, and certainly nowhere that isn't vaguely distressing to be in, and you're inclined to inspect whatever they give you. And on the weekend that town is day-ud. Not so good when you unleash a coupla thousand goofy-looking art-rock fans into it for forty-five minutes at a stretch, and besides, walking five minutes from the War Memorial in any direction is so depressing you want to just sit down and give up. Perhaps there is some intriguing nightlife there in some other section of town, well-hidden from view, but until that's unveiled I hereby renounce any impulse I had to refrain from gratuitous Jersey-bashing. Garden State, is it? There's a reason why people laugh when you say that, you know.

Tony and I missed the first act on Saturday - late start getting out of Allentown - so I have no idea if High Wheel was any good or not. The program sums them up as "German heavy symphonic prog," which certainly has possibilities in either direction, but I'll assume they were at least passably good. Didn't hear folks talking about them all weekend, but that's the peril of opening; you never hear about Birdsongs of the Mesozoic from the '01 show either, so there you go.

We did arrive in time for Alamaailman Vasarat, a sextet from Finland who do a sort of instrumental Prog Noir - no guitars, but organ, drums, sax, trombone, and two cellos (and it never occured to me before that you could run a cello through a distortion box; the results are quite awesome). These guys were great. Supposedly the name means "hammers of the underworld," but I'll have to have Maija confirm that one.

Tunnels was perfectly good, but not my thing. A little too atonal-jazz-noodling for my taste - lots of riffing odd stuff up and down the MIDI-Vibes, which loses me after the first thirty seconds or so. Fortunately, I have some awareness of how trained you have to be to sound like you're just goofing off like that, or my assessment would probably be more cynical. As it is, I can nod appreciatively and hold out for the next act.

Which was The Flower Kings. Oh, my. The Flower Kings rawk. Here's what I love about this genre - these guys played for an hour and a half and their set was, like, five songs. They're certainly planted firmly in the epic-length crunchy symphonic-rock school of progressive music, but they have made that very much their own. I think one of the things I tend to like about European prog especially (the Flower Kings are from Sweden) is that they're influenced by more stuff than just Yes and Genesis and bring that musical syncretism into their work; they're not stuck in-genre, they're just playing what they like. That said, this stuff soars and wails with the best of 'em, but even if you don't know Marillion from Kansas, if you're not moved by the end of "Stardust We Are" and singing it in the shower for two days - well, there may be no hope for you.

Headliner for Saturday night was Magma. Not bad, if a bit on the avant-side (French, y'know). Sort of what would happen if there was a Manhattan Transfer rock opera. Dunno if it was headliner material for me, but it was interesting enough, and you can certainly sit and groove to it for two hours.

Sunday morning brought the pleasant (if that's the word I'm looking for) surprise of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, who have made an awful lot of new fans now, myself enthusiastically among them. They're a sort of apocalyptic industrial nightmare goth prog, which manages to push just about all of my aesthetic buttons at once. Go see them, just for the costumes. I wish I looked that good in a dress and hightops, I'll tell you that.

And then there was Glass Hammer. While I was slightly disappointed they didn't do any of their Middle-Earth stuff, the live performance of their album Lex Rex is tough to complain about. You want classic epic keyboard prog in the fashion of Yes and so forth, look no further. Sure, it's entirely over-the-top, but this is not a genre that has ever been known to stop once it's made its point anyway. And the women doing their backup vocals were hella-cute. (An aside: You can learn almost everything you need to know about prog fans by observing the two reactions engendered in them by putting three attractive women onstage. The first is perhaps best summed up as "Whoa, boobs!" The second, even more unfortunate, is "Yeah, but they couldn't dance in 7/8 time." I kid you not, gentle readers, though I deeply wish I did.)

Oh, and during the Glass Hammer set, Rich Williams of Kansas ambled out onstage to play a song with them. Just, y'know, 'cause he thought it'd be fun. I'd give a kidney to have been there for that conversation, just to hear what the GH guys said after they got done crapping themselves. There's your lesson for the day, kids: if you're an art-rock musician, learn you some Kansas songs, because you never know.

I don't know what it is about tall, skinny German guys and prog, but Kraan was pretty damn good. They were lots of fun, and obviously had a blast doing what they were doing. Danceable and catchy and unpretentious, and very much a breath of fresh air.

Nonetheless, out of all the new finds for me this year, it's Anglagard that more or less owns my soul now. Instrumental Swedish vituoso symphonic stuff with flutes and whatnot. And three mellotrons. Three! I didn't know you could do that without blowing something up. They are awesome. Once again, it's the European bands that really get me; two years ago, it was White Willow, and now it's these guys, for much the same reasons. (Well, okay, then it was at least partially out of falling deeply in love with Sylvia Erichsen, but you get the idea. Not that Anna Holmgren ain't easy on the eyes herself, but assume I'm speaking of lofty aesthetics here.) Go thou forth, and buy Anglagard albums. That is all.

And then, playing fashionably late, the Sunday-night headliner came in the form of the venerable and esteemed Camel. Worth the wait, I'd say. Very much like classic Genesis - immensely listenable, smart but not oh-so-clever, and frequently very beautiful and sweet. Sadly, this is their farewell tour; catch 'em if you can.

And there you have it. I was pretty good, and didn't buy everything that looked in the least bit cool (which is why I'm not still in Jersey, saying "That's twenty for just the blowjob, and nothing up the bum, please"). Besides the obligatory Angalgard and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum CDs, I also got a single from a local band called The Red Masque, which is certainly the right thing to listen to if you want your musical boundaries stretched forcibly wider - but at almost 40 minutes, it's the best four bucks you'll spend, and you really should just for the chance to hear Lynette Shelley sing. She is pretty damn amazing. I also recommend playing it, if you can, while you drive down a dark road in the middle of the night; that was our first exposure, and oh, wow. (I also had the reaction, "If she's not a Current 93 fan, she should be," but, then, I would.)

And that was NEARfest. Woot! Final analysis: "It's even worth going to Trenton." How's that for a t-shirt slogan?

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