In a cruel display of schadenfreude, it is a week after the UK has voted to leave Europe. And a mere three weeks since the rain-sodden experience of Download festival. And so Prog finds itself in love with Barcelona, the delightful weather and everything that Be Prog! My Friend festival has to offer. Although you’re kind of left with that feeling that losers on Bullseye must have felt on being told, ‘This is what you could have won!’ as an array of colourful gifts are displayed in front of you.
Poble Espanyol is a vast architectural museum complete with streets, houses and shops, whose town square is converted into the arena for this sun-soaked prog extravaganza. Surveying the packed crowd, it’s a much younger audience than one might expect to find at such an event in the UK, with a splendid array of prog, post-rock and prog metal t-shirts on display. And it’s a fairly even 50-50 split of males to females, too. And while in the UK much of the audience would be moaning about half the bill, here the international audience lap everything up. But then with the arena bathed in glorious sunshine and Download’s mud but a distant memory, what’s not to like?
Wisely, two Spanish acts get things underway. Local boys Exxasens’ pulsating blend of post and space rock, complete with accompanying solar system visuals, is a perfect way to get things going, building rhythmically to the end of their set. Fellow Spaniards Obsidian Kingdom are a heavier prospect, airing material from new album A Year With No Summer. They play with dynamism and Rider Omega is a commanding frontman.
iamthemorning might have been something of an unknown entity before they play, but by the end of their allotted hour they, or rather frontwoman Marjana Semkina, have totally transfixed the crowd. At first their chamber prog seems at odds with what has gone before, but the musicality of Gleb Kolyadin shines through while Semkina’s spritely performance is a mixture of charm and good natured bewilderment. Of course she knows exactly what she’s doing, but it works a treat every time you see the band live. Icelandics Agent Fresco are also somewhat unknown, but it doesn’t take long for their twisted pop and darker prog songs to grab the attention, and with singer Arnór Dan Arnarson turning in an impressively energetic performance.
Headliners The Pineapple Thief are still without a full-time drummer and new album Your Wilderness isn’t out for a few months, so tonight’s set still revolves largely around 2014’s Magnolia, although both the vibrant All The Wars and Alone At Sea shine. Despite the odd hiccup Soord attacks his guitar with a Page-like gusto during the solos and it’s another confident, assured showing.
Saturday opens once again bathed in glorious sunlight, with The Gentle Storm’s Anneke Van Giersbergen struggling to cope with the blazing heat. Fortunately it doesn’t affect her strident voice and her glowing personality shines through on The Gathering and Devin Townsend material. As for US prog metallers Between The Buried & Me, they are the one band of the weekend where things don’t seem to gel. New album Coma Ecliptic is a cracking piece of work, their best yet. But in the blazing heat the heavier earlier material just doesn’t seem to translate, making one think a small dark club would be better for such bombastic fare.
Magma are halfway through their set when one of our party asks if the band are still soundchecking. True, they are an acquired taste, and although a bemused section of the audience drift away from the band’s jazzy interloping, so acolytes who have clearly only turned up only for Magma fill their places. The band manage just three songs before they depart, seemingly disgruntled at the time constraints, but not without charming those caught in their sway.
The sound all weekend has been impressive, but Opeth somehow manage the finest, crystal clear sound thus far. Still, fine sound or not, Opeth tonight are simply stunning. True, they don’t tease forthcoming new album Sorceress but they have such a rich catalogue that the likes of The Grand Conjuration are delivered with a jaw-dropping precision. Ever the comedian, Mikael Äkerfeldt introduces I Feel The Dark dismissing the Heritage haters he’s encountered at other gigs, although there are no such troglodytes here, before they end with a classy flourish with Deliverance.
Following Opeth can’t be easy. But then again, following Opeth tonight is Steven Wilson. So where others might have wilted under pressure, Wilson simply weaves his own magic to make Be Prog! My Friend’s climax something quite special. As expected we got all of most recent album Hand. Cannot. Erase., and although there is no Ninet, centerpiece Routine, backdropped by Jess Cope’s stunning visuals, remains as moving as ever. Don’t Hate Me, Lazarus, Sleep Together and The Sound Of Muzak are offered from Porcupine Tree days, and the equally atmospheric and moving The Raven That Refused To Sing closes things in emphatic style.
This being a European festival, Dutch prog metallers Textures are the cool down band, and although a healthy proportion of the crowd remain to see them, the atmosphere’s rapidly going down and most people are headed for the exit, the warm glow of two days of excellent progressive music filling their hearts and minds. See you next year Barcelona!