Whatever way you look at it, thi year’s Be Prog! My Friend has to be viewed as a triumph. Given the arrival of the three-day Barcelona Rocks festival, which is held on the same weekend, the packed crowds pay testament to Be Prog!’s pulling power, abetted by another brilliant line-up that spans generations and progressive genres.
It’s a triumph for the music, too: all 10 bands playing over the weekend deliver above average sets. Throw in the great weather and glorious setting, and you end up with the kind of festival experience you wish we could have back here in England.
Australia’s Caligula’s Horse boast one of the best band names in rock. Having caught them in London, and with a full review of their Southampton show elsewhere in this issue, we’ll simply say that their rousing prog metal gets things off to a perfect start, and we’re really looking forward to hearing their upcoming new album In Contact.
In the blazing heat, one wonders if Animals As Leaders’ finite technical expertise might wilt in the glaring sun that’s flooding over Poble Espanyol. Far from it. The minute Tosin Abasi strikes the opening chords of Arithmophobia from latest album The Madness Of Many, the audience is transfixed, and remains that way through a tight, precise set that culminates in fan-favourite CAFO from their self-titled debut.
Transfixed isn’t how you’d describe the ecstatic reaction that’s given to Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress. The Be Prog! crowd goes crazy when Portnoy’s assembled throng (made up of most of Haken, plus Eric Gillette from Neal Morse’s band) take to the stage. Even if, as some purists have been quick to point out, he has three guitarists to do what John Petrucci would do on his own for Dream Theater, it’s a stunning set, built around Portnoy’s own 12 Step Suite, sandwiched in between a chunk of material from Metropolis Pt.2 and Awake’s The Mirror. Haken’s youngsters hold their own against Portnoy’s ebullient showmanship, the whole fantastic show leaving you wishing it wasn’t merely a one-off for the latter half of 2017.
It was always going to take something special to follow that, but then Marillion are that band. Jettisoning any idea of performing a festival-friendly set, tonight they perform all three epic sections from their latest album FEAR, along with opener The Invisible Man, This Strange Engine and a jaw-dropping encore of Gaza. Given the nature of the audience, which seems to have swelled in number since Portnoy performed, Marillion’s emotionally charged, modern-day progressive music is lapped up by the throng, the band intently feeding off the atmosphere to crown an intensely winning performance.
And now for something completely different… Norwegians Ulver have the post-headliner slot, and opt to play all of their latest album The Assassination Of Julius Caesar. Given the record’s 80s style, synth-heavy melodic accessibility and the pulsing, mesmerising light show that accompanies it, not to mention the fact that everyone still present has been drinking for hours, their set tuns into what can only be described as a full-on prog rave.
Saturday starts with homegrown heroes Jardín De La Croix’s instrumental math rock drawing a rousing response from many of the locals packed in front of the stage. And then we hit the first apparent technical snag of the weekend. Devin Townsend’s computer crashes just as he and his band are about to launch into the whole of 1997’s Ocean Machine: Biomech, leaving the Canadian with no option but to entertain the crowd with what he describes as a “dubious comedy routine” while a rebooting is in process. Prog notes that most other bands would probably have just trooped offstage, but not Townsend, who corrals the crowd with Yngwie Malmsteen impersonations and gags about his own penile shortcomings. Once the band are up and running, the crowd eats up the densely layered and beautifully melodic prog metal.
Anathema are a band very much in the ascendancy and their set tonight is simply brimming with confidence. They look settled and happy as both parts of Untouchable open proceedings, giving way to the uplifting Leaving It Behind from new album The Optimist. There’s plenty of their latest album on offer tonight, which is fitting, as it’s by far and away their best yet. But just as the band have melded their electronic dalliances with sweeping, majestic rock on The Optimist, so tonight they effortlessly mix new songs and favourites from We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems. Prog hasn’t seen Danny Cavanagh looking as relaxed and happy on stage for a long time, while brother Vinny throws himself totally into a captivating performance. A dancing Lee Douglas steps up for an epic A Natural Disaster before Distant Satellites closes things in emphatic style, John Douglas’ percussion kit going flying towards the end, Vinny on his knees, hammering his guitar pedals. They depart beaming with euphoria. The performance of the weekend, without a doubt.
Ian Anderson’s Jethro Tull could easily have wilted in the face of such an overpowering performance from Anathema. That they don’t is down to a setlist chock full of classic material such as Living In The Past, Heavy Horses and Thick As A Brick, and the well-placed breathers such as Pastime With Good Company and Bach’s Bourrée, lessening the impact on Anderson’s vocals. Though in fairness to Anderson, his vocals are in better shape than at times of late, nailing Farm On The Freeway and Sweet Dream with aplomb during a performance that’s full of energy. Tull hold the crowd rapt too, as everything culminates in the expected one-two of Aqualung and Locomotive Breath. Tonight is the best performance from the band that Prog has seen in quite some time.
Leprous have the job of closing the festival, yet, as with Ulver the night before, they end up turning the closing slot into a massively winning show, with most of the audience staying on to delight in the band’s engaging mix of prog and electronic pop. They even debut From The Flame, from forthcoming new album Malina, which is one that’s going to astound prog fans with its diversity and depth.
Another band rising to the occasion to make Be Prog! My Friend 2017 a surefire winner.