If you’re going to throw a two-day prog festival, this is how to do it. Poble Espanyol is an eye-catching and convincing facsimile of a medieval market square on one of the hillsides overlooking Barcelona. Insulated from the turbulence of modern life by stone-clad buildings and ornate archways, it exists in a bubble of its own creation – not unlike prog itself. Only the food shops that dot the square’s perimeter shatter the illusion of 16th-century bliss. Well, that and the hulking stage that’s been set up in the middle of it all.
Be Prog! My Friend – a clunky name, but a heartfelt one – is precisely the sort of festival you’ll never get on this side of the English channel. Open air squares are the perfect environment when you’re dealing with the reliably scorching Spanish sun, but the British weather is less predictable and ultimately less kind, and would likely deliver at least some rain before the end of the first keyboard solo.
More pertinently, you just don’t get the same sort of audience. The 2000-capacity crowd gathered here is a mix of the young and the old (skewed if anything towards the former), while the selection of T-shirts on display range from the heaviest of heavy metal (Kreator, Cannibal Corpse) to alternative rock giants (Radiohead), suggesting that Catalan music fans aren’t as snobbish towards this sometimes maligned off-shoot of the rock scene as some of their UK counterparts.
For the third Be Prog! My Friend festival, the organisers have pulled out the big guns, at least in today’s terms. The closing night features Opeth and Steven Wilson, the twin flag-bearers of modern prog and about as heavyweight as the scene gets in the 21st century. And if the opening day is less starry, it still punches above its weight.
The people behind it all have played it smart. While the overseas names bring in the crowds, a bill propped up with homegrown bands lends it a guaranteed feel-good factor. Exxasens, the band who open the festival, are a case in point: like a marginally less ugly, more metallicised Mogwai, their billowing, spacey songs are the perfect soundtrack for a blazing Friday afternoon. Or local boys Obsidian Kingdom, whose steel-plated complexity illustrates how much of a shot in the arm modern prog has had from the metal scene.
That’s not the only area where the festival succeeds, either. The full scope of modern prog’s breadth is highlighted across the two days. US bruisers Between The Buried And Me are a prog band in extreme-metal clothing, their tricksy time changes the equal of anything their 70s forebears came up with (even if the epic noise does harsh the Saturday afternoon mellow). By contrast, Iceland’s Agent Fresco offer up a surprisingly tuneful take on things – something made all the more impressive by the fact that singer Arnór Dan Arnarson is battling pneumonia and has dragged himself from his hospital bed to be here. Of the newer bands, only Russia’s iamthemorning fall short, their wafty, Kate Bush-gone-classical approach wilting in the heat.
Friday’s headliners The Pineapple Thief are the surprise package of the weekend. They’ve been paddling around in nu prog’s shallow end for years now, drawing not entirely unfair comparisons to the likes of Steven Wilson and even Radiohead. Here, armed with the sort of stage production Pink Floyd would be impressed by, the band – and in particular frontman Bruce Soord – have stepped up to the plate. There’s a hunger present that suggests they’ve caught a glimpse of life beyond the prog ghetto and they want a taste of it.
At the other end of the spectrum are Magma. If ever a band were mainstream-proof, it’s the French veterans. Founding drummer Christian Vander still leads the band from the back, they’re still a peculiar mix of the mad and the epic, and it’s still hard to work out where the tuning-up ends and the songs begin, but the more adventurous sections of the crowd lap it up. You have to admire their principles, even if those principles are frequently bat-shit crazy.
If two acts embody the spirit of prog in 2016, then it’s kindred spirits Steven Wilson and Opeth. While both are approaching things from different directions, they end up in the same place: a modern update on the genre, with varying (and respectful) nods to the past.
Although Wilson gets to close the show, it’s a fairly even split with the Swedes in terms of who walks away with the honours. Opeth mix older songs from their death metal period in with the more pastoral latter-day material, a whistlestop tour through one of the more interesting musical journeys of recent years. Wilson leans fairly heavily on his latest album, Hand.Cannot.Erase, but throws in a quartet of songs from his much-missed former band Porcupine Tree. And while neither Opeth frontman Mikael Akerfeldt nor Wilson himself are rock’n’roll showmen, they both seem to inspire an unlikely adoration from the masses. If nothing else, it proves that prog is alive and kicking. Especially in Catalonia.