THURSDAY: The fourth annual HRH Prog festival sees a respectable crowd gather for the recently re-formed Hammerhead to kick off proceedings with their Hammond-infused classic hard rock.
The renamed Oktopus (originally Progoctopus) are now down to a trio and peddle likeable, Rush-like technical fare, complete with fretless bass, while Third Quadrant are archetypal English neo-proggers with lengthy songs, two keyboardists and a homemade double-necked bass.
But the first night belongs to the flamboyant Arthur Brown, whose young and talented band all impress without ever upstaging their rich-voiced, 73-year-old leader. The singalong to the inevitable Fire ends a varied set and sends revellers away happy.
The self-professed ‘least prog band here’, The Fierce And The Dead play their three-minute instrumentals with gusto and a dry wit that lightens their angry, discordant material. Greece’s September Code are impressive but lack a bit of spark, their well-played prog metal hinting at something truly exciting that never really happens.
Glasgow’s re-formed Abel Ganz have the musicianship and the songs, but equipment gremlins threaten to ruin their classy and tuneful anthems, their annoyance spilling over at times. Playing solo on acoustic guitar, respectful silence is observed during Edgar Broughton’s melancholy set, his unique vocals and humorous introductions creating a good-natured, low-key atmosphere.
However, on the day, no one can match Purson, who are the last-minute replacements for Curved Air. Fronted by enchanting singer and guitarist Rosalie Cunningham, the London quintet blow the roof off with their energetic psych, cherry-picking from different genres without losing momentum. The enthusiastic reception and songs like Electric Landlady and Dead Dodo Down point to new album Desire’s Magic Theatre being their breakthrough release.
Bolstered by miscellaneous members of Purson and three Thunderbirds characters, the crowd swells for Caravan. Kicking off with the jaunty Headloss, they plunder their back catalogue, focusing on classic albums In The Land Of Grey And Pink and For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night. Highlights include the lengthy Nine Feet Underground, multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Richardson’s viola pizzicato turn in Nightmare and the rousing spoon and washboard workout in Golf Girl.
Soft Machine’s intense jazz rock explorations close proceedings. Their virtuosity is undeniable, but the lengthy extemporising can make for a challenging listening experience. With Theo Travis’ woodwind talents and guitarist John Etheridge throwing out electrifying fretboard salvos, they cover older tunes Kings And Queens and Hazard Profile, alongside newer tracks like the 5⁄4 twisted funk of Grape Hound and The Relegation Of Pluto. Solos all round and an encore of Gesolreut send happy prog campers off into the night.
Saturday’s openers, Dubai’s Empty Yard Experiment and Bristolians Schnauser, purge the cobwebs with the brutal riffing and hypnotic intensity of the former, and the bonkers brilliance of the latter. Schnauser deliver gear-shifting jazz noise, twisted 60s pop and disco rock with joyful mischievousness – one of the bands of the weekend.
Messenger ease in new tunes and tracks from their debut album Illusory Blues, winning over many with their 70s rock vibe, Floydian spaciness and soaring, sombre choruses. And Twinscapes’ instrumental, funky, ambient, dance-tinged grooves are a late-afternoon aural palette-cleanser, featuring just a drummer, a MacBook and two bassists.
The Enid’s neo-classical/rock mix and musical theatre dabbling isn’t for everyone, but their talent and breadth of vision, visiting Dust, The Bridge and Invicta, are hard to criticise. Tellingly, perhaps, although this is one of Robert John Godfrey’s last onstage appearances, it’s frontman Joe Payne who demands the audience’s attention. During the chorister falsetto of One And The Many, the audience falls into reverential silence – the venue momentarily becoming sacred ground, consecrated by the power of prog.
Dutch masters Focus rarely disappoint these days, with rejuvenated pensioners Thijs van Leer and Pierre van der Linden sounding as good as ever. Guitarist Menno Gootjes deftly channels Jan Akkerman as the frantic finale of Hocus Pocus gives rise to widespread yodelling.
Billed as an evening of Jethro Tull music, Ian Anderson starts well with Living In The Past and ends with the classics Aqualung and Locomotive Breath. However, the hour between is a mixed bag. Several instrumentals, ballads and solos suggest that Ian’s voice isn’t in great shape, but his gorgeous flute playing and Florian Opahle’s fiery guitar save the day.
The Von Hertzen Brothers’ Kie, Jonne and main frontman Mikko attack the stage with New Day Rising, You Don’t Know My Name and several other rockers, only bringing in the lighter, more complex material for the second half of the set. Incredibly tight and great fun, the Finns bring an enjoyable weekend to a triumphant close.