ProgFest Australia - live review

Australia's travelling prog festival arrives in Melbourne

Einar Solberg from Leprous live on stage
(Image: © Paul Taddy)

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Australian progressive rock and metal is slowly starting to attain the recognition it so richly deserves, and despite the searing heat of this Melbourne midsummer afternoon, The Corner Hotel is already packed full of sweaty punters at 3pm.

For those unfamiliar with this venue and this format, this is one great, cavernous room (for a pub, anyway) with a large main stage and a slightly smaller secondary stage. It makes for very quick and easy changeovers and a generally seamless organisation of the day’s progressive festivities.

The sheer musical diversity of this festival is on vivid display from the get-go. Fierce Mild plough strange but strangely compelling musical terrain, juxtaposing electronics and a cello with guitar, bass and drums, and channelling these would-be disparate elements into a sound and visual presentation that’s both moody and psychedelic at once. By stark contrast, young Melburnians Enlight offer a slightly more traditional alternative/progressive rock sound, although they shake things up with sweet melodic female vocals and a focus on ambience over musical muscle. However, said ambience is still punctuated with excursions into crunching heaviness, and it all makes for a rather dynamic, almost schizophrenic mix.

Voyager go all out, adding further lustre to their illustrious live reputation.

Acolyte show real adventure, taking the fans across so many different feels and textures it makes one’s head spin, with Morgan-Leigh Brown’s majestic voice soaring over the top and David Van Pelt’s keys lending an Animals-era Floyd vibe to the sound.

Another head-snapping turn to the left sees Adelaide’s Dyssidia smash the secondary stage with their razor-sharp prog metal, which features gut-churning howls from singer Mitch Brackman, and frenetic drumming and virtuoso playing from guitar, bass and keys. Sydney’s Meniscus are a real enigma. Having been around for well over a decade, they create swirling, churning, dynamic post-rock instrumental alchemy. In fact, the sound coming from just the three of them often resembles a full-blown orchestra, and their set is soothingly monstrous and compelling.

Progfest 2018 is tinged with a little sadness as livewire Melbourne heavy prog act Branch Arterial announced a few days prior to the show that they’re quitting, so the reception they receive from the throng holds just that much more resonance. Their blistering set is both deeply sad and a celebration.

What can one say about seven-piece avant-garde prog punkers Alithia, except that their music and live presentation are wild and unpredictable, and if you come in expecting the unexpected, you won’t be disappointed.

Toehider’s main man Mike Mills has a rather unique guitar playing style. Steeped in the blues, he supercharges it and, when combined with his voice and his prodigious two-piece rhythm section, he creates a scintillating nu-school style of prog that’s heavily influenced by the old school.

By the time long-running Perth melodic progressive marvels Voyager take to the main stage, the audience is packed in to the very back, and they give the big V an almighty hero’s welcome as the band slam into Ascension. Sometimes a 30-minute set is a good thing because it allows a band to get up and go absolutely hell for leather, without having to be too concerned with set dynamics. And that’s what we have tonight. The band go all out, adding further lustre to their illustrious live reputation.

One more trip to the side stage sees Melbourne five-piece Orsome Welles slaying the room with their quirky but powerful take on proggy alternative rock. The main draws of this band are the towering strength of their grooves, the sheer ‘stick in your head’ catchiness of their tunes and the unique voice and persona of frontman Michael Vincent Stowers.

Progfest has been running for several years now, but 2018 finds it featuring a major international headliner for the very first time. Norway’s Leprous are legends in progressive music circles, and their set tonight reveals exactly why. Musically, there’s literally no one on the planet doing quite what this band are doing: they’re a unique and wondrous beast. Their set features a phalanx of their spiralling, unclassifiable songs, mostly culled from their most recent two albums Malina and The Congregation. There’s a riveting ambience that makes the hair on the back of necks stand to attention, powerful moments that seemingly explode out of nowhere and fabulous four-way vocal harmonies. The encore, Slave, sees the members of Voyager jump up to give them a hand, setting the room alight.