Summer's End Festival at Chepstow - live review

Frost*, The Tangent, Iamthemorning, Karmakanic, Franck Carducci, Maschine and more perform at this annual festival of progressive music

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(Image: © Chris Walkden)

FRIDAY

These days, given stricter rules over ticket purchaser authenticity at gigs, lengthy queues are the norm for many gigs. Summer’s End might be a tad smaller than The O2, where tales of impatient fans and those denied access because they couldn’t present proof of purchase regularly make the national press, but queues are no less common.

What marks the festival out is that here, with openers This Winter Machine about to hit the stage on time (punctuality and SE don’t always go hand in hand), organiser Stephen Lambe is outside ushering the crowd in, wristbanded up or not. “We know you all anyway, you can pick your wristbands up afterwards,” he says. And it’s that kind of avuncular approach that continues to mark out this festival as one of the UK’s best.

It’s easy to see exactly why This Winter Machine would go down well with the SE crowd (and was it just us or was there an increase in younger fans and female proggers here this year?). Their sound is lush, and steeped in the finest prog traditions. Perhaps too lush in places, given the band’s two guitarists seem very low in the mix, while singer Al Wynter is often a bit static too, leading to an occasionally stilted performance. However, it’s nothing that more concerted touring can’t override.

No such issues with Midnight Sun, the latest venture to feature organiser and former Also Eden/Unto Us singer Huw Lloyd-Jones. It’s a fascinating blend of muscular rock with more melodic poppy flourishes, held together with a distinctly progressive thread. Guitarists Tom Ennis (also former Unto Us) and Andy Gelband add grit while keyboard player Ian Hodson ladles on the colour. Think Rush meets It Bites meets XTC in places. Think really promising. And let’s not be waiting too long for that debut album this time, eh?

Russian baroque proggers iamthemorning are, one supposes, the left-field band of the weekend, although anyone who has seen them would know it won’t take long for Marjana Semkina to charm the audience, with the band’s delightfully melodic blend of classical and prog sure to win them over. That said, it’s interesting to see a section of the crowd (male, middle-aged) choose to ignore the band and talk loudly through their set. This is the kind of thing that would normally infuriate an SE crowd, yet some of the culprits we’ve seen hush others when a band they like are on. It’s bad form, and the only downside of the weekend.

Not that it hinders the band, who impress the bulk of the crowd with their charm, panache and the most elegant set of the weekend.

SATURDAY

Saturday starts with an unexpectedly sultry hour-long set from French four-piece Weend’ô (pronounced ‘window’) in the relentlessly sweltering heat of the hall. Their focal point is the spectrally attired Laetitia Térence Nguyen, who combines dreamy, powerfully charged vocals with virtuoso piano playing. The band conjure up a late-night, smoky, atmospheric vibe, mixing ethereal keyboards with acoustic and heavy guitars.

Oliver Rüsing, frontman with Germans Karibow, is attired in a black leather vest with scarves tied around his mic, and looks as though he’s jumped ship from an AOR convention. Periodically, their sound is richly melodic and flowing, especially on River. The gorgeous fluid tenor sax of Marek Arnold lifts songs like Black Air and Quantum Leap. Though they have sublime moments, you can’t help feeling that something’s missing in the overall sound.

Seasoned Enders will remember 2011’s Sunday openers, the fresh-faced Concrete Lake, practically stealing the show on that particular day. The band then morphed into Maschine, its creative nucleus being guitar visionary Luke Machin, bass ace Dan Mash and guitarist Elliott Fuller. Six years on and their promise is being fulfilled in spades. The band roar along like a well-oiled machine throughout the confident, mature set, which features their second album Naturalis. Played in its entirety, it really packs a punch live.

Headliners Frost had chosen to actually perform in the early evening slot – a slightly strange move that could easily have been interpreted as showing a lack of courtesy to the event. And to be honest, one has to wonder whether they even want to be here as they’re not exactly overflowing with their usual bonhomie as they work their way through latest album Falling Satellites.

It later transpires that they were suffering technical problems with monitors, which might explain the somewhat stilted opening to the set. However, by Heartstrings the band have momentum and Jem Godfrey’s wit and humour eventually come to the fore. An encore of The Dividing Line is rapturously received before their individual prowess propels closer The Other Me in a blaze of glory.

France’s Franck Carducci Band is prog’s answer to Le Cirque du Soleil. Relatively unknown in the UK, those who do know the act implore fellow festival‑goers to stick around – and it proves good advice. Melding psychedelia and eroticism into their musical adventures, they’re a surrealistic rock circus.

Extravagantly hatted singer-bassist Carducci assumes the ringmaster role, while Mary Reynaud is the gorgeous singing, dancing girl, and guitarist Christophe Obadia the resident clown. Between them, their repertoire encompasses belly dancing, overtly suggestive usage of a theremin, rain stick and didgeridoo, and a theatrical, sexually charged retelling of a classic children’s fairytale.

The troupe’s three other less flamboyant members are all key players in the show’s other astounding musical elements, including six-part vocal harmonies, a three-minute, full‑on rock’n’roller and Floydian grooviness.

SUNDAY

Toronto’s Half Past Four open Sunday’s bill. They offer up an excellent line in quirky, arty prog and sharp tailoring. Besuited singer Kyree Vibrant hints visually and vocally at Hazel O’Connor. The jazzy noodlings of Mood Elevator sees her scat singing as bassist Dmitry Lesov half speaks the vocals, while the cartoonish, crazy One-Eyed Man and manic Rabbit mark them out as one of this weekend’s most exciting new finds.

Affable Elephants Of Scotland declare themselves American neo-prog, “which is the same as neo-prog but more obnoxious”. However, there’s a noticeable air of Rush around some of the vocal and guitar passages. The low-energy Full Power and wistful Amber Waves grab our attention, though Starboard’s bass solo doesn’t quite cut through the mix to fully deliver. Sporting comedy tartan Viking helmets for one song, these playful pachyderms go overboard to entertain and, for the most part, they succeed.

Kyros could be a major player on the UK music scene. They certainly have ability and ambition in abundance, and some killer tunes too. Ending a well-received set with the 45-minute The Human Voice shows an almost fearless approach. And yet one can’t help but feel that a steadying hand might occasionally help channel the numerous ideas on offer, and when you notice that guitarist Sam Higgins has the strongest voice on stage, perhaps a damn good singer might not go amiss. These aren’t meant to be harsh criticisms, though – merely pointers to
a hopefully even brighter future.

As for the headliners, such adroitness is almost second nature. Parading under the banner TangeKanic (not Tanmekanic? Or even Karmagent?), the collusion of The Tangent and Karmakanic was always going to be somewhat seamless, given that most of the musicians play together anyway.

And so it proves – this is an effortless masterclass through some of the finest songs both bands have to offer. For many, though, the highlight is the poignant Sanctuary In Music, a bravura improvisation around a poem Andy Tillison had written in the face of recent tragedies in Manchester and Las Vegas. Following a respectful minute’s silence midway through, it explodes into life as the rest of the musicians join Tillison onstage.

As good as the music from both bands is, it’s this moment that draws musicians and audience together in one tight-knit, lasting bond – another reason why it’s so good to see Tillison back on stage and as emboldened as ever, and why Summer’s End remains a unique jewel in prog’s live crown.