A few years ago, this delightfully familial festival was in the tricky position of having to ask attendees to pledge financial support to ensure its future survival. Today it proudly boasts a sell-out crowd for all three days, having, in the interim, endured various moves, bands pulling out at the last minute and the odd fire alarm incident. It’s testament to both the health of the prog genre and the support you can get when you run such a well-organised and much-loved event such as this.
Cardiff boys Ghost Community kicks things off, the band’s mix of symphonic prog and heavy rock ideally suited to the festival’s neo‑friendly crowd. They perform the whole of their Cycle Of Life debut in order, adding a dash of Zeppelin’s Kashmir to the engagingly melodic Blue December Morning, and putting a smile on everyone’s face with an encore of Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star. They’ve come on in leaps and bounds since this writer saw them, two shows into their career.
Norway’s Magic Pie are the Friday headliners, having been booked to play last year before circumstances prevented it. It’s worth the wait, as they deliver a set full of melodic yet intricately constructed material. Some onstage sound issues result in a slightly hesitant opening, but by the time they hit their stride with Pointless Masquerade from the Circus Of Life album, it proves an effortless sprint to the finish line. The set closes with the epic 27-minute title track from latest album King For A Day, leaving the crowd entirely won over. Better late than never, guys!
Opening the Saturday are Tiger Moth Tales, the brainchild of blind multi-instrumentalist Peter Jones. His impressive virtuosity utterly transcends any perceived drawback, and the charming Englishness of tracks like A Visit To Chigwick and The Merry Vicar, together with his hilariously disarming stage banter, make this many people’s unexpected triumph of the weekend.
Following on are Holland’s Sylvium, and English quirkiness gives way to continental drama and gravitas. The material is drawn from both of their albums: the heavier, mostly instrumental The Gift Of Anxiety and more vocal-driven latest offering Waiting For The Noise. What they lack in humour they make up for in impact, as the powerful, rolling groove of tracks such as Falling wins the audience over with ease, and they leave to applause.
Another band from mainland Europe are up next, as Seven Steps To The Green Door bring their uncompromising edginess to proceedings, resulting in the most challenging, and potentially divisive, experience of the weekend thus far. The German outfit feature the unusual double lead-vocal pairing of Anne Trautmann and Lars Köhler, and they deliver a set filled with polyrhythmic instrumental passages, melodic balladry, jazzy interludes and metallic riffery, in a sometimes disorientating yet always fascinating whole.
There are some evident sound issues facing The Heather Findlay Band, which are clearly troubling the singer and force the band to drop two numbers from their set. But when it gels, it’s wonderful, ranging from the Celtic drift of Web to an energetic reading of Mostly Autumn’s Caught In A Fold. Drawing from her own solo material, the debut Mantra Vega album and Ayreon’s August Fire, Findlay highlights the range of her talent.
The sound issues continue with IQ’s set, clearly irking singer Peter Nicholls at points, but they don’t ruin the enjoyment for the packed throng. With a stage set enhanced with big screens, IQ’s headline status is more than evident, and although they open with an as-yet untitled new song, The Wake and The Magic Roundabout get them and the adoring crowd into their groove. While the set centres around the epic The Narrow Margin from Subterranea, it’s the more contemporary, heavier From The Outside In, Frequency and The Road Of Bones that highlight the strength of the band. With hints of the theatricality of old, but with clearly defined intent and purpose, there’s life in these old dogs yet.
Sunday kicks off with the wonderful surprise that is Firefly Burning. The London avant‑pop outfit are a delight, their gentle, often acoustic sound not just ideal for any lingering hangovers, but the complex arrangements clearly enthral the crowd, although one doesn’t need that miscreant Rob Ramsay whispering, “At least it’s not the Lee Marvin version,” when they play their cover of Portishead’s Wandering Star to ruin the ambience. A winningly engaging performance.
Two years ago, an under-rehearsed United Progressive Fraternity fell somewhat on their collective arse, so whether Guy Manning’s debut unveiling of latest project Damanek will suffer a similar fate isn’t far from everyone’s mind. Yet buoyed by Southern Empire’s Sean Timms and UPF colleague Marek Arnold and backed by Luke Machin, Dan Mash and Henry Rogers, Damanek are excellent from start to finish. Manning’s an engaging and enjoyable wordsmith and his new songs are big on melody and insightful lyricism. It’s a sound that conjures up the funkier, jazz-fusion side of Toto, and is full of fun. We can’t wait for their debut album.
Next up are Strangefish, led by the irrepressible Steve Taylor, who bounds onto the stage and immediately brings a sense of fun and humour to the party. Their performance is excellent, with upcoming The Spotlight Effect sounding particularly impressive, and by the closing Take A Holiday, beach balls are being flung around with great abandon.
Karnataka arrive after the afternoon break and are a revelation to many who haven’t seen them for some time. With classically trained frontwoman Hayley Griffiths, and the frankly animal-esque Jimmy Pallagrosi behind the drum kit, the band command the stage with an authority that none of their earlier line-ups have done. The set culminates with Borderline and the superb title track from latest album Secrets Of Angels, Griffiths selling the songs magnificently as Ian Jones anchors the band as impassively as ever. An encore is enthusiastically demanded and the band oblige with a truly epic performance of Kashmir, leaving the stage a difficult act to follow.
The closing slot on Sunday at Summer’s End can be a double-edged sword, with ‘prog fatigue’ and transport issues often causing the crowd to thin out before or during the headline performance. Germany’s RPWL rise to this challenge effortlessly, however, as a healthy crowd is still in attendance as they open their set with the unusually Rammstein-esque Swords And Guns. The band began in the 1990s as a Pink Floyd tribute act, and a little of that band still permeates their shows, alongside their own impressive material. So it is tonight, as the band elect to cover the Floyd rarity Embryo in full, glorious, 30-minute fashion, holding the still well-populated hall entranced.
Closing with their own Hole In The Sky, they leave the stage to a heroes’ reception. The gauntlet laid down by Karnataka is picked up with aplomb as an excellent weekend’s entertainment draws to a close.