HRH Prog V
HRH Prog is back at Hafyn-y-Mor in Wales and for the first year, takes over the whole site (having previously doubled up with the sci-fi weekender). That they have had no trouble finding extra prog fans is certainly evident on Thursday's opening night as the main arena is far busier than it's been in previous years. This is partly due to only the main stage being open today but even so, numbers are up and there is a good atmosphere for openers Jump.
Jump were here two years ago and the set has a familiar feel about it. Front man John Dexter Jones is as entertaining as ever, regaling the crowd with a continuous stream of little stories and anecdotes. The music has that classic 80s prog feel about it with some great guitar work but whilst undoubtedly polished it lacks a little edge at times. It is by and large upbeat however and Jump do a fine job of enthusing the crowd and they are the perfect band to kick things off and get everyone in the mood for the weekend.
The Enid are the only band to have played all five HRH Prog events but this year they return in a very different guise from last year. Following the retirement of founder Robert John Godfrey, the departure of singer Joe Payne, drummer Dave Storey and all rounder Max Read, they have stripped right back to a three piece. Now featuring just keyboards, drums and guitar they cut a very different figure that some in the crowd struggle to make their minds up about. On the plus side it is evident that guitarist Jason Ducker is revelling in the freedom afforded to him now; his guitar work is highly impressive and inventive (although slightly too high in the mix). Zachary Bullock takes over the vocal duties alongside keys and does a decent job although his delivery lacks a little expression. The most noticeable difference is that their whole set is a little more chaotic and a little harder, more rock orientated and this is all to the good. Previous incarnations of The Enid have been so tight and polished that they have been accused of being too sterile and predictable. This new approach and its more organic feel is welcome and it will be interesting to see how it translates into new recordings.
Pendragon have been around since the late 70s and it's clear that they have spent a good deal of that time honing their stage craft. They are completely on top of their game tonight and the longer they play, the better they get. Yes front man Nick Barrett's vest is a bit dodgy and why bass player Peter Gee is dressed like he is in the Beastie Boys circa 1986 is beyond me but those really are the only niggles! Their set is engaging, energetic and exceedingly well delivered. The sound mix is right on the money and allows each member (including the backing vocalists) to showcase their undoubted talent. The crowd love it and they would have stolen the opening day crown were it not for a stunning performance from Gong.
The R13 contingent have been fortunate enough to see Gong several times since the sad death of founder David Allen in 2015, so we knew full well what to expect but it is clear in the lead up to their set, that many of the crowd do not. For many Gong prove to be the band of the festival as they deliver a stunning set that flows from ambient glissando guitar into repetitive, hypnotic rhythms and on into some of the most impressive musicianship seen all weekend. Front man and guitarist Kavus Torabi has really taken on the mantle left by Allen but has more than put his own spin on it. They retain the quirkiness of Gong but have taken it forward and new songs such as Rejoice! I'm Dead! sit comfortably alongside old classics like You Can't Kill Me. It's a little surprising that they don't play more of the classic teapot trilogy era tracks (given the setting) but with a new album already released post Daevid Allen, they are firmly showing that whilst acknowledging the past, Gong aren't going to stand still and that, arguably, is what the very essence of progressive music should be.
The argument about what is or is not progressive music rages all weekend without any kind of consensus being reached. As a genre it encompasses such a broad variety of styles, that those bands at either end of its broad spectrum may well be unrecognisable from each other. In a setting like HRH Prog though this is more than welcome as it makes for real variety and provides something for everyone.
Friday is where the one problem with expanding the event arises, the inevitable set clashes. It's not too bad today as there is generally an overlap between stages but it does mean that if you want to see every band playing over the weekend, then you can't always watch a whole set and unfortunately we do miss a few sets as well.
Stoke based Red Spektor kick things off on stage two and really bring something different to the party. They are an accomplished three piece that strip things right back to deliver early Sabbath sounds with no gimmicks, just in your face riffage that gets feet tapping and heads bobbing. A great start to the day.
Red Spektor are followed by Maschine, who played the inaugural HRH Prog event in Rotherham back in 2012. They are a really interesting band who aren't afraid to push the boundaries a bit and let their consummate musical ability lead them wherever it will. They are a tight band who have clearly come a long way since the first HRH Prog and they go down really well with the ever appreciative crowd. The complex arrangements are challenging at times but it's so well done that it's hard not to be impressed.
Staying with stage two, Dream Circuit are up next and announce that after 20 years, this is to be their last ever show. This is their third time at HRH Prog and word seems to have got around as they draw one of the bigger crowds of the day on stage two. They deliver a high energy, emotionally charged set that falls somewhere between prog and psychedelic rock. That they are hard to categorise is to their credit and although their set today leans more towards the heavier end of their repertoire, there are plenty of tempo changes and melodic interludes to keep the prog faithful happy. They suffer a couple of technical hitches but overall it's a fine way to draw a line under their career and they leave the stage to unheeded clamours for an encore.
Over on the main stage Pearl Handled Revolver deliver one of the sets of the weekend. Front man Lee Vernon has an incredible voice; part ashtray grit and part smooth whisky it's perfect for their blend of blues soaked psychedelia. Comparisons with The Doors are unavoidable but they have their own identity and the longer they play the more they impress. With two albums under their belt already, this can have done them no harm at all in opening up their sound to a lot of new fans.
Judging by the amount of people heard saying it over the weekend, it is quite clear that the David Cross Band are a contender for set of the weekend. Despite David Cross playing with King Crimson on some of their seminal albums in the 70s, they were new to many of the crowd but by the end of their set they had been welcomed with open arms. A fabulous blend of folk, prog and dark tinged psyche with the odd metal riff thrown in for good measure made for a delicious combination. A violinist by trade, Cross led his troops through a fascinating, high energy musical journey that saw crowd numbers swell steadily throughout their set.
Curved Air were a touch pedestrian by comparison! Many of the old guard in the audience have a soft sport for singer Sonja Kristina and it's clear that she still has the voice to pull off the back catalogue with ease. Their set is tight and polished but as with a few other bands this weekend it's a little safe and doesn't stand out from the pack in retrospect.
John Lee's Barclay James Harvest were a welcome addition to the bill this year. They tick the box for that classic laid back early 70s prog that is so synonymous with the genre. They have a slight mid 70s pop edge as well at times and whilst their music rarely breaks out into a sweat in terms of volume or tempo it is very engaging and it's very easy to get drawn into the BJH world. For those near the stage BJH can do no wrong and when they play classic tracks such as Mockingbird there are grins a plenty amongst the assembled faithful.
It's left to Hawkwind to close off proceedings on Friday night and they draw a huge crowd, with the venue packed right to the back. Unfortunately they suffer a bit of a false start with Dave Brock's guitar not working for the first song and a half but they are soon into their groove. Whilst the relatively recent addition of bassist Haz Wheaton has given them a renewed energy, this is very much the Hawkwind of the last few years; steady and consistent and rolling ever onward. What they seem to lack at the moment is the ability to progress, which was always such a key factor in their longevity. However, this suits many of the fans just fine as it means the new material blends effortlessly with the old classics. It's a great set list featuring a particularly rousing Shot Down In The Night and of course Silver Machine. By the end of the set they were in full flow and there are plenty of early detractors in the crowd eating their words. The only downsides to their set was an uncharacteristic fight breaking out in the crowd and the ridiculous barking and howling by singer Dibs and drummer Richard Chadwick on Steppenwolf, which ruined what should have been one of the highlights of the set.
Unfortunately Luna Kiss are 10 minutes late with their unplugged set on the other side of the site, which means we don't arrive in time to catch Konchordat. The Gift are up next with their brand of symphonic prog. Musically they are quite impressive, although never veering too far from the lighter end of the genre. Guitarist David Lloyd does some fine lead work but it's vocalist Mike Morton who leads from the front. This is not necessarily a good thing; whilst clearly passionate about his craft, his attempts at menacing delivery don't really work and it would be all the better for a bit less theatre and a more direct approach.
Haze were around for 10years from the late 70s to 80s before resurrecting and their set today reflects their career. A first half of newer material with flautists on stage, then second half of older songs. It's a little strange as the flautists' just stand there, completely impassive, playing when required and then being dismissed to the crowd for the second set. This is prog firmly rooted in the 70s, very much with a classic sound and it's done well without ever really getting too exciting.
Luna Kiss are an interesting band, a lot younger than most of the bands here they bring a youthful vigour that blends distinct indie styled vocal delivery with some impressive and progressive instrumental workouts. There is plenty of entertaining banter between band and crowd and despite the odd technical hitch they play a really good set. Definitely one to check out.
Verbal Delirium from Greece open the main stage on Saturday and prove to be something of a marmite band. There are those that proclaim their set an absolute triumph and there are others that found their theatrical cabaret style unmoving. It's not the tightest performance but it certainly holds the interest. They do have a certain something about them and it's hard to fault singer Jargon as he continually plays to the crowd. One of those bands that probably need a good few listens to fully appreciate.
Heights are an instrumental three piece and they deliver a really solid set over on stage two. At times it is very reminiscent of bands like Shels or Pelican but then it will veer towards Russian Circles territory. Either way, it is full of dynamic twists and turns and although their stripped back approach doesn't make for much of a visual feast it's easy to get lost in their musical web. Good stuff.
Karnataka hit the main stage for an afternoon set and bring a welcome change of tempo with their upbeat melodic prog rock/metal sound. That singer Hayley Griffiths comes from a classical and theatrical background is more than evident as she continually works the stage, moving between band members with a myriad of hand gesticulations. It's an exceedingly professional performance from the whole band but it does feel a bit like you're watching a show production rather than a band. The crowd love them though, so job done!
There has been much talk of Gandalf's Fist over the weekend and they get a good crowd on stage two. They are a curious mix of fantasy prog rock (complete with costumes to suit) and to the uninitiated it's quite hard to separate the concept from the music. The problem being that if you don't buy into the concept of top hats and hobbit style attire, it unfavourably colours your view of the music, which is the more important element. The music itself is really very good, transitioning continually between dark ambience and full on rock riffage, it has more than enough about it to stand alone. For many of the crowd Gandalf's Fist were the main draw for the whole weekend so it's no surprise that they get a rapturous reception.
By all accounts The Strawbs delivered a masterful unplugged set earlier in the day and they make the transition to the main stage with ease. Musically they are on the fringes of what many would define as progressive and it's not to everyone's taste but they deliver their set with expert precision. Dave Cousins vocal style is certainly distinct and after a while it does start to grate a little but the crowd are very appreciative and the sound is spot on. The interplay between the band members is particularly slick and they clearly enjoy what they do and who are we to argue.
Atomic Rooster don't have any original members in the band anymore but there is a clear wealth of talent on the stage and anyone that was worried about them retaining the feel of the classic years is quickly reassured. Singer Pete French still sports that classic all leather look and prowls the stage in the same way I imagine he has done for the last 40 years! Their raw, blues tinged brand of prog rock brings a welcome rawness that not many bands have this weekend. Steve Bolton hammers his guitar throughout and it's a great performance. They play the obligatory classics like Devil's Answer and put a smile on lots of faces.
Everyone has been looking forward to IQ and the size of the crowd reflect that. They have been through a few changes in style since their inception in the late 80s and today's set seems to focus largely on the lighter, more involved side of their repertoire. Whilst there is certainly a place for that it would have been nice to hear some of the harder and darker tracks, which have often been the stand out numbers. That said, the die hards in the audience are lapping it up. Peter Nicholl's doesn't have the greatest voice but he has a stage presence that demands attention and the overall it's very effective.
The last band of the night are Wishbone Ash and the main stage is absolutely packed for their headline set. They proceed to bully the crowd with an hour and a half onslaught of duel guitar solos, interplay and heavy blues soaked tunes. This really is a master class, part prog, part, rock, part blues and all expertly blended into a stunning performance that builds the crowd into a frenzy. Their signature tune Blowing Free sounds a little uncharacteristic tonight, being a little more mellow than the majority of the set but it's great to hear nonetheless. They easily get the biggest crowd and the biggest reaction of the weekend. Superb.
So Wishbone Ash were the last band but not the last performance. Although originally billed as The Enid's second performance of the weekend, that honour goes to Robert John Godfrey, once of The Enid but now officially (almost definitely but not quite) retired. He takes the stage to a much smaller crowd admittedly but there are still a good couple of hundred that have stayed to see him. He sits at his piano and after his customary jovial introduction proceeds to play three relatively short pieces of improvised piano music, followed by a good fifteen minute discussion/rant about prog music and the state of the universe. He is an endearing chap and warmly received and it has to be said that his keyboard work is second to none. It was a novel way to bring proceedings to a close but you do have to feel for any Enid fans that could not make it on Thursday night and were expecting a full band show. Such is the respect for RJG however that there are no dissenting voices to be heard.
So that's it for HRH Prog V and what another great weekend it has been. The community spirit just continues to grow and it's such an important part of the festival. The new set up covering two arenas worked well, the only downside to that being that the increased volume of people meant that finding a seat was difficult to near impossible at times and given the demographic of large sections of this crowd, that's an issue! All in all though, a great event and great to see the popularity of what has long been classed as obscure music finally getting its moment to shine once again.
HRH Prog V