Be Prog! My Friend Festival Review: Two days of progressive music in a beautiful ornate setting

The third incarnation of Be Prog! My Friend, the leading festival for progressive music in Spain, showcased avant-garde music in a magnificent location

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The Independent Culture

Poble Espanyol, literally translated as ‘Spanish town’, is a truly beautiful setting for a music festival. An architectural museum that celebrates Spain’s rich culture and history, this elegant mini-village made up of 117 buildings becomes an annual thriving hub for fans of complex, unconstrained and unorthodox rock. The arena itself is housed in a beautiful courtyard surrounded by incredible feats of architecture inspired by several Spanish communities. Whilst prog is generally considered an old man’s game in Britain, there’s clearly no such stigma attached on the continent and the atmosphere is made all the better for the wide ranges of young, old, male and female that make up the crowd over the festival’s two days.

Local boys Exxasens get things off to a flying start with their tremendous blend of (mostly) instrumental space-rock riffery. Culling the majority of their set from latest album Back To Earth, Exxasens brilliantly manage to interweave beauty, majesty and virtuosity. Mixing up the heavier elements of And So I watch You From Afar and God is an Astronaut and adding sporadic touches of shoegaze makes for a truly stunning display of post-rock with blissful crescendos. At times, the rhythm section provides a hypnotic, locked-in groove that immediately draws comparisons to Tool – a compliment of the highest order. The band themselves are a tad static and the visuals, whilst impressive and suitably spectacular, do lose some of their impact in the Catalan sunshine, but all in all, Exxasens are a fantastic way to start off the third Be Prog! My Friend festival.

Starting with the epic, brooding atmospheric 10-minute song The Kandinsky Group is certainly a smart way for fellow Barcelonians Obsidian Kingdom to win over a crowd devoted to progressive music. Prog song structures meet 21st century metal guitar tones with subtle edges of electronica. Genuinely creepy dystopian visuals accompany the band and give a gloomy visual edge to proceedings. The clean vocals are occasionally at odds with the strong metallic sound of the guitars and the band are at their best when firing on all cylinders, sounding especially electrifying when incorporating sporadic use of blast beats. With just one album behind them (2016’s A Year With No Summer) Obsidian Kingdom could be one to watch in the future.

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Iamthemorning vocalist Marjana Semkina and drummer Evan Carson (Aranzazu Peyrotau)

Iamthemorning are an oddity on this bill, the core of the group being a Russian chamber prog duo, pianist Gleb Kolyadin and vocalist Marjana Semkina. They’re fleshed out with cello, violin and drums and provide an alluring and elegant counterpoint to the rest of the line up; they’re the only act on the bill to have sheet music on-stage, a rare sight indeed in this world of ringing amplifiers and heavy rock. Semkina, positioned to the far right of the stage, is an adorable ethereal presence, completely awestruck at the rapturous response they recieve. At one point, a bunch of flowers are thrown in her direction and she seems genuinely taken a-back. Her vocals are beautiful too, haunting and ghostly and the music is transcendent; if Grieg and Rachmaninov decided to coalesce and form a sinister post-rock project, the results would be not too dissimilar to Iamthemorning. They’re a little too off-kilter for some of the audience in Barcelona, but they win over the over-whelming majority.

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Agent Fresco vocalist Arnór Dan Arnarson (Aranzazu Peyrotau)

The most astonishing set of Friday was by far and away Agent Fresco. The Icelandic quartet are genuinely one of the most unique new bands on the planet, managing to somehow blend the math-rock of Arcane Roots, the ethereal beauty of Sigur Rós and the vitriolic intensity of The Dillinger Escape Plan, all the while sounding like their own beast entirely. Songs from last year’s astonishing sophomore album Destrier make up just over half the set, with the likes of See Hell, Pyre, Dark Water and Howls all sounding utterly sublime in this beautiful ornate setting. A particularly savage Angst threatens to destroy the mortar of the beautiful architecture surrounding the venue, but this band are just as proficient at tugging mercilessly on your heart strings. Tonight, we hear five songs from their debut, A Long Time Listening, a concept album about the death of vocalist Arnór Dan Arnarson’s father. If religious scriptures are truly to be believed and there is indeed an afterlife, then surely Arnarson’s father could hear the vocal refrain of the title track being sang back to his son in glorious unison by the ecstatic crowd, a truly special moment from a band who are set to have a career full of special moments. Undoubtedly one of the most exciting new bands in the world today, Agent Fresco are so far ahead of the curve they practically redefine the term progressive.

Day two starts with Anneke Van Giersbergen’s The Gentle Storm providing an operatic spectacle that’s just a chorus line dance away from prog rock musical. That may be music to your ears or sheer anathema (not the band) depending on your disposition towards the cheesier side of rock. What is undeniable however is the power of Van Giersbergan’s voice, which is the real star of the show. The songs can at times sound a little Devin Townsend-lite (which is merely highlighted when they cover The Devin Townsend Project’s Fallout), but that’s hardly surprising considering the abundance of their collaborations. Fans of Van Giersbergen’s previous band The Gathering are treated to a rendition of Strange Machines from their 1995 album Mandylion and the mainly partisan crowd, for the most part, laps up their set.

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Between the Buried and Me vocalist / keyboardist Tommy Rogers Jr and drummer Blake Richardson (Aranzazu Peyrotau)

Whilst Between the Buried and Me have always been partial to the ways of prog, the material from their last two albums, The Parallax II: Future Sequence and Coma Ecliptic saw the band fully embrace the genre, making them a perfect fit for this festival. The majority of their set is culled from those two albums, but old-school fans are treated to Informal Gluttony from the band’s stunning 2007 masterpiece Colors and an absolutely mesmerising Selkies: The Endless Obsession from 2005’s Alaska. The latter features a particularly spellbinding solo from guitarist Paul Waggoner which elicits one of the loudest cheers of the whole festival (deservedly so). They’re one of the few bands of the weekend to suffer from a slightly skewed sound, with Tommy Roger’s magnificently schizophrenic vocals occasionally getting a little lost in the mix, but the band are on such strong form that it’s a mere blip in a stunningly bonkers performance.

Magma's avant-garde brand of hypnotic, eerie mystical weirdness is debatably the most impenetrable sound emitting from the stage all weekend. The Magma faithful are truly dedicated however, chanting the band's name in unison before the band play a single note and both Steven Wilson and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt have professed their love for the radical French zeuhl pioneers. They’re not, however, to everyone’s taste; if the islanders from The Wicker Man formed a prog band, it would look and sound a lot like Magma. Their drawn-out hypnotic dirges are punctuated by shrieking wails from vocalists Stella Vander and Isabelle Feuillebois with the band occasionally exploding into some impressive atonal freaky wig-outs, (bolstered strongly by founder Christian Vander’s frenetic drumming patterns) but boy does it take them a long time to reach those peaks! To say Magma are an acquired taste is like saying the Earth’s core is a tad hot; half the crowd love their brand of weird-as-hell jazz fusion prog, but the other half use their set as an opportunity to have a breather and sit in the shade. Their divisive nature is summed up by the events at the end of their set; after one hour and just three songs, the band are unceremoniously cut to boos from their dedicated fans but the blessed relief of everyone else.

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Opeth vocalist / guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt (Aranzazu Peyrotau)

Opeth are clearly taking no prisoners. Despite frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt’s protestations that the band are rusty, having not played a show for 8 months (bar a support slot with ‘Iron f**king Maiden’ two weeks previously), the band are on absolutely sublime form. Judging by the sheer number of t-shirts bearing the band’s intricate logo and the volume of the crowd chanting their name as the band’s intro tape begins, they’re the most anticipated band of the whole weekend, and boy do they deliver!. Crashing straight into Cusp of Eternity, the first single from their latest album Pale Communion, Opeth sound absolutely monolithic. The guitars reverberate around this picturesque setting with precise, bludgeoning force and the band are on the form of their lives, ushering in the night over the course of a 2 hour set that showcases material from almost every album of the band’s career (bar Orchid and Morningrise). Their constantly evolving fusion of metal/prog/jazz/folk/whatever-the-hell-they-want-to-be is world class. Technical enough for the muso aficionados but accessible enough for those that demand melody and song craft, Opeth are masters of their art. They are able to conjure enormous slabs of heavy monstrosity with as much aplomb, style and verve as they are able to hypnotise with soft, lilting exquisite beauty. Once darkness falls, we’re treated to an extraordinary light show that accompanies Watershed cut Heir Apparent brilliantly, a song written to silence critics of the band who claimed that they had gone soft. Based on this performance, Opeth make those critics look like deaf, simpering idiots. As the band finish with an utterly devastating one-two punch of The Grand Conjuration and Deliverance, not a single person in Poble Espanyol is left in doubt that this is one of the best progressive acts of all time. An utterly sublime, majestic performance.

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Steven Wilson (Aranzazu Peyrotau)

Following Opeth at their best would be a tall order for any accomplished musician and whilst Steven Wilson doesn’t quite manage to match them, the former Porcupine Tree frontman makes a damn good fist of it. With the majority of the set made up of songs from his fantastic fourth solo album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. he was never going to pale into insignificance and the material from that record sounds particularly transcendent, with Routine and Home Invasion both being solid highlights. The new material especially benefits from the surround sound and given that it’s an experience the majority either can’t afford or simply do not have space for in their own homes, it’s mad to think that more artists aren’t employing its use as a means to get people to live gigs. The crowd here are treated to four Porcupine Tree songs, including Lazarus (dedicated to David Bowie and Prince) and Sleep Together, but it’s a testament to Wilson’s dynamic latter work that most of the best moments come from his material away from that band. Everything from the agitated industrial stomp of Index to the gorgeous, heavenly, transcendent closer, The Raven That Refused to Sing remind us that, incredibly, Wilson’s best work may still be ahead of him. 

Be Prog! My Friend will return in 2017

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