I had been looking forward to this gig since I had first seen it advertised months ago. Three prog-metal bands, two of which I had heard good things about (the other I hadn’t heard of at all) coming to my city. Of course I was going to be there and, of course, it was going to cost me in terms of CD purchases. I had also known about the JKS National Championships in Nottingham. My daughter was competing in them and if the evidence of previous years was anything to go by, it would be a long day and I wouldn’t be back in York until late into the evening. I knew about them both, I just hadn’t connected that they were happening on the same day.
Thankfully, I managed to leave Nottingham earlier than expected and, having convinced the family that I could survive without an evening meal, I was dropped off in town and made my way to The Duchess, where I was surprised twice in a matter of a few seconds.
Firstly, as I approached the door I could hear what was obviously live music coming from down the stairs. And it was only just coming up to the time that bands usually took to the stage. A quick look at the running times confirmed that tonight’s gig started earlier than normal, not that any of the publicity I had seen said so. I made my way hastily downstairs, just in time to catch the last minute or so of Maschine’s set. Still, that brief snippet of crunching guitar and headbanging alternating with much more subtlety (and combined with the good things I had read on-line about Rubidium) was enough to convince me to add that album to the evening’s shopping list. Well, it was inevitable really, wasn’t it?
The second surprise was the size of the crowd. You have no idea how worried I was, based on past experiences, that it would consist of me and a handful of other punters. No, this was a more than reasonable crowd for a Sunday night gig in York. A mixed bag as well, although all obviously prog fans. Glancing around I spotted t-shirts from Dream Theater, Tool, Anathema and Steve Wilson, among others that I didn’t recognise. It seems that, given the right circumstances, prog can be alive and well in York.
Next up were Leprous, the band I knew nothing about. Twin screens either side of the stage were showing images – including the diamond encrusted skull from the cover of the Norwegian band’s latest album, Coal – as the band, all dressed in black, came on stage to the thumping bass and crashing drums of Foe. The guitar line was heavy, the vocals only slightly accented and a pause in them led to a period of more subtle music. Chronic opened with dark sounding keyboards and pounding drums, the blinding lights serving to deflect the eye from what was more upper-body-banging than head-banging as frontman Einar Solberg seemed determined to fold himself in half. The track itself seemed to get more intense and chaotic is it went on and drummer Baard Kolstad must have worked up enough of a sweat to go shirtless from then on, bashing out what could only be described as a drum-riff for The Cloak, during which Solberg’s vocals impressively found a way through the increasingly loud and powerful music. Next up came two tracks from the previous album. Restless was fast and furious, while Thorn opened in harsh fashion, with growling, cookie monster vocals before it faded slightly into something more subtle. Coal saw Solberg standing on the drum stage, arms raised as though he was calling forth some kind of demon. By now the light show was as brutal to the retinas as the music was to the ears and the volume was becoming a little wearing. The dark keyboards returned, albeit more difficult to pick out of the mix, for Acquired Taste, a track more atmospheric than powerful which contained a set of wordless vocals very similar to two that had gone before. The distraction of a phone call briefly took me away from the music during Echo, but there did seem to be the first hint of a bit more lightness in the music. The Valley saw Sodberg sporting a Viking helmet and the inevitable historic link was finally mentioned when he announced, “There were some Norwegians here some time ago. We’re here again!” before the band launched into Forced Entry. The keyboards definitely came through prominently during this one, providing a scintillating and exciting end to the set.
Haken’s latest album, The Mountain, was recently voted one of the top 100 prog albums of all time by readers of Prog magazine mixing with classics from over forty years of music even though it was only released last year. Raymond Hearne’s cymbals may not have had as much of an “eaten away” look as those on Leprous’ drumkit, but one of the band’s guitars was not only missing its machine head but also, apparently, parts of its body. Even given the available range of guitar shapes, this one looked slightly odd. Haken came on stage to a backing track that was almost pastoral compared to what had gone before. Then their music exploded into Atlas Stone, a song that had the audience singing along even before Ross Jennings’ cry of, “C’mon York, let’s hear you” while, at his request, headbanging spread into the crowd during In Memoriam. “I knew this was a rock ‘n’ roll city,” he announced as the track ended. The band moved forward in time with Darkest Night, a track from the newly released Restoration EP. The title may have been growled in the introduction but the track itself was the most typical prog of the set so far, even down to Jennings leaving stage as the rest of the band performed an exciting instrumental section. Up until now Jennings’ vocals had been indistinct, but they started coming through much more clearly during Pareidoilia, a song which saw him sharing vocals with keyboard player Diego Tejeida, as well as joining in on the keyboards as well. Well, I guess it was only fair. Cockroach King upped the prog quota considerably. Imagine the music of Genesis if they had gone down a more metal than mainstream path, thrown in a slightly jazzy section and have Jon Anderson provide the vocals and you will have some idea what the complex and yet fun track sounded like. With this being the last night of the tour, one of the members of Leprous also seemed to have decided to have a bit of fun. At least, I’m assuming the mystery, towel-wrapped drummer at the start of this track was Bard Kolstad and I’m fairly certain it was he who, bedecked in Viking helmet, appeared on stage during the song. Drowning In The Flood took us back to the band’s first album, Aquarius and used a second set of keyboards to provide a lovely, gentler instrumental section. The opening to Crystallised brought to mind Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, not only in terms of the musical communication used in the film (although the song used just four notes) but Jennings’ actions on the darkened stage somehow brought to mind the aliens of the film’s climax. Although keyboard led at the start, throughout each band member was introduced and given a chance to highlight their own parts as Jennings encouraged the crowd to applaud them individually. Although a single track it was so long that it began to feel like a medley. Cries of “Ha-ken” and “one more song” began as the band started to leave the stage and they soon returned for an encore of Visions, which I don’t think was as long as the album version (over twenty two minutes) but, perhaps, showed more of the band’s influences by including shades of Yes. Overall, Haken’s performance wasn’t as energetic as that of Leprous but I liked their music more than that of the Finnish band. Not that that stopped me buying an album from each at the end of the night, after all three bands had taken to the stage to receive the applause of the crowd for what had been a great night of modern prog, at times tinged with some of the older stuff.