Renaissance Rises At NEARfest Apocalypse

On Day Two of NEARfest Apocalypse, Heritage Rules

Helmet of Gnats
How do you know you’re at a progressive rock concert?  
An abridged version of a song is ten minutes long.

And they leave in the drum solo

That was the story with Helmut of Gnats and their epic closing tune, “Chimps in Space,” renamed “Baby Chimp” for this abbreviated rendition.

“On Sunday, we go to the Church of Prog,,” said guitarist Chris Fox who rehearses with his band Helmet of Gnats every Sunday.  This was Saturday morning, but they still had religion.   Practice makes for some exciting music.  For a band that is a part time proposition, these guys fired up the stage like National Health with Alan Gowan or Soft Machine with Alan Holdsworth.  They have the chops of a classic fusion band, but the keyboard playing of Matt Bocchino and the multi-themed tunes mark them as a progressive rock group, hence Progressive Fusion.   The bar for guitarists is pretty high at NEARfest and Fox isn’t the flashiest of axe-wielders, but he does have a deeply understated style, issuing lyrical solos amidst a thundering storm of polyrhythmic groove from Mark Conese. Watt’s makes it look effortless with soaring leads and bending solos issuing from

Curtis Fox of Helmet of Gnats
Photo: Mike Montfort

his seafoam green electric guitar.  Bocchino worked out on multiple keyboards and really used them all,  comping on one with his left hand and soloing on another with his right, creating his own little orchestra.  He favored Hammond B-3 and Fender Rhodes tones, but pulled out all the stops, metaphorically speaking, with some flashy Moog style solos on what looked like a Nord Lead from Row M.

Twelfth Night is a neo-progressive band that started recording in 1980.  From the sound of their NEARfest performance, little has changed except the personnel.  They were by far the band with the most stagecraft of the festival thus far with lead singer, guitarist and keyboardist Andy Sears sporting a Hendrix/Adam Ant/Michael Jackson-style marching band jacket and black leather pants and the bassist and lead guitarist doing the Hair Band dance with each other.  They had films that accompanied each song, some abstract, others related to the song like the tenementscape of the power ballad, “This City.”    Musically they are children of Yes and Genesis, with long, convoluted stories, including spoken word segments set against arrangements that slipped and simmered, but never quite caught fire or a hook.  The notable exception was “Love Song,” an epic and lyrically saccharine ballad, but with an actual chorus and hook.

Anna Holmgren of Änglagård
Photo: Mike Montfort

On one hand, there’s not much separating Twelfth Night from Sweden’s Änglagård , on the other, it’s an ocean.  Like a lot of NEARfest and Prog bands, Anglagard favors lots of movements, tricky time signtures and sudden shifts of mood and tempo.   Unlike a lot of them, their sturm und drang is interspersed with moments of unalloyed beauty like when the mellotron flutes merged with Anna Holmgren’s real flute.  Änglagård is a pretty heavy Mellotron band without being a heavy mellotron band.  They had three of them onstage and used them on virtually every tune, but they were always employed as a color or distant pad .  And they weren’t the only color.  Bowed vibes, chimes made from keys, a boat whistle and more were deployed in their songs, often in impressionistic intros and interludes that gave a sense of space and bas-relief to the tumult to follow.  A lot of that tumult in which Mattias Olsson proved to be a good son of Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir while Jonas Engdegård sliced lead lines like Zorro.   If their references weren’t apparent enought, they quoted directly from King Crimon’s “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic Part two” and SFF’s “Symphonic Pictures.”  It was an exhilarating set.

Ending the evening were progressive rock icons, Renaissance.  They flourished in the 1970s heyday of Prog powered by epic song writing and the five octave voice of Annie Haslam.  Of the classic quartet  that recorded albums like Ashes Are Burning, only Haslam and acoustic guitarist Michael Dunford remain.  They were playing Nearfest for the first time, even though the English born Haslam lives only a few miles up the road from the festival as the Diva of Doylestown.

Annie Haslam & Michael Dunford of Renaissance
Photo: Mike Montfort

The set got off with an inauspicious start, a shlocky taped orchestral arrangement of a Renaissance song.  Instead of setting the mood, it had the audience squirming waiting for the real music and musicians to begin,.  It showed the thin line between grandeur and kitsch.

Once they arrived on stage, things seemed even shakier.  Haslam had trouble hitting some notes and difficulty controlling others.  But by the time they hit “Black Flame,” the now zaftig singer had warmed up, wrapping her voice around those heroic melodies with grace and confidence.    The band essayed many of their best known songs.   That ranged from the loving reading of the set’s centerpiece, “Song of Scheherazade ” and a lugubrious “Ocean Gypsy” especially in the instrumental sections which seemed listless.

For their encore, Haslam revealed the confidence in her singing with a simple guitar accompanied rendition of “Carpet of the Sun,” followed up by the band returning for the crowd raising anthem of “The Mystic and the Muse.”

Haslam’s new Renaissance is a competent, but unexceptional group of musicians, yet with Haslam’s power, they tapped an emotional vein in the audience that other, more technically flashy bands didn’t find.

~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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5 Responses to “Renaissance Rises At NEARfest Apocalypse”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    What reason to mention that Annie Haslam is now ‘portly’? A- None, other than to be a total dickhead

    • echoesblog Says:

      I’m creating an image of the performance and a description of staging, clothing,demeanor and appearance is part of that. I’m sorry if it offends you.

      • mitkadem Says:

        John, he’s right. I really don’t care if she’s fat or not, I would recommend removing that word from the (otherwise) very pro-lookin’ piece of text.

  2. Uri Breitman Says:

    Thanks for the report! Hope to read a review of Anglagard’s new album @ the Echoes blog.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I thought Twelfth Night did a great show as as well, and I don’t even like their music.

    I agree with your assessment of Renaissance. They aren’t the most exciting band band, especially after seeing Änglagård. It’s about the mood created. They just take you along with their love of the music.

    Nice blog by the way. I just discovered it and have really liked what I’ve read so far.

    H.T.

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