HRH PROG 4 - Pwllheli, Hafan-y-Mor Holiday Park - 17th-20th March Print E-mail
Written by Michael Anthony   
Thursday, 07 April 2016 03:20

Despite attending the first two HRH PROG events - at the Magna Centre in Rotherham in 2013 and Hafan-y-Mor 2014 - I missed last year. It’s astonishing to see just how much this event has grown in that time, with a switch in the interim to a larger arena, which, for most of the weekend, and certainly for the better known and headline acts, is pleasingly rammed. Leaving aside the giants of the genre - Genesis, Rush, Pink Floyd et al - it’s nice to go to a prog event that isn’t a Steven Wilson tour or a Marillion Weekend and feel part of a proper, sizeable and enthusiastic crowd. Prog, it seems, is back on the map, and is no longer a dirty word.

 

Prog Line Up

 

This year, as last, the event is coupled with a Sci-Fi Weekender, which certainly adds colour, even if, like me, you’re not the world’s biggest Sci-Fi fan. There’s free movement between both events, which allows rock fans to check out the various merch stalls in one of the Sci-Fi arenas, including that of festival ever-present Bob Moon, whose stall features, as usual, the art of Rodney Matthews.

 

THURSDAY

 

And so to business. Well, almost. A band called Hammerhead are scheduled to open proceedings. I failed to procure any pre-event information on them, but in the event it doesn’t matter, as arrival and pre-gig preparation requirements (including the traditional consumption of ‘Slutty Brews’) mean that we don’t reach the arena in time to see them anyway. (Apologies to the hammerers of heads.)

 

Oktopus turn out to be a different band entirely to the band I was expecting to see, though the various spellings of the band’s name don’t make research easy. Rather than the female fronted soul-based rock I’d found on the internet, this Oktopus (and I’m still not sure of the spelling) are a three piece who deliver competent conventional prog featuring curiously female sounding male vocals. (“Where’s the singer?” a friend asked me, when they could only see men on stage.) It’s not bad stuff at all, though whether their songwriting and sound offer anything distinctive enough to mark them out as contenders is another matter.

 

UR Me and Sauron

 

Third Quadrant were unknown to many in the audience pre-performance but gradually win people over with their earnest but colourful take on the genre. For me, though, such prog musings are all very much still scene setting for the emergence of first night headliner, Arthur Brown, the God of Hellfire.

 

Arthur has done the smart thing in recent times and surrounded himself with a band of hot young things, including the classy though understated Nina Gromniak on guitar, keyboard “gymnast” Matt Guest, and a sensual dancer who goes by the name of Angel Flame. This has kept the music fresh, though, it has to be said, the man himself still has the voice and the moves. It’s a superb performance: fun, vibrant, and absolutely super entertainment, replete with theatricals and crowd pleasing sideswipes at our current politicians. A real treat!

 

FRIDAY

 

It’s Friday, and first band of the day, The Fierce And The Dead, turn in a typically idiosyncratic and madcap performance. For the uninitiated, The Fierce And The Dead take what, on the face of it, might sound like a dullish formula, kick it around a bit and produce instrumental music that is both fun and exciting. What you get are more punky, metal-infused instrumentals, tracks that are both heavier and shorter than stuff you usually find on a prog bill. “Prog Core!” shouts some wag when guitarist Matt Stevens points this out. Stevens laughs. “I’m not inventing ‘Prog Core’ at a holiday camp in North Wales!” Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining moment that somehow captures something of the essence of the band. Ditto the on-stage humour that suggests the band are sponsored by Duck Tape, Andrex and Knave! (“Does that still exist?” ask bassist Kevin Feazey. And he looks genuinely interested in the answer.)

 

UR FATD 2

 

Stevens even manages to make a performance art of ‘man drinking a can of beer stage’, performing the feat not once but twice (in silhouette against low lighting) as if to prove that the first time wasn’t a fluke. However, to suggest that this band are all about humour would be to miss the point. And in the spooky action of ‘6666’ they have a genuine modern classic, one that on this occasion is enhanced with show stopping – or at least show ending – histrionics. They came, they drank, they slaughtered!

 

I saw Greek band September Code at the equivalent event two years ago. They impressed me then, and are a band known to Greek friends of mine, so I’m keen to have a second look. As luck would have it, they play an acoustic set on site a little earlier in the day, which is an enormously enjoyable and engaging affair. I have mixed feelings about the full electric performance though. In Dim Koskinas they have a charismatic frontman, and they deliver a set of thoughtful, well-constructed prog metal that is occasionally coloured by tasteful cultural tones. It’s decent stuff, but for me it sometimes just lacks that hint of edginess or emotional grip that could make this band a real force. (For what it’s worth, I feel the same about Dream Theater – so they’re in good company!)

 

UR September Code acoustic

 

Part of me feels the same too about Scottish proggers Abel Ganz (or Able Benz, as one of our party still persistently mis-calls them). We are seeing them for the first time, and I find it is astonishing that across our group of geographically dispersed, album buying, gig going prog mates, no one present seems to have been previously aware of this band, who, guitarist Davie Mitchell tells us later, date back to 1979 and have 9 albums under their belts. They produce an intriguing set of highly competent, traditional prog rock epics, performing with confidence and clear self-belief. They soon win over a growing and increasingly entranced audience. There is a little bit of ‘spot the influence’ about them, with clear Genesis, Yes and (especially) Marillion notes, but the consensusseems to be that the influences are blended in a distinctive manner. Certainly they went down a storm, and plenty of new fans will be checking out their back catalogue.

 

Next up, old hand Edgar Broughton comes on ahead of schedule (a festival first?) and minus band, to deliver an earnest set of heartfelt tunes that provide a thought-provoking diversion and added musical variety to what has already been an excellent day. Coming on early means that the audience, post-Abel Ganz, has dispersed, but he works hard to draw people back in. And draw them in he does, not least through his captivating song introductions and well placed political remarks (hang on, there’s a theme developing here), reminding us that in whatever form it takes rock music can often be the music of rage and protest.

 

My intention is to chill while the next scheduled band – Curved Air – are performing. However, as I sit sipping on my pint and watching the band changeover, I have to do a double-take as some faces I recognise appear. But it’s only when keyboardist Sam Robinson walks on stage that my brain accepts what my eyes are telling me. Curved Air have been replaced on the bill by young upstarts Purson. For me this is a dream addition, and from an unannounced and standing start, Purson waste no time in turning heads, opening ears and making an impression. They produce a stunning performance – a young kick-ass band playing 60s and 70s influenced psychedelic rock with energy, verve and considerable style. They rock hard. They rock loud. And in singer/guitarist/songwriter Rosalie Cunningham they have a quite astonishing talent – a front woman who leads the band with class, confidence and authority, as both voice and lead work dazzle. She exudes star quality, which isn’t to do down the rest of the band at all. The rhythm section of Raphael Mura and Justin Smith is outstanding. Sam Robinson’s keyboard embellishments and ear catching solos are superb, and George Hudson’s rhythm and lead support are essential to the full on Purson sound. If you don’t know this band yet, check out them out, via previous album ‘The Circle and the Blue Door’, or about-to-be-released (and soon to be Uber –reviewed) new album ‘Desire’s Magic Theatre’.

 

Purson

 

Headline act Caravan follow and deliver a cool and chilled set. Pye Hastings is the only original member, though the current line-up also features Geoffrey Richardson and Jan Schelhaas, whose stints with the band date back to the 1970s, and bassist Jim Leverton who has already put in a 20 shift. They produce a set of exemplary performances including the ambitious ‘Nine Feet Underground’, from the classic ‘In The Land Of Pink And Grey’, and the (Neil the Hippy-covered) single ‘Golf Girl’. The arena is heaving by now and the audience appreciative.

 

The evening is brought to a close by fellow Canterbury Scene stalwarts Soft Machine, whose jazz infused noddling is manna to some but not to everyone’s taste. Some of the headliners audience is lost to the night, but Soft Machine do what they do well, and those who stayed will have stumbled back to flats and chalets feeling happy.

 

SATURDAY

 

Day Three – Saturday, and the lure of the coastal path means I miss the first two bands – Empty Yard Experiment (who I was looking forward to seeing) and Schnauser (who I still don’t know). Sorry guys - blame the Siren’s who swim off the shore of Ynys Enlli.

 

UR Prog happening here

 

I’m all present and correct for Messenger though – another young band who are tipped for the top, and another late change to the bill. (The addition of the two younger bands has improved the balance of the bill considerably - a lesson for the organisers for future years, perhaps.) Messenger impress. I have a personal preference of some of their more rocky and bluesy moments, but there is more than enough of interest here to encourage me to check out their ‘Illusory Blues’ album (which includes the captivating Planet Caravan-esque ‘Somniloquist’) and forthcoming release ‘Threnodies’.

 

The soporific soundscapes of Colin Edwin’s Twinscapes don’t really hold my attention. It’s undoubtedly highly competent muso stuff – it’s just not quite to my taste, especially at a festival. We are all, however, looking forward to seeing The Enid, with Joe Payne looking increasingly confident at the helm, and Robert John Godfrey easing his way towards a dignified retirement from live performance.

 

The Enid are, of course, customary festival crowd pleasers. On this occasion they play plenty of material from the forthcoming album ‘Dust’, described by frontman Joe Payne as the third of a trilogy, which seemingly completes The Enid’s transition from airy faery nonsense to political prog. Certainly Payne’s introductions and between song banter suggest a hard hitting topical relevance that one wouldn’t associate, for example, with the band’s 70s classics or their traditional festival pomp and circumstance. Payne, in fact, is another astonishing talent, and you will not see a more natural successor to Freddie Mercury (in either personal style or vocal dexterity) anywhere between Pwllheli and Zanzibar! He leads the band superbly and with the exceptional ‘One & The Many’ and ‘Who Created Me?’ The Enid produce some of the weekend’s most sublime moments. The arena is packed and the response to the band rapturous. While they’ve always pushed boundaries, over the last few years, The Enid have come to sound utterly rejuvenated, and RJG can take a back seat safe in the knowledge that the band’s legacy, along with its present and future, are in very safe hands.

 

Focus are another band who’ve played the HRH PROG events before, and, as before, you can’t fault either the effort or the quality of the performance. As with The Enid and Arthur Brown, the current line-up features a blend of the old and the young, with guitarist Menno Gootjes shining throughout. The classic Hammond sound of Thijs van Leer’s organ is a pure joy, as are the seemingly constant stream of unusual instruments he draws from his bag of fun. All the best known tracks are there, while the Hammond-led romp through the classic ‘Hocus Pocus’, replete with yodelling, brings the house down. The drums of Pierre van der Linden feature heavily. In fact, I can’t remember seeing any other band incorporate not one but two extended drums solos into their set, and just for a moment there, I thought he was going for the hat-trick!

 

UR Me and an Ork

 

There is much anticipation of the performance of Ian Anderson (interviewed in these very pages about his new Jethro Tull rock opera just a short while back) - the third in a series of three appearances from long-established prog artists and to all intents and purposes the headliner of the whole event. By the time he comes on, the arena is again packed. Anderson looks fresh and inspired as he leads his band through a selection of Tull classics, kicking off with a vital-sounding version of ‘Living In The Past’, picking up tracks from the first album (‘Song for Jeffrey’), and dipping into both Tull’s most folk influenced (‘Jack-In-The-Green)’ and classically influenced work (‘Bouree’). Also included is a new track from the aforementioned rock opera, though it’s the tracks from ‘Aqualung’ that really seem to hit the spot. Once again, the performance and musicianship is exemplary and once again – in what for me has become one of the themes of this weekend – the band benefit from the energy and enthusiasm of its younger members, in this case powerhouse guitarist Florian Opahle. By the time Anderson and co launch into ‘Locomotive Breath’, the audience is in raptures. I’ve seldom seen a non-Marillion prog audience this hyped and this happy, and it’s great to be part of it.

 

And so, post-headliner, to the final act of the event – the Von Hertzen Brothers. Let me put my cards on the table. I think these guys are great. They might only tenuously fit onto a traditional prog bill, courtesy of an extraordinarily broad range of musical influences and a desire to experiment, but they have a unique sound that should have broad appeal across rock genres and across the generations. Rocked up and in your face one minute, subtle and moody the next, these guys deserve to play to big audiences. More’s the pity then, that circumstances conspire to have them performing after Ian Anderson and hitting the stage at 11:45pm, when some of the uninitiated and more tired of our brethren have trooped happily back to their chalets and caravans (“travellers lodges” as Anderson called them) oblivious to the delights they have forgone.

 

Be that as it may, the VHBs have made a sufficient dent in the UK market to ensure that a decent sized audience remains – and it’s certainly a bigger crowd than they played to at the very first HRH PROG event in the sub-zero temperatures of the Magma Centre. (It was cold even for Fins!) “It’s warmer than last time,” quips frontman Mikko, during a brief pause in a fast-paced opening that takes in ‘New Day Rising’, the pacy ‘Coming Home’ and prog anthem ‘Flowers and Rust’. Thereafter they mix tracks from ‘New Day Rising’ (‘Love Burns’ and ‘Trouble’) with a romp through some of the bands best loved moments - including ‘Angels Eyes’, a full progged up version of ‘Kiss A Wish’ and the edgy ‘Let Thy Will Be Done’.

 

Initially Mikko looked tired (“Too much whiskey in London last night,” he tells us), perhaps understandably given the lengthy journey from the big smoke to the mountains and coast of north West Wales. (“It’s beautiful here,” he tells me later, and a big surprise to them.) Adrenaline kicks in though, and initial struggles with his voice seem to disappear as the band deliver a powerful and near faultless performance. The Von Hertzen Brothers are dynamite - if you missed them on tour, catch them at The Steelhouse or the Ramblin’ Man Fair this summer. You won’t be disappointed.

 

With a sell-out event under their belts, the organisers are promising a stand-alone event next year with two prog stages. If the quality of this year’s line-up, and the vibe and enthusiasm of the audience, are anything to go, it’s worth booking early, which you can do right now via the following website http://www.hrhprog.com/tickets.html.