ProgPower USA is the premier US festival for progressive and power metal, bringing together a dozen and from all over the world. It takes place every year on a Friday and Saturday in mid-September at the Center Stage Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. It should be noted that while the main festival is on Friday and Saturday, they have started to seriously expand into a four day festival, with Blind Guardian and Dragonforce being the headliners for the opening days. That is why this, and the follow-up, review will be listed as ‘Day 3,’ and ‘Day 4,’ rather than 1 and 2.
This trip was 11 months in the making, with the show being in September and the tickets going on sale the previous October. Last year I had made the journey alone (sort of), this time I was accompanied by two PPUSA virgins, and I was about to introduce them to the absolute peak of the progressive and power metal scene in the United States. We disembarked from Pittsburgh (sort of), at 3:30 AM Thursday morning, and set off on the 700 mile journey with a car full of CDs and a whole bunch of coffee.
The drive went surprisingly quickly as we filled the void with great music to get us pumped for what we were about to experience. However, things quickly went south once we actually got into the state of Georgia. As it would turn out, despite what the law would have you believe, once you get into the state of Georgia turn signals and safe driving becomes entirely optional. Not five miles into the state we got dangerous cut-off and brake-checked. Not five miles down the road from there, an 18-wheeler literally drove someone in an SUV off the road and they were forced to drive on the shoulder next to the truck until it exited the freeway. We were in the state for less than 10 minutes and we almost crashed, then we almost watched another person crash.
This left us wondering what we got ourselves into, and was the journey really worth possibly dying over? That question may or may not have gotten answered this weekend, you’ll just have to read on to find out.
Just about eleven hours after we departed we made it into Atlanta, physically safe but mentally exhausted. Getting into the hotel we noticed something seemed a little strange with the patrons around. There were a lot of metalheads around. Sure, we may have been stereotyping a bit, but let’s be honest here, we’re a pretty obvious lot when we congregate. Who else are you going to find wearing a Wacken Open-Air shirt to the pool the day of ProgPower besides an attendee? You’re right, not just any attendee, but a member of Sirius Black. These weren’t just fans mingling, but the bands themselves. Our hotel was full of band members hanging around in the lobby, by the pool, in the fitness center, and apparently even on our floor. While this at first shocked my companions, this was just another one of those things about ProgPower USA that lends to the intimacy of the festival. We all know we’re here, and we see each other all over the city, and we’re all here for the same reason: heavy metal.
Doors to the non-VIP & Gold Badge peons such as myself opened at 1:30, and the smart ones immediately picked up their PPUSA XVII shirt, which sold out almost immediately, and ransacked the merch room. For the festival, one of the side rooms of the venue, Vinyl (which also has a stage and bar of it’s own), and is packed with vendors and festival goers trying to find music and merch of all sorts of levels of obscurity. It’s certainly the place to hit for CDs from all the bands playing, but also a lot of other hard to find goodies. Before the first band took the stage, I had dropped all but one singular dollar I had in my possession into the hands of someone else in this room, and then the magic was set to begin.
Having spent all the money I had brought with me for the day, I quickly realized that the clock struck 2 and the first band was just starting their set. Kicking off the main festival was the little known (in the US) Canadian progressive power metal band, Ascendia.
The first thing to hit me was the absolute power of frontman Nick Sakal’s voice. I was familiar with their biggest hit ‘At the End of it All,’ but even that didn’t prepare me for how well it filled the room. Coupled with the rest of alongside the rest of the band. It really speaks volumes about the quality of bands the festival books when THIS is considered an opener.
One of my companions, who admittedly is pretty new to the metal scene, leaned over to comment on how he had a sort of “Bruce Dickinson thing” going on, and all I could say was “welcome to ProgPower.” Then they jumped into an absolutely phenomenal cover of Dio’s ‘Holy Diver.’
If this was how we were going to start off the festival, it was destined to be a great weekend.
Following the same vein as Ascendia, progressive power metal, Vanishing Came out fast and heavy, with vocalist Silvio Massaro soaring above the rest. While they are fairly unknown in the US even among veteran metalheads, when it came to their announcement at last year’s festival their name was greeted with thunderous applause and now it was their time to shine because it was their first ever show in the States in their twenty year long career.
The year before their announcement was welcome with thunderous approval, now it was their time to shine.
You know, I have always wondered what kind of musicians it was that used those weird guitars that had slanted fret markers, the kind that angle one way on one side of the neck and slowly turn to be angled the other by the time you got to the headstock. It turns out that those are prog metal players. I can’t say it was surprising, but it was certainly interesting to watch, because my attention was focused on bassist Adrian Alimic for the majority of their set.
Three bands into the festival and come to what was probably the most fun set to watch all weekend. While they were not without flaw, or my favorite sets of the weekend, Freedom Call was by far the most overall fun bands to watch perform live. It was upbeat, happy, heavy metal music, lead by the hilarious yet charismatic vocalist/guitarist Chris Bay. Bay’s stage presence was wonderful, not only as a musician but also in the ways he interacted with the crowd. At one point, he lead the band to replay the very, very ending of a song so that the crowd could cheer for it again, and again. It was hilarious, and after the performance they just put on, they earned it.
While most bands stuck to the fairly generic use of solid red, blue, and green to light the stage, Freedom Call seemed to make it a point to have the brightest and boldest colors, at times coating the stage with rainbow lights. It was, as vocalist Chris Bay said, a “happy metal party.”
So other than a few low-end feedback issues throughout the beginning of their set, they sounded excellent, and were a ton of fun to watch. I couldn’t help but thinking that a tour featuring them and Steel Panther would be an absolute spectacle.
The Gentle Storm
It’s pretty common knowledge in this circle that Anneke van Giersbergen has one of the most beautiful voices in metal, but I don’t think even some of her most die-hard fans knew what was coming for them. It seems to be the general consensus from everyone I have spoken to that The Gentle Storm stole the show Friday, and I’m not inclined to disagree. Covering the breadth of songs from Anneke’s career, featuring “Isis and Osiris
(Ayreon cover),” “Strange Machines (The Gathering cover),” and even Devin Townsend’s “Fallout,” a song from his Sky Blue album featuring her on vocals.
Another remarkable part about seeing them live was Marcela Bovio (Stream of Passion). Although it may be listed as her official title, I hesitate to refer to her as a “backing vocalist” as her voice was beautiful, and when alongside Anneke’s a magic combination was made.
Even more good news came with the end of their performance. Although The Gentle Storm was founded as a project between Anneke and Arjen Anthony Lucassen, the touring band has grown to love working together so much that they will be reforming as their own entity next year.
These guys were by far the heaviest and most brutal of bands to play this year. Despite being such a hard left turn from The Gentle Storm before them, the crowd responded well to the amped up level of aggression and energy they brought to the stage. In the two years I have gone, that was the first mosh I witnessed. They were able to get prog-snobs to mosh, that’s a feat in and of itself.
Unfortunately, I was not as into it. I think that is more of an issue of taste rather than quality, because their performance was very good. They sounded excellent and displayed great energy, but I think I may still have been on a high from The Gentle Storm. To each, his own.
Music history was made in Atlanta on Friday, there is simply no other way to put it. Legendary US prog metallers Fates Warning returned with original 1980’s line-up to perform their their 1986 Awaken the Guardian album in full to celebrate it’s 30th anniversary since release.
Even after all the years since the line-up was in this iteration, the entire outfit was operating as if they were playing right out of the 80’s. This was not the performance of a band simply capitalizing on an anniversary, but that of one who still feels the passion for the music they wrote thirty years ago. This was the performance of a band that didn’t get together because they had some obligation to, but rather a band that genuinely wanted to perform again, and it showed. An off-stage example came with their signing earlier in the day. When the line first began to form, it was announced that their signing would only be thirty minutes long. When the band noticed the sizable crowd they had amassed, there must have been a change of heart because they took the time to make sure they shook everyone’s hand, give a signature, and hear us blab about how excited we were. They did not need to do this, they were not obligated to, and they owed the crowd nothing. This was a true show of character in my eyes, and it was a wonderful one.
The amount of enjoyment that they brought to the stage was only trumped by the quality of their performance. To many in the audience it was a dream come true to witness this performance, however to many others it was time to call it a night. It was actually infuriating the number of people in the high seats start walking out of the show halfway into their set. That was not all either, in the row in front of me there were two things happening. One woman had the audacity to bust out her Nintendo DS and start playing Pokemon, while another was reading from her Kindle. As I’ve told this story over the weekend, I was greeted with similar stories of it happening throughout the day. Seriously, music history was being made, and valuable ticket money was wasted not watching the show. I digress, but that got under my skin, so here’s a meme to make me feel better.
After all that was experienced, it was time to return to the hotel because the next day we got to wake up and do it all over again.
“Hey guys, Fates Warning is totally staying at our hotel right now, and they’re on our floor.”
To be continued…