HRH Prog, like the brash new kid on the block, announced itself in very gauche fashion last year, muscling in and sending the whole prog festival dynamic reeling. The subsequent reception it received reflected the heavy-handed way the news of its arrival had been delivered to such an extent that, for several proggers, it was effectively finished before it had even started.
It had not been my intention to attend, given the cost and the distance involved, plus the fact that personally, I too had not been over-enamoured about the way it had been initially presented. However, an invitation from a friend who had won a competition for tickets to the festival to be his guests, provided an unexpected opportunity to attend and “observe” how this big bad new noisy corporate kid would conduct itself on its debut performance in the festival arena.
Three hours up the M1 and a speedy check-in at the hotel later, we arrived at the huge black monolith of Magna, the science adventure centre of the north, midway between Sheffield and Rotherham. As families arrived to tour the centre itself, so the AOR and Prog tribes began arriving en masse, checking in, ready to face two days of 12 hour wall to wall music.
However, it appeared that Prog was the poor relation of the weekend because, whereas the AOR crowd had a huge warm hall with a big stage and great acoustics in which to enjoy their bands, the main Prog stage was located to the left of a huge cavernous space and to the right of the main loading area, meaning the loading doors were kept permanently open. The result was continuous almost sub-zero temperatures in the arena.
Because of its location, half the space was wasted as festival goers would have not been able to view the stage from the right of a certain point so would have had to fill up the back of the arena in front of the bar which got tightly packed on a few occasions depending on the appeal of the band playing.
First band on were Credo, one of the great hardy bands of British prog, who were the “guinea pigs” in terms of the sound (initially muddy) and taking the temperature onstage. Singer Mark Colton took the proverbial bull by the horns and made his feelings known as they blasted through “Round and Round”, “Staring At The Sun” and “Cradle to Grave”. They had recruited Landmarq’s drummer Danny Martin for the gig and, despite having only had two rehearsals, they did a fine job kicking off the proceedings.
We dipped in briefly to see Irish band Shattered Skies, who inhabit the more metal end of prog, but acknowledged the quality of singer Sean Murphy’s voice. However, The Reasoning proved a revelation, delivering a stunningly well-executed set, comprising crowd-pleasers like the opener “Dark Angel” with songs from their most recent album “Adventures In Neverland”, including the engaging title track. This was a completely different band from the one which opened proceedings on the Prog Stage at High Voltage on the Sunday in 2010 and theirs has been a very difficult journey since then with band departures and the still unresolved disappearance of Owain Roberts.
We gave TesseracT a miss, desperately needing a rest, but we followed on with the great Arthur Brown, one of the star performances of the weekend, revisiting his late 60s/early 70s psychedelic pomp and adventures with fire. In fact, his blazing headpiece was probably the hottest spot in the Prog arena on the day.
It would have been more appropriate for the Frost*Bites dream team to take to the stage as the thermometer gauge continued to plummet. Regrettably, we had to miss both It Bites and Mostly Autumn as we began our search to find the elusive Prog Earth stage, where the second part of the evening musical fare was on offer.
Having descended into the bowels of Middle Earth via countless walkways, stairs, lifts and past various bemused security staff, we found ourselves in the company of Sheffield band Order of Voices, who use the customary driving prog riffs to power their songs, the result being a pleasant enough sound without having that distinctive edge which often takes a band from good to great.
With the fans eyeball to eyeball with the musos as there was no stage, we got ourselves into position to see personal favourites Also Eden, a band whose recent journey has ended in nothing short of a miracle. Vocalist Rich Harding almost died in a motorcycle accident nearly three years ago and his rehabilitation since then has been remarkable, his experiences offering a unique dimension to their music as he hovered between life and death, presented for all to see and hear on “1949”.
This was a poignant and as ever thoroughly compelling set from them as it was the last for keyboard player Ian Hodson and one of the first for new bass player, Graham Lane, who took over from Steve Dunn late last year.
Staying deep in the freezing bowels of the Earth offered a chance to see one of the defining bands of my youth, The Strawbs, this time pared down to the three cornerstones Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk playing acoustic guitars with numbed fingers and a sense of total bewilderment.
If ever that line from Yes’s “South Side of the Sky” “Were we ever colder on that day, a million miles away” rang true, then this was both the time and the place.
Cousins was suitably outspoken about the conditions in which they were playing especially, as he remarked, they were competing with “that racket” coming from one of the AOR stages. But no complaints here as they started with “Benedictus”, one of the defining songs from the soundtrack of my life from their classic “Grave New World” album, which they then followed with “New World”. The beauty and subtlety of their spiritually-tinged songs can never be underestimated as they treated us to “Ghosts”, “Autumn” and “Midnight Sun”, finishing off with “Lay Down”.
After that master-class, perhaps walking back to the main stage into the sonic maelstrom of Hawkwind was probably not an option though they could be heard loud and clear, permeating through the walls into the merch/catering/meeting area. But by then, the cold had equally permeated our extremities so it was with a heavy heart that we had to leave before seeing the mighty Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash and Aeon Zen round off the first day’s itinerary.
So to the Sunday and the sad news that the excellent IO Earth would not be opening the show: instead that was left to the very noisy and unproggy Bad For Lazarus, who are to be commended for stepping in at such short notice.
Next up was a band I really wanted to see, having heard so many plaudits about their music from various sources. And Haken did not disappoint. Probably pointing more to the technical rather than melodic end of my personal prog compass, theirs was an immaculately presented and absorbing showcase, watching the six musicians meld together in a series of compositions of searing complexity.
One of the songs showcased the excellent voice of Ross Jennings, who put me in mind of Arena’s Paul Manzi in terms of appearance and sound, duetting with the brilliant keyboards player Diego Tejeida. They do emotion pretty well along with the technical wizardry. As a footnote, bass player Thomas MacLean looks like Nick Beggs’ younger brother, being another dynamic blond player with terrific stage presence and excellent technique.
Time to take a breather, but not for long, as axe god Uli Jon Roth makes the first of two appearances on the day, firstly here in the company of the proggers. Sporting an emerald green patterned bandanna over his flowing greying locks, it was almost a nostalgic performance, a reminder of the days when he graced the Scorpions and when a guitarist of his mettle was the ultimate classic rock icon.
Even more remarkable was Ali Clinton, the 17-year-old guitarist in his band who showed a style and confidence way beyond his years as he took centre-stage on some lead parts and then traded licks with his legendary mentor. The band rounded off with a Hendrix medley. Absolutely wonderful!
Next up was one of the most eagerly anticipated bands of the weekend, the magnificent Magenta. Needless to say, they did not disappoint, again showing that when a band’s chemistry is right, there is nothing beyond their reach. Classy, uplifting, touching and in places downright beautiful, their music continues to set its own gold standards in so many ways. For example, Chris Fry again showed why Classic Rock Society voted him guitarist of the year, the fluidity of his playing a joy to behold. Christina Booth was in great voice as ever even when she giggled as she fluffed the words on the final abridged song. It did not matter; it only added to the charm.
Not budging an inch for our prime spots near the front, we were wondering which version of The Enid would be entertaining us today. With the release of their astonishing new album “Invicta”, anything was possible.
Where to start? When in the past could you ever have described The Enid as sexy? Well, with the introduction of Joe Payne to the ranks, they most certainly are now. The frontline now comprises Payne, guitarist Jason Ducker and multi-instrumentalist Nic Willes, all three of them very young and incredibly talented, supplemented by ever present Max Read with drummer Dave Storey tucked away in the backline with band supremo Robert John Godfrey.
Payne, with his choirboy looks, caused the first sensation by removing his outer layer to reveal a sassy sleeveless tee-shirt with the legend “I’ve been naughty” emblazoned across the front. “Invicta”’s instrumental “Judgement” got the set off to a gentle start before they unleashed “One And The Many” with Payne launching into the most extraordinary boy soprano vocal performance, prompting palpable gasps from the audience. This was prog but not as we know it, made all the more amazing by the way he modulated that elastic voice of his down to the lower registers mid-song.
Revealing his West End show potential and his inner Freddie Mercury, Payne was suitably playful and dramatic during “Who Created Me” also from “Invicta”, before it morphed into “Witchhunt” with its close harmonies and excellent guitar.
“Something Wicked” was followed again by a most extraordinary new interpretation of “Malacandra” and “Dark Hydraulic”, in which they invoked the spirit of dance music, Payne flitting between keyboards and playing an instrument which resembled an electronic oboe. Seriously, you had to be there! Never has a band gone through such a radical facelift and emerged looking and sounding younger, fresher and more radiant than ever before.
Just how do you follow that? Well the classic veterans, Caravan, went a long way to keeping up the terrific vibe which was now permeating the still Arctically challenged prog hall. However, we had to dash to the bowels of the Earth stage again where we caught the avant-garde prog metal sounds of Antlered Man ahead of another on our “must see” list, Maschine.
One of the joys of this festival has been the number of young brilliant prog stars on display, among them drummers Jake Bradford-Sharp (The Reasoning), Henry Rogers (Touchstone), bass player Dan Nelson (Magenta) and of course, the massed ranks of The Enid and the Von Hertzen Brothers.
Add to that list the five who make up Maschine, headed by the incredible guitarist Luke Machin and bass player Dan Mash, both of whom took their craft to a new level during their musical semester with The Tangent. Now, that part of their education is complete, they have been focusing on making their debut album along with band mates guitarist Elliott Fuller and keyboards diva Georgia Lewis, while original drummer Douglas Hamer replaced incoming drummer James Stewart for this live gig.
It was a shame Maschine were billed to appear at the same time as the current prog darlings the Von Hertzen Brothers because both bring fascinating new ideas to the overall mix. However, despite the 30 or so who did come along to see them, they put in a sterling performance, operating smoothly as a single unit with each of them coming to the fore individually in their often complex and sophisticated compositions. Of course, it is Mash and Machin who catch the eye the most, Mash one of the funkiest bassmen around who never stops moving along to his intricate rhythms. No-one plays guitar like Machin – a right hander doing the business left handed – and invoking so many other players such as Carlos Santana, his heroes Francis Dunnery and Guthrie Govan, Joe Satriani and even Hendrix himself.
There is still time enough for them to grow and mature but all the right elements are there to see them making it soon to the main stage of a major music festival.
As the temperature continued to plummet, it was back to the main stage for the finale, the band that started my prog journey 43 years ago, the peerless Curved Air. That they should finally emerge on stage at 11.40pm in front of a much depleted audience – around 50/60 had lingered around that long – was a travesty. Troupers that they are, they offered a brilliant set way beyond the call of duty in the conditions they had to endure.
Guitarist Kit Morgan, one of the coolest guys in prog, was noticeably freezing, especially his hands, which meant him having to apologise to bandmates and audience for not giving his best. To add insult to injury, the smoke machine, which had been pumping out all over and nearly asphyxiating the audience for most of the day, was now trained on the band itself making the far from ideal conditions even worse.
Sonja Kristina, looking like the consummate gipsy queen, showed some of the younger prog goddesses how it should be done, her voice as powerful and sultry as ever, the songs from 40 years ago still sounding as fresh and menacing as they did back in the day. They even resurrected “Situations” from “Air Conditioning” after an 18 year absence and introduced a powerful new song “Stay Human” dedicated to the people of Libya and Syria. Paul Sax, again looking and sounding like a gipsy musician, was a frenetic bundle of energy, powering his electric violin to ever greater heights, especially during the “Vivaldi” finale.
It was a fantastic high note on which to end the festival in the small hours of the morning. The prog disco with DJ Jon “Twang” Patrick had to be cancelled afterwards because of both the cold and the audience which had all but entirely melted away by this juncture.
In conclusion, as ever, it was the bands and the fans that made the festival what it was. Both entered into the spirit of the occasion with great endeavour and fortitude, factoring in the extreme temperatures throughout and probably having a notable effect on the amount of hot beverages rather than alcoholic drinks sold that weekend.
The fact that the organisers wanted a 25 per cent cut of all band merchandise sold that weekend was a no-no , ditto the fact that no mention could be made of or any publicity given to any other prog festival coming up soon.
Prog is still a minority genre of music; therefore an all-pervading spirit of generosity rather than meanness would count for so much more at the end of the day so that everyone goes away happy rather than feel they have been compromised in some way.
However, HRH (Heaters Recommended Highly) provided a weekend that those of us there will be talking about in years to come in terms of pushing the climatic boundaries of surreal live performances – not since Rick Wakeman staged King Arthur on ice, in fact!
* Source, Lifesigns. Fridge Full of Stars.