Another ROSFest Down, Many More to Go

This year marked the 15th anniversary of ROSFest – the annual Rites of Spring Festival of progressive rock. Born near Philadelphia, it’s called the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg home since I’ve been going in 2011. The fest this year was as smoothly run as ever, with a lineup that wound up being one of the best I’ve seen. So what about those bands?

First up on Friday night was District 97, a band from Chicago who, it happens, were also at ROSFest for the first time in 2011. They went over really well, but their brand of heavy modern prog didn’t connect with me very much. So my expectations for this set was low, but I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the new material (from a forthcoming album they’re currently crowd funding) better than the old, so I’ll keep an ear on them going forward.

Headlining Friday was legendary fusion band Brand X, complete with original members Percy Jones (bass) and John Goodsall (guitar), who were joined by a drummer, keyboard player, and percussionist. They were, to be blunt, blazing. Any thought that a band that’s been around since the mid 1970s might be mellowing in their old age was put to bed early. All their stuff started to sound a bit samey after two hours, but it was an impressive kind of consistency.

Saturday began with a semi-local band, Cell 15, which at least has the most interesting origin story for ROSFest this year. The lead guy/drummer/keyboard player explained that he got out of prison in 1992 and that the first Cell 15 album was largely written while he was incarcerated. Good on him for getting out and turning his life around (from someone who sees people try, and fail, to do the same thing every day). The music itself was fairly standard Americanized symphonic prog (think Kansas and Spock’s Beard), which I enjoyed. However, the band relied way too heavily on canned music, particularly for very important and obvious synth leads. The reliance on the canned stuff is all the weirder given that they had a second drummer join them for a few tunes and, based on their new CD that I got, the main guy isn’t even the drummer on the album! Frustrating.

Up next was another American band, LA’s Perfect Beings. They were invited to ROSFest a couple of years ago, but two band members leaving put the kibosh on that. However, in prepping for that year’s fest I got their second album, which was pretty good, but nothing special. Their set this year focused on their new album, Vier, and was exceptional. In a weekend that sometimes tends to the showy and ostentatious, they made great use of quiet passages and empty space (somewhat like Marillion does, although they don’t sound a thing like them). My favorite surprise set of the weekend.

Italy’s Barock Project was the first band announced for this year’s festival, to a lot of enthusiasm. It’s easy to see why. This group of young guys (after one particular catchy tune the band leader declared “sometimes we’re a boy band!”) belts out a brand of what I’m going to start calling “up tempo party prog.” It’s kind of the same vibe as Moon Safari, although the two bands sound nothing alike. The result was a fun show, with lots of energy, but the music didn’t really stick with me. The highlight was a brief instrumental workout where the keyboard player channeled the spirit of Keith Emerson. They, too, appeared to have some canned stuff, but at least it was mostly in the background.

Years ago I was pawing through CDs in my local borders and came across an album from a band called Threshold. Somewhere in my mind I associated he name with a Celtic-influence prog band from Ohio, so I snatched it up. It seemed like a rare find. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized Threshold was actually a British prog metal band. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. When they were announced as the Saturday headliner I was interested to see if that album (Critical Mass, if you’re scoring at home) was representative of their stuff. Turns out it was, although they didn’t play anything from that album at ROSFest. They play melody proggy metal that doesn’t dip into the “balls ‘n’ chunk” aspects of metal too much. I enjoyed it. Tip to the lead singer though – don’t demand the audience sing along unless you’re sure they know the words!

Sunday morning, the “Church of Prog” slot, brought not one but two bands, playing short sets with a quick turnover. First up was Valdez, the current project of British ex-pat Simon Godfrey (who was also at ROSFest 2011 with Tinyfish – maybe he came and never left?). I was pleasantly surprised to see the band also included Tom Hyatt (of echolyn fame) on bass. Being completely unfamiliar with their stuff I was pleased with the set – melodic, proggy in spots, anthemic in others. Plus, Godfrey is a great front man (when one person in the crowd responded to a song announcement, he waited just a sec, then deadpanned, “thanks, Mum”). A highlight.

The other Church of Prog band was Lines in the Sky from Tennessee. Unfortunately for them, my brain had reached music saturation at that point, and I left after a few tunes.

Have you ever heard prog from Peru? In the flesh? I have! Flor de Loto took the stage Sunday afternoon and put on another high energy set full of riffy (a little too riffy, in spots) heavy prog. The most notable aspects of their set for me were the Spanish vocals and the presence in the band of a dedicated flautist, who mostly used native Andean instruments (he was introduced both as “the last Inca” and the “Ian Anderson of the Andes”). Also, their keyboard player fired back at the guy from Barock Project with a solo that owed a serious debt to Rick Wakeman. Fun stuff.

The first note I wrote about Special Providence (from Hungary) was “holy shit that’s a lot of notes.” If jazz metal is a thing, this band is the gold standard. They played really dense, seriously complex instrumental music that got all weird with rhythms and such. Sometimes I wasn’t convinced that the band seemed to be on the same page, but it all tended to work out. I preferred the tunes that leaned more heavily on the fusion side of things than the metal. An impressive set that grew on me the further it went on (which rarely happens).

Wrapping up things this year was Premiata Forneria Marconi – PFM. If you read my post about 10 influential albums, you’ll know that PFM is an important band to me. I was stoked to see them live, even if there’s very little of the original band left. No matter. This wasn’t the same guys who did Storia di un Minuto or Per Un Amico, but they played that material with a lot of heart, soul, and magic. The newer stuff wasn’t bad, either, but it pales in comparison to the classics. To have heard them played live to their fullest extent (like Brand X, these guys aren’t slowing down) was awesome and a great way to end the weekend.

My one beef, which is really minor, involves encores. We’ve all grown used to the “obligatory” encore, where the band leaves the stage with everyone in the building knowing they’re coming back for more. It’s a dumb ritual, but at least it seems somewhat organic. For at least a couple of sets at ROSFest this year, somebody (organizer George, I think) off stage took to the mic to urge the crowd on to “bring them back” to the stage. That, to me, is a bridge too far. We’re already passed the point where the encores are really genuine; stage managing them just seems tacky.

Will that keep me from coming back in 2019, with already announced headliners Riverside? Not on your life.

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UPDATE: Or, it appears, probably not. Shortly after this post went live the organizer of ROSFest announced that the festival was moving to Sarasota, Florida. A pleasant drive of a few hours turned into an epic road trip, or (even worse) flying. So it looks like this was my last ROSFest, after all. Fuck.

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