Experience ProgPower USA From The Eyes Of A First Time Attendee
Band Photo: Serenity (?)
If there was ever an event for a first time festival goer, it would be ProgPower USA. Unfortunately, fans here are spoiled by the incredible privileges, some of which could never be properly duplicated by any of the huge European festivals. In Atlanta, you won’t find camping sites, 80,000 people and huge immense lines for signing sessions. What you will find is a community of about 1200 well-educated and well versed fans that throw an amazing party and represent some of the nicest people from all over the U.S. and the world. However, it is a party which also includes the many members of the best bands you can find in the world (not just those who are playing) all within an incredibly intimate setting of a venue that is as unmatched in sound quality as it is fan friendly. For its first 12 years, ProgPower USA seemed out of my reach for reasons I cannot fully explain or comprehend (stupidity comes to mind). However, lucky #13 consisted of a lineup which I personally felt was the strongest in its history (though called “weak” by progressive fan standards), and was perfect for my very first taste of the ProgPower USA experience. As soon as this lineup was announced last year, I drew up the battle plan to attend. The ability to see Serenity, Mystic Prophecy, Pretty Maids and so many others make their debut U.S. performances was something of a dream for this aging fan boi. Topping it off was a headline performance my current favorite Epica, so finding a way to get there became mandatory. What transpired exceeded all my hopes and expectations, a dream I wish I never woke from. (For complete reviews, check out Metal Underground.com's road reports on Day One, Day Two and the pre-show with Nightwish & Kamelot by colleague Progressivity_In_All.)
As a double bonus, this was also my first time in Atlanta, which proved to be incredibly fun and accessible city that had all the southern hospitality that I initially heard about. It started in the small part of South Carolina where I stopped for a quick bite to eat before the final push to Atlanta. Back home, asking for assistance in finding something could easily get you violent stares and colorful language. Here, it’s like asking your mother where to find something in the cupboard, complete with the “ok sweetie” and “sure enough honey” responses. The hotel concierge was equally hospitable, even asking if we were there for ProgPower, which he said was one of the best events Atlanta has to offer annually. I felt like I came home to family I didn’t even know. The regular attendees at the event were especially helpful and talkative, eager to bestow the learned knowledge of what to do, what to expect and above all just how great the experience was.
Looking back at the whole experience, I wish to bestow some lessons learned from my first experience so that others can obtain maximum enjoyment. To start, keep the following items in mind when it comes to planning your ProgPower USA experience. Some of these seem quite simple, but believe me, idiotic people like myself are the reasons I list them now (in no particular order):
• It matters not what your hotel room looks like as long as it is within a mile of the venue……trust me, you will never see it;
• Always book your flight a day before ANY of the festivities start and never...EVER book your flight for early morning Sunday following the event (see details further on);
• Never, ever rent a car – unless you are driving from another state or flying into anywhere other than Atlanta (which is NOT recommended – see details further on);
• If you do rent a car….remember this – W. Peachtree Street is a ONE WAY going north. Taking a right out of parking areas is only recommended in suicide attempts (which I deny being on), however it DOES come in handy when band members request rides to the venue (EPIC WIN);
• If you plan on sleeping….stay home;
• If you plan on drinking….you picked the right festival;
• If you do not know where the Artmore Hotel is within the first five minutes of arriving in the area, then you are not doing anything right;
• The chance of seeing and meeting at least one band member from all bands in the lineup is 100%;
• Despite the fact that everywhere you stand or sit in the venue is a perfect viewing and listening position, if you are EVER offered a spot at the barrier...it is imperative that you not only take it, but hug that rail for dear life until the festival is OVER. Going to the bathroom, signing sessions, food and drink is ALL secondary.
In Line for Day 1 of ProgPower USA
With that said, it was important to note that way before I was asked to assist in coverage of this event, I was prepared to enjoy it from the fan perspective only. Having the honor of assisting in coverage made this experience reach a new stratosphere. I had secured interviews (coming soon) with Tom Youngblood from Kamelot; Tom, Georg and Clementine from Serenity; Flo Laurin from Sinbreed and Pretty Maids (which unfortunately fell through) in an effort to cover the “power metal” and “symphonic metal” side of things (more on that to follow). The attempt to balance the “fan” from the “writer” was a bit of a challenge, especially with mid-morning and early afternoon interviews as “the reporter” after nights where “the fan” didn’t see a bed until 4:30am or at all.
Arrival to Atlanta was an event in of itself. I decided to go “cheap” with a flight to Charlotte, only to rent a car and drive 3.5 hours the rest of the way. While this proved more “cost effective” – it hamstrung my return since I booked for a 9:00am Sunday flight from Charlotte back home. Now In the perfect 20/20 vision of hindsight, I would have known that Symphony X would end its set north of 3:00am. Lesson learned: ”cheap” is not better by any stretch and paying extra for a direct flight is worth every penny. The ride back also prevented me from engaging in any alcoholic barrages on the final night, however, that was rendered moot as I secured a spot at the sacred barrier. On the ride back…it wouldn’t have been so harrowing had I not initially pulled out of a parking area right into oncoming traffic on a one way street OR I hadn’t nodded off close to 150 times in between Atlanta and Charlotte. You know you border the lines between reality and delirium, when the headlights on the road ahead start forming into creatures a split second before nodding off. No amount of coffee, five hour energy, moving around, slapping and/or pinching could help the situation. I feel overwhelmingly tired as I write this thinking about it.
The only plus of having a rental car is that when you meet band members staying at a hotel that is over a mile from the venue, they will bum rides off you. After my interview with Sinbreed guitarist Flo Laurin, he asked for a ride, to which I quickly agreed. We joked the entire time about how walk lights and street lights in the U.S. work so illogically as opposed to Europe. In Europe, when a walk signal is on…NO car can move and where in the U.S. the light turns from Red to green, Europe avoids the lunacy by adding the orange light in that sequence as well. There was lots of humor on that ride.
I stayed at the Residence Inn Midtown/Historic, a hotel that is renamed: Xanadu. Sure, a suite bigger than the first floor of my house was really nice, but way too much in light of how much time I spent in it. In the 72 hours in Atlanta, I was in my hotel a total of seven hours. Lesson learned: at ProgPower USA, as long as the hotel is within walking distance, get a standard room that fits the party attending and NOT one that is capable of hosting the entire ProgPower USA event. You will never truly appreciate all the amenities, unless, of course, the bands want to hang out in it.
As for Center Stage, there is NO venue I have ever been to that compares in terms of sound quality and intimacy for the fans. It matters not where you stand, sit or choose to be, you can see everything, hear everything and drink anything. The privileges you have are: a. If you stand still outside in the merch area or bar, you will likely spot any band member from any band; b. if you want to leave and have dinner – you can; c. if you want to bring a camera, you can; d. if you want to sleep on the comfortable “portals” that line the back side of the half circle on the outside of the inner doors to the immediate seating area….you can. The bouncers/securty here are more like tour guides. Sure, they are there to protect the fans and the bands, but you can also chat with them….they smile, laugh, joke and NEVER treat fans with a lack of respect. I inquired with one of them and thanked them for being so helpful and polite. The response back was “it’s all about the atmosphere….this is a great community atmosphere, so we treat people accordingly. This is the easiest job I ever had.” I liked the sound of that.
Center Stage, Atlanta - The Venue
The merchandise room can only be described as combining the best record stores in the world and merging them together into a mega store that is unmatched anywhere. Over 20,000 CDs along with shirts, posters, DVDs, box sets, special vinyl albums graced the bar and stage attached to the main arena, appropriately entitled “Vinyl.” Just a day earlier, the venue within the venue hosted a songwriting clinic taught by the Mountain King and metal god Jon Oliva. Missing out on that was heartbreaking, but so begins the learning process of a “newbie.”
One of the tables in the Merch area at Vinyl
As for the performances, the atmosphere and perfect sound is what makes the level so high. On night one, the look on the band’s faces when we Americans can finally show them how much we know and appreciate what they do from afar is priceless. This is the only event where it is a guarantee that I can see exclusive and first U.S. appearances from 75% of the bands or more AND be able to converse, take photos, interview and party with them all. The first night was extra special, as the performances of Sinbreed, Serenity and Epica simply stole the night AND the entire festival. Sinbreed conquered that “first band of the festival” jitters with a thrilling performance of songs from “When World’s Collide,” despite the technical issue of guitarist Flo Laurin’s first ever live broken string. Serenity took all the magic that goes into each and every album and regurgitated it note for note, harmony by harmony BUT with even more energy into what was the BEST live showcase of the entire festival. Singing along live to songs like “Heavenly Mission” (which incidentally was proudly dedicated to me by singer Georg Neuhauser), “New Horizons” and “Coldness Kills” without merely listening to an iPod in my car was a dream come true. Epica always brings it’s performances to a new level and despite waiting an eternity for the set to start, the band stunned with new tracks “Serenade of Self-Destruction” and “Monopoly on Truth” along with classics like “Consign to Oblivion” and “Cry for the Moon.” They were everything that make them my current favorite band and I look forward to catching them again in October.
Myself with Tom, Clementine & Georg of Serenity
Day two was highlighted by the breakout band of the event, Germany’s Beyond the Bridge, a replacement act for Above Symmetry. The band did precisely what Voyager did a year prior….take the cherished opportunity to “seize the day.” No band at the event was more accessible than Beyond the Bridge. Wherever you were….they were. It was shortly after Solution .45 that I was offered a place at the barrier. Seizing it, it was not relinquished until after Symphony X left the stage approximately nine hours later. From this vantage point, the show became more than I ever dreamed. Now I previously knew that Mystic Prophecy was videotaping this event for a DVD that will accompany the band’s follow up to “Ravenlord” in May of 2013, so getting close was a priority to memorialize my ugly mug on DVD forever. This wasn’t out of vanity, more like a rare opportunity that I couldn’t miss. So the barrier breached not only made this possible, but brought the pinnacle of the event for me. Shortly after the second song, vocalist R.D. Liapakis came out with a long sleeve “Savage Souls” shirt and said “My wife told me that I should find a ‘big guy’ to give this to.” Of course, having taken up 2-3 spots at the barrier, I raised my hands and shouted “I’m right here.” Most of the fans around me directed R.D. my way and he tossed the shirt at me. It was just one of those moments that rarely happen, especially for a fat guy. This stood in stark contrast to Symphony X, where vocal god Russ Allen spent the majority of time in between vocals hitting on two lovely women just to my right. More on that in a bit….
As an Epica fan, seeing MaYaN live for the first time was a trip. It is as though Epica hired a supergroup with the brilliant Henning Basse (Sons of Seasons) bringing his polished pipes along Mark Jansen’s perfect death screams, as well as Mark’s former band mate (in After Forever), Floor Jansen and girlfriend Laura Macri providing the female power. They were as amazing as I hoped they would be. If there was one event that I knew I needed to be this close to witness, it was the very first U.S. performance of Pretty Maids. I distinctly remember buying “Red Hot & Heavy,” when I first heard the song “Night Danger” in the movie “Demons.” It was the zombie motorcycle scene in the mall during which the song provided the soundtrack. From that point on…I was hooked. Sure, Pretty Maids isn’t the perfect name for a metal band…but hey, The Poodles isn’t either, but they are pretty amazing too. For the next 26 years, I longed for an American tour which never came. Witnessing this show, the first ever on U.S. soil, was as special as it can be. Catching Allan Tschicaja’s drum stick made it even more special. The band motored through a myriad of great hits from “Pandemonium,” including the title track, “It Comes at Night,” “I.N.V.U.” and “Little Drops of Heaven,” as well as older tracks like “Back to Back,” and “Red Hot & Heavy.” However, it was the little things during the set which made this so great, even if one was a glaring technical error. When the band came out to play “Future World,” keyboardist Morten Sandager hit the wrong button and the keyboard went off on another part during the bridge, which caused singer Ronnie Atkins to breakout into uncontrollable laughter into the next verse. It was so funny, yet they just shrugged it off like pros. I am no technical genius, so I really appreciate these moments that make live events so great. At the end of the set, totally exhausted from rocking out, I sent fist pumps to Morten with a “thank you” and he acknowledged and reciprocated. It was the conclusion of a metal life's dream for me.
Shirt and setlist from Mystic Prophecy & Drumstick from Pretty Maids
Symphony X is always amazing live and this was my third time this year seeing them. Ending the festival with this set was absolutely appropriate. Promoter Glenn Harveston got on the mic and demanded (and rightfully so) that every single person in the venue get "their asses in" to watch because it was nine years since the band last played ProgPower USA. The special set was bookended by two lavishly long songs “The Diving Wings of Tragedy” and “The Odyssey.” In between, were songs from “Iconoclast” and “Paradise Lost.” Having no energy left, I simply watched Michael Romeo in awe, who was a mere three feet from me. Russell Allen is always larger than life, but you simply need to be at the barrier to get a show within a show. For the majority of the first four songs, he had full conversations with two chicks to my right, two of the crew to the right of the stage and Michael Romeo, yet never skipped a beat and sounded as brilliant as ever. Allen poured himself shot after shot of whiskey at the drum set while admiring the play of his own world class act. He even acted out the music, like pulling the “virtual rip cord” from Romeo as he played blistering leads and doing the slow monster walk when it perfectly fit the music.....Amazing.
The performances themselves are just what one expects, but the after parties at the Artmore courtyard is the stuff of legend. Here you can chat with the bands, take photos, drink, party, act silly and it is all good. The courtyard is adorned with a fountain and bonfire and the alcohol flows more than the conversations. Sadly, after Symphony X, I was forced to depart on my harrowing journey home, a mistake that will not happen in 2013. There will simply NEVER be a ProgPower USA that I miss again.
Myself with Henning Basse of MaYaN
Carl Frederick is a staff writer for Metal Underground.com. From the early to mid-90's, Carl published his own fanzine called C.R.O.M. In 1997, he released a compilation entitled "CROM: The Resurrection of True Metal," which featured songs from bands from around the world, including the first U.S. release of any kind for bands like Italy's Rhapsody (n/k/a Rhapsody of Fire) and Brazil's Angra. Follow Carl on Facebook and Twitter: @CROMCarl.
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