ProgPower USA XIV: Saturday Crazies and Sabaton Sweat Baths
Carrying the energy over from ProgPower XIV’s Friday show to Saturday’s show was like a Herculean trial for me, running on a combined total of 6 hours sleep from the last two days. In the quiet of dawn, nobody from ProgPower: Hardcore, the unofficial fitness group, was awake enough to run or work out, but not for lack of effort -- They had put in a good run and hot yoga session earlier in the week. (Only at ProgPower, folks.) Fortunately, each of the seven bands on the second day’s roster brought its game face and gave me and the other concert-goers what we needed to raise our bodies, put our hands in the air, bang our heads, jump (if you really enjoyed Sabaton), and fall in love all over again.
After descending upon Einstein Bagel Co at the end of Peachtree St for breakfast with my group of fellow black-shirted friends, which brought a few funny reactions from the locals, we headed down to The Loft next to Center Stage to see Wolverine’s exclusive all-acoustic set for Gold Badge holders and sponsors only. Having rehearsed well in advance, Wolverine was a well-oiled machine, although the same could not be said for the guitar cables that seemed to be shorting out on them by the dozen. Nevertheless, the show was to be unforgettable. Drawing heavily from “Communication Lost,” perhaps the easiest Wolverine album to translate to an acoustic setting, the show took the form of a sort of “Storytellers” gig.
The typical routine they followed went something like this: Vocalist Stefan Zell or bassist Thomas Jansson would give a background and context to a song, they would play it through, Jansson or keyboardist Per Henriksson would take a passionate but subdued solo, Zell would light up the air with his voice, and the crowd would weep. It’s true -- one attendee brought a box of tissues with her, which the band autographed after the performance, for members of the audience that couldn’t help but resonate with the song. The whole performance gave the impression of a slow burn -- warm and electrifying. A special set, indeed.
The first band to take the main stage on Saturday was Divinity Compromised, and they hit like a sledgehammer to the chest. Songs like “Children of a Dead God” and "Termination Sequence" gave them a chance to stretch out and have some fun. Vocalist Lothar Keller’s powerful baritone blended well with his death growls and expanded falsetto voice to hit the lyrics home. The band really swung for the bleachers, recalling the efforts of last year’s superb surprise hit of a Saturday opening act, Beyond The Bridge. Guitarist Jeff Treadwell (aka “Shredwell”, a fitting nickname) flew down his frets and roughed up his strings as if they owed him money while drummer Mike Mousel added grace notes everywhere, enhancing fills and double-kick lines. Their energetic cover of “Hall of the Mountain King” was even called “the most legitimate and faithful” rendition of the song by no small amount of concert-goers.
Later on in the night, the entire Divinity Compromised band would sit with me for an in-depth interview, which will be posted at a later date. The second band to hit the stage was Heaven’s Cry, who seemed to be up to snuff, playing-wise, though a little disorganized in the stage presence department. They still brought their A-game and ripped through their set with a little more of an exclusively prog feel. Unfortunately, between the autograph sessions I particularly wanted, the photos I had to shoot, and the merch room I had yet to seriously peruse, it meant that I had to cut out on one band's set, so I chose their set to leave halfway through. I was told that the second half of their show was alright.
Making time for everything at this festival is another one of those Herculean trials I mentioned earlier. When it flows, however, it flows so well. In the lobby, drinks were bought for various bands all over the place by those who had the flow and were feeling generous. Speaking of generosity, it seemed to be catching that day: Only at ProgPower would you be brought trays of veggies in the pit in-between sets. The festival’s beloved blonde giant and kick-off day organizer, Nathan Block, brought out tray after tray to make sure that everybody stayed healthy (if only for five minutes at a time.) The next video announcement from the ProgPower camp came after Heaven’s Cry, where it was announced that Draekon would open September 11th, 2014, followed by Italy’s DGM, and headliner Pagan’s Mind, who will perform “Celestial Entrance” in its entirety.
Next up were Sweden’s WOLF, who were yet another energetic smash hit of the day. Lead vocalist Niklas Stalvind is the most subdued (even kind of shy) member of the band when off-stage, but was a mad beast in his element when he hit the stage. “Evil Star”, “Speed On,” “Voodoo,” “The Bite,” and “Skull Crusher” were far better live than on record, coupled with the extra twin guitar antics, guitarist Simon Johansson’s mean mugs, and bassist Anders Modd’s permanently-affixed grin. Stalvind also gave the ladies in the crowd another dose of eye candy (lacking since Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati, I was told) with his shirtless chiseled figure.
Following WOLF was to be ProgPower veterans and co-headliners Circus Maximus, the ultra-smooth bringers of accessible-but-thoroughly-legitimate prog metal, with an overload of high technicality. A major selling point of Circus Maximus is the respect paid to the song structure and development of the song over and above the proggy antics, which seemed to combine in perfect harmony for the night’s performance. The band had a surprise in store -- the full 19 minutes of “The 1st Chapter”, as well as an assortment of songs from “Nine” and “Isolate,” which included the short parody version of “Reach Within,” originally part of their announcement video. During the parody, festival organizer Glenn Harveston joined the band on stage in vocalist Michael Eriksen’s gold suit jacket just for shits & giggles.
Following the parody, they went into the actual “Reach Within,” igniting tiny fires in the souls of the crowd that would burn on warmly beyond the festival. At the end of the set, keyboardist Lasse Finbraten actually broke keys off of his keyboard and flung them into the audience in a display of complete badassness (that should be a word if isn’t already, in honor of that moment.) This was a show to rival their ProgPower X performance and had the whole place in uproarious cheers.
After all this in the day, two other co-headliners were still to come: Armored Saint and Sabaton. With a storied history behind them, Armored Saint was especially looked up to by most all of the concert-goers and saw the venue packed more than it had been for the other acts. There’s just something about a band with 3 decades of experience behind them that commands attention and respect. Suddenly, it was 1983 in the room. They were well-equipped to do the old songs and the new songs justice, completely killing the guitar solos and drum fills while vocalist John Bush stomped and jumped around like a flickering flame all over the stage, in total control of the crowd.
The band was a sweaty mess by the end, a testament to the amount of wildness it takes to put on a truly great show. Joey Vera was great to watch, as were Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan with their solos, but it was seeing John Bush rock out in a Jimi Hendrix shirt the whole time that really tied the whole goofball image of the band together for me, as off-color as that sounds. After all, we are talking about the same band that used to dress like Manowar back in the day. It's good to know they're still a little goofy.
To say that Sabaton puts on a hell of a show would be an understatement. A Sabaton show feels exactly how the music and lyrics say it should: like war. Bodies were flying everywhere, everybody on stage was running around and would only post up for a few seconds at a time, and the band had their trademark camo (and vocalist Joakim Broden had his aviators) on. During their set, the band polled the audience for what they wanted to hear rather than pre-determining a set list, which brought on songs such as “Poltava,” “Cliffs of Gallipoli,” “Swedish Pagans,” “White Death,” and “Price of A Mile.” "Ghost Division" was also something of a crazy ride. The only other band with the kind of stage energy Sabaton supplies is Iron Maiden, what with all the jumping and running around. By the time the set was over, I had personally air-guitared along with them several times, jumped enough as if I were training for boot camp, shouted my voice out completely, and worked up a mean sweat bath, as did most of the crowd.
You really can’t leave the festival an unhappy camper. I certainly didn’t, and next year’s lineup looks so good that it practically sells itself. It was also announced that Pain of Salvation would be playing a special set prior to the main days of next year’s festival, along with the already stacked lineup of festival bands. Tickets go on sale on October 1st for the festival’s 15th year Friday & Saturday shows, and November 1st for Thursday's show. Follow the ProgPower Facebook page for more updates to come in the following months and plenty of pictures and coverage to ease your post-ProgPower blues if you made the show this year.
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