Gig Reviews

Photos: Progfest Sydney – The Annandale Hotel, 16th and 17th May 2009

I entered the hallowed turf of the Annandale Hotel with some trepidation this weekend. Despite being lured by some promising names on the bill, this ambitious prog-project put together by the Bird’s Robe Collective and national proggers seemed too good to work. With a low door price and a cheap compilation CD featuring most artists, the sweeteners were there, but would the acts meet expectations worthy of the title of Progfest, let alone 2 days worth of music?

The day began light-heartedly and promisingly with Toy Death, who use children’s toys to make happy electronica music. A great way to start the day as it showed the promoters weren’t taking themselves too seriously – and appealing to the open-mindedness of the audience. Toy Death succeeded in engaging the metal fans in attendance into fits of laughter and retaining their attention the whole set.

Melbourne’s Rincon had a stock take on hard rock with interesting bits but they did it well, were tight, energetic and drew all the punters in attendance into the room. They demanded attention and got it. Not sure how much appetite the hard rock fans of this country have for yet another workmanlike act on record, but live they are worth visiting at least once.

Aeon of Horus were the obvious crowd puller of the early part of the day, despite hailing from Canberra – a well produced act, they knew what they had to do to please their fans and played a tight and uniformly impressive set of heavy metal. Complete with gritty vocals, keyboards and speed metal, the Canberra boys showed potential to establish a national following with some improved songwriting.

Wollongong’s Mirrorsessions emerged on stage 1 rather loose, but bluesy and entertaining. A good afternoon jam session was welcoming after the tight execution of the previous two acts. Having seen this act years ago, they impressed as a sort of new age Pink Floyd. Today, they favoured their guitar segues more heavily than I have seen in past – vocals were sparing and they would have done better to play more songs. But a rendition of Shine on You Crazy Diamond and Dazed and Confused pleased the growing crowd, enough to guarantee them copious CD sales and repeat purchases in future I’m sure.

HEIRS was the first of the bands to utilise an original and thought provoking visual projection during their set. Previously an unknown quantity to me, they appeared to be an experienced act, but lacked stage movement and variety to captivate much of the crowd, despite involving the only female performer of the day. They are obviously sure of themselves and gathered a moderate number of observers, but failed to stand out on a day of so many boundary-pushing acts. Perhaps their headline shows are more worthy of attending.

Captain Kickarse and the Awesomes were next on stage 1 – having seen them many times, I retreated to the broad daylight of Annandale to find some food. Though this was an event of a different nature, I had no doubt that they would impress. True to form, I returned half an hour later to find a room full of arm shaking, dancing and hollering prog-jam converts, loving the captain’s awesome. Retaining their quirkiness, rendering people speechless with a blazing cut of old live favourite Nothing More Important and allowing drummer Alex O Toole the room to show off his chops, which served to build up a crowd of other bands’ drummers watching him from side of stage.

Though at time brilliant, much of Mushroom Giant’s set on stage 2 was overshadowed by the impressiveness of their visuals projected on the full length of the wall above. Finishing with Graven Image was a masterstroke as it snapped them out of the drudging post rock generic mould and into an impressive instrumental act.

I missed the opening of local heroes sleepmakeswaves’ set but entered the main room to see a massive crowd, with punters spilling out into the merch area to catch a glimpse of their uplifting post rock. Featuring NeObliviscaris’ Tim Charles on violin for one of their tracks underscored a brilliant and moving performance as the Annandale’s sound did justice to their ambitious instrumental tracks. Quite a delight to see the crowd reaction to these guys.

Following such a rousing performance would have been difficult, but over on stage 2, Pirate recaptured the crowd who had dissembled after the previous epic set. The frontman (if I can call him that) screaming into his saxophone to open their set was a good way to get the metal crowd keen. But some of the jazz-like subtleties seemed lost from the sound quality of stage 2, the only such act to suffer from this. The by second half of their set the band kicked into action with some monstrous groove and a sizable crowd was back in the room.

Eleventh He Reaches London arrived on stage 1 amidst failing guitar cabinets but with a set worthy of one of the main supports. I have to admit I don’t really get them… listening to them on record they sound really impressive. But live, they failed to capture my attention as I found my mind wandering. Still, it seemed about 100 people disagreed with me as they pulled a good crowd into mostly full room but who exhibited a less ecstatic reaction than one might expect for these heavily-touted Perth boys.

After a tidy changover, co-headliners of the day, NeObliviscaris were the first full on metal act since Aeon of Horus in the afternoon. Nevertheless, they pulled a crowd of their own, evidenced by plenty of long hair and black t shirts. They showcased a truly epic set, with amazing chops all round and connected with the audience more so than any other act to date. However, the sound gradually became more and more bass heavy, struggling to distinguish the guitar solos as time went on. As a wall of sound by the end of the set it worked, but the intricacies were lost. I’m no metal fan but it was impressive, if a little beyond me at time.

Many punters seemed satisfied with the day to this point and began exiting, even before the mighty Rook had finished their line check. As a result, the Mebourne lads played to a room only half full, an anticlimax after the dizzying heights the crowd reached earlier in the evening. I suppose it was a bit late for some after a long long day. Shame because it was a passionate performance, from a tight and energetic band, whose songs from their new EP Animals and Chemicals, sounded great with a vastly improved sound mix to the previous act. The unexpected jam session on their dub-style song was one of many highlights.

Finally exiting the venue post-midnight, I reflected on quite an extraordinary day. Truly a showcase of local progressive talent, the day had run nearly perfectly on time, all bands had maintained decent crowds and the total numbers must have been in the hundreds. With this in mind, I resolved to return the next morn to witness whether the Sunday lineup could possibly compete with such an amazing debut performance by Progfest.

After a truly exhausting day on Saturday it was good that the organisers decided to move opening band Mish to a 2pm start, as I saw many repeat punters enter just before they began, obviously after a much needed sleep, shower and some breakfast/lunch.

Mish have long been plying their Tool-esque sounds on the local scene with mixed results. But this was an altogether different band I witnessed – epic, tight and with a good opening crowd, frontman Rowland Hines was ecstatic at his band’s reception and produced the set of his life to show it. Backed by a relatively new bassist and the recent addition of a keyboard player, the band showed far more versatility than most of the bands on the line up and maturity exceeding expectations. With a thunderous sound drawn by craftsman Stu Marks on the decks, Mish wowed a growing audience, many of whom had returned from the night before. It was pleasing to see this band’s hard work pay off in a superbly delivered set, best of luck to them in future.

May over on stage 2 were similarly intense, but exhibited less variety. A capable band that failed to ignite their eclectic audience, they were perhaps best suited to the crowd of the previous day, as this audience seemed weary and not quite ready for another dose of scream-heavy something-core. Good band, maybe better for another time – they sounded miles better than their last Sydney performance and with the addition of a new singer/guitarist, built a fuller sound that exceeded expectations.

Another local act I have seen previously, Meladora, truly excited me for the first time, in no large part due to addition of a new drummer (looking suspiciously like Tim from Pirate) and a new bassist. They accompanied the new lineup with new arrangements of their material, as for the first time guitarist Maryn Knevitt unleashed a solo that was every bit Omar Volta. Only the second act so far to feature a female performer, Genie on vocals served up some exceptionally high notes which pleased some and drew quizzical looks from others. But for the most part the set was evidently enjoyed. Sure, they some derivative moments but this was about enjoying those moments from a local act, not decrying them for the sake of originality. They made this accessible.

Slimey Things on stage 2 were entertaining and a deceptively technical band. Despite the extreme arrangements, they made themselves accessible with an over the top stage act. Maybe not cool for some, but they certainly accomplished enough to guarantee the respect of all the musicians in attendance – and please those fans not favouring the heaviness of many of these acts. Slimey Things deserve a greater following and it was disappointing they failed to draw a crowd of their own, but they nonetheless pleased this open-minded festival crowd, evidenced by them selling out of their merchandise when I went to find some!

Youngsters i like cats delivered on stage 1, with a more powerful set than I have seen previously. Evidently still developing a stronger sense of their songwriting identity, they packed a big punch especially given the lack of distorted guitars so favoured by the previous days acts. The rhythm section in particular stood out from the last time I saw them and the highlight as always was their exceptional Banker’s Lament with trading vocal lines building climactically.

Superb Lyrebird performed on stage 2 to an ever-growing crowd. The last time I saw them they were uninspiring and workmanlike odd-metered hard rock. This time they seriously impressed with a vastly improved stage presence as everyone from the drummer to frontman Dave Bleus stepped up. The new songs sounded tight and epic and the use of a myriad of effects and keyboard sounds melded into a truly memorable performance. Disappointingly for many, they finished their set early, leaving plenty of time for sFj to do a line check on the main stage, whilst punters hurried to the bar to get drinks and discuss the coming attraction.

As the time drew near 7pm, I contemplated how the crowd would fare compared to the previous day, it being a Sunday. It was therefore satisfying to see a crowd build and build until people were forced to stand on the opposite stage to view super FLORENCE jam. Clearly the biggest crowd of the day, notable was the support from other bands on the bill, whose respect for Bird’s Robe’s Mike and Alex was evident. Opening with a mighty Ghetto Project Fabulous, they followed with a new pop song Marcy, an odd choice for such an event, which nonetheless drew polite applause. The epic Battles-esque A Spanish Doctor and a spine-tingling new arrangement of The Circle followed. After some regrouping for a clearly exhausted drummer, they launched their twenty-minute finale MOGAR, bringing the house down with a climactic performance. Not the best I have seen this band but certainly one of the most energetic performances they have provided, a genuine delight for many fans present and a significant drawcard for the Sunday.

After a speedy changeover, Nucleus served up a massive set, retaining most of the crowd’s enthusiasm with thundering hard rock and elaborately constructed passages. The sound was crystal clear and the band tight and super energetic. Certainly the best performance I have seen from this band to date and though the theme of the song writing began to wane, this was a well presented performance. This is a band beginning to find its feet musically and I look forward to hearing more as they experiment. They are certainly capable of much much more in future.

Space Project again pulled a wonderful sound on stage 2. The Robert Fripp-ery in Horizon drew many a fan inside and their multi-instrumentation featuring flute and trumpet convinced fans arriving for CODA to pay attention. With a debut EP on the way in July, this band was vastly improved from previous performances and though they lend themselves to a bigger arena, with some rehearsal they could be playing those stages soon.

By 10pm, CODA were ready to go on stage 1, as the major headliner of the day. It was somewhat puzzling that only a dwindling crowd were excited to see the band. One can only attribute the lack of audience to either the Sunday effect, or the band’s lack of pulling power, having been in hibernation of late recording a new album. The set began as expected, soundscapes building with violin and lush instrumentation. However the band showed they were more than a match for the technicality and indeed, power, of the other bands on the bill as they built their set into faster more elaborate passages, expertly executed and well complemented by the proficiency of drummer Jared Underwood. Amongst their distinctly awkward stage banter, the band announced this as their last ever instrumental show, proceeding to rub salt in the wound by performing more flawlessly crafted instrumental material. It will be interesting to see the direction CODA emerges in after the new record is complete but one could not help but be satisfied with a great performance by a band who has achieved so much already.

Immediately after the band exited stage to generous applause, 10k free men and their families shattered the mood with a raucous burst of noise from the middle of the room. Producing hardcore electronice with nothing more than a Nintendo Game Boy, the man efficiently cleared the room, allowing organisers to begin packing up whilst he engaged and insulted an adoring audience of twelve for twenty minutes of everything from signature tune Bitch Whipped to Stairway to Heaven. On a game boy, you ask? Yes.

Not one to leave on a bum note, I took my copy of the Progfest compilation CD home to listen again to 22 artists, many of whom produced performances well above expectations to make this first Sydney event a memorable one and hopefully a sign of great things to come for this scene. It will be interesting to see what effect the success of this event has upon upcoming Bird’s Robe shows in Sydney and with the announcement of Brisbane’s Progfest recently, there is plenty of expectation for the cross-pollination across the many genres featuring progressive and experimental music to engage with their respective audience.

Mad props must go to the hundreds of fans who purchased tickets to both days and supported this event to experience and discover new local acts – the excitement was evident throughout both days for fans and performers alike. As someone who has followed a number of underground experimental acts for some time, it surely means a lot to fans of the music to have such an event run so well and with such success, first time round.

Indulgent, exhausting but exhilarating. That was Progfest 2009.

Phots By Clare McCormack

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