I sit down to write this second part of the diary of my visit to Barcelona with the news blaring about a terrible attack that took place in the city today (8/17/2017). I took my bus to the airport from Plaça de Catalunya. I walked in its area for a whole day, I walked where the attack happened only a few weeks ago. I fell in love with the city then and it hurts me that such a place be struck with such an attack, as much as with any other attack but a little more so, since the memory of the place is so fresh. Barcelona has faced struggles and death before and have always been a shining beacon of civic spirit and political hope for the future; I hope they can take some comfort from these temperaments in this time of tragedy. As if I wasn’t going to do it anyway, I dedicate these two posts to the citizens of that magnificent city, for the little its worth.
I’m crying for you tonight, Barcelona. I already explained in my last post why and how I fell in love with the city, but it bears repeating. I felt such comfort there, an extravagance of both ideas and people that was somehow wholly unassuming. It was simply a pleasure to walk its streets and get to see the music I love so much echo on a hill above it; on the second day the music was even better and my infatuation with the city was even deeper once I was oriented and well rested. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day and the sheer joy it brought me. For that, Barcelona, I am ever in your debt and, in your honor, I’ll try and describe just how good that second day was.
Prepped and pumped from day one, armed with the knowledge of where the best food and spots were, we entered Poble Espanyol. The setlist promised to be stacked with some of my favorite acts and my expectations were high. I was worried about being disappointed but it was just a nagging voice in the back of my head; my spirit was frivolous and I allowed myself to imagine crazy scenarios of far fetched and perfect set-lists, incredible and soul lifting shows and what have you. Those rampant expectations were all met and exceed, as the second day proved to be one of the best musical experiences of my life. Venue, company, performance, crowds, bands, all combined in that perfect, harmonious way which is usually resolved for dreams and erupted on to the scene. But let us start in the beginning and chart this journey towards the end, an unbelievable catharsis at night.
A City of Light and Music
One of the things which make Barcelona the wonder it is, is light. The natural light which floods the city, perched on the Mediterranean Sea at is, is marvelous. While I am well familiar with this sort of light from my own home city, there was something more tangible about it in Barcelona. Perhaps it’s because so much of their architecture and art, being one of the birthing places of both Art Noveau and magic realism, makes such wonderful use of light. Whether in the incredibly lit spaces of the Sagrada Familia (perhaps the most impressive basilica I have ever seen, and I’ve been around the ol’ European cathedral block) or in the inspiring hall of The Palau de la Música Catalana, light is everywhere used to get poetic messages across. That last space, the Palau, is especially important for our subject, a place where music, national identity and art combined.
Music and light have always been interesting aesthetic intersections for me. Something about the immediacy with which we perceive and respond to both has always captured my imagination. This was no different in Barcelona, where music and light came together in The Palau. The building was built for the Orfeó Català, an incredibly important and interesting “social choir” by one of the most important architects of the modernista movement, Lluís Domènech i Montaner. It is a moving building with great acoustics and one which I couldn’t but hope would one day host a show by Anathema (who we were about to see) or Katatonia. For now, the sense of enchantment and love of music would have to do, as we wrapped up our business in the city and got ready for the second day of shows.
An Ocean Machine Glides Through Turbulent Waters
After a well deserved nap (which, sadly, caused us to miss locals Jardin de la Croix, which I urge you to check out if you’re a fan of instrumental progressive rock) we arrived at the venue early, for none other than Devin Townsend. Little did we know what awaited us; as the man himself informed us when they took the stage, him and the band had come to the show pretty much straight from their flight and their weariness was palpable. More weary still appeared to be their laptop, in charge of the many choirs, synths and other samples replete throughout the classic Ocean Machine album which the band were set to play in full. And so, in what has by now been enshrined via YouTube videos, Townsend himself was left with he task of entertaining the crowd while the technical glitches were being sorted.
What followed was the trademark style of Townsend, which moves with furious speed from dick jokes, through little tidbits of wisdom about life and ends back in familiar territory with botched covers of famous riffs. While we would have preferred a smooth show, I can’t say that I wholly regret the opportunity to see Townsend squirm a bit on stage; it was a unique experience. Luckily, the issues were finally sorted and we got to witness the main event: a classic album in the history of modern metal, unfolding before our eyes. Townsend was at peak performance, nailing even the hardest of segments on the album, like the elongated and odd screams and grunts present near its end. “Funeral” was personally the track I was looking forward to the most and its rendition was incredible; Townsend was touchingly raw, as if he the loss of his best friend had happened only yesterday, and the rendition pricked me (and many others in the crowd) to tears.
That crowd was also a big part of why that show (and other sets on the second day) were so enjoyable; everyone was very much on-board with the experience and the overall enthusiasm created incredible momentum for the evening. As good as Devin’s opening set was, it couldn’t quite prepare us for Anathema. This being the third time I was set to see the band, I was expecting to have a great time but not a life changing experience, which is what I ended up getting. The band were very much in sync and the setlist was perfect; from classic like “Dreaming Light” to tracks that I hadn’t expected on hearing, like “The Beginning and the End” (seeing Lee Douglas and Vincent Cavanagh sing “Memory / Memory / Inside is the key to a memory” is something I’ll never forget), the performance was astoundingly tight. The crowd reacted willing, singing along with the famous extended version of “Closer” as well as with the drawn out ending of “Distant Satellites”.
That last bit featured Cavanagh on a drum, alongside the incomparable Daniel Cardoso, an explosive and percussive ending to a great set. Vincent himself seemed especially energized during the evening, an important counter to Danny’s more mercurial approach to a crowd. Nonetheless, the brothers (including the less often mentioned Jamie, who did phenomenal work on the bass guitar) are still an effective team, drawing the crowd in from completely different approaches. One, namely Vincent, is all explosive rock n’ roll swagger while the other, namely Danny, has a more elusive and enticing aloofness to him. Together, they are remarkable performers and a big part of why Anathema works in the live setting as well as they do.
An Aqualung Suffocates on Nostalgia
From the heights of euphoria of the Anathema set we were, alas, about to crash (yes, this is a reference) and unexpectedly so; I love Jethro Tull. Especially, I love their first two albums, Stand Up and Aqualung, holding them as some of the best and most influential albums in progressive rock history. Alas, neither of those albums (nor any other album) was very much at play during their set. The center stage was instead reserved for something quite different: nostalgia. The famous Ian Anderson seems to long for the day of his fame, perhaps now diminished, and so fills the set not only with long winded banter and romancing of the past but also, and more egregiously, with almost unrecognizable versions of the band’s greatest hits. Solos, instruments and passages are added, making classics sound nothing like what they became famous for.
Even “Aqualung”, perhaps the most memorable of the tracks the band has ever produced, was mangled beyond repair. It was burdened by needless solos, extended passages and constant delaying of its high points, until nothing remained of what had made me fall in love with its gritty sound. Instead, I got a version fueled by grasping as the straws of the past, pumping unnecessary additions to a great song in an attempt to…I’m not even sure what the attempt was, since the parts that were simply played “straight” were a delight to hear. They were just too few and apart to make a difference, and the set ended up confused and confusing.
Luckily, an antidote was on its way. Leprous are in an interesting point in their career, a point made all the more crucial given the band’s approach to their past. They famously “move on” from setlists and play predominantly new material, outside classic tracks like “Forced Entry” and “The Valley”. However, we were just before the release of their latest, and upcoming, album Melina and so, I was sure at what setlist they would play. Luckily, this “in-between” produced what was perhaps as good a setlist as I could hope for; “The Valley” was indeed performed but so was “The Cloak”, “Echo” and even “MB. Indifferentia”, for the first time since 2013. The performance itself was on point and professional as always; Leprous are known for their sleek and dynamic live show and they were very much in force at Be Prog!
It was the perfect contrast to Jethro Tull, a band which accesses its past but injects it with force and delivery instead of pointless additions. Einar Solberg was especially magnificent, even filling in for Ihsahn pretty well on “Contaminate Me” (coincidentally, Emperor were actually performing in Barcelona that same night and I had held hope that Ihsahn would make a guest appearance until the very first notes of the track). The rest of the band were just as impressive; I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing Baard Kolstad play the drums. His agility and strength of execution is ridiculous and he has done much to enhance the already unparalleled live abilities of the band.
And so, the festival ended and we found ourselves, at night, walking back to our apartment through the empty lawns of the National Museum. I couldn’t help but reflect on what had been perhaps my best festival experience to date; Be Prog!, at the bottom line, was truly a delight, a perfect confluence of organization, location and musicianship. Even though it had its downfalls and it was a shame that its headliners were extremely disappointing, the festival still managed to win me over in pretty much every other category. The intoxicating mix of Barcelona, that city of marvels, the wonderful location, the great people and, above all, the fantastic music I love so, made it a true pleasure. I can’t wait to go back. Will I see you there?