Progfest may not be a name which is too familiar amongst many of our readers. This small, traditionally Melbourne-based music festival has been going strong and steadily growing for the past 10 years and features noted alumni such as Ne Obliviscaris, Caligula’s Horse, sleepmakeswaves, and Twelve Foot Ninja, all of whom have gone on to headline shows internationally. Last year the festival sold out, with hundreds of fans flocking to see the inimitable Caligula’s Horse deliver a rousing headlining set, ably supported by a plethora of fantastic Australian bands in the progressive scene, such as Orsome Welles, Circles and many more.
Whilst the 2017 edition was a landmark occasion for the festival, highlighted by the live debut of the as-yet-unreleased Caligula’s Horse epic “Graves”, this year looks to be an even bigger occasion. 2018 saw Progfest achieve two momentous firsts in a land notoriously unkind to heavy music festivals: an expansion from their Melbourne beginnings saw them add Sydney and Brisbane editions to the fold, whilst the arrival of Nordic prog titans Leprous marked the festival’s first international act. With such amazing headliners backed by the likes of Voyager, Osaka Punch, Alithia and more, I made my down to the Melbourne show last month to check out some awesome tunes. Read on below for my thoughts on each of the bands, some links to their music and my overall musings on the festival as a whole.
Logic Defies Logic
Up first were Melbourne quartet Logic Defies Logic, whose first song went largely unnoticed due to an unfortunate delay which saw the band starting their set before doors had even been opened. However, as the eager crowd began spilling in any potential frustrations were soon put to bed by the music at hand. The band and organisers were surely thrilled to see over 100 punters roll in to see the first band, and they were soon moving and grooving to Logic Defies Logic’s mixture of classic rock, blues and funk – all with a metal twist. The vocals had a typical rock vibe to them, as if frontman Tarquen Keys had grown up playing the whiskey-soaked clubs of 80s era L.A. The band did an excellent job of opening up proceedings, with their bluesier moments reminiscent of NWOAHM acts Lamb of God and Byzantine. Added to this foundation were departures into more progressive territory, with their penultimate song featuring atmospherics, djent-like rhythms, spacious tremolos and psychedelic, space-like guitar tones – a concoction which had all and sundry entertained. All in all a solid start to the day, the band an easy listen for one hosting friends for a BBQ or going for a drive.
Up next were Fierce Mild, a Melbourne-based art rock band who kicked things off with an atmospheric, sample-driven beginning before branching out into shades of art rock, post-rock and psychedelic, with even some (mild) noise elements thrown in for good measure. The surprising sight of a cellist on stage made for a welcome addition to the band’s sound, with Jess Keefe’s strings complementing the mellow, post-rock elements exceptionally well. Visual projections accompanied the music, and the arty display was rounded out by the band members’ outfits as well. Purple, Cleopatra-styled hair, sparkly dresses, feather-clad shoulder pads and mesh tops all made an appearance here or there to make for an eye-catching stage presence. Finally, it was great to see a band with a 50/50 split between male and female members, and they served as a welcome reminder that rock and metal needs to continue pushing for further diversity in its ranks.
Progfest doubled up as the launch show for Enlight’s new music video for “Girl”. These young up-and-comers in progressive metal feature lovely, prominent bass work, twin guitars that are equally adept at layering subtle melodies as they are at shredding into Protest the Hero-esque tapping, and vocals akin to Jim Grey at his most angelic, only coming from the lovely Rachael Graham instead. The undoubted highlight of the day so far, they put on an excellent performance with ethereal vocals, five-part harmonies, memorable riffs and some mesmerising crescendos. Whilst they still have some work to do on ensuring the build-ups and fade-outs can capture the listener as well as their peaks, theirs is undoubtedly a star on the rise. With only a solitary EP to their name, 2016’s Voices, the band’s live show is demonstrative of just how far they’ve come, with their live performances far exceeding that of their old recordings. Thus, it is with great anticipation that we wait for their debut LP, which is set for release later this year.
A power metal band, Acolyte lost me right from the off with a keyboard tone so cheesy you could basically see the mozzarella dripping into a puddle on stage. The guitars would occasionally get a nice groove going, but for the most part, the riffs were pretty stock with most of the sonic attention focused on the talents of vocalist Morgan-Leigh Brown. And boy oh boy you can see why, for she has some serious pipes on her. She put in a powerful and bombastic performance, demanding the listener’s attention. Unfortunately, the melodies and songwriting seemed somewhat lackluster in comparison. Nevertheless, credit where it’s due, the band completely owned the stage, putting in the most confident performance of the day so far.
Dyssidia’s arrival on stage marked the first non-Melbourne act of the day, with the Adelaide four-piece more of a typical ‘modern prog’ band. The musicianship on display was fantastic, with brilliant bass working alongside, rather than underneath, tasty licks and neck-snapping riffs, interesting keys which did more than just provide layers of texture and atmosphere, and strong drumming which tied it all together. It was thus a great shame that their vocalist didn’t have the greatest of nights. The cleans seemed out of pitch and, during some of the higher sections, out of range, whilst the harsh vocals did little of note to add to the much more interesting instrumentals. Having subsequently heard snippets of their recorded material, these issues certainly don’t seem as prominent on record, so be sure to check them out if you don’t want to miss out on some scintillating prog.
Meniscus were one of the few bands I’d not listened to before coming into the day, despite having them recommended to me by Michael Gagen (ex-Arcane, hazards of swimming naked, Echotide), and I can see why he tried to get me onto them. Their brand of instrumental post-rock can be described as a heavier sleepmakeswaves, and it’s a shame they’ve not been afforded as much of the community’s spotlight as their cross-town friends. The trio put on a fantastic performance, with great energy, wonderful melodies, and a driving rhythm section. The bass occupied enough sonic territory to give them a full sound despite the lack of a second guitar, whilst the drums had a great combination of power hitting alongside dextrous fills. Having been around for over a decade and with three records under their belt, hopefully we don’t need to wait too long for a new one. Until then, I’ve got a back catalog to catch up with.
Another band who have been plying their trade for over a decade, djent-meets-alt-rock group Branch Arterial announced shortly before the festival that Progfest 2018 would mark their last show as a band. The band released their debut LP Beyond the Border just last year, some five years after their preceding EP, and their persistence and courage to do so is simply inspirational. In the intervening years, their bassist was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident and their vocalist suffered a life-threatening illness, with both enduring lengthy hospital stints. The fact they were able to continue to record and perform music is a true testament to their character, and the atmosphere was steaming for their final show. As one would expect, the band gave it their all despite the oppressive heat and humidity which had accumulated throughout the day, rocking out with some lovely harmonies to go alongside the crunching grooves. Whilst their vocals left something to be desired, alt-rock is arguably a genre where you can get away with this most. Vocal limitations aside, the musicianship was rock-solid and they put on a good performance, bowing out of the arena with grace. I wish them all the best in their future endeavors.
Self-described as astral space core, Alithia are a difficult band to describe. Their style fuses psychedelia, new age tropes, post-rock, krautrock, latin beats and more into one crazy mix. A polarising band in terms of sound, they seem to elicit strong emotions from those who hear them: listeners are either fervent fans or couldn’t care less. One thing is for sure though, regardless of your stance on their music, they put on one hell of a show. The septet offers a flurry of chaotic energy, jumping around on stage, feeding off the crowd’s and each other’s energy as they poured their heart and soul into the music. The crowd ate from the palm of their hands, proceeding to lose their minds as the band showcased their talents in a fantastic performance. Their live vocals, think Paul Masvidal without vocoder, have come a long way over the years and now sit comfortably amongst the frenzy of rhythms and melodies. A relentlessly hard-working band that has garnered an established fanbase in both Australia and Europe, their sophomore album should (hopefully) be out this year.
After the madness that is Alithia, the insanity was dialed down for Melbourne’s TOEHIDER, or so one thought. A rock trio reolving around songwriter/mastermind/madman Michael Mills – those who recognise the name will quickly realise where this is going. With his insane vocal range earning him a guest spot with Ayreon, and his wacky and hilarious lyrics endearing him to anyone listening, Mills wasted no time in showing exactly what he could do with those magical pipes of his. Whilst based upon a classic rock foundation, no genre is off limits as they pull from prog, metal, funk, jazz, pop and much more. If you find that hard to believe, this is an artist who released 12 EPs in 12 months, each one on the 12th of a month, and each one in a different style. With three albums and many years of touring under their belt, this was a seasoned performance which the entire crowd could enjoy. It’s the music many of us grew up on, only a little bit crazier and a lot more fun.
Up next were none other than Perth’s prog metal heroes Voyager. With their distinctive 80s vocals and trademark enthusiasm, they had the crowd buzzing as they kicked things off with favourites from 2017’s Ghost Mile, “Ascension” and “Misery Is Only Company”. With funky bass lines, djent guitars and a fantastic pop sensibility, you can’t help but bang your head or shake your booty to their playful brand of metal. Whilst the mix seemed slightly muddied, the band made up for it with a professional and engaging performance. Whilst most of their set featured cuts from their latest offering, the breakdown in “Hyperventilating” got the mosh pit cracking whilst “The Meaning of I” always goes down well no matter where they perform. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hear one of their famous medleys (they’re worth the price of admission alone), but we did get a rousing performance from one of Australia’s most distinctive bands. That they were the fifth band on the bill to sport at least one female member just goes to show that some progress is being made on the inclusivity front and that such places are well deserved.
Appearing at their fourth Protest in five years, it’s unusual that a band with only two EPs to their name would get such a great slot on the bill two years running. It comes as no surprise to those in the know; however, as they got heads bobbing with “Father’s Eyes” and voices singing with “Maestro”. These prog rockers bring an early 20th Century presence to the stage, with vocalist Michael Stowers conducting the crowd to the tune of pounding grooves and satisfying riffs. With particularly interesting vocal melodies and a charismatic delivery, his distinctive approach helps set the band apart from their contemporaries. All in all a great performance which had the crowd well and truly pumped for their headline act.
The moment everyone had been waiting for was finally at hand, with Norway’s Leprous taking the stage to rapturous applause. As might have been expected for a band of their ilk, the setlist was dominated by their most recent record, last year’s Malina. “Bonneville” and “Stuck” opened proceedings, with Einar showing at the outset that his angelic vocals are no studio trickery, nailing every single line. The rest of the band were as tight as could be, with their divisive new material certainly coming across with more energy and dynamism in a live environment. “The Flood” was up next, much to the delight of the crowd as the tempo picked up towards the end of the track. Herein lied the only fault of the show: their setlist.
One can understand that they want to showcase their newest material and that those tracks would take precedence over their fantastic back catalog. The issue here is not that some fan favourites, such as “Rewind” or anything off of Bilateral, were missing. The issue is that, with the exception of “The Flood’s” latter moments, the setlist was fairly one-paced and mid-tempo. The band has the repertoire with which to craft a dynamic setlist with peaks and valleys, and it’s disappointing they opted not to do so. That being said, this was a phenomenal performance, and the good far outweighed the bad.
To go along with the soaring vocals, staccato riffing, and harmonies to die for, the band kept up the energy throughout their entire 80-minute headlining set despite the heat and humidity. Their shirts were soaked in sweat within a few minutes, with Einar remarking “You can’t just bring a bunch of Norwegians into these [95/35+ Fahrenheit/Celsius] temperatures… it’s just not right”. Despite the injustice, they owned the stage like no others as they unleashed the heart-rendering “The Cloak”, the fresh “From the Flame” and the epic “Slave” amongst others. When the time came to say goodnight, both band and crowd looked exulted and exhausted at a long day of fantastic music, topped off by a rousing performance from one of the premiere progressive bands in the world.
Overall the Progfest team did a fantastic job with the show, and no doubt the Sydney and Brisbane editions were just as special. The pricing is more than fair, with $40 cheaper than what one would expect to pay for a Leprous headlining show alone, let alone a headlining show backed up by 11 great homegrown bands from all over the progressive spectrum. The venue is a town favourite, the occasion continues to grow and the average quality of bands continues to rise. Expanding interstate was a great achievement and the fact that different bands performed in different cities ensured this is an event that people can travel for – knowing they will get an amazing headliner alongside a different group of Aussie bands each time. The future looks bright for Progfest, so let’s hope next year is even better!