Music festivals are a really, really odd event. Think about it for a second; tens of thousands of people who probably don’t have a lot in common with each other gather in a field in various parts of the world to listen to bands that often share even less among themselves. I’ve been to several of these occasions and had a blast, don’t get me wrong. Download festival, Brutal Assault, Hellfest, Graspop. I’ve seen my share of open air festivals and, to tell you the truth, I’m really sick of them. They represent an incredible opportunity to see a large number of bands and they have the cool edge of being an experience. But they also suffer from terrible facilities, often bad sound production, being in the middle of nowhere, eating shitty food and not sleeping. On top of that, the sets you see are often truncated, even great bands you were looking forward to hearing given thirty minutes at the outset.
Which is why I’ve wanted to visit Be Prog! My Friend for years now, ever since it first aired in 2014 (henceforth in this post, we’ll call the festival Be Prog for convenience’s sake). It seemed to offer the perfect remedy to all of the ills of the festival scene while still offering a lot of the benefits: it always has an amazing setlist of select artists, promising good stage time for every performer, it’s located inside of Barcelona instead of in a wheat field somewhere, it promises facilities and an overall more comfortable experience. To my 30 years old self, it sounded perfect. And let me tell you, it really, really was. This year, I got the incredible opportunity to attend it on behalf of the blog with a few close friends of mine and my wife and it was a distinct and unique pleasure, probably the best festival experience I’ve ever had. Did it still retain that metallic edge of faux survival-ism and hardcore terrain? It did not and I did not miss that for one second.
The purpose of this post is not to give you a play by play description of the festival; this isn’t a show review first and foremost. The idea instead is to give you a feeling for what attending the festival is like, whether by describing the location, some of the shows, the overall air or even the food on offer. The purpose of this post is to see as many of you as possible at the next year’s festival. This institution is well needed in the metal scene and it’s a pleasure to be able to support it in my own way. There’s only one condition: you have to say hello next year if you do come. I’ll buy you a beer, promise. Let’s get to it, shall we?
A City of Dreams and Many Forms
Any attempt to describe the Be Prog experience that doesn’t spend at least a paragraph on Barcelona and Pueblo Espanyol is an attempt founded in error. There is really no way to over-exaggerate how much holding the festival in a large city is a good idea. The schedule is built to allow visitors to take advantage of this fact; shows start around half past five in the afternoon, giving you plenty of time to wander around the streets of Barcelona and enjoy it. And you’d be a fool not to; I instantly fell in love with the city. I’ve been around the block in my days (which you’d know if you follow my writing; it’s been quite errant recently) but Barcelona still blew me away. The food was incredible, the city itself is gorgeous and the sense of freedom and history which reigns in the city is second to none. I just felt lighter there, surrounded by beautiful architecture on all sides and perfect weather.
It helped that I got to experience it with a group of my best friends. The schedule, the convenient location (literally ten minutes away from one of the most central places in the city, transportation and culture wise), the ease of getting around the city, all turn it into much more than just attending a festival. Let’s delay for a bit on the location itself; Pueblo Espanyol is half museum half interactive exhibit displaying the many varied forms of living on the Iberian peninsula. It’s not exactly a Renaissance fair but it’s really not that far from it; the main plaza, which houses the festival’s single stage (yes, one stage!) is surrounded on all sides by varied forms of construction and daily life. The shops which service the festival goers are mostly local shops that are there anyway, so the service and quality of product is quite good.
This has the slight disadvantage of creating long lines; we’re not talking about catering professionals here and you’ll probably find yourself waiting for food and drink quite a lot. However, that’s not so bad when you’re in such a lovely place; the trees planted around the area, the cobblestones underfoot and the overall ambiance of the place is a million times better than a soggy field in Dorrington, a drenched grove in the Czech Republic or a scorching field in Western France. It simply gives attending the festival a joyous ease, a comfort which allows you to focus on why you came there; the music. Choosing Barcelona for progressive metal is a great idea; the city’s architecture is one of eclectic chaos, modernist creations of vast imagination clashing with the “simpler” constructions of the Gothic Quarter. It’s a city of riotous colors and style which is a wonderful compliment to the varied and often technically impressive music we had come to enjoy.
Day 1 – Scenes From a Memory
After spending some time in the city, we were ready to go. The trek from our apartment to the venue wasn’t a long one but it did include a steep incline, which made us more than ready for a pint of beer and some shade. Luckily, the line at entrance wasn’t long. I breezed through due to my press pass but even my group, who had regular tickets, didn’t have to stand too long in line. If you’ve been to a festival, you know this is impressive. Inside, the main plaza of Pueblo Espanyol waited for us; people had already showed up in force and were queuing for merch (which was pretty disappointing, but that’s more on the bands attending than the festival itself) and everything was feeling pretty lively. This is a good point to stop and tell you how nice everyone was; I had seen some pretty nasty stuff in past festivals. People tend to go overboard and that either puts them in a bad place or makes them put other people in a bad place.
But not here. The atmosphere was extremely relaxed. People of all ages were represented, although (as you might have expected from the headliners of the festivals), the age median definitely leaned towards the high 30’s, 40’s and above. However, there was no lethargy or impatience which is sometimes associated with older crowds; everyone was looking and sounding pretty relaxed and pleased. Again, this is an accomplishment when you consider how festivals usually feel like. They’re usually tense and on edge, the less than optimal conditions setting many people on edge. Thus, by the time Caligula’s Horse took the stage (exactly on time by the way, something which characterized almost every show during the two days) the energy was set for fun.
And boy, was it fun. I had never really imagined I would get to see Caligula’s Horse live; Australia is pretty far away. Getting to see them was a dream come true and they certainly lived up to the expectations. It was the last show of an extensive tour but it didn’t really show; the entire band was energetic and locked in, performing a great setlist for fans both new and old. “The City Has No Empathy (Your Sentimental Lie)” was a particularly good choice, as its urban message of radicalism doesn’t really have a single location in mind and creates a sense of global dissidence which was effective when watching an Australian band play a Spanish venue when you’re from Israel originally (and writing for an American blog). This sort of diffuse nostalgia and a sense of things grander than life fed perfectly into the second show I was really looking forward to: Mike Portnoy’s “The Shattered Fortress” (yes, I’m skipping over Animals as Leaders. Their set was fine but they’re not one of my favorite bands. Seeing “Cafo” live was cool, I guess).
This was, again, a dream come true. I have seen Dream Theater live five times before but never had I thought to see the entire Twelve Step Suite performed live, especially after Portnoy’s departure from the band. When he had announced that Haken would be his supporting band for these performances I was even more stoked. However, this also raised some questions: would the band be able to adequately perform these tracks, seeing as myself (and every single other person attending the festival) probably knew the tracks note by note? The answer is: hell yes. Haken were incredible, Ross Jennings in particular handling his job as James LaBrie very, very well. This turned the experience into something more than the sum of its parts; every member of the audience was singing every piece of the songs (solos included) together, and the evening quickly spiraled into the best kind of nostalgia. The performing band and Portnoy himself seemed invigorated by this fact, beautifully nailing every part of every song.
Sadly, following this show, it was time for my first disappointment. Although I’m not a huge Marillion fan, they were one of the festival’s headliners and they’re considered to be a seminal act in the formation of dark progressive over the last few decades. What’s more, their bass player, Pete Trewavas, is in Transatlantic alongside Portnoy, one of my favorite bands. However, none of the charm of that band was present here; the performance by Marillion was lackluster and scattered. Much was due to unnecessary theatrics which rang hollow and stale. The pure white suit of the vocalist, the purple lighting, the frigid contrast between the band’s lethargy and the vocalist’s writhing physical performance all grated on the nerves. And, more importantly, the music wasn’t all that good. Having listened to the band in the past and enjoying myself, it might just be a case of a discography I’m unaware of. However, judging by the reactions of over people around me, it wasn’t just me; something about their music in a live context just didn’t carry over, living the crowd (beyond die hard fans) somewhat confused and in askance.
To which the perfect remedy was Ulver. We were extremely tired at that point and had barely made it through the previous set, so we didn’t stay to catch the full set. But what we did see was pure magic: basically playing their latest album in full, these magicians were the perfect antidote to the disappointment and awkwardness of the show we had just seen. They had an effortless air to them, weaving through the electronic tunnels of The Assassination of Julius Caesar and transporting the festival to some other time. Their synth sounds and extremely poignant vocals pierced through the night, touching and enigmatic. This shone a new light on the excellent location: the 80’s style lights weaving with the dark silhouette of Pueblo Espanyol’s main building was a sight to behold. Walking back through Barcelona’s nightly version with our hearts full, our expectations for the second day were extremely. And boy, were they met and then exceed. Tune in next week for the second part of this diary, including better food, fuller hearts and some incredible music.