Australia’s Progfest has been steadily gaining in size and popularity, in the decade since its inception. Just three years ago the touring festival consisted entirely of local acts. However, 2018 saw the bill expand to include Norway’s Leprous as international headliners, and the festival managed triple that number this year—drafting an impressive set of international headliners, in the form of Indian/American collective Skyharbor, The UK’s Monuments and German progressive/post metal titans The Ocean. The overall line-up itself also nearly doubled in size—expanding to a roster twenty bands—and relocated from Richmond’s cramped Corner Hotel to Northcote’s more accommodating Croxton Bandroom. Although the extensive line-up added a sense of endurance to the event, it has to be said that the ten-hour festival ran exceptionally well. The whole thing finished only fifteen minutes behind schedule, with the delays only setting on once it was time for the headliners. Though the focus may have been on the international acts, the local artists more than held their own, and Heavy Blog’s Melbourne correspondents, Josh and Karlo, braved the sweltering heat to bring you a band-by-band breakdown from the frontlines.*
Opening up the main stage were Melbourne’s Red Lotus who put on an impressive early performance. The band are a relatively new quantity—having put out only a singe EP, Illuminate, in 2017—and are yet to have fully developed their sound. The quartet sounded fuller and noticeably heavier than they do on record, and it will be interesting to see whether they can harness that energy on their next release. There were a few noticeable weaknesses that will have to be ironed out first though. Vocalist Stephanie Briffa delivered her cleans perfectly. However, her harsh vocals often sounded hoarse and grew noticeably more strained as the set went on. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that Red Lotus laid a solid foundation for themselves and they were far more commanding in the live setting than you would expect from a band so young.
Up-and-comers Modal1typroved another early highlight. The band quickly established their prog credentials—taking to the stage in a flurry of yin-yang tattoos and headless guitar stocks—before delivering a technically charged and upbeat performance. That their sound is reminiscent during its harsher sections of The Safety Fire and of Good Tiger during their more melodic moments, mostly boils down to vocalist Nigel Jackson. Although the Good Tiger comparison should give you a good indication of Modal1ty’s sound overall, that he is able to invoke both so readily sets them apart. Jackson’s vocals are further bolstered by harmonies from Hedron’s Danielle Teychenne, and the band could greatly benefit from having her play a more prominent role on future material. Although the sextet looked cramped on the smaller secondary stage, they appeared to be enjoying themselves more than anyone else did all day. Bassist Alicia Richards seemed to be enjoying herself in particular and—though relegated to the back of the stage—often pulled focus due to her impressive technical playing. The Melbournians are certainly ones to keep an eye on, and have just released their debut EP, Synthes1s, which came out in late December and was produced by Dead Letter Circus’s Clint Vincent. [You’d think all the “1”s would make them easier to google, but they don’t.]
Less successful were Mushroom Giant. Instrumental music can tend to be a bit touch-and-go and, while the quartet’s sound was initially successful in the way it built and swelled, after a few tracks it began to get tiresome. It’s probably the worst thing you can say about an instrumental band, but these guys should really think about getting a singer (think of it as pulling a reverse Night Verses). I imagine the effect they’re going for is something along the lines of Karma to Burn, as though an attempt to let the riffs speak for themselves, but it really just felt lacking. There wasn’t enough of a central focus to keep things interesting, and the more conventional song structures seemed custom built to underscore some serious wailing which, sadly, was not in attendance.
The Valley Ends
Another act with a solitary EP to their name, The Valley Ends’ energetic brand of “Australian prog” was well received by the swelling crowd on the side stage. The guitars provided a solid melodic backbone with as they soared and enchanted in equal measure, with ample tapping to occasionally spice things up. They were complemented by melodic, high-pitched vocals, with plenty of harmonies, and driving bass lines. They were clearly having a blast and looked comfortable on stage, though vocalist Tim D’Agostino seemed tepid and nervous when chatting with the crowd between songs. Nonetheless, his heart was in the right place as he spoke of the need to stand with Indigenous Australians and how “Dark Emu”, a book by Bruce Pascoe, inspired their recent single of the same name. It was apt timing with Australia Day (or, to many Indigenous Australians, Invasion / Survival Day) taking place the following day – and the crowd roared back their support. All in all, it was a good showing and, with a closer that sounded like danceable Leprous, there were enough hints of potential to warrant keeping an eye on their next release.
One of the few bands on the bill to have also featured last year, Toehider found themselves appearing a lot earlier in the day this time around. Whilst still early on in a very long day, they had quite a healthy crowd and it seems many of the punters had made the early trip to catch them. For the uninitiated, Toehider are a rock trio revolving around vocalist/guitarist/madman Michael Mills. Thankfully the venue was serving beers in plastic cups because he just might’ve shattered glass with his enormous vocal range as impressive as it can be off-putting. Whilst based upon a classic rock foundation, they comfortably draw upon prog, metal, funk, jazz, pop and more throughout the set. The only reliable part of their sound is its fun and carefree vibe—almost too carefree at times—but despite their polarising nature they delivered a seasoned performance and were a clear winner with much of the crowd.
Unfortunately, the less said about this performance the better. Sounding disjointed is always a risk with prog and sadly that was the case with Ebonivory. The bass was mixed extremely high, there were three guitars and nobody was sure why (even the band, with one of the guitarists realising a couple of songs in that he wasn’t plugged in). Sound-wise they brought the Australian alternative rock/prog melody coupled with djent timings, bass drops and occasional deathcore-style vocals. It was a confusing set and one hopes they can learn from it moving forward because their recordings aren’t half bad and our Editor-in-Chief is giving me [Karlo] fifty lashes for this review. Don’t write them off.
James Norbert Ivanyi
Back on the mainstage was James Norbert Ivanyi, who definitely likes Opeth. Resembling such a prominent genre artist so closely might be an issue if a) he didn’t do it so well, and b) everything he was playing wasn’t far more interesting and engaging than that act have been for the better part of a decade. There are plenty of bands still carrying the old-school Opeth torch. What’s so impressive about Ivanyi is that he proves that the Swedes’ newer material needn’t be so uninspiring. His sound certainly exists more within the realms of progressive rock than it does extreme metal (although the chugging in “Avarice Curse” definitely sounds like a nod to “Deliverence”). However, it constantly sounds fresh and exciting. Moreover, his playing is constantly engaging—taking a lead role in place of vocals—and compared to the evening’s earlier instrumental offering, his performance was made only more triumphant.
A stalwart of the Australian scene, Perth natives Chaos Divine hit the stage with “Soldiers” and “Badge of Honour” from 2015’s excellent Colliding Skies. Chunky riffs, progressive leanings and soaring vocals certainly whetted the appetite before the band launched into a cover of Toto’s “Africa”. The crowd ate it up like a labrador at dinner time and, whilst it’s a little sad that this is the most-listened to song from a progressive band of such ability, one can’t deny that it’s well executed and a fun time. [One might also argue that it’s pandering, zeitgeisty garbage that took up valuable time in their short set, but the crowd sure did eat it up, and at least they were doing it before it was “cool” – Josh] We then had the pleasure of hearing a new track and news that a fourth LP would be following later this year! The intro wasn’t dissimilar to a Mastodon song tuned down a step, the verses were aggressive and hearkened back to their earlier work whilst the chorus was textbook Colliding Skies. A strong showing and yet another release to look forward to in 2019.
Next Door were Figures, who sound far more like S.C.I.E.N.C.E.-era Incubus than you’d probably expect from their album art or the company they keep. Although the nu-metal influence is far less prominent on their recorded material, it was front and centre on the night—perhaps due to the bass’s prominent position in the mix. The boosted low-end both helped and hindered the Melbourne staples. It gave them a noticeable edge over a lot of the more melodically driven and often “floaty”-sounding acts that preceded them. However, it also often drowned out the other instruments and became a touch overwhelming within such a confined space. Even so, the new perspective it gave on the band was a surprising one, and one which maybe even allows for greater entry into their eclectic sound.
Circles came out of 2018 as one of the year’s most improved bands. The recent line-up shift that that saw guitarist Ben Rechter stepping up as the band’s frontman has essentially rendered them an entirely new band, and they’re all the better for it. By this time last year, Circles had become an almost tired prospect within the Melbourne music scene. They’d proved an almost inescapable prospect on the live front, with a dearth of new material to justify their ubiquity. The once-trailblazers had begun to be superseded by newer, seemingly hungrier, acts like Orsome Welles and Opus of a Machine. Yet, the change in line-up, along with their fantastic new album, has not only reinvigorated the band but their audience as well.
There was a real sense of anticipation surrounding Circles. For the first time in a long time, what followed the band taking the stage would no longer be predictable, and the band delivered on all fronts. The set was stuffed with material from The Last One – frontloaded with heavy-hitters “Winter”, “Dream Sequence” and “Breaker”. Surprisingly, however, it was the older material – “Another Me” and, especially, “Erased” – which actually hit the hardest. That the new vitality bestowed-upon the band appears to be backwards compatible is perhaps the most promising thing about their second wind and makes the prospect of a Circles support bill the most appealing it has been in some time.
Less impressive were Skyharbor. The multinational outfit were the first of the evening’s international acts. Yet, while they performed perfectly competently, they failed to leave any real impression. Maybe it’s because their set drew almost exclusively from last year’s, lacklustre Sunshine Dust, but there was an overriding disconnect between band and audience throughout their set. New(-ish) vocalist Eric Emery evoked The Contortionist’s Michael Lessard, by spending the bulk of the set standing side-on to the audience. However, in his case, the move served less as an affect of the performance than a failure to engage the audience. Moreover, guitarist Devesh Dayal seemed to only be playing his instrument for half of each song – which isn’t to say he wasn’t playing his parts, just that there didn’t seem to be actual parts for him to play a lot of the time – although the brief dance party he threw for himself during one of the tracks proved one of the few moments during which he or any other member of the band displayed any noticeable personality.
Musically, they were… fine. They sounded ok, and each member appeared to be doing what they were meant to be doing well enough, but none of it ever added up to any sort of experience beyond the simple recreation of their songs as they are on record. A lot of the songs also seemed to blend into one another, and the one time it sounded like they were building something, during closer “Celestial”, it just seemed to suddenly stop right as it got going. For all the clearly competent playing that was taking place on the stage, their music just never seemed to go anywhere – think of it as the prog equivalent of walking in circles.
Opus of a Machine
Brisbanites Opus of a Machine put on arguably the best performance the smaller stage saw throughout the day. The presence of ex-Caligula’s Horse guitarist Zac Greensill often sees them compared to his former band, and one can see why. Imagine The Tide, the Thief & River’s End-era C-Horse—the one with a little bit of grit and a hint of aggression with which to match the beauty. That’s what Opus bring, if not on record, then certainly to the live setting with a crunchy guitar tone and some rocking, djenting tunes. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of beauty to be found with captivating build-ups, post-rock influences and gorgeous harmonies. But they know when to go hard with huge riffs and pummeling rhythms that you can bang your head to as you sing-a-long to the vocal hooks that bring it all together. A great performance and ones hopes they find a way to bring that heaviness to their recorded sound because they’re a better band for it.
Monuments have built a reputation for themselves as being one of the best live acts in the tech-metal game, and tonight showed why. The band never stepped out of the standard, live metal band formula – ticking off all the usual suspects, including crowd-surfing, circle-pits, walls of death, even that thing where everyone kneels down and then all jump up at the same time when the song kicks back in. Yet each moment was executed so effectively and backed by such an impeccable, kinetically-driven set that the end result was irresistible.
They also now have a formidable back catalogue from which to draw material following the release of last-year’s outstanding Phronesis (naysayers be damned!). During the Amanuensis tour, their (still-impressive) set felt a touch padded. Here they were able to deliver an hour of wall-to-wall bangers, while still leaving such memorable numbers as “The Watch” and “Admit Defeat” lying on the cutting room floor. The more melodic material from their last record is tailor made for the live environment, and frontman Chris Barretto proved able to reproduce its catching clean sections more than adequately. However, the clean sections also revealed the set’s one glaring weakness: there were too many damn tracks! Barretto’s cleans were all overlaid with the record’s harmonies, which were both distracting and unnecessary, when you could hear him delivering the main line perfectly above them. In fact, the one time they weren’t in attendance was when they were most needed. During the chorus of “A.W.O.L”, which opened the set, Barretto stuck to the clean parts rather than dropping into the scream of “someone help me get out!!” that brings it back into the verse – robbing the track, if momentarily, of a lot of its recorded impact.
Nevertheless, there was nothing to complain about elsewhere, and the supposedly more straightforward act more than justified their prominent slot on the Progfest line-up. Though Monuments’ sound is built around bounce and melody, their success in these areas shouldn’t distract from just how technically intense their compositions are. Barretto may have been the focus, but each member also delivered their parts perfectly, with Adam Swan’s frenetic bass playing arguably constituting the most impressive instrumental performance of the night. Furthermore, while it was the newer, vocally-focussed tracks like “Leviathan” and “Mirror Image” that proved the set’s most immediate, it was the three-song run of “Doxa”, “Empty Vessels Make The Most Noise” and “Regenerate”, and the closing encore of “Degenerate” from Gnosis (2012) that proved its undeniable highlights, which just goes to show that heaviness and technicality needn’t be sacrificed in favour of accessibility.
Most bands would have struggled to live up to the gauntlet thrown down by Monuments, yet Germany’s The Ocean (not to be confused with Glass Ocean, who were finishing up next door) proved the best possible solution to the situation. Instead of trying to meet the British bouncers on their terms, they took things in the complete opposite direction – delivering a long, contemplative, drawn-out set that capped the night off perfectly, while firmly (re)establishing the collective as one of the leading acts in heavy progressive music. Yet, from a personal standpoint, the set was not without its flaws.
I [Josh] am going to have to plead the first person for this last one. Despite 2013’s Pelagial probably being my favourite album of the last decade – and an undeniable all-time classic – last-year’s follow-up, Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic,just didn’t connect with me the way it did for most people (I believe Karlo listed it as his album of the year as well). Any time I listened to it I would just find my attention slipping away, and I would struggle to recall anything about the experience once it was over. I therefore went into the night’s headline set hoping that the live setting might finally reveal whatever it is that everyone else saw in the record everyone else saw in it. The answer to whether it this is both yes and no.
Hearing the Palaeozoic material mixed in with cuts from Pelagial really brought to light how tonally different they are from one another. Pelagial is a much more progressive-leaning record, while Palaeozoic is more of a post-metal album than I think I realized from listening to it on record. The mid-set rendition of Heliocentric’s “Firmament” marked the one time the band strayed from either of their last two records. Otherwise, the Pelagial songs were noticeably more involved than their surrounds, and though the rest of the crowd seemed to be lapping up the Palaeozoic tracks, it was the earlier material that inspired the greatest response. “Hadopelagic II: Let Them Believe” coming off the back of Palaeozoic’s opening triad felt positively inspired, and it was the upbeat Mastodon-ian flurry that announced “Bathyalpelagic II: The Wish in Dreams” which delivered the set’s most outwardly exciting moment. Moreover, while all the songs were performed passionately, and the band certainly managed to create a heavy sense of atmosphere, they also seemed to lack the emotional and visual engagement of genre-heavyweights like Neurosis or Cult of Luna.
The Ocean performed perfectly. However, there was no between-song banter, save for a brief thank you during the encore. Seeing the songs performed one after the other with no acknowledgement or fanfare in-between left the performance feeling more like a procedure than a celebration. Hearing the individual tracks outside of the context of the record also revealed how anti-climactic they can often be, which isn’t to say they don’t go anywhere, but that they don’t resolve in a definitive endpoint so much as they set-up and merge into the next track on their record. The track sequencing garnered a sense of disordered as a result. What felt like an album performance, with sections seamlessly flowing from one to the next, would be interrupted by a brief foray into a back catalogue which is itself plagued by the same issue. Therefore, in the live setting, a lot of the songs seemed to end abruptly – although if you weren’t already a fan of the band, I imagine, you’d be hard-pressed to pick where one finished and the next began. Both Palaeozoic’s “Permian / The Great Dying” which closed out the main set and a striking encore of Pelagial’s “Benthic: The Origin of Our Wishes” delivered solid, eventual climaxes. Yet, the sheer length of the day, added with the late time-slot, meant that the room was noticeably less- occupied than it had been for Monuments and Skyharbor, and I suspect a more streamlined event might have encouraged audiences to stick around for the full experience. Then again, maybe it’s just me? They really were quite brilliant.
And that’s a wrap. This year’s event set an incredibly high bar, but we’ll keep an eye on how Progfest develops next year. (What’s the probability of them being able to book Hevy Devy?)
. . .
*Actually mostly about mid-way towards the back, near the sound desk.