Having now made four trips to Holland and one to Atlanta in the USA, in order to see the
World’s best progressive power metal bands play under the ProgPower banner, what an absolute treat to be able to have the same musical menu available just 12 miles from my front door.
Cheltenham is probably best known for its Regency spas and horse racing. But anyone who thought Cheltenham was a strange setting for a metal festival, would have seen the sense in selecting The Centaur as the venue, as soon as they arrived. A newly-built hall holding up to 4,000 people, it was with a big 'Wow' that we entered the main hall. A massive stage, with a great sound and light system, plenty of standing at the front and seating at the back, with several of bars, tonnes of free parking, a huge metal market in a separate hall and plenty of space to mingle and chat. Jeez even the toilets were rather posh and the security people had a smile on their faces!! Maybe more than one burger van is needed to provide the catering though!
Based on the same principals as the Progpower Festivals in the US and Europe, the organisers had brought in an exciting line-up, which featured a mixture of Power and ProgMetal bands from around the world. There were a couple of established names and three bands who were making their first appearance before a UK audience. An enticing line-up indeed.
The night before, a sold-out crowd had crammed into a small club called The Hub in Cheltenham for the pre-show party. It featured three bands, playing short sets on a compact stage - but what a party everyone seemed to have. Good job we got there early, as headliners ORPHANED LAND actually decided to open the event. It was a good decision too, as their superb acoustic set wouldn't have been so effective at the end of the night when everyone had been warmed and wetted! A complete contrast to their intense performance the next day, it showed a band equally at ease with just voice and guitars, and allowed fans to hear some of their songs in a totally different light.
Festival co-promoter Sean Hetherington is also the Frontman for metal band INTENSE, but of all the days of the year to get a stinking cold, this was it. At one stage the band was considering having to pull out of the show, but instead they stripped their set down to four numbers. Not a band I've come across before, but the driving metal of ‘Anger Of The Ancients’; ‘Long Live The New Flesh’; ‘Our Last Hope’ and ‘War Of Angels’, suggests that their forthcoming album is worth looking out for.
POWER QUEST ensured the party ended with a bang, with a real in-yer-face show, that mixed together their melodic rock songs and heavier, more symphonic material to great effect. You could not fail to be impressed with the energy coming from the stage, with the whole band working to put in a real crowd-pleasing performance. Very enjoyable.
The arrival of the Greek power metallers, saw the first of many firsts at this first Progpower Festival. The band had actually arrived in Cheltenham just before midnight and went straight to a rehearsal studio for a two-hour workout, as this was the debut performance with new singer Apollo Papathanasio. And a pretty impressive job he did too. If it hadn't have said so in the programme, you'd never have guessed from the way he commanded the crowd and led the band through a thoroughly enjoyable 45-minute set. A classic rock singer, he certainly has the voice for the Firewind sound.
Predictably enough, we had a greatest hits collection featuring just the title track from the debut album, a lot of stuff from 'Burning Earth' and a couple of new songs which fitted in perfectly. Multi-banded guitarist Gus G threw all the right shapes and sounds and even the drum solo was bearable. 'Tyranny' was the highlight for me, and seemingly for most of the front few rows, who were singing along word-perfectly. Only their second show in the UK, when they left the stage with big smiles on their faces, I guess they felt it went even better than expected.
Another first, as this was the debut UK show from established, Italian ProgPower band Secret Sphere. And like Firewind, they pulled out all the stops to put on a better-than-expected show. Again, for a band with next-to-no profile over here, it was impressive, how many people in the crowd knew the songs.
It may have been because it's the only Secret Sphere album that I've heard, but the more up-tempo and direct songs from their latest effort 'Heart and Anger' seemed to have a much better impact than the material aired from their first three albums. Whilst a little too static on stage, musically they were incredibly tight. Vocalist Ramon Messina really hit some amazing high notes - and spot on every time. Indeed he even managed the rare feat of sounding much better live, than on record. The band was supported on stage by a rather gorgeous backing singer, Gabriella Martinelli, who, with the heavy use of keyboards, added a great depth to the sound.
The songs were not as strong as Firewind's but it was a very passionate performance, which clearly won over plenty of new fans. Afterwards, guitarist Aldo Lonobile was overwhelmed. 'Really, I couldn’t have imagined such a good response from the crowd,' he said.
Apparently, if you should ever suffer from a broken bouzouki in front of a 1,000-strong crowd, all you need is a shoelace, a small hook and a very clever guitarist called Yossi Sa’aron. Along with jet lag, the cold British weather and a journey from Heathrow that involved a minibus and a car park pillar, the bouzouki incident was just one of the hurdles facing this
Israeli progressive death metal band, as they hit their stage for they first ever appearance before a UK crowd. Swept into public acclaim last year, on the back of their astonishing 'Mabool' album, it was clear from the packed crowd and the steady sale of Orphaned Land merchandise, that this was the band that many had come to see.
They were certainly the one band on the line-up that really presented something different and unique, and their placing on the bill broke up the day nicely. Mixing Power, Death and Prog Metal, with traditional, Oriental melodies, they definitely came away with their reputations enhanced. Without a keyboard player, they were working to a click track which seemed to take away some of the edge and spontaneity to their show. As a result it wasn't as enjoyable as their stunning appearance at Progpower Europe in October. But hey, when you can get around half the hall to bounce up and down like yo-yos to 'Halo Dies', then you must be doing something right. A follow-up UK tour can not be far away.
'We had a few heart-stopping moments at about 10am when we had a coach driver on the ‘phone from Heathrow to say the band weren’t there,' explained a festival spokesman. 'Luckily, within a few minutes – that seemed like hours – we had a call from drummer Dan Zimmermann saying that they were at Heathrow, and where the bloody hell was the coach! Rock ‘n’ roll, eh?' I must admit, a non-appearance wouldn't have bothered me too much. I'm not a great fan of cheesy metal. So forgive me for turning my nose up at a band that can out-cheese Helloween! In relation to heavy metal, the words 'Happy' and 'Power' - just don't go together for me at all. Of course it's all down to personal taste, but with 10 bands to review in 24 hours, after the smiley dweeb metal of 'Warriors' (great title!), it was the ideal time to take a break. However, I left a hall pretty full of happy, smiling faces (both on stage and off!), so there must be a lot of cheese lovers in Cheltenham.
If anyone doubted the need, or the demand, in the UK for a festival like Progpower, then Norway's Pagans Mind provided all the evidence required. It's been three years since the release of their acclaimed 'Celestial Entrance' album. Without the invite to play here today, a band of the quality of Pagans Mind would still never have even set foot in the UK. That is a good enough reason on its own. Add to that, the fact that a) an awful lot of people were proudly wearing Pagan's Mind t-shirts, b) an awful lot of people sang every word to every song (not an easy thing to do even with the lyric sheet!) and c) an awful lot of the band's CDs were sold after the show, then there is clearly a demand for this sort of music over here.
Mixing elements of Crimson Glory, Queensryche and Dream Theater and Savatage, Pagans Mind delivered a masterclass in tight, riff-based progressive metal in a faultless set that just sped by. Whilst Nils K Rue is the enigmatic centrepiece of the band, with his amazing vocal power and command of the crowd, it was again guitarist Jørn Viggo Lofstad who grabbed the attention. Jeez, is this an amazing guitarist. His fluid playing looks so effortless but has a spellbinding effect on the songs. The interaction with keyboardist Ronny Tegner provided the musical highlight of the day for me.
Apparently, the short UK club tour which followed this appearance, was equally successful. Let's hope we don't have to wait too long for them to return. A band with huge potential, that really delivered.
Around five years ago, I travelled all the way to Rotherham, to watch this band play one of their first-ever UK gigs in support of their 'Hypothetical' album. They were actually the support band and there couldn't have been more than 20 people there who were particularly interested. How times have changed. Today the hall was packed with people who knew all the words, to all the songs and thus cemented the band's reputation as one of Europe's leading progressive metal bands.
Not having played live for around 18 months, the band freely admitted to being a bit nervous before the show and I was rather expecting it to be a little disjointed. But these are true professionals and they laid on a superb and extremely well-paced set, that had the crowd eating out of their hands with gay abandon.
It was a slightly workman-like performance, with no frills - apart from those around the base of Mac's kilt! But in a way, Threshold is a band where it's best to simply let the music do the talking. I couldn't pick out a favourite, as I really did totally enjoy every song, from a band that, in my humble opinion, is currently at the top of their game.
Although they do need to take a bit more care of themselves. Keyboardist Richard West's attempt to leave a finger behind at the venue, earned him a trip to the A&E department at Cheltenham Hospital. Ouch!!
After all the day's firsts, it was time to end with a last. After 105 shows across the globe, this was the final performance of the long tour in support of the bands ‘Lemura’/’Sirius B’ epic. And Therion ensured that it ended on a triumphant note, with a show that really was a breathtaking spectacle.
I've never really got into Therion's music, so had a pretty low expectation of the 90 minutes they were scheduled to play. But with the four-piece band complimented by guest singer Mats Levin, a soprano and a four-piece choir, all set across the huge stage with full light show, this was something truly unique, that grabbed my attention from beginning to end. I've never quite seen anything like it.
The 14-song set was as much a visual spectacle as a musical one. And as if the musicians weren't enough, Therion was joined by two belly dancers for the occasion, who reappeared with Egyptian-style wings for 'The Seven Secrets Of The Sphinx'. Despite the complexity of the music, the band was faultless. You just had to admire the passion that went into this show, from everyone on stage - a constant, interchanging arrangement of musicians, shifting with the rhythms and urging the crowd to join them in their musical journey.
Towards the end of the set, band ringleader Christofer Johnsson confirmed that tonight would be his final night providing death vocals as part of the live show - part due to advancing years and part due to too many other songs to fit in! As a sign-off, he powered through 'Riders Of Theli'. Unsurprisingly 'To Mega Therion' ensured that the first edition of ProgPower UK closed on a high, but not before a full band introduction and bows brought the curtain down, with an ovation fitting of a West End Show.
During the day, I met up with people from all over the UK and Europe - even a couple from the USA and Australia! The main stage ran to schedule, and the conclusion from everyone I managed to speak to, was that it had been a fantastic value day out. The figure of 1,000 or so attendees was apparently more than organisers had expected, and although making a loss, the overwhelming success of the event should ensure that we can reconvene in Cheltenham next March for ProgpowerUK 2.
Steal Them Blind
I Am The Anger
Beware The Beast
Fire And The Fury
Between Heaven And Hell
Where The Sea Ends
Loud & Raw
Dance With The Devil
Age Of Wizard
Leonardo Da Vinci
Lady Of Silence
El Meod Naala
Kiss Of Babylon
Call To Awake
Birth Of The Three
Thee By The Father I Pray
Norra El Norra
Ornaments Of Gold
We Are One
Land Of Light
Entrance To Infinity – Instrumental
New World Order
Long Way Home
The Latent Gene
Light And Space
Rise Of Sodom And Gomorrah
The Blood Of Kingu
Invocation Of Naamah
Seven Secrets Of The Sphinx
Riders Of Theli
The Siren Of The Woods
Wine Of Aluqah
Cults Of The Shadow
To Mega Therion