ROUND TABLE REVIEW
Tracklist - Contributing Artists: Cabezas De Cera, Cheer-Accident, Deluge Grander, D.F.A., Gentle Giant, Karmakanic, La Maschera Di Cera, Oblivion Sun, Paul Sears, Phideaux, Qui, Rob Martino and Roine Stolt
Jon Bradshaw's Review
Romantic Warriors is a documentary film by Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder that concerns itself with the progressive music scene as an underground phenomenon in general and the tradition of progressive music and its audiences in Eastern USA in particular. To this end, the film focuses on the major prog festivals that happen each year at NEARfest, RoSFest, and ProgDay. It also devotes a considerable portion of its length to the Orion Sound Studios in Baltimore and its owner, Mike Potter.
Comprising of interviews with artists, fans, and festival organisers interspersed with live footage of the bands who played the above festivals in 2009 and those bands who have appeared at Orion Sound’s Showcase Space, Romantic Warriors is a showcase in itself for the bands selected to appear in the final cut of this film and to this end, comes across very like a sophisticated marketing device. Consequently, my first impressions were characterised by distaste, as this film seemed to be little more than a promotional tool, albeit a very well made and interesting promotional tool. However, I’ve now watched it 5 times and it sustains those repeated viewings reasonably well (although I think I’ve sucked it dry now) as other things float to the surface. The cream of this film is in the serious questions it raises about the nature of prog as a genre and its future.
Mike Potter is intimately involved with the development of the prog festival scene in the region, and has been since the inception of the above named festivals. He represents the uncompromising motivation to promote the best of new progressive music to as wide an audience as possible. One point that he and Steven Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records both make, is of the difficulty of doing this for any financial reward and yet, they persist. Feigenbaum declares that he is happy if 2000 copies of an album are sold into the global market. To sell 5000 is rare, he says, and to sell 10,000 is exceedingly rare having only happened about 10 times in its 26 year history. What this exemplifies is the specialist, independent and unfashionable nature of the music which the film is at pains to support and promote. When viewed through this lens, its promotional nature takes on a much more palatable aspect. Indeed, it starts to become missionary but without ever becoming preachy or overbearing in this aim. There is no commentary to colour the viewer’s opinion; we don’t hear the questions that the interviewees are responding to and the film is very candid in this regard; if the emperor has no clothes, then we can see it for ourselves. Thankfully perhaps, nobody gets naked, and many of the artists who are interviewed echo the above sentiments from their own perspective. Phideaux Xavier discusses the need to find an audience themselves and Fabio Zuffanti of La Maschera Di Cera talks candidly about the difficulty of promoting records and finding places to play. What becomes clear is the both the singular individuality of the musicians and their driven determination to be free of restriction from record labels. I love this independent thinking and it’s a theme that the documentary returns to many times.
Using simple animation and a voiceover, the film offers a brief potted history of progressive rock, from its earliest beginnings to the present day, from a global perspective. Watching the names of bands pop up on a world map as the years tick forward decade by decade is a simple and fun way to identify the genre on a macro level and I must confess to using the pause button to examine their names more clearly and tick off those bands that I know in a typically male fashion. This potted history leads into an explanation of how the geographical coincidence of prog bands of the ‘70s coming to Boston, New York, Washington and Pittsburgh established a fan base in the region that persists to this day, subsequently allowing the growth of the festivals that pepper the east coast each year There’s also an interesting little interview with Rob Martino who is a sound engineer and Chapman Stick player in which he talks about audio signal processing and the integration of computer technology into modern music production in a very informative way. Together these snippets serve to build a bridge between ‘then and now’ and the film attempts to concern itself resolutely with the now. In a similar vein there are interviews with Roine Stolt, Dan Britton (Deluge Grander), and Thymme Jones (Cheer Accident) in which they talk about their development as musicians with Roine providing one of the best quotes in the film when he talks of his surprise at “Seeing people get up and dance to our funny little songs.” Gary Green (Gentle Giant) gives a brief interview in which he shares his thoughts about what makes progressive music but I’m going to give Debbie Sears of Prog Rock Diner Radio (it’s a radio station, duh) the defining quote when she says:
“Progressive music is different things to different people, but to what it is, is music that defies the boundaries of commercial music. People who try different things. Experimenting with music.”
So now you know what to say if anyone asks.
The best thing about this documentary, as if it needed saying, is the footage of bands playing live. We get to see Karmakanic playing Send A Message From The Heart at Orion Sound. D.F.A. performing Baltosaurus from their album 4th. Deluge Grander and La Maschera Di Cera at Story Brook Farm, Chapel Hill during the 2 day long ProgDay festival. Other performances from Orion Studios include Oblivion Sun performing Fanfare with Stan Whitaker and Frank Wyatt providing a brief interview. Some very enticing footage of Cheer-Accident sounding awesome and eccentric, and a brilliant sounding band I have never come across called Cabezas De Cera from Mexico. We get some extended footage of their track Fractal Sonico and some great interviews with the band who describe how their music is a reflection and consequence of the “vertigo of urban living in Mexico City”, one of the world’s most populous megalopoli. It’s a case in point that I had never heard of this Mexican band, or Cheer-Accident, or D.F.A. before watching this film and I have subsequently purchased Fear Draws Misfortune and 4th on the strength of their performances. I’ll be checking out Cabezas De Cera as soon as I can too! My major gripe with these live performances is that they are all too short. This film would have had much greater ‘repeatability’ by including all of the live footage ‘in full’, perhaps as Bonus Material.
The overriding thing from all of this, and I haven’t mentioned them yet, are the fans. Again, I would have loved to see a great deal more interviews with the fans featured in the film. Two things strike me. Firstly, the size of the audiences is small. No more than 100 - 200 people I would guess, often fewer. They are deeply attentive, listening carefully, nodding gently and appreciatively in time to the music. Secondly, they are, like me, middle-aged or older. This is a worry. Where are all of the young people? One guy has brought his son to follow in his father’s footsteps at RosFest. There’s an interview with four young guys from Raleigh who stoically celebrate their difference from their peer group and declare that they really don’t care what other people think. Nevertheless, it would seem they ended up at ProgDay by chance rather than planning but were thoroughly enjoying themselves and the music, even so. Another young woman seemed to be at ProgDay because her folks go every year, though she did say that she enjoyed it and looked forward to this annual trip. Is that it? Only 6? Were there really only six young people? I presume not, but the ratio is alarming. The future of prog as a genre cannot be sustained by an ageing population of fans and I think, at its heart, this is what Romantic Warriors is about. Whilst I suspect the perspective may be particular to the USA, I do think it’s a discussion worth having and I applaud the filmmakers for raising the banner. With that in mind, I’ll leave the last word to Mike Potter who says this:
“There are thousands of really good progressive bands out there. If people would just give them a chance and listen to ‘em, or just go to their MySpace page and download a song or two. Go out to the clubs, see these bands and support ‘em. There’s a huge undercurrent of great music going on today. There’s never been a better time for music than right now. The torch should passed to these younger bands.”
John O'Boyle's Review
I’d like to start this review with a quote from the movie, which for me really sums up the whole ethos of what Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder have tried to create here with this documentary.
“We came here to open our hearts and offer our audience the most intimate, the most basic element of our lives, that is our music, and I think that the people received the music this way, and they too opened their hearts and in this sense, it was a shared experience”.
Cabezas De Cera 2009
Romantic Warriors A Progressive Music Saga is a documentary, a movie and a crafted piece of marketing media? The documentary will have fans of this genre glued, but left feeling slightly cold in places. The documentary offers up a very humble and understanding, if not naive view of what progressive rock is all about? Intelligently Adele and co. have steered away from the big bands such as Yes, Genesis, ELP focussing on the so called underground element of the music, where for most people, the heart of progressive rock lies. The growth of progressive rock is mapped out from its inception, through the different phases, explaining very briefly how the music grew in different geographical locations. This would have been a great opportunity to discuss and explore in more depth, the differing sub genres, as opposed to skirting around the periphery.
Gentle Giant is the only real major act participating as such, which may sound odd, but when you think of the commonality of Gentle Giant, their music legacy compared to the bands featured, their ethos’ are pretty similar in approach; being all about the music and not being controlled by the record companies.
A balanced prospective from both fans, bands, promoters and record labels, who for me really sums up the genre worldwide, succinctly. We are also offered perspectives of individuals of differing generations, which interestingly offer the same answer, as to why progressive rock is regarded the way it is, which is a recurring theme through-out the movie. The answer is simple; it’s all about the love of the music, nothing more nothing less. Which I don’t believe in my experience, is something that you would hear in different genres of music. Unfortunately the documentary does come across at times as a marketing exercise as opposed to an in depth prog piece, but if it promotes prog, then it can’t all be bad.
Interestingly Steve Feigenbaum – Cuneiform Records states that, “the sale of 2000 albums he is happy, 3000 is quite good, 5000 is quite rare and 10,000 exceedingly rare, having only achieved this, less than ten times”. As opposed to Hiroshi Masuda – Poseidon Record who states, “We have 4 specialist progressive rock stores and 1 progressive rock venue in Tokyo alone”. Offering an interesting comparison on how the genre is perceived in two differing cultures and nations.
This documentary is a very good starting point for the un-initiated, allowing them to dip their toe into the water to find out what all the fuss is about, why people are so passionate about progressive rock?
For those more familiar, this is a documentary that explains progressive rock from an American perspective, not really offering anything new. Where the documentary falls down though for me, is questioning in more depth target comments, i.e. the geographical location of the festivals is covered well, it is commented that there is a potential target market of 150 million people, who live in and around the east coast; the opportunity to pursue this in more depth has been missed as the numbers don’t equate? A perspective on this would have been interesting, adding an extra dimension to the documentary, something that the documentary sadly does miss.
The use of live footage works well interspersed with interviews from band members, who speak candidly offering varying opinions, how they construct their music and what it all means to them. It will certainly have you investigating new bands that you don’t already know which can only be a good thing.
This homage to progressive rock is worth seeing, although twee in places, I am not too sure as to whether you would watch it again. I would imagine though that it will end up on some end of year top ten lists.
There are good points that I could carry on talking about, but I won’t, as you need to discover these for yourself. This documentary proves that there is good music out there; all you have to do is dig for it.
Since I started the review with a quote from Cabezas De Cera, and I would like to close the review with another from the same band, which to be honest says it all: “Sharing music is sharing life”.
Dave Baird's Review
Romantic Warriors is a documentary by Adele Schmidt & José Zegarra Holder centred around the US East-Coast prog scene. It showcases quite a few relatively unknown bands (to me at any rate) who get some playing footage and some lengthy interviews where they enthuse (and complain) about various subjects: their history, influences, their music and why people probably don't like it much etc. In and amongst are some more well known characters and bands - at least from a European perspective - with Roine Stolt (talking about pretty much everything), Phideaux Xavier (coming across as a really cool and OK guy) and Gary Green (talking mostly about Gentle Giant). Strangely, Gentle Giant are the only real historical reference in the whole film (along with an excellent, but somewhat inaccurate at times, "prog World map") and there's quite some archive footage included. Although any film of Gentle Giant is a wondrous sight (and sound) this is totally out of kilter with the rest of the film.
All of the band footage in the film and the bulk of the interviews appears to be captured at three locations - ProgDay ("the world's longest running progressive rock festival"),
Orion Studios and NEARfest, I've heard of these three, but didn't know much about them so I learned a lot. ProgDay is quite small-scale and is seen as a sort of testing-ground for new bands. Its relaxed, family atmosphere was superbly captured and it looks like a marvellous way to spend a sunny weekend. Deluge Grandeur fronted by Dan Britton were the main band featured here and I must say I liked them a lot. Dan's quite a character with some great opinions and a very handy keyboardist with it. They play music that sounded like a cross between up-tempo VDGG and Spock's Beard, I shall be looking for their CD's to checkout. Would have been nice if they'd fixed Dan's hair before filming because he looks like a bit weird… Italians, La Maschera Di Cera, get some screen-time too and they're sounding quite like early Marillion, albeit a bit more mellow and symphonic, another band I'm keen to hear more of.
NEARfest is a much bigger affair altogether with the organisers needing bums-on-seats to recoup their costs, so they tend to focus on more well-known bands and D.F.A. are the main feature here. I must say that what they show is a bit dull and nondescript, almost elevator music, I'm sure I've heard them on the past and they were far more dynamic. To be fair the band do say that it takes them years to write a song and you have to hear it 20 times to even have a clue what's going on. Their interviews are great though, they've got quite a sense of humour, mostly pointed at themselves and it's interesting stuff.
Orion Studios - most of us prog-heads must have one or more CD's "recorded at Orion Studios", it's famous, but I had no idea why and what it was about until now. Basically it's a huge rehearsal facility with a small stage and seating area. There's an interesting view of the "poster wall" where many bands leave a memento (it seems that Ars Nova played at the very first recorded concert which I would have loved to see, not least because I find Keiko Kumagai rather attractive…). The owner, Mike Potter, has a good business model going here which is that he provides the venue for free and gives the band 100% of the ticket revenue for the generally small but very attentive and appreciative audience. In return he gets to record the show and the rights to publish. It's a win-win situation that others could learn from.
All Roine's interviews seem to originate from Orion along with footage of Karmakanic - Lalle Larson doing a classical shred and before, and during the credits we're treated to "Message From The Heart". There are two other bands featured from Orion, firstly the trio Cabezas De Cera from Mexico who play a tremendous range of styles from traditional to electronica, and much of it on home-made string instruments. These guys also feature in the NEARfest section and seem to be a favourite of the director, a little too much in my opinion as some of their stuff is a little too experimental and bordering on weird. Not half as weird though as Cheer-Accident who also feature heavily. These guys cannot be pigeonholed at all ranging from something resembling prog metal all the way to avant-garde trumpet noises - not my cup of tea at all I'm afraid.
Other bands appearing are Oblivion Sun with their gentle, symphonic, Canterbury-esque sound and Japanese band Qui - I must say I love their guitarist's tone. There's some footage of Phideaux, oddly from France that sounds really superb. He's one guy that could have got more exposure here as he's very engaging with a lot to say, some of it quite inspiring. There's a guy called Rob Martino playing and talking about Chapman Stick as well as the possibilities with contemporary computer recording. And finally there's quite some talk from Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records - one of the big distributors and labels in that East-Coast area.
This is a pretty well made and put together film, plus unlike other prog documentaries we aren't lumbered with hordes of "celebrities" saying how much they loved such-and-such a band since they were a kid, it's real-life and meaningful stuff. As a prog-head I found it interesting and informative, plus I picked up on a couple of new bands that I'll seek out further. For non progressive fans it can still be interesting to learn about this sub-culture they're perhaps unaware of - my wife would enjoy to watch it I'm sure, and perhaps anyone culturally minded, but for many outside our genre it would probably be that bit too heavy in places (especially those Cheer-Accident tracks…). Musically it's really focussed on more of a traditional prog style: acoustic, folky, symphonic, jazzy etc and of limited interest to those into the metal end of the prog genre.
Very interesting and well made, but for a limited hard-core audience really.
JON BRADSHAW : 7 out of 10
JOHN O'BOYLE : 6.5 out of 10
DAVE BAIRD : 7 out of 10