September 7, 2016
Atlanta, GA USA
Review by Andy Laudano
Photos by Andy Laudano
Progpower USA Festival
One Big Heavy Metal Party
On September 7-16, America's premier metal festival, promoter Glenn Harveston's ProgPower USA returned to the historic Center Stage Theater in Atlanta, Georgia for it's seventeenth edition. Some big changes were made this year as the usual Wednesday and Thursday pre-parties were officially made into day one and day two of the festival. That meant a bit of an upgrade in bands and all four days would be held in Center Stage for the first time as Wednesday's Mid Week Mayhem was traditionally held in The Loft, a smaller upstairs venue connected to Center Stage. Tickets for day one and two were sold together and so were days three and four. Days three and four of the festival sold out almost immediately after tickets went on sale thanks to the one of a kind headline performance of prog metal legends, Fate's Warning's original lineup playing their masterpiece, Awaken The Guardian in it's entirety. Days one and two would also eventually sell out as well.
For those unfamiliar with the fest, ProgPower USA features mostly progressive and power metal bands from around the world, many of whom have never played in the U.S. before. Just to keep things fresh, there's usually an oddball or two that are neither power or prog. Bands will perform special sets, whole albums and even an extra acoustic performance in addition to the fest. There is a very fan friendly atmosphere as all the bands usually do autograph signings and many will hang out with fans at the bar and/or the huge aftershow parties in the Artmore Hotel courtyard. Patrons receive a free swag bag when entering containing a program and a CD sampler. The adjoining bar, The Vinyl is filled with metal music dealers and labels where you can find all kinds of CDs, t-shirts and merchandise.
Day one of the fest kicked off with the American debut of Australian power metal legends, Lord. It's hard to believe a band with such rich history and deep catalog had never played in the U.S. before. Lord have been around for 16 years, 26 if you count the band's previous incarnation that most of the members were in called Dungeon. With only an hour to play and so much material to choose from, obviously some favorites were omitted from the setlist, but the band did their best to squeeze in as many as possible including "Set In Stone" and "Footsteps In The Sand." Their high energy, crowd pleasing performance came to an end with a rousing cover of Metallica's "Creeping Death." Lord definitely left the crowd wanting more. Lets hope it doesn't take another 16 years to return!
Unfortunately for fans of the next band, Stream of Passion, there will be no return appearance as this is the band's farewell tour. Originally a project of Dutch composer/multi instrumentalist/musical genius, Arjen Anthony Lucassen and Mexican vocalist/violinist Marcela Bovio, the band continued on under Bovio's lead for another three albums after Lucassen and others left. This would be their first and last U.S. appearance. Determined to go out with a bang, the band put on a great set that included favorites "Out In The Real World" and "In The End." An accidental highlight came when some technical issues with the guitars led to Bovio doing a song with only the keyboard backing her. As good as they sound on CD, Stream of Passion sounded even better and much heavier live. Marcela's beautiful voice also sounded even better live. Hopefully there is a reunion at some point in the future for this amazing band.
Los Angeles based prog rock masters, Spock's Beard are another band that has been around forever but never played at ProgPower until now. The talent level in this band is off the charts. Each musician is truly a virtuoso. It also doesn't hurt to have a friend of the festival, Enchant's Ted Leonard on vocals. They were easily one of the most progressive and mellowest bands on the roster this year and a nice change of pace.
One of the biggest names in power metal, DragonForce closed out the first day of the fest with a special "greatest hits" set. This is by far one of the most fun bands you will ever see live. The band plays at ridiculously fast speeds, soloing and shredding nonstop, all while running around the stage and jumping off risers! Watching guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman try to one up each other while playing is also immensely entertaining, Highlights included "Valley Of The Damned," "Cry Thunder" and the song that drove you insane trying to beat on Guitar Hero, "Through The Fire And The Flames."
For some, day two started a little bit early as Evergrey's Tom S. Englund and Henrik Danhage held a CD release/listening party in The Vinyl for their new album, The Storm Within. Evergrey have played the festival on multiple previous occasions and are considered family to most long time attendees.
Day two officially got started with ex Nevermore drummer Van Williams new band Ghost Ship Octavious. This is a very cool band that added something different to the fest this year as they all came out in facepaint, dressed like 18th century ghosts. The music is epic in scope and takes you to another time and place. As the band played, "snow" fell from the ceiling for added effect.
Another one of a kind, only at ProgPower set would follow when Danish progressive power metal band Pyramaze played a special set that would include former singers Lance King and Matt Barlow. The first half of the set would feature current vocalist, Terje Haroy. Next, original Iced Earth/Ashes of Aries vocalist Matt Barlow took the stage. This was a historic night as even though Barlow made an album with Pyramaze, he never had the chance to play with them live before. Former Balance of Power frontman Lance King came out next for a few songs before doing a grand finale with all three singers joining on "Deciples Of The Sun."
Crowd favorites, Norway's Circus Maximus returned to ProgPower next. This band also has a long history with the fest and like Evergrey are thought of as family. The band combines virtuoso musicianship with the powerful, crystal clear vocals of Michael Erikson. Their sound is truly a hybrid of both power and prog and appeals equally to fans of both genres. Highlights included "Sin," "I Am" and "Game Of Life."
German power metal icons, the mighty Blind Guardian made their triumphant return to ProgPower next. Blind Guardian made their American debut 14 years ago at the legendary ProgPower III. Making the occasion even more special, the band would be playing their classic Imaginations From The Other Side album in it's entirety. Frontman Hanzi Kursch has a stage presence like no other. He had the entire crowd clapping and loudly singing along with each chorus. Weather he was belting out a heavy song or softly singing an acoustic ballad, Hanzi sounded incredible. Highlights included "Time Stands Still (At The Iron Hill)," "Nightfall," "Bright Eyes," "Valhalla" and "The Bard's Song." This was easily one of the best sets of the fest.
Opening day three was Canada's Ascendia. They played a nice set of originals from their debut album and also included a fun cover of Dio's "Holy Diver."
Another Aussie band, Vanishing Point finally made their U.S. debut. It was obvious to everyone watching just how much this show meant to them. Guitarist Chris Porcianko was the happiest man in Atlanta. He couldn't erase that smile from his face if he tried. Seeing the band play with such real emotion only made the crowd cheer for them even louder as the artists and the audience shared something truly special. Vocalist Silvio Massaro sounded amazing as he belted out each song. Highlights included "When Truth Lies," "Distant Is The Sun" and "Two Minds, One Soul."
The kings of "happy German power metal" known as Freedom Call also made their U.S. debut next. This band is so much fun to watch and sing along with. Call them cheesy if you want, but singer Chris Bay owns it like a badge of honor and makes no apology for bringing the happy metal party. Highlights included "Union Of The Strong," "Freedom Call," "Power & Glory," "Warriors" and "Land Of The Light."
The biggest surprise of the night was The Gentle Storm from The Netherlands featuring former The Gathering vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. This was another project originally masterminded by Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Anyone who was expecting a nice mellow performance was quickly put on notice that this set would be anything but as The Gentle Storm sounded much heavier live. Anneke is an amazing frontwoman who held the crowd in the palm of her hand. Between her beautiful voice and bubbly personality you couldn't help but get caught up in her music as she danced her way into your heart. And if The Gentle Storm songs and a couple of The Gathering covers weren't enough, Anneke blew the roof off the place when Stream of Passion's Marcela Bovio (who had been singing back up) joined her for covers of Ayreon's "Valley Of The Queens" and "Isis and Osiris." This was easily one of the best performances of the entire fest.
Sweden's Scar Symmetry provided one of the heaviest sets of the fest. The band mixes clean vocals and death metal style growls with some great musicianship.
Next came the moment everyone had been waiting for when the Awaken The Guardian lineup of Fate's Warning showed everyone they still got it. John Arch still somehow hit all those impossibly high notes to the crowd's delight. The band sounded fantastic and everyone listening were taken back though time to 1986 when the album was released. After finishing the album, the band played another four songs from the early lineup to send the crowd home (or at least back to their hotel rooms) happy.
Day four came very early for some attendees of the fest. Every year at ProgPower there is a special exclusive performance for the festival's gold badge holders and VIPs. This year they got an intimate acoustic show featuring Anneke van Giersbergen. After her unbelievable performance the night before with The Gentle Storm, it was a given that the show, held upstairs in The Loft would be packed. Once again, Anneke gave the crowd something they weren't expecting. Sure there were a couple of solo and The Gathering songs but the rest of the set was filled with amazing covers including Fleetwood Mac's "Songbird," Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire," Mister Mister's "Broken Wings," Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" and Queen's "Who Wants To Live Forever." In what was both a fun and surreal moment, Anneke ended the show by getting an entire room full of prog nerds and power metalheads to sing Dolly Parton's "Jolene!"
England's Savage Messiah kicked the final day into high gear with a great set. The band has a ton of energy and sound like a power metal band crossed with an old school thrash band. Highlights included "Inconocaust," "Hellblazer" and "Zero Hour."
Next it was time for another ProgPower family member to take the stage when vocalist Urban Breed brought his all star project, Serious Black to the U.S. for the first time. Tales are still told of Urban's legendary performance with Tad Morose at ProgPower USA V. Since then Urban has married and moved to Atlanta where he attends the fest on a regular basis. Having a home field advantage like no other band has ever had, Urban was out to put on a show for family and friends that would leave people talking again and that is exactly what he did. Together with bandmates guitarists Bob Katsionis (Firewind) and Dominik Sebastian (Edenbridge), drummer Alex Holzwarth (Rhapsody), bassist Mario Lochert (Visions of Atlantis), and keyboardist Jan Vacik (Dreamscape), Serious Black put on one of the best sets of the fest. Urban is one of the best frontmen in the business and he sounded fantastic. The band was tight and full of energy. Unlike some all star collaborations, this band has great chemistry together and really feels more like a band than a project. Highlights included "Trail Of Murder," "Older And Wiser," "As Long As I'm Alive" and "High And Low."
In what was another special one of a kind performance Norway's Green Carnation played their entire Light of Day, Day of Darkness album. The album is comprised of the one hour long song of the same name that is thought of as the band's signature epic.
The classic lineup of Rage, now known as Refuge went on next. As Rage, founder/vocalist/bassist Peavy Wagner, guitarist Manni Schmidt (Grave Digger) and drummer Chris Efthimiadis made four great albums together in the late 80's, early 90's that served as a blueprint for thrashy German power metal. Peavy would continue Rage with different lineups through the years but in 2015 he got back together with Manni and Chris to play festivals as Refuge. This was a fun set that included "Enough Is Enough," "Nevermore," "Don't Fear The Winter" and the song that gives them their current name, "Refuge."
England's Haken provided the most progressive set of the fest. This was the band that definitely put the "prog" in ProgPower.
Closing the festival this year was Canadian musical genius Devin Townsend. Joining him onstage for the first time ever in the U.S. was longtime album conspirator and frequent live guest in Europe, Anneke van Giersbergen. Only a madman like Devin could get away with opening his set at a progressive and power metal festival with a cover of Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69," and that's just what he did ... again. This was an incredibly fun show as you never know just what Devin is going to say (neither does he) but you know it will be hilarious. Adding Anneke to the mix for her third appearance at the festival made it even better as they have great chemistry together. The entire set felt like one big heavy metal party and was the perfect way to close out another installment of ProgPower USA.