I first became aware of the Prog Résiste festival from a Facebook post by Fabio Zuffanti. He’d just released La Quarta Vittima and his band would be playing at the event. Prog Résiste is a Belgian, pro-progressive rock organisation that produces a high quality quarterly French language magazine of 132 pages. It has had a web presence since 1999 and it has been holding conventions since 2001, featuring bands from all around Europe. After a successful trip to Dublin to see Steve Hackett last May, Jim Knipe and I had decided that some form of annual trip to see some progressive rock would be a good idea, and Prog Résiste fitted the bill.
We couldn’t find any hotels in Soignies where the festival was due to be held, so based ourselves in Mons, a 20 minute train journey away, and arrived the day before the programme was due to start. Soignies is only a small town but we arrived early on the Saturday to get our bearings. The venue, the Victor Jara Cultural Centre is a modern, dramatic building built of concrete and local blue limestone that rises from a new public square and is named after the Chilean theatre director, singer-songwriter and political activist who was tortured and murdered after the military coup in 1973.
The opening act was a free concert by a Liege band, Keep It Deep, played not in the square but on the balcony of the hall. With two guitars, bass and drums, I’m not sure they were really prog but they were tight, melodic and quite inventive and some of the guitar runs reminded me of early Yes. They’ve released one album, Hatching, and their performance was warmly appreciated by the gathering crowd.
The event began properly after the exchange of tickets for a pass out bracelet, and French RIO act Jack Dupon began proceedings in the auditorium. Another guitar, guitar, bass and drums line-up, they performed with an over-the-top energy and theatrical zeal, concocting something akin to Zappa at his zaniest, driven on by drummer Thomas Larsen. One negative point was a riff that recurred throughout their repertoire that detracted from their originality and evident ability. As far from mainstream as you can get, this was the sort of challenge I’d anticipated from bands on the near continent. The next band, Setna, also from France, were more restrained than their fellow countrymen though the material was equally complex, more melodic Canterbury jazz than Zeuhl with twin keyboards playing off each other and some emotive vocals from Yannick Duschene.
After each performance, interviews were held with the bands in an upstairs bar area so there was a break of two hours before the next performance, the one that had attracted me to the event in the first place: Fabio Zuffanti. Zuffanti is a stalwart of the current RPI scene and has many side lines such as La Maschera di Cera, Finisterre and Höstsonaten but this appearance was to promote his 2014 solo album La Quarta Vittima, an album he personally considers to be his finest work, the culmination of 20 years as a recording artist. His band included woodwind player Martin Grice, a Brit from the band Delirium who was given a featured spot playing Jethro Tull’s Bouree, woven into Finisterre’s In Liminae. Apart from drummer Paolo Tixi the ‘Z’ band weren’t featured on the album but their rendition was superb as they moved through the different sections and odd time signatures. There was hardly a disappointing note in the entire 80 minute set, which covered ground from symphonic RPI to jazz via electronica. The nod to Tull was a nice acknowledgement to the music that influenced the early progressivo Italiano bands. Zuffanti's performance can be seen in its entirety at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EvOOg3t_Cs
The last slot of the evening was The Flower Kings, a band associated with the new wave of progressive acts that first came to the fore in the 90s and responsible for the acceptance of the genre after years of dismissal as ‘pond scum’. I’d not listened to them before but I was pleased they appeared on the bill because they are raved about in symphonic prog circles. Maybe I should listen to their earlier studio efforts because I found the performance a little below expectation. The set began with a couple of tracks from Desolation Rose, their most recent album but, according to lead man Roine Stolt, their drummer had suggested that they should go back through their catalogue and that’s what they did. My lack of knowledge of the material may have detracted from the performance but it seemed to me too loud for the venue and some of the instrumentation became indistinct. It was quite heavy, rather than the symphonic music I was expecting. It wasn’t terrible; it was just a bit disappointing.
Day two started off with another free, al fresco gig, by psychedelic Belgian band Narcotic Daffodils. Vocalist Irene Csordas was evidently inspired by Björk but she reminded me of a young Marianne Faithful, delicate and waif-like. They produced some good grooves with solid bass riffs, overlaid with guitar splashes and Doors-like organ. Keyboard player Simon Rigot added to the psychedelic image by playing the sitar and he’d actually held a solo sitar session early in the afternoon of the first day.
The first performance in the auditorium was a German band, Carpet, who seemed to have absorbed all incarnations of King Crimson as their main influence though they also had a distinct Canterbury slant. They were consummate musicians and their music compelling and complex. My favourite track was Birds’ Nest, reminiscent of King Crimson’s Fracture and both Jim and I visited the merchandise stall following their show to buy their CD, Elysian Pleasures.
La Coscienza di Zeno was billed as a band in ‘the sourdough bread of Italian symphonic tradition.’ I’m not entirely sure what that means – it was a direct translation from the French – but it seemed to me that although they may have been influenced by some of the original Italian prog bands and their instrumentation was reminiscent of early symphonic RPI bands with the inclusion of flute and violin, their take was more akin to neo-prog. Their vocalist Alessio Calandriello had a strong, distinctive voice that reminded me of Fish but it was their one instrumental track that I thought was their best effort. I’d have enjoyed the performance more had I not expected something closer to PFM, Banco or one of the new wave of RPI bands such as La Maschera di Cera.
The next band, France’s Lazuli, could have been festival headliners judging from the crowd reaction. They were introduced as the ZZ Top of prog (because three of them sported epic beards) and the front line dressed like Saxons or extras from Game of Thrones. Featuring Claude Leonetti on the Léode, an instrument similar in appearance to a stringless Chapman stick that had been built specifically for him because he’d lost the use of his left arm following a motorcycle accident, the band played an uplifting set of music that borrowed from a variety of sources but the influence of Peter Gabriel shone through. Apart from their Gabriel world music influence, I was reminded of their fellow countrymen Minimum Vital though their instrumentation was relatively novel because apart from normal prog instruments and the Léode, they used French horn and marimba. During their second encore the whole group performed Solsbury Hill on the marimba, which was clever and very entertaining. They also performed a very short ‘bon anniversaire’ to celebrate drummer Vincent Barnavol’s birthday. They’re touring the UK in the autumn and it’s well worth catching them live.
The second reason for choosing this particular festival was the appearance of The Watch, an Italian band who play material that is heavily influenced by early King Crimson and especially early Genesis which was evident from their opening track, Damage Mode. Their grand introduction, by the two Belgian compères dressed as flowers, taught us how to clap in 9/8 time and though they were billed as ‘plays Genesis Foxtrot’, their set included self-penned material plus The Knife and an encore of Firth of Fifth. I’ve seen the real Genesis (post-Gabriel); I’ve seen Steve Hackett perform the songs and I’ve seen tribute act The Musical Box cover these songs. This performance was pretty good, with vocalist Simone Rossetti sounding eerily like a youthful Peter Gabriel, though he did have some difficulty with some of Gabriel’s lyrics from Supper’s Ready. I was intrigued to see bassist Stefano Castrucci play a double neck instrument, in the style of Mike Rutherford, that appeared to be two different models of guitar glued together. If I were to have one complaint, it would be that the guitar parts were slightly weaker than I’d have liked.
The whole convention was well organised and the atmosphere really friendly. The auditorium was a decent size and even if the lighting was somewhat restricted, the sound was good provided the amplification wasn’t turned up to max. The seating provided really good views of the bands on a stage area that was at floor level. There was a nice area for interviewing the bands upstairs but I only made use of this facility after the Fabio Zuffanti performance, where he was interviewed in English. All the acts had space made available for their merchandise and the stalls selling CDs, vinyl, books and DVDs covered the largest progressive rock-specific collection I’ve ever seen, from the common to the unheard of and everything in between and were staffed by very knowledgeable individuals who had a good understanding of English. The food and the beer were surprisingly cheap, paid for using green and yellow jetons equivalent to €2 and €3 respectively. The organisers had obviously planned volumes of food and drink well because they were only running out of beer and barbeque platters just before The Watch, the final act of the weekend, took to the stage.
It turned out to be a very enjoyable two days of music with a diverse range of bands. I can’t wait for the 2015 convention to be announced.