Yesterday's cutting edge music... today!

Monday June 26, 2006

I went to Nearfest this weekend; it's an annual prog-rock festival held in Bethlehem, PA (the town that actually inspired the Billy Joel song, "Allentown"). I don't normally consider myself a great fan of prog-rock. I own a few Yes albums, a few old Genesis albums, an ELP album, etc. There's a reason why I don't own more. Anyway, I went mainly to hang out with my friends Jeff and Hunter, whom I rarely see, but as it happened, I unknowingly bought Hunter's ticket after he had to bail on the festival. So, I was there to see Jeff (and also Ken at Laser's Edge, although I see Ken somewhat regularly.) The problem with this plan is that Jeff was working at Ken's vendor table, which meant that all the people I was there to socialize with were on-duty most of the weekend. Which left me to wandering about amid a very old crowd of crusty prog-heads for most of whom music more or less peaked in 1975 or something like that. It's a funny scene, because they all sort of pride themselves on their open minds and sophisticated musical tastes, but I would bet most of them don't listen to anything which could remotely be called "progressive" today. But that's neither here nor there; far be it for me to (unduly) ridicule anyone's musical scene. I'll be the first to admit that the metal scene can be just a silly and naval-gazing as this scene, and when you consider prog-metal, a marginal splinter-genre that rarely manages to rise to the progressive level of the decades-old rock that inspired it, it's pretty clear that not many of the bands popularly heralded as "cutting edge" are any such thing.

That said, Nearfest was still astoundingly unprog. The first band on Saturday was a japanese four-piece named KBB. I got to the show late, but I caught the last half of their set from the lobby. Very boring violin rock, like an instrumental Kansas but with better musicians. Every song sounded exactly the same. Jeff insisted that it was awesome, and maybe I should have gone inside to see them actually play, but from a purely musical perspective, they were very dull. The next band was one of the few on the bill with whom I was actually familiar, the Polish quartet Riverside. Riverside were originally signed to one of Ken's labels, and at their heaviest, you might even call them metal. They sounded great, especially the singer, but one hour and fourty five minutes is too damned long! There are not many bands in the world that I want to watch for that long, and Riverside, who only have two albums under their belt, are not one of them. I was dying by the end! And to think, this was to be the musical highlight of the day! After Riverside, an acoustic guitarist named Richard Leo Johnson played a short solo set. I wanted to see him play, because I have one of his discs and I think he's an impressive player, if a boring composer. He's pretty much a Michael Hedges wannabe, if that means anything to you. Long story short, I missed him completely because Jeff and I spent too long getting food. Oh well. No big loss. The next band was FM, who could best be described as third-tier Rush clones, and we're talking about the synthpop Rush here - think "Tom Sawyer" but not good at all. This band was quite funny to me. The remaining original members were the drummer and the bassist/keyboardist/singer, and their new trio was rounded out by a strage-looking italian guy who played viola and electric mandolin, except that he appeared to have removed the doubled strings from the mandolin and ended up playing it like a tiny, bad sounding guitar. The singer was constantly talking about outer space and made a ridiculous comment that such-and-such song is what they imagined people listening to when they boarded the first ship to another planet. The whole affair had the whiff of Disney's "World of Tomorrow." They did play one song that I enjoyed, but mostly their music was just awful. I watched the whole set, though, because there was really nothing else to do. This festival takes the music very seriously, so when the bands are playing, the vendor rooms are closed entirely. I could have stood around in the lobby, but where would that have gotten me? After FM, there was a two hour break for dinner, but of course I couldn't get dinner, because all of the people I knew were working (the dinner break is also one of the occasions for shopping in the vendor rooms.) I can't even remember how I kept myself busy, except that I ended up buying more CDs than I had really planned on buying. The dinner break finally ended at 8:30, which is when the headlining band, Ozric Tentacles, was to take the stage. I'm not familiar with their work, and none of the people working for Ken seemed to care for them, so when the vendor rooms closed for the night, we bailed on the Ozrics and went to dinner. That, at least, was a lot of fun. We went to a brewpub in downtown Bethlehem and I got a pretty tasty Weinerschnitzel and a couple glasses of the brewery's tasty nut brown ale. Then I drove home, and was in bed by 1:00. Not bad, for a festival!

I should mention at this point that a day at Nearfest is a long fucking day. The first band goes on at 11:00 am and the last one ends at around 11:00 pm. Twelve hours, but only five bands! It's a gruelling ordeal, let me tell you, especially when you aren't really a lover of prog-rock. It's fun for a while to stare at the fat, bold, old men in Gentle Giant t-shirts, but even that loses its charm after six or seven hours. On Sunday, I was in for the full experience, as I actually wanted to see the first band, Guapo, from London. They were described to me as "heavy, but not like metal." Take that for what it's worth. They were, in fact, pretty heavy, reminding me a little of The Mars Volta at their darkest, minus the latin vibe and the vocals. Their hour-long set was comprised of only two songs, both of which, I'm told, were abridged from the recorded versions. Sheesh! The drummer, in particular, was excellent, but as with pretty much all the bands, I can't say that I found their music to be particularly challenging or progressive. In fact, pretty much the only truly progressive set came next, and it was a solo bass set. Michael Manring is, without question, the greatest electric bassist to have ever lived. He is so good that I don't think that anyone alive today could possibly even catch him. A lot of virtuoso players, I think, arrive at their virtuosity after years of practice and declare their travelling done. They remain great players, but they don't really get better once they reach their particular plateau of mastery. But Manring never stops getting better. He was the best bassist in the world ten years ago, and now he's ten years better. It's almost pointless trying to describe how he plays or what makes him so great, because there are no points of reference in other players. I tried to prepare Jeff for the mindfuck that is Manring, and even fully armed with the expectation that he was about to see and hear something the likes of which he had never experienced before, he was still dumbstruck by Manring's performance. His half-hour set was at least an hour too short, but if nothing else, it left us wanting more. This yearning was keenly felt when the next band, Ange, started playing. Ange, like FM, are another washed-up band from the 70s that broke up and then reformed with a minimum of original members and a progressive vision that would have sounded stale 30 years ago. Ange are a French group, and the only original member was a fat bald guy with a skullet and a white robe. The remaining members looked like the products of his 70s daliences with prog-groupies. Their music sounded like a cross between Steely Dan and Human League, only worse, if you can imagine. They made some very silly attempts at theatricality, including a stunt with a rubber bone which had to be seen to be believed. Picture a grandpa dressed like Zeus and his gypsy granddaughter fighting over a rubber bone with their mouths, and you're only halfway to being as disturbed as I was. Jeff and I made it through three, maybe four songs, before we left. We had enough time to run into town for a couple slices of pizza and a beer before Jeff needed to be back for the vending period after Ange. The next band was Niacin, a supergroup trio featuring Billy Sheehan and Dennis Chambers. Their set was surprisingly fun, and both of them really cooked. The trio was rounded out by an organ player whose name I don't recall and whose playing was largely superfluous. I enjoyed their set, but this is the kind of music that is only fun in person, where you can really marvel at the dexterity and skill of the musicians. On disc, this would probably bore me to death. And speaking of death by boredom, after Niacin I had another two hour dinner break to kill, having just eaten a couple hours ago. I ended up driving around Bethlehem, which is a surprisingly pretty town. The downtown, in particular, is especially well preserved and charming. The weather was awful, but that just made navigating the very slopy topography of the city more entertaining. I had to be back to the venue by 8:30, but not for dinner this time. I was made to understand that seeing Keith Emerson, late of ELP, was essential. He went on very late, and after a ridiculous "behind the scenes at Nearfest" slide show, and then opened with the only song I expected to recognize in his set ("Karn-Evil 9," which I'm sure you've heard. "Come inside, the show's about to start / guaranteed to blow your head apart"). As it turns out, I recognized two more ELP songs: "Tarkus" (which I know from a tribute album I got as a promo years ago) and "Lucky Man," which I never knew was ELP. I only stayed for an hour of his set, but the rest of it was pretty fucking terrible. He played some shitty blues-boogie instrumental written by his guitarist (whose similarity to Nigel Tuffnel was frightening), a cover of the worst Bob Dylan song I have ever heard ("Country Pie," which is actually about pie, I think), and some other honky-tonk bullcrap. It was really bad. He had a cool giant Moog, but he barely used it in the hour I endured, and while I could see that he's a great keyboard player, so what? The whole affair was kind of sad. Here you had a room full of people who all claimed to like challenging music, but all they really wanted to hear was an exact recreation of songs that they've been listening to on vinyl since the early 70s. What would these people think of Behold the Arctopus, or even The Mars Volta? And those are just a couple of the most innovative bands I listen to, and I readily acknowledge that my tastes are fairly conventional. I guess I wouldn't mind the stagnation on display at Nearfest if not for all the back-patting and smugness. For every guy I met like Steve from Cuneiform Records (who is really a cool and open minded lover of music), there were three guys like the toupe-wearing asswipe who made a semi-serious argument for his own special brand of fascism, which would mandate that the people only listen to prog and none of that mindless pop shit that they listen to now. For fuck's sake! Anyway, back to Keith Emerson - after "Lucky Man," both Jeff and I bailed on the show. Jeff had to stick around to help Ken and crew load out, but I had no such obligation, and I left. Again, I was home and in bed by 1:00, even after an hour and a half of driving. I guess I'm getting as old as the other guys at Nearfest, because when it came down to it, I was pretty happy to be in bed at a reasonable hour. If I ever go to Nearfest again, I'm sure my trousers will be hiked that much higher.

Posted by Matt at June 26, 2006 08:49 AM


oh come on matt. the niacin organ guy would be John Novello. He play on that one Andy Summers disc. I'm sure he is not really note worthy.

Posted by: I don't know at June 26, 2006 01:47 PM

I don't own any Andy Summers discs, because what little I've heard of his solo stuff has been pretty bad. Andy is a great player, but he's not what I would call a great songwriter. And everytime someone would say John Novello at the festival, I'd think they were saying John DeBella, the moustachioed classic rock DJ from Philly.

Posted by: Matt Johnsen at June 27, 2006 08:33 AM

Don't pull any punches or anything! Tell us what you REALLY thought...

I enjoyed meeting you too!


Posted by: Steve Feigenbaum at June 29, 2006 12:20 PM

Thanks for the honestly. Always fun to hear an outsiders view.....

Shame you only liked the flashy bass player though! Hell, you don't have to go to a prog fest to see the likes of that! Maybe you can spare yourself further torture next time and go to some fusion/jazz fest instead.

As they say, "your mileage may vary". So true.


Posted by: OldCrustyProgFarts at June 29, 2006 12:59 PM

Here's a well-written comment from another board:

"There is some truth to some of [your NEARfest blog]. There seems to be a small minority of prog fans who seem really proud of their 'sophisticated' and 'challenging' taste, and think that if someone else doesn't enjoy some piece of music they do, it must be because that other person lacks 'sophistication' and the ability to 'appreciate' it. For example, it always cracks me up when there's a thread about Topographic Oceans, and someone tries to rebut it's detractors by claiming that it's an extremely complex work that you really need to listen to 547 times to 'get', etc.

"Of course, there's plenty of insularity and snobbishness among classical and jazz fans, too. I'm sure somewhere there's a bluegrass festival where people who own 5,000 bluegrass albums think they are superior to the ignoramuses who aren't familiar with the ultra-rare recordings of some obscure banjo player from the '30s. Why single out prog fans?

"His [your] main critique seems to be that we all claim to like really groundbreaking new musical styles, but in fact we're fixated on stuff that was groundbreaking 35 years ago. I for one never claimed to be an afficianado of much groundbreaking (as in 'small p', dictionary-definition progressive) music. Mostly, I love '70s symphonic (capital-P) Prog, and it isn't my fault that this style of music got saddled with the label 'progressive'. The fact that I listen to and enjoy old farts like Keith Emerson doesn't make me some kind of hypocrite, because I never claimed otherwise.

"Anyway, since when did having an 'open mind' and liking 'sophisticated' or 'challenging' music apply only to those who enjoy brand new musical styles or sub-genres? Is there a shelf-life on complexity? After three decades, does Relayer now qualify as bubble-gum music? Ummagumma may be 37 years old, but you still need to be pretty open-minded to enjoy it. Not that we should pat ourselves on the backs if we do, or feel inferior if we don't, of course."

(Trying to put paragraph breaks in, but failing miserably.)

Posted by: Damon at June 29, 2006 01:40 PM

Nevermind about the paragraphs... they just weren't appearing when I previewed my post.

I was going to say that I'm in general agreement with the person whom I quoted.

I went to the fest because I like hearing bands play in odd time signatures on old, analog instruments. It's ear candy for me... gives me the warm fuzzies.

At least we're in agreement about Manring. IMO he was the most awesomest part of the fest. When he played those ambient songs with his eBow, I think I got a boner. :-)

Posted by: Damon at June 29, 2006 01:46 PM

Not everyone who attends Nearfest is an old fart, and not everyone who attends Nearfest is closed-minded. I'm 36, female, and my taste in music is far-reaching--you should see my wishlist! I'm a member of a prog forum called Progressive Ears, and I've been taking people to task for years for their unquestioning worship of prog icons such as Fripp and Emerson (although Emerson's set at NF was masterful--he really managed to restrain himself!) So I take exception to most of what you've said, although you raise some good points.

Posted by: Julie at June 29, 2006 02:14 PM


Too bad you didn't enjoy the show more. Still, I'd say that 99.9% of the rest of us enjoyed it more than you did. I wasn't familiar with most of the bands, but I listen with an open ear as well as an open mind.

NEARfest is probably not a good environment for you. That's OK.

My son is 29. He continues to broaden my music horizons as I continue to broaden his. You would have probably liked Emerson better if you'd been there the first time around.

Posted by: Frank at June 29, 2006 02:36 PM

Hey Matt,

I think you did a great job posting from an outsider's perspective. I found a few of your comments a bit harsh, and felt that you made a few statements that showed a bit of your naive side (for example, there are plenty of prog fans who like new music - prog or otherwise - that isn't a retro rehash from the 70s), and perhaps you make a mistake commenting on groups you've heard from 'outside in the lobby'.

That said, some of your points are spot on about the scene. I laughed most of the way through. So thanks for the good read. I feel bad for those who take it too seriously.

PS - There is a discussion going on about this started by Steve Feigenbaum at if you want to face your critics. ;-)

Posted by: Cozy at June 29, 2006 02:47 PM

Please don't waste a seat at NEARfest next year. Let someone that actually likes the music buy it.

Posted by: A fan of the music at June 29, 2006 02:56 PM

>>Please don't waste a seat at NEARfest next year. Let someone that actually likes the music buy it.<<

Matt, please DO come again, if only to annoy people who feel the need to post on your blog, when it was ME who pointed them to your blog.

As I said, I enjoyed meeting and speaking with you.

Posted by: Steve Feigenbaum at June 29, 2006 03:32 PM


Pity you missed Richard Leo Johnson, I think you might have found him interesting. He's abandoned the ersatz-Michael Hedges / Leo Kottke thing he kinda used to do, and has become this sort of avant-folk anti-guitar-hero. Lots of found tunings and battered guitars, great earthy stuff. He was definitely the anti-FM of the weekend.

And I think you missed the boat on KBB, definitely more of a Ponty- or Mahavishnu-style fusiony thing than anything remotely resembling Kansas. Violins do not equal Kansas, and flutes do not equal Jethro Tull. ;-)

But, apparently, you found some CDs to buy, so you can't have been in totally the wrong place. What do you like? What's "progressive" in the adventurous/forward-moving sense to you?

And for the record, I'm 26, still have all my hair, and think the Mars Volta is pretty groovy. And I like Gentle Giant too.


Posted by: Adam at June 29, 2006 03:42 PM

And re: Riverside, they only played for 1:15ish, nowhere close to 1:45.

We can't all be Orthrelm and play 12 songs in 15 minutes... ;-)


Posted by: Adam at June 29, 2006 03:48 PM

Hello pot. You're black too!

Posted by: the Kettle at June 29, 2006 04:23 PM

Thank you all for the comments. I certainly wasn't trying to categorically insult all prog fans (and really, who could possibly think that?) but I'm sorry if I undeservedly offended anyone. I've posted a long response to all this business at the Progressive Ears forum ( ) Thanks for reading!

Posted by: Matt Johnsen at June 29, 2006 05:42 PM

Hey Bub,

Would it be better for you if it was called "Art Rock" instead of "Progressive Rock"?

NEARFest = North East Art Rock Festival

And if you didn't like Guapo, prog is definitely not your thing. Totally agree about the drummer being great.

Posted by: rottersclub at June 29, 2006 09:25 PM

Actually, I did like Guapo. They put on a cool, spooky show, and the music had a very ominous vibe. I could have done without the wandering hooters duet, but the little gong was a nice touch. No, Guapo is a fine band, they're just not as challenging as they were made out to be. They were called the "difficult" act of the weekend, but until you've seen Kayo Dot, you haven't seen difficult!

Posted by: Matt Johnsen at June 29, 2006 10:29 PM

It's refreshing to get another view on NEARfest. While so many people are so busy kissing the butts of NEARfest and everything associated with it, you're stating your own opinion. You can post your own opinion just like everyone else can. They may trash it, but it's just an opinion, right?

Posted by: Unknown at June 30, 2006 12:21 AM

>> the wandering hooters duet<<

Now THERE'S a name for a band or an album...

Posted by: Steve Feigenbaum at June 30, 2006 08:40 AM

Adam: here are some of the newer heavy bands that I think are really trying some new things: Behold the Arctopus, Ephel Duath, 3, Look What I Did, Sikth, Canvas Solaris, Frantic Bleep, and Intronaut. Except for BtA and maybe Ephel Duath, I wouldn't say any of these bands are truly "bleeding edge" music; like I said before, I'm not THAT extreme when it comes to quirky tastes, but I do think that all of these bands are genuinely trying new things and making exciting music in the process.

Posted by: Matt Johnsen at June 30, 2006 09:44 AM

Matt - I've been to every NEARFest, two ROSFests, all but two ProgDays, and a bunch of shows in between. I own more than one Flower Kings album, and will even admit to having not only old but also NEW Marillion CDs (it's a mental condition, I'm told...). I use mellotron patches in my band, and once considered wearing a cape onstage (although I admit it was mainly to see the look on Steve F's face)........

and I thought your post was a total hoot. I'm still snickering about it a day later. Good times. Reminds me of a post I made after I went to my first metal festival ;-)

BTW if you dig Mars Volta/Behold the Arctopus, have you checked out Kayo Dot yet? Sweet stuff, definitely try their disc 'Choirs of the Eye' if you can. Not so much flashy as dark/apocalyptic stuff.

Posted by: John Battema at June 30, 2006 09:53 AM

Oops, sorry for the bonus post...I'm assuming you've heard Ulver (either old or new)? Considering the direction they started from, I'm fairly impressed at the range they've covered, even if not every step along the way has exactly been my bag.

Posted by: John Battema at June 30, 2006 09:54 AM

John: I have heard Ulver, but not recently enough to really say anything intelligent about them. The last thing I heard was the William Blake thing, and that was just not good to me, but many people have told me that Perdition City is not to be missed. I certainly appreciate Garm's committment to growth and change, if nothing else! And yeah, I know Kayo Dot. I've been following them since the first Maudlin of the Well album. Kayo Dot are truly a "difficult" band, if you ask me, and I have a hard time listening to their albums straight through, but I appreciate what they're shooting for, and their live show is mesmerizing. If you get a chance to see them, definitely don't miss it!

As for the cape, I considered wearing one to NearFest on Sunday, but I thought that would be just too antagonistic. And really, I don't dislike that scene or the people there. I just find something to laugh about in it. Thanks for the support, and I'll definitely check your band out. Maybe I'll see you at ROSFest next year - Phoenixville is right around the corner from me, so I should go.

Posted by: Matt Johnsen at June 30, 2006 10:05 AM

"What would these people think of Behold the Arctopus, or even The Mars Volta?"

Yeah well comments made by anyone who listens to the music mentioned above and calls it 'innovative' (another word for boring shite perhaps!) need not really be taken seriously do they.

And NO i never went to Nearfest.

Posted by: TheCharmer at June 30, 2006 10:39 AM

How are we supposed to take you seriously when you don't even have Absu on your CD list?

Posted by: Jack Meoff at July 3, 2006 10:49 AM

I have been trying very hard to get the prog community to drop the "Progressive" tab from the genre. I asked them to call it "Coelacanth Rock" due to the fact that, like the ancient fish that was thought extinct, this genre has not changed for 40 years. At the vendor tables at NF, I was asked "Well Mark, you're a Yes fan and this band sounds like Yes". I would reply "Really? So does Yes. Got anything original?".

A lot of these Prog fans take the music WAAAAAY to seriously and consider themselves some type of musical Aristocracts because they believe that since Prog is "more complex and diverse" than it must be better and you should see when they try to bring almost every band in exsistance under the "Progressive Rock" umbrella, you will see what I mean.

Don't get me wrong, most of the people at NF are rather friendly and decent folks and I like most of them, it's justy that I enjoy watching how they plither and prattle on about this music which for the most part all sounds the same...

Posted by: Mark at July 3, 2006 01:19 PM

I demand and apology for you offering an apology.

Posted by: Rich at July 3, 2006 04:29 PM

Thanks for your comments. I think it helps to remind us that there is more than one point of view. As I mentioned on Progressive Ears Dave Kerman wrote a 5 part article in the Expose magazine about prog being dead. Thank goodness there are younger musicians trying new things. I would also like to reccomend a Japanese band called Ruins, a very noisy duo (bass,drums)that I find challenging. Apparently there is a Japanese Noise underground that is quite vibrant.

Posted by: Alex DeWolf at July 3, 2006 04:29 PM

I think that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Even you prog-faithful who are offended by observational and personal comments posted by someone who is giving THEIR TAKE on the event. What a bunch of whining pu$$ies...

That's What Anthony Thinks!

Posted by: The Duke at July 7, 2006 11:25 AM

Nothing to say here. Just reading all these other comments above.

Posted by: BenMech at August 19, 2006 04:52 PM

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