As winter draws in and 2016 begins its final act we can look back on a what has been a truly remarkable year in music. The prog scene is thriving and a huge number of global acts, both new and established, are continuing to reinvent a genre that has at times been viewed as either an experimental outlet for forward thinking musicianship or an excuse to let ego driven excess supersede genuine song craft and emotional expression. Thankfully, many of the artists on the scene today know how to strike a balance between these elements and the sheer number of quality releases in recent years has been staggering. The bands that took to the stage on Friday night all sit comfortably in their unique places within this remarkable cultural landscape.
Opening act VOLA are a four piece hailing from Copenhagen. The group show confidence is blending many of the sounds and textures made available by the modern musical palette. Heavy down tuned riffs, melodious synths and soaring vocals all blend together to create a powerful sound which they deliver with extraordinary confidence for such a new addition to the scene. I’m immediately struck by their bold delivery and confident presence. A superb start to the evening.
Next up were Agent Fresco, a curious group from Iceland. I first became aware of them this July thanks to their excellent performance at the Be Prog! My Friend Festival in Barcelona. Impressed with that show I purchased a copy of their second album Destrier (released in 2014). I was impressed by how much musicality and eclecticity they manage to condense into such concise musical statements. Indeed many of the songs on Destrier do not pass the four minute mark (two songs are even shorter that two minutes). An unusual occurrence for an album considered “prog.” More important than length is of course the quality of the material which is excellent. Catchy melodies, butch guitar tones, robust bass and tasteful piano are used to great effect. Arnór Dan Arnarson delivers a great vocal performance that effortlessly soars over the music whilst Þórarinn Guðnason demonstrates considerable talent on both guitars and keyboard (on which he seems equally comfortable playing classically inspired piano or synth leads). His use of guitar effects are also worth mentioning which he uses to create sounds that remind me of Tom Morello’s approach – a very nice touch. The music is not particularly flashy or overtly technical (for the majority) but rather in service of well crafted songs that are interesting enough to hook the ear and catchy enough to stay with the listener after the experience. On this occasion they were deservedly very well received. I am looking forward to seeing them again.
And then we come to our headliners: Katatonia. With a career spanning two and a half decades their sound has evolved considerably over time1. I must admit that I was almost entirely ignorant of their output until being asked to attend this show. How grateful I am to finally be in the know regarding one of Europe’s most interesting bands. The music seems to exist in its own world without pandering to any specific trends. Whilst comparison may be drawn to contemporaries such as Opeth and perhaps Porcupine Tree, their sound is distinctly their own. To prepare for this gig I have been listening to their most recent album: The Fall of Hearts and their 2006 release: The Great Cold Distance (performed in its entirety this evening). I have always enjoyed live performances of complete albums. For me it shows a commitment both to the material and to the fans who celebrate that album. Clearly the audience are delighted to hear this music which is performed to a very high standard. For me however it is their second, career spanning set that truly impresses. Opening with “Last Song Before The Fade,” one of the heavier numbers from TFOH we are off to an energetic start. The set is full of different shades of heavy and soft, light and dark. There is an ever present sense of melancholy which is accentuated by the often introverted performance of Jonas Renkse. He carries a sense of withdrawal which in the hands of other lead vocalists may be considered detrimental to the performance. In this case however it adds a certain tension and intensity to the songs that is fully in service of the lyrical content. The guitar work of Anders Nyström and Roger Öjersson is marvellous. The combination of clean and heavy tones, chords and melodies provide a rich backdrop in which the drama of the songs play out. There are moments of stunning beauty in songs such as “Old Heart Falls” and “Serein” where every element seems to fit together perfectly to create an almost overwhelming wall of sound. The only thing missing was the presence of a live keyboardist. I wonder if one will be added to future performances such that the use of backing tracks may be limited. Many bands that I currently admire are making use of backing tracks and I am somewhat conflicted about it. Sure it allows for the enrichment of the live sound but if there is an over-reliance on backing tracks we may be losing valuable elements of the performance. In Katatonia’s case the use backing tracks is sparse and the performance remains unhindered. I simply admire the sight of a large ensemble all contributing to the music in the moment. Whilst I am new to the band many in the crowd have been here for a while and are delighted by the appearances made by the older songs in the band’s repertoire. The set ends with “Gateways of Bereavement,” a number from their 1993 debut Dance of December Souls.
So the evening drew to a close after four sets of highly stimulating performances by three highly accomplished acts. A packed house at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire is a testament to the appetite of gig goers, energised and inspired by interesting and diverse music.