Seaprog boasts as Seattle’s first weekend-long progressive rock festival since Progman Cometh in 2002-2003. In its sophomore year for 2014, it ran from Friday June 20 through Sunday June 22 starting at Columbia City’s The Royal Room with free admission for the first evening and moving a block down the street to the Columbia City Theater for the remaining two days. A not-for-profit event co-organized by Seattle musicians John Reagan, Jon Davis and Dennis Rea, Seaprog’s focus is on current progressive music with an emphasis on the scene in the Northwest. It includes some of the top creative artists of the region playing progressive rock music today whose diversity of approach illustrate prog’s evolution since its origins in the 1960s. Highlights this year included the hard rocking, rhythmically shifting power trio Badwater Fire Company, the in-your-face drummer and violinist led Los Angeles band Corima, and the reverb-laden, psychedelic guitar and cascading synth stylings of Midday Veil, who ended the festival Sunday night.
Autumn Electric — a psychedelic folk rock band from Seattle that features Michael Trew on lead vocals, flute, and guitar; Max Steiner playing lead guitar; Naomi Adele Smith on keyboards, melodica, and backing vocals; Johnny Unicorn playing bass; and Chris Barrios playing drums — began the festival Friday evening performing a versatile, dynamic set that featured a cover of King Crimson’s “Fallen Angel.”
Their show started slow and ambient with flute and keys. A drum riff by Barrios led into uptempo syncopation and then the rhythm dropped out. Trew switched from flute to vocals, his lyrics leading into a slow section then back into uptempo rhythm, the tune ending with a chorus.
The singer donned a cape made by his mother as he introduced the second tune, “Orange Stars,” one that he described as “long," from their latest release Flowers For Ambrosia. The song, stretching over 22 minutes in length on the CD, started slow with keys and flute, then the rhythm increased. After a few moments the music slowed and if it felt heavier, it was anything but dark. As the tempo increased again, Trew soloed on flute then sang in psychedelic vibrato about a "mystical reality.” The music slowed and changed direction, remaining strong, then picked back up with Smith playing an electric piano solo and the keys increased in intensity, Unicorn laying it down with a steady undercurrent on bass. The song seemed to come to an end, then it slowly began again. Steiner soloed then the music stopped and Trew sang verse while lightly picking his guitar. The band kicked in with Steiner soloing over Barrios playing patterns on his toms. The intensity diminished with guitar feedback, and the music moved in half time with Trew singing over guitar vibrato and organ. The intensity suddenly picked back up, gradually decreased and changed, then picked back up again with a guitar solo to bring the epic tune to an end.
Autumn Electric’s 50 minute set demonstrated without uncertainty that this band is bringing something new and original to the Northwest music scene. Besides Flowers For Ambrosia, they have had several releases since 2008. Their writing and musicality is as strong as it is emotional and vivid, and they convey the sense of taking the listener to places remembered and as yet unknown.
Quebec’s Miriodor headlined Saturday night. Their current lineup of Bernard Falaise - guitar, Pascal Globensky - keyboards, Nicolas Lessard - bass, and Remi Leclerc - drums, gave a stellar performance of complex writing and composition played with undaunted musical skill.
The first tune began straight ahead then moved to Falaise’s slow, low-key guitar work. The slow, deliberateness of the music eased up with the melody. It was then accented with cymbal crashes and heavier guitar chords over Globensky’s organ, Falaise’s Gibson SG tone clean, the band in odd time syncopation.
They began the second piece with a chorus of sampled sounds and then a blues rhythm with a syncopated guitar melody. The music moved into odd time, to low key 4/4 guitar and synth textures, and then back into odd time, Falaise soloing with the melody, Globensky continuing to texture. The individual syncopated melodies of the guitar, keyboards, and bass played off of, against, and in tandem with each other, Leclerc playing patterns with cymbals and rim shots, finally moving back to off-kilter blues.
The third tune started with sampled sounds, backward cymbals, then started into odd time with Falaise soloing into a melody. The music then stopped — feedback and guitar tone filled the room. The rhythm tapered back in as loud guitar feedback grew in complexity, leading into the melody then odd time syncopation. The time dropped out, then came back in slowly. With guitar layering and feedback, the band moved in and out of time, the keyboards rhythmic, and then into heavy, slow straight time rock with heavy guitar soloing and intense lead work to bring the piece to an end.
Bassist Lessard described the fourth tune, as defined in English from French, as “Spooky-able.” Complex rock played in and out of time with synth, organ, and guitar tone and feedback, it complimented the fifth piece entitled “Le Fantome de M.C. Esher,” named after the Dutch artist who lived from 1898-1972 and was known for his mathematically inspired woodcuts and lithographs as well as his explorations of infinity. When introducing it, Lessard stated that Escher’s ghost lives in Falaise’s guitar, and that the audience may be able to hear him.
Miriodor’s field of origin is the Rock In Opposition movement, or RIO. This movement represented a musically diverse group of progressive bands in the late 1970s that were in protest of the industry that refused to recognize their music. Following the first Rock In Opposition Festival that took place in March 1978 in London, the five bands that had performed met in Switzerland to redefine RIO as a collective. After three more festivals in Italy, Sweden, and Belgium during 1979, although it had increased its membership, RIO folded due to internal disagreements about what its actual role was. When RIO ceased to exist as an organization, however, it took on new meaning as a musical genre and is now considered almost synonymous with avant-rock or experimental rock.
Sunday, the final day of Seaprog 2014, was accentuated by the musical virtuosity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute band Being John McLaughlin. Led by guitarist Tristan Gianola, it features Alicia Dejoie - violin, Ryan Burns - keyboards, Geoff Harper - electric bass, and John Bishop - drums.
When the band took the stage, Gianola apologized to the audience by saying that this was a tribute to John McLaughlin, and “there are too many notes to play it note-for-note….” This sparked joking and comments from the band and the audience.
They opened with “Birds Of Fire” followed by “Noonward Race,” that began as a drum and guitar duet. From the first bar played the stand-out quality of the musicianship was readily apparent. Raucous jamming and the loud Gibson SG guitar tone with overdrive and distortion very similar to McLaughlin’s approach is what defines this band. While Dejoie and Gianola soloed together and off of each other, Harper and Bishop took flight with Burns’ comping and soloing on synth and electric piano. Although this was a tribute to McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu era, it was markedly stylistically different per the intensity and fluidity of the musicians improvising on a whim.
While Seaprog’s mission statement is explicit that bands at the festival will only play original compositions, an exception was granted for Being John McLaughlin because they duplicate Mahavishnu’s sound so closely without imitating it. Instead, the musicians present their own interpretations as reflected by their individual playing styles. As Bishop stated before taking the stage, “This is music that needs to be performed.”
Sources: seaprog.org; autumn-electric.com; miriodor.com; wolfgangsvault.com; Wikipedia.