Progressive Nation – Manchester Apollo, 09-Oct-2009

The Progressive Nation tour is an ambitious package tour highlighting the best of prog-metal.  Effectively a double headliner of Opeth and Dream Theater, plus two support bands, doors opened at 5:30, with the music starting just after six, making it a real marathon if you were standing.  And the early start meant it was straight to the gig from work, without having time to have anything to eat.  The things I do for rock and roll.  Or rather prog.

Openers Unexpect were a completely bonkers female-fronted seven-piece including a fiddle player.  While they played with high level of energy, unfortunately poor sound meant a lot of the intricacies of their music were lost; the vocals especially being lost in the mix. Such is the fate of opening acts in large venues, but they still impressed enough for me to buy their album,

Four-piece BigElf took the stage with a Hammond organ, a Mellotron and an analogue synth centre-stage. They played a sort of psychedelic stoner-prog, very reminiscent of Atomic Rooster with elements of early Uriah Heep. Impressive live band despite poor sound.  Top-hatted lead singer Damon Fox playing the Hammond in one hand and the Mellotron in the other had to be the image of the evening.

The sound improved dramatically when Swedish death-metal/prog crossovers Opeth took the stage. Tonight they emphasised the ‘progressive’ emphasis of the evening by opening with “Windowpane” from their decidedly un-metal “Damnation” album. The six-song hour-long set mixed their progressive and metal sides, which a powerful rendition of “Deliverance” one of the metallic standouts. “Harlequin Forest”, not played live in Britain before, was stunningly beautiful, the highlight of the entire evening. Only downer was the constant buzz of background talking from Dream Theater fans that was audible throughout the quiet bits.

It’s seven or eight years since I’ve seen Dream Theater live.  Love them or hate them, Dream Theater have more or less defined the genre of muso prog metal, playing insanely complex music in wierd time signatures with plenty of extended solos.  Bassist John Myung in particular is as interesting to watch as to listen to, his fingers flying up and down the fretboard as if he’s playing lead guitar, and John Pettruci and Jordan Rudess played enormous numbers of notes. Only vocalist James LaBrie let the side down in places, and I have to say too much of his singing is rather ordinary.  The setlist drew heavily from the new album “Black Clouds and Silver Linings”, opening with “A Nightmare to Remember” and “A Rite of Passage”. They also played quite a bit from their superb “Scenes From a Memory” including the completely over-the-top instrumental workout “The Dance of Eternity”, and 80s-style power ballad “The Spirit Carries On”, complete with a sea of lighters in the air. They encored with a stunning rendition of the epic “The Count of Tuscany”.

Gig of the year?  It’s definitely a candidate.

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8 Responses to Progressive Nation – Manchester Apollo, 09-Oct-2009

  1. Chris says:

    Sounds like a good gig! “top-hatted lead singer Damon Fox playing the Hammond in one hand and the Mellotron in the other” Was it last week you went or 1974? :-) I’d agree with you about James LaBrie. He does seem to be a bit of a weak link in an otherwise excellent band.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    What, you mean it’s not 1974. and punk never happened?

    James LaBrie being the weak link seems to be a consensus. At least one prog bass player of my acquaintance agrees with that assessment.

  3. Ian says:

    I think James LaBrie live is not the singer he used to be. I personally still think his voice is the perfect fit on their recorded material but he does seem to struggle recreating it live. Actually, Mr Hall, that should be your next blog – singers who can no longer match the proficiency of the musos in the band ;-)

  4. Tim Hall says:

    Careful – I might have to mention He Who Shall Not Be Named of Scotland…

    Alternatively, the “Buggled” “Drama” lineup of Yes?

    Or, moving away from Prog, The Stone Roses – Ian Brown notoriously cannot hold a tune in a bucket.

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  6. Rob says:

    As you say an interesting contrast with my review from Glasgow. Maybe when I’ve heard more of Dream Theater James LaBrie will seem more of a weak link, but frankly I was too busy enjoying the instrumental antics of the other four. Funnily enough John Myung didn’t specially attract my attention: it was almost as though he was trying to be invisible, I felt. Mind you, around Messrs Petrucci, Portnoy and Rudess it must be very easy to be invisible.

    I shall certainly listen to more of all the bands (especially BigElf).

  7. Tim Hall says:

    Rob, I wonder how much the fact I really enjoyed Opeth and they didn’t do much for me is that I’m already familiar with their music – I own the studio versions of everything they played and have seen them live a couple of times before.

    It did take me a while to ‘get’ them – at first I was thinking “WTF is this racket” and “Why doesn’t he sing properly”. Then their music clicked for me; what was initially just a wall of noise is really complex and textured; and they reproduce it very well live.

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