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The Gentle Storm – The Garage

Anneke van Giersbergen at The Garage

The Gentle Storm came to The Garage in London on their tour promoting “The Diary”. The album is a collaboration between singer Anneke van Giersbergen, formerly of The Gathering, and composer and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen, main man of Ayreon and myriad other projects. It’s an interesting work, two disks comprising two different versions of the same set of songs, the acoustic folk-flavoured “Gentle” version, and the symphonic metal “Storm” version. It prompted considerable pre-gig speculation as to exactly how they were going to present it on stage.

The opening act was Streams of Passion, who began life as another of Arjen Lucassen’s projects before taking on a life of their own. They’re a band with feet in the progressive and symphonic metal camps. Aside from a brief but impressive mid-set burst of flying-V electric violin, and despite the twin guitars, Marcela Bovio’s powerful voice is Streams of Passion’s main lead instrument, as demonstrated by the long wordless vocal passage late in the set. It was a very strong performance for a support act.

The Gentle Storm began in the opposite manner to many other bands of their ilk. Instead of the now clichéd band kicking up an instrumental storm before the singer makes a dramatic entrance at the last moment, Anneke van Giersbergen stepped onto the stage alone to begin the album’s opener “Gentle Sea”, before being joined by the rest of the band. By the rocked-up celtic jig of “Heart of Amsterdam” they were in full flow, with Anneke on spectacular form vocally.

Arjen Lucassen isn’t part of the live incarnation of The Gentle Storm, though the seven-piece band does include Ayreon alumni Ed Warby on drums as well as two members of Streams of Passion, Marcela Bovio on backing vocals and dreadlocked bassist Johan van Stratum. Having both Anneke van Giersbergan and Marcela Bovio on the same stage made for a lot of vocal talent.

The early part of the set featured “Storm” versions from the album, with The Gathering’s “Eléanor” thrown in for good measure. The twin guitars of Merel Bechtold and Ferry Duijsens covered many of the orchestral lines with the help of guitar effects, reducing the need for pre-recorded backing that’s commonplace in symphonic metal. Though it would be interesing to know exactly what effects they used on some of Marcela Bovio’s vocal lines to make her sound like a full choir.

In mid-set there was an acoustic interlude, which began with an unexpected solo cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. Next came a spine-tingling stripped-down piano and vocal take of album standout “The Moment”, sadly marred by loud talkers (why do London idiots pay good money for a gig only to chatter away through the quiet bits?). Finally Marcela Bovio and Ferry Duijsens joined them for Ayreon’s “Valley of the Queens” and “Comatose”.

It was back to the full band for the finale, which included The Gathering’s “Strange Machines”, Ayreon’s “Isis and Osiris” and an epic keyboard solo to close the main set, with the Devin Townsend song “Fallout” and the Kashmir-meets-Stargazer eastern rock monster “Shores of India” as the encores.

In the end, though billed as The Gentle Storm and featuring the bulk of the album “The Diary”, it was really Anneke van Giersbergen’s show. Her charisma and remarkable voice dominated the stage throughout, and although the stronger numbers from the album came over well live, it was the older Gathering and Ayreon numbers that proved to be highlights of the show.

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Bigelf at The Garage.

Damon Fox of Bigelf at The Garage

Bigelf returned to Britain after a long absence with a headlining appearance at the Resonance festival during the summer. In November they returned to these shores with their first tour since 2010, and drew a sizeable crowd when the tour came to The Garage in London.

As is quite common nowadays there was not one but two support acts. There is value in giving showcases to up-and-coming bands, and giving audiences value for money, But with more that one opening act you do wonder if it might have been better either to have had a longer set for the headliner, or perhaps a slightly earlier finish given that the gig was on a school night. The show began with Jolly, taking a modern approach to progressive rock with echoes of Haken and Muse, melodic in places and heavy in others, with an emphasis on angular riffs.

Bend Sinister were much more old-school, kicking off with a retro 70s rock’n'roll sound, with heavy use of Hammond organ sounds owing a heavy debt to the late Jon Lord. There was a point that sounded like Deep Purple covering Kula Shaker. They lost momentum later on with some rather less impressive ballads, but ended on a higher note with a cover of Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”.

Bigelf have undergone a few lineup changes of late, with frontman Damon Fox and bassist Duffy Snowhill the only members who appeared on the their most recent album. For this tour they’re joined by Damon’s son Baron Fox on drums, plus Porcupine Tree and Fish guitarist John Wesley.

Unlike too many progressive bands who shuffle on, play the songs, and shuffle off again, and you’re lucky if you get a few stereotypical rock shapes, Bigelf understand the art of showmanship.
Their set began with an intro tape of John Williams’ Imperial March from Star Wars, and Damon Fox placing Yoda on top of his Mellotron when he walked on stage. He cuts an dramatic figure on stage, dressed as a circus ringmaster in a top hat, standing between a battered vintage Hammond and a genuine Mellotron, playing one with each hand.

The title of their latest album “Into the Maelstrom” makes a very good description of their live sound, which owes a debt to bands as varied as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Queen. Damon’s swirling Hammond is central, giving a strong Uriah Heep feel at times, though Duffy Snowhill’s bass grooves also played an important role. Guitarist John Wesley, the quintessential unassuming sidesman best known for his role in Porcupine Tree, played more a supporting role, but did get the occasional moment in the spotlight.

The setlist drew heavily from “Into the Maelstrom” and the preceding album “Cheat the Gallows”, despite a lot of calls from the audience for the oldie “Disappear”, which prompted the band to tease by playing the opening bars. The anthemic “Money, It’s Pure Evil” turned into a singalong, and the 90 minute set passed in what seemed like no time at all, with the final encore of “Blackball” turning into an extended Doors-esque jam featuring some excellent soloing from Wesley.

This was one of those gigs that prompts the usage of words like “Progtastic”. But with their love of retro 70s sounds and vintage gear, and bombastic theatrical approach to performance, there is nobody else quite like Bigelf.

This review initially appeared in Trebuchet Magazine

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Haken – The Garage

Haken at The GarageHaken are one of the best of the new generation of younger progressive rock bands producing music with all the scope, ambition and virtuosity that goes with the genre label while sounding little like any band from the 1970s. Their third album “The Mountain” was a major step forward, which moved past the obvious influences (Zappa, Dream Theater) of their earlier records to develop a sound that was their own.

Support came from the four-piece My Soliloquy, with an entertaining set of highly melodic prog-metal. They made a remarkably big sound for four people, especially when they didn’t have a bassist, relying on guitarist Mike Gilpin’s riffing to fill the bottom end of the sound, and frontman Pete Morten made a strong impression both on vocals and on lead guitar. They’re a band to watch out for in the future.

Haken at The GarageThe two eight-string guitars and a six-string bass made it clear Haken were no indie band. But neither are they the sort of technically showy muso band that such things might suggest. Opening with the hymn-like but extremely earwormy “The Path”, on just piano and vocals, they proceeded to play the The Mountain in full. By the time they reached “Cockroach King” with its nod to Gentle Giant they had hit their stride. The complex material came over remarkably well live, with multi-part vocal harmonies with all six band members and the interplay between the two guitars of Richard Henshall and Charles Griffiths.

Despite the obvious virtuosity of the whole band there was relatively little in the way of soloing; the strength of their music is in the composition. The Mountain is an extremely ambitious piece that amounts to far more than the sum of its parts with it’s recurring motifs, huge soaring melodies and masterful use of dynamics. Frontman Ross Jennings has a fairly unique vocal style that has given rise to comparisons to Freddy Mercury with his extensive use of falsetto. The whole thing was an intense performance from the entire band than earned a huge applause when the final notes of the closing number “Somebody” died away.

After that tour-de-force they finished the show with a handful of older songs from “Aquarius” and “Visions”, encoring with the completely bonkers sixteen minute kaleidoscopic epic “Celestial Elixir” making a fitting end to to a fantastic night.

In the past couple of years there has been something of a sea change in the progressive rock world. The scene had been dominated by reverential homages to the 70s pioneers or flashy prog-metallers whose sound is typically dominated by instrumental pyrotechnics. Haken are one of the new breed of bands who are neither of those things. If you still think progressive rock is all about cod-Genesis 70s retreads, you should listen to Haken.

Haken will be returning with an UK tour with Leprous and Maschine in late October and early November.

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Touchstone & Von Hertzen Brothers, The Garage

Touchstone at The Garage in Islington

Touchstone came to The Garage in London on their co-headline tour with Finland’s Von Hertzen Brothers.

As this gig, Touchstone were on stage first, and proceeded to put on the sort of impressive show we’ve come to expect from them. Almost the whole set came from the new album “Oceans of Time”, and the new harder-edged material works extremely well live, with Adam Hodgson’s guitar much more dominant in the sound. Kim Seviour has been very dynamic frontwoman and visual focus of the band for a long time now. But now she’s really coming in to her own as a vocalist with material she had a greater hand in writing.

It’s great to see a band like Touchstone playing larger venues and drawing the sorts of crowds they’ve been deserving for a long time. It will be very interesting to see where they go next.

Von Hertzen Brothers at The Garage in Islington

As for Von Herzern Brothers, it took a few songs before what they were doing really made sense. Their sound is a quirky and sometimes rather bonkers mix including polished harmony-driven AOR and off-the wall psychedelia. They have some very retro 70s sounds, their keyboard rig including vintage Moogs and a real Mellotron. Their music shows influences as diverse as King Crimson and Styx withough sounding remotely like a pastiche of anything else. It’s all highly melodic, and they put on a very entertaining show.

The size and enthusiasm of the crowd and the reception given to both bands is a good advertisement for the idea of co-headline tours. Yes, it can be great to see a band play an extended two-hour set digging deep into the back catalogue. But there’s something to be said for a tight focussed set where the band doesn’t have to worry about pacing themselves. And with two great acts, you get two bands for the price of one.

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