Even by the standards of prog shows, which only get close to mainstream if a Yes or Rush is headlining, these bands were largely from the underground.
By Brett Milano
Progressive rock is all about glorious excess, so what better way to celebrate it than by absorbing seven hours’ worth at once? The Regent Theater in Arlington and the local promotions group NewEars (New England Art Rock Society) provided that rare chance over the weekend. Saturday’s event was originally planned as an evening show headlined by the New York neo-prog band IZZ, but as more groups signed on it grew into a “Day of Prog,” with six bands doing full-length sets in evening and afternoon sessions. You have to admire NewEars’ commitment for even producing this—I counted 35 people at the afternoon show, maybe twice that in the evening—and it seemed that nearly everyone had travelled from out of town. Even by the standards of prog shows, which only get close to mainstream if a Yes or Rush is headlining, these bands were largely from the underground. Which made it sweeter for diehards, who could congratulate themselves on their rarified taste while indulging in a feast of grandiose themes and tricky time changes.
And the best moments were sweet indeed, as the standout bands wrapped their ‘70s inspirations (you didn’t have to listen long to hear a throwback to the golden years of Gentle Giant or Genesis) into something more personal. And political in the case of the day’s first band Mavra, formed in Iran by musicians who’ve since moved to New Hampshire. At home the band was illegal on a few levels—playing non-traditional music and employing female musicians are both outlawed there, and Mavra (whose name means “beyond”) has a female keyboardist. You could hear the bandmembers’ dreams of a better life being fuelled by the imagery of vintage prog: one of their songs, “Mandatory Hero” was about the mind control that exists under dictatorship so it was the perfect vehicle for some King Crimson-like menace. And when frontman Ashkan Hamidi sang “I wish the world was a place of compassion,” the band fuelled that vision with a heavenly Yes-like soundscape.
Original headliners IZZ were the most polished band of the lot, with three-part male/female harmonies, a fusion-esque guitarist and a two-drum backline, one drummer playing a standard kit and the other doing electronic percussion. But for all the virtuosity on display, the band was all about melody—tunes soared in all directions, giving their set a perpetually wide-eyed feel, and even the flashy instrumentals had strong melody lines. IZZ’s musical roots stretched back to the ’60s, as the harmonies brought hippie-era San Francisco to mind (think of the band It’s A Beautiful Day), and plenty of Beatlesque touches were there too. Thanks to their songwriting it added up to something distinctive, and like all the best prog it carried a thrill of discovery.
The Providence band Resistor represented the brainier side of the equation, with leader Steve Unruh proudly introducing one song as “a loving look at the space shuttle program, something you’d only hear in progressive rock.” (At least that’s the only place you’d hear it with a flute solo). They were the only band on the bill that put instrumental virtuosity ahead of songcraft, though it was a kick to see Unruh switch from guitar to flute to violin, and to watch their drummer sneak in Rush-style polyrhythms wherever possible. Sonus Umbra and Might Could were essentially the same band, fronted by Mexico City-born bassist Luis Nasser, in different guises: the latter was full electric and the former was an acoustic guitar quartet. Much preferred the latter, which proffered the elegance of Robert Fripp’s acoustic work with the League of Crafty Guitarists (and at least one Might Could number sounded like a direct homage to Fripp).
But there was one band who didn’t have far to travel: Baked Beans, who played a short afternoon set, is an instrumental band of four technically gifted Arlington High School sophomores. Formally dressed and crew-cut, they earnestly launched into a letter-perfect version of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Another of their tunes was built on a naggingly-familiar riff that clawed at me for hours, until I pegged it as Pigbag’s mid-80s club hit, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag”—clearly these kids already have killer collections, or a music teacher with same. And it may well be the first time that “21st Century Schizoid Man” was ever performed by children of the 21st century.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.