The Orion Studios 20th Anniversary Appreciation Festival

After seeing the film Romantic Warriors - A Progressive Music Saga, the first in a series by directors Jose Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt, I have been obsessed with the modern US festival scene. Although I had already been to the North East Art Rock festival in Bethlehem, PA (NEARfest), two other concert events captured me at that moment - the outdoor 'Woodstock of prog' ProgDay in Chapel Hill, NC, and The Orion Sound Studios in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Orion is a recording studio, rehearsal space, and live venue all in one, owned by Mike Potter. Over the past 20 years, The Orion has hosted a variety of progressive music acts, including Don Preston and Bunk Gardner of The Mothers of Invention, Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Mike Keneally, The Muffins, Present, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Cheer-Accident, and countless other innovative and legendary acts in modern progressive music. Since learning about their history and vision, I wanted to visit The Orion. When the 20th Anniversary Festival was announced a few months ago, I knew this was my chance. Although The Orion hosts bands weekly, it was going to take a festival to get me to take the pilgrimage to the holy land of prog and The Knells, Frogg Cafe, Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores, and Discipline were too good to pass up.

The Knells

The Knells, an 8-piece, self-classified "post rock, neo-psychedelic chamber prog" band were first up in the proceedings, but not before a short solo guitar set from composer and Knells main-man Andrew McKenna Lee. The set, which lasted about 30 minutes, was comprised of three pieces - two on nylon-string guitar and a third on electric guitar with a prerecorded 'taped piece' to fill out the background. I found the first two pieces to be incredibly innovative, utilizing a number of extended techniques that I've never seen before as well as a wide array of dissonant chords and modern harmonies. 

The third piece, a 'response' to Jimi Hendrix's classic "Are You Experienced?" saw Lee heroically strapping on a Fender Stratocaster and requesting the audience to "lie back and listen" before launching into a 15 minute otherworldly, exploratory, and psychedelic guitar work out, backed by a 'taped' backing track that featured such sounds as scratching violin and tuned wine glasses. The guitar part (intended as a concerto), was a further display of extended techniques, utilizing tremolo, string scratches, and a glass slide. The piece not only demonstrated Lee's creative prowess at the instrument, but also his incredible timing skills to work out what I'm sure is an incredibly complex work to pull off live. A fitting tribute to Jimi, indeed.

Shortly thereafter, Lee was joined by the 7 other members of The Knells - Paul Orbell (also on guitar), percussionist Jude Traxler, drummer Michael McCurdy, and bassist Joseph Higgins, as well as the real 'stars' of the group, sopranos Nina Berman, Charlotte Mundy, and Kate Maroney.  A curious choice to open a rock festival, The Knells music was an ethereal experience marked by few instrumental pyrotechnics - the focus was placed on the three singers who's angelic voices brought to mind The Northettes, backup singers from classic Canterbury rockers Hatfield and the North.

The soprano singers had an exceedingly difficult task at hand with the material written by Lee and they pulled off the polyphonic and sometimes dissonant harmonies with incredible ease. Instrumentally, The Knells pulled mostly from modern classical in their approach with percussionist Jude Traxler adding to the tension and space with his mallet work and bowed crotales. The set was somewhat disappointingly short, but the band were received warmly; I saw many a Knells hoodie following their performance!

Frogg Cafe

After some catching up with friends following in between acts, it was time to return to the Orion main stage area for the second band on the program - Long Island's legendary jazz / prog quintet, Frogg Cafe. Coming into this gig, I knew next to nothing about their music, beyond the fact that they built a reputation playing The Orion, NEARfest, ProgDay, and Zappanale in years past. 

At the start of the set, Orion owner Mike Potter took the stage and announced, "15 years ago, a Frank Zappa cover band changed their name to Frogg Cafe. Would you please welcome, Frogg Cafe!" Then from the back of the room came a familiar melody, played on trumpet and trombone - Zappa's "Inca Roads." Out walked brothers Mike and Nick Lieto, in almost psuedo marching band style, playing the opening melody of the Zappa classic as they took the stage, and from that moment, I was hooked. I have no idea how long the band performed, but it seemed to be entirely too short - musically it reminded me of a cross between the Chicago Transit Authority and Frank Zappa's The Grand Wazoo era.

The band - comprised of the John Lieto on trombone and Nick Lieto on lead vocals, trumpet and piano, William Ayasse on electric violin and electric mandolin, James Guarnieri on drums, and Andrew Sussman on bass - brought a pronounced jazz / funk influence to the proceedings with Nick Lieto's voice channeling a young and soulful Robert Lamm. The improvised solos from both Lieto brothers on trumpet, flugelhorn, piano, and trombone were nothing short of superlative, brimming with jazz chops and inventive, expressive licks; in short, these guys are the real deal. Electric violinist / mandolinist William Ayasse was no slouch either, recalling the French master Jean-Luc Ponty, while his mandolin (fed through guitar pedals) subbed in nicely for electric guitar in a few key moments. I'd be remiss if not to also give special props to drummer James Guarnieri, who brought a solid, tasteful funk influence to the group's performance, while bassist Andrew Sussman was a true virtuoso in a truly virtuosic ensemble with no discernible weak link.  

Song-wise, the band represented their Creatures (2003) album, played a track from their most recent release, Bateless Edge (2011), and took the chance to test new material out, which was one of the highlights of the set. The band finished the gig with "Leave of Absinthe", the opening cut from the live The Safenzee Diaries (2007) - a humorous tune that recounted their adventures or perhaps, misadventures traveling to Germany's Zappanale festival - to an enthusiastic standing ovation. Not long after, the band returned to the stage for a spot on reading of Zappa's classic "I'm the Slime" in the Zappa in New York arrangement - complete with Don Pardo-esque over the top narration and a searing mandolin solo from Ayasse and the Lieto brothers. Overall, Frogg Cafe were an incredible amalgam of clever songwriting, pure chops, and fun - a winning combination that made for a stellar performance.

Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores

After a much needed dinner break and further socializing, it was time for the third act to take the stage. Dutifully, we filed back into the stage area and awaited the arrival of Redfearn and his band of lost souls. After an amusing story from Cuneiform Records boss Steve Feigenbaum ("the first time I saw Alec, there were nine people on stage and three in the audience, but it's been all uphill since then!"), the electric accordion master took center stage. Flanked by newest member Gillian Chadwick on vocals and electric guitar, as well as long-term Eyesores Matt McLaren on percussion, Christopher Sadlers on standup bass, and Ann Schattle on French horn, Redfearn took the stage in a rather unceremonious way and began by talking casually to the audience.

Opening with the aptly titled, slow-buring psychedelic blues number, "Fire Dance" from their latest offering, 2012's Sister Death, The Eyesores treated the Orion attendees to over an hour of their unique brand of high caliber retro, psychedelic, yet edgy, moody, and modern acid folk. Redfearn's music amazes me in its unique ability to simultaneously draw influence from the timeless past while reaching for the future. While awash in the distorted tones of Redfearn's guitar pedal treated accordion, I was so entranced by the spell cast by the Eyesores I could barely move the entire time they played. Music is a mysterious and powerful force on its own, but sometimes, some music transcends pure notes and rhythms and becomes something all together more compelling. This was not mere music, this was black magic!

Much like Frogg Cafe, Redfearn presented the audience with a variety of unreleased music, as well as music from the recent Sister Death album. Although it's hard to compare their music to anything, it most reminded me of an electrified version of 1970's freak folkers Comus, particularly the mixture of male and female vocals in a folk setting. Redfearn's accordion sound is a tone and style unique to him, with some audience members noting a slight resemblance to Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine and his fuzz-organ tones. Percussionist Matt McLaren brought a fresh take on the rock drummer idiom, playing on a relatively minimalist kit with no cymbals - only a snare, tom and kick drum, augmented by a tambourine and other pitched percussion that I didn't recognize. French horn player Ann Schattle added a certain regal quality to the pieces with confident and dynamic lines offsetting the accordion, while bassist Christopher Sadlers thumped along on upright, giving a solid bottom end.

The performance was also marked by some humorous storytelling from Redfearn, which gave some much-appreciated background on some of his more abstract lyrics and made the performance seem relaxed and intimate, a direct contrast to the macabre themes running through the lyrics. By the time the Eyesores finished their set, I was left wanting more - the way a great performance should be.

Discipline

The final band on the program was Detroit's Discipline, a modern symphonic prog band that has reached a legendary status among modern progressive music enthusiasts. Lead by the white face-paint wearing "Magic Acid Mime" himself, Matthew Parmenter on lead vocals and keyboards, the band has made waves in the progressive rock community for over 17 years for their hard rock riffs, extended and epic song structures, and histrionic, Peter Hammill influenced vocal stylings. 

Having not followed Discipline's live act very thoroughly and finding myself only vaguely aware of their last two studio recordings - Unfolded Like Staircase (1997) and To Shatter all Accord (2011), I really had no idea what to expect. I liked their music, but I wasn't really what could be classified as a major fan. I went in expecting that Parmenter had moved past the "Acid Mime" persona, but mere moments before the doors opened for the final act, Parmenter himself appeared in the halfway leading up to the stage area doors in full makeup and stage clothes, socializing casually and stopping to pose for a photo with a fan wearing a Discipline t-shirt! I was immediately impressed by how approachable the man was, despite his striking stage make up (slightly terrifying close up!) and his reputation for being a fierce character on stage.

The band took the stage at 11 pm - Mathew Kennedy on bass guitar, Paul Dzendzel on drums, and newest member Chris Herin on guitar - and crushed the audience with a chaotic and delightful onslaught of sounds, before launching into tremendously passionate and energetic rendition of "Carmilla" from 1993's Push and Profit. From the onset, I knew this band wasn't here to mess around.

The evening was filled with a dream list of Discipline tracks that included all of the tracks I wanted to hear them play - "Canto IV" and "Crutches" from Unfolded Like Staircase, "Circuitry", "When the Walls Are Down", "When She Dreams She Dreams in Color" and "Dead City" from To Shatter All Accord. Like Frogg Cafe and Alec K. Redfearn, I was struck not only by the caliber of musicianship on display, but also by the quality of the songs themselves. The old 'prog rockers can't write good songs' stereotype was proven wrong time and time again this weekend, with truly imaginative melodies and creative structures on display from each band.

Additionally, Discipline played with a certain grit and conviction that their records lacked and I couldn't help but be engaged by the incredible energy of this band. Matthew Kennedy (known also for his work with Phideaux), brought a deep groove and solid harmonic backbone, while 'new guy' Chris Herin played with passion, precision and wonderful tone. Drummer Paul Dzendzel played some wonderfully challenging, yet rewarding drum parts and in my mind, sits comfortably with the best of prog drummers.

The true star of the show, however, was frontman and composer Matthew Parmenter, who proved himself to be a true showman. While vocally bringing the same emotional punch of Peter Hammill (yet never outright sounding at all like the great Van der Graaf Generator frontman), his piano work was proficient and emotionally charged and his stage presence was nothing short of mesmerizing. During "Crutches", Parmenter gazed out at the audience through the mime makeup with madness and pain, all while belting the words with an amazing power, his vocal prowess and range seemingly untouched by time.

In short, the legendary Discipline played with the passion of a band half their age, with all of the precision that comes with a band with their history, making for a performance that was captivating, exciting, and fresh, despite the fact that the band has been playing many of the compositions for over 17 years. I'm officially a fan.

It's been two days since the trip to the Orion and I'm already having withdrawals. I've been to a NEARfest and two ProgDays so far and at least one band at those three festivals has simply bored me; the world of modern progressive music is so vast and varied that it's impossible for each act to please everyone. Not so this weekend. Every band presented were stellar and a phenomenal experience for completely different reasons, leaving me captivated in rapt attention and choosing a favorite, impossible.