ProgPower USA XXI Day Four Recap: Roaring to a glorious conclusion, the allied forces of rock and metal reclaim the realm of live music.
For the better part of 2 years the concept of "the new normal" had become so ubiquitous that it could have qualified as the mantra of a new world religion. Nevertheless, the majority of mankind who could remember the days of 2019 and before were longing for a return to the old normal, where a person was free to walk the streets, go to the gym and, dare it be said, attend a concert. In a sense, the musicians, promoters and attendees that make a festival possible could be dubbed the champions of this desired return to the good old days, facing the odds in uncertain times to remind the masses that music can be experienced outside of the confines of a pair of headphones of the speakers of a home entertainment system. If taken to its logical conclusion, the resulting heroism implied via the analogy of a grand struggle to reclaim the live scene is best exemplified by those manning or surrounding Center Stage, Atlanta for the 21st edition of ProgPower USA, especially on its 4th and final day.
Like the grand finale of any epic battle, the afternoon and evening of June 4, 2022 saw things reach their absolute apex, and fittingly the hour of triumph kicked off with the mighty anthems of one of Finland's premier symphonic power metal acts Arion. Though a bit newer to the scene than most of the acts that would follow, they but stole the show with their brilliant blend of ethereal symphonic pomp after the mold of Nightwish and an impact-based, virtuosic flair inspired by Stratovarius. Vocalist Lassi Vaaranen led the charge in a manner that could rival the gritty rage often heard from Tarot helmsman Marco Hietala, injecting pure energy into the microphone with each note while proving a master at working the crowd. Likewise, the technically charged solo battles between guitarist Iivo Kaipainen and keyboardist Arttu Vauhkonen brought a brilliant sense of elaboration to what were generally straightforward metallic fanfare, with ultra-catchy bangers like "Bloodline," "Punish You" and the fast-cruising closer "At The Break Of Dawn" hitting the hardest.
Hook-based anthems dressed in epic metallic thunder would give way to avant-garde progressive quirkiness with a slight pop/rock edge when Jersey-based septet Thank You Scientist took the stage. Bringing a very different instrumentation that would include a violinist, trumpet and saxophone player to the table, this collective of university graduates would deliver something along the lines of Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention meets The Beatles with a modern rock twist to a highly receptive audience. After laying down the free jazz law with a noodling and comically named instrumental exposition dubbed "Gigglebutton," the art rock meter went into non-stop overdrive with an impressive succession of scatterbrained yet satisfying compositions, with longer-winded jam sessions in "FXMLDR" and "Terraformer" establishing the band's heavier credentials to a crowd that was still high on the pummeling riffs of the previous evenings, with Salvatore Marrano's smooth tenor providing a needed melodic and somewhat static counterbalance to all the instrumental chaos.
The old school would proceed to get it's say on this night of sonic splendor when one of New York's original heavy metal progeny Riot V took things over. Often regarded as one of the forefathers of U.S. power metal and a mainstay of the scene since the early 70s, theirs' was a performance that primarily paid tribute the original heyday of heavy metal, drawing heavily from their 1988 metallic tour de force Thundersteel and the raucous opuses that preceded or immediately succeeded it. The tone was both glorious and bittersweet as the occasion also functioned as a 10 year anniversary and tribute to the band's original founder and pioneering guitarist Mark Reale. Led by the glass-shattering wails of Todd Michael Hall, high octane speed anthems like "Flight Of The Warrior," "Angel Eyes" and "Johnny's Back" were the order of the hour, with guitarists Mike Flyntz and Nick Lee cutting heads and shredding fret-boards after the spirit of Murray and Smith, though the pinnacle of the set would be the semi-ballad classic "Bloodstreets" when MindMaze vocalist Sarah Teets would join these titans with flute in hand.
The tone would take on a mellower quality with the entry of Fates Warning vocalist Ray Alder and his solo band, at least comparatively speaking. The primary fixture would be said progressive metal icon's highly versatile and distinct voice, which would also be the most dynamic element in a set that was stylistically nuanced yet largely symmetrical and groove-based. The lion's share of the material would be drawn from Alder's 2019 solo album What The Water Wants, with the rest being divvied up between his short-lived millennial super group Engine and a lone offering from his long association with the progressive metal band Redemption "Walls," which ended up drawing the most favorable response apart from the closing cover of The Cure's "Fascination Street". To be clear, the emotionally charged display put forth on tunes like "Lost," "Under Dark Skies" and "What The Water Wanted" definitely struck a chord with an audience that likely was hoping to hear some selections from the Fates Warning catalog.
While one might dub this night's second act as the most unique player on the auditory chessboard, some competition would enter the fray after a darker spirit in one of Norway's original purveyors of the extreme Ihsahn. In contrast to his highly lauded work with symphonic black metal trailblazers Emperor, his solo work would present a more stylistically eclectic and sonically smooth picture, with the man for whom the project is named displaying a diverse array of vocal expressions ranging from a somber croon to a furiously frostbitten growl. A brief fit of technical difficulties interrupting the performance of the droning techno meets blackened hell set to music "Lend Me The Eyes Of Millennia," the set of highly experimental journeys through dark contemplation went on without a hitch, with standout moments consisting of the bleak progressive rocking "My Heart Is Of The North" and the almost orthodox blackness of "Nord," though crowd response to the oddly placed covers of Lenny Kravitz's "Rock And Roll Is Dead" and Iron Maiden's "Wrathchild" would prove even more favorable.
Providing the yin to the aforementioned darkened yang of the night would be Italian symphonic power metal pioneers Luca Turilli and Fabio Lione under the banner of Turilli/Lione Rhapsody, though for all intents and purposes they should be regarded by their original name Rhapsody as the material covered all but exclusively hearkened back to their consequential early run with Limb Music. In a live context, the presentation proved far more intimate given the lack of a live keyboardist and the use of pre-recorded tracks for the massive orchestral backdrop, leaving the dynamic quintet rounded out by second guitarist Dominique Leurquin, bassist Patrice Guers and touring drummer Alex Holzwarth free to roam the stage and rev up the crowd. No moment was lost in impressing the onlookers as one rapid pace anthem was chased by another, with millennial classics like "Emerald Sword," "Dawn Of Victory" and "Knightrider Of Doom" bringing down the house, while longer cinematic numbers like "Eternal Glory" and "Symphony Of Enchanted Lands" proved no less spellbinding. Yet what ultimately sealed the deal in this grand wrap up of a 4 day extravaganza was the heart-wrenching rendition of "Con Te Partiro" by Lione.
Though relative to the countless souls across the world who continue to hunger for the real reason that recording artists create their music, those who performed and those who observed functioned as representatives of that greater multitude. Barring the occasional technical hiccup, or perhaps because of the imperfection of a live performance that includes such glitches in the system, the final word that ProgPower USA would utter to the forces that robbed the world of a genuine live music experience for much of the early 2020s would be a collective one-fingered salute. Perhaps the greatest downside of achieving the final victory is that eventually the party has to end, but with it will be the promise of a new beginning for the cause that was the conflict's purpose. The gate has been thrown wide open and the hordes of concertgoers are now free to fully rediscover the world that they once knew. It may be the final word for ProgPower USA XXI, but far from it for this storied festival.