ProgPower USA XXI Day One Recap: Reunifying after a two-year hiatus, the festival first day serves up prog, thrash and death metal in explosives doses.
Any bold venture, be it large or small, begins with a single individual with a vision. Thus is the story of ProgPower USA, an idea hatched by promoter Glenn Harveston while dining with friends after attending another festival in Baltimore, that has since grown into one of the most culturally significant metal events on the western side of The Atlantic. Though originally hosted in Lansing, Illinois; this diverse gathering of progressive, power metal and other assorted outfits has become synonymous with Atlanta, Georgia's Center Stage venue, a hub that can boast of being the first to introduce such auspicious European acts as Nightwish, Gamma Ray, Blind Guardian and Stratovarius to the United States. Though the 21st episode of this hit series of metallic cabarets has seen multiple delays due to the COVID lockdowns, the stars would align beginning on the 1st of June and an astounding array of innovative and virtuosic acts would battle against 2 years of deafening silence to masterful ends.
Shattering the silence with thousands of onlookers in tow, local heroes from southeastern Pennsylvania (the stomping ground of yours truly) and progressive power metal impresarios MindMaze ushered in the first evening with a resounding roar. The tone that was struck by this quartet could be best described as both intricate and completely organic, as an impassioned and precise performance stood in the place of any backing tracks or flashy stage gimmicks. Vocalist Sarah Teets and guitarist/brother Jeff would take turns rocking the keyboards to fill out the arrangement at key points, accenting the band's stylistic affinity for the likes of Dream Theater and Savatage alongside a more traditional array of rock and metal influences. Standout moments would consist of the extended, high octane progressive romp "The Machine Stops," the driving and infectious fanfare of "Never Look Back" and the epic foray of "This Holy War," with Sarah often stealing the show with some impressively belted high notes that contrast with her almost nonchalant mannerisms in between songs.
The mood would take on a fairly different tone with the entry of French progressive rock veterans Klone. Leading things off with what at first seemed a more subdued and almost static mold of sonic craftsmanship with the opening song from their latest studio LP Le Grand Voyage fittingly dubbed "Yonder," this six-piece fold prove a far heavier player than their studio material would suggest, generating a lot of headbanging in the front rows. The atmospheric depth established and the smooth, almost crooning quality of vocalist Yann Ligner's approach would prove instrumental in solidifying the spacey and mellow character of similarly multifaceted odes such as "Sealed," "Keystone" and "Immersion" prior to bring down the proverbial hammer with plummeting riffing, while the more impact-based rocking of their rendition of Björk's "Army Of Me" and the metallic trappings of "Rocket Smoke" would rival the aggression of Nevermore and showcase a notably dirtier display out of Ligner. If nothing else, the dual course journey through pristine landscapes and pummeling grooves would end in a mighty howl with the aforementioned Björk cover, capping off what was a brilliant exercise in dynamic contrast that left a massive impression on every onlooker.
While the previously noted set was by no means a somniferous experience, the jarring shift in feel that power thrashing maniacs Flotsam and Jetsam would bring would be akin from taking an 8-cylinder engine from 0 to 60 in a few seconds. Right from the onset of the galloping beast of an opener "Demolition Man," the level of aggression could be likened to a 2-ton anvil smashing into the venue, and the sonic mayhem would not relent for the duration of the set. Favoritism would naturally be shown towards the high-impact content of this outfit's three earliest and three most recent records, with the mellowest moment being the mid-paced melodic thrasher "Suffer The Masses" from their 1990 flirtation with Metallica "When The Storm Comes Down." For his part, veteran vocalist Eric A.K. shows everything but his age, as he would seamlessly navigate the glass-shattering gymnastics of early classics like "Hammerhead" and "I Live You Die" alongside more forceful and grittier fair like "Brace For Impact" and "Seventh Seal". It was an all-around celebration of raw energy, bursting at the seams with pummeling riffs and shred-happy solos by the Gilbert and Conley duo, sinister bass lines courtesy of Bodily and a thunderous drumming expertly manned by Ken Mary, that makes one question why Jason Newsted isn't begging for his original job back.
With such an extreme zenith being struck, one couldn't help but ponder how the night's headliner might attempt to come out on top, but Swedish melodic death metal trailblazers Hypocrisy play second fiddle in the aggression department. Though arguably beginning at a disadvantage with the recent exodus of longtime drummer and black metal fiend Horgh, the eruption of unfettered rage that would fill the air was palpable right from the start, with recently acquired touring drummer Henrik Axelsson of The Crown fame matching his predecessor without skipping a beat. Auspiciously well executed newer offerings like the latest album's and the set's opener "Worship," a veritable melodeath answer to Metallica's "Battery" and the punchy smasher with an In Flames sense of melody "Chemical Whore" trade blows with classic fanfare from the sub-genre's 90s heyday "Roswell 47" and "The Final Chapter". Arguably the only thing more overpowering than the raw fury of the instrumentation and the ravaging shrieks and barks of vocalist Peter Tägtgren was the blaring intensity of the light show that came along with it.
Diversity has always been one of ProgPower USA's strengths, and though the number of bands riding the stage on the first day of festivities was relatively few, the spectrum of sonic expressions covered proved quite vast. No one band would carry the night over the rest, as each brought their own unique sound to the table with an equal level of zeal and fervor, and though not every act could be described as being within the power or progressive metal umbrella, they all stand as forward-looking innovators from their respective styles from a variety of different eras. With the lion's share of this year's lineup of veteran and new bands yet to have ascended the stage, a very high precedent has already been set by the bold musical proposition of day one's promoter Nathan Block.