First, some background

For those not in the know… I’m a bit of a progressive rock fan. Like most progressive rock fans, I’m a bit picky. I’m not a huge fan of the massively overblown late 1970s prog, or of the frequently impenetrable canterbury scene (although I do quite like a bit of Caravan or Gentle Giant every now and then).

I’m mostly into neo-prog that’s surfaced since the 1980s, and in how the influence of prog can be seen in so many other bands. With this in mind, when I found out about the Summer’s End festival, I decided to go along.

It’s a small, annual progressive rock music festival which took place int 2008 in the Forest of Dean, about 5-10 minutes drive away from a place where I used to live. Beth (t’other half at the time of writing) was taking photos of the first night’s acts, so we needed to be there early enough to check in to the B&B, so I took a half day from work to make it possible. We arrived in the forest at about 5:45pm, and got checked in to the B&B… only to discover that pretty much everybody else staying there was also there for the music.

Edale House is a fantastic little B&B, and if you’re after such a place in the heart of the Forest of Dean, I’d recommend it highly. Especially the full english breakfasts, complete with good, thick bacon and homemade sausages.

Season’s End – Friday’s Opening Act

Photo: Season's End - Guitarist

After a quick meal at The Fountain (one of my old haunts), we headed down to Lydney for the opening act.

Now, as it turned out, I’d actually heard this lot before. I wasn’t impressed the first time around and I was a little surprised to find them on the bill at a prog festival, even on the prog-metal night, as I last saw them at a goth festival in Reading (Malediction III). However, I try to keep and open mind, and I’m glad I did… because they were actually really rather good.

Now that I’ve mentioned that, I’ll tell you that they’re called Season’s End. They’re still a female fronted Symphonic Metal band, with all that entails, right down to the obvious nightwish comparisons… but I have to say that in this case those comparisons are favourable.

Since I last saw them, they’ve changed most of their line up (thus adding to their prog credentials) and have failed to release a new album for four years (also adding to their prog credentials), but have been touring with new material and refining their sound (adding to prog credentials once again).

In short, I still wouldn’t call them prog, but on a couple of songs they were getting pretty damned close… and since I have a soft spot for good metal as well, I really enjoyed their set. When their new album eventually appears, I’ll be picking it up.

The stage lighting geek in me also forces me to point out that this festival had an ever evolving lighting rig, with a few more bits and bobs being added for each band. As the first act on, and with venue problems having delayed the full setup of the lighting rig, Seasons End were lit only by six parcans and a strobe. The fact that this was enough to actually light them and fill the stage with colour should tell any theatrical types out there why I like parcans and think that no rig should be without them.

Friday – Headliner

There was a short break after Season’s End, in which some broken lights were replaced and Threshold got set up for the headline set. I’ve not seen them live before, but I can tell you now that I’ll be seeing them again. They had an energy on stage, and Damien Wilson is a consummate frontman. He’s clearly a bit of a tart, but then that adds to stage presence and means he knows how to work the crowd.

He even covered nicely for some technical hitches early in Slipstream, their opening number. The rest of the band deserve huge amounts of credit as well, as they played a blinder of a set and really looked like they were enjoying themselves… a feeling which was contagious, and spread rapidly to the crowd.

Drummer Johanne James also needs to be awarded a large number of “how hardcore is he?!” points for playing such a high energy set merely a week after dislocating his shoulder. He still had strapping on to ensure that his arm remained fully attached to his body. If it hadn’t been mentioned, you wouldn’t have been able to tell at all from his performance.

That rounded out the music for the first night, but it was a good hour or so after that before we retreated back from the venue to the B&B… An hour that was spent talking to various members of each band. I can now reliably inform you that several of the members of Threshold need to be lauded as not only fine musicians, but also as some of the nicest people in rock.

Season’s End also need to be lauded as some of the most manic, judging by the way that most of them were happily careening around the venue like four year olds on crack. They were highly entertaining to talk to, and generally really nice people.

Saturday – Before the gigs

After a spectacularly poor night’s sleep the first full day of Summer’s End began with one of the fine breakfasts I mentioned earlier. After both of us were eventually vaguely awake, we set out for a morning’s exploration.

Doors weren’t until 12, with the first gig due for 1pm, so we had a couple of hours to kill. We decided to kill them by going to a place called Puzzlewood, near to Coleford. It’s a place I’d never managed to go to whilst I lived in the area, or even over several visits back there after I moved away. Boy, had I been missing out. Some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, and I could have easily spent a lot longer wandering around in there. Not least because it’s quite mazelike and finding our way out could easily have become an issue were it not for my rather good sense of direction.

Saturday – Afternoon Session

After that, we continued on to the venue, where we took in the beginning of Overvibe‘s set. Unfortunately, they didn’t hugely grab me… although I do like what I’ve heard online of their music. I just didn’t get into them live. It probably didn’t help that I heard most of the first song from the bar, which didn’t exactly have the best sound in the world. In fact, it sounded like somebody had set the PA to “flatulent” for their set. So we went off and did a bit of shopping nearby instead.

I might give them another go at some point, and see if that was just an “off” gig. We came back from our short shopping stint in time for me to catch the last half of Abarax‘s set. They were solid and interesting, but I’m not sure how best to describe them other than as clearly being heavily influenced by Pink Floyd (especially when they had a moderately decent stab at Comfortably Numb as a tribute to the late Richard Wright).

Their stage presence wasn’t great, however, and at a live gig I find that it’s a band’s ability to work with the audience that makes or break the gig… so overall, they were very good musically, but somehow a bit lacking. I had planned on picking up one of their CDs anyway, but was going to wait until later as I couldn’t afford to buy CDs from every band, and it was still quite early in the weekend.

Unfortunately for Abarax, Quidam came on and totally blew me away. Clearly there’s something in the water in Poland, because they’re really churning out some fine progressive rock right now. Between Quidam and Riverside they’ve got a lot going on. They had fantastic stage presence, even with what was clearly a bit of a language barrier getting in the way. They worked a couple of progged-up rock classics into their set, usually as medleys with their own songs, which certainly helped to get the audience moving for them… but to be honest, I don’t think they needed it as their own material was phenomenal.

I could see some pretty strong influences in there, but none so strongly as to make me question the band’s ability to do their own thing. They were also clearly enjoying the gig – only their second in the UK – immensely. I do think they may have been a bit frustrated at the apparent stillness of much of the audience, but I think everyone was too busy being shell-shocked that a band this good had managed to pass under so many people’s radars.

I bought their latest CD as soon as I found it, and I was far from alone in doing so. I think they got one of the biggest, most heartfelt rounds of applause of the whole festival.

Saturday – Special Guest

Then there was a short break whilst Magenta got set up and sound-checked, which gave us an oportunity to grab a bit of food and a drink, then to queue impatiently as they were one of the bands we’d both really been waiting for. They didn’t disappoint, even with some sound problems early on in the set. If the PA had been set to “flatulent” for Overvibe, it was clearly set to “prolapse” for the opening number (“The Ballad”).

However, things seemed to get sorted quickly and I got the impression that the early glitches made the band even more determined to give it their all… and they really did! I had always expected them to be one of the highlights of the weekend and that’s exactly what they were. They gave a performance full of passion and emotion, and made it all come to life in a way that not many bands can manage. They also seemed totally at home on the stage and treated the audience as friends rather than fans, which is always a plus.

Saturday – Headliner

There was then a longer break before IQ came on. Unfortunately, this break was rather too long as I’d not had much sleep the night before and I had been aching everywhere even before Magenta’s set. The result was that I only stayed for the first few songs. I mentioned the steadily evolving lighting rig earlier… By this point it had turned into what I’d call a proper lighting rig. It had grown some frontlights over the course of the day, and now had a couple of moving mirror lights, a bunch more parcans and a couple of colour scrollers, which I think came with the band.

As a result, IQ were the best lit band of the festival so far. They had clearly put a lot of work into their staging as they even came with three screens worth of video projection behind them – a bit over the top for a small festival like this! I’d not heard much IQ before this gig, but from what little I did hear before we had to call it a night, I’d quite like to hear some more to get a bit more of an idea of what they’re like.

So ended my second day of the Summer’s End festival… driving back to the B&B whilst my back was still flexible enough to fold it into the driving seat of my car and still be able to steer and operate the pedals.

Sunday – Before the gigs

Day three began in a similar way to day two, in that we had some time to pass before the start of the day, and we decided to spend it on a short visit to Clearwell Caves. We’d both been there before, but it’s always worth a visit.

Sunday – Afternoon Session

After we’d done that, we headed down to the venue to catch Glow – the opening act of the day, only to find them halfway through their set already. Clearly day three was starting earlier than advertised… Probably to counteract the massive overrun seen on day two.

Unlike the previous day, though, I thought they were a fantastic opener. Glow are a bit different in that they make a kind of psychedelic prog dub. They were upbeat, active and clearly enjoying themeselves a great deal. I held off on buying their CD for a couple of minutes… until it was announced that it was only a fiver and my resolve evaporated. I’m very glad I bought it as so far it’s been a great mood lifter.

After Glow we had Thieves’ Kitchen, who are a band I really wanted to like, but somehow didn’t quite manage to. Within the first two minutes of the set, as well as singing, the singer had played the clarinet, the castanets, maracas, a theremin and the spoons.

Seeing a rather attractive young lady dressed in a blend of goth & jazz singer garb bending over to play the spoons on her knee is one of the odder experiences of the weekend.

However, it just felt like they were trying too hard to be clever and experimental, and that somehow they were so focussed in that direction that they forgot to put any tunes in. I gave them a few songs and then decided that it was time to head off and do something else for a bit.

That something else was a walk around Lyndey Harbour. Last time I went there was before they’d started the restoration. It was a broken wreck of a place, with the gates of the tidal lock rotting and hanging half open.

This time, however, it was all fantastically restored. You could go right out to the tip of the harbour wall and get a fantastic view out over the severn estuary. If you’re in the area and want some striking views, it’s certainly worth a look… if you can find it with the woefully inadequate signage!

This meant that we returned to the venue just in time to see Abel Ganz, who are apparently a scottish prog band with a long established pedigree, but who went on hiatus some years ago. Now they’re back, and have new material out there. I’d never heard of them before, and so was pleasantly surprised.

They didn’t blow me away as much as Quidam, and didn’t grab my immediate attention as firmly as Glow, but I really enjoyed their set. They reminded me quite strongly of earlier Marillion, but without Fish’s lyrical convolutions and occasional shrieking, and not so much as to make them sound derivative.

I was impressed enough to buy a CD, but was faced with a quandry! They had a limited edition of the CD reissue of their first album, or they had the new album. In the end I opted for the special edition. I’m quite likely to also pick up the latest album in the near future as well.

Sunday – Special Guests

Next up was another band I’d really been looking forward to… Frost*. No, I’m not referencing a footnote – they just have an asterisk on the end of their name. At this point I have to admit to feeling a bit sorry for The Tangent, who were on afterwards, because this was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. The refreshed lineup really works for them, and Dec Burke is a fantastic addition as an extra guitarist and singer.

I was hooked from Experments in Mass Appeal (the opening number) and didn’t care that my back had flared up again – I was too buzzed to even really notice! That buzz carried on all the way through the set, right up to the phenomenal, rocking out encore of The Other Me.

I don’t think any band could have followed that and not been a slight disappointment. Beth seemed to be thinking along similar lines, and as her knee had gone again I drove her back to the B&B so she could rest up whilst I returned to the venue to see The Tangent.

Sunday – Headline

I said earlier that no band could follow Frost* without being a slight dissapointment… but The Tangent gave it a damned good go. I’d not heard of them before, although I read bit about their history and picked out that they had previously been a supergroup involving most of The Flower Kings and a few others, fronted by two people who were respected greatly by musicians, but not particularly well known.  Now it’s those same respected people (Andy Tillison & Guy Manning), a new guitarist and sax player… and the entirety of swedish prog band Beardfish.

Andy Tillison pointed out that Beardfish are possibly the most important band in prog at the moment as they’re all under 30, and I think that in many ways he’s correct. Unfortunately, they’re deliberately trying to continue the classic prog sound rather than exploring new things. But my argument about how a lot of prog has stopped… well… progressing is an argument for another time. In terms of ability, I can’t fault them at all… They did one number on their own, and it was some of the best “classic” prog I’ve heard in recent years. But enough about Beardfish… what about The Tangent?

Well, they were an immense amount of fun. Their onstage banter was terrific and highly enteraining. For example, Andy Tillison commenting on how they’d managed to maintain a stable lineup for so long… since monday, at which point Guy Manning says “I’m out!” and walks off stage. I also need to comment on how I don’t think I’ve seen so much energy in skinny people for a long time… Between Tillison’s hyperactive bouncing and Beardfish bassist Robert Hansen’s sliding all over the stage with a bass that’s wider than he is, the world’s energy problems could be solved in a moment.

With songs based on such wonderfully proggy subject matter as being propositioned for sex outside a soho jazz club and giving a confused response, or about our lives being ruled by GPSs and mobile phones, the humour in both the banter and the songs themselves really made the closing set of the festival something special.

Highlights & Next year?

For me the ultimate high points were Frost* and Magenta, with my new finds being Quidam, Glow and The Tangent. I’m now eagerly awaiting next year’s Summer’s End festival. The organisers announced that there will definately be one, and that it will definately be in September in Gloucestershire. I’m sold. If the quality’s half of what it was this year, It’d still be worth the money.