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Saturday 31st March 2007
The Centaur in Cheltenham, UK
Up next are second band of the day, Cloudscape, also from Sweden. Having caught them live before at ProgPower Europe 2005 in a year that saw a particularly strong bill including Pain of Salvation; Wolverine; Green Carnation; Epica; Disillusion; Pagan's Mind; and Orphaned Land, I remember enjoying their set though, for me, it wasn't a highlight of the weekend. So I was pleased to have a second chance to see them live. With Heed a hard act to follow, Cloudscape engender a more subdued crowd reaction despite singer Mike Andersson's attempts to enliven the audience by shouting "show me how crazy you are", and his proclamation that "you are awesome". Generically, their music is probably best described as almost traditional metal with occasional progressive flourishes and some interesting time signatures infused with catchy melodies. The set incorporates songs from both their self-titled debut album and sophomore release 'Crimson Skies' including 'Everyday is Up To You' from the former with its keyboard-led intro played on a backing tape, and opening track from the latter - 'Shapeshifter'. Musically, I cannot fault Cloudscape, although it still doesn't quite do it for me. Some of the melodies are perhaps a little too cheesy and there's many outdated metal posing clichés in their performance. Overall, a good band, but I've just seen/heard others do this kind of thing better.
2006 saw the first UK incarnation of the long running Dutch and USA ProgPower festivals. I've attended the last 3 ProgPowers in the Netherlands (where it originated back in 1999) and have been consistently impressed by the professional organisation coupled with its laid-back, intimate, friendly and almost family-like atmosphere perpetuated each year. While ProgPower UK perhaps lacks this familial vibe and level of intimacy - which is probably due to the larger sized arena-style venue compared to the 800 capacity hall in the south of Holland - there is a general good, friendly vibe sustained throughout the day. The organisers have also adhered to the ProgPower ethos where the emphasis is on the discovery of new bands. This is evidenced in the lineup for 2007 where virtually all the bands have either never or rarely performed in the UK, and is both a brave and admirable move as the organisers have invested a considerable amount of their own time and money in the festival and expect to make little or no profit from the event (I believe that in 2006, a loss was made). It also shows total dedication and a genuine passion for both the music and the fans which is often lacking in this country.

So what of The Centaur as a venue for a metal festival? In short, unique and impressive. The Centaur 'complex', situated within the grounds of Cheltenham Racecourse, has only been open since the millennium and is refreshingly clean, modern and sizeable. The main auditorium has a capacity of around 4,000, although the higher tiered seating remained closed (apart from to bands; VIPs etc). There is a large foyer at the front of the building which is where the merchandise stall was located; an information desk; and a free cloakroom. Part of the complex includes another large building housing a bar/restaurant that overlooks the scenic racecourse. The 'canteen' style restaurant served 'proper' food - salad; Thai chicken curry; veggie/meat lasagne; jacket spuds etc, although by the time I went for something to eat, most of the main meals had sold out (the kitchen manager said they hadn't anticipated so many people to be eating so much!). There are also some basement rooms (accessible from the outside too) which served as an ideal location for a substantial metal market with a wide array of stalls selling New Rocks; CDs; DVDs; clothing; jewellery; books; and vinyl. There are also 12,500 free car parking spaces on site. There is a large bar in the main auditorium, and some stairs in the foyer leading up to another bar with a room adjacent to this where band signing sessions took place throughout the day. My only minor criticism of the entire festival is that all the bars shut at 10.30, by which time I'd finished my duties in the photo pit and was ready to start drinking but couldn't - damn! The Centaur is only around a 20 minute walk from Cheltenham town centre where there is plenty of hotel/guesthouse accommodation for those wanting to make more of a weekend of it. Although I wasn't able to attend due to other commitments - there was also a pre-show party held in a small club on Friday night in the town centre with 3 bands on the bill (Soliloquy; Son of Science; Civilisation One), and this was sold out.

Upon entering the venue, every person is handed a 'goodie bag' (a black carrier bag printed with the Progpower UK logo) generously containing guitar picks; pens; stickers; leaflets; flyers and a whole stack of CD samplers including a 2CD/1 DVD set compiled and created specifically for PPUK II. This is a nice touch, and illustrates the sincerity of the organisers in their caring attitude towards the punters. Another unique feature is the 'guitar duelling' that took place at the Elixir Strings stall over to one side of the metal market. People were invited to jam along to backing tracks with the Elixir demo guy, the prize for the most promising musician being a £550 Lag guitar, which was presented to the lucky winner on stage by Leaves' Eyes vocalist Liv Kristine after Kamelot's set.

The main auditorium serves as a rather impressive venue - spacious and air conditioned with a huge stage. No expense was spared on the sound and lighting either, with a fine sounding PA system and excellent lights. Having said that, the sound/mix was generally a little 'shaky' for the first couple of minutes of each set, though with such an incredibly high ceiling, I guess most sound engineers found the acoustics a little difficult to manage during bands' opening songs, but this was always quickly corrected. There were also 2 high-mounted video screens either side of the stage that displayed live multi-angle feeds of the bands while they played, plus music videos in between sets.

ProgPower UK deservedly should, and I'm sure will, grow in popularity over time to become high on the list of must-go-to events in the annual metal calendar. It has particular appeal for those who enjoy discovering new music/bands in the context of a professionally organised, friendly festival where the emphasis is 100% on the fans and their enjoyment. Other larger (and smaller) metal festivals in the UK should take note of Progpower UK - they could certainly learn a thing or 2.

And so, the bands of ProgPower UK II 2007.....
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Sweden's Heed open up ProgPower UK II at around 1pm. Featuring former Lost Horizon members - vocalist Daniel Heiman and guitarist Fredrik Olsson - this afternoon marks their live debut in the UK. They were only booked around a month ago to replace Scar Symmetry who disappointingly cancelled in favour of a lengthy North American tour with The Haunted, Dark Tranquility and Into Eternity (the latter cancelled their planned headline set at Dutch festival Headway for the same reason). Playing both new material and songs from their debut album 'The Call' including 'Salvation', 'Enemy' and 'Last Drop of Blood', Heed deliver a musically solid and dynamically energetic performance as Heiman bounds around the stage encouraging a fairly animated audience to cheer and clap along. Olsson impresses with some virtuosic guitar leads while bassist Tommy Larsson adds depth to the songs with some powerful, clean backing vocals. It is slightly amusing when Heiman yells 'how you doing tonight' etc, when addressing the audience, but I guess he was lost in the moment, forgetting it to be early afternoon. Overall, Heed prove to be a perfect opening band with their infectious brand of Scandinavian speed-power metal well received by the PPUK audience.
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I first saw German band Dreamscape at the ProgPower Europe pre-party last year when they performed on a very small stage to an audience of around only 200. Although they impressed me, I remember thinking their style of Dream Theater inspired epic sounding prog metal would perhaps be better suited to a bigger venue, so was pleased to see them on the bill for ProgPower UK II. Opening with 'Clockwork', the first track from 2004 album 'End of Silence', there are some serious sound problems - vocals are lost in the mix; the keyboards are too loud; while guitar and drums are barely audible. Fortunately, mid-way through this song, the bad mix is resolved, and Dreamscape have a pristine sound for the remainder of their set. Comparisons to Dream Theater are inevitable as particular passages sound overwhelmingly similar to America's prog metal superstars, though there's also enough originality in Dreamscape's songwriting to engender their own unique style. New material aired this afternoon - 'Fed Up With' and 'Somebody' from forthcoming new album '5th Season' (due for release in July this year) - are good examples of this compositional diversity, as the band look very relaxed on stage and are evidently enjoying positive reactions from the PPUK audience. Vocalist Roland Stoll appears to revel in the moment as he leaps off the stage during a couple of songs to shake hands with the crowd and states mid-set after huge applause and cheers "I think we should come back here". Hopefully they will. Very impressive.
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Haggard were due on stage next so it's something of a surprise to see Communic's backdrop appear and then the Norwegian metallers take to the stage. Apparently, Haggard still hadn't arrived at the venue so Communic very kindly agreed to perform lower in the bill and earlier than anticipated. I saw Communic at ProgPower Europe last year where they delivered one of the sets of the festival. The same can be said of today as they mainly concentrate on their more up tempo, heavier songs and treat the PPUK audience to just over 40 minutes of sheer prog metal intensity. With their lengthy compositions combining elements of various metal sub-genres including power, heavy, thrash, and prog, Communic achieve an aurally pleasing balance between both retro and contemporary. Perhaps most astonishing is that with only 3 band members, they have such a euphonically pulsating and intense live sound. This is testament not only to their skilled musicianship both individually and as a band, but also their ability as live performers which results in an exhilarating and completely mind-blowing set. They do lose a little pace towards the end as penultimate song 'Under A Luminous Sky' from latest album 'Waves of Visual Decay' would perhaps have been better as a set closer than the less bombastic 'They Feed On Our Fear' from debut release 'Conspiracy In Mind', but there's no denying Communic's command of the stage and, in fact, the venue. The Norwegian 3 piece receive the best crowd reaction of the day so far with a largely animated audience chanting "Com-mun-ic...Com-mun-ic" by the end of their set. Sheer brilliance.
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