In February 2014, Adam Wills and Laura Wiebe flew to Miami, embarked on a cruise ship, and indulged in four days’ worth of live progressive rock and metal. In lieu of a Progressive Nation at Sea 2014 review, they instead have chosen to recognize the highest achievements of the festivals participants with the Hellbound PNAS 2014 Awards. And the winners are…
Best use of hot tub: Haken
First off, bonus points for two members of Haken showing up on stage wearing bright green Ziltoid the Omniscient ball caps (available for purchase in the merch room). But the award for best use of a hot tub goes to drummer Raymond Hearn who, during the epic “Visions” (a 20+ minute track) took a break for a quick dip in the nearest hot tub, making it back to the kit just in time for some spot-on vocal harmonies. All before two in the afternoon. Plus, they played the excellent single “Cockroach King,” which was at least as awesome live as on record.
Most strings per band member: Animals as Leaders
One of the coolest things about a festival stacked with prog artists is the chance it gives you to see and hear musicians playing their instruments in less-than-conventional ways and producing sometimes surprising sounds. Animals as Leaders did this particularly and distinctively well. With their 8-string guitars, Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes definitely had the highest ‘number of strings per band member’ average on the ship, and they know how to use them.
Most notes per minute: Portnoy, Sheehan, MacAlpine, Sherinian
Put this many prog bands on a boat and you’re also bound to hear many demonstrations of speed and technical skill, but PSMS seemed to pack even more notes into the average measure than any other band playing. So much so that Mike Portnoy admitted even he found “Apocalypse 1470 BC” (a track from Derek Sherinian’s Planet X project), to be one of the most challenging he’s ever played.
Best collaboration: Anneke van Giersbergen and Danny Cavanagh
Most of the artists on Progressive Nation at Sea appeared as bands. Anneke van Giersbergen (former frontwoman of The Gathering) performed in that mode twice, singing with the Devin Townsend Project, but her feature sets featured just a woman and her acoustic guitar. It was an intimate, low-key affair, but not without its own virtuosic displays. That voice is one of a kind, and in a welcome semi-surprise, Danny Cavanagh (Anathema) joined Anneke on stage to perform songs like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird,” along with a couple of selections from The Gathering and Anathema. It was simply magical — the epitome of the ‘mini world peace’ on board the ship which Anneke had approvingly described.
Runner-up – best collaboration: Devin Townsend w/PSMS
During their second (this time poolside) set, Portnoy, Sheehan, MacAlpine and Sherinian announced they’d be taking advantage of a cruise ship full of top notch singers to step outside their instrumental-only repertoire. After performing Dream Theater’s “You Not Me” with Ted Leonard (Spock’s Beard/Transatlantic), the band brought out Devin Townsend for “Burning My Soul.” He arrived on stage wearing Oscar the Grouch shorts and carrying a tablet to sing a song he barely knew. He growlingly belted out some pretty fierce and recognizable choruses, but otherwise more or less adlibbed a comedy routine (Adam compared it to a wrestler’s “heel” persona) and ended off by saying he meant no respect but just never listened to Dream Theater. It was a divisive performance — unprofessional and even snarky in the eyes of a serious prog fan unfamiliar with Devin’s self-deprecating humour, but it was also hilarious and down-to-earth and a reminder that the peace, love and family vibe didn’t equate with absolute consensus.
Best response to technical difficulties: Riverside
Riverside’s first set, staged on the pool deck, was plagued with technical difficulties. After a delayed start things just kept getting worse — a series of microphone and mic cable problems, and when that seemed to be fixed, the gremlins sabotaged the guitar. There was no hiding the glitches, or the frustration, but as smoothly as possible the band played through the trouble, adapting their extended instrumental jam segments to fill the gaps and tossing in a little humour when that seemed to be running thin. Even with all these challenges, Riverside was still captivating and were able to make the most of that skill and charisma in their next spellbinding performance in the Spinnaker Lounge. Riverside also wins for ‘best mistaken identity story’, where the very tall and shoe-wearing Mariusz Duda described being mistaken for Steven Wilson.
Most heartwarming performance: King’s X
One of the first musicians we spotted on board (and ended up seeing most often) was bassist/vocalist Dug Pinnick, and he never seemed to tire or get annoyed with the constant stream of fans wanting to snap a photo with him or catch a moment of his time. On stage he seemed so incredibly overjoyed to be there, and King’s X performed each song as if they were happy to be alive and sharing these moments and melodies. Maybe that’s not so surprising, considering Pinnick is recovering from surgery funded in part through the help of fans, and drummer Jerry Gaskill survived a heart attack in 2012 — though hearing them perform tracks from their early albums you’re reminded this isn’t exactly new to the band. Besides exuding so much joy, Pinnick also told a very heartwarming story about his grandmother during the second performance of “Over My Head,” and it would’ve been hard to walk away from that stage without feeling deeply touched.
Most entertaining artist watching another artist: Vincent Cavanagh, enjoying King’s X
A standout among the many interesting aspects of an event like this is seeing which bands other musicians choose to watch. It was Danny Cavanagh who, during Anathema’s set, commented that seeing King’s X walk by had pretty much made his night. But during King’s X’s first performance, it was brother Vincent who was most obviously rocking out. During “Over My Head,” he even turned to the rest of us, urged us to to sing along and join in the clapping (or join more fervently if we already were taking part). Then he called out to us, “Do you hear music?” And who could say no to that? Apparently King’s X live were well worth a 20 year wait.
Most emotional intensity: Anathema
You might think the excitement of seeing Anathema live would dull with repetition, but the band invests so much emotion in each note that it’s hard not to get fired up again and again. Seeing as we’re pretty serious Anathema fans, maybe our getting fired up is not so surprising. But what actually was a bit of a shock to the system was how much less fired up we were, at least audibly, than the very vocal South American contingent (mostly from Chile and Argentina). There was hardly a moment without a small horde of people singing along, at times their voices rising to a (small-scale) tumultuous volume. And still, it could never match the emotional energy pouring off the stage.
Best nonappearance: Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation)
Pain of Salvation performed on Progressive Nation at Sea without their primary guitarist and vocalist, Daniel Gildenlöw, who was stuck at home in the hospital recovering from flesh-eating bacteria. Along with guest stand-in Clay Withrow, the rest of the band did an admirable job living up to expectations. But it was still nice to see Gildenlöw and hear a few words from him in video form as he introduced Pain of Salvation’s second set, reaching out as best he could when he was unable to join us in person.
Most ironic drink: Kaleidoscope
We sat in the Stardust Theater waiting for King’s X to start playing, sipping the themed drink of the night (a mix of pina colada and strawberry daiquiri sometimes known as the “Miami Vice”). Someone nearby asked about our colourful cocktail and when we shared its name — the “Kaleidoscope,” after the most recent Transatlantic album — he was rather amused. Turns out he was from the Transatlantic camp, and informed us that Mike Portnoy ‚ the man behind this entire event — is a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t drink and hasn’t for many years. (It was pretty damn tasty, nonetheless.)
There were too many amazing bands and excellent performances to give each the attention it deserves. But here are a few more honourable mentions:
Most striking contrast between look (eccentric) and sound (incredible): Anadale (vocalist/guitarist for Jolly)
Was it the bright yellow cap? The shiny hot pink athletic jacket? The low cut tank top? Or ‘all of the above’?
Most unique but functional piece of band merch: The Dear Hunter
The beard comb.
Best father/son appearance: Bigelf’s Damon Fox and son (who gave Mike Portnoy a break from the drums)
Also best use of two organs on one stage.
Most entertaining soundcheck: Anathema
Included an awful lot of ACDC.
Best shirt on the ship: Killer Cats from Outer Space
We had just been wowed by a beard-related shirt, and then a guy wearing this shirt walked by. Awesome.
See you at PNAS 2015?