Tolkien representation 

ProgPower snares fantasy metal's hard-to-define fan base

EarthLink Live, Nov. 16 -- The progressive and power metal fan is a different breed of rocker. At this weekend's two-day ProgPower festival, there was clearly a vibe unique to this bunch.

Both prog-metal and power metal are based largely on fantasy. As such, bands come puffed up with larger-than-life bravado and often depict -- in music and album art -- extravagant worlds littered with characters you might encounter in novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. Subsequently, these fans often find themselves the butt of snide remarks. They're the odd ones out, as it were. Black- and death-metalheads -- convinced that heavy metal must be played with seizure-inducing aggression -- think they're wimps. Meanwhile, nü-metallers think they're intellectual dorks who don't know how to party.

Surprisingly, though, ProgPower's Saturday night finale featured a complete absence of pretension. We can snicker about fantasy metal's propensity for falsetto screams and guitar solos, but damn if these fans didn't turn out in droves to do nothing more than gulp down jewel-encrusted goblet after jewel-encrusted goblet of the music they love. And who can fault them for that?

After worming through a crowd that was as fascinating to observe as the featured acts, I ducked into EarthLink Live's circular theater for a peek at the Devin Townsend Band. If Peter Frampton had fathered an amusingly sinister Jim Henson puppet, it might look something like this animated loon. Added to the festival bill with help from local metal 'zine producer Jim Raggi, Townsend opened his set with a verse from fellow Canadian Brian Adams' "Summer of '69." After several more songs, he admitted with a grin that his music didn't exactly fit the festival format. Judging by the enthusiastic crowd response, nobody noticed.

Meanwhile, in the lobby, a young Asian woman who spoke no English clasped an armful of merchandise. A Hispanic guy hanging out at the bar, his long black hair draped over his leather vest and Judas Priest T-shirt, was asked to distinguish between progressive and power metal. "I'm into all kinds of metal," said Santiago Gonzalez.

Here mostly to see Blind Guardian and Ed Guy, Gonzalez had difficulty defining power metal. Asked if it was anything like Priest, he replied, "No, that's classic metal."

A more typical white male attendee, Bryan Smith, was about head back home to South Carolina. "Devin Townsend is the only real progressive band here," he said. "The rest just fit into the progressive metal category, you know -- odd time changes and long songs."

Thirty-three-year-old James Dennis, who flew all the way from Brooklyn, N.Y., for the festival, was a perfect example of what metal labels and marketers like about prog- and power metal. Dennis could be seen leaving with several CDs on his way out the door.

"The crowd here is a lot older than a lot of other metal crowds," said Andreas Katsambas, curator of label/distribution company The End Records. "They're peaceful and they have jobs, so they have money to spend."

Back in the arena, Germany's Gamma Ray -- clad in denim and chest-barring leather -- rocked like the late '80s were in full swing. Digital cameras (taking the place of lighters) dotted the landscape as members of the crowd sang along and pumped their fists.

Whatever one might think about progressive and power metal -- and even if it's still unclear exactly what those terms mean -- one thing can't be denied: Ground zero for both was here in Atlanta last weekend.



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