In the mid 1990s, heavy metal in the United States was hanging on by a thread. The ’80s were an amazing time for the entire heavy metal realm. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal blossomed with titans like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, as well as the speed-obsessed Motörhead paving the way for the thrash metal genre to come into its own. By the middle 1980s, thrash metal gave way to death and black metal, and the heaviest music genre became even more evil and even more extreme. But there have always been bands that eschewed the extreme, and focused on what made those late ’70s and early ‘80s metal bands so special. It was the classical influence upon bands like Iron Maiden and their followers that made them so revolutionary. Gone were the days of blues-based riffs. Guitar as an instrument became a respected medium for classical modes, scales and chords, and the guitarists that utilized this to its maximum potential never looked back.
When Germany’s Helloween came around in the mid 1980s, their sound was raw and “speed metal,” falling midway between thrash metal’s aggressive attack and the technical prowess of the more classically trained bands. It was the power metal suite Keeper of the Seven Keys (pt. 1 & 2) that became the archetype that all “power metal” bands would aspire to for years to come. But as genres go, “power metal” wouldn’t become part of the mainstream lexicon for several years.
In another sector of the galaxy, progressive (“prog”) rock bands flourished in the 1970s. Bands like Rush, Yes, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer ruled the roost for folks who loved a more elevated sense of technical skill yet weren’t quite looking for the raw aggression of heavy metal bands. But it was only a matter of time before heavy metal musicians looked at what the progressive bands of their youth were doing and wanted to apply that to the metal way of composition.
So we fast-forward to the middle 1990s. In the United States, heavy metal as a mainstream form of music had been replaced by grunge rock, “alt-rock,” and other more palatable forms of music. The underground was still releasing some of its most creative material, and new metal subgenres were popping up left and right. There were whole countries in Europe that had different regional “sounds” based on what towns bands were from and where their albums were being recorded. In Europe, heavy metal was still a mighty force. But in America, metal was on its deathbed as a profitable art form, and labels were dropping bands left and right. There may be a few cherished albums here and there put out by metal bands in the States, but let’s face it—hindsight is valuable for keeping some bands’ legacies secure, but with few exceptions this music wasn’t making any serious money for anyone by 1996.
The first band I heard from the new wave of European “power metal” was Hammerfall. I remember in high school, I saw this older kid wearing one of their shirts. It had this mighty warrior in full armor hoisting a hammer to the sky with lightning all around. To my skinny, wimpy, nerdy self it was the coolest thing I had ever seen on a band shirt. Then I heard Blind Guardian. Then I found other bands. All of the ones I heard of were from far-out Scandinavian countries and pockets of the world I had only ever done stupid projects on in geography class.
By the time I reached my late teenage years, I was a full-on metalhead. Somehow I elevated myself past the nu-metal fad, and found all these amazing European bands that satisfied in a way that Slipknot and Linkin Park just couldn’t. They weren’t playing blues; they weren’t playing rap rock with growled vocals. They were playing the classical music of their homeland with the best drumming I’d ever heard and guitar solos that I didn’t think were humanly possible.
ProgPower USA popped up in 2001, and since I was still in high school, it was under my radar. The Internet was a thing then, but it wasn’t quite what it is today and I was a little too young to be looking for bands the way I did when I was older. But those early ProgPower festivals—one in Chicago, and the rest in Atlanta, Georgia—were responsible for the American debuts of some of the biggest bands in the progressive and power metal genres. Nightwish played their first American show there. Blind Guardian. Gamma Ray. Pain of Salvation. Stratovarius. These are bands that sell out arenas in their homelands. These are bands that headline shows with tens of thousands of fans during the European festival season. These are bands that never had a live American audience until they played the ProgPower stage. And those early festivals sold out in record time. The adult fans of those European bands had never been able to see those bands until finally—FINALLY—they were showing up on one stage together.
Because I’m so close to those involved with the festival, I know it was a special time. And in the United States, the fervor over those big sold out festivals only opened the door for those same European bands to come and have successful tours of North America. By the 2010s, Nightwish was selling out big rooms in most US cities. Blind Guardian did a few headlining tours. Sonata Arctica headlined in major cities. It was amazing to see this happen.
But as touring packages became all the rage, the thing that made ProgPower so exclusive waned a bit. The core audience knew they were going to see one the most professionally run and high quality festivals in the country. But those who were coming to Atlanta just because of the “Wow!” factor of bands they never thought they’d see live were deciding it might not be the best to spend all that money to come down again.
It’s the core audience that stayed, however. That group of diehards that continued to flock to the official ProgPower online forum. That group of hardcore fans that party in hotel courtyards every year like it’s a goddamned family reunion. That group of folks that hug each other while bands play—because they know they’re only going to get that feeling once a year. Somehow, despite the festival being all about the music, a family had formed. There is a bond with the core group of people that come year in and year out that defies logic and is beyond words. I joined this family in 2005, when Stratovarius made their US debut. It was the year Israel’s Orphaned Land tore that room to shreds. It was the year Circus Maximus became in-house legends. It was also the year that my friends introduced me to people by my online screen-name. In just a few short days, I became one of them. And I haven’t missed the festival for a year since then.
What I saw in the late 2000s was a less than stellar performance for ticket sales. Festival promoter Glenn Harveston admitted that he was running out of ideas for festival headliners. Everyone that could have that “Wow!” factor had already played. The ones remaining had either broken up or were too expensive to ever bring over to the States. There were those in the family who feared the end. We all knew it will end at one point, but we feared it would end all too soon. The party had just begun! But business is business; we all knew Glenn wouldn’t lose all that money just so we could have a good time. There was even a point where he came to us seeking financial help. It wasn’t begging. It was a proposition: “If you want this to continue, show me how much it means to you.” I contributed. Just about all of us contributed. And the festival continued. But we knew that the fire was turning to smoke, and the candle had all but melted.
As the 2010s began to mature, a trend in the heavy metal scene began to emerge. Bands that had formed in the 1980s had reached legendary status. The titanic legacy of bands that paved the way for the future was secure, and those bands were paying their fans thanks by giving performances no one thought viable. Rather than touring on the strength of their most recent output, bands like Judas Priest were playing classic albums in full. The British Steel tour alone is an example that in the right setting, these trailblazers could fulfill both the dreams of their old-school fans and the newer ones alike. And Harveston did his magic on that same trend. Classic bands like Savatage and Pain of Salvation planned sets based on highly revered albums. Even the festival kick-off shows embraced this trend. In 2014, ProgPower USA featured five bands playing classic albums entirely, to the massive delight of fans. That prospect in part sold the festival out in record time.
And don’t think that the sell-out wasn’t significant. 2014’s ProgPower was supposed to be the last one. Harveston had it all figured out. Savatage’s Jon Oliva would play “When the Crowds Are Gone,” the curtain would close, and ProgPower USA would be no more. But the festival sold out in 2013. All tickets were gone; the money was made. 2014 was supposed to be the last hurrah. But as Harveston himself noted in the official ProgPower XV program: “Fifteen was a solid number… I was done. Good night. And you went and fucked it all up. You sold the show out… [and] it was the third fastest sell-out in ProgPower USA history. I was awestruck… See you next year.”
On the second to last night of ProgPower XV, 2015’s announcement was made. There were fewer “full album” sets, but the fervor was still there. The energy for next year continued. And the team behind ProgPower USA was ready. They will say their social media presence gets a ton of credit. And I agree. But what I also think happened in 2014 was that the family grew. It grew bigger than it ever had. Because of the “Wow!” factor of some of those sets, new people entered into the family for the first time. Members of the family that couldn’t make it during those troubling times made the effort in 2014 and knew that they couldn’t miss another one.
And ProgPower XVI sold out in less than a week. LESS THAN A WEEK. This was a festival that didn’t know its own future just a few years ago. Now, it’s the titanic force it was when I was still picking a college major.
And here’s why this matters: ProgPower is the reason these bands have an audience in the United States. They’ll never play huge arenas here. The USA will likely never have a festival that rivals the size of Wacken or Bloodstock or Hellfest (although Maryland Deathfest gives it the best shot). But the bands that play ProgPower, every single one of them, remember the times they had in Atlanta and want to come back. They want that crowd. They want that experience. They’re part of the family too! And that is what makes the difference. The best part? The guy who was desperate for supporters just a few years ago has already announced ProgPower 2016. Heavy metal might have once been on its deathbed. But it never died. I’ll see y’all in Atlanta.