Various Artists

Romantic Warriors II: A Progressive Music Saga About Rock in Opposition

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This 98-minute documentary, written, produced, and directed by Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder of the Washington, D.C. area's Zeitgeist Media, begins and ends at the 2011 Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux, France, and between those two bookends tells the story of this idiosyncratic movement -- or style, or whatever you want to call it -- that was birthed in the late '70s and has against all odds persisted on and off to the present day. Late in the film, festival organizer Michel Besset notes in his interview segment that RIO festival attendees travel to Southern France from all over the world, and Romantic Warriors II: A Progressive Music Saga About Rock in Opposition is sure to excite members of the small but enthusiastic audience for this music, whether or not they've been able to muster the cash and time to attend the annual festival started by Besset and Present founder/guitarist Roger Trigaux in 2007. RIO may not grab headlines among major media outlets, and its listening audience has always been on the fringe, but Zeitgeist goes a long way toward revealing why fans' enthusiasm for the music remains undimmed across the decades, and why RIO has undergone a bit of a resurgence these days: RIO bands made some tremendous -- if tremendously odd by commercial standards -- music starting back in the '70s, and 21st century RIO-influenced bands have matched and arguably even exceeded the creativity of their forebears.

Romantic Warriors II, as its title clearly indicates, is a sequel to Zeitgeist's 2010 progressive rock documentary Romantic Warriors. Focusing more narrowly on the "avant-prog" subset of prog rock, Romantic Warriors II follows the onscreen Holder (with Roland Millman providing voice-over narration) as he travels between locations in Europe and the U.S., interviewing key individuals involved in RIO's past, present, and -- as the evidence suggests -- future. The interviewees contributing recollections and opinions from various locales include Besset, drummer and ReR label head Chris Cutler, Aksak Maboul multi-instrumentalist and Crammed Discs founder Marc Hollander, producer Giorgio Gomelsky, Cuneiform Records' Steve Feigenbaum and the AltrOck label's Marcello Marinone, and members of RIO and RIO-associated bands from the '70s to the present day including Henry Cow's Cutler, Present and Univers Zero's Trigaux, Univers Zero's Daniel Denis and Michel Berckmans, Magma's Christian Vander, Art Zoyd's Gérard Hourbette, Hamster Theatre/Thinking Plague's Dave Willey and Mike Johnson, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's Carla Kihlstedt, Yugen's Francesco Zago, Aranis' Joris Vanvinckenroye, ubiquitous avant-prog drummer Dave Kerman, and more. Still shots of artists, album covers, and posters are interspersed with dodgy-quality archival concert video clips and higher-quality performance excerpts of recent vintage. At one point a masked and robed figure, seemingly having wandered off the set of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, roams cobblestone streets to the ominous strains of Univers Zero's "Jack the Ripper." And a sense of place is provided now and then by travelogue-ish tableaus of highway travel and various European settings, including an inevitable image of the twinkling nighttime Eiffel Tower.

The film's producers are enthusiastic RIO fans and undoubtedly preach mainly to the converted, but for newcomers unfamiliar with the story, Schmidt and Holder are effective documentarians as they delve into the initial RIO collective's birth and fade-out between 1978 and 1980, and the unlikely re-emergence, decades later, of RIO as a rather vaguely defined avant-prog "style." Cutler, with a soft-spoken and even somewhat professorial demeanor (particularly when he references the rock "form"), reminisces in front of a floor-to-ceiling wall of CDs as the film looks back at Henry Cow canceling their Virgin Records contract and organizing 1978's first RIO festival in London, featuring "five rock groups the record companies don't want you to hear." Aside from Henry Cow themselves, the other four groups were Belgium's aforementioned Univers Zero, Sweden's Samla Mammas Manna, France's Etron Fou Leloublan, and Italy's Stormy Six; after the festival, all five joined together in the Euro-centric RIO collective to perform, record, and distribute their music -- and major labels be damned. Art Zoyd, Aksak Maboul, and (after the dissolution of Henry Cow) Art Bears later joined RIO, but by 1980 the collective was no more. However, in subsequent years avant-prog groups scattered around the globe would explore similar sonic territory and, as Cuneiform's Feigenbaum describes, would find themselves described as RIO even if they hadn't consciously sought out that connection; hence the transition of RIO from a festival, to a collective, and then to a style -- and finally back to a festival again.

As it tells the RIO story from the '70s to the present day, Romantic Warriors II is smartly paced and covers all the points an aficionado could possibly want, although at times Schmidt and Holder have a difficult -- if not impossible -- task in doing justice to the music itself. While avoiding the bombast of mainstream prog rock, the groups profiled herein play complex and often lengthy compositions with an instrumental focus. Melding rock with modern classical (often post-minimalist) approaches, European folk, collective improvisation, and more, the music is typically absent easy hooks and cannot be fully appreciated in brief snippets. Yet this is a documentary, not a collection of music videos, and in order to maintain narrative momentum and keep to a manageable length overall, the film is necessarily filled with snippets as far as the music is concerned. [Thankfully, the "Special Features DVD" Got RIO?, released by Zeitgeist Media in early 2013, provided an hour of performance videos from ten of the avant-prog groups/artists featured in the original documentary.]

Henry Cow are, in fact, one of the groups most ill-served by their bit of archival live footage; Dagmar Krause was RIO's finest vocalist, but a comparatively brief glimpse of her singing "Beautiful as the Moon, Terrible as an Army with Banners" (that title alone should be a tip that we aren't in Billboard chart territory) barely touches upon her -- or the group's -- artistry. One might also quibble about the screen time afforded to Magma drummer/leader Christian Vander; Magma actually predated RIO, but were not part of the original RIO festival or collective (as the filmmakers note), although the band inspired the original RIO groups to realize they could achieve some measure of success playing utterly unique music and could organize themselves to perform and record free of the shackles of the corporate music world. Plus, Vander is still helming a band called Magma, has repeatedly played at today's RIO festival, and squeezed in the time to be interviewed for this project. (Where is Fred Frith, by the way?) Yet, despite Cutler's own testimonial to Magma's alleged groundbreaking meld of John Coltrane jazz, Carl Orff classical, and James Brown funk, and Vander's claim that the band rejected "the flowers and the peace and love side of things" back in the '60s, the recent live performance excerpts here may, to the uninitiated, hew uncomfortably close to a weird Teutonic version of Jesus Christ Superstar. In terms of groundbreaking '60s artists who helped pave the way for the decidedly Eurocentric RIO, the film thankfully and accurately also gives shout-outs to Frank Zappa, who might've been crowned the King of RIO had he been born in Belgium instead of Baltimore (where a replica of Lithuania's Zappa bust -- wearing a Santa Claus hat -- was helpfully available to be filmed).

Given the focus on Magma, Henry Cow, Univers Zero, and Present during the film's early going, the newbie viewer could easily conclude that RIO is characterized by severity and humorlessness, but that impression abruptly changes when the filmmakers turn their attention to Samla Mammas Manna, a band that encapsulated the lighter side of RIO, with a Swedish TV clip of the band featuring Lars Hollmer jabbing his keyboard and yelping in falsetto while Afro-haired guitarist Coste Apetrea is all smiles as his fingers fly around the fretboard. Of the original RIO five, France's Etron Fou Leloublan also emerges as quirky yet fun. And performance clips of later groups like Quebec's Miriodor and Colorado's Hamster Theatre also reveal that complexity and accessibility are not mutually exclusive; in their interviews, Hamster Theatre's Dave Willey acknowledges a debt to the late Hollmer, as does Miriodor's Pascal Globensky, and Hollmer and Miriodor are briefly featured playing together at the 2005 Gouveia (Portugal) Art Rock Festival, in a performance also captured in full on With Floury Hand (Sketches), the posthumous Hollmer CD/DVD set released on Cuneiform in 2012. (Willey emerges on Romantic Warriors II as a musician equally at ease in the RIO "accessible" and "difficult" camps, as leader/accordionist in Hamster Theatre and bassist in Mike Johnson's harmonically challenging and jaggedly uncompromising Thinking Plague, and with Johnson -- who professes a lack of familiarity with the "Rock in Opposition" term during his band's earlier years -- also playing in Hamster Theatre, Johnson would appear to be comfortable in both camps as well.)

Ultimately, Romantic Warriors II gains its true sense of purpose when it begins to come full circle near its concluding moments back at the 2011 RIO festival, and presents the case for RIO remaining viable, and indeed groundbreaking, after over three challenging decades for the artists involved (it becomes clear at points in the documentary that no one appears to be getting rich from this music). As head of Cuneiform, one of the labels most responsible for keeping the RIO "sound" alive on disc over the years, Steve Feigenbaum speaks with authority about the history of the movement and its artists (and Cuneiform has continued as an avant-prog force into the 21st century), but the filmmakers also reserve a bit of interview space for Marcello Marinone, head of the Italian AltrOck label, which has recently helped to keep the RIO flame burning with an impressive stable of artists worldwide, including the stupendous Yugen, featured in another of Romantic Warriors II's performance clips.

And among the brightest new bands among the current crop is the Belgian acoustic chamber rock group Aranis (another AltrOck group), who joined with Univers Zero and Present to form a 17-member mammoth aggregation that performed at the RIO festival under the moniker Once Upon a Time in Belgium. Aranis' phenomenal bassist/composer Joris Vanvinckenroye (aka BASta!) gets some screen time, as does Kurt Budé, a young (well, younger than Daniel Denis) reedman from the current Univers Zero lineup who composed a piece entitled "New York Transformations" for the Once Upon a Time in Belgium concert. Again, this documentary can only feature a short excerpt from the piece, but that excerpt is sufficient to get a sense of the power, drama, and beauty of "New York Transformations" and the spectacle of these Rock in Opposition musicians, old guard and new, stretched across the stage. RIO fan Thomas Däbritz is interviewed after the show and proclaims it to be the "best performance I've ever heard in my life," and Romantic Warriors II makes a strong case that his enthusiasm was warranted. With artists like Vanvinckenroye and Budé among the latest arrivals to this longstanding, far-flung community of avant-proggers, and fans like Däbritz buying their recordings and attending their shows, some great days could still lie ahead for Rock in Opposition.