Arc Iris Makes Prog Rock Cool Again

Review by Ben Williams

The Zoetical Festival sounds, looks, and possibly tastes like a twisted acid flashback. Lucid displays dance across the walls of Aurora, a year-old arts venue in downcity Providence. Inflatable globes hang from the ceiling, catching the fractured light of the disco ball at the center of the surreal room. Just when you think you know what’s going on, a group of demented creatures from Big Nazo Lab stroll in, reminiscent of the minions in Despicable Me, except with some sort of severe dermatological issue.

“Zoetical means to live life animatedly. I know Zoetical isn’t a word, but neither is animatedly. But that’s the point,” explains keyboardist Zach Tenorio to the bewildered crowd. His Providence-based band, Arc Iris, is hosting the festival each Friday this April, featuring local acts exclusively.

Arc Iris represents the best of prog rock spectacle, an integration of sound, visual art, and theatric performance. This night, they take the stage fourth, concealed behind a fabric cocoon cast in red light. A surreal drone announces the beginning of their set, and the cocoon falls forward, revealing lead vocalist Jocie Adams, dressed in a winged gold jumpsuit. In his silver-sequined costume, Tenorio looks like a young Marc Bolan. But he commands two keyboards like Rick Wakeman, while contributing stunning harmonies. Robin Ryczek attacks the cello with vicious strokes, also harmonizing flawlessly with Tenorio and Adams. Drummer Ray Belli keeps a steady beat, alternating between subdued interludes and thunderous crescendos. In an unexpected twist, Adams pulls out a clarinet mid-song.

I thought prog rock was one of those uncool quirks I’d left behind in junior high, along with corduroy jackets and young adult novels. But Arc Iris wasn’t pretentious or overblown, the traditional criticisms given to prog rock bands by their punk rock usurpers. The costumes aren’t distracting and the music certainly isn’t a sideshow for self-indulgent theatrics.

Adams, a Brown alum and former member of The Low Anthem, offers a mesmerizing performance. She beckons to the crowd with her unpredictable voice, a bit like a mixture of Björk and St. Vincent. At various points, she plays guitar, clarinet, and even joins Tenorio on a third keyboard.

Arc Iris performing at Aurora in Providence, RI for Zoetical Festival 2015.

Arc Iris is futuristic cabaret, reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s famous collaboration with Andy Warhol or perhaps pre-Phil Collins Genesis at their weirdest. Normally an octet, they’ve trimmed down to four members for the festival. The band builds on its folk pop foundations from their 2014 self-titled debut album. Folky three-part harmonies segue into bluesy 6/8 grooves amid doo-wop choruses that bring to mind Fats Domino. On “Powder Train,” Adams vocals are seductive and playful, whispering “Cocaine, cocaine.” The drone of the cello’s chords really grounds the melodies, allowing Tenorio space to explore on the keyboard. His mastery and passion for prog rock shouldn’t come as a surprise: as a teenager, he toured with Jon Anderson of Yes.

After a dreamlike set, the cocoon closes up, enveloping the band as Adams flaps her golden wings and wails one last note. The performance is over.

Then, a long interval. When you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, the RISD Creature Creation Show commences. It’s a multimedia extravaganza, a bizarre collaboration between RISD and the Big Nazo Lab in downtown Providence. The music takes a backseat to the theatrical performance. Prog rock spectacle becomes an avant-garde experiment. In the background, distorted guitar riffs mix with staccato synth lines to produce a psychedelic space rock vibe. On the background screen, a docufilm narrative shows goonish creatures dancing around a snow-covered Providence.

A demented scientist presents one creature after another. Dressed in a white anorak and futuristic goggles, the scientist inspects each subject. He ponders aloud, “How can they survive in a world that requires categorization?” The creatures struggle to articulate themselves, shuffling around the stage and mumbling gibberish. In the end, the crowd is invited on stage to dance with the alien creatures and a more potatoesque version of Karl Rove. The mad scientist concludes that we must accept the creatures as they are, even if we cannot categorize them as human or creature. “Every bundle of uncertainty contains a plan,” he declares maniacally.

The second day of the festival opened with the comforting folk of Andrea Belanger, a native of Fall River, Massachusetts. The crowd was then thrown across to the front lounge, where Dave and Amato Zinno of BASS OFF played upright bass duets that ranged from ethereal to groovy. Only fifteen minutes later, Amato was back in the main room playing melancholy folk songs with Haunt the House, a folk trio from Westerly, Rhode Island. Fronted by Will Houlihan on vocals, guitar, and harmonica, the group oscillates between Zinno’s dark bass lines and Bessie Bessin’s jubilant accordion playing. Houlihan whistles a chilling tune that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Morricone’s spaghetti western scores.

With an evening like this, you may not need to dream, or sleep for that matter. You won’t find a performance like the Zoetical Festival anywhere else. Arc Iris and the Big Nazo creatures will return to the stage April 17th and 24th, joined by other local groups like Math the Band, Brian Webb, and Death Vessel. On the 17th, they’ll do a full rendition of David Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory. The shows start around 8:00-9:00 pm and tickets are $10 at the door.

>> The Zoetical Festival at Aurora Providence 276 Westminster St.