A Prog-Rock Renaissance? : Pop beat: Progfest '94 will showcase the grandiose genre's new generation. The Stanton-based co-director says the revived style that the 2-day event will feature is 'fresh and exciting.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With punk albums now selling in the millions, it's obvious that anything is possible in the music business. Maybe even a comeback for progressive rock.

One prog-rock partisan who is pushing hard for a renaissance of the form is Greg Walker, the Stanton-based co-director of Progfest '94, a two-day event that will showcase the state of the grandiose art with concert marathons at the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles on Saturdayand Sunday.

Appearing will be bands from Australia, Sweden, France, Utah, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and Northern California. Except for Sebastian Hardie, a '70s-vintage Aussie band that has regrouped to make its first U.S. appearance at the festival, the lineup is made up of a contemporary wave of musicians who haven't given up on a style that most music pundits would say collapsed under its own considerable weight somewhere around the time that punk rock became a force in the late '70s.

Walker says that prog-rock never went away and that new bands have formed continuously since the early- to mid-'70s heyday, when British bands like Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson and Pink Floyd gave progressive rock its shining moment of critical esteem and commercial mass-appeal.

"There are more (progressive) groups now than in history," Walker said. "There has always been a huge underground demand; there's this whole network. One Italian label, Mellow, has put out more than 250 albums in the last two years. It's huge in Japan, monstrous in Korea."

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And pretty mastodonic at Walker's house, where, he says, his collection of progressive-rock albums now numbers about 5,000 titles. Walker, 29, was too young to catch what most rock fans consider the golden age of progressive rock, but he fell hard for it when he was in his mid-teens.

"My older brother had a few Genesis albums. Believe it or not, the first thing I heard was 'Duke,' " he said, referring to a 1980 Genesis album that signaled the band's turn away from ambitious prog-rock constructs in favor of the more pop-oriented style that propelled it to wider popularity. "Then I heard 'Foxtrot' (a marvelous Genesis album from 1972) and I was knocked over."

Walker has since started his own label, Syn-Phonic Records, putting out 21 titles that include albums by new prog-rock bands as well as reissues and excavations of obscure '70s stuff.

In 1993, Walker and David Overstreet, a Gardena-based prog-rock fanatic and label owner, organized the first annual Progfest, a single-day event that sold out UCLA's Royce Hall. Now they have expanded to two days of music at the 1,000-capacity Variety Arts Center. The festival also includes a free convention/merchandise market from noon until 10 p.m. on Monday at the Hollywood Metropolitan Hotel, 5825 Sunset Blvd.

Walker says that Progfest is the only such event he knows of in the United States and that it will attract an international crowd of aficionados, with the festival-goers' average age in the late 20s.

The lineup on Saturday is Halloween (France), Kalaban (Utah), Echolyn (Pennsylvania) and Anglagard (Sweden). On Sunday, the bands are Episode (Northern California), Anekdoten (Sweden), Minimum Vital (France), Sebastian Hardie (Australia)and Giraffe (Los Angeles). Giraffe, led by Kevin Gilbert of Toy Matinee, will devote its set to an hourlong presentation of music from Genesis' 1974 opus, "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway."

Walker, for the record, rates "The Lamb" as one of his three all-time favorite prog-rock albums, along with Anglagard's "Hybris" (1992)and "YS," a 1972-vintage release by the Italian band Il Balletto di Bronzo.

As for the classic progressive bands that have soldiered on into the '80s and '90s, he said, "Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull retained a level of respectability. But (the latter-day efforts by) Genesis, Yes and E.L.P. are just god-awful albums, compared to what they used to be and to some of the great things that are out now."

In this era of chaotic thrash 'n' grunge, Walker thinks the pendulum could swing back toward the progressive style, with its elegant, stately song structures and meticulous performance ethic.

"You have a younger generation coming up, looking for new things," he said. "If people want to discover something new, fresh and exciting, this is it."

* Progfest '94 takes place Saturday and Sunday from 3 p.m. to midnight at the Variety Arts Center, 940 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles. $30 for both days; $20 for one day. (310) 329-7254 (festival information ), or (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).

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ANOTHER OPENING, ANOTHER CLUB: As curtain-raisers go, the one for the Kurtain, the latest of Orange County's weekly rock soirees catering to a grass-roots alternative crowd, wasn't that auspicious. Despite a solid lineup of bands last Thursday, including Primitive Painters, Battery Acid, Psychic Rain and Her Own Hands, the draw at the all-ages, no-alcohol venue was just 80 fans, according to promoter Kevin Knight.

However, the Kurtain, which is hosted by the Tunnel dance club (formerly Club Remixx) in Orange, has the potential to be a significant room for both local and touring bands.

It's a broad, spacious place, located in a row of warehouses just off the Orange Freeway, and its ceiling and stage are good and high. The interior is bat-cave black and is equipped with the booming sound system and dazzling lighting effects that dance clubs want.

All in all, it seemed like a less chilly, less trend-oriented version of Club Postnuclear, the defunct Laguna Beach dance club that made an unsuccessful stab at booking national rock attractions five years ago.

The room's bare surfaces made for a somewhat glaring sound, a problem that might be helped with more people in it to absorb the decibels. A metal support pole near the middle of the club could be death to moshers, but the Tunnel's owner, Jason Brooks, plans to cover it with safety padding. (Better yet, cover the moshers with safety padding and let them slam against the walls instead of taking up their usual prime viewing space directly in front of the stage.)

The biggest problem for the Kurtain on opening night was the overzealous tactics of the door security attendants.

In the gang-ridden '90s, we've come to expect pat-downs at the entrance to youth-oriented shows. But what the Tunnel's guardians administered was a heavy-handed, full-body rubdown, carried out with the searchee's legs spread and hands outstretched against the building, like a felony suspect.

The guards were polite, at least, even as I voiced my irritation with their procedures. Knight said he had other complaints about overly aggressive body searches (which were conducted only on males, giving an opening to any would-be Ma Barkers or Squeaky Frommes).

"They're not going to be doing it anymore," Knight said. "We had a nice, long talk about that, and it won't happen again." Brooks, the club owner, said he plans to equip security crews with metal-detector wands by this weekend to make searches less obtrusive.

With a show tonight headlined by Pansy Division, an avowedly gay Bay Area punk band championed by Green Day, and a Nov. 10 concert by the Skeletones, a well-established ska attraction, the Kurtain figures to get more exposure in coming weeks. Also booked is a Nov. 17 bill with Mean Season, Hed and Brother Vibe.

* Pansy Division, Armistice and Controlled Chaos and play tonight at 8:30 p.m. at the Kurtain, 612 N. Eckhoff St., Orange. $7. (714) 630-6128 (taped information).

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TROUBLE RETURNS: After six months of idleness following the defection of members Michael Bay and Mark Soden, Trouble Dolls is back on the circuit. The revamped lineup's first show is tonight at 10 at Fair City, 2020 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica.

Trouble Dolls' founders--singer John Surge and drummer Ron Cambra--have recruited former Cactus Jack member Jeff Donahue on guitar, and Rick Thompson on bass. Also scheduled are shows Nov. 16 at Linda's Doll Hut in Anaheim, and Dec. 8 at Roxbury South in Santa Ana (with National People's Gang). Surge says the new lineup is aiming for a spring release of the follow-up to Trouble Dolls' strong 1993 debut album, "Cement."

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