1. Irreducible Complexity
2. Manifest Density
3. Nacho Sunset
5. Disillusioned Avatar > Dub > Ephebus Amoebus
8. Okanogan Lobe
9. Bagua > Kan Hai De Re Zi > Third View
10. Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds
11. Fountain of Euthanasia
12. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari
13. Blues for a Bruised Planet
15. Middlebräu [encore]
Last year at NEARfest I had my first taste of Moraine’s music, even if in the months prior to the event I had often been tempted to check out their debut album, Manifest Density, after reading some flattering comments around the Internet. Unfortunately, my commitments as a reviewer did not allow me a lot of room for ‘recreational listening’, so to speak, so the day of Moraine’s performance found me still completely unfamiliar with their considerable talent. Those who have read my review of the festival will know that I considered Moraine to be probably the most authentically progressive band of the whole weekend, and one of my personal highlights together with Forgas Band Phenomena (an outfit whose music has some similarities with Moraine’s, though more noticeably influenced by the Canterbury sound). Even though they had been placed in the awkward slot of Sunday openers, and faced with an audience many members of which swooned at The Enid’s somewhat cheesy antics and thought that The Pineapple Thief were not ‘prog enough’ for the hallowed halls of the Zoellner Arts Center, they managed to gain quite a few fans – including my husband and myself. Indeed, we were so impressed by their performance that we went to meet the band after their set. In the following months, that first contact blossomed into a treasured friendship.
Even if somebody might think that my judgment as regards Moraine’s performance on the night of Saturday, April 30 (the third date of a 4-date Northeast tour) might be clouded by my personal feelings, I am quite capable of being objective, and would not spare any criticism if I believed it was in any way warranted. However, I am happy to say that Saturday’s gig at the Orion was an unqualified success. Having had almost a whole year to become familiar with Moraine’s output, this time I was able to appreciate every nuance of the show, as well as the subtle but noticeable modifications in their sound brought about by the line-up change that followed the release of Manifest Density. In spite of the hurdles faced by almost every independent outfit these days – lack of touring opportunities, real-life commitments and such – on the Orion stage Moraine came across as a well-oiled machine, the chemistry between the five members nothing short of amazing.
Those who have watched the seminal documentary Romantic Warriors will remember the Orion Studios, a former warehouse located in a decidedly unglamorous neighbourhood on the outskirts of Baltimore, yet possessed of a unique, club-like character. With a couple of couches, a few folding chairs and a table generally laid out with snacks and drinks, countless posters and flyers decorating the walls, a couple of weird figures hanging from the ceiling, it reminds me of the basements (or ‘cellars’) in the centre of Rome which, in the Eighties, functioned as both rehearsal spaces for bands and meeting points for their friends and supporters. In spite of the diminutive size of the main stage area, the place is like a maze, offering valuable recording and rehearsing spaces to local musicians. This quirky yet intimate backdrop was ideal for a band like Moraine, even more so than the immaculate NEARfest stage. As regards attendance, I judged about 50 people to be present – more than the band are used to attracting in their home town of Seattle, and a satisfactory turnout for a single-bill evening – even though last year I had seen twice as many people line up outside the venue in order to see a tribute band. This, unfortunately, seems to be the nature of the ‘prog community’ in the US Northeast, as I pointed out in the two essays I wrote after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation.
Though often tagged as ‘avant-garde’ (much to their amusement), like all truly progressive bands Moraine defy description. Their variegated backgrounds converge very effectively both on stage and on record, instead of resulting in a patchy mess: while their compositions – often penned by individual members rather than shared efforts – showcase their different approaches. With the dry, slightly self-deprecating humour that characterizes their interaction with the public, the band describe themselves as ‘omnivorous’. On the other hand, at least from what was seen at the Orion, they have not abandoned their rock roots – though of course there is not even a whiff of the time-honoured, though somewhat corny antics of the typical rock musician in Moraine’s stage presence. Even if towards the end of the set we were treated to a short drum solo, it was blessedly devoid of the cheesiness often inherent to such spots.
Coming on stage at about 8.30 p.m., the band delivered an extremely tight performance, richly eclectic and riveting in its intensity, interspersed by Dennis Rea’s brief but humorous introductions. A short break allowed both the band and audience to recharge their batteries, and from comments overheard during that time it was clear that the audience was won over by Moraine’s blend of chops and sheer enthusiasm. This was progressive rock with a capital P, fresh and innovative even when occasionally hinting at some ‘golden oldies’. Unlike far too many modern prog bands, Moraine manage not to sound like anyone else: the closest term of comparison would be King Crimson circa Red, though more in terms of attitude than actual sound, especially as regards the coexistence of melody and angularity, and the presence of both violin and reeds coupled with the conspicuous absence of prog’s ‘sacred cow’, the keyboards. The departure of cellist and band founder Ruth Davidson (a fan of Univers Zéro, as evidenced by her composition “Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”) has also altered the ‘chamber’ nature of the band in favour of a more dynamic approach, powered by Jim DeJoie’s assertive sax (which on Saturday night was a bit low in the mix).
To those who had read reviews of the band’s NEARfest performance described as ‘noise-drenched’ (something that, coupled with the ‘avant-garde’ tag, is guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the more conservative set of prog fans), the melodic quotient of Saturday night’s show is likely to have come as a surprise. The medley featuring Alicia DeJoie’s gorgeous “Disillusioned Avatar” and Kevin Millard’s “Ephebus Amoebus” aptly displayed the band’s more sensitive side; while the overtly jarring chaos of “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari” (wittily introduced as a ‘romantic ballad’, and probably the one track actually deserving of the ‘avant-garde’ tag) was followed by the melancholy beauty of “Blues for a Bruised Planet”. Millard’s distinctive-looking, customized Chapman stick (dubbed ‘baliset’ by the bassist, a long-time fan of Frank Herbert’s iconic Dune) meshed seamlessly with Stephen Cavit’s complex yet remarkably unflashy drum patterns, and Alicia DeJoie’s shiny purple violin caught the eye as well as the ear. Jim DeJoie (Alicia’s husband) expertly wielded his impressive saxophone, coming across as the most ‘physical’ member of the band. In fact, if I had to level one criticism at Moraine’s performance, it would concern their somewhat static presence, at least partially due to the size of the stage. Not that anyone was expecting Dennis Rea to start throwing guitar-hero-style shapes, though his solos revealed a definitely sharper rock bent than evidenced either on Manifest Density or in his other recent projects. Besides the jazz, rock and avant-garde influences, fans of world music were also catered for by the enchanting “Asian Suite”, featuring themes from three of the five tracks included on View from Chicheng Precipice, Rea’s first solo venture.
The show also provided Moraine with the opportunity to present some of the new material they had been working on in the past year or so – namely three intense, hard-hitting yet multifaceted numbers titled “Skein”, “Synecdoche” and “Fountain of Euthanasia”, which showed a band growing by leaps and bounds both in cohesion and on the compositional level. Like the material on Manifest Density, those new tracks are rather short for prog standards, yet brimming with energy and a kind of creative impulse divorced from sterile displays of technical skill. On the other hand, unlike the debut’s compositions, which in many ways represented each member’s temperament, the new numbers sound more clearly shaped by collective input. As impressive as Moraine’s debut was, their future – judging by what was heard on Saturday night – looks even brighter.
The wonderful musical experience was wrapped up by a night out in downtown Baltimore, complete with a walk through the city’s rather seedy red-light district and a late-night dinner (or perhaps early breakfast, since it was 2 a.m. when we sat down) at an ‘Italian’ restaurant – the kind that serves filling but rather unauthentic dishes such as spaghetti with meatballs. We also managed to get the last of the T-shirts and mugs designed expressly for the tour by David Gaines, a friend of the band and talented musician himself, based like us in the DC metro area. All in all, it was an evening that packed the friendly, laid-back vibe of a get-together at someone’s house with a select group of friends, as well as that community spirit that I have often mentioned in my reviews. Hopefully Moraine will be able to return to the Northeast soon after the release of their second album, which will mainly feature music recorded live at NEARfest.