Butchers of Baghdad
Regression to the Mean
Entropy of the Century
New World Chaos
Ist or an Ism
Coven of Coyotes
Honey Key Jamboree
In the slightly unlikely timeframe of mid-August, two of Oakland’s finest bands, miRthkon and MoeTar, finally landed on the East Coast for their first-ever tour in this part of the country. Although the heat and humidity must have come as a shock to residents of a region blessed (at least in the eyes of this hot-weather hater) with a permanently mild, cool climate, the bands’ members – in spite of the inevitable tiredness and the less-than-ideal temperature inside the notoriously AC-less Orion Studios – acquitted themselves splendidly, and inaugurated their long-awaited tour with a bang.
Not surprisingly, seen the high level of praise garnered by both bands’ debut albums – miRthkon’s Vehicle (2009) and MoeTar’s From These Small Seeds (2010, reissued in 2012 with a new cover) – the venue was almost packed to capacity, with its usual “house party” atmosphere in full swing – folding chairs, coolers and small buffet of refreshments included. The lower-than-average temperature, helped by an almost strategically-timed summer storm that allowed some pleasantly cool air to waft into the crowded stage area from the open bay, made things more bearable – at least for the audience, because the bands had to cope not only with the intense humidity, but also with the heat generated by the stage lights. However, none of these adverse circumstances had any impact on the quality of either performance, which exceeded the attendees’ already high expectations.
Five-piece MoeTar had already elicited very positive reactions by West Coast prog fans, opening for the likes of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Allan Holdsworth in the past few months. Fronted by vocalist extraordinaire Moorea Dickason (aka Moe) – simply put, one of the best female voices I have had the privilege to hear in a long time – they share one member with miRthkon, multi-instrumentalist Matt Lebofsky. With his highly focused, somewhat serious mien, Lebovsky (who plays keyboards in MoeTar, and bass in miRthkon) was a perfect foil to Moorea’s boundless energy and thoroughly engaging stage presence. Sporting streaks of bright blue face paint that gave her an endearingly childlike look, she commanded the audience’s attention right from the first notes of opener “Butchers of Baghdad” with her jaw-dropping vocal acrobatics. While many female singers adopt a stereotypical melodic approach, often with rather tiresome operatic touches (and equally often sounding alarmingly alike), Moorea bends the music to her will, tackling vertiginous scales with seemingly no effort at all. MoeTar’s songs, built around her interpretation of Tarik (aka Tar) Ragab’s quirky, literate lyrics, offer a heavily eclectic mix of accessibility and complexity, with influences as far-ranging as traditional jazz, iconic acts such as XTC and Kate Bush, and a healthy pinch of RIO/Avant spice. Together with other modern North American bands such as 3Rdegree or Half Past Four, MoeTar are at the vanguard of what I call the “new frontier” of progressive rock, embracing the song form and giving it a much-needed overhaul, all the while shunning the blatant AOR leanings of other bigger-name bands or artists.
During their hour-long set, MoeTar treated the audience to a selection of tracks from their debut – including the haunting torch song for the 21st century “Never Home” and the superbly intense, hard-edged “Ist or an Ism” – plus a couple of tantalizing previews of their new album, which revealed a more experimental bent while remaining true to the band’s song-based approach. Individual performances were top-notch – from Matthew Heulitt’s assertive but consistently melodic guitar to Tarik Ragab and David M. Flores’ dynamic rhythm section and Lebofsky’s seamless handling of organ, synth and piano – but MoeTar are very much an ensemble operation, even if Moorea’s vocals may be the most obvious draw. Most importantly, the band members looked completely at ease on stage, conveying a genuine sense of enjoyment that reinforced the intelligent, yet down-to earth appeal of their music.
After a leisurely break dedicated to social interaction and purchase of CDs and assorted merchandise, miRthkon – that self-professed “amplified chamber ensemble masquerading as a rock band” – took to the stage, and proceeded to blow the roof off the venue with their highly energized, highly technical blend of almost everything under the sun (including classical music, with an unrecognizable version of Samuel Barber’s “Nocturne”). Possibly the most qualified pretenders to the Frank Zappa throne, with an idiosyncratic lineup that dispenses with keyboards but boasts a dual-guitar, dual-reed attack, they reinterpret the sometimes overly serious Avant-Prog aesthetic with a lightness of touch and oodles of absurdist humour that belie the mind-boggling complexity of their music. Indeed, miRthkon are not by any means minimalistic, and a glorious sense of bombast occasionally runs through their brilliantly-titled and –executed compositions.
Though dealing with the effects of a kidney stone discovered during the 3000-mile coast-to-coast drive, guitarist and founder Wally Scharold fulfilled his frontman duties with aplomb, his endearingly whimsical between-song banter adding to the entertainment value of the evening. Since the release of Vehicle, the band have replaced guitarist and co-founder Rob Pumpelly with Travis Andrews, who looked a bit shy at first, but then got nicely into the swing of things, proving an excellent sparring partner for Scharold. While drummer Matt Guggemos was hidden behind his bandmates, due to the distinctive configuration of the Orion stage, his often thunderous, but always creative drumming, in perfect synergy with Matt Lebofsky’s powerful yet sleek bass lines, lent both texture and dynamics to the band’s dazzlingly unpredictable sound. However, the duo of alto saxophonist Jamison Smeltz, with his impressive sideburns and amusing facial expressions, and “Goddess of the Cane” Carolyn Walter, in a bright blue dress and a funny head ornament that looked like a pair of small goat horns, were the true focus of attention. Both seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and their visual appeal went hand-in-hand with their boisterous musical contribution. For a band that calls itself by the slightly daunting tagline of “Oaklandish chambercore”, miRthkon were a lot of fun and, in their own peculiar way, much more approachable than many outfits bearing the RIO/Avant label. In fact, the music was never noisy or gratuitously chaotic, and the band’s inimitable sense of humour enhanced its appeal, avoiding the dour, needlessly convoluted stance that often gives Avant-Prog a bad rap.
As usual, the sound quality – masterfully engineered by Mike Potter, who looked as pleased as punch throughout the evening – was excellent, and brought out each of the bands’ distinctive qualities without beating the attendees’ eardrums into submission. A special mention goes to the selection of music played before and between sets – I never thought I would hear James Brown played alongside Blue Öyster Cult and more traditional fare at a progressive rock concert! I was also glad to see quite a few women and younger people among the audience. Indeed, the evening was also a celebration of female talent, with Moorea Dickason’s incredible vocal performance and Carolyn Walter’s masterful handling of her “forest of horns” – both talented, attractive women with a friendly, engaging attitude who manage to shine without capitalizing on their looks.
All in all, it was definitely one of the best shows of the past few years, and a very uplifting moment after the setbacks suffered by the US prog scene in recent times. These two bands are a brilliant example of proactive behaviour and genuine creative spirit, and deserve to have their efforts crowned with success. If they are playing anywhere near you, do yourselves a favour and make sure you do not miss them: their performance will dispel any doubts you might harbor about the future of progressive rock.