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yugen mirrors

TRACKLISTING:
1. On the Brink (0:59)
2. Brachilogia7  (3:09)
3. Catacresi5 (6:39)
4. La Mosca Stregata ( 0:57)
5. Overmurmur (5:30)
6. Industry (7:50)
7. Cloudscape (10:38)
8. Ice (1:55)
9. Becchime (12:38)
10. Corale Metallurgico (9:19)

LINEUP:
Paolo Ske Botta – organ, electric piano, synth
Valerio Cipollone – soprano sax, clarinets
Jacopo Costa – marimba, vibes
Maurizio Fasoli – piano
Matteo Lorito – bass
Michele Salgarello – drums
Francesco Zago – guitar

Founded in 2004 in Milan (Italy) by guitarist/composer Francesco Zago and AltrOck Productions mainman Marcello Marinone, Yugen (a core concept of  Japanese aesthetics that can be roughly translated as “profound grace and beauty”) took the progressive rock scene by storm with the 2006 release of their debut album, Labirinto d’Acqua – a supremely accomplished slice of chamber rock following in the footsteps of the original Rock in Opposition movement. Their second album, Uova Fatali, came two years later, and was based on music composed by Stormy Six’s Tommaso Leddi; while their third effort, Iridule (2010), was widely hailed as a masterpiece of the RIO/Avant subgenre.

An ensemble rather than a conventional band, Yugen revolve around a core group of Zago, keyboardist Paolo Ske Botta (often mentioned in this blog for his work as AltrOck’s in-house graphic artist) and pianist Maurizio Fasoli, joined in 2008 by reedist Valerio Cipollone, and augmented by a number of high-profile guest artists (including  mainstays of the US Avant Progressive scene such as Dave Kerman, Dave Willey, Elaine DiFalco and Mike Johnson,  and Guy Segers of Univers Zéro fame) In September 2011, almost exactly one year after Iridule’s release, the band appeared at the fourth edition of the Rock in Opposition festival, organized in the southern French town of Carmaux. Their performance as a seven-piece –a short excerpt of which is featured in Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s documentary Romantic Warriors II – was captured on CD with the assistance of Orion Studios owner Mike Potter, and released at the tail end of 2012 with the title of Mirrors.

Though some may have wondered about Yugen’s ability to recreate Zago’s astonishingly intricate, painstakingly orchestrated compositions as a mere seven-piece rather than as an ensemble of up to 18 musicians (as in their studio albums), any doubts will immediately be dispelled by the sheer quality of the performances recorded on Mirrors. In spite of the constraints –  such as the allegedly short time dedicated to rehearsal – the band as a whole handle the complexities of the music with remarkable flair, without sounding cold or clinical as the highbrow quality of the material might suggest. While Zago’s main sources of inspiration as a composer (as pointed out by Sid Smith in his excellent liner notes) lie in both Renaissance and 20th-century classical music, his earlier rock roots often surface. His dense guitar riffs provide a backdrop for the constantly shifting dialogue between reeds and keyboards, bolstering the impeccable work of Michele Salgarello and Matteo Lorito’s rhythm section – which tackles daunting tempo changes with admirable composure. The music blends sharp angles and smooth curves, flowing naturally even at its most intricate, with melody lurking in the most unexpected places and revealing the unmistakable Italian imprint of this quintessentially cosmopolitan outfit.

The almost 60-minute album features 10 tracks drawn from Labirinto d’Acqua and Iridule, rearranged so as to adapt to the more rigid configuration of a live band. The longest, more intense compositions are concentrated in the second half of the album, which is introduced by a stunning version of Henry Cow’s iconic “Industry” (from the English band’s final release, 1979’s Western Culture). With their deeply intellectual titles reflecting the nature of the music, the compositions are arrestingly complex, though with a sense of organic warmth that is sometimes lacking in the production of highly celebrated bands belonging to the same movement.

Introduced by the dramatic drums and piercing, sustained guitar of “On the Brink”, the set unfolds with two tracks from Labirinto d’Acqua. The shorter “Brachilogia” weaves a sinuous, slightly dissonant tune, beefed up by guitar riffs and high-energy drumming, in which clarinet and marimba share the spotlight, interspersed by subdued piano passages; while “Catacresi” fully deploys Paolo Botta’s arsenal of keyboards, ranging from the sharp whistle of the synth to airy, atmospheric passages that would not be out of place on a Genesis album, creating a sort of cinematic tension. The instruments at times converge in perfect unison, at others pursue their individual paths, though with a constantly perceptible sense of inner discipline.

After the brief respite of “La Mosca Stregata”, “Overmurmur” barges in with an almost strident, apparently chaotic development, each instrument thrown in sharp relief, gradually mellowing out towards the end. The aforementioned “Industry” renders the martial, intense mood of the original, though softening its abrasive quality and spotlighting the deep, slightly hoarse rumble of the organ. On the other hand, “Cloudscape” reveals a different facet of Zago’s creative inspiration, its 10 minutes a masterpiece of skillfully handled atmospherics that paint a breathtaking sonic picture of the title. The track develops fluidly and elegantly, its sounds beautiful and melodic albeit not in a conventional, mainstream sense, slowing down almost to a whisper before the end. In the short, entrancing “Ice” – originally conceived as a showcase for Elaine DiFalco’s distinctive contralto, with lyrics by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney  – the vocals are replaced with a wistful clarinet line redolent of Debussy, preparing the listener for the one-two punch of “Becchime” and “Corale Metallurgico”. The former is the kind of composition that is likely to send fans of melodic prog running for the exits, and makes indeed for demanding listening. Unabashedly cerebral and gloriously intricate (and twice as long as the studio version featured on Iridule) its multiple, angular twists and turns and bristling sound effects evoke the squawking of the chickens referenced in the title (becchime means “chicken feed” in Italian). Also true to its title, album closer “Corale Metallurgico” conveys a powerful industrial feel, with peaks of intensity ebbing into rarefied pauses, and moments of almost unbridled chaos suddenly morphing into a dynamic flow.

Presented in a visually stylish package with outstanding artwork and photography (courtesy of Paolo Botta, Lutz Diehl and Alessandro Achilli), as well as Sid Smith’s thought-provoking liner notes, Mirrors captures one of the foremost standard-bearers of contemporary cutting-edge progressive rock at the very height of its creative powers. Although the music may not always be what one would term accessible, even staunch followers of the more traditional branches of prog might find something to appreciate in the album’s pristine beauty. An absolute must for fans of RIO/Avant –Prog and chamber rock, Mirrors is sure to go down as one of the standout releases of 2012.

Links:
http://us.myspace.com/yugenband

https://www.facebook.com/Yugentheband

http://production.altrock.it/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Irreducible Complexity (3:39)
2. Manifest Density (3:45)
3. Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds (4:07)
4. Disillusioned Avatar/Dub Interlude/Ephebus Amoebus (10:25)
5.  Disoriental Suite (11:46):
a) Bagua
b) Kan Hai De Re Zi
c) Views from Chicheng Precipice
6. Kuru (4:31)
7. The Okanogan Lobe (7:36)
8. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (3:44)
9. Blues for a Bruised Planet (4:35)
10. Waylaid (5:31)
11.  Middlebräu (9:09)

LINEUP:
Dennis Rea – guitar
Alicia DeJoie – violin
James DeJoie – baritone sax, flute, percussion
Kevin Millard – NS/Stick (8-string extended-range bass)
Stephen Cavit – drums, percussion

Two years after the release of their debut album, Manifest Density, Seattle-based quintet Moraine enjoy an impressive reputation as one of the most eclectic outfits on the modern progressive rock scene, purveyors of music that, while constantly dynamic and challenging, is never devoid of atmosphere and melody. In the months between the release of the album and their career-defining performance at NEARfest 2010, the band, led by veteran guitarist and composer Dennis Rea, underwent a lineup change, with the departure of cellist Ruth Davidson and drummer Jay Jaskot that determined a distinct shift in their sound.

For their sophomore effort – bearing the brilliant name of Metamorphic Rock, which, like the band’s own, reflects Dennis Rea’s passion for geology and mountaineering, as well as referring to the metamorphosis undergone by the band – Moraine have chosen a rather unconventional format. Though it is a live album, capturing their NEARfest set in crystal-clear detail, it focuses on new, unreleased material as much as on compositions originally featured on Manifest Density. The latter have been rearranged to accommodate the obvious differences in sound due to the presence of a baritone saxophone instead of a cello, their running time often extended as if to indulge the average prog fan’s preference for longer tracks.

With five members coming from very different musical backgrounds, Moraine are quite unlike conventional prog bands in being much less prone to reproduce their compositions verbatim when on stage, and thrive on freedom of improvisation. This diversity results in a headily eclectic direction, blending rock with jazz, funk, blues, world music and avant-garde, which however never descends into the sprawling “kitchen sink” approach adopted by many acts, with often debatable outcomes. Since its very beginning, Moraine has been a collaborative effort, with every member getting an opportunity to contribute to the songwriting – even if Dennis Rea gets the most credit on this album as a composer. As much as he is the band’s mouthpiece and most experienced member, even a cursory listen to either of Moraine’s albums will reveal a dense, tightly woven structure in which all instruments bring their own distinctive voice, and no one overwhelms the other.

The 11 tracks chosen for the band’s NEARfest set highlight their unique dynamics and the wide range of influences and ideas that characterize their compositional approach. Traces of their beginnings as a “chamber rock” outfit (or, as Rea puts it, a string quartet with drums) emerge occasionally throughout the set, but the definite rock turn taken by the band is hard to miss. In its three minutes, opener “Irreducible Complexity” effectively sums up the “new” Moraine: written by James DeJoie, it emphasizes how seamlessly the saxophone has become part of the whole, replacing the solemn drone of the cello with its more forceful tone, acting both as foundation (together with Stephen Cavit’s understated but subtly propulsive drumming and Kevin Millard’s versatile 8-string bass) and as a protagonist, in combination with the flowing, melodic strains of Alicia DeJoie’s violin and Rea’s clear, almost tinkling guitar.

Interestingly, the majority of Moraine’s compositions seem to make use of a leitmotiv device, a main theme, generally introduced right from the beginning, which crops up in different parts of a song, rendering it more memorable as well as more cohesive. This device is also explored by “Manifest Density”, with its catchy guitar-sax-violin riff, and the more angular “Kuru” – as well as newer material like the hauntingly majestic “The Okanogan Lobe”, and the forceful, slightly chaotic “Waylaid”. Like many of those RIO/Avant bands they have often been compared with, Moraine balance beautifully melodic, lyrical sections, dominated by Alicia DeJoie’s soaring violin, with others where a carefully controlled chaos seems to reign. “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” represents the band’s noisier side; while in the 10-minute medley of “Disillusioned Avatar/Dub Interlude/ Ephebus Amoebus”, all the different souls of Moraine are given a voice – from the gorgeously melancholy, violin-driven beginning – a masterpiece of careful atmosphere-building with its loose, rarefied texture – to the lazy reggae pace of the “dub interlude” (which allows the rhythm section to step into the limelight), finally climaxing with an effects-drenched, free-jazz workout.

Running at almost 12 minutes, the amusingly-named “Disoriental Suite”, based on Dennis Rea’s solo album Views from Chicheng Precipice illustrates Moraine’s more meditative side, opening with a gentle, lilting melody enhanced by James DeJoie’s flute, and culminating with a sparser, more experimental, violin-led section. As its title implies, the somber mood of “Blues for a Bruised Planet” – a fresh take on the old warhorse of the blues ballad – expressed by the mournful voice of the sax and reinforced by violin and guitar, stems from Dennis Rea’s deep concern with the sorry state of Planet Earth. My personal favourite from the band, the towering “Middlebräu”, closes the album with a bang, its funky intro followed by a short, snappy drum solo, and then culminating with the gorgeous, slow-motion coda in which the interplay between guitar and violin reaches unparalleled heights.

The sheer quality of the recording (mixed by legendary Seattle-based engineer Steve Fisk) and the brilliance of the individual performances more than compensates for the editing of Rea’s unassumingly witty on-stage banter – my only quibble about an otherwise outstanding album. As I pointed out in my review of the 2010 edition of NEARfest, Moraine were by far the most authentically progressive band on the bill. Moreover, their particular brand of “East-meets-West” is quite far removed from cheesy attempts at exoticism for its own sake, but rather motivated by genuine love and interest for different musical modes than ours. Needless to say, Metamorphic Rock is unlikely to be fully appreciated by symphonic prog traditionalists, especially those who object to the absence of keyboards, but it is otherwise highly recommended to all open-minded prog fans. Another contender for my personal Top 10 of 2011 – hoping for a third album some time in 2012.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.moonjune.com

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