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TRACKLISTING:
1. Dystopian Fiction (2:01)
2. Entropy of the Century (2:53)
3. Regression to the Mean (3:50)
4. Welcome to the Solar Flares (3:04)
5. Friday Night Dreams (4:06)
6. Letting Go of Life (4:47)
7. We Machines (4:36)
8. Benefits (3:21)
9. Raze the Maze (2:38)
10. Confectioner’s Curse (3:03)
11. Where the Truth Lies (4:49)
12. The Unknowable (6:26)

LINEUP:
Moorea Dickason – vocals
Tarik Ragab – bass, vocals
Matt Lebofsky – keyboards
Matthew Charles Heulitt – guitar
David M Flores – drums

With:
Jonathan Herrera – synthesizer (1-3, 5, 7, 9, 11)

A couple of years ago, Bay Area quintet MoeTar first took the somewhat jaded progressive rock world by surprise with their debut album, From These Small Seeds – released in 2010, but reissued by Magna Carta in 2012. A perfect example of modern art-rock, the album offered a scintillating blend of super-catchy hooks and sinuous complexity – all crammed into 4-5-minute songs driven by Moorea Dickason’s jaw-dropping vocal prowess. Four years later, and following a successful crowdfunding campaign, MoeTar are back with their sophomore effort, Entropy of the Century.

A second album is always a tricky proposition, and even more so when a band’s debut has attracted as much attention as From These Small Seeds. MoeTar’s lively concert activity (which included a short but very successful East Coast foray in the summer of 2012, and a slot at the 2013 edition of ROSfest) has made many prog fans aware of the band’s highly individual take on the old prog warhorse. The success of their Kickstarter campaign (and the invitation to perform at the third edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend in October 2015) is proof enough of the positive impression they have left in the past couple of years.

So, does Entropy of the Century live up to expectations? The answer is a qualified yes. In terms of visual presentation, the album comes with a stunning cover by bassist and main songwriter Tarik Ragab, whose apparently drab shades of beige and grey complement the intricate mandala-like design. The artwork’s baroque feel is amply reflected in the music’s sophisticated arrangements, built around Moorea Dickason’s vertiginous vocals, but tightly executed by the other band members (augmented by talented keyboardist Jonathan Herrera). Keyboardist Matt Lebofsky’s tenure with cutting-edge bands such as Secret Chiefs 3 and miRthkon is reflected in the album’s subtle but recognizable forays into Avant territory.

Compared to its predecessor, Entropy of the Century is clearly more ambitious, and its impact consequently not as immediate. Ragab’s trademark “brainy” lyrics (based around an elaborate concept illustrated on the band’s website, and delivered by Moorea with remarkable aplomb, though most other singers would be daunted by their density) with their correspondingly esoteric titles provide an oddly fitting centerpiece for the busy musical accompaniment – so busy as to sometimes leave the listener craving a little space. The unmistakable Avant influence sneaks into the grandiose, melodic fabric of the songs, unexpected bits of keyboard-led dissonance creating a mesmerizing, head-spinning effect redolent of circus music.

Opener “Dystopian Fiction” sums up those characteristics in barely 2 minutes, introduced by an infectiously tinkling tune and unfolding in dramatic fashion – soothing and intense at the same time. While built along similar lines, the title-track comes across as more “mainstream”, though things take on more of an edge towards the end. After that, the album kicks into high gear with the angular “Regression to the Mean” – spiced up by Lebofsky’s wacky keyboards and Matthew Heulitt’s intensely heavy guitar complementing Moorea’s vocal acrobatics

The influence of Broadway musicals – as well as art-rock icons Queen – emerges in the central part of the album, with the theatrical sweep of “Welcome to the Solar Flares” (in contrast with its muted, melodic beginning), the jauntily energetic pace of “Friday Night Dreams” (a showcase for Heulitt and Lebofsky’s two-pronged action), and the triumphant, then soothing “Letting Go of Life” – which soon shifts into Avant-tinged atmospherics with its superb instrumental coda (proving that MoeTar are much more than just a backing band for Moorea’s magnificent pipes). Similarly, with “We Machines”, the skewedly memorable melody of the chorus coexists with an exhilarating jazzy coda, spotlighting David M. Flores’ extravagant drumming and Heulitt’s chiming guitar, and, once again, revealing the album’s ambitiousness in these details.

The final part of the album is introduced by the subdued torch-song of the piano-laced “Benefits”, the only song on the album written by Matt Lebofsky. Things pick up again with the vocal bravura piece of “Raze the Maze”, peppered by weird electronics, and the dramatic, circusy tune of “Confectioner’s Curse”. Darker and heavier, “Where the Truth Lies” sounds like Queen with an Avant flavour, once again showcasing Heulitt’s remarkable mastery of the six strings; while closer “The Unknowable” (at over 6 minutes the longest track on the album) starts out in a subdued mood, deceptively restful after the intensity of the previous song – then gains momentum and drama, wrapping things up with a majestic instrumental coda.

Albeit lacking its predecessor’s easy accessibility, Entropy of the Century captures the growing self-confidence of an immensely talented outfit. Though you may not be able to sing along to some of the songs as it was the case with From These Small Seeds, the great songwriting, effortless instrumental brilliance, and – most of all – Moorea’s astounding vocal performance are more than enough to make this album one of the highlights of 2014 for fans of non-mainstream music. As I often say in my reviews, this may not be your parents’ prog, but it certainly represents what is exciting and vital about the genre in this second decade of the 21st century.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com/
http://www.magnacarta.net

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SETLIST:

MoeTar
Butchers of Baghdad
Dichotomy
Infinitesimal Sky
Regression to the Mean
Random Tandem
Entropy of the Century
New World Chaos
Never Home
Ist or an Ism
Friction

miRthkon
Zhagunk
Automaton
Daddylonglegz
Kharms Way
Coven of Coyotes
Nocturne
Bag
Banana
Cascades
Honey Key Jamboree
QX1
Hapax Legomena
Encore (?)

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.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com

http://www.mirthkon.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Dichotomy (3:57)
2. Infinitesimal Sky  (3:02)
3. Butchers of Baghdad  (4:19)
4. Random Tandem  (4:12)
5. Ist or an Ism (4:58)
6. Morning Person (2:54)
7. New World Chaos (5:40)
8. Screed (Pt. 2) (4:40)
9. Never Home (4:50)
10. From These Small Seeds (5:20)
11. Friction (3:08)

LINEUP:
Moorea Dickason – vocals
Tarik Ragab – bass
Matt Lebofsky – keyboards
Matthew Heulitt – guitar
David M Flores – drums

Bay Area-based quintet MoeTar was founded in 2008 by the two artists it is named after –  vocalist Moorea Dickason (Moe) and bassist Tarik Ragab (Tar) –  after the demise of their previous band, politically-charged pop-funk outfit No Origin.  After the entrance of miRthkon keyboardist Matt Lebofsky, in the spring of 2009 MoeTar started  an intense concert activity. Their debut album, From These Small Seeds, engineered by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s Dan Rathburn and originally released in 2010, was reissued by Magna Carta Records in 2012 with new artwork.  At the time of writing, MoeTar are about to embark on their first Eastern US tour, which will kick on August 11, 2012, at the Orion Studios in Baltimore, where they will open for miRthkon.

Even if a sizable chunk of its audience still clings to progressive rock’s conventional modes of expression, “crossover” acts are increasingly making headway on the scene, redefining and sometimes even reinventing the rules of a genre that – for all of its touted renaissance in recent years – was very much in need of an overhaul. Trimming down song lengths without sacrificing prog’s trademark complexity, and introducing melodies that can be infectious and daringly innovative at the same time, those bands draw from a number of other genres whose input provides a veritable shot in the arm for a genre often at risk of turning into a parody of itself (see the glut of tribute/nostalgia bands).

Even in a niche teeming with interesting acts, MoeTar’s fearless blend of sunny, uplifting pop tunes, angular Avant stylings, spacey guitar jams and a bit of heaviness, propelled by Moorea Dickason’s stunningly versatile voice, comes across as quite unique. As a fellow reviewer pointed out, MoeTar overturn the clichés attached to female-fronted prog bands, pushing decidedly away from the tired stereotype of the angelic-voiced siren and offering instead a heady mix of melody, power and endearing quirkiness. Moe’s voice, fitting Tarik’s thought-provoking, stream-of-consciousness lyrics like a glove, often becomes another instrument , bending the music to her will or following its intricate patterns with a striking adroitness that brings Kate Bush to mind – as well as avant-prog icons Elaine DiFalco and Deborah Perry, or Melody Ferris of fellow Oakland outfit Inner Ear Brigade. The general bent of the album may also elicit comparisons with District 97, another female-fronted act that has attracted a lot of attention in the past couple of years. However, unlike the Chicago band, MoeTar steer clear of overambitious productions, and are also minimally influenced by the prog metal trend.

For an album clocking in at a very reasonable 50 minutes, there is quite a lot going on in From These Small Seeds. The short running time of the songs (all under the 6-minute mark) belies their density, the sudden shifts in mood and tempo that can turn a catchy pop ditty into something more riveting and intense. Opener “Dichotomy” illustrates MoeTar’s modus operandi quite aptly –  Moorea’s voice underpinned by Matt Lebofsky’s buoyant piano flurries, while Matthew Heulitt delivers a rather offbeat guitar solo in the slower, atmospheric bridge; the song also introduces what is probably the most noticeable influence on MoeTar’s sound – Andy Partridge’s XTC.

After that, the album deploys a veritable feast of unabashed eclecticism – from the dramatic, almost theatrical flair of “Butchers of Baghdad” (which reminded me of Canadians Half Past Four, another interesting female-fronted crossover prog band with their charismatic singer Kyree Vibrant) to the torch-song-meets-psychedelic-jam of “Never Home”. “Ist or an Ism” meshes the hard-rock suggestions of driving organ, massive riffs and piercing guitar with a vocal line at the end that would not be out of place on a Thinking Plague album. In the title-track – definitely one of the more left-field offerings on the album – voice and piano emote in parallel, creating a sense of palpable tension that culminates in a searing guitar solo. David M Flores’ imperious drumming in “Screed” lays the groundwork for Moorea’s oddly distant-sounding voice and Lebofsky’s almost percussive piano; while “New World Chaos” (the album’s longest track) is pushed into Avant territory by its asymmetrical guitar line, tempered by soothing vocals.

A prime example of art rock in the original sense of the definition, From These Small Seeds manages to be accessible and adventurous at the same time. Those who want to see progressive rock remain true to its name – rather than turn into a caricature of the Seventies – will not fail to appreciate the album, in spite of the lack of epics or any of the conventional distinguishing features of the genre. A highly rewarding, entertaining listen, recommended to everyone but the most conservative prog fans.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com/

http://magnacarta.net

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