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Posts Tagged ‘NEARfest 2010’

TRACKLISTING:
CD:
1. Corps et Âmes (6:26)
2. Loin d’Issy (7:14)
3. George V (10:27)
4. Ultraviolet (8:18)
5. Feu Sacré (6:50)
6. Midi-Minuit (13:30)

DVD (Recorded live at NEARfest 2010):
1. Ultraviolet (8:34)
2. L’Axe Du Fou (16:06)
3. Feu Sacré (6:53)
4. Soleil 12 (9:09)
5. Double Sens (13:38)
6. Extralucide (10:20)
7. Éclipse (7:45)

LINEUP:
Patrick Forgas – drums
Sébastien Trognon – tenor, alto & soprano saxes, flute
Dimitri Alexaline –  trumpet, flugelhorn
Benjamin Violet – guitar
Karolina Mlodecka – violin
Igor Brover – keyboards
Kengo Mochizuki – bass

Active on the music scene since the mid-Seventies, drummer/composer Patrick Forgas has often been regarded as the French answer to Robert Wyatt. Indeed, Forgas describes his discovery of Soft Machine’s second album, at the age of 18, as nothing short of life-changing. Anyone familiar with his debut album, Cocktail (originally released in 1977, and reissued by Musea Records in 2009 as an expanded edition) will not fail to notice the similarities in the two drummers’ vocal styles, as well as in terms of musical content.

In spite of a career marked by frequent breaks from music-making, Forgas has always been able to reignite his creative spark. Forgas Band Phenomena was born in the late Nineties, and released two albums with a lineup that included mallet percussionist Mireille Bauer (of Gong fame). Then, after a 6-year hiatus, they reappeared in 2005 with a revamped configuration and a live album, Soleil 12, which featured mostly new material. The breakthrough for the band, however, came in 2009 with the release of the magnificent L’Axe du Fou, and their highly acclaimed performance at the 2010 edition of NEARfest. That career-defining show is captured on the DVD that accompanies Acte V, the band’s fifth album, released at the beginning of 2012 on Cuneiform Records.  The album’s title, which at a superficial glance may seem self-explanatory, is illustrated in the liner notes with some intriguingly esoteric references that also expand on the origin of some of the track titles.

Acte V features the same lineup as the band’s previous album – a rock-solid ensemble of 7 people, led by Patrick Forgas’ discreet but astonishingly precise drumming, bolstered by Kengo Mochizuki’s equally understated, reliable bass lines. With an  instrumentation that includes violin, trumpet, flute and saxophone as well as the rock “basics” of bass, guitar, drums and keyboards, Forgas Band Phenomena produce an impressive volume of music that comes across as lush and tight at the same time, with a slightly repetitive yet heady quality that holds the listener’s interest. Karolina Mlodecka’s violin soars above the fray with lyrical abandon, often sparring with the forceful blare of the horns and the razor-sharp edge of Benjamin Violet’s guitar. Forgas’ handles the cymbals with a firm yet delicate touch, their metallic tinkle blending with Igor Brover’s sparkling electric piano to create one of the hallmarks of the band’s sound.

As a whole, Acte V is a more nuanced effort than the ebullient L’Axe du Fou, and may need repeated listens before it starts growing on you.  While the mood is definitely upbeat, alternating energetic bursts of sound with more stately, subdued passages, those shifts are effected with remarkable subtlety, rather than in the blatantly head-spinning fashion preferred by more overtly “technical” bands. The music flows elegantly and naturally, the horns conferring an appealing “big band” touch that is quite unique. In spite of the Canterbury comparisons, Forgas Band Phenomena’s  powerful, exhilarating sound may bring to mind a cross between Caravan circa For Girls Grow Plump in the Night and early jazz-rock outfits such as Colosseum or Blood Sweat & Tears, rather than the sparser experimental approach of Soft Machine.

Clocking in at a healthy 52 minutes, Acte V comprises 6 well-balanced, richly arranged tracks. Even if, at a superficial listen, they might sound rather alike, variety is achieved by contrasting the “choral” sections, in which all the instruments emote together, driving the melody along, with solo spots that never smack of self-indulgence. Opener “Corps et Âmes” allows Violet’s guitar to step into the limelight, imparting a piercingly clear rock tone offset by the airy lyricism of the violin and the full-on blasts of Dimitri Alexaline’s trumpet and Sébastien Trognon’s sax. “Loin d’Issy” hovers between a dynamic, upbeat mood and a gentler one, the almost mournful trumpet solo in the middle bringing to mind Ennio Morricone’s iconic soundtracks; while “George V” and “Ultraviolet” raise the rock stakes with blistering guitar combined with assertive horns and violin to produce an intensely exhilarating effect. Sax and violin interweave smoothly, though with a sharp edge that emerges towards the end, in the intricate “Feu Sacré”; then the album is brought to a close by the 13-minute “Midi-Minuit”, an ambitious orchestral piece that allows each of the instruments its time in the spotlight, displaying a slightly angular, jazzy allure at first, then unexpectedly introducing a different, more regular pace before the end, with hauntingly atmospheric effects.

The DVD that completes the package (rounded off by a stunningly stylish cover in trendy sepia tones, reprising the Ferris wheel theme of Forgas Band Phenomena’s first three albums) offers a unique opportunity to witness the band’s blend of energy and sophistication coming alive on stage. The 75-minute set showcases a selection of compositions from the past (“Soleil 12”, “Extralucide”, “Eclipse”), the present (three out of four tracks from L’Axe du Fou, which had been released a few months before the show) and the future (“Ultraviolet” and “Feu Sacré”), as well as shots of the band. With outstanding image and sound quality, it is a must for anyone who wants to witness what, in my view, was the highlight of the whole event (together with Moraine’s breakthrough performance on the following day).

All in all, Acte V is an album that oozes pure class from one of the finest bands on the modern progressive rock scene. This is one of those rare efforts that may actually succeed in bridging the ever-widening gap between the retro-oriented and the forward-looking components of the prog audience, appealing to both “factions” on account of the strength of its musical offer. A must-listen for jazz-rock fans and lovers of instrumental music, Acte V is highly recommended to everyone.

Links:
http://forgasbp.online.fr/

http://www.myspace.com/forgasbandphenomena

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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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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Seattle-based band Moraine, one of the most interesting finds by MoonJune Record’s volcanic mastermind, Leonardo Pavkovic, first came to the attention of the progressive rock scene in 2009, with the release of their debut album Manifest Density. Their reputation as purveyors of complex, intelligent and energetic music with a definitely eclectic bent – chamber rock with an edge – was consolidated by their exhilarating performance at the 2010 edition of NEARfest, and, earlier this year, by a short but successful East Coast tour. With the official release of their second album, Metamorphic Rock (recorded on the occasion of the above-mentioned NEARfest appearance) less than a month away, band members – guitarist Dennis Rea, violinist Alicia DeJoie, saxophonist Jim DeJoie, bassist Kevin Millard and drummer Stephen Cavit – have kindly agreed to share some of their thoughts and experiences on behalf of my readers.

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Let us start with a rather unoriginal, though obligatory, question. How did the band come into existence, and what was the reason for its inception?

Dennis: Speaking of metamorphosis, Moraine has mutated so thoroughly since its inception that its origins as a free-improvising duo between myself and cellist Ruth Davidson are barely discernable now. The project began as a casual series of get-togethers with no specific agenda; there was certainly no expectation that it would evolve into the type of band it is today. As the musical relationship deepened, both of us brought in some compositions and it soon became apparent that the music would benefit from additional instruments. So we enlisted violinist Alicia DeJoie and drummer Jay Jaskot and named the newly formed band Moraine, a term denoting the debris carried along and deposited by a glacier, very apt for our part of the world. I had worked with Alicia in singer-songwriter Eric Apoe’s group They and knew that she would be perfect for what I had in mind. Jay had been the drummer in my late-90s band Axolotl and we had always been keen to continue our musical partnership.

After briefly trying out a couple of bassists, we found the ideal fit in Kevin Millard, who had played with Ruth back in their native Minnesota; it was an odd coincidence that I met the two of them independently. This lineup persisted for a year or so until Ruth departed for graduate school on the East Coast and Jay relocated to New York City. The drum chair was filled by Stephen Cavit, a longtime musical associate of mine who, in addition to being a phenomenal drummer, is also an Emmy Award–winning film composer and choir director. We considered replacing Ruth with another cellist but didn’t know any in Seattle who had the right temperament for this particular project, so we decided to deploy woodwinds (primarily baritone saxophone) in place of cello. James DeJoie was an easy choice for this role because he is not only one of the finest and most versatile saxophonists in the Pacific Northwest, but also is married to Alicia and thus had already grown familiar with our repertoire. This lineup has been in place for about two years now, and there’s every reason to believe that it will continue indefinitely.

Most of the interviews I have read so far seem to focus on Dennis Rea’s background. However, this time I would rather concentrate on everyone else’s experiences prior to joining the band. What prompted you to join, and how different are Moraine from your previous (or even current) musical experiences?

Alicia: When Dennis Rea approached me about Moraine, I was immediately interested. I had played with Dennis before and had greatly enjoyed it, profoundly impressed by his unique sound and compositional prowess. I had also seen him in the group Axolotl and absolutely loved that band, and was very excited to learn that Moraine would be doing some tunes in common. Moraine is unlike any band I’ve ever been in – our sound is unique, ultra-creative, yet what I like to think of as approachable. In addition to the musical camaraderie shared amongst us in the band, we all get along extraordinarily well as people, which is another aspect of the group I love and appreciate.

Jim: Prior to joining Moraine, I was doing a lot of jazz (well, still do!). I’ve always played in a few large ensembles as well as my own groups. I feel I have a little different take on “jazz” than most, by including “rock” and “pop” elements into the revered jazz world. I have been into using effects on my saxes, flutes, and clarinets for years and really love exploring the sounds created with what are essentially guitar efffects. When Ruth Davidson (Moraine’s cello player) left the band to continue her educational pursuits, Dennis asked if I would be interested in joining. The range of the bari sax and bass clarinet seemed an appropriate replacement for the cello (and they were rehearsing at my wife’s and my house!). I did have some reservations at first, only because I knew my sound would be a completely different thing for the group. I said “yes” with the condition that if it didn’t work out, Dennis could fire me – no hard feelings. Needless to say, I think it’s working out fantastically!

Stephen: When Dennis called me to potentially replace Jay (how is that possible?!?), I was fully engrossed in my composition career — during which time I’ve won an Emmy Award and been named a Sundance Composers Lab Fellow, among other great honors. I had been pretty active in the Seattle music scene before returning to live in Los Angeles for work in early 2000. When I made it back to Seattle a few short years later I found the scene had changed substantially and I didn’t recognize many of the new faces. Which is what made Dennis’ call all the more sweet: I was really jones-ing to perform again!

Kevin: My earliest musical experiences in Seattle (having moved here in ’96) were in the experimental music circles; I met Dennis back then.  He was playing in a band I adored called Axolotl, and my own band at the time (Panopticon, we called ourselves “avant-groove” or “trailer park jazz”) briefly shared a practice space with them.  I also had known Ruth back in Minneapolis; when she moved here, I introduced her to Dennis’ music.  Fast forward several years: imagine my delight to find they had formed an amazing band.  A month after seeing Moraine for the first time, their bassist left town suddenly.  I auditioned, and the fit was very natural.  I love playing music with such good friends.  The band’s music itself is very close to my heart, being a fan of Dr. Nerve, Univers Zero, and 70’s King Crimson.

What is your approach to your respective instruments, and to the compositional process? What about your main musical influences?

Dennis: In a word, I am nondoctrinaire in my approach to playing the guitar; that is, I don’t subscribe to any particular doctrine, ideology, or school of playing. I’m not a jazz guitarist, I’m not a rock guitarist or avant-garde guitarist, but simply a guitarist who is free to exercise any of my many musical interests.

Although I started out taking the standard lessons like everyone else and have periodically studied this or that aspect of music making, I’ve had relatively little formal musical training. I long ago came to the realization that my gift is my ear and that a more intuitive, listening-based approach suits me best. I can read music with a gun to my head but prefer to communicate simply through playing whenever possible. Some people have commented that my playing has a ‘searching’ quality, and that’s because I am literally searching for the right note or phrase rather than following patterns and formulae. As for composing, most of my tunes begin with a single musical motif that gets embedded in my mind; from there I begin crafting variations and complementary parts for my fellow musicians. I typically compose the other players’ parts in my pieces while making sure to leave them ample room for soloing and interpretation. Most of this polyphonic writing actually takes place in my head rather than on paper, when I’m walking down the street or doing something similarly innocuous – I seem to have the ability to hear fully formed pieces in my imagination. I then bring the parts to the other musicians at rehearsal, either in written or recorded form or transmitted using a sort of musical onomatopoeia.

As for my main influences, it’s futile to try to compress them into a baker’s dozen, but some very important influences would have to include John Abercrombie, Art Ensemble of Chicago/AACM, Derek Bailey, Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton, Brotherhood of Breath, John Cage, Eugene Chadbourne, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Cui Jian, Miles Davis, Stuart Dempster, Eric Dolphy, the ECM catalog in general, Bill Evans, free improvisation, Fred Frith, Stan Getz, Egberto Gismonti, Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson, Gyorgy Ligeti, John McLaughlin, Charles Mingus, Ben Monder, the NYC No Wave movement, William Parker, Harry Partch, Annette Peacock, Jim Pepper, psychedelia, George Russell, Terje Rypdal, Elliott Sharp, Soft Machine, Sun Ra, Toru Takemitsu, Keith Tippett, Ralph Towner, Robert Wyatt, and the music of Brazil, Cambodia, China, Korea, the Naxi people of southwest China, North Africa, Vietnam, and Xinjiang

Alicia: My approach to the violin is to be as present as I can with the instrument while I’m playing, yet free enough to plunge into the unknown, stretching the gamut of sounds the instrument is capable of making. The solid, sonic landscapes laid down by Moraine compositions provide compelling foundations which inspire me to explore myriad melodic and rhythmic elements when soloing. The compositions I’ve brought to Moraine have all started at the piano and migrated to the different instruments from there. I love knowing that when I bring a new piece to rehearsal, the rest of the band will contribute much more with their unique sounds and ideas. Every piece is then honed, enhanced, and ultimately transformed into an expression of the entire band.

Jim: Well, I’ve always approached all my instruments with the mantra “sound first.”  In other words, tone and passion – the effects I use are extensions of my acoustic tone and feel. Compositionally, my ideas generally come from the sax and piano – once an idea starts, I  try to keep fleshing it out until it feels done – I have many, many unfinished pieces! My main influences are wide: John Hollenbeck, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Ornette Coleman, and Tom Waits are some of my personal heroes. Of course there are many others: Eric Dolphy, George Crumb, Morton Feldman, Jim Black, Chris Speed, Portishead, Battles, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, David Bowie… There is so much great music to explore.

Stephen: I haven’t written anything for Moraine, probably because I am not a tune writer and feel more than a little intimidated by the prospect, but I do have a very developed process when it comes to scoring for film…..   I have pretty broad influences and, in regards to drumming, I would cite Paul Motian, Ed Blackwell, Gene Lake, and a few others of that ilk as my favs. When I first joined Moraine the music seemed to have a free-flowing jazz sensibility, more so than the driving rock sound it has today. The music spoke to me in that way and I feel, as a whole, our arrangements became tighter and more dynamic as a result of that shift.  In terms of what I listen to daily, I am mostly a classical music junky. I enjoy Eastern European post-minimalism, in particular, including most of the usual suspects like Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki and some possibly lesser known composers like Petris Vasks. It’s hard to say how that listening effects my drumming on a conscious level, but I’m certain it does. There’s a much more direct influence on my choral, concert and film work.

Kevin: I am a bit of a “red-headed stepchild” in Moraine, given that I don’t read music and am self-taught on tapping instruments and bass guitar.  (I’m not ashamed to admit that the Violent Femmes and Tones On Tail helped inspire me to take up the bass.)  But when I picked up my first Chapman Stick, it encouraged my dabblings in music theory and into “fancier” music.  My only real ‘bass idol,’ as it were, is Mick Karn (RIP) – a humble, self-taught iconoclast whose lack of formal training helped him develop his own unique tones and voice.  As for composition, I am not much of a tune-writer, having contributed only one tune to Moraine thus far (which was a tune I wrote for Panopticon).  I prefer to take more of a collaborative approach to writing music, probably because I am secretly a lazy man.

How has Moraine’s sound developed since its beginnings, and how did it change with the addition of Stephen and Jim?

Dennis: As mentioned previously, the group began as a free-improvising duo, morphed into a sort of chamber-rock quintet with a ‘string quartet plus drums’ configuration, and then arrived at its current lineup of guitar, violin, woodwinds (including flute), drums, and bass (an eight-string NS/Stick, to be precise). The net result of this transformation is that we are much more of a rock band now, albeit one that is just as likely to make excursions into jazz, world (particularly East Asian) music, and any other musical dialect that interests us.

The addition of Stephen and Jim pretty cemented our current, more forceful approach, for a number of reasons. For one thing, we had often faced challenges making the cello heard in an electric band setting due to issues with amplification, feedback, and overlapping range, whereas Jim’s baritone saxophone, fitted with a microphone, cuts through loud and clear. And unlike his more straightahead jazz gigs, Jim sees in Moraine an opportunity to explore creative sound processing, so his use of various effects such as harmonizers further beefs up the group sound, to the point where it’s almost as though we have a second heavy-duty guitarist on board. Alicia has recently begun incorporating more effects into her sound as well, which opens up a whole other set of possibilities.

Our previous drummer, Jay Jaskot, is a gifted musician whose heart really lies in jazz. With Moraine, he tended to play freely across the bar lines rather than delineate the transitions in our compositions. This approach often produced marvelous results, but as our repertoire grew increasingly intricate, the music called for a more architectural rather than free-flowing style of drumming. While Stephen is also adept at playing jazz, his parallel career as a composer brings a more structural approach to the music, thus enhancing dynamics and lending more drama to the music.

Since I was present at NEARfest 2010, where I had the pleasure to meet all of you for the first time, I am interested in your take  on the whole experience – especially as the future of the festival seems to be hanging by a thread. I also know that most of you had had no involvement with the “prog scene” prior to the release of Manifest Density. What have been your impressions so far?

Dennis: For us, NEARfest was a dream gig in every respect. We were frankly stunned to have been invited, given our exceedingly low profile among progressive rock enthusiasts at the time. Indeed, I saw quite a few “Who?” responses to the announcement in Internet forums. That makes it all the more satisfying that our set was not only well attended but very enthusiastically received.

To put things in perspective, our gigs in Seattle are typically in small dive bars and cafes for about 10-20 people. We’ve landed some decent gigs at local festivals and performance series, but nothing remotely approaching the caliber of NEARfest. It goes without saying that we had never experienced such top-flight sound, lighting, and acoustics as a band, and indeed that’s what made Metamorphic Rock possible. For starters, the warm hospitality and overall good vibe fortunately elicited one of the band’s best performances to date. The recording we obtained from NEARfest was of superb audio fidelity, and subsequent mix work with legendary Northwest producer / sonic genius Steve Fisk and mastering wizard Barry Corliss made it even richer. It’s the best-sounding specimen of my own playing ever.

I was especially blown away to find myself sharing a stage with what was essentially Gentle Giant (Three Friends), one of my towering musical icons. And the experience of connecting with so many like-minded people (yourself included) was priceless.

I was dismayed at the sudden, unexpected cancellation of this year’s NEARfest – since we played on the festival’s last day in 2010, I sometimes quip, ‘Was it something we played?’ Seriously, I really hope that the organizers regroup and come back stronger than ever next year, and some of them have indicated to me that they will. I really don’t want to get caught up in the controversy over why public support for NEARfest dropped off so abruptly this year, though I suspect that part of it is that a certain segment of the once-loyal NEARfest audience doesn’t have the patience for newer bands like ours.

Alicia: We had a fabulous time at NEARfest 2010. I was thrilled at the response we received there, as well as the wonderful contacts we made and have kept since then. Our East Coast tour in the spring of 2011 was a small reunion of sorts with many of the people we met at NEARfest, which makes the release of our upcoming album Metamorphic Rock: Live at NEARfest that much more exciting to us.

Jim: I loved the experience. Usually, I consider myself a “journeyman” in a lot of groups – sort of show up and play and try not to make too many requests. But the NEARfest people were so accommodating and nice, it made the whole time a great experience (and for once I didn’t feel bad asking for more of me in the monitors!). The “prog scene” seemed really cool to me – full of people who truly love and are excited about music, a phenomenon not always associated with the “jazz” crowd. I’m disappointed to hear that the festival may not be happening in the future.

Stephen: If  having two drum techs is any kind of a taste of heaven, then I will be sure to be a good boy! We were so well cared for by people who clearly had a passion for this music. Fortunately, I was the only band member not to have any of the famous, high-octane espresso before the gig (I don’t drink coffee); otherwise, it’s possible Metamorphic Rock would have turned supersonic!!

Kevin: NEARfest was such a fantastic experience.  Having such an accommodating and friendly technical staff was a special pleasure (heck, having *any* technical help at all was a rare treat for us!, but seriously, the NEARfest crew was superb).  The coffee before the show was truly world-class.  And playing through not one but TWO full SVT 8×10 stacks was wish-fulfillment fantasy for me.  If NEARfest is, or was, the prog scene, then I look forward to more!  Such great audience and staff as well.

You recently completed a 4-date tour of the US East Coast. Do you consider it a success, or do you wish you could have done something otherwise?

Dennis: Though it was a modest tour by most measures, we felt that it was an almost complete success, marred only by some problems with borrowed equipment and a rather thin turnout in Philadelphia, but it was after all a Sunday night. Even so, we played very well that night and went down great with the the audience. Overall we received a tremendous response at every tour stop and offers to come back anytime (and we will). It was an almost disorienting contrast to our usual lot in Seattle (more on that below). In several cases people traveled long distances to see us, which was humbling; some had seen us the previous year at NEARfest and wanted more. Audience enthusiasm was palpable, and that fed into the music and charged up the performances. What’s more, we were astonished to actually break even on our travel costs through admissions and merchandise sales, which was wholly unexpected. We’ve also noticed that the touring experience has lifted us up to a new level of confidence and tightness – the Seattle shows we’ve done since then have been very high-energy.

Playing East Coast venues did underline our isolation in faraway Seattle. It was hard not to conclude that there is far more support for progressive rock in the U.S. Northeast than out in the Northwestern Hemisphere; folks back there might not think so, but all things are relative. Naturally, this makes us eager to return for more, but the geographical distance makes it a steep challenge to bring a five-piece band across the country without going deep in the hole. But we’ll be back, one way or another.

How did the new tracks featured  on Metamorphic Rock come about, and what makes them different from the material on Manifest Density?

Dennis: What’s different about our newer material is that it is being written expressly with our current instrumentation and musical personalities in mind, whereas many pieces on the previous two CDs were written before Moraine was formed and then adapted for our specific instrumental resources. Everyone in the band has a stake in the new material, and most of us are writing.

There are also different considerations when writing for woodwinds rather than cello. This will be apparent to those who listen to Metamorphic Rock who’ve also heard Manifest Density. We considered releasing a shorter version of the concert at first, to avoid repeating tracks that appeared on the first album, but found the total listening experience to be so cohesive that the energy would be sompromised by removing any pieces from the set list. We felt that it was excusable to reissue tracks from Manifest Density because with the new lineup, the arrangements are sometimes dramatically different from the previous versions. I’m pretty confident that people will be down with the record’s mix of new and refashioned material.

I know that you have been asked about your name more times than you care to admit, so this time I would rather inquire about the new album’s name, which sounds fantastic. Does it have anything to do with the Pacific Northwest being a heavily volcanic area?

Dennis: Not exactly, as volcanic rock is considered igneous rather than metamorphic rock. Due to the geological nature of our name, I like the idea of threading that theme through our work, not because it has any direct bearing on the music itself but because it’s a perennial area of interest for me. In fact, one of the song titles on Metamorphic Rock, “The Okanogan Lobe,” continues the theme, for the track’s namesake was a feature of the vast ice sheet that once covered parts of Washington State.

Strictly speaking, metamorphic rock isn’t related to moraines, except in an incidental way. Metamorphic Rock occurred to me in a flash of insight as the perfect way of answering that perennial question dreaded by musicians, ‘What type of music do you play?’ In our case we play a variety of rock music that continually seeks to transform itself, hence metamorphosis, hence Metamorphic Rock, which also plays on rock music and underscores that our music-making is a dynamic process.

While Seattle is commonly perceived as a sort of mecca for rock music, I know your experience is rather different, especially as regards getting opportunities for live performances. What are the main strengths (if any) and weaknesses of the Seattle scene?

Dennis: Seattle gets a lot of hype for being a happening music town, but personally I think it’s greatly overrated. As in any city its size, you can find many fabulously gifted musicians working in any genre you can name, but by far the lion’s share of opportunities and attention go to unimaginative indie rock and, lately, the fad for stovepipe-beard neo-Americana. There is no prog scene as such, and while there are a fair number of musicians whose music more or less fits that description, venues that will occasionally present that sort of thing are rare as hen’s teeth, and attention from the local music press scarcer still. Apart from the local jazz publication, where we have allies, Moraine has never received a single mention in any of the Seattle weeklies or arts/music scene rags – and yes, we do send them our CDs and press releases. But if I were to tattoo a middle finger on my forehead, guzzle a flask of Jägermeister, moon the audience, and throw up on the drummer, I can guarantee that there’d be a breathless feature profile of me in the local paper the following week 😉 While Seattle certainly has no monopoly on this sorry state of affairs, the fact remains that for a majority of listeners, physical appearance and attitude trump the music itself.

Lately I’ve seen some signs of a possible resurgence of interest in progressive rock out here, but it seems to be facing resolutely backward. For example, I came across a ‘Seattle Progressive and Art Rock Community’ Facebook group with great interest, but all I ever see discussed there are things like announcements of Kansas and Return to Forever concerts and calls for forming yet another Genesis tribute band. The few postings I’ve seen or submitted about live local progressive music events have been met with total radio silence – most of these folks would apparently rather hole up with their ‘70s records than support a living artform. In fact, I just heard about a local prog nut who passed up seeing a best friend’s first public performance in 10 years in favor of going to listen to old prog LPs at a local bar. There seems to be a persistent perception among many (particularly older) prog fans that local music is somehow always inferior, and that nothing can ever live up to the gold standards set by their ‘70s heroes.

But not to dwell on the negative… Whatever challenges Seattle progressive musicians face in terms of bookings and publicity, we’re blessed with an incredibly rich community of gifted musicians working in the areas of avant-rock, leading-edge jazz and improvised music, noise and experimental forms, world music, and more. Moraine cofounder Ruth Davidson informs me that Seattle has probably the best weird art-metal scene anywhere in the country, and extreme post-rockers like Sunn O))) are having a big impact outside of Seattle. Figures like Bill Frisell, Trey Gunn, and Stuart Dempster are recognized as master innovators around the globe. While many exceptional players end up following the well-worn path to New York or other big-league entrepots in search of more and better opprtunities, those of us who choose to remain here do so for any number of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with music – the inspiring natural surroundings, human-scale urban core, and so on.

Jim: Seattle is a great city with a lot of things happening. Generally, you have to search a bit to find those “happenings,” but there a lot of truly innovative musicians here. The Seattle music scene does tend to move in cliques, with the same group playing the same venues (especially true in the “jazz” scene). In my opinion, Moraine is one of the top jazz bands going. (I know, I know – jazz has such a bad rap these days, and unfortunately deservedly so!) Moraine sure ain’t Ellington, but I feel we exemplify what I consider the best thing about jazz: adventurous explorations into music.

Stephen: The strengths, as with any art scene, lie squarely with the array of great, creative players who make it up. Without a doubt, we have an embarrassment of riches in that regard. When things are good, that creative spirit is accompanied by a supportive, well established, infrastructure of venues and promoters/bookers who care as much for their end of the bargain as us players do for ours. There are some great people involved in booking here and a few great venues to showcase our wares, but for the most part, Seattle is not one of those high-functioning scenes. So far, as a general rule, we find our best opportunities outside of the Northwest.

Kevin:  In my experience, there are a great many Seattle “scenes,” and the town is full of good music, but it seems very clique-ish.  Each genre and sub-genre seems to keep to itself.  Fans of one band rarely seem interested in checking out other bands on the same bill. Also, there are thousands of bands (of all kinds) in the area, but we’re all scrabbling for the same short list of decent clubs.  Consequently, the venues often take the bands for granted – unpaid (or underpaid) and slighted.  But I have a hunch these are very common problems these days – I doubt this is unique to Seattle.

Do you see Moraine as a progressive (rather than “prog”) band? In case you do, how so?

Dennis: Well, I can’t rightly say, since nobody seems to be able to agree on a definition of progressive rock. If by progressive you mean a type of music that privileges instrumental and compositional skill and a spirit of inquiry over recycled forms, personality, fashion, and attitude, I’d say the label fits. But if progressive rock is taken to mean banks of florid keyboards, 20-minute multi-movement suites, and vocalists emoting dramatically about the battle at the end of the world, then no, we’re clearly not. Maybe this gets to the heart of the distinction you drew between ‘progressive’ and ‘prog.’

Based on many reviews and discussions I’ve seen, a lot of people seem to view us as a prog band. That’s valid to some extent, but I’m the only member of Moraine who has a progressive rock background, so we have to factor in the others’ widely varying musical backgrounds as well. One thing’s for sure, we did not consciously set out to become a ‘prog’ band. If anything, I’d say that Moraine has much more in common with the sort of avant-jazz-rock associated with the Downtown NYC scene; it has always puzzled me why more prog rock enthusiasts don’t embrace that music, which more faithfully carries forward the questing spirit of the progressive pioneers than most of the current crop of prog bands if you ask me.

Some reviewers have placed Moraine in the Canterbury or RIO subgenre. I don’t feel that we have much musical affinity to the so-called Canterbury scene since our music tends to be darker, is short on whimsy, and lacks vocals. Not that I’m not a huge fan of several of those groups, particularly Soft Machine. The RIO comparison is much more apt in terms of instrumentation and a somewhat similar compositional approach; I have no problem with that linkage. But in the end, we’re not consciously trying to emulate any models – our influences are going to show through sometimes, but that’s only natural.

Do you have any plans for a third album in the near future? I know you have been writing and performing new material in the past few months, and it would be great if Metamorphic Rock was followed by another studio album relatively soon.

Dennis: We’re getting close to having enough material for our third CD, which will be a studio effort and will probably see release in fall 2012 as MoonJune has many astounding projects to unleash on the world in the interim.

A little bird told me about a possible tour of South America and Europe in the fall or early next year. Any news as to now? Which countries are high on your list?

Dennis: Negotiations are underway for a possible tour of Brazil sometime in 2012, arranged through MoonJune contacts. It goes without saying that we would be absolutely thrilled to visit and play in that country, where we apparently have some fans. Several MoonJune artists were there earlier this year for a gigantic festival in Sao Paolo; they were very well received and had a fabulous time. Brazilian music – particularly bossa nova, tropicalia, and musica popular brasileira – have long been a major influence on me.

We also may have an opportunity to perform in a major jazz festival in Korea, in which case we’d try to set up additional shows in that part of Asia. The opportunity arose through our recent collaboration with Korean master musician Young Sub Lee, a national treasure in the field of Korean traditional music who was integrated into Moraine for a special performance of our East Asian repertoire, a memorable event.

As for Europe, the funding doesn’t appear to be there for that at present. We’d like nothing better than to tour Europe as we’ve gained a lot of fans over there, but realistically it will have to wait until travel funding is forthcoming. We will likely return to the East Coast and make our way farther down the West Coast over the coming year as well.

Thank you very much for your time and patience in answering all these questions! Really looking forward to listening to Metamorphic Rock, and hopefully to another East Coast tour.

 

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.moonjune.com

 

 

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Goodbye Sweet Innocence (10:40)
2. Living In The Past (11:59)
3. Forgotten Land (9:57)

LINEUP:
Mariusz Duda – vocal, bass, acoustic guitar
Piotr Grudziński – guitars
Piotr Kozieradzki – drums
Michał Łapaj – keyboards, Hammond organ

Hailing from the Polish capital of Warsaw, Riverside need no introduction to fans of modern progressive rock. After 10 years of activity, the release of four full-length albums, a live CD/DVD and a number of singles and EPs, and an extensive touring activity that has brought them to perform at numerous events in Europe and America, the quartet fronted by bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda  has established itself as one of the top acts in the genre, particularly in progressive metal circles.

To be honest, I have always thought that the progressive metal tag was a rather uncomfortable fit for a band like Riverside. While their sound undeniably possesses a keen edge, in my view the more explicit metal traits, such as harsh, dense riffing and aggressive vocals, are used as accents rather than the main event; their music also seems to have more in common with eclectic, hard-to-pinpoint bands such as Porcupine Tree and Tool than the pyrotechnics of Dream Theater and their ilk, or the cerebral experimentalism of bands like UneXpect. With the moody, brooding atmosphere shared by other Polish bands, spiked by sudden surges in intensity, yet mellow and subtly haunting, Riverside’s compositions take full advantage of modern technology, and find a perfect foil to the instrumental side of things in Mariusz Duda’s velvet-smooth voice – equally at home on slower, meditative numbers and on those that push the aggressive elements to the forefront.

Released in June 2011 on the occasion of the band’s 10th anniversary tour, Memories in My Head is a mini-album featuring three new songs (all around the 10-minute mark), the first studio material following their acclaimed fourth album, Anno Domini High Definition. Clocking in at 32 minutes, the disc is in some ways a return to Riverside’s more mellow beginnings, bookended by atmospheric, ambient-like sounds produced by Michał Łapaj’s array of keyboards – something that has been criticized by some reviewers as superfluous, but which I found an interesting addition to the heavier approach adopted by the band in their recent output. The spacey, hypnotic textures of those instrumental passages clearly reveal the influence of Pink Floyd – especially the obsessive, mechanical sound effects in the intro to “Goodbye Sweet Innocence” that inevitably bring to mind Dark Side of the Moon. The track then develops into a slow, somber piece, showcasing Mariusz Duda’s throaty, soothing vocals and some fine guitar work by Piotr Grudziński (sometimes evidencing that faint Eastern vibe that seems to be a constant of Riverside’s music) sparring with Lapaj’s piercing synths.

Strategically placed in the middle, “Living in the Past” is not only the longest track on the CD, but also the one with the strongest ties to Riverside’s metal-hued tendencies of the past few years. Some of the initial parts juxtapose spacey Pink Floyd-like moments with hints of the guitar-organ dynamics so crucial for the sound of Deep Purple and other vintage hard rock outfits, while whistling synth and heavy riffing sharpen the taste. Though the composition comes across as occasionally patchy, mainly on account of the frequent, abrupt shifts between quiet and loud sections, the instrumental interplay is outstanding, and the coda, driven by clean, melodic guitar and Hammond flurries, is alone worth the price of admission. Finally, on closing track “Forgotten Land” Duda’s bass steps into the limelight, and his voice turns occasionally more assertive, while beautiful, mellow guitar and slow, measured pace, together with plentiful sound effects, create a haunting mood that fits the lyrical matter like a glove.

With stylish photography in a variety of hues of grey, bleak imagery suggesting the passing of time, and lyrics relating to memory and loss (as the titles make it abundantly clear), Memories in My Head is a finely-crafted release, though clearly a transitional one for the Polish band. Its more laid-back, atmospheric nature will appeal to the more conservative-minded prog fans turned off by overtly metal nature of Anno Domini High Definition (as witnessed by some of the reactions to the band’s excellent set at the 2010 edition of  NEARFest), and the lavish use of electronics in the tradition of vintage Pink Floyd, or even of seminal electro-prog bands like Tangerine Dream, may point at interesting developments in Riverside’s future releases.

Links:
http://riversideband.pl/en/

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SETLIST:
1. Irreducible Complexity
2. Manifest Density
3. Nacho Sunset
4. Kuru
5. Disillusioned Avatar > Dub > Ephebus Amoebus
6. Skein
7. Synecdoche
8. Okanogan Lobe
[Break]
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
14. Waylaid
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.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.orionsound.com/

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One of the biggest advantages of living in an otherwise crowded, ‘pressure-cooker’ area such as the US Northeast is the staggering variety of music on offer. With an impressive choice of venues of every size and description, as well as a thriving underground scene, the region has become one of the most important hubs for progressive rock, as illustrated by the documentary film Romantic Warriors (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). While gigs are organized more or less throughout the year, things are definitely quieter in the colder months (mainly because of the unavailability of the outdoor venues) – while the summer months offer such a wide range of gigs that fans are obliged to pick and choose, unless they have a unlimited supply of time and cash.

2009 was my first full year in the USA, so Michael, my husband, and I were finally able to start sampling the musical delights offered by our area. Our season included our first participation to NEARfest, four visits to the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion (the last one particularly poignant in retrospect, being the last time that we saw the great Ronnie James Dio on stage before his untimely passing), as well as what has now gone down in the annals of concert history as ‘the monsoon on the Potomac’ – the ill-fated Asia/Yes gig at the National Harbor. At the time, I had just started my reviewing tenure with ProgressoR, and as such was very much a ‘newbie’ of the whole scene. This year, though, was quite a different story…

With my review count growing and my reputation as a reviewer spreading around the prog fandom (helped by the reactivation of my Facebook account), I made friends among musicians, built an increasing network of contacts, slowly but steadily became part of the scene. For a basically shy person as I am, this made me feel much less self-conscious when attending gigs and festivals, and boosted my enjoyment of those functions. While I am very human and enjoy the attention generated by my reviews, I also feel I am helping those who need it the most – the artists – by covering their work and encouraging their efforts.

This year, our season of music was fittingly inaugurated at the very end of May, on Memorial Day weekend (which here in the US marks the beginning of the summer season), with the annual concert organized by the DC Society of Art Rock at the Jammin’ Java. We were already familiar with the venue, as we had seen Eddie Jobson and his band play there last year. A small, friendly coffeehouse, notorious for the ear-shattering volume of its gigs, this year it hosted two local bands, Brave and Ephemeral Sun, plus one of our favourite new acts – New Jersey’s very own 3rd Degree. Though all three bands put up excellent performances, 3rd Degree were our personal highlight of the evening – an extremely tight outfit very much in the vein of vintage Steely Dan, fronted by the amazing talents of vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs and bassist Robert James Pashman.

A couple of weeks later, it was the turn of two legendary bands such as Jethro Tull and Procol Harum, in the beautiful setting of the Wolf Trap Foundation – a striking wooden pavilion surrounded by deep woods, and the only National Park in the USA dedicated to the performing arts. While Ian Anderson may have lost most of his vocal power, he and his crew are still mightily entertaining to watch, and their back catalogue has very few equals in the rock word. However, the real surprise of the evening were Procol Harum. Unlike Anderson’s, Gary Brooker’s inimitable voice is still in pristine shape, and they wowed the audience with a mix of older and newer material, including the goosebump-inducing “A Salty Dog” and the much-awaited “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.

Our second time at NEARfest, which took place on the third weekend of June, is documented in the lengthy account I wrote for ProgressoR when I was still on board. Since all my articles for said website are covered by copyright, I will post a link to it at the end of this piece. Two days after our return from Pennsylvania, we were back at Wolf Trap for the Yes/Peter Frampton double bill – another great concert from two historic acts, though this time marred by the stiflingly humid heat. After last year’s monsoon, which had literally driven Yes off stage, we had bought tickets for their February concert at the Warner Theatre in DC. It was not, however, meant to be, since the event was first rescheduled because of the heavy snowfall; then – on the evening it was finally going to happen – Michael came home from work with a touch of the flu, so we kissed goodbye to our tickets, and patiently waited for the next opportunity to see the band. In spite of all you can say about the Jon Anderson-less Yes, they did not disappoint, and I was particularly excited by their performance of “Close to the Edge”, which I had never previously seen them play live.

After almost a month’s gap, on July 20 we headed to a venue we were not yet familiar with – the Jiffy Lube arena (formerly Nissan Pavilion) – to see another formidable double bill, firm favourites Iron Maiden with Dream Theater as openers. Unlike either Wolf Trap or the Merriweather Post Pavilion, Jiffy Lube is a largely unprepossessing space, located somewhat in the middle of nowhere and totally devoid of atmosphere. Though we were seated in the covered area, we managed to get relatively wet when a thunderstorm broke out (quite appropriately, seen the title of their latest release) just as Dream Theater took to the stage, and the wind drove the rain beneath the roof of the pavilion. While I found the New York band tolerable at best (their set was mercifully short!), Iron Maiden delivered in spades as usual. With three decades of activity under their belt, they are still one of the most energetic, entertaining live bands in the business, and I was thrilled with their choice to perform some of their more recent material alongside their undisputed classics.

Fast forward to the first weekend of September, and my first time at ProgDay – as described in detail in the review linked below. Barely two weeks of rest, so to speak, and the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits festival was upon us – with the organizers having pulled out all the stops by securing the participation of three major draws such as Magma, Univers Zéro and Miriodor, as well as veterans The Muffins and electronic pioneers Richard Pinhas and Merzbow. Though we had bought passes for the whole week, we were only able to attend the opening and closing shows, both held in the gorgeous premises of the Maison Française, the cultural centre of the French Embassy in DC. The marathon-like opening event culminated with a simply incredible performance by Zeuhl legends Magma, a band every self-respecting progressive rock fan should experience at least once. A week later, the festival was closed in style by the utterly stunning musicianship and compositional mastery of Miriodor and Univers Zéro – a once-in-a-lifetime double bill.

Our season of music came to a close last Saturday, with our first-ever visit to the Orion Studios in Baltimore to see Italian band The Watch (who were performing Genesis’ iconic Foxtrot album in its entirety) supported by Shadow Circus – one of the Northeast’s finest new bands, and very good friends of ours. The Orion is indeed one of those places that seem to have come out of a bygone era – a warehouse in a suburban area of Baltimore converted into a temple of progressive music, somewhat small and cramped, but brimming with character and a ‘family’ atmosphere of sorts, with people bringing their own chairs, drinks and food. Unfortunately, tiredness prevented us from attending the whole of The Watch’s performance, though we managed to enjoy all of Shadow Circus’ set. Those guys are going from strength to strength, and will hopefully soon reap the rewards of all their hard work.

In the coming months there will probably be other concerts for us to attend in the area, though not with the same frequency. At any rate, we already have some gigs lined up for next spring, and will also try to attend all three of the big festivals organized on the East Coast. Until then, I will continue to support up-and-coming bands with my reviews and feedback. Watch this space!

Links:

NEARfest 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/nearfest2010.html)
ProgDay 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/progday2010.html)

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Three Views From Chicheng Precipice (after Bai Yuyi) (9:52)
2. Tangabata (15:52)
3. Kan Hai De Re Zi  (Days by the Sea) (3:44)
4. Aviariations on “A Hundred Birds Serenade the Phoenix” (6:48)
5. Bagua  (Eight Trigrams) (10:41)

LINEUP:
Dennis Rea electric and resonator guitars, melodica, Naxi jaw harp, kalimba, dan bau (Vietnamese monochord)
Alicia Allenviolin (1, 3)
Greg Campbell drums, percussion (2)
Ruth Davidson cello (1, 3)
James DeJoie bass flute, bamboo flute, bass clarinet (2)
Caterina De Re voice (4)
Stuart Dempster trombone, conch shell (2)
Will Dowd – drums, percussion (1)
Elizabeth Falconer koto (5)
John Falconer shakuhachi (5)
Jay Jaskot drums (3)
Paul Kikuchi percussion (5)
Kevin Millard baliset (3)

In spite of China’s venerable musical tradition, very few people outside the ‘Asian studies’ circles are aware the authentic musical heritage of the Far East, unless it is in the most superficial of terms. Mentions of Chinese music might conjure, at least to the uninitiated, memories of the cheesy (when not downright ghastly) ‘sonic wallpaper’ that will accompany a meal in most Chinese restaurants of the Western world. However, I am happy to report that Views from Chicheng Precipice – the first recording effort solely credited to Seattle-based guitarist and composer Dennis Rea, a true veteran of the progressive music scene of the US Pacific Northwest – is light years removed from any such kitschy scenario.

Those who are familiar with Rea’s current main projects, the eclectic art-rock of Moraine and the improvisational jazz-rock of Iron Kim Style, will probably find themselves somewhat puzzled by this album – which, on the other hand, provides further proof of the guitarist’s broad horizons and dedication to the pursuit of creative musical avenues. While world music may be all the rage in a some circles, it is nevertheless not easy to find artists that approach the tradition of a country as distant (both literally and metaphorically) as China with such rigorously philological spirit as Rea manages to do – informed by his first-hand, in-depth knowledge of the musical and cultural background of both China and Taiwan, where he spent the years between 1989 and 1993.

Recorded between 2006 and 2008, Views from Chicheng Precipice sees the participation of members of both Moraine and Iron Kim Style, as well as other musicians from the Seattle scene, such as Japanese music specialists Elizabeth and John Falconer, and trombone master Stuart Dempster. Running at under 50 minutes, the album features five tracks presenting different facets of the Chinese musical heritage, seen through the eyes of a Western artist in a respectful yet uniquely personal way. Indeed, four out of five numbers (the sole exception being the title-track) are traditional compositions arranged by Rea so as to preserve their spirit even when reinterpreting their form.

Out of those five tracks, the East-West collision of “Days by the Sea” might almost be described as a pop song of sorts (also on account of its markedly shorter running time). Rea’s guitar weaves a tune that, while respectful to the original, incorporates elements of African-American blues, sparring with Alicia Allen’s violin in a stunning dialogue that brought to my mind Rea’s work with Moraine. The title-track, on the other hand, is built around three pentatonic motifs that comprise an original sonic triptych, with a recurring theme and plenty of scope left for improvisations. The composition was performed by Moraine during their performance at NEARfest 2010, though not many members of the audience were able to grasp its sheer elegance and grace in a live setting. Here the triptych comes across in all its understated power, the seamless flow of the music evoking the beauty of the titular mountain landscape (Qingcheng Mountain is the site of a Daoist sanctuary in China’s Sichuan Province). Rea’s guitar converses smoothly with Allen’s violin, while a drum-led improvisation adds a free-jazz touch to the central part of the composition.

The remaining three numbers are of a distinctly more challenging nature, since each of them develops in a fashion that is definitely less attuned to the Western ear. The 15-minute “Tangabata” and the 10-minute “Bagua” both have their roots in ceremonial music, as borne out by their stately, measured pace. The latter makes use of traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto and the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute), supported by solemn yet dramatic percussion work in the creation of a gently meditative mood. “Tangabata”, though a far from accessible piece, might be called the real highlight of the album. While featuring a distinctly Western-flavoured, free-jazz improv section at its very end, most of the composition remains faithful to its ancient origins – a sparse melody of austere beauty, almost suspended in time, made of deep, echoing sounds occasionally brightened by chiming bells. Finally, in “Aviariations on A Hundred Birds Serenade the Phoenix” (whose gently punning title reflects Rea’s ever-present sense of humour) the Chinese oboe traditionally used in the titular piece is replaced by Caterina De Re’s piercing vocal acrobatics, mimicking birdsong in a performance that brings together contemporary Western academic music and Chinese opera. Rea plays guitar and kalimba, whose sounds almost merge with De Re’s impossibly high notes.

Miles away from any tawdrily commercial ‘world music’ recreations, Views from Chicheng Precipice is, as Rea himself puts it, a love letter to the country where he spent four years of his life, an experience that was essential for his development as a musician. A refined, understated listen, it is an album made of subtle contrasts of light and shade, and as such needs to be approached with respect and concentration. The music possesses the delicate, almost brittle beauty of Far Eastern art, in stark contrast with the ‘in-your-face’ nature of much that is fashionable in this day and age. Being such an unabashed labour of love, imbued with profound feelings towards the country and its culture, sets it head and shoulders above the many blatantly contrived releases flooding the current music market. Those who will find themselves intrigued by the album could do much worse than get hold of a copy of Dennis’ book Live at the Forbidden City, a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely well-written account of his years in China and Taiwan – and a perfect companion to this disc. A special mention is also deserved by the stunningly minimalistic cover artwork and detailed liner notes – a simple yet classy package for an album that everyone with an interest in world music should check out.

Link:
http://www.dennisrea.com

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