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zhongyu

TRACKLISTING:
1. Apple of My Mind’s Eye 2 (2:06)
2. Torture Chambers of Commerce (4:42)
3. Iron Rice Bowl Has Rusted (3:45)
4. Hydraulic Fracas (8:03)
5. Tunnel at the End of the Light (4:05)
6. Apple of My Mind’s Eye 1 (2:02)
7. Half Remembered Drowning Dream (5:20)
8. Sleepwalking the Dog (6:41)
9. Wanderland Wonderlust (5:31)
10. Cat Hair All Over It (2:10)
11. MBBL (5:17)
12. All Food Comes From China (4:51)

LINEUP:
Jon Davis – Chapman Stick, guzheng, Mellotron, ARP 2600
Dennis Rea – electric guitar, resonator guitar
Alicia DeJoie – electric violin
James DeJoie – baritone saxophone, flute, bass clarinet
Randy Doak – drums, percussion

With:
Daniel Barry: trumpet (11)

Because of its geographical location, Seattle, the Emerald City, looks towards Asia as much as it does towards the American continent. Therefore, it is not surprising to find artists that draw their inspiration not only from Western sources, but also from the rich musical tradition of the East. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to review Dennis Rea’s beautiful solo album View from Chicheng Precipice, informed by his four-year experience in China and Taiwan. Now it is the turn of Zhongyu, the quintet formed by multi-instrumentalist Jon Davis (who spent three years in Beijing in the first decade of the 21st century), together with Rea and his fellow Morainians Alicia and James DeJoie, as well as drummer Randy Doak.

With the glut of “progressive” albums released every day, and the high level of quality of this year’s average release, an album such as Zhongyu’s eponymous debut is highly at risk of flying under the radar. A labour of love, many years in the making – as emphasized by the band’s name, meaning “finally” in Mandarin Chinese, Zhongyu deserves much more attention than it has received so far, a few months after its release on NYC-based Moonjune Records. Recorded and mixed by legendary Seattle engineer Steve Fisk, the album is introduced by artwork clearly inspired by Chinese propaganda posters, though interpreted with a humorous twist: the uniformed woman is armed with a guitar, and surrounded by flowers and butterflies in a sort of “make music, not war” context.

As hackneyed as the “East meets West” phrase may be, I believe there is no better description for an album that marries free-jazz improvisation and progressive rock with traditional Chinese music – the lilting sound of the zither-like guzheng (often played by Davis with a bow) elegantly blending with state-of-the-art electronics, gritty guitar, deep-voiced baritone sax, soothing flute and soaring violin. This fusion of apparently very different elements  works surprisingly well, weaving atmospheres at the same time ethereal and intense. Zhongyu’s bookends, “Apple of My Mind’s Eye 2” and “All Food Comes From China” (yes, the titles are punny and creative – another bonus point in my book), explore this territory in different ways – the former merging spacey effects with a heady melody produced by guzheng manipulated in various ways, the latter achieving a seamless combination of acoustic, electric and electronic elements.

The 8-minute “Hydraulic Fracas” perfectly embodies the spirit of the album, with the flute’s Eastern flavour contrasted to the electric guitar darkly reverberating in the background. “Iron Rice Bowl Has Rusted” pairs guzheng and flute in a delicate, ethereal texture, while in the haunting “Half Remembered Drowning Dream” gentle chimes enhance the sound of the ethnic instrument. “Sleepwalking the Dog” is a textbook example of modern jazz-rock emphasizing ensemble playing rather than individual prowess, particularly the essential synergy between sax and violin. On the other hand,  the almost improvisational, free-jazz bent of “Tunnel at the End of Light” reminded me of Rea’s defunct project Iron Kim Style, while Moraine (and King Crimson  circa Starless and Bible Black) are evoked in the riveting “Torture Chamber of Commerce”, where melody and dissonance clash and coexist.

Besides Zhongyu’s obvious musical charms, it was a pleasure for me to review an album by a band whose main creative force is a fellow reviewer as well as a gifted musician. I have often read and appreciated Jon Davis’ writings on Exposé magazine, and am glad to have had the opportunity of expressing my opinion on his music. In any case, I count Zhongyu among one of this bumper year’s top releases, highly recommended to lovers of instrumental progressive rock – especially those who value the cross-fertilization of Western and Eastern musical traditions.

Links:
http://zhongyuband.net/
http://zhongyu-moonjune.bandcamp.com/album/zhongyu

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Mustardseed (3:11)
2. Skein (3:52)
3. Fountain of Euthanasia (3:25)
4. Gnashville (4:12)
5. In That Distant Place (6:20)
6. Synecdoche (3:52)
7. The Earth Is an Atom (5:12)
8. Waylaid (7:20)
9. Spiritual Gatecrasher (7:18)
10. The Okanogan Lobe (7:41)

LINEUP:
AliciaDeJoie – electric violin
James DeJoie – baritone saxophone, flute
Kevin Millard – NS stick bass
Dennis Rea – guitar, electronic interventions, Mellotron
Tom Zgonc – drums

Four years after their recording debut, Manifest Density – followed by a career-defining appearance at NEARfest 2010, captured on their second album, Metamorphic Rock – Seattle quintet Moraine are back with Groundswell, their long-awaited third release. In the past couple of years, there have been some remarkable events for the band – namely the entry of drummer Tom Zgonc (a longtime associate of guitarist and mainman Dennis Rea) to replace Stephen Cavit, and appearances at West Coast festivals SeaProg and NorCalProg.

Introduced by a striking aerial photograph of the Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha – one of the loneliest places on Earth – Groundswell shows a band firing on all cylinders. While the backing of Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records label remains a reliable constant in the band’s career, Moraine are clearly not the kind of outfit that thrives on playing it safe, and this third chapter in their recording history clearly points forward rather than backward. With renowned sound engineer Steve Fisk (of Nirvana and Soundgarden fame) at the helm, the album sounds powerful yet clear, gritty in all the right places, yet almost ethereal when needed. Though some of the tracks had already appeared on Metamorphic Rock, they are not mere duplicates of already available material, but are integrated into the fabric of an album that stands out for its compositional tightness.

Clocking in around a very sensible 52 minutes, Groundswell bears all the hallmarks of classic Moraine, in particular their signature device of using a main theme in their compositions that brings them full circle. The music is powered by the tireless engine of Tom Zgonc’s drums and Kevin Millard’s stick bass, but also clustered around the shifting, intersecting lines of James DeJoie’s sax, Alicia DeJoie’s violin, and of course Dennis Rea’s guitar. This core trio is also responsible for the majority of the writing, with two of the 10 tracks written by other Seattle-based musicians. Indeed, the opening track, “Mustardseed”, a composition by composer and conductor Daniel Barry, is redolent of the warmth of faraway countries with its lazy, sauntering violin and sax duet, into which Rea’s sharp, meandering guitar interjects. On the other hand, the muted, rarefied elegance of “In a Distant Place” (written by Jon Davis of Zhongyu, whose members also include Rea and the DeJoies) owes a lot to Chinese music, though a burst of distinctly Western energy enlivens its texture towards the end.

The jaunty-paced “Skein” blends Moraine’s trademark sound with the almost big-band swagger of the main sax line, until an almost tempestuous climax of crashing drums and echoing guitar riffs. “Synecdoche” emphasizes adrenaline-drenched energy rather than melody, allowing Rea’s guitar free rein; whereas “Gnashville” does suggest country music (albeit in a very skewed fashion) in the starring role accorded to Alicia DeJoie’s violin, which engages in some Paganini-like acrobatics complemented by the distinctly hard rock vibe of Rea’s low-toned, growling guitar. “Fountain of Euthanasia” strikes a middle ground, its briskly upbeat opening shading into a pensive violin study offset by gently chiming guitar; similarly, “The Earth Is an Atom” juxtaposes an overall meditative mood with the sax’s more assertive exertions.

The album culminates with a trio of 7-minute-plus tracks that showcase the development of Moraine’s musical identity through the past few years. The deceptively lively beginning of “Waylaid” fades into a middle section that brings to mind Pink Floyd circa A Saucerful of Secrets – a sparse, hauntingly beautiful electronic storm infused with the violin’s ethereal touch. “Spiritual Gatecrasher” brings back that heady Oriental flavour, mixed with a witty, Canterbury-like bounce, the dreamy softness of James DeJoie’s flute spiced up by a sprinkling of guitar effects. Then, Rea’s love for geology emerges once again in the album’s closing track, “The Okanogan Lobe” (a reference to an ancient glacier of the Columbia River Valley) – Moraine’s own version of a symphonic poem, whose majestic pace seems to mimic the movement of the ice throughout the eras. Rea’s guitar is at its most lyrical in the intense, slo-mo climax that follows a lively jazz-rock workout.

Groundswell marks Moraine’s triumphant return to the progressive rock fray. The band successfully weave their diverse influences together in a seamless whole that highlights their uniqueness with every twist and turn of the music. Moraine are among the foremost standard-bearers of a modern form of jazz-rock that yearns to break free from the ponderous heritage of the Seventies. A near-perfect blend of lyricism, atmosphere and raw energy, Groundswell embodies, in many ways, the modern progressive ethos. Highly recommended to all open-minded prog listeners, this is essential listening for lovers of instrumental progressive rock.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com/

http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/groundswell
http://www.moonjune.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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