Few bands have come out of nowhere to surprise me like Moraine. About a year ago I was seated at the Nor Cal prog festival, waiting for the first band to come on stage. It wasn’t like it was a band I’d never heard of–Moraine, the Seattle based jazz-rock outfit, had spun a bit in my CD player with their live album from Nearfest–but that night when I witnessed them in San Mateo it was a whole nother beast. Everything was perfect, from the studio-level clarity of the mix to the power and ferocity with which the band performed, making the festival opener the highlight performance of the night. After the show, and subsequently at Baja Prog, I got a chance to chat with the band and they commented that they were doing a new album. As I was anxious to see what these guys would come out with, I was naturally pleased when their latest release, Groundswell, arrived at my doorstep.
The opener, “Mustard Seed,” launches us into a realm that is immediately dark and pensive. Capitalizing on its doomy pace and slightly eastern melodic flavor, this simple song does a fantastic job at building into a massive onslaught of power and texture. While the pace is quite different, “Synecdoche” similarly favors a huge sound, this time with an emphasis on upbeat, heavy drumming throughout, thickly distorted jazzy chords on the guitar, and delicious bari-sax riffing, making for an all out aggressive approach. “Gnashville” provides an interesting blend of heavy jazz-prog with a country twang and an overall raucous feel, while “Skein” leads us along with some groovy Chapman Stick riffing in 7 that provides lots of space for soloing. The real highlights of this piece though are the marvelous transition from sax solos to violin which plunges us deep into tension. And I’m not going to lie, the way the band builds into a frantic and all out, in-your-face climax really brought a smile to my face. Listen loud.
When it really comes down to what grabs me about Moraine though, it’s their masterful ability to incorporate oriental music elements into a distinctive brand of jazz-prog. One of the most recognizable pieces, and a standout of their live performances, would be the album closer, “The Okanogan Lobe.” This wonderful piece lands on a seamless combination of jazz and eastern melodies, churning out everything from exciting fugues and upbeat riffs to the powerful chord progression that builds heavy sax playing alongside guitar improvisations and harmonies into a moving final variation on the main theme. “Spiritual Gatecrasher” provides quite a distinct take on the eastern feel, this time with lots of quirkiness as it features the flute as a principle instrument and makes effective use of jolting transitions, strange digital effects on the sax, folk-tinged percussion, and lots of open canvas for mysterious improvisation. Undoubtedly the most experimental piece on the album in terms of jazz or prog, however it somehow manages to pull in a more authentic eastern flavor than any other track in its musings that, while perhaps excessive for some, were delightful to my ears. With “Fountain of Euthanasia” Moraine brings us a beautiful oriental jazz-rock piece full of weaving melodies and fascinating shifts in mood. The way the bass flawlessly compliments the violin melodies, as well as Rea’s 8th note stream of guitar starting in the middle section all builds towards a moment of supreme tension where a series of dramatic chord changes over gong-like effects lead to an explosive outro.
Finally, I must mention “In that Distant Place,” perhaps one of the most evocative pieces on the album. The song kicks it off with the sax and violin splitting a variation on the melody before the violin pulls it in all alone, once again with a strong Chinese folk touch due to it’s being based on a traditional tune. As it moves into the B section, variation adds a slightly more mysterious tone which serves as a perfect transition into a freer, more ambient section led by moody drumming, slowly plucked guitar chords, and a bit of sax adding light improvisations. As the sax makes its exit, the band brings it down another notch to give space for the violin, creating an absolutely haunting feel. Its initial raw tone is wonderfully complimented by random interjections of reverby violin in the background. After an eventual return to the main theme Moraine ends it off with a twist, taking us in an unexpected jazzy direction replete with quick drumming and sax riffing, all of which holds the ground down for Rea’s guitar improvisations.
Groundswell, in my opinion, is a huge album for Moraine, marking a step forward in their songwriting as well as capturing the magic on a studio recording, something that I feel was missing on their first studio release, Manifest Destiny, an album which exhibited great songs but had production values that didn’t pack nearly as much punch as the band actually has in a live setting. With Groundswell we get everything that makes Moraine a great band, from the catchy melodies to the avant-deviations and heavy Chinese folk influences. If you ever get a chance to see these guys live, you’re in for a real treat, but if they aren’t coming through your neighborhood Groundswell will certainly clue you in on what makes Moraine tick.