Graded on a Curve: Under the Reefs Orchestra, Sakurajima

Following a self-titled debut in 2020, Sakurajima is the new full-length from Under the Reefs Orchestra, the Brussels-based power trio consisting of guitarist and main songwriter Clément Nourry, saxophonist Marti Melia, and drummer Jakob Warmenbol. While they emerged onto the scene with an approach that was decidedly post-rock, their latest radiates a raw toughness, deepened in no small part by Melia’s bass saxophone, that reinforces comparisons to Morphine, though the non-vocal nature of these ten tracks lends distinctiveness. The album’s out September 23 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Capitane Records.

Sakurajima’s opener “Heliodrome” effectively sets the scene, the group bursting forth with a sinewy groove, Warmenbol lithe but large on the cans power trio-style, Nourry exuding a hint of spacy surf in his slide work, and Melia’s tone so low and serrated that it more than slightly resembles an amplified cello or bass fiddle (his solo in the track is a highlight)

The sharp execution carries over into “Ants,” though the cut’s strong point isn’t really the playing (either singly or collectively) but the writing, which structurally harkens back to the era of classic instrumentals (without going overboard about it) and provides a good home for Nourry’s touches of twang. The title track follows, beginning with a little snaky spy-flick saxophone as a prelude to a particularly wicked psychedelic guitar outburst, with the sax and drums locking down a pattern and then riding it with gusto underneath.

“Galapagos” is comparatively laid back as it unwinds, but still grooving, as the cut strengthens those Morphine vibes a bit. But don’t misapprehend that the music has descended into mellowness, as there’s always a modicum of intensity in Under the Reef Orchestra’s attack, and subtly ratcheted up in the back end of “Galapagos” to appealing effect.

There’s a crisp guitar melody in the opening moments of “Kudzu” that reminds me a tad of Chuck Johnson’s playing in another instrumental unit, the terribly undersung and long defunct Shark Quest of North Carolina (a similarity carried over from Under the Reefs’ debut). However, the Orchestra really marches to the beat of their own drum with a mid-track dive into abstraction, the sound tinged with free jazz without exploding into total skronk, as the band just as quickly swings back into the structure established at the beginning.

“MIR” is a showcase of the band’s versatility, with Warmenbol busting out a big beat alongside Melia, whose horn in fact sounds like an electric keyboard slathered in distortion and mimicking a triggered alarm in a factory, the drums and sax delivering the sturdy foundation for Nourry to roam around strutting his stuff and dishing some prime scorch.

With “Soleil Trompeur,” Melia steps to the fore, his lines nearer to an early ’60 Exotica album (early Moondog also crossed my mind) than a typical jazz approach, at least until the drums kick in. Interestingly, it’s in this cut that Nourry’s playing cozies up closest to a post-rock sensibility. And amid smart shifts in tempo, the record’s finale “Mendoza” returns to the classic instrumental template heard early on side one.

Along with their overall dexterity (and restraint) as a trio, Under the Reefs Orchestra’s strong suit on Sakurajima is an avoidance of tipping over into homage or developing into an outright retro situation. The LP is a case of making it new rather than rehashing the old.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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