The cover of Mount Moriah's second album shows a dilapidated farmhouse wholly consumed by vivid orange flames that scar an otherwise barren landscape. The album is called Miracle Temple, named for a church near the Durham home of singer Heather McEntire. The religious implications heighten the emotional impact, keying on the violent conflicts that are often spurred on by deep faith.
For Mount Moriah, the image is more about rebirth than destruction. It's an extension of the band's progressive use of traditionally Southern musical styles to explore the South's contradictions and hypocrisies. The group's fiery folk-rock songs are kindled from crises of faith, sexuality and identity.
"The miracle temple is in yourself," says guitarist Jenks Miller. He's sitting across from McEntire outside a coffee shop in Carrboro. The two are longtime friends, evidenced by the way they frequently finish each other's thoughts. In addition to his work with Mount Moriah, Miller leads the avant-metal project Horseback, which is why he's particularly fond of Miracle Temple's burning church image. He speaks of its importance as a symbol in metal: "It's not a literal church you're going to every Sunday. It's the power you find in yourself."
"You almost have to burn it down to get to the center of it," McEntire adds, referring to the way we shed and consolidate beliefs as we get older. She was born in the North Carolina mountains to a strict Christian mother, but McEntire is bisexual, and her songs express her struggle to find love and acceptance.
On the band's self-titled debut of 2011, McEntire cut to the quick of her personal trials in songs like "Reckoning," in which she confronts her mother about her homophobia, and "Lament," where she tells a former lover that "a mouthful of bees couldn't stop me from whispering, 'I don't love you.'" The music plays like still-smoldering embers that remain after a band has burned Southern folk and rock to its essence. Miller's cutting guitar takes the most minimal pathways, blazing with brilliant, bittersweet tones as bass lines throb and drums keep the time efficiently.
Miracle Temple seems to rise from the ashes left from the band's first album, sporting more robust arrangements and purposefully up-tempo melodies. Violinist Daniel Hart (St. Vincent, the Rosebuds) contributes to several tracks, imbuing them at times with resigned chamber-pop menace and at other times, old-school Nashville grandeur. In fact, the band recorded Miracle Temple in Music City with Lambchop alum Mark Nevers in just five days, very different from the drawn-out hometown sessions that produced Mount Moriah.
"It's more full. It's louder. It's heavier," McEntire says, pointing out that the new album's stylistic breadth likely has a lot to do with the rotating line-ups Mount Moriah used following the first record's release. Members of fellow Triangle-area acts Megafaun, The Old Ceremony and Bowerbirds matriculated through the band, each leaving a stamp on its sound. But the shifting personnel also was a burden that forced Miller and McEntire to continually revamp old songs when they really just wanted to move on. "I had some moments where I was so ready to write new stuff, and I couldn't, because we were always rehearsing," McEntire continues. "Sometimes I'd disconnect a little bit."
Though the turmoil was frustrating, the resulting diversity on Miracle Temple is worthy compensation. The achingly beautiful "I Built a Town" lilts with prickling guitar and gauzy strings in a tasteful update of country. "Telling the Hour" builds with dark elegance, its quiet opening of delicate guitar and creepy noise giving way to swirling violin counterpoints and powerfully foreboding bass. "Swannanoa" and "Miracle Temple Holiness" incorporate searing guitar work à la Miller's Horseback recordings, the latter translating that heady aggression into fierce, sludgy blues not far removed from the swampy metal of the Athens, Ga., band Harvey Milk.
By leaning less on quieter material, the band has purged what had become reliable constructs. Trying new things was a risk, but like the empty lot left by the cover image's fire, this new direction is rich with possibility.
"['Miracle Temple Holiness'] may be the heaviest song on the record," Miller says. "There's a big climactic moment where the strings come in, and it's this instrumental section, and then everything drops out to just the rhythm section and Heather's voice."
As McEntire says, sometimes you have to burn something down to know for sure what's really there. Miracle Temple builds from the rubble, feeding from the essence of Southern music to create something that feels simultaneously traditional and modern, the sound of the past giving way to that of the future.