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Abandoning improv for Love

Amen Dunes Amen Dunes. Tuomas Kopijaakko photo.

Amen Dunes. Tuomas Kopijaakko photo.

Review – Amen Dunes at the Biltmore Cabaret July 9 2014

– review by Thalia Stopa

“Grandparent-appropriate” is not how I would describe opening band Steve Jr. Had my own grandmother been in attendance for the Montreal duo’s first Vancouver performance, she would have turned off her hearing aids.

Corbin Ordel‘s grandpa, who was in attendance according to the vocalist/guitarist, opted for industrial earphones to soften the relentless psych-rock blows. Steve Jr.’s other half, Gleb Wilson, had no mercy for the sensitive eardrums present, or for his own drums. With his head down, he plowed through a mostly instrumental set. Ordel’s vocals were the least impactful element except for one song where they escalated into a vicious yell that tore through the monotonous lyrics. Constantly giving each other cues, the pair sounded alternately improvisational and choreographed cage match. Jockish and muscular Ordel clearly had brawn on his side, whereas Wilson had speed and endurance.

Wilson endured another set, to provide the occasional backing beats for New Yorkers Amen Dunes. After the 19-hour drive up from San Francisco, singer/guitarist (and founding member) Damon McMahon declared that he was “happy to not be in a moving vehicle” any longer. With their shredded black jeans and unkempt frizzy hair, McMahon and guitarist/keyboardist Jordi Wheeler were the portrait of a touring rock band. On tour in support of June’s Love LP release, on Sacred Bones Records, they played a mellow set devoted to their new material at the Biltmore this past. The mostly young and female audience was small but fawning.

The music meandered and soared with an underlying intensity and melancholy reminiscent of fellow psych-folk rocker Chad Vangaalen. Less quirky or morbid than Vangaalen, McMahon’s voice shone and occasionally quivered with reverb like heat radiating off of sun-soaked skin. His own acoustic strumming was accompanied by Wheeler’s shimmering electric guitar for all except for the first and last song, including confessional “I Know Myself.”

Having not heard anything off of their new album prior to the show, I anticipated more drone and psychedelia and less listenability from the night’s performance. Love is an intentional departure from Amen Dunes’ past experimental approach; had McMahon reverted to his previous improvisational attitude, the performance would likely have felt far too disjointed. Except for several disruptive moments to adjust the questionable sound, the venue’s mood had the apt romantic air of a summer twilight setting.

In the past, I have relied on record label Sacred Bones for innovative and prolific artists (such as Zola Jesus and recently reviewed The Men). Like a mirage, Amen Dunes gave the impression of a musical oasis, but never seem to entirely realize or fulfill their promise, much like the love that their album is titled after.

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