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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

ďGrandparent-appropriateĒ 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 ďhappy to not be in a moving vehicleĒ 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 Juneís¬†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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