Watch & Listen

The highest apex of psychedelia, be it art, music, drugs or literature, is to induce a prolonged consciousness shift that affects the consumer far beyond the time they were privy to the act. Moon Duo‘s third full-length LP, Shadow of the Sun, was written entirely during one of these evolving phases -- a rare and uneasy rest period, devoid of the constant adrenaline of performing live and the stimulation of traveling through endless moving landscapes. This offered Moon Duo a new space to reflect on all of these previous experiences and cradle them while cultivating the album in the unfamiliar environment of a new dwelling; a dark Portland basement. It was from this stir-crazy fire that Shadow of the Sun was forged.

Evolving the sound of their first two full-length records, Mazes (2011) and Circles (2012), Moon Duo -- Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada -- have developed their ideas with the help of their newly acquired steam engine, Canadian drummer John Jeffrey (present on the band‘s last release, Live in Ravenna). The unchartered rhythms and tones present on this record are reflective of Moon Duo’s strive for equilibrium in this aforementioned new environment. You can hear it is the result of months of wrangling with a profound feeling of being unsettled – there are off-kilter dance rhythms, repetitive, grinding riffs, cosmic trucker boogies and even an ecstatically pretty moment. Mixing with Jonas Verwijnen in Berlin, allowed for a creative catharsis and dissolved the album’s formal technique into a cool and paradoxically sane sound of confusion.

With every record, Damon McMahon aka Amen Dunes has transformed, and Freedom is the project’s boldest leap yet.

The first LP, D.I.A., was a gnarled underground classic, recorded and played completely by McMahon in a trailer in upstate New York over the course of a month and left as is. The fourth and most recent LP Love, a record that enlisted Godspeed! You Black Emperor as both producers and backing band (along with an additional motley crew including Elias Bender Rønnenfelt of Iceage and Colin Stetson), featured songs confidently far removed from the damaged drug pop of Amen Dunes’ trailer-park origins.

Love took two years to make. Freedom took three. The first iteration of the album was recorded in 2016 following a year of writing in Lisbon and NYC, but it was scrapped completely. Uncertain how to move forward, McMahon brought in a powerful set of collaborators and old friends, and began anew. Along with his core band members, including Jordi Wheeler on keyboards and Parker Kindred (Antony & The Johnsons, Jeff Buckley) on drums, came Chris Coady (Beach House) as producer and Delicate Steve on guitars. This is the first Amen Dunes record that looks back to the electronic influences of McMahon’s youth with the aid of revered underground musician Panoram from Rome. McMahon discovered Panoram’s music in a shop in London and became enamored. Following this the two became friends and here Panoram finds his place as a significant, if subtle, contributor to the record.

The bulk of the songs were recorded at the famed Electric Lady Studios in NYC (home of Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, D’Angelo), and finished at the similarly legendary Sunset Sound in L.A., where McMahon, Nick Zinner, and session bass player extraordinaire Gus Seyffert (Beck, Bedouine) fleshed out the recordings.

On the surface, Freedom is a reflection on growing up, childhood friends who ended up in prison or worse, male identity, McMahon’s father, and his mother, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the beginning of recording.

The characters that populate the musical world of Freedom are a colourful mix of reality and fantasy: father and mother, Amen Dunes, teenage glue addicts and Parisian drug dealers, ghosts above the plains, fallen surf heroes, vampires, thugs from Naples and thugs from Houston, the emperor of Rome, Jews, Jesus, Tashtego, Perseus, even McMahon himself. Each character portrait is a representation of McMahon, of masculinity, and of his past.

Yet, if anything, these 11 songs are a relinquishing of all of them through exposition; a gradual reorientation of being away from the acquired definitions of self we all cling to and towards something closer to what's stated in the Agnes Martin quote that opens the record, “I don’t have any ideas myself; I have a vacant mind” and in the swirling, pitched down utterances of “That's all not me” that close it.

The music, as a response or even a solution to the album's darker themes, is tough and joyous, rhythmic and danceable; a true NYC street record.

It’s a sound never heard before on an Amen Dunes record, but one that was always asking to emerge. “Blue Rose” and “Calling Paul the Suffering” are pure, ecstatic dance songs. “Skipping School” and “Miki Dora” are incantations of a mythical heroic maleness and its illusions. “Freedom” and “Believe” offer a street tough’s future-gospel exhalation, and the funk-grime grit of “L.A.” closes the album, projecting a musical hint of things to come.

Marissa Nadler

Marissa Nadler wastes no time in cutting close to the bone on "July," her latest album and first for her new labels, Sacred Bones (US) and Bella Union (Europe).

"Drive" opens the record with one of her most devastating lines, addressing a quandary we have all grappled with at some point: "If you ain't made it now/ You're never gonna make it."

There is catharsis in the chorus: "Nothin' like the way it feels/ To drive," she sings amid a choir of celestial harmonies, elongating that last word as if it were a car bounding down a long stretch of lost highway. It's Nadler at her most elemental: warm but spectral, vulnerable but resilient.

Nadler lays the listener – and herself – on the line with "July," her sixth full-length album in nearly a decade. Set for release on Feb. XX, it floats freely in the pop cosmos somewhere between gauzy shoegaze, unvarnished folk, and even a hint of metal's doom-and-gloom spirit.

On "Firecrackers," an acoustic strum frames a cascading melody that is simply gorgeous until you realize just how much it belies the brutality of what Nadler has to say. "Firecrackers/ Burned into heaven on the floor/ My attacker/ It's me, it's me, it's me you're looking for."

Then she slyly leavens the mood: "July Fourth of last year/ We spilled all the blood/ How'd you spend your summer days?" Nadler asks with a straight face, acknowledging you could either laugh or cry at such a sentiment.

This is the world of Nadler's "July," where you're likely to find the Boston-based singer and songwriter "holed up at the Holiday Inn" watching crime TV or leaving her instruments to freeze in the car. These settings, details, and themes are brand-new to Nadler's canon, and they paint a far more realistic version of her life than her previous records. The results are astonishing and occasionally reminiscent of David Lynch (who is, appropriately enough, among her label mates on Sacred Bones). As Pitchfork once wrote, her songs are "as gorgeous as they are elliptical and intriguing."

Recorded at Seattle's Avast Studio, the album pairs Nadler for the first time with producer Randall Dunn (Earth, Sunn O))), Wolves in the Throne Room). Dunn matches Nadler's darkness by creating a multi-colored sonic palette that infuses new dimensions into her songs. Eyvand Kang's strings, Steve Moore's synths, and Phil Wandscher's guitar lines escalate the whole affair to a panoramic level of beautiful, eerie wonder.

Her voice, too, is something to behold here, at once clarion but heavy with the kind of tear-stained emotion you hear on scratchy old country records by Tammy Wynette and Sammi Smith. Long gone are the days when Nadler summoned images of 1960s folk singers who got lost in the woods. She is a cosmic force on "July," shooting these songs to euphoric highs and heartbreaking lows.

Celebrated for her crystalline soprano, she explores her lower register to profound effect throughout "July," turning "1923" into a cinematic ode to forlorn love. Strings cradle Nadler's vocals, cresting in a climax that is somehow vast yet still intimate. If you were to hear only one song from "July" – which would be a shame, by the way – let it be "1923." It is Nadler in miniature: haunted, elegiac, and epic.

"July" is the kind of release that reminds you why NPR counts Nadler's songwriting as so "revered among an assortment of tastemakers." This is a singular achievement for the artist, a record she couldn't have made earlier in her career because, as every songwriter knows, she didn't just write these songs: She lived them.

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