Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: The Spellbinding Strangeness of Amen Dunes

Douglas Martin also enjoys Dunes. In spite of garnering comparisons to nearly every old “weird” singer / songwriter on the block (Skip Spence, Roky Erickson, Chris Knox, etc.), there’s...
By    September 20, 2011

Douglas Martin also enjoys Dunes.

In spite of garnering comparisons to nearly every old “weird” singer / songwriter on the block (Skip Spence, Roky Erickson, Chris Knox, etc.), there’s something remarkably distinctive about the music of Amen Dunes. For starters, he sounds like he’s singing words from a different language. Sometimes it sounds like he’s not even singing words at all.

While the aforementioned artists are all rightfully assem bled under the psych-rock banner, Damon McMahon takes the genre to different places, instilling dissonance, rumbling guitar noise, and otherwise abrasive tones into his sound. Plus, he’s got this primal howl that sounds far closer to the exorcism of demons than it does to “singing a song,” proving that the “psych” in this equation could just as well stand for psychological as it does psychedelic.

I.
Though 2009’s DIA marked the auspicious beginning of Amen Dunes, McMahon is no stranger to music, having recorded both with Inouk and under his own name. There’s the feeling of something being shed on DIA— the rejection of ideals in order to find one’s true self– which becomes crystal clear when delving into the backstory of the album. Growing tired of living in New York City, he rented a house in the Catskills, limited contact with other people and focused on recording a set of songs as a method of soul cleansing. Sound familiar? Well, the results turned out much differently than they did for that guy from Wisconsin you’re thinking about.

DIA begins with the scorched-earth garage-rock of its first four tracks, indicating that he was trying to fight the stark silence of the woods with the most potent firepower he could muster. As the running time of the album grows, the mood slowly erodes into haunting territory; glacial drones and wandering guitar lines like ghosts in the woods, McMahon’s voice alternates between trying to summon them and trying to drive them away. As you would expect from an album recorded in a place miles away from any semblance of civilization, anxiety, isolation, and the anxiety that is born from isolation are feelings that are soaked into the core of DIA.

II.
By the time DIA was released, plans for McMahon to move to China were firmly in place, but not as another environment to seep into his brain as a subconscious muse for new musical ideas. But although he did mostly freelance work while spending his free time traveling, his artistic impulses got the better of him and he came back with a handful of freshly-minted songs written in his time in the country.

While the songs on DIA sound claustrophobic and often freewheeling (McMahon estimates that at least 75% of the album was improvised), Murder Dull Mind is austere and spacious. The disconcerting feeling still remains present (especially on EP highlight “Diane,” where he stages an emotional bloodletting with intensely delivered wordless vocals), but McMahon’s use of acoustic guitar evokes a far lonelier vibe than his previously released album. Even during the more quaint tunes– like the loping Appalachian folk of “Yur a Liar”– McMahon strikes the kind of melancholy nerve perfectly suited for a man far away from home. But never one to not offer up something like “Night Driver Sunriser,” probably the noisiest song in the Amen Dunes discography, in the middle of his quietest EP. Murder Dull Mind is all bloodshot eyes, struggling to take in the pinks and oranges rising above the horizon of a 5:30am twilight.

III.
Through Donkey Jaw was written and recorded in New York City. A lot of albums were written and recorded in New York City. Is This It. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Rocket to Russia. But it’s an almost fitting work site for an artist as well-traveled as McMahon; after packing up and moving far out of the reach of his friends and contemporaries, what could possibly be a more radical move than the place where you had been living for years (which also happens to be the most populous city in America)? They say environment always finds a way to ingrain itself into your subconscious and subtly influence your art. DIA had the markings of a man trapped in his own mind and miles away from any escape. Murder Dull Mind was the quiet breaths of the world-weary and lonesome. Although Through Donkey Jaw contains a spaciousness that belies the Jenga-stacked buildings of the Big Apple, it also possesses the kind of anxiety that only happens when you’re constantly surrounded by metal and concrete and other people.

Through Donkey Jaw has a particularly expanded musical palate, due in no small part to the fact that McMahon invited more musicians into the Amen Dunes fold. The songs are still very much his, though; his chord choices are just as eerie in places, and his voice changes from a strangled yelp to a numbed deadpan at a moment’s notice. Beginning with the tense buildup of second track “Lower Mind” and ending with the lurching “Not a Slave,” a vibe creepier than before settles into the album. And then, things get weird.

“Jill” adopts a side of Lou Reed’s songwriting that other bands usually reject, with its atonal, manic lunacy sounding more (but not exactly) reminiscent of something from Metal Machine Music than, say, “Here She Comes Now” or even “Venus in Furs”. With McMahon recalling Suicide’s Alan Vega with his tortured shouts, the song is a lot like being in a haunted house of mirrors– you’re left looking over your shoulder, waiting for someone to jump out and grab you even if there’s nobody there.

Twists and turns abound through the album, some of the more striking moments happen when McMahon is at his quietest. “For All” takes simple folk finger-plucking and sails it on top of an unsettling undercurrent of drones and multiple chattering voices, only for them to dissipate and leave unadorned vocal and guitar for the song’s final seconds. However, McMahon’s weirdest moments as Amen Dunes are tempered with his most accessible (the tension and release of opener “Baba Yaga,” the droning of “Bedroom Drum” and “Christopher”), pulling you in closer before (and after) unleashing his darker and more out-there tendencies. Turns out that Through Donkey Jaw has a range of dynamics wide enough to stay compellingly unsettling, a trait common in the best “outsider” or “experimental” albums.

———————-

There’s an incredibly arresting moment that happens at the end of DIA. Accompanied only by an hymn-like organ, “Breaker” finds McMahon in a breathtaking and vulnerable moment of catharsis, the sound of a man kneeling at the foot of the church pulpit and crying out to God while the filled pews look on with slackened jaws and genuine empathy. It’s a moment that makes you feel intrusive for even listening, the recorded document of a man having a monologue far too intimate for consumption. Perhaps this is why McMahon never purposefully intended to release DIA on a label upon its creation, and why when he finally did, he would spend the next few years building one of the most spellbinding bodies of work in underground music.

Download:
MP3: Amen Dunes-“Castles”
MP3: Amen Dunes-“Bedroom Drum”

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