Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Noctiluca, the Alluring Darkness of Dunes, and the Smell’s Second Wave

Douglas Martin owns Dune on Laserdisc. As far as ridiculously publicized micro-scenes go, The Smell’s Graduating Class of 2008 was a treasure trove for lovers of weird guitar music. Drone music...
By    March 14, 2012

Douglas Martin owns Dune on Laserdisc.

As far as ridiculously publicized micro-scenes go, The Smell’s Graduating Class of 2008 was a treasure trove for lovers of weird guitar music. Drone music wunderkinds (Infinite Body) and looped out experimentalists (Lucky Dragons) occupied the same space as some of the most forward (and backward) thinking punk bands in America. Most music scenes– even the best ones– shrivel up when placed under the spotlight. They run out of fresh ideas, they choke under pressure, or they actively drive the masses away, realizing scrutiny is bad for creativity. I know a thing or two about rock scenes petering out. I’ve lived halfway between Seattle and Olympia for more than half my life.

But a funny thing happened on The Smell’s way to the annals of 21st Century music nerd footnotes, somewhere above Saddle Creek’s stronghold on emo-folk and the ill-fated British pub-rock revival, fhe bands kept evolving. HEALTH and No Age underwent vast expansions, the latter evolving into arguably the most important and unquestionably the most creative young punk band in music today. Abe Vigoda started dressing in black and jettisoned the “tropical punk” tag. Bethany Cosentino left Pocahaunted and turned into a garage-rock teen idol whose cat sparked a litany of fan blogs. Mika Miko, the most traditional (and by far the rowdiest) of the bunch, broke up not with a bang, but with a whimper. Midnight vigils were held, teardrops fell on turkey sandwiches the world over.

The afterlife has been good to Mika Miko, though, as its former members splintered off and developed a veritable cottage industry of bands. Singer/saxophonist Jenna Thornhill DeWitt helped form the appropriately named Crazy Band. Bassist Jessica Clavin started two bands, including the Jesus-and-Mary-Chain-gone-motorik group Cold Showers. Her other band, formed with her sister (and Mika Miko singer/telephonist) Jennifer– fuck it, Bleached shouldn’t need an introduction by now. As for drummer Kate Hall? She’s currently manning the sticks for one of Los Angeles’ best bands, the considerably darker trio Dunes.

Around the time the aforementioned Vigoda started creating moody darkwave, Zola Jesus became the newest light in the ever-fickle indie music A-list, and Siouxsie Sioux became an adjective, Dunes released an astoundingly underrated eponymous EP on Mexican Summer and there seemed to be a small shift toward the gothic in Los Angeles. That shift ended up not even registering a blip on the radar and Dunes was regulated to cult favorite status, but that’s not because they weren’t very good.

In fact, the cascading guitar lines, the expertly delivered post-punk drumming, and singer/guitarist Stephanie Chan’s expressive voice and engaging melodies were head and shoulders above even the best modern goth rock bands. Noctiluca, the band’s debut full-length, builds upon their promise in short order while introducing an array of new moods to the fold, producing a gorgeous bloom not too far off from that of the album’s namesake, though Sea Sparkles usually aren’t as dark.

Noctiluca opens with a stunner in “Jukebox,” where the guitar and bass flutter around each other and Hall taps out an aptly robotic post-punk rhythm. It’s a song that is at once glittery, dissonant, and pitch black. A lot of the songs on the album are this way, combining glamour with darkness in a way that evokes walking through Downtown Los Angeles at 2:30am, barely lit but still carrying a very distinct allure. Chan’s guitar lines circle around baritone guitarist/bassist Mark Greshowak’s low-end melodies, switching directions on a dime and creating expansive mini-epics minus the indulgent lengths. “Cameron” clocks in at 3:40 and has no fewer than three separate movements. “Living Comfortably” goes back and forth from falling down a vortex to sashaying underneath a disco ball to a climactic build before the magnificent finish, with Chan at her most seductive.

Even the best moments on the self-titled EP couldn’t foretell the massive development of Dunes’ sound here. The band never locks into the same groove for too long, the shifting song structures never turning in predictable directions. Chan’s voice sounds much fuller, too. On Dunes she was a good singer. Here, she’s an utterly compelling one, bending her voice low, stretching it far, belting it out, taking it to places not even hinted at before. Hall’s drumming serves as the anchor, tapping out compulsively danceable rhythms even at the band’s darkest moments, recalling the greats of the post-punk era while still having an identity all her own. So many of the bands anointed as torch-bearers for post-punk rely so heavily on genre tropes and are so thoroughly sheep in wolves’ clothing and eyeliner that it’s refreshing to have a band add something fresh to the template.

Ending with a rerecorded version of “Tied Together,” the band’s excellent 2011 single, the song serves as a perfect closer: It’s charged with squall and dissonance, overrun with detours and left-turns, and ends with a beautifully dramatic coda. On an album which also benefits from its flawless sequencing, Dunes end Noctiluca at the height of their powers, ultimately delivering an album on par with the best efforts of The Smell’s top tier acts. It’s a testament to the venue’s worth that it can produce so many enormously talented bands, ones that continue to deliver fascinating output even well after the New Yorker pieces are used to keep the fireplace burning. If the idea that artists are at their most creative before the public starts paying attention, the same could be said for when it moves on and fixes its gaze on The Next Big Scene.

MP3: Dunes-“Jukebox”

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