(Northern Spy, 2014)
DAMA/LIBRA occupies a space within musical categorization (every artist’s most hated portion of a review) that’s pretty much reserved for DAMA/LIBRA and DAMA/LIBRA alone. Before I dive into that, however, I’m going to tell you what it’s not, because if you peruse the CVs of the two musicians who comprise the group, you’ll have a hard time figuring out how it fits together. So, it’s not indie rock despite the presence of Joel RL Phelps, former member of Silkworm and current leader of the Downer Trio. It’s also not doom metal, as the presence of Asva’s G. Stuart Dahlquist, formerly of Sunn O))), would imply. It’s also not really an indie rock/doom metal hybrid, as paradoxical as that combination sounds. So what the fuck is it?
It’s not this, although this undoubtedly is where the band got its name. But whereas the “particle detector experiment [is] designed to detect dark matter,” the band’s interest in charting similar dark materials lies decidedly in the human soul, and Claw, the duo’s debut album on Northern Spy, brims with reverent paeans to the struggle. In fact, there’s only one way to describe these songs, and any writer worth his or her salt knows that these are hymns, and only hymns. I’m pretty sure Claw, in its entirety, is biblically canonical. I’m not going to look that up, you’ll have to take my word for it.
As hymns go, this is how Phelps and Dahlquist craft them – in a sense the dynamic is easily and lazily defined as a sort of Sunn O)))–lite, as many tracks linger on notes or chords in trance-like fashion, and bass strikes periodically beneath them. But that’s really selling this project short, as the songs are of manageable length (compared to Sunn O))), anyway), and range from subtly dynamic to dynamic dynamic, often within the same song. This texture combined with Phelps’s truly indie rock voice (more on that later), an emotive instrument best utilized in multitracked harmonic layers, results in a surprising marriage of utility and strength, and foists Claw into the category of “must-hear.” I’m reminded of Bay Area sample-metal duo Wreck & Reference at points, in that both they and DAMA/LIBRA are drawing from somewhat similar metal traditions, and that the two bands have masterfully created dense meditations on foreboding, darkness, bravery, desire, and loss, with Claw and W&R’s 2014 opus Want on The Flenser.
While DAMA/LIBRA can probably profess to have a “sound,” one that’s defined quite well within the first three tracks of Claw, Phelps and Dahlquist are able to manipulate that prescribed expectation as they travel down the tracklist, to great effect. But first, “Moonshine and Lion” sets the scene with organ(ish) chords, minimal percussion every three beats, and Phelps’s voice evoking A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s play-within-the-play about Pyramus and Thisbe. (“Moonshine” and “Lion” are characters in the play.) This track only lasts a minute, but it sets the stage perfectly for “Stravinsky,” which stretches majestically in its decided minimalist begininngs, single notes underscored by rumbling bass, and Phelps’s “I would be brave” proclamation defying subtle bleakness. The pacing is perfect and seems to represent eons, eternal struggle; the depth (bass), tectonic. It’s as if every molecule of earth rested in the balance of the song. The choir that enters 2/3 through only reinforces the idea of “Stravinsky” as sonic representation of a master painting depicting man tugged endlessly by both the angelic and demonic spiritual forces.
Holy heavy crap, right? Claw IS heavy, but not metal heavy. It’s leavened a bit by Phelps, who isn’t the most traditional singer to helm dirges or hymns – his voice is thin, and struggles to reach notes at points. In the end, though, it’s the perfect imperfect element as it’s pushed to cracking point, emphasizing the rawness of emotion on display in the recording. And, as I mentioned earlier (and especially on “Stravinsky”), when Phelps is multitracked in harmony, the result is no less than stunning.
DAMA/LIBRA’s main strength (well, besides its masterful droning composition) is not allowing Claw to collapse in on itself, or devolve into self-pity or self-loathing (which Wreck & Reference ends up doing from time to time). The duo is willing to step outside of the expected style (initiated by the beginning of the record) and incorporate fundamental alterations to their sound. These unexpectedly burst from their surroundings, especially on “Been to the Water” where Phelps and Dahlquist turn the back half of the song into euphoric dream pop – seriously, it sounds like a rock song with 4/4 drums and euphonic resolution. Phelps sounds freed, like he’s found a magic elixir that erases sadness. “Only Medicine” ventures into similar rock territory as well, but its darker, as befitting its subject matter. And the minute-long “3C1” features a horn-section pile-up that clouds the almost lullabye-esque first half.
But it’s that struggle between light and dark (lacking clearer sides) that makes Claw such an easy record to return to, as it reveals different levels of itself on repeat listens. Dahlquist and Phelps exquisitely delight in the macabre while expressing it through sounds perhaps most appropriate in dead-serious holy spaces, and as such they glimpse beauty, defeat, and all manner of articulations in between. Of course there’s gallows humor as well – “Death Rattle” has cheering children as its only vocal source. And “Destroy” is peaceful and tranquil, but in a sense that the duo are the last ones standing on the ashes of the earth post-apocalypse – maybe they’re gods surveying their damage. Maybe Claw is what’s playing on their Walkmen at that exact moment.
RIYL: Joel RL Phelps, Asva, Sunn O))), Wreck & Reference