Thekla | 6th September
Freedom, Amen Dunes‘ fifth record, has been defined by many as Damon McMahon’s breakthrough: the moment that the once reticent and softly-murmuring musician slowly pulled back the curtains for a moment and embraced the daylight as if feeling its warmth for the first time. While the album’s themes retain a sense of deliberate confidentiality amid perception of loss, there’s a real sense of hope within McMahon’s deliverance, a desire to share and identify with others, and perhaps offer them a little light in the process.
Playing as a five-piece at Thekla tonight, with a softly-glowing light unveiling McMahon, they stride into early favourite, ‘Bedroom Drum’, possessing that sense of grit, hurt and uplifting hope from the off. Waves of striking synth linger heavily as they warm to the stage; it’s assertive yet calming in equal measure.
McMahon is an insular and humble performer, nodding softly along with the band, as if mentally preparing himself for another low-thronged burst of his burl that manages to pierce and sew up the atmosphere that the band makes. He switches between an atmospheric rhythm guitar and a gritted, piercing electro-acoustic throughout, each adding a new element to the aura of the performance, whether through simple striking chords or layered, twinkling reverb.
McMahon’s prose is rich, the words flowing thicker than you notice. His voice is arresting in its desire, yet early on the power of his words is slightly lost within the atmospheric hue of their sound. ‘Skipping School’, while thumping and passionate, loses some of its charm, McMahon’s tenderness dented by a lack of clarity.
Nevertheless the set oozes its own sentimental power. That power seamlessly forms and intensifies as they traverse the impressive setlist. In a much more economical way than, say, Adam Granduciel of The War On Drugs, but with much less subtlety, Amen Dunes find a way of gifting the space afforded to them with sudden plinking keys, cascading percussion and lingering chords. ‘Freedom’ is fragile and transporting. As McMahon sings, “We’ve been waiting patiently.”
As ‘Splits Are Parted’ sparks into life, the power of McMahon’s voice finally takes over, his warbling monotone fractious and utterly raw despite being honeyed with a low reverb. His songs transcend a sense of genre, spiralling pleasantly through Americana and subtle 80s romantic pop. ‘Calling Paul The Suffering’ possesses the jauntiest and perhaps most liberating moment of the set, all smooth rhythmic turns as McMahon twists from side to side.
“No matter where you are, you are still in the same boat,” McMahon explains half-jokingly as he toasts Thekla before breaking into the beautifully-built ‘Believe’ to close. “This is just a song,” McMahon attests as the guitar hums powerfully, yet you find it hard to believe him, as the power of his words speak much further.
As McMahon returns for the searching ‘Time’ with more fire in his lungs and a jolt in his step, the feeling of transcendence once again permeates. The way in which his music is so wonderfully layered and still his voice remains the permeating feature attests to his power, not only as a writer but also first and foremost as a musician.