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Mute Duo Migrant Flocks
Cathartic, invigorating, tight, open, assiduous, unpretentious: these are emblematic of Mute Duo’s music, which features Sam Wagster on pedal steel and Skyler Rowe on percussion. Migrant Flocks, their second LP with American Dreams, synthesizes their wide-ranging influences and techniques into a striking document of singular music. It’s sharp, dynamic, understated, inventive, and their first album to bring the power of their concerts onto record.
As the pair considered the music, the necessity of migration—in humans, cetaceans and birds—imprinted itself. “Migration is something you can’t help,” says Rowe. “You can’t help how things are constantly moving or evolving. You have to change with it.” The music carries senses of openness, fluidity, motion, propulsion; exploration for its own sake and the thrill of finding one’s destination. Opening track “Sunken Light,” written as an introduction for the record, evokes underwater currents. It segues into “The Ocean Door,” a moving track that immerses oneself within its undertow, building patiently from an inquisitive introduction to a driving, bracing middle section, then dissolving into textural clouds of unassuming ambient beauty.
The music can feel buoyant, free, but swim beneath the shallows and you’ll find its structures are honed. Over periodic live performance, the pair would record improvisations and sharpen their edges into compositions. “Pedal steel and open drums and percussion,” Rowe says, “is a sandbox.” Wagster has carved out a unique niche among steel experimentalists for playing his instrument as if it were a guitar, accompanying artists like Fruit Bats, Eli Winter, The Cairo Gang and Moon Bros. while quietly releasing longform ambient pieces as a solo artist. Rowe has played punk and heavy music—as he calls it, “battery” or “beat work”—throughout the Midwest with bands like Rash and Anatomy of Habit. But in Mute Duo, he takes after Mimi Parker or Adrienne Davies more than blast beats or four-on-the-floor. The pair’s rapport—studied yet unassuming—is evident on Migrant Flocks. Perhaps as a result of their unusual pairing, their playing (what else are sandboxes for?) is fundamentally responsive. In playing as a duo, the pair has adapted to the natural inclinations of the other. Rowe downplays this development: “We’re just trying new things.”
True to form, on Migrant Flocks, the pair has expanded their instrumentation to include vibraphone and piano from Rowe, and organ, drum machine and programming from Wagster. They’ve enlisted local bassists extraordinaire Douglas McCombs and Andrew Scott Young on “Land Musik,” which integrates the band’s preexisting musical touchstones: beauty, joy, ambience, abrasion, groove. “The Ocean Door” features classical flautist Emma Hospelhorn, who loops a chorus of flutes throughout the song and closes with quiet breaths that evoke Pauline Oliveros’ sonic meditations. “Trust Lanes” and “Night Guides” are hard, gripping and energized, as comfortable providing structure as they are disrupting it (in particular “Night Guides,” which ruptures into unfettered eruptions of improvisatory bliss). On “Moon in the Flood,” the pair merges restraint with compositional acuity. “For me,” Wagster says, “it evokes the duality of a vast, vivid night sky: overwhelming and dislocating, while also holding immense wonder and engendering a sense of gratitude in the lucky witness.”
At its core, Mute Duo’s music is fundamentally expansive, blowing past preconceived notions of “genre” while staying rooted in the qualities that bring it to bear. “In terms of human movement,” Wagster says, “the different motives for migration came to mind: people fleeing an increasingly hostile climate or hostile political circumstances; people leaving home for a chance at a better economic situation; or—as is the case for both of us—a cultural migration, where one is drawn away from where they grew up by creative sounds, ideas and the opportunity to participate in a progressive artistic community.” Dualities like these underpin Migrant Flocks, which both revels in the focused experimentation characteristic of Chicago musicians and looks outward. Listen as a unique band soars to new heights.
RIYL: krautrock, Dirty Three, Talk Talk, “post-rock,” Sonny Sharrock
releases April 14, 2023
Skyler Rowe - drums, percussion, vibraphone, piano
Sam Wagster - pedal steel, organ, drum machine/programming
Emma Hospelhorn - flute, bass flute, vocals/breathing, effects on “The Ocean Door”
Douglas McCombs and Andrew Scott Young - bass guitars on “Land Musik”
Recorded by Matt Russell at Jamdek in Chicago
Mixed by Cooper Crain at Electrical Audio in Chicago
Mastered by Mikey Young in Melbourne
Art and layout by Dmitry Samarov
Andrew Scott Young