Mute Duo - Lapse in Passage Music Album Reviews

The Chicago duo makes slow and wide-open instrumental music for drums and pedal steel guitar, creating its own lane and rarely straying from it.

Mute Duo’s music is emblematic of their deep roots in Chicago. Pedal steel guitarist Sam Wagster and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Skyler Rowe draw on the city’s long legacy of omnivorous instrumental music, with a sound that is slow and wide open, incorporating elements of free improvisation, ambient music, and Americana. Many artists in Chicago’s underground music scene seek commonalities in seemingly divergent styles, inventing a new vernacular from their juxtaposition. Mute Duo’s list of local collaborators, ranging from folk-leaning mainstays Ryley Walker and Bill MacKay to up-and-coming jazz musicians Matthew Lux and Ben Lamar Gay, marks them as direct inheritors of that approach. Though the duo is similarly innovative, the results of their experimentations are mixed.

Lapse In Passage, the group’s second album, alternates between languid improvisations and riff-centric pieces. Regardless of compositional method, each track feels dusty and ragged, unfolding at a pace that slips fluidly between measured and lethargic. The music’s doomy twang recalls the mellow late-period albums of drone metal pioneers Earth, and the occasional glissandos of Wagster’s pedal steel paired with Rowe’s expressive, untethered drumming bring it close to Australian trio Dirty Three. His inventive approach to the kit, which places equal weight on colorful flourishes and steady time-keeping, provides Lapse in Passage with much of its character. The duo configuration lends itself to a sparse and conversational atmosphere, with each member taking turns conjuring the smoky ambience and generating steady forward motion among the haze.

The album arrives at a moment of pedal steel renaissance in experimental music, as Pitchfork contributor Jesse Jarnow pointed out in a recent essay. With its extended range and ability to slide between notes, the pedal steel has the capacity to create mystifying, idiosyncratic music. But Wagster only takes advantage of his instrument’s extraordinary potential for novelty in a few moments. It’s not that he plays into stereotypical Nashville tropes. Instead, with the exception of moments like the swelling rush of melody on the otherwise laid-back “Dallas In the Dog Days” or the subtly drifting chords that open “Canopy Bells,” much of the album sounds like it could have been written and realized on a standard six-string. It feels like a missed opportunity, as so many others develop new ways to make the instrument sing.

This dynamic embodies a significant difference between Mute Duo and their brightest peers and forebears in Chicago. While Wagster and Rowe’s amalgam of styles is unique, they rarely deviate from that formula once they’ve established it. After you’ve eased into Mute Duo’s sound, it is hard to be surprised by anything that follows. Classic groups like Art Ensemble of Chicago and Gastr del Sol, and more recently standouts like ONO and Angel Bat Dawid, are constantly reinventing—not just weaving together various genre signifiers, but making a practice of breaking their own rules. Despite Rowe’s impressive improvisational skills and the creative way he and Wagster synthesize elements of different traditions, Mute Duo largely stay in the lane of their own making.

This doesn’t make Lapse In Passage unpleasant, or even wholly uninteresting. There are moments, such as the climax of “Red-winged Blackbirds” when Rowe adds pounding atonal piano to the swirl of distorted pedal steel, that they tiptoe toward something like rapture. Opener “Derived from Retinas” is the album’s strongest song, moving through several different distinct movements: at first heavy, dour, and full of grit, then emerging triumphantly into a major key. But when they stretch out into looser, less defined structures, like the nearly 10-minute “Overland Line,” they drift into a comfort zone and stay there for the duration. The more purposeful and focused Wagster and Rowe are, the more enjoyable it is to get lost in their music.


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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Mute Duo - Lapse in Passage Music Album Reviews Mute Duo - Lapse in Passage Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Friday, April 03, 2020 Rating:

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