Concert preview: Dama/Libra

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From the August 21, 2014 edition

In physics, the term DAMA/LIBRA denotes an experiment designed to detect dark matter. In music, Dama/Libra, a newborn collaboration between a pair of longtime friends, exists in a similarly adventuresome context.

Musicians Joel RL Phelps (Silkworm, The Downer Trio) and G. Stuart Dahlquist (Sunn O))), Asva) approached their debut recording, Claw, as though they’d donned white laboratory coats, spending the better part of 18 months experimenting in the studio and emailing tracks back-and-forth between Seattle (where Dahlquist resides) and Phelps’ home in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“A lot of the [music] I come up with stems from making happy mistakes and rolling with whatever happens,” Dahlquist said, reached by phone in a Seattle coffee shop in mid-August. “And then Joel just took things to a place I hadn't seen.”

Dahlquist said he generally constructed the framework of the tracks, like a contractor building the foundation and throwing up drywall, while Phelps handled the detail work, adopting the role of an exterior designer sprucing up a house with splashes of paint and accent pillows.

“I have an organ and a guitar and some bells and chimes, so I’m fairly limited [in what I can do at home],” continued the musician, who joins Phelps for a concert at Double Happiness on Monday, Aug. 25. “Joel works with a lot of samples and a keyboard … and he just goes crazy with them.”

Witness a track like “Death Rattle,” a spooky, organ-driven hymn Phelps enlivens with samples of audience applause and ominous thunderclaps. Other cuts like “Destroy” (a song far more delicate than its city-flattening title would have one think) remain comparatively stripped-down, building around droning keyboard and distant chimes that seem to echo across an English moor.

While the tracks are carefully arranged and orchestrated — Dahlquist initially intended songs like “Death Rattle” and “Destroy” to soundtrack a since-scrapped ballet, and that sense of elongated elegance still lingers in the music — the duo opted to leave the vocals relatively untouched, and Phelps’ raw performance acts as a welcome counterpoint to the well-manicured backdrop.

“We wanted the vocals to have a really bare innocence to them, so we didn't try to fix anything or blur anything with a pile of reverb,” Dahlquist said. “I guess we wanted to create a sound that was a little bit more exposed, if that makes sense.”

In Asva, Dahlquist approaches music with impressive patience, constructing epic, droning tracks that regularly stretch upwards of 20 minutes. And though nothing on Claw remotely approaches that runtime (the longest song clocks in at 6:37), there’s a similarly unrushed feel to the recording.

“The music does [have space to breathe],” Dahlquist said. “I can't imagine how many times I've listened to the record the last several years, and it still sounds comfortable to me.”