If you must attach a label to the music of Mute Duo – and please don’t – “ambient country” probably works as well as anything. It’s a relatively fitting way to describe artists like SUSS, Labradford, and M. Butterfly. It’s certainly not meant to be a derogatory description, but often those artists are accomplished enough to transcend genres and create something truly beautiful and timeless.
Mute Duo has been creating a timeless, meditative brand of instrumental music since the release of their 2017 debut album. This time around, they continue to provide a wide-open, deeply immersive musical experience that seems to fly in the face of their small lineup – Skyler Rowe on drums and percussion and Sam Wagster on pedal steel. Although they both contribute keyboards, with Rowe handling piano and Wurlitzer and Wagster playing piano and Farfisa organ.
Recorded at Chicago’s Jamdek Studio in the summer of 2018, what Mute Duo wrests from the somewhat unconventional instrumentation on Lapse in Passage is stunning. It’s like David Lynch baked in the Texas heat. It’s the soundtrack to a Cormac McCarthy-inspired fever dream. On “Derived From Retinas”, the music begins slowly and deliberately, with sparse percussion pairing well with Wagster’s pedal steel runs. A light drone is heard underneath, and the insistent, unsettling rattling of piano notes move in and out. The song works well as an introduction to Mute Duo’s sound – dark, brooding, deliberate, adventurous.
On the single “Canopy Bells”, the music tends to drift in and out, occasionally crashing back in waves of sound, with a percussive rattle of the titular instrument peaking in through the quieter moments before a punk-inspired wall of cathartic noise barrels in during the final minutes. Rowe and Wagster are adept at biding their time and waiting until just the right moment to spring a surprise on the unsuspecting listener.
There are moments on Lapse in Passage when Mute Duo enjoy taking a slightly more traditional route. The shuffling “Overland Line” employs a steady, almost funky beat – at least until roughly the halfway mark when they seem happier to let the song collapse into more atonal, industrial weirdness. On “Dallas in the Dog Days”, a jangly piano takes a more central role, creating something like a cracked ballad. But for the most part, the sound profile is layered, textured pedal steel paired with the glorious din of clattering percussion. On the final track, “Last Greys”, Wagster and Rowe create a swirling vortex of sound as somber pianos provide just the right weight underneath. As on “Derived From Retinas”, it displays the band’s musical template perfectly.
Lapse on Passage is released on American Dreams, the experimental label founded by Jordan Reyes. “I am a person who is very easily drawn to darkness,” said Reyes. “I love monsters, and I love the grotesque. I always will. And yet, I can’t help but feel that right now, the world could use a bit more beauty.” That’s perfect because beauty and darkness are two areas perfectly suited to the music of Mute Duo.