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Moenda’s challenging sounds reap unexpected rewards

by Bryan Reed

December 6, 2011

Succinctly classifying Moenda’s music is a bit like choosing a rhyme for “orange” in that it can’t be done without taking some major liberties with the established nomenclature of things. The Charlotte instrumental trio has been called free jazz, but its members don’t improvise; they’ve been called noise but their music is carefully constructed, even, at times, restrained. There are elements of dance music, but also of heavy metal; of Afro-Latin jazz, but also of experimental sound art.

The band’s goal, said keyboardist Robin Doermann, is one of discovery: to extract new sounds from their instruments and new methods for playing them.

“It’s less we need to sound different for the sake of being different,” he said. “It’s sort of like, ‘Is what we’re doing interesting?’ And ‘Are we doing something new for ourselves and as a whole?’”

Doermann plays an old and temperamental Moog synthesizer, which forces an element of spontaneity into his playing. Guitarist Ross Wilbanks plays in alternate tunings, and uses objects to manipulate the tones he plays. He focuses more on rhythm and texture than melody. And drummer Davey Blackburn draws from jazz syncopation and heavy metal blast-beats for a style that is fluid and forceful, intuitive and intense.

“There’s always a little bit of not knowing,” Doermann said. “We know how the sounds are going to mix, but not necessarily which tones or what kinds of chords are happening.”

And it doesn’t always come easily.

“We don’t have scales and we don’t have even key-matching. It takes a long time for all of that to jive together,” Wilbanks said. “We really practice the hell out of it, and it just takes a while. We’ve gotten used to the idea that songs take a while to make. We can’t just churn ‘em out. We’d like to, but it just doesn’t happen.”

That might help explain why it’s taken Moenda more than two years from the band’s formation to complete its full-length debut, a self-titled LP that was just released via Charlotte’s Kinnikinnik Records. Recorded by Bo White (a former bandmate of Blackburn and Doermann in Calabi Yau), the album features Moenda as a quartet, including electronic artist Steven Pilker, who has since left the group.

In its nine instrumental tracks, Moenda suggests the Apocalyptic dance-noise of bands like Black Dice or Fuck Buttons and the spacey, rhythmic explorations of early Gang Gang Dance albums. Opener “Fall of the Rebel Angel” serves as a reminder that Moenda’s original impetus was to fuse abrasive noise and the spacious sound of dub — at least until Blackburn’s drum frenzy drives the song in a different direction at the one-minute mark.

In “I Survived Hurricane Hugo,” Wilbanks scratches a steady pulse on the guitar while Doermann and Pilker volley electronic burbles and Blackburn provides a swinging Afro-pop backing. Like all of Moenda’s music, it’s tangled and chaotic, but engaging; a kaleidoscopic approach to music making that reveals new facets upon each listen. It’s about nuance, not blunt force.

“There’s a lot of layering and polyrhythms,” Blackburn said. “When you have it all playing at the same time, it’s one mass of movement, and then you start picking things out, and you start hearing these separate melodies and rhythms between rhythms. That’s what I love so much. Playing really fast and filling up the space is really important to me, just creating this big wall of noise until you start seeing these different things.”

And it’s not all frantic, either. “Eschaton,” a clear standout on the LP, opens with slow-rolling waves of low tones, punctuated by chiming guitars. When the drums insert an uptempo beat into the piece, they’re quickly joined by a series of melodic riffs and rhythmic counterpoints that build the song upon a house-music framework and transform it into a steadily swelling dance track.

It’s challenging music, to be sure. “People that are just interested in hearing a song and not going deeper might have trouble,” Doermann admitted.

But for its players, the challenge is part of the reward. Wilbanks, who is also an experimental filmmaker, said Moenda is the most rewarding artistic project he’s been a part of. But the conceptual exercises and music-theory experiments that drive Moenda don’t obstruct the music’s visceral appeal — or the band’s dedication to actual performance. Moenda isn’t meant to serve as an art-gallery installation, it’s a band.

“The theatre of a band is important,” Wilbanks said. “It’s cool to make cool sounds, but if there’s no difference between what you’re doing in your practice area and what you’re doing in front of people, that’s a line I don’t like.”

And in its more recent performances as a trio, the band has been able to try new approaches. One gig the band calls “sort-of acoustic” featured Blackburn trading his drum kit for a berimbau, a Brazilian single-string percussion instrument used frequently in the music associated with the martial art capoeira. New songs are coming along, too, with a focus on widening the band’s dynamic range.

“We never really want to stay steady on a particular sound, anyway,” Doermann said. “Even when Steven was in the band, every song we wrote, we wanted to be somehow different and not really definable.”

At that, Moenda has already succeeded.


Join the band Saturday, Dec. 10, from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. at Snug Harbor, 1228 Gordon St. The Band is celebrating the release last week of their first full-length record with special guest and Brazilian Capoeira demonstration by Mestre Esquilo and Charlotte Capoeira. Eastern Seaboard also will perform.  

Admission is $6, or $10 for admission and the new album.  More information.


This piece is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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