by Eric Bensel
We’ve all seen bands — loved ’em or hated ’em — in which some members were riding the coattails of the leader(s). For every group endowed with divine talent across the board (e.g., Led Zeppelin, the Damned, Soundgarden), there is a band with some poor schlub shaking a goddamn tambourine at the edge of the stage.
The power trio enchants us because there is no room for such dead weight. Every member must contribute − not necessarily in equal measure, but at least in a significant way.
A duo is even more naked to the world. Any foul-up or deficiency is immediately exposed. A few bands in recent memory have bravely forged this perilous path; examples include Cash Audio, Dos, godheadSilo, and the White Stripes. Forget your Simons and Garfunkel, your Halls and Oates: they were backed up by full bands and therefore were not true duos. And while spectacular artists Beach House, Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, and Moon Duo may record mostly as duos, they perform live with a supporting cast. Drenge, for their part, were exceptional as a two-piece, but their recently added third member disqualifies them from the present discussion.
The ten independent bands below are all stellar performers, still active at the time of publication, and rely only on the sounds produced by a pair of players. McG’s Backroom salutes them, hereafter in alphabetical order, for their commitment to proving that less can quite frequently be more.
Too often does heavy metal play the boy who screamed wolf. In the hands of its most amateurish, the genre will bark without any real bite, so cartoonishly exaggerated that the results are not menacing but pathetic. Not so with Seattle’s Big Business. The metal of Jared Warren and Coady Willis (pictured above) is incisive, abrasive, and breathtaking. No wonder they were called to serve as the rhythm section for the almighty Melvins.
Standout track: “Regulars”
The jittery spazzcore of Massachusetts duo Giraffes? Giraffes! recalls less the punishing workouts of Lightning Bolt or Pneu (see both below) and more the playfully peripatetic jaunts of Totorro. Ken Topham and Joseph Andreoli burst with melodic and rhythmic creativity, their kaleidoscopic math rock seasoned with the jazzy indie rock of fIREHOSE.
Standout track: “Totally Boneless!!!”
The Holydrug Couple‘s syrupy, cottony indie pop conjures the gentle bliss of a Sunday afternoon siesta. Chile’s Ives Sepúlveda and Manuel Parra apply a very hefty dollop of psychedelia to an orchestration redolent of the High Llamas. Dreamy, floating, and womb-like.
Standout track: “Everything’s So Wrong, Pt. 2”
Repetition, electronic programming, nontraditional structures — these krautrock tools are not merely as essential as any message to be conveyed: they are the message. Belgian kraut-punk duo La Jungle has mastered the art form. Jim and Reggie fuse noise, dance, math, and hardcore into a Frankenstein’s monster presiding over a cannibalistic ritual.
Standout track: “L’enfer”
When Providence, Rhode Island’s Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson set up their gear in the middle of the venue space – a technique later pinched by bands such as Pneu (see below) – their driving Japanoise radiates outward through the audience in electrifying waves. Bracing and original, Lightning Bolt soundtracks our most thrilling nightmares by welding industrial metal onto post-punk.
Standout track: “Runaway Train”
Among the warriors of digital hardcore, Melt-Banana is not as relentlessly belligerent as Atari Teenage Riot nor as indiscriminately skronky as Merzbow. For this, we have reason to be thankful. The Tokyo duo of Yako (shrieked vocals, tablet computer) and Agata (guitars, pollution mask) can be melodic through the tornado of thick riffing and high-tempo grindcore breakbeats.
Standout track: “The Hive”
A driving, repetitive riff may lack a sonic story arc, but it can exert a considerable influence on the listener just the same. Paul Verwaerde and Julien Savoye of French duo Monotrophy capture the power of krautrock hypnotics and deploy it to exhilarating effect.
Standout track: “Hornblende”
At its most inspiring, indie rock has a charming air of nonchalance, as if thrown together by enthusiastic but undisciplined teenagers in their parents’ garage. After a decade of recording together, Randy Randall and Dean Spunt of Los Angeles’ No Age have preserved this DIY aesthetic in a lo-fi art-punk of slacker rallying cries.
Standout track: “Cruise Control”
This duo from La Florida, Chile, oozes a spacey and sensual electro-lounge that seduces at the same time that it anesthetizes. Like their compatriots in the Holydrug Couple (see above), Nueva Costa’s Angelo Santa Cruz and Daniel Bande sound at times to be scoring a French film from the 60s, with languorous melodies evoking romantic promenades through sun-drenched fields of lavender.
Standout track: “Telenovelas”
You’d think the French duo of Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy and Jérôme Vassereau has attention deficit disorder, is in need of a cathartic release, or most likely suffers from both. Their band Pneu sprints from one sonic non sequitur to the next in a spazzcore bukakke of noise, math, metal, and post-punk. The listener huffs and puffs and sweats and collapses from the great splatter-fest of this madmen wizardry.
Standout track: “Catadioptre Ambidextre”
Gig review: Pneu in Paris, France, 2015 (Magnet Magazine)
Other active duos worthy of your ear time: Deap Vally, Kangarilla, Partout Partout