Murnau is a two-piece band from the small town of Morrison, Illinois, just a short ride up I-88 from the Quad Cities. Last year the band rose from the double obscurity of a square little town and an almost decade-long hiatus, releasing a compilation of old recordings (Static) and wasting no time in setting up a string of shows. Their newest record, Lungs, dropped at the end of March, and was sadly lost in the shuffle of the early days of the pandemic.
This is a shame, because Lungs is one of the year’s stronger local rock records. It is Murnau’s first recording of all-new material, and shows a band that has enhanced its sound and songwriting. Bolstered by darker and heavier riffs and a few tubes’ worth of quality Orange juice, Murnau bring together the slow tempos and ominous atmosphere of doom metal with the sonics of ’90s grunge, delivered with a minimalist rock sensibility reminiscent of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
A. Riggen’s understated vocals add an emotional vulnerability to the songs that would have been lost with a more powerful delivery. His inscrutable lyrics run a gamut from strangely veiled love songs to vaguely Gothic scenes of menace and mystery. Riggen’s crunchy guitar tone is matched by N. Pompou’s no-frills drumming, and their bare-bones sound is filled out not by a bass guitar, but by an Electro-Harmonix organ pedal, tastefully applied throughout Lungs‘ six tracks.
“Witness” opens the record on a high point. A doomy intro with Neil Young twang gives way without warning, taking off into a perpetually rising riff that shuffles along for 1 0minutes like the Velvet Underground covering Karma to Burn. Its merciless repetition is never monotonous, instead providing a shimmering platform for Riggen’s refracted love poem, laden with obscure references to dogs and arcade tokens. It’s followed by the Napoleon Dynamite high school-slow-dance music of “Veneer,” the album’s most sensitive track and an unexpected coupling to the amplified surf of “Witness.” Though the song eventually goes into Orange-fuzz overdrive, it provides no preparation for the sinister and stormy “Overhead,” which ends side one on a grim note.
“Secrets” could pass for a less beefy Melvins song, its bluesy riff belying more lyrical menace: “My lungs will spit you out and decorate you.” “Is He The Man” is a litany of unnerving allegations against an unseen neighbor, driven home by sheer musical repetition. Lungs fades out with the clanging chime of “Silhouette,” which rises and soar with a leaden swing, its ambiguous love-and-cards lyrical metaphors evoking regret and pleasure simultaneously. The mock-organ wash elevates the song to oceanic levels of grandeur.
Lungs is sequenced so well that its 37 minutes feels like less. It flows like a full-length without wearing out its welcome, no mean feat for an album bookended by near-ten-minute songs. It is packed with enough good riffs to please headbangers, yet is balanced with enough melody to appeal to everyone else. Murnau have made one of 2020’s best “debuts.”