Dark Moon: 'A gong is a really powerful tool for altering your state'

A press shot of Dark Moon looking very psychedelic

I’m on a shamanic training course, actually, out in the Joshua Tree desert.”

Lola Ulalume clarifies her whereabouts, not the in the air-stewardess-on-valium, trailing-off-into-private-reverie tones you might expect of a new age traveller, but brightly and rather matter of factly – as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to do. “It has been quite intense, so I’m ready to move forward, ha ha ha!”

For anyone who’s heard, or about to hear, Dark Moon, the London-based, psych rock band Lola fronts, none of this is going come as a surprise. Not only is ‘moving forward’ their fundamental dynamic, but their singularly assured, far-flung debut album, Lost In Love And Fear, has a rare and captivating quality of marrying the speculative with the immediate, the ethereal and the tactile. Lola’s fearless, reverie-enriched vocals are boosted into heady upper atmospheres by thick, blues-based grooves distilled down to a hypnotically pneumatic chassis. The result, as the title suggests, becomes an immersive journey and a spiritual quest for enlightenment, for a light in dark times. As Lola says, “Even if the music can be ambient and spacey, we all like heavy music as well, so especially at gigs we want to lead people into a drone and a trance, and you need that backbeat to drive it. You need that rhythmic quality to make you let go.”

‘I will never stop running/Long as life keeps coming’Dusty Dreams

If current circumstances, be they political, personal or psychological, feel like walls are closing in, options are being shot down and the shitstorm brewing outside our windows is causing that boa constrictor of anxiety to tighten, if you feel stuck and don’t know where to turn, Lost In Love And Fear feels like 2016’s last-minute saving grace. It offers a gateway into an alternative and intimate dynamic that allows you to breathe once more, where momentum, freedom of movement and the restorative qualities of space and resonance conspire to unloosen you from the shackles of your co-ordinates, to gain fresh, more fluid perspective.

Flight and running are recurring themes throughout, but Dark Moon don’t offer mere whimsical escapism; this isn’t a running from, but a running to, a wide-eyed pilgrimage through vast and accommodating terrain where songs emerge out of heady atmospheres, click into mantric gear, give way and get reborn into fresh new forms, at times sensual, eerie, adrift, downright funky and ultimately an act of deliverance. From opener Dusty Dreams, incubating fledging, motorik grooves and Lola’s ghostly yet knowing presence until they project themselves across the heavens, through lead single I Fly’s pulsing, wanderlust reverie, the compressed, time-looped funk of the title track, repeatedly pressing on the bass as if it were a g-spot, through shimmering, gong-sired passageways to immeasurably open terrain beyond, Lost In Love And Fear is a universe unto itself, with no edge in sight.

Albums as all-encompassing as this don’t materialise out of thin air – as much as Lost… sounds as though it has – and for Lola, the road to this point started a while back.

“It has been a long journey,” she says, “because I’ve been writing for 10 to 15 years, and a lot of those songs come from that far back. It took me a long time to find the others. I’d done a bit of singing and playing in other people’s bands whilst I was building up to step into my own music, and some things worked, but I’d pretty much given up, and then suddenly Callum [Sadler, guitarist] appeared. He really brought the blues element into it, and he’s been playing it every since he was a kid. We played together once, it just flowed, and then it all came together and took on a new version.

“We’ve been together for quite a while now,” she continues, “so it’s definitely been a long process for us, and it’s hard to keep that going when you’re not doing a whole lot and not a lot of people know about you. But in a way that’s been one of our strong points, we’ve just locked ourselves away and played until it felt right. I don’t think we’d have got that result a few years ago – it was an amalgamation of that time together, and we really were trying to portray a journey through music. I’ve always written from a slightly altered state, and it just worked that the other guys really supported that, and it’s everyone’s vision now.”

For all the different moods that Lost In Love And Fear roams across, the rich, regenerative atmosphere it’s bathed in is a unifying force, and if Lola’s background in sound healing and shamanism offers the source, the means came from the Rockford Studio in Wales, where the album was recorded. Previously host to the likes of Motörhead and Black Sabbath, its generous dimensions and isolation booths gave every instrument the room to resonate, the warmth of the album emanating from having been recorded onto old-school two-inch tape. It also provided the capacity for the album’s gong-based gateway track, Rainbow Bridge, taking the album from the kinetic drive of the first half through to more ambient passages, eventually giving rise to the sublime, otherworldly reawakening of Blackbird before casting off into pastures unknown.

“I did a gong ceremony with the band and the producers,” recalls Lola, “and we took Rainbow Bridge from that. We wanted that right in the middle of the album, so you go through that and out into the other side to the slightly more trippy and deep sound, so that was exactly what we were going for. Obviously we’re putting out tracks that can stand on their own two feet, but it’s more about the whole piece, I think, together.”

Psychedelia, at its most powerful, isn’t a period piece, it’s a retooling of consciousness, and for Dark Moon, the gong is a central tool. Having studied it over a year, for Lola it’s an important part of the band’s aim to offer therapy through sound.

“The gong is a really big part of the band. When you see it live you will experience it much more, because they are quite difficult to record. And especially when you coming from a sound-healing perspective, you have to treat it in the right way. Sometimes at gigs I’ll hear people shout ‘Smash the gong!’ and I would never do that because I’ve been trained in how to respect it. It’s about building it up, and if you really were going to go ahead and smash it, you’d ruin some of the frequencies that you put into it. You’re toning it up the whole time you’re playing it; it changes over time. So you have to go get that kind of angle on it when you’re taking it into a psychedelic rock area. I don’t know if you’ve experienced a gong ceremony before, but a gong is a really powerful tool for altering your state. Gongs are really what got me to here now, and I think for the band, if you’re in the room, most people will start to feel the effect just from the gong alone.”

Dark Moon prepare to step into the unknown

Dark Moon prepare to step into the unknown

If not in sound but intent, Dark Moon’s willingness to carve out a sacred space bears some comparison to Wardruna, but there are other parallels too: Warduna frontman Einar’s talking of time being circular finding a reflection in the DM song Samsara, the Sanskrit word for cyclical change and rebirth. It’s also one of the most personal songs on the album, based on lyrics started by her late father, The Clash’s Joe Strummer – a lineage she doesn’t want to labour – and a process that’s clearly tied into her own philosophy.

“It needed to be finished,” says Lola, “so I just sat down one day and that’s what came out. I think all music is channelling anyway. It was about death and rebirth and reincarnation and spirit. You have to grieve for any kind of loss, but I dealt with it, and I understood it, and I understand it even more now. At the time, the song was probably very cathartic, and where I’m going with it is that it’s like a message that there’s more there, it’s not the end.”

For a band whose trajectory is so personal and purposeful, yet so open-ended, can Lola see where Dark Moon are headed next?

“I do think of this as a life journey,” she concludes. “A lot of these songs have come from a time when I was really searching for something and now I’ve… not found it, but I found the entrance for what I’ve been looking for. You’ve just got to open the door.”


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Jonathan Selzer

Having freelanced regularly for the Melody Maker and Kerrang!, and edited the extreme metal monthly, Terrorizer, for seven years, Jonathan is now the overseer of all the album and live reviews in Metal Hammer. Bemoans his obsolete superpower of being invisible to Routemaster bus conductors, finds men without sideburns slightly circumspect, and thinks songs that aren’t about Satan, swords or witches are a bit silly.