The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Moon Duo
Occult Architecture Vol. 1 Tim Cooper , February 8th, 2017 17:01

“We dig repetition / We dig repetition / We dig repetition in the music / And we're never going to lose it / All you daughters and sons / Who are sick of fancy music / We dig repetition / Repetition in the drums / And we're never going to lose it / This is the three R's / The three R's / Repetition, repetition, repetition”

Repetition: the most underrated of musical virtues, as Mark E Smith so sagely observed in The Fall’s 1979 song of the same name. It’s a mantra that Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson (guitars, vocals) and Sanae Yamada (keyboards, vocals) have taken earnestly to heart in their collective guise as Moon Duo. Their music is invariably (and I choose that word deliberately) underpinned by galloping motorik beats, the same rhythmic device that has metaphorically and literally conveyed locomotion from Elvis Presley’s ‘Mystery Train’ to Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ and beyond.

Moon Duo’s music is full of contradictions. Simultaneously repetitious but constantly evolving; rigid yet loosely structured; focused but blurry; mesmeric yet meandering towards an inexorable conclusion. Lulling the listener into a sense of familiarity with their minimalist rhythms, their musical excursions subliminally lead us astray from the starting point, gently (or not so gently) diverting our attention on a circuitous journey into unknown pleasures, each step taking us towards the nirvana of release (or is it relief?). Or, as they might prefer to put it, cosmic karma.

Whatever you care to call it, and it goes without saying that labels are simultaneously simplistic and trite while being a useful shorthand for the uninitiated, Moon Duo’s psychedelic krautrock space jams offer more than mere entertainment; their almost physical relentlessness and swirling depths dispense some sort of cerebral, if not spiritual, nourishment. Written and recorded in their adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, Occult Architecture Vol.1 is the duo’s fourth album and the first part of a conceptual psychedelic opus in two volumes (the second to follow later this year) inspired by both their environment - rainclouds and sunshine and “the deep creep” of the Northwest forests - and writers of English occult literature like Aleister Crowley and Mary Anne Atwood, Colin Wilson and Manly P. Hall. It is, they say, “an intricately woven hymn to the invisible structures found in the cycle of seasons and the journey of day into night, dark into light through the Chinese theory of Yin and Yang”. Vol.1 represents the Yin, (which in Chinese means “the shady side of the hill”) and embodies Moon Duo’s darker qualities: hence its release in the heart of our winter.

It also represents a shift, if not in sound, but in perspective and emphasis. It’s their first album to be recorded as a trio following the addition of tour drummer John Jeffrey, whose contribution – with a metronomic style that often imitates a drum machine in the style of the recently deceased Can maestro Jaki Liebezeit - lends a more organic feel to the relentless percussion that drives their songs. At the same time, Yamada’s synthesisers and keyboards come more to the fore, with the duo sharing vocals both separately and together. Despite the similarities, for the first time, Moon Duo seems less like a side project from Johnson’s other band Wooden Shjips and more like an entity in its own right.

The album divides naturally into two halves, the first focusing on more conventional minimalist constructions embodied by the almost Cramps-like rolling rhythm of opener ‘The Death Set’, whose structure dissolves as Johnson’s guitar solo fades and he recites the incantation “There’s a sound in my head” over and over again; and the stark synth and percussive slaps of ‘Cold Fear’, a song whose stark synthesisers, stuttering vocals and cloak of distortion suggest the paranoia and anxiety of Suicide. The highlight of the first half is ‘Cross-Town Fade’, whose urgent propulsion and monstrously distorted solo - the same combination of tightly-woven rhythms and free-form guitar playing pioneered by The Feelies on their 1980 debut Crazy Rhythms - incorporate mind-bendingly off-kilter piano notes emerging from a maelstrom of industrial noise; by the end of its eight minutes they sound like nothing so much as an aeroplane preparing for take-off, the cacophony causing the same sense of stomach-churning anticipation in the passenger/listener.

The second half opens with ‘Cult of Moloch’, a song not only titled like an occult metal anthem but proving to be something of a headbanger: constructed around the most basic of riffs, it disintegrates satisfyingly with muddy vocals, treated piano and a guitar that sounds as if it’s being played underwater. ‘Will of the Devil’, conversely (despite another metal-friendly title) veers almost into the realms of synth-pop, its pretty keyboards and drowsy vocals bludgeoned by a reverb-heavy beat reminiscent of goth forebears like Sisters of Mercy and The Cult. But the pièce de résistance is the closing ‘White Rose’, a ten-minute epic that opens with a gust of wind and an almost liquid guitar, the notes bending and swaying around a simple four-note piano melody, embellished by synth textures and squalls of distorted guitar before dropping out like a dub production until the percussion fades away to leave silence apart from the wind... and anticipation for an imminent Volume 2.