Erik “Ripley” Johnson, when not laying down monolithic slabs of psychedelic aftershock in his capacity as Wooden Shjips’ guitarist, likes to relax as Moon Duo, with Sanae Yamada, where he enjoys laying down psychedelic slabs of monolithic aftershock. While Wooden Shjips have perfected the knack of bringing heavy, derelict West Coast music back from the grave, tattered, decaying and magnificent, Moon Duo take a marginally different approach. Their interest in the deep, elegiac guitar sound of The Doors to Blue Cheer is filtered through the motorik repetition of Neu! They themselves reference Silver Apples and Suicide, both of whom have a comparable interest in the remarkable potential of electric instruments to cajole, terrorise and create unusual states of mind.
Wooden Shjips’ most recent album, Back to Land, was encrusted with song titles suggesting decomposition and stasis – ‘Ghosts’, ‘Ruins’, ‘These Shadows’. Moon Duo’s new release, Shadow of the Sun, features tracks called things like ‘Wilding’, ‘Night Beat’, ‘Free the Skull’ and ‘Animal’. This is music on the move, connecting to the grid, tapping strange energy and leaving the freeway to float above the city.
Moon Duo’s new drummer, John Jeffrey, adds a new level of the rhythmic discipline essential if Johnson’s endless capacity for riffing is to be kept under some level of control. The tension between the rolling percussion and the shimmering guitars lend a new power to the sound on Shadow of the Sun, which comes crashing straight through the speakers on the first track, ‘Wilding’. Deploying a sadly underused term for general disruption and trouble-making, it is a statement of intent and an extraordinarily strong track that immediately sounds as though you’ve heard it many times before, possibly in another life. A relentless, fast lane rhythm section underpins joyful guitar solos and, perhaps, castanets.
Shadow of the Sun is an upbeat album, melody and chugging reiteration combining to striking effect. ‘Night Beat’ has tom-toms and night terror growls, a simple tune ascending and descending in thirds, and lyrics about… well, it’s hard to tell. Moon Duo, like Wooden Shjips, tend to use vocals as another layer of instrumentation, and atmosphere is all. It’s impossible to hear more than isolated snatches of what Johnson is singing - “in your eyes”, “upon the sea”, “along the wharf(?)” - but it doesn’t seem to matter. ‘Free the Skull’ features tambourines and cone-shredding guitar. ‘Zero’ is ethereal, Yamada’s backing vocals, those tambourines again and a nagging tune all reaching towards exotica territory.
Elsewhere, tracks such as ‘Thieves’ and ‘In a Cloud’ have a more traditional Wooden Shjips sound, slow down and low. Oddly enough, the song actually called ‘Slow Down Low’ is considerably faster, the soundtrack to a dizzying head rush, something powerful coming on suddenly. Single ‘Animal’ is barely under control, a manic whirl that it shares with ‘Ice’, the sense of a vortex about to consume itself, Johnson’s vocals sounding at times as though they are on the brink of being sucked into the void.
Moon Duo have now produced three albums, each of increasing proficiency and vision. They have developed their own, inimitable sound, based on their supreme confidence in returning again and again to an apparently narrow field of operation. Depth trumps breadth, and Moon Duo trump most bands, sometimes even Wooden Shjips. The strangely 1980s cover art, which suggests a confused Penguin Cafe Orchestra, gives a misleading impression of the dense, addictive, unstoppable music inside.