Despite Moon Duo‘s origins as a side project for Wooden Shjips guitarist Ripley Johnson to cut loose with then-unknown keyboard player Sanae Yamada, by their third album Circles they had established their own voice and by their follow-up Shadow of the Sun, they were cookin’. The issue with their early material seemed partly one of confidence and partly one of vision, with the songs occasionally leaning on a thin boogie backing beat with chintzy keys straight out of children’s music layered over aimless looping sunny guitar work. The quality of their work directly corresponded, it seemed, to the presence of two things: distortion/fuzz pedals and Sanae Yamada’s increasingly confident and lush synth work. They’re a band that clearly shows they’ve listened not only to their previous records, but also to their critiques; they are one of the very few bands where every record is a tangible improvement of that which came before it. Occult Architecture Vol. 1 continues this tradition.
The concept of the record places it in juxtaposition with an as-yet recorded or released sequel, placing the brighter material on the second half while darker and more nervous songs are found on this volume. This split works out well for the band, because their best material has always been their nerviest and most aggrieved. Johnson has a gift with the guitar and, like many of the more immediately pleasing guitarists of this current crop of psych rock bands, seems like he couldn’t write a unsatisfactory lick if he was asked to. However he always seems to be more focused, more locked in, inevitably giving more sincere energy when Moon Duo’s work slips into darker terrain. He does well with an emotional and thematic focus here; the guitars meander less, sing more, and all without sacrificing the psychedelic sprawl that makes this kind of music fun in the first place.
The real star, however, is Sanae Yamada. Her synths are denser here, but in a filling rather than claustrophobic way. Where before it often felt like she was given one or maybe two tracks to fit every melody and harmony she wanted into a track, here it feels the throttle has been widened and Yamada given more room to layer pads and square-waves and organs. It pays off in spades; if a Moon Duo record’s rockability is directly tied to how locked in Johnson is, its staying power is tied to Yamada. The vocals and lyrics, like most psych bands, are inconsequential, often distorted to a degree that they effectively become yet another synthetic layer.
All of this meat and space taken up by the synths frees Johnson up to distort the living hell out of his guitar and actually provide some rock riffs and licks. The weakest part of any psychedelic (and, more generally, indie) rock record is the pernicious sense that the players are scared of their guitars and of making an honest-to-god racket. While Johnson doesn’t precisely go full-Hendrix or Iommi with his playing, he does lean in much more to something honestly indebted to rock and roll; check out the distorted coldwave-meets-goth rock of “Cold Fear” with its abrasive, near-Nine Inch Nails guitar tone married to degrading, corpse-cold synths and 808s, or the more dirge-like tendencies of album closers “Will of the Devil” and “White Rose.”
Moon Duo overcome a standard problem in this kind of music, which is the hesitation at the gate. Music in general, psychedelia specifically, calls for a kind of devotional attitude that can sometimes lapse into the goofy, and only by passing through this threshold can the work transcend the limitations of inherently being irreal, just some friends with electrified hunks of wood screaming into microphones, and become the heady cosmic mind-trip they set out to be. Johnson’s recent return to some real-shit occultists, including not just Crowley but also some modern day Thelema and Golden Dawn practitioners, certainly must have been the speartip carrying the psych rock forward; the band’s constituent elements have not changed, but their focus has, their commitment to a set thematic vision rather than crowding out the more substantial songs on their records with weaker, child-bright boogie affairs.
Ultimately, Moon Duo have delivered their strongest record to date, a modern psych rock record infused with just enough avant-garde, post-punk, goth and coldwave influences to show they’ve been listening to the state of things over the past five years or so. The record’s only major weakness is it feels like it never really fully cuts loose or unmoors itself, never pushes into the deep waters of heady synesthetic psych either by synths or wailing guitar. Which is a damn shame; one has the sense that Johnson and Yamada could burn it down if they set their hearts to it, perhaps. And the thought that this will be followed up by a brighter record is a curious and mildly frightening one as well, given how the additional darkness makes the material here so successful. But, after all, the band has only ever been on an upward trajectory; there’s no reason to suspect they’d let us down now.