Moon Duo - Circles

Time to confess some sins, oh brave and righteous followers: I take one look at Moon Duo's 2011 outing 'Mazes' for the first time, and I feel a somewhat deflating sense of bizarre misguided amateur-dramatic like presenting of expression from the San Francisco duo of Wooden Shjips' Ripley Johnson & Sanae Yamada. Maybe it's the black and white simplicity of the cover and its to-the-point relation to the title, maybe it's the way their label Sacred Bones continue to have their brand and their artist's identification plastered across every release that becomes available to the public. Not that I share the same misguided assumption about the actual music - the Francisco duo despite all deceptions of simplicity are in fact great at mastering the rhythm and the groove of contemporary psychedelia and past-time rock that the artwork is completely irrelevant. Well, the cover to the band's 2012 follow-up 'Circles' may certainly be more bold and illustrative, but here that doesn't suggest the artwork has gained at the expense of the music.

What was approached and introduced in varying bursts on Mazes is certainly emphasized and built upon on this album. Opener 'Sleepwalker' removes the listener from the clarity of the day and into a smokey clouded mass of guitar strums and electric leads that pave some against-the-dark type path. While the repetition of the strumming and the lead guitar work does encompass the majority of the drive, the synthetic-esque texture of the latter riffs alongside Johnson's mellow outlet of voice makes for an impressive build of sound. 'I Can See You' is more forward in its drive however - rather aiming at a distance than simply nodding along at a comfortable pace. And you can almost feel as if you're caught amidst this cosmic psychedelic trip - the growl and grind of guitars in the back make for an earthly almost subterranean tunneling effect. Johnson's vocals then come across as the tiny little diggers to the music's grand and engrossing mechanic of transport. But while the vocals don't exactly stand as the most crucial and pin-pointed of components, it's the mystery and the gravelly extent to the track's tone that provides more of an infliction in the mind rather than on the ears.

So what are we to find should we ever make it out of these maze of tunnels, then? There is this repeating statement recurrent on this record that the duo are looking for answers - looking to unlock something that may not exactly be physical in nature, but still holds some form of key importance. The way the strings clang and vibrate through the air - either moaning as if anxious, or wailing like sirens to the point where it feels like some level of shit's about to go down - the album engages this notion of there being a mission straight on; head-first into the abyss of repeated song deliverance and jaggedly grinding instrumentation as is the case with the track 'I Been Gone'. The added cloud of obscurity in the fuzz and murmur of distortion only emphasizes as to how deep and further away from the surface we seem to be getting. And all the while, there's no break in its momentum - no stop for self-reflection or (in music terms) a way to investigate how the timbre of these sounds could portray something in a more non-confronting context.

This is what concerns me with an album like this, because with such driving rhythms and grooves of this caliber, it becomes so unclear whether to suggest (or refute otherwise) just how far the band are willing to go before they hit a dead-end and then realize they're virtually stuck in a sort of one-way/one-trick path. 'Sparks' does offer some glimmer, the pacing and tempo slowed down slightly. Its engagement with such ambiguity in guitar effects and layered instrumentation, becomes a lot more digestible and the loosening of riffs and jangling of electronics that fade in and out provide a much more expansive backdrop then what was, previous, a direct and pin-point offense on a blank canvas. Not that I'm suggesting I didn't enjoy such a deliverance, but during this period of the record, the difference in momentum and pacing does feel a lot more reassuring that the band aren't in anyway desperate or eager to get to the goal in as quick as possible a time. But it's all subjective regarding whether it works or not. Moon Duo are after all testing with varying points on the spectrum of speed and progress on this supposed journey. It's all of the same material and the same content, but the arrangements and the executions, of course, vary from each track to a next.

'Free Action' could be seen as returning to the rampant earth-eating intensity of previous, but holding true to this spreading of texture - guitars layered over a surface rather than digging at it while the strumming still holds that familiar bumpy complexity to its shape. And all the while, Johnson's vocals remain hidden behind (beneath is probably a more suitable term) it all, neither controlling nor being controlled by that which he and Yamada are letting loose before us. 'Trails' then feels like a journey's end and an ambition met - this gritty, muddy texture being glistened by a sort of majestic shine. The fuzz and distortion remains, but surrounding it is a kind of emotive enriching you'd find in some early 90's rock, for example. The guitar riffs especially work best with this new-found brightening, the loosening of pitch and notation feeling less like a confrontation and more like a warming greeting of such. It's fitting then that the final track 'Rolling Out' could be seen then as the part in the record where Moon Duo find their long-forgotten secret of the ages buried beneath the Earth. Well, if it were a concept record, that's how it would pan out. Again, there's a sense of trans-atlantic influence in the guitar playing, and the electric accompaniments feel a lot more vibrant and energetic, the grandness of the overall composite panning out into a sort of full-stretch delicacy. And at last, Johnson's vocals get the deserved front-man attention they've been striving for - even if, still, there is the added appliance of drone-like translucency to their quality.

Amidst all the fog and the lack of clarity - and even the sense that you're more likely to feel the heat of the mantle than you are are the heat of the day above ground - Moon Duo are still a band on a mission for discovery. Rather than self-discovery, it is in itself discovery of something more: grand and auspicious. 'Circles' isn't exactly an album that describes best how its track-list lays out based on the title, but names and relations aside, the duo have found a sound that definitely has the energy and the consistency to entertain as much as it invokes and drives the band to continue striving for a sense of interest. On occasions it does become too forced into the ground to be recognized, but these incidents are few and far between. Overall, the two-way split between momentum and pace delivers some incredible listening material, and beyond that, has the potential to pull the listener into a similar sense of discovery and involvement.


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Discovery: Moon Duo - Circles
Moon Duo - Circles
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