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Psychedelic space rock that is by turns relentless and insistent, occasionally unrelenting and unremitting at the same time, as it ponders the dark seasonal energy of the northern hemisphere

Psychedelic synths and guitar added to a motorik sensibility propel Moon Duo through the seven tracks of ‘Occult Architecture Vol 1’. The album is by turns relentless and insistent, occasionally unrelenting and unremitting at the same time, as it ponders the dark seasonal energy of the northern hemisphere.

Recorded in rainy Portland, Oregon, this is Moon Duo’s fourth album. Led by Ripley Johnson (guitar and vocals) with Sanae Yamada (keyboards and vocals), and accompanied by John Jeffrey (drums), the group intend to release ‘Vol 2’ soon, to complete a mystical Yin/Yang journey. ‘Vol 1’ is the Yin — the darkness of winter, earth, night. Moon Duo weave dense sound patterns and reference English esoteric literature such as the spiritual alchemy and hermeticism of Mary Anne Atwood, the occultist Aleister Crowley and Colin Wilson’s mysticism. 

‘The Death Set’ establishes the tone, driven by a relentless and almost heavy metal rhythm riff and adorned by synth-pop touches on percussion and keys. Moon Duo add layers of sound until a climax in which Johnson adds studied looping psychedelic guitar, before peeling the whole audacious piece apart in the track’s final minute, a coda which takes on a gentler beat to accompany the repeatedly chanted phrase, “There’s a sound in my head”. It’s weird shit, in a good way.

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Lead single ‘Cold Fear’ is insistent; quicker. The voices of Yamada and Johnson break into a tune after starting with distorted incantations. This structure repeats until another dark-psych solo from Johnson, while the rhythm track crashes on and on. Just as it seems the piece is about to turn into post-rock drone, the propulsive drums switch off. The shortest, punchiest track on the album is ‘Creepin’’. The guitar is reminiscent of late, experimental Buzzcocks. This is post-punk power pop with an edge. There’s a faster, more recognisably rock rhythm from the drums. Hell, you could even mosh to this. 

The first side of ‘Vol 1’ ends with a highlight, ‘Cross-Town Fade’, where the electronics start as insistently as the pioneering late ’70s work of Alan Vega and Martin Rev in Suicide. The drumming is relentless krautrock, straight out of the textbook written by Can’s recently deceased drum genius Jaki Liebezeit. The intro lasts the best part of a minute and the track camouflages its gentle key changes under layers of noise, so it’s hardly pop, yet some of the synth work has the rare simplicity of Dave Stewart on early Eurythmics hits. All along, the rhythm rattles along like a runaway express train — it’s hard to believe this is a live human drummer not a dystopian drum machine. Then ’60s-sounding guitar comes in, almost jazzy in its improvisational noise, like a Velvet Underground workout, rich with distortion. Towards the end, rocket lift-off noises give the first hints of the second half of the album’s heavy space-rock direction. 

Johnson’s other band are space rockers Wooden Shjips, so it’s no surprise that the wildest parts of ‘Occult Architecture’ bring to mind the epic sessions of far out London-Japanese band Bo Ningen. Side two opens with the relentless 3/4 drums and heavy riff of ‘Cult of Moloch’, adding layers of keyboards and pretty psychedelic guitar patterns. Another track title straight out of the British heavy metal tradition parodied by Spinal Tap is ‘Will Of The Devil’. Thankfully, the track is better than its name promises. Its energy is based on repetitively dark, goth keyboard notes, short but massive drum rolls and a relentless beat. It’s lightened by post-pop ’80s guitar and synth breaks, but returns to its foreboding tone amid a twisting psych-rock guitar solo.

The album ends with more than 10 minutes of ‘White Rose’, which doesn’t mess around. After a whoosh of synthetic wind, heavy space-rock guitar comes in at the start of this epic that evokes English ’70s prog-rock heroes Hawkwind but with references to every decade of dark rock since the ’60s. The song breaks down in the final third as the layers of noise-rock are removed one by one and there are more whooshing space rocket sounds. The last noise on the album is more of that cold electronic winter wind, heralding the Yang of ‘Vol 2’. 

Moon Duo are on tour in the UK this month:

Newcastle, 15th March, at Northumbria University
Manchester, 16th March, at Band On The Wall
London, 17th March, at Heaven
Brighton, 6th April, at The Haunt
Leeds, 7th April, at Brudenell Social Club
Glasgow, 8th April, at Stereo

‘Occult Architecture Vol 1’ is out now via Sacred Bones

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