Though ostensibly only a side project for Wooden Shjip’s guitarist Erik “Ripley” Johnson, Moon Duo has quickly established a unique sonic character, falling somewhere in between giddy psychedelic pop and the expansive tone of post-rock and drone.
Formed in 2009 by Johnson and keyboardist Sanae Yamada, Moon Duo released their first album Escape in 2010. While containing superb playing and instrumentation, the album did not have much in the way of interesting song structure and only offered four songs. With Mazes, Johnson and Yamada tone down the grandiose ripple effects and distortion just enough for them to devise a highly original and diverse set of songs. Though at certain points the album loses momentum in producing highly distinct songs, listeners won’t lose anything for treating the album as a whole.
The first song opens with a piercing outburst of the hypnotically repetitive rhythm and tone that is a staple of this album. “Seers” begins by giving a brief taste of the disorienting psychedelic effects, and then quickly inundates the listener with drums, guitar, and Johnson’s croon. Near the halfway point, his guitar explodes out of this calming progression with sharp, staccato notes which immediately dislodge the listener from the song’s induced trance. This sharp entrance is also a staple of many of Johnson’s solos here, a facet which never induces boredom, though it occurs frequently. “Mazes” changes the overall rhythmic tone conspicuously, evoking ’70s alternative rock and its light-hearted yet insistent liveliness. “Scars” represents yet another transformation, beginning with far more subdued and reticent instrumentation and vocal tone. The sounds creep and slink along, rather than move with rapidity as they did previously. Johnson’s guitar, provides a similar tactic as in the first song, to great emotional effect, giving the song a tremendous lift about a minute in. After another verse, however, he uses the once sharp and piercing guitar notes in wave-like ripples which melt into the rhythm section rather than contradict it. These three represent the most diverse assemblage of songs on the album, and we see elements of each of them echoing through the rest of the album.
“Fallout” and “Run Around” are the weakest songs on the album, clearly recycling the stylistic achievements of the album’s three strongest songs, rather than forging their own ground. Both try and emulate the buoyant pop tone “Mazes” evokes while still maintaining a driving sequence, but while increasing the speed and ferocity of the rhythm guitar. Though both are viscerally exciting, this extremely fast pace ultimately detracts from Johnson’s previously distinct sonic jabs at the wall of sound in the background. The album’s last two songs, “In The Sun” and “Goners,” also call to mind the techniques of the first three songs, but actually succeed in conveying a highly distinct sound to end the album on a strong note. “In the Sun” replicates the same slightly unsettling calmness and repetitiveness as “Scars.” Here however, Johnson gives the guitar a markedly different role, reemphasizing rather than contradicting the background’s sluggishness with a seamless flow of guttural guitar noises.
The album ends with “Goners,” a song reminiscent of the beginning of the album, with a strong chord progression and two sets of verses before Johnson lets loose. Rather than utilizing either a particularly jarring or darkly lulling entrance for his solo, Johnson recalls a classic blues rock timbre with very repetitive compact guitar licks and just enough distortion to still hear individual notes.
Despite the influence of the three initial songs throughout the album, the vast majority of songs are highly original in their own right, and at the very least don’t become boring after more than a few listens. They all exhibit an enthralling level of resonance and vitality, and create impressively expansive sonic landscapes. Anyone who enjoys alternative rock ’n’ roll paired with grandiose and mesmerizing blocks of sound will not be easily bored by this album, and will find great pleasure in its subtler songs for quite a while.