Moon Duo: Mazes

[12 April 2011]

By Scott Branson

Maybe they’re called Moon Duo because there are two members in the band; but another guess is that they play dark fuzzy rock that drones on two chords. However, with their new album these two seem to let in a little sun—and every now and then, even a third chord. Now that may be a bit of a gross characterization, but it does exemplify how Mazes builds on the template set down by the previous Moon Duo releases, the debut EP, Killing Time, and the Woodsist album, Escape. This album sounds more complete somhow, if simply because it is more professional: not only is the production a little slicker, but also Moon Duo’s penchant for droney jams has been honed down to more precise songs that pack more punch while still getting the job done.

Up to now, Ripley Johnson, who sings and plays guitar (also known from his membership in the aesthetically similar band, Wooden Shjips) and Sanae Yamada, who plays synths and keys, stuck pretty close to a droney Suicide-influenced take on classic rock and roll sounds. But there was always something brighter lurking in the songs. Each one is like a composition exercise: take this drum sequence, this keyboard riff (repeat it till the end), these two guitar chords, and this one line vocal melody—now loop them. As a cherry on top of that, add Johnson’s guitar, to try to burst the seams of the tightly wound track.

The main features of the band, then and now, are Johnson’s guitar solos. Each song is really an excuse for him to let loose on the guitar. I imagine him setting up the two chord pattern on a loop pedal and just soloing by himself in a room. Though Johnson comes from the San Francisco acid-drenched fuzz-laden school of guitar, there’s a rippling (ripleying?) Hendrix-like vibrato that comes out on top very often in his work. Johnson might not be a virtuoso, but that doesn’t take away from his keen melodic sense—in other words, these songs work as songs even if they are mainly setup for his pentatonic wanking.

In fact, Johnson might just be getting more confident with the Moon Duo project. You even hear his vocals creep out a bit—not quite on top of the mix, but somewhat in front of the Alan Vega type of mumble. A couple of the best songs are based in guitar riffs alone—like the almost anthemic “Fallout”—rather than hung around a drum sequence and a repetitive keyboard part. I say “almost anthemic” because this song might not quite get you singing along, but the bright and heavy guitar drive will get your heart pumping. It’s got a riff like The Cult but a mellow approach to vocals and solos like the Stone Roses. This aesthetic carries onto another standout, the title track, which is powered by a Modern Lovers keyboard frill. When Johnson comes in with his ubiquitous guitar solo, he seems to be channeling the loopy twirls of The Feelies.

It might be objected that Moon Duo’s move towards a more concise song structure also puts them in more traditional territory. However, at this point, a fuzzy, drone-oriented band with Motorik beats from San Francisco isn’t really an original proposition. But blistering guitar solos and catchy repetition are what rock and roll is about. It’s fun in the darkness. Johnson just can’t wait to rip it on guitar. If the songs are just that much better in the hangtime before the guitar solo, who can complain?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/138838-moon-duo-mazes/