Moon Duo – Shadow of the Sun (ALBUM REVIEW)

When the an established band sees one of its member form a side-project, sometimes the strength of that project threatens to eclipse the band from which it branched off of. Moon Duo, with their third full-length, is poised to do just that, as Ripley Johnson’s little experiment in synth & garage drone rock has produced something of a precious nugget in Shadow of the Sun.

moonduolpMoon Duo exists, in many ways, as a direct parallel to Johnson’s primary band Wooden Shjips. Shjips’s music touches on many of the same regions of minimalist music that are informed by repetitive, drone-based and circuital rhythms. Where that band often features heavy, extended guitar work, Moon Duo often has the synthesizer and keyboards of vocalist Sanae Yamada in the forefront.

Much of Shadow of the Sun has a throwback sound that references both the garage psychedelia of lesser-known 1960s bands like The Shadows of Knight, but also the dancy pop of 80s and 90s music. “Night Beat” is driven by layered keyboards and the live drumming of recent addition John Jeffrey, augmenting or in some places replacing the drum programs that defined earlier Moon Duo albums. The equation works; songs like “Night Beat” and “Slow Down Low” have a sort of ferocity to them, even if the tempo isn’t crushing, and the monotony of their repetition provides the occasional swirling guitar attack with an extra bite.

It is almost too obvious, but part of what helps Shadow of the Sun take a large leap forward into its own dimension is the inclusion of a live drumkit. Some of the charm – and a lot of the atmosphere – of Mazes and Circles derives from the band’s effective use of a drum machine for the pedestrian beats. Here, there is little variation in that theory of minimal rhythmic deviation, and very simple melodic structure, but having John Jeffrey on drums adds a certain weight to the album’s proceedings. Ripley’s guitar, on the other hand, is as crunchy and effective as ever. Songs live “Free The Skull” carry a heavy undulating rhythm, with the guitarist’s wah-drenched instrumentals immediately achieving liftoff.

Brevity is a recurring theme on the album; Moon Duo has pared down the duration of most of these tracks, and some of the finest moments come when on songs like “Slow Down Low” and especially “Animal,” with their urgent, punchy and dark instrumental interplay between keyboards and guitar. Naturally, the albums longer jams deliver as well. On “Ice,” there is a pleasure in the meandering nature of the drony guitar as its notes wander into the background and play around, stereophonically shuffling about.

Shadow of the Sun is a celebration of patient, atmospheric psychedelia. Without a hint of presumptuousness, the album delivers in its scope and its exploration of unusual arrangements, all the while seldom straying from its steady, hypnotic mantra. With the addition of a live drummer, the band’s experimentation with arrangements is bound to impress, even as it goes through a few moments of growing pains on an otherwise exciting album.

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