Words by Andrew Fetter
Andrew Fetter has been writing about music for over the last decade and playing in bands for even longer. His latest endeavor is the radio hour, The Noise Kaleidoscope which airs Tuesdays from 4:30-5:30pm ET on 99.1FM WQRT in Indianapolis. On it he covers his personal collection and influences of psych rock from over the last half century, starting with early influences and reaching to it’s modern incarnations. Past episodes are archived online.
Moon Duo has been one of the flag bearers of modern psych rock music. The power duo of Erik “Ripley” Johnson and Sanae Yamada may not have “reinvented” the genre, but they’ve certainly made it more compelling with every album they’ve released. Their latest album Stars Are The Light (out September 27 on Sacred Bones) is a dream pop masterpiece that takes the band into new territory that still feels familiar and comforting (but not comfortable). However, it’s bright vibes stand in stark contrast to their previous work, particularly the album that precedes it.
The band’s 2017 double album (two volumes were released several months apart) Occult Architecture captures perfectly the themes that have influenced it. When the seasons shift throughout the year, every variation (no matter how slight) is noticeable. Each season signifies some type of change to the world around us. And these changes affect all senses. In the winter, the temperatures drop (in some areas to almost unbearable degrees), tree branches are emptied of their leaves, and the overall visual is bleak with white and grey. Vol 1 of Occult Architecture was written and recorded during those winter months to capture the essence of that season. And with a February release, the listener is able to share the experience with the band. It has a dark tone, both in sound and concept. The influence of 70s punk icons Suicide is heavily present (particularly on tracks like “Cold Fear” and “Cross-Town Fade”). At this point the band had relocated from California (where seasonal changes are minimal) to the northwest region in Portland, Oregon (where the changes are much more noticeable). And that change in environment was enhanced after so much time in what Johnson referred to as a “seasonal void.” Added to that, this was also during the massive wildfires that were occurring in that part of the country, which the band felt further brought the concept of death giving way to life into the spotlight. You can almost see the flames shooting high during the opening track “The Death Set,” then see them settle into embers and smoke through the closer “White Rose.”
On the other side, Vol. 2 was created during the spring and summer months and the themes of new life and beginnings saturate this album. When spring begins, the days are warmer, longer and more colorful. The trees are replenished with new leaves and order seems to be restored. It begins as “New Dawn” fades up slowly to signify the slow process of life starting anew. It then builds into a light, almost poppy (though I do cringe a bit to use that description) companion to it’s dark and dreary counterpart. It’s certainly less fuzzy than Vol 1, but there’s no shortage of the band’s signature psych/space rock goodness. Most of this volume is instrumental, making it a soundtrack of sorts to the transition from dark to light. As opposed to a possibly more direct narrative of Vol. 1, Vol 2 has this part of the cycle speak for itself. Again, keeping the wildfires in the foreground, the life coming forth in the aftermath of destruction seems all too poignant, but it’s represented perfectly. The embers and smoke that close out Volume 1 give way to new life in Volume 2.
Despite both volumes of Occult Architecture being made and released separately, they do combine to create one cohesive concept album. The music videos for “Cold Fear” (from Vol.1) and “Lost In Light” (from Vol. 2) tell a story (with the type of trippy animation you’d expect Moon Duo music videos to have) all on their own, but also connect the two halves of the greater narrative. The Yin (which is associated with darkness and night and Volume 1 paired with the Yang (which is associated with light and the sun) of Volume 2 gives way to the cycle of the seasons. The aforementioned videos even portray Johnson and Yemada as a Yin and Yang. The themes of death and destruction don’t give way to chaos on the record. In fact, it’s quite contained and controlled, as if this is the natural progression of things. The same of the themes of rebirth and life. It isn’t in opposition to things dying, it’s the next logical step in the process. And as the changes repeat year after year, the album (whether the two parts are listened to separately or as one piece) can have the same experience repeated. And the results will take your ears and mind on an incredible journey each time.
Moon Duo – “Cold Fear:
Moon Duo – “Lost In The Light”