If you’re a follower of psychedelic space rockers Wooden Shjips, the initial output from guitarist Ripley Johnson’s side project, Moon Duo, might have come as a slight shock to the system in all its dark minimalism – a stark contrast to the inebriated, multifaceted reverb haze the pre-‘Dos’ Shjips are known for, save only for the heavy use of organ drone and the fact that, of the few lyrics that presented themselves in the early stages of both projects, none were even remotely intelligible.

When ‘Dos’ did come along (and was cleaner and tighter, and focused much more around sharp guitars, neon synths and – oh yes – crystal clear vocals), it made Johnson’s work with Moon Duo even more of a musical question mark, as if one of this guy’s bands was rapidly evolving while the other was proving to be an exercise in regression.

Following two EPs of hazy, dense kraut noise, Johnson and his partner, Sanae Yamada, have sprung their first LP on their unsuspecting public, and no, it is not a collection of ten-minute black hole reverb weird-out. In fact, are you sitting down? This is, as far as these ears are concerned, as close to a full-on rock’n’roll record as either project has produced thus far.

For the first twenty seconds or so, this could very easily be an early Wooden Shjips record; coming on strong with those repetitive organ strains, acid-head rhythms and jangling beat, but then the vocals come in, and not only can you understand the words, but they also make sense (well, sort of). Then, of course, you are hit with one of Johnson’s utterly insane, spaceshot guitar solos and you think of Pink Floyd; you think of Led Zeppelin; you are not wondering whether you might need a Class A substance to get you through the next few songs.

Ripley professes a fondness for the layered sounds of retro rock like that of the Rolling Stones, and in fact, the guitar riff on the title track has Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’ plastered all over it. There are references to all sorts of vintages – ‘When You Cut’ kicks off with a typically 80’s synthesized hand clap beat under organ blurts before buzzing guitar growls burst the bubblegum and ground the track in a far more gritty place.

Both members of Moon Duo acknowledge that this is very much a record about finding themselves and discovering their sound, and, presumably, a fair deal of trial and error and comfort zone leaps have gone on to make ‘Mazes’ what it is – this is, after all, the first record the pair have made together in a recording studio, unlike those home-produced EPs. And Johnson has also said that he comfortably keeps his two projects separate, so perhaps the sudden shift in Wooden Shjips’ coherency has nothing to do with this. But, then again, maybe he’s been a rock’n’roller all along. The point is, this “sound” that Moon Duo have found lacks the danger and sex of last year’s ‘Escape’ EP, which promised a great long player, rather than an ok one.

By Polly Rappaport

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