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Moon Duo - Circles

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Artist: Moon Duo

Album: Circles

Label: Sacred Bones

Review date: Oct. 31, 2012

Moon Duo, like its half sibling Wooden Shjips, grinds out grooves that are both tightly coiled and expansive, its repetitive measures circling in an endlessly rolling boundary which is, nonetheless, occasionally an entryway to otherworldly sensation. The idea of limits that turn into doorways and doorways that lead to more limits runs all through Moon Duo’s transcendental reveries. So, it makes sense, in a way, that Moon Duo guitarist-singer Ripley Johnson would gravitate towards one of the original Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In his essay “Circles,” Emerson posits perception as an endless series of concentric circles, the consciousness at the center constantly forced to break through what it sees as boundaries into the next realm of knowing. Says Emerson, “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” Says Moon Duo’s Johnson on the Emerson-inspired Circles, “O is where the time seems to never end, when all the past is just present again.”

Circles is Moon Duo’s third full-length album, and like the others, it is performed entirely by its two principles. Johnson plays guitar and sings. Sanae Yamada juggles keyboards and programmed drums. None of Moon Duo’s songs sound dramatically different from Wooden Shjips, though there is a lightness in Moon Duo’s output that’s not in the other band. It comes, I would guess, partly from the empty space where live drums and bass might be found, partly from the innately playful sounds of Yamada’s keyboards, and partly from an emphasis on melody over drone, or at least melody plus drone. There are a couple of bits, especially in “I Can See” and “Circles,” that you could hum in the shower.

Still, the band leads with the most Shjips-like of the four tracks. “Sleepwalker,” the opener and single, is a mesmeric droner, its measures starting with a massive, lingering guitar chord, its organ riffs coiling and uncoiling in the intervals between crashes. The lyrics are hard to discern — Johnston’s voice is mixed low and wreathed in echo — but they seem to have to do, per Emerson, with perception and reality. The weight of the drum-keyboard-guitar foundation is counteracted somewhat by the airiness of the singing, yet this is clearly the heaviest cut on the disk.

“I Can See,” by contrast, whips a bit of froth into the ponderous sound, clear trills of keyboards emerging from machine drum rhythms. “Circles” shrouds a cheerful organ riff in layers of fuzz and drone, the upward lilt of the main tune a mad, big-tent element in an overall dirge-like seriousness. This is also the one where you can hear the words best, where Johnson best articulates an indefinite mysticism.

The guitar is the wild card in these tightly reined-in, metronomically repetitive cuts. It rises in fits and starts, jabs at solid masses of beats, tests the outer limits of rigorously defined song structures. This may be stretching the metaphor, but I like to think of the guitar as Emerson’s restless consciousness, banging its head continually against what everyone agrees is reality until, unexpectedly, it breaks through to the other side.

By Jennifer Kelly

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