SAY PSYCH: ALBUM REVIEW: Moon Duo – ‘Escape’: fuzz psych-meisters’ debut, expanded

TIME can really slip by. It’s ten whole years – yep, a decade – since Moon Duo span out of Wooden Shjips with that band’s Ripley Johnson teaming up with keyboardist Samae Yamada to forge a psych-side hustle.

Hell, that means it’s almost nine years since I saw Wooden Shjips at End of the Road ….

Enough with the reminiscing already. Moon Duo debuted in the long-playing world with Escape, a half-hour, four-track dronesome delight for fellow psychesters’ Woods’ Woodsist label. 

It’s been out of print for years, so to celebrate its decennial those good people at Sacred Bones have decided to apply a little electricity and reanimate it while also adding in three hard-to-find extra tracks. The vinyl will ship on or around August 21st – there’s a limited pink issue, for those of you of that tinged-wax persuasion – but the digital is available now. 

So how, a full decade on – cue a Citizen Kane-style spinning newspaper to show the passage of time – how is Escape sounding?

Moon Duo, photographed in 2010 by Aylin Gungor

The first thing: it’s sounding really good. The second: it’s sounding really different. Opener “Motorcycle, I Love You”, has a real live-to-tape feel, beginning as it does on amp hum before immediately going for your throat with a sinister, repetitive riff; Ripley’s vocals are a buried and echoing texture in the guitar snarl. Obviously there’s plenty of the psych-drone ur-text Silver Apples in the DNA, but when that acid guitar breaks free and swirls and entrances it still makes the blood surge. There’s a groove at the back and deeper explorations on top. It could, you come to realise, never end and you’d be lost in its acid spell, luxuriating and unaware.

“In The Trees” is an apt title. Once more Ripley deep in a sinister fuzz, the twilight is stealing up; there’s cobwebs upon your face. The sound is deep, mysterious, otherly. It reminds me of the first time I encountered the Pebbles compilations of 60s’ garage-psych, on tapes of tapes of tapes, loss of fidelity second fiddle to this weird and exciting lost fuzzed-up world beaming at me through a wormhole in time. If this were a 7”, it would have to be on red and black smoke vinyl.

“Stumbling 22nd Street” – a reference perhaps to one of the steepest east-west thoroughfares in their native San Fran – hooks that glorious fuzz into a circular organ figure, the guitar shrill and shrieking at it the furthest extent of its restraining lead.

Title track “Escape” owes the most from the set to that Silver Apples/Suicide lineage, at least tonally, with Ripley’s vocals swathed in echo and the guitar swirling through FX; but by turns it’s also the most ‘pop’-melodic, an almost – almost – whimsical country-rock vocal phrasing buried in there somewhere.

Thus, as it were, concludes the first part of the journey: the original album. Looking back a decade at the band’s first sessions, Moon Duo said: “We made this record in a rehearsal space in San Francisco in late 2009. It was kind of a classic band space, shared by a rangy assortment of musicians over months and years … a windowless room lit by string lights and an odd assortment of lamps, the walls a palimpsest of posters and gig fliers. There was a grimy, burn-pocked rug, cluttered gear in various stages of use and abandonment, and the air seemed to hang in a permanent film of smoke residue and stale beer. 

“We recorded to a 4-track tape machine over the course of a few nights – we’d just start the beats, hit record and let fly. We had a vague sense of coalescence, or fomentation, like a glimpse of a thing in outline which you can’t yet see, but neither of us knew at the time that this was the record that would mark the beginning of our life as a touring band and would initiate our connections to so many (now long-time) friends, familiars and collaborators. 

“Ten years feels like both a lifetime and the blink of an eye – measurable but impossible to quantify. These four tracks, and the others that join them here, are a snapshot of our earliest incarnation: flying blind, but high on the freedom of experimentation and filled with hope for things to come.”

Into the bonus cuts then. “A Little Way Different”, originally released on the Woodsist sampler comp Welcome Home: Diggin’ the Universe, really is different; that’s to say it’s built on a muted and clicky bass-strings riff, sat firmly in the nicotine-stained man-in-black world of early solo Nick Cave, The Gun Club, Las Vegas Grind. It’s atmospheric and spacious and music for a rendezvous in a downtown speakeasy. A squall of wah-wah guitar erupts and is subsumed once more by the noir riff.

“Catch As Catch Can” and “Set It On Fire” are both sides of an early 7” for Agitated. The former is a delirious psych rush, Ripley again fractured into echoic utterance, an atmosphere more than a singer; the latter is deep and hard, worshipping at the layered overdriven guitar spooling off into the scented smoke.

Let’s spool back a second. Remember I said it sounds great, it sounds different? It really does. It sounds so much like Moon Duo; and yet so unalike. There’s a school of thought about this kind of hard-psych-drone that you find your groove and you finesse and you carve away at it and you sit tight in its pocket; but look forward now, through the brighter acid-synth shimmers of the Occult Architecture twin releases, and on to the creeping disco-funk marriages of last year’s Stars Are The Light. They’ve come a long way in ten years while keeping that molten core of transporting sound.

If you didn’t get it first time round – and chances are, you didn’t – then Escape is a great reification of the Moon Duo canon. It’s so them; yet it’s almost another them. Get it nestling next to your other garage-drone LPs and welcome it with open arms.

Moon Duo’s Escape will be released on pink and trad black vinyl and CD via Sacred Bones on August 28th. The digital version is available right away; make purchase of your copy at the Bandcamp page here, or at Sacred Bones, here.

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