Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week
Even in its most accessible forms, drone music tends to be a bit alienating. It’s a sound that even in a concert setting encourages a certain level of solipsism, music better suited for self-exploration, pondering the cosmos, and other self-fulfilling and/or self-centered pursuits. It’s a soundtrack designed to accompany the individual experience — and less so for a social experience.
Moon Duo take this long-standing trope and turn it on its ear with “Mazes”, the band’s second full-length. The titular duo are Erik “Ripley” Johnson (best known as the guitarist for Woodsist darlings Wooden Shjips) and Sanae Yamada, who excel at pulling choice adjectives from drone and psychedelia — feedback, fuzz, interminability, etc. — and deftly pushing them into a more dynamic song structure.
“When You Cut” is a great example of how Duo strike this happy medium in a song that showcases a catchy take on Fall-esque post-punk — complete with handclaps.
True to the drone aspects of their musical makeup, Duo use traditional percussion instruments sparingly (most songs feature no drums at all), relying instead on Yamada’s insistent arpeggiated synth riffs for a rhythm section, punctuated by brief organ solos that creates a kind of counter-melody. It’s an approach that sounds somewhat dubious but actually works; on “In the Sun,” Yamada expertly recreates the experience of hearing a song with a tight rhythm section.
Johnson’s work with Wooden Shjips has kept the listening public well-appraised of his guitar chops, but it’s definitely worth noting that the riffs and wandering solos that populate “Mazes” showcase some of his most accomplished work. The album’s title track features an especially tasty solo, wherein Johnson eschews the fuzzy effects pedals and lets the notes ring out clear and bright.
It’s kind of prescient for this piece to publish so close to the official first day of summer, because “Mazes” is a great album to spin on long, sun-baked, sweaty afternoons. It’s repetitive and droney enough to set the proper mood for acid trips and other well-intentioned (yet ill-advised) experimentations, yet hook-filled and dynamic enough to soundtrack any backyard barbecue populated with exceptionally hip guests. Although Moon Duo are too good to be relegated to the realm of summer accessories, I’ll be damned if they’re not perfect for the job.
— Susannah Young