I wish I had Moon Duo‘s hair. Ripley Johnson (guitar; also of Wooden Shjips) sports a graying mane and matching beard that remind me of a leaner, more primal Warren Ellis; Sanae Yamada (keyboards) has a clean black pageboy that hides her face as she rides her organ. Their hair, long and somewhat scary, is suited to droning, deafening rock, which is what they specialize in. Simply dressed in white tees and hunkered over their instruments with no stage lighting save a disco ball, Moon Duo brought their glowering, grinding haze to a sadly underattended Turf Club Sunday night.
It was, in many ways, a night of music meant to be enjoyed in stunned rapture. Local openers CLAPS and Food Pyramid set the tone with their cyclical, pulsing electro—more on them later. Moon Duo, though, of San Francisco, seem to be criminally underappreciated in a town that has its fair share of psych-rock fans. Maybe competing shows—OFF! at the Triple Rock and Toro Y Moi at the 7th Street Entry—took some of the crowd away, but the 60-some fans at the Turf will hopefully form a dedicated contingent when Moon Duo return on future tours.
This was their first show in the Twin Cities, and getting into Moon Duo can be confusing at first. Their first LP, Outside, straddles a discomforting line between EP and full-length: four songs that clock in at nearly half an hour, the record is a grimy mix of simple drum machine, hyper-distorted guitar, and low, nearly unrecognizable synth and organ. The two manage to create noise that is melodic without seeming too overbearing, and smart without becoming ironic or convoluted. Think of Phantogram without the saccharine cuteness, or the Raveonettes with the distortion cranked even higher (and less emphasis on 1960s song structures).
This show was less punishing than the first time I saw Moon Duo, at SXSW 2010, which still ranks as the loudest concert I’ve ever been to. That’s likely because the new record, Mazes, has shorter songs mixed in with their longer drone pieces. Mazes is a faster listen and the songs take less time to get to the point, which is good and bad, depending on how much you enjoy repetitive, seven-minute drone jams (I do!). Now that Moon Duo have these two styles to choose from, their live show seems to have picked up in intensity.
I have to hand it to a band that is able to use the same two or three drum machine patterns for eight different songs in one show. Each song started largely the same: Johnson punches the drums in, Yamada slowly adds layers of distorted organ or synth, Johnson mumbles a few lines, and then departs for a solo. Repeat until song is finished, which Johnson seemed to arbitrarily decide by punching the drums out. It was refreshing, in a way, to see a band that didn’t program set lengths or sequences into their electronics: the drum machine never took a fill once, and it happily played until Johnson and Yamada were over. Yamada swayed her way through each song, thrashing her hair around as though summoning some dark energy, or casting a spell; Johnson’s guitar work was some of the most inspired I’ve seen in a while, with everything from Krautrock to Kurt Vile to (hints of) The Edge thrown in. Watching them was truly an exhilarating experience.
First opener CLAPS have beefed up their sound since I last saw them, which is a good thing; their formerly wheedling synthesizers have been fattened and produced a few seat-vibratingly bassy moments. Their songwriting, and especially the lyrics of singer Patrick Donohoe, has improved dramatically since their first few EPs came out. Where those releases were fairly rote Numan/Bowie/Morrissey brainchildren, their newer songs are slower, more serious, and heavier. It’s a transition that suits the band well.
In addition, second opener Food Pyramid proved the vibrancy of the Moon Glyph label. Do they rehearse their sets before they play? I’ve seen them four times and during none of them have they played a recognizable part of either of their two cassettes. Each show is unique and exciting as a result, and their musicianship has definitely improved since I last saw them in December. They perform seated now (or at least did at the Turf), which helped to minimize the traipsy, head-bobbing antics that electronic musicians get mocked for. At the end of 35 minutes or so, they killed the drum machine, twiddled some knobs, and the music slowly delayed into nothing, and the bar exploded. I sincerely hope that Food Pyramid are able to find success outside the Twin Cities, as I haven’t seen a local band try anything this original since Gay Witch Abortion first came to prominence.
After all those drum machines, swirling synths, and ear-splitting guitar solos, it was a near-magical experience to step out into the lightly misting St. Paul night. Apparently all of Moon Duo’s dark magic had worked and brought some rainy weather, and I left buzzing with excitement. If Moon Duo can put out that much mojo on a quiet Sunday, I can’t wait to see what they’ll do on future jaunts.
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