Moon Duo is an apt name for this Portland pair, given their spacey and psychedelic sounds that are grounded in a proto-punk idiom. The duo’s kaleidoscopic stylings carry thematic imagery, and this is as true as ever on their fourth album, Occult Architecture Vol. 1. This latest record from Moon Duo is the first of two in the Occult Architecture series, with each of these albums embodying juxtaposing concepts, such as Yin and Yang, darkness and light, night and day, femininity and masculinity, etc. The new-found interest of guitarist Ripley Johnson in gnostic and hermetic literature too permeates much of the music on this project, with the duelling guitar and keyboard embellishing these long songs with stark and forthright melodies. Indeed, the band and this project of theirs in particular seem to revolve almost entirely around duality and opposition. Whilst the set-up for this album’s conceptual basis was very appealing to me, the end product yielded mixed results. At the best of times, the material on Occult Architecture Vol. 1 fits in with the thematic ideas relatively successfully, but much of the music on here is more mundane than meditative, leaving a limited impression on the listener, even after numerous listens. Whilst a decent record overall, a portion of this project has continued to slightly underwhelm me, in spite of the interesting and ambitious undercurrent provided by the subject matter. Certainly the best moments featured on this project are straightforward, but they are nonetheless inventive in their simplicity, whereas the least memorable moments, whilst similar in principle, lack the ingenious and artful quality of the stand-out moments on the album.
The Death Set kicks the album off with a standard garage rock groove and Moon Duo’s usual swirling, spacey sounds providing the backdrop to the instrumental. The fuzzed-out guitars, along with the slight dose of attitude provided in Johnson’s vocals, make for a vibe that fans of artists such as Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin will really get down with. Despite its simple foundations, this track is played to a pretty good effect for the most part, with the glistening keyboards switching things up nicely as and when necessary, and the guitar lays down a psychedelic solo that goes down very well. Whilst The Death Set is a solid opening track for the album, it does highlight one of my salient reservations for much of Occult Architecture Vol. 1, that being the unnecessarily long runtimes of many of these songs. This song isn’t the most notable culprit of this issue on the album, but its nearly seven-minute length doesn’t feel entirely necessary, nor is every second of this time used for full effect. Of course, the lack of a single song under four minutes in length, with the longest being 10 and a half minutes, is very much so in keeping with the psychedelic and space rock aesthetic, but the duration of many of these tracks feels rather bloated. As previously mentioned, many of the cuts on Occult Architecture Vol. 1 feature simple structuring and straightforward progression that only pertains well to long song lengths when the ideas are fleshed-out enough to justify this. The 10-minute closing track, White Rose, most definitely displays this concern. The groove on this track is as simple as the majority of the others on the record and is accompanied by a guitar strumming straight quaver chords for the most part. Certain parts of this track give the impression that Moon Duo were attempting a style of songwriting similar to that of Kraftwerk, but unfortunately, their attempt doesn’t go over with same amount of subtle detail as the German electronic legends. Again, White Rose is, at its core, a perfectly good psych track with a well-applied proto-punk foundation, but it would have fared much better were it condensed to the moments that are pivotal to the composition’s progression, as the piece arguably stagnates at times.
It makes perfect sense that the two singles from Occult Architecture Vol. 1, Cold Fear and Creepin’, are the two shortest cuts on the album, both of them being contained within less than a five minute runtime. Many of the same ideas that are conveyed on these two tracks recur across the entire record, but they come across on these two tracks as if they have been boiled down to what is most necessary for the sake of the songs’ structure and development. It is a shame, however, that both of these songs lack the same level of psychedelic and spacey conviction that the surrounding cuts in the tracklisting exhibit during their best moments. Cold Fear in particular feels closer to a garage rock tune than a space rock one, with the short one-bar melody being repeated almost ad nauseum, whilst little is added into the mix to supplement it sufficiently. The same can certainly be said of Cross-Town Fade, perhaps the most understated song on the record, requiring a lot of patience from the listener with little reward. Considering its runtime approaching eight minutes in length, more should be offered from the band in terms of a hook or refrain, or something to leave an impression on the listener, but no such thing ever becomes apparent at any point in the piece’s duration. Therein lies the primary flaw with this project; these simple but long compositions demand an exaggerated amount of endurance, but fall short of offering enough to justify this requirement.
All in all, it is very easy to scrutinise and pick apart the shortcomings of Moon Duo’s approach to composing on Occult Architecture Vol. 1, to the point where it doesn’t take much to forget that the best moments on this record really are very good. The pair create some incredibly appealing atmospheres, it’s just a shame that they are often contained in somewhat lethargic song structures. Given its 47-minute duration, this album could have undergone some serious cropping that could have easily preserved the best moments without attempting to unnecessarily exaggerate them. Perhaps it’s not possible to fully appreciate or disregard this record until its second volume is released, which has potential to shine a new light on the preceding chapter and bring this material into a new context. However, until the release of Occult Architecture Vol. 2, the first volume is left to fend for itself, and the end product is not a fully-realised one, despite the handful of good moments.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10