Having only released two full-length albums since their formation back in 2009, some would deem it odd that Moon Duo have decided that their latest offering would be a live album. However, Live in Ravenna is the perfect document of the energy that newly recruited drummer, John Jeffrey, brings to the band.
A synthesizer awakes softly before a repetitive, distorted guitar riff opens the door for John Jeffery to come crashing in with a drum pattern in the same vein as the ones Stephen Morris of Joy Division was a huge enthusiast of. The studio version (that features a drum-machine from the second the needle drops) is made to sound somewhat lifeless in comparison. Within less than a minute of the opening track, it becomes apparent that the addition of a drummer gives a new lease of life to the band’s live show. Wooden Shjips’ man Ripley Johnson proves exactly why he’s good enough to be an essential part of two of the best bands in the world at the moment, as he rips into a mesmerising guitar solo heavy with bends and reverb, whilst the repetitive synth pattern, courtesy of Sanae Yamada, keeps the track moving along effortlessly. As the opener fades out, it’s evident that the band are huge advocates of reverb and delay – the last note of the song echoes through the venue in a ghostly fashion.
The title-track of stunning 2011 debut Mazes follows: It’s slightly shorter at 4:30, which gives Johnson an excuse to dive straight into another wonderful solo even earlier on in the track, this time followed in into the stratosphere by the synthesizer briefly, whilst the drums hold things together. The track breaks the rules of convention as another solo follows shortly after. It’s refreshing to see a so-called “wall of noise” filled with true artistry in the guitar work. The melody that sits behind this impressive instrumental work is somewhat contrastingly simple, yet equally as beautiful.
Third track ‘Free Action’ is much more reliant on vocals than it’s predecessors in the set. A simplistic synth wave is paired with more repetitive, minimalistic drumming from Jeffery ( it really does sound like it could be a Krautrock track from the likes of Can or Neu! at this point) until a vocal melody infused with a Country and Western feel begins to take the track in a new direction. When the vocals stop, Johnson maintains focal attention in the track with yet more impressive guitar work, keeping it slightly more simple this time around. A harrowing tone from the synthesizer and an incredibly simple drum pattern is sleep-inducing, but in the best way. (If you were to fall asleep during Moon Duo’s set you’d experience crazy, psychedelic dreams about falling through space backwards, I’m sure.) The track is over ten minutes long, similar to The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’, it keeps shifting through ideas but keeps the heart of the song beating throughout. The vocals are minimal, but always take the track somewhere else. The song ends with the drums coming on stronger than before, and then dying out, followed by the synthesizer doing the same.
Reminiscent of many bands making waves in America at the moment (see Beach Fossils, Diiv, Wild Nothing…) the vocals are always behind the instrumentation in Moon Duo’s songs, yet it seems much more of a testament to the truly brilliant instrumentation that also feature than a cop-out. However, fourth track ‘I Been Gone’ sees lyrics celebrated and much more prominent that in most other tracks. It’s a welcome change to hear Johnson’s impressive vocals without having to listen too hard. The track in itself is less repetitive and sees many different textures throughout its five minute and thirty seconds’, it seems as though Moon Duo are always looking for new tones and sonics, yet they manage to keep everything together and sound tight whilst doing so.
Fifth track ‘Motorcycle I love You’ is home to a more sleazy melody, with another post-punk-like drumming (hardly differing from the studio version at all). The synthesizer sits behind the melody and dreams and provides a backdrop for a wonderful show of composition in the other instruments. Another crippling solo from Johnson features, with Jeffery again delving back into that Kraut-style that works so beautifully with Moon Duo’s sound. The guitar work on this track is arguably the most impressive in the set, with hardly any notes repeating themselves. The fretboard is worked immensely hard before a wave of synth bellows over, and upon this fading we hear a more distorted, jaded riff. The track mixes elements of Krautrock and Shoegaze. In parts it’s a huge wall of noise, in parts it builds and repeats, in parts tones change every second. Probably the best known song from the San Francisco-based band proves its worth live.
The last song on the record is ‘Goners’. Another mix of fuzzy American rock n roll and space rock. The song is a perfect example of Moon Duo’s live show. Everything I have enjoyed about this record is summarised in a neat 7:27 package. The mixture of the fuzzy guitar tones and euphoric synths with repetitive (yet exciting) drums can take Moon Duo anywhere they want to go. Johnson fires his guitar into outer space once more in the last song in the set.
It seems as though the addition of a live drummer has somehow improved a band that, upon seeing live last year, I’d have thought couldn’t be improved. Moon Duo truly are mind-blowing. Ripley Johnson is as good as anybody else in the world right now in terms of playing guitar. In a time in which a lot of people seem to be using huge pedalboards and reverb-soaked vocals as some sort of stylistic anecdotes to mediocre records, Moon Duo show the world that ingenious musicianship is still alive and kicking. Live in Ravenna is the best record I have heard all year, and it’s going to take some beating.
Live In Ravenna is released on 18th August via Sacred Bones.