A great deal of the enjoyment derived from San Francisco psych-krauters Moon Duo came from the way guitarist Erik “Ripley” Johnson (also of the like-minded Wooden Shjips) and organist Sanae Yamada were able to drag listeners through Byzantine passages of sound, let them go free by the track’s end, and then plunge right back into the next series of twists and turns. There’s a reason their last LP was called Mazes, folks. Keeping up with the brisk pace that churned out Mazes and two EPs before it, Circles breaks the Moon Duo tradition ever so slightly. It’s a collection of more propulsive material- where once the listener could consider a song piece by piece, Circles pretty much stays steady on the acceleration throughout its 42 minute running time. It’s like sitting in a window seat on a fast moving train that tears through one tantalizing landscape after another. Things are only half-remembered, but it’s clear that they were attractive, and definitely worth revisiting.
Yet, despite the cleaned up production and more linear nature, the foundation remains the same. Yamada churns out the droning low end and textural support, the notes of which can often be counted on one hand, while Johnson peals off scorching guitar leads. Both members contribute vocals that seem to drift between planes of human existence and some unknown beyond. Songs like “I Can See” and “I Been Gone” drive headlong towards Suicide-al black clouds of dread, while “Trails” sports a vintage Brit pop jangle.
This approach could easily spiral into tedium if placed in the wrong hands. Major credit is therefore due to Johnson and Yamada for producing a surprisingly varied array of sounds without it coming off as obligatory. The humming supercomputer low end delivered by Yamada contrasts wonderfully with the porcupine-sharp leads of Johnson on “I Been Gone,” as does the higher register figure/sandstorm guitar dynamic of “Dance Pt. 3.” Fittingly, closer “Rolling Out” is the closest kin to opener “Sleepwalker,” albeit at a much slower tempo. The album ends with the pair riffing away endlessly as the song fades out, effectively sealing the thematic deal.
To some, titling the album Circles could be used as a damning term, portraying Moon Duo as content to endlessly engage themselves, getting lost in their drones with no real intention of taking them anywhere out of the motifs introduced at each track’s start (in fact, only three of the album’s nine tracks feature anything resembling a final stopping point). But for those interested in a group that still finds ways to take Krautrock down several roads, Circles more than succeeds.