Moon Duo : Occult Architecture Vol. 2

I think it’s safe to say that Moon Duo’s Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada have found their groove. Not that they didn’t have a groove over the last several albums they’ve released since 2009, but with the release earlier in the year of Occult Architecture Vol. 1 they seemed to have found that little extra spark. There’s only so much groovin’ and motorik beats you can create over the course of 8 years before you begin to repeat yourself. 2015s Shadow of the Sun was yet another stellar collection of tunes by Johnson and Yamada, but you could tell things were starting to sound somewhat same-y. Great tunes we’ve heard before, but maybe in a different key or a different tempo. So before Moon Duo burnt out into exquisite oblivion, these two decided to rethink their approach and come at their songs with a new mindset. The concept of dark and light were brought in to create a double album that each part would be released a few months apart.

Occult Architecture was born.

Vol. 1 dealt with the darkness. It was the Yin. It was the feminine side of the coin that dealt with night and darkness. The music captured that perfectly, too. Driving rhythms and dark psychedelia pushed that album into new territory for Moon Duo without compromising their signature Kraut/Psych flavor. Occult Architecture Vol. 2 has arrived and with it comes what the band calls “the bright side of the hill”. It’s the male side of the coin; sun, light, and the spirit of heaven. I think Moon Duo have given us their best work yet with Vol. 2. It’s absolutely stunning.

“New Dawn” clears the dark clouds that Vol. 1s “White Rose” left us with. The song opens with some electric piano which then turns into big drums and that phaser-infused big riff we’ve come to know and love from Ripley Johnson. The vocals feel uplifted as Johnson and Yamada sing in unison. These two sound bigger than the sum of their parts. Two people shouldn’t sound this big. Even with the similar tones and grooves there’s an airiness here that I’ve not heard before. “Mirror’s Edge” could easily be a b-side from Achtung Baby. It’s a sly, funky rhythm that takes its time slinking and sliding into your ear. There’s a subtlety and nuance here that I’ve never noticed before in the Moon Duo canon. “Sevens” is a familiar vibe. It’s one we’ve heard before, but there’s a brightness to it. You can almost picture the sun peaking from behind the clouds ready to make its appearance.

Despite the heavy occult lean and goth-y undertones that Moon Duo have dabbled in for all these years, I’ve always had this feeling that Johnson and Yamada have always had a bright and beautiful, sun-soaked ballad in them. “Lost in Light” is that song. It hangs in the air as you listen to it. It’s most definitely a Moon Duo song, but it ascends to the skies bathed in ghostly synths and Johnson’s light touch on guitar. It’s a absolute stunner, and one of the best tracks on this album.

The album closes on the ethereal “The Crystal World”. It’s a mix of NEU!s penchant for looping and repetitive motifs with Harmonia’s dreamy existentialism. It’s actually a perfect way to end a near perfect record.

I’m not sure where Moon Duo can go from here. I feel they’ve achieved near perfection with their Occult Architecture volumes. They’d dabbled in the darkness in the past, but with Occult Architecture Vol. 2 they show that their black magic is equally, if not more, engaging in the light of day.

8. 4 out of 10

Blanck Mass : World Eater

Benjamin John Power’s Blanck Mass is the kind of musical project that is unforgiving in its need to evolve. He pushes the boundaries of what you thought electronic music was supposed to be. Much like Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never, Power takes the canvas of electronic and experimental music and pushes the boundaries; painting on the floor, walls, ceiling, and whatever surface he can find. In 2015 Power curated a project as Blanck Mass called Blanck Mass Presents The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears. On it, he along with several other electronic and experimental artists reimagined the soundtrack to the 2013 giallo film of the same name. It’s an uncompromising piece of work, and one that opened my eyes to what Power could do on such a large scale.

On his third full-length as Blanck Mass, titled World Eater, Power explodes his sound into a technicolor affair that goes from mind-altering noise expanses to more restrained and cultivated sounds. It goes from eye-opening world music vibes to industrial crush in the course of a song. It might just be the best Blanck Mass yet.

Let’s start with “Please”, which arrives three songs in. Oneohtrix Point Never comes to mind at first, but there’s no aping anyone’s sound going on. The use of vocals and big synth tones brings to mind Lopatin’s big turn on 2015s Garden Of Delete, but Blanck Mass have a sound all their own, and it meshes well with the world music vibes on this stellar track. “Rhesus Negative”, the song that preceds “Please”, is a teeth-rattling noise bomb of industrial proportion. It’s like Wax Trax! meets Creation Records in a beautiful explosion of violence and beauty. “The Rat” sounds like Pretty Hate Machine as a marching band competition piece. There’s something triumphant and regal about this song, which makes you want to crank it and march proudly through the neighborhood. “Minnesota/Eas Fors/Naked” is buzzing noise and plotting tension. It sounds like static coming through some chrome-covered receiver as something slowly rises from underneath all of it. It’s reminiscent of the work he did on the Strange Colour soundtrack at the beginning. Slowly things begin to clear up to reveal twinkling synths and an end that sounds like some aged 80s synth pop track. “Hive Mind” sounds like a huge club track, but done up in Power’s liquid production. It’s a stunning finish to a stunning album.

Blanck Mass live by the “go big or go home” motto. Each time out Benjamin John Power pushes the sonic edges of his music to incorporate something new while bending it to his will. While his work with Fuck Buttons was similar in pushing their sound, Power seems to move a little smoother and with more ease when he’s wearing the Blanck Mass hat. World Eater is his best record yet, opening the sound up and letting in a bit of house, techno, industrial, experimental, and pretty much you name it. Benjamin John Power brings you right into Blanck Mass’ world, and it’s a visceral experience.

8.1 out of 10

Moon Duo : Occult Architecture Vol.1

Moon Duo have had the same mission statement since their first full length LP back in 2011, and they’ve kept to that missiona2262306889_10 statement. What is it? Simple, find a groove and stick to it. Moon Duo’s sound is all about finding a groove, locking into it, and riding it out for as long as you can. Their music seems to be this space-y, animated rock and roll that you’d hear in some old biker movie. They take cues from old garage rock, the psych scene, and a hefty dose of Suicide’s black magic. Wooden Shjips’s Ripley Johnson and keyboardist Sanae Yamada lay down some serious voodoo on their records as Moon Duo. They like to get weird, but they want you to shake it while you’re getting weird.

Over the course of three LPs, EPs, live albums and remix affairs Johnson and Yamada have stuck to the formula religiously. No real straying from the sound. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just is. On their fourth full-length, the two part Occult Architecture, Moon Duo have given into the darkness. The first part of this opus, Occult Architecture Vol.1, lays down serious grooves like we’ve come to expect from the band, but there’s a darker tone here. This is tweaker death cult groove music. It’s an ode to the dark side of the moon and all those things you fear are in those shadowy hills in the distance. But instead of painting fearful, Fangoria-ready pictures, Moon Duo bow in honor of dark nature and embrace the power that lives within the action of giving into the Yin.

Occult Architecture Vol. 1 is 7 tracks that add up to nearly 50 minutes of driving, late night grooves. “The Death Set” starts things out right with a Moon Duo-approved chugging rhythm. Johnson lays down some space-y guitar over a driving tempo and Yamada’s dreamy synth work. The chorus even sports an almost 80s vibe complete with hand claps. “Cold Fear” sounds like early Depeche Mode breaking things down with Bauhaus. Synsonic drums, wavering synthesizer, and ominous fuzzed-out guitar worm their way into your head like some spectral being. We’ve heard moments like this before on past Moon Duo albums, but they were fleeting. It’s nice to hear Johnson and Yamada going head first into their darker tendencies. “Creepin'” is a hard-driving, pedal to the metal rocker. You can imagine going 120 mph down open road as this blasts in your ear holes. “Cross-Town Fade” is a wonky, jittery jam that sports big rhythms, fuzzy bass, and wonky keys. Johnson sounds ghostly as he sings like Alan Vega strutting on some spectral plane. This is an absolute killer tune, and it descends into a barrage of noise and beauty.

Giving the album concept a little background, Johnson said this about Occult Architecture’s spiritual design, “The concept of the dark/light, two-part album came as we were recording and mixing the songs, beginning in the dead of winter and continuing into the rebirth and blossoming of the spring. There’s something really powerful about the changing of the seasons in the Northwest, the physical and psychic impact it has on you, especially after we spent so many years in the seasonal void of California. I became interested in gnostic and hermetic literature around that time, especially the relationship between music and occult qualities and that fed into the whole vibe.” Given in that context, Occult Architecture Vol. 1 feels even headier. “Cult Of Moloch” is an ode to a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice, and it lives up to that concept. One of the heavier tracks Moon Duo have recorded, but still sports Johnson’s wiggly, bluesy guitar noodles as the song embraces the chaos. “Will Of The Devil” has a dark 80s vibe, while the epic album closer “White Rose” shimmies and shakes for over 10 minutes. A motorik beat carries the song along for the duration and it’s glorious. It’s classic Moon Duo. It’s classic death cult moto-psych rock.

For those that felt the groove machine known as Moon Duo had been played out after Shadows Of The Sun you’re in for a surprise. Johnson and Yamada have tweaked the formula a bit and Occult Architecture Vol.1 sounds like a band re-vitalized and focused. Focused on bringing the darkness into the light. Just a little, anyways.

8.2 out of 10

Atticus Ross/Leopold Ross/Bobby Krlic : Almost Holy S/T

Almost Holy is a documentary directed by Steve Hoover, and it’s about Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a rogue man of the cloth that works and lives out of Mariupol, Ukraine. In his city there was a massive influx of homeless, drug-addicted children and “Pastor Crocodile”, as Mokhnenko likes to call himself, felt it was his duty to help rehabilitate this kids any way he could. That means sometimes forcibly removing these kids from the streets in order to help them, and inevitably save their life. It’s a fine line, and an ambiguous one, but despite what  you may feel about his motives Mokhnenko is doing what he feels is right. The soundtrack was written and created by brothers Atticus and Leopold Ross, as well as Bobby Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak. It’s as harrowing an experience as the film itself, but just as engaging and stands on its own as a great electronic record.

If you’re familiar with Ross’ work with Trent Reznor on David Fincher’s last few films then you will feel right at home on album opener “One Block Further” as it would feel very much at home on any of the Reznor/Ross film soundtracks. It has a more percussive feel in terms of drum programming, but the Ross brothers do a fine job of creating mood, drama, and with an 80s electronic flair. “Punching Bag” feels more sparse and gritty, with metallic whooshes and reverb-drenched guitar float above the proceedings as a jaunty rhythm appears out of the ether. Bobby Krlic’s contributions on this S/T are darker, hazier, and really more enthralling. If you’re familiar with his work as The Haxan Cloak then you know what to expect here. If you’re not then you need to get a copy of Excavation, listen to it in a dark room with headphones and get back to me. Krlic’s work is harrowing, heavy, and nightmare fuel in the best way possible. “Intervention” feels like a gothic sound ritual, and only goes to add a deeper sense of dread that is already invoked by the sad reality of these kids in Almost Holy. “Pharmacies” has a distant dread in it. It’s as if darkness is filling the peripheral as daylight screams its final charge. I don’t know how Krlic has gotten away with not working in film up to this point, but he needs to keep moving in this direction as it’s his cup of tea, to say the least.

I think at times the soundtrack may add a bit more melodrama than there needs to be in this film. With the subject matter at hand, not much is needed musically to drive home the intensity and urgency of this real life story. A simple piano score with an occasional string accompaniment or synth blurbs here and there would’ve worked well. As it is, though, Ross, Ross, and Krlic don’t disappoint even if the dramatic bar is raised as each song moves along.

“Mokhnenko” by the brothers Ross has a John Carpenter feel to it, while “Distance” howls and hisses mechanically like a shattered spirit in duress. “Graves” contains a sample of Pastor Crocodile himself, talking about the death of a kid and not being able to give him a proper burial as his body is missing. Krlic’s “Coursing” moves along like an electronic fog, it’s mist made up of circuits and warm tubes, while “The End” is as foreboding as anything on this album. It shows just how good Bobby Krlic can be at what he does, and why he needs to do more in the cinematic world.

A documentary like Almost Holy pretty much speaks for itself. As intense as the film is, an equally intense film score could be overkill. At times the “less is more” adage might’ve been the way to go with this film, but since instead the filmmakers went with the brothers Ross and Bobby Krlic then we might as well just enjoy it. As a film score this record works fine, but as a standalone electronic LP it works even better. The Ross’ do good here, but Bobby Krlic absolutely shines.

8.1 out of 10

 

John Carpenter : Lost Themes II

I’m not sure what you’d call this, a second wind? Third wind? Dust in the wind? Whatever wind it is, it’s a mighty one for JohnJohn-Carpenter-Lost-Themes-2-Album Carpenter. In a few print interviews I’ve read with Carpenter over the last few years he’s sounded a little on the bitter side regarding films. He was to the point of making movies for a paycheck(nothing wrong with that…gotta pay the rent somehow), just going through the motions so he could sustain himself for another couple of years until something else lackluster came along that he could force himself to make. If John Carpenter were a longtime hack filmmaker then I’d say whatever, but Carpenter is not a hack filmmaker. He had a visual style that was unlike anyone working the horror genre. He could create mood and tension as good as Hitchcock. His films were very much his own, whether he penned them or not. So to hear someone as iconic as Carpenter disenchanted with the art of filmmaking was kind of disheartening. But then early last year John Carpenter put out the album Lost Themes, a collection of music he’d created over the years but never used. It was an astounding collection of heavy synth and electronic music, with bits of rock thrown in. He seemed rejuvenated artistically and creatively. I mean, it was no surprise the album was great. His films were distinctive not only for their visual style, but for their scores which Carpenter penned, both on his own and with Alan Howarth.

Now, just a little over a year since Lost Themes was released Carpenter has released Lost Themes II(through Sacred Bones once again). Second time around Carpenter uses subtlety in his compositions, and with the help of his son in the studio fashions a sophomore record that feels like the master at work once again.

Musically Lost Themes II seems to mine an array of moods and vibes, but with more of a full band feel this time around. “Distant Dream” jumps into the darker vibes of Lost Themes, but feeling less constricted; looser and more rock and roll. Carpenter sounds more like Zombi than Tangerine Dream on this opening track. “White Pulse” sounds like “Tubular Bells”, but with a more baroque approach to melody, as the track melts into a very Bach-meets-Walter Rizzati thing. Then the song falls into a heavy rhythm and gothic synths, ala Sinoia Caves. “Persia Rising” could’ve been some great theme to some unrealized Carpenter feature. It pulsates and bounces beautifully, very much ready for its cinematic close up.

There’s much less of the forced rock bravado this time around then on Lost Themes. When there is a distorted guitar solo or big drums they feel more natural this time around. But really, the majority of Lost Themes II is melancholy tracks like “Hofner Down”, or “Windy Death” with its Vangelis feel. The gothic “Bela Lugosi” towers over us with doom-laden walls of synth. You can almost see that coffin opening in the distance and Lugosi rising from it. “Dark Blues” is more rock than synth-themed scores, but it still brings the goods. “Virtual Survivor” is reminiscent of Carpenter’s own Escape From New York soundtrack, with updated guitar gruff. Album closer “Utopian Facade” sounds like Nightsatan a bit, but in a more restrained and refined way. It’s like laser metal meets Vangelis.

Am I disappointed that one of my favorite filmmakers is no longer making films? Yes. But the fact he’s found a new artistic outlet in putting out albums of original music makes that disappointment much less painful. Lost Themes II is a perfect late night spin, and a continuation of John Carpenter’s artistic renaissance.

8. 3 out of 10

 

 

Moon Duo : Shadows of the Sun

A lot can be said for a good boogie. Take that boogie, mix in some psychedelics and somemoon duo robotic rhythms and what you have some something kinda fun and menacing. Moon Duo’s Eric “Ripley” Johnson likes music you feel in your bones and in the chattering of your teeth. Along with band mate and keyboardist Sanae Yamada, Johnson makes hypnotic tomes that aren’t about storytelling as they are about creating some great grooves and beats to soundtrack the story. They’ve been making music as Moon Duo since 2009 and with each release they seem to expand their musical ideas a little more. They’ve begun to sound less like a Johnson’s other band Wooden Shjips and more like a beefed-up, psychedelic B-52s. Last year’s Live at Ravenna showed that live Moon Duo were a force to be reckoned with, displaying a power with a live drummer backing them up. Shadows of the Sun take that concept to the studio and the result is a tasty, brawny chunk of psych groove music that makes Wooden Shjips all the more insignificant.

Insignificant is a strong word. I mean, every record Johnson’s main gig put out up to 2011s West were pretty stellar. Quaalude-hazy riffs ground down to nubs, with desert death trip rhythms that crawled along for as long as the band stayed aware that they were still playing instruments. It was 60s psychedelic biker music that owed as much to Black Sabbath and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, as it did to LSD and that salty Bay Area air. Unfortunately their last effort, 2013s Back To Land, just felt exhausted and tired. Moon Duo seemed to be an outlet for Johnson to speed up the riffs and get those dirty hippies dancing. On Shadows of the Sun Johnson and Yamada have made their most clear-eyed record to date. The song “Zero” on another planet, lets call it Bizarro Earth, would have been a radio hit. It’s equal parts Dire Straits, B-52s, and dark wave’s incessant oppression. It feels like a pop hit in the catacombs of Paris. Then it’s followed by the mozy good feelings of “In A Cloud”. You can almost see them playing amongst towering cirrus clouds as a storm raged below them. Opening track “Wilding” and “Night Beat” come out of the speakers as a declaration of groove. They provide the greatest argument for Moon Duo to be a three-piece as opposed to a literal duo. There’s still drum programming, but when drummer John Jeffrey is dispatched the robotic grooves have a decidedly human heart beat at the center.

It’s not so much a change of flavor on Shadows of the Sun as it is a change up of the spices that go to make that hypnotic, druggy flavor. Eric “Ripley” Johnson and Sanae Yamada are still creating great grooves and loping riffs that offer many zoning out possibilities. This time though, the android beats and looping keyboards feel more flesh and bone and less circuits and wires.

7.8 out of 10

 

 

John Carpenter : Lost Themes

John Carpenter colored at least two generations’ dreams in burnt fall hues. Faded browns,sbr123-johncarpenter-lostthemes-1400_1024x1024 oranges, yellows, and reds, topped with gray, overcast skies bled into our psyche and made us re-imagine Halloween in a whole new way. In a way where the fear we felt walking down the sidewalk in our Darth Vader costume holding a grocery bag full of Hershey and Nestle confections wasn’t something made up in our own minds and imaginations. It was something very real. The Bogeyman wasn’t just contained in a campfire ghost story; the Bogeyman was lurking just up the street ahead waiting for you. Carpenter defined a genre of horror and indie films with 1978s Halloween. From there he made films that would go on to inspire fans and fledgling filmmakers alike for years to come. Part of the appeal of his films, besides the very distinctive look(color, lighting, cinematography) were the scores he created to help push the story along. He used modern technology with classic touches to make haunted, eerie, and pulsating soundtracks. The Prophet 5 and 10 synths were used by Carpenter to create classic scores for Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween I,II,and IIIThe Fog, Christine, and The Prince of Darkness just to name a few.

For a certain portion of the music-loving population these scores Carpenter created(in the case of Halloween along with Alan Howarth) are as important as the films themselves. They define an era of horror film where auteurs like John Carpenter made what to the common eye appeared to be “cheap thrills” kind of horror. But looked at a little deeper there was more going on. These scores act as a time machine of sorts to back to those days. Before “the gorier the better” adage took hold. Much like those films, the scores were classics. Lost Themes is John Carpenter’s debut standalone album of instrumental tracks. Music for films never made by Carpenter. It’s a soundtrack to whatever your imagination can come up with. It’s every bit as good as you’d think, with only a few moments where it staggers a bit.

Lost Themes is filled with great, haunting moments. “Vortex” feels like an opening steadicam shot through neon lit city streets. The lights reflecting off puddles along the sidewalks as someone makes their way through an urban landscape dimly lit. “Obsidian” is a driving track that feels like a chase through the night. “Fallen” is melancholy and dream-like. “Purgatory” is menacing and mournful, while “Night” is arpeggiated menace. Every track is a single word title, and I think that works well for these songs.

Carpenter, along with his son who helps his dad out on Lost Themes, creates dark moods and aural experiences with a singular precision. Some songs suffer from at times a dated sound here and there. “Mystery” moves along nicely until “rock” drums enter the picture and add an element of Trans-Siberian Orchestra to the proceedings which slows down the songs initial tension. “Wraith” gets bogged down a bit towards the end with a guitar part that seems to have been pulled from a Savatage song from 1987. “Domain” sounds more like Australia’s The Night Terrors than John Carpenter, but these are just small issues. Nothing that bogs the album down too much.

Bands like Sinoia Caves, The Night Terrors, and Night Flights have been making synth-heavy records over the last few years that borrow heavily from John Carpenter’s scores and they do it well, without aping Carpenter too bad. More homage than anything else. But it’s great to see and hear the “Master of Horror” himself putting out a standalone record of original music. Lost Themes is both a throwback to classic Carpenter soundscapes and a modern take on synth-driven music. He may not be making movies like he used to, but if this album is any indication, he’s certainly not running short of creativity or artistic wealth. Not by a long shot.

8.2 out of 10