Representing some truth in advertising, San Francisco's Moon Duo is a duo, although Escape, the band's full length debut, finds them exploring spaced-out rock terrain well beyond our solar system. The group, comprised of guitarist/vocalist Eric "Ripley" Johnson and keyboardist Sanae Yamada, have released a handful of records since forming last year, no small feat considering that Johnson is also one-fourth of acclaimed SF psych-rock band Wooden Shjips.
"Motorcycle, I Love You" kicks off Escape's Side A, luring listeners in with a metronomic drum pattern and a wobbly bass line before simple, repetitive guitar and keyboard lines give way to freeform sonic workouts. This is an album powered by German-engineered rhythms, pushing forward with an unrelenting heft. Each song flirts, to varying degrees, with melodic rock narratives, but Johnson's vocals are buried in the mix, and he and Yamada seem far more interested in moving forward than revisiting familiar refrains. This approach will either bowl you over or shove you away, depending on your interest in the ebbs and flows of distorted guitar and synths.
Escape's perpetual motion might make it easy to miss some of the nuances, but "In The Trees" steps back from the churn, showcasing melodic grooves that are as brooding as the song's thick electric layers are blistering. Once again, there are initially muffled lyrics and a vocal melody, but these are but jumping off points for the band's real interest: a two-headed psych-drone assault that finds Johnson's warped six-string roaming as Yamada creates sweeping synth oscillations. Headphones are probably the best way to experience the nuanced push-and-pull at work here, and the reward is a head-spinning back-and-forth dialogue of sounds.
Fans of Wooden Shjips' repetitive, minimalistic songwriting will find some similar aesthetic sensibilities at work in Escape's sparse structures. But while the Shijps called to mind a specific segment of classic psych rock with haunting organs and Ripley's echoey vocals, Moon Duo feels considerably more freeform, and its jams suggest traces of the past several decades of rock music. Underneath all of the noise, the influence of melodic drone-rock pioneers The Velvet Underground is inescapable, while the band's primitive beats recall Suicide minus some of that duo's art-punk nihilism. There are even hints of Jesus and Mary Chain early on in "Escape," before that song expands into the stratosphere.
An invented game of "spot the reference," however, would entirely miss the point. Escape's power doesn't derive from any particular aural sense-memory it triggers, but from its bold four-song declaration that a two-member band can transcend minimalist forms to create a consistently hypnotic exploration of mind-expanding rock bliss.