Moon Duo have always just sounded so cool. Theirs was a nihilistic, nocturnal brand of psychedelia: mechanistic krautrock rhythms, guitars overdriven into furiously combusting engines, a detached delivery that alternated between slithering and swaggering. Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada might’ve been influenced by the occult, but it sounded as if were writing the soundtrack to some near-future fiction of dystopian cityscapes prowled by biker gang outlaws, where it is always nighttime and there is always smoke in the air. From their early days, Moon Duo had their aesthetic down, and in some ways that can hinder a band. They know what they do and do it well; you know what they do and you either vibe with it or don’t.
Even if you’ve been a fan, it could be easy to take them for granted along the way, each album delivering a familiar formula and a few standout tracks. When they released Occult Architecture Vol. 1 in early 2017, “The Death Set” immediately introduced itself as one of the most refined expressions of the Moon Duo sound. On that album’s successor — Occult Architecture Vol. 2, also released in 2017 — they began to change ever so slightly, offering a softer, more washed-out head trip. (They are a prolific pair: Following their 2017 Moon Duo one-two, each released albums with other projects in 2018, Johnson in Wooden Shjips and Yamada with Vive La Void.) But now, with Stars Are The Light, Moon Duo have undertaken the most significant evolution of their career thus far.
With their latest album, Moon Duo were thinking about dance, and as such Stars Are The Light comes with surprising touchstones, with Johnson and Yamada looking back to ’70s funk and disco. The album sounds like neither, but it is striking how groove-oriented Moon Duo’s new songs are. Pulse has always been important to their work, but much of Stars Of The Light undulates or glides. You can hear traces of acid-house, you can hear traces of Madchester. The consistent element is Moon Duo’s zone-out melodic sensibility, but it’s far more blissful than ever before. It makes sense that they were considering dance, movement, communal spaces. There is a warmth and mellow euphoria to Stars Are The Light that create totally new shades for Moon Duo to play with.
Johnson and Yamada also partnered with a new collaborator to help achieve the album’s sound. Stars Are The Light was mixed by Sonic Boom, AKA Peter Kember, the former Spacemen 3 member whose name usually adds an intriguing layer to a project. While working with a guy who was once in Spacemen 3 already makes a lot of sense for a band like Moon Duo, Kember’s input as Sonic Boom often has a way of injecting different textures into an artist’s songwriting. He’s already helped artists like Beach House achieve a new emphasis or sense of dynamics and he did the same for Moon Duo here: Stars Are The Light sounds vivid throughout. The band credit their time in Portugal with Kember as being crucial to realizing their vision for the album.
In a lot of ways, Stars Are The Light is the most truly psychedelic Moon Duo album, from its bright sci-fi mythology artwork to the entrancing array of synth sounds the band lean on across its eight songs. Johnson’s guitars are still important, but they take a backseat more often than not — languidly rippling or flickering, otherwise becoming one with the groove. Instead, the whole album is dressed up in these lush, Technicolor flourishes. Yamada crafted all of the synth sounds for Stars Are The Light, and they are often stunning — whooshing by, or glimmering like sunlight passing through falling water.
The name of this band and album might still come from the night, but this is the first Moon Duo album that feels as if it takes place under a vibrant daytime sky, a ritual spilling over into sunrise and all its gradations of red and yellow and pink. On songs like “Flying” and “Lost Heads,” there’ll be a chugging low-end anchoring the structure of the song, and then Moon Duo go wild above it, throwing all these fluttering flashes of color and letting them dance around in the air together. Many of the songs — “Lost Heads,” “The World And The Sun,” “Fall (Into Your Love)” — have this way of shifting in and out of view. Those two former examples have the bodily impact Johnson and Yamada were going for, but they also have synths that burst and sputter and oscillate, altogether suggesting a gorgeous mirage dissipating and reemerging in the heat.
When Moon Duo do return to their previously favored methods, it still sounds like a departure. Towards the end of the album, “Eye 2 Eye” initially appears as if it’ll be the kind of distortion ripper we’re usually used to hearing from them. Then the guitar abruptly cuts in and out, and an honest-to-God late-’90s “Ray Of Light” synth zooms in, allowing the song to coast skyward. If it was icier sounding, closer “Fever Night” might’ve fit in on Occult Architecture Vol. 2, but now Moon Duo let everything unspool, thoughts melted away into amorphousness, daydreams losing structure and lingering as shimmering sensations.
Perhaps the biggest surprise remains the album’s lead single and title track. “Stars Are The Light” is almost totally different than anything Moon Duo have done before, and it’s also one of their best songs; for the first time, you can hear what it sounds like when Moon Duo write something genuinely, earnestly pretty. Its burbling synths are the exact distillation of the album’s sound — that hiccuping, sun-dappled wave. Johnson and Yamada intertwine their voices, joining together in one long sigh. The song sounds like everything in bloom, like rebirth. It’s mesmerizing.
Moon Duo might still be aiming for the cosmos with their music, but Stars Are The Light is all the more evocative for how it seems to reflect nature down here. Gone are the grinding, foreboding highway songs. Stars Are The Light sounds like Earth, like rivers and deserts and tropics. But the mysticism that Moon Duo bring to it makes everything feel foreign and wondrous again — not just their sound, but the images that might cross your mind during these songs. Like all good psychedelic musicians, Moon Duo are warping familiarity here.
And like all good psychedelic musicians, Moon Duo leave enough space for you to choose your own adventure within Stars Are The Light. Rather than rush forward like their old templates, the new songs almost feel like circles. It doesn’t really matter where things begin and end, you can drift away with it any point, and then come back to one of those sudden eruptions of a new synth sound, get hypnotized all over again by another incantatory vocal line. You could (and maybe should) leave the album on a loop, letting everything continuously feed into each other. And each time one of those details latches onto you, Moon Duo might take you someplace new all over again.
Stars Are The Light is out 9/27 on Sacred Bones. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kanye West’s as-yet-unheard Jesus Is King.
• Sturgill Simpson’s as-yet-unheard, almost undoubtedly wild anime tie-in Sound & Fury.
• Girl Band’s long-awaited, intense, engrossing sophomore album The Talkies.
• The New Pornographers’ reliably hook-laden In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights.
• Tegan And Sara’s journey back to songs written in their teens, Hey, I’m Just Like You.
• DaBaby’s second album of 2019, Kirk.
• Young M.A.’s as-yet-unheard debut Herstory In The Making.
• The Comet Is Coming’s appropriately cosmic synth jazz voyage The Afterlife.
• Sui Zhen’s glistening, left-field pop collection Losing, Linda.
• Opeth’s dual-language opus In Cauda Venenum.
• Weeping Icon’s self-titled debut.
• Car Bomb’s warped metal mutation Mordial.
• Freezing Cold’s dynamic, emo-tinged debut Glimmer.
• Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ spaced-out EP This Is The Place.
• Sporting Life’s Black Diamond EP.