It wasn’t so long ago I remember wishing that indie-retro revivalism would forget Joy Division for a moment and pay a little attention to Krautrock. But in today’s musical landscape, “surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die.” In other words, be careful what you wish for. That latter phrase is one whose origins are shrouded in time (think of Midas), but that is often attributed to Goethe. Speaking of the literary, to see meaningful literary influence on popular music is always a pleasure, and Goethe can be seen as a (close) ancestor of the American Transcendentalists and, specifically, Ralph Waldo Emerson. That’s to say, in a roundabout way, that Emerson’s essay “Circles” is a declared and major influence on Moon Duo’s eponymous album.
“Circles” (the essay) is a kind of fractal meditation on the persistence of that shape throughout “nature.” Fractals bring us to psychedelia — specifically, to psychedelic rock. And here we should mention Moon Duo’s relationship to Wooden Shjips, through guitarist Ripley Johnson. Both acts share 1960s influences, but the striking thing about Moon Duo’s earlier work — in comparison to the straight-up Kraut-psych of WS — was the darkness inherent in the music, the Gothic side of their German influences and the shadow of the Summer of Love, a mood best expressed in the glorious “Dead West.” The unusual combination of mesmeric spookiness and the body rhythm of motorik — together with an absolute presence — made the live experience in particular deeply memorable at a time when live acts come and go.
Circles (the album) can’t be faulted on the urgency of that motorik Krautrock grind, which is now established as a smoothly running engine. But as Moon Duo have become sunnier and rockier — a trend evident on 2011’s Mazes and continuing on Circles — their vision seems less distinctively their own. And where the Krautrock originals were experimenters first (Neu!, for example, really have only a handful of tracks that do the motorik-rock thing, and those are the most accessible) the Kraut revival is particularly interested in the re-creation of this sound, Fordist-style — though on Circles, some variety to that rhythm is provided by a separate inspiration from the same time period, in the tender, Byrdsian strains of “Trails.”
Emerson wrote that “New arts destroy the old,” but the question is: what can be meant by “destroy”? We might typically understand “make obsolete,” but listening to Circles, we could also consider a re-productive destruction that occurs by a writing-over of the old arts, one that faithfully follows the marks and channels they originally embedded.