If you know what Erik “Ripley” Johnson does in Wooden Shjips…and you know that Johnson helms Moon Duo with his significant other, keyboardist Sanae Yamada…and you know what they sound like together…then you can probably figure out what a Sanae Yamada solo project would sound like.
Thankfully, such speculation is no longer needed. Yamada’s first effort under the name Vive La Void is out now on Sacred Bones Records, and it sounds pretty much what you would expect it to sound like…if you know all that stuff above.
Subtract Johnson’s primitive repeato-psych-rock tendencies from Moon Duo’s fuzzed out, keys-heavy motorik jams and you’re left with Vive La Void: hypnotic synth-pop slicing through a cloudless purple sky on their way to some outer drone-zone.
The album proves Yamada is much more than a sidewoman. She is also a skilled songwriter and arranger, able to bring shadowy synth beds, pulsing synth rhythms and vibrant synth melodies together into one seamless, satisfying whole. That’s harder than it sounds. It’d be like serving a dinner of baked potato, mashed potatoes and potato soup, with each element working well together and also standing out from the others. You’ve got to be really good with potatoes to pull that off.
Turns out Yamada is a wizard with potat…uhh, synth sounds. Vive La Void starts off understatedly, with an opening track, “Matter,” that builds gradually, droning on different variations of one note, more or less, for nearly half its five-minute run time before incorporating other subtle melodic ideas. “Red Rider” is equally straightforward in its foundation, riding a motorik groove off into the horizon. This time, however, Sanae sings a bit; breathy, distant, unintelligible, her voice as much another instrument in the mix as it is a tool for communication. Also, an actual chorus surfaces among the thrums and throbs!
“Death Money” and “Smoke” follow a similar formula, and then in the second half of the album, Yamada really starts to stretch out. The basic makeup of “Blacktop” is one single never-ending keyboard drone atop a bass line of three quick, repeated notes that sound like they’re consuming themselves. But the song’s final-minute crescendo throws its post-punk backbone into relief. “Devil” is the epic here, a skyward synth-pop triumph ready for its prominent spot in a medium-budget sci-fi film. And Yamada ends her debut with a five-minute comedown ballad, which in this case means a gentle jumble of tones that sound like a music box struggling against a dying battery. It’s beautiful and strangely sad.
Yamada brought Vive La Void to life through a series of basement experiments during Moon Duo’s downtime over a two-year period. But there’s no reason—artistically, at least—for this project to take a backseat to that band or the Wooden Shjips. Vive La Void sits credibly and comfortably alongside the rest of this indie-psych power couple’s incredible (and growing) catalog.