With hindsight it seems even long before rock music existed, it was destiny for the occult, mysticism, and mythological underworlds from the dark side of human nature and imagination, to become closely tied with particular types of music. Certainly not just any type of music. Orpheus’ journey to Hades would not be served well by a soundtrack of bubbly Calypso or synth pop. But music by Jex Thoth, The Devil’s Blood, Blood Ceremony, Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Dead Skeletons, Jess and the Ancient Ones, Ghost, Mansion, Lola Colt and Lucifer? Yes, that would work nicely.
What’s surprising is that it took so long for a significant collection of artists to focus on consistently dark subject matter. It wasn’t until the past eight years that what I consider psych noir really took off. While occult rock is the most commonly used descriptor, I feel it is inadequate, because the majority of the bands are not serious practitioners of the occult, mysticism, black magick or Satanism. The occult is simply one of many themes in their lyrics that match up with the dark, psychedelic atmospherics of their music, just like doom is only a minor element of only some of the bands. While I don’t know if anyone else is ever going to use it, I think psych noir is the perfect descriptor, if not genre name. Just like how there is disagreement among scholars whether “film noir” is a legitimate genre, or a “style,” or just a “cycle,” “phenomenon,” “mood” or “series.” Either way, it’s a useful way to address a diverse body of work that shares a disposition and group of elements without having to share every element. Just as not every film noir movie has a femme fatale or a hard boiled detective, not every psych noir band references the occult, witchcraft or hails Satan.
Often the domain of the edges of pop culture in pulp fiction and comics, film most consistently covered this throughout the 20th century, from German Expressionist cinema to London’s Hammer Film Productions starting in 1935, cult B-movies, and eventually mainstream Hollywood with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The Wicker Man (1973) starring Christopher Lee was one of the more evocative representations of mystical horror and dread. Music, however, lagged behind, with only a handful of artists sporadically dabbling in the dark side. Jim Morrison’s poetic flights into Dionysian bacchanalia and lizard king self-mythologizing with The Doors seem pretty bubblegum tame today, but in 1966-67, it really freaked people out. While it seemed any subject matter could be explored in movies, people took music more personally, and many took rockers’ exploration of frightening subjects seriously and often literally. Many truly believe that The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy With The Devil” truly brought on the tragic events at Altamont in 1969. The acid-crazed dark psychedelia of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown (1968) was at the time all about showmanship, with masks and flaming heads. But fans took the lyrics so seriously that they sought Arthur Brown out for spiritual guidance. He ended up taking more serious interests in occult spirituality and explored it with his band Kingdom Come.
Meanwhile, a flip side of San Francisco’s largely peace and love oriented psychedelic scene was the stark, black and white negative imagery of The Velvet Underground, addressing drug addiction, S&M, death and murder with Lou Reed’s somewhat dispassionate thousand-yard lizard gaze. While they would not have considered themselves psychedelic, moments in their first two albums certainly were, and would become essential DNA for a musical foundation supporting many bands in the future. Continue reading