Hidden Masters & Wolf People: Psychedelia and Prog Moving Forward in the UK

Hidden Masters - Of This & Other Worlds (Rise Above/Metal Blade, 2013)Hidden Master, Of This & Other Worlds (Rise Above/Metal Blade, 2013)

Nearly a half century after the first psychedelic singles appeared in 1965, pretty much everyone has figured out that you don’t need the assistance of drugs to appreciate the music. You also don’t need a rare case of synesthesia to hear the vivid colors of psychedelic rock. Life is often psychedelic naturally, but music can intensify the acid greens, electric oranges and shimmering purples. Psych rock is more popular today than ever, and manifests in many forms, like long extended drones that, no matter how much they’re dressed up in avant garb, can dissolve into washes of gray. This is not a problem for Scottish (via Glasgow) trio Hidden Masters, whose songs maintain tight pop structures, stuffed to the rim with harmonies, hooks, concise solos and proggy time changes. The band displays such talent and musicianship along the lines of the Yardbirds and Cream (with singer/guitarist David Addison’s smooth lead vocals recalling Jack Bruce), but resist the temptation of extended jams, much like when Chas Chandler reigned in Jimi Hendrix to keep his songs short on his first album.

Back in November 2009, Rise Above label owner Lee Dorrian wrote a guest article for the “150 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” issue of Classic Rock Magazine, called “Prog Psych: The Great Lost Albums of British Rock, 1968-72.” He wrote about 20 albums that inhabited what was special about the transition from 60s psychedelic rock to 70s progressive. I’d heard less than a third of them at the time and many have become all-time favorites, like High Tide, T2 and Tractor. Definitely a strong reason to pay close attention to everything he puts out on Rise Above. Sure enough, new albums from Troubled Horse, Horisont, Ghost, Blood Ceremony, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Purson and Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats are all favorites. I’m ashamed to have missed this album in time for my year-end summary and lists.

I’ve always loved the more psychedelic tracks off Revolver, Are You Experienced, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and S.F. Sorrow growing up, and liked stuff like the Dukes Of Stratosphere that heavily referenced obscure singles collected on Nuggets, Pebbles, Rubble and more recently Chocolate Soup For Diabetics, Real Life Permanent Dreams, The Perfumed Garden and the amazing comps on the Arf Arf label and those curated by Nick Saloman of The Bevis Frond for Psychic Circle label. While there are hundreds of great psychedelic songs from that era, only a handful of bands from that era managed to put together great albums. In addition to the classics mentioned above, there’s Love, Art, Kaleidoscope, Tomorrow, 13th Floor Elevators, Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Litter. Hidden Masters joins those ranks and surpasses many of them with jaw-dropping instrumental prowess with touches of prog (early Jethro Tull and Yes) and proto-metal while writing really great originals.

The first time I heard “She Broke the Clock of the Long Now,” with it’s turn-on-the-dime tempos, unusual minor key progressions and impressive three-part vocal harmonies, I was immediately grinning. It’s a great introduction, with them showing off what they’re capable of. While they may not be as heavy as most of their Rise Above labelmates, they throw in an awesome Sabbath-worthy riff in the middle of “Into the Night Sky” just to remind everyone they could do heavy with the best of ’em. And the songs get even better, with the Beatlesy “Last Days of the Sun,” fantastic guitar lines in “There Are More Things,” and especially “Nobody Knows That We’re Here,” which taps into the vibe of the best The Doors had to offer and the Stones’ “Paint It Black” with the use of Middle-Eastern style progressions. “Like Candy” nearly goes overboard in sugary pop overdrive to the edge of cheesiness, but they pull it off because it’s so well written, performed and sung. Like most of the album, there’s so many surprising twists and turns to the song, it’s so fun to try to anticipate what’s going to happen next.

I’m pretty sure Hidden Masters could play polka styled covers of Katy Perry songs and still sound great. They’re that good.

Wolf People - Fain (Jagjaguwar, 2013)Wolf People, Fain (Jagjaguwar, 2013)

Similarly, fellow Brits Wolf People mine vintage psych prog territory, with their influences more rooted in obscure UK folk, Scandinavian psych, Mighty Baby (another Lee Dorrian fave), Dark, Groundhogs and The Trees. Essentially we’re shifting from Hidden Masters’ psych influences of 1967-70 to add more folk and prog from 1969-73. I’m surprised Dorrian didn’t snatch up this band for Rise Above. They’re the ultimate record geek band, enthusiastically sharing their musical discoveries on their website and guest blogs. Song structures, melodies and Jack Sharp’s lead vocals bear a strong folk influence. But rather than sounding like just Pentangle and Fairport Convention acolytes, they infuse them with plenty of heavy bass and guitar riffs that have more in common with Witchcraft. Both opener “Empty Vessels” and “All Returns” shift seamlessly from delicate finger-picking to some heavy psychedelic fuzz solos.

“When the Fire is Dead in the Grate” stretches out in length and adventurous playing, particularly the complex guitar interplay in the last couple minutes that will impress both metal shredders and Wishbone Ash fans. “Athol” is less memorable, but still works in establishing a dark, ominous atmosphere, serving as a bridge to the next highlight, the stately “Hesperus” which peaks with some beautifully executed guitar playing, topped with a heavy, threatening riff with a minute and a half to go, suggesting the lumbering approach of a troll. “Answer” also serves as a windup for the next powerhouse, the 7:00 long “Thief,” which tells the story of a doomed highwayman, and spells out his demise musically with some heavy psych fuzz. “NRR” wraps things up with a propulsive motorik rhythm and more heavy Sabbath-worthy riffs.

Fain is a totally satisfying progression from their first album Steeple (2010), which is also highly recommended. It’s telling that the band first connected via an interest in hip-hop. From the mid-seventies era of disco, punk and post-punk through the 90s, much of the territory mined in psych, prog and folk from 1968-72 became a sort of dead zone until the Internet enabled more than just the most dedicated crate diggers to access it. What’s been revealed is that there was a much more diverse, rich body of music laying dormant and out of print than many people imagined, and also a lot of unfinished business. New bands like Hidden Masters and Wolf People are not just paying homage to the past, but rather picking up long-lost threads and creating something new.

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