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.
The rock and film worlds collided when filmmaker Kenneth Anger began working on Lucifer Rising in 1967. On the autumn equinox, Septebmer 21, 1967, he staged an occult ritual in Haigh-Ashbury billed as “The Equinox of the Gods”, with music provided by Bobby Beausoleil and the Magick Powerhouse of Oz. Chaos ensued, with Beausoleil stealing footage of the film, and later arrested for murder, supposedly on orders from Charles Manson. Anger attempted to recruit Mick Jagger to complete the film, who eventually declined after tiring of the drama that surrounded the director. In 1972, Anger met Jimmy Page from bidding on the same Aleister Crowley memorabilia. He visited with Page at the Boleskine House on the banks of Scotland’s Loch Ness, which once belonged to Crowley. Crowley purchased the house in 1899 and set out to perform a yearlong ritual found in the medieval grimoire The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, which supposedly enabled the magician to meet his Guardian Angel.
Led Zeppelin caused a stir when they engraved Crowley’s words, “Do what thou wilt” into the runoff of Led Zeppelin III (1970). At least critic Lester Bangs appreciated it, writing that he listened to “Immigrant Song” “…while watching a pagan priestess performing the ritual dance of Ka before the sacrificial altar in Fire Maidens of Outer Space…” It was announced that Led Zeppelin would provide the soundtrack for the film. While some music was recorded, Anger didn’t deem it good enough, and the film wasn’t even released until 1980.
Meanwhile the macabre and occult were spreading throughout popular culture in the 70s, with Marvel Comics introducing a number of new titles, including The Son of Satan, Ghost Rider and Morbius. In Birmingham, a heavy psychedelic blues band called Earth decided to take on a darker persona by taking on the name of a 1963 French-Italian horror movie starring Boris Karloff, Black Sabbath. Personal experience was also a factor, when Ozzy Osbourne gave Geezer a mysterious book of black magick written in Latin that he picked up somewhere. Geezer browsed through it, got creeped out and hid it in a cupboard. The book disappeared, despite the fact that Geezer was the only one living in the house, and then awoke one night to a vision of a demonic presence in his room. That became the basis for the song “Black Sabbath,” which also incorporated the “devil’s tritone.” While Geezer was the chief lyricist and influenced by occult horror writer Dennis Wheatley (most famous for The Devil Rides Out (1934), which was translated to film by Hammer in 1968), Ozzy actually wrote the lyrics to that song.
The band attracted the interest of head witch of England Alec Sanders, who started showing up at gigs and stalking them at hotels. After Sabbath refused to play their satanic mass, they put a hex on the band. Ozzy asked his father make them those large silver (actually aluminum) crosses they’ve been known to wear thereafter. Iommi and Geezer were both Catholic (Geezer actually almost became a priest), Ozzy with Church of England, Ward agnostic. While they would go on to almost single-handedly invent heavy metal and its doom subgenre, and they may not have being church-going guys they certainly had a healthy fear of the satanists and a belief in the power of the cross symbol. So far from being satanic, many of their songs were warnings against evil and lessons in morality. Taking advantage of the somewhat negligible intelligence of a portion of both fans and enemies, the band and their management took a tongue-in-cheek approach to promoting a far more sinister image. This would come back to haunt Ozzy in the 80s during his solo career when he was accused of all sorts of wrong doing (some of which, in his perpetually drug addled state he was no doubt guilty of), but it certainly didn’t hurt album and ticket sales.
The first two bands to fully embrace a sinister occult identity in both image and lyrics were Coven and Black Widow. Based in Chicago, Coven formed in 1968, including lead singer Jinx Dawson. A couple odd coincidences, the bass player Mike Osbourne went by the nickname “Oz,” and the first track of their 1969 debut, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls is “Black Sabbath.” Additionally, the inside gatefold and back cover art is the first known images of a rock band sporting inverted crosses and “floatin’ the goat,” the practice of holding up the index and pinky fingers to signify devil horns or hailing Satan. This did not become widespread in metal until Ronnie James Dio adopted the maloika to ward off the evil eye from his Italian grandmother and started using it at shows when he joined Black Sabbath in 1980.
Like Faust and Theophilus, Coven signed their contract to Mercury records in blood, and included a recording of a satanic mass on the album. The inside sleeve read, “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first Black Mass to be recorded, either in written words or in audio. It is as authentic as hundreds of hours of research in every known source can make it. We do not recommend its use by anyone who has not thoroughly studied Black Magic and is aware of the risks and dangers involved.” However, they were not in fact the first to do that, as Anton LaVey (founder of The Church of Satan in 1966) also released a Satanic Mass recording in 1968.
While the album is remarkable for being the first true occult rock album, it remained underground, mainly because the Jefferson Airplane influenced songwriting was somewhat generic at best, and sometimes kind of sucked. The music lacked a convincingly sinister atmosphere to match the lyrics, though the band tried to make up for it in live shows, hanging hapless roadies from crosses above an altar, red lighting, candles and costumes, and of course simulation of a Black Mass where Jinx would recite some Latin and quote Crowley’s infamous “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” scream, “Hail Satan!” after which the roadie would come down off the cross, invert it and dance off the stage. Not bad, Coven, not bad.
Shortly after the album’s release, Esquire magazine published the story,”Evil Lurks in California,” shortly after the Manson murders. The cover showed a picture of Manson standing outside a record store in L.A. with the Coven album under his arm. Mercury couldn’t take the heat and withdrew the album two months after release. Ironically, it was Mercury who pushed the band to expand on their casual occult interests and be promoted as a Satanic band.
The next year, Leicester’s Black Widow released Sacrifice (1970), with a more progressive approach to psychedelic rock, as was becoming popular at the time. Their sound was slightly darker and heavier than Coven, but ultimately less than satisfying when compared to the brilliance of Black Sabbath or even Uriah Heep, Lucifer’s Friend or Atomic Rooster. Unlike Sabbath, Black Widow actually sought out head witch Alex Sanders for a collaboration, who advised singer Kip Trevor on how to perform supposedly authentic black magick rituals employing robes, candles, a dagger and spells. They also simulated conjuring demons and human sacrifice with naked women. Below is footage of one such performance. The Manson murders ruined their fun too, and they canceled a planned U.S. tour, and abandoned their occult interests on subsequent albums.
Even more obscure was Italian prog band Jacula, who formed in 1968 and supposedly released In Cauda Semper Stat Venenum the next year in a run of just 300 copies. Few had heard of the band, and when it was reissued by Black Widow records in 2001, many were skeptical it was actually recorded in 1969, as the metal fuzz guitar riffing on “Triumphatus Sad” seems improbably ahead of its time. I tend to agree, as moments like the guitar sound and gated drums in the final track, “In Cauda Semper,” sound like they couldn’t have been recorded before 1988 at the earliest. Most of the album features spooky church organ and occasional piano, and does seem remarkably similar to what would become key elements in goth, post-punk and black metal. Also, the piano parts sound exactly like the piano setting on the Korg M1, which was first made in 1988. Perhaps the album was originally recorded in 1969, and parts were overdubbed for a later issue. Either way, most of the tracks are pretty boring and unmemorable, so whether they’re a hoax or the real deal, Jacula would at most be minor footnote.
So. Metal happened, from Judas Priest to Rainbow, Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, Witchfinder General, Pagan Altar, Saint Vitus and the entire doom genre, Venom, Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate, Bathory and the black metal genre. Multiple books have been written about all that (well, except for doom, someone please get on that). It seemed that all the elements for psych noir percolated in rock’s musical subconsciousness until 2007. Peter Bebergal’s Season Of The Witch: How The Occult Saved Rock And Roll (2014) does a great job in covering the cultural history of occult rock, up to a point. He covers most of the mainstream music addressed above, along with Bowie and King Crimson, but then makes an odd jump from Hawkwind and obscure prog and Ramases to Jay Z and Madonna. While it’s certainly an enjoyable and recommended read, Bebergal somehow drops the ball when addressing some important modern bands like Jex Thoth, The Devil’s Blood, Blood Ceremony and countless others. He does talk about Sunn O))), Om and Ghost, the latter which we’ll get to soon. I understand how he felt it necessary to take an anecdotal approach by telling the a story without cataloging every single band. However, I still believe he dropped the ball in missing some major biggies.
Hail The Witch Queen
Originally named Totem until they learned the name was already taken, Jex Thoth united over a mutual love of Black Sabbath, Amon Düül II and Reverend Bizarre. They seemed to be fully formed right away, releasing “Stone Evil” on a split single with doom pioneers Pagan Altar on Sweden’s I Hate Records, and then the Totem EP. Bandleader and singer Jex Thoth took her name from the Egyptian god of knowledge, arbitrator of godly disputes, the arts of magic, the system of writing, development of science and judgement of the dead. While doom is an essential core element, the band is far more ethereal than their metal brethren, their performances trance-inducing and ritualistic, permeated with the pungent smoke of burning pieces of Palo Santo wood. It’s use possibly goes back as far as the 15th century when druids harvested 100 year-old Bursera Graveolens trees once they have been dead for a decade. Jex Thoth are clearly not your average Wisconsin rock band. An excellent self-titled full-length followed in 2008, Witness EP (2010) and most impressive, the latest Blood Moon Rise (2013). When I spoke to her late summer 2014, she said they’re starting work on their third full-length later in the year. With luck, we’ll see something new later this year.
Thoth seems genuinely spiritual, but it’s hard to tell from lyrics if there are atavistic roots in any singular belief system such as Wiccan, or her own unique blend of pagan interests. Adding more complex layers to her mystique is her participation in Sabbath Assembly, an adaptation of hymns from The Process Church of the Final Judgement, a cult founded by Scientologists in 1966 that worships both Christ and Satan. With all due respect to Jinx Dawson’s original influence, and with apologies to Jex Thoth if she doesn’t like the title, but I like to refer to her as the Witch Queen of Psych Noir.
All hail the Witch Queen…
Meanwhile in Eindhoven, Netherlands, Selim Lemouchi and his sister Farida ‘The Mouth of Satan’ Lemouchi formed The Devil’s Blood, in 2007, a band with less earthy and more seriously sinister interests in Satanic worship. After a demo, they released the Come, Reap EP in 2008 and the impressive full-length The Time of No Time Evermore (2009), which essentially perfected what Coven and Black Widow failed at, the art of supporting occult lyrics with rich, atmospheric psychedelic rock and genuinely top shelf songwriting. Live, Farida is a blood-drenched force of Hades, her powerful pipes crushing any competition in her path. The Thousandfold Epicentre (2011) is their peak, and in 2013 Selim abandoned the band, releasing rough demos as their third album, and quickly launching a new project, Selim Lemouchi and his Enemies, with an EP in 2013 and the full-length Earth Air Spirit Water Fire in 2014. Unfortunately Selim’s lyrical obsession with death was too serious, and he took his own life in March 2014 at the age of 33.
Toronto, Canada’s Blood Ceremony’s formation in 2006 actually pre-dates the others, but they didn’t release anything until their full-length debut in 2008. It’s interesting that they merge the influences of Black Sabbath with Jethro Tull, since Iommi had actually left Sabbath to join Tull for a short while (his one documented performance with the band is in the Rolling Stones Rock ‘N’ Roll Circus film). Singer Alia O’Brien’s flute contributions serve their brand of psych noir well, as their reign in the prog influences and keep their songs concise and pretty catchy. Despite their intimidating name, they do not seriously practice occult mysticism. The band are simply students of macabre pop culture such as Hammer horror. They joined the elite stable of Rise Above records run by Cathedral’s Lee Dorian and get better with every album, including Living With The Ancients (2011) and The Eldritch Dark (2013).
In the early 00’s, Sweden became ground zero to an explosive proliferation of hard rocking, heavy psych and stoner rock bands, including Spiritual Beggars and Dozer, who had formed in the mid-90s, Lowrider, Mammoth Volume, Terra Firma and many others that I covered in the Stoner Rock Primer. By 2005, Truckfighters, Dungen and Witchcraft were making an impact globally to varying degrees. Of these bands, and their more recent arrivals Graveyard, Dead Man, Horisont, Spiders and Blues Pills, Witchcraft was the closest to psych noir with their eerie lyrics and psychedelia with a touch of doom. But ultimately they weigh in more as a hard rock band than anything, albeit an excellent one.
In 2008, with members possibly coming out of the fertile Swedish death metal scene, arose Papa Emeritus in the guise of a 15th century undead, Satanic pope and a band of robed nameless ghouls called Ghost. With Satanic lyrics that are evil to cartoonish proportions, and the fact that the band never reveal their identities, they tap into a long tradition of theatrical and farcical rock like Alice Cooper and KISS, but with the clever intelligence and melodic hooks of Blue Oyster Cult. Their debut Opus Eponymous (2010) featured elements of rockin’ traditional metal like Judas Priest, but even more so is a psych prog style along the lines of a poppier Pink Floyd. Their flirtations with pop are just as blatant as their shock tactic lyrics, having covered The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” in concert, and ABBA’s “I’m A Marionette” on their second album, Infestissumam (2013). Most importantly, they deliver the spectacle along with the hooks live, and have become by far the most popular current band in this piece. On August 21 of this year, their third album, Meliora will be released with much anticipation, and those who have heard it report it’s a bit more proggy this time. Every tour sees them in bigger venues, and they appear to be on their way to becoming the first psych noir band to play stadiums.
This is how you hype a new album:
Do watch the brilliant, hilarious video for their single, where kids dress up as Ghost for talent show, with sinister results!
Another masked psychedelic band from Sweden, Goat, are worth mentioning as an interesting outlier. Their claims that they all come from the small town of Korpilombolo where a witch doctor brought a version of voodoo rings of deadpan hogwash. Especially the part about the village being destroyed by Christian crusaders, and the surviving villager putting a curse on it before leaving. And the part about the band being just the latest generation of the band that’s existed for 30 to 40 years. The two female leads dress in costumes that are a hodgepodge, taken from cultures in Africa, the Caribbean and South America, while the band’s masks more resemble Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band circa 1968. While there are some sinister tones to their mix of psych, Afro Beat and Kosmische, ultimately they are a celebratory dance band, and a great one.
A more culty band, but arguably even catchier than Ghost with better, fuzzier riffs, is Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, formed in Cambridge in 2009. While their second album, Blood Lust (2011) became the fastest spreading word-of-mouth cult album that year, eventually reissued by Rise Above, their first album, Vol. I (Killer Candy, 2010), released on CDR and seemingly forgotten, is just as amazing. Recorded on vintage equipment, the dark, murky psychedelia can’t hold back the amazing melodies bubbling under the grime. Both albums are essentially the perfect embodiment of most of the key cultural touchtones of psych noir and then some. They would have made an excellent soundtrack not only to Easy Rider, but also Satan’s Sadists, Blood Feast and Le Viol du Vampire. Altamont, disturbing Manson newsreels, and bad trips erasing all memories of the summer of love. The bandleader was nearly as anonymous as Papa Emeritus, but rather than hiding behind a mask, he’s just underneath a lot of hair and waves of guitar fuzz, at first going by Uncle Acid, and then K.R. Starrs. I saw them live at a small club last year and still don’t know what they really look like.
While the third album Mind Control (2013) isn’t quite as amazing as the first two, the band’s audience is growing faster than ever, with their fourth album, The Night Creeper, due out on September 4 on Rise Above. Starr said this about it:
“The idea is that this album could have started life as an old cheap, grime-covered 25 cent pulp paperback like the type sold at news-stands outside train stations. But then perhaps it is adapted into a film noir, which itself is then re-made twenty years later as an ultraviolent, slasher Italian Giallo film. The album follows this aesthetic lineage as it descends from trash to noir to something discernibly darker…”
So basically the greatest, most quintessential psych noir album ever? I’ll take it!
Over in Kuopio, Finland are relative newcomers Jess and the Ancient Ones, formed in 2010. Their 2012 self-titled debut very much rips a page out of The Devil’s Blood’s grimoire, organ driven psychedelic rock with a solid female lead. The songwriting is really promising, leaving only the question of how the band would progress in establishing a more unique identity. Over the course of two excellent EPs, Astral Sabbat (2013) and Castaneda (2014), they experiment with prog, surf rock, spaghetti westerns and peyote-fueled shamanism. While they are working on another full-length (tentatively titled Second Psychedelic Coming: The Aquarius Tapes), they also released an entire album of excellent songs they feel didn’t fit under their primary band name, with the project The Exploding Eyes Orchestra. The songs were written by guitarist Thomas Corpse and include five of the seven members (Von Stroh has since left the band). While they are supposed to be looser and more varied than the main band, it’s clear a lot of work went into arranging and recordings these songs, and ultimately sound more like a progression than a tangent. The prolific Corpse had so many songs that they were divided into two releases, with II to be released next year, presumably after the next Jess And The Ancient Ones album.
Also from Finland are Mansion, who released a stunning progression of three EPs in 2013-14. Like The Devil’s Blood, they’re serious occult practitioners, followers of the Kartanoist cult, and share some sonic psych prog similarities with Jess and the Ancient Ones, though their last EP suggests they could fly off in a completely different direction. They should have a full length out later this year.
Another Finnish band that has remained somewhat more obscure is Seremonia. They are less well known for two reasons — they sing almost exclusively in Finnish, and their sound is less accessible, often quite rough and raw. It alternates between garagey psych charm and bone rattling chaos. Their third album, Kristalliarkki was released on May 8.
Back in the UK, Rise Above signed another promising female-lead psych noir band called Purson, lead by Rosie Cunningham. Perhaps most similar to Blood Ceremony but without the flute, their debut The Circle and The Blue Door (2013) got a lot of positive responses, for good reason. It incorporates a delightfully sinister, witchy vibe informed by the rich tradition of English folk along with the psych and prog elements. Even better is In The Meantime EP (2014) and the standouts “Danse Macabre” and “Wanted Man.” They will be touring the world later this fall with Ghost, and are working on their second full-length, Desire’s Magic Theatre, to be released on Spinefarm by next spring.
Those who think Sweden’s Avatarium can be forgiven for assuming they’re a pure doom metal project, as Leif Edling of Candlemass is a part of it. Lead by the bewitching Jennie-Ann Smith on vocals, they mix in many other influences, including Rainbow-style hard rock, goth, folk, blues, prog and psych. No mere side project, they released an excellent self-titled debut in 2013 that was one of the top rock albums of the year, an EP in 2014, and are due for an album in the fall, The Girl With The Raven Mask. If the album’s as great as I think it’ll be, Avatarium will compete for top hellhound status on the growing mountain of psych noir.
Some of the bands covered so far are genuinely interested in and practice the occult, while others are more playful with it as is typical in entertainment. Cincinnati, Ohio’s Electric Citizen write about similar subject matter without posing as Satanists. However, just because they are not occult rock does not mean one should default to calling them stoner rock, as Rate Your Music does in categorizing the band. If only someone good looking and intelligent came up with a much more appropriate label. Oh, psych noir! You’re welcome. Formed in 2013, they were together for just a short time when they recorded their debut Sateen (2014) for RidingEasy. Their name comes from the song “Death of an Electric Citizen” by the Edgar Broughton Band, an anarchic bluesy psych group from the UK. Their sound is a nice blend of psych prog influences along the lines of Blood Ceremony and Purson, and some garage and hard rock similar to Sweden’s Spiders, plus a touch of NWOBHM. Laura Dolan’s vocals may not be quite as heavy and intense as the likes of Farida Lemouchi, but they’ve already written some really impressive songs. I love the coda and melody to “Future Persuasion.” The closest contemporary comparison might be Portland’s Satyress, who are a bit more metal. Definitely a band to watch, and I’ll be seeing them live soon along with Mondo Drag.
Formed in Philadelphia in 2010, Ruby The Hatchet blended organ-driven psych with bluesy hard rock and proto-metal on Ouroboros (2012) and progressed on their latest full-length Valley Of The Snake (2015), including a bit of a tribute to Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats on “Vast Acid.”
Another newcomer, The Oath, emerged last year not fully formed, but also stillborn, considering that they were broken up before the album was even released on Rise Above. Equal parts psych, doom and trad metal, they were also inspired by Heart and Fleetwood Mac. Guitarist Linnéa Olsson moved from Stockholm to Berlin for fresh inspiration, and met vocalist Johanna Sardonis. The album cover features them looking like witchy blonde sisters clad head to toe in skintight leather. Lurking in the background were Simon Bouteloup (bass, Kadavar/ex-Aqua Nebula Oscillator) and Andrew Prestridge (Angel Witch/Winters). The album is destined to be a cult classic. It was disheartening to hear they broke up so soon without getting to hear them live. However new things were soon to come. Olsson joined Finnish darkwave post-punkers Grave Pleasures (formerly Beastmilk), and Sardonis and Prestridge teamed up with Gaz Jennings from Cathedral to form Lucifer, releasing Lucifer I on June 16. When Sardonis spoke about Lucifer when the band was announced last year, she said the new band would emphasize psych and doom more than the proto-metal and NWOBHM influences of The Oath. However the end result isn’t hugely different from her previous project, though Jennings’ songwriting contributions are noticeable, with some moments that remind one of signature Cathedral. Lyrics continue to delve into ancient civilizations, magick and occult spirituality. In the background, the songs can feel a little samey, Sardonis’ vocal melodies repetitive. However, a close listen on headphones unveils evocative atmospherics and Jennings’ fabulous riffs.
Guns, Peyote ‘n’ Dark Highways
For about a decade I’ve been tagging certain music in my collection with the garage noir label, which refers to the dark, proto-goth garage rock and punk blues template established by Aussies The Scientists, The Birthday Party on their last few EPs, The Cramps and The Gun Club. Later it was best embodied by The New Christs, Gallon Drunk, The Flaming Stars and of course occasional songs by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Grinderman. This is a rich, fertile territory, that should provide ideal inspiration for psychedelic rock. A handful of bands finally began to explore this territory in recent years, but my favorite is probably Lola Colt, who just released their debut album Away From The Water last year. Produced by the Bad Seeds’ Jim Sclavunos, this UK group has concocted a stirring hybrid of psychedelic garage noir with a strong female lead (a Danish singer named Gun) who reminds me of Leslie Woods of post-punkers Au Pairs. There’s so much evocative imagery in these songs, Morricone cowboys tripping on peyote, long drives on black unlit highways, being followed on twisting London streets, all with an underlying threat of violence. The pulp fiction crime paperback to Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats’ B-movies with big breasted murderous vampires, Lola Colt may end up THE definitive psych noir band for many.
The very last album I heard for this piece is the debut from the mysterious Devil Worshipper. They’re not on Spotify, Bandcamp, YouTube or even RateYourMusic, and Holy Mountain released it only on vinyl a month ago. There’s very little information available on their Facebook page, but it seems they may be from Seattle, and “they” could possibly be just one person. There’s a lot of references in press to Julio Cortázar (probably because he’s quoted on the album sticker, “Only by living absurdly is it possible to break out of this infinite absurdity”), a Belgian-born Argentine writer influenced by Surrealism and jazz, who also translated Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works to Spanish. No one’s mentioned Winston Churchill, which is the other featured quote — “There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.” Imagery of leather, knives, a biker facing the black abyss feeds into the sound of droning fuzz guitar, minor chords and sinister, chanted vocals with songs called “Desert Grave” and “Lurker (Death).” All I know is that this is not downer biker metal. It’s psych noir, man.
Another sub-genre that sometimes skirts on the edges of psych noir is psychedelic post-punk, pioneered by Siouxsie & the Banshees, Teardrop Explodes, The Soft Boys, Echo & The Bunnymen and Chameleons, and to a lesser extent, Joy Division, Comsat Angels and The Sound. The latest incarnation of that hybrid is Male Gaze, lead by Matt Jones (Blasted Canyons, Mayyors, The Mall), who also co-runs the Castle Face label with John Dwyer. Male Gaze adds some garage psych color to the monochromatic post-punk we’ve been hearing out of Scandinavia lately such as RA. It’s the absolute perfect mix of brooding cool and raving fuzz guitars. Jones has a great baritone that balances his gothy darkwave and melodic gifts. Blink and you’ll miss the songs as they blast by, slowing down only on the psychedelic guitar licks on “Gale Maze.” My only real complaint is the fact that this is only a min-LP under 25 minutes long. It’s just too damn short, and searching for older material only brings up last year’s “Cliffs Of Madness” single, backed with the demo-quality but super catchy “Think Twice.” I hope this band turns out to be prolific, because I’m already jonesing for more nice “slaps in the brain” as Dwyer put it.
Buried Bones ‘n’ Desert Drones
Sometimes you don’t appreciate what’s in your own backyard until others notice it. This was somewhat the case with me and The Black Angels, taking their name from an Edvard Munch quote, “Illness, insanity, and death are the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” Austin, TX has a long tradition of psychedelic bands going back to The 13th Floor Elevators. Formed in 2004, The Black Angels released a pretty great debut, Passover in 2006. Their later work, along with the Warlocks, suffered from wavering quality, and shared too many indie rock bad habits for my tastes. But on their debut, they show they’ve absorbed The Doors, The Velvet Underground, Suicide, various German Kosmische influences, Chrome & Helios Creed, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Loop, Spacemen 3 and proto-shoegaze and even more modern influences like Liverpool’s Clinic. The liner notes include the dates August 1, 1966 and August 9, 1969, which are marked by the University of Texas sniper incident in Austin, the night of the Manson Family murders. Clearly there’s a subtext of violence throughout the band’s apocalyptic lyrics, which are translated to music most successfully on their debut. Their influence seems to be spreading throughout the world in the past five years, which in turn may have inspired the band to step up their game, as Indigo Meadow (2013) sees them returning partially to their hypnotic droney strengths, while their live show last year was promisingly powerful. Another band with some similarities worth mentioning is A Place To Bury Strangers. Though their first album was 2007, they’ve been around since 2001. However, their influences are decidedly too far into shoegaze and post-punk territory rather than psychedelic to qualify for official inclusion here. San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, formed in 1998, has the psych, but not quite enough noir.
Iceland’s Dead Skeletons wear similar influences on their sleeves on their debut album Dead Magick (2011). Henrik Bjornsson and Jon Saemundur Audarson really hit their stride, however, in the following EP — Ord (2012), Buddha-Christ (2012), Dead Comet (2013), where they find their unique voice, and tap into some deep emotional territory that people will really take notice of once this stuff gets around, or their release a higher profile album hopefully this year. Mysterious, intense, catchy, this band has immense potential. They even revived The Doors’ played-to-death “Riders On The Storm,” contributed to a psych compilation, and turned it into a hypnotic, transcendent piece that actually sounds fresh. Keep an eye out for them.
10 000 Russos – This Portuguese band tried out some avant garde experiments on their first EP in 2012. Their new self-titled full-length came out May 20 on Fuzz Club Records, and finds them in magnificent, shamanic droning form. Opener “Karl Burns” refers to a former drummer for original post-punk shamans The Fall.
Sonic Jesus – Also on Fuzz Club Records, Italy’s Sonic Jesus features dark, droning organs, fuzzed out guitars, sprawling cosmic space rock and also a marked post-punk influence along the lines of Joy Division. The Black Angels are also an apparent influence, as they released a split single with them. After releasing an EP in 2012, they released a hugely ambitious double album this year, Neither Virtue Nor Anger. It’s taken me a while to absorb, and even longer to realize I only had half of it! You know that moment where an album clicks and you suddenly crave more? OH, here’s another album’s worth of of songs! Awesome feeling.
The Janitors – Sweden. A lethal mix of garage psych, post-punk and fierce feedback drones, this band has sharp teeth. Drone Head (2013) compiles tracks from early releases, while last year’s Evil Doings Of An Evil Kind EP (2014) distills them to their most vicious, concentrated form. I can’t wait to hear more.
The Lucid Dream – UK. The Carlisle, England band’s debut Songs Of Lies And Deceit (2013) featured a stark, black and white industrial landscape. Their self-titled second album appears quite similar, this time a shot on the waterfront. It would be misleading if it were a rainbow of psychedelic colors, as noir remains a strong element. However they have evolved some, the songs feeling more crafted and multilayered, leaving lingering impressions like when you close your eyes after being flashed by a powerful strobe light. Specific influences can be spotted in the intro “Mona Lisa” (Spacemen 3), “Cold Killer” (Suicide), and elsewhere Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, even Adrian Sherwood style dub in “Unchained Dub.” But the whole album is cohesive and builds a compelling atmosphere of danger and mystery, at least for me. For others it might be suggestive of something else, but chances are excellent that it’ll be just as compelling. | Full Review
The Black Waves – France
Taman Shud – UK. Taman Shud take a more diverse, challenging approach to psychedelia with some gnarly death rock that taps into The Birthday Party, Killing Joke, industrial, hardcore punk and even the acid fried chaos of Butthole Surfers.
So, why psych noir? Why must it be so damn dark? It’s not like all the best music is dark and evil sounding, just most of it. Back in 2001, I had just completed a piece I’d been working on for a few weeks on the morning of September 11, Grim Reapers & Haunted Melancholy: Music of Autumn. Just as we seasonally confront death, so does the world periodically get immersed in it in times of war, genocide, disease and famine. There are times some will want escape from the suffering of course, and do not necessarily want to celebrate death and evil. However it’s also healthy to look it in it’s glowing red eyes now and then and recognize it. Whether it’s to confront and challenge or to simply acknowledge and reflect, it’s a healthy aspect of human nature. It comes down to the fact that there are times reality is best dealt with in an altered consciousness, and what better way than with some psych noir.
I’ll probably get a million suggestions for what I missed. There are certainly many bands that share elements with psych noir, but their main characteristics lie elsewhere. Some I probably should write about . . . if this were a book! Please check this list before hounding me!
Doom & trad metal & hard rock: Psychedelic Witchcraft, Demon Eye, Brimstone Coven, Satan’s Satyrs, Moon Curse, Salem’s Pot, Occultation, Devil, Witch, Cauchemar, Witch Mountain, Castle, Hands of Orlac, Alunah, Serpentcult, Subrosa, Orchid, Vinum Sabbatum, Year of the Goat, Ancient VVisdom, Venomous Maximus, Noctum, Violet Magick, Orcus Chylde, Bloody Hammers, Sancta Sanctorum, Magic Circle, Second Grave, Deadmask, Black Moth, Witchburn, Mountain Witch, The Lamp of Thoth, Arkham Witch, Hexvessel, Anima Morte