Psychedelic Psummer: Return to the Dark Side

psychedelic-psummer-return

Last year, Tame Impala and Jacco Gardner set the tone for the psychedelic summer with a fairly upbeat mix of electro psych and bucolic pop. It’s fitting with all the horrendous murder sprees and ugly politics that this year’s crop would be darker and dirtier. Lola Colt, reviewed here, put out an album that rivals The Drones for album of the year so far, a benchmark in psych noir.  Heading the rest of the crop are some garage noir bands, Os Noctàmbulos, Night Beats, The Mystery Lights and The Murlocs.

Garage noir, like psych noir (which I fleshed out last year in Kaleidoscopes & Grimoires: Psych Noir), is a term I feel best describes certain bands. While it’s use may not have caught on yet, there’s no reason why it can’t be just as legitimate as the use of nordic noir, which some random journalist pulled out of their ass and is now widely used to describe both Scandinavian crime fiction and TV shows, complete with newsletters and conventions. Sadly TV is much bigger business than rock bands, especially ones that operate in the obscure margins of genre and industry, but still plowing ahead playing small rooms throughout the world.

I don’t need a long essay to explain garage noir, as it’s fairly self-explanatary. Garage rock with fairly foreboding sounding music dealing with themes of death, crime and all sorts of other wrongdoings.  Pioneers include 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. Sweden’s The Janitors mix droney psych with post-punk, while the UK’s (with Danish singer Gun) Lola Colt incorporate those genres in different ways. Australia’s The Drones can also be included.

One of my favorite releases came on July 15 from French band Os Noctàmbulos, the follow-up to Corsica Garden (2014). This is pretty straight up retro garage psych inspired by the Nuggets, Pebbles, Rubble compilations and Chocolate Soup For Diabetics, Real Life Permanent Dreams, The Perfumed Garden. However, plenty of bands have tried to emulate the magic by simply assembling a Fender, Farfisa and Rhodes and hope the sounds fall into place. But to be able to put together an entire live set I would care to stick around for is something else. Their first album had lots of promising tracks, but their second consistently nails just about every song. Brit ex-pat Nick Wheeldon (formerly of Sheffield-based The Jesus Loves Heroin Band) puts some heart into the vocals, ranging from croons to terrified shrieks. “Changes” starts with an ominous organ chord, but soon blossoms into an expansive, hopeful tune with a great ascending melody. The catchy “Not Everyone” sounds like a long-lost single from one of the aforementioned compilations.  Possibly their best song yet is the deliciously menacing “Jordi Taught Me.” However this concise album clocking in under a half hour is packed with memorable tunes to the point where you’d think it’s a compilation itself. “The Circle Ain’t Broken” combines a Western noir vibe with a frantic chorus that’s pure psycho punk. “Wandering Light” is another gem with a subtle melodicism that grows under your skin.

Thee Oh Sees - A Weird Exits (Castle Face, 2016)Thee Oh Sees is a band so prolific and hard working, that they called a mere five month break (with a personnel change) a hiatus. Even those who follow the band closely may have missed that pause, if not for the fact that the next album Drop (2014) did shift it’s sound to a softer pop from their previous album, Floating Coffin (2013) regarded by many as their best album. Last year’s Mutilator Defeated At Last (2015) was a raging beast of overdriven heavy guitar psych. Now less than a year later, release just last Friday, their sixteenth (!) album A Weird Exits explores the more cosmic influences of Kosmische to a mostly satisfying result. “Dead Man’s Gun” brings to mind the motorik-influenced work of underrated 90s Too Pure band Th’ Faith Healers, which is always welcome. I have to admit I found the repetitive, bleepy bloopy “Jammed Entrance” to be a little annoying the first couple listens, and the closing ballad “The Axis,” kind of like Berlin-era Bowie slowed down a gear and smothered in molasses, a bit disconcerting. But that’s just the sound of a restless band pushing the envelope into uncomfortable territory, and in the long run, and through repeated plays, it works out just fine. Elsewhere, the band’s massive live power is conveyed through the smoking “Ticklish Warrior” and particularly the furious, chaotic “Gelatinous Cube.” “Plastic Plant” is a nice balance of John Dwyer’s guitar heroics, and dual drummers Ryan Moutinho and Dan Rincon doing their best approximation of Can’s Jaki Leibezeit. “Crawl Out From The Fall Out” is the longest track, a slow crawl of a spacey psych ballad that might feel out of place, but certainly brings variety to an album that feels over way too soon. Luckily there’s plenty more Thee Oh Sees music if you crave it, and most likely more to come in less than a year.

Levitation Room from Los Angeles are a bit of an exception to the darkness this summer, with more in common with Temples than the garage and psych noir bands.  A few songs are in minor key, like “Reason Why” and “Plain To See,” but more in the style of 60s garage psych than more contemporary, darker bands. This however, is not a problem, as Levitation Room are really good at what they do, drawing on influences from all the psychedelic eras, including the 80s (The Chesterfield Kings), 90s (Stone Roses, early Primal Scream) and beyond (Brian Jonestown Massacre). While “Til You Reach Your Last Breath” also has a bit of menace in both lyrics and tone, it’s strength is simply its pop hooks, which are in abundance through the band’s full-length debut, Ethos.

Like Thee Oh Sees’ latest direction, Japan’s Kikagaku Moyo specializes in Kosmische influenced folk psych. They turned a lot of heads with two really strong releases in 2014, Forest Of Lost Children and Mammatus Clouds. House In The Tall Grass continues the roll with a good summary of their strengths, from lovely liquid dreamscapes and bedroom acoustic picking to extended guitar workouts.

Night Beats - Who Sold My Generation (Heavenly, 2016)Seattle (via Texas) trio Night Beats released their third album, Who Sold My Generation back in January, but should not be overlooked. Their garage noir and psych may sound like they follow a pretty consistent formula from their previous albums, but it’s a potent one that brings in some bluesy menace and fine tuned to a riveting live show, as I experienced earlier this summer. Bassist Jakob Bowden ably replaces the departed Tarek Wegner, fitting in perfectly with the band’s menacing stage presence. The timely “No Cops” addresses some of the shooting deaths at the hands of U.S police, with an angry, driving beat that’s equal parts 13th Floor Elevators and The Velvet Underground. While some might compare some of their bluesier numbers like “Bad Love” to The Black Keys, they have more of a connection to the swampy garage noir of The Scientists and Gun Club, particularly in a live setting. Trace elements of Tex-Mex and even Brazilian psych can be detected. Recorded with assistance from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Robert Levon Been, the primitive two track sound is enjoyable, but perhaps masks some of the band’s power. Case in point, “Power Child,” a nice showcase for Danny Lee Blackwell’s chops, both in performance and ability to write a catchy pop song. Closer “Egypt Berry” is like a tribute both Chuck Berry’s road classics like “Memphis” and The Cramps, a glorious raveup end to the album.

Originally from the surf coast area of Victoria, Australia, The Murlocs have, on their second album, perfected a slow-rolling, hypnotic country psych sound that is quite unique among contemporary bands. Sure, they tap into old records from Them, Yardbirds and familiar Nuggets bands, but achieve a sort of zen state with lovely tunes like “Rolling On,” “Compensation” and “Unknown Disease.” I missed them on their first tour, so I hope they make the long trip back sometime.

Garage noir rockers The Mystery Lights formed over a decade ago in Salinas, CA, but it took a move to to NYC to inspire them to complete their debut full length. The move also may have inspired them to add a little CBGBs era punk to their surf punk. To be honest, the album would have been even better if their guitarist went full-on Robert Quine (he made Richard Hell’s Voidoids great), but it’s a very nice start.

Another highlight from early in the yeah, former Mmoss man Doug Tuttle must be included here. His debut solo album in 2014 was my first exposure to his music, which prompted me to dig back into his previous band. It Calls On Me is far more satisfying than his early band work, with better songwriting. The somewhat delicate, jangly psych pop on record has a serrated edge in the form of the tones in Tuttle’s guitar solos, which really come to life in his live shows. Like Chris Forsyth, it sounds like he at least partially modeled his sound on Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. It’ll be a perfect album to kick off psychedelic psummer 2016.

Sweden’s Salem’s Pot grew up with horror B-movies, weed and heavy psychedelic rock. Like Electric Wizard and Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, their early records openly paid tribute to those interests in ragged, lo-fi recordings on cassette single “Watch Me Kill You/Run The Night” (2013) and full-length …Lurar ut dig på prärien (2014). Pronounce This! is a nice progression both in recording quality and stylistic range. They perfect their heavy psych noir sound on opener “Tranny Takes A Trip,” “Just For Kicks” and “The Vampire Strikes Back.” While their song lengths used to range from 9 to 16 minutes, the first three tracks are reigned in to a slightly more concise 7-8 minutes each, but are so full of great riffs, organ lines and spacey effects that they never overstay their welcome.  The second half of the album experiments a bit more, with the magnificent 12:47 long instrumental “Coal Mind” tackling prog, German space rockers Amon Düül II and Lemmy-era Hawkwind complete with bass solo. On “So Gone, So Dead” they tackle country. There’s certainly plenty of potential in exploring murder and Satan with the genre that’s been largely untapped the past couple decades, but I don’t think these Swedes are the ones to really excel at it. It’s a throwaway, not terrible, but definitely docks this album points. “Desire” rebounds with a forlorn spaghetti western guitar intro that gradually builds into an organ-fueled, ominous dirge that is much more powerful and effective. Overall Salem’s Pot’s second album sees them developing from a promising new band to road-proven rockers coming into their own.

comet control-center Mythic Sunship - Ouroboros (El Paraiso, 2016)

Toronto’s Comet Control refined their garage psych meets shoegaze sound on their sophomore album, Center Of The Maze. Their vocal harmonies remind me a bit of Ride and Swervedriver while their space rock wall of sound lush and heavy. There may be nothing new going on, but it’s a welcome visitor to the summer playlist. Denmark’s Mythic Sunship stretches out their space rock on Ouroboros into just three long, jammy tracks that also incorporate a bit of jazz fusion, a welcome addition to the stellar El Paraiso label stable.

Norway’s Electric Eye is also on their second album, Different Sun, following their hugely entertaining psychedelic space rock debut Pick-up, Lift-off, Space, Time (2013).  Their kosmische and psych prog is influenced by The Black Angels, Wooden Shjips, Pink Floyd in Pompeii and Indian music. First single “Mercury Rise” is Can meets T. Rex.

Coming out the end of this week on August 19 is the self-titled album by cosmic psychedelic folk duo Elkhorn. They combine 12-string acoustic (Jesse Sheppard) and electric guitar (Drew Gardner) in a John Fahey meets Earthless scenario of apocalyptic Americana. It’s a brilliantly simple idea may have been attempted previously, but not to the formidable brain expanding depth of this project. Immersive listening is like free-falling through a sonic dreamworld involving the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cul de Sac and Guru Guru.

There’s still more albums worth hearing from Heron Oblivion, a folk psych group formed by members of Comets On Fire, psych proggers Mondo Drag, garage psych surf rockers Dead Coast, the second album from up and coming Michigan garage psych band Heaters, a frenetic release from prolific Melbourne band King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, a laid back third album from Austin band Holy Wave, a lovely ninth album by Psychic Ills, and last but not least, the jangle psych pop of Sunflower Bean. Just because I didn’t get to write full reviews of all of these do not mean they should be dismissed. Fans of the prolific and widely popular Ty Segall take note. I like all these albums better than his latest, Emotional Mugger, which is a good album itself.

While some poor bastards are already back in school, public pools are shutting down and city-sponsored free concerts are often done with before the end of August, it’s still summer dammit. We’re in the middle of the summer Olympics, there’s still more summer music festivals happening. While most of these albums offer a darker take on psychedelia, it’s still damn good summer music.

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