Psychedelic Psummer: Tame Impala’s Synths Vs. All the Guitars

psychedelic-psummer-2015

After listening to psych noir non-stop for over two months while working on Kaleidoscopes & Grimoires: Psych Noir, it’s time to switch it up. Life sometimes necessitates that you exhume yourself from the empty bags and bottles, turn off the Hammer horror movie, put on your shades and go out in the sun. Fortunately there’s great psychedelic music for all occasions.

It’s fitting that one of the most commercially successful psych bands released their third album on July 17, basically the peak of summer. Blueberries are abundant, fireflies are mating, and fortunately fewer people are wearing flip-flops. I consider that the greatest birthday gift of all (mine was on the 16th). One of the several times I’ve seen Tame Impala was in the scorching midday heat at Lollapalooza. That night I would see Black Sabbath, but right then, Tame Impala were the perfect band for the moment, Kevin Parker joking that his pedals were melting under the blazing sun. It’s easy to see why his music has exploded in popularity while other bands that seem on the surface quite similar, languish in underground obscurity. Parker’s key influences may be 60s psychedelia — Pink Floyd, Hendrix, more Bee Gees than Beatles and more Supertramp than Love — but he mixes in elements of shoegaze in his guitar sound with My Bloody Vaentine’s dreamy melancholy, The Flaming Lips’ cosmic explody-ness, and always a subtle undertone of sugary modern pop. Their sound continues to evolve, with debut Innerspeaker (2010) the most traditionally fuzzed out and rockin’, and adding more melody and electronic experimentation on  Lonerism (2012).

Tame Impala - Currents (Interscope, 2015)Currents features more electro pop than ever, citing Prince’s mid-80s funk with a more relaxed, languid feel.  The result has very much a 90s feel along the lines of Stereolab, The High Llamas and Super Furry Animals. The bubbling electronic flourishes evoke the whir of fans, the hum of air conditioners, ice cubes in cold drinks and lapping waves. Great summer music. I won’t lie, I would never choose electronica over intoxicating guitar playing with well executed reverb and fuzz, and points are docked on this album for putting that on the backburner. It’s as if he’s self-conscious about being perceived as pushing forward. But the synths don’t really do anything to change the basic creativity and structure of the songs, only the texture. And really dude, synths go back just as far as guitar distortion and effects pedals. They are no more modern. The one positive change in the production is they have finally escaped the clutches of Dave Fridmann’s overblown blown-out mixing work that has messed many a band up.

Parker’s songwriting and melodicism is stronger than ever. Mainstream fans drawn in by the hooks of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” on the last album should find much to love here. Fortunately, this is not dumbed down for a top 40 pop audience, though Currents will certainly expand the band’s reach toward bigger and bigger festival crowds. An end-of-relationship narrative winds through the album, giving it the forlorn emotional weight of heartbreak that nearly everyone identifies with at some point.  Yet it also conveys the feeling of lightness and relief that comes after a breakup. It kicks off with the 7:46 long “Let It Happen,” which truly lives up to the teenage symphonies to god envisioned by a young Brian Wilson.

On “Yes, I’m Changing,” I begin to suspect that this breakup isn’t necessarily about a woman, or not just about that. It sounds like he’s breaking up with psych rock. That’s a disturbing thought, one which will perplex many fans, as about 85% of the synths are just unnecessary. They’re like the other woman that dresses up in shinier clothes and makeup, but we all hope he’ll soon realize it’s just a rebound relationship, and he’ll go back to what he truly loves most. Yes, you’re changing. But you can’t completely forget where you came from. In contrast to the noticeable lack of guitars, the bass playing sounds pretty great, and the songs are almost universally brilliant. My disappointment with Parker’s choices is tempered by the fact that it is an excellent, listenable album that will go down easy in the background this summer. I’m just really concerned that he’s going to go completely off the rails in a full-on disco-funk phase and just lose it completely. But whether that happens or not, we’ve still got three excellent albums out of the band.

For those who crave more virtuoso musicianship over electro pop, I always recommend Sweden’s Dungen, who formed way back in 1998, and have put out an impressive batch of a half dozen brilliant psych prog albums, with the newest, Allas sak due in September. They’ve got it all, the tunes, melodies, chops. If it weren’t for the fact that they sing mostly in Swedish, they’d probably be just as huge as Tame Impala. There will likely be more acolytes along the lines of Temples coming about too.

Dutch baroque psych specialist Jacco Gardner wowed a lot of folks with his debut Cabinet Of Curiosities (2013), featuring his virtuosity on a number of classical instruments, including harpsichord, strings and flutes. The result is an inviting hybrid of 60s pastoral folk and psych pop (Love, Zombies) with some 70s progressive elements. His new Hypnophobia is just as great, adding a nod to more recent influence, the hauntological music of the Ghost Box label (The Focus Group, Belbury Poly, Pye Corner Audio), including a cover by Julian House, known for his work on Ghost Box albums and the band Broadcast. While the epic “Before The Dawn” and the eerie title track venture into spooky territory, it’s done in such a charmingly ornate way that recalls the best of Pram, and overall makes an excellent soundtrack to the summer.

Glowsun - Beyond The Wall Of Time (Napalm, 2015)

For a dramatic shift in texture to an abundance of guitars that evoke the blinding desert heat, we go not to the California desert, but to Lille, France, from where Glowsun hails.  Pretty much the exact opposite of Tame Impala, Glowsun are instrumental, featuring gorgeous guitar fuzz tones, and riffs layered upon riffs. The lack of vocals and pop hooks of course limits them to a more focused cult audience, but they are quite comfortable with that. Heavily influenced by Kyuss and Colour Haze, The Sundering (2008) was a promising start, and they fine-tuned the tones to glorious perfection on Eternal Season (2012). Amazingly, Beyond The Wall Of Time is a concept album. From the album art, it’s clearly a steampunk theme along the lines of what Rush did with Clockwork Angels (2012). So how the heck does one tell a story without lyrics? Well, classical music has done a pretty good job with that over the centuries. While Glowsun are not quite as brilliantly expressive to really pull off a truly narrative story with their guitar, bass and drums, they do an excellent job with establishing moods and textures.

My Sleeping Karma - Albums 2008-2012

Glowsun aren’t the only band mastering this style this year, and maybe not even the best, as Arenna from Spain (reviewed earlier here) also had a great album with Given To Emptiness, and Germany’s My Sleeping Karma continue their spiritual explorations from Satya (2008), Tri (2010) and Soma (2012) with their fifth album Moksha.  Signing to Colour Haze’s Elektrohasch label in 2006, the band were also influenced by prog metal along the lines of Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1987) and Tool. As they investigated more directly their interests in Eastern philosophies including Taoism and Buddhism, they have also incorporated Eastern musical influences, incorporating the melodies and scales into their work, with pretty gorgeous results. While to some it could easily reek of hippie mysticism and veer into noxious new age territory, the band retains the edge of their metallic roots. Like Glowsun they attempt to tell stories with their artwork, titles and music, with Soma addressing the world of dreams, and Moksha exploring the middle path between dreams and reality toward enlightenment.

My Sleeping Karma - Moksha (Napalm, 2015)

70s German Kosmische musik was only a minor influence on My Sleeping Karma, but if we go over to Japan, we hear the work of Ash Ra Tempel and Amon Düül II, along with Les Rallizes Dénudés and Acid Mothers Temple in Sundays & Cybele. Though they’ve been active since at least 2004, they’ve been under my radar until their first full-length Gypsy House (2004) was reissued by Guruguru Brain. Tsubouchi (2014) was another under the radar, low key release, but since signing to Brooklyn’s premier psych label, Beyond Beyond Is Beyond Records, anticipation has been building for Heaven, which is officially out at the end of the month. Like Tame Impala, they toy with chugging motorik dream pop rhythms and electronic sounds. But instead of being in the service of pop, they prefer unfettered, noisy freakouts, like the punk forecasting in the feistier parts of Neu! 75 and La Dusseldorf. Among the introverts and spiritualists, it’s refreshing to have the occasional unruly wild child.

Speaking of Kosmische, no one does it better than Moon Duo, who’s fourth album Shadow Of The Sun has been out since early March, but sounds great in a playlist along with this summer’s batch of summer psych. As the title suggests, this album is geared more toward once the shadows have grown long at dusk, and the lights some on as you drive to your next gig, party or summer adventure. Not quite psych noir, they do address somewhat more shadowy topics, along with sponging up influences of The Stooges, Suicide, Loop and Spacemen 3. Not a huge departure from Circles (2012), the songwriting is just slightly more fleshed out and hookier, with more diverse arrangements. At some point, the side project of Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada’s Wooden Shjips surpassed the main band.

Chilean band Föllakzoid take kosmische to new heights on their third album, assisted on synths by German artist Atom TM. Since Fujiya & Miyagi had a hit of sorts with Transparent Things in 2006, there has been a bunch of artists contributing to the subgenre I like to call New Kosmische, including Eine Kleine Nacht Musik, Electric Orange, Space Debris, Cave, BEAK>, Maserati, Peaking Lights, Eat Lights Become Lights, Majeure, Camera, Kosmischer Läufer, and of course Moon Duo and Föllakzoid from Chile. Their third full album progresses nicely, and is strong enough that even the blokes in Can and Neu would agree adds something special to the mix.

Another very promising band is Melbourne, Australia’s House Of Laurence. What started as a solo recording project of Christopher Laurence has expanded into a full-fledged band, incorporating blues and jazz influences via 70s voodoo fusion era Miles Davis, Harvest era Pink Floyd and Canterbury standouts The Soft Machine, with well-rehearsed ensemble work that aspires to the chemistry of Cream, Santana and Dungen.  They released an EP in 2012, a couple singles in 2014, and their debut full-length Awake on June 10. While the EP experiments with different psychedelic styles, the album stays focused on a fairly singular, minimalist groove that’s distinctly powerful. This band just moved toward the top of my list alongside Syd Arthur of psych bands I want to see live.

While some recent psych rock seems to lack some mystery and enigma, Ancient River has plenty to spare. Their music can be contemplative and dreamily cinematic, which works perfectly with the surreal short film provided for their song “Stay With Me.” Surprisingly, the band is from Gainesville, Florida. Like Tame Impala, they share a My Bloody Valentine influence with a touch of cosmic Americana. While the songwriting isn’t quite as evolved, the choice use of instrumentation, reverb and pacing are thoroughly satisfying.

Combine the spooky hauntology atmospherics of Jacco Gardner’s latest with Tame Impala’s laid back, bubbly electronics (while still retaining important guitar parts) and Ancient River’s sprawl, and you get The Holydrug Couple. The duo from Metropolitana, Chile, recorded their debut Awe back in 2009 which they self-released a couple years later, and then was picked up by Sacred Bones records for their second album, Noctuary (2013). Their third album finds them continuing their creative upswing, though the slow-paced, dreamy melodies can melt so easily into the background that it’s easy to underestimate the album, just as I was late to add them to this piece! Don’t make that mistake and be sure to include them in your summer playlist, and your summertime daydreams will be all the better for it.

Consider Ancient River’s guitars pushed into the red, it’s the aftermath of the party and the beach is littered but deserted, with strange marking in the sand suggesting a possible alien visitation. That’s the sound of Northern California’s White Manna, a beach party gone wrong, hijacked into outer space. Space rock overdrive courtesy of Hawkwind are a key influence, along with some garage rock, proto-punk and The Stooges. While they’re currently top of the class in heavy distorted space rock, there’s plenty of others worth hearing for those craving more. Philadelphia’s Ecstatic Vision recently released their promising debut on Relapse, hitting all the right buttons from UFO, Hawkwind, Sun Ra, Amon Düül II, to Fela Kuti. Also White Manna’s Cardinal Fuzz labelmates You’re Smiling Now But We’ll All Turn Into Demons, and Tucscon, Arizona’s The Myrrors.

And the jams jam on. Carlton Melton is another Californian heavy psych instrumental jam band. They specialize in live-in-the-studio albums, along with a bunch of other truly live stuff, emphasizing their loose, improvised sounding psychedelic rock. Ordinarily this would be a love or leave it situation where you really have to be inclined toward this type of music to even consider a listen. However, they have hit a peak on their fifth album, Out To Sea. Thunderous, monolithic drones that move like glaciers have now taken shape into more memorable, evocative compositions. If you remember Australian instrumental indie rock band The Dirty Three’s best work in the ’90s, much of the new album has similarly powerful emotional impact.

Along similar lines is Dutch instrumental stoner rockers The Machine. Their fifth full-length since 2007 on Elektrahasch is Offblast!

Germany’s Black Space Riders release their fourth album, Refugeeum this Friday. Just a year and a half after D:REI (2014), it’s quite different from everything in this piece because their latest is less psych and more prog and hard rock, with polished production and dramatic vocals closer to the latest by Alice In Chains. It’s a diverse, fascinating album that should attract plenty new fans by the end of the year.

So there’s a ton of space rock, instrumental psych jams and drones available, but it’s appeal is limited. What else is there for the fans of tightly written, melodic psych rock? Personally I was craving new material from the UK’s Hidden Masters on the Rise Above label. Unfortunately that band is in flux with personnel issues, and won’t have anything new this year. However, in the indie rock world, there were a couple massive releases that I reviewed earlier this year that I need to remind everyone to check out. Wand’s Golem (In The Red) and Thee Oh Sees, Mutilator Defeated At Last (Castle Face). Mikal Cronin, who has played with Ty Segal, released his third solo album MCIII. However, his latest has veered more into chamber and power pop territory than psych, and is not quite as memorable as his previous albums.

On the heavier side, Fort Worth, Texas’ FOGG put out a promising but demo quality album Death in 2013. Now on Tee Pee, High Testament is a giant leap, incorporating more proto-metal and a touch of prog. Other variously exciting and promising new bands include Germany’s bluesy psych of Pretty Lightning, Finnish shoegazey Black Lizard, Brooklyn psych prog Ancient Sky, and the new heavy psych debut on Tee Pee records from Encinita, CA’s Sacri Monti (full review here).

Galley Beggar - Silence & Tears (Rise Above, 2015)UK folk psych is rallying with a couple key albums by  Trembling Bells, which includes Hidden Masters‘ Alasdair C Mitchell on guitar, organ and glockenspiel and Galley Beggar, who signed to Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above label for their third album. Glasgow’s Trembling Bells are folk veterans, releasing albums since 2009. Their sixth, The Sovereign Self  has more psychedelic rock elements than ever before. On Galley Beggar’s Silence & Tears, they tap into the fusion of pastoral folk and psych of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Trees, Dark and Fairfield Parlour. Amidst their striking originals is a treatment of the traditional folk ballad “Geordie,” also done four decades ago by Trees, and holds up quite well. Also coming out this week, the second album of psych prog from Swedish band Agusa, who’s debut just came out last year. Their second album Två consists of just two sprawling tracks totaling just under 40 minutes, an all-out progtastic excursion into a world of dragons and flutes. Forget about what’s in fashion and immerse yourself.

Datura4 - Demon Blues (Alive Naturalsound, 2015)For more hard rockin’ psych, be sure to check out the Hard Rock Ascending feature, including Mirror Queen, Mondo Drag, Vidunder, The Vintage Caravan, Spidergawd, Cherry Choke and Abrahma. Another recent release from last week is Datura4, Demon Blues on Alive Naturalsound, from Australia. Dom Mariani helmed the 80s psych band The Stems, who released the underheard garage psych classic, At First Sight Violets Are Blue (1987).

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