It’s now, it’s then, it’s zen. Psychedelia continues to warp the modern age. Em Burrows investigates.
The kids are listening to Tame Impala; their dads bow down to the Grateful Dead; grandmas recall The Beatles (when they went all flowery, dear), and almost everybody thinks of (The) Pink Floyd.
The truth is, the vast kaleidoscopic amalgam of psychedelic music stretches across decades, genres, and continents; from Tokyo’s Kikagaku Moyo, to Canterbury’s Syd Arthur, Sweden’s Death and Vanilla (Dungen, Laike, Goat – take your Scandinavian pick), Detroit’s Funkadelic, Iceland’s Bjork (a psychonaught by any other name) and so, so much more.
Despite its enormous popularity, ever-growing diversity and undeniably widespread influence, there’s still a murmur on the streets that psychedelic music is inherently retrogressive; silly, nostalgic, a ‘phase’, a ‘move-through’ genre. I could go on but, frankly, I’ve heard enough. I stand here, m’lud, to set the record straight… (as it were).
The scope and breadth of psychedelic music make categorisation almost impossible. Some great writers have delved into the abyss (Jim Derogatis, Jon Savage, and Vernon Joyson come to mind) but with sub-genres too numerous to mention (psych-folk, psych-pop, acid-folk, acid-house, space-rock, stoner-rock, trip-hop – for starters) it’s no wonder that we’re yet to fully catalogue this ever-expanding musical realm.
There’s no denying that the LSD counterculture of the ‘60s and psychedelia are inextricably linked. In the same way that Huxley, Leary, Burroughs, Thompson (Hunter S.) et al attempted to capture the experience of hallucinogenic ‘trips’ in the written word, and visual artists such as Rick Griffin, Martin Sharp, and pioneering op-artist Bridget Riley, used bold shapes, patterns and colours to render the psychedelic landscape; musicians employed a sonic palette of fuzz, phasing, looping, and reverb to recreate and accompany their mind-expanding experiences.
On October 22 1966 the UK’s Melody Maker cemented ‘psychedelia’ in the lexicon of the zeitgeist by running a special on ‘the new in word’. Unstructured, loud, layered jams characterised the (then predominantly American) bands who purveyed these sounds but, in a short time, English bands such as Cream and Traffic took license to embrace the sound with their own elements of “whimsy, parochialism, and nostalgia” (simultaneously shaking off the prevailing American influence over rock n roll), throwing their “Englishness” into the mix and re-defining it as they went (Wells, David. Record Collector’s 100 Greatest Psychedelic Records. Diamond Publishing, 2005. P4). A significant development for sure.
With the help of open-minded and progressive record producers like Joe Boyd and George Martin, listeners were drawn into the sprawling, epic, and experimental soundscapes with such visceral intensity that even those who had never experienced the drugs first-hand felt like they knew what it was like to be on the psychedelic bus. In fact, anyone with the right tools could jump aboard…
Far from remaining shackled to psychotropics or a definitive ‘sound’, the genre’s inherently experimental ideology and warm embrace of ‘otherness’ quickly became representative of the broader fabric of social change of the ‘60s. Since then it has continued to symbolise an artistic rejection of the status quo.
At its essence psychedelic, music is transportative. It deals in the evocation of possibilities and perceptions, of new and different spaces (inner and outer) and, done well, it transcends time and place.
Allison Brice, vocalist for New York’s Lake Ruth (purveyors of mesmerisingly groovy baroque psych-pop) puts it thusly;
“[Psychedelic music is] music in which you find a sense of the unexpected; something that makes good use of creative structures and sonic innovation to conjure up a sense of the transcendent. If it’s imaginative, if it engages your ear and transports you to an intriguing place, and moves you in unexpected ways, then it’s potentially psychedelic. [It’s] entirely listener dependent, I suppose. Psychedelic recordings, to me, contain the element of surprise coupled with a kind of timeless, otherworldly quality – in that each new listen has the potential to reveal previously hidden dimensions.”
With rapidly advancing technology, the sounds of psychedelia have taken on a whole new spectrum in the 21st century. Mancunian production duo, The Amorphous Androgynous, are self-confessed genre-benders. Concerned with the “freedom and timelessness” of psychedelia, they break down expectations track by track with their experimental, ambient re-imaginings of other people’s songs (Uncut Magazine, 10.12.16). The 2008 compilation, A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding in Your Mind: Volume 1, set a new benchmark for psychedelic music with artists from The Chemical Brothers to Ry Cooder sitting comfortably side by side in a sonic pool of fuzz, bubbles, modulation, flute, sitar, and ambient synthesis, all linked together with sampled shamanistic wisdom (including quotes from Bill Hicks and Charles Bukowski). In its entirety, the compilation makes for a mind-blowing and heady listening experience and genuinely epitomises the transcendence and fluidity of the psychedelic genre. This and their subsequent work cannot be recommended highly enough.
Its flexible boundaries render psychedelic music dynamic, exciting and constantly evolving. Melbourne’s Krakatau fuse progressive funk-jazz-psych sounds with apparent ease (their 2016 masterpiece Tharsis Montis/Apogean Tide picks up where Miles Davis left off). The whimsical, glitchy surrealism of Ariel Pink builds on that great tradition of quirky, unpredictable psych, and the fuzzed out folk-rock of Bedford’s pastoral psych-weavers Wolf People is unapologetically English, heavy and melodic. One only needs to follow King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard as they blaze (ahem) a trail of precision krautrock, raw garage, art rock motifs and microtonal riffage (selling out live shows and producing a prolific number of records as they go), to see that psychedelic rock is not just alive and well but progressive, relevant and resonant.
DJ Claude Mono, curator of radio RTRFM’s psych-flavoured odyssey Golden Apples of the Sun, embraces the mélange:
“Like all music genres Psychedelia as a genre is of interest in its own right but I tend to get most excited at the ‘genre-edges’ so musical exploration becomes really interesting at the cross-over points. […] while I appreciate Pink Floyd as a reference point I am more likely to get excited about a heavy psych-out from Japan or an electronic dance remix… and it’s certainly not a dead genre.”
So you’ve seen the evidence. You’ve heard from key witnesses. Now climb aboard and start the journey: ‘
Listen to the colour of your dreams…’
Lake Ruth https://lakeruth.bandcamp.com/
Golden Apples of the Sun https://goldenapplesofthesunradioshow.wordpress.com/
Where to start:
Allison Brice Recommends Margareta Juvan & Can – I’m Hiding My Nightingale
Bruno Nicolai – Razionale
Rotary Connection – I Am the Black Gold of the Sun
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani – Closed Circuit
The Soundcarriers – Boiling Point
Claude Mono Recommends
Oasis – Falling Down (A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Mix)
Gnod & White Hills – Drop Out
The Cosmic Dead – The White Rabbit
Our Solar System – At the Edge of Time
Tame Impala – Elephant (Todd Rundgren Remix)
Yuya Uchida & the Flowers – I’m Dead
Em Burrows Recommends Lake Ruth – The Inconsolable Jean Claude
Wolf People – Silbury Sands
The GOASTT – Animals
Syd Arthur – Garden of Time
Causa Sui – Juju
Blues Broadcast – You Can Fall