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Columnfortably Numb: Your Psych Roundup For June
JR Moores , May 30th, 2018 10:40

JR Moores rifles through the latest psychedelic releases, from those that are freestyle to those in the style of Free

There is an alternative history of popular music yet to be written which celebrates radical acts of backwards-looking conservatism - those particular moments that were less ‘shock of the new’ than ‘shock of the surprisingly exciting in an admittedly pretty traditional or even kind of reactionary way’. Hüsker Dü or The Replacements growing increasingly tuneful and jangly, for instance. Black Flag slowing all the way down and growing their hair long. J Mascis’ transition from hardcore Deep Wound drummer to virtuoso geetar deity. The Band turning their back on 60s counterculturalism by dressing up as hokey farmhands. Low’s Alan Sparhawk singing earnestly about Jesus. The few solid albums of the Britpop era. Bryan Ferry.

Perhaps I am the one to write it. I love to get home in time for the opening credits of University Challenge and I have no tattoos. First there is this big old pile of psych releases to wade through.

Howlin' Rain - The Alligator Bride (Silver Current)

Howlin' Rain is another fine example of exciting musical regression. They were formed by Ethan Miller from the chaotically noisy Comets On Fire. He also plays in the freaky folky supergroup Heron Oblivion and the more frantic garage trio Feral Ohms. Howlin' Rain are his most accessible project and you can't help feeling that if he'd been born in an earlier era then Miller would have been richer than Jim Morrison at his absolute plumpest. There's been at least one review that has taken aggressive objection to Miller's nostalgic jeans 'n' leather bearded rawk shtick but to give him credit there are moments in everybody's life when you just want to wind down the window and burn along the highway listening to something that sounds quite a lot like Free. (Metaphorically, at least. I do not own a driver's licence and rarely leave the house.) Plus, any band that has the gumption to record a 15-minute rendition of 'Wild Life' by Wings deserves a medal the size of Sean Lennon's hat.

Following 2016's introspective Mansion Songs, Howlin' Rain have revived the bigger and bolder means of delivering their unashamedly classic rock thang for The Alligator Bride. Influenced by the beat generation's Neal Cassady, Miller's lyrics feature motels, midnight, heartache 'n' hills, pistols, various railroads and a number of sunsets. Those golden vocal chords of his pull it all off, however. As per, Howlin' Rain are at their finest when most drawn-out and unashamedly self-indulgent. Eight-minute centrepiece 'The Wild Boys' recalls the delicate noodles of Sonic Youth's resident Deadhead Lee Ranaldo before the soloing gets increasingly actually Garcia-like. Of similar length, the final number has a neat bass-guitar-piano breakdown preceding the Led Zeppy LP climax. The title track is so Crazy Horse it could tear through any manmade lasso with the greatest of ease.

Pharaoh Overlord - Zero (Ektro)

When Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap released his first solo album earlier this year, it was posited by Stephen Erlewine on Twitter that part of the joke was that Smalls had an even ropier voice than John Entwistle of The Who. It is indeed difficult to hear the ridiculous singing on Smalls Change without remembering the chorus to 'Boris The Spider'. The same thing occurs with Zero by Pharaoh Overlord. The opening track is cover of 'Revolution' by Spacemen 3. Its music draws from krautrock and shoegaze, as one might expect. The bloomin' batshit vocals, on the other hand, are less baritone than the-guy-from-napalm-death-is-stuck-down-a-barrel-tone. This becomes particularly menacing when the instrumentation fades all the way down to virtual silence so that the vocal track can completely engulf its listener like some burping cloud of mental destruction. Spacemen 3 famously took drugs to make music to take drugs to. One imagines that if you took drugs while listening to the near-acapella bit of Pharaoh Overlord's 'Revolution' then you'd risk being sucked into a hell portal only to re-emerge irreversibly Clive Barkerised. It's hilarious.

Pharaoh Overlord are no comedy band even if they are prone to eccentric daftness, much like their parent outfit Circle who enjoy wearing spandex but aren't shit like The Darkness. It's Antti Boman who provides Zero's croaksome vox. He usually "sings" for Demilich which, as they're a Finnish death-metal band, makes perfect sense. It suits the intense, heavy and claustrophobic onslaught of the music. Pharaoh Overlord's style is much lighter and more cosmic, like Neu and Can (another guest here, as it happens, is Hans Joachim Irmler of Faust). Having a death-metal vocalist growl over that shiny, dreamlike loveliness is bonkers. It makes no sense. It doesn't fit. Some listeners will feel the band have ruined their own record with such an unconventional appointment of lead vocalist. And you've got to love a band who ruin their own records on purpose. It's a brilliant idea. The next time any band arrogantly announces that they've really pushed their music to the limit on their latest recordings, if they haven't replaced their singer with Antti Boman of Demilich fame then they're talking out of their botties.

Pelagos - Revolve (Svart)

Those lacking the stomach for Pharaoh Overlord's innovative brand of post-kraut belch-gaze are advised to investigate Pelagos instead. They're another Pori-based outfit, this one consisting of people who used to play in Circle back in the 1990s. They've got a post-electro feel reminiscent of Errors, Emeralds, John Carpenter's Lost Themes material, or the underrated Italian outfit Port-Royal. Song titles such as 'Island Of Pelicans', 'Sea Of Tranquillity' and 'Aphrodite's Shore' should be a warning sign that Pelagos have the odd progilicious tendency, although this doesn't get too out of hand. Layers and textures are granted greater significance than instrumental showboating and fancy time signatures and 'Muted Stars' sounds less like Spock's Beard than New Order remixing The Cure in a desolate moon base. Overall, Pelagos do seem a little more po-faced than Pharaoh Overlord and the current incarnation of Circle. Having said that, it could be that the orientalist melodies and mysticism-flavoured words of 'Invisible' are intentionally silly. The album's vocals, meanwhile, are almost the opposite of Pharaoh Overlord's. More intensely processed than an industrial chicken nugget, they're often reminiscent of that fourth Kanye West album which caught him on the cusp of his descent into outright doolalliness.

Landing - Bells In New Towns (El Paraiso)

Connecticut's Landing have been plugging away for twenty years which is a long time to spend carting weighty amplifiers and pedal boards all over the place if you're not lucky enough to attract the same scale of adoration as Yo La Tengo. Their last album for the El Paraiso label, 2016's Third Sight, consisted of three long and hazy tracks. This time they're in more of a sing-song disposition and have flexed the old pop-sensibility muscle so that no track is allowed to sprawl very far beyond the five-minute mark. Within that restriction, the heady textures are still in full force with lots of fuzz, drone, reverb, echo and instrumental interludes to soothe your existential woes.

After a brief folky intro, 'By Two' takes its cues from krautrock, shoegaze, ambient and perhaps even goth, and fuses them all into something uniquely dreamy. 'Bright' is like Neu collaborating with Phil Manley on a whispered cover version of some lost Gary Numan deviation. 'Secret' imagines a world where My Bloody Valentine had signed to 4AD after which they became obsessed with Mogwai's 'New Paths To Helicon Pt I (BBC Session Version)'. 'Wait Or Hide' is marginally spikier, as if New Order had been keener to embrace muddy distortion. 'Trace' is almost outright folk and thus the least interesting track on offer. For the most part though it's misty-minded belter.

Gnod - Chapel Perilous (Rocket)

There has been a debate waging in the field of popular philosophy over whether things are, in very general terms, getting better for humanity. Members of the glass-half-full brigade include Steven Pinker and Peter Singer. Look at the medical advances we've made, they say. Violence is less common than in previous ages. Cruelty towards women, children and animals appears to be on the decline. We're generally more altruistic than we used to be. The new Arctic Monkeys album has got some quite interesting bits in it if you turn your head to one side, squint a little, and inhale paint fumes. Challenging all this is the cynicism of John Gray. Borrowing heavily from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's counterattack on the Enlightenment, Gray believes that the progress of civilisation is a dumb fallacy. If fear of nuclear weapons use has helped prevent mass armed conflict, great powers have fought one another in numerous proxy wars and the deaths of non-combatants has steadily risen. The bulk of major technological advances have been a double-edged sword. Rationalism is a utopian delusion. Alex Turner's talent as a lyric writer has become steadily worse and it's now apparent that a tranquilised otter could do a better job.

Judging by the trajectory of their output, it'd be fair to assume that Gnod sit in the latter camp, albeit coming from a more anti-capitalist stance than Gray's cheekily provocative liberal-baiting one. Last year's album was called JUST SAY NO TO THE PSYCHO RIGHT​-​WING CAPITALIST FASCIST INDUSTRIAL DEATH MACHINE (in full caps on a blood-red background, no less). In contrast to the swirly-whirly playfulness of some of Gnod's early psychedelic handiwork, it was a bleak, angry and nihilistically Swans-like affair. Fifteen minutes long, Chapel Perilous' opening number starts off like the first note of 'Purple Haze' being struck over and over again, steadfastly refusing to break into Hendrix's euphorically funky full riff, then builds and builds into a metallic symphony of cranking harshness. "There's no space for meeeeeeeeeeee," bawl the vocals as if John Lydon and Jaz Coleman had birthed a lovechild and then left it in dustbin with nothing for company but a second-hand copy of Thomas Hardy's bleakest tome. At the tail-end of the album sits the equally fierce if punkier 'Uncle Frank Says Turn It Down', the main riff for which is kinda nu-metal if you think about it, albeit used for far more noble purposes than Coal Chamber ever mustered. In between sit more abstract numbers loaded with droney throbs, foreboding chimes, trip-metal crackles and clattering Einstürzende Neubauten percussion. It's hard to think of a better accompanying soundtrack if the world really is becoming steadily more fubarred.

Locean - Object / Disco? (Box)

Portillo neglected to mention this but if you stand on the correct platform at Manchester Piccadilly railway station then you can sometimes hear a right ruddy racket coming from the nearby Star & Garter public house. Sometimes it's obviously the sound of Smiths disco night. On a good day, you might be lucky enough to catch the marginally muffled aural contortions of Locean, who have been known to record there. Fronted by poet Lauren Bolger, Locean is a shape-shifting collective that's had members Gnod, Luminous Bodies and Terminal Cheesecake in its rowdy ranks. Over the next few months, Box Records will be releasing a bunch of cassettes featuring some of Locean's longform recordings and if this first one is anything to go by then we're in for some lumpy and gloop-ridden treats. Each side of this tape contains its own extended track of improvised psychedelic skronkwave with Bolger speaking, shouting and screaming like she's on a mission to out-intimidate Lydia Lunch, Liars' Angus Andrew and Mark E. Smith all in one go. The latter would still have been living when this was recorded. Might he have wandered past the Star & Garter, caught a snippet of the repetition repetition repetition and nodded appreciatively, plastic bag of tinnies swinging in his arm, a wry smile on his weathered face? Maybe not in central Manchester, he was more at home in Salford. But anyway... RIP-aah... Hit the new-weird north!

Rangers - Late Electrics (Doom Trip)

Most artists are contractually obliged to promote their latest album by pretending it's the best thing they've ever done. Yes, Mr Grohl, this "garage rock record" that you've created in the studio of your mansion with hundreds of additional musicians and an army of engineering personnel is definitely better than the first two Foo Fighters albums, isn't it? You really have peaked this time, haven't you, David? Get your hands off those Krispy Kremes! I don't care if you were in Scream! In a rare instance of a musician being correct, Joe Knight aka Rangers has said that Late Electrics is his greatest work yet.

The lyrics to the woozy 'Never Expected Much' see Knight wearily surrendering to the blanket vacuity of gentrification. It's ironic, then, that you could argue that Rangers' sound has become increasingly "gentrified" and this is certainly no bad thing. Compared to the relative scrappiness of some of the project's earlier releases, 'Dog Mom' has such a well-polished balance of rockin' guitar work to shiny synth lines that it compares to Trans Am. Granted, Trans Am are not salmon-bagel-munching millionaires themselves but their sound is rather lavish. Geffen Records paid certain bands a bucket load of cash to record in glitzy studios in the alt-rock heyday, and few of them came up with anything as accomplished as 'Apartment Scene'. Joe Knight has crafted this slacker-rock humdinger all on his tod in some faraway Texan hole.

Other highlights include 'Dutch Oven' (possibly the most poignant song named after a household appliance since Lemonheads' 'Stove') and 'Dish Rags' which tackles the woes of supporting a sports team. You can imagine that physical-games fanatic Stephen Malkmus, Honorary King of Portland, might dig that latter one. Its twiddly bits and keyboard details are not hugely dissimilar to The Jicks' sparkliest moments. "You're in the major leagues / I'm stuck in double-A," Knight sings despondently, perhaps even referencing that old Pavement single. We gammon-faced Britons may not understand what that second line means so let's assume double-A is like playing in the Football Conference. Time to promote Rangers to the same level as Panda Bear, Ariel Pink, Mac Demarco and Crystal Palace.

Next time: a scenic ramble around Dorset's rural recording studios with Josh Groban and Kate Humble

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