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Columnfortably Numb

Columnfortably Numb: February's Psych Reviews By JR Moores
JR Moores , March 2nd, 2016 07:34

Before he gets usurped by a hippy droid, JR Moores surveys the latest psych (and noise) rock releases

So I'm staring at the blank laptop screen wondering how to introduce my latest column when I'm suddenly visited by my future self. This swirling wormhole opens on the wall of my office and out steps a figure who certainly looks like me, if a little greyer, more wrinkled and wearing a laser-proof flak jacket instead of a moth-eaten Boredoms shirt. To check he isn't an imposter, I ask him what number I'm thinking of. "69, dude", he replies correctly, proving that if he isn't really me then he is at least an admirer of the film Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and thus certifiably trustworthy. It transpires that Future Me is a card-carrying member of an anti-robot resistance force who has travelled back in time to warn the present me about the rise of the machines.

In his book Beyond Zero And One: Machines, Psychedelics And Consciousness, the neuroscientist Andrew Smart writes that instead of the "Turing test" for artificial intelligence, whereby in conversation an impartial human evaluator is unable to tell the difference between the cleverly designed machine and a real person, a better test is whether the machine can experience altered states of consciousness. Smart then argues that dosing robots with digital acid might even save us from becoming enslaved by cold and calculating sentient technologies (as envisioned by popular sci-fi franchises The Matrix and Power Rangers RPM). Like people on LSD, tripping robots might experience oneness with the universe, transcendence of time and space, deep feelings of positivity, reverence and wonder, and the meaningfulness of psychological and philosophical insight. This could, Smart says, make artificial intelligences more empathetic and safer to humans.

According to the time-jumping Future Me, Smart's predictions will indeed come to fruition, but they will also bring unforeseen disasters: a bad-tripping ED-209 firing its weapons at random shapes that aren't really there; a Manson-like death cult led by Dr. Theopolis; Siri answering every enquiry with an irrelevant three-hour lecture on the non-fictional output of Aldous Huxley. More tragically, automatons' imaginations will be triggered in newly creative ways. They will produce their own artworks and form their own simulant psych bands, rendering human musicians obsolete. Soon enough, your impartial human evaluator won't be able to tell the difference between an album released by an Eternal Tapestry/Sun Araw supergroup and that created by an assortment of Dyson accessories. Worse still, robo-psych bands will accordingly birth robo-psych columnists, leaving yours truly out of a gig. Impotent and incensed, I will enlist in the civil war against the cyber baddies and travel back in time to persuade my historical self to blow up a few tech factories to nip these acid-fried AIs in the bud.

After imparting this info however, and in his haste to return to his own era, Future Me accidentally left behind his iPad Mini 34. Naturally, I opted to destroy the object lest my enemies trace it and pursue me with an army of Cylons, Decepticons or the Doctor Who shop dummy ones. Before smashing it, I couldn't help glancing at the iPad's bookmarked pages of future editions of Columnfortably Numb, penned by my replicant replacement known as "JR-3000". To be perfectly honest, his prose sparkles. His encyclopaedic knowledge of psychedelia is unsurpassable. He commits no factual errors or typos. He draws on an inbuilt digital thesaurus for a seemingly infinite supply of appropriate synonyms for words like "fuzz". His metaphors are not only entertaining, they actually make sense. His concise introductions have a point to them. Future Me's plan backfired. I will not be made complicit in JR-3000's pre-emptive abortion. Good luck to him. Or it. Synthetic as it may be, it is a talented writer. I wish it all the best. All hail our psych-bot overlords.

Heron Oblivion - Heron Oblivion
(Sub Pop)

Meg Baird of noughties neo-folk darlings Espers sings and drums in this newfangled San Fran supergroup, accompanied by members of heavier psych-rockers Comets On Fire and Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound. Having fleshed out their songs from preliminary free-jam sessions, the result is what the band's blurb accurately describes as a "pastoral pummel". Whereas Baird's serene vocals are reminiscent of folk greats like Sandy Denny, the unhinged guitars are pure psych firework displays, exploding frequently, shimmering and screaming, waning momentarily into the background, and then blasting off again with frazzled gusto. 'Sudden Lament' could almost be a jangling Cranberries pop song, overdubbed by a Crazy Horse guitar duel. 'Faro' is spikier and more surfy, as if Fairport Convention had replaced Richard Thompson with Joey from The Pixies. Just when you think the epic journey of 'Rama' is fading out after eight raggedly blissful minutes, it bursts into yet another glorious double-guitar solo. Later on, 'Your Hollows' closes the album in an even more blistering orgy of gonzo axe noise. My only qualm is that the guitar refrain on the first track seems strangely indebted to the synthesized shakuhachi part from Peter Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer', which is disconcerting to say the least.

Henge - Henge
(God Unknown)

When you start listening to this London-based quartet's debut, it's tempting to write them off as a little Yankee-centric. Yes, they lift much from the pre-grunge alt-rock shtick of Jesus Lizard, Melvins, TAD and a bunch of more obscure Amphetamine Reptile signings with names like Malletcrown and Beefchoke. About three tracks in, however, Henge really come into their own by (un?)easing into their grumpy groove and becoming increasingly, almost unbearably slow as they start to morph into 11Paranoias jamming with a couple of the blokes from the Hey Colossus crew. The sludgy instrumentation is suitably complemented by the gravelly singer's forlorn, existential wail. This guy doesn't sound free like the Butthole Surfers used to. He sounds desperately trapped. That's what living in the hostile hustle-bustle world of that London will do to a man. He even bawls some lyrics about "the city" on a track named 'Wet Grave'. It's hard to comprehend what they are exactly, on account of the smog swathing across his face and the foam dribbling out of his mouth. Then he starts whistling. This isn't the jolly whistle of a village postman or carefree allotment-owner. Oh no. More like the resigned whistle of a condemned man being led to the gallows at Tyburn.

So Pitted - Neo
(Sub Pop)

Though a Nirvana fan like the rest of us, there was this kid at our school who claimed that he couldn't bear listening to In Utero because it was "just too loud". The rest of my gang, with our "corporate rock whores" long-sleeves and Razorblade Suitcase lunchboxes, couldn't understand why he didn't simply turn the volume down on his Panasonic portable minidisc player. "That doesn't help," he protested, "it's still too loud." As a Seattleite Sub Pop trio, So Pitted have drawn inevitable comparisons to Nirvana, although for the time being they're loathe to pen anything near as pretty as 'About A Girl'. Think more 'Negative Creep', 'Territorial Pissings' or Kurt Cobain screaming helplessly into the microphone before taking a kamikaze leap into the drum kit. Forget Nirvana, in fact, and imagine METZ's younger brother causing all sorts of insubordinate mischief out of sibling jealousy, parental neglect and hormonal imbalance. Sneering with brattish, paranoid despair, So Pitted's song titles include 'Woe', 'I'm Not Over It', 'The Sickness' and, best of all, 'Get Out Of My Room'. The latter features the poetic lines, "Everybody wants to hurt you / Trust no one / Somebody wants to kill you / Trust nobody", recited in a dispassionate monotone, as if plainly reporting fact. More urgently anxious are tracks such as 'Pay Attention To Me', which is like an 80s DC hardcore band covering a forlorn Sebadoh demo (until it descends nihilistically into its final minute of diehard industrial static). Comically bleak and uncompromisingly noisy, Neo is one of those records that leaves you with a head full of tinnitus no matter how low the volume.

Mugstar - Magnetic Seasons
(Rock Action)

English post-rock acts never really mastered the enigmatic sense of mystery that kept international audiences rapt for the next Godspeed You! Black Emperor release, Slint reunion tour or countless Explosions In The Sky tracks that all sounded the same. Like 65DaysOfStatic, Mugstar have been taken for granted, perhaps because their lack of pompous earnestness meant that certain beard-stroking listeners lost interest. Unlike Canterbury's precious Yndi Halda who return this year after a decade's absence (and we'll see whether that enigmatic sabbatical pays off), Mugstar are a prolific and unpretentious quartet from the North of England who may not play pseudo-classical suites that urge you contemplate the transitory beauty of each passing sunset, but boy are they fun. They're having fun too, as signified by the not-entirely-necessary chanting and whooping in the background of Magnetic Seasons' spacey opener. Elsewhere, 'Time Machine' initially recalls the exuberant space-rock jamming of Denmark's Causa Sui, although as it gets heavier and heavier the stoned riffs of West Virginia's Karma To Burn come to mind. 'Flemish Weave' is all mellow and floaty with rustic finger-picking until it transforms into a more intense kosmische throb. The simple, repetitive bass line on 'Remember The Breathing' is augmented by a lovely Hawkwind-style sonic whirlpool for fifteen hypnotic minutes. They showcase their more melancholic side on 'Sky West & Crooked', which is the closest Mugstar get to channelling the gloomier moods of their label bosses Mogwai. Taken as a whole, this long and loose record is an object lesson in how to be indulgent without resorting to tiresome po-facedness.

Causa Sui - Return To Sky
(El Paraiso)

Speaking of Causa Sui, on their umpteenth release the Danish quartet maintain their position as one of the most confident-sounding instrumental outfits around - and justifiably so. Beginning in typically bold fashion, their rhythm section holds the spotlight for most of 'Dust Meridian', its keyboard and guitar parts taking a respectful backseat to Jess Kahr's hefty, complex bass lines and the razzle-dazzle of Jakob Skøtt's tribal-jazz drum jitters. After holding back in this manner, Jonas Munk truly lets rip on 'The Source' as his detuned guitar riffs rocket straight out of some long-lost Kyuss bootleg. Like a successful butcher with countless loyal customers and several national branches to his name, it has a real meaty swagger. The piece then settles down for its final couple of minutes, flopping back into a deckchair to contemplate the interesting shapes of the clouds after a long hard day manning the beef cleaver. 'Mondo Buzzo' and 'Dawn Passage' feel looser, more meandering and noodly, whereas the title track travels from summery easy listening vibes through no-wave clodhopping and further phat riffery to a beautiful finale that resembles Cluster & Eno chilling out with late-90s Sonic Youth. Sadly, its running time isn't as long as the latter's 'The Diamond Sea' but there are few bands who'll dare to match their levels of unedited extravagance.

Urthona - Urthona Plays Atlantis?
(Heavy Rural)

You can imagine that as soon as Morrissey finished tossing off his verbose novella List Of The Lost, he put up his feet, dusted off his hands with a hearty cry of "bulbous salutations" and that was the end of that. Not so with Julian Cope, the ex-Teardrops polymath and all-round psych champion whose debut foray into fiction was published by Faber two years ago. A self-described "method novelist", Cope has since taken it upon himself to bring into fruition all the imaginary music described in his novel. Thus, on Bandcamp you can find tracks by baggy ravers Dayglo Maradona, Sardinian dance outfit Spackhouse Tottu and the Japanese avant-garde duo Nurse With Mound. There's also been an LP release from Vesuvio, a Naples-based "titanic metal" commune from the 1970s (in our reality, this was created by Cope, Stephen O'Malley and Holy McGrail and is one of the most underrated drone records of recent years). Now Cope has commissioned Urthona's Neil Mortimer to recreate the sound of Atlantis?'s "fierce Mithraic ritualistic music". Cope himself accompanies on freeform drums, while Michael J. York adds cow horn and duduk, but Mortimer is the true star here, sculpting monolithic dronescapes out of his distortion-bogged guitar and draping everything in thick curtains of feedback. The second track is the more aggressive of the two long pieces; its harsher bursts of rock noise verge on the industrial malevolence of Skullflower. Still, Mortimer's music stays far more cuddly than Matthew Bower's grimacing project. It's like hugging a massive bit of Stonehenge, completely naked, as the English wind pecks chilly kisses across your buttocks (an activity Mr. Cope would no doubt encourage).

Winkie - Come To My Party
(American Primitive)

I can hear you giggling at the back but frankly I'm above making a joke about this band's name. They're christened after the diner in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, okay? So there's no need to be all immature about it because the name is perfectly innocent, just like Scarborough's premier fish & chip restaurant, Winking Willy's. Along with providing their moniker, cinema was key to this Brooklyn duo's formation because the project began when its two members - Peter Santiago and Gina Spiteri - were commissioned to score a short film. Afterwards, they just carried on making music together, a decision for which we should be grateful because they've only gone and made one of the most satisfying post-punk-shoegaze-whatever-you-call-it albums in bloody ages. What's more, they've done it without even having any guitar player to speak of. Granted, Santiago plays bass but all the thickly distorted guitar-like-but-kinda-different noises emanate from Spiteri's keyboards, securing not just a novelty USP but a distinctive sound that successfully sets them apart from your average MBV-smitten noise-masons. Contrasting with the probably-sarcastic Andrew WK-ish title of the album are its deliciously gothy song titles: 'I Will Not Weep For Any Throne You Fall From', 'At Night They Dreamed Of Revenge', 'Drowning. Alone?', 'RUINED.' [their dramatic capitals and punctuation]. Spiteri is probably singing some deliciously gothy lyrics as well but they're going to take a while to absorb because the band's sound is one massively dense, foggy and gloopy whole. One of rock & roll's criminally unheralded heroes, Joe Cardamone from The Icarus Line, has done a marvellous job at mixing the record and, as if I didn't like them enough already, the internet's just informed me that the pair own a dog called LouLou Reed. Take a Winkie walkie on the wild side.

Bat-Bike - Getting Back

They are based, somehow, in both London and Leith. Their album's press release is dominated by a disturbing anecdote about an ice-cream man attempting to "shove a bare cone up his own arse". Its collaged artwork documents the balding process (or, alternatively, some kind of miracle hair-restoration cure, depending on which are the "before" and "after" shots). One of Bat-Bike's members is now legally called Alan Trashmouth Records, having auctioned off his own surname for £200. They produce their own brand of "Shit Hot Hot Sauce". They are obviously nuts. I like them. Getting Back's chunky first track has an exotic Eastern tinge to it while courageously and incongruously tackling the neglected lyrical subject of visiting Leicester. Bat-Bike sightsee the city's museums, cemeteries, prison and Indian takeaways. "Nelson Mandela never came here," they report, "I can't believe he never came here." Other highlights include the dirty riffs and muzzled screaming of 'Sean Lemon', concluding with a guitar solo that sounds like it's been played by a man in stained and fraying mittens. 'Bad Ben' is a rude and rowdy ballad that wouldn't have felt out of place on Fat White Family's debut album. 'Alone On The A9', meanwhile, is pretty much the exact opposite of Kraftwerk's glossy and glamorous hymn to the Autobahn (and, mercifully, a quarter of its length). There are so many Pod-era Ween-like brown sounds to enjoy on this record that I simply had to include Bat-Bike here, even if they're too grubby and down-to-earth, rather too concerned with the amusing banality of everyday British naffness, to be categorically defined as psychedelia. Behold the birth of Bat-Bikedelia.

Next time: a short history of short histories of the Swinging Sixties, part I