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Columnfortably Numb: Psych Rock For February Reviewed By JR Moores
JR Moores , February 24th, 2020 08:01

In his first psych/noise rock column of 2020, JR "the menace" Moores heeds the words of Mr Maconie and gets distracted by that famous Q-based band

OOIOO by Ryo Mitamura

"All great psychedelia, I think, has a hint of menace," so said the great sage of our time, Stuart Maconie, on 6Music's Freak Zone just before Christmas. Naturally, I tried to think of some exceptions. Great psychedelia that contains no hint of menace? It ain't easy.

 For all its warm-bellied trippiness and nostalgia for an upbringing spent messing around in the garden of a Salvation Army children's home, The Beatles' 'Strawberry Fields Forever' is still a little bit menacing. When John Lennon whispers into your ear that "nothing is real" it's like being haunted by ghost of some mad existentialist uncle. Lennon's adage of "nothing to get hung about" hardly softens the blow. He might as well have sung "But don't worry because at least you're not thinking about how nothing is real and that life is essentially meaningless. You're thinking about that now, aren't you? That reality is a façade? Maybe we're all hooked up to tubes by baddie robots like in The Matrix or something. You seem stressed now. Soz."

It's not just old 60s psych either. Even at their cuddliest, when not singing about the evil machines that threaten the precious life of Yoshimi, The Flaming Lips like to remind us at any given opportunity that the grains of sand are slipping through the egg timer at an alarming rate, hastening us all towards our inevitable demise.

Perhaps Maconie's Law extends to other genres too. Does all great music in general contain a hint of menace? All great pop music, for instance? Another thing that happened in December was the sorely disappointing poll that resulted in Mariah Carey's sublime 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' being voted the most annoying Christmas song of all time. This was a letdown, albeit one that didn't come as much of a surprise. It demonstrated, once again, that the British public can be no more trusted with opinions on pop music than they can be with a decision to sever their nation from the world's largest economic trading bloc because they were told to do it by some lies on a bus.

Mariah's tune might seem all sweet and lovely on its shiny and saccharine Spector-like surface. Delve a little deeper into the sheer level of unrequited yearning that define the lyrics to 'All I Want for Christmas Is You' (or 'Be My Baby', for that matter), and they could easily have been written by an obsessive and potentially violent stalker or, worse, Sting from The Police. 

It is only possible to innocently enjoy ABBA's 'Dancing Queen' without feeling menaced by it until you reach the tender age mentioned in its lyric. After you hit maturity, it bores deeper down into your soul with every passing year as you and everyone you grew up with drift further and further away from that halcyon age of seventeen. As 'Dancing Queen' is aired at each successive wedding disco that you will ever attend in your entire life and the song's lyrics increasingly appear to be sung from the perspective of a dirty old man, you smile falsely through ravaged gums trying – but failing – to ignore the ever-present creeping menace of mortality. There is a chance you have already danced at your final wedding disco.

Here are some psych-rock selections for you... with added menace ratings.

Big Scenic Nowhere - Vision Beyond Horizon
(Heavy Psych Sounds)

This column remains apologetically obsessed with The Band Whose Name Begins With The Letter Q. (No, not Brian May's lot. The other one.) Although Columnfortably Numb has never actually reviewed The Band Whose Name Begins With The Letter Q, the group has been mentioned at least half a dozen times in as many years, usually as a lazy point of comparison. The thing is, judging by comparative record sales, streaming figures and audience attendance, there must be literally millions of people out there in the world who consider themselves to be big fans of The Band Whose Name Begins With The Letter Q and yet have zero interest in any similar music or the scene whence they sprang. Oh, you like Songs For The Deaf do you? Have you heard that Masters Of Reality album that's got Ginger Baker on the drums? "No, but I do quite like the fifth Foo Fighters album. I prefer the second disc, mind." Good grief.

Big Scenic Nowhere's personnel include members of Yawning Man, Fu Manchu and other old hands of the stoner rock scene with sand between their toes and tinnitus in their ears. The communal sound is as dense as a neutron star and as thick as one of Donald Trump's press secretaries. Big Scenic Nowhere have a knack for laidback yet catchy vocal melodies. The emphasis is on the phat riffs with blasts of righteous lead guitar being used, as is best, sparingly. The longest tracks do not even last seven minutes but they seem a lot longer than that. Not in a tedious way, it should be pointed out. In a fuller and expansive kind of way. Basically, if Vision Beyond Horizon was released by The Band Whose Name Begins With The Letter Q it would be hailed as a five-star cross-collaborative return to form after an agonising period of dull (if lucrative) complacency. The music biz has never been a meritocracy. BAH!

Menace rating: Dennis The Menace

Mondo Generator - Fuck It
(Heavy Psych Sounds)

They can be a sweary bunch, those veteran desert rockers. Last year's excellent comeback album by the power trio Nebula had the no-nonsense title Holy Shit. There's been an eight-year gap between Mondo Generator albums and the title they've come up with for the comeback record is Fuck It. Expect the next Brant Bjork sideproject to be named Bastard Cock and the upcoming album by The Band Whose Name Begins With The Letter Q to have a far more tasteful title because, let's face it, as punk rock as J-Homme likes to think he is, the management company is never going to let him go with An Arse Stick For The Fartleberried Thatch Whore, however Chaucerian his ambitions.

A lot of stoner bands, as it happens, try to cling to the punk-rock values that first inspired them to pick up their instruments and make a racket. At the same time, their sound tends to abandon any semblance of hardcore and basically concentrates on replicating Blue Cheer. Nothing wrong with that but it's notable that beardy bassmaster Nick Oliveri has always kept at least one long finger in the punk-rock pie (and surely it's the middle digit too). He continues to hang out with the wrong crowd. Specifically, The Dwarves. I mean, if you're going to insist in still playing in a punk band when you're pushing 50, it might as well be one of the worst punk bands. And that is meant entirely as a compliment.

Oliveri's Mondo Generator are heavier than punk, although their leader retains his aggressive bark at most times and has a penchant for quick-draw tempos implying that, at heart, he is still that teenager with a Black Flag fixation. Indeed, every album by The Band Whose Name Begins With The Letter Q since the mid-2000s has suffered from the absence of Nick Oliveri's jester-like presence. He brought a sense of anarchy and unpredictable impulsiveness to the proceedings. Likewise, his vocal dominance on Mondo Generator's material can begin to grate over the course of a whole LP. After all, when was the last time you dusted off that old Flavor Flav solo album? Fuck It. Oliveri obviously didn't spend the eight-year absence working on that title, nor on the music. It's wilfully obnoxious hard rock stuff with lyrics that feature killers on the loose, women who are loose, tequila being drunk and drugs being boshed. Oliveri could have a more substantial album in him if he were to apply more focus, concentration and hard work. If he did that, though, it would be at the expense of that sense of spontaneity that continues to serve him so well.

Menace rating: Dennis Hopper playing five finger fillet with a flick-knife

OZO - Saturn
(Riot Season)

Had he been allowed to live on eternally like Marvel's wise-cracking Deadpool character or a sad vampire from an Anne Rice novel, where would Miles Davis had gone next? His music had already incorporated practically the entire gamut of global influences, and developed from bebop beginnings to what Julian Cope described as "the sound of all seven CDs from The Stooges' Funhouse boxed set played simultaneously throughout the house on small inferior ghetto blasters".

This column likes to think that, given a few more years of that beautiful gift we call life, the so-called 'prince of darkness' would've delved deeper into the heavy psychedelia and skronking noise-rock thicket. What would that have sounded like? Not unlike OZO, probably. Karl Conrad D'Silva plays alto saxophone rather than trumpet like Miles (so maybe Coltrane would've been a more suitable comparison but that's beside the point). He's accompanied Graham Thompson on the drums and Mike Vest on guitar and bass. The five-track space-jazz freakout will appeal to those of us who don't exactly have seven budget ghetto blasters plus the Funhouse boxed set at our disposal but do enjoy opening two browsers on the PC desktop and playing Vest's old Blown Out power trio through one YouTube channel and Sun Ra's Cymbals through another. FYI, I have just tested this out and it's the most fun you can have without having to do something illegal.

Menace rating: A dizzy Dennis Rodman

Luminous Bodies - Yeah Yeah Yeah \ Nah Nah Nah

'Fuck The Beatles' announce Luminous Bodies on track five of their new LP. Fair enough. Which one of The Fab Four would you go for though? Personally I'd jump straight into bed with Sir Ringo. He'd get a nice consistent rhythm going, interspersed with the occasional unexpected flourish just to keep things spicy. While his self-assured bandmates might take your love for granted, if Ringo treated the offer of intercourse anything like his membership of The Beatles, he wouldn't be able to believe his luck.

If you wanted to hump the drummer from Luminous Bodies, you'd have a couple of sweethearts to choose from. That's right, this collective of scruffians have two beatmongers just like all the best bands (The Fall, Melvins circa 2006, the final incarnation of Fugazi, NoMeansNo, The Glitter Band...). Butthole Surfers are probably Luminous Bodies' principal double-drummer muse, mind, seeing as opener 'Sykes' sounds like rock & roll as veritable apocalypse, and one that you can growl along to no less, while the planet drowns in a plague of locusts accompanied by a lung-collapsing deluge of disgusting riffs. Faster numbers like 'Hey! You!' and 'The Lidless Eye' are probably a hoot live, as long as you aren't standing next to one of the violent psychopaths who are no doubt drawn to this group's ugly aural shenanigans. On the stereo system at home, it's the slow and lingering tracks like the grindsome closer 'Gut Reaction' that really creep into your soul and make you want to do revolting things.

"I'm gonna make some bad choices" shouts Gordon Watson when he's three songs deep, over a track that sounds like a beefed-up bad-trippin' Stooges, as if Iggy Pop was trying to front TAD during an earthquake. You've got to have made some bad choices in life to have ended up playing in this band. But it's all for the greater good of 'orrible noise rock.

Menace rating: A dishevelled Denise Van Outen holding her own in a frenzied street brawl

OOIOO - Nijimusi
(Thrill Jockey)

Portishead's Geoff Barrow gets pretty tetchy when people refer to his band Beak> as a side-project. "Fuck off!" he will say. "My arse!" he will cry. "Just don't fucking bother writing shit if it's this bullshit", he will curse, pointing out that Beak> have been around for over a decade, released several albums in that time and played more than 500 shows. Is it possible that YoshimiO is starting to feel the same way? Even though Nijimusi is their first album in six years, OOIOO are actually still in the business of recording albums on the semi-regular, unlike YoshimiO's better known band, Boredoms, who have hardly released anything since the days when most of my friends still had large compact disc collections and full heads of hair.

OOIOO claim to have stripped back their sound for this supposedly return-to-basics LP. That said, there's still more going on here than in the plot to several seasons of The Wire. The music is in a constant state of flux. Well... why stick to one elaborate time signature when there is an infinity of other ones to test out as soon and as often as you can? Even with mainly 'rock' instrumentation being used, it's difficult to pin down what exactly is making each sound... and how. You wouldn't want to charge your sworn enemy with the task of notating this exuberant cacophony. Frank Zappa himself would be scratching his head and requesting a revitalising avocado smoothie. That's not to say Nijimusi is objectionably complex like prog rock, a Thomas Pynchon novel or the later work of Chicago's Tortoise. In fact, it's a romp. Tracks like 'jibun', 'bulun' and (deep breath) 'walk for "345" minutes, while saying "Ah Yeah!" with a "Mountain Book" in one hand, until a shower of light pours down' are even surprisingly relaxing, if you let the music wash over you and don't think about anything too hard.

Menace rating: side effects may include delirium

Arbor Labor Union - New Petal Instants

Where exactly can the hippies and the alt-country layabouts meet up with the punks, post-punks and alt-rockers to put aside their differences and bond over a mutual love of kickin' back and rockin' out? Well, at Neil Young gigs, obviously. Failing that, a Meat Puppets concert. There are other options too, including that offered by the lesser known Arbor Labor Union. From this vantage point it seemed that Arbor Labor Union's I Hear You was one of the most slept-on releases of 2016, despite it having been released on every polo-shirted indie music fan's label of choice, Sub Pop. Clearly Sub Pop wasn't indie enough for Arbor Labor Union and they've now been promoted or demoted (depending on how you look at it) to the even indier Arrowhawk Records.

This delightful band continue to deal in slightly ramshackle, southern-fried cosmic Americana that also has an elusive kind of edge or heft to it. I've seen the 'grunge' word mentioned in one write-up (blame the Sub Pop connection for that) and even a comparison to The Band Whose Name Begins With The Letter Q. Although both of those are way off the mark, they do give some impression of the post punk or art rock oomph that's buried in there somewhere and hard to put a finger on. An added bonus is the literary merit of Bo Orr's thoughtful and engaging lyrics, which he yelps out like a Bukowskian barfly poet waiting for a break and knocking back a lion's share of Marker's Mark in the meantime. Basically, Arbor Labor Union would make the perfect choice of vaguely esoteric support act to fellow Athens, Georgia crew REM, if only the latter outfit was still an ongoing concern. We should all demand that Mills, Stipe, Berry and Buck reunite for that express purpose. They can say they're doing it for a more noble cause if they like. The Bernie Sanders campaign trail, for instance, or in support of Greta Thunberg's noble mission to prevent men in shiny black shoes from letting the world burn before our very eyes for the sake of their shareholders. But really they'd be doing it for the rock.

Menace rating: Richard Brautigan kicking off in an alleyway behind the library

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