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Columnfortably Numb: The Best Psych Rock Of 2020
JR Moores , December 4th, 2020 10:49

JR Moores lists the psych and noise-rock records that have got him through this less than groovy year


It must have been 2001 or 2002 when I went for a full seven days without eating any cheese. There was no good reason for this. No advice from any concerned doctor or personal trainer. No final ultimatum from a belly-wary loved one. It was more like a novelty endurance test stemming mostly from boredom (along with the curiosity to see whether I was a true addict).

My self-imposed dairy fasting was also partly inspired by The Flaming Lips. I'd read about how they'd developed a habit of conducting what they called "unscientific experiments" upon themselves. Seeing how long they could go without food, for example, or how many days with no sleep. A cheese-free diet is hardly on a parallel with those extremes and in the end I found it surprisingly easy. It was only a week, after all. As far as I can remember there were no severe cravings or violent mood swings. I probably lost a smidgeon of weight. And then, when I allowed myself to consume cheese again, boy oh boy did that Cheddar taste incredible. I did dive right back in, mind. I don't believe I've gone that long without it ever since.

It must have been early March in 2020 when I last attended a real-life gig. This gap is without precedent and it is beginning to take its toll. The other day I listened to a classic album by a band I was supposed to have seen in June. I pictured myself in the future, attending the rescheduled date, whenever there's a chance of that occurring. The concert is supposed to be happening next summer but the way things are going the government will have bought thirty million quid's worth of faulty own-brand Listerine from an old school chum of B---- instead of a working vaccine from an actual laboratory. Anyway, I had an intense daydream about how cathartic and joyous that eventual concert would be after however many months of lockdown blues. I am not ashamed to say I had a bit of a cry.

As well as looking forward I was also thinking back to the last time I had seen the same band, which was far too long ago. I remember their singer had introduced one song by saying something about how, although we were all having a jolly great time together, inevitably there were some people in the audience who were going through a particularly bad time at that moment. The next song was dedicated specifically them. Dotted among the sea of people who were simply clapping and cheering in solidarity were those close friends, partners or family members who suddenly felt the urge to embrace. Looking around the room, here and there I saw couples and other small groups of people burst into tears together, and immediately start to comfort one another, to ease each other's pain and to assure one another that everything was going to be okay; that things WERE going to get better.

That band was The Flaming Lips. They knew there was love in that room and that some of that love remained pent-up and unspoken (we were an English audience, after all). They allowed that love to reveal itself and to be expressed, collectively and without any embarrassment. If only for a few minutes or so, it was as if the musicians had lifted the lid to Pandora's Other Box. The one with all the good stuff in it.

Sorry for being so soppy and sincere for once. That's what a pitiful year like 2020 will do to a grizzled psych hack. Cheese, I could live without. But this? Live music? The healing force of the universe?! Living without it is not getting any easier. Thank heavens for the solace of recordings because I - WE - miss live music so much and by crikey do we need it back.

In the meantime, here's a rundown of the psychedelic and noise-rock records that have most kept my spirits up this year. It's not been entirely bad, I suppose. We all must have learned something new about ourselves over the last 12 months. For instance, I discovered how to make my own pizza dough during lockdown and also that, left to my own devices, I will happily consume more pizza in one sitting than all four Ninja Turtles put together. The following list is in alphabetical order because ranking them would be like choosing between my children. Sorry. Did I say children? I meant between all my beloved homemade pizzas. ONWARD!

Carlton Melton - Where This Leads

Geodesic dome-dwelling trio Carlton Melton make lovely instrumental music that's not as widely recognised as it deserves to be and is sometimes taken for granted even in the corners where it has had the most resonance. Their blend of stoner, psych, near-prog and desert rock should have fans of Bardo Pond, Spacemen 3 and Yawning Man grinning from ear-to-ear and reaching for one thick jazz fag after another. Where longer tracks like Where This Leads' 17-minute opener have the habit of meandering in the most wonderful fashion, more immediate numbers such as 'Three Zero Two' prove that Carlton Melton can still rock out heftily. When they can be bothered to so, that is, which is no mean feat given that this year in particular I've barely mustered the energy to put out the bins, let alone kick out the jams.

Brigid Dawson And The Mother's Network - Ballet Of Apes
(Castle Face)

Brigid Dawson is one of those rare musicians who can sing the word "baby" a repeated number of times and make each one sound like it's packed with universal significance, rather than being some kind of empty Paloma Faithian platitude. Dawson is best known as a member of Thee Oh Sees but the relatively short and gently paced Ballet Of Apes raised this writer's eyebrows higher than the three (or more?) excitable albums that the parent group threw out this year. It's not a competition, of course, but where Oh Sees are kitschy and hyperactive, Dawson sounds highbrow and classy. Her carefully selected range of backing musicians include freak-folkers and psych-jazzers alike. This could have made for a mixed bag in lesser hands but the results are diverse-yet-cohesive and sound elegantly timeless throughout.

The Flaming Lips - American Head
(Bella Union)

Like The Flaming Lips' unexpected breakthrough moment The Soft Bulletin, American Head felt more sincere than some of this band's wackier projects. Truth be told, I don't actually subscribe to the notion that sincerity tops other modes of creative expression. Don't get me started on stand-up comedy shows that receive blanket five-star reviews because the comic has "revealed" something personal (usually it's a tragedy or misfortune that's had to be overcome) even though all their prior and non-award-winning shows were OBJECTIVELY FUNNIER. However, in the case of American Head you can really hear Wayne Coyne and his bandmates trying to reconcile various losses, ailments, poignant memories and potentially diminishing hopes. In that respect it's vaguely Springsteen-esque, albeit in its own lush-sad-psych-pop way. There's also some strange notion in the album's concept about an alternate history involving Tom Petty and some Oklahoman drug dealers so the record's not exactly engaged in outright realism. It feels more like a companion piece to last year's similarly moving King's Mouth, and that one was about a giant sovereign baby battling a massive snowy avalanche. OR WAS IT?

Ganser - Just Look At That Sky

There is something very special about Ganser, as both my original review and this additional roundup capsule have failed to fully articulate. Hopefully that is less a sign of my increasing incapability and irrelevance as a psych and noise-rock hashtaginfluencer (okay, fine, just shoot me now) than proof of this Chicago group's elusive, intelligent and hopefully subsequently influential post-post punk brilliance. This is a band that could really go places and mean something. There I go again, failing to explain exactly why. You'll see why. Just give their record the spin(s) it deserves instead of settling for all those puffed-up bands who act like they're as hard as a hardheaded Tom Hardy hardening some hardwood with his hardware. Please!

Gunn-Truscinski - Soundkeeper
(Three Lobed)

When guitarist Steve Gunn and drummer John Truscinski join forces, as they are prone to do on wax every few years, it's always as welcome as Henry Wellcome singing Jim Reeves' 'Welcome To My World' at a welcome party. I realise the Wellcome/Reeves timelines don't quite match up but that's fairly appropriate given the effect this double-album can have on bending your senses. As I mentioned in a previous column, Soundkeeper "rumbles on forever yet is over too quickly". From dustbowl licks through skronking soundscapes to the final abstract take on funkadelia, this is a record to truly get lost in.

Hey Colossus - Dances/Curses
(Wrong Speed)

Hailed throughout New Weird Britain as easily one of the most impressive rock records of 2020, Dances/Curses was the irrefutable masterpiece that Hey Colossus have been slowly building up to since they started making a murky racket with a significantly different line-up back in the early 2000s. This is a band that not only keeps on getting better (how many acts can you say that about?) but also one that's managed to make a double-album without any filler. Such was the power and potency of Dances/Curses that fans of GNOD, Foo Fighters, Pelican, Unwound, Drunk In Hell, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Soundgarden, Karma To Burn, Dethscalator and Them Crooked Vultures could all put aside their differences and unite in celebration of this absorbing slab of hard-rocking vinyl. Soon afterwards world peace was achieved.

Luminous Bodies - Nah Nah Nah Yeh Yeh Yeh

Are you missing Butthole Surfers? The lazy bugged-out buggers promised us a new record several years ago and the only thing that's emerged since then is a fancy coffee-table book. In the grand scheme of things a hardback volume of glossy photographs is about as noise-rock as launching your own line of sherry vinegar. WHO NEEDS THEM ANYWAY? We have Luminous Bodies now, and what's more they live nearer. (Depending on where you're reading this, I suppose.) With two drummers, unhinged vocals, plenty of guitars and at least one Gordon, Luminous Bodies evoke all those phrases that we shouldn't use to describe music anymore, like "demented" or "more frenzied and frothier mouthed than Laurence Herrenvolk Fox shouting 'all lives matter' after exposure to a typically good-natured episode of Sesame Street." When this deliciously scummy record was released at the beginning of the year, the chorus "I'm gonna make some bad choices. Baaaaaaad choices!" came across as something you'd yell at the top of your lungs during some subsequently regrettable act of hedonistic debauchery. It turned out to be the top of our Prime Minister's policy agenda for the entire frigging year.

Magik Markers - 2020
(Drag City)

2020 was a fairly accessible effort from a band that used to specialise in creating a cacophonous racket that sounded like a dismantled flight of stairs falling down another dismantled flight of stairs... on CDr! That said, the album is still tastefully ragged enough to avoid any loss of dignity or thawing of the trio's ice-cold coolness. Put it this way, Magik Markers are not going to be managed by Peter Mensch anytime soon. While it's certainly a cohesive collection, 2020 also feels like a showcase of the Markers' increasingly diverse skillset. It includes crunching rock songs, fragile ballads, motorik throbbers, murmering beatnikery and something approaching a pop song (even if that one, in particular, sounds like it was recorded on Lou Barlow's damp Walkman).

Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs - Viscerals

The last 12 months were supposed to be the biggest year yet for Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. They were all set to take another foot up the ladder of venue sizes (while still keeping it real with dates at The Cluny, of course). They'd lined up their first US dates and were ready to dazzle American audiences with riffs, roars and Newcastle FC shorts. More mags and websites were covering them than ever before. Graham Norton was being groomed to have them on his chat show instead of booking Harry Styles every week. Then - SPLODGE! - someone got coughed on by a bat bat bat bat bat bat bat and Pigs were consigned to remain in the North East like Paul Gascoigne if he'd never signed to Spurs. Released just as Lockdown Phase I kicked in, Viscerals was a potent mixture of skull-cavingly heavy rock, mega metal, intense anxiety, sweat, sludge and (to channel Liars for a second) BLOOD! BLOOD! BLOOD BLOOD! Crank it all the way up to 11, screw a red lightbulb into the socket, dial the thermostat to 'Level Sauna', ask a tall housemate to stand in front of you while holding a plastic glass and it'll feel just like the gigs gigs gigs gigs gigs gigs gigs that fate so cruelly denied us.

White Hills - Splintered Metal Sky
(God Unknown)

Splintered Metal Sky is by no means the most soothing White Hills album but that doesn't mean it isn't great. To establish the rhythmic bases of their songs, members Dave W. and Ego Sensation wandered around taking field recordings of The City That Never Sleeps And Certainly Never Shuts Up For One Single Minute. As anyone who's visited New York City or seen footage of it or knows anything about it can imagine, the band will have captured a bustling din of traffic, building works, highly caffeinated members of the public, trash being blown around and kicked about, gobby lost tourists seeking the Ghostbusters fire station, pigeons, rats and streetwise squirrels. Writing songs around this racket, needless to say, resulted in a new, semi-industrial phase in White Hills' career. Don't worry though, it's tastefully done. They haven't gone all Rammstein on us. Gott sei Dank!

Next year: hopefully