The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Columnfortably Numb

Columnfortably Numb: Psych For February Reviewed By JR Moores
JR Moores , February 15th, 2021 09:09

JR Moores' first column of 2021 has all you need to hear from the worlds of psych rock, noise rock and (erm) chamber psych. Homepage portrait of Sunburned Hand Of The Man by Sarah Gibbons

Chamber psych. Did any two words strike such fear and trepidation into the heart and mind of somebody who is supposed to know about this shit? Well, maybe the words "Anton Newcombe" but now's not the time to open that can of worms. When that category, "chamber psych", popped into the roundup of everybody's Spotify listening habits at the end of last year, I have to admit I didn't have a clue what it meant either.

I had already been feeling out of touch. In December I taught a 90-minute university class during which every band reference I uttered was met with blank stares, and at one point a student made the concise and cutting comment of "You. Are. Old." At that moment I decided to make a concerted effort to get more down wiv da kidz [You're fired, Youth Integration Editor].

That's right, tQ readers. I took one for the team, put all dignity aside, and drank a milkshake that had all these huge, hard chunks of confectionary floating in it, out of a colourful cup with a manga character printed on the side. I even subscribed to 100 gecs' TikTok feed... Or at least I would have done if I knew what either of those things were and hadn't accidentally locked myself out of my own laptop. And also my house. Seriously though, I've entered the wrong password more times than Ariel Pink's done something entirely dickish.

"Chamber psych? Chamber? Psych? Chamber… psych?" I sputtered like Peter Kay when he observes a thing and then writes that thing down and then says the thing out loud. If only I had an arena full of guffawing sycophants paying hundreds of pounds a head plus booking fees for two hours of this drivel.

In order to investigate the phenomenon further, I thought I'd better check out a "Sound of Chamber Psych" playlist on the Spotify. This included, but was by no means limited to: Sneaks, Ghostpoet, Cate Le Bon, Super Furry Animals, Jenny Hval, Sonic Boom, a single by The Wedding Present from 1989, Django Django, The Lovely Eggs, Saint Etienne's cover of 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', John Grant, Doves, Shame, Wooden Shjips, OneOhTrix Point Never, Ride, Shack, The Horrors, Richard Dawson, Sleaford Mods, Low, Cabbage, Mogwai, Lambchop, Grouper, Goldfrapp, The Charlatans, Melt Yourself Down, PJ Harvey, The Soft Pink Truth, Kate Bush, Primal Scream, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Jesca Hoop, Autechre (!), Death In Vegas, Death Valley Girls, Parquet Courts, I LIKE TRAINS, Richard Hawley, The Comet Is Coming, 'Ooh Stick You!' by Daphne & Celeste (seriously), British Sea Power, Actress, Gaz Coombes and your mum.

So that's cleared that up then. What does "chamber psych" mean? It clearly means any old fucking thing you can think of, doesn't it? Of course, in reality the fabrication of chamber psych was a devious marketing ploy designed to get everybody talking about the Spotify and sharing this made-up rubbish across their social media feeds. Fell into that trap, didn't I? Other means of consuming media are available.


Melvins – Working With God

Buzz Osborne certainly isn't the most psychedelic man on the planet once you look past his mad hair and the odd brightly coloured robe. Were you to parachute him into your average 60s-style "happening", he'd be frowning away, telling all the rich hippie kids to get a bath, a job and a frontal lobotomy (not necessarily in that order). That said, there have been many moments in life when Melvins' music has intoxicated my mind so potently I've witnessed the pink elephants parade before my very eyes just like my hero, Dumbo.

They like to fuck around, those Melvins, especially in their Osborne/Dale Crover/Mike Dillard incarnation. In the past this trio have covered things like '99 Bottles Of Beer', to most listeners' general bemusement. Here they open with 'I Fuck Around' which is The Beach Boys' 'I Get Around', but with swearing in it. (SSH! NOBODY TELL MIKE LOVE!) Melvins go on to end the album with some amateur doo-wop shenanigans… for some reason. Between these slices of defiant daftness lies the meaty filling. There are none-more-killer riffs aplenty. Naturally there are. That's a given. This is Melvins we're talking about. Add to that lyrics about a "horse-faced goon" named Brian (rhyming nicely with cryin' and no denyin'). There's a song that appears to be about seeking out and devouring fish, and not in a sea shanty way like what the public's gone nuts for during this collective Covid madness. Consider Buzz's love of Alice Cooper, Black Flag, The Residents and Flipper and you should have some idea of the unhinged racket that's on offer. Melvins' material tends to be faster and punchier with this iteration, it ought to be noted, especially for a band that's often (and sometimes unfairly) spoken about in terms of their slowness. Perhaps they're harking back to the carefree fuckaroundery of their punk-rock adolescence. "It's the album bands like Green Day and Metallica wish they could put out if they only had the guts," say Melvins. If a gauntlet is thrown down but Billie Joe and Papa Hetfield aren't around to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes.

Sunburned Hand Of The Man – Pick A Day To Die
(Three Lobed)

Remember the days when Sunburned Hand Of The Man put out a new CDR every week and if you heard a noise coming from a shack in a forest and then crept in to see what was going on, you'd likely find this wacky free-rock collective in there, improvising some wild psych jamz into the early hours of the morn? I think that era was called the 2000s. Anyway, the freaky so-and-sos are back and in a slightly surprising way they're sounding better than ever. The cuts here even seem to have a proper studio finish as opposed to having been recorded in, let's say, a tiny loft space owned by a Scandinavian promoter wearing colourful-if-grubby yoga pants and smelling musty at best. I mean, the spacy 'Flex' sparkles almost as brightly as Trans Am. Vocalist Shannon Ketch brings a welcome earthy feel to a couple of numbers, making for a compelling Kosmische Beefheart vibe. 'Initials' is perhaps the most rabid and wonky number, like Pelt being dragged into a mussy underworld. Sunburned also really rock out on the final number, in their own skewwhiff way, with the assistance of J Mascis on guitar. A very welcome return.

Terry Gross – Soft Opening
(Thrill Jockey)

It's hard not to love any album that opens with a 20-minute track called 'Space Voyage Mission'. No, Terry Gross is not the latest Hawkwind offshoot project. Nor is it the solo alias of the zombie resurrection of the presenter from Wake Up To Wogan. Terry Gross is actually a power trio consisting of Phil Manley (who you might recognise from the not-post-rock band Trans Am), Donny Newenhouse and Phil Becker. Apparently Donny and the Phils got together to test out the facilities of San Francisco's El Studio. What better way to do that? With a sun-soaked take on krautrock space epics, no doubt. That opening track is all glittery and cosmic, although there is a nice & chunky riff-centric midsection as well. 'Worm Gear' is more aggressive, its lurching chords perhaps betraying an affection for Glenn Branca. After those two lengthy numbers 'Specificity (Or What Have You)' could almost be a tidy little pop song, albeit one with no real chorus and an overriding Wipers-in-orbit objective. More please!

Camera – Prosthuman
(Bureau B)

Modern krautrock kings Camera have undergone a line-up readjustment since 2018's Emotional Detox. Inevitably perhaps, this seems to have had a fairly major impact on their sound. The Berliners' latest record is not quite so heavily dominated by the glistening synthesizers. It feels a little rougher around the edges and more live-sounding. Such an approach is greeted warmly here at Columnfortably Numb Headquarters, seeing as we tend to spend most of our hours sitting around in stew-stained Faust T-shirts discussing the merits of Shellac. Even the synth parts that are present, and still very dominant, sound substantially less robotic than before. There are a greater number of dimensions on offer this time too. While 'Kartoffelstampf' is fiercely and resolutely motoric, 'Alar Alar' flirts with dub. Other tracks are more squelchy. The moody 'Freundschaft' could almost be an instrumental demo from The Cure. 'Schmwarf' contains the added bonus of slightly feral vocals, evoking The Pop Group, PiL or other post punk projects beginning with P. Positively propulsive and particularly pleasing!

Vapour Theories – Celestial Scuzz

Forgive those who neglect to worship at the altar of Bardo Pond, my Lord, for they know not what they do. When you're tuned into Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, no one ever says, "My next selection, Lauren, is 'Sangh Seriatum' by Bardo Pond. Why? Well, because it takes up a whole side of the double LP and sounds like the half-speed post-orgasmic groan of an entire chuffing galaxy. That's why! It makes both my mind and my tummy tingle with sheer ecstasy for minute after minute after glorious, long-lasting minute. Time literally bends and twists and changes its shape when I listen to this mammoth track, so it wouldn't matter whether I were stranded on that empty island for a few days or several lonely decades. As long as I had my Bardo Pond wax to hand, I would be in a realm of blissful solace." Instead it's always just "Here's 'Happy' by Pharrell Williams because it reminds me of dancing with my wife at our wedding." Idiots.

 Anyway if you ARE one of the Bardo Believers, here's the latest recording from the band's sibling guitar-and-effects maestros, John and Michael Gibbons, under their Vapour Theories alias. You probably know what to expect by now. You'll be right, and you will not be disappointed. Beautifully thick, intertwining guitar tones, yanked down from heaven itself and presented to you on a golden turntable. 'High Treason' has an acoustic hippie-folk vibe to mix things up a bit but it's the surrounding heavier and denser numbers that really fool your brain into thinking you've died and are now floating in lysergic limbo. There's something about the wonkily melodic guitar line that bobs around below the fatly distorted surface of 'The Big Ship' that really brings a tear to my (third?) eye.

Mienakunaru – Lost Bones Of The Holy Butterfly
(Drone Rock)

Mike Vest moves in mysterious ways. There are his long-running projects, the most well-known of which is Bong. Where his countless other bands are concerned, he seems to jump from one to the next at the rate of Adam Sandler eyeing up gambling tips in Uncut Gems. There are recurring solo recordings to boot, under the Lush Worker alias. These activities often seem to be happening all at the same time, or perhaps in a different dimensional timeline altogether. Mienakunaru is at least the second full-pelt power trio to feature Vest since the much-loved Blown Out, erm, blew up. While OZO's two albums (so far?) had a gnarly free-jazz feel thanks in large part to Karl D'Silva's fierce sax blasts, this time we're back in full-on walls-of-guitar mode with Vest joined by fellow axe shaman Junzo Suzuki and drummer Dave Sneddon. There are two tracks compiled here, both around 17 minutes in length although at this point who's really got their eye on the stopwatch? Just place the needle down on that swirly-whirly coloured vinyl and surrender yourself to the fuzzy, frothy, space rock journey into hyperspace, or your innerspace, or your hyper-real-inner-self. Or something. It may help if you are, as Julian Cope might put it, "utterly narnered", but that's not a requirement. The sounds themselves should be potent enough in the first place, burying deeper into your lugholes than a litre bottle of Earex.

Astral Social Club – Space Draft Extended Play
(Self-release via Bandcamp)

A large part of the joy of Neil Campbell's work is that it basically defies description. But, sod it… here goes! It straddles various different lines, often wavering between them and helping to blur the distinctions. It is not quite electronic music, nor wholly what fusty rock writers would call "organic", and it's always difficult to categorise. The best stuff is avant-garde, sure, but rather than doing this in a confrontational or "difficult" manner like a topless noise musician with a studded glove and bucketful of static, Campbell's work is full of colour and playfulness and often succeeds in getting the booty shaking from side to side without ever sounding ordinary. Take this latest offering, for example. It kicks off with 'Simple Mind Module', a dreamily hypnotic number that builds, grows, blossoms and matures for about 12 minutes, like some sped-up footage of a plant sprouting away over the course of the season. 'Skank Of The Ancients' could be the sound of a child's groan tube or moo box collaborating with a windup cymbal-bashing plastic monkey while a caveman, far from home, moans away in the distance. 'Freezy Water' melds dubby loops with abstract twinkles and other general creaking weirdness. The final track, 'Simple Mud Module', either evokes rainforests or railways. I haven't decided which yet. Probably both. Does that help?

Next time: The 60 most psychedelic sea shanties since the 1670s