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Columnfortably Numb

Columnfortably Numb: Psych Rock For June Reviewed By JR Moores
JR Moores , June 29th, 2022 10:30

Surveying the psych-rock scene, JR Moores dislodges some lockdown backlogs and pines for the windy city. Home page photo: Heavy Feelings

After the enforced inactivity of the lockdown era, this year is flying past faster than Speedy Gonzales on Lance Armstrong's pep pills. So much has happened since April's edition of Columnfortably Numb, it feels as though my life has leapt from Xavier de Maistre's A Journey Around My Room to a Rocky montage directed by Michael Bay (albeit with less actual violence, little in the way of self-improvement and a much better soundtrack if I do say so myself).

For one thing, I began attending gigs regularly again. Imagine that! I caught Covid almost immediately, obviously, and spent a week or so feeling sorry for myself. I could still taste the acrid Lemsips, so got off lightly. I've seen things our past selves of 2020-21 wouldn't believe. Fat Whites on fire as they warmed up for Liam. I watched Ryley Walker mullet in The Cluny near The Cumberland Arms. All those moments will be lost in Tyne, like tears in rain.

In Leeds, I finally attended the Flaming Lips gig that had been postponed several times since whenever it was meant to happen originally. As anticipated, I had a bit of a cry during 'Do You Realize??'. I've even been to a music festival in — get this — a whole different country. Then I thought I'd immediately caught Covid for the second time. It was merely a moderate strain of old-fashioned man flu.

With the smooth comes the rough, and I have effortlessly rekindled my disapproval of fellow flyers, tourists and festival goers. I witnessed Kim Gordon's silvery boot get pelted with beer and if I knew who'd hurled that plastic cup they would have found themselves on the wrong end of a hard stare à la Paddington Bear. I've suffered two fools chatting in front of me through all the early songs in the set of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. When their elevated smartphones obscured my view for the live Instagram broadcasts they began filming (of this performance they had no interest in actually listening to), I can only hope their followers could hear me in the background of the clip, shouting "FOR FUCK'S SAKE!"

Leaving the festival, I overheard a horny young lad with a privately educated accent making a desperate attempt to woo some unfortunate girl: "I mean, I wouldn't call myself a communist but, yah, I'm totally with you on thart…" Hashtagcringe. Back at the airport, a family swaggered selfishly to the front of the queue at the departure gate, blue passports clutched by clammy pink fingers, because it's their human right as subjects of a proud sovereign nation to consider themselves more important than anybody else, I presume.

That's life. That's life! That's what all the hipsters say. Watch Kristin Hersh in April; sick bed in May. But I know I'm gonna hear more tunes. Because Pigs Pigs Pigs are gigging soon. I said, that's psych. That's psych! And as nutty as it is, some plonkers get their kicks from talking over gigs. But I don't let it, let it make me blue, because Pink Mountaintops' new album rules…

Pink Mountaintops – Peacock Pools

Abundant are the double albums that could be edited down to a superior single LP. Rarer are the single albums that posses so much chutzpah you'd be delighted to see them expanded to twice the length. Peacock Pools really should be a double album, like The Beatles by The Beatles. Its artwork is largely white, after all. It also sees Stephen McBean and his pals toying with an obscenely rich range of styles and influences. Alongside the expected lysergic alt-rock shapes, there are dabblings in squelchy synthpop, Hacienda-friendly dance rock, yacht rock with spiritual jazz décor, Americana-via-C86, anthemic arena metal, Kinks-ish honkytonk, a song about a cyclops which sounds like Chromeo Plays The Doors, and a tribute to fallen friends via the medium of thrash. There'll be killjoys out there who'll dismiss it of relying too heavily on pastiche. McBean always has his own spin on these things, however. Besides, weren't the same complaints levelled at The White Album when that came out? As Sir Macca puts it in The Beatles Anthology, "What do you mean? It was great. It sold. It's the bloody Beatles' White Album. Shut up!" Bring on the expanded deluxe edition.

Aidan Baker – Tenebrist
(Cruel Nature)

Aidan Baker recorded plenty of stuff during the pandemic. No surprise there. He creates a heck of a lot at any given moment. As with other artists of similar status, much of the Nadja founder's lockdown backlog is just seeing the light of day. These include the relaxing drone piece Gauge Amber Tones, a more unsettling collection inspired by some of the earliest known experiments in anatomy, and a whispery set of "deconstructed grunge" anthems called Songs Of Undoing. The latter, if we're frank, sounds like Baker's lowest mental point of virus-stimulated isolation. The one I've revisited most is Tenebrist. By this I mean, it's the fuzziest one. It opens very heavily with its double-parted title track(s). Baker churns out metal riff repetitions, basted in Earth 2 quantities of distortion. Don't settle too comfortably, however, because in the album's later stages, spurned on by his own pots-and-pans-style bashing and tinkling, Baker swerves towards jazzily abstract space rock, like Skullflower covering Heldon in a dusty moon crater. Potent!

Dunza – Star Client
(Was Ist Das) 

In 2019, James Toth retired his Wooden Wand alias, preferring to concentrate on playing in One Eleven Heavy. That band was soon put on ice too, if temporarily. Its members are based in different countries, so there wasn't much prospect of sneaking in the odd rehearsal between the loosening and tightening of infection-quelling restrictions. During that time, one of Toth's tactics to avoid "going berserk" was to create this new project, Dunza. After completing four songs with which he was fairly satisfied, he then set about remixing each piece. Toth found he preferred the adapted versions to such an extent that he impulsively deleted the originals. Had he gone berserk after all? Listening to the cuts that remain in existence, he seems to have made a fruitful choice. Pretty far removed from Toth's more singer-songwriter fare, Star Client is a slow-paced and hazy portion of homebrewed dub-psych. It sounds as though the opener, 'Disowned', retains the largest amount of its initial form, vocals-wise at least. Even so, Toth has fucked its formula without preciousness. It's an approach similar to the last few records by those crazy kids from Low, here used to warmer and less solemn effect. The middle cuts had my hips swaying and eyelids drooping in a similar manner to my first exposure to On Patrol by Sun Araw. Although it concludes this particular collection, the shorter 'Another Life' almost feels like a suspenseful intro, feasibly indicating that the work of Toth's latest alter-ego is not yet done(za).

Heavy Feelings – Power Reflection

Speaking of hasty decisions made mid-pandemic, Ben Shillabeer of Heavy Feelings became disillusioned with working hermetically and banished to the metaphorical shelf all of the material he'd been sweating over. Taking a different tack, partly inspired by Made Out Of Sound by Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt, he wrote a bunch of new stuff by playing along to drums tracks and loops provided by his old muckers John Parish, Ben Turner and Andy Sutor. As that was shaping up, brought into the fold were other assistants from the Bristol scene and beyond. The result sounds nothing like Corsano and Orcutt, incidentally. Tracks like 'Discoherence' may be jazzy but in a smoother and post-rockingly Tortoise kind of way. The disquieted vocals of Sophia Barnes from Indigos add gravitas to 'Extinction Bell'. Nadia Garofalo of Chicago's mighty Ganser sings on three songs and, unsurprisingly enough, they're all belters. Her wry delivery and inquisitive lyrics are the perfect foil to Shillabeer and company's extroverted jams.

CoConuts – 2
(No Quarter)

"Is there any info on CoConuts, the band that made 'Silver Lights'?, asked one Reddit user, four years ago, to few replies. "It seems as though they made one self-titled album and that's it. Any other information leads to Kid Creole & The Coconuts, or The Coconuts themselves. The difference is that CoConuts have the two Cs capitalized which makes it even more confusing." In the age of narcissistic oversharing, it is possible to remain an enigma. Information on this second album isn't forthcoming either. It arrives 12 years after the debut and most of the blurb refers to that older record. The trio is Brooklyn-based and its line-up includes two Australians. Guess what? They sound like it, too. No, not like Michael Hutchence fronting Vampire Weekend. Thank God. Skeletal rhythm tracks back abstract no-wave guitar scrawl, with the amplifier sounds droning and feeding back eerily, as if possessed by the spirit of Glenn Branca or early Liars. The breathy, reverb-drenched vocals value chanting over melody. It's bleak. It's urban. It's wearing dark sunglasses, even indoors. It offers but a belligerent mumble, however politely you've phrased your question. It doesn't care whether you like it or not. Chances are, it prefers that you don't. It is frowning into the mid-distance with an expression of nonchalant contempt. It's waiting for its man. It's got a six-inch gold blade in its pocket and is not afraid to use it, or at least brandish the sharp metal edge for a few moments to encourage any yuppies who might have lost their way down this murky alley to back the fuck off.

Ragenap – Thriving Culture
(American Dreams)

In Ash vs Evil Dead, the chainsaw-fisted titular antihero dreams of visiting Jacksonville, Florida. Perpetually adrift in deep space, Red Dwarf's Dave Lister pines for a new life on a farm in Fiji, where he'll have "a sheep and a cow and breed horses". All Kevin Costner ever asked for, in Waterworld, was somewhere dry. For me, the utopic promised land is Chicago. I've never visited. In my imagination, this is a magical city where everyone plays in a left-leaning noise-rock band who are signed to a legendary indie label with ethical business practices. They record at Electrical Audio, perform at The Empty Bottle, and anyone from the scene who gets too big for their boots can fill their suitcase and naff off coast-wards. Please don't shatter my illusions, those in the know. Who wants to hear about the harsh realities? Ignorance is bliss and I only want to learn about people like Joel Berk, who I'm told is a prolific local gig taper. One Chicago jam band, BBsitters Club, even wrote a song in his honour. Its key lyric, by which I mean its only lyric, is "JOEL!" From standing around taping the music of others, it's a natural progression to tape that of himself. Berk's second cassette as Ragenap features two hefty dollops of glooping dronework (plus a mini reprise). Side A is the kind that gets reviewers heading straight to the 'M' section of the dictionary. Meditative. Monolithic. Monumental. Marbled? Moving murmuringly with measured mystery... While operating in a similar vein, and complementing the first piece perfectly, Side B feels a touch softer and, heading straight to the next section of the OED, New Age-ish. Nebulous? Nocturnal. Nourishing. NICE!

Randy Holden – Population III

In 1969, having played with Blue Cheer for half an album, Randy Holden took drummer Chris Lockheed and no fewer than sixteen Sunn amplifiers to an empty opera house, intent on creating something "way over the top". Mission accomplished, Holden went bankrupt and didn't re-emerge until the 1990s. In the meantime, Population II became a holy grail for rock collectors: a single-minded slab of exuberant proto-doom. Over half a century later, its sequel arrives. This time Holden was joined by Randy Pratt and Bobby Rondinelli. The trio's sessions were actually completed ten years ago. Holden has only just opted to release it. Clearly this 76-year-old moves to the beat of his own Chronos. Is it worth the wait? Firm yes. It opens boldly with 'Living End'. The bass tramps around like a jiving Titan. The guitar licks have one ear pointed towards the East. There's some wicked 'Stone Fox Chase'-style harmonic playing, followed by a righteously carefree guitar solo. 'Sands Of Time' is darker and more dystopian. Over 20 minutes long, 'Land Of The Sun' is some kind of Led Zep-meets- Dopesmoker -via-Hawkwind prog-psych desert monster. The snappier 'Swamp Stomp' resembles one of those Black Sabbath-era obscurities you find on the Brown Acid compilations. After another hulking number, Holden winds things down with an acoustic ballad, on which the frailty of his voice is more poignantly exposed. By that time, Holden has already proved that he remains way over the top and still way ahead of the competition.

Somnus Throne – Nemesis Lately
(Heavy Psych Sounds)

On the basis of their second album, there are two things in which this Los Angeles trio are most interested. One is RIFFS. The other is DRUGS. No shame in that, as long as you aren't hurting anybody else or obliviously talking loudly over the headliner. Times are hard. Life is tough. Whatever works, dude. The first voice we hear is that of the late Michael Caracciolo, shouting "NON-NARCOTIC, NON-ADDICTIVE, BRING BACK THE FUCKING QUAALUDES!!!" With the filthily phat riff which then kicks in, this arresting opening is enough to reawaken Lester Bangs from his concoction-induced permanent slumber. (The internet says Bangs' ashes were scattered at sea, so I'm picturing Bill Nighy from those pirate films, in soggy leather.) Later samples include those of Purdue Pharma lackey Dr Alan Spanos downplaying prescription opioid addiction and the character from 1934's Maniac who goes violently doolally after an injection of "super adrenaline". As for the rawk itself, there are echoes of Electric Wizard, Sleep, OM, Dead Meadow, Acid King and others who've suffered repetitive straining disorders from incessant bong-lifting activities. Whoever's recorded and mixed the thing has done a top job. The distortion is stressed, crucially. The drums are suitably damp. Vocals lurk low in the mix. There are speckles of grunge dust in the stoner dunes, too. Glimmers of alt-rock amid the doom. A Soundgardian melody here. An existential Layne Staley moan there. Flashbacks to a Siamese Dream. 'Rubber Tramp' even rollercoasters along like Jane's Addiction are bleeding into Melvins' adjacent rehearsal room. The final song can't decide whether it wants to be an amplifier-destroying Kyuss jam or Ryley Walker lullaby, wavering instead between the two. The drugs do work?

JR Moores is appearing at Supersonic Festival to discuss his book, Electric Wizards: A Tapestry of Heavy Music, 1968 to the Present, and will also spinning some tunes with tQ’s John Doran