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Columnfortably Numb: The Best Psych Rock Of 2023
JR Moores , December 5th, 2023 10:17

JR Moores surveys a year marked by AI barrel scraping, sociopathic governments and interstellar transmissions, and revisits his favourite psych rock records of the year

Prison, photo by Saram Al Rawi

That was the year that was. 2023, baby! See ya. Wouldn't wanna be in ya. For much longa. It was the time ChatGPT started composing music reviews for us. "From Guts' very first track," writes the groundbreaking technology, "Olivia Rodrigo sets the tone for an album that's unapologetically raw and honest." No worse than NME's Johnny Cigarettes at his peak.

With the help of Peter "Braindead" Jackson, artificial insemination (as the confused Cliff Richard would put it) also helped to create an entirely unnecessary new Beatles song from the 1990s or the 1970s or the 1960s or the 2020s or whatever the… What did George Harrison make of it again? "Fucking rubbish." That's the spirit, George! He was the bitterest Beatle of them all and as such knew when to call bullshit on all the barrel scraping. May he rest in peace and love, peace and love, peace and love, peace and love…

In other news, radio signals were picked up from distant planets and ancient alien lifeforms were confirmed by those Mexican ET bodies which suspiciously resembled papier mâché. This delighted the 47-year-old man from Blink-182 who despite holding no scientific qualifications enjoys lecturing people about the evidence for UFOs when not singing about bumfarts and winkies.

As usual it was a delight to witness such high-quality psych and noise rock being made, for this offered much comfort and respite in a confusing time when the ludicrous concept of a "minister for common sense" became an actual thing and Tent-taker Braverman went on several sociopathic crusades.

The following selections have all been picked from previous editions of Columnfortably Numb which no longer features crossovers with reviews elsewhere on the site, where we can help it. So if you're wondering "Where the ruddy hell is Land Of Sleeper by Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs?" and "Hasn't this gatekeeping arsehole even heard Zango by WITCH or that new one from Slowdive?", please check the content and roundups elsewhere before registering any official complaints. Other omissions and oversights are attributable to personal incompetence, ignorance, forgetfulness and drink. Generally speaking, I've based this list on the scientific process of albums I've reached for (or clicked on) most often over the last 12 months. They're in alphabetical order so as not to upset anyone or make this largely arbitrary process more difficult than it needs to be.

If I had to pick an outright favourite though, or the LP I listened to more regularly than any other, then it would have to be Negative Stars by Skull Practitioners. Well done, lads. Treat yourselves to a cherry coke.

Baker Ja Lehtisalo – Crocodile Tears
(Cruel Nature / Ektro)

Take the bearded, drone-loving bloke from Nadja. Add the founder of genre-leaping Finnish pranksters Circle. Give them at least three instruments each and a vocal mic apiece. What have you got? Baker Ja Lehtisalo! On the duo's debut, Jussi Lehtisalo proved a playful partner to Aidan Baker's traditionally more melancholic inclinations, resulting in a surprisingly uplifting collection of "new wave industrial doom songs". Let's hope there's more to come.

Grails – Anches En Maat
(Temporary Residence)

Over the years Grails' brand of instrumental post rock has grown less dark and heavy, becoming increasingly smooth, sensual and elegant. You might even get away with playing Anches En Maat at your next dinner party, you big bourgeois banker. That's inadvisable, of course, because Grails would likely prefer you to concentrate on their record rather than talk over the top of it about catchment areas and the latest series of The Crown. I'd recommend a good pair of headphones, low lighting, scented candles and a large glass of sherry or two.

Hawkwind – The Future Never Waits
(Cherry Red)

The curse of any long-running rock band is that after a certain point the achievements made in the past attract more column inches in the present than all of those newer works. It's been a big year for Hawkwind with their boxed set re-release of the best live album ever (Space Ritual) and a glitzy knees-up to celebrate at the Royal Albert Hall. Should you let that overshadow their latest studio album, The Future Never Waits, which rocks and wobbles and hypnotises and delights in all sorts of wonderful ways? No. You shouldn't do that.

Hozomeen – The Void

Newcastle's Graham Thompson has played in plenty of bands over the years including Ballpeen, OZO and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaind. The Void is his first album under the Hozomeen alias and it sees him flex his riff-rocking musical muscles. It sounds convincingly like a full band even though Thompson plays almost every single instrumental part himself. There are bits that resemble The Jesus Lizard while other moments feel like he's deconstructing the grunge blueprint with a rusty screwdriver.

Mary Anne's Polar Rig – Makes You Wonder
(Rama Lama)

Anyone who reads this website ought to realise that its writers and editors are by no means snobbishly averse to well-crafted pop music. As I write this, I have already threatened to hand in my ID badge and registered handgun if Kylie Minogue's 'Padam Padam' doesn't make our top ten tracks of the year and I expect Jeremy Allen to join me in solidarity. That said, it can help when poppiness is offset by all sorts of sonic horseplay. Step up Mary Anne's Polar Rig who like to lather their catchy tunes in all manner of fuzz, feedback and other unhinged noises, a bit like J. M. W. Turner slapping his thick paint strokes over some erstwhile scenic prettiness.

Modern Technology – Conditions Of Worth
(Human Worth)

On their scorching second album, this power duo don't sound any less fucked off with the state of the world as they did last time round. The roared lyrics to the first song, 'Dead Air', are full of black skies, lost yesterdays, oppressive buildings and the imminent apocalypse. It doesn't get much more cheerful thereafter. With its concrete-crunching riffs and frenetic drumwork, it is certainly a cathartic experience. One that might momentarily ease the pain and frustration of existing at the same time as Esther McVey, Geert Wilders and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Far Righter Here.

Prison – Upstate
(Drag City)

Prison are one of those bands. You know the sort. "Oh, you like Oneida, do you? But do you know of People Of The North? Yeah, I quite liked Sonic Youth. What I really dig, though, is Thurston Moore's avant rock duo Caught On Tape, with John Moloney from Sunburned Hand Of The Man." Henceforth, if anyone mentions their fondness for Endless Boogie, you can now stretch your muso muscles by informing them thus: "Well, have you heard Upstate by Prison? Paul 'Top Dollar' Major is a member of that band too and to a certain extent they plough a similar shamelessly indulgent jam-band furrow to the 'Boogie. In many ways they are its looser, skronkier, more discordant and murkier cousin, however. Now would you like to see my collection of No-Neck Blues Band side-project CD-Rs?"

Silver Apples & Makoto Kawabata – Mirage

Mirage is a fitting tribute to Simeon Coxe of Silver Apples who passed away before the album could be released. It's a collaboration with Makoto Kawabata of Acid Mothers Temple on which the duo manage to do more with just four songs than many bands manage with their entire sorry repertoires. Together they journey from floaty space-rock territory, through rougher axe skronk and ambient poetics, to the final Martian lullaby. Rest well, sir.

Skull Practitioners – Negative Stars
(In The Red)

The best power trio since eggs, beans and streaky bacon, Skull Practitioners don't have a huge back-catalogue but due to their locked-in nature it is clear they've been playing together for some time. They have a post-hardcore sensibility with psychedelic tendencies which has resulted in a varied LP without losing overall cohesion. Muscular rages such as 'What Now' find their foil in longer and spindly existential meditations like 'Intruder'. There is a Stooges groove to some of the tracks, with trippy textures laid on top, while a few of the instrumental passages conjure up a goths-go-surfing holiday for three.

Upper Wilds – Jupiter
(Thrill Jockey)

Working in a similar vein to Mary Anne's Polar Rig (above), Upper Wilds treat noise and melody as equal partners in a deliciously spicy whole. Anthemic from its opening moments, fourth album Jupiter is another fine showcase of the band's immaculate post-Hüsker Dü powers. The combined distortion pedals have been set to the optimum conditions. The lyrics resemble a collection of short stories. And the record has more hooks than a tackle shop. One song is about the 79-year-old marriage of the Ecuadorian couple Julio Mora and Waldramina Quinteros. Here's hoping Upper Wilds, and the planet Earth, stick around for even longer.

Electric Wizards: A Tapestry of Heavy Music, 1968 to the Present by JR Moores is published by Reaktion Books. We're told it makes an excellent Christmas gift for, among other loved ones, "cool Uncles" in particular.