Optrex For Your Third Eye: What Does Psychedelia Mean In 2014?

John Doran wonders if there are any rules as to what makes a modern song psychedelic, or is it simply in the (third) eye of the beholder? With Spotify list of mind-warping office favourites from the history of the Quietus

In The Masthead introduction to issue 357 of The WIRE which came out last November, Editor Chris Bohn, drew attention to the fact that the word "psychedelic" has been stripped of any real useful meaning. Quoting the Egypt based, Canadian born musician Sam Shalabi he suggested that psychedelia is what happens when one is "spat out" of the active and historical state of "being" unexpectedly. He claims – quite rightly, as far as I am concerned – that "a truly psychedelic experience can be read as one that jolts your everyday world off its axis long enough for you to be able to see it askew, sort of like from the position you saw it for the first time when you popped out of the womb". It is the confusing and sometimes enlightening effect caused by the violently rapid and temporary transition into psychic deterritorialization (and then back to reality via reterritorialization) brought on by an external agent.

But why does this word cause so much confusion? When I took a straw poll of friends as to what their favourite modern European psychedelia was the results were a lot more varied than I had anticipated – almost to the extent I could have just said, ‘Can everyone suggest some cool new music for me to listen to?’ It should be said that I got to listen to a huge amount of really good music which I was previously unaware of, so there certainly seems to be a vigorously healthy scene for music that people think of as psychedelic going on at the moment. But beyond this however the sheer range of genres that were represented – electronica, ambient, black metal, doom, indie, heavy rock, space rock, cosmic synth, disco, techno, folk, drum & bass etc. – made me wonder, ‘If the term is so aggressively subjective, of what use is it, when it comes to determining whether an individual piece of music is the sort that makes you view your life like you’ve just "popped out of the womb" or not?’ In short, are there any rough rules, or even observations, that can be made on this subject or does psychedelia simply exist in the (third) eye of the beholder?

The trouble with the word in 2014 is that it has fallen victim to a schism in popular criticism between those primarily wishing to classify music and those primarily wishing to describe its effects. Throw in some temporal and causal dissonance and the malign influence of fashion and it’s easy to see why there is confusion.

If we look at the most simplistic narrative a feature of this length allows, psychedelic music as a definable element of Western pop started in the early-60s on the West Coast of America, coinciding with the spread of LSD in the US counterculture; almost immediately this began to inform the leftfield fringes of US and UK folk, then not long afterwards reaching mainstream and underground rock and pop round most of the world. Now, back in the 1960s, if you were high on a potent tab of Blue Cheer or Orange Sunshine acid, listening to Disraeli Gears by Cream for the first time then you were no doubt enjoying the synergy between psychedelic music and the psychedelic experience at full tilt. However, I would hazard a guess that very few people are currently seeing the world through a perfectly cleansed door of perception with ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ as the soundtrack. Many young folk – going through a perfectly understandable rite of passage – are probably sitting around in flats listening to albums such as this plonked on a couch protected from pot burns by a tie-dyed throw, in the warm low light given off by a lava lamp but if anything Clapton and co.’s "safe hands" blues rock is a tether to Earth – a sonic safety blanket – lest the powders and potions the listeners have ingested take them higher than expected. They are indulging in a very codified "psychedelic" experience surrounded by signifiers. The same sentiment can be applied to the modern consumption of many acts that are routinely described as psychedelic cornerstones from Hendrix to imperial period Pink Floyd.

Even less genuinely psychedelic in 2014 for the most part is the rock subgenre called ‘psych’ – any truly mind-expanding properties that a lot of this music once had have long since dissipated and what we are left with is a conservative modern collectors scene which fetishizes rarity and expensiveness of records not to mention abstract qualitative benchmarks such as ‘fuzziness of bass’ or ‘warmth of guitar tone’. For the most part the titles of these records tell you more about the purity and strength of the drugs available in the late 1960s rather than the mind warping tunes they contain. There are exceptions to every rule however and there are plenty of LPs which remain disorientating to this day such as Brainticket’s (psych/Krautrock hybrid) Cottonwoodhill which is such a genuinely consciousness scrambling album that it came with a stern warning on the sleeve and was banned in several countries lest it drive potential listeners insane. And I’d skip a thousand mannered Mod freakbeat records just for one slab of genuine synapse frying weirdness like Calico Wall’s ‘I’m A Living Sickness’. Not wanting to state the obvious but it should be remembered that psych is a sub genre of Western pop and rock from the late 60s which has been revived several times since; while the search for the psychedelic experience is older than civilization itself.  

Many 1960s acts associated with the mainstream boom in psychedelia have lost their ability to transport the listener outside of themselves through no fault of their own. It is perhaps too much to expect The Beatles to remain a potent fuel in the modern psychedelic trip when everything they have ever recorded has become so ingrained into popular mainstream culture. No doubt ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ were mind-blowing when they first came out but due to endless airplay, magazine and book canonisation, their monolithic influence on culture and countless parodies they have been rendered as psychedelic as an episode of Coronation Street. Having said all this, I’d argue that the Fab Four did make a small number of sui generis psychedelic statements that age will never wither and which can still sheer the top of your head off in the right circumstances today. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is a watershed moment in psychedelic music and an all out assault on pop music itself. It looked forward to an age far ahead of itself and it is no real surprise that the biggest mainstream psychedelic act of the Britpop era, The Chemical Brothers, effectively rebooted the song with the help of savvy Beatles fan Noel Gallagher in order to make one of the strangest records that has ever gone to the top of the UK charts – ‘Setting Sun’.

(Oasis were often compared to The Beatles by their champions but perhaps only an early version of the group, pre-psychedelic blossoming. In retrospect it seems clear that the Mancunian band’s inability to go through their own spiritual and artistic revolution was down to internal power struggles. Liam Gallagher’s post Oasis efforts in Beady Eye reveal him to be one of the least psychedelic people to ever draw breath. His elder brother, unable to completely control Oasis had to quench his psychedelic leanings elsewhere such as by commissioning neo-hippies Amorphous Androgynous to remix his music. He also played some of the sitar on Cornershop’s excellent Handcream For A Generation album which, along with an earlier Punjabi cover of ‘Norwegian Wood’, was a very smart cultural nod and ironic reflection by Tjinder Singh on The Fab Four’s infatuation with Indian mysticism and psychedelia. What a shame more of Britpop wasn’t as brilliantly weird and smart as Handcream For A Generation or ‘Setting Sun’.)

But of course it took The Chemical Brothers – essentially a techno act – rather than a rock group to take heavily tripped out music back to the top of the UK charts. For people of my generation acid house and ecstasy were our gateway to satori in the late 80s and 90s. Many people refused to see this music as psychedelic because of the machine-made nature of it but the name "acid house" derives from the acid rock of the late 1960s. Marshall Jefferson, who produced Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’ (along with DJ Pierre) was a massive fan of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple before discovering Chicago house in the mid-80s and the nomenclature actually points to a continuum between psych rock and electronic dance.

This is not to say that guitar bands weren’t producing brain splattering psychedelia in the late 80s – they were; the period was a veritable tripped out renaissance. In the UK rock scene however there was little of rave’s ecstasy fuelled utopianism going on. A resurgence in the popularity of low quality acid, heroin and weed produced something else entirely. A lot of commentators take the 1960s to be a short decade in the Eric Hobsbawm sense, claiming that the genuine psychedelic period in rock ended in murder at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. But in Britain, in a wider cultural sense, the last vestiges of 60s liberalism and utopian counterculture were ground into the dirt during Margaret Thatcher’s second and third terms in office, between 1983 and 1989. The 1960s were the most forward looking and inclusive time in living memory, promising a new dawn in civil rights, an end to racism, misogyny and homophobia, as well as fair treatment for the working classes, for the first time ever. The spirit of the 1960s was still just about alive by the 1980s, with radical political movements such as anarcho-syndicalism and socialism still promising (no matter how naively) that power could be seized from the capitalist ruling class and distributed among the people on the street. Thatcher however, as well as setting her sights on crushing this country’s heavy industry and curtailing civil liberties, wanted to turn the clock back to before the Swinging 60s, believing in a mission statement which she summed up herself as: "Go back, you flower people, back where you came from, wash your hair, get dressed properly, get to work on time and stop all this whingeing and moaning."

Skullflower’s Xaman, the Jesus And Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, Loop’s Heaven’s End, Spacemen 3’s Playing With Fire and Godflesh’s Streetcleaner are the soundtrack to the death of 60s liberalism and optimism; the collapse of the social democratic dream and the dawn of neo-liberalism. They sound the retreat away from utopianism into nihilism and despair, which is not just to say that they are violent and inward looking, but that they also viciously parody the sun dappled psychedelia of 1967. This is the brown acid really kicking in.


Of course, to me, both My Bloody Valentine and Aphex Twin are psychedelic as hell, as they were the radically new and sensory overloading sounds that came out when I was a young man and I fully expect that someone two decades younger than me could find these artists as old fashioned as I found Pink Floyd when I was a teenager. Because – whether I like it or not – even the wildest outliers of shoegaze and acid house have, to a certain extent been co-opted by many, many lesser talents. Leaving the question: how does one define psychedelic music in 2014?

As with a lot of things in 2014 you’re on safer ground defining what isn’t, than what is. Are Hookworms, Parquet Courts, Suuns etc psych? Yeah, sure… whatever… I’m not that interested in genre tags. Are they psychedelic? Not to me. Not even remotely. I don’t want to come across as a high maintenance curmudgeon but it takes more than a canonical record collection, a desire to be in Spacemen 3, some fancy FX pedals and a pair of tight jeans to blow my mind. There are other groups such as The Horrors and Toy, that I have enjoyed listening to on and off in the past but again, I don’t see them as psychedelic, rather than simply bands who create cool, weird pop music. The whole boom for all things psych has reached its nadir recently with the signing of several criminally poor acts such as Foxygen, who are no more mind-warping than the Flight Of The Conchords acid folk parody ‘The Prince Of Parties’.

Techno probably remains the easiest gateway to the psychedelic experience in music today given its hypnotic repetitiveness, how it inculcates deep listening and creates a sense of three dimensionality that envelops the listener when experienced in a club, not to mention its association with prolonged (shamanic?) dancing and mind altering substances. Guitar music is more conservative as a whole and tends to bunch around trends. One only needs to look at the proliferation of psych festivals – every city and town has one! – to see this. Often this means it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. I’m not going to knock a band for using a motorik drumbeat, a Stooges’ riff and an apeggiating analogue synth as the foundation of what they do – that’s always going to be loads more interesting than sounding like The Libertines not to mention much more satisfying to listen to but such is the nature of the modern availability of music, that this on its own is essentially a conservative approach. As David Stubbs points out in his recent book Future Days "motorik" and "Krautrock" are not interchangeable terms. If a band has got as far as getting to grips with Klaus Dinger’s Apache beat then why stop there? Why not look at Can’s theories on instant composition or Faust’s anarchic musique concrete next?

As long as musicians are looking at music in experiential terms they’re on the right tracks roughly speaking. In real terms, we are brain poor when it comes to the processing of true psychedelic music. Our ability to absorb information is limited by a bottleneck caused by our evolving rather than designed sensory apparatus. However we are great at filling the gaps ourselves when given the chance. When experiencing – say – Factory Floor, Electric Wizard, SunnO))), Perc or GNOD live at full volume with the assistance of overpowering visuals, frenetic dancing or trance inducing drugs, the listener can hear things that aren’t actually there; ghostly voices, snatches of high end melody, bizarre modulations in bass frequency… the sensory organs become a permeable membrane between the music and consciousness and when the listener enters ‘the zone’ they become a co-author of what they are experiencing.

But without this space for the listener to enter and journey into, in my opinion at least, it can’t be called psychedelic. There are many acts today who create bewitching and often bewildering (even sometimes beautiful) music, such as the celestial indie rave of Fuck Buttons, the churchical synths of Tim Hecker, the maximal festival house of Jon Hopkins, the pseudo-psychogeographical noise of Ben Frost and many many others who present you with a wall of sound that it is difficult to impregnate in any way. And the more brick-walled, the more maximal, the more compressed the sound, the less transcendent the overall effect. For me, the much more bucolic, restrained and minimal Grumbling Fur are more genuinely psychedelic than all of these acts put together… but then I would say that wouldn’t I?

If I had to choose the one record from the last two years that has genuinely made me feel like my everyday world has been jolted off its axis long enough for me to be able to see it askew, as if fresh from the womb, then I’d have to say ‘Pipes’ by Katie Gately. A single 14 minute long track constructed from various recordings and manipulations of the artist’s voice. It’s something that I’m still unpicking now and probably will be for some time to come. But what it says to me right now is that fashion psych revivalism should be abandoned immediately and that the expansion of one’s mind will only occur in the framework of genuinely exploratory music. Time to cast the winkle pickers and the drainpipe jeans onto the fire.

Music that contains space for the listener to occupy as thinker, creator and dreamer; music that envelops, dislocates and bewilders; music which is trance inducing through repetition but essentially forward facing and unconcerned with historical accuracy, authenticity, fashion or tradition and music that rewards deep listening is still the root of the sonic psychedelic experience, and long may it remain so.


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