The Lead Review: Mat Colegate On MY DISCO’s Severe

Mat Colegate examines MY DISCO's experiments with psychedelic minimalism, as exemplified on their first new full length in five years

One of the more under-analysed aspects of the psychedelic experience is its stillness. For immeasurable seconds pin-prick details harden and gleam into focus, the hum in the head ceases and time and space contract into an unbroken unit of eternity. You’re staring into a moment that hangs multi-faceted in its singularity like a bunch of grapes on a vine. Able to be examined from all angles at leisure. To be seen into, outside of, throughout and around. It’s a silent and unbreakable eternity that is snatched away by the sudden intrusive roar of linearity – someone hands you a water pistol, a raucous peal of manic laughter – that brings you back to the sensate chaos of the trip.

"Under-analysed" as in not focussed on much by rock bands. Rock bands like the chaos of sensation, the grubby smear of wah-ed guitars blurring cause and effect, long hair tossed under hammering strobe lights, gloopy electronics mimicking the matings and separations of the blobs of the endless oil wheel. Mess and gushes of ecstasy, smears and splatters, so much Pollocks. Nothing wrong here, nothing bad, but this is accurate to a single trickle-down idea of what psychedelia is. A second, third, forth hand description photocopied from the note book of someone who was tripping, for fuck’s sake. Shorthand. Not the only way. To be taken with a grain of sand.

Indeed, looked at from this angle, it’s hard to think of a scene that has got psychedelia more wrong than rock music. These bejewelled moments are better represented by the still-life clamour of Steve Reich and Charlemagne Palestine, the weightless coo of Tara Jane O’Neil’s ‘Welcome’, Nick Drake’s ghastly ‘Pink Moon’, the paralysed and chattering black metal of Mord and Vardan. Music that starts from stillness and silence, that transcends through heading inwards instead of flailing out.

You’ll notice that few of the above are party starters. Enter MY DISCO. Enter Severe.  

On Severe, MY DISCO – the all-in-caps name is appropriate, not a typographical quirk, a witch house triangle or a cross or somesuch: it is a statement of volume and legibility – have taken the boiled-to-its-very-essence art rock of precursors such as This Heat and Big Black and compacted and crushed it into a near expressionless statement of stark terror and sublimity. Through its stripped back rigour and commitment to its own logic, it has managed to encapsulate the moment where the indifferent face of the void sends you running and crying to any god that will hear you. Its palette is tiny – voice, drums, bass, guitar, silence – but it is as focussed and as affecting as any pop song or any symphony.

All great albums start with statements of intent, and there could be no more appropriate start to Severe than ‘Recede’. Eight and-a-half minutes, two bass notes, a solitary howl of guitar feedback, and drums that never mark time but instead crash unpredictably into and out of the song’s framework. It is supremely disciplined and completely egoless. Liam Andrews’ lyrics are a simple instruction, "Recede into the silence", he intones over and over again. It is an instruction the band follows for the rest of the album’s duration.

Even at Severe‘s most recognisably rock influenced it’s hard to ignore the feeling that there is something missing from it. ‘Successive Pleasure’ has the swampy groove of prime period Scientists or Birthday Party, but replaces sticky rock & roll abandon with a pained and near-unendurable tension. "I wait until your eyes close" goes the solitary lyric. Why? It’s never explained, but with it’s background of crashing, unsyncopated rhythm section and slashes of guitar that bring to mind a mournful Poison Ivy Rorschach’s work with The Cramps, it can’t be for any good reason. It’s the perfect soundtrack for creeping through a lover’s window unbidden and standing, staring at them sleeping in the dark.

Of course, this is music with precursors. As well as the above mentioned there are hints of Les Rallizes Denudes’ glacial minimalism, the oceanic strength of Swans, even the lush rockabilly romanticism of Angelo Badalamenti’s orchestrations for Julee Cruise, but with all the life drained out of them – hooked up to tubes that suck out their vigour and leave them as pale husks. At several glorious points – ‘King Sound’s deathly intonation of it’s own title, ‘Severance’s 52 seconds of ambient guitar and the lightest, slightest hint of the rain outside the studio – it draws frightening and unexpected parallels between the icy clarity of the psychedelic experience and the blank monotony of clinical depression. The kind of connections that only art at its rawest and most exploratory can ever get close to.       

The clue to the album lies in its title: Severe. It isn’t a badge of pride, or a parading of hardier-than-thou credentials, it’s a name as stripped back and functional as the music itself. This is an album that aims for escape through muscular contraction and numbing repetition, discipline and focus. There is no abandon here, no letting go of the reins. The first giveaway are the vocals on the second track, ‘1991’. A simple two-point harmony that brings to mind the devotional plea that carries throughout David Axelrod’s production of The Electric Prunes ‘Holy Are You’. This is rock music as monastery, as isolation and prayer. A kind of plainchant and hair shirt psychedelia. Given the comparative excesses of MY DISCO’s earlier records, it’s tempting to imagine them, disgusted at their previous efforts – disgusted at all that waste – retreating into a stone and stick chapel somewhere in the wilds, dry mic-ing amps and drums and not speaking to each other until the album was finished. Whatever the circumstances of its creation, it’s an effort that has paid off. I doubt there will be a more effective, more moving, more genuinely, chillingly psychedelic record released this year. Follow their instructions and recede into the silence.  

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