Columnfortably Numb: The Best Psych Rock Of 2021

After a quick reflection on the madness of "pedalgate", JR Moores runs us through his favourite psych and noise rock records of the year

Part Chimp by Steve Gullick

I am tired as I write this. At first, I was going to talk about how fatiguing this year has often felt, which on reflection sounds a little spoilt, in the grand scheme of things. After all that time we spent indoors, when there was little engaging with anyone besides our reliable posties who wear shorts in all weather and the behind-Perspex Sainsbury’s staff, events since "freedom day" have been overwhelming. For me, professionally and personally there have been times, and things, to deal with, from the mundane to the tragic, that have been unprecedentedly knackering. Did it always take three days to recover from a single gig or am I just getting old?

But then, hey presto, I was riled out of testudinal hibernation when someone accused guitar pedals of being devilish. I mean… Hang on. Erm. What? "Can someone explain to my [sic] why people who play guitar have decided to revive shoegaze/dream pop and embrace dumb retro shit like Weezer in an era filled with violence, economic inequality, and abortion bans?," asked Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill on Twitter. "The guitar pedal industrial complex is not the sound of the revolution." Don’t get me wrong. I dislike apathy as much as the next alcoholic, iPhone-scrolling hypocrite. But, c’mon! First, what serious person is still listening to Weezer in this day and age? Second, guitar pedals have always been awesome, they always will be, and to accuse them of propping up or failing to challenge such political and social nastiness is a little on the silly side.

Shoegaze is fairly avant-garde in its agenda. Not all of it, of course. Not My Vitriol. But do you remember the disorientating effect of hearing Loveless for the first time? Shoegaze is an ambiguous style, abstract, androgynous, sexy in an equality-of-opportunity way as opposed to balls-out Britpop #ladzbantz. It’s hard to pin down. Who’s making that sound and how are they doing it? Why is the song itself of such secondary importance to the wavering textures? Why do I suddenly feel so dizzy? Why is this thing prompting me to ask so many questions?

Totalitarians hate that shit. When the National Socialist Party began purging Germany of its alleged "degenerate art", they weren’t only seeking to cleanse the country of caricatured depictions of Adolf Hitler looking like a sad little wanker. Otto Dix’s anti-war canvases were targeted, inevitably, but so too were the expressionist scenes of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Van Gogh’s vibrant depictions of wheatfields, the post-cubist work of Paul Klee, the geometric minimalism of Piet Mondrian…

Why? Because authority is well aware of the thin stilts upon which it totters, and power is threatened by all kinds of artistic (and musical) expressions, not just those which are targeted directly, heavily handed or patently polemical.

The far-right is a real, serious and dangerous thing. So too is the insatiable capitalism that could wipe out the planet (or we frivolous humans, at least). But surely few people crave a musical milieu in which every band is stripped of its pedal boards and forced to shout "Laurence Fox smells of bin juice" over skeletally thin sub-Fugazi riffs. Like faith and love and Mystique from The X-Men, rebellion and resistance can take many different forms. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.


Now I’ve got that off my chest, here are my ten favourite psych and noise rock records of 2021, in reverse alphabetical order, simply because I fancied arranging it that way.

Vapour Theories – Celestial Scuzz

There hasn’t been a proper new Bardo Pond album since 2017’s characteristically awesome Under The Pines. In the meantime, we’ve had to get our fix of the fuzz from various reissues on Fire and Matador, as well as this Vapour Theories release. With Michael Gibbons on guitar, John Gibbons on another guitar, and a whole lotta effects pedals at their toes, it’s basically like listening to a Bardo Pond album without any rhythm section or singing on it (yet). Suffice to say, it’s bloody beautiful. INJECT THAT DISTORTION DIRECTLY INTO MY VEINS.

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

Once the toast of New Weird America, Sunburned Hand Of The Man returned to our turntables this year after a far-too-many-years-long absence. Such was the quality and breadth of material on Pick A Day To Die, you could almost mistake it for a best-of. Perhaps it is, in a way, having been assembled from sessions that took place in 2007, 2008, 2016, 2017 and 2020. It all slots together extremely well, despite this fractured gestation and the variety of heady jams it offers. The record beings gently and quickly veers into chicken-dinner-oriented motorik folk. Then it starts to sound like Trans Am. ‘Black Lights’ is like John Carpenter’s band trying their hand at classic funk. J Mascis turns up towards the end to provide one of his signature soulful solos, perhaps to take the edge off the fact that, a few seconds prior, drummer John Moloney had been shouting his head off about steak and fish.

Richard Pinhas & Duncan Pinhas – Sources
(Bam Balam)

"Radical adults lick godhead style!", as Thurston Moore would say. Heldon and solo guitar alchemist Richard Pinhas is in his 70s and still knocking lively space rock out of the launching pad. Here he is joined by his son, Duncan (also a solo musician in his own right). Arthur Nancy appears on a couple of tracks, providing urgent and hyperactive drumbeats. The duo pieces are just as exciting, as guitar and synth sounds twist and turn together, jumpstarting their listeners’ imaginations. Given Sources‘ otherworldly feel, not to mention the fact that Pinhas is a noted Herbert fan, this really should have been commissioned as the soundtrack for that new Dune flick everybody’s talking about, instead of Hans Thingy.

Part Chimp – Drool

(Wrong Speed)

"Don’t fuck with the formula," is Tim Cedar’s approach to Part Chimp, as he told tQ back in March. So, rather than doing anything new or trying to play better or learning how to rap, the noise-rocking unit freshened things up by swapping labels instead, from Mogwai’s Rock Action to Joe Thompson’s Wrong Speed Records. When pressed, Cedar accepted that his vocals are bit more audible these days and the mastering slightly less "grotty" than on their earlier output. Still, what we have here is Part Chimp continuing to do what they do best, which is to play as heavily, noisily, furrily and slobberingly as is primately possible, while shouting about worms and stuff. Needless to say, Drool sounds unfathomably loud even when you’ve got the stereo volume at its lowest notch.

Orchestra Of Constant Distress – Concerns

(Riot Season)

From their utterly bludgeoning and mercilessly repetitive sound, I had always assumed that Orchestra Of Constant Distress were total misanthropes, hellbent on instigating some kind of humanity-obliterating rockpocalypse through hitting their instruments over and over again until a wormhole opened to do this universe a favour by swallowing us all. That’s because I was judging them on their studio albums, including this fourth one, which hurts the old lugholes in the best possible way. Then I received some footage of them onstage with the note that "In a live setting, they’re jollier than you might think [smiley face emoji]". It turns out they’re a party band with wide grins and jaunty dance moves! In light of that new information, Concerns is even fucking funnier than it was in the first place.

Monster Magnet – A Better Dystopia

Musicians dealt with lockdown in many different ways. The worst culprits out there, namely Lorde and Frank Turner, busied themselves by penning opportunistic anthems which they could "drop" as soon as an end to social restrictions was in sight. Don’t you just love to capitalise on the return of "togetherness" while rather glossing over the fact that a lot of people have died? Taking a different tack, Dave Wyndorf handled the sorry situation by delving into his past. He assembled this vibrant collection of covers (mostly) cherrypicked from an era when, as he sees it, bands put much more effort into rocking audiences’ socks off and generally weirding them out. Not only is it the most exciting and enthusiastic-sounding Monster Magnet album in a while, it’s the best covers record you’ll hear all year. Apologies to Chan Marshall.

Melvins – Working With God

Melvins probably don’t count as psych rock, per se, even when you take into account Buzz Osborne’s sartorial penchant for colourful muumuus. They might not qualify as noise rock either, despite being noisier than Kanye West’s internal monologue and rockier than a Strictly contestant’s marriage. However, Working With God wasn’t covered in Kez Whelan’s excellent metal column either, and tQ is yet to launch its coveted regular roundup of grunge-but-not-really-grunge releases. Melvins are their own genre and a law unto themselves. By default then, Working With God has ended up here. Flaunting the energy and irreverence of men half their age and under, this collection is funny (‘I Fuck Around’), catchy (‘Brian, The Horse-Faced Goon’), often fast (‘Bouncing Rick’), sometimes slow (‘Hot Fish’), kind of wonky (‘Caddy Daddy’) and simply full to the brim with chunky riffs galore. Long may they Melvin.

Kohoutek – Jurad

(Cardinal Fuzz/Feeding Tube)

Taking up just two sides of wax, rather than stretching the improvisatory jam sessions across the more accommodating CD format, Jurad is one of Kohoutek’s shorter releases. And it still starts slowly. For the first ten minutes or longer, these Philadelphian ponderers focus on the hushed twinkles, gentle jangling and humming drones. The inattentive thumb-twitchers among us will probably have left by then, off to bombard their own poor senses with clip after clip of TikTok Tupperware hacks. The more discerning listener will stick with it, wonder what’s lying around the corner, and be duly rewarded with some of the finest and most lumbering space-rock this side of Mimosa. (The binary star, not the citrussy cocktail.) Lovely stuff.

Howlin’ Rain – The Dharma Wheel

(Silver Current)

As Ethan Miller revealed to tQ back in October, The Dharma Wheel was originally intended to be a triple album offering a two-and-a-half-hour psychedelic rumination on the grand-scale subject of AMERICA with a nod to Dante’s Inferno. Now, that sounds AMAZING. Unfortunately, the whole pesky pandemic business forced Howlin’ Rain off the road and into the studio without the ready funds to realise their full ambition. No matter, because record is epic enough as it is. It features six tracks, the shortest being six minutes, the longest sixteen (666, is it? Call Dante on the Ouija board, quick!). And it showcases the ‘Rain at the top of their game. (Sorry for the rhyme there. I’ve got epic poetry on the brain, now.)

GNOD – La Mort Du Sens


Obviously, any psych rock roundup of ’21 that fails to include GNOD isn’t worth the unsustainable energy it takes to get it onto your screen. The guitars on La Mort Du Sens sound as metallic as Big Black doing battle with some haunted suits of armour. This line-up has the absolute correct number of drummers in it: more than one. There’s a nice balance between the face-smacking riffcentic passages and the looser mid-song noise sprawls. One passage has some wild sax on it. Paddy Shine couldn’t have sounded any angrier even if you’d tied him to a chair in the Cambridge Corn Exchange and forced him to sit through the entire performance of ‘A Night Of Songs & Laughter With Rob Brydon And His Fabulous Band’. What more could you ask for? More tracks, perhaps? But if it had been a double-album, there’s a chance none of us would have made it out alive.

Electric Wizards: A Tapestry of Heavy Music, 1968 To The Present by JR Moores is published by Reaktion Books and would make an excellent Christmas gift for any fans of the music above, especially those with big stockings

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today