Columnfortably Numb: Psych Rock For April Reviewed By JR Moores

What will aliens make of our planet's recent psych and noise-rock offerings, ponders JR Moores

Mary Anne’s Polar Rig, photo by Ebba Agren

A few weeks ago the Nature Astronomy journal published a paper by J. Sebastian Pineda and Jackie Villadsen. I haven’t read it, obviously. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to follow the science or understand the details of dipole magnetic fields and phase-wrapped right circular polarisation bursts. I’m a music journalist, not Professor Fink. I can’t even read music. When pressed, I’d struggle to explain how putting a thin needle on a grooved disc can make it sound like Sun Ra Arkestra is performing in the living room.

What I gather from subsequent newspaper reports on said article is that radio signals have been detected emitting from an Earth-like exoplanet 12 light years from here. This could suggest the place is habitable or even already inhabited. If we’re not alone, then, I wonder what the folk are like all the way over there and how these radio signals might sound. My hope is that it resembles their equivalent of John Peel playing the latest 12 inch by Ouroboros Chorizo at the wrong speed, naturally, while quaffing a glass of red (dwarf) wine.

Will they be peace-loving, Christ-like ETs? Will they help us out like in that film where Jeremy Renner doesn’t entirely convince in his role as a physicist? Will they be angry like Krang or Skeletor, acid-blooded like the Xenomorphs, calm like the Spocks or even more annoying than that race of blue bumbags from Avatar?

Maybe they won’t be homogenously categorizable at all and it’d be unwise to lump an entire planet together like that. Such places could be populated by billions of individuals with loads of different competing and contrasting thoughts, opinions, outlooks, philosophies, tastes, eccentricities, prejudices and partialities. Some of them will lap up the divisive bile of their equivalent of the Daily Mail. Others will be delighted by their own version of Adrian Chiles and the sublime mundanity of his latest column about laying down his old Type-3 Phaser Rifle in favour of erotic cross-stitch.

Perhaps their planet’s made of different nations too, all jostling for global wealth, power and influence, a contest that invariably spills into spying, cyber-hacking, blowing raspberries, and war. On the macro level, there’ll be busy bodies in one tiny alien village joking about how the petty minded parochials in the neighbouring parish are all idiotic inbreds. Then in the evening they’ll unwind by watching a reality television programme that’s an even more damning reflection on their own species than Love Island is on ours. What would these creatures even make of Ardal O’Hanlon’s post-Father Ted sitcom My Hero which at the start of the millennium ran for six inexplicable series on BBC One, plus a Christmas Special? I guess that question won’t lead the agenda during First Contact.

I say we just fire the new Hawkwind CD over to YZ Ceti b. If whoever is there replies with positive feedback, we’ll welcome their tentacles with open arms and a large platter of nibbles such as KP’s pickled onion flavoured Space Raiders. If that doesn’t seem too culturally insensitive.

Hawkwind – The Future Never Waits

(Cherry Red)

The second track on Hawkwind’s latest studio album, their 35th in total it says here, is called ‘The End’. This seems premature. Not only are there eight further songs on the tracklist but at this point in their hopefully infinite career, the living legends seem to be on the up. (Again! Don’t ever write them off.) This lush-sounding collection follows – and even surpasses – 2021’s excellent Somnia. After the instrumental title track (an eventful ten-minute album intro), ‘The End’ kicks in with chugging guitars, playful electronics and clattering drumwork. Recent recruit Doug MacKinnon lays down one hell of a bassline to boot. It’s an instant-classic addition to the Hawkwind canon. Also fresh to the fold is Timothy "Thighpaulsandra" Lewis, the Welsh electric wizard known for his stints with Spiritualized, Julian Cope and Coil, who must be over the moon at this appointment (possibly literally, given that everyone likes to picture Hawkwind touring in a dimension-jumping rocketship rather than the usual coach with a toilet into which nobody must pass solid). Other hard-rocking nuggets that’ll get heads banging the length and breadth of the solar system include ‘Rama (The Prophesy)’ and ‘I’m Learning To Live Today’. Elsewhere there are classily ambient intermissions including that which concerns Aldous Huxley, richly textured instrumental jams such as ‘USB1’, an acoustic-based section of one song which ruminates on sentient computers, and even moments when Hawkwind seem to veer into their own wonky take on acid jazz. Dave Brock’s vocals may be frailer than yore but when the penultimate song is titled ‘The Beginning’ it feels as though the 81-year-old (in Earth years) is still revving up for further adventures. Long may he soar.

Godcaster – Godcaster

(Ramp Local)

Godcaster previously traded in psych-poppy math-rocking material and if the members moved to Brooklyn with the express intention of making music that sounds like it’s straight from the Big Apple, they did a damn fine job. Lead single ‘Vivian Heck’, for example, could’ve slotted comfortably into the first album(s) by Sonic Youth. Like early Liars, too, there can be an emphasis on authoritative rhythms and frenzied chanting rather than la-liddle-la-da-da tunefulness. At times, as on ‘Didactic Flashing Antidote’, this can make the mid-song breakdown the best part of a long piece with monochromatic bookending verses, so you probably wouldn’t want to hear the acoustic session version. Nothing wrong with that. Only the narrow-minded still subscribe to the idea that the mark of a good rock song is whether it can be performed unplugged while wearing a scraggly cardigan. The prettier ‘Albino Venus’ could suit that scenario, however, after which the band’s second album takes a turn into apocalyptic folk territory as if aiming to get signed by Young God Records in the mid-2000s. If these comparisons to idol killers and slave rapists[1] are making Godcaster sound derivative, it’s meant as encouragement for them to keep on stretching themselves and make (more of) their own distinctive mark as they rattle noisily onward.

[1] That’s a reference to a Swans song title. All complaints shall be forwarded to M. Gira.

Hands Up Who Wants To Die – Nil All

(Human Worth)

"HANDS UP WHO WANTS TO DIE?" screamed Nicholas Cave, future honorary MBE, when he used to front The Birthday Party. Not me, sir. I haven’t reached the final episode of Succession yet. Or Channel 4 News. Needless to say, the band named after that immortal line are a lot more pre-"& The Bad Seeds" than they are keen to croon gothily at the piano. (So far, at least). As with The Birthday Party and other rabid post-punkers, the chaotic sound they exude is cleverer and more considered than it might seem when it first invades your skull like a switchblade to the ear. Compounding the physical nature of this aural attack, the basslines grab at the chest, yanking backwards and forwards, while the spiky guitar sound flays at the skin around the edges, occasionally introducing a hacksaw to the bone. Since their last release, the Dublin-based band has appointed a new vocalist, Rory O’Brien (who also plays guitar in the mathy instrumental noise-rock trio Ten Past Seven). With his muttering, yelping, screaming and shouting, O’Brien seems to have been studying the great David Yow from The Jesus Lizard and perhaps even Andy Cairns during Therapy?’s particularly slurry Suicide Pact – You First period. Ugly and confrontational, Nil All may even be intended as a deliberately unpleasant experience, like some sordid horror flick. It’s a successfully engrossing and morbidly fascinating one, nevertheless. And like many an exemplary noise-rock record, it also contains that all-important swing.

Purling Hiss – Drag On Girard
(Drag City)

What would’ve happened if Dinosaur Jr. hadn’t signed to a major label, never considered recording in fancier studios, maybe kept the erratic Muppet Lou Barlow in the band, and rarely left the cobwebbed basement? Purling Hiss, that’s what. Mirroring J Mascis’s modus operandi, Purling Hiss songs like ‘Yer All In My Dreams’, as catchy as they are, feel like enjoyable excuses for Mike Polizze to string together a bunch of expressive, pedal-board-twisted guitar solos. There are also touches of Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets and other hardcore-punkers-turned-rock-ditty-writers. The production is satisfyingly scuzzy throughout. No Andy Wallace has been let near this; the absence of polish making lo-fi drawls like ‘Out The Door’ all the more sublime. For some reason the two longest songs, its title track and ‘Shining Gilded Boulevard’, have been sequenced right at the end of the record. The first one is as bulky as Henry Rollins’ shoulders and, if we’re being honest, a little on the stodgy side. Apropos of its name, it does drag on a bit. The latter song boosts the quality again when the ‘Hiss really loosen the reins on their inner Crazy Horse for nine rampaging minutes.

Mary Anne’s Polar Rig – Makes You Wonder

(Rama Lama)

It’s feasible that weird pop music is among the hardest material to make. Bizarre music can be tricky enough in the first place, threatening to become utterly unlistenable and/or grow wackier than the office joker’s neckwear. The same goes for pop music which can so often be bland, vacuous or just earwormingly irritating. But trying to do both at the same time? That can be harder to pull off than a shrunken jumper. Formerly a four piece, Mary Anne’s Polar Rig are a duo from Malmö (plus a host of guest contributors across this second album) and they’re not as all-over-the-bloody-headphones as 100 Gecs, say, which is probably a blessing, but they do strike a nifty balance in the way their hook-ridden songs are slathered in interesting and almost random-sounding tomfoolery. Malin Hofvander and Harald Ingvarsson demoed their new songs over lockdown. They’d been bingeing music documentaries and were inspired by all the olden-days bands who’d enjoyed luxurious lengths of time to piss about in the studio. The pair did the best they could to emulate that situation by pooling their disposable income and burying themselves in Studio Möllan for ten 17-hour days like a budget Steely Dan. As far as making a creative leap forward, it’s certainly paid off. With Hofvander dominating most of the vocals and Ingvarsson hardly a growlingly masculine singer himself, the outcome is a bit like Veruca Salt being produced by Dan Friel from Upper Wilds. Just call them Veruppa Stiles. (Or don’t.)

Mahti – Musiikki 1

(Riot Season)

Mahti’s lineup features Jussi Lehtisalo and Tomi Leppänen from Finnish cult legends Circle. That’ll be enough information already for some tall people in Ektro Records t-shirts to part with some of their hard-earned income for this flat piece of coloured wax, much to the bafflement of their long-suffering partners. I’ll carry on for a few lines more regardless. Interestingly, the other members of Mahti are Finnish folk music authority Hannu Saha, who plays the ancient kantele instrument, and Teemu Elo who used to be in Circle and is also a psychiatrist. Across five long and semi-improvised pieces, their collective style sounds somehow archaic, contemporary and futuristic all at once. But maybe that’s too linear a way to think about time and genre. If organic ambient techno had been around back in the day, the heroic demigods of Finnish myth would’ve enjoyed unwinding to this in the chillout cave after a long day of weather creation and other assorted wizardry. According to The Center For World Music, the first kantele was said to be crafted from "the jaw bones of fish and the hair of young maidens". When its strings were twanged, Finnish folk poetry tells us, its sound was "so beautiful that all living things started to cry." Not sure this 300-pressing on Riot Season will have quite the same impact, but it did make this writer feel very relaxed and at peace with the world for about three quarters of an hour.

The Shits – You’re A Mess

As far as band names go, The Shits is fairly route-one. Before you ask, yes, it is possible to find several other groups who’ve also used it, to similar degrees of deliberate non-fame. There are the charming Italians who sang ‘Suck The Blood From My Cock’ and ‘Farting On The Elevator’. There was another punk band, this one from New Jersey, who featured on an Umbilical Records compilation in the 1990s. Alas, there isn’t the space here to investigate whether another The Shits, this lot being potty-mouthed Sex Pistols emulators who recorded ‘Little Bastard’ and ‘Fanny Magic’, are actually real. Incidentally I’ve now typed that word so many times into the search engine that you won’t believe what the algorithms are advising. Anyway, we’re supposed to be talking about The Shits from Leeds who don’t play straight-up punk rock as such. While hardcore is no doubt one influence among many, this is slow, dark, feedback-ridden noise-rock with heftily repetitive riffs and someone who has swallowed a whole bag of sawdust coughing about feeling not exactly tickety-boo. That might explain why it’s appearing in this column rather than another one written by m’colleague Noel Gardner. Consider You’re A Mess to be a dense, strain-worthy, fibre-lacking log, then, and not a rapid-fire post-Jalapeño explosion. Or to put it in less scatological terms, it’d be more at home on Amphetamine Reptile than Epitaph Records, if you see what I mean. None of which is to say it won’t scare you (The) Shit(s)less.

Electric Wizards: A Tapestry Of Heavy Music, 1968 To The Present by JR Moores is available in all good bookshops this side of the Cetus constellation.

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