Compilation Of The Week: Rocket Recordings 25th Anniversary Launch300

Everyone is virtually insane, says Danijela Bočev; what better salve could there be, this week at least, than this compilation celebrating Rocket's 25th birthday?

It’s a great story. Rocket Recordings launched spontaneously, after a particularly inspired drunken conversation at a gig with The Heads. Since their humble beginnings in 1998, Bristol school pals Chris Reeder and John O’Caroll have carved out a unique niche, championing the finest and most eclectic of fringe psych incarnations on what has become a pioneering label.

Initially releasing 7" records that would only earn John Peel’s attention, they remained under the radar of the conventional music press. Sticking to a no-frills DIY ethos, the duo successfully navigated the challenging, fast-paced transition to the 21st century digital landscape with attendant transformations in the way we perceive and consume music. They’re still going strong today too, on a continuing mission to explore strange new worlds of heavily creative music, putting out records that sound and look good. The importance of visuals cannot be understated for a pair of freelance designers largely responsible for the visual identity of all the releases on their label.

Rooted in the murky depths of Bristol, much of what was too good to become trendy ended up on Rocket. There is fundamental but marginally psychedelic quality to their roster. They drew from unlikely sources too, fostering and maintaining a sense of wonder in discovery – think Albert Hoffman accidentally stumbling upon a mind-altering substance.

Without any overarching philosophy, the duo’s careful curatorial practice seems guided by a deeper instinct; as if honest to the paradoxical condition of humans, a spiritual animal embodying incommensurable realms at the heady intersection of contrasts, finite and infinite, being and time, sliding along the spectrum of evolution (physical ascending) and involution (spirit descending).

Art in general feeds on this primal existential conflict, harnessing the creative tension of contrasts to break down the automatism of perception. It negotiates the liminal space between inner and outer world, natural and cosmic, sensual and spiritual, resolving tension and imbalance through the kind of alchemical synthesis. Music, as the most essential of arts, brings immediate cathartic properties for such energetic synthesis, even without overt pretensions to esoteric science. No escapism, but realignment, psychedelic experience blows and melts the outer debris of the mind to reveal something that remains constant and unchanging after the perception is stripped of the mind’s games of smoke and mirrors. Music comes forth as the aural afterimage of the potent brush with inner truth, holding enough etheric impact to, at least momentarily, defragment our calcified awareness.

Launch300 marks Rocket’s 300th release, featuring eight potent, previously unreleased, mind-benders, while celebrating the label’s silver jubilee, the most important milestone thus far. Surefooted in stomping the conquered grounds of the label’s quarter century, anniversary compilation focuses equally on the next 25 years, relentlessly pushing onwards into the unknown, with Rocket’s characteristic leading edge grit.

Relative newcomers to the label, Newcastle’s Smote set the tone for this epic launch. Future-pagans, aesthetically rooted in transcendence through repetition, cook a potent spell for the disenchanted times in need of a heroic dose of the raw mystery. Digging deeper and darker into the subsoil of the mind, tribal stomper ‘Coal Tongue’ slowly unfolds carried by the sinister, deceptively calm murmuring invocations sounding like an unholy hierophant from the smoky basement club. Deeply melancholic guitar tinges evoke murkier majesties of Portishead’s Third. The momentum builds up, taking an astonishing turn for the point of white heat, unleashing the behemoth guitar assault straight from the core of the earth. In an apocalyptic pinnacle of primal forces, netherworlds rejoice.

Rocket’s overall sound ethos is of external creative diversity balanced by the internal unifying force. Anything goes as long as it perks the third ear and for all adventurous experimental wanderings, the unmistakable depth charge of (hard)core values remains slavishly tied to the powerful gravity of some magnetic inner galactic centre, unmoving, invisible, bottomless pit holding everything together. For all the paradoxical human nature embodying inconsonant realms intersecting at impossible angles and, in parallel, all the variety of sonic methods Rocket’s artists employ, it all shares a common centre.

The Swedes Centrum, once again confirming the sublime vitality of Nordic psychedelia, bring it truly to the forgotten centre, pure consciousness expansion in a loving dance of integrated polarities, cosmic and natural. ‘Du Är Så Värdefull’ [you are so precious] is a melodic gem of devotional desert folk, the aural equivalent of finding a resplendent oasis after a long-seeking journey. Music as genuinely tuned-in as this insightfully illuminates the basic principles of the inner world, mirroring the outer. As the loving intellect of Buckminster Fuller deciphered, love is metaphysical gravity. It is the agent of expansion. Music perhaps is the best medium that blindly depicts this dynamic mystery of the foundational intangible force, sound drawing an infinite mandala of a circle whose ‘centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere’.

The high point of Rocket’s mission so far has been the release of GOAT’s World Music, a statement in its most elemental and elevated form, bringing music back to its ecstatic senses, magical ritual roots and radical democracy of shared human heritage. Spiritual syncretism and music eclecticism at its best. Success of their debut proved how deeply the music must go to fill the void in a world of atrophied imagination, yearning for the new mythologies. Their big picture music is as close as you can get to a planetary vibestream and a spiritual revolution you can dance to.

GOAT serve us another metaphysically hot, life-affirming shamanistic groove feast as a freeform flow of transcendentally anchored organic intelligence. A maggotbrained fertilizer, ‘Goatsnake’ has all the tasteful deep synapse-frying guitar tones, bouncing bass backbone and ferociously unrestrained outpouring of regenerative beauty. As the musical lifeforce cracks every hermetic seal wide open, ecstatic female vocalists shout, “Pretty snake is letting us in, everything is not what it seems!” with raw abandon and the deal is sealed for another quintessential GOAT track. Masked away from their ego identities, shamans of the musical GOAT entity remind us life knows best where it goes and getting out of its way is a primary life skill.

But to peak further behind the curtain of life has always haunted the human mind, seeking a portal into the unknown. The most iconic, if naive, depiction is the Flammarion engraving, showing a seeker of the Middle Ages poking his head through the cosmic window where the sky and the earth meet. 16th century alchemist Gerhard Dorn coined the term ‘spiracle’ (Spiraculum Eternitatis), the window or breathing hole into eternity, a sort of rabbit hole between earthly and cosmic consciousness. Every existentially adventurous art ventures into the rabbit hole, mastering the receptive translating act to let the cosmic air through the spiracle, breathing change and influx of new ideas into living existence, connecting subjective with the objective truth. Like the air we breathe connecting us with the immediate environment, music breathes new spiritual oxygen to the soul and holds the inner ground of metaphysical gravity.

Contributions by Och, Shit And Shine, J Zunz and The Utopia Strong are on the introverted side of the psych scale, crafting deeply mystified cosmic textures in search of the new portals of expansion.

Shit And Shine’s wonky trip hop with a cosmic charge ‘What’D You Mean, What?’ is a masterful schizophonic rhythmic sampladelia, playfully twisting the raw material of sampled conversation from a narcotized electronic interface. It stretches arrows of time in and out of linearity, exposing it as a mutant variable relative to subjective vantage point.

Och’s ‘Inebriantia’ is a slowly expansive intoxicated meditation, like an aural hypnagogic passage. On the similar lost in space wavelength, The Utopia Strong’s ‘Harpies’ will get your head floating in the most peculiar way, massaged out of its terrestrial shell by mystified balearic harmonies of alien exotica. UK trio’s layered modular synthtopia is evoking late Jon Hassel’s pentimento experiments, with an added space age supercharge of transformative synaesthesia. If the utopian thinking is a gentler critique of the unsatisfying reality, the trio would gleefully get lost exploring parallel worlds, if only to keep the imagination alive.

With the post-lockdown culture still battling looming symptoms of new parochialism, the Rocket founders keep their third ear open worldwide. On ‘Radix’, Mexican Lorena Quintanilla aka J Zunz crafts a contemplative, time-suspended atmosphere, opening up a space of gestation for the future, feeling forward to yet uncharted potentials. Employing simple methods, electronic minimalism divinely guided by her magnetic, whispering incantations finds its internal radix. Pulsating synth beats send potent signals to the third eye, serving like a cosmic lighthouse for the lost psychonauts.

We are all artefacts for space travel, as stated in Rocket’s press release paraphrasing William Burroughs. But to ground the exploratory impulse away from mere escapism into inspired action in the living reality is the missing wisdom link. Humans are vessels for evolution, only attainable engaging with both the actual vital energy of life and spiritual imagination of the universe, a living intelligence.

The world is trapped in a capitalist impasse with algorhythmic consciousness and remnants of 90s techno-optimism and space age euphoria, cut away from the actual sources of life inspiration preventing forward momentum. The mind of the world is subliminally infected with parasitic dead libido, capable only of replicating, multiplying, upgrading objects and no one could alchemize the living progress out of it. Under such circumstances everyone is virtually insane. Mental health decline and a certain life dysphoria, especially in younger generations is an alarming symptom of the eternal cancellation of the future. The system is fundamentally incapable of delivering the future, because it engages the spiritually/libidinally dead objects, whose pseudo ecstatic features are a knee-jerk reaction to temporary liberation from the human/universal matrix in a misguided emancipation of abstract intelligence. For instance, money is an abstract, hollow value, not an actual, psychic, life-giving energy linked to worth, no matter how enticing the dangerous liaison of capitalism and new age spiritual materialism would like to justify their insidious symbiosis. Attachment to money is like energy necrophilia hindering real energetic progress. If not arguing for the full blown archaic revival, a certain measure of urgent, regulatory organic intelligence is necessary for the survival of spaceship earth.

Music is the last refuge for spiritual impulse in this post-religious era, it engages us with the living source of psychic energy in a unifying collective ritual. A small but necessary defiance in the face of the future’s cancellation. In such light, the deeply grounded vision of Rocket’s futurism could lie in a wisely balanced measure of (inner) reality against (capitalist) realism. The challenge of 21st century psychedelia is to intensify the esoteric activism, disengaging from the negative external forces and infusing a sense of genuine vitality through music.

Rocket heavyweight alumni Gnod best illustrate this attitude with 2017 album title JUST SAY NO TO THE PSYCHO RIGHT​-​WING CAPITALIST FASCIST INDUSTRIAL DEATH MACHINE. For the Launch300, they bring menacing fun and fury with an onslaught of a thunderous cosmic sludge rager. The controlled chaos of ‘Nought Sayin’ predominantly concerns generating enough momentum for the astral rocket to inner space to reach escape velocity. A headbanger set to rip your calcified third eye open as if someone had slipped DMT in your tea. Trash meditation harnessing the mind’s gross matter, ascending on the vitalist nihilist abandon. An eternal launchpad of gnarliest fuzzed-out loop riffage creating a closed-circuit raw energy. A spiritual stress test, pushing boundaries through angst and rumination, challenging constraining conceptual frames, until new life breaks the shackles of distressed remnants of old paradigms. Atop a noise rocket, pushed beyond comfort zone to the state of emergency, squealing, cartoonishly unhinged vintage space age effects behave like the malfunctioning control pad of a spaceship edging an event horizon. This is a supersonic karma-smashing racket denser than a black hole, defiant and confrontational, raging against the boundaries of the explicable.

But it’s obvious that this rocket is stuck on the launchpad, going nowhere off ground before the pressing terrestrial issues of collapsing ecosystems are sorted and objective scientific paradigm reconciled with subjective shamanistic wisdom. Rocket’s musical vision, coming from both sides, offers the fertile space for such synthesis. 25 years crystalising and setting the course for the next 25, Rocket is eternally darting forward in the unmovable essence. With another fantastic compilation, Launch300 is exemplary of the label retaining deep core stability values, while simultaneously defying convention.

Launch300 is out today via Rocket Recordings

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