Today I learned something that absolutely no one has to know, but I’m dying to tell anyway. Fortunately, that’s why blogs were invented. You, of course, are not a sucker for reading this. You are, in fact, the observer that makes me real. I’m sorry a (fiction) book mention of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle has me in its grasp, too. So, as the observer, observe this: there are several semi-distinct flavors of psychedelic music and I prefer one flavor above all others. As my evidence, I will present to you only bands whose albums I have purchased and formed some sort of (sometimes defective) relationship with. If I’m wrong, so what, you didn’t pay for this information! Right or wrong, this post was motivated entirely by my first listen to The High Frontier, the most recent album from the Lumerians.
Psychedelic, the defining characteristics.
In my experience, there are several common features that define psychedelic music:
- Repetitious or droning grooves
- Prolific use of spacy or swooshy effects like phasing or flanging
- Distorted guitar sounds that don’t resemble heavy metal
- Vocals, often vague or indistinct, with heavy use of reverb
- Some kind of chirpy rock organ sound like that of Ray Manzarek’s instrument (not his style)
- A vague or explicit Eastern sound, like that the Beatles brought back from India
- A tendency to get in side your personal head, rather than bind you to the hordes already signing along
- A kind of ritualistic or meditative feel
I’ve found that there is a marked difference between psychedelic music I love and that I just respect. The boundary falls between two ‘purposes’ of the music. While all psychedelic music sounds very personal, there seems to be a dividing line between contemplative and expressive sounds.
On the contemplative side, the music sticks to a repetitious groove aiming, it seems, for a kind of meditative trance. Wooden Shjips seems typical in this regard. Their song “Loose Ships” off of Vol. 2 features an organ sound is almost a single continuous note/chord which every 15 seconds or so, gets to do a little three note variation in order to get right back to that chord. The guitar sound is almost hidden by the sound effects and is almost all texture and not much pure music. Drums and bass? They’re there, but only to keep the metronomic thing going, in case the organ is too complicated for you. Each song is interrupted by a kind of extended solo where a band member improvises to the joint meditation you, band and listener, have jointly developed. The solo stands out as a 5′ 5″ person stands out in a sea of people ranging 5′ 3 1/2′ to 5′ 6″. To a snarky person, it sounds a little samey-samey. To the fan, it’s a meditative groove where small variations make a big difference.
The expressive side, however, includes more extroverted music like, for example, Goat which, honestly has become one of my favorite bands with their first and only release World Music. Where Wooden Shjips sounds meditative, Goat sounds tribal. There’s still the repetition, but now it’s devoted to more of a scream to the world. It’s still very personal music, but here the person has a thing to say to people outside of your own head. The guitars are more screamy, the percussion more varied and tribal, and the experimental sounds come in instrumentation, not in fancy phaser effects.
One version looks inside, the other looks out. Both are suited to headphone listening or solitary sharing in a crowd full of other solitary listeners. I prefer the more expressive version. A drone sound or an extended solo, typical of the more meditative sound are excellent traits, but I prefer something with a larger sense of purpose or goals. To be fair, these are not the Sharks and the Jets. Neither flavors do finger-snapping taunts. There are other features, too. The Besnard Lakes, for example, hit me like the more expressive version even as the high, often harmonized, vocals take me soaring to no place in particular. Other excellent versions, like Earthless, for example, take on extended high profile solos that are neither solely trance-inducing or solely expressive. This is not a clean division, but I know what works for me.
This whole insight came to me when listening to the latest album by the Lumerians. Previously, they struck me as being more part of the meditative side of things although their repetitions often involved longer phrases rather than single multi-note riffs. This time out, I noticed a seriously vivid drum/bass combo behind the meditative guitar/vocals. With the Lumerians, the tribal part seems to have won the battle and my heart this time. Next time … well, tune in next time and we’ll see.