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Shpongle + The Desert Dwellers

(9 Mar 2014: The Observatory — Santa Ana, CA)

A psychedelic Sunday night flips the script in Orange County.

A Sunday night in Orange County is not typically a time and place where one might expect to find cutting edge psychedelic electronica on the entertainment menu. But the “Orange Curtain” doesn’t reign quite as conservatively as it used to over the county’s arts scene. The Observatory (formerly known as the Galaxy) meanwhile provides Southern California with a quality venue that can draw from both San Diego and Los Angeles, making for a hip regional destination.


There was even a contingent from San Diego that skipped the Shpongle show the previous night at the much-maligned House of Blues in order to catch this show some 90 miles away instead. “We wanted to get fully Shpongled,” said a young lady who made the trip. “This place is way better, let’s get weird!”


Getting “Shpongled” is the term that’s emerged from the “psybient” scene of British DJ Simon Posford and his partner Raja Ram. Posford does most of the heavy lifting with production, instrumentation and programming for the psychedelic down-tempo project. He’s a one-man show on the current tour since Ram is semi-retired from the road. But Posford was backed by the Shpongletron 3.0, a life-size trip toy made up of LEDs, infinity mirrors and projection mapping to create an immersive multi-dimensional experience.


Such a complete experience was lacking in the opening set from the Desert Dwellers, which was a shame. The DJ duo from Santa Fe shows great promise on their studio recordings, with a “psy chill/sacred bass/downtemple dub” sound that matches well with Shpongle. But the duo’s sound seemed much more in your face in the live setting, yet without the psychedelic ambience and eye candy to enhance the mood. The Desert Dwellers’ set therefore felt disconnected rather than immersive, failing to energize the audience.


That all changed when Posford hit the stage and activated the Shpongletron. On tour in support of 2013’s Museum of Consciousness album, Shpongle offered a multi-dimensional experience that is frequently lacking in the EDM scene. There’s any number of artists that can put together a compelling light show, but far fewer who can provide the music to match. Many EDM acts get bogged down in repetitive beats and rely too much on computers. But Shpongle’s blend of instrumental sounds, tribal beats and genre-bending grooves is at the cutting edge of modern electronica.


Shpongle stands out from the crowded EDM scene by remembering the organic rock roots of psychedelic music. One song featured a synth progression that recalled the Who’s “Baba O’Riley”, yet mixed into a swirl of trance dance jamming that created a fresh sonic landscape. “Tickling the Amygdala” from the new LP seemed to sample a bit of Pink Floyd’s classic “On the Run”, with prototype psychedelia evolving to another level of high strangeness. The frequent layering of space funk synths with tribal beats also recalled some of the psychedelic trance rock jams from the String Cheese Incident, who hosted Shpongle at their 2011 Electric Forest Festival.


The audience at the Observatory seemed to be transported to a futuristic world where there was an “archaic revival” going on, to borrow a term from late great ethnobotanist and philosopher Terence McKenna (cited as a significant influence by Shpongle). 


“You are a divine being. You matter, you count. You come from realms of unimaginable power and light, and you will return to those realms,” McKenna once said while espousing on the human potential. This uplifting potential seemed to permeate the vibe throughout the performance.


The scene at the Observatory was probably close to what McKenna had in mind when he advocated in favor of an archaic revival for society where self-shamanism is used for heightened consciousness, enlightenment and transcendence. The atmosphere, the elbow room and the sound were also all far better than what San Diego’s deeply flawed House of Blues has to offer with its spotty acoustics, limited sight lines and lack of an outdoor smoking section.


It seemed appropriate to witness such a scene in Santa Ana, where visionary science fiction author Philip K. Dick spent his final years after living most of his life in Berkeley. Dick’s books tend to convey a dystopian vision for the future, but also frequently advocate for humanity’s greater potential while exploring themes involving higher consciousness. His final book Radio Free Albemuth even revolved around a plotline of generating revolution through subliminal messages in popular music.


Music can play a key role in advancing higher consciousness and Shpongle is delivering a sound that taps into the longing for transcendence that can be tough to track down amidst the 21st century rat race. The sonic landscapes Posford was dialing up conveyed a sense of a journey through Aldous Huxley’s doors of perception to discover a groovy new universe. Some on hand may well have viewed the experience as just a great dance party. But for those looking for something deeper, Shpongle offers intrepid souls the potential for more.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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