[10 December 2009]
At the close of a year in which live performance overtook album sales in terms of revenue for the first time in many years, and a decade in which ‘indie’ has become very much the mainstream, truly alternative artists have continued to look for different ways to write and record, both delving into the past and innovating with new ways to alter the boundaries of their output.
With the seismic shift away from major labels spending major money in the industry, a path has been paved for a whole plethora of DIY imprints, often run by the artists themselves, willing to test just how far they can push their art form, and with this the outlook for a decade has never looked so promising.
Although many may question the labeling of certain albums in the following list as ‘psychedelic’, the phrase has come to mean much more than its 1960s counterparts. Psychedelia has influenced so many things in 2009—whether the band is labeled freak-folk, psych-pop, or garage psychedelia to name a few—that the creative approach to songwriting has influenced and been adopted by so many genres that barely any independent label has remained untouched by its reaches.
Brooklyn has arguably been the decade’s ‘taste maker’, and its lo-fi boom of late is heavily entwined with psychedelic tinges. The aesthetic has been expanded further, influencing a wave of psych-artists that have enjoyed success on both the American and European scenes. The weird and wonderful worlds of the likes of Takeshi Murata and Jim Drain serve as a perfect visual that will immortalise what is going on in the creative worlds right now for years to come.
With penned release dates in 2010 for the likes of Yeasayer, psych looks like a genre that may run strong into next year, and the freedom with which artists are approaching their music makes for what could quite possibly be one of the most exciting and innovative decades the art form has ever seen.
Since their self-released debut EP last year, Crystal Antlers were, unsurprisingly to many, snapped up by Touch & Go and, well, quite frankly haven’t looked back since. As with their live shows, on Tentacles Crystal Antlers can often sound like numerous bands all playing at the same time, with each individual getting their own way, but each is so tightly locked to the that other the mayhem sounds at no stage off kilter. Alongside the machine-like drumming of Kevin Stewart, second percussionist Damian Edwards adds a great deal towards the chaotic sound, but this is not done in any way to cover flaws in any of their musicianship, but rather highlights the amount of immense individual talent there is on show: this is snarling psych-rock music as boys will play it.
After the initial prog-rock, the organ in “Andrew” lays the first discernable melody to break through from under the guitars and layers of instrumentation with the record, then transgresses back to these psychedelic type ballads at numerous stages, and as you listen, aspects manifest themselves as way more melodic than you might originally think.
Tentacles further displays the immense talents of Johnny Bell on bass, as previously seen on the EP’s monumental closing track “Parting Song for the Torn Sky”, and although no track probably stands out on its own quite as much as this, the record seems to have been built more as an LP, and as accomplished as it is from the offset, you can’t do anything but think it was supposed to be this way.
With Bell’s voice largely inaudible amongst the screaming guitars, organs, and other layers, what initially strikes you as angst in the lyrics quite quickly reveals itself to be desperation, and although you cannot make out exactly what he’s saying, you sure as hell know he means whatever it is he’s singing about. As the last track closes with the line “Lonely again”, it completes what is, as a self produced album, dazzlingly accomplished, and seems a sure signal of even greater things to come.
After what seems like an infinite list of collaborative projects, the colossal drone duo from Seattle returned with the career-defining Monoliths & Dimensions. For those that don’t know Sunn O))), they are a pair that test the limits of altered instrumentation with explorations of experimental minimalism, often with no discernable drumming or beat, less replacing music with feedback than creating music with it. For those that do know their past works, the record manages to push the format in new directions that are even further beyond what was previously imagined. Prior to its release, the band stated that it is “the most musical piece we’ve done, and also the heaviest, powerful and most abstract set of chords we’ve laid to tape.”
First track “Aghartha” bears the expected abrasive noise of previous epic death drone and possesses the same kind of beauty as an art house horror movie, where distinctly vivid images are painted as an awe inspiring visual. Listen to the opening 20 minutes to the record and you can’t help but be spooked.
The band have always put an emphasis on collaborative practice, after an abundance with the likes of Gravetemple, Merzbow, Julian Cope, and experimental cellists Aaron Martin and Alexander Tucker, to name a few, and the pair haven’t changed on Monoliths, with the record moving well into double figures of contributors by its close. The influence of Dylan Carlson, considered by most a pioneer of the style with Australian band Earth, can be heard all over “Alice”, a track that also uses jazz composer Eyvind Lang to arrange trombonists Julian Driester and the improvisational Stuart Dempster. It is an entirely new sound for the band, pushing the compositional formats of Sunn O))) further, and although it may have been hard to swallow for the doom metal hardcore, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s dedication and contribution to experimental music is unsurpassed in their generation.
Earlier this year, Ganglians released two records, both their eponymously-titled Ganglians EP, and this, Monster Head Room, almost simultaneously. And although this is the stand out of the two records, the contrast in styles seem entirely intentional, as Ganglians is a far less cohesive affair than the lo-fi surf rock of Monster Head Room.
“Lost Words” epitomises much of the LP, with its psych-drenched lackadaisical acoustic guitars weaving distant melodies, and the wandering echoes creating a removed form of dream pop with a distinctly laissez-faire feel. “Valiant Brave” portrays the contrasts on the album, beginning with the previous indolent acoustic strumming, but this time with chant-esque vocals breaking into a ‘60s pop riot much in the vein of a new age the Seeds.
The record shares the Californian haze of the Beach Boys with the final product far sweeter than many across this list, with “The Void”‘s gibbering vocals underpinned by a delicate backtrack serving as a prime example, yet it maintains the record’s loose structuring, split into two sugar-coated parts that are separated by a general freak-out sour centre midway through.
Laden with seemingly hastily applied field recordings and echoing harmonies, Monster Head Room has thick psych borders running around every edge that blend in an out of the main picture as Ganglians see fit. Whilst many artists in their stable are busy covering up their bedroom recording techniques, Ganglians leave theirs plain to see, and although it may not seem the most original record on the list, “100 Years” is reminiscent of the psych-blues of the Black Lips at their most immersive selves, and it’s so damn listenable you might just not care.
Often disregarded as nothing more than mindless noise krunk, with little to no real creative stimulus beyond total destruction of all that stood before it with the kind of music your parents would ask you to turn down, Get Color‘s industrial noise pop proved to all those doubters that HEALTH are merely carving out their own style with their DIY approach. The band harnesses this to produce a record that, surprisingly, takes a turn towards affairs with much more melody amongst the madness, with “Die Slow”—probably the band’s finest work to date—being one of the biggest crossover successes of the year.
In the time between records, HEALTH have been working in a collaboration with fellow purveyors of noise Crystal Castles, and this influence is certainly prominent, as you can’t deny the infectious techno-punk of “Nice Girls”. HEALTH share in the same alien structures as bands like Deerhoof, and the same mental melting pot of tension that refuses to give the listener a moment, and, despite its more melodic turns, still sounds like music being beamed in from another, more sinister, dimension.
The record does wander off back into the same caustic noise experimentation of their self-titled debut, but in tracks like “Before Tiger”, the band manage to build a surprising level of atmosphere for the genre, as the record is held together at all points by the incessant AK-47 drumming of Benjamin Miller. My initial reaction to writing a review of the record earlier this year was to pen a work on a noise-rock band that has predecessed them, such as Liars, then change all the words in each sentence around in order to make little to no grammatical sense, but still maintain the same overall structure.
HEALTH have established themselves as one of the live acts of the year with performances as intense as Get Color itself, and you have to feel this makes them destined for a string of monumental festival appearances in 2010.
Although strictly a mix CD rather than an album, given the fact that the double record epitomises all that is going on within this list and beyond in psychedelic music right now, and after 2005’s Alice in Ultraland went largely unnoticed by press and public alike, I feel the Amorphous Androgynous deserve all the exposure they can get.
Pagan Love Vibrations, the second Psychedelic Bubble from the men behind one of the most innovative and groundbreaking production partnerships of the dance generation, Future Sound of London, reminisces of a time when the hippy was considered as more than a wacky ideal, as opposed to the experiment of psychedelic proportions that was Vol 1. Harking back to a time when incense, amongst other fragrant forms, burnt long and free, Vol 2 will have you reaching for the hemp quicker than you can say Pagan Love Vibrations.
Rumour has it that the entire Amorphous Androgynous moniker was inspired after one half of the duo, Garry Cobain, spent some extended time in India, and these influences show, the album seeming to get in touch with some sort of spirituality akin to that of psychedelic maverick Donovan.
After releasing some of the most sonic sounding records of the past decade, the pair now seem to have set out to illustrate their influences, with the track list reading like a who’s who of psychedelia over time, with the original artists alongside those they have come to influence. The ‘60s sound of Sunforest’s “Magician in the Mountain” sits alongside the all out Hendrix-like groove of Bo Diddley’s “Elephant Man”, followed by the altogether out there-ness of Electroid 2000. Pagan Love Vibrations is littered with tracks that will have you reaching for the history books: Comus? Faust, anyone?
The mixes are often separated with recordings that romanticise the spirit of the ‘60s, speaking of things such as “the magic regions of your mind” and free living amongst sun drenched beaches. The Eastern influences are strewn across the record with sitars and other world instrumentation that, once so popular, has often been lost from the genre, coming from the likes of Ananda Shankar (Ravi’s nephew) and the beautiful Dzyan. This is all seamlessly blended with music from new artists such as Animal Collective. CD1 contains part 4 of the Amorphous Androgynous’s remix of the late Oasis’s “Falling Down”, where Liam is all but replaced by the beautiful eastern vocal styling of Alisha Sufit. This is music that will put a bounce in your step and a spring in your groove.
At a time when most of his piers are busy with their fresh lo-fi take on folk, punk, pop, and any number of other ‘freak-’ affairs, Kurt Vile has gone very much his own way with his personal take on classic American rock.
Vile (real name by all accounts) is part of the recent boom from Philadelphia (Espers, Silk Breeze), and for this record has moved from the Woodsist label (see number two in this list), responsible for the release of his Constant Hitmaker LP, to the home of Pavement: Matador. Stating in interviews that Childish Prodigy is “my masterpiece, thus far,” and where previous efforts might have been “slacker to the discriminating ear,” the record possesses more full band arrangements, having brought in his touring band, the Violators, to record with him on the album. Although Childish Prodigy at no stage sounds over-produced, it is distinctly more balanced than either Constant Hitmaker or God Is Saying This to You. That said, even dubbed his most “serious” recording, all the tracks on Childish Prodigy are, as the name would suggest, still damn good fun.
The fact that Vile is a guitarist by trade (in the massively underrated War on Drugs) is distinctly evident as he sows devastating melody with his often warped rambling vocals that, as on previous releases, feel wholly off the tongue. Whispers of the not-so-classical pop song writing on perhaps his most known track, “Freeway”, can be heard, but he stretches these across the format of an LP recording. It’s not a comparison I often like to make, as I feel his ingenuity stands on it own in so many ways, but imagine if Dylan had fried his brain with too many psychedelic drugs and this is what he might sound like, where simple pop songs are seemingly elevated.
Album opener “Hunchback” has all the swagger of the Stones, and the name of his previous work, Constant Hitmaker, really does seem to sum up Vile’s songwriting ability, where amidst all the haze there are some distinctly catchy tunes. The tongue in cheek title of his most recent piece may just be true, and give signs of more to come.
Fever Ray, aka Karin Dreijer Andersson, of previous fame as one half of Swedish duo the Knife, released this year’s debut (and rumoured to be only LP under this guise) in March. The record is an effecting portrayal of Andersson’s time spent suffering from insomnia following the birth of her first child.
Stripping away all the dance beats, but keeping the pitch-shifted distorted tones found on previous recordings with the Knife, Fever Ray creates a desolate, isolated soundscape that is at times reminiscent of an ‘80s Kate Bush, and gained the inevitable comparisons with Bjork. With synths and drumpads alongside more traditional instrumentation, the record really shows how music, and more predominantly, psychedelic music, can be pushed with the use of modern technology.
Slow pulsating album opener “If I Had a Heart” sets the tempo of the record and translates the feeling of extreme sleep deprivation, with time seemingly slowing down, directly into a stark yet mesmerising resonance. With tracks portraying the often unreasonable prepossessions of an insomniac, with startlingly honest and cutting lyrics of life amongst “Concrete Walls”, the record feels like it is delivered direct from the heart, from a way of life rather than an outsider’s perspective.
A record as harrowing to listen to as it was to make, there is solitude to Fever Ray and a distinct sense of longing throughout. It would have been easy for Andersson to write an album full of desperation and gloom, but there is an idiosyncratic feeling of optimism amidst what, at times, verges on an uncomfortable fear held within the record, one that which seems to serve as much of a therapy for the artist as it does a triumphant release to its listener.
Immediately upon beginning Dos, the album introduces itself as a record that could blow the unsuspecting citizen’s mind with its throbbing ‘60s garage tunes laden with repetition and hypnotic production. The San Franciscans probably owe more than any other artist on this list to vintage psychedelia, as the tracks have so much kraut groove they make you want to get up and shake your undeserving rump.
Dos develops a minimal approach that echoes the noisy trance rock of the Velvet Underground immersed in reverb-drenched grooves. The acid-soaked hooks pick up from where “Dance California”, perhaps their most well known work prior to this album, left off, with their trademark thick haze bearing the blasé of Suicide as Erik “Ripley” Johnson’s vocals echo amongst the warped, intense funk.
Amp Dos up on a loud stereo and the results are outrageous, with the combination of organ stabs and warbles emitting a throbbing Pennsylvanian graveyard freak-out. The relentless motorik chug is drenched in reverb, but in a genre that often relies upon this, Wooden Shjips (not a typo) harness the mysterious effect to propel their accomplished arrangements. The rhythm section stick to it doggedly throughout as screaming guitar solos wander in and out of psychedelic jams that haven’t been so danceable since the Stooges.
The programmatic grooves are reminiscent of the Spacemen 3, and give the distinct feeling they could just keep going forever. As the slickest Wooden Shjips work to date, this is the sound of a band that are destined to make way more than obscure records for the next decade and, we can but hope, beyond.
Woods, fellow Brooklynites of Animal Collective and dozens of others, come from a city that has been synonymous with the lo-fi boom of 2009. Jeremy Earl, guitarist and frontman of the band, has had a busy year, finding time to both release a plethora of the best lo-fi recordings of the past twelve months (a number of which can be found on this list) from bands based in the city and beyond, as well as help pen the label’s greatest export.
The record quickly establishes that something quite special is going on amidst all the tape hiss, with its scuzzy, guitar-driven, psyched-out folk music. The trio share in Stephen Malkmus’s lazy sounding perfection, masterfully blending a hybrid of influences that possess a kind of futuristic nostalgia.
“Down This Road” sounds like you could be listening to the idle thoughts of a youthful Neil Young without the filter of the writing process or a recording studio upon him, and echoes of a youthful Young can be heard across the record, whilst the cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Military Madness” is a masterstroke.
One minute a melodic freak-folk affair, the next a psychedelic jam, the album continually reinvents itself without sounding at any stage schizophrenic, creating its own brand of free-folk in the process. With a distinct penchant for infectious melody, the only real ever-present theme throughout Songs of Shame is that of a record that seems to develop further every time the LP is played, the sign of a truly great album.
Perhaps astoundingly, Merriweather Post Pavilion is Animal Collective’s eighth studio record since debut Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished in 2000, with their back catalogue spanning a release in some format for every year of this past decade. Ranging from the experimental electronic ‘pop’ of Merriweather to single take, live recordings of the Collective in a forest, theirs is an output that knows no boundaries.
I feel almost as if writing what the record is about here would just be covering old ground, as the horde of blogs, forums, and critics that blew up both prior to and following its release covered every inch necessary, and beyond, back in January of this year. All I will say is, if you are reading this and have yet to hear the album, I implore you to do so. It is quite simply one of those records that everybody should have in their collection, and seems to be rapidly moving towards defining a generation.
However, what I do feel is relevant to highlight is the effect its release had, not only shining a light on what the band has been doing for almost a decade, but also on what a whole host of experimental artists have been slowly building over in the States for the past few years. Forget the 2008 indie-psych of MGMT, these are experimental acts that, although influences from past genres exist on the fringes of their music, are truly original in their creations, and give a final, definitive answer to the question, “Has it all been done before?”
Whereas previous albums have often taken more time to settle, Merriweather Post Pavilion is much more instant, with all the traits of past Animal Collective albums existing in perfect harmony, and although this was, quite predictably, labeled as the band’s ‘pop’ album, it merely is that their music never has sounded so together. That isn’t to say it is even necessarily their best, just certainly their most fluid of any record from start to finish.
For me, the album of the year, bar none, 2009 has simply been Animal Collective’s year, affirmed by the headlining of a whole host of festivals across the globe, inadvertently creating the perfect soundtrack to an altered summer.