Music

The Best Psych Albums of 2009

Rob McCallum

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.

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.

 

Artist: Crystal Antlers

Album: Tentacles

Label: Touch & Go

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US Release Date: 2009-04-07

UK Release Date: 2009-04-06

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List number: 10

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.

 

Artist: Sunn O)))

Album: Monoliths & Dimensions

Label: Southern Lord

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US Release Date: 2009-05-26

UK Release Date: 2009-05-18

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List number: 9

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.

 

Artist: Ganglians

Album: Monster Head Room

Label: Woodsist

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US Release Date: 2009-06-15

UK Release Date: 2009-07-06

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List number: 8

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.

 

Artist: HEALTH

Album: Get Color

Label: Lovepump United

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US Release Date: 2009-09-08

UK Release Date: 2009-09-14

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List number: 7

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.



 

Artist: The Amorphous Androgynous

Album: A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding in Your Mind Vol 2: Pagan Love Vibrations

Label: Platipus

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US Release Date: Import

UK Release Date: 2009-09-21

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List number: 6

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.

 

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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