San Franciscan psych-rockers return with another meditative batch of journey-based instrumentals.
The Alps, an instrumental psych-rock outfit from San Francisco, emerged onto the forever booming psychedelic CD-R scene in the mid-2000s. A handful of releases were passed through the community until 2008, when the group finally buckled down for III, their first album with mid-major label Type Records. The album wasn't anything that stuck with me in terms of its musical ideas, but the overall mood of the record -- lost but found, wandering but sure of self -- did stick. When I saw that the group was following that record with an album called Le Voyage, I was prepared and indeed hoping for more of what I'd heard before, unlike the case with many artists.
Where III introduced listeners to the band with a painting of lonely desert wanderers, the artwork for Le Voyage goes even further with the psychedelics-infused trip metaphor by offering prospective buyers nothing at all on the cover. Likewise, "Drop In" is a very nondescript little number, full of floaty slide guitar and atmospherics that bring to mind beach settings in Japanese role-playing games such as Final Fantasy. But it isn't long before the band shifts the mood dramatically, ensuring the album's intention as a New Age-y sort of soundtrack to psychedelia. "Marzipan" is a baffling collage of dinner parties, running water, and sound barrier eruption that is at one moment soothing, the next jarring. It leads into the rocking (by Alps standards) "Crossing the Sands", which sounds for all intents and purposes like the moment when the drugs take hold.
However, the other songs comprising the first mode of the trip share common elements with "Drop In". So if your trip's bad, I'm not sure you can blame it on the Alps. "St. Laurent" is another meditative piece focused on a guitar, this time an acoustic one, with the help of some loping piano chords. And like "Drop In", it too is interrupted by a noisy, not at all coherent sound collage in "The Lemon Tree" that could remind folks of folkies like Akron/Family at their least focused. This interlude and the others like it don't take anything away from the album, abrupt as they are. Like a decent trip, they are fleeting disturbances along a path that slowly builds towards the album's epic climax, the 10-minute title track.
Preceded by the six-minute "Black Mountain" and followed by the fiver "Telepathe", "Le Voyage" is part of a trio of tracks that comprises the more groove-oriented, kraut-psych section of the record. Involving a wider array of instruments with tinges of eastern meditative music and thus more musically in line with past generations of San Franciscan psychers, it is a shift in the record that feels greatly necessary at the exact moment the trio begins. The songs work compositional rising action and a more rhythm-based approach into a sort of ascension moment on the album, in which you no longer merely experience the journey laid out on Le Voyage but become actively involved in it. "Black Mountain" is a song that convinces you it's much more complex than it really is, while "Le Voyage" turns nine minutes into five before you've even realized what happened. It is this listenability, this accessible nature that lies at the heart of Le Voyage. While perhaps the individual pieces -- New Age ethics, psychedelic themes, meandering spacious compositions -- sound doomed to niches, the total package, like III, reveals itself as a remarkably listenable album. This band's not out to change any minds with Le Voyage or break any musical barriers; they're simply here to give you 41 minutes of psychedelic comfort food. The sound might wear thin if they go for it again, but, for now, let's mark two small victories for the boys from San Francisco.