Album art for King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s 2017 release Sketches of Brunswick East.
Psychedelic rock, with its soaring, surreal guitar riffs and ambient, cerebral tones, has returned to Earth this decade, and it appears to have designs on staying with us for the foreseeable future. But the genre carries a new significance now, and is no longer one unified genre but rather many manic offshoots and interrelated influences, not unlike the twisting patterns in the notorious psychedelic artwork that cluttered the sixties and seventies. There is psychedelic folk, psychedelic pop, krautrock, dream pop and shoegazing, and the basic textures of the music have spilled into jazz and hip-hop. What I am interested in, though, is how and for what purpose modern musicians choose to borrow trademark styles from this movement and repurpose its laidback, hazy ethos.
What is psychedelic rock? The word ‘psychedelic’ is the Greek words for ‘mind’ and ‘manifest’ hastily smashed together, and it typically connotes either drug use or kaleidoscope use. Yet what actually constitutes this distinct sound is hard to articulate; unconventional instrumentation as well as distorted or modulated tones all definitely factor into it, as do hallucinogenic soundscapes and tortuous song structures, but the precise definition is likely still being litigated on internet message boards.
MGMT and The Flaming Lips are the veritable godfathers of 21st century psych rock, both of whose music started to seep into the mainstream in the mid-2000s by way of polished, catchy singles. In 2008, the youthful MGMT brought all the thematic preoccupations of the Woodstock generation to bear in a more corporate context (viz. their name: Management) and had the exotic day-glo sounds to match. On tracks like “Time To Pretend,” they make peace with the catch-22s of commercialism, while on “Congratulations” they subtly skewer them and on “Your Life Is A Lie” they unsubtly skewer them: “Count your friends / On your hands / Now look again / They’re not your friends.” The Flaming Lips have also spent the last decade in an expressionist haze. Their albums are arguably the sonic equivalent of the infamous Edvard Munch painting “The Scream,” with a science fiction flair added; releases such as Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) and The Terror (2013) filter philosophical musing and existential despair through lyrical tales of extraterrestrials and cosmic vistas. Both bands offer a colorful, exuberant vision of 21st century life that is a refreshing shift from, say, the muted cyberpunk world prophesized by Radiohead, where the future will be one of engineered conformity or cultural malaise.
The multicolored torch of psych rock has as of late been passed to Australia, which is now in the midst of a great proliferation of experimental creators, ranging from the inaugural Tame Impala to the prolific King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard to the nearby New Zealand outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO). Perth-based Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker gives brooding sermons on social isolation (“Why Won’t They Talk To Me?”) and romantic frustration (“It Is Not Meant To Be”) while doing an impeccable John Lennon impression. Moving east over the Outback, the Melbourne-based King Gizzard puts out mind-bendingly good psych rock opuses at a startling rate, with five full-length releases in 2017 alone; the band experiments with cocktails of psychedelic mixed with anything that happens to be laying around, from heavy metal to spoken word to Miles Davis-style jazz. For example, last year’s Sketches of Brunswick East, a sampling of streetside clamor from the Melbourne neighborhood, alludes to Davis’s 1960 orchestral jazz romp Sketches of Spain. Across the Tasman Sea, the enigmatic Auckland-based UMO paints sun-drenched scenes of memories and relationships, which frontman Ruban Nielson engineers to be so lo-fi that these tracks appear plucked from a consignment shop attic. All of these bands have expanded psych rock from a sixties-era set of expectations to a diverse language with which to talk about whatever artistic preoccupations or locales you have in mind on any given day.
And it would be remiss not to mention Animal Collective, themselves princes of a bouncy brand of psych pop of their own invention, who on mournful tracks like “In the Flowers” paint their childhoods in Baltimore with the brush of psychedelia. The Brooklyn-based psych-folk rockers of Grizzly Bear are no strangers to this same kind of musical geography either: their 2009 album Veckatimist was inspired by a secluded Cape Cod isle of the same name and is an Animal Collective-esque sprawling monument to the landscape. In this way, psychedelic rock has become a way of reimagining landmarks, making catalogues of personal experiences, or drawing, in the words of King Gizzard, “sketches of Brunswick East.”
PC: Wikimedia Commons / Flightless Records