Psyche Up Your Life!

A few months ago, a friend of mine remarked that space rock is credible again.

Immediately, I had to correct him: Space rock has never been credible. It’s always been incredible.

But the point is, he only used the term “space rock” because he didn’t want to use the term “psychedelic rock”. I asked him why, and his reply was straight out of Sean of the Dead:

“Because it’s ridiculous”.

Why ridiculous? Perhaps because, now that all genres have been bent and shattered by net-born eclecticism, the term is essentially meaningless.

Nonetheless, those that must pigeonhole everything continue to strive for a solid definition.

Personally, I’m happy to leave it as one of those “I know it when I hear it” sort of things. After all, unless you’re going to insist upon describing the music of Nas as “racist bluegrass”, it doesn’t really do anyone any harm to misapply labels. It’s all music, man. RIP, Rob Young:

But for many, that’s just not good enough. Some people are much happier tying themselves in knots and drilling down into the very core of sounds, scenes and intent; running their fingers through the dirt until they find the unique code that will help us to differentiate, once and for all, between hardcore and post hardcore.

Of course, The Quietus got in on the game. Their ruminations led to a fantastic “survey of modern European psychedelia“, an alphabetised list of 41 bands, fewer than 10 of which are familiar to me. So many new sounds to explore! How exciting!

In fact, this list is so revelatory that not even resident party pooper Luke Turner can ruin things, with his characteristic inability to say anything good about anything without doing so at the expense of something else.

Yet before this list was made, John Doran weighed in with an attempt to define “psychedelia”. I actually quite like the criteria he sets out, which is based on the writings of Canadian musician Sam Shalabi:

It is the confusing and sometimes enlightening effect caused by the violently rapid and temporary transition into psychic deterritorialization (and then back to reality via reterritorialization) brought on by an external agent.

So “true” psychedelic music is music that makes you view life “as if you’ve just popped out of the womb”. That sounds good!

Whilst it’s certainly useful to have a term to describe such powerfully transcendent music, I don’t think there’s any harm at all in applying this term to less abrasive sounds. Also, I disagree with Mr. Doran’s assertion that dense, “maximal” music cannot be psychedelic. He says that such music is too impenetrable to be truly transcendent, which makes me wonder if he’s ever lost himself whilst trying to navigate the swampy, mind-bending compositions of Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Animal Collective?

Well, of course he has. Probably. Though he probably doesn’t think of such listening experiences as “psychedelic”, and he probably has a lot of nasty things to say about Animal Collective. Hmph.

To his credit, though he obviously prefers his own interpretation, Mr. Doran does acknowledge that what is and isn’t “psychedelic” is ultimately in “the (third) eye of the beholder”.

As far as I’m concerned, you can describe any piece of music as “psychedelic” so long as it was created in the right frame of mind. Indeed, if you approach the term on an etymological level, “psychedelic” is formed from the Greek word “delos”, meaning “manifest”. The word literally translates as “mind manifest”.

So I suppose my definition of “psychedelic” applies to any recording, or any performance, in which a musician attempts to manifest their own thought processes and brain patterns (or force you to confront your own, man) using the medium of sound.

But that sounds ridiculous. Perhaps it’s better to say that any music that rejects the grey banality of modern life is psychedelic. Rather than holding up a mirror to the world as they see it, some musicians instead strive to create their own worlds, full of colour, texture, or terror. They either invite you in with warming sounds and irresistible grooves, or else attempt to leave you frozen, speechless and stupefied, like a Lovecraft protagonist in the presence of an elder god.

All music can be transcendent; but as to whether or not any given piece of music can be deemed “psychedelic” I suppose depends on where the musician intends to take you.

The reason I’m rambling incessantly isn’t just because, for the first time since 2004 or so, I feel genuinely excited about modern music. It’s also because, this weekend, I’m headed to the Liverpool Psych Fest. I’ve been looking forward to this since January, and the excitement is approaching gibbering levels.

The thing is, there are quite a few bands on the bill who I’m certain would succeed in giving Mr. Doran the cleansing rebirth he so desires: Gnod, Teeth of the Sea, White Hills, Goat. But at the same time, there are plenty of bands that will instead conjure a warming aura, filling the room with their soothing, golden sounds and creating an undeniable impression, in vivid and indelible colours, that life can be beautiful.

So maybe we can all agree that any music that suggests that “there’s more to life than this” can be deemed psychedelic.

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