Psychedelic rock is an increasingly problematic blanket term. Originally coined as a way of talking about music made under the influence of LSD, and often completely bewildering to those unfamiliar with hallucinogens, it’s a term increasingly applied to wah wah-indulgence and a tired brand of faux-occultist imagery; not to mention the insufferable 60’s revivalist image that often comes with the term in the modern day. If you dig a little deeper, though, there’s a mass of great neo-psychedelic records that are worthy peers to the pioneering records that changed subculture forever. It’s entirely possible in the modern day to make transcendent, hypnotic and utterly immersive records - even with such a rapid-paced music consuming culture. Whether it’s psychedelia via mass guitar tumults or bizarre lyrical narratives, there’s a unique energy to the kind of music that can channel attention back inwards.
Good psychedelic rock should never be at the forefront, it should gently probe creativity and emotion from afar, which is why the following ten records are such a necessities to any record collection — and should be appreciated away from the distractions of digital music consumptions.
When Tommy Hall offered the suggestion of using an amplified jug rather than Roky Erikson’s harmonica when recording "You’re Gonna Miss Me," rock music changed forever. Hall made the suggestion in order to “put the acid” into the song, unwittingly coining the eternal sentiment behind psychedelic rock music. The 13th Floor Elevators are to psych rock what Brian Eno is to ambient. There’s an utterly unattainable strut to The Psychedelic Sounds’, one that only this specific band at this specific time could ever articulate. In spite of the harrowing downfall that followed, in 1966 The 13th Floor Elevators were unbelievably in touch with their creativity, operating on a level that nobody else has quite reached since. The notion of constituting leftfield noises in rock songs to recreate the psychedelic experience began here, we owe an awful lot to this record. To the world of psychedelic rock, The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators was the Big Bang.
“If you fuck me I will fall apart / there’s no end” croons a young Anton Newcombe beneath the eerie acoustics of “Fucker,” the 12th song on The BJM’s magnum opus. “Fucker: documents Newcombe at his most overtly forlorn, introducing brutal honesty into a genre bloated with signifier-loaded pretense and imagery. It’s a record that saw one of the modern age’s greatest creatives come into his own, making space in psychedelia for raw personality. Take It From The Man introduced human emotion into modern psychedelia, and it’s hard to imagine psychedelic culture sustaining itself without that. Elsewhere on the record, choppier cuts such as “Straight Up and Down” provide the record with enough velocity that its fragility could almost be lost amid captivatingly confident rock. The BJM seldom pen bad records, but you’d be hard pressed to pick one with quite as much impact, immediate or long term, as Take It From The Man.
I’ve always felt that Tim Presley is a painfully underrated songwriter. The accepted narrative is that Presley works at a breakneck speed, crafting warped psych pop gems and recording them to his trusted 8-track at any given chance. His output under White Fence, and particularly the first Family Perfume record, is crafted much more lovingly than that idea would suggest. Take “It Will Never Be,” for example. Just shy of seven minutes, the track sees Presley pen some of the most heartfelt and touching mantras to seep into psychedelic music discourse in an awfully long time: “You can tune yourself against hatred or change your angst to ethos / but you’ll never have her again” is his arresting opening gambit on the final verse. Family Perfume, Vol. 1 is one of the most lovingly crafted psych pop records of the modern age; of all the great psychedelic records to come out of California, you’d struggle to find one quite as immersive as this.
Fuzz Club Records are arguably the most important label in neo-psychedelia, and the third installment of their Reverb Conspiracy compilation series is arguably the strongest documentation of their frankly ridiculous roster at its most mesmeric. Limited to 1200 copies, owning a Reverb Conspiracy LP feels like being a part of something special. The compilation captures some of the greatest oddball sounds coming out of Europe: Mugstar’s organ-laden “Hollow Ox,” The History of Colour TV’s cinematic haze coup “Suddenline” and the infectious neo-komische studies of Holy Science’s ‘Moon’ prove a few of the standout tracks.. The third Reverb Conspiracy compilation tends to favour the subtler, more agreeable channel of modern psych rock rather the feedback freakouts of its counterpart; you could almost imagine Deathcrush’s storming contribution “You Now” winning over rock elitists. It’s an essential record, if not for its time-capsule like documentation of modern European psych, then for its undeniable and utterly infectious dancefloor jams.
A largely mythologized outfit, Goat are a collective of mask-clad Swedish musicians who hail from Korpilombolo, a tiny village in Northern Sweden that supposedly - at least according to the band - has a deep-rooted and omnipresent connection to voodooism. Their debut album proper, World Music, comes on like a kaleidoscopic slap in the face of Western elitism, eschewing rock archetypes and embracing non-Western instrumentation and dynamics. Central to the concept of Goat is fluidity; they believe that all musicians of Korpilombolo were Goat, and their line up fluctuates on a near yearly basis - you just hope that Goat’s contempt for Western mediocrity trickles down to their listeners. Astral folk compositions such as the latter third of “Goatman” allow respite from the unabated tribal rhythms that take centre stage, but World Music is by and large a record that uses hypnotic grooves to capture curious ears and throw them mercilessly into the deep end of experimental Afrobeat. World Music is a record in which you sink helplessly rather than indulge in.
Syd Barrett’s debut solo record finds the odd in the simplistic. You can almost hear Barrett, the most curious of creative minds, seeking out holes in his melodies that can be seized upon with oddities. Awkward chord changes, deadpan dialogues, off-kilter key jabs, fragmented echoes, untimely outtakes - The Madcap Laughs is loaded with these globules of psychedelia that are born of a mind that simply didn’t know how to rest. Atop all of that, though, is what makes Barrett’s masterpiece so timeless: His endlessly expressive, poetically inclined vocal deliveries. Rich in Cambridge twang and an uncharacteristic degree certainty, Barrett’s standout vocal performance illuminates his otherworldly recitals and surrealist compositions. The Madcap Laughs is an impossibly odd, at times almost silly, album. For Barrett to be able to breathe life into such madness is perhaps his greatest achievement.
Beneath then-boyfriend Kevin Parker’s phaser-heavy production, Melody Prochet crafted some of the finest psychedelic songs of recent times for her criminally underrated debut album. The delicate balance between dissonance and melody is an omnipresent constituent in psychedelic music; often in the name of not being overcome with psychedelia and allowing musicianship to suffer. On her first and - so far - only album under the Melody’s Echo Chamber alias, Prochet balances the light and dark to stunning effect. It’s a strikingly immersive record, dealing in equal parts fuzzed-out guitars and whispered and ornate vocal delivery, there’s a real sense that the all-too-common reliance on listener passiveness that injects so much mediocrity into psych rock is totally out of the question here. Melody’s Echo Chamber strives for pop perfection within psychedelia in a way that recalls Brian Wilson at his most restless, each hazy synthesizer soundscape is punctuated with sun-kissed guitar lines, and each moment of dissonance is reigned back in by Prochet’s psych pop allure - it’s the kind of record that you pray our rapidly forgetful music-consuming culture is kind to.
Psychedelia seems to find a number of ways to manifest itself. When under the influence of psychedelic drugs, rock music can hallucinate through monotonous repetition just as legitimately as it can through sprawling, monstrous pieces that never use the same chord twice. German experimentalists Can, though, were another beast altogether. On their seminal 1971 LP Tago Mago, they articulated psychedelia through showing a complete indifference to the conventions that governed rock music. On second jibe “Mushroom,” new recruit Damo Sazuki is utterly unhinged, his band teasing out motorik grooves whilst he growls and yelps. There’s an attainable and raw quality to Tago Mago that makes it so compelling. As Julian Cope once put it, Tago Mago “sounds only like itself, like no-one before or after,” but, then again, there are no parallels to match for comparison simply because Can themselves didn’t quite know what they were doing here. As wild and often structureless as it is, it isn’t impossible, and it’s a record that will no doubt continue to be a catalyst for experimental music. Perhaps even more importantly than that, Tago Mago threw rock music’s ego into a hallucinogenic void of clattering avant-garde electronics and otherworldly rhythms.
Few records show such utter disdain for conventional guitar sounds as the much mythologized Heavier Than A Death In The Family, the cult classic non-album by Japanese recluses Les Rallizes Dénudés. Little is known of the band, and it’s rumored that Julian Cope curated this compilation-of-sorts having developed an undying fixation with the band but being unable to buy their music on vinyl, given that they never actually made a record. For all the question marks around its origin, its influence is undeniable. Loaded with some of the harshest, dissonant and totally scathing guitar work of all-time, Heavier Than A Death is nothing if not a listen in sound manipulation. While its sparse rhythm sections remain relatively clean, the restlessly noisy guitars on the record are captivating and transcendent - so menacing and unwelcoming that they force you away, reflecting your attention backwards - it’s a problematic and difficult route to psychedelia that few ever really achieve, and so to do it without knowing anybody was listening is really quite commendable.
Legend has it that Arthur Lee, the driving force behind seminal psych-folk occultists Love, was anticipating the end of the world when writing Forever Changes. There was little point, then, in penning a particularly political record - so despite his Cold War vexations - Lee crafted the hypnotic, otherworldly allure of Forever Changes; a record that spans the spectrum of human emotion, from paranoid despair to self-actualization. It’s a deeply personal record and, much like David Bowie’s Blackstar, it’s a record on which has existential unease thrust upon it. With not enough time to change the world, Lee created an entirely separate entity, one that continues to be blow new minds after nearly fifty years. With such a hostile political environment grappling the US, the eternal escapism of Forever Changes is just as necessary as it has always been.
“I don’t need power when I’m hypnotised” sings Lee on ‘The Red Telephone’; it’s the ultimate psych-reveller’s manifesto.