The notion thattimes of political, social, or economic strife produce fertile soil for subversive art is nothing new. As long as the U.S. continues to clumsily invade countries at will, the world’s left-leaning filmmakers, visual artists, punk rockers, and folk singers will have a deep well to draw from. Psychedelic rock, however, is probably one of the more overlooked genres when it comes to politically impacted art.
Since its advent in the early ’60s, the acid-soaked sounds pioneered by artists like 13th Floor Elevators, Iron Butterfly, and Pink Floyd have been somewhat dismissively associated more with lackadaisical drug use, structureless dance moves, and ponderous solos than with anything motivated by the psychological effects of the cultural climate. In reality, the groundswell of neo-psych acts that emerged in the ’00s includes artists who are not only pushing creative boundaries, but serving as much-needed spiritual shelter from the deluge of the Great Recession. Playing Seattle Monday night, the “Dropout Boogie” tour, featuring Austin’s Black Angels and Vancouver, B.C.’s Black Mountain, is the perfect crystallization of the notion that big, overdriven guitars, a plethora of effects pedals, and a hallucinatory viewpoint can strike a note close to our collective consciousness, and by extension produce lysergic soup for the unemployed soul.
“There’s always been a social consciousness that goes along with [the psychedelic music] that’s happening,” says Randall Dunn, a Seattle producer whose calling card is the heavy and surreal technique that’s informed the records he’s made with Sunn O))), Kinski, Six Organs of Admittance, and most recently Black Mountain—their latest, Wilderness Heart. “In the late ’50s you had the postwar vibe with the Ventures, the late ’60s with Hendrix. Right now in the world, there’s a lot that’s quite bleak, and I think it’s kind of a cry. People want to escape, and psychedelic rock can do that. It can also be very enveloping.”
Indeed, much of what makes the work of both the Black Angels and Black Mountain succeed is the mix of diametrically opposed hedonistic hell-cries and soothing vibes. “Bad Vibrations,” the foreboding song that opens Phosphene Dreams, the Angels’ third full-length, conjures an easy eeriness. The opening strains are a jittery fusion of ominous, tribal percussion and oscillating organ groans that are simultaneously terrifying and comforting.
“We were envisioning the antithesis of the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations,'” explains frontman Alex Maas. “But it’s also sort of a sappy love song at the same time.”
Of course, the human desire for an altered state of consciousness is as prominent on the ingredients list for contemporary psych bands as it was on their forefathers’. “It does have something to do with drugs, without question,” says Dunn. “It started with the advent of electric instruments and a lot of postwar technology, like delay pedals. At the same time, there were certain drugs arriving on the scene, and I think now that there’s [once again] a great deal of uncertainty, I think it’s resonating with a lot of people of this generation and younger.”
Black Mountain is also out in support of their third album, and—in another example of the kismet of this tour—each band released their records on the same day, September 14. With Wilderness Heart, Black Mountain has created a masterful and utterly original hybrid of earthy, pop-sweetened séance and driving classic rock.
The album’s first two singles are case studies in these contrasting approaches. “The Hair Song” is a sun-dappled, Zeppelinesque yarn about youthful lust, bursting at the seams with a serotonin-surging blend of acoustic and electric guitars and the breezy harmonizing of vocalists Amber Webber and Stephen McBean. “It started out as an acoustic song, but then the vocals began changing a lot in the studio,” says Webber. “Things just got a lot a jazzier, which was sort of spontaneous.”
“The Hair Song” is followed by the minor chord–driven darkness of “Old Fangs,” a Mopar-worthy anthem propelled by oily pumps of space-trucking organ and sprinkled liberally with Jeremy Schmidt’s extraterrestrial keyboard lines.
Aside from a willful eclecticism in both bands’ works, they also have some pragmatic matters in common. Dunn produced nearly half of Wilderness Heart‘s tracks at London Bridge Studios in Seattle, including “Old Fangs,” the title track, and several of the album’s heavier numbers. However, the sunny side of the record was completed at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, during sessions helmed by Dave Sardy, who also produced all of Phosphene Dream.
For Black Mountain, the contrasting geographical environments and production styles definitely show up in the mix. “The L.A. sessions have a free and summery vibe,” affirms drummer Joshua Wells.
Meanwhile, working with Sardy was a first for the Angels, who self-produced their first two releases. “It was definitely a healthy process,” says Maas. “Dave motivated us to try things we might not have tried before. We’re kind of hardheaded when it comes to songwriting, and he would push us to try new things.”
Although she acknowledges that Sardy’s more forceful approach has its merits, Black Mountain’s Webber clearly feels more comfortable with Dunn’s signature laid-back demeanor. “[Sardy] had an almost domineering vibe to him,” she says. “Sometimes you need someone to boss you around a little bit, but I definitely prefer the more spiritual guidance. Randall, he’s a special guy. You almost feel more creative with just him being in the room. He’s kind of like a little Buddha.”
“I think what makes it work is that it’s a singular approach,” says Dunn, tossing credit for the success of Wilderness Heart back to Black Mountain. “It’s disparate music, but it’s a concept coming from a band whose voice contains all of these different elements. In this particular case, I think this is a case of a classic ’70s record, like a Led Zeppelin record, where you have two songs that sound like ’50s boogie rock, and then along comes one song like ‘No Quarter’ that is an epic, slow thing. Those two things can exist because the band has the chemistry to [sustain] them both.”
Unsurprisingly, the chemistry between the two bands on tour is natural, joining together on closing numbers and occasionally on a cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Maas finds a salient metaphor about the tour’s overall vibe in the title of his band’s album.
“Phosphene’s a chemical in your eye. If you look into the sun and press down on your eye and see those dots on your eye, that’s phosphene,” he explains. “So the idea of Phosphene Dream is seeing light where light isn’t present. To me it embodies hope.”