It’s the blissed-out late ’60s, and musicians are inventing never-heard sounds at an exponential rate. Experimentation is in, and it is immense. Pop culture is a riot of neon flowers and accessible psychedelic pastiche. Formerly straight-laced bands are ditching their suits for sitars. The free-spirited are emboldened. My mom, a studious suburban teen, tries to hitchhike to Woodstock. Psych music is birthed amid this chorus of wailing guitars, and its aura is Technicolor, and the people rejoice. Its legacy is unwaning. From the hang-loose riffage of Sleep to the Daliesque racket of This Heat, the mind-bending music of this era deeply textures the modern musical landscape.
Yet to call sonic adventurers Zen Mother a psych band seems to do them a disservice. Yes, the genre’s building blocks are present: the Hammer Horror synths, the raga guitars, the jazz drums so loud they start clipping and falling apart like meteors breaking up during atmospheric entry. A 2015 EP is described glibly as “We took acid and this is what happened,” and guitarist/vocalist Monika Khot notes, while defining the band’s methodology, “I was splicing 16mm reels at the time [keyboardist/vocalist] Wolcott Smith was painting his toes blue.” Despite possessing all the trappings of a groove-oriented throwback band, Zen Mother’s music seems more akin to that of Coil or Throbbing Gristle. It’s dreamlike, spectral, and unrelenting.
The Seattle duo’s upcoming debut LP, I Was Made to Be Like Her, is a master class in how to fruitfully branch psychedelia away from its roots. At times the vocals are so distorted that they sound like metal clashing together in a far-off factory, echoing for miles before reaching your ears. Genteel voices flicker in and out of television static as guitars languish in delectable loops of tape delay. Shifts in instrumentation are rich and dizzying, hitting the listener like an unexpected blow to the head. Across the album are lush evocations of Tangerine Dream’s atmospherics and bare-bones synths seemingly plucked from Death in June’s Nada!. There are even snatches of Detroit techno and the mismatched, gothy guitars of early These New Puritans. A sweet, very apt comment on the band’s SoundCloud describes this deep-dream auditory mélange perfectly: “so many different beautiful faces!”
Khot is quick to praise “pure and good” types of drugs for providing Zen Mother with an organic, fundamental base on which to structure its music. The band’s songs progress in a linear fashion, with one part segueing into another—sometimes smoothly, sometimes like a jump scare in a surrealist horror movie. They never loop back around to reprise a melody. In fact, nothing in any of Zen Mother’s songs can be neatly boxed into a concept as elementary as “chorus” or “verse.” However, these excursions into the currents of the unknown are not without their challenges. “I see some dark, twisted shit morphing around in various planes of reality, especially in dreams,” says Khot. “It is not pleasant necessarily, but since I’m in this altered dream state, the visions aren’t threatening or obtrusive to me. It’s almost calming, because I know I can’t be harmed by them. I suppose that plays a large role in this music. Everything is either an ascent or descent, a morphing, fearful, but calming entity.” If Zen Mother is rooted in the hallucinatory, it’s in the harrowing self-reflection of a bad trip, of turning yourself inside out and observing your twisted form from afar.
In the end, Zen Mother is absolutely self-aware of its simultaneous, contradictory roles as both a traditional and forward-looking psychedelic band. “Get High Now” has all the goods you expect: garage drums, guitar that’s more tremolo than melody, a wicked Summer of Love groove. But as it all dissolves into woozy, atonal terror, I catch myself still nodding to a rhythm that had long since ceased to be catchy. Whatever drug fueled this, I suggest tuning the hell in.
Zen Mother album release with Mammifer, somesurprises, DJ Veins. Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., chop suey.com. $8 adv. 21 and over. 8 p.m. Thurs., July 6.