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Psychedelic music blog covering psychedelic, folk, drone, metal, and all other forms of out music.

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Michael Stearns – Planetary Unfolding

May 22, 2010

michael stearns planetary unfoldingLet’s go with something a little more left-field here: this is Planetary Unfolding by ambient composer Michael Stearns.

I’ll be blunt, right out of the gates, here: this record is fucking massive.  It’s impossibly rich and deep and creates a sonic environment so palpable, so galactically leviathan, that it should be measured in light years, not decibels.  It absolutely puts Tangerine Dream and “Thus Spake Zarathrustra” and 9 Beet Stretch and “Echoes” and maybe even the KLF’s Chill Out, my previous candidate for the most immersive, nebula-reaching bliss on record, to shame.

A term like “soundscape” does not do the all-encompassing, cavernously deep and toweringly tall synth explorations on Planetary Unfolding justice.  Soundplane?  No.  Too earthbound.  This record’s downright interstellar, all about dimension, size, and presence, and it towers over you like a glacial, crystalline tsunami miles high, an always-cresting, sparklingly otherworldly wall of sound.

And when you listen to Stearns’s masterpiece, you definitely want that wall of sound cranking as loudly as possible.  Planetary Folding is maximal ambient music, the kind that positively demands impressively loud listening volumes.

Take a step back from the rather pedestrian, kinda cliched album title and look at it with a fresh set of eyes.  Planetary Unfolding.  This album is every bit as epic, expansive, epochal, ambitious, star-reaching, and jaw-droppingly huge as that title suggests.  It suggests a cataclysmic genesis, creation on an astronomical scale.  I already used this word, but I’ll use it again: Planetary Unfolding is a masterpiece, an ode to distances and places far beyond our quotidian world.

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If that all sounds like a bunch of breathless hooey, listen to the record and tell me if you disagree.  I’m serious.  It’s the greatest find in recent memory.  Major kudos to Mutant Sounds for unearthing this thing.

I know I promised some Pram, and it hasn’t happened yet.  Sit tight.  Shit’ll go down soon enough, I promise.  Also, more psychedelic delicacies are on-deck, including, perhaps, a breathless rush of adulation for those lords of minimalist psych, Spacemen 3.

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Pram and Their Lonely, Exotic Carnival

May 13, 2010

Pram nominally operates in post rock, which is–or, at least was, for a long time–a critical darling of a genre.  In post rock, bands are known for their willingness to experiment and hybridize nontraditional influences in rock.  It’s kind of the point.  Right?  (We’re talking about the first-wave stuff here, that proud and brave and aurally delicious era from about 1992-1997.)

pram band

Anyway, within a field already packed with unique-sounding bands, Pram is a long-running one whose influences–John Barry-esque soundtrack music, Martin Denny-esque exotica, dub, light 60s psychedelia, & nursery rhymes, all filtered through a uniquely childlike sense of unease–blend together to form something absolutely like nothing else.  On paper, they’re the perfect band for some serious critical wanking, but if they’re ever given a positive writeup, it’s almost always faint, reserved praise.  Just as often, they’re torn apart, or worse, ignored.

You ready for this question?  Okay, here it is: why?

I have some theories, but they all kind of depress me.  Perhaps the biggest thing holding Pram back from wider critical acclaim is that the music the band makes is not capital-i Important.  Rather than constantly reaching for any serious-faced major artistic statement, Pram makes resolutely small-screen and unselfconsciously strange music, traits that don’t typically earn awed respect.  We want our Artists to make Statements, and Pram doesn’t do that.  (That what they do is at once entirely unique, immediately recognizable, and yet consistently fresh over a nearly two-decade career is beside the point, of course.)

Which brings me to a second point about the general dismissal of Pram as a major force: they are not groundbreaking in the sense that there are a legion of followers tilling away at the path they blazed.  You can’t point to a scene or band of note that’s indebted in any overt sense to Pram.  This also works against them, because, again, “important” bands spawn other bands.  Pram hasn’t done that yet, and after 17 years of being around (and with post rock being, for all intents and purposes, a legacy genre), I doubt they will.

Many “important” bands that don’t receive a lot of credit are “difficult.”  Is Pram “difficult?”  It naturally depends, but I don’t think so.  They’re one of those bands that I fervently love and cheer for incessantly.  Like Long Fin Killie, Movietone, Spacemen 3, and Bark Psychosis, I push music by Pram on all of my friends whenever I can, especially their two early-2000s releases, The Museum of Imaginary Animals and Dark Island, which are their two most accessible albums.  I’ve played records by all these bands for any and all of my friends willing to put up with my obsessions, but the only one that has been universally liked has been Pram.

Sure, the songs on even these two albums are “weird,” but to nearly anyone with more than a passing interest in music (as in, not your mom or little nephew), it’s a safely exotic, alluring weirdness.  Yes, many songs, especially on Dark Island, are “eerie,” but it’s a childlike, whimsical eeriness that you find in some of the darker, more impressionistic children’s films.  Unsettling, sure, but still okay for general consumption (“general,” in this case, meaning the rare few of the populace who would ever care to make it this far into a piece about any non-mainstream musical act).

Navel gazing ad nauseam.  There’s obviously a bigger question to tackle here–why some bands get lauded and others passed up–but I neither feel able to answer it nor fully up to the task of tackling it right now.  You can understand, I’m sure.  Rather than going there, I leave you with some spectacular, Prammy deliciousness.

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And I’ll be bringing some more Prammy deliciousness to the table soon.  Reviews I’m definitely doing are for Sargasso Sea, Dark Island, The Museum of Imaginary Animals, and The Moving Frontier, all kind of latter-day releases.  I may go deeper and hit up some more stuff for you all.  If I do, I’ll add them in here and link up appropriately like the good guy I am.

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George Brigman – Jungle Rot

May 1, 2010

george brigman jungle rotFinally!  For a dude who’s writing a psych blog, I haven’t really, you know, written a whole lot about, well, psych.  No more!  Time for some out-and-out jams, you know, stuff with debauched electric sex all up in it.  Here’s Jungle Rot, a 1975 album by Baltimore shreducator George Brigman.  (Like that?  Shreducator?  I just made that shit up.)

Brigman’s an outsider, and he compares favorably to other lonesome wanderers of first-wave psychedelia like Skip Spence.  Unlike Spence (or Syd Barrett, to whom Spence is most often compared), however, Brigman never had a previously successful outing as a recording artist.  (Also unlike those two, there is no documented history of mental illness or debilitating drug abuse, just the creation of music out-of-sync with its milieu.)  There was no Moby Grape or Pink Floyd for Brigman before Jungle Rot.  This was his debut, and it’s savage, debauched, and remarkably assured.

Briefly: the reason this album is considered a sort of lost artifact is twofold.  First, Brigman recorded it and then more or less quit recording for decades after the untimely death of his bassist.  Jungle Rot was released and then vanished.  Second, the music on here really is pretty unique, especially in 1975.  It takes proto-punk’s muscular snarl and applies that aesthetic to psych-blues.

The title track, which opens the album, absolutely kills, with Brigman throwing down some panning, spiky, metallic chord stabs for a bit before launching into a flat-out destructive (and fucking anthemic) riff.  It sets the tone for the rest of Jungle Rot, which is essentially extremely well-executed bluesy psych jams.  This isn’t one of those crate-digging disappointments that has one scorcher and two or three middling jams among a largely faceless bunch of trash.  Every song on here kicks ass, with Brigman turning again and again to the deepest, druggiest strain of psychedelic revelry.

It also doesn’t hurt that Brigman is an absolutely blistering guitar player firmly in the acid rock mold.  And though he’s fleet of finger, his technical prowess never gets in the way of the mood of Jungle Rot, which is always drunkenly aggressive in a way that threatens (but never quite devolves into) sloppiness.

Even when he takes a break from shredding with aplomb and slows down, as he does on the sweet-sounding ballad “Schoolgirl” (naturally about sex), Brigman’s m.o. of keeping the mood good and confused shines through.  (Writing about this album really makes you run out of synonyms for “druggy” and its variants.)

I used to think Spacemen 3‘s brand of drug-addled, minimalist psych was, for all its simplicity, essentially unprecedented.  Not so.  George Brigman proves that there is nothing new under the sun.  And while I’m inclined to doubt that Sonic Boom and Jason Pierce were aware of Jungle Rot before they released The Sound of Confusion, simply because it’s a pretty underground record (and this is before, y’know, the age of the internet, this time when everything is available to everyone again), there was at least a sonic precedent indirectly pointing toward that band’s strung-out riffage.

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