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  • Writer's pictureTantra Bensko

What is Neo-Psych Rock?

Updated: May 28, 2018

(Art by Tantra Bensko)

How it sounds: Neo-Psych rock (Neo-psychedelia) is music that creates a disorienting fantastical world for the listener, with an emphasis on extreme beauty, the fragile, preciousness of life, the doomed eternal aching to fully embrace life. Lyrics are sometimes poetically dark and there is strong crossover with Heavy Metal and sometimes hints of Goth. Very often the music deliberately fosters a sensation of floating or soaring. The open atmospherics are often countered by the ruthless deep bass and drum rhythms that won't let you go.

It often combines droning vocals of wistful longing that sometimes seems to come from a remote location, perhaps underwater, particularly when combined with flanging. Distanced and numbed out managing the overwhelming emotion of existence. Some can even sound like they’re stuck in the ache, like stoner rock, not fully releasing their angst, their expressive tonality remaining at an even keel. Other times, they can let go and scream it out and then soar into the blissful climax of the song. The vocalists are usually young men.

Often several instruments create a layered, grand sound that takes over the room like an ocean. At its lightest, there’s the fantastic lyrical Shoegazing (like Spacemen 3 and the criminally underappreciated Hudson Bell) pleasantly wafting with mild drumming. Shoegazing was labeled that originally as a bit of a put-down because the musicians looked at their distortion pedals rather than interacting with the audience much.) Neo-psych that isn’t Shoegazing generally takes breaks within albums, and even within some individual songs like My Bloody Valentine) from the pile-driving drum/bass beats to float in that more delicate space.

However, the bass is more often quite heavy metal, with a sound likened to obsessive sexual desire or dark compulsions. The kaleidoscopic instrumentals balance that, so the sound is intellectually complex as well as emotionally primal.

Well-produced work benefits from Phil Specter style “wall of sound” intricate dense orchestral technique sometimes with multiple instruments playing the same thing simultaneously, intricate, reverberating. The Byrds “Eight Miles High” exemplifies wall of sound and influenced Neo-Psych.

The epitome of Neo-Psych: is the spectacular band, The Black Angels, who headline at Neo-Psych festivals. Their music is credited with fifty-one sound tracks including the Twilight movie Eclipse, Assassin’s Creed, Whip It, and many others including the only movie with their music that I’ve seen, which is the excellent Kill the Messenger about the journalist Gary Webb, who blew the cover on the Iran Contra scandal. Their wonderful “Black Grease” was also the soundtrack for the TV show, True Detective (season 1, the good one.) Members include vocalist Alex Maas who also plays bass, drone machine and organ, the inspiring drummer/percussionist Stephanie Bailey, Christian Bland on guitar, drone machine and organ, Kyle Hunt on keyboards, percussion, bass, guitar, drone machine and organ, and guitarist Jake Garcia.

Comparisons: I enjoy all the types of music listed so am not dissing any of it when I say Neo-Psych is not tame and simple like folk, predictable like Blues or rough and angry like punk but makes great use of distortion, orchestral instruments, jazzy improv, synthesizers. It’s similar to Prog rock’s sci-fi New Ageish grandeur without necessarily having the major label producer’s bounty associated with the Prog period like King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull. Prog rock is about pushing musical limits, exploring new territory beyond traditional structures. Ironically in spite of the ancient Fantasy feel, like Punk, Prog rock lyrics often eschewed love for sexual references, whereas Neo-Psych includes both. People might assume there is some relation to New Age ambient music, because of the expansive mysticism but it really is quite different, with more character, risks, uniqueness, broken emotions rather than safe affirmations. It can be intensely, blissfully, sensually meditative and Kundaliniesque like Tantra Yoga without being Eastern or promoting any specific spiritual teachings.

History: Neo-Psych began in the ‘70s in England with a bouncier pop vibe than we have in the U.S. which pushed into avant-garde territory, experimental illuminated and ambitious, over a driving bassline. It continued the Psychedelic Rock of the ‘60’s but with more advanced technology. The Brits expanded into Shoegazing or Dream Pop in the ‘90’s. They tend to label the wide range of music Acid Punk. Echo & the Bunnymen spearheaded Neo-Psych from Liverpool.

It spilled over into America with Siouxsie and the Banshees. The 80’s in Los Angeles the Paisley Underground movement solidified the trend. Space pop like the gorgeous Galaxie 500 represents that style well, while The Black Angels demonstrates the harder edge. The Dandy Warhols and The White Stripes may be the most well-known similar sounds among people not familiar with Neo-Psych. Currently the location most associated with Neo-Psych is Austin.

Some influences include: 13th Floor Elevators, which is particularly evident with The Black Angels, King Crimson, Donovan, The Beatles, The Amboy Dukes, Country Joe and the Fish, Pink Floyd, Moby Grape, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Grateful Dead, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Traffic, Vanilla Fudge, Jimmy Hendrix, Prince, the Pretty Things, The Monkees (Head), The Electric Prunes, Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Themes: Trancing using drugs or natural methods to disorder the senses and access the subconscious and perhaps create mystical experiences and insights into the nature of reality. While drugs may inspire some of the musicians and fans, the “psychedelic” label need not be taken literally. The lyrics often are nonsensical, with non-sequiturs and hypnagogic surreal images that go nowhere, which has not set well with critics. The meaning lives between the words. Sometimes, the merging of lovers is described, the cosmic oneness of all things but it has moved onto irony rather than the naivite of the original Psychedelic rock.

Festivals: Levitation (previously called Austin Neo-Psych Fest, Gizzfest, Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia, Northwest Psychfest, Milwaulkie Psychfest.

Neo-Psych Bands I Love: The Black Angels, the zany end of the spectrum with Animal Collective, Oasis, Spacemen 3, The Flaming Lips, Mazzy Star, Hudson Bell, Gravenhurst, arguably The Verve, King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard, Speck Mountain, Dead Meadow, Dinosaur Jr., Black Rebel Motorcycle Gang, Allah-Las, Superchunk, Olivia Tremor Control, Ty Segall, White Fence, Wand, Mikal Cronin, Link Wray, Wooden Shjips, Dead Skeletons, Witch, The Warlocks, The Murlocs, Eldren, Fuzz, Moon Duo, Froth, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Meatbodies.

Neo-Psych in Popular Culture: Coming 2018, the edgy New Adult novel, Floating on Secrets by good ol' Tantra Bensko. The two protagonists both adore Neo-Psych and listen to it regularly; the titles of the songs are included in the text and fit the mood. They both play it, as does another major character, and it appropriately accompanies a helicopter ride. In fact, the lead male first becomes interested in the female lead because of a Neo-Psych play she created list to listen to during a session in a float tank, which is where they meet in a controversially shocking way. By the end, Neo-Psych music saves the day.

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