Of all the subgenres associated with rock n' roll, psychedelic rock remains one of the most abstract. What, exactly, is it, other than different or odd or weird? While a pure definition remains elusive, you're mistaken if you believe this kind of music needs to be enhanced by a substance. When done well, psychedelic rock, is a trip in and of itself. Think of it as a new way of hearing an instrument or looking at life. This week, Warner Bros. reissued the early work of the Flaming Lips, the rare band that enjoyed mainstream success with psychedelia. Originally released on Restless Records, Hear It Is, Oh My Gawd!!!...The Flaming Lips, and Telepathic Surgery are now available on vinyl mastered from the original analog tapes. In a Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares) arrives in September. No wonder we have psychedelia on the brain. Here are five must-own psychedelic records.
The 13th Floor Elevators, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators
Released in 1966, and believed to be the first album to use the word "psychedelic" in its title, the 13th Floor Elevators' debut is a ferociously rough explosion of rock n' roll fury – much of it marked by the unpredictable vocal howls of singer Roky Erickson and never-not-crazy electric jug of Tommy Hall. The latter lends even the more conventional songs a twisted, demented feel, as if they're being doused in gasoline and threatening to ignite at any moment. The band's only hit, the album-opening "You're Gonna Miss Me," sets a boldly abrasive tone as it turns heartache into anger. Everything that follows comes across as weird and wild, and feels like a splash of cold water to the face, be it Stacy Sutherland's raw guitar or full-on alarm that is "Fire Engine."
Love, Forever Changes
Considering how many times Forever Changes has been reissued – we prefer Mobile Fidelity's audiophile 180g 45RPM 2LP and SACD versions – one may think Love's masterwork was celebrated at its time of release. Yet Arthur Lee's band remained criminally overlooked in the 60s, gaining stature only when subsequent generations and artists sang its praises. While the phrase "psychedelic music" may conjure thoughts of grand, manipulated sounds, Forever Changes stands out for its precision and refinement. Here's a work where every instrument is in its right place, and yet, the songs constantly manage to surprise. Love's folk-like vibes convey a light excursion through Southern California's hills and deserts. As a result, the L.A. band reflects not just the era, but a location. Doing multiple duties, Spanish-inflected horns and breezily strummed guitars simultaneously conjure romanticism and unease. And background harmonies aren't always out to soothe. Instead, they function as extension of the disturbing voices in Lee's head.
Melody's Echo Chamber, Bon Voyage
Melody's Echo Chamber, the project of French artist Melody Prochet, remains something of a musical mystery. Prochet released a self-titled debut in 2012 but went relatively quiet in the ensuing years, appearing now and again to perform at festivals while teasing new work. The latter finally arrived a few months ago, having been delayed, in part, due to health issues. On Bon Voyage, Prochet continues to evoke mystical atmospheres by letting vocals wash into the mix. Guitars ebb and flow – dreamy and fluid one moment, and sharp, pointed, and loud the next. Prochet loads the arrangements with a bounty of global influences, letting melodies touch on Spanish, Middle Eastern, and disco influences. The highly personal "Breathe In, Breathe Out" serves as a highlight, bolstered by jaunty whistling all the while shifting tones and tempos without warning.
The Flaming Lips, In a Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares)
The chaotic early days of the Flaming Lips were marked by shifting lineups and tentative experiments with concept albums. In a Priest Driven Ambulance, issued in 1990, is often credited with scoring the band a record deal with Warner Bros., where it continues to record today. The effort also added key players to the mix – particularly Jonathan Donahue, also of Mercury Rev, and drummer Nathan Roberts. Neither remained with the group for long, but their presence brought a greater rock thrust to the sound and made the album the ensemble's most cohesive, song-oriented work to date. Loosely themed around religion, it captures the Flaming Lips at their goofily earnest and hardest-punching best, from the stuttering melodies of "Unconsciously Screamin'" to the bluesy, slow-motion guitar wails of "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain."
Tame Impala, Currents
On Currents, its first album for Interscope, Australia's Tame Impala, largely the brainchild of Kevin Parker, shed its rock n' roll beginnings for a broader, groovier sound. If works such as 2012's Lonerism were built for headphones, Currents is constructed to get people to move. But just because Tame Impala went for a more accessible pop sound doesn't mean things don't get weird. The lead-off track "Let it Happen" dances through eight minutes of varying styles and eras, contrasting modern electronics with vintage disco. Before powering down, the act throws in a briefly aggressive rhythmic kick. Guitars still abound – see the bouncy "Disciples," in which wiry notes hop and jog through Technicolor imagery. All told, however, Currents feels like a post-break-up record about moving on to not only discover new experiences but fresh sonic vistas.