How Psych Music Is Taking On The Mainstream

A few years ago psych music was merely the memory of the glory years of the 1980s and 1990s when bands like Spacemen 3, Galaxie 500 and My Bloody Valentine soundtracked a generation with their original and far-reaching sounds.

The bands created a deeply iconic aesthetic with washed-out guitar squalls, androgynous vocals, and an opaque stage presence that offered a distinctive and quietly rebellious resistance to the more anthemic mainstream sounds of the 1980s. However, with the rise of grunge, Britpop and hip-hop in the 1990s, such sounds fell out of fashion.

But recently, there has been a brand new generation of bands and artists who’ve picked up their effects pedals and are ready to take on the mainstream with an advanced wave of blissed-out sounds.

This can be seen through the rise of certain key artists who have revolutionised modern music with an innovative approach to traditional guitar sounds. The explosion of Australian psych bands such as Tame Impala and Pond did much to draw attention to the spaced-out sounds that could provide a new voice to the younger generation of guitar bands. And similarly, the rise of so-called chillwave artists such as Washed Out and Panda Bear in America also led to a blissed-out aesthetic of vocals drenched in reverb and delay, as well as a free-form approach to song structure.

Much of this trend can be put down to the ease with which young musicians can now access cheap yet powerful music technology through the power of digital recording technology. Whereas bands used to have to book time in expensive recording studios with engineers who curtailed the band’s original vision, now the artists can take full control of their musical vision through recording software such as Avid Protools, as well as a range of effects plugins provided by the likes of Waves.

Conversely, there has been an opposite trend towards using analogue gear to create the unpredictable and archaic sounds of the past. There has been a noticeable move towards artists discovering the value of recording onto tape, and bargain finds of vintage synths and effects units like the Echoplex have encouraged a tactile and experimental approach to creating psychedelic music.

As music trends tend to go in cycles, it was only a matter of time before the ethereal and opiated sounds of psych music became fashionable again. Just a decade ago the indie music magazines were filled with the likes of traditional rock bands such as The Strokes and The White Stripes, and with the rise of talent shows such as X-Factor gaining a death-grip on the nation’s consciousness, the time was more than ready for a more challenging kind of music.

Although the highly-popular TV talent shows have provided many UK homes with a pleasant evening’s light entertainment, the actual music featured on the shows has largely been anodyne. Even with websites like providing a fun way for viewers to bet on the X-Factors’ performer’s chances of success, and stores like HMV and Tesco being filled with Britain’s Got Talent merchandise, there are still issues over the show’s musical credibility.

Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of the show’s creator, Simon Cowell, who has a history of producing a fairly banal range of mainstream UK artists. Even efforts to make shows slightly more ‘hip’ by including judges such as Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs have unfortunately backfired.

Thankfully, UK guitar bands have proved themselves more than capable of creating their own musical culture, and we’re now in the midst of a revival of some more interesting homegrown sounds.

This can be found to have its roots in a rediscovery of bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine thanks to the recent Creation Records documentary, as well as the reformation of iconic shoegazing bands like Ride and Swervedriver.

The establishment of the Liverpool Psych Festival has had much to do with reinvigorating the more experimental UK guitar scene. And already there is a whole host of bands like Hookworms and Toy who have managed to create ground-breaking music on their own terms.

Whilst much of this music could be considered to be a retreat from the computer-driven sounds that are currently dominating the music charts, the use of experimental sounds offers a fresh alternative to the soundalike approach favoured by the mainstream.

Whether such idiosyncratic music will ever trouble the top of the national charts remains to be seen, but with Tame Impala‘s latest experimental offering reaching number three on the official album charts, it seems that the psych war has just begun.