Psych and Prog

Incredible String Band “The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion” (1967)

The second ISB album, regarded by many as a peak moment in the evolution of the British psychedelic underground. Following the release of the band’s trio debut in the summer of 1966, Clive Palmer had split for Afghanistan, Robin Williamson had taken his girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie, to Morocco for an open-ended stay, and Mike Heron had opted to stay in Edinburgh. Heron returned to playing rock music, but in late 1966, Williamson came back from Marrakesh, bearing a wealth of strange North African musical instruments, and an equal number of compositional ideas.

Before long, the two had reformed the ISB as a duo, and they soon began woodshedding in a rural Scottish cottage. Joe Boyd, who had produced the first LP, had started a new club in London called the UFO, in partnership with John “Hoppy” Hopkins (the founder of The International Times). Boyd felt the scene was boiling over and was convinced the ISB had their part to play. He visited the pair, suggesting he become their manager and that they record a second album. The sessions for The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion happened at John Wood’s London studio in late spring 1967, and featured the lovely bass work of Danny Thompson (who had joined Pentangle two months earlier), the vocals of Licorice, and guest spots for “Hoppy”’s piano and Nazir Jairazbhoy’s sitar.

The album was released to great fanfare in July, 1967, just as the ISB was returning from an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. With its uber-psych cover art by Dutch design firm The Fool (then being envied for their work with The Beatles), and classic songs (traditional folk, swathed in kaftans, incense and finger cymbals), 5000 Layers was truly a record for its time. Hailed by everyone from John Peel to Paul McCartney, the album went to Number One on the UK folk charts, and was an omnipresent accessory in every student garret. Four-plus decades on, it remains one of the all-time readymade classics of the ‘60s. —Forced Exposure

Amon Duul II “Wolf City” (1972)

The most noticeable difference between this 1972 release and classic albums like Phallus Dei (1969), Yeti (1970), and Tanz der Lemminge (1971) is the shift from lengthy “freak outs” to shorter pieces that emphasize melody and harmony. In fact, most of the seven pieces on Wolf City are in the 3-6 minute range with only Surrounded by Stars reaching 8 minutes in length. I for one do not mind the change at all because it turns out that Amon Duul II was just as good at writing shorter pieces as they were at writing the longer pieces. The major selling point for me on Wolf City is the haunting, drifting melodies that are developed on this album – they are simply wonderful and make me forget the pieces are only a few minutes long. Furthermore, the interesting thing (and this is really clever) is that spacey, instrumental preludes and interludes are worked in here and there to create the illusion of a larger piece. The use of loads of synthesizers does not hurt either. All in all, this is a very good album that is recommended along with Carnival in Babylon (1972) which is somewhat similar. —Jeffrey

Eloy “Ocean” (1977)

Ocean continues Eloy’s astral voyage via an appropriately watery retelling of the legend of Atlantis, Bornemann recounting the saga through his awe-struck, thick Germanic accent as the band delivers elegantly zonked-out jams buttressed by epic synthscapes and the mesmerizing bass riffs of Klaus-Peter Matziol. While the telling of Ocean’s narrative occasionally gets in the way of the music, the tracks’ extended forms are the perfect vehicle for Eloy’s brand of cosmic rock. —Ben

Far East Family Band “Parallel World” (1976)

Proteges of Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, and Klaus Schulze, The Far East Family Band released a handful of LPs back in the mid to late 70s before the group’s main synthesist/keyboardist, Kitaro, went onto a solo career and eventual international stardom as the doyen of new age music. Parallel World (their third release) is in fact a very good album from the 70s psych/prog/electronic sound nexus. The opening track “Metempsychosis” is pure cosmic Zen electonica, with its hypnotic, unobtrusive tribal drumming and whir of electronic effects. The sprawling epic title track (over 30 minutes in length) is like a stereo wet dream for space cadets: whoosing synthesizers, elegant mellotron, wordless chants, and some effective psychedelic guitar textures. In general, the whole album evokes quiet images that you might associate with being levitated or suspended in space. If you like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, or even newby spacers like the Orb and Future Sound of London, you’ll like FEFB. —Hawklord

Atomic Rooster “Death Walks Behind You” (1970)

I find it utterly astonishing that, even based purely on the strength of this album, Atomic Rooster are not hailed as Gods of 70s hard rock. Now, I really enjoyed their debut, a prog rock classic, but Death Walks Behind You is fucking phenomenal! Seriously, any fan of hard/psych rock needs to hear this one right now. Where the debut was mostly a prog album with heavy leanings, light on guitar, but employing King Crimson-esque melancholy in the songwriting & structure, this album just goes all out, with the late great John DuCann firing out blazing riffs & solos that rival many of his contemporaries in the likes of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and so on.

Opening with the dark, doom-laden title track, with it’s clever blend of rockin’ riff & crazy hammond organ, it should have you hooked. But it only gets better from there. Moving on to the crazy Jethro Tull style instrumental “VUG”, this should please anyone who thought AR had left their prog roots behind. “Tomorrow Night” should be farmiliar to some rock fans, and is a cheery, superbly infectious tune withc a catchy piano track. “7 Streets” is another melancholy hard prog track in the vein of the title track, with a superb dirty rock riff to lead in atop the creepy organ. My personal favourite is the seriously amazing “Sleeping For Years”, easily one of the most epic 70s rock anthems I’ve ever heard, with a brilliantly air-guitar riff, catchy vocals and a lurching psychedelic freakout in the middle, it should be hailed as a legendary track for all to here. “I Can’t Take No More” sounds almost like AR were jamming with The Stooges, very gritty, garage-esque street rock. “Nobody Else” is another piano driven tune, and is haunting and marvellous. Ending with the Crimsonian “Gershatzer” instrumental, which is a prog classic, meandering mechanically like the best math-rockers of the time.

All in all, this album should be preserved as a lost treasure, and deserves to be heard and worshipped at the altar of rock for all of time. Go out there and get listening!! —MetroidVania

Van der Graaf Generator “Pawn Hearts” (1971)

Here’s a band operating on their own plateau, located in the center of a triangle formed by King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and the sacrificial altar of Crom, Pawn Hearts is not so much three distinct tracks as one elongated inner monologue of madness courtesy of Peter Hammill and company. While there’s those who would portray dementia through scatterbrained ramblings, Pawn Hearts is all the more harrowing and impressive in it’s focus and lucidity, it’s makeup of dense keyboards and saxophone sounding both ancient and timeless, with Hammill’s overwrought expression giving the proceedings an air of theatricality without resorting to parody. If at times the journey through these catacombs winds up at a dead end, particularly during moments of the side-long “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” there are too many glorious moments here to ignore, and the lack of reliance on stock progisims set this one apart. —Ben

Camel “Moonmadness” (1976)

After something of a detour in the all-instrumental Snow Goose, with Moonmadness Camel deliver a song oriented but no less progressive album that houses a faultless set exhibiting their impossibly relaxed and warm sound operating at a peak, as in the dual nature of “Song Within A Song” or the floating “Air Born,” songs which are comfortable, focused, and confident in their identity. Andy Latimer really steps to the front with a zen-like, effortlessly expressive guitar style that melts stone with it’s sheer beauty, fingers connected to the heart as well as the head, be it on softer passages such as in “Chord Change” or the full-bodied howling that closes “Another Night,” while the instrumental finale “Lunar Sea” simply blows the doors down with it’s twisting interplay and powerful lead work. One cannot discount the contribution of the rest of the band as well, Bardens with his most colorful pallet of synthesizer sounds, Ferguson and Ward totally in tandem, laying down syncopated grooves that help drive this one to the top of the heap. Moonmadness is an ideal place to start a Camel journey, not just in the merit of the individual songs but in the fact that Camel’s essence is so tangible here, looking forward or backward in their discography there’s a bit of Moonmadness everywhere. —Ben

Steve Hillage “Fish Rising” (1975)

Perfect fusion of the spacey Canterbury progressive jazz-rock typical of bands like Khan, National Health and Gong with a distinctive focus on Hillage’s ridiculous guitar skills. It takes a few minutes to warm up, but goddamn this album is like a gloriously hypnotic 40+ minute guitar solo. Don’t be mistaken, though–there’s a fair helping of pop sensibility, a little songcraft and some good vocals (provided you enjoy Hillage’s voice). This album has become an all-time personal favorite of mine, and unfortunately I think it’s unmatched in Hillage’s discography–his more song-oriented later albums feature some excellent guitar playing and some interesting ideas, but they’re often bogged down by less endearing new-agey lyrics, some of the guitar ideas start to reappear over and over, and the synths have dated in a way that’s much less attractive to my ears than this album (which, to be fair, is obviously from the mid-70’s). Love the inclusion of David L. Stewart and Lindsay Cooper–a couple of my favorite other Canterbury luminaries. Heavily recommended. —Elliot

Country Joe & The Fish “Electric Music for the Mind & Body” (1967)

Electric Music is perhaps the greatest psychedelic album of all time. Different aspects of the psychedelic experience are represented here from the crazed caotic energy of “Superbird”, the deeply meditative and stoned “Bass Strings”, the soulfully flowing “Section 43”, to the sheer fun of this album. During a psychedelic experience, one is often able to percieve or rather hear colors in music. Electric music is replete with them and examples can be found on the organ solo of “Love” to Barry Melton’s guitar solo on “The Masked Marauder”. The mix of different tones on this album has been seldom paralled especially in the digital ninties. Chicken Hirsh’s resonant tom tom drums, Bruce Barthol’s rich bass, David Cohen milky organ and Barry Melton’s guitar provide a nice rich timbre palete throughout the album particular evident on the instrumentals “Section 43” and “The! Masked Marauder”. Barry Melton’s vocals on “Love” sound like Satchmo on acid and add to the fun of this masterpiece. Country Joe once told me that the songs were arranged so that you would forget the tune you just hear before the one you were hearing. He also said that the band “tested” the album out themselves. Now if that’s not quality control I don’t know what is. An analog masterpiece for those curious to know what music sounded like before the digital age. A high recommend! —AC

Exuma “Exuma” (1970)

“The sun is shining in the night, zombies walking in broad daylight.”

Raw, vital and insane. The two keys here are the percussive intensity and the raging voice of the man himself, fiery and out of control, clearly lending another dimension of chaos to his music. The lyrics are quite inspired as well, with zombies, swamps, Xangô, voodoo and pyres sharing breathing room in a notably vivid fashion. More surprisingly is that despite all the insanity and tribal incantations this isn’t really as inaccessible as it could be, Exuma’s vocals even reach for soulfulness on occassion (tha last couple of tracks mosty). Or am I sliding so further down the ladder of musical archeology that I’m simply unfazed by the deranged world of Exuma? Who knows. It’s a fabulous album in any case. Let me spin the magnificent “Mama Loi, Papa Loi” one more time.

“I see fire in the dead man’s eye.” —Johnny

Gong “Flying Teapot” (1973)

Radio Gnome Invisible Part 1: Flying Teapot Is one of the first albums I ever owned. I think it may be the first but I’m not sure when I got ‘Mickey’s Disney Disco Album’. When I was about three my parents split up. My mother went to live with her pot-smoking, bi-sexual, bohemian German friend. I loved the cover of this album so much that the aforementioned mental German let me keep it. I grew up in a house where the love of music was almost compulsary. You had a choice. Either you learned to love music or you went insane because music was always being played. Not one for being left out I would request that I got to choose the music that was played. Naturally I would choose one of my own albums. At the age of four that was a limited choice. More often than not I chose Gong.

The fact that this album is such a mentalist freak out of pyschedelic-jazz-funk explains a lot about my taste in music now. This album is brimming with ideas. Some are crazier than others and some are so funky that it’s hard to believe that Gong are essentially a Franco-British prog outfit.

I can remember the beginning of the title track of the album terrifying me. It’s strange that at such a tender age we can interpret mood from music. I used to have to get my mother to skip the intro so that the partying could start. From about 2:30 that track is doing hard work to make you dance. I’m surprised nobody has ever sampled it. As well as being exceptionally funky this track (as the whole album is, really) is bat-shit crazy. The main vocal refrain seems to be “have a cup of tea, have another one, have a cup of tea”. Not what you expect as a funky accompaniment. Even more strange is that it fits right in.

Don’t let me fool you though. This is not a Jamiroquai album. There are moments that JK would gladly pilfer into more Ferrari purchase and blonde women but they are surrounded by large swathes of proggish wig-out. These surreal sections will certainly not be to everybody’s taste. If you like funk and early Pink Floyd you’ll be fine but if you don’t I’d steer well clear of this unless you are a sonic crusader of the more adventurous kind.

You can practically hear the LSD dripping off of every not and beat on this album. More importantly (and much less clichéd) is that you can hear the sounds enjoyment and vital experimentation bristling and crackling all through this album. It’s quite wonderful. —geekandspell

Neu! “Neu!” (1972)

Rock as ambience, stripped of song but retaining the simplicity of a good hook, Neu! marks the meeting point of acid-dazed psychedelic improv and post-classical minimalist composition. “Hallogallo” and “Negativland” are this album’s supreme achievements: the former synonymous with the now oft-used rhythmic term motorik, the latter combining this metronomic minimalism with a jarring musique concrete that incorporates industrial noise, transforming the group’s dreamlike drone into something more tonally consistent with a nightmare and anticipating everything from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures to Scott Walker’s Tilt. In between these two highlights is the cymbal-drone experiment of “Sonderangebot,” the hazy, beautiful ballad-like “Weissensee” (which in a way anticipates the minimal, atmospheric post-punk of albums such as Seventeen Seconds by the Cure), and “Im Gluck,” whose studio-simulated rippling water is both restive and unsettling. The closing track, “Lieber Honig,” is an odd shift in tone that introduces fragile vocals and arguably constitutes the one misstep—though that depends on your mood. And mood is the crucial element to appreciating this album to its fullest. The group’s use of the studio to create a unique space in which to listen is what is most impressive about Neu! The spatial organization of the instruments gives breathing room in which the attention is allowed to drift from one part to another, actively constructing the sound of the whole and making for a different listening experience each time.

Obviously one of those proverbial albums that sold next to nothing but inspired those who heard it to make their own records, this also bears influence throughout the music since, its unique spell cast over just about everything good that followed it. —Will