Reconstruction: A History of Music
in the Years Before the World Ended [Part 1]
Reconstruction: a concatenation of music movements that took shape in the period, 1994 to 2000, but which in some cases date back to the late 1980's; while others did not peak until a few years into the new millennium. These were as follows:
(1) "Brit Pop": Rock, having already in the late 1980's-early '90's re-taken its place as the pre-eminent popular music in Britain (even as its followers and commentators, at times the artists themselves, warmly embraced the new sounds of Hip Hop and Acid House) in response to "Grunge" (but also not in response to Grunge or any contemporaneous trend) took a traditionalist-cum-nationalist turn, marked by artists with English accents, social perspectives, and aesthetic preferences striving to match the heights attained by their "British Invasion" forebearers, albeit with the "cool Britannia" persona that feigned disinterest in the attention of Americans, or lack thereof;
(2) New (or "Neo-")Psychedelia emerged as a distinct niche within the larger Indie realm via the Terrastock festivals, the Elephant 6 collective, the Flaming Lips, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals, and explorers farther afieldthese artists confounding enthusiasts and detractors alike with their uncanny ability to innovate while explicitly drawing upon past music;
(3) the curious non-genre "Post-Rock" became an unlikely fad and, while the differences between the U.S and British bands lumped into the category are numerous they all suggested the notion of Rock artists leaving Rock behind in a way that rivals the best of Rock's ironic dissident-as-rejectionist tradition, and did soat least its North American variantby pointedly looking back to past exemplars; regardless of how many of the artists categorized as "Post-Rock" could not be called Reconstructionist, the concept is crucial for understanding the Reconstruction era;
(4) Free Jazz went through a revival of interest and an infusion of new talent unparalleled since the late-1970's twilight time of the New York "loft scene," seen in the rise of Ken Vandermark, Matthew Shipp, Dave Douglas, and other young artists, but more so in the reinvigorated, increased, or dramatically-rerouted work of veterans John Zorn, David S Ware, William Parker, Evan Parker, Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, and Fred Anderson; some of the impetus for the heightened popularity of Free Jazz came from new listeners, critics, and record labels from a Rock background;
(5) a similar revival of Improvised Electroacoustic music picked up on the paths laid by Collectivist ensembles of the 1960's and early '70's such as A.M.M (in its early phase), The Taj Mahal Travellers, Marginal Consort, and Musica Elettronica Viva; those who stand out here include Günter Müller, Otomo Yoshihide, Voice Crack, Fennesz (at times), and Keith Rowe's work beyond A.M.M;
(6) when combined with the growing number of electronic-dance-music artists who made music to listen to at home, many seeking to explore the expansive, dissonant possibilities of new digital instruments and software, at times there emerged a retrospective interest in the the origins of electronic sound, as created by electroacoustic composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Henry, the result being perhaps not a reconstruction, rather a reconnection with a future-oriented trajectory that had seemed on hold, in the musical realm, by the gross popularization of "Synth Pop" in the later half of the 1980's; more generally, the spread of Techno to Europe, the birth of the Worldwide Web, and the stunning growth of digital technology revived the progressive optimistic spirit of electronic music of the post-Second World War era, albeit with an historicist bent;
(7) a revision of the history of Minimal music began (not in earnest) with Tony Conrad's Early Minimalism four-disc set , as well as new interest in the music of Eliane Radigue, Paul Panhuysen, Charlemagne Palestine, Phill Niblock, Ellen Fullman, and Arnold Dreyblatt, uprooting previous interpretations of the history of Minimalism, especially the centrality of its "big four": LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.
With the exception of "Post-Rock," what unites these movements, on the surface considerably disparate, is the strong influence, and at times a desire to revive the practices and aesthetic concernseven ideological affronts of artistic and cultural movements that had been abandoned and forgotten in the late 1970's and '80's. These varied Reconstructions refused the tendency towards cultural commodification which had left many of the "baby boom" generation with a sort of teleological or Whiggish assumption of the decline of art and culture in modern society. Commodification here entails the historicizing, or to put it figuratively, the freezing in time, of radical approaches to art, and in a broader sense an identification of culture not with practices and events that take place in real time but instead as televisual products or events. The popularization of Post-Modernist thought, also reaching a peak in the '80's (which in the U.S was rarely more than a simplistic defining of the very notion of Post-Modernism as a unitary intellectual-cultural, or even economic and sociopolitical, phenomenon) encouraged the notion that young artists working with limited means should avoid the radical methods that characterized Modernism (after all, so the thinking went, they had "been done before," perhaps even discredited) and instead combine past methods in an endless recycling of consumed artifacts, presumably hoping that some recombination or melding-together might find its way up and through the Byzantine conglomerates of mass media and both reach and appeal to a broad audience. Reconstruction, despite being opposed to this general direction, also inevitably offered its own commodifications of the movements it aimed to revive or draw upon.
Reconstructionist artists sought to revive radical movements of the past at a time when access to information about all sorts of past artistic and cultural developments that had been obscure was expanding greatly. Although the internet medium played a role here, its significance has both been exaggerated and negative in certain respects, as there is clearly a sort of "law of diminishing returns" regarding constant chatter about what others are not talking about, but doing: dullard metaphysics instead of profound physics. Not to mention the Web's position as an extension of televisual culture. More important, many of the movements that inspired Reconstructionists were only in the '90's first getting serious historical scrutiny. (Given that the attempted revival of past radical art movements is obviously not itself a radical act, and that many of the radicalisms of the '60's were grounded in the desire of the young to do anything other than what their parents had done, the differences between the varied subsets of Reconstruction and the past examples they looked to, or aimed to replicate, must always be kept in mind. The scholarly retrospective perspective we see here also existed in the '60's and '70's, but not nearly to the same extent. That said, one could take a broad view of '60's artists and their efforts to revive, or establish a connection with, movements that had been decimated or at least put on hold by Fascism, Stalinism, and the Second World War. Such a history would be gargantuan compared to this essay.)
Many "baby boomers" who had been crucial to said movements undoubtedly were surprised and bemused by the close attention directed to the activities of their youth, wondering "why?" Many others, though, felt vindicated, relieved, especially those who had not resigned themselves to the conservative retrenchment, and the ensuing disillusionment and apathy, of the two decades prior. Veterans of the Free Jazz/ Improvised music scenes definitely ranked among this set, but one could also see the gratitude of others, including certain electroacoustic pioneers, and Rock artists who had not made careers out of their work as some of their peers had.
Setting the Scene
More simply put, I write this article because the time when I "came of age," as a listener at least, bridged the gap between the late 1980's-early '90's Alternative moment (a word I specifically use instead of movement) and the late-'90's peak of what I here call Reconstruction, but which from a narrower perspective is little more than a fertile period of what even mainstream media have come to call Indie Rock. In other words, having begun listening to music seriously around 1992, when Rockthat is, non-Glam Metal Rockwas again popular among the masses in the United States, in the form of "Grunge," I left college in 2001 at a time when the most popular of the newish Rock groups of that momentnamely, The Strokes and The White Stripespaled in commercial stature and artistic ambition to Alternative stars like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, etc., and, more importantly, heralded a new approach to Rock music: not as the principal form of music one grew up with, which had framed entire cultural perspectives, but instead as a stylized product that existed before them, which they would not alter; as one option among many, like vaudeville, television-program theme songs, economic-history papers.
The late 1980's-early '90's were characterized by much more than the rise to prominence of Alternative fads; it brought a general liberalization of national politics, and an accompanying opening up of cultural optionsa turn away from the cynicism of the late 1970's-early '80's and its counterweight, the child-friendly fantasyland of the mid-'80's. This in turn brought a nostalgic look back upon, in cases a revival of, what was perceived to be the cultural ethos of the "Sixties." Mainstream interest was often directed not so much toward "underground," "college Rock," or Alternative artists, but instead toward those whose work could make the listener think the late-'70's ossification of Rock and the ensuing Disco-New Wave-Electro interim had been thrust aside for good. The signs were there: twentieth and twentieth-fifth anniversaries of what received wisdom said were the most significant events of the "Sixties" generation; first C.D versions of old L.P's, and improved re-masters, a trend given perhaps its greatest boost by the 4-disc Led Zeppelin box released in 1990; the resurgent Dead-head culture, signified most of all by the return of 'Dark Star' to the band's set list, and the rise of "jam band" imitators and their travelling festival, Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere ("HORDE"); the talk in Britain of "Madchester," 1989, as the "second summer of love," with raves and ecstasy the great compromises between festivals and night-clubs, acid and speed, respectively; while in America (its popular culture less ambitious and exciting) Lollapalooza was to serve as the universal signifier for a generation like Woodstock had; Neil Young as the "godfather of Grunge" making a triumphant comeback that, as received wisdom had it, wiped clean regrettable '80's excursionssimilar apologetic comebacks were seen from the late '80's throughout the '90's from Bob Dylan (at least twice), Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa et al.; the success of "Folk" artists like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Michelle Shocked, and 10,000 Maniacs bridging the gap between young listeners and the older "baby boomer" set who had come of age not with Rock but rather the Folk Revival; the steadily-rising prominence of vegetarianism and organic foods as a continuation of '60's-'70's "back to the land" movements and environmentalism, which itself was achieving a degree of mainstream acceptance it had not enjoyed since the early '70's; and the common hope that the end of the Cold War and the wave of democratization that had overtaken East Europe as well as South America, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, and South Africa would bring about the inter-connected pacific world "Sixties" protesters had envisioned.
Most of these examples point to a fundamental characteristic of that time: the sense of upheaval and renewal was the result just as much of the "baby boom" generation achieving a newly-dominant position in U.S culture (and politically, symbolically at least, by the Second World War-generation finally giving up the U.S presidency) than it was a sign of the youth, "generation X," setting out on a dramatically-different course. This era witnessed, at its worst, a new generation resigned to being less challenging and original than its predecessor, even as said predecessor now presented its previous feats as youthful indiscretions or contingent upon certain historical aspects (the draft, the baby boom itself, the rapid post-Sputnik increase in college enrollment); and, at its best, the heightened radicalism of various movements in music, film, and other realms that had countered the mainstream in the late-'70's/ early-'80's (e.g., Punk and its Indie off-shoots, Thrash Metal, Hip Hop, "independent" film) attaining new levels of popularity, or at least mainstream attention, at the same time that certain "Sixties" veterans aimed to reverse their lamentable lapse into conservatism and stasis.
The expanding nostalgia-driven, or at least historically-minded, culture of the Reconstruction era clashed with the sweeping proclamations regarding the "Information Age" and a new global society created by the changes of the period, 1985-93, incessantly made by political and social leaders, commentators, and at times artists and scholars. That period of advances for the causes of peace and democracy was followed of course by the "dot com" boom and general economic prosperity in the West, helping to dispel attention away from new troubles in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the former Zaire, Afghanistan, and Iraq after Desert Storm. As with any period of dramatic changes in the way we buy, sell, work, and play, no-one can predict or fully understand the coming endgame, leading to an ironic focus on the past. Obviously as well, the coming end of a century and millennium prompted considerable emphasis on the pasttaking stock, revising history, plotting the future.
This story is broad enough to fill several books; here, and for now, disjointed memories, evermore faint, and the general outlines of an historical and critical analysis of the Reconstructionist era suffice.
Reconstruction's hidden unnamed inadvertent origin. Hidden, because it was presented and is remembered, appropriately enough, as the leading force in the Alternative moment, when "punk broke." Unnamed, because its having such a unique status is historically misleading. "Grunge" stays in those quotation marks; don't ask me who called it suchit's just Hard Rock, in some cases grossly-commercialized Hard Rock. Inadvertent, because it wasn't supposed to critique or counter the prevailing cultural trajectory of the time towards ironic cynicism and the commodification of "cool"and, as the pivotal facet of the Alternative moment, for the most part it did not. Alas, Kurt Cobain, an individual of singular importance to the entire period in question, tried hard to ensure it did. Also, while "Grunge" can be seen as part of the larger embrace of the pre-Punk past by post-Hardcore artists, only some of the "Grunge" bands presented their music as an interaction with the past (instead, the Hard Rock they derived from was already ever-present, needing no recovery or resurgence) and only a few looked specifically to past artistsThe Melvins most of all. They hold a special place as the most-esteemed -longstanding "Grunge" act, both more diverse in their oeuvre than their counterparts, and yet also defining, and persistently refining, the stereotypical "Grunge" template: Black Sabbath plus Punk. The Melvins sat on the Sabbath side, Mudhoney the Punk, Nirvana somewhere in between, though with the scrutiny, self-imposed or otherwise, faced by Kurt Cobain upon his band's commercial success, he preferred to be elsewhere. In contrast to fellow Seattle acts Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, whose music glossed over or ignored the undergrounds sounds of the Punk era, Cobain gazed longingly at the recent past. He could not even begin to reconstruct it, thoughprecisely his problem. Cobain's acknowledgment of the destructive nature of the 1991 "revolution" served as a crucial justification and starting point for the explorations charted in the remainder of the decade. He was also perhaps the first Reconstructionist, though not musically. Rather, in getting Raincoats albums reissued on D G C, bringing on Pat Smear of Punk legends The Germs as Nirvana's fourth member, and generally exalting his influences and the Punk scenes Nirvana had moved beyond, Cobain did his part in making the critique of the present, always crucial factor in Rock nostalgia, seem more meaningful than standard curmudgeonly traditionalism.
In his place, others would attempt to preserve and reconstruct the infrastructure and aesthetics of the "underground" scenes of the 1980's. By 1994, Punk-Indie listeners widely accepted Cobain's lamenting his band's fame as an expression of the eternal truth of the evils of mainstream success. They too saw Pearl Jam desperately try to prove its cool with Vitalogy , and Sonic Youth turn away from their optimistic view of the potential of the 1991 "revolution" on Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star  with an embrace of the Low Fi aesthetic shared by many of the artists who had remained pessimistic. Consider too the series of minor hits by Indie bands (Pavement, Beck, Liz Phair, Dinosaur Jr., The Folk Implosion) which were a curious counter-version of the supposed norms of the record industry: artists that for the most part had been around for years, and already established themselves aesthetically and professionally, achieved a modicum of mainstream success, as if being rewardedgiven a proverbial pat on the backfor all that hard work with no pay-off. These artists, and a few other examples of bands briefly hooking up with a "major" label (Royal Trux, Boredoms, The Melvins) or finding a niche in the conglomerated world (The Flaming Lips, Beck, Built to Spill, Sonic Youth) were vastly out-numbered by a mind-deadening bombardment of younger groups with the aesthetic sensibilities of drunken (American) football fans: Stone Temple Pilots, Better Than Ezra, The Toadies, Everclear, Silverchair, The Gin Blossoms, Green Day, Live, 311, Bush.... The notion of '90's mainstream culture being better than the preceding decade's quickly passed via thunderclouds of sickening nausea. What were young, upcoming music acts to dothose who did not want to, or could not, participate in Punk and Indie scenes, or perhaps had not even experienced them, and yet disliked post-"Grunge" music?
"Brit Pop" was the first Reconstruction per se; or, rather, if not the first to appear in some inchoate fashion, certainly the first to blossom and die. Its tragic fate set the stage for a complete subversion of Reconstruction, all of British Rock, and soon enough popular music throughout the world: a conceptualization of popular music as little more than the regurgitation of past styles, a perspective that built upon mid-1980's post-Electro music and M.T.V's presentation of music as (sometimes) cinemausually mere televisionbut without the forward-looking approach to instrumentation. This approach has become the norm for Rock artists able to achieve commercial success.
Compare "Brit Pop" to the "Madchester"/ Baggy music of The Stone Roses, Ride, Primal Scream, James, or The Happy Mondays; of course, historicist tendencies were present, certain Psychedelia-associated sounds were used. But the music remained forward-looking, embraced new genres, and projected optimism at least about the social milieu in which the music was made and presented if not more. "Brit Pop" struggled to share any of those three traits. (The best album to come out of that era, Primal Scream's Screamadelica , foreshadowed the positives and pitfalls of Reconstruction, with songs derivative of The Rolling Stones fashioned into colorful mixtures of the Rock tradition with House and Hip Hop: 'Loaded', the band's career-making hit from the year prior, used the piano part from 'Sympathy for the Devil' like a samplewe must add at this point that Hip Hop's steady climb to the top of the popular-music heap throughout the decade, bringing forth a multitude of hits based on past hits, forms another part of the Reconstruction tale I lack the knowledge to write while 'Movin' On Up' merely sounded suspiciously similar to them. On the other hand, the cover of the 13th Floor Elevators's 'Slip Inside This House' sounded very little like the original. Few bands since have made a song-oriented album as challenging to their own proclivities or so effectively envisioning a future for Rock in the digital word.)
The nearly-mythological tale of "Brit Pop," surely to be recounted time and again in the profitable trade of "Rock docs" and retro mags, hardly bears repeating: Damon Albarn of Blur hated America, for a time; Brett Anderson of Suede hated Albarn, for an eternity; Jarvis Cocker and the rest of Pulp looked with disdain upon all involved; Noel Gallagher likes the Beatles. Moreover, simple rebukes of Blur, Pulp, and Suede would suggest they were poor man's versions of The Kinks, Scott Walker, and David Bowie, respectivelyor instead The Beatles, Roxy Music, and The Smiths. The potential malleability of these negative comparisons suggests their failure to capture what was happening.
What bears reminding are the forgotten vicissitudes. While Albarn regaled the hometown crowds with paeans to a beloved country, Blur's guitarist Graham Coxon sieved guitar noise into the tight spaces created by Albarn's songs (no other guitarist effectively incorporated the Noise-Rock innovations of My Bloody Valentine or Sonic Youth into a "pop" context). Besides, Blur's evocation of The Kinks only followed The Jam's on All Mod Cons (young wits writing for the Face or Select would at this point say, "All Mods Con"). Cocker's narrators often ended up acting like Morrissey's, not so brash, revealing male empathy with disadvantaged women, and Pulp's music developed slowly over more than a decade, in part out of the Electro and Industrial electronics of the 1980's. And, though the brief song-composing union of Anderson and guitarist Bernard Butler drew the predictable comparisons to Morrissey and Johnny Marr, their music's bombast and grandiosity recalled another British partnership, that of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
Blur defined the "Brit Pop" template: three successive singles in 1992-93, 'Pop Scene', 'For Tomorrow', and 'Chemical World', will for all listeners always serve as the starting point in understanding the phenomenondespite Suede's earlier commercial success. The template's features: singers with definitely-English, often exaggeratedly-English, accents; lyrics that, if not topical, at least referred to or took place in present-day Britain, often characterized by a condescending or tragic perspective toward suburbanites; an embrace of the electric guitar that circumvented the recent trend toward electronic-dance music, yet at its worst (in the case of the legions of would-be stars following Blur and Oasis) ignored the innovations of the Indie underground. Yes, it was traditionalist; that is, like conservatism as a political ideology it contradicted itself: conservative is conservative, conservatism is not; traditional is traditional, traditionalist is not.
Albarn's Britain-first perspective sought to encourage Britons to make music that reflected their unique local cultures, fighting against the U.S-based global no man's marketplace. The final result of "Brit Pop" would fail miserably in this respect. Albarn's partially to blame, having accepted the notion of commercial competition between Blur and Oasis, moving forward the release date of Blur's 'Country House' to the same week Oasis were set to release the first single, 'Roll With It', of what would become the highest-selling album of the decade in the U.K. More significantly, by positing British-ness as at least an inspiration, if not a goal, of his band's music, any lout could come along and take that easy cause for themselves. (Also, an alternate history: what if Albarn or at least a clever journalist had launched other campaigns to salvage other distinctly-British musics? Say, Industrial before it spread to North America and continental Europe). That said, even Blur's many mediocre moments, not to mention Suede nor Pulpespecially at their peaks, with brilliant consecutive albums (Suede and Dog Man Star, His 'n' Hers and Different Class)don't deserve to be placed among the tawdry "Noel Rock" that would follow in the period, 1995-97.
Even Blur's The Great Escape, with five of its 15 tracks ('Charmless Man', 'T.O.P.M.A.N', 'Mr. Robinson's Quango', 'Dan Abnormal', and 'Globe Alone') worthy of the trashbin, and almost entirely lacking the humor and savior-faire of Parklife, its blockbuster (in the U.K) predecessor that had critics rightly convinced Blur were a fine distillation of all great British popular music to that point in history, is not entirely forgettable. Sure, it'll mostly be remembered as a commercial failure leading to the band's defeat in the aforementioned "Battle of Britpop." Yet it at least showed what would result from artists having the temerity to follow through on the "pop" logic of countless critics and artists of the time and since. "Indie pop," a term signifying that the artists in question lack certain traits of Rock music that have been deemed gauche, was just starting to be heard at the time; it's disgustingly ubiquitous now. It has rarely indicated a meeting between the Rock ensemble and the methods of that vast world of anodyne, Muzak-like, cross-generational entertainment populated by, say, Tom Jones, Lawrence Welk, Debby Boone, and Mantovani. That is, the concept's standard bearers are disingenuous. Blur, briefly, were not, and so on tracks like 'Best Days' and 'The Universal', Albarn sounds like he's auditioning for Broadway, and even many of the tracks with standard Rock backing are jammed full with peppy backing vocals, sentimental strings, and genre-hopping horns.
In his "Brit Pop" phase, Albarn often wrote song lyrics from the perspective of caricatures of British life. He did this to excess on The Great Escape. Listeners cannot handle many songs blatantly not written from the song composer's perspective, especially in the U.S... but anywhere. Johnny Cash didn't really shoot a man in Reno, but don't tell that to most "pop" fans. Beyond genuine stupid entertainment (professional wrestling, for example), authenticity sells. Noel and Liam Gallagher were authentic northern English morons. Albarn, meanwhile, forgot that only brilliant hits like 'Girls and Boys' or 'Parklife' (the kind few artists attain more than once) convince listeners to buy an album filled with songs like Great Escape's send-off, 'Yuko and Hiro', apparently about a repressed Japanese couple in love, or its morose centerpiece, 'He Thought of Cars', attempting empathy for a lonely traveller and his rented cars in what appears to be a boring apocalypse. Tracks like these expanded Parklife's template; those five dud tracks and even some of the decent tracks, not least 'Country House', stretched it too thin.
A side note.... 'He Thought of Cars' is one of many Blur songs featuring liberal usage of "la la la" refrains. This compositional proclivity is just one you'll hear in Reconstructionist music not heard at the time in a non-ironic -satiric way anywhere else in Punk-Indie music. (The others? Brett Anderson's quasi-operatic vocal largesse and Wayne Coyne's unequivocal post-Zaireeka earnestness, both discussed below, and, like Albarn's vocables, soon enough heard from many other artists.) When a singer resorts to "la la la" (or "na na na," etc.) melody is king, poetry is defamed. Rock song composers in the Punk-Indie era, if they employed "la la la" refrains, put enough distance between them and the gesture, via the lyrics of the song or the musical backing, to ensure that the listener understood popular-music norms were still rejected, rendered moot. In contrast, Albarn used these hackneyed vocables with utmost seriousness. In 'For Tomorrow', for example, they suggested emotions boiling over, but the singer in turn not vocalizing as freely as Morrissey did in songs like 'The Headmaster Ritual' or 'The Boy With a Thorn in His Side'; no, "Brit Pop" singers felt more at ease with conventional song structures, they could invest those "la la la"'s with the deepest meaning. Jarvis Cocker and Brett Anderson did at times allow their voices to range freely; Pulp's 'Monday Morning' brilliantly combines the methods. But this difference only measures the extent to which they fit awkwardly into the concept of "Brit Pop." Albarn's songs hemmed closer to the conventions of musical notation; that is, until Blur's storied rejection of the very fad they started (especially with the manic experimentation of many of the tracks on their 1999 album 13, alternately Low Fi-inspired, Dub-inflected, Psyched-out, and generally hinting at how much fun the band and producer William Orbit had toying with new digital, computerized tools).
In a larger sense, this difference between "Brit Pop" and its ancestors most clearly helps us see the troubling legacy of Punk and Indie ideals in a post-Punk, post-Indie world. As suggested above, those ideals become restrictive once "Punk broke." Nearly any move, aesthetically or commercially, toward what were perceived to be common practices of the major-label business, or even any choice hinting at the possibility of such a move, even if such choices clearly were not motivated by commercial pressures, led to rebukes from veterans of varied Indie scenes, journalists and fans mostly, but also artists at times. The scorn directed toward "Brit Pop" and New Psychedelia is an important footnote to this story. And so are the provocative way in which those artists ignored such reactionary complaints.
Ultimately, the tabloid-promoted excesses of "Brit Pop" and Blur's absurdist eclecticism, at times self-parodying and making their albums quite inconsistent in quality (the sessions for Modern Life Is Rubbish produced nearly as many songs inspired by Syd Barrett as by Ray Davies) both becloud the sheer poignant beauty of their great moments: 'Sing', 'For Tomorrow' (especially in its Primrose Hill Extended version, first a single-only track, thankfully included on The Best Of), 'Pressure on Julian', 'Oily Water', 'Young and Lovely', 'Girls and Boys', 'Badhead', 'Clover Over Dover', 'Beetlebum', 'Essex Dogs', '1992', 'Trimm Trabb', 'Music Is My Radar'. As much as the biggest surprise in '90's Rock will always remain Radiohead's startling progression from being the British contribution to the post-Nirvana "Modern Rock" one-hit-wonderland to being the bandyes, them, as so many surprised listeners found it necessary to remind themselvesresponsible for O.K Computer, Blur's own shift away from Baggy nothingness was no less impressive. After all, they did it at least twice: as a young band dismissive of its own work, experimenting because its future looked bleak anyway; then, "Brit Pop," which genuinely startled many listeners and observers who had long since convinced themselves that the Rock world would never free itself of the reign of the Heavy, whether Glam Metal or "Grunge," and the Retread (Petty, Mellencamp). Blur at their best surprised to the point of sublimity, especially due to Coxon's magisterial guitar work or Albarn's uncanny ability to pull off instantly-iconic melodies and tag lines.
As for Suede and Pulp, the bands that, compared to Blur, meld Reconstructionist ideas and methods into the Indie music of the time more consistently and naturally (instead of Blur's dizzying juxtapositions) and in retrospect seem like the true almost-successors of The Smiths.... Suede's Brett Anderson's voice wasto use the imagery he employed in those daysan untamed animal scaling skyline fall-out. Whereas when Morrissey went falsetto, the weakness of his voice made the move seem like a point being made in an argument, Anderson's heights were grittier, real. Of course, we love the amateur; Morrissey fit his times perfectly. But in the early 1990's, we dreamed of surpassing Rock's past greats, in this case David Bowie (who, throughout the Reconstruction era, tried to dig out his pre-Let's Dance self, both in spirit, on albums like Earthling, and more directly, on the still-unreleased Toy). Anderson matched Glam Bowie in emotional-flare vocals, the rapid transgressions from normal to something else: not exactly feminine, of course, since men never really sound like women (though Jeff Hanson, on the Kill Rock Stars label, would come close) and women never sound like men. Rather, Anderson took Morrissey's presentation of the asexual male as higher entityintellectual but still beautifuland connected it with Glam Bowie's sex drive to create a fleeting illusion of the heterosexual male, of suburban hinterland birth no less, as a work of art. The women who would thus want to ravage him got what they, perhaps, wanted. Morrissey, on the other hand, had declined, though of course in 1991, before Suede was the Suede we would come to know, he was baring his chest like a real Rock star. No wonder his and Anderson's friendship didn't lastthey were competitorsand Anderson turned to Bowie instead, specifically perversely inspired by the latter's legendary drug abuse.
Pansexuality, migration, hallucinationany maneuver away from the grimy self. Anderson transformed English "satellite" towns into forums for the sheer transcendence of the body and history. The early Suede songs (don't forget the B-side tracks) starred ill-fated, unwitting outcasts, victims of society's drab inescapable violence and love's irresistible call; indeed, the line between violence and love is smeared, the shared outcome being erasure of an identity the protagonist never asked for. On Dog Man Star, the illusion of grandeur created by orchestras, horns, Butler's overdubbed guitars and organs and pianos and guitars (truly, no one besides Butler has matched Jimmy Page's brilliance in giving each layer of overdubbed guitars its distinct timbral place in the mix), gives the slower-tempo tracks especially ('Daddy's Speeding', 'The 2 of Us', 'Black or Blue', and 'Still Life') an aura of majesty. These songs would not deign to allow anything as tawdry as a drum kit. Instead, Anderson's pseudo-operatic feats, performed like he knew he'd never reach such heights again, elevated his usual beautiful misfits to the status of legends. On 'Introducing the Band', Anderson, apparently inspired by a trip to a Buddhist temple, unfolds a mantra that offers a mythopoetic view of Rock history, and more particularly a Brit-centric view of the history of Rock in the Punk era, in three words ("Europe, America, Winterland," referring of course to the last Sex Pistols gig). These are just a few of the ways in which Dog Man Star is simply the most-gloriously pretentious of all Rock albums.
The narrators of Cocker's songs, meanwhile, stay mired in the suburban morass, or rather find that it extended to the metropole, besmirching one's dreams-come-true. Being rejected, in work and in play, leads to no release; one keeps struggling, without knowing why. This Is Hardcore , especially for its epic titular track (and promotional video), certainly receives a great deal of attention as a primary document of Cocker's downfall into stardom, but the album overall doesn't recreate the dreadful malaise that voids our interior fantasies and overwhelms our interpersonal dramas as effectively as the songs of His 'n' Hers and Different Class (though perhaps most beautifully, and achingly depressingly, on a B-side track, 'Seconds'). Cocker's present-tense narrators threaten desperate attacks against their oppressors, or more likely bemoan their own and others' sorry states; only the past brings forth happy times, as in 'Live Bed Show', 'Sorted for E's and Whizz', 'Babies', and 'Disco 2000'. These songs suggest that, once, in the past, two or more individuals actually shared a goal long enough to enjoy each other's company. Alas, it was not to be.
Nor was the "Brit Pop" dream of a new Golden Age. In my own experiences, by the time of Oasis's massive Knebworth concerts in the summer of 1996, the British Rock press had turned against them, disgusted by the frenzy of artists being touted as "Brit Pop," a mass of sonic drivel not as bad as the post-Nirvana "Alternative" rash, but still deflating any pretense that a movement developing out of Indie music, yet becoming a nation's most-successful genre, would avoid the exploitation and witlessness of the rest of "pop" music. When my 17-years-old self was lucky enough to join the tens of thousands of young Britons singing along to every word emanating from Jarvis Cocker's mouth at Pulp's V 96 performance, their last gig promoting Different Class, though I disliked Oasis and had read those negative reports of Oasis's mini-festival celebration of themselves, I still wanted to believe: maybe Supergrass, who played earlier that evening, and would certainly show a creative spark in their career, would eventually rank alongside the likes of Pulp and Blur (they would not); maybe the "Elastica rips off Wire" claims would later seem as off-the-mark as "Blur rips off The Kinks" (instead they never even topped their first single, 'Stutter'); maybe one of the bands considered "Brit Pop" but whose music was too outré to reach platinum territorysay, The Auteurs, Denim, The Divine Comedy, Catatoniawould somehow achieve the same kind of unexpected fame Pulp had won (they did not). Then again, neither would the "Noel Rock" bands.
New Psychedelia, or "Neo-Psychedelia," describes the broad music-cultural realm which, for all its kaleidoscopic off-shoots, was primarily inspired, first, by a rejection of an Indie Rock milieu that was increasingly non-experimental, Luddite, and smugsplintered as it was by the pessimistic, no-future choice of either reactionary stasis or a faux-pious embrace of the subversive potential of mainstream success. And more important, the exploration of the artists and movements of the pre-Punk past which seemed to negate the division between popular and experimental. The Flaming Lips, The Bevis Frond, Ghost, Mercury Rev, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals, and the Elephant Six collective (especially The Olivia Tremor Control) shared these two traits. Several of them also unabashedly embraced the "Sixties" dream of song composing intended for the masses yet challenging listeners both with sonic experimentation and lyrics treading close to sentimentality. The Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine and its Terrastock festivals seemed for a brief moment to be on the vanguard of both this subgenre and the broader Indie world. When some of these artists achieved a modicum of commercial success in the new millennium's early years, they proved crucial to the growing mainstream relaxation of a once-rigid hostility to any sort of experimentation in popular music.
The Flaming Lips were the lodestars here, they made it possible. Amid the early-'90's endless electric-guitar onslaught of the "Grunge" bands, The Jesus Lizard, Dinosaur Jr., Superchunk, Fugazi, The Archers of Loaf, early "Math Rock", and so on, the Lips stood apart, even as first Jonathan Donahue, then Ronald Jones, made their own contributions to the blocks of distorted fuzz taking up so much space in Rock recordings of the time. Precisely because they were guitar-centric (loud) enough to fit in with the Alternative bands, the Lips furtively directed their listeners elsewhere. From In a Priest Drive Ambulance  to The Soft Bulletin , the Lips stood among the most-consistently innovative in '90's Rock music, arguably second to Stereolab. While only The Soft Bulletin featured lyrics blatantly challenging the faux nihilism now endemic to mass culture, plenty of signposts pointing to that destination along the way. The band embarked on a similar slow change in their live performances, moving from a noisy cacophony not far removed from the potential physical danger of Butthole Surfers (a huge influence) or Crash Worship to fun-for-all spectacles of the Aughts. A crucial step in this process, the audience-participatory experiments in 1996-97 involving multitudes of car stereos in a parking garage, lead to their peak album, Zaireeka , a unique masterpiece in Rock history.
A quadruple-as-single album experiment in quadraphonic sound, often dismissed as if it were a curio, Zaireeka in fact is the peak of the band's ouevre, the crucial turning point in Wayne Coyne's songsfrom the oblique whimsy of before to the direct, at times insufferable, earnestness of now (even with the band's brilliant returns to experimentalism, Embryonic  and The Terror ). While the psychedelic approach had allowed for child-like simplicity and, as Mark Richardson argues in his book on Zaireeka, a set of drug-related metaphors, both allowing for the explorations of the profoundest emotions and mental states, Coyne came to prefer a direct, simpler approach, supposedly caused by a series of traumatic experiences in the lives of the band members. As noted above, Coyne's raw sentimental lyrics were simply not heard in Rock music at the time, perhaps not since John Lennon had angrily dismissed Paul McCartney's joviality. The electric guitar was no longer primary; the band had moved toward the set-up so common in popular music of the time and since, electronics and percussion being the base.
Zaireeka also curiously injects Punk spiritthe listener constructing his own version of the work, perhaps even taking it apart via alterations to the prescribed quadraphonic set-up or merely significant sonic disparities among the four playback devicesinto a project that nonetheless affirms the rigidity of the artist-audience duality: the consumer struggling to recreate what the album is supposed to sound like; the album being an exception in their catalog. That said, the result of all this process offers open, welcoming structures for the songs. Whether Coyne wrote them in a relatively-free a cappella style, without steady rhythmic backing, or molded the songs around the larger compositional processthe task of making the four channels synch with each other requiring the band to space out melodies and beatsthe minimalist, slow-tempo structures ensure that the listener will not be excessively concerned with replicating and following intricate, delicate music. As listeners have discovered when attempting to make their own stereo mixdowns of the album, no final version, even an official release by the band, would satisfy. Especially once a bonus fifth disc of material was released in 2007, a stereo version made via inclusion of all of the material, however expertly mixed, has beeen found to result in a dense, perhaps jumbled, soundscape.
Super Furry Animals (S.F.A) joined The Flaming Lips and a few others at the time (Wilco, Radiohead, Björk) who appealed to serious listeners with music that did not take style or audience expectations for granted, and yet also proved able to command attention of the masses via grand gestures and broad gimmicks that recalled the '70's hey day of Rock as a commercial enterprise. They've never been as successful as those artists in part because Gruff Rhys's excellent song composing is often impaired by the band's limited instrumental creativity, including Rhys's own vocals. They still impressed with their deft combinations of heavy-leaning Rock rhythms with electronic sound (while avoiding the awkward embrace of Electronica beats that several Rock acts made a big to-do of in this eraeffectively, as in R.E.M's Up  or Radiohead's Kid A , and not, as in P.J Harvey's Is This Desire?  and Suede's Head Music ). S.F.A's turn-of-the-millennium peak showed the band confident enough to give promoters gimmicks (a Welsh-language album, Mwng , and an album released as both a C.D and a D.V.D, with videos for each track, Rings Around the World ) that in both cases were actually coherent, one-off projects pulled off without any gushing showmanship or belabored rigor.
Fellow Welsh band, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci began more experimental and eclectic than S.F.A. They also wrote songs in Welsh more frequently, inadvertently becoming the prototypical Welsh band during a flowering of Rock music from that sub-nation. More importantly, at their extended peak (Tatay , Bwyd Time , Barafundle , and Gorky 5 ) Gorky's ranked with the Olivia Tremor Control in being the epitome of New Psychedelia and Reconstruction, as if they were the long-lost Welsh contribution to both Psychedelia and the "Progressive" Canterbury scene of the 1960's and '70's. The band began in their teenage years, perhaps giving their music an extra dose of whimsy. Euros Childs's vocal stylings and lyrics imbued his songs with a childhood perspective, projecting outward optimistically; Gorky's were the New Psychedelic group that most effectively, simply put, amused their listeners and made them happy. Indeed, well before Wayne Coyne discovered the catharsis offered by direct, sentimental emotivity, Childs had already beaten him there. That said, after second composer John Lawrence exited, the band's adventurousness seemed to dissipate; Childs turned to the lazy prettiness of pastoral charm that would mar an excess of U.S Indie music in the new millennium.
Around the same time as The Flaming Lips' audience-participatory experiments, The Olivia Tremor Control debuted with a series of releases that obliterated divisions among popular and experimental genres. The band's output in 1996-97 was epic: The Giant Day, a 7-inch 33 1/3-R.P.M frenzied mini-album precursor to their debut full-length; said debut, the influential double L.P Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle whose first side A featured a string of catchy songs that shocked listeners by how much they sounded like they'd been lifted straight from a lost '60's classic; the bonus disc of ambient music that came with early C.D copies of Cubist Castle, originally called Explanation Two and later released separately as Explanation II: Dream Sequences and Themes, offering an earthy counterpart to the Eno Ambient standard; the double 7-inch 45-R.P.M (or double C.D single) 'The Opera House' whose B-side tracks were dual electroacoustic pieces meant to played simultaneously for quadraphonic sound (a release, one should note, that pre-dated Zaireeka); a 12-inch 45 'Jumping Fences' single that featured three new tracks of an experimental bent; The Late Music Volume One, a C.D by the group's "alter ego," The Black Swan Network, consisting entirely of musique concrète works; and a self-titled "collaboration" between the Olivias and The Black Swan Network, originally available as an L.P for sale only on the group's tour in October 1997, and released on C.D the next year.
Several years of work, going back to, at the latest, 1993, lead to this abundance of material. Friends since high-school days, the Olivias' two singer/ song composers, W Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, joined first with Jeff Mangum, who'd been a friend and collaborator of Hart's since childhood, to form Synthetic Flying Machine, which morphed into The Olivia Tremor Control for a debut mini-album, California Demise . John Fernandes replaced Mangum, while eventually Eric Harris and Pete Erchick were brought in; Doss had meant them via his time with the band, Chocolate U.S.A, which included Julian Koster. (Koster's significance to Elephant 6 can't be overstated. He not only helped the Olivias come together, but insisted that Jeff Mangum turn his Neutral Milk Hotel project into a proper band, introducing Mangum to drummer Jeremy Barnes, a member of the Chicago trio Bablicon and who would later helm a revolving cast of musicians known as A Hawk and a Hacksaw, whose interaction with East European musical traditions continue to grow in scale and scope). The Olivias were not progressing willy nilly. For example, 'The Opera House', Cubist Castle's opening track and the band's in-concert calling card, was performed at their earliest shows and a Volume Two of The Late Music does exist in rough form.
The making of their second full-length, Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One , marked by a unfathomable density of sound, strained both the band members' dedication and the magnetic tape it was recorded on. Though The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and others had used musique concrète technique in a popular-music setting, songs being embellished with manipulated sound or certain instruments run through effects, only Frank Zappa's work suggested what the Olivias concocted for this album: songs and electroacoustic sound emerging in and out of, enveloped within, plunging back into, each other; the listener's expectations in constant threat of interruption or disruption. While Bill Doss's songs fit well enough into a sunny "Sixties" Psych mode, Will Hart's ruminations on sound, color, dreams, consciousness, and the creative process take the listener into the darker, secluded areas of the imagination.
Neutral Milk Hotel, as it moved from being largely the home-recorded work of Mangum to being a quartet featuring Koster, Scott Spillane, and Barnes, also moved in a Reconstructionist direction, with stronger hints of Psychedelia, "Progressive" Rock, marching-band music, and Folk musics. This broader palette helped lead to the massive popular success of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea . Not having the stereotypical '60's Psychedelic sound, the group did not suffer the same rebukes the Olivias or fellow Elephant 6 act Elf Power did; the Reconstructionist nature of Mangum's music, though, is undeniable. Though his experimental work has for the most part not been published, like Will Hart he learned to record music by studying the work of both Low Fi predecessors and the Academic Electroacoustic masters of the further-back past. Moreover, Mangum spoke reverently of those artists that inspired him, especially Robert Wyatt, Captain Beefheart, The Tall Dwarfs, and the relatively-obscure stars of compilations of traditional music from around the world, such as The Secret Museum of Mankind.
The Olivias and Neutral Milk Hotel appeared at the first and second Terrastock festivals, in Providence and San Francisco, respectively, alongside a revived Silver Apples, a reunited Deviants, and a resurgent Tom Rapp (of Pearls Before Swine), but otherwise other artists who'd emerged in the 1980's and '90's but didn't quite fit the new mass-market "Alternative" mold; except for The Bevis Frond they didn't seem "Neo-Psychedelic" either: Windy and Carl, Alva, Damon and Naomi, Richard Davies, Bardo Pond, Barbara Manning, The Supreme Dicks, Brother J T and Vibrolux, Alastair Galbraith, The Green Pajamas, Pelt, Spaceheads, et al. These artists take us beyond New Psychedelia to the following, broader, and non-traditionalist areas of Reconstruction. Still, all of them accompanied New Psychedelia artists in a larger shift away from the long-standing aesthetic domination of a guitar-oriented, Punk-based Indie music that was being swallowed by the one-dimensional "Modern Rock" of radio playlists and Rolling Stone covers. The Terrastock festivals also helped foster a collective optimism about the possibilities of song composing and experimentalism, and where those two meet.
Of those older artists performing at the Terrastock festivals, Silver Apples offer the most fodder for this discussion. When first revived in the late '90's, its singer and song composer, Simeon, played a new version of his eponymous instrument, a collection of oscillators and other devices that had enabled him in the 1960's, when synthesizers were still being developed, to achieve a level of virtuosity comparable to later electronic synthesists working with more, and more-advanced, tools. First with new, younger musicians, then with original drummer Danny Taylor, Silver Apples offered a blueprint for Rock-band reunions; in other words, unlike most of them, the listener felt with confidence that what he heard sounded like what he would have heard in 1968. Tragically, an automobile accident severely injured Simeon in 1998. When he returned several years later [Taylor passed away in 2005], he was limited in his physical movements, but not his sonic imagination. The new Silver Apples music is at home in the digital era; to compensate for his loss of dexterity, Simeon expanded the number of tools at this disposal, felt free to use them more simply, including at times samples of Taylor's drumming. Silver Apples was no longer Reconstructionist, a revived group, as defined by the music solely, but instead showed Simeon reconstructioning both his body and artistry.
Silver Apples belong to a remarkable assortment of bands that embraced the experimentation suggested by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and at times a few others of the big-name 1960's acts, and yet did not join in the slight left turn many of these Psychedelia-era "pop"-as-art musicians took towards "Progressive" Rock. The White Noise, The United States of America, The Asylum Choir (featuring a young Leon Russell), The Smoke, The Beat of the Earth, Fifty Foot Hose, as well as the "Space" Rock of post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd and several of the early Kosmische bands figure in here. The New Psychedelia of the '90's embraced these bands, as young listeners of the time were eager to express their distance from Indie and Punk bands that had trampled over each other in the early '90's Grunge rush while still keeping in place a basic premise of Punk-music culture: that major labels and mainstream radio inherently ignored many of the finest artists at work at any given moment. When those artists who had failed commercially in the 1960's were not precursors to Punk, but rather visionaries whose time had not come, those youngsters found their heroesthose predecessors they spoke of in excited yet serious tones, whose value was not open to debate. And so, the first and second Silver Apples albums, The United States of America's eponymous, and only, album, The White Noise's An Electric Storm, and a few other titles were justly added to Rock's proverbial canon.
As the most blatant of Reconstructions, New Psychedelia artists remind us of how novel and creative a nostalgic, yet rigorously historicist, approach to music seemed at the time. The '80's, despite the anti-"Sixties" ideological furor of at least some of the conservatives leaders of the decade, culturally speaking has come to be defined by future-envisioning, or at least squarely presentist, perspectives. It offered a superficial clean slate, though, because the positive, problem-resolving political shifts of 1985-93 described above allowed us all to begin to make sense of the past, in this case the "short Twentieth Century" that began with both the First World War and artistic Modernism reaching a peak of radicalism and renown around the time that war broke out. In contrast, sudden, epoch-making changes like those of the 1940's, politically, and the 1960's, socially, leave us confused and shocked enough to want to avoid considering the implications. Appropriately, Reconstructionist focused on the period between the two ensuing fallow ruts, the high time of post-war liberalism and the welfare state, roughly 1955-72. For many music artists in the '90's, the question was not, as noted above, "why?", but rather, "why not?" (with apologies to Yoko Ono); they did not sound like retreads but were open to discussion regarding, and effusive in their praise for, their predecessors. Consider The Oblivians, The Woggles, and Man or Astroman?, keeping their traditionalism, however obvious, relatively moderate, or bands that were too blatant but still charming, like Trans Am. Other bands were more likely to foster listener explorations. For example, Royal Trux's partially-elucidated claim that their albums Thank You , Sweet Sixteen , and Accelerator  embody the song structures and recording techniques of the 1960's, '70's, and '80's, respectively. Or, Guided by Voices making many reconsider "Progressive" Rock; while the words of their countless songs to this listener seem like the results of Exquisite Corpse and cut-up experiments.
On that notea Surrealism connection can't be ignored, not because any of the New Psychedelians espoused special interest in the subject (with the exception, unsurprisingly, of The Olivia Tremor Control, who on a few occasions set up Brion Gysin dream machines in the crowds of their performances and asked listeners to send tapes with descriptions of dreams, to be incorporated into recordings, as they would be at least on the O.T.C/ Black Swan Network album, perhaps buried on other records as well). Rather, we broach Surrealism in order to mention a major influence on many of the New Psychedelia acts and address the complicated relationship between Psychedelia and drugs. The major artist of the Punk era who could be considered New Psychedelic, Robyn Hitchcock, has refuted the connection between hallucinogens and creativity and spoke of Surrealism's influence on him. His link to the Psychedelic genre, rather, comes from the combination of 1960's guitar styles (not uncommon in the Eighties among the "Jangle" and New Wave bands) with two factors: first, his prowess as solo performer (he and Jeff Mangum rank among the few song composers to emerge after the 1960's, not billed as "Folk" artists, who could, if they wanted, make a career out of solo performance) and, second, the humor and poetic sophistication of his lyrics, often relying on word play, the surprising and disorienting juxtaposition of images, and fantastical characters, certainly confirming Surrealism's input. In a Rock context, though, these factors suggest Psychedelia, the "Sixties," drugs, especially with the marked English accent of his singing voiceprecisely why he gets asked about drugs in interviews. (Hitchcock also went through a '90's reconstruction of his own when, after a couple albums receiving mixed responses and a few years away from the business, his Moss Elixir  successfully launched a new phase of his work, leading in turn to a heavier emphasis on solo performance, plenty of Bob Dylan covers, and a new band, The Venus 3, consisting of old friends.)
A big sticking point for many regarding the term, Psychedelia, does indeed come with this issue of recreational drug use. Because the idea of song-as-art took hold in the years, 1965-67, in tandem with or greatly impelled by Psychedelia, since then whenever a listener's expectations with regard to song structure have been rattled or destroyed, the connection of that experience with Psychedelia lingers in the background, in Rock music at least if not all song composing. No matter how much experimentation with psychedelics seemed like a prerequisite to the appreciation, or at least composing, of Psychedelic music in the 1960's and '70's, once manipulation of tape, collective long-form improvisation, "trippy" lyrics, and upended, winding, or intricate compositional forms became accepted methods within popular music, the drugs needn't have anything to do with it. Instead, artists could pick up on its experimentation with song form and studio technique and take the "Progressive" route, without the drug connection: a model prominently suggested by The Moody Blues at the very peak of Psychedelia's popularity. This progression jumps by leaps and bounds two to three decades later when artists were more reluctant to describe their music as psychedelic than their precursors were, wary as they were of being dismissed as derivative. (X.T.C, like Hitchcock emerging during the Punk-New Wave years yet always seeming out of place, expressed the influence of '60's Psych on their music most directly via appreciative parodies under the moniker, The Dukes of Stratospher, their identities initially kept hidden; again suggesting how such an embrace of Rock music that had been legendarily rejected by Punk seemed embarrassing and undeserving of serious attention.) The initial shocking experience of hallucinogens, if they took place at all, did not necessarily inspire New Psychedelic musicians. But such experiences, combined with later usage and ensuing reflection, plus knowledge of the experiences of 1960's predecessors, allows for a broader, refined approach.
Ultimately, New Psychedelia is the music of those who loved the Psychedelia of the past, and wanted to make more of it, expand upon it, update it, and overall see what happens when those with the benefit of retrospection and historical interpretation, and without the burden of the faddish gaze, make Psychedelic music of their own. Originally, Psychedelia was a flash, a trend. In contrast, New Psychedelia rose in nascent bursts throughout the 1980's, especially in Hitchcock's work but also scattered about (the Los Angeles "Paisley Underground", early Bevis Frond and Flaming Lips, and "Madchester") before emerging not as a movement but as a musical vantage point, continuing to this day. The wealth of music in this subgenre is such that, having discussed here the artists who had the greatest impact on Rock generally, we've barely mentioned The Bevis Frond, Ghost, and Mercury Rev, three of the earliest New Psychedelic acts, and not broached artists who made their mark around the turn of the century, such as the prolific Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O and its numerous off-shoots, enveloped within a larger grouping, The Acid Mothers Soul Collective; or the Jewelled Antler collective. (Yes, the term, "collective," become quite popular for a moment, didn't it?)
"Post-Rock" et al.
The original, British-centric notion of "Post-Rock" came from Simon Reynolds's famous article, 'Shaking the Rock Narcotic', for the Wire magazine. Going back to "Post-Rock" as it was understood at the timeand as it had been used since at latest the early 1980'smight prompt confusion as to its ironic fate I suggest here. For Reynolds, the "Post-Rock" of Bark Psychosis, Main, Pram, Seefeel (and, we should add, To Rococo Rot, Kreidler, Four Tet) looked to a future wherein live bands interacted with electronics, in concert and in the studio, the traditionalism he points to (Primal Scream, Suede) falling by the wayside. (In previous usage, it had suggested Rock artists who were more progressive than "Progressive," leaving behind all traditional, standard structures, Rock, Classical, Jazz, or otherwise.)
Beyond this European "Post-Rock," though, Reynolds's definition didn't apply, as he would note later in a dismissive critique. Tortoise fit to an extent, maybe Labradford, but other U.S groups not so much. The tracks on Tortoise's eponymous debut  and Millions Now Living Will Never Die  certainly featured electronic instruments, especially the landmark side-long track 'Djed' from the latter, but in general they stuck to a Rock-band line-up. But they also brilliantly build up from the simplest, barest origins, a method appropriate for both artists and engineers in a way art-school Punks would've never dared, and which perfectly reflected the Chicago milieu they came from, with its mix of Rock, Free Jazz, and electronics giving rise to Kevin Drumm, Ken Vandermark, Califone, Rob Mazurek's Chicago Underground projects, and Joan of Arc, among many others. "Post-Rock" in Tortoise's case is a misnomer; they were not quitting Rock, they were, yes, reconstructing it. That is, they were actually Reconstructionist in a broader sense than most of the artists discussed here.
Among the U.S "Post-Rock" groups, the American Analog Set and Jessamine managed to be both representative and exemplary, especially the former's The Golden Band  and the latter's The Long Arm of Coincidence . Am An Set, as they were called, had a similar approach as Tortoise, though with less use of electronics and an emphasis on repetitive structures that allow the instruments to sound like they're playing themselves. An Am Set achieved a defining trait of Minimalist masterpieces: the listener questioning the very existence of other musicwhy is it needed if there's this music seeming like it emerged fully formed from the earth itself, the very soundtrack to lines moving and shapes forming? This effect is heard best on the four-track piece, 'New Drifters', at the core of The Golden Band, music as mesmerizing in its unwitting beauty as birdsong or ocean waves.
Jessamine, most of all the "Post-Rock" bands, recalled the pre-Punk past; but didn't sound like pre-Punk music. Actually, compared to the other "Post-Rock" bands, their approach was closer to other '90's Indie Rock, especially the languid male and female singers and the guitarist treating his instrument more like a noise maker (a major development in this periodThe Dead C, Keiji Haino, Harry Pussy, et al.but not so much for Reconstructionist artists). But with analog synthesizers showing off at their own pace and the drummer often subtlely taking the lead, the listener was also taken into a different context: let's say, a bizarro-world version of '70's Rock. That is, Jessamine saw Indie rockers thinning out and slowing down, jamming. In this same period, Sonic Youth's new liking for improvisation, and Kim Gordon's switch from bass guitar to guitar, loosened and stretched out their music, as heard on Washing Machine , A Thousand Leaves , and the series of shorter releases on their own record label. (They also did a "covers" album of Modernist Classical, Aleatoric, and Fluxus works, Goodbye 20th Century  that felt like falling into a time warp: a Rock band performing as an avant-garde ensemble of the '60's, a speculative history, perhapsthough, to be fair, a few of the pieces were newer.)
In both Jessamine's and An Am Set's music, the vocals rarely took center stage. Considered alongside Tortoise, a non-vocal band, U.S "Post-Rock" can be seen as an extension of Punk-Indie's refining of the Rock sound, its rejection of the popular norm. The elimination of the commodified methods and "Progressive" styles of the '70's was updated; the internalized rules of composition and presentation that had dead-ended Indie in the Alternative moment were now rejected as well. The lodestars of Punk whose music reeked of Rock were, obviously enough, not an influence on these bands. As with New Psychedelia, neglected predecessors received new attention, not least John Fahey and The Red Krayola.
Fahey, an essential part of the Reconstructionist and "Post-Rock" tales, is the clearest example of how reverence for older artists, and for lost causes, could positively influence and impel young artists without making their work putrid. His death in 2001 works well enough as a benchmark for Reconstruction's end. Fahey collaborated with Cul de Sac (generally thought to be one of the crucial "Post-Rock" bands, with a non-vocal approach like Tortoise but sharing with Jessamine a proclivity for jamming) resulting in the lauded album The Epiphany of Glenn Jones (the title obliquely refering to the difficulties Fahey and Glenn Jones of Cul de Sac had with each other and themselves during the making of the album) and served as an inspiration for Pelt, especially Jack Rose, as they moved toward acoustic sounds and methods, becoming in the process progenitors of what we would come to call Free Folk.
In the 1960's, Fahey had been the pivotal figure in the rise of instrumental solo-guitar music, his inspiring example and independent Tacoma Records label pushing forward the likes of Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho. By the early years of the Twenty-First Century, the work of guitarists who were following Fahey's example had become a cottage industry, captured best on the Wooden Guitar  compilation. In other words, he had twice become a genre in and of himself. Fahey curtly dismissed his early work, and those with high accolades for it; instead, on Epiphany, City of Refuge, and Womblife [all released 1997] he collaged his recognized fingerstyle-guitar sound with electronics, gamelan instruments, vocal monologues, and whatever else struck his fancy. Only with Hitomi  and Red Cross  did Fahey arrive at a new approach to solo-guitar music, using effects to get an amplified acoustic sound timbrally precise yet with expansive resonance.
(An aside: Cul de Sac worked best collaborating with veteran heroes, their other significant work being Abhayamudra, two disks of live recordings with former Can vocalist Damo Suzuki. Of all the "Kraut Rock" bands, Can in the Reconstructionist era had the most allure, probably name-checked as often as The Velvet Underground were in the '80's and early '90's.)
Two guitarists inspired by Fahey, one (David Grubbs) moving away from the Rock milieu he had been a part of in Louisville, another (Jim O'Rourke) schooled in an impressive variety of academic and experimental lineages in Chicago and elsewhere only to embrace Rock as a member of Wilco and Sonic Youth and on his own albums, would in their divergent paths temporarily meet, in the form of Gastr del Sol's Crookt, Crackt and Fly , Upgrade and Afterlife , and Camofleur . Compared to the other North American "Post-Rock" groups, Gastr del Sol's music is more strictly Reconstructionist; that is, it joined others, especially New Psychedelia artists, in pointing directly to its models. At their peak, on Upgrade and Afterlife, they staged a coming-together of the Minimalist and Folk traditions represented by Conrad and Fahey, respectively, with the album's last track, 'Dry Bones in the Valley (I Saw the Light Come Shining 'Round And 'Round)' a cover of a Fahey tune performed in collaboration with Conrad.
That said, while O'Rourke's solo albums at times were directly, perhaps overly, influenced by Tony Conrad and Fahey (see: Happy Days ), Gastr del Sol's three key albums are not to be dismissed as mere retreads by any listener interested in Rock's interaction with the avant garde. At their best, with Grubbs's intoned vocals cast against an unpredictable sonic background that could include electronic noise or interlocking patterns of guitar melodies, they truly worked from the ground up, more so than Tortoise even. Their music belonged to no genre, no tradition. After Gastr, Grubbs's solo albums tended to split between songs relatively straight-ahead and experimental work, but collaborative projects with novelist Ricky Moody (The Wingdale Community Singers, Rickets and Scurvy, Guess at a Riddle) and poet Susan Howe (Thiefth, Souls of the Labadie Tract, Frolic Architecture) added a welcome dose of unpredictability.
Showing their respect for, and academic interest, in their predecessors even further, Grubbs and O'Rourke oversaw Dexter's Cigar, a reissue subsidiary of the Drag City label. For all their many purposes, artist-run labels, whether motivated by practical concerns or vanity, have rarely been concerned with exalting the work of past artists, including those no longer active or quite distinct aesthetically from the artist-as-producer in question. Dexter's Cigar only put out a selection of 15 widely-diverse reissues from The Red Krayola, Voice Crack, Henry Kaiser, Derek Bailey, and Arnold Dreyblatt, among others, but, by the end of the century, it would seem ahead of its time, especially in the case of Atavistic Records's Unheard Music Series, which we'll turn to later [part two].
Grubbs worked extensively with the revived version of one of those Dexter's artists, The Red Krayola, as did O'Rourke and Tortoise's John McEntire at times. Like Fahey, Mayo Thompson, the only constant member of The Red Krayola throughout its long history, found new supporters and collaborators in the early '90's, launching a comeback that, again like Fahey, was more of a new phase of its history, in this case the longest phase. The Red Krayola  and Hazel  found Thompson sticking to a Rock quartet and standard song structures to a greater extent than ever before. They revealed a swaggering confidence on his part, introducing to listeners a new singer essentially, the previous Mayo Thompson's intellectual bravado no longer delivered with any suggestion of conflict or awkward fittings. Soon enough though, the settings for Thompson's vocal excursions returned to the deconstructionist tendencies that have prevailed the band throughout its history: Fingerpainting  and Blues Hollers and Hellos  alienated many new listeners with their formal experimentation. After several quiet years, much of Introduction  possessed a mellow equipoise, allowing the band's escape from the story being told here: a new phase, but noteither way, unlike in its Psychedelic, Punk, and "Post-Rock" eras, the band was now comfortably on its own, even launching new collaborations with the Art and Language concept-art collective that had provided lyrics, heavy on political philosophy, to Punk-era Krayola.
The new interest in The Red Krayola, Fahey, and Silver Apples offers a different definition of Reconstruction: altering common understandings of recent history, in this case the dominant view in Rock music until this time (and still strong, at least at the Rock and Hall Hall of Fame) that only the commercially successful survive; that commercial failures get counted as major artists only if they influenced the commercially successful. Having noted Dexter's Cigar, we'd be remiss in ignoring the C.D-reissue boom that arose fitfully in the 1980's and early '90's (Rykodisc and Rhino handling high-selling veterans, while the likes of Arf! Arf! and Sundazed followed the grand Nuggets tradition) and went into its apparently-never-ending peak in the late '90's, especially as digital remastering kept getting better, and that deluxe repackaging of past albums, instead of the boxed-set compilations heavily promoted at the beginning of the decade, allowed listeners to hear releases as they originally came out, including mono versions and rare B-side and compilation tracks, and place previously-released and -unreleased material in a richer context. As a result, listeners were no longer confined to the ever-present: acts with new product to sell, promoted by gigs and radio play. They could instead create diverse listening adventures traversing through past time.
Often considered alongside New Psychedelia and having strong connections with Chicago "Post-Rock," Stereolab deserve special notice. With their vintage synthesizers, art work referencing (in some cases, copying) the kitsch and camp of the past, and compositional methods that directly bore the stamp of past genres ("Exotica," "Kraut Rock") and suggested the learned appreciation of others (Minimalism, Academic Electroacoustic) Stereolab often found themselves dismissed as little more than pillagers. Such concerns were extremely misplaced. The string of albums the "groop" produced from 1993 to 1999 (namely, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements , Mars Audiac Quintet , Emperor Tomato Ketchup , Dots and Loops , and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night ) together stand as an artistic landmark of the decade, a combination of prolificacy and consistent quality arguably unmatched by any contemporary song composers. The team of bilingual (English and French) singer, Laetitia Sadier, and guitarist and synthesist Tim Gane did far more than recombine sounds and structures suggested by predecessors; Sadier's oblique, philosophically-charged lyrics heightened the eternal ambiguity of the art of song's unstable status between music and poetry (even as she and second vocalist Mary Hansen made use of "la la"-like vocals more than any other band), while Gane (in collaboration with his bandmates, especially drummer Andy Ramsey, and producers McEntire and O'Rourke) tempered the listener's potential nostalgia-fatigue with an embrace of digital textures like those heard in the latest Electronica music.
Granted, when listening to their heady mix, fundamental questions surface, not just about Stereolab's music, but also Reconstruction and "Post-Rock": How can artists committed to the kind of social queries suggested by Sadier's lyrics place those words within the context of standard song structures, unlike Punk not questioning the continued existence of those structures? Are the artists truly engaging with the avant-garde and experimental methods they draw upon, if those methods seem to demand the transcendence or rejection of the strictures of musical convention that the artists, in contrast, accept, seemingly without qualms? The answer, certainly in those relatively-optimistic times, would rest upon hopes that tradition no longer demands hegemony or refuses to accept alternatives; cultural pluralism would seem to accord with capitalism's "end of history." The developments of the new millennium, so far, has undermined such hopes. Regardless if you place the band in the esteemed position I insist upon, Stereolab's work impresses enough to epitomize Reconstruction and suggest a way out of it. It functions as a musical universal solvent, quite distinct from Blur's genre-hopping.
Another group warrants mention here, leads us to another Reconstructionist movement: The No-Neck Blues Band. As with the "Post-Rock" groups, one would struggle to argue that No-Neck (or "NNCK") made Reconstructionist music. On the surface, it's collectively-improvised music with Rock instrumentation. I can't help, though, describing them as an imaginary scenario wherein Rocked-out "freaks" and "loft scene" Free-Jazzers got together in the early 1970's to form a U S version of A.M.M. Moreover, No-Neck found John Fahey to be an inspiration; Fahey in turn invited them on tour, and onto his new label, Revenant Records (which, despite a few releases by contemporary artists, for the most part joined the reissue crowd, followed soon enough by the likes of Dust-to-Digital and The Numero Group splitting the difference between Revenant's re-mystification of the past and Smithsonian Folkways's dry documentation). No-Neck has also avoided standard Rock venues, often performing in public or at their rehearsal spaces, disposing of entertainment pretenses in live performance. While harkening to New York's Free Jazz past, they found compatriots among its resurgent Free Jazz present. After all, the roughing-it approach had been taken by Charles Gayle; and new ensemble Test (Daniel Carter, Sabir Mateen, Tom Bruno, and No-Neck member Matthew Heyner) enjoyed regaling audiences on subway platforms, among other spots. Besides Heyner, another No-Neck member, David Nuss, followed the path of New York Rockers before (Sonic Youth) and after (Yo La Tengo) in collaborating with those in the Jazz world: a trio, Tenor Rising/ Drums Expanding, with Mateen and Carter.
Several years later, No-Neck made a collaborative album with Embryo, one of several 'Kraut Rock' bands that had resurfaced with the new interest shown in the music of 1970's West Germany. As with 'post-Rock', a 1994 article in the Wire, Julian Cope's 'Kosmische Heroes', served as an important foundation in the revival of listening to past music, though more so in its expanded book form, Krautrocksampler: One Head's Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik1968 Onward . His pointed opinions and particular suggestions have rarely been taken seriously, yet Cope's enthusiasm for the music certainly influenced, and was shared by many, and has continued to be so as reissues and reunions pile up, so that for many listeners such as myself what started as curiosity about one band so often referencedCangrew into a fruitful area of music appreciation.