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The surprising perseverance of psychedelia

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By a conservative estimate, a good quarter of the 175 bands slated to descend on Raleigh for Hopscotch 2012 draw upon psychedelia in one form or another. Some pay homage to the fuzz-toned garage styles of the Seeds and Love, while others spread their tendrils toward the bent-galaxy spaces of mid-period Pink Floyd. Still, most grab from the genre's very wide range of sounds: visceral feedback excursions, Middle Eastern modalities and face-melting guitar tonalities among them.

But young America no longer seems inclined to pursue satori states and experience ego death en masse on a Saturday night. The psychedelic drugs are long out of fashion. In fact, the whole hippie ethos, closely associated with the first wave of psychedelia, has become a pop cultural punch line. So how can a style so connected with a rarified moment in American culture, and which peaked a few years later, still hold such sway in 2012?

The pop charts officially got dosed in 1966, when Mr. and Mrs. Average, cruising around in their Dodge Dart, could flip on the radio and hear "Eight Miles High," "Good Vibrations," "Psychotic Reaction" and other Day-Glo valentines to deeply altered states of consciousness. But psychedelia had its limits: That same flip of the radio dial soon turned up formulaic pap like the Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine" and Tommy Roe's "Dizzy," with their egregious phase shifting serving as easy shorthand for 'whoooaaah ... trippy!'

But it wasn't just trend-hoppers who turned psych into a cliché: The Rolling Stones, arguably at their peak, practically disowned their album-length exercise in lysergia, Their Satanic Majesties Request, despite its bona fide gems. By decade's end, the Stones, along with The Byrds and The Beatles and Dylan, had beaten a path back to their musical roots. The deaths of Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin became cautionary tales that darkened the mood and discouraged the idea that personal and societal liberation could be attained via copious drug use. Psychedelic music should have fallen sloppy dead right then and there.

Maybe it just comes down to the time-tested appeal of mind-altering substances. Major movements in popular music usually come about when old styles meet new sensibilities, but psychedelia—developed largely through innovations in pharmacopeia—has left its own distinctive mark. As drugs like psilocybin and LSD seeped from musicians into their music, the results reflected two of the drugs' key properties: the disordering of the senses, or synesthesia, and a reordering of one's inner landscape. Aided and abetted by scientific breakthroughs like the Mellotron and the wah-wah pedal, new sounds enabled the simulation of these altered states.

Even as LSD use waned in inverse proportion to the popularity of introspective singer-songwriters, not to mention the seismic shift brought on by the twin engines of punk and disco, psychedelic music flourished: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon—that prism-eyed, unit-moving colossus—could have doubled for the music business itself. In less prominent places, like Mexico and New Zealand, Turkey and Nigeria, psych-rock scenes boomed. Even the aggressively clean production of the ultra-slick, coked-up '80s couldn't kill psychedelia. It just forced the style underground, with trace elements showing up everywhere: in the Doors-ian swirl of Echo & the Bunnymen, the deep-fried cowpunk of the Meat Puppets, the fractal haze of My Bloody Valentine and on the occasional Prince LP. Surely psychedelia is a key component in the textural menace of The Jesus and Mary Chain and in the jams of Yo La Tengo—two of this year's Hopscotch headliners, who both formed around 1984.

Psychedelia has since come to encompass flavors undreamt of in its first incarnation: Paul's Boutique; Deee-Lite; Happy Mondays; Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space; the Orb's "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld." The list goes on, and the tradition carries forward today via big bands like My Morning Jacket and The Flaming Lips.

Perhaps the foremost influence on the Hopscotch 2012 brand of psychedelia is Animal Collective, a band whose cultural impact was recently highlighted by their landing in the top 10 of the Pitchfork People's List, right up with Radiohead and Kanye and Wilco. AnCo have had a big hand in the evolution from guitar-based indie rock into something emphasizing loops and tribal rhythms, manifest in songs that feel more like collages and mosaics than traditional representational art.

While some of the early tropes, like backward guitar, demonic laughter and sitars, are less plentiful these days, the textural element has survived and flourished. That sense of synesthesia writ large has only grown. The Internet has also ensured that copious amounts of global psychedelia—Eastern Nigerian fuzz, obscure Thai rock and what have you—might be accessed in a click. Psychedelic sounds are simply part of a vocabulary that musicians use and listeners understand. And it's no wonder: Unyoked from its tie-dyed connotations, psychedelia is right in tune with a world where surrealism and high-definition realism have become the norm.

This weekend, then, the proud psych tradition plays out across Raleigh: You'll hear it in the celestial bent of My Best Fiend, in the sonic mandalas of Hume, in the tessellated mindfuck collages of Amen Dunes and elsewhere.

Come feed your head.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Eternal sunshine."

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