Hippy to Be Square

Are you Shpongled? Simon Posford ponders the question

Of all the pop movements embraced by early rave culture, psychedelia has proven the most embarrassing to scene constituents--and the hardest to shake from public perception. "Psychedelic," after all, calls up both the hippie-dippy excesses of rock with too much brown acid coursing through its veins and ravers at their most henna-palmed, pinwheel-eyed, we're-gonna-change-the-world naive. And given that psychedelic trance is frequently referred to as "Goa"--named after the Indian coastal state famous for its ease of living and proliferation of hashish--it faces another stigma: The music's urban partisans seem primarily interested in getting "back to nature" with whomever they bring home at the end of the night. The scene feels played from the start: Who wants yesterday's rolling papers?

Quite a lot of people, actually. Psy-trance is huge in Eastern Europe, South America, and Asia, and it's making inroads to America via burgeoning scenes in San Francisco and New York. Compared to the gridlike, op-artish structures of trance's Oakenfold/Sasha/Digweed school, psy-trance is closer to Jackson Pollock--or, maybe more to the point, to fractal-image posters or patterned holographic foil. It evokes not the clean lines and upscale aspirations of most club music, but the heedless adventurousness of an illegal rave in a dirty warehouse. And no one in the field paints in bolder strokes than Brixton native Simon Posford. Recording in the mid-Nineties under the alias Hallucinogen, Posford piled layers of constantly mutating acid riffs atop doleful, modal melodies. In the process, he helped define the psy-trance style.

Posford's recent music has calmed down from the relentlessly discombobulating peaks of Hallucinogen tracks like "Angelic Particles" and "Deranger." Now recording as Shpongle, Posford has moved toward a smoother, more "world music"-like vibe, slowing down the tempos and giving equal time to "natural" instrumentation (bongos, congas, chanted "ethnic" vocals, soothing Brazilian guitar runs). I know, I know--from one hippie excess to another. And on 1998's Are You Shpongled?--recently issued for the first time in America, along with the brand new Tales of the Inexpressible (Kinetic/Reprise)--Posford does get excessive. Its seven songs average more than 11 minutes apiece, and combine gentle, spin-art-like texture-swirls with keening tropical sound bites. Some of the music hangs on to the edginess that marked Hallucinogen at its most hallucinogenic, but there's not enough actually happening to prevent the languor from turning into tedium--it's all setting and not enough set.

Tales is just as expansive but feels far less slack. Posford lays his compositions out like continuously unfolding tapestries, and at his best he makes the cheesier elements signify as the kind of trippy, agreeable aural environment that evokes good nights around the campfire rather than bad ones next to the toilet. Sure, he's excessive--excess is the heart and soul of anything psychedelic. But he's got a good enough melodic sensibility to keep you hooked until you start seeing shrunken heads glowing over red backgrounds (at least if you've seen a late-Sixties American International picture or two). And Tales finds Posford open-mindedly embracing every sound and style he can approximate. It's a boon: Even the parts that don't work, like the wispy, sub-Sarah McLachlan femme vocals on "Once Upon the Sea of Blissful Awareness" (those titles--God!), keep things moving along, especially when he says enough already and shoots her voice through his effects processors.

What does work--the salsa thrown into the middle of "My Head Feels Like a Frisbee," the flamenco guitar married to the rolling acid lines and breakbeats of "Dorset Perception"--is a triumph of the exuberance that goes along with the discovery of new territory, psychic or otherwise. With such noted techno rainbow warriors as Gavin and Scott Hardkiss moving into straighter, safer territory, it's good to know someone is still committed to flying dance music's freak flag high.

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