Guardian Alien Spiritual Emergency

[Thrill Jockey; 2014]

Styles: non-hokum psychedelia, Buddhistic noise, avant-rock, transpersonal psychology
Others: Acid Mothers Temple, Rhys Chatham, Brian Chippendale, Zach Hill, Stanislav Grof

Psychedelia. Once it was radical; now it’s more or less everything it ever hated. That is, it likes to present itself as some revelatory breach into the uncharted and the unconventional, when in all too many cases its signatures are as rigidly conformist and fossilized as a military band’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Despite some moments of choice intensity and madness, Guardian Alien’s second album, See The World Given to a One Love Entity, teetered precariously close to this uncharitable description, not only in its floating use of zithers and sitars, but in its conservative repetition of the same “All things one thing” doctrine that’s been doing the rounds in Western pop since “Within You Without You.” And at first glance, it might be a cause for concern to read that Spiritual Emergency takes its name from a book by Czech “transpersonal” psychologist Stanislav Grof, who professionally sought to make use of LSD in treating mental illness and facilitating personal growth.

Yet this time out, something is different for the NYC institution (recorded here as a quintet, but now operating as the trio of Greg Fox, Alexandra Drewchin, and Bernard Gann), something that prevents their third venture into altered states from being a welcome but still vaguely hackneyed experience. Not only is Fox’s subversive drumming more unhinged and exploratory than ever before, but the dynamic and structure of the band’s fluid music have been meticulously warped so that, rather than tokenistically gesturing toward them, it fully embodies the album’s central themes of environmental dissolution, self-annihilation, and transformation. In other words, it does something distinct with the stiff-necked form of psychedelia, and in the end, it subjects the genre to the same kind of inner transcendence that the latter emptily claimed to offer the increasingly formulaic world.

From one angle, Spiritual Emergency is an investigation into the relationship between music and consciousness, how each are extensions of the other, how the plasticity of music can be used to liberate consciousness from the rigid stimuli forced upon it by the daily environment. In opening cut “Tranquillizer,” the band seems intent on denying our sensoria of any perfectly recurring pattern, of any ceaseless repetitions that might simply reinforce the fixities of perception and behavior that are imposed upon us by our submersion within certain regimes. Here, Fox spins out a constantly morphing set of polyrhythms, Eli Winograd’s bass gurgles through a series of elusive fluctuations, and Gann’s six strings flicker in disembodied, atemporal batches. Lacking any discernible meter and any disciplined instrumental interlocking, the whole nine-minute piece cheats the listener’s cognizance out of anything simplistic and predictable to lock onto, and the effect is both the intoxicating sensation of being thrown or buoyed around unpredictably and an airy thinning of consciousness, its emptying of the regularized and reiterated inputs that make it what it is.

In the minute-and-a-half “Mirror,” this disruption of consciousness and the ego is drawn further, not least with its opening sample. “The whole universe is a model contained in my head,” it declares via a Barry White soundalike, who then goes on to declare, “Basically I’m a mirror.” It’s at this point that his tape-manipulated voice is disintegrated by a flurry of wired guitar, barreling drums, and whooshing electronics, all of which coalesce into a torrent designed to overwhelm the individual’s ability to parse her sensory input and cut it up into conveniently arrayed units. And without this divisive capacity, the self effectively breaks down, the resulting frissons of dissipation representing how it and the “rationality” that constitutes it are little more than functions of an hospitably bureaucratized and regimented milieu.

So, as empiricists like Hume would have once said, the self and its interiority are merely the traces a habitat leaves on a human body, and in continuity with this view, Spiritual Emergency does everything it can to demonstrate that music provides a “virtual environment” through which a consciousness can be imprinted with an alternative and perhaps healthier inner life. With “Vapour,” more samples of speech are dissected into giddy fragments of syncopation, and with “Mirage,” tails of drifting scuzz, evaporating feedback, and elevated vocals intermingle to create a serenity that’s as imperturbable as it’s untroubled by questions like “Who am I?” and “How can I be productive?” The first is more tightly rhythmic than anything else on the album, while the second doesn’t feature any percussion at all yet both evoke the same anti-utilitarian ambience, the same denial of the notions of reality that are disseminated by an age that wants us to consume, produce, and take medication.

It’s precisely because it denies the necessity of this reality that Spiritual Emergency also denies the necessity of a certain kind of logical, industrialized self, and there’s little doubt that Guardian Alien’s incineration of both reaches an apex during the LP’s title track. Already an eyebrow-shaving fixture of their live show, the 20-minute juggernaut is at once a distillation and explosion of everything that preceded it, a suite of feral peaks and troughs that mutate violently through distortions of time and space. Beginning with an advocation of the potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness — or “spiritual emergencies” — for personal development (delivered by none other than Stanislav Grof himself), the odyssey enters into restless, Heraclitean drumming and jittering electronics, both of which deviate and fission in multiple directions as they drag the pedestrian mind out of itself. Amidst the palpitated urgings of bass and the rapid skimmings of guitar, Fox’s drumkit emerges as the key figure here, the volatility of his technique underscoring the fact that, as soon as you efface the certainties and the contrived precision of the external world, the once incontrovertible dimensions of the self go with it.

Also, at certain moments of critical mass and velocity, such as with the elastic blast-beats that form an aural black hole some 11 minutes after departure, both Fox and his cohorts are aiming for nothing less than the collapse of the “inner” and “outer.” The percussion is so preternaturally frantic and the spirals of trebly overdrive so all-enveloping that any conviction of separation and distance is nonsensically flattened, and in their wake, the individual is tipped to the point of annihilation. But this isn’t to say that what’s being conjured by the band’s prowess is necessarily destructive. No, at bottom, the track and its vicious instability is a testament to the mutability of our experience of the world, to the possible ease and rapidity with which conceptions of its four corners can be changed, and finally to the faith that they can be recast into something better.

And clearly this is a good thing, even if the piece’s hair-raising denouement — with its deafening spasms of thirty-second notes and Drewchin’s inarticulate shrieks — would cause the uninitiated to believe that their plane is about to crash. Yet when it does crash, and when the residue of the ego’s once immovable dominance has finally evaporated, what remains is an unfamiliar aftertaste of possibility and the suspicion that the stale masquerade usually known as psychedelia has been redeemed by a bunch of unassuming New Yorkers.

Links: Guardian Alien - Thrill Jockey


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