Conventional wisdom states that all modern guitar music can trace its roots back to the blues or jazz, but you can blame the Beatles for psychedelic rock. The genre was birthed by John Lennon on LSD and baptized in the aural wash of Ray Manzarek’s Vox Continental organ before working its way into the vocabulary of most bands, whether arena pop or doom metal. In 2016, the sound of proper psych rock is elusive. Aside from marquee indie acts, such as Animal Collective, who are inspired by the circus tent squeal of Sgt. Pepper and those who, like Tame Impala, mix it with more conventionally subdued rock sounds, few musicians claim any explicit relationship with the genre. Of the bands that do, Austin, Texas five-piece Holy Wave is one of the best, as proven by their just-released Freaks of Nurture LP.
This album, the band’s third full-length, is one of the short year’s best psych records, and it barely sounds like one. That’s because the five mostly multi-instrumentalist members forego any obvious Nuggets-era influences, settling instead for the reverb-heavy sounds of ‘90s psych as embodied by Loop or Spacemen 3. It’s a druggy take on an already druggy genre, but instead of creating kaleidoscopic LSD visions they’re painting earth tone pictures of daylong weed fogs. But Holy Wave don’t just replicate, or pay homage; they innovate, too, simply by not sounding like any one thing.
That stubborn versatility makes it tough to pin down exactly why Freaks of Nurture succeeds so well. Is it the vocalists, Ryan Fuson and Kyle Hager, who trade off song-to-song but who also, unlike Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, sound nothing like voices expected on top of reverb? Is it Julian Ruiz and Dustin Zozaya’s rhythm section that works hard to stabilize all that reverb with a nod-able foundation? Above all else, is it the simple fact that Freaks oozes good vibes?
It just might be. The album’s deep-dive into a world of vibes starts with “She Put A Seed In My Ear,” and it never comes up for air. The song opens with an isolated guitar line before the vocals come in, and then so do the keys, and a subtle pop wave swallows the whole thing. That song’s follow-up, “Wendy Go Round,” surfs that wave, too, but introduces an organ riff that winks at Donovan’s headiest days. Elsewhere, the album finds glee in early punk with “Our Pigs,” and “Sir Isaac Nukem” is pretty good, sure, but no five minutes can live up to that title.
When searching for a concise statement of the band’s intent, though, look no further than “Western Playland,” which features a lyrical refrain of “I’ve been kicked out by doo-wop sisters” before and after these lines: “Take me to your car/ We can put on the Valentines or Eno.” “California Took My Bobby Away,” one of the album’s best cuts, takes nothing from the Valentines and everything from Eno. It also borrows from Texas legend Bobby Fuller, dragging his signature twang through the mud and creating a track that sounds like an old recording of “Wolfman” played at half-speed.
The significance of the Fuller reference lies in Holy Wave sharing his hometown of El Paso, Texas, though the band has since moved to Austin. Kismet, then, that Austin is also the hometown of one of modern music’s most important psych purveyors: Levitation (formerly Austin Psych Fest). Levitation operates the Reverberation Appreciation Society, the perfectly named label that has released Holy Wave’s last three collections. It also happens to be the label that, with its current and former roster, best embodies this low-key psych movement that has quietly grown in popularity in the past decade.
Freaks of Nurture‘s significance crystalizes when placed in the context of 2016 psych rock. On the one hand are the maximalists like Youth Lagoon, Jacco Gardner, and Holydrug Couple, who definitely take to heart psych’s LSD legacy. On the other are those bands that peddle reverb like it’s some Lower East Side currency, best represented by Brooklyn’s Psychic Ills. The sounds are worlds apart, nearly unrelated, a fragmented trend that emulsifies once you hear the recent giant compilation, Psych Box, on which Holy Wave appear alongside dozens of bands that at times sound nothing like Jefferson Airplane, or Loop, or the Beatles, or the Doors.
Holy Wave are at their best on Freaks of Nurture when merging these worlds in a sound both groovy and thick, like psych rock stew. They translate the haze of Texas heat into snappy songs that thrum with vibes so rich as to be transportive, drugs in themselves. When you listen to Freaks of Nurture, you are not sitting on your Ikea couch as your neighbors across the airshaft argue about dinner, you’re floating in a sea of reverb. It’s these escapist vibes that act as the glue that holds psych together, and they’re ladled out copiously on Holy Wave’s latest. The album’s greatness relies on a trick of the ears as much as the mind, because buried beneath the fuzz is much more than stylish ennui: earworm riffs, jokey lyrics, tragic storytelling, Duke Nukem puns, punchline organ parts — the album has it all, with vibes to spare.