Modern psych rock is in a weird zone, to say the least. One-time champions of the psych underworld, Tame Impala, have emerged at the top of the charts, scoring a bona fide hit with the fantastic "Let It Happen*," leaving something of a vacuum in their wake. They also almost single-handedly redefined psych rock for the masses, moving the genre from Shakedown Street to TV and commercial syncs while helping to expand the genre's vocabulary to borrow from other genres and styles. While a lot of psych bands have gravitated towards the heavier side of things--be it the garage psych of John Dwyer's countless projects that include Thee Oh Sees, the goth-kraut of The Soft Moon or Föllakzoid, or perennial noise upsetters HEALTH--from the opening moments of the Japanese band Kikagaku Moyo's Friday night set at new Brooklyn venue Sunnyvale, it was clear that they have a different, far more expansive approach to modern psych. Simply put, this is psych music for music fans with wide-ranging taste (though the crowd on Friday seemed largely made up of the Levitation faithful).
On the group's Bandcamp page, in the section where most bands have a brief bio, there stands a Japanese phrase that translates to "geometric patterns" and beneath that, in English, the words "feeling good music." Touring in support of their fifth album, since forming in 2012 as a group of buskers playing on the streets of Tokyo--House in the Tall Grass was released recently on label-to-watch GuruGuru Brain--the five multi-instrumentalists that comprise the group are likely each one a ripper in his own respect; I didn't hear a fumbled note or missed beat all night. But as a group, their individual identities meld together into a singular focus on the groove, which can turn on a dime into an entirely new direction, emulating the endless bifurcation of fractal geometry. Despite having a electric Sitar player at the forefront--yes, you read that right--the band often recall Can or Hawkwind over, say, the Dead in that they'll gladly lock into a chugging riff, carving out spatial sonics that sound as if they've been ripped straight from the cosmos. While they are no strangers to the 10-minute guitar/sitar solo, that's just one aspect of this admirably lithe band who trade in polite, halcyon 60s pop jaunts alongside stratospheric jams that will make you wonder if that sitar can even take that degree of damage.
It's hard not to let your mind flood with natural imagery when seeing Kikagaku Moyo, from the stylized illustration of a country home at night to their ability to transport you to a bucolic field, replete with wild flowers and forest animals. And while this embracement of "feel good" mellowness might strike some as a tad bit "polite" for psych rock's proto-punk ethos, there's also something to be said for seeing a band that takes you through the hills and valleys, the desert and the forest. The closest comparison I could think of when watching Kikagaku Moyo was a Brazilian psych band called Boogarins. Like their Japanese bretheren, Boogarins inject an airiness into the often hard world of psych, crafting delicately intricate compositions that take you on a meandering, but focused journey. Indeed, just because Kikagaku Moyo trade in an abundance of styles, from Kraut to Pop to Metal to even New Age, none of it ever comes close to feeling like a pastiche. Rather, you find yourself reconsidering prior conceptions about psych rock and start imagining the exciting places a band like this can go. You leave not feeling like you've seen a 45-minute guitar solo backed by a rhythm section, but a band who are enthralled with trying new things and seeing in what new and weird directions they can push themselves.
*I may be a hater, but that song is legit.
A Note on the Venue: Venues factor into show reviews usually for all the wrong reasons: shitty crowds, overpriced drinks, macho bouncers, etc. Sunnyvale not only has none of those things, but it also bares the unique distinction of actually adding something to the bloated New York music scene. While there are more venues to open in the next couple of years than I can simply fathom, Sunnyvale is my ideal mid-size room where you can see bands before they graduate to the much more staid Music Hall of Williamsburg. Despite the venue having opened in Februrary, this was my first visit and while I was pretty bummed that it was actually called Sunnyvale (and not Sunnydale, the home of one Buffy the Vampire Slayer), I'll definitely be looking forward to future shows there.