In the past decade or so, psychedelic rock has moved from enjoying cyclical periods of resurgence to a state of perpetual revival, particularly here in the genre's spiritual cradle of San Francisco. This flying of the sonic freak flag both locally and abroad continues to produce a wealth of excellent bands and sounds, but the rearview-mirror focus of the style means it's rare to find acts that truly push psych into fresh spaces. Enter Australia's Tame Impala: This band, the brainchild of songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and audio hallucination-conjurer Kevin Parker, stands as one of the few true innovators of modern psych, with one foot planted firmly in the subgenre's roots even as the other steps boldly into virgin territory on its incandescent new effort, Lonerism.
Despite his long history as a player in Perth's burgeoning music scene while growing up in the capital of Western Australia, Parker may have been destined to find his voice through inward exploration. An inveterate bedroom-studio experimenter, Parker hadn't even entered his teens when he started capturing the sounds inside his head with a primitive recording setup. While Parker's riff-minded Tame Impala precursor, The Dee Dee Dums, had earned some regional notoriety by the mid-2000s, it was his solo-recorded demos, which married Cream's bluesy guitar heft to Beatles-esque melodies, that scored him a deal with Modular Recordings in 2007.
If a nod to the arena-sized rock of fellow Aussies and label mates Wolfmother was audible on the band's eponymous 2008 EP, the release of Tame Impala's full-length debut, Innerspeaker, two years later revealed a far sweeter, subtler beast. Though still present, the muscular, fuzzed-out riffs took a backseat to Parker's dreamy vocal melodies, which were delivered with an uncanny echo of John Lennon's distinctive tenor. Meticulously constructed by Parker with only minor instrumental contributions from the rest of the band, the songs on Innerspeaker float the listener through canyons of heavily processed, skyscraping guitars. A hand with mixing from noted producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips) helped put a modern sheen on the same cosmic swirl heard in Beatles classics like "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "It's All Too Much."
If Innerspeaker announced Parker to the world as an avatar of modern psych, Lonerism finds him stretching the boundaries of the genre to fit the breadth of his vision. A fan of electronic music dating back to Tame Impala's early covers of Massive Attack's "Angel" and Blue Boy's "Remember Me," Parker used the popular DJ/producer program Ableton to shape the new tracks into form. Shortly before Tame Impala played the second day of San Francisco's Outside Lands Festival back in August, he talked about achieving "that extra visceral, brain-squelching quality" by introducing more electronics on Lonerism. "When you incorporate weird sounds and textures, it can take it to another level," Parker explained. "It can take it to another world."
His new recording approach dramatically amplifies that element. Opener "Be Above It" builds sparsely around a loop of the muttered phrase "Gotta be above it," propelled by a progressively tweaked and distorted drum track until Parker's angelic, echo-laden vocals ride in on a wave of oscillating synthesizers. The song segues quickly into "Enders Toi," a dizzying helix of keyboards and flanged guitar strums that carries a keening synthesizer melody over Parker's cracking drum fills before melting around his dreamy, surreal intonation: "Soothing repeat/ I look down at my feet/ It's a hypnotist's arm/ And it works like a charm." Even the album's heaviest guitar track — the T-Rex-tinged glam-stomp of "Elephant" — gets fed en masse through a sort of wah-wah envelope filter to woozy effect at the song's bridge.
Pushing the punchy drums tracks and insistent basslines high in the mix the way a dance music producer would, Parker uses the rhythms as the anchor point for his heady, unorthodox song structures. Both "Keep on Lying" and "Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control" have transporting moments where the songs dissolve into a lysergic wash of disembodied voices and intricately layered drones, only to majestically emerge with melodies intact on the other side. But for all the mind-altering weirdness Parker summons throughout the album, it's his unerring gift for writing gorgeous tunes that stands at the center of Tame Impala's appeal. "Apocalypse Dreams," "Why Won't They Talk to Me?" and "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" all boast the kind of indelible pop hooks that would place the band on heavy radio rotation in a more righteous world.
It was fitting that Tame Impala gave a couple tracks from Lonerism their West Coast premiere in Golden Gate Park last August, the same place where local legend Jefferson Airplane — one of Parker's inspirations — had played for similarly stoned, teeming masses some 40-odd years before. Clouds of pot smoke drifted up from the crowd to kiss the early afternoon fog during the band's all-too-short Outside Lands set. Onstage, a barefoot Parker and company offered one of the highlights of the festival, running the gamut from the shimmering, interstellar pop to blazing Hendrixian groove. Fans lucky enough to have scored tickets for Tame Impala's sold-out Fillmore show this week can anticipate another potent dose of transcendent vibrations.