Ahead of Liverpool Psych Fest, Getintothis‘ Patrick Clarke takes an in-depth look at Rocket Recordings, the independent label behind so many of this year’s headline acts.
When it comes to modern psychedelia most have a tendency to look backwards, to saturate their tones in reverb straight from Revolver and to claim retrospective legitimacy. However though such groups (Temples, Tame Impala et al.) are by no means bad, there’s a sense something was lost in the process. When one looks back on an era before their time, what really thrills is the notion that Hendrix and co. were truly blowing people’s minds, pushing boundaries in a way that a revivalist just can’t.
That sense of disregard for musical margins lives on in Rocket Recordings, a small Bristol/London based independent label. It’s Rocket’s commitment to the left-field and unfamiliar, to the challenging and novel that embodies that spirit more than any mere throwback; when a Rocket band looks back at a genre you can bet they won’t rehash it, they’d rather drag it through a kaleidoscope and splice it with something else. No surprise then that though small in stature Rocket have quite a backlog of delights to wade through.
It all began humbly in late 90s Bristol when founders Chris Reeder and Simon Healy decided to release their mates’ new single, setting themselves up in the image of underground US labels like Sub Pop and Amphetamine Reptile and hand-packing the records. In a soothing sort of way that vibe still surrounds them – a personal touch bereft in their contemporaries. But though it remains a cult affair they’re backed up by a pretty rich history, with their name attached to some of the last two decades’ finest outsider slices.
As a relatively small operation Rocket’s books are rather slim, the advantage being that across their seventeen-or-so years it’s been a clear-cut case of quality not quantity. From the sprawling ferocity of debut pressing, The Heads’ You Can Lean Back Sometimes, to the sonic cornucopia that constitutes their current signings there’s not a flop in sight when it comes to their discography.
Though they’ve had their fair share of rock ‘n’ roll barnstormers (look no further than the aforementioned Heads), and there’s never been a stone-set philosophy to the label, it’s a psychedelic edge that’s come to define them, particularly in their current roster. It’s no surprise then that Rocket’s exclusive Transmissions from the Outer Realm curation is to be a sure-fire highlight of this year’s Liverpool Psych Fest, with label alumni including Goat, Hills and Teeth of the Sea to feature on a tantalising bill.
This writers own personal audio escapades amidst the mayhem of Rocket began with a chance glance at a one-paragraph review of Goat’s World Music in the pages of Clash magazine two years ago. I was promised voodoo curses and ‘booty-shaking filth’ – “as if Spaceman 3 swallowed Paul Simon’s Graceland”. An irresistible sell I’m sure you’ll agree. The album was love at first listen, but there was more to be discovered than a great LP and journalistic hyperbole.
Goat are a band shrouded in narrative, and trace their roots to Korpilombolo in Northern Sweden where they are the current incarnation of a musical tradition in the community some 40 years old. According to legend – albeit it one perpetuated by the group themselves – the village was home to a witch doctor, and as Christian pilgrims burnt it to the ground the fleeing locals placed a voodoo curse upon it that still stands today.
One hell of a backstory then, but where Goat shine regardless is through the stupefying strength of the band themselves. World Music is, in short, an astounding record, propelling itself about the globe in terms of influences it marries monstrous riffs to irresistible grooves, with a glorious helping of fierce psychedelia round every corner, a personal highlight of the decade thus far.
But what of their labelmates? Goat’s critical popularity has set them up as Rocket’s flagship of sorts, but it betrays a back-catalogue so engaging it’s hard to find where to begin. Last year’s Crystallized compilation, a celebration of the label’s fifteenth birthday makes sense as a starter, featuring a mix of current Rocket artists, old friends and collaborators, as well as a few up-and-comers that caught an eye en route. The visceral noise-rock screeches of label stalwarts Teeth of the Sea rub shoulders with the twisted polyrhythms of promising prospects Blood Sport in a challenging yet glorious cacophony of outsider compositions – a very good record indeed, though not for the faint hearted.
The album’s highlight however, comes courtesy of another gang of psychedelic Swedes, Gothenburg’s Hills, who contribute the magnificence of National Drone, a lavish collision of swirling grooves and ethereal vocals; a psychotropic masterpiece to give Sister Ray a run for its money. The band’s debut on Rocket Master Sleeps appeared in 2013, a reissue of their second LP released on a small Swedish label three years ago. It’s a lighter affair than National Drone, but no less enthralling, with a backbone of momentum and rhythm dressed in lashings of euphoric texture.
The Lay Llamas are another standout, with debut album Ostro arriving last May. Awash in blissful textures the Rome-based group provide a mellow drone-based sound that while relaxed seems brimming with life, taking a 60’s aesthetic courtesy of pipes, strings and understated synths but using faultless modern production to ensure that their spiritual edge avoids any condemnation as mere revivalism.
The aforementioned Teeth of the Sea are one of Rocket’s more prolific outfits, with last year’s Master constituting their third full length release. Unpredictable but not inconsistent, their discography as a whole represents a definably upward trajectory, rather than hits and misses, and the band set themselves apart via diversity of texture. Reaper for example goes from an electro-dance beat to space-rock epic, with just a dashing of heavy-metal guitar along the way, while album-closer Responder pulsates with arresting brass as if it’s Suuns covering Screamadelica.
The most aesthetically charged of Rocket’s current cast is surely Gnod, whose most recent effort Chaudelande both dumbfounds and arrests in its heady brew of krautrock, post-punk and a shedload of sheer noise. Opener Tron is like PiL on steroids, while Visions of Load – the shortest track at a mere eight-and-a-half minutes – is a work of Can meets Silver Apples mastery. The band can also lay a claim to the best-titled album in the form of InGnodWeTrust, a two-track album in the yin/yang mould. Side one Tony’s First Communion is an unsettlingly sparse affair, a deep and simple groove drawn out as an anchor for the leaps and bounds of ghostly synths, while on its counterpart Vatican they unleash the depths of krautrock hell, where bone-chilling screams and petrifying organs collide with death-march drums and venomous synths in a cacophony of apocalyptic proportions.
New York spacerockers White Hills, usually found at Thrill Jockey, also spent some time at Rocket for Heads on Fire, their first official album after a handful of self-releases. Propulsive, progressive and as heavy as it gets, scuzzy guitars abound on the album with a Hendrix-esque swirl, joined occasionally by a snarling vocal just to sharpen the edges. Occasionally the assault lets up, but the mania simply ebbs into a headspinning, alien landscape full of wraithlike whispers and the distant sound of lurching feedback. White Hills can also be found in collaboration with Gnod on the expansive and hypnotic Gnod Drop Out With The White Hills project which strangely sees each band as a calming effect on the other.
There from the beginning, though, were cult rockers The Heads. It was at their Bristol show in 1997 that saw the birth of the label itself, and it was a split 7” with Lillydamwhite that was Rocket’s first release. Anthroprophh, whose Anthropomorphism can be found as the Crystallized comp’s closer, began as a side project for The Heads’ chief songwriter and guitarist Paul Allen, but last year’s self-titled debut is a marked departure from the tight urgency of his original band’s psych-rock foundations. A capacious and more abstract experience, the record has much in common with kraut contemporaries Beak> when it comes to a modern blend of rhythmic warp, with Can making their presence felt once again.
Sadly defunct amongst the more modern roster are the excellent Notorious Hi-Fi Killers, a polished diamond amongst hidden gems. Across their two albums, 2008’s Which Side Are You On? and 2010’s New Spirituals they unleash garage rock with a true ferocious edge, the lack of which has seen the genre grow stale in recent years. Impeccably produced, their lack of recognition is something of a musical travesty, given that they put the vast majority of modern pretenders to shame, though their spirit lives on in two immaculate records.
A delve through the rest of Rocket’s vintage output unearths a heap of hidden gems, though if you can find a studio recording of Lillydamwhite you’re a better Googler than I. Among those caught in the YouTube net are The Sawdust Caesars, robust and organic in all their acid-rock glory. Cult favourites Thee Hypnotics meanwhile sound like the spiritual successors to MC5, surely a formidable live presence in their pomp.
When all is said and done, Rocket is a label home to all manner of musical freaks, the kind that you almost forget exist in a world where each ‘character’ seems pre-ordained behind desks, and for that it should be truly treasured. On record their consistency is frankly unnatural, with each signing seeming hand-picked for both a shared aesthetic and for their genuine idiosyncrasies, and each living up to their predecessors’ calibre. They are, quite frankly, a label to be loved, the likes of which just don’t appear any more.
Oh, and did I mention Goat, Teeth of the Sea, Gnod, Hills, Anthroprophh and Lay Llamas are all on the same bill this September? No excuses.
A buyer’s guide to Rocket Recordings
Crystallized – Celebrating Fifteen Years of Rocket Recordings
A mix of old and new Rocket alumni along with friends and future prospects, Crystallized is a valuable introduction but a baptism by fire. Expect luscious grooves, sparse electronica and abstract epics on a whirlwind tour of some of outsider music’s leading lights. If this is your bag then the best is yet to come.
Goat – World Music
A critical sensation on its release in 2012, these mysterious Swedes blend fuzzy freakouts with mammoth riffs and mindbending rhythms sourced from Africa to the Far East. A continent-hopping stroke of genius living up to its name in the best possible way.
Teeth of the Sea – Master
A gargantuan series of psychedelic epics and electro odysseys, sucking in space-rock, vintage dance and rich brass textures along the way, the Londoners’ third album pushes all the right boundaries in a magnificent, radiant cacophony.
Hills – Master Sleeps
Emerging from Gothenburg and offering a more measured but no less thrilling approach than many of their label-mates, Hills are masters of texture and groove, taking cues from German masters such as Can. Psychedelic drones and swirling guitars meet euphoric flashes of colour on as well-rounded an album as you’re likely to find.
White Hills – Heads on Fire
Not to be confused with the above, New York’s White Hills soak their hefty rock ‘n’ roll in Hendrix and Hawkwind with a 21st century edge. Centred around 26 minute epic Don’t Be Afraid this is potent psych-spacerock at its most volatile.