It’s the 2020s, and the music scene is alive with the sound of modern psychedelic rock. There’s one thing to do in appreciating the genre though – take a music-fuelled trip through time and space.
First, we go back to where it all began with an extended instrumental voyage of discovery through the swinging sixties.
We rediscover psychedelic psychotherapy, the Acid Tests, the Summer of Love and the pioneers that shaped 1960s psychedelic music. It’s the grooviest history lesson you’ll ever have.
Then we hop the direct line to some of the best modern psych rock bands evolving the genre.
All aboard the psychedelic express.
WHAT IS MODERN PSYCHEDELIC ROCK?
Modern psychedelic rock is a genre with roots tracing back to the music and culture of the 1960s.
Artistes might differ in execution, but the songs aim to recreate the perception-altering effects of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD. Common motifs include experimentation, improvisation, and exaggerated sound and recording effects like feedback, long delay loops and reverb.
Music has evolved since then, meaning modern psychedelic rock has become an umbrella term for artists who cross over into other rock subgenres like art rock, stoner rock, and alt-rock.
Some of these bands might only incorporate elements of psychedelic rock into their music, rather than it being a consistent theme, so it could be misleading to define them as such.
HOW PSYCHEDELIC ROCK STARTED IN THE 1960S
To uninitiated onlookers of the time, psychedelic rock and hippie counterculture seemed to spring from thin air circa 1966. But this subculture had been brewing underground long before it went overground. Let's dive into how drugs, culture and music created a movement.
THE ASSOCIATION WITH DRUGS
Timothy Leary recording "Give Peace a Chance" with John Lennon & Yoko Ono (1969). Credit: Roy Kerwood/Wikimedia Commons
Throughout the 1950s and early 60s, psychiatrists introduced LSD-assisted psychotherapy into their treatment models. In the mid-to-late 50s, psychiatrist Humphry Osmond coined the term “psychedelic” in a letter written to Aldous Huxley discussing his psychedelic psychotherapy treatments.
Timothy Leary was another early (albeit, controversial) adopter of psychedelic psychotherapy, founding the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960. He later became an icon in the 1960s counterculture movement promoting mind expansion and personal truth via psychedelic experimentation.
Leary encapsulated the hippie counterculture with catchphrases like “turn on, tune in, drop out”, representing “dropping out” of conventional life.
CULTURE PLAYED A ROLE
Allen Ginsberg. Credit: Michiel Hendryckx/Wikimedia Commons
On the cultural front, the hippies were the benefactors of counter-cultural dissent expressed by the Beat Generation throughout the late 1950s, with beat icon, Allen Ginsberg, bridging the gap bextretween the two worlds.
Both factions promoted nonconformity and creativity, but the hippies (and Ginsberg) also protested the seemingly never-ending Vietnam War and engaged in civil rights activism.
While hippies and beats both took an experimental approach to psychedelic substances, the latter usually included alcohol, benzedrine and morphine.
Unlike the “playing it cool” approach of the original Beats, who opted for dark clothes and sunglasses, hippies (fuelled almost entirely by feel-good drugs like psychedelics) wore bright colours, experimented with a healthy dose of tie-dye, and grew out their hair as an expression of their nonconformity.
ALL THE EARLY MUSIC INSPIRATIONS
Ravi Shankar performing at Woodstock. Credit: Markgoff2972/Wikimedia Commons
The arrival of exotic musical motifs (which became a crucial part of psychedelic rock music) was driven by influential sitarist Ravi Shankar who brought Indian classical music to the West. Shankar’s efforts throughout the mid to late 1950s later inspired psych and raga rock.
The “granddaddio” of folk rock, Bob Dylan, was another early inspiration for psychedelic musicians of the early to late 60s.
Classic Dylan tracks like “Blowin’ In The Wind” (1963) and “The Times They Are A-Changin” (1964) captured the spirit of the civil rights movement.
Meanwhile, psychedelic drug culture was gradually bleeding into music, with American surf rock band the Gamblers being the first to mention LSD with their 1960 track “LSD-25”.
THE ACID TEST, WHERE DRUGS, CULTURE AND MUSIC MEET
In 1965 the first of the iconic Acid Tests arrived, marking the final transition from beatnik to hippie and transporting LSD from outside the psychiatrist's office into the hands of the general public.
At the events, host Ken Kesey (along with his go-to chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III and his Merry Pranksters) facilitated uncontrolled acid trips to thousands of attendees.
These parties took place, for the most part, in the San Francisco Bay Area, with bands like the Grateful Dead performing.
1960S PSYCHEDELIC ROCK BANDS THAT SHAPED THE GENRE
By 1966, the psychedelic rock scene was cemented, with artistes from Britain and America (with a large proportion coming from the LSD-fuelled San Francisco Bay Area) leading the charge.
Meet the artistes that shaped the genre between 1966 and 1969.
THE GRATEFUL DEAD
The Grateful Dead (1970). Credit: Herb Greene/Wikimedia Commons
The Grateful Dead kickstarted the psychedelic subculture alongside the cultural Acid Test events.
In Tom Wolfe’s America: Heroes, Pranksters, and Fools, author Kevin McEneaney credits the Grateful Dead for inventing acid rock (another term for psychedelic rock) while performing at the second of Kesey’s Acid Tests in 1965.
The band wanted to recreate the effect of LSD so that even the uninitiated could share the mind-altering experience. To do so, they employed strobe lights and instrumental jams with modal and tonal improvisation.
The Yardbirds in 1965. Credit: KRLA Beat/Beat Publications, Inc./Wikimedia Commons
English rock band, the Yardbirds, were pioneers of psychedelic rock and included members like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, who would become three of rock’s most influential guitarists.
The Yardbirds’ 1966 track “Shapes Of Things” is cited as one of the first psychedelic hits, reaching number three and 11 in the UK and US charts, respectively.
The band experimented with shifting rhythms, guitar effects, and Eastern-inspired scales while the lyrics explored themes like protecting the environment and protesting the war. These experimentations became signature motifs of psych rock.
THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS
The 13th Floor Elevators formed in 1965 on the garage rock band scene. They intended to spread LSD consciousness by experimenting with Eastern-inspired guitar drones and amplified feedback.
Its 1966 release, The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators, was the first album to include “psychedelic” in the title.
Although they didn’t achieve commercial success before disbanding in 1969, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock & Roll (1995) said they were “the most important early progenitors of psychedelic garage rock”.
The Beatles (1964). Credit: EMI/Wikimedia Commons
The Beatles’ 1966 Revolver is one of the earliest examples of a complete psychedelic rock album.
During the Revolver sessions, the Beatles experimented with reverse sounds (like on their B-side “Rain”, which didn't appear on the album), varispeed and non-Western musical forms and instruments.
Tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows” began to popularise psychedelic rock as a genre within the broader psychedelic music scene.
Meanwhile, the lyrics were directly inspired by 60s counterculture icons Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner’s book, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead (1964).
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was later released in 1967 and marked the first real commercial success in the psychedelic rock genre reaching number one and ten on the UK and US year-end album charts, respectively.
The album greatly influenced the US psychedelic rock scene of the late 60s.
Jefferson Airplane (1974). Credit: Grunt Records/Wikimedia Commons
Jefferson Airplane helped to pioneer the psychedelic San Francisco sound.
And they were the first from the Bay Area scene to achieve some mainstream success, with 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow’s “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love” making it into the top ten in the US charts.
The album was also a signature sound during the Summer of Love (1967), encapsulating the essence of seeking higher consciousness and promoting flower power.
During this iconic hippie counterculture milestone, around 100,000 people gathered in San Francisco’s neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury. Participants brought the movement’s free love, anti-war sentiments and psychedelic rock music to the world stage.
The Doors. Credit: Elektra Records-Joel Brodsky/Wikimedia Commons
The Doors were synonymous with the counterculture of the 1960s, particularly their wild, poetic, and controversial frontman Jim Morrison.
Lyrically, Morrison explored mystical concepts, the human condition, altered states of consciousness and anti-conformity.
At the same time, Ray Manzarek’s keyboard playing alongside the addition of Robby Krieger and John Densmore’s training via Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar were further signifiers of psychedelia.
The Doors are not just among the most successful psych rock bands but also the most successful bands of the 1960s. By 1972 the band had sold over four million albums in the US, and they remain one of the best-selling bands of all time.
Pink Floyd (1971). Credit: Capitol Records/Wikimedia Commons
Pink Floyd gained notoriety as a groundbreaking psychedelic band and was one of the first of their kind to hail from Britain.
Their lavish live shows were ahead of their time – and like the Grateful Dead, their live performances were as much a part of the overall experience as the music.
The band performed their psychedelic rock-infused liquid light shows on the “underground” circuit, and by 1967 they had released their successful debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
Pink Floyd later became a tour de force in the progressive rock genre.
JIMI HENDRIX (THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience performed at the Culture House in Helsinki (1967). Credit: Marjut Valakivi/Wikimedia Commons
Guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix was a once-in-a-lifetime talent who left a fierce impression on the music world.
Although Hendrix was American, his first success was in the UK with timeless psychedelic rock tracks “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary” becoming UK top ten hits in 1967.
By 1968, his final studio album Electric Ladyland was number one on the US charts, and the following year he headlined Woodstock.
Not only was Hendrix a vital part of the UK-US psychedelic connection, but he was also a gateway between black funk and psychedelia.
THE DOWNFALL OF 1960S PSYCHEDELIC ROCK
Woodstock 1969. Credit: James M Shelley/Wikimedia Commons
By 1969 psychedelic rock had all but peaked, with the last great expression of 60s psychedelia being the Woodstock festival that same year.
The horrifying murders of Sharon Tate alongside Leno and Rosemary LaBianca by a deranged Charles Manson and his cult in 1969 drew a line under the feel-good, consequence-free attitude of the hippie movement.
Then the early 70s saw the untimely deaths of psychedelic rock icons like Hendrix and Morrison.
By 1971 the psychedelic rock experiment was over, but the genre inspired its surreal musical cousin, progressive rock.
MODERN PSYCHEDELIC ROCK BANDS EVOLVING THE GENRE
Modern psychedelic rock bands have the privilege of drawing inspiration from psychedelic music of the 1960s, while exploring post-psych genres like progressive rock, stoner rock and heavy metal.
Unlike 60s psychedelia, there’s now a more apparent distinction between psychedelic pop and psychedelic rock, with the latter having a heavier flavour.
Let's dive into some of the best modern psychedelic rock bands taking the genre to new heights.
THEE OH SEES (OSEES)
Thee Oh Sees (2017). Credit: friedoxygen/Wikimedia Commons
Thee Oh Sees, or known as just Osees, have been on the scene since 1997, and their musical references are as varied as their plentiful name changes.
Their back catalogue is pretty eclectic, with an impressive 26 albums so far. A host of rock subgenres, including punk and garage, are covered, with psychedelic rock most prevalent under the band’s banner.
Check out “Graveyard Drug Party” from their 2008 release, The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending A Night In, for some sounds reminiscent of early Pink Floyd.
King Buffalo at the Valkhof Festival 2022. Credit: FakirNL/Wikimedia Commons
King Buffalo have been active since 2013 and places its music under the “heavy psych” genre. The band currently has four albums, with a fifth (Regenerator) set to be released in September 2022.
With every album, they manage to expand upon their existing sound in a way that seems effortless.
If you need to get some deep work done or feel like zoning out and escaping 21st-century stressors, check out King Buffalo’s Orion (2016) and Acheron (2021).
THE BLACK ANGELS
The Black Angels (2014). Credit: gina pina from Austin, TX, USA/Wikimedia Commons
The Black Angels formed in 2004. This band is heavy, haunting and unmissable if you love the darker side of psych rock. And with a name inspired by the Velvet Underground's “The Black Angel's Death Song”, you know their offerings will be dark and even unsettling at times.
Dead Meadow live at The Moth Club, London England, (2016). Credit: Softlybroken/Wikimedia Commons
Dead Meadow has been around since 1998, amassing seven studio albums. Their signature sound combines classic psychedelic rock with 70’s heavy metal and lyrics inspired by fantasy behemoths JRR Tolkien and HP Lovecraft.
Dead Meadow also recorded a Peel Session (live music sessions recorded for John Peel's BBC Radio 1 show) that was released in 2011.
After hearing their first (and arguably most psychedelic) self-titled album, Peel, a legendary British DJ and fervent proponent of psych rock, asked them to record their session.
It was the first to be recorded outside the BBC studios.
Formed in 2004, Black Mountain took influence from Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground, and Jefferson Airplane.
The band borrows psychedelia and stoner rock motifs to create their unique blend and sound. For a psychedelic offering with some space rock thrown in, check out 2016’s IV.
KING GIZZARD & THE LIZARD WIZARD
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard (2016). Credit: paul hudson/Wikimedia Commons
Australian natives King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard formed in 2010. Following Ohsees footsteps, their back catalogue is vast and incorporates a mind-bending level of rock sub-genres.
For one of their quintessential psychedelic rock offerings, check out 2014’s I'm In Your Mind Fuzz. And if you prefer laidback vibes, try the Chilled Gizzard YouTube compilation; it'll transport you straight back to the golden age of psychedelic rock.
Weedpecker has been on the go since 2012 and mixes a range of sounds: anywhere from heavy stoner riffs, droning instrumental jams reminiscent of Tool, and fuzz riffs that take you to another world.
The band has four albums at present. Each will lull you in with its laid-back yet heavy ambience and signature hazy twist.
SOMALI YACHT CLUB
Somali Yacht Club live in Zughafen, Erfurt (2022). Credit: Siechfred/Wikimedia Commons
Ukrainian band Somali Yacht Club formed in 2010 and has four albums. The first single from their latest album, The Space, was released amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
On Instagram, the band stated: “Not even an army at our door is gonna stop us from releasing the first single from the upcoming LP The Space. Enjoy.”
Their sound takes you on a journey exploring psychedelic and space rock facets with melodies that peak and trough throughout.
Can you pass the Murlocs test? This modern psychedelic rock band features King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard members and harks straight back to the genre’s roots of the late 1960s.
Try their 2014 album Loopholes for some serious Summer of Love vibes with a bit of harmonica-filled hallucinogenic surf-rock thrown in for fun.
PSYCHEDELIC PORN CRUMPETS
Psychedelic Porn Crumpets formed in 2014, taking their inspiration from bands like Tame Impala, Pond, Black Sabbath and the Beatles.
Since their formation in 2014, they have built a strong foundation in the psychedelic rock world with five impressive studio albums.
Check out their 2021 album Shyga! The Sunlight Mound for some upbeat psychedelic sounds.
FURTHER DOWN THE MODERN PSYCHEDELIC ROCK RABBIT HOLE
And if you go chasing rabbits… Here’s our final offering to you, dear traveller.
In case some of your favourites are already on the list, we’ve pooled the depths of modern psychedelic rock’s waters for some (hopefully) more obscure offerings.
Check out Mt. Mountain for some heavy psychedelia, Los Acidos for garage psychedelic vibes and Lay Llamas if you wanna feel groovy and inspired by their psychedelic-afrobeat fusion.
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Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.