Over the better part of the past 12-15 months or so, I’ve managed to spill quite a bit of virtual ink writing about the acclaimed Los Angeles-based psych rock act and JOVM mainstays The Dream Syndicate. Tracing its origins back to the early 80s, the band which currently features founding members Steve Wynn (guitars, vocals), a critically applauded singer/songwriter and solo artist and Dennis Duck (drums), along with the band’s most recent members Mark Walton (bass) and Jason Victor (guitar), the members of the acclaimed psych rock act just released their third post-reunion and seventh full-length album The Universe Inside through Anti- Records.
Arguably one of the most forward-thinking, mind-bending efforts they’ve yet to release, the album marks the first time in their storied history in which every song on the album was conceived and written as a collective group. And the result is an album that sounds unlike anything they’ve done together or individually. Musically, the material draws from each individual member’s eclectic interests and passions: Dennis Duck’s love and knowledge of European avant garde music, Jason Victor’s love of 70s prog rock, Mark Walton’s experience in Southern-friend music collectives, Chris Cacavas’ interest in sound manipulation and Wynn’s love of 70s jazz fusion. Interestingly, the album’s material comes from one completely improvised session in which the band created 80 continuous minutes of soundscapes. “All we added was air,” Wynn explains in press notes. So, aside from vocals, horns and a touch of percussion here and there, every instrument is recorded live as it happened.
So far I’ve written about the album’s first two single. The album’s the sprawling, Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis meets prog rock and psych rock-like first single, “The Regulator,” which features The Long Ryders‘ Stephen McCarthy on sitar and Butcher Brown‘s Marcus Tenney on sax. Adding to the lysergic and hazy vibe, Wynn’s vocals were fed through vocoder and ghostly effects — and then buried within the mix. The album’s second single was the brooding and atmospheric “The Longing,” an eerily prescient meditation on mortality and the passage of time that evokes the creeping realization of one’s own morality; the awareness of unfinished business and the gnawing lack of closure or even meaning; and the uneasy feeling of being adrift and alone in a frightening and uncertain world.
The album’s third and latest single “Apropos of Nothing” continues the album’s lysergic vibes: The song opens with an expansive and trance-inducing introductory section centered around shimmering and reverb-drenched guitars and a motorik-groove and surrealistic and impressionistic lyrics that slowly builds up into the sort of ecstatic catharsis reminiscent of the Sufi whirling dervishes.
“The only verbal cue that came during the entire 80 minutes of improvisation that led to The Universe Inside happened as we started the section that became ‘Apropos of Nothing,’” Wynn explains. “We had been messing around in the key of E on the bits that led to ‘The Regulator’ and ‘The Longing’ and then Stephen McCarthy said ‘Let’s try something in G.’ He started playing the figure that starts the section and off we went. We were so locked in with each other and our antennae were poised for any clues that anyone in the band had to offer.
When I went back to Richmond to finish the record I knew I wanted to sing something on this section. I went into the studio and quickly wrote the words—it took about 5 minutes—just so I’d have something to sing. I did one pass and said, ‘Give me another track so I can try out a harmony.’ I did that in one pass as well and that was that. It’s really a good sign—and definitely the pattern of things for this particular record—when things happen so easily and naturally.”
Directed by long-time visual collaborator David Dalglish, the recently released video is a cinematic meditation on the passage of time and our potential watery demise. And as the video suggests, what of our things and our world if we’re no longer here to give them meaning?