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It would be overly simplistic to imagine a chasm between the haves and have-nots in today's psych-rock landscape, even between the ones with huge production values and the ones sticking it out with streamers and bubblegum. The reason: All the best bands these days carry some degree of scrappiness, no matter how gigantic their approach. Reigning acid champions The Flaming Lips still hold on to some aspects of their early jerry-rigged live shows (including having random audience members come onstage to dance in animal costumes), but their Zeppelin-infused bubble-psych sound continues to expand right along with their summer festival fees.
Synth practitioners Black Moth Super Rainbow, who actually were brought on tour with The Flaming Lips in 2007, have gone in the opposite direction when it comes to means, but they have succeeded in reaching an equally imaginative end.
Like all psych acts trying to create a vivid escape, BMSR aims to carefully cultivate an alternate universe of sound and imagery, one of blunted colors and residual pop smear. Onstage, the members often wear masks and operate under goofy stage names (like band leader Tom Fec's moniker Tobacco). Until recently, Fec rarely did interviews that weren't over e-mail. In 2009, he enlisted longtime Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann to get his expansive touch on Eating Us, a record of sparkly, colorful synth pop.
However, Fec reportedly was dissatisfied with the album's sheen, spending the next few years working on his Tobacco side material of raw hip-hop beats. When he finally got back on the Black Moth horse, there was no label interest to be found. Undeterred, Fec performed and recorded 2012's splendidly squeamish Cobra Juicy entirely by himself at home.
The biggest idols on Cobra Juicy's gnarly mantle are dance droids Daft Punk and the glammy boogie of T. Rex's Marc Bolan, but there's also a tiny debt owed to the blocky beats of convicted glam-rock perv Gary Glitter. Don't get the wrong idea: In the same way the psych trip of the Lips sometimes hinges on fake blood and cartoon violence, BMSR's warped sexual chocolate is finally harmless.
The most representative track is the lurching rocker "Hairspray Heart," built on synthesizers that ooze with equal amounts of glitter and goop, with Fec repeating the slinky chorus, "Like a fucking diamond falling from my eye." Though Fec sings exclusively through a vocoder, the new addition of simple guitar riffs and roomy drums makes the record less bombastically alien and more eerily familiar, adding a Lynchian simplicity to the Lips' Jodorowsky-esque virtuosity.
Even more endearing is that Cobra Juicy's expenses were entirely crowd-funded on Kickstarter. Fec asked for $45,000 for the album pressing and some fun promo material, but ended up pulling almost three times that amount. The success had a lot to do with his status as a neglected yet determined outsider, but the sweet donation prize levels certainly helped. Those pledging $75 got a Fec-designed "Ugly Orange" mask shown on the record cover — all of them manufactured in the band's hometown of Pittsburgh — with USB sticks loaded with the new album jammed in the gums. Unfortunately, nobody dropped $3,000 large to earn a Fec-DJ'd skate rink boogaloo.
Before this turns into a class war, understand that Black Moth does not sound cheap, and it can't be pigeonholed as a (literally) poor man's Lips. There's nothing wrong with top-dollar psych (and premium drugs) enjoyed on immersive equipment. Yet a trip through BMSR's small-scale sex-and-candy prism could turn even a semi-fried Domino's driver's Toyota Tercel into an interstellar groove capsule. Just take what you need and nothing more.