A Big Night Out at... a Psytrance Rave!
You know those people with bongos and dreadlocks you occasionally see loitering around South Coast university towns? Y'know, the ones wearing patchwork tea cosy hats and ethnic-print harem pants. Well, do you ever ask yourself what they get up to during the ten months of the year when there's no Croatian festivals based around a brief lunar eclipse for them to go to? Do you ever wonder what kind of music hippies listen to now that Bob Dylan makes lingerie ads and reggae is all about drug murders and shooting homosexuals again?
Well, worry no longer. The answer to all these questions is psytrance.
For the uninitiated, psytrance is the sound and the look of Europe's (honestly, psytrance is more European than Zucchero and Michel Platini chanting "Seven Nation Army" at the Pamplona bull run) nu-hippie movement. The name of the associated music genre is a simple smashing together of the words "psychedelic" and "trance", but the culture surrounding it is far richer than that. It was always something that people I went to college with came back from Goa talking about, it was something that even people who like gabber didn't really understand. Everyone knows it exists, but no one knows how or why. It's a completely esoteric movement that I've always been a little fascinated by.
Which is why I decided the time had come to ignorantly wade into it.
Despite my inexperience, I knew that tonight's event differed from the typical psytrance party, mainly because it didn't take place in a dilapidated abattoir in Neasden or a neglected patch of green belt land somewhere near the M25. The venue was a small place in Vauxhall. I rifled through my wardrobe, but the most psychedelic items I could find were a few Hawaiian shirts and a pair of swim trunks with a yellow strip on them. So I just decided to go in my civvies. If they didn't embrace me, maybe the quilted Barbour would at least make them think I was a middle-class skunk dealer.
Visuals are a big thing in the psytrance world. Whereas most clubs will make do with a monochrome print of Jimi Hendrix in the gents, most of the promoter's budget seemed to have gone on this centrepiece, which existed as a kind of dancefloor star gate; a space-portal into the world of extreme fuckedness. I know it might look like a giant childrens' watch you'd get free with a packet of Shreddies or a holographic Pog, but the ravers seemed to worship its glowing majesty like leathery British ex-pats before the Majorcan Sun. I began to feel like a conquistador from the land of norm, watching with fearful wonder as these strange people in strange costumes prayed to an idol I couldn't understand.
My research had revealed to me that if there's one thing the psy-community loves more than colourful visual stimulus, it's colourful wordplay. This is probably the only thing they have in common with regular readers of The Sun.
It seems to be a big thing in the scene to have a DJ moniker that alludes to your psychedelic inclinations through the use of a dubious pun. While it was only Psyc0de and the brilliantly named "Skyhighatrist" keeping this up tonight, I assure you it's something of a trope in the scene. One flyer I came across even boasted of a DJ named "Psycle Lane". I couldn't help but imagine the poor, dejected selector googling his way through all the already taken psy-puns. Despairingly tapping in "Psy-Ko-Logi-Kal" and finding out there was already a DJ in Rotterdam with that name, slamming their fist on the table when they found out there was a clairvoyant impersonator named "Psymon Cowell". Finally having to settle with the everyday, domestic tepidity of "Psycle Lane" and being really pissed off about it.
A weird thing about the music is that not only is it not very psychedelic, it doesn't sound much like trance, either. The futuristic compound genre name suggests some kind of spacey, euphoric mix between Paul Van Dyk and The 13th Floor Elevators, which sounds like it could be awesome. But in actual fact, the sound resembles something you might hear in a sex shop or on the menu screen for an old PC shoot 'em up.
The really sucky part is that there's no break, no respite from the constant bonus level swoosh-banging and "DAGA-DAGA!" bass synths. You expect a synth break to kick in eventually, for everyone to throw their hands up in the air and worship at the holographic Swatch on stage, but it never comes. It just stops and then goes straight into another track that sounds almost exactly the same but with one less sound effect.
It quickly became apparent that you probably have to be on something more potent than four Kronenbourgs to enjoy this music.
The rest of the crowd, however, were lapping it up like musical catnip. Looking on, there was definitely something kind of mesmerising about their dancing, it bore a lot more relation to the word "trance" than pumping your plastic bottle of Desperados at a Ferry Corsten aerodrome rave in Düsseldorf. They seemed to be lost in the music in the way that all DJs like to think their crowds are, swinging their mummified locks through the air like new age L'Oreal models. These people had been possessed by the beat and I'd only been there for half an hour. I felt like a Gloucestershire council noise monitor who'd been brought in to to shut down a three-day-long rave in the Forest of Dean.
I was going to have to go native if I stood any chance of understanding what I saw going on in front of me – I was going to have to dance.
After what seemed like a hallucinogen-induced eternity awkwardly skirting the sides of the 'floor, I began to understand what was going on. While people at psytrance events love to dance, they don't necessarily dance with each other. I realised there was something oddly non-sexual at work here, which separated it from just about every other shindig, outside of an all-male Goldeneye smoke-up, that I'd ever been to.
Even at the most euphoric house raves where everybody has taken so many pills they can't even feel their own hands, let alone want to fuck, they're sort of still dancing with each other. At psytrance nights, however, the dancing is more about self-expression, personal interpretation and getting lost in the godawful music than getting laid. It was like being at a club where everybody there was "that guy doing the weird dancing by the stairs".
I couldn't manage to be one of them, but my respect was growing for the tenner-trip Travoltas littering the sticky tiles. This wasn't dancing as I've known it, it seemed to adhere more to the old school, northern soul, disco and early rave MO of joyous physical expression more than anything we have now. I imagined guys like this practicing their Wing Chun chops and side pivots in front of their wristband-lined mirrors to Psycle Lane YouTube mixes. I was impressed by how up for strutting their stuff these people were, which they chose to do rather than standing on the fringes, scouring for the next pair of 501s to press themselves up against.
The idea that this was a place where you could just sort of do your own thing even manifested itself in some stuff that wasn't dancing. This dude stood at the back of the main room playing catch with some bowling pins all night long. At first I wondered if he had been hired by the promoters to do this as some kind of sideshow, but watching him closely, that didn't seem to be the case. This seemed to be his idea of what kicking it in the club is.
Why? Maybe he did it for a laugh at a club once, managed to pull some dreadlocked Helen of Troy and has been holding this tragic vigil for her return ever since? I have no idea really, but I'm glad he's found his arena. There are pubs and clubs in South London where pulling this kind of stunt would lead to someone who claims to be "Mad" Frankie Fraser's nephew threatening to reenact the routine with your eyeballs.
Also on that Royal Variety Show swag was this guy, whose skills seemed to be limited to balancing an inflated Tango-flavoured condom on the back of his hand. But it wasn't his orb game I was struck by, it was his look. Somehow, our man had managed to channel Santa Claus, Carl Barat, Swampy, a 13-year-old small-town stoner and Rasputin, all while looking totally in keeping with the event. I started to realise that the aesthetic choices psytrancers make are even more batshit than I'd previously imagined.
Take these guys, for example. You might look at them and think 'So what? That's just psytrance 101, isn't it?' or 'I'm sure one of these guys taught me how to boogie board in Torbay once,' but think about what a strange look this actually is. What's the inspiration? What's the lineage? It's sort of nu-hippie, kind of white-boy-Rasta, quasi-Brazilian metal, a little futuristic Australian TV drama, part Copenhagen B-boy, some other shit I can't quite place. If this was a look formulated by a high fashionista, the closest they could get to summing it up would be "post-apocalyptic Mick Hucknall", or "KoЯn go to a Dale Farm protest".
I found myself feeling a new kind of respect for guys I'd usually sneer at from beneath my ten quid French crop. Total aesthetic non-conformity isn't something you come across often in Hollister-ised, modern-day Britain.
That said, if this man isn't a bike courier, I'll eat his hair. What is it with bike couriers and weird hair, anyway? I understand that being slightly unhinged is a pre-requisite for the job, but it seems you can't get that job unless you've got locks like Jean Michel-Basquiat or Chinese Democracy-era Axl Rose. Neither of which are very conducive to wearing a helmet.
The range of ages represented made me feel like a sober videographer at a wedding in which the caterers had used the wrong kind of mushrooms for the mini beef wellingtons. I like to think of this guy as a kind of psychedelic Zelig, one of those people who's just sort of always been around the scene. Imagine John Peel if he'd never graduated from his early hippie stage, never found punk and never died, and you'd get this guy. Maybe.
Here's another gentleman of a certain age who's proving that psytrance isn't just a young man's game. He spent most of the night on the stage in room two, lost in the music, determined to embody the missing link between Timothy Leary and Timothy Mallett. I like to imagine that his tie-dye rugby shirt is reversible, so that he could wear it to the next day's CAMRA meet-up without the lads ever clocking the sky-sailing, psytrance smashtronaut lurking within.
I found myself slightly worrying about these guys. I wasn't quite sure if they knew what they'd let themselves in for, they looked like they'd stumbled in on an Animal Collective set a few pingers deep at Benicassim and had decided to investigate this psychedelia lark more when they got home. Guys, you should've gone to see Disclosure at the UCL student union instead.
But then I wondered if they could be trail-blazers, that maybe psytrance was about to hit the EDM hipster community in a big way. Maybe Skyhighatrist and Psycle Lane were on the verge of getting an hour-long b2b at Boiler Room? Maybe Drake was about to spit over an Infected Mushroom track, maybe dreads were the new purple dip-dyes? You may laugh, but psytrance is just about the last 90s look that hasn't been swallowed up and regurgitated by Tumblr yet.
I wasn't so worried about these guys, though. These were the veterans, the hardcore, the scene survivors, the ones who probably aren't really into the music at all, but have just gravitated towards psytrance because that's where the strongest drugs are. You know somebody's a real pro at this kinda thing when they have dedicated items in the wardrobe just for getting fucked up in. You know they really mean business when among those items are a chemical body suit and a neon Stone Roses hat.
Look at them – it's like they've all melted into each other, creating a rolling, amorphous, sweaty, nylon blob of altered serotonin. They lumbered about the building like Siamese triplets who'd been woken up, still fucked up on general anaesthetic from the operation to separate them. While everyone else was in space, these guys had gone through that intergalactic foyer and hit another fucking solar system of wasted.
It wasn't all perspiring pillheads trying to replicate that out-of-body experience they had at Fantazia '94, though. There were also these guys.
This picture looks more like a clipping from a West Country newspaper about a local farmer turned entrepreneur (me) who's agreed to stage a progressive, new age poetry festival (them) on his inherited land, rather than something from a back issue of Mixmag. These lot were a little more Jethro Tull than Judge Jules, a little more Tolkien than Ballard, and I wondered quite what they thought of the aggressive, dissolute music soundtracking the night. They seemed like they might be more at home with a panpipe solo rather than a foghorn breakdown.
Despite the music ringing out in my brain for hours afterwards and the phantasmagoric scenes that took place in front of my very eyes, it's the scent that will really linger with me till my dying day. Mix hemp jackets, matted dreads and laissez-faire personal hygiene habits beneath the bright, burning lights and you've got a full on nerve gas attack of those three very similar smells. It was like being in a gas chamber designed by the members of Phish.
At first, I'd worried about how I'd be able to hack the night in my relatively objective, drug-free, borderline professional state. It was scheduled to go on till 7AM, and I began to wonder if the real spirit of psytrance could only really be understood if you were on a lot of drugs at a time in which the tube had started running.
However, somewhere around 3AM, the first casualties began to rack up. The sofas had gone from seating areas to sick bays and I felt like a sober Florence Nightingale in the hallucinatory Crimea going on around me. There was no blood, but there was a lot of sweat and a few tears. I had become the patronising, straight-laced narrator of an anti-drug PSA and that's not much fun, really.
I don't know if it was because these guys had been at another rave all day and were part of the psytrance "straight through crew", or if they were just having the literal definition of a "disco nap", a quick power-snooze before dropping the cosmic karate moves for another few hours, but it was weird that people were openly sleeping everywhere. I always assumed that sleeping in a club was the kind of thing that would get you carried out by bouncers before your head even hit the arm rest, but here it seemed to be widely accepted.
I became unsure as to how much of their reputation for ultimate inebriation I'd heard about was warranted. While there were a few serious wreck-heads about (and I didn't stick around till the very end, in fairness), were they any worse than the people you'd see stumbling around Farringdon on any given Sunday morning? Or even some regular club you'd find on any high street in Britain? I don't think so. People get fucked up everywhere these days, the world of psytrance just seems to make it more of a central lifestyle tenet.
I decided to take comfort in the fact that I wasn't the first person to fall asleep and head off back to the Vauxhall bus garage, a place that's a long way from psychedelic, but very close to an existential idea of hell.
The interesting part of psytrance lies not in the amount of drugs the scene gets through – because, really, all scenes other than straight edge, hardcore and sport science uni lads have their own narcotic choices. No, it's the genuinely outsider nature of the culture that separates it from the others.
As easy as it is to mock the trustafarians and eurotrash hostel-hoppers that frequent its events calendar, psytrance really is a counter-culture in the truest sense. The music is harsh, the clothes are weird, the drugs are strong, the best parties are illegal. This isn't a scene you can enter half-heartedly; nobody is having their birthday drinks at places like this – it's too intense, too esoteric for the casual partygoer. If there's an entry level version, this party was probably it and it was still one of the most confusing and unusual parties I've ever been to.
Psytrance deserves its place in our cultural landscape because it remains one of the few subcultures that trendy Stoke Newington dads just won't get. They might get Kendrick Lamar or Jam City, but they won't ever "get" Psycle Lane. It must have its lineage, but I'm fucked if I know what it is and it does feel like a weird animal that just showed up one day without anyone knowing where it came from – a totally different club beast that even people with superclub loyalty cards probably can't hack.
There's very little out there that's capable of genuinely upsetting people, and there's value in that. Although, that said, the next time I'm feeling a little bit euphoric, I'll probably still be reaching for the N-Trance rather than the psy.
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