Yorkshire’s hardiest cosmic troubadours return to action following their mighty A Shimmering Replica vinyl and CD splurgefest and fresh from a well-deserved retrospective in Wire magazine, with seven glistening slices of psycho-fuzz-dronic synth and guitar gloop.
Someone once called Ashtray Navigations ‘the sweet spot between Terry Riley and Neil Young’, a description which is pretty darn fine by me. Phil Todd and Melanie O’Dubhshlaine have patented a brand of dyspeptic psych rock since forever (1881 if you believe their website) that tiptoes a high wire between benevolently splitting open your third eye and inflicting serious long-term psychic trauma. Neither swirly acid trance rock nor fey autumnal teatime Victoriana, the Ashtray Navigations brand of psychedelia is nearer to the mind-altering parallel universes of Philip K Dick, Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, perhaps, or Ubik, a place where illicit drugs really can create new universes or prevent the wholesale collapse of our existing one.
That’s not to say these groovy fuckers are advocating indulgence in prohibited substances. I wouldn’t dare to presume that. But listening to an Ashtray Navigations record is akin to being abruptly jolted into a alternate worlds where everything is different, and not necessarily in a good way. A place where, in the blink of an eye, a lovable screen hunk becomes a worthless rube. Where your beautiful shiny motor regresses to a clapped out jalopy even as it careers down the freeway.
Hit ‘play’ on Lemon Blossom Gently Pixelating In The Breeze and we’re flushed down the wormhole immediately and without hesitation, victims of a slow burping phase and glistening walls of synth that submerge us in their Technicolor rhapsody. It’s kind of all downhill (or uphill?) from then on, the duo plastering on layers of rippling electronics and chemically enhanced guitar explorations like a meltdown in a jam factory.
Subterranean Head Of An Ostrich sums it all up, with its burbling oscillators weaving blobby webs around Todd’s berserker soloing, the twin strands of instrumentation first complementing each other but finally vying for supremacy and ending up in a kind of drone fuzz face-off, quivering at fever pitch before slinking off into the shadows. Cold Dripping of the Infinite Rock Tap dispenses with the guitar completely, instead marshalling a frantic acid squelch for a total freak-out workout, guaranteed to send all but the most hardened truth seekers into a slack-jawed googly eyed fugue state, with only a few Manzarek-style keyboard twiddles for consolation.
It’s all good, brothers and sisters, but I have a particular liking for the quieter moments, like the Kraftwerk-on-downers half-step of Magenta Field, which seems to channel that first moment you step out into the early morning sun after a rave, the sub bass still vibrating in your spine even as the new day brings you back to normality. Meter Breed is another mellow cut, nicely sequenced as to provide a benign comedown at the end of the album, the warmth of its guitar pluckings and gentle synth modulations walking back into normality after our strange journey. Down the rabbit hole many years have passed, but somehow we return to the precise co-ordinates from which we began. Is it magic? Could be.