The Dream Syndicate – ‘The Universe Inside’

Dream Syndicate

First published:

The Dream Syndicate were one of those US alt-rock/neo-psychedelia bands that injected the vibrance of the Paisley Underground into the depressive veins of the late 80’s, at a time when music was dominated by fatalism courtesy of Margaret Thatcher and Joy Division.  Their first two albums – ‘Days of Wine And Roses’ (1982) and ‘Medicine Show’ (1984) brought back the jangly wigged out bliss of the Velvet Underground, with a blast of Crazy Horse, upgraded for the new decade. But really, having said that, this was, and still is, a band that defies definition.  For them there is no style or genre that’s out of range.  Nothing is off-limits or too outrageous.

Founder Steve Wynn is well known for his guitar improvisations and his current crew (which he revived after a 23 hiatus) are hugely talented in their own right.  They are original members – drummer Dennis Duck, bassist Mark Walton, lead guitarist Jason Victor, along with keyboardist Chris Cacavas – the perfect team to realise Wynn’s latest mind explosions and add their own dynamite to the big bangs.

‘The Universe Inside’, is the band’s fourth outing on Anti Records, the second after their 2012 reunion. Listening to their work, this couldn’t be further from their previous output. It’s also their first entirely collaborative effort (in Dream Syndicate history, at least) and sounds mostly like a live recording.  Unlike their previously well-formed psych rock, this is an undeniably indulgent jam session – a minestrone-soup mix of Euro-avant-garde, free jazz, ’70s prog and smatterings of Dead/Californian hippy psch-rock garage.  Yup.  The whole shebang!

You better put aside some time for the opener because it’s a long, long player.  ‘The Revelator’ sprawls for over 20-minute, without really going anywhere fast.  The label calls it “psychedelic journey through New York City, equal parts panoramic, psychedelic, somnambulistic and political.”  That’s one way of looking at it.  Less generous, more impatient listeners might call it a meandering yawn-fest, with little direction, inaudible lyrics, and a pastiche of pointless retro media samples added to fill in the gaps in creativity.

It starts with a cliché: a groovy droning sitar, funky bass, fuzz guitars and feedback, squalling horns and Wynn’s gravel vocals, asking “Have you heard?” Heard what, exactly.  Fine if you are a fan of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I will give credit for a particularly epic saxophone solo that would put Dexter Gordon to shame, but the rest of this cinematic jaunt is decidedly B-Movie sludge.

The lyrics are equally baffling: “The scarcity of the soul / Blown fuses / For the regulator / Songs and sounds that soothe the savage soul.” Hypnotic or tedious.  Depends what mood you’re in, really.

‘The Longing’ continues the mood, sigh, with more of the same – guitars that work like charismatic shaman, luring you into a trancelike state.  More trippy lyrics. Wynn believes his mantras: “All that’s left now from before / The final twitch and spasm / Like it happened moments ago / Distant across the chasm.” Why does that seem so relevant in these lock down times? “You felt invincible / Like anything was possible / Now all that’s left is the longing.”  It’s dripping in echo and delay pedals but still feels like an unfinished blast of unnecessary self-indulgence.

There are only 5 tracks on this disc. ‘Apropos of Nothing’ is the third. I had to look up the word.  ‘Apropos’ means ‘with reference to’.  So, ergo, the song is a reference to ‘nothing’.  A good title because while it’s an attempt at experimental musique concrète and 1970s modal jazz it just comes across as a bit limp. What’s missing is the European stiffness that defines this genre. Syncopated rhythms, more heady synths and swirly samples and mystifying soundscapes of no clear definition.

I did like the Krautrock interpretations on ‘Dusting Off The Rust’, which reminded me of Neu and Kraftwerk in places.  Brass instruments and synths faze in and out over the staccato beats of a severe drum machine – and a sprinkle of British 80’s (aka Soft Machine) from Marcus Tenney’s sax and trumpet.  The song also features percussionist Johnny Hott (House of Freaks) on the last 10 minutes of the track, making this a very 80’s revival – aka Visage or Ultravox.

Honestly, the closer ‘The Slowest Rendition’ came as some relief.  And it was the most familiar.  I’ve been listening to a lot of early Bowie and Eno so I could hear Roxy Music or Ziggy Stardust references all over this two-part epic about mental decay and rebuild – based on a real life experience of a friend of Wynn’s who suffered a stroke: “I am the derelict conductor / Of the broken symphony / I’m the amateur director / On a badly lit mystery / Keep moving the pieces / Keep shuffling the deck / Keep singing the chorus / Of the slowest rendition.”

This was by far the best and most cohesive track on this long and exhausting journey.  It’s a record that visits territory familiar and well-trodden. New to this band, but not to me.  I’ve heard better psych-improvised jazz elsewhere.  It’s indulgent, hypnotic and just a little bit of a w*nk in places.  Still, as we are all in lock down at present, so what’s the hurry. I can see vinyl lovers going for this.  Simply because of the prog-rock references, a physical reminder of time, space and distance at a time when every groove counted.  Cerebral mind warps included.

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