When I lived in Berlin, many years ago now, I caught a gig by a personal favorite, The Mars Volta. They had just released Frances the Mute and were touring in support of that great record. Sadly, this ranks as among the worst gigs as I’ve ever been to. The band themselves appeared1 to be off their faces and played only one discernible song over an hour into the jam session, at which point I left. I have similar feelings about For the Masses, Ecstatic Vision’s third full-length record (which follows a 2018 EP of covers, Under the Influence). It features only one discernible song template that is repeated over and over. Hailed as the apparent second coming of Hawkwind, this Philadelphia quartet drops 36 minutes of heavy psychedelic rock on the unsuspecting, and in my case, largely unappreciative listener.
There is no question that Ecstatic Vision draw inspiration from the likes of Hawkwind, CAN, and, more contemporaneously, Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats. Like previous releases, For the Masses features guitar lines that wend and wind all over the place, jazz-inspired free-form drumming and screaming sax, and heavily distorted clean vocals. Abandoning traditional song structures featuring choruses and the like, Ecstatic Vision favor either looping psychedelic blues riffs or no structure at all. For the Masses opens with two minutes of electronic distortion and feedback in the rather optimistically titled “Sage Wisdom” before it eases into its first proper track. “Shut Up and Drive”—disappointingly, not a Rihanna cover as far as I can tell—has a desert blues edge to it, with repetitive groovy and bass over echoing part-sung, part-spoken vocals (or sprechgesang as GardensTale would have it) and trippy guitar leads.
This double act of “Sage Wisdom” and “Shut Up and Drive” is a pretty good representation of Ecstatic Vision’s vision for this record as a whole: a selection of long, trippy tracks, low on hooks, heavy on groove, and wailing guitar leads, with incidental vocals and an occasional use of sax. That’s certainly the formula applied for the album’s longest cut, the eight-minute “Yuppie Sacrifice,” and closer/album highlight “Grasping the Void.” Two of the intervening three tracks, the feedback-heavy and slightly unsettling interlude-turned-title track and “The Magic Touch,” don’t offer more to the mix. “Like a Freak,” however, stands out from the rest of the album, if only for being identifiable as a standalone song. Upping the tempo from a hazy wander to an insistent but still fuggy gallop, Ricky Culp’s drums drive the band along for this aggressive, punky number. At times, Ecstatic Vision threaten to break into something resembling Monster Magnet but, sadly, never do.
Overall, Ecstatic Vision deliver a meandering record which lacks focus and discernible highs. Most tracks blend into one, to the point that, apart from “Like a Freak,” I struggle to tell them apart. While Doug Sabolick clearly knows how to play his guitar, as evidenced by his Hendrixy excursions into twisting, winding solos, I don’t get on with his gruff, gravelly shouts at all. Plus, they are too far back in the mix to make much impression on the music in any event. I would also like to hear much more from Kevin Nickles’ saxophone. It is an underutilized tool that only comes into its own on sections of “Yuppie Sacrifice” and “Grasping the Void.”
Karl Marx once termed religion “das Opium des Volkes,” which is usually translated as “the opium of the masses.” I’m not religious, but having just come off a course of opiate-based painkillers, I can tell you they are more fun and addictive than Ecstatic Vision’s For the Masses. It’s not that this is a bad album, it just doesn’t feel like an album at all. For the Masses is a jam session that has been released for purchase. At no point did Ecstatic Vision extract anything bordering on ecstasy from me with this record. As background music to get pleasantly stoned to, it would probably be fine but that is the only circumstance in which I can realistically see myself returning to this.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Heavy Psych Sounds
Websites: ecstaticvision.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/ecstaticvision
Release Dates: EU: September 20th, 2019 | NA: October 10th, 2019