A razor-fine plane divides winning psychedelic rock from the genre’s countless failures. Quality would be a lot easier to judge if the music actually had to get you high; or if the acid test were, in fact, an acid test. But it don’t work that way, so trippiness is in the ear, less than the head (or the bloodstream), of the beholder. Behold the Warlocks (no relation to the ’60s San Francisco outfit), who soak their pedal-wash guitar songs in enough attitude with such casual aplomb that they easily set up camp in the front room of the house of love built by the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Spacemen 3. Although it took them a couple of records to get the dosage of songs versus scree just right, they’ve since found the zone and are injecting life into a genre that occasionally feels in danger of being thoroughly played out.
Led by Bobby Hecksher, a onetime Beck sideman and year-long member of Brian Jonestown Massacre (his other past bands include Magic Pacer and Charles Brown Superstar), on bass and vocals, the Los Angeles group — which fields three or four guitarists and two drummers — introduced themselves with a six-song self-titled EP, on which traces of post-song audience noise don’t necessarily mean it was recorded live. Eschewing economy for seeing where the moment leads them, the Warlocks go on too long, but the tracks all sizzle with upbeat drone hung off sturdy melodies delivered with incantatory zeal. Self-conscious as all hell (“Song for Nico,” “Jam of the Warlocks”), the band doesn’t invent anything new here, but joins the party with way cool sunglasses and all the right sonic booms.
The American Rise and Fall (the British equivalent swaps three tracks for EP items and alters the running order) begins with the brash howdy-do of “Jam of the Witches,” 14 occasionally illuminating minutes of rampant studio indulgence that, fortunately, isn’t a harbinger of the I’ll-let-you-know-when-to-stop creative approach. After the structured and manageable eight minutes of “House of Glass” (a languorous acoustic ballad), the title of “Skull Death Drum Jam” threatens, but doesn’t deliver, another trip into the time-traveling ozone — it’s a tight little martial buzz. After that, until the shapeless “Laser Beam” ends the trip, sonic restraint and gently melodic songs rule, including a stately second pass at “Song for Nico.”
The Phoenix Album is so focused and consistently strong that, in retrospect, it’s easy to regard Rise and Fall as a needed head-clearing exercise. On their second full-length, the Warlocks bring a stronger rock underpinning to the fuzz table and sound as confident in their recombinant stylistic ideal as if seated at an organ with stops marked Sterling Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Jim Reid, Cyril Jordan, Del Dettmar, Keith Richards and Sonic Boom. (In fact, Monsieur Boom appears in the flesh here.) Unlike pretentious phonies like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Warlocks bring real élan and style to this playground, displaying an ability to apply noise and chaos with delicacy or power at will, and to affect the necessary pose with enough effortless conviction to sell it. “Shake the Dope Out” is magical, while “Hurricane Heart Attack,” the coolly downcast “Baby Blue,” the blues-harp-powered “Stone Hearts” and the jaunty “The Dope Feels Good” feel just as good. From one end to the other, Phoenix Album is a velvet glove of warm, fuzzy ferocity.