Releasing an album of nihilistically-minded synth-driven psyche and calling it ‘Panic Blooms’ in 2018 might’ve seemed like a perfectly justifiable reaction to the state of the world at that time. But given the events of 2020, and to be fair much of 2021 so far, it seems comically naive. To be fair to Black Moth Super Rainbow, although 2020 was the source of much blooming panic for billions worldwide, it does seem like covid-19 will be, if not defeated, at least tamed by science and the dozens of modifications we’re all making to our behaviour and social norms. One thing that’s not going away on the other hand, and is going to take more than a few modifications of our personal habits, is climate change – mass extinctions, worldwide ecological collapse – frame it how you please. So in that sense, Panic Blooms is as relevant as ever. In the words of Sheriff Woody, ‘this is the perfect time to panic’.
Black Moth Super Rainbow’s base of operations is in rural Pennsylvania; they may or may not live in a cult, probably more likely some kind of commune. Either way, an air of mystique seems to surround the band like a cloud of nag champa fumes, the members of whom go by such names as Tobacco, The Seven Fields of Aphelion, Iffernaut, etc. Together they lay down a very distinctive brand of day-glo synth-driven psyche pop, which has evolved significantly over the course of some eight albums, incorporating elements of glam, electro, hip-hop and lush psychedelia.
But perhaps the band’s most distinguishing feature is Tobacco’s – lead vocalist and creative driving force of the band – habit of singing through a vocoder (or utilising other similar distorting effects and filters). And not just on the odd track – literally every song. Perhaps even more curious however, is how quickly one gets used to this. Maybe because BMSR have remained so thoroughly committed to this approach for so long, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick but instead, an integral and necessary part of their sound.
As well as being an instantly recognisable element, the vocoder dehumanises Tobacco’s vocals and nullifies any emotional dimension the lyrics might have. It’s hard to sound sincere when you sound like a Cyberman from Dr Who. BMSR’s lyrics have always been playful, whimsical and at times nonsensical, but lurking beneath the lurid rainbow colours is an ever present undercurrent of the occult – a delightful ambiguity made all the more unsettling by the lack of any intonation in the vocals.
But although the vocal treatment is as much in effect as ever here, the songs themselves feel weighted with a sincerity not found on previous albums. Where the vocoder previously cloaked Tobacco’s twisted lyrics in a dusting of whimsy, on Panic Blooms no amount of vocodering, filtering or distortion can hide the heartfelt sense of existential despair that pervades these 16 tracks.
Taken as a whole, the lyrical content of Panic Blooms seems to express some kind of personal/relationship breakdown, reflected through the imagery of environmental pollution and decay. Pathetic fallacy on a global scale. The beauty of nature and the sanctuary it provides have been enduring themes in BMSR’s music, but rather than a rallying cry, exhorting the listener to try and protect what remains of our natural environment, Panic Blooms seems resigned to the fact that nature is doomed. The solution, or rather escape from, this fate seems to be to retreat further into a druggy dreamlike world of one’s own making. ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’, to quote one of the forefathers of the psychedelic movement.
‘Baby’s in the Void’ is especially dreamlike, with mentions of wandering in violets and entering the quietness. ‘You’re always smilin’ and no days spent paranoid, She helped me figure it out ‘cos baby’s livin’ in the void’. And though the title of ‘Bad Fuckin’ Times’ sums up the state of the world pretty succinctly, we get Leary again, ‘And I can only tell you, being tuned out is beautiful’. It’s actually one of my favourite tracks on the album; Tobacco’s vocals alternate from being pitched down so low as to sound like crunchy distortion (imagine Cookie Monster on Novocaine) and then pitched back up to a ghostly whisper for the chorus, which is essentially the one line ‘You’re even better than depression’ repeated continuously so it begins to fold over on itself like a mantra – beautiful and hypnotic.
There’s no question this is Black Moth Super Rainbow’s emotionally richest and most accomplished album. And where many bands tend to broaden their output and drift towards the middle of the road as their careers progress, Panic Blooms tweaks the dials of BMSR’s unique sound even further, distancing them from any contemporaries and opening up new avenues of exploration in the process. I have to admit it took a while to click with me, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling a shudder of suspicion at the claim that an album is ‘a grower’, especially in this age of fragmented attention spans. But it’s absolutely worth sticking with.
What I struggled to get accustomed to initially was just how slow this album is. At times it can feel like you’re wading through thick treacle, or have been unwittingly tranquilised. But once you get used to this, you’ll begin to uncover the twisted pop genius buried in the layers of hazy synth and eerie vocals. Because despite the fact that the whole vibe of Panic Blooms is deeply psychedelic, not to mention tangibly narcotic – and indeed, a relationship with certain narcotics may be the true object of many of the lyrical references rather than personal relationships – BMSR have an ear for melody and turn out punchy concise songs. In an alternative world, one where instead of alcohol, Ketamine ended up being the most widely consumed mind altering drug of choice, these would be pop hits.
Spotting drug references in song lyrics is a longstanding pursuit among music fans, and once you start it’s hard to stop. In the right light almost anything can be seen as a coded reference, so I won’t get into that here – suffice to say Panic Blooms is littered with potentials. More difficult than singing about drugs is actually evoking an altered state of consciousness via the music alone. And rather than a state of panic, the mood of this album perfectly encapsulates that queasy, hazy, simultaneously relaxed and over-stimulated feeling that accompanies the onset of a dose of hallucinogens.
Strangely enough, the musical influence most instantly recognisable as the mist descends on the opening track – also entitled Panic Blooms – is those masters of melancholy and queasy nostalgia, Boards of Canada. In fact you could almost swear the plodding distorted beats and wobbly synths was a Boards track, until Tobacco’s whispery enigmatic vocals kick in, singing about razor blades in tangerines and being trapped in a fog. The comparison is only intended favourably; BMSR have taken a kindred approach to Boards of Canada for many years, fellow miners of that rich seam of nostalgia and ineffable melancholy.
It’s an understandable reaction in bad fuckin’ times such as these to seek escapism, whether through the addictive properties of narcotics or the seduction of nostalgia. More than any other album I’ve heard from BMSR, Panic Blooms finds all their most distinctive qualities maximised to deliver something that, as well being both seductive and addictive, is deeply unsettling. But I find myself unable to stop coming back to it. A crowning achievement.