Friday, March 30, 2007

Technicolor Dreamcoats

Psychedelia is making a triumphant return. But in the updated Age of Aquarius, data is the new LSD.

It’s become a catchall label, but psychedelic design can be roughly defined as transcendental patterns of form and lettering juxtaposed with dominant “hot” colors like purple and red. Yellows, blues, greens, oranges, and pinks can fill up the patterns as well, and—at least in the ’60s—usually formed curvilinear shapes. The form reached its peak with Heinz Edelmann’s Yellow Submarine animation, Martin Sharp’s album covers like Disraeli Gears, Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Peter Max’s cosmic imagery and softly rhythmic lines, and Victor Moscoso’s almost unreadable San Francisco posters for Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Thirty-five years later, “psychedelic” is a loaded word conjuring up VW microbuses, free love, and the fervent hope that sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll could overturn the existing order. But today, the Age of Aquarius has been reincarnated without the overt politics and peace signs. The neo-acoustic “freak folk” scene has taken off, metal bands channel the repeating chord structures of experimental composer Terry Riley, and cool kids play bluegrass standards on the banjo. Even the pop-hit-making team Gnarls Barkley claims that its most recent record, which spawned the summer hit “Crazy,” draws on psychedelic bands of yore. Mind-expanding music videos and backdrops to live shows are common, as wild as Uncle Frank’s trip and engineered as carefully as the sound.

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