Rising Higher on Fire

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Although they released the last of their three albums over a decade ago, Galaxie 500's slow-tempo yet atmospherically intense brand of guitar music still seems deeply new and vital. Pick up any record on an independent label that can be even remotely classified as moody, and you are sure to hear the echo of Galaxie 500's remarkable prescience.

Yet what accomplishes that foresight is a profound reversion to the guitar music of the past-The Velvet Underground (especially their third album), different forms of psychedelia from the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and the Beatles to Pink Floyd, Jonathan Richman-as if their innovation were already a reimagination of something prior to itself.

Though their music surely has an antique feel to it, they provided a new vocabulary of tempo and mood that had never been used before, and it was this contribution that helped define scores of subgenres like dreampop, slowcore, and neo-psychedelia.

Before Galaxie 500, guitar music rarely relied on tempo and texture to generate mood with such intensity. In this sense, they continue what Joy Division began-using mood as the centerpiece of the song. But with Galaxie, mood is purely ephemeral (rather than timeless and metaphorical like Ian Curtis's various forms of sublime depression), and ends and is reimagined as soon as the song is over and a new one begins. Listening to their records, especially the more experimental last two, the listener is moved through a rich tapestry of sensory trances that create mood as a kind of conscious dreamscape: the subject is continually isolated, and no matter how much it may try (or not try) to fix its meaning, there is, particularly on the psychedelic masterworks of "On Fire," the sense that mood is episodic and transitory.

On "Today," their first album, we find the band at an early stage of cool ambivalence and detachment. Dean Wareham's Velvet's-influenced rhythm guitar work provides the basic structure for their melancholic impressions of seemingly everyday situations that explode in unexpected directions. Wareham's strange, almost falsetto vocals endow these fundamentally minimalist songs with a majestic sense of unreality, so the distinct instrumental lines of the songs blend and magnify into a haunting, ethereal sound-the perfect, self-contained analogue of a daydream.

But on "Today" this psychedelic aesthetic seems only latent, an effect of Kramer's production and Wareham's plaintive wail, rather than a broader, more general aesthetic: many of the songs still seem like touched-up Lou Reed or Jonathan Richman songs.

In "On Fire," the group's second album and a masterpiece of post-punk, the songs concentrate even harder on mood, and while "Today" seemed detached, slightly ironic, and perhaps a little lonely, "On Fire" overwhelms the listener with cresting and crashing waves of psychedelic isolation and confusion.

No longer are the songs playful and coy, they are now powerfully serious as they imagine a kind of introverted psychedelia, one that retreats from its adventurous, exploratory mood for the passive sense of confused impressions and sublime alienation. "Today"'s melancholic detachment becomes isolation. They turn the nightmares and visions of 1960s psychedelia into an obsessive daydream, and in the process make psychedelia "indie."

Take, for instance, the stunningly beautiful "Snowstorm" from "On Fire." Notice how the song creates a sense of wonder in the very absence of narrative, through the evocation of faceless external referents that fail to make any coherent sense. As Wareham sings, "I'm looking at the snowflakes / and they all look the same / and the clouds are going by me / and they play some kind of game," he wonderfully reconstructs those moments of boredom and idleness that inexplicably generate a kind of epiphany of mood, rather than insight-a psychedelia deprived of drug-induced intuitions, where isolation detaches one from the world's communicable meanings only to see its haunting unreality.

On the next song, "Strange," Wareham's alienation becomes more volatile, and the guitar solos-here truly something to behold-suggest a subtly expressed anger turned upon itself. Recalling the searching, magnetic guitar tones of the best songs on the Thirteenth Floor Elevator's Easter Everywhere, Wareham's guitar parts examine the internal space of his own moody alienation (rather than some kind of connection with the heavens or fundamental reality), but in the end finds only a lack of meaning: "Why is everybody acting funny / Why does everybody look so strange / Why does everybody look so nasty / What do I want with all these things."

After the hazy brilliance of "On Fire," their next album, "This Is Our Music," can seem only something of a disappointment. Though they progress considerably in instrumental proficiency-and in this respect the contrast between "Today" and "This Is Our Music" is surely marked-the album fails to sustain the heights of inspiration and atmosphere that "On Fire" had touched with such intensity. But the album is by any measure remarkable, and "Way Up High" might be one of the best songs the group ever recorded. Situated against and within the backdrop of Warehem's lazy strumming, Kramer's amateurish flute evokes an awesome serenity and stasis-an innocent wonder made supremely incoherent when Wareham's sings, with a subdued child-like glee and amazement, "Way up high and going too fast / Way up, way up high."


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