Saxophone in Psychedelic Rock: A Guide
Psychedelic rock is about blasting you out of your skull, sending you into the depths of space — or off to another world entirely. The best bands use simple, even crude tools to get there: loud, distorted guitars; squealing, zapping organs; throbbing bass; pounding drums; and wailing vocals. Some of the most brain-melting psych, though, has an extra element that ties it to the past while pushing it into the future: the saxophone.
In rock & roll’s earliest days, it owed a lot to “jump blues,” the raucous, party-starting precursor to R&B played by folks like Big Joe Turner, Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker. Electric guitars weren’t as dominant as they’d later become; the piano and the saxophone were just as important to the collective sound.
Gradually, as rock & roll became rock and got artier and more polished — and yes, whiter — the squalling, anarchic rock & roll saxophonist was pushed offstage. But some groups have always understood that a screaming horn can take you further out than any guitarist. The 10 albums below, from the ’60s to the present day, are proof that every cosmic journey is improved by keeping one foot on the ground.
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
King Crimson was one of the first progressive rock bands, and their debut album — which turns 50 in October — is full of baroque musical arrangements, tootling flutes and layered string arrangements created on a Mellotron. But it opens with the absolutely stomping “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
The song has roaring, distorted vocals from bassist Greg Lake, a Black Sabbath-worthy riff from guitarist and founder Robert Fripp — and repeated rude outbursts from saxophonist Ian McDonald, who matches Fripp throughout for fire and fury. “Schizoid Man” is a hellish R&B blast, and one of the great opening statements in rock history, announcing a new voice in progressive music at top volume. McDonald’s horn is crucial to its power.
The Stooges, Fun House (1970)
Fun House may be the greatest rock album ever made. Its first side is a blast of raw pre-punk aggression, beginning with the strutting machismo of “Down on the Street,” “TV Eye” and “Loose” and winding down with the moody fuck-you ballad “Dirt.”
But on the album’s second side, things are more chaotic and disorienting, with the band digging into long vamps on “1970” and the title track. At this point, their secret weapon comes in: saxophonist Steve Mackay, whose long solos start out in a honking, R&B mode but eventually wind up in the free jazz territory of Albert Ayler or Pharoah Sanders.
His performances on “1970,” “Fun House” and the closing free-rock landmark “L.A. Blues” take the Stooges, and psychedelic rock, into a whole new world.
Hawkwind, Space Ritual (1972)
British “space rock” heroes Hawkwind didn’t just give the world bassist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, who would form Motörhead after being fired mid-tour. They also took psychedelia about as far out as it could go. Their shows featured seizure-inducing lights and a topless dancer, and the music set lyrics about interstellar travel to throbbing rock & roll grooves.
Over dragstrip guitars, synths swooped and slid, and frontman Nik Turner’s saxophone honked and roared, proving that even in the future, a raucous R&B squall could still get crowds on their feet.
This double live album is their greatest achievement. It captures Hawkwind at their most indulgent, with tracks like “Lord of Light” and “Orgone Accumulator” stretching from seven to nine minutes and the mammoth “Brainstorm” going well past 13. The energy level is so high throughout that it never feels slack or boring.
Last Exit, Iron Path (1988)
Last Exit was a jazz-metal-noise supergroup that released several live albums, each of which was a ferocious assault, and one studio album: Iron Path, produced by their bassist, Bill Laswell. The front line was composed of guitarist Sonny Sharrock, who sounded like John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix fused into one man, and German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who’ll appear again in this story.
Laswell handled the low end alongside drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, who’d played with Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and whose band the Decoding Society included future Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid.
Iron Path bookended doomy, slamming rock tracks like “Prayer,” “Detonator” and “Eye for an Eye,” replete with screaming sax and guitar solos, with short, more subdued interludes. The result wasn’t jazz or metal, but its own mind-warping thing.
Yakuza, Way of the Dead (2002)
Chicago post-metal band Yakuza combined a variety of elements into a swirling sonic storm, including psychedelic thrash-death riffs, tribal drumming, and Tibetan percussion and throat singing, but singer Bruce Lamont’s saxophone was both a secondary lead voice and a fulcrum.
The guitarist, bassist and drummer cranked out riffs like a punkier version of TOOL, while Lamont barked and howled out the lyrics before erupting in raucous free jazz solos. Their second album, 2002’s Way of the Dead, featured not only Lamont’s own Brötzmann-esque squeals and cries, but a guest appearance on “Obscurity” by fellow Chicagoan Ken Vandermark. They also had a mellow side; the final track, “1000011110011,” was a drifting, almost ambient jazz excursion that lasted nearly 45 minutes on CD, although it’s been cut down to 10 minutes on streaming services.
The Thing, Garage (2004)
Most groups in this article add elements of jazz to their psychedelic rock; Swedish free jazz power trio The Thing does exactly the opposite. Bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten frequently plays an electric rather than an upright, and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love can slam out a rock & roll backbeat as easily as he can swing, while saxophonist Mats Gustafsson is capable of a thick, R&B-infused growl as well as lung-busting screams.
Plus, the band frequently transforms well-known rock songs into vehicles for furious, riff-based improvisation. On 2004’s Garage, they grab hold of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Art Star” and transform it into a squalling storm, occasionally soothed by a funky groove. They perform similar demolition jobs on the White Stripes’ “Aluminum” and the Sonics’ “Have Love Will Travel.”
Ecstatic Vision, Raw Rock Fury (2017)
Philadelphia’s Ecstatic Vision is a defiantly retro act that make the music they want to hear. Their songs are mind-melting riff barrages that combine the psychedelic garage power of the MC5, the Stooges and Monster Magnet with the jam-forever energy of Hawkwind, Amon Duul II and Endless Boogie, while Kevin Nickles’ vocals recall Corrosion of Conformity’s Pepper Keenan.
Their second album, Raw Rock Fury, lives up to its title, unleashing four songs — “You Got it or You Don’t,” “The Electric Step,” “Keep it Loose” and “Twinkling Eye” — in 36 minutes. And just as with Hawkwind or the Stooges, there comes a point during each of their blazed-out jams when Nickles lifts the saxophone to his lips and erupts, his honks and squalls blending perfectly with the roaring guitars and pounding drums.
Black Bombaim, Black Bombaim + Peter Brötzmann (2017)
Black Bombaim is a Portuguese instrumental rock trio that likes to invite guests to the studio. Their second album, 2012’s Titans, featured Stooges saxophonist Steve Mackay and Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell on one side-long track, and Portuguese free jazz saxophonist Rodrigo Amado showed up on 2014’s aptly titled Far Out.
In 2016, they fully embraced saxophone psychedelia, recording a full album with Peter Brötzmann. Amazingly, the record wasn’t just an hour of screaming and roaring. The Brötz has a reputation for totally dominating any situation, but here he was happy to let the other three establish the ground rules and find his way in, floating atop their rock-solid backbeat and churning riffs. Yes, his lines were as raucous and wild as ever, but they had a real purpose and melodic sense. This is not only Black Bombaim’s best album, but one of Brötzmann’s most memorable.
Mythic Sunship, Another Shape of Psychedelic Music (2018)
Danish quartet Mythic Sunship got their name by combining two album titles — Sun Ra’s Of Mythic Worlds and John Coltrane’s Sun Ship — so there was an element of avant-garde jazz in their tripped-out psych-rock journeys from the beginning.
On Ouroboros, Land Between Rivers and Upheaval, guitarists Emil Thorenfeldt and Kasper Andersen, bassist Rasmus Christensen and drummer Frederik Denning had specialized in long jams somewhere between the Stooges and Earthless, but on Another Shape of Psychedelic Music, they added saxophonist Søren Skov to their lineup — and things got really wild.
“Resolution” and “Backyard Ritual” allowed for a slow buildup of intensity, and Skov journeyed gradually from droning, meditative melodies to raw shrieks of intensity as the band pounded away behind him. Meanwhile, on shorter tracks like “Elevation” and “Last Exit” (not named for the group mentioned in this article, I don’t think), they started in high gear and stayed there.
Sick Gazelle, Odum (2019)
Sick Gazelle is a new instrumental project featuring Yakuza saxophonist Bruce Lamont, Eric Block of the shoegazey Veloce on guitar and bass and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums. Their debut album Odum offers just four tracks in 36 minutes, but each piece is a journey to the heart of the sun.
Block creates a fuzzy cloud of steadily pulsing groove as Shelley delivers the loose, vaguely tribal pounding he did in Sonic Youth. Meanwhile, Lamont’s saxophone playing focuses more on long, meditative tones than furious bursts of notes. The effect is somewhere between Mythic Sunship’s monster jams and the endless droning vistas of violinist Tony Conrad’s legendary collaboration with German art-rockers Faust, 1973’s Outside the Dream Syndicate.
The two longest tracks, “Atlantic” and “Pacific,” are the clear highlights, but “Depot” and “Laguna” are great, too, in their drifting, spacy way.
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