Say Psych: Album Review: Death Valley Girls – Under the Spell of Joy

Los Angeles dystopian punk/occult glam rockers Death Valley Girls will release their new LP Under the Spell of Joy this Friday via Suicide Squeeze Records.

While studies have been conducted aiming to understand the science behind music, our inexplicable ability to tap into the emotions of another human being by way of arrangements of sonic frequencies still seems a bit like magic. LA’s Death Valley Girls have always sought to wield that magic like ancient mystics, creating psychic bonds with willing ears through the medium of their fiery rock n’ roll. On the surface, previous albums like Glow in the Dark and Darkness Rains were rowdy mash-ups of early American punk, sun-baked psych rock, and proto-metal fire-and-brimstone guitar worship, yet there was always an undercurrent of some kind of strange, celebratory communal ritual in their music. With their latest album Under the Spell of Joy, the band dives even deeper into that magical cosmic energy.
The album title Under the Spell of Joy comes from the text on a t-shirt from San Diego heavy psych rockers Joy that was handed off to Death Valley Girls’ vocalist/guitarist Bonnie Bloomgarden, who wore the shirt for five years straight, treating it like a talisman. “I read it as being about manifesting your biggest dreams and responding thoughtfully and mindfully to everything that comes in your path with joy and compassion first,” Bloomgarden explains. “There is a lot to be really angry about in the world but joy is just as powerful if used correctly!” The band sought to create a spiritual record—what Bloomgarden describes as a “space gospel”—with the intention of bringing people together and creating the kind of participatory musical experience people have in places of worship. It’s a record loaded with chants, choirs, and rousing choruses, all for the purpose of encouraging people to sing along. Where the band had once sought to connect people through more esoteric means, they now tap into the age-old tradition of uniting people by inviting them to be an active part of the music.
While Bloomgarden and guitarist Larry Schemel knew their intention for the album before a single note was written, the actual nature and direction of the music was a mystery. The initial inspiration for the record came from the jubilant spirit of Ethiopian funk records the band had been listening to on tour, but once they began to channel the songs it seemed like the music came from somewhere not in the past but in the future. In the weeks leading up to recording, Death Valley Girls relied on their subconscious and effortlessly conjured Under the Spell of Joy’s eleven tracks as if they’d tapped into the Akashic Chronicle and pulled the music from the ether. “The world is crazy right now and it feels like we should be doing more than just trying to perpetuate joy,” Bloomgarden says. “I think music becomes a part of you. Like Black Sabbath’s first record is as much a part of me as my own music. I think you can listen to music or song to get lost in it, or you can listen to music to find something in your self or the world that either you never had or just went missing. I want people to sing to this record, make it their own, and focus on manifesting their dreams as much as they can!”

Opening with ‘Hypnagogia’, an ode to the space between sleep and wakefulness where we are open to other realms of consciousness, the track builds with tripped out saxophone bursts from Gabe Flores punctuating the steady pulse before organ drones from Gregg Foreman complete the array. ‘Hold My Hand’ channels The Velvet Underground to full effect (I’ll leave you to name the influence) yet remains all DVG at heart. Title track ‘Under the Spell of Joy’ opens with a children’s choir chanting the album’s primary mantra “under the spell of joy/under the spell of love”; it’s an infectious ditty that will have you humming the tune for hours after its passing. ‘Bliss Out’ sees the bands current exuberant focus with a patina-hued pop song driven by an irrepressibly buoyant organ line laid down by keyboardist The Kid (Laura Kelsey); they might look gothic and obsess over Halloween, but this track is all light. ‘Hey Dena’ places an emphasis on beauty which leads into ‘The Universe’; a step towards the ethereal, with an eerie organ opening coming straight out of a horror movie. It takes all the elements of DVG that we have come to know and love, distorts them a bit and results in something incredibly beautiful.

‘It All Washes Away’ is a piece of garage rock, with a jangling countenance that once more feels VU inspired, but with the usual DVG interpretation and Bonnie’s distinct vocal style cutting through always. ‘Little Things’ continues in this vein, but with added atonal saxophone elements that make you sit up and listen, all underpinned by a rock n roll guitar riff that sets your shoulders moving, if not your feet. ’10 Day Miracle Challenge’ pokes fun at modern culture in the nicest way before ‘I’d Rather Be Dreaming’ takes us away from the theme of the album, offering a little piece of darkness through its haunting countenance and minor key. Concluding ‘Dream Cleaver’ offers a touch of dance laden psychedelia to the album and ends it on a high, with an irresistible dance groove.

In these difficult times, we need albums like this, albums that get feet tapping and heads bobbing and that when you listen to it, you think how much you want to see these tracks played live. Albums like this offer hope.

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1 Comment

  1. […] In these difficult times, we need albums like this, albums that get feet tapping and heads bobbing – Backseat Mafia […]

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