Enter the Labyrinth: A Psychedelic Topography of Goth Music

Claire Rebecca Bannister
Claire Rebecca Bannister

This article concerns the question of what it means to describe music as psychedelic. As an adjective, the term denotes something “of or causing extreme changes in the conscious mind, as hallucinations, [and] intensification of awareness and sensory perception” [Stafford 2003:VIII].

As a noun it refers to a group of chemicals –– some naturally occurring, others synthetic –– that reliably cause such extreme changes of consciousness in human subjects, thus “of or associated with psychedelic drugs; specifically simulating the auditory or visual effects of the psychedelic state” [ibid.]. Whilst an extensive corpus of literature attests to the therapeutic value of the psychedelics, this article attends to how music can be meaningfully compared to the effects of such drugs.

I address this question in relation to the music of the Goth scene, which is to say in relation to a diverse collection of popular music styles associated not with psychedelics but rather with the Gothic (a term pertaining to literature, film and architecture in addition to music and subculture).

I select a repertoire not typically associated with psychedelic drugs because it is rich in precisely the same sounds underpinning the musicological theories that explain why acid rock of the 1960s is psychedelic.

These theories argue that acid rock is psychedelic not only because of its association with the hippie counterculture and its liberal attitudes towards drug use, but because the music itself is capable of reflecting or reproducing the effects of such drugs. More specifically, they suggest that acid rock mirrors the effects of LSD.

That acid rock and Goth share the same sounds thought to mimic the effects of LSD suggests two broad conclusions: either Goth(ic) music is psychedelic, or acid rock is not because the musicological theories explaining the ways in which it reflects the effects of such drugs cannot be held accountable.

This thesis explores the space between these conclusions by examining more closely the philosophy underpinning musicology’s understanding of the relationship between music and psychedelic drugs.

The psychedelics assume a curious position within academic research. Alexander Shulgin sums up effectively the complexity of this position in reference to a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found throughout nature. Alexander Shulgin stated that “There is a drug (chemistry) and a plant (botany) that produces an effect (pharmacology) in some people out there (anthropology) that might have some healing use (medicine) or some spiritual impact (theology)” [2013:247].

The debate in academia begins with how such chemicals should be named, continues with whether or not specific examples belong to the category once properly defined, and expands into territories of political ideology, religious doctrine and metaphysical philosophy.

As Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar point out, such problems have dramatic impact on public attitudes towards psychedelic chemicals, and the legal consequences faced by their users: “an unsatisfactory situation caused partly by our limited scientific understanding and partly by the angry passions that tend to fill an intellectual void when the issue is drugs” [1997:5].

The debate in academia begins with how such chemicals should be named, continues with whether or not specific examples belong to the category once properly defined, and expands into territories of political ideology, religious doctrine and metaphysical philosophy.

As Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar point out, such problems have dramatic impact on public attitudes towards psychedelic chemicals, and the legal consequences faced by their users: “an unsatisfactory situation caused partly by our limited scientific understanding and partly by the angry passions that tend to fill an intellectual void when the issue is drugs” [1997:5].

Three general concepts provide context for what is to follow. Firstly, psychedelic chemicals are endogenous to the human body. Whether one chooses to think of DMT –– the compound Shulgin references above –– as a dangerous drug or the key to spiritual enlightenment, psychedelic chemicals are found throughout nature, and notably within the human brain.

Secondly, a person can have a psychedelic experience without taking a psychedelic drug: such endogenous psychedelics as DMT are theorised to play a role in these.

Indeed the classification of the chemicals under discussion is compounded precisely because many human behaviours from meditation, fasting and dreaming to ecstatic dance can result in remarkably similar experiences that have nothing to do with taking drugs.

Thirdly, psychedelic experiences are unpredictable. There is no universal, replicable psychedelic experience but rather a plethora of phenomenal possibilities that are mainly dependent on the so-called set and setting of the subject: variables peculiar to the individual and to the cultural context of drug use, which in turn informs the degree to which such experiences are compared to those of a mystical or religious variety.

The implications are seemingly that it is not unreasonable to suggest music can reproduce the effects of such drugs. If a person can have a psychedelic experience independent of drug use, and if psychedelic experiences are largely determined and interpreted according to the peculiarities of specific cultures, then if we understand the musical conventions of those cultures, we should be able to explain how particular musical gestures evoke, mimic or even cause such experiences, assuming we pay enough attention to the set and setting of the listener.

Trance, for example, is a learned behaviour expressed differently across cultures; it involves knowing how people behave when in trance, the types of situations in which trance is possible, and beliefs concerning how trance is broken.

In cultures for which music plays a role in trance, it is also an altered state of consciousness inseparable from the musical conventions of those cultures.

On the other hand, theories describing how music encrypts, transmits or communicates meaning pertaining to altered states of consciousness are problematic, placing too much emphasis on the intention of the creator and too little on the listener or the fluidity of meaning. Whilst such theories have addressed whether psychedelic music is that created under the influence of drugs, that intended to be heard under the influence of drugs, or that attempting to produce altered states, they have largely presupposed intention of effect.

Writing about the term in Hit Parader during the Summer of Love (1967), Miranda Ward claims: “‘PSYCHEDELIC’ is just another label thought up inadvertently by some unassuming little guy somewhere –– but the hang-up is that it appears to be taking a great hold on people’s imaginations! […] [I]f any group or entertainment –– yes, even BEETHOVEN’S 5TH (if that is your scene) –– takes you up and out of yourself and lets you forget about your problems and dig it for a while […] then for you it is psychedelic! [sic.]” Miranda Ward in Morrison [2000:57]

This article explores the ground between these two positions: between the idea on the one hand that given sufficient specificity we can accurately describe music as psychedelic in a meaningful way, and on the other notion that the term is effectively meaningless in relation to the taxonomy of music because it is too dependent on the artistic interpretation of the listener.

I address this problem by identifying the various sounds understood to reflect the effects of LSD in the musicological literature, and by surveying Goth –– a set of styles not typically associated with psychedelics –– for the presence of these same sounds. I compare Goth, that is, to the repertoire that has been most extensively theorised in relation to how music can be likened to the effects of such drugs; comprised mostly of bands associated with the hippie counterculture and particularly the San Francisco scene, I refer to this repertoire as acid rock throughout.

I perform a comparison to Goth for several reasons. Firstly, Goth provides an expansive repertoire for analysis, comprised of a variety of sub-styles that have analogues in the wider popular music repertoire (for example hellektro as a type of electronic dance music or pagan folk as a type of folk).

By addressing numerous substyles from gothic metal to darkwave I illustrate how the methodology I employ –– based on a way of listening in which sounds associated with the effects of LSD are identified –– can be applied to a wider musical repertoire.

Secondly, the academic literature on Goth music and the Gothic style more generally have placed particular emphasis on its distortions of time and space, an effect of striking resonance with that of the psychedelics.

By highlighting how literature and styles of music not associated with such drugs evoke similar effects, I suggest ways of attending to psychedelic experiences that are mindful of the fact that many types of human behaviour can bring about altered states of consciousness.

Finally –– and perhaps most importantly –– the Gothic style demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity to set and setting: a concept of crucial significance to psychedelics, and one that has largely been missing from the musicological literature concerning drugs.

In the first half of the chapter that follows, I define the essential elements of the thesis –– Goth music and psychedelia –– and their relationship to one another. In the second half, I introduce three conceptual affinities, which are reflected in the broader structure of the thesis as a whole.

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