The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s new album Third World Pyramid may not be one of their best but it’s certainly one of the most characteristic releases of this long-lasting, prolific cult band. It’s their 15th full-length studio album in just over 20 years of a varied career that has mixed homage with innovation. BJM may continually refer back to late ’60s psychedelic garage rock but the band has experimented with a lot of different styles, from shoegazing and folk to electronica and world music, with a frequently changing array of musicians led by maverick visionary Anton Newcombe.
They show no sign of slowing down. Last year BJM released the mini-album Thingy Wingy as well as Musique de Film Imaginé (from which the song Bonbon, in a postmodern ironic twist, was actually used in the French Palme d’Or-winning movie Dheepan). Third World Pyramid, recorded in Newcome’s studio in Berlin, may only consist of nine tracks but it includes one that lasts nine and a half minutes. As usual the lyrics feel like they were written when stoned, but the music still shows creative engagement.
The opening, rather beautiful, track Good Mourning, as its punning title suggests, is a low-key, dirge-like folksy tune played with acoustic guitars and muted strings, with Newcombe’s wife Katy dolefully intoning “Dying faces all I see”. Government Beard is a more upbeat number featuring six-string guitar and flute, with a zoned-out-quality as Newcombe sings about going “far, far away”. Don’t Get Lost is the album’s highlight: a darkly fuzzy, seductively melodic song with a surreal lyric (“You almost fell in the wishing well”), adorned by brass, mellotron and a brilliantly off-kilter guitar solo, which pays its dues to The Velvet Underground but remains classic BJM.
By far the longest track, Assignment Song is an almost unrecognisable cover of a Nina Simone song – a bizarre choice for BJM you might think but then Newcombe’s made a career from thinking outside the box. However, its slow-paced, repetitive, almost drone-like quality seems self-indulgent until it eventually takes off about two-thirds of the way through with a mind-blowing kaleidoscope of disparate sounds. In contrast, the short instrumental Oh Bother features delicate strings and a Hispanic trumpet over an insistently chugging rhythm.
The title track’s driving beat gives way to a spaced-out sound with reverbed breathy vocals set well back in the mix as Newcombe is joined by Tess Parks (with whom he collaborated on last year’s album I Declare Nothing). Despite its title, Like Describing Colors To A Blind Man On Acid is not especially psychedelic, its jangly guitars and tambourine rattling reminiscent of The Byrds. The Lunar Surf Graveyard instrumental is more sombre, with its moonlit tone and twangy low chords on guitar. Finally, the otherworldly lead single The Sun Ship is comparable to late The Beatles songs like Dear Prudence, with floating strings and throbbing synths, as the album rockets off into the stratosphere.