The first thing I, personally, had to come to terms with on The Dream Syndicate‘s Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions was the lack of longer tracks. Admittedly, this was self-serving vanity. After all, The Dream Syndicate had, for the vast majority of their recorded work over two roughly decade-long chunks, largely gravitated toward more concise musical statements, letting songs tumble and unfurl for the four-to-six minute range before capping them off. They had longer recorded tracks before, sure, but these were by and large a rarity, a way to capture a particular energy you would more likely experience seeing them in a live setting without giving away too much of the goods or, more accurately, pegging themselves in to having to play the same variations on that longer material night after night. Sure, their live shows would often feature radical expansions of their work, a method in part borrowed from the group from which they nabbed their name, the original Dream Syndicate, an avant-garde minimalist and drone group put together by LaMonte Young. But The Universe Inside, the group’s last full-length, turned out to be an exception rather than the new rule, its 20-minute epic and average runtime sitting closer to 10 minutes a cut being abandoned here for the band’s standard approaches and sizes.
Thankfully, this pivot back to the known hasn’t seen a decrease in the quality of material but instead an increase in the quantity of ideas, as evident on Ultraviolet Battle Hymns. The group are compact songwriters and composers, letting songs hover around a small handful of riffs and ideas even on longer material, so trimming the song lengths turns out to have vastly multiplied the sheer amount of musical ideas contained here. The makeup of these songs will be familiar to long-time listeners of the band but, for those not in the know, it skews toward the more cosmic and freewheeling psychedelic end of country-rock. They’re adept at obscuring the country elements of their work; like musical prefigure Neil Young, enough lushness of arrangements, sonic palette and rambling rock and roll spirit exists here that you could trick the lay listener into viewing The Dream Syndicate as a definitive alternative band. Hell, you can even hear bands like Spoon, Dinosaur Jr. and other indie stalwarts buried inside these songs. But the funny trick about roots rock, of which all the aforementioned groups can loosely be constellated about, is how at its core you can always hear the collision of R&B with country, the formula which in many ways is the origins of rock music. That the Dream Syndicate dressed these movements up in lush psychedelic swirls and effects doesn’t change that underlying element; the cowboys come dressed in stars and swirls of LSD like fingers pressed against an LCD screen, weeping smeared primary colors, but they’re still cowboys.
This latent structure gives each of the numerous songs here a propulsion and sense of cohesion. Psychedelic music, especially at its avant-garde fringes, can often be accused (sometimes credibly) of losing itself in sound over music, following evocative soundscapes over developmental structure that delivers the kind of cathartic burst a returning chorus is supposed to. Regardless of the merits of those discussions and the broader question of structure versus adventure in music, the Dream Syndicate does at least definitely land in the realm of satisfying underlying architecture. These songs put on airs of rambling, the dust-caked man slinking along the highways and trails of America, but they remain ever-as-always laser focused on the next developmental milestone. This sense of cohesive obscured structure even extends to the tracklisting; it’s easy to imagine this record being a kind of secondary score to a film like Easy Rider or a film adaptation of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, summoning up the Bohemian uninhibited cool of the Paisley era this group so effortless evokes but without the attendant baggage of how it all actually went down. The result is a record that solidifies, like the aforementioned Dinosaur Jr., that the Dream Syndicate’s second wing is indeed the most fertile period of the band thus far. What in their first four records was an ambitious psychedelic cool has matured now into a seemingly effortless wheel of riffs and sounds, with their songwriting acumen now having fully caught up to their ability to lock into satisfying ego-melting grooves. It can be hard to accept that none of these delicious riffs got to really unfurl as wildly, but hey, there’s always next time, right?
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.