What makes Psychic Ills a Sacred Bones band? The Brooklyn label put out the long-running New York psych-rock group’s 2011 record, Hazed Dream, and it will also release that album’s sun-kissed follow-up, One Track Mind, on February 19, so, by definition, Psychic Ills are a Sacred Bones band. But if labels have aesthetic identities—and Sacred Bones definitely has a defined persona—how does the band fit into the label’s dark, brooding and often otherworldly catalog? I’m not totally sure. Despite their experimental tendencies, Psychic Ills have always felt tethered to Earth, and their performance at the Bowery Ballroom last night was a reminder of why that’s not always a bad place to be. Maybe there’s room for the band in the Sacred Bones universe; after all, the label did throw an anniversary party in the desert.
But before Psychic Ills took the stage, Prince Rupert’s Drops got things off to a mind-bending start. The band’s name comes from a glass object that’s created by dripping molten glass into cold water, creating tadpole-like figures with long tails of glass, and that’s fitting because Prince Rupert’s music has a similar shape: strong foundations with tricky, slippery endings. That’s mostly thanks to beanie-sporting guitarist Bruno Meyrick-Jones, who provided each song with an expressive, powerful solo. His guitar playing was the ideal match to singer Leslie Stein’s soft country lilt, which turned tracks like “Lungs” into swirling, blues-rock love notes, revealing the unrefined pop instincts lurking beneath the DayGlo surface.
New York space-rock band White Hills had a more accelerated sense of pacing. With their flashy outfits—there was some serious leather going on last night—it’s tempting to write them off as an absurdist goth gimmick, but they’ve more than earned their stripes as a garage-kraut force of nature, and they have the Discogs page to prove it. Though many of their hammering post-punk offerings blended together, the group’s drummer kept the energy high, treating each song as an opportunity to pummel his kit with violent glee. Despite the intensity and theatricality, the band was at its best when it let the guitars stretch out into amorphous, darkwave drones.
The droning aspects of White Hills set the stage for Psychic Ills, who dialed down the eyeliner level quite a bit. Opening with “One More Time,” the first track on its upcoming LP, the band gave off a mercurial, cool-kids-at-the-seance vibe, with vocalist and guitarist Tres Warren’s Lou Reed mumble-drawl and liquid guitar playing serving as the primary attraction. Meanwhile, bassist Elizabeth Hart swayed back and forth in a seemingly possessed daze.
With a sun-like image flickering from a projector behind them, the band members exuded a mystical, subterranean quality. The crowd nodded gently, not wanting to disturb the band’s unwavering devotion to slow-motion desert-rock. There’s a sense of openness at work in the best Psychic Ills songs—the same type of magical vistas explored in road movies like Two-Lane Blacktop or The Brown Bunny. Sure, a lot of their songs look the same on the surface, but so do most highways.