It has to be tough to be a “psychedelic” rock band in India. Anyone who has ever set foot on this dusty, sacred ground knows that day-to-day, minute-to-minute life is infinitely trippier than anything The Incredible String Band ever dreamed. In a place where the membrane separating a pantheon of ancient Vedic Gods from the present is already thin, just how exactly do you wow an audience with something so this-worldly as an extended guitar solo? Enter any temple from Mumbai to Bengal and you hear Shaivist chanting and smell cauldrons of incense that form a far headier combo than any organ line cooked up by a dude in Silverlake sporting a Beefheart tee. If psychedelic music is meant to be used as a tool to break free from clinical, grey surroundings and stifling traditional ancestry, then what is a band to do when they hail from a region where their trad songs, dating back to B.C. times, serve as the unattainable template for any psych monster who has ever stalked the earth since the mid-60s? When the clothing and religious imagery of their homeland form the basis for how any and all self-respecting psych pretenders dress themselves and aim to navigate the world?
This may explain why there’s been a scarcity of real-deal psychedelic guitar rock from the very place that has served as the central inspiration to so many thousands of psych-leaning bands since the time Brian Jones and George Harrison first thought, “Hey wait, these tunings will finally free us from having to sing about wanting to hold hands with 17-year-olds!” It definitely explains why electronica in the form of Goa Trance has served as the main “westerners finding Shiva” music for the past 30 years and why, even in the ’60s and ’70s when seemingly the entire world was cranking out obscure heady bands on self-pressed labels by the hundreds, the fertile motherland itself was oddly silent.
But there was an exception, and thy name was Atomic Forest.
Comin’ atcha’ straight outta’ Bombay in the early ’70s, AF was fronted by professional ad man Madhukar C. Dhas along with his groovy fellow advertising professionals Neel Chattodpadyaya on the insane, fuzzed-out lead guitar that AF became revered for and the tight, rubbery rhythm section of Keith Kanga on bass and Valentine Lobo on drums. The Forest played out quite a bit, moving around clubs in Bombay, Mumbai, and hitting up the burgeoning counter culture scene in way-vibey Goa. They played at the Indian version of Woodstock, The Snehayatra Festival (sadly there seems to be no footage of their performance), and eventually put out what I believe to be the only (and please correct me on this, world music headz, because I want to hear more) full length Indian psychedelic rock LP of the time: Obsession.
Obsession is a real treasure. Kicking off with a wash of sounds that could either be ocean waves or street traffic, the title track is a gliding, funk-infused odyssey with stop-start staccato percussion flourishes and Chattodpadyaya’s barrier-free, all-seeing solo on the outro. “Locomotive Breath”, a paranoid gallop through the Indian transit system with an even more insane Chattodpadyaya solo and gruff, forceful vocals from Dhas, is southeast Asian urban blues personified. The heaviest track on the album, “Mary Long” features enigmatic vocals about virginity lost and stupidity gained, plus a lockstep rhythm that threatens to steal the song out from under itself. The jazzy, languorous “Sunshine Day” stretches out like the first light of sun after a long night party on an undeveloped beach, with stray dogs stirring and possibilities unfolding with the dawn. “Windmills Of Your Mind” features some awesome Moog squelches and “Butterfly” versions 1 and 2 welcome back the space funk of the title track.
If it’s the bell bottom blues you’re after, then look no further than the flute-infused “Booboo Lullaby” on which Dhas sounds as if he’s just about at the end of his rope as he croaks, “Sleep on booboo baby, the pace outside is CRAAAZZZAAYYYY”. It’s the type of primal scream that rises from a place of real fear as opposed to simple rebellion or sexual longing, and when he promises, “I’ll wake you when the times get light” you don’t really believe him. “Man, You’re Not Number One” is a real trip, complete with race car sound effects, a defiantly falsetto chorus, and a subtle, teasing flute solo. Certain versions of Obsession include one of the more insanely unhinged versions of “Foxy Lady” you will ever hear, recorded live before what sounds like a rabid crowd somewhere in India, and “Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say)” with it’s chorus of “I want to know, I want to know my God, I want to see, I want to see my God, If I die what will be my reward?” curiously verges on Indian goth/death rock.
There’s really no misses on this record, and the bonus interview with Dhas from some English radio broadcast about the rise of Atomic Forest, complete with snippets of a rampaging Jeff Beck cover, lends a helpful historical context to the proceedings.
In a land that epitomizes trippiness, it’s tough for a trad rock band to truly sound otherworldy and powerful. Atomic Forest not only achieved this feat but laid it down on wax for posterity.
Bless them for it.