The saddest and most mysterious death of the first half of 2020, Tres Warren, one half of long-running psych juggernaut Psychic Ills along with bassist Elizabeth Hart, checked out right as the world was beginning to slide off its axis in March. Mysterious because no official cause has been provided, and sad because, at 41, Warren was just hitting his artistic prime. In 2018 Psychic Ills had put out the languid and defiantly traditional Inner Journey Out, a double album of baked-dry blues that unfolds like a scroll of cryptic clues over its hour-plus visit to Earth. The record doesn’t come off like a cry for help or even a warning, with the tracks stretching out in leisurely fashion, in absolutely no hurry to get anywhere, and Tres’ honeyed, Texas-bred drawl achieving a resigned form of zen. It’s an enlightenment stripped of the platitudes and good intentions that often accompany those who have ascended this level. “I don’t mind all the things you did, but I’d rather not have known” he sighs on “I Don’t Mind” as Hope Sandoval coos warmly in the background. “Don’t know if I can handle with all that’s comin’, don’t know if I can handle it at all” he confesses ominously on “Another Change”. It’s music of striking honesty and a surface simplicity that masks, but never shackles, the band’s progressive bent, a double-album statement meant to be listened to in one sitting, a journey outward into the pale light depicted on it’s cover.
It had been an interesting inner journey out for Psychic Ills to get to that double album stuffed with actual verse/chorus/verse songs complete with real hooks and traditional blues frameworks. Kicking into gear 15 years prior, The Ills started out on an improvisational noise-rock path, albeit one with eastern/hippie leanings and a serenely withdrawn vibe that set them apart from the more confrontational noize belters flailing about in the post-9/11 NYC ashes at the time. Debut record Dins buried shimmering goth rocker tracks between minutes-and-minutes of abstract psychedelia, using the few solid songs on display more as support beams for extended synth/tabla journeys into the mind’s inner crevices. Followup Mirror Eye was even more heady, a full-on leap into post-rock that was ignored at the time but has since found a cult following in harder-edged meditation circles. It was on Hazed Dream and One Track Mind where Tres and Hart started making a bold about face toward traditional song structures and hooks, yet until the end they maintained a zonked, X’d out remove that instantly rendered them as their own entity within a scene packed to the gills with psych explorers of all stripes and hairstyles. This is “back room of the club at 4:30 AM” music. This is “walking in the middle of an empty street” music. This is “one lighted window in a dark high-rise” music. Where their peers kicked and flailed and raised their hands for attention, Tres Warren and Elizabeth Hart slunk back into a corner and watched, impassive but singularly focused on their own dark star trajectory.
Psychic Ills may not have achieved mass critical approval or commercial viability during their existence, but these things are coming. The records this duo have left behind read like a trucker’s atlas for the checked out masses, the explorers of their own deluded inner space, and they’re just too good to be ignored for too much longer. It’s a shame Tres’ physical vessel didn’t hang around long enough to accept such earthly praise, but you get the sense this psychic outlier didn’t much care about accolades or attention from lame music blogs. He was focused on the work at hand, the building blocks of his shadow empire, and the best of those cryptic clues are listed below in chronological order.
Rest in power, Tres. Back to fire. Back to water. Back to air. Back to earth.
We’ll start with track one from album one, a disembodied, minute-and-a-half crawl through Marrakesh back alleys, tablas and midnight moons and beauty and mystery and dread. You can smell the hash smoke burning through your headphones on this one.
“January Rain”, Dins
There have been many, many songs named after fall and winter rains, but to my knowledge this right here is the only one that actually sounds like the real thing. Pensive, propulsive, mixed of equal parts dread and wonder, January Rain is an early stunner for the Psychic Ills.
“I Knew My Name”, Dins
Although I’m not convinced Tres really did know his name when this was composed, one trick he obviously knew quite well was how to compose within that rarest of all song categories: The Understated Epic. “I Knew My Name” has lofty ambitions but is executed with a sigh and a shrug, a juxtaposition that makes it all the more effective and allows it to stand as a centerpiece of this phenomenal debut record.
“Vice”, Early Violence
Put together from a bunch of singles and LP releases from the era before Dins, the Early Violence album is essential for anyone looking to understand this group’s musical trajectory. The record’s opener shows us which territory we’re about to enter, a tranced-out, driving form of post punk that curls deliciously inward.
“Killer”, Early Violence
Featuring a bass line like a descent into a basement club in 1988 Berlin and a squiggle from an analog synth that sounds like it’s about to short circuit, “Killers” is the first indication in the early Psychic Ills repertoire that shows a propensity for killer hooks. The “let it go” intonations of the chorus feature Tres Warren in full disaffected glory for the first of many, many such moments to come.
“Mantis”, Mirror Eye
Look, Mirror Eye isn’t for everyone. On this second album proper the “real songs” and obvious riffs were pushed well into the background as the Ills dove straight into the ambient mystic crevices that showed up from time to time on Dins. But for those of us who love that sort of thing, Mirror Eye is the treasure of all treasures, with the 11-minute creep of this opening track acting as the testing ground. If you vibe with it, then please proceed. If not, then go listen to Tame Impala or whatever.
“I Take You As My Wife Again”, Mirror Eye
The translucent, slow-beating heart of Mirror Eye, “I Take You As My Wife Again” is so transcendent, through the right pair of ears at least, that it should be characterized as purely secular.
“Fingernail Tea”, Mirror Eye
The catchiest track on ME is also the creepiest, with a phased-to-death, eastern-tinged guitar menace thing going on and Tres’ voice lit up into multiple channels like a ghost in a house of mirrors at twilight.
“Meta”, Mirror Eye
Featuring a riff so circular it’s enough to make you dizzy and Warren’s breathy incantations, “Meta” doesn’t have any right to be as beautiful as it is.
“Mind Daze”, Hazed Dream
One part pure snarling garage rock, two parts expansive highway psych, and as a whole an entirely new direction for Psychic Ills, “Mind Daze” is something you never would have expected from them at the time: a straight forward rock track complete with verses, choruses, guitar solo, and hooks oozing like rainwater breaking through a low-rent apartment’s popcorn ceiling.
“Midnight Moon”, Hazed Dream
We did this bit earlier in the piece, but this track leaves no choice but to repeat it: There have been many, many, many tracks named after midnight moons, but this is the only one to my knowledge that actually sounds like one.
“Incense Head”, Hazed Dream
If it’s true that some were disappointed with the more linear turn The Ills took on Hazed Dream, then it must be pointed out that all these people had to do was put “Incense Head” on repeat and shut the fuck up.
“Travelin’ Man”, Hazed Dream
There have been many, many, many songs purporting to be about travelin’ men, but this is the only….you get the drift.
“Depot”, One Track Mind
After turning in their most traditional set of songs yet on “Hazed Dream”, The Ills upped the ante’ significantly for One Track Mind. Featuring concise, well-constructed tracks and a cranked up volume, this was the hardest The Ills had rocked since Early Violence. Hearing this notoriously reserved duo really let loose is a total head rush, and just check out the sub-Sabbath riffing on “Depot” if you don’t believe me.
“FBI”, One Track Mind
With Psychic Ills, melancholy is always implied but rarely explicitly stated. A gorgeous exception to this rule is “FBI” where sobbing synth washes overtake a two-note guitar melody to distill a sound as pure as sadness itself. This is resigned, sublime beauty right here.
“Western Metaphor”, One Track Mind
If Spacemen 3 hadn’t been so hell-bent on grandiose statements, they may have sounded something like this. Relaxed but not without tension, cosmic but cold, all-seeing but inward facing, “Western Metaphor” is the ambient track fans of Dins and Mirror Eye would be looking for on this more traditional record.
“See You There”, One Track Mind
The perfect distillation of everything Psychic Ills were going for on OTM, “See You There” is just the right mix of cosmic flight and grounded rock n roll, with the “You’re going dowwnnnnn, and I’ll see you there” chorus being a surefire career highlight.
“Might Take A While”, One Track Mind
Hearing Warren and Hart this locked in, this focused, is a jarring experience, and the duel-shouted chorus is the kind of thing Lucinda Williams probably wishes she’d come up with if she’s heard it.
“Coca-Cola Blues”, Inner Journey Out
The extended blues dirges that make up Inner Journey may sound like a revelation to the uninitiated, confuse some true disciples who see it as a left turn away from expansive exploration while delighting others who find this record to be the logical conclusion in the (inner) journey (out), but breakup tracks such as this are just to good to be bogged down in mega-fan infighting.
“I Don’t Mind”, Inner Journey Out
This mantra for the deliciously withdrawn welcomes Hope Sandoval on completely appropriate backing vox, with her and Tres making a case for themselves as the Gram & Emmylou of the lonely desert blues.
“Mixed Up Mind”, Inner Journey Out
“I should go back home, or go somewhere, get out on the road, well I don’t care”. In tweaking the volume just a bit and inching up the forward drive, Tres creates one of the more propulsive numbers on Inner Journey which sounds like if Mick had been on smack right along with Keef when making Exile.
“Another Change”, Inner Journey Out
Featuring a pedal steel line that sounds like the sea moving up to swallow the land, “Another Change” is a gorgeous and viciously honest confession of confused love. “Don’t know if I can handle with all that comin’, don’t know if I can handle it at all, don’t know if I can handle what I’ve got comin’ with you, I don’t know if I can take it that far”. With subtle gospel vocals burning on the backing track, this is the most honest and confessional Tres Warren ever allowed himself to be on record.
“New Mantra”, Inner Journey Out
“New Mantra” may only be a two-minute interlude on Inner Journey, but I want a whole album of this shit and I want it now.
“Confusion (I’m Alright)”, Inner Journey Out
The most ominous track on the otherwise serene (if troubled) Inner Journey Out, this is as pure a distillation of dread through a musical medium that has ever been accomplished. And Tres manages to convey this fear in a voice that never rises above a whisper. “I’ve got confusion in my mind,” he tells us convincingly as a crystalline riff dances around his words. And when he adds the caveat of “but I’m alright” at the end of the chorus, in no way do you believe him.
“Never Learn Not to Love / Cease to Exist”
The last known thing Tres Warren ever recorded is as apt a coda as any for this pig-tailed wanderer of the void. In taking on the Beach Boys’ loved-up interpretation of a Charles Manson dirge, then following it with a sympathetic rendition of that very dirge, Tres explores the light and shade, the inherent contradictions, and the near-infinite possibilities of artistry all in eight gorgeous minutes you never want to end.