Camera Obscura

Australian Tony Dale was the kind of enthusiast that gave music fans a good name, an anti-High Fidelity stereotype if you will. Music itself was part of a wider life, including a stint in his country’s armed forces and later work as a mechanical engineer, but besides maintaining a wide interest in art and culture in general, a particular passion for what could be called psychedelic music in its broadest possible sense led him to found one of the turn of the millennium’s most remarkable independent music labels, Camera Obscura. With a total of eighty-six releases as well as a further few on a smaller offshoot label, Camera Lucida, Camera Obscura arrived at a time when, thanks to dropping production and distribution costs combined with the ease of sharing information via the internet, there were enough avenues of support for him to carry his vision to a wider audience. Dale’s goal was to search out acts worldwide that struck his fancy and, if they didn’t already have a home, give them one.

In an interview, he once described Camera Obscura as “a mirror of my own tastes, rather than being specifically designed as a psychedelic label in the retro sense of being a conduit for bands that conformed to a certain set of codes set down in the late ‘60’s psychedelic music movement.” This showed in Dale’s work as one of the regular correspondents for Ptolemaic Terrascope, the UK-based fanzine that in its own similarly broad-minded understanding of what psychedelic music could be – from extreme noise blowouts to strange, fragile folk – helped him reach a similarly inclined audience. Using the example of the underground New Zealand label Xpressway in particular as a model for uncompromising art and independence, Dale’s concentration was primarily on the then-dominant CD format, with occasional vinyl singles and, especially towards the end of the label’s run as the first signs of a wider revival took hold, vinyl albums. While a few Australian acts did release work on Camera Obscura, most of its roster was from elsewhere, with the combination of good distribution and a slew of worldwide press coverage helping his efforts.

While there was no one flagship band, work from numerous acts regularly appeared on Camera Obscura, including longtime Seattle psych pop stalwarts the Green Pajamas, the trippy weirdness of Massachusetts quartet Abunai!, the mystic Pennsylvania-based folk of Stone Breath and Sharron Kraus, the exploratory jams of Primordial Undermind, the moody late-night explorations of Salamander, and the many later albums – as well as a key reissue of the earliest – by Arizona legends the Black Sun Ensemble. Many other acts appeared via one-offs, such efforts including New Zealand underground figure Alastair Galbraith, Philadelphia drone overlords Bardo Pond, the mesmerizing vocals and keyboards of Marianne Nowottny, the elaborate constructions of the UK’s Lazily Spun and the engaging grooves of Dale’s Australian compatriots the Sand Pebbles. 

In a different world, Dale and Camera Obscura would still happily be here at the time of writing in 2022, but even as he like so many others had to struggle with the impact that the popularity of mp3s and cratering sales brought the wider industry in the 2000s, a worse situation emerged with a lymphoma diagnosis. Initial treatments brought some extra time but towards the end of the decade things took a clear turn for the worse, and he made the practical decision to end the label in mid-2010 in accordance with the Australian tax year to avoid leaving anything hanging for his family to deal with. He passed some weeks later, though not before he was given a remarkable gift by so many of the bands he’d supported via a private festival, where acts recorded live in studio/at home performances for him to enjoy. It was a proper salute to a fine and much missed figure, and while the label is now long gone, much of what was released on it has since been rereleased directly by the musicians on its roster, carrying forth the vision.

Praying Winter cover

The final album in what had been a busy six year run, Dipsomaniacs bowed out with an enjoyable effort, the Norwegian group’s evident love of Anglophonic art and psych pop and rock over various generations clear from the start with the string-touched “Dear Mrs. Widdecombe.” There’s a strong sense of bright Scandinavian pop in general too, one easy and immediate melody after another, with lead figure Øyvind Holm’s singing hitting that sense of a delicious power-pop whine more than once on songs such as “Feel The Travel” and “Someday Soon.”

Beautiful Twisted cover

Sharron Kraus’s debut album almost immediately established her reputation as one of the great 21st century folk voices and composers in the English and early American tradition, her clear, warm singing and delicate, involving guitar and banjo playing both of the best quality. On Beautiful Twisted, sympathetically backed by a variety of Bay Area performers from sessions recorded in California, Kraus’s songs – all originals, though they feel truly timeless – showcase both those talents and her ear for intriguing lyrics as on “The River’s Daughter” and “Death Jig.”

Tycho Magnetic Anomaly And The Full Consciousness Of Hidden Harmony cover

Having released a slew of singles, comp tracks and other efforts in previous years already, for his first full length CD as the Azusa Plane Jason DiEmilio created a beautiful statement of purpose, four songs exploring his approach to vivid, rich, loud and serene electric guitar as ambient drone explosion. The first three comparative shorter tracks, including the opening “Temporal Movement” and “The Miracle of the Octave,” are all striking but it’s the half hour conclusion, “Armonia Aphanes Phaneros Kreisson,” which achieves ultimate exultance.

Universe I've Got cover

Primordial Undermind had already established themselves with their earlier releases in the decade but by 1999’s Universe I’ve Got the Eric Arn-led group had proven they were among the masters of reinterpreting early 70s protometal/hard psychedelic tripping out for a newer time. An enjoyable cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Flaming Telepaths” fits in well, but their fine originals like the contemplative “Jean to Sloan” and the Sonic Youth-leaning “Simple Yes I Know” are the real keepers. The high speed shuddering crunch of “Hypnomorphic Array” alone is one hell of a ride.

Lazily Spun cover

The second and last Lazily Spun full length release found the core duo of Matt Woolham and Harry Sumnall, playing what seems like eight million instruments between them, as well as drummer James Pagella, lead guitarist Jaun Bercial-Velez and a host of guests creating a brisk, fun album of playful psychedelia mixed with indie pop. Woolham’s singing has the cool and sweet air familiar from a lot of UK efforts in the latter category, often quite emotional in feeling, while the arrangements generally avoid late 60s cloning in favor of strange trips of their own.

The Telescope Dreampatterns cover

For the second and last of his Verdure releases before he began working under his own name, Donovan Quinn again created a solo release in almost full detail – aside from guest guitar and percussion on “Graveyard Porchlight” (the guitarist, Derek Monypeny, also returns for “The Sea Funeral”), everything performed and sung is Quinn from the ground up. One can see lo-fi being applied as a tag but it’s an intentional creation, woozy but often rich and warm in its arrangements and instrumentation, supporting the sense of slightly weird but not all bad trips.

Birds of Appetite cover

One way you can tell a band’s in a sweet spot is if they can go into a studio and not only record an album in two days, but can make it a double album that actually lives up to the listening time. Such was the case with Salamander, who by Birds of Appetite had fully established themselves as a killer band working hard in turn of the millennium psychedelic rock. Their sense of atmosphere and tension was evident throughout, where the quieter tunes were still a little unsettling and songs like “Isthmus” and “Sadhu” were spacious, beautiful and eerie all at once.

A Silver Thread to Weave the Seasons cover

The second Stone Breath album found Timothy Renner joined by a key collaborator, Prydwyn, whose contributions on a variety of instruments, most notably flute, added to the mystic air of hushed delivery and the feeling of something ancient come to life. Acoustic guitar provides the core throughout, the results almost not so much folk songs as something bardic on songs like “The Clouds of Red Twilight,” though covers of tunes by C.O.B. (as well as Clive Barker solo) and Third Ear Band showcase the band’s roots in earlier waves of invoking past currents of life. 

The Wrecker's Lantern cover

The sole full-length album from Saint Joan was a very enjoyable example of stripped down but still warm feeling folk-rock from the 2000s. Not that it was simply sunny sentiments and feelings throughout: Krisztina Hidasi’s violin added both resonance and, sometimes, a bit of haunting unease. But singer/guitarist and main songwriter Ellen Mary McGee kept everything moving with the feeling of a good fireside performance, her strong voice infusing such songs as the intense “Fire At Sea,” with Matthew Harms’s drums especially strong, “Far Away” and “Singing Bowl.”

Illusions Of The Sun cover

Marianne Nowottny’s third album – short at just under half an hour but perhaps a perfect follow up to the double CD Manmade Girl – captured the remarkable and unique feeling of her general approach then, relying primarily on keyboards without rhythm parts and her low keening voice to create simultaneously catchy and very unusual songs. The title track sets the mood with a rollicking flow while the brilliantly titled “Rainy Days and Vinyl,” a piano-led piece, shifts between quick and slow paces, sung-spoken lyrics and the feeling of an exploration in the moment.

Butterfly Mountain cover

After what had been a flurry of activity in the early 1990s, the Petals returned for one last album in 2003, and right from the electric-sitar-accompanied start it’s pretty clear how thoroughly the quartet took the spirit of late 60s sunshine pop and folkie psych directly into a new decade. The core vocal/instrumental duo of Cary Wolf and Laurie Kern, working primarily with Wolf’s songs, have at numbers like “Seed Separator” and “A Place In the Shade” with warm ease, as rhythm section Tim Kern and J. D. Tessler plus a slew of guests add to the good playing and good spirits.

All Clues Lead To Meagan's Bed cover

The Green Pajamas continued its new burst of activity in the late 1990s with Camera Obscura, All Clues Lead To Meagan’s Bed, at once a perfectly expected listen – well harmonized 60s derived/Beatles-touched rock delivered with easy skill – and a contextual delight for its time and place. Jeff Kelly’s lead vocals, with their light touch of yearning mixed with its soothing vibes, often provide the key anchor, with songs like the chug and bliss of “Rattlesnake Kiss” and the piano-led Eric Lichter-composed “Egyptian Snowflake” among the many engaging highlights.

All Things Are Light cover

After a four year wait following C6H8O6, the Linus Pauling Quartet returned to the fray with a tight collection of seven lysergic rampagers via All Things Are Light. Kicking off with the heavy chug and blast of “Alien Abduction,” guitar noise running everywhere while echoed vocals from the heavens invoke, well, the title subject, the album finds the band continuing to pursue the excellent idea of “What if pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd actually grew up as dirtbag metalheads and were kinda also Hawkwind at the same time?” Perfect song title: “Enchirito.”

The Alison Effect cover

The first of the two albums Dunlavy released for Camera Obscura, The Alison Effect found Scott Grimm continuing to work in the slightly mysterious – in a good way – approach he had already established with earlier releases. The five songs on the album – starting with the lengthy and wordless “Woe Be To Croton,” which eventually evolves into a kind of semi-prog epic stomp – mix and match acid-tinged distortion, slacker confusion as on “Rob Walks In,” general spaced out atmospheres and a running sense of acoustic/electric country blues twang throughout.

Universal Mind Decoder cover

Carrying a couple of songs over from the quartet’s initial 1996 demo tape, Universal Mind Decoder found the Massachusetts group Abunai! in a perfect spot when it comes to the vibrant 1990s psych underground in America, at once sweetly blissful and more than a little freaked out. Folkier roots get readily acknowledged by interpretations of Richard & Linda Thompson’s “The Calvary Cross” and the traditional “Gypsy Davy,” but the album itself kicks off with the building guitar/organ blast “Cosmo Gun,” and there’s plenty of other zoned-and-stoned jams throughout.

Black Sun Ensemble cover

The 1985 debut private-press album by Black Sun Ensemble, whose guitarist Jesus Acedo would be the sole constant of the band for its various incarnations, itself went through any number of reissues, alternate tracklistings and apparent bootleg editions over the years. Regardless, it’s an entrancing listen, Acedo leading the original trio lineup through a series of instrumental compositions with his stirring and sun-baked guitar playing, combining Arizona with alien landscapes on songs like “Dove Of The Desert,” “Blue Thunder” and “Ice Breaker.”

Eastern Terrace cover

The Sand Pebbles’ debut album Eastern Terrace was an enjoyable low-key kick of a listen, continuing a general Australian tradition of psych-influenced rock and roll while carving out a particular sound all their own. A key part of that lay with guitarist/vocalist Andrew Tanner’s ear for a gentle falsetto on both lead and harmonies, lending songs like their cover of Julian Cope’s “Out Of My Mind On Dope and Speed” a solid amount of sweet bliss as much as propulsion. The overall feeling of Eastern Terrace is easygoing but not indolent, a just buzzy enough summer afternoon.

Whirlaway cover

The Tadpoles’ relatively brief but still very busy existence during the 1990s ended with a satisfying bang with Whirlaway, as engaging an end-of-the-century slice of slightly shaggy and trippy psych rock as one could want. With the whole band always emphasizing melodies and grooves – “Frances the Dancer” starts the album with a frug as much as a soundtrack for an oil projection – lead figure Todd Parker delivers both vocal and, with Nick Kramer, guitar goods. Songs like “Smile If You’ve Crossed Over” and the title track have a crisp, engaging energy.

The Echoing Grove cover

Originally appearing in a small tape run in 1994 and then rereleased on the Camera Obscura label five years later, The Echoing Grove, the first formal effort by the duo of Dafydd Roberts and Ruth McDonald, remains a hidden jewel of 1990s underground experimental music, cryptic and compelling. Across the album’s eight songs, Alphane Moon range from murmuring mood-setting dark electronic murk to using open-ended echo-swathed guitar parts and brief snatches of vocals, sometimes heavily treated in turn, to create the feeling of a strange, disorienting sonic voyage.

Incoherent Lullabies cover

The third Fell album (in order of release, though A Farewell To Echoes was recorded after it) was also the last album released on the Camera Obscura label before the untimely passing of its founder Tony Dale. Even if that was a wholly unwanted distinction, the strength of Incoherent Lullabies underscored that it was a high note to bow out on regardless. Bandleader Josh Wambeke synthesized various recent touchstones of contemplative music – Radiohead’s Kid A-era, low-key 90s indie rock, the wash of shoegaze – into a focused, very involving experience.

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