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While I’m a Hip-Hop DJ here at KJHK, I would say the majority of my music knowledge comes from Classic and Psychedelic rock. Back in my early High School days, there used to be nothing but Pink Floyd and early Led Zeppelin going through my headphones as I wandered the halls, searching for my next class and my new favorite song. So, coming across an album by a band that had played alongside these and other famous acts like the Grateful Dead in the late 60’s was pretty cool. Spoiler alert: this album lives up to the hype.
Recorded in two separate live sessions at the legendary Fillmore West auditorium, Happy Trails is only the second album of Psych Rock outfit Quicksilver Messenger Service. At first glance, the packaging might throw listeners off with its cliché western painting of a cowboy bidding farewell. However, the record contained therein is anything but cliché.
The album begins with their version of the Blues classic “Who do You Love?”, a good cover of a great song and an excellent showcase for the band’s sound. On Happy Trails, vocals take a backseat to the instruments. Not only are vocals sparingly used throughout the entire record, but it seems their presence is always overshadowed by pounding drums or distortion guitar.
The album continues its strange path by dedicating the entire first side of their record to various interpretations and riffs on “Who do You Love?”, such as “Where do You Love?”, “How do you Love” and eventually bringing it all back to a reprise of the original track to end side one. I find this sort of rock opera based off one song to be grandiose, if not a bit excessive. However, that is not to say I don’t enjoy it at least a little bit for it’s boldness and sound. The guitar parts, which sound like surf guitars mixed with a bit of early Cream and Led Zeppelin, provide a wonderful atmosphere to the songs and make for great background music if nothing else.
However, I believe the second side of the album is where Happy Trails really shines. Here, they showcase their myriad of blues influenced psych rock with no regard for time restrictions. Beginning with “Mona”, a sprawling groove intermixed with wavy tremolo guitars and and slick basslines, the core of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s heavy guitar sound stays intact, but they seem to be more willing to play with the rules now that they aren’t covering an old favorite.
After a quick interlude, “Maiden of the Cancer Moon”, the album reaches it’s height with my personal favorite, “Cavalry”. Here, Quicksilver Messenger Service fulfills its cover art’s subject matter. A truly monstrous instrumental ballad clocking in at over 13 minutes, the album sounds like a western soundtrack on some very serious hallucinogenic drugs. Quiet drums and classical guitar chords give way to an almost wacky chorus. This builds and crescendos into a psych rock western ballad, complete with eerie choral backing and piercing solo from the lead guitarist. Instruments become louder or softer without any warning and melodies can leave the song as soon as they enter. The whole song makes for a very strange experience but for some reason, I cannot stop listening.
Both “Cavalry” and the album as a whole have a very unique and interesting sound that I have not seen in other artists of the time period. Happy Trails really is an album that has to be experienced, not just heard. It really is a shame Quicksilver Messenger Service never amounted to much more than the Fillmore West’s house band in the late 60’s, because I think their sound and creativity puts them up there with some of the greats of the late 60’s Psych Rock scene.
Next Week: Not sure yet, but something good I promise.