Help! I’ve spent weeks inside Spotify Wrapped’s ‘chamber psych’ wormhole

Our writer loves a micro-genre (he claims "gallons of glowstick juice" were pumped from his stomach "at the height of nu-rave"), so we had him investigate Spotify's latest

Whatever you say you are, that’s what you’re not. Shoegazer? Emo? Punk? Swedish neo-rasta? Maybe you heard a band or two in those genres, hunted out some more and decided that this was a term you could use to help define your cultural identity for the world.

Then you woke up one day and discovered that you weren’t, in fact, any of the things you classed yourself as. Like something out of musical Momento, you never even knew yourself at all, you were a stranger in your own skin. Unknowingly, you were chamber psych.

Now, having respect for musicians, I rarely use Spotify – I consider it far nobler to merely hassle their PRs for complimentary downloads of their music. But even I couldn’t escape the Great Chamber Psych Self-Reckoning of 2020. Overnight in early December, the algorithm plugged into the innermost psyche of millions of Spotify users, deciphered their ‘Wrapped‘ run-downs of most-played genres for the year and told vast swathes of them that they were fans of ‘chamber psych’.

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Absolute fuckers for the chamber psych, you lot. Morning, noon and night, boshing away on the chamber psych. Heaven knows, we all grew weary of having to stage chamber psych interventions on friends and family members who had become dangerously hooked, and many regional leaders blame illegal chamber psych gatherings for tipping their areas into Tier Three.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of scenes and microgenres, anything to help us hone our identities, find likeminded partners in crime. The only problem with chamber psych: no-one actually knew what it was, which of their favourite acts fit the bill or ever what the defining characteristics of the genre might be.

For such a widely popular style, it sounds ridiculously specific. Surely it has to be an act or band using chamber instruments – violin, cello, viola, trumpet, maybe the odd bassoon – in a psychedelic manner. That’s basically just Cate Le Bon, This Mortal Coil, early Patrick Wolf and The Magnetic Fields’ 2008 album ‘Distortion’. And I can’t remember any of those particularly owning 2020.

As someone with a ‘SHROOMADELICA 4 LYF’ tattoo, and who had gallons of glowstick juice pumped from his stomach at the height of nu-rave, I’m tragically desperate to convince myself I live on the cutting-edge. So I scented my next reinvention. I could be the king of chamber psych, write all its most historic tomes, champion its greatest talents and document the birth of the New Chamber Psych Revolution. If only I could find out what chamber psych actually was.

Initial investigations revealed that the genre doesn’t really exist outside of Spotify. Last.fm lists just three acts as chamber psych artists, all experimental improv bands “for fans of the Grateful Dead” with fewer than 4,000 streams between them and largely inactive since 2003. Bandcamp lists a further three, one of whom is called Rock And Roll Rich. Review compilation site Feed Me Music had gamely tried to concoct a short list of chamber psych albums, where Marika Hackman, Fontaines D.C., Doves and The Charlatans proved unlikely bedfellows. I was going to have to go to the fountainhead.

Unfortunately, Spotify isn’t much help in defining this elusive new sound either. The description line on its Sound Of Chamber Psych playlist reads, vaguely: ‘See also: Art Pop, Experimental Pop, Garage Psych, Freak Folk, Neo-Psychedelic, Electronica, Indie Rock, Nu Gaze, Chamber Pop, Dream Pop’. Yet here were 720 songs that would help me immerse myself in this vanguard of chamber-based psychedelia.

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I dug in. Nadine Shah’s ‘Evil’, Fat White Family’s ‘Feet’, Working Men’s Club’s ‘Valleys’, Porridge Radio’s ‘7 Seconds’: electro-funk, filth disco, noir grunge pop, future punk, indie synth-rock. Plenty of great music – I’m clearly chamber psych ‘til I die – but it seemed impossible to discern a common thread.

For further clues, I turned to Spotify’s Every Noise At Once. This site plots a universe of microgenres on a scatter-graph designed to cluster similar scenes together (you’d need to be the Hubble telescope’s in-house musicologist to try to make head nor tail of it). Here we find that chamber psych is situated nowhere near chamber pop at all, but is very closely aligned to deep psychobilly, Dundee indie, groove gospel, blackened hardcore, Inuit pop, deep orgcore and, of course, zolo.

Spotify Wrapped 2020. CREDIT: Spotify

Clicking through to chamber psych’s own splatter-graph, we find that its sprawling diaspora takes in PJ Harvey, ANOHNI and Teenage Fanclub, and that this motherlode of genres finally finds that elusive common ground between Young Fathers and The Wedding Present. It seems that the only sensible thing to do is abandon all current musical terminology, rename all music ‘chamber psych’ and start narrowing again from there.

Perhaps the truth is that chamber psych is simply a ruse to keep you listening. Unlike actual scenes, streaming ‘scenes’ aren’t intended to bring people together, help them define their tastes, find common musical ground or adopt collective uniforms. They’re there to connect as many acts as possible by the loosest of threads in the hope of more click-throughs, more engagement, more background playlists, more data.

But we need all the inspirational movements we can get, so let us not allow it to dissolve under scrutiny.

Let’s salute real, authentic chamber psych when we hear it, hold festivals in its name, badger confused DJs to play it and organise scooter runs to Brighton to have fights on the beach with the orgcore crews. Now, who can design me the best chest tattoo of Cate Le Bon?

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