The Voice of the Apocalypse

Terence McKenna as Raving Medium




The acid house rave scene of the early nineties sought its champions and there was no spruiker more willing, vocal and weird than Terence McKenna, a figure for whom rave was a novelty signal in a forecasted apocalypse. A slate of music collaborations with McKenna in the early nineties had one feature in common. They recorded McKenna speaking in an alien tongue. Releases with The Shamen, Space Time Continuum and Zuvuya featured McKenna emulating the “elf chatter” that had poured from him in entranced states under the influence of powerful psychoactive tryptamines. Subsequently, producers of psychedelic electronica mined the “unEnglishable” sprechen of this surreal psychopomp as if it was precious aural ore. Drawing upon in-depth biographical research, I demonstrate that this strange prediscursive realm has proven appealing into the present era in which McKenna has become a medium—not of language, meaning or ideology, but of the unspeakable. Over three decades, McKenna’s voice has been adopted by audio alchemists sampling from a vast archive of spoken word material to evoke, affect and burlesque states transcending language and history. While McKenna died in 2000, he remains likely the most sampled individual in the history of electronic music. And as illustrated in this article, electronic artists have adopted his voice as a sonic template for the unknown. What I call mckennasploitation intrigues since, as is further demonstrated, it transpires in an era of growing uncertainty. The article suggests that McKenna is the voice of the apocalypse in two interrelated senses. First, the sampling evokes the “apocalypse” of the self, mind and culture that is the perennial desire of ecstatic dance movements. Second, McKenna is posthumously prolific in an era of accelerating crisis and novelty, a circumstance with uncanny echoes of his prophesied “Eschaton”. In psytrance and other psychedelic electronic styles, these strands are woven into a McKennaesque aesthetic.

Author Biography

Graham St John

As an anthropologist specialising in electronic dance music movements, event-cultures and entheogens, Graham has authored eight books, including Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT (North Atlantic Books 2015), Global Tribe: Technology, Spirituality and Psytrance (Equinox, 2012), and Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures (Equinox, 2009). Among his publications are the edited collections Weekend Societies: Electronic Dance Music Festivals and Event-Cultures (Bloomsbury 2017), Victor Turner and Contemporary Cultural Performance (Berghahn 2008) and Rave Culture and Religion (Routledge 2004). He has been awarded postdoctoral fellowships in Australia, the US, Canada and Switzerland, and was recently a Senior Researcher on the Swiss National Science Foundation project "Burning Progeny: The European Efflorescence of Burning Man" at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (2016-2019). Graham is founding Executive Editor of Dancecult.