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Vice Magazine

December 2014

Psychedelic Artist Alex Grey’s Winter Solstice Rave Put Your Holiday Party to Shame By Greg Scruggs

If partying under the full moon somewhere in Thailand ever had spiritual origins, they've long been forgotten in the crush of Aussies chasing psychedelics with tall boys of Fosters. But let's not forget that these celestial occurrences are still auspicious enough to prompt plenty of new-age spiritualists, neo-hippies, and modern-day pagans to throw down once a month. And if it's a solstice, forget about it. That's practically a decree to load up the car with hula-hoops and hit the road in search of a party.

The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM) occupies a creaky Victorian house and its surrounding grounds in the Hudson Valley, 65 miles upriver from New York City. Alex Grey, the psychedelic artist whose work you might recognize from Tool's album covers (or your college roommate's walls), decamped here in 2009 with his wife Allyson to fulfill their dream of a visionary art sanctuary. These days, Alex and Allyson host regular full-moon bashes and celestial celebrations that begin with earnest spiritual ceremonies before devolving into late-night raves with touring DJs from the Burning Man-end of the dance music spectrum.

The winter solstice on December 21 was the longest night of the year—good news for hard-partying creatures of the nightlife. CoSM rang in the darkness with a cast of touring DJs from the West Coast festival scene, including G Jones, Russ Liquid, and Djedi, along with their Brooklyn counterparts Space Jesus, Schlang, and Esseks.

At the decidedly un-party o'clock hour of 8PM, the house was already packed with a standing-room-only crowd. The parlor was decorated with a medley of ordinary holiday party trappings—paper snowflakes, electric icicles, the works—and new-age touches, including a three-dimensional star, amethyst rocks, and a third-eye metalwork. Plus, CoSM is basically a room-by-room museum of Grey's prodigious output. Poring over the detailed scenes of "Cosmic Christ" like you would a Bruegel is a chill-out room experience most clubs can't offer.

Nor does your average Saturday night rager involve a lecture. Here, the psychedelic faithful in their flowing scarves, Mayan ponchos, faux-Indian headdresses, and yin-yang necklaces sat in rapt attention. The older hippie contingent in plain-old tie-dye reminded me that we're only an hour from Woodstock. A guy wearing a snowsuit and a motorcycle helmet with its visor down settled in next to me. "Safety third," he said with a nod, before an addled middle-aged woman in front us asked, "Are you going to wear that all night? It's freaking me out." Then she turned to her ponytailed male companion and started off a story with, "So I met this guy at a drum circle…"

Finally the Greys appeared, an elegant older couple presiding over their sacred salon. The Native American-in-residence led a flute serenade to honor the Wappinger people who originally inhabited CoSM's land, giving a meditative tone to the proceedings, but what followed was more cerebral than spiritual. The Greys launched into an around-the-world tour of solstice celebrations that ran A-Z from African-American (Kwanzaa) to Zoroastrian (Yalda).

While one might expect an inscrutable mystic from his paintings, Alex was surprisingly affable, embodying a Robin Williams-esque nutty professor demeanor full of impersonations, sound effects, and wisecracks. The crowd lapped it up, murmuring in approval or letting out a satisfied "whoa" and the occasional "I love it" as he unraveled solstice secrets, facts occasionally notwithstanding. (I'm not buying the cosmic coincidence that the root of "solstice," coming from the Latin sol–sun–sounds like "soul," since the Latin for soul is anima).

Once the party got started, it became clear that the benefit of CoSM's massive estate means far more elbow room than your typical city fête. Outside, there was a dedicated space for fire spinners, a roaring bonfire under snow flurries, and a "puffer dome" with ambient tunes and trippy layered visuals.

Inside, the music lurched from glitchy 8-bit to chopped'n'screwed R&B vocals, with a heavy dose of future bass. A trumpet worked surprisingly well on the live set by Schlang (the joint effort of Brooklyn's Supersillyus and Space Jesus); the Daft Punk guitar crescendo, not as much. Shockingly, there was far less psytrance than I expected; I must have missed Psylander's set. At times, the party felt like a tiny outpost of West Coast festival culture, tiding over an east coast crowd during the dark winter months until Mysteryland 2015 rolls around. But with one glaring difference: a no-shoes-inside rule that everyone respected, at the expense of some confused bros trying to locate their Nike high tops outside at 3AM.

All around, people gushed with sacred energy. "Rune, R-U-N-E," patiently explained a feathered-headed chick with white dots painted under her eyes. A communal sand mandala was upended to reveal "spiritually charged candy" (Hershey's Kisses) while an older woman admonished, "You have to love your Mother Earth no matter what." At one point, a volunteer named Patrick burst into my conversation to share this tidbit: "We're all part of a love tribe." His black velvet vest and ponytail made him look suspiciously like the ponytailed Alex Grey himself, who held court the whole night at his easel, painting and chatting with wide-eyed onlookers.

As pantheistic quotes ringed the walls around the dance floor like Tibetan prayer flags, I reflected on "the holidays." That term, fingered by cultural conservatives as a PC weapon in the "War on Christmas," suddenly felt appropriate. There are dozens of ways of commemorating the winter solstice around the world. In an increasingly multicultural America, J.C.'s birthday is just one of many. If Alex Grey and his acolytes want to "discover the god within" by grabbing as many world traditions as they feel are relevant—and celebrating them all at once—to me, that's no less legitimate than memorializing the birth of a baby in a Bethlehem barn. If anything, this winter solstice rave turned out to be the most educational bash I've been to all year. It sure as hell beat going to an ugly sweater party.

Featured Photo : Alex Grey Winter Solstice 2014

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