Review of The Black Angels

Review of The Black Angels album “Phosphene Dream”
By M. Toland
When applied to music, the word psychedelia immediately brings to mind not only the 60s, but a certain sound represented by pioneering albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Love’s Forever Changes – albums with an orchestral bent, an expanding of rock’s textural consciousness, an enhancement of rock/pop melodies with instruments outside of the usual guitars/bass/drums/occasional organ setup. It’s all about expanding your mind, man, and it can only be a positive thing to connect yourself to the rest of the universe. Even if no one takes the phrase “flower power” seriously anymore, psychedelic rock is still often joined with to the concept of peace and love as catalysts for change.
Those are fine ideals – and even finer records, but they’re only part of the psychedelic story. The flip side of light is darkness, and the dark side of psychedelia has always been a major, if not as popular, force. With a principle that’s arguably about expanding the mind by looking inward instead of outward, this side of psych strips down the instrumentation to the basics, paints its pictures in minor chords and harrowing drones and generally indulges a fascination with the downside of taking psychedelic drugs and the difficult truths one uncovers when traveling the universe. Coruscating between the twin poles of the Velvet Underground (a name not usually associated with psychedelia, though it should be) and Texas’ own 13th Floor Elevators, dark psych rock isn’t necessarily superior to the clichéd images of acid pop – just another side that should be acknowledged and celebrated.
Which brings us to Austin’s own acid rock titans the Black Angels. The band has always associated with the bleaker side of psychedelia, building riffs directly from drones and revitalizing the ugly side of the hippie dream. Peace and love didn’t power the songs on their first two albums – anger and resentment drove Passover (“The First Vietnamese War,” “Bloodhounds On My Trail”) and Directions to See a Ghost (“You On the Run,” “Snake in the Grass”). Drawing its inspiration from the Velvets far more than anything even remotely Beatlesque, down to taking its name from “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” has brought the band well-deserved acclaim from all over the world.
Newly signed to the revived Blue Horizon label, the Angels take a step forward on Phosphene Dream by staying true to the values set by the first two records, while introducing new colors and shades to the band’s patented dark psych sound. The basic difference is the band’s new grasp of dynamics – not clichéd loud/soft shifts, but the way the Angels alter tempos and moods within a tune. The ominous “River of Blood” flows from midtempo atmospheric groove to explosions of punk violence without jarring the senses. “Haunting at 1300 McKinley” lives up to its title, luxuriating in ghostly vibes while still keeping the band’s steely backbone intact. “True Believers” bops along almost like folk music, driven by what sounds like a bouzouki, before sliding almost gently into droning synthesizer waves, like running through a field directly into a bog. The title track pits guitars that both chime and fuzz against each other, as Maas meanders through the visions caused by pressing your finger directly against your eyeball.
But the Angels have more surprises in store for the unwary. “Sunday Afternoon” pays overt homage to the 13th Floor Elevators not only with the sound of an electric jug, but also a song structure based on the hard R&B that inspired the Elevators. “Yellow Elevator #2” betrays a creeping Beatles influence, particularly songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” – a blatantly trippy, almost hopeful psychedelia that takes you to a happier place. “Telephone” strips away the band’s black clouds and drone and just rocks a busted heart lament out in a plug-in-and-play fashion.
While these experiments bring new elements into the band, they don’t introduce anything radical to the Angels’ universe. The group’s signature noise – cheap organs, driving rhythms, guitars bathed in enough reverb to soak a blanket – is intact, and there are enough of their usual scowling nuggets (“The Sniper,” “Bad Vibrations”) to satisfy those looking for the same fix. But the Black Angels introduce just enough variation in their still-potent formula to show growth, even as they hold to their own tradition. That makes Phosphene Dream not just compelling, but damn near brilliant.

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