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 Beatlesâ€™ Sgt. Pepperâ€™s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Loveâ€™s Forever Changes – albums with an orchestral bent, an expanding of rockâ€™s textural consciousness, an enhancement of rock/pop melodies with instruments outside of the usual guitars/bass/drums/occasional organ setup. Itâ€™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 â€œflower powerâ€ 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 theyâ€™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 thatâ€™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 Texasâ€™ own 13th Floor Elevators, dark psych rock isnâ€™t necessarily superior to the clichÃ©d images of acid pop – just another side that should be acknowledged and celebrated.
Which brings us to Austinâ€™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 didnâ€™t power the songs on their first two albums – anger and resentment drove Passover (â€œThe First Vietnamese War,â€ â€œBloodhounds On My Trailâ€) and Directions to See a Ghost (â€œYou On the Run,â€ â€œSnake in the Grassâ€). Drawing its inspiration from the Velvets far more than anything even remotely Beatlesque, down to taking its name from â€œThe Black Angelâ€™s Death Song,â€ 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 bandâ€™s patented dark psych sound. The basic difference is the bandâ€™s new grasp of dynamics – not clichÃ©d loud/soft shifts, but the way the Angels alter tempos and moods within a tune. The ominous â€œRiver of Bloodâ€ flows from midtempo atmospheric groove to explosions of punk violence without jarring the senses. â€œHaunting at 1300 McKinleyâ€ lives up to its title, luxuriating in ghostly vibes while still keeping the bandâ€™s steely backbone intact. â€œTrue Believersâ€ 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. â€œSunday Afternoonâ€ 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. â€œYellow Elevator #2â€ betrays a creeping Beatles influence, particularly songs like â€œLucy in the Sky With Diamondsâ€ – a blatantly trippy, almost hopeful psychedelia that takes you to a happier place. â€œTelephoneâ€ strips away the bandâ€™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 donâ€™t introduce anything radical to the Angelsâ€™ universe. The groupâ€™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 (â€œThe Sniper,â€ â€œBad Vibrationsâ€) 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.