For a band that cites The Velvet Underground as one of its influences, Austin-based rockers The Black Angels have a psychedelic sound that is more reminiscent of the 13th Floor Elevators than of Reed and company. Alex Maas’s vocals are refreshingly haunting, channeling a darker Neil Young, while Christian Bland’s heavy guitar is anything but what his last name would suggest. From the moody “Bad Vibrations” to the Brit-pop rocker “Sunday Afternoon,” which has a sharp, face-melting guitar solo, the Angels don’t stray far from the lo-fi psychedelica that made their first two albums popular.
There’s been some chatter on the internet that the Black Angels’ move to the newly resurrected Blue Horizon label is tantamount to selling out, a tiresome complaint that was as old as dirt way back when Mark Perry stopped sniffin’ glue long enough to bitch about the Clash signing to CBS Records. In the case of the splendid new album by Austin’s Black Angels, Phosphene Dream, maybe it was a gripe rendered before the opening number even spun. Fair enough, because over two prior albums of fantastically schlocky psychedelic drone, the Black Angels and brevity weren’t exactly on speaking terms.
In 2008, I reviewed The Black Angels’ Directions To See A Ghost and wrote the following: “Unable to avoid any Velvet comparisons, The Black Angels at least bring the whole psych thing to a different level: Timothy Leary in loner mode, nighttime wanderer, tuned into his own acid-soaked brain matter, reacting to expansive and empty stimuli. Spiritual, but from somewhat of a paranormal sense. Though, content-wise, there’s nothing paranormal about them.” Phosphene Dream is the newest album by the neo-psychedelic quintet, free of the night air and obscuring sounds that fueled its predecessor.
By screwing vintage 13th Floor Elevators riffs down to trip-hop tempos, the Black Angels struck psych-rock pay dirt. The Austin, Texas-based quintet's 2006 debut, Passover, and its follow-up, Directions to See a Ghost, were sufficiently fuzzy-headed to win over a few record-store nerds, but also possessed enough head-bobbing grooves to keep college dudes from getting bored. The Black Angels' third album, Phosphene Dream, is groovier still.
I know a lot of really great cover bands. Some truly fantastic ones, actually. Blissful teenage years of musical idiocy spent in suburbia resulted in an inordinate number of underaged and overintoxicated viewings of some of the finest and most terrible cover bands known to man. One in particular sticks out like a thorn amongst bad puns on Guns N' Roses: a cover band claiming to at once reinterpret and remain faithful to a bunch of Sixties garage psychedelics known as Nuggets.
When a band opens its album with a song called "Bad Vibrations," hits the midway point with another called "River of Blood," and titles its grand finale "The Sniper," it's safe to assume that the group is not much worried about seeming wholesome and friendly. And even if the Black Angels had given the songs on their third full-length album, Phosphene Dream, titles relating to bunnies, flowers, and ice cream, this music would still cast a long shadow of bad karma; the Black Angels appear to be stoned on the same stuff Thee Oh Sees have been taking for years, but with fewer hallucinations and a good bit more crummy attitude. While most bands following the path of the gloomy and the stoned sound a bit sloppy, on Phosphene Dream the Black Angels feel tighter and more precise than they ever have before, and the unified attack on these tunes helps the medicine go down without robbing the music of its sinister power.
It may seem strange for a current band to relaunch legendary 60s blues label Blue Horizon, but the Black Angels fit the bill. Taking their cue from countless classic psych and garage bands, the Austin quintet don't have just one foot in the past - they have both. Maintaining their successful retro-minded formula but further developing their chops, the band's third LP keeps the reverb high and the hooks flowing.
In some regard, it’s honorable that even after moving to a major label-distributed Blue Horizon, Austin’s Black Angels feel no pressure at all to change up their sound in the least. Because their third album, Phosphene Dream, could have easily been their first: It’s all impossibly hazy psych ….
In some regard, it’s honorable that even after moving to a major label-distributed Blue Horizon, Austin’s Black Angels feel no pressure at all to change up their sound in the least. Because their third album, Phosphene Dream, could have easily been their first: It’s all impossibly hazy psych-drone stoner-scuzz that is ready-made to soundtrack Sam Peckinpah opening credits. In fact, there are no surprises at all on Phosphene: There are songs titled things like “Bad Vibrations,” “River of Blood,” “Haunting At 1300 McKinley” and “The Sniper,” and lead singer Alex Maas still hisses his vocals like he’s in the process of being choked.
Any measure you want to throw at it, this is a killer rock album. Everett True 2010 You can hear traces of the Black Angels' Texas heritage all over their third album: most obviously 13th Floor Elevators' deranged psych groove on the incredible opener Bad Vibrations, which halfway through knocks the volume up several notches and starts rocking like prime (ie early) Queens of the Stone Age. Does Alex Mass' nasal voice that sounds like it's been tripping down a nearby rabbit hole feel familiar? Have a listen to Jefferson Airplane.
Cold sweat beading the Black Angels' full-length debut, 2006's Passover, on boutique Seattle indie Light in the Attic, still pools like malaria. "The First Vietnamese War" teamed with "The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven" (also an EP) power a dread electric hum of reverberating chants, conspiracy guitars, and percussion that snake-charms the reptilian tributaries of Southeast Asia. Directions To See a Ghost two years later slowed the chopper whir.