The Black Angels
Label: Blue Horizon
On paper, the Black Angels should have been laughed out of town when they’d released their debut, Passover in 2006. While your girlfriend was rocking out to Ladytron, here, from Austin, were a group of heads, all living in the same house, jamming long and hard on the same old ’60s tropes. The Angels wrote lyrics wallowing in vague Morrisonian paranoia, accompanied by White Light, White Heat’s guitars, Brian Jonestown Massacre reverb and Joy Division’s suffocating gloom. Though, for a psych rock band this sounds like a recipe for more-of-the-same, Passover– coupled with the band’s live performances- was impossible to forget. With droning organ, dual drummers and thunderous guitar, singer Alex Maas, sounding alternately possessed or horrified, conjured the ’60s-era Vietnam War boogeyman to great effect; Passover and its music videos, cut from ‘Nam era press conferences, should have been completely passé were it not for the fact that the United States government in ’05 was warmongering just as virulently as in the ’60s.
Stark and striking as the monochrome artwork itself, Passover was followed by Directions to See a Ghost in 2008, a sophomore slump, in that a sudden absence of songs like “The First Vietnamese War” or “The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven,” with their thousand-mile stares, couldn’t help but promise diminished returns. This makes Phosphene Dream, released on the newly invigorated Blue Horizon imprint, a welcome surprise.
Dream features production work by Dave Sardy, Producer to the Alt Stars (Black Mountain, Oasis, Autolux) and his work shows; as well as various textures not present on Ghost or even Passover. “Yellow Elevator #2,” one of a few songs where the Angels get their Doors on (and I’m talking “Soul Kitchen” and “Moonlight Drive” more than “The End” or “Celebration of the Lizard”), features a flat-sounding drum kit, dry, insistent bass, funhouse organ and guitar like heat mirages- a kaleidoscopic mix that would’ve been all thick, fuzzy slurry on Ghost. A song like “Sunday Afternoon” shows that there’s more of a personality to the band than previously heard; there’s that weirdo fluttering jug in the background, an homage of sorts to Roky Erickson, with whom they spent some of 2008 touring with, playing 13th Floor Elevator tunes. There’s a sense of humor and good-naturedness here that was tough to hear on, say, “Better Off Alone.”
Phosphene Dream bears no shortage of dark thrills though; dig “River of Blood” with its torrents of distorted guitar and rhythmic whirlpool, or, truer to form, the title track, with Maas’ follow-the-leader, sing-songy incantations, such as, “Our President was dead to us/ Hallelujah/ He takes his pills so he can kill/ Praise the bible.” “Entrance Song,” despite Maas’ clumsy reiteration of the song’s title as the chorus, rolls down its Texas desert highway, seething with Easy Rider menace. Grimmest of all, opener “Bad Vibrations” slips in with intense bass and gloomy guitar. Halfway through the track, the sound of what could be a thunderbolt but is probably just a loose patch cable explodes; the band’s tempo picks up and you can’t help but be carried along, against your will.
At this point in the Black Angels’ career, having spent a few years getting hyped then getting left to slip down the blogosphere, it would seem that Phosphene Dream has no right to be as good as it is. But there are songs here, a great evolution from the frightening intensity of the first record and the heavy layers of the second- and Maas sounds better than ever. I, for one, welcome the Black Angels back with open arms, an open mind and an open third eye- whatever exactly is necessary to fully enjoy this band’s particular brand of creep-psych.