by Chris Parker
The Black Angels are The Beach Boys’ evil nemesis—acolytes of The Velvets with their own sonic blueprint for good vibrations. Instead of bright bustling melodies and resplendent harmonies, they build a hypnotic thrum of slowly shuddering distortion buttressed by a primal beat. But their connection with shoegazer is more about approach than literal sound: these aren’t towering walls of stereo chorus and overdriven distortion, so much as a deep groove and stoned, psychedelic sway.
The band has a well-articulated and coherent vision, right down to the album art for their full-length debut, Passover: the band’s name and album title ripple in concentric, overlapping black lines to the edges of the cover. It’s simplistic but nonetheless evocative, mimicking their musical approach—wave after wave of breakers crashing at the foot of the listener.
The Black Angels take their name from the Velvet Underground’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” a noisy, droning paean that’s a clear antecedent to these modern-day Angels. Hell, they even have a woman drummer playing a simple kit, like Maureen Tucker, and they’re unabashed about it.
“We’ve always liked the idea of having a female drummer just because the Velvet Underground had one,” says singer-bassist Alex Maas from the Austin place four of the five of them share. “We went through like 20 male drummers, and they were all trying do stuff that was ridiculous—their kits were too big, and they listened to too much Guns N’ Roses,” Maas says. “But Stephanie [Bailey], while she listened to Guns N’ Roses, was able to do stuff with our sound that was conducive and create a tribal kind of sound.”
Indeed, the expansive, slow burn of their songs gives them a trance-like quality that induces you to rock and throb in time with the sturdy hum. They forge a shambling, almost spiritual feeling amplified live by the sheer volume vibrating to the center of your soul.
“Whenever we play the music, it’s definitely like a spiritual thing for us,” Maas agrees. “It’s our outlet for tons of emotions that we might not get to express day to day.”
The band formed around Maas and guitarist Christian Bland just over three years ago, but their history goes back further. Bland and Maas were friends in junior high, and reconnected after college.
“As kids we would hang out, and we always had this creative energy that bounced off each other, you know? As far as conversation and even writing songs,” Maas says.
When Bland moved back to Austin from Florida to get his master’s, Maas couldn’t help but think of those old days, so the two got together one night. “I brought my digital recorder over, and we wrote and recorded like eight or nine songs that night. It was awesome, and I was like, ‘It’s too easy,’ ” Maas recalls.
They’re prolific writers with a large catalog of finished and half-finished songs. For Passover, they went into the studio with 15 tracks before culling it down to 10. They’ve already tracked 14 more songs for the next album (some will go toward a split with Brightblack Morning Light), six of them added just during the week off between tour dates.
“We’ve got tons of songs,” Maas complains. “It’s a pain in the ass to figure out which ones we want to record. It’s not a fight, but totally a long debate and discussion.” Even the album’s sinister reverberations were up for discussion. The haunting overtone, for one, was a conscious choice.
“We just went for evil—an evil tone. If it wasn’t evil—if we didn’t look at each other—it didn’t make the cut. We’ll get a lot of tones where we’ll be like, ‘It’s just too happy and too frilly.’ It has to fall into a certain category, and I can’t even tell you what that is,” Maas says. “We did a lot of trial and error. A lot of, ‘Do you like this; do you like this?’ It didn’t all come out naturally. There was a lot of, ‘Eh, I don’t know.’ ”
Passover’s tone dovetails nicely with the darkly political imagery and lyrics. Songs such as “Young Men Dead,” “The First Vietnamese War,” and the hidden final track calling for us to get out of “The Iraq War” are overt appeals. Others, such as “Empire,” “The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven” and “Call to Arms” speak more generally to the malaise and selfishness of the times. Even “Bloodhounds on My Trail” and “Better Off Alone” echo the album’s tense undercurrent.
“There’s probably a lot of subconscious paranoia for one—all the stuff that’s going on, and the fact that there’s still this kind of cold war going on,” Maas says. “The First Vietnamese War” just came out of the guitar tones Bland was making, which spurred images of pontoon boats in Mekong delta, faintly echoing the twisted instrumental haze of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” He didn’t intend to write a song connecting the senseless deaths 40 years ago to those today, it just sort of turned out that way.
“We try not to be over the top with [the politics], not too preachy about it, and that’s kind of our way to do it—just doing images,” Maas says. “It’s a lot easier for us to write the lyrics to a song than to come up with a cool tone or instrumental sound. So it’s surprising more people aren’t talking about [the war], because it is so easy.”
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