On paper, psychedelic rockers The Black Angels might sound like a throwback to a bygone era, when social change felt like an unstoppable force for good, before Hunter Thompson's famous wave broke and left its high-water mark somewhere above the hills of Los Angeles. Springing from the fertile creative soil of Austin, Texas, in 2004, the band's core sound has plenty of historic precedent: Guitars jangle and organs swirl in kaleidoscopic choreography above thick layers of fuzz bass and beats that conjure up more descriptive terms for a drum set, like the French word "batterie." The elements unite in a persistent, primal, hypnotic groove, replete with otherworldly echoes and unnerving incantations, laid down backwards on tape.
But spinning their 2013 album, Indigo Meadow, reveals The Black Angels' themes to be quite contemporary; they embrace tradition without getting bound by it. In stark contrast to World War II, controversy over the Vietnam War was intense, and the Angels have their share of songs that fit the war protest profile, or at least highlight the collateral damage. The hero of "Broken Soldier" could be a Vietnam-era fighter, observing that "it's hard to kill when you don't know whose side you're on," but he could just as easily be one of the thousands of present-day armed service members who receive woefully inadequate mental and medical health care. Like artists who came before, The Black Angels ponder consciousness and perception. In some places it's explicit, as in "I Hear Colors (Chromaesthesia)," but it's implicit in others: Depending on how you listen, lead single "Don't Play With Guns" could be about something as timeless as twisted relationship dynamics, or else a timely statement on gun control.
"It's just like how there's something truthful about the Delta blues, and it will always be around," frontman Alex Maas tells the Scene. "You listen to it, and you just believe it — you believe what they're saying, and there's a soul to it. There's a thing with psychedelic music where you can just tell that the soul is there on the surface, and it sounds believable."
The Angels attended to this spark of authenticity in their own work, which earned them the call in 2008 to back up Roky Erickson, onetime leader of pioneering Austin psych band The 13th Floor Elevators. This wasn't an easy assignment, Maas recalls; the group was somewhat inexperienced, and Erickson was still working through an intensive recovery process following serious bouts with mental illness, as chronicled in the documentary You're Gonna Miss Me. Despite some nerve-wracking challenges, it was an enriching experience.
"For those people who've never heard Roky Erickson, he's truly a living legend," says Maas. "There's this guy who was in this band who influenced punk, and tons of people from Janis Joplin to Led Zeppelin."
Thanks to copious help from friends, family and supporters, Erickson now tours regularly with The Hounds of Baskerville as his backing band; they'll support The Black Angels at Mercy Lounge this weekend.
Expanding their reach beyond their own music, the Angels curate the Austin Psych Fest every spring, beginning with a one-stage weekend in 2008 and continuing through this year's upcoming three-stage outdoor extravaganza. Each year's lineup includes contemporary artists across the psychedelic and world-music spectrum: Members of electro-psych-pop troupe Animal Collective, garage rippers Thee Oh Sees, heavy blues masters Om and mind-blowing Tuareg guitarist Bombino have all made recent appearances, paired with heroes and legends like mainstream psych-pop originators The Zombies, beloved Tropicália ensemble Os Mutantes, Billy Gibbons' pre-ZZ Top outfit The Moving Sidewalks and early electronic experimenters Silver Apples.
Last year's Psych Fest attendance was approximately 4,000 — one-20th the size of massive events like Bonnaroo, but a significant community nonetheless. Maas identifies another thread that keeps Psych Fest and the psych scene in general healthy and growing: an audience that actively seeks music, bucking the current trend that encourages consuming music passively, as background noise.
"[Our audience isn't] people who sit home and watch TV all the time and are getting told what to listen to," Maas explains. "Those same people are going out and finding old movies to watch and cool books to read. There's a certain type of person who's actively seeking out information all the time, and these people are drawn to psychedelic music."
To further nurture the growing market the psych community has seen for its music over the past decade, Maas founded the Reverberation Appreciation Society with fellow Black Angel Christian Bland and two other friends. Besides handling Psych Fest business, the RAS also operates a record label, helping constituent bands that might not be big enough to attract upper-echelon indie attention — like Seattle's Night Beats and Montreal's Elephant Stone — find a wider audience.
"Out of knowing some of these great bands, this seemed like the next step," says Maas. "Fortunately for us in the psychedelic world, people are still buying vinyl."
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