The Black Angels Confront a Violent World
New LP Death Song soundtracks a society on the brink
Winter went out like a lamb and Austin's spring continues to unfold equally temperate, though April's had its hot spots. Black Angels drummer Stephanie Bailey seeks shade from a mildly cruel sun, but her chair topples to the ground with a loud thud against the wooden patio. The Austin quintet also seeks refuge – from the inescapable.
At home and abroad, predictably, the first quarter of 2017 remains combustible on a global scale. This week, World War III looms from the Korean Peninsula, while any remaining humanity evaporates in Syria. In the U.S., resistance feels largely outweighed by the paralyzing helplessness of uncertainty. Amidst this hellish, planetary maelstrom, last week's new Black Angels album, Death Song, their fifth album and first release since 2013's Indigo Meadow, feels prescient.
"Actually, we started writing these songs in 2014," counters singer Alex Maas. "[In that time] we put out the Clear Lake Forest EP and [scored] a documentary for CNN about the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. We did a bunch of pre-production for Death Song, two or three years of it. We let the material marinate for a while, because we had 40 to 50 songs to whittle down.
"We always gravitate toward writing about societal issues."
While the locals' discography bleeds together myriad social critiques, each release differs sonically. For years, the band paid extensive homage to the expanse of psychedelic music in retracing the footsteps of Sixties mind-altering kings the 13th Floor Elevators and their Austin-born singer Roky Erickson. Taking cues from the Velvet Underground, Christian Bland laid reverberating guitars over sloshing drones and fuzz on debut full-length Passover in 2006 and follow-up two years later, Directions to See a Ghost. 2010's Phosphene Dream and Indigo Meadow flirted with flower power as Kyle Hunt submerged into aquatic, Beatlesque keys. Death Song boasts second guitarist Jake Garcia helping revert the band back to corrosive drones underlying political toxicity.
In the Black Angels' current universe, violence hovers in the periphery, human exchanges are money transactions, and hope curdles to despair. On "Death March," the band hurtles full-throttle off the ledge, its exhaust dissolving into Maas' lost, scary echoes.
"It's this feeling of generalized anxiety," remarks Hunt. "There's this sense of uncertainty that feels amplified nowadays through social media."
As such, the fivesome won't go quietly into the vortex. "Comanche Moon" aligns with Native Americans at Standing Rock, "I'd Kill for Her" hangs on questions of loyalty, war, and if the end justifies the means, and "Half Believing" pivots on self-worth ruminations in times of longing and despair.
"Native Americans perceived music as a way of storytelling to get them through life: from how to live, to where to seed, and where to hunt," explains Maas. "They were encouraged to write their own chants to get through tumultuous, troubled times like death or peril. They were called death songs."
Death Song is literally that for the Black Angels. Like Velvet Underground tune "The Black Angel's Death Song," which inspired the group's name and the new album title, it slips into an undertow of helplessness and isolation. "Currency" drips corrosively acidic riffs as Maas laments, "One day it'll all be over soon. One day it will all be gone." The dissonant jangle and bass shuffles in "I Dreamt" puts up barbed wire as Maas lies safely in a bunker while madness from the outside world seeps in.
"If you grab onto the music long enough, it's always therapy," offers Hunt.
"Not only that, but it's for frightening times like right now," adds Bailey. "Our music perhaps now moreso than ever helps us get through these times."
Another Black Angels therapy: Levitation. Begun in 2008 by Maas and Bland's events umbrella the Reverberation Appreciation Society, the festival curates all manner of international psych. Netting the 13th Floor Elevators, Billy Gibbons' Moving Sidewalks, Primal Scream, Flaming Lips, the Jesus & Mary Chain, and other outsize acts, the original Psych Fest became an experimental playground "where we selfishly asked our favorite artists to come play," quips Bland.
Over its decadelong run the event expanded into other countries, including France and Canada. Then last year, Levitation was canceled on the eve of its first day due to inclement weather, causing an uproar from fans and bands traveling abroad to attend one particular savant's dream: Beach Boy centerpiece Brian Wilson performing magnum opus Pet Sounds.
"Pulling the plug on it, and then seeing him play it all over the place – like for a weekend at the Moody Theater next month – was tough to see," recalls Maas.
Infuriated attendees posted on Instagram and Facebook.
"I remember reading those," nods Bland. "I was so pissed and so devastated. For however devastated they were, we felt a lot worse. We spent a year planning it and for it be canceled last minute was a hard pill to swallow."
While ACL Fest promoters C3 Presents were in discussions to team with Levitation, "things fell apart," according to Maas. The band is thus utilizing this year to reassess the festival's future. 2018 will return to a venue-based approach.
"Hopefully we'll go outside again, but not Carson Creek Ranch," states Bland. "It brought us bad luck every year. We also got a lot of bad advice about the insurance policy and from partners. [The settlement] felt like we were left with this bucket of money or lack thereof and expected to deal with it by ourselves. We'll be growing it from the beginning again."
Uncertainty looms everywhere for everyone.
While Death Song broods on harsh reality as the Black Angels try to make sense of the world around them, album closer "Life Song" assuages those truths. Drifting through the stars, it peers at the madness below through a safe, small window of a spaceship. Nodding to the close of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, "Life Song" echoes "Brain Damage" as somber guitar strums and spacey blips fade into organ swirls, then closes with a pulsing onrush similar to Floyd's "Eclipse."
Razor sharp fretwork finally dissolves "Life Song" into a sweeping wash of disorienting melody and lyric.
"I'm traveling upside down/ Into a world of the unknown."
The Black Angels’ local album release party for Death Song levitates Stubb’s on Saturday, May 20.