It’s difficult to describe psychedelic rock without also discussing psychedelic drugs. Most psych-heavy bands will tell you that the music is what’s most important, and that the subsequent effects of inhaling or ingesting certain substances merely provide a boost to the listening experience. That may be true, but it’s pretty clear that both fans and artists of this particular genre benefit a little more than others from the consuming of said substances.
The Black Angels are no different. Their wise-beyond-its-years 2006 debut ‘Passover‘ came across like the paranoid soundtrack to a Vietnam vet trying to drink his way out of the back end of a bad acid trip. The brooding drone of their 2008 follow-up ‘Directions To See A Ghost‘ was what you would hear in your head if you split a chocolate bar laced with psilocybin with two total strangers and then got lost trying to find your way home through a Civil War cemetery. While last year’s ‘Phosphene Dream‘ may have been more zoned-in than spaced-out, it was still admittedly influenced by the therapeutic properties of the ancient indigenous hallucinogen DMT.
Needless to say, the Black Angels know how to party.
They also know how to play, and play well, which they readily proved last Sunday night at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles. After an eerie, pre-recorded intro that spliced together JFK’s Apollo mission address with MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the surreal 60’s vibe continued as the curtains rose to the Southern-fried jangle of ‘Bloodhounds On My Trail‘. More Allman Brothers than Blue Cheer, this juke-joint rambler worked well as an opening number, heating up the crowd just enough to hint at the head change that you could sense was slowly coming on.
First the hypnotic black-and-white backdrop started to subtly shift and sway. Then the strobe lights synched and the ceiling began to stretch. By the time the band broke in with ‘The Sniper‘, you knew something was up. The song began with a few simple stretched out chords before evolving into a sonic swirl of guitar. In an obsessive howl that rested somewhere between Sky Saxon and Grace Slick, frontman Alex Maas blurted out the one line that summed up what you had already come to expect from these Angels: “We decide what goes inside your head.”
After that, there was no turning back. ‘Yellow Elevator #2‘ felt like an organ-drenched hot air balloon ride into the heavens, and ‘Black Grease‘ was a let-it-all-hang-out ripper with a scuzz-caked groove so infectious it seemed to set up shop inside your skull. ‘Science Killer‘ was spare and unsettling, to the point where the robotic bassline and interstellar feedback made you wonder whether you would ever return to earth with a familiar frame of reference. ‘Bad Vibrations‘ followed and didn’t offer much comfort, as the antithetical twist on the classic Beach Boys tune was so downright menacing that even Brian Wilson at his worst would have trouble wrapping his mind around it.
Like any lysergic journey worth remembering, the Angels stacked up a set that was structured to peak at the proper time. The band members and audience alike felt that peak take shape when guitarist Nate Ryan stepped in with the cold and creeping riff at the core of ‘Young Men Dead‘, which may have been the most solid song of the night. The climax continued to crescendo, reaching its hallucinatory height when a small man in a goblin mask wandered on stage during an extended version of the Nuggets-worthy garage rocker ‘Telephone‘. The inevitable introspective comedown came in the form of the newly released single ‘Ronettes‘, an unwinding funeral hymn that sprawled out across the theater, sounding as if the Velvet Underground had just unveiled their own smack-tinged cover of ‘The End‘.
To be fair, The Black Angels are more than just the sum of the chemicals that are swimming inside their bloodstreams. While they may indeed be known for the creation of kaleidoscopic visions, this five-piece from Austin sure know their way around the music room. This time in particular they came armed with a dizzying array of instruments, including multiple bass guitars, a twelve-string guitar, several six-strings, an organ, two keyboards, maracas, tambourines, and an extra floor tom. What was most impressive was that Maas and Ryan, along with Christian Bland and Kyle Hunt, freely swapped instruments between almost every song, constructing different styles and sounds unique to each arrangement. Meanwhile, drummer Stephanie Bailey hit hard with such force and precision that each methodical whack of the snare left a dent inside your psyche.
Then again, dents inside your psyche are exactly what this group is aiming for. Whether those dents come from the magic of the music, or from the magic you bought in the parking lot, well that is entirely up to you.
(Beau De Lang)