Everything you need to know about psych-rockers The Black Angels is right there in the name. Think other-wordly dark comfort, inspired by the Velvet Underground and their fuzz-laden epic, “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” Billowing clouds of guitar shrouding sultry reverberating vocals infused with disquieting knowledge, arrangements shimmering like road haze advancing with building insistence toward either a roofrattling explosion or exhausted collapse.
The Austin, Texas, quintet formed seven years ago around frontman Alex Maas and lead guitarist Christian Bland, childhood friends who reconnected after college, united by their abiding love of music and bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Velvet Underground.
The Black Angels’ full-length debut, Passover, was one of the most fted debuts of 2006. It could’ve been beamed directly from the late ’60s for all the sativa-soaked psych sway, tribal rhythmic throb and haunting, moribund, vaguely political lyrics on tracks like “The First Vietnamese War,” the Pink Floyd-referencing “Sniper at the Gates of Heaven” and “Empire,” where Maas sings, “he’s preaching to the choir, and that choir’s death and noise.”
Directions To See A Ghost followed in 2008, continuing to mix distortion, deep-seated grooves and ’60s flavors like tambourines, organ washes and Eastern-tinged guitar modalities. Over it all are Maas’ drawling, elongated vocals, recalling The Doors’ Jim Morrison in “The End.” More a consolidation of strengths than real advance, Maas felt they needed to move forward, which they did on last year’s Phosphene Dream by bringing in producer Dave Sardy (Hot Hot Heat, Wolfmother).
“I always loved the idea of working with a producer just based on the idea of George Martin and the Beatles’ relationship,” he says. “It’s weird to have someone paint on your painting. But taking the George Martin perspective, we knew adding another member could make it bigger than the band itself.
“It was awesome to have another ear, another mind on what we were doing,” Maas continues. “We completely stripped the ego out of the recording, and I think that was the main thing we had to do — strip out the egos. We wanted to do what was best for each song, and Dave had a lot of great ideas.”
While the key elements — distortion, groove and sweltering psych vibe — remain intact, more influences surface. The guitar sound on “Haunting at 1300 McKinley” has an unmistakable rockabilly air. The organ melody of “Sunday Afternoon” is vintage British Invasion. The druggy album-opening haze of “Bad Vibrations” could’ve fit on Directions To See A Ghost until the final minute, when the guitar suddenly starts racing with a steely garage-rock pulse. But most importantly, melody nudges the fuzz-soaked grooves for predominance. Indeed, for Maas, it’s the melodies that drive the lyrics.
“If I hear a bassline, I think about a scene in a movie. If I heard a guitar part, I might think about floating down a river in Southeast Asia. I’m very visual when it comes to audio, how it’s processed and how it turns into images in my mind. It actually makes a lot of sense. Our ears are connected to our limbic system, which is where all our images and memories are stored,” he says. “For me, the hardest part is identifying the scenes in the movie and writing the screenplay.”
A few years ago, they had the fortune of backing Texas psych pioneer Roky Erickson, of 13th Floor Elevators, on his 2008 tour. It was not only an honor but an eye-opening experience for Maas. He noted how playing music helped the psychologically troubled Erickson. He’d come off stage with the kind of mental clarity that eluded him at other times.
“It soothed his mind and was essentially therapy.
I’ve since changed the title of what I do. I’m in the music therapy business,” Maas says. “Just changing that title of what I do to the ‘Music Therapy Business’ has made it so much easier and clearer for me to identify why I do this. Why am I playing music when I could be doing anything? It’s because I’m in the music therapy business, and I like to help people.”
Just consider them traveling clinicians trafficking in blissed-out peace of mind.