By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
The Black Angels Preserve the Past Even as They Progress
Guitarist Christian Bland is fully aware of the label his band, Austin's Black Angels, carries—psychedelic music, both in the fine Texan tradition of same and in the worldwide one that's been running rampant for decades, ranging from bands such as early Ash Ra Tempel to Spacemen 3 to the Brian Jonestown Massacre, as well as founding acts such as the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. Still, as he wryly notes, "I think we're hypno-drone & rollers. But I don't mind being called psychedelic droners."
It's less a matter of hair-splitting than of intent. There's no question that while the Black Angels have their elements taken from the past—one key member, Adam Demetri, doesn't play instruments but instead projects films and oils in the finest freaky, late-'60s fashion—Bland is also clear about the fact that they're a thoroughly 21st-century band, comfortable with the Internet and looking to take the possibilities offered today to further lengths.
"I think of it more as preservation with progression," Bland explains. "We use effects that people in the '60s could never have even dreamed of. By using '60s gear (which is the best sounding since it's the highest quality) in combination with our 'new' pedals, we can create a different level of psychedelia channeled from 2525. You've gotta find the right gear to make the right sounds. The right sounds are the ones you hear in your head first."
This attention to sound has helped the Black Angels rapidly make a name for themselves—following a stream of self-released EPs, their 2006 debut album, Passover, won praise for its thick, charging feel. Yet the new Directions to See a Ghost is even more powerful musically and imagistically, balancing its embrace of surging electric mesmerism—every song seems to invite a listener to get lost in sound—with feelings of fear, frustration and rage. The album's a head trip that keeps its feet on the ground.
This quality of balance and uneasiness is another big example of how the Angels obey the times: In lyrical attention, song titles and general focus, the group extend and revisit the reactions to Vietnam from psychedelia's birth to a new context shaped by Iraq, specifically drawing out connections. Consider "Never/Ever," one of the highlights of Directions. Musically, the screeching organ and focused build and release find the Angels at their exultant, overwhelming best, forging a grace in rampage. But singer Alex Maas at one point tackles hippie-era mythmaking with a savagery few punk rockers ever managed, while his voice echoes almost serenely through the mix: "You say the Beatles stopped the war. . . . They might've helped find a cure, but it's still not over."
Part of what makes the Angels so powerful is an element not always appreciated in the band's genre—rhythm. Bassist Nate Ryan and drummer Stephanie Bailey have the art of straightforward but heavy punch and grind down, and the throb on songs such as "Snake in the Grass," a 16-minute multipart monster, and "Vikings," another song looking at the Middle East with dread in its heart and head, suggests another clear inspiration: the legendary '80s U.K. group Loop. Their use of echoed vocals and massive guitar howls is similar, but above all, both bands favor obsessive cycles of beat and groove, something not merely hypnotic but stern, even angry.
Bland sees what the Angels do as part of a larger project driven by both outside circumstances and inspirations greater than themselves, feeling in the end that they act both as beacon for others as well as a warning sign for forces that have hardly disappeared in the time between one overseas war and another.
"We try to encourage people to rethink their preconceived notions, question authority and seek other methods for survival. I think that's a positive message, but I guess if an 'authority' type were to read that, they might feel threatened. . . . So it's all about the angle you come from when you're presented with a situation."
Simple flower children the Black Angels ain't—and that's very much a good thing.
Black Angels perform with several other bands at the Ink N Iron Festival, aboard the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 435-3511; www.queenmary.com. Fri., 2 p.m. $31.50 for one-day pass. See website for more info.