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The Black Angels - Directions To See a Ghost Print E-mail
Tuesday, 03 February 2009
ImageThe Black Angels nod to all the American psychedelic touchstones of the late ‘60s to early ‘70s. They hail from Austin, Texas (as did Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators), their sound channels that period’s drug-soaked side of San Francisco (Jefferson Airplane et al), and they take their name from a Velvet Underground song. The concept might not be original, but like the Brian Jonestown Massacre their sound is wholly unique insofar as true psych-rock is rarely mimicked this well. Unlike the Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Black Angels stay deeply entrenched in the cold, dark sound of the era, never veering into lazy summertime strum or populist folk.  

One is also reminded of the early- to mid-‘80s British scene, the Spacemen 3 and their album “Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to.” One of my friends recently told me that he couldn’t get into early Spacemen 3 because they were everything he hated about a band that he loves (the Jesus and Mary Chain). This was strange but apropos; the Spacemen 3 at their most atonal substituted the JAMC’s pins and needles feedback for reverb and drone. Both could put you in a strange mood by devilishly toeing the line between noise and melody, and both would eventually move toward a more straight-forward, pop-oriented sound. The Black Angels start from a more melodic place, despite the presence of a drone machine, swirls of guitar skuzz, and outer limits distortion and reverb.  Still, even the most competent new psych-rockers have a propensity for creating a catalogue of songs that sound suspiciously similar. This could be due to the extended track lengths here, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. There is too little around that sounds this true to the source. The Black Angels’ music is as tactile as it is aural. It feels like it was recorded under extreme psychic duress in the late ‘60s with Satan’s legions waiting just outside.  It is also quite heavy. That The Black Angels are successful at replicating this sound is no accident.  Opener “You On the Run” exists on the Beatles acid-fringe, with backward guitar loops and the George Harrison Special (the sitar).  And yes, there it is on the back-end of “Never/Ever,” the electric jug.  Fans of the 13th Floor Elevators know this as the Roky’s calling card.  It’s that curious wibble-wobble sound that franticly swims through the tracks and seemingly has no business to attend to, psychedelic or otherwise.  

The Black Angels have expanded to six-piece, and on Directions To See A Ghost they pay considerable attention to how these songs unfold.  Everything is set in motion one piece at a time until the track becomes a rotating whole.  On “Doves” for example, each instrument enters with a spotlight on it, establishing itself before moving aside for the entrance of the next piece.  This also works to clear space for the band’s most interesting element, the vocals that seem to land from above like a U.F.O.  Front-man Alex Maas’ vocals, though deep and clearly male, feel feminine in tone.  The closest reference point is Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane.  Maas seems to suck the life out of his lyrics, infusing them with not-life.  He sounds like some sort of Martian deity as he sings about war, the desert, American Indians and Judas.  These songs rely heavily on his successful stringing together of words that lock together like puzzle pieces.  Rather than the clinical flow of direct narratives, these tracks work best when The Black Angels don’t go out of their way to explain.  On “18 Years” Maas lets on that “Something black answers back from the dungeon, and you smile.”  Of course you do.


The album was produced by local Austin talent Erik Wofford.  The sound is serious, authentic and intricate in its devotion to recreating the dark psychedelic sounds of the late 60s.  The arrangements are slow to unfold, with seemingly every piece taking its turn at the forefront before Maas’ vocals take over.  For all of the different sounds the band employs, this could have easily been a mess.  But the drone is always subtle, the jangly percussion is timely, the tape loops and electro-wizardry are responsibly allocated to the fringe, and the sitar is left to quietly bleed in the corner.  The weaving together of these elements makes for a heavy, cohesive listen.

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