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The Black Angels

  • Roky Erickson
The Black Angels’ most revelatory collection thus far, Indigo Meadow marks the Austin, Texas-based band’s fourth full-length release, following 2010’s acclaimed Phosphene Dream. Once again The Black Angels prove themselves the undisputed avatars of contemporary psychedelic rock, simultaneously exalting the genre’s kaleidoscopic past as they thrust it ever further into the future.
Now a quartet, the band – with the able support of producer John Congleton (David Byrne & St. Vincent, Clinic, Explosions In The Sky) – have brought new focus to their wide-ranging songcraft, their righteous riffs and dogmatic drones gaining increased power as they fuel a more expansive emotional trajectory. The ominous organ grooves and carpet-bombing beats still resonate with feral rush and napalm fire, but songs like “Love Me Forever” and the bottomless blue title track see more than a little light piercing the Black Angels’ notorious heart of darkness.
“There’s a different feel to it than any of our other records, “ says singer/multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas. “It still has those ‘What the hell’s going on?’ moments, but when you’re having a psych experience, you don’t want it to be dark all the time. That’s not where you want to be.”
Phosphene Dream was followed by two years of nearly non-stop touring, a thrilling, often grueling run that by its end saw the band’s roster diminished but their spirit restored. The Black Angels closed the circle and in January 2012 they convened to begin writing and woodshedding new material. The next few months turned out to be the most artistically fecund of the band’s career, their fresh energy unlocking an abundance of songs and intriguing musical options.
“A weight was lifted off of us,” guitarist Christian Bland says. “It’s like ESP when you’re playing together, like you’re channeling something. If someone isn’t in the same headspace, then the ESP feels disrupted.”
In August, The Black Angels headed to El Paso’s renowned Sonic Ranch. Located on 2,300 acres of pecan orchards bordering the Rio Grande and Mexico, the studio – the largest residential recording complex in the world – proved the ideal locale for the band’s aural adventurism.
“It’s awesome to be out there, away from everything, and just be saturated in the music,” Maas says. “You have nowhere else to go but the studio. It was really healthy for us, a really healthy experience.”
Furthermore, the band’s choice of producer/mixer John Congleton allowed for an extra set of ears, not to mention a tie-breaking vote in the ever-democratic Black Angels hierarchy.
“When we work with a producer,” Bland says, “the hope is that they’ll give us that extra push that we need and that’s what John did. He became the fifth member. It can be nerve-wracking working with someone you don’t really know but we felt like he was coming from where we were coming from.”
Positive vibrations shine through Indigo Meadow, with radiant new hues spilling out like a blindingly bright field of Texas bluebonnets over the Black Angels’ traditionally shadowy palette. “I Hear Colors (Chromaesthesia),” in many ways the album’s centerpiece and overall sonic manifesto, is a 21st century trip as transcendent as any anthem in the psychedelic canon, while the wyrd folk-flavored closer, “Black Isn’t Black,” points towards heretofore unventured musical and emotional terrain.
“We make this music because it makes us feel good,” Maas says, “we hope – that it makes other people feel good. People ask me what I do and I tell them I’m a music therapist. It sounds completely ridiculous but that’s how I see myself, that’s how I see our band, that’s how I see music in general – as therapy for people. Without it, life would be so much harder.”
“There are still some pretty evil songs on there,” reminds Bland. “I like the juxtaposition of something sounding sweet but maybe there’s an underbelly to it, so if you dive in further you get the full story.”
To be sure, all is not moon pies and rainbows ‘round Indigo Meadow – this is The Black Angels after all. Tracks like the high-powered “Don’t Play With Guns” and the post-traumatic acid-punk of “Broken Soldier” continue the band’s longstanding role as psychedelic provocateurs, exploring archetypal themes of wasteful wars, creeping paranoia, and the corruption of power to score a disorienting soundtrack to our own increasingly Strangelovian culture.
“There are a lot of fucked up things going on in this world,” Maas says. “We’re lucky to have an outlet and a platform to acknowledge these issues.”
Founded in 2004, The Black Angels have been the spearhead of the post-millennial psychedelic movement, picking up the mantle of their hometown’s long lysergic history and reinvigorating it with progressive political commentary and unrestrained creativity and ambition. Like any great psychedelic family band worth its salt, they have also birthed their own cottage industry, from The Reverberation Appreciation Society label (home to numerous new psychedelicists as well as their own many extracurricular outings) to hosting the annual gathering of the tribes at the amazing Austin Psych Fest. Now entering its sixth year, APF has proven the locus for today’s incredibly wide-ranging psych scene, as expansive and revolutionary and exhilarating now as at any moment since its 1960s zenith.
“We took it upon ourselves to help expand the genre,” Maas says, “not just sonically but let other people around the world experience it. And then vice verse, bring psychedelic music from all over the world to Austin.”
Indigo Meadow affirms The Black Angels’ spot at the forefront of what is looking like a third psychedelic golden age, as hypnogogic production, mysterious world music jams, and propulsive, primitive pulsebeats come to define the sound of modern rock music, from the always audacious underground all the way to the cultural mainline.
“I can see it bubbling right now,” says Bland. “It needs to steam over. It’d be pretty cool if we could do a little psych takeover. Back in the early 2000s, when I heard the Strokes and the White Stripes on the radio, that really stood out to me. It was different and it really inspired me. I’d love for that to happen again, maybe with one of our songs, and for there to be a complete overhaul of how people listen to music again.”
“You get jealous in a good way,” Maas says of the modern psych boom, “so it pushes you. It’s inspiring. It’s great to see it, it’s great to be a part of it. It reconfirms to us that we’re doing the right thing.”
With each new record, The Black Angels have consistently elevated their art, their creative voice becoming clearer and more distinct. Indigo Meadow continues their extraordinary evolution, its monumental melodies and vast vision marking it as testament to the band’s full-throttle commitment to the psychedelic ethos of ritual, community and boundless experimentation.
“Music is a spiritual thing for us,” Maas says. “It’s what’s kept our band united. Music is our religion. That word can be so dirty sometimes, but this music is our spirituality. Without sounding too hippy-dippy about it.”