There’s been some chatter on the internet that the Black Angels’ move to the newly resurrected Blue Horizon label is tantamount to selling out, a tiresome complaint that was as old as dirt way back when Mark Perry stopped sniffin’ glue long enough to bitch about the Clash signing to CBS Records.
In the case of the splendid new album by Austin’s Black Angels, Phosphene Dream, maybe it was a gripe rendered before the opening number even spun. Fair enough, because over two prior albums of fantastically schlocky psychedelic drone, the Black Angels and brevity weren’t exactly on speaking terms. Yet the longest track on Phopshene Dream is the swirling “Yellow Elevator #2”, which clocks in at just under five minutes. For the Ramones or (early) Wire, that’s a marathon, but for a band with no less than three songs at over seven minutes on their sophomore effort (Directions to See a Ghost), it crosses the finish line quicker than Usain Bolt.
But while Phosphene Dream clocks in at a little over half an hour, the 10 songs on the album proper (there’s a variety of bonus tracks from different sources) hit like an earthquake, replete with unsettling aftershocks. That the lengthy instrumental passages have been condensed on record may be a turnoff to some of the Black Angels most ardent fans, but it’s unlikely they’re ready to give up the ghost on stage.
The new clipped aesthetic is the band’s primary departure from its signature sound, and while those who like to hear their menace ramble on for ages might have hard time adjusting, the core elements of what makes the Black Angels so intriguing are still undeniably in the mix.
The first step is admitting there’s never been anything particularly revelatory about the Black Angels. Even their name is a nod to rock’s dark history, a nod to the Velvet Underground’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song”, a grim little number even by Lou Reed’s decayed standards. They’ve appeared on Northern Star Records’ “Psychedelica” compilations and host their own Psych-Fest in Austin. Even Alex Maas’ vocals sound like Grace Slick doing a Jim Morrison impression.
But even if the Black Angels don’t necessarily cover any new territory, they lay it to waste with brain-scrambling guitars that come off like the lost soundtrack to a drive-in double feature of biker and slasher flicks. Dirty shit goes down to the music of the Black Angels. The music doesn’t embrace you as much as it props you up while the world spins into oblivion.
Phosphene Dream feels like a natural progression from earlier efforts, especially the album’s first two tracks, “Bad Vibrations” and “Haunting at 1300 McKinley”. The guitars still sound as though they’re howling from across a dark heavy woods one minute, then suddenly exploding in your personal space the next. It’s all very ominous and beautiful. But three songs in, something strange happens. “Yellow Elevator #2” is clearly the Black Angels with its fun house on the edge of the abyss feel, but goddamn if you don’t want to shake your ass on the ride. “Sunday Afternoon” is even more of a rave-up, something prior marches through the sludge might have left one wholly unprepared for.
While the band’s new focus is admirable, it doesn’t always feel like the right choice. “Telephone”, the album’s lead single, is an organ-and-guitar fuelled frenzy that lasts just two minutes. A recent appearance on Late Show with David Letterman saw the band add an extra minute of soaring harmonies, leading to a satisfying end. It’s a minor gripe, especially when Phosphene Dream is such a delight; but the addition of this finish on the album version of the song might have just about made it perfect.