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The Black Angels

(28 Jun 2008: Southpaw — Brooklyn, NY)

It’s been said—and oft-repeated—that no band of the last decade or so has inspired more terrible music writing than Sigur Ros. Perhaps that’s because you’re being asked to assess music that’s inscrutably lush, incontrovertibly moving, and lyrically incomprehensible. How do you describe something akin to breath and not do it clinically? This is why even a dilletante Sigur Ros fan will put a finger to your lips as you try to verbally assess what you’re hearing, ask you to shut up, and let the music speak for itself.

What the Sigur Ros descriptor is really saying, of course, is that indescribability often leads to bloviation. When faced with limits as to how much prose you can actually convey about the music itself, the best you can hope for is some conveyance of feeling. As the writer grasps at straws and uncorks every chestnut in his phrasebook—a glut of 25-cent words that might just as soon describe, depending on tone, pastries or surgery—hopefully he manages some kind of emotional subtext that scratches the service of what he has seen and/or heard.

Why do I lead off a review of the Black Angels with two paragraphs on another band? Because they’re another pigeonhole-escaping collective primed for this sort of treatment: Reams and reams of stilted scribbling, all hopelessly trying to articulate the Austin band’s psychedelic mindfuckery and its effectiveness. Sigur Ros’ music is lush and cathartic. The Black Angels are also cathartic—if your form of catharsis includes deadly portent leavened with synths, guitar-crunch, industrial rock, and shoegaze, all delivered in cavernous settings where noise becomes another bandmate.

It’s easy to get caught up in their numbers; bassist Nate Ryan described the Black Angels to me in a 2007 interview not as a six-person band, but as “a gang taking over the stage.” But plenty of bands with more than a few members get their mitts on a drone machine, down-tune a few guitars, fatten the bass and synths, and also manage to kick up a healthy racket. What’s salient about the Black Angels is what you’re left with behind that black hole of sound manipulation. First, grandiosity that magnifies every emotion with apocalyptic-sounding sentiments; second, actual melodies that despite their noisy layering only rarely come across as phlegmy or inchoate (that’ll be 50 cents, please); and last, a sense of playfulness, imperceptible unless you’re specifically looking for it.

It’s the latter point that’s the X-factor. For all the doom and gloom and visions of burning worlds and people done wrong and other snatches of terror, there are also bandmates reveling in their own interplay, in love with how corrosive noise can be controlled (if never crisply shaped) to maximize dramatic effect. The psychedelic titans of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and later artisans like Spacemen 3, understood this; droning tones and sheets of sound are aural stimulation, sure, but without a sense of playfulness, be it whimsical or wicked, they lack personality.

And personality is all over both Passover, the Black Angels’ 2006 breakout album, and this year’s Directions to See a Ghost, where, on record, you can zero in on the Angels’ heavy political themes next to—and not obscured by—the psychedelic fuzz-bombs and cascading guitar and synth drones. Live, the words don’t matter so much—you can barely make out frontman Alex Maas’ face beneath his down-bent pageboy cap, let alone what he’s singing about underneath all that whirring echo. But if you’ve teed up the subject matter ahead of time, you get another dimension to songs like “Bloodhounds On My Trail” (or other gauzy, bluesy Passover choices), or cynical demolitions like “Black Grease”, or ominous-sounding newer cuts like “You On the Run.”

That last track, especially, was a dealmaker at Southpaw; where some of Passover’s best look inward, many cuts on Ghost (including “You On the Run” and “You in Color”) are a bit more involving, particularly when given breathing room. “Mission District” goes so far as to bait you into following along its calmer beginnings before exploding with a crescendo that you knew was coming but got excited about anyway. “Science Killer” finds levity in murky sludge. “Snake in the Grass” is more than 16 minutes on record, and an indulgent slog; live, it’s a gradual extrapolation, and reinforces its hold on a captive audience with each passing minute.

That’s not to say the Black Angels don’t escape some stoner rock cliches. Sprawling songs such as theirs always run the risk of petering out, or worse, arriving at splat endings where more cohesive conclusions would assist the listener’s ability to absorb. The band has also yet to choose set-pacing that effectively balances energy; supremely difficult, given how certain songs are elastic enough to be just as effective at 15 minutes as they are at, say, eight, and it’s up to Maas, Ryan, and their collective to determine what works best on the fly.

But don’t fault the Black Angels their frayed edges—or misguided critics who ignore the artfulness in favor of outright stoner rock dismissal. Simply put, this is a remarkable band.

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