There’s a pre-existing cadre of ready-made terms and evocative adjectives available to the music reviewer when faced with the task of assessing a sound like that of the Black Angels. They mostly start with unflinchingly hard “D”s (drone, dirge, dark, dreary, despondent) and sound about as enticing as a lynching, which is hardly fair to this enigmatic Austin quintet of Lou Reed acolytes. As hard a sell as they may be in words, the Black Angels are eminently persuasive on record, where bleatings of the epistemological variety crumble under seismic ground-quakes of seductive power. So it was on their 2006 debut Passover, so it is on their follow-up, Directions to See a Ghost.
The Black Angels’ appeal is perhaps situational. They would sound killer at a backyard social on a smoky moonless night, but would prompt walk-outs at a run-of-the-mill kegger. They might well frighten a desired party on a post-first-date listening session, but would make for a sexy soundtrack to frustrated dusk-hour coitus further on up the road. Upon any occasion, however, the Black Angels make music that practically demands the accompaniment of strutting. There are likely some rhythmic/psychological reasons for this, but I would personally prefer to believe that it’s because it’s totally bad-ass.
Still, the Black Angels did not fall from the sky (no pun intended) fully-formed. Some progression and distinction from Passover to Directions to See a Ghost is discernable over the unremitting low-end vibrations, some tweaks to the combustive chemistry as it was previously established. The relentless undertow of album-opener “You on the Run” was anticipated by “The Prodigal Sun” from the debut, but the former incorporates more psychedelic grace notes than the latter. “Deer-Ree-Shee”, quaintly named after the sitar player on the track, accomplishes much the same with its open acknowledgement of the influence of East Indian drone on the Angels’ chosen genre. “You in Color” carves out beguiling Jimmy Page hooks over a weighty trot much like Passover stand-out “Bloodhounds on My Trail”, but works harder at achieving cacophonous grandeur rather than aiming for its older brother’s inexorable momentum. Aptly enough, “Snake in the Grass” is all slithering serpentine temptation, but it is also a case study in singer Alex Maas’s album-long obsession with distant echo treatment on his vocals, a clear departure from his naked directness on Passover that doesn’t necessarily upgrade the product.
Perhaps it’s the dominant political themes of Directions to See a Ghost that offer the most insight into the Black Angels’ development. As they were on Passover, the band’s lyric sheets are scored with the hardening ectoplasm of the ghosts of armed conflict. But where “The First Vietnamese War” and the mildly silly hidden cut about Iraq tossed about timely questions as bluntly as a self-righteous left-wing pol-blog, the anti-war statements on Directions are more thoughtful, more eternal. The black hymn “Vikings” vaguely links interventionist foreign policy to vestigial Teutonic pride (“In and out / We’re gonna run through the desert / We got big boots to fill”), while “The Return” is a fuzzed-out meditation on unsettled moral uncertainty (“There’s a son who won’t fight for what his father thinks is right”). The liberal-intellectual palette even expands to include colonialism on “You in Color” and “Deer-Ree-Shee” (“Make us feel like foreigners / Devils under our own sun”). Laying out these critiques over such foreboding sonic undergrowth remains a striking choice, one more redolent of apocalyptic paranoia than idealistic hope. Our (anti-)heroes aren’t exactly stumping for Obama here, after all.
Examining Directions to See a Ghost in contrast to its predecessor may ultimately seem counter-productive, but the Black Angels are situating themselves in a very specific way, as they always have. They are a band that has hunkered down in a dark foxhole, well-fortified and well-rationed, and it suits them just fine to wait out the heavy bombardment and feast on the spoils of survival. They love us, but they have chosen darkness, and who are we to question their milieu when it’s clearly so snug and irresistible? In “18 Years”, Maas wails, “Something black / Answers back / From the dungeon / And you smile”, and those ten words essentially encapsulate the Black Angels’ cryptic appeal.