For the answers to some questions I have for bands, I don’t even need an interview. This Black Angels project is the perfect case in point — an album by a band clearly influenced by Lou Reed’s notorious entourage and pointing with final explicitness to the exact song which inspired their name, which in turn, is clearly meant as the pinnacle of their career, for ostensibly the express purpose of combatting the presidency of Donald Trump.
I first heard The Black Angels while day-drinking in a bar in Asheville, NC in 2014. It was their 2006 album, in fact, Passover. At the time I did not know the album title. If I had, in fact, I might not have thought was well of the music (what dorkiness) — but I must say it sunk in as genuine and deliberate for its very intensity through slowness, the type of thing which bespeaks music that’s undeniably the product of an artistic vision, or feeling, that’s very real. That it sounded so cutting and poignant in 2014 bespeaks undoubtedly that the band was ahead of its time all the while. There’s a certain haunting nihilism about the indie blues-rock this band methodically belts out, which adds upon the otherwise similar Black Mountain (every band I can think of to compare them to seems to have the word “black” in their name) with a key wrinkle of authenticity. In other words, to a greater extent, The Black Angels make music which corresponds thematically to life itself, which definitely takes some unflinching thoroughness and tenacity, today more than ever. And so I bring you, next up, in the cleanup spot, Death Song, upon what is arguably the death knell of America, as well as that of the great Chris Cornell.
My first impression of the opener, “Currency,” is that it’s great (or at least greatly prototypical) record store music, this notion in my mind conjoining in tandem with the observation that this modus operandi strays not markedly from what the band was doing in 2006. Of course, this may be excused by (a.) some underexposure there, (b.) some AWESOMENESS there and of course (c.) the fact that, like I said before, they were indeed ahead of their time all the while.
“I’d Kill For Her” takes the tempo up just a little slightly, which ironically, per the general ethos of grunge, often marks in fact a DECREASE in a song’s intensity. And indeed, this is exactly what a track two should do. It handles love in the lyrics, whereas “Currency” had sparked thoughts of capitalism’s demise, or an existential demise there among. Strangely, each one sounds fairly befitting of Alex Maas’s damaged, awkward voice (a term I’d erstwhile applied to Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen which is a musical entity not wholly different).
The thing marking “Half Believing”’s distinction is the extent to which Maas’ vocals are finally laid bare, the drapery of opaque instrumentation finally relinquished in favor of isolation on the vocal. I do, also, detect a sense of a stab at radio appeal here (the song reminds me explicitly of AFI’s “The Leaving Song”). Along these lines, whereas “Currency” had awesomely summoned up thoughts of Led Zeppelin (in very much the discordance with the V.U.-related title of this album), the starts and stops in this song are just annoying, and if I hear this song in a bar I think I might ask them to change it just on principle alone, because this band can do better with less of a mainstream-minded producer, or frontman, whatever the case may be.
“Commanche Moon”’s smooth, placid intro very much belies the heavy metal (as in like ‘70s heavy metal) riffage which will soon crash the party — it goes from Dandy Warhols territory to Black Sabbath with great expedition, and in fact Alex Maas’ accent even amusingly sounds British on this song, which is every bit appropriate. All in all, this project is definitely taking me back to my big acid rock/drug usage days in high school. And we can never get enough of that, as we know. This song has starts and stops too, but the “stops” aren’t really pauses but rather little interludes of simple guitar riffs played through trippy effects pedals. Black Mountain is also summoned explicitly here, with the added, autonomous element of a frenetic, galloping and irregular drum beat which very much astonishes, and a mix in which the vocals are polymorphous and inundating of the rest of the soundscape in a way that’s intimidating and fiercely psychedelic. Give the band credit here, too, for making a full epic statement in less than five minutes — by the guitar solo outro, you’re fully enrapt in rock glory and you know that this thing (finally) isn’t radio-formulaic at all.
“Hunt Me Down” summons The White Stripes explicitly in terms of production, which then of course yields mental references to Icky Thump’s “Conquest” (why the he** not). This song, also, is a bona fide “stomper,” to use a term a facebook friend recently employed to some interesting Beck b-side (I think it was “One Foot in the Grave,” or something) and this is never a bad thing.
I remember a few years back Swans put out a double album that was really critically acclaimed. Already, halfway through this project Death Song (a worthy career climax, especially as viewed through a titular lens), I wish that The Black Angels would have done the same thing. Indeed, one of the few things I’d change about this LP would be infusing the band with some increased confidence in their capacity for anatomical mass. Something this epic shouldn’t fit on one vinyl — not even close.
Apropos of this, actually, “Hunt me Down” is even too short, in addition to the album as a whole being too short. “Grab as Much” (as you can)” is trippy. Da** trippy. Dolby Disaster like a da trippy music. WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL THESE GUYS? Eh, better late than never. It’s funny, I’d been thinking of these guys for some reason, sort of loosely planning on doing an expose on them as the most underexposed band out there, and here all the time they have an entirely unhpyed album out — but then I look on facebook and see that they have over 100,000 fans. Austin, Texas word of mouth can be a powerful thing. “Grab as Much (as you can)” rings faintly with a message of pre-apocalyptic panic, which stylistically approximating their Austin brethren Spoon, a la maybe a darker, more minor-chord laden “I Turn My Camera on.”
In a way, the lugubrious tone of this album begs the question of why they’d choose the relatively sunny, post-punk Velvet Underground as a titular reference. Truly, I have not even the trace of an answer to this question and I’m not even sure it entirely matters. One thing is for sure though: Death Song, aside from just the topic matter directly implied here, also suggests stature of a swan song for its titular finality pertaining to the fact of the band finally unveiling the provenance of their name and tying to it an ultimate, irreversible finality. That is to say — it would be impossible for the band to at any time in the future put out an album more TITULARLY important than Death Song, barring of course like interweaving Pentagon codes for accessing nuclear weapons within its nomenclature. In such a scope, the band every bit do justice to these high stakes here, making music which is at once dramatic, shapeshifting and understandable.