The Black Angels bring the past to the present

by Ryan Snyder

Psychedelics optional, but not required to see the Black Angels. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

It’s a scenario deserving of its own afterschool PSA. What starts with V0 rips of the Black Angels’ Phosphene Dream soon turns into your kid digging through dusty crates at a record show for anything they can get their hands on by the 13th Floor Elevators. The next thing you know, they’re scrounging for links to Wesley Willis warhellrides on 4chan, and Jeff VanVonderen and an A&E film crew are waiting to pounce outside their bedroom door. The Black Angels can play their instruments, write coherent music and have a target audience, but the psychedelic quintet from Austin, Texas is nonetheless the contemporary gateway drug to outsider music.

The band’s Nov. 2 show at Ziggy’s had all the surface earmarks of an outsider show: rather underattended (though they’ve sold out several other rooms on this tour) but with a decent ratio of outwardly weird to regular folks in the crowd for a band whose lyrics only make complete sense in the proper state of mind. The Black Angels play the kind of music one would expect at a Manson Family reunion if the Jefferson Airplane and the B-52s were their distant cousins. Paranoid songs about romantic betrayal, the FBI, political cynicism and the Vietnam War are couched deep inside layer upon layer of reverb and distortion created by the band’s vintage instruments.

Frontman Alex Maas has been compared to everyone from Jim Morrison to Anton Newcombe, his tortured vocals the band’s most defining characteristic beyond the glazed-over drone that engulfs most of their stuff, but more composed than Morrison and aggressive than Newcombe. He paced the stage with maracas in hand, waiting to pile on top of any number of the band’s songs that are all build-up with maddeningly little release, but that’s what makes the Black Angels such an attractive band. There’s a mindgame going on, but the audience is rarely in on it.

They’re throwbacks to ‘60s and ‘70s psychedelia in every sense, but of course, the Black Angels’ sound is only half of their appeal. Simply witnessing their performances is a challenging endeavor thanks to stark lighting and seismic, hallucinatory projections cast behind them synched, both precisely with the music. A few small, glowing dots growing and multiplying at an almost imperceptible pace populated the wall behind the Ziggy’s main stage. The throbbing guitar loop of “The Entrance Song” heralded the band’s arrival to stage, as two kids in full tribal headdresses flopping around spastically from the first crash of a floor tom embodied the enthusiasm that the small crowd possessed; guitarist Christian Bland acknowledged several who drove some distance to drown in the band’s aural and visual assault.

The band is loud, feeling almost impossibly so at times, but their live shows reveal nuances in their music that remain veiled on record. The vintage synth pop of “Telephone” was buttressed with an extended jam that flowed into mind-bending krautrock territory, while “Black Grease” espoused the malleability of their Austin rock avatar Roky Erickson, who they once backed in a 13th Floor Elevator revival. Drummer Stephanie Bailey, one of the hardest-hitting female drummers in rock, isn’t overwhelmed in the live mix as she unfortunately was on the first two records, either.

Her teeth-rattling power was on full display during “Bad Vibrations,” the yin to the yang of the Beach Boys’ classic.

If there’s a knock against the Black Angels, it’s that the band has shown little growth through three albums. Phosphene Dream is essentially the same esthetic as their debut Passover, only considerably more polished. They’re purveyors of a dated sound, yet they manage to present it so convincingly, so chillingly that the old seems new all over again.