The Black Angels are the Beach Boys' archenemies — acolytes of the Velvet Underground, with their own sonic blueprint for vibrations. Instead of bright, bustling melodies and resplendent harmonies, these Austin, Texas, Angels build a hypnotic thrum of slowly shuddering distortion, buttressed by a primal beat.
Although they've been tagged shoegazers, the Angels' arid, sunbaked whirr differs from the Jesus and Mary Chain's ringing walls of stereo chorus or My Bloody Valentine's overdriven distortion. Their murky buzz doesn't cop dream-pop's fierce sensory overload; it's about deep groove and stoned, psychedelic sway, echoing Spacemen 3 and, closer to home, the 13th Floor Elevators.
It's a well-articulated vision right down to the album art for the band's full-length debut, Passover: The group's name and the album title ripple in overlapping concentric black lines. Simple in design, it's still an evocative illustration of the band's musical approach — wave after wave crashing at the foot of the listener.
The quintet takes its name from the Velvet Underground's "The Black Angel's Death Song," a noisy, droning paean that's a clear antecedent to these modern-day Angels. They even have a woman drummer playing a simple kit, à la Maureen Tucker.
"We've always liked the idea of having a female drummer just because the Velvet Underground had one," says singer-bassist Alex Maas from the Austin pad that four of the Angels share. "We went through, like, 20 male drummers, and they were all trying to do stuff that was ridiculous. Their kits were too big, and they listened to too much Guns N' Roses. But Stephanie [Bailey], while she listened to Guns N' Roses, was able to do stuff with our sound that was conducive and create a tribal kind of sound."
Indeed, the expansive, trancelike songs induce listeners to rock and throb in time with the sturdy hum. "Whenever we play the music, it's definitely like a spiritual thing for us," Maas explains. "It's our outlet for tons of emotions that we might not get to express day to day."
The band formed around Maas and guitarist Christian Bland a little more than three years ago, but its history goes back further. Bland and Maas were friends in junior high and reconnected after college. "As kids, we would hang out and we always had this creative energy that always bounced off each other, you know? As far as conversation and even writing songs," Maas says.
Even the album's sinister reverberations were something they talked about. The haunting overtone, for one, was a conscious choice.
"We just went for evil, an evil tone," Maas says. "If it wasn't evil — if we didn't look at each other — it didn't make the cut. We'll get a lot of tones where we'll be, 'It's just too happy and too frilly.' It has to fall into a certain category, and I can't even tell you what that is. We did a lot of trial and error."
Passover's tone dovetails with the dark political imagery and lyrics. Songs such as "Young Men Dead" and the hidden track, which calls for the United States to get out of "The Iraq War," are direct, overt appeals. Others — "Empire," "The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven," "Call to Arms" — speak more generally to the malaise and selfishness of the times.
"There's probably a lot of subconscious paranoia, for one — all the stuff that's going on and the fact that there's still this kind of cold war going on," Maas says. Some songs — "The First Vietnamese War," for example — just came out of Bland's guitar tones, which spurred images of pontoon boats in the Mekong Delta while faintly echoing the twisted instrumental haze of Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun."
"We try not to be over the top with it [the politics], not too preachy about it. And that's kind of our way to do it — just doing images," Maas says. "It's a lot easier for us to write the lyrics to a song than to come up with a cool tone or instrumental sound. So it's surprising more people aren't talking about this, because it is so easy."
Most of us couldn't write a hook or sing a vocal to save our lives, but the war is going down before our very eyes, and that's probably the most direct and honest inspiration a musician can have these days. It's a connection to a larger whole, a shared experience to which we all can relate in some way. It's a suggestion that life is about more than just losing yourself in the throb of an open chord. It's also about bearing witness.