❉ Austin’s psych-rockers are back with their first record in four years.
Austin-based psych rockers The Black Angels, like many a band that starts with ‘Black’, aren’t particularly renowned for their sense of humour. The title of their new album Death Song, is probably the closest you’ll get to a pun out of them, combining their band name and the title to pay tribute to the uncompromisingly noisy Velvet Underground song that named them. But beyond a nifty title, what is Death Song all about? Conceived and recorded against the backdrop of the 2016 US Presidential Election and the gut-sinking rise of Trump, the band’s first album in four years is said to be a protest album. It certainly sounds much angrier than their last one, Indigo Meadow, dumping much of the lighter shades of earlier albums for something much more jammed-out, based on mesmeric, Hawkwind-esque riffs and drones. Producer Phil Eck’s production sets the band in a weird, shimmery echoey space that’s both trippy and claustrophobic at once. It’s slightly less direct than the Thirteenth Floor Elevators swagger of old, but frames the edgy, intense sound well.
Based on the ferocious twin peaks of two bludgeoning riff-monsters, the opener Currency and Comanche Moon you can kind of see Death Song as the protest album it’s being touted as. Currency manages to be both heavy and doleful, railing against the birth-to-death moneygoround of modern capitalism. “One day/it’ll all be over”, frontman Alex Maas wails resignedly against a grinding riff, before Currency rolls back into its circular verse and the cycle begins again.
Comanche Moon, meanwhile, is a haunted tribal fuzz-bolero that recalls Queens Of The Stone Age at their most pissed-off – summoning the sound and fury of the mistreated Native American people that Trump would possibly build an oil pipeline over if they let him.
But really, in its hazy, red-eyed way, if Death Song is about anything, it’s death itself, and obsessive love. Bland’s lyrics are fixated with both, and keep coming back to both themes over and over like hot flushes, particularly death, and more death. I’d Kill For Her combines both, a raging ode to a lover who isn’t just a hot, dangerous Anita Pallenberg or Nico figure – she may be the angel of death herself, bringing actual devastation in her wake. Half Believing is the flipside of this – Bland fixating over a more benign new love that’s got him up all night pining for her, discomforted at her making him feel this way. It’s the best thing on the album, nailing the tension between tender devotion and panicked night sweats.
Elsewhere, the juddering Hunt Me Down and motorik I Dreamt are two sides of the same coin, built more on slinky riffs than heavy imagery, I Dreamt in particular is full of stream-of consciousness nursery rhyme wordplay. They’re lighter, and none the worse for it.
Meanwhile, Estimate has the band trying on Ennio Morricone’s best moves, a clanging, high noon meditation of a couple on the run from something, full of apocalyptic imagery of dead children, bullets, and poisoned water.
You’ve got to admire The Black Angels’ devotion to their dark, monochrome-psych aesthetic. The only problem is that when you’re relying so much on drone-rock jamming is that it can get a little samey. Grab As Much (as you can) and Medicine are perfectly good, but feel like space-fillers compared to some of the more inventive stuff on Death Song.
The album comes to a close on the spooked drone of Death March, and the closing Life Song, which is about anything but. A stately six-minute mellotron-drenched Floydian journey through the veil, it hints at space travel but is unmistakably about death and the unknown – like Space Oddity with all hope extinguished. “How can I explain?/With no voice, with no chest, as I’m travelling upside down..” Bland sings mournfully into the void. “I’m dying…..I’m dying.”
At the end of this very final-sounding voyage, you could conclude that The Black Angels might have something of a death trip, possibly beyond their image of druggy ray-banned cool. Or, the album’s content and title could maybe be a swan song. Either way, the taut, malign energy of Death Song shows a band fighting fit, fizzing with energy, and yes, life.
❉ “Death Song” was released through Partisan Records on 21 April 2017 and they are confirmed as headliners for this year’s Liverpool Psych Fest in September.