On Sunday night The Black Angels played at 9:30 Club for the second time in six months. Last time they were in town, they opened for Black Mountain. This time at bat The Black Angels headlined the show, which gave them more time to marinate the audience in their dark psych-rock sound. The club was about two-thirds full, which made for a decent-sized crowd while leaving plenty of empty space for their guitars and vocals to swirl around in. The name of the game was “atmosphere” as The Black Angels enhanced their bad acid trip soundtracks with minimal red and purple lighting casting long shadows, occasionally interrupted by seizure-inducing strobes. The stage back-drop looked simple enough with its a wavy black and white pattern, but eventually continued the theme of acid freak-out as it created a number of optical illusions as different lights and projections bounced off of it. The best way to enjoy the show was to immerse yourself in The Black Angels’ audio-visual soup. Which is exactly what I did.
The Black Angels are from Austin, Texas. I have been a fan of theirs since their first album and I have seen them in concert a number of times. My favorite performance of theirs that I have seen was with The Warlocks at Rock & Roll Hotel a few years ago. At that show The Black Angels were a wild, untamed group with a raw power sound that was incapable of calming down. This sound is reflected well on their debut “Passover”. The band specialize in expansive, mind-twisting psychedelic rock and I think they have been evolution of their take on that genre has been an interesting journey. With each subsequent release and parallel performance I have seen, The Black Angels have been refining that early raw sound. From the brute force of their first album the band moved toward the somewhat directionless epics of their sophomore release “Directions To See a Ghost”. Now with their third album “Phosphene Dream”, The Black Angels have offered a collection of songs that is their most focused and accessible. Ultimately each album comes across as a variation on the theme of tripped-out psychedelic rock, and each has its merits and short-comings.
The show on Sunday night featured the new album and their debut almost exclusively. I think I only heard one song from their second album all night. This is probably a good thing as it kept their set flowing without becoming too bogged down in pointless guitar noodling. I know that might sound odd coming from me – after all, I love guitar freak-outs, sound-walls, and feedback fests – but I believe there is a method to all of the guitar madness in the world; and I believe The Black Angels are best when they are indulging the guitar gods within the structure of songs rather than free-form jamming.
This band is an excellent live unit. The five members perform in their own kind of trance-like state, frequently closing their eyes and swaying with the music. While each seems to be in their own head-space, the members never missed a beat; they somehow managed to work themselves all over the stage to trade-off instruments or to strike acid-zombie poses. The new songs and debut tracks blended pretty seamlessly and with the longer set each was allowed time to breath. None of the versions felt rushed through and when the song allowed time for some guitar heroics, they were provided in droves.
When The Black Angels are on point, as they were for most of the night, their guitar interplay and drug-haze tempo is mesmerizing. It is interesting to hear the songs from the first album (my favorite, can’t you tell?) played by The Black Angels circa 2011. The songs are still absolutely bulletproof but are played with a little more skill; their subtle refinement not only makes them blend perfectly with the “Phosphene Dream” songs but also smooths out some of their rough edges to make the whole Black Angels’ retro attack even more convincing.
Have you ever seen “Electra Glide In Blue”?* [Spoilers] I like to imagine that after blowing away Wintergreen the nervous, trigger-happy hippies peel away in their van and The Black Angels are playing on their radio [End Spoilers]. There is a great Roger Corman, psychedelic exploitation flick feel to The Black Angels’ sound. I can totally imagine them playing in a club in a Corman movie meant to tantalize 60’s teen curiosity and terrorize parents’ paranoid imaginations. I have to give this week’s show credit for that. If the R&R Hotel show was my favorite musically, I would say that the show on Sunday at 9:30 Club was my favorite Black Angels’ “total experience” show. The way they used the club’s lights to intensify their music’s impact was top-notch; if you let your mind wander during their set, you could easily picture yourself at some acid-shocked, art-damaged performance back in the 60’s psych-scene (or the romanticized image of it).
* If not, you need to!