By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
They take their name from the "The Black Angel's Death Song" by the Velvet Underground and ominously sing about war, paranoia, devastation, hell and death--of course, death--over a weighty, dark-hued, funereal rock drone. So one might naturally expect to find the Black Angels hunkered down in a decaying urban warehouse with well-thumbed copies of Camus and Sartre scattered about, nodding out from the latest injection.
Hardly. The young Austin sextet with a great big buzz reverberating across North America may boast song titles like "Young Men Dead," "The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven" and "Call to Arms," suggesting a serious case of politicized intellectual misanthropy. But the members are friendly, jocular sorts, happy to tell their tales over cheap beer on the back patio of their East Austin suburban-style band house.
On their debut full-length, Passover, singer Alex Maas howls that he's "ready to feel the bite" as the band echoes Robert Johnson's deal with the devil on "Bloodhounds on My Trail." The effect is chilling enough to stand hairs on end. Yet even their two huge Great Dane mascots--"They're the guard dogs when we're away," Maas explains--turn out to be overgrown love puppies.
In spite of the seeming contradictions, the Black Angels are the real deal. Only two years after their birth, with a debut EP released last October and Passover out since April, they've already played more than 100 shows across the U.S. and Canada. Thanks to a confluence of college, alternative and satellite radio play as well as the power of the Internet and that all-important word of mouth from hard-core fans, their buzz has built nationwide and circled back to the Texas capital city where they live rather than the usual other way around. (To wit, I'm an Austinite and first heard about the band from a professor friend whose students were gushing about the Black Angels...in London, Ontario.)
Such broad and immediate appeal comes from a sound that dips deep into the musical well, starting with the bleak flipside of the psychedelic '60s and then drawing from much of what followed in its wake. On "Better Off Alone," a thumping raga rocker that could easily be an alternate soundtrack to the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now, you'll hear something akin to Jim Morrison fronting the Velvets. But there are also echoes of the gloomier side of new wave as heard in acts like Suicide, Joy Division and the Teardrop Explodes.
For Kyle Hunt, who signed on after the band recorded Passover to provide utility guitar, keyboards, bass and percussion, "The first time I heard these guys, I thought of everything that I listened to in high school that nobody else did, like Spiritualized and the Stone Roses. I thought, 'Holy shit, finally there's a band in Austin that's doing something original and experimental.'"
Yet in the final summation, the Black Angels have created something all their own that epitomizes their credo--"Turn on, Tune in, Drone Out"--and achieves that mystical balance between sounding immediately familiar yet at the same time new and bracing. At the heart of their music is primal and propulsive tribal drumming--"Native American drone 'n' roll" is the band's catchphrase for their sound--beneath a hypnotic wall of echoing guitars and keyboards.
It's all topped by Maas' yowl that captures the unsettling undercurrents within modern wartime. "Can you ask for more now for this new war?" Maas asks in "The First Vietnamese War," implying that the turmoil of the 1960s may be just around the corner in this new millennium.
"From the get-go, our goal has been to take the '60s sound, which I think was probably the best sound that's ever been created, and bring it into the modern age," explains guitarist Christian Brand. He and Maas, the founding core of the Black Angels, were music-making pals since their early teens in Seabrook, Texas, who began playing together again after landing in Austin for college. "We started listening to the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Warlocks and began incorporating the way they make music but more with a '60s sort of sound," Mass says.
But rather than emulate wastoids like Morrison and BJM's Anton Newcombe, they instituted a serious work ethic of three long practices a week and sought out kindred souls who were ready and able to hit the road rather than languish in the Live Rehearsal Capital of the World. The duo happened upon new members in chance encounters--powerhouse drummer Stephanie Bailey was found on Friendster and bassist/guitarist Nate Ryan simply approached the band at a gig and asked to play bass--yet the group's cohesion sounds premeditated.
"We just all fed off each other," Maas says. "Everything was really organic. At every practice, there would be something that would really freak us all out--like, wow, this could really be something."
Hunt, a musical gear freak from Plano, could also hear that something special was happening as he helped record the band's album. "When I was listening to it from the perspective of becoming a part of it, I thought, 'This band is fucking badass,'" he recalls. "It's the '60s thing, but it's not too '60s to where you're like, 'Fuck that, it's gimmicky.' And it's new enough and different enough where you think it's moving ground.
"The goal for all of us is to get to that place where things are going and you're there, observing what's going on, and you're in that space and the spirit of it," Hunt says. "Getting to that plane."
"Where you don't think," interjects Bland.
"And the subconscious takes over," adds Maas.
Their aim with audiences is to transport them to the same realm. "At our shows, it's more like a ceremony rather than we're just coming to play and party," Maas says. "It's more of a gathering, a collective kind of thing."
And even though the sound and subject matter sketch a bleak landscape in gray charcoal, there's also a redemptive aspiration as implied by the title Passover. Yes, the Black Angels want to mesmerize listeners. But their music is also a call to "Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!" as Maas exhorts in "The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven."
But the group members seem dazed by how many people are already waking to the Angels' call. The folks from Seattle's Light in the Attic Records heard the band while on a vacation trip to Austin and immediately offered them a deal. And even before they released their initial EP, buzz had already bubbled as far as Dallas' Good Records, who jumped onto the Black Angels' bandwagon and sold their music on CD-Rs with copy shop covers.
The first pressing of 10,000 copies of Passover has already sold, and the next batch is moving quickly. Their last gig in Seattle, where famed college station KEXP has embraced the band, sold out six weeks in advance. "I still have a hard time fully understanding what's going on and how big the buzz is," says Maas. "It's something that's happening really fast."
"Late night, every once in a while after a show, we'll just look at each other and go, what? It's insane. It's nuts," says Hunt. He points to their recent appearance at the Wall of Sound Festival 2006: "Everybody was just so gung ho. We were like, 'Holy crap.'"
With Passover slated for U.K. release in September, the Black Angels' buzz now stands poised to possibly break in the trend-setting English market. And after capturing ears across North America, the group has also finally become a hot ticket in their hometown, even landing a spot at September's ACL Music Festival.
"Our goal from the get-go was to make it more than just a local Austin thing," concludes Brand in a rare, outright expression of ambitions. "What we want it to be is worldwide."