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Music: Angels on the Battlefield

The Black Angels wrap their wartime observations in an engaging psychedelic drone

By Sara Farr · November 15th, 2006 · Music
  The Black Angels didn't intend to become a
Justin Dylan Renney

The Black Angels didn't intend to become a "political" band, but the state of affairs today led them to address issues about the war on their new album.

Despite constant media reports that a majority of Americans disagree with the Iraq War, it hasn't seeped into art and music the way the Vietnam War did.

Today's Pop music doesn't really have a Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Joan Baez strumming a guitar at national protests on the Mall or sit-ins at Berkeley. Indeed, popular music has been largely silent on major political issues such as the Iraq war, unless you consider Paris Hilton's new album a weapon of mass destruction.

So it's not surprising that the debut CD from Austin, Tex.-based drone 'n rollers The Black Angels, Passover, released in April on Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records, raised some eyebrows for its not-so-veiled anti-war sentiments.

"People think we're some big political protest band, but it's not intentionally that we set out to do that," says the group's keyboard/organ player, Jennifer Raines. "It's just that when (singer) Alex (Maas) gets up there and starts singing, that's what usually comes out."

Raines says the fallout from songs such as "The First Vietnamese War" and "Call to Arms" -- a song told from the perspective of a U.S. soldier in Iraq -- still comes as a surprise. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the songs don't explicitly condemn the wars. Rather, they set the scene of the conflict and leave the question of morality up to the listener.

Though audience reaction has been mostly positive, there have been instances when people have angrily confronted the band, challenging their right to speak in a first-person voice on wars they've never been directly involved with.

"We take that for what it's worth," Raines says. "Not everyone is going to like (our music) or understand what we're trying to say. It's just the way one person wants to think, and that's not a bad thing."

And, for the record, Raines says everyone in the band does vote.

"For the longest time, I didn't (vote), and then I caught myself complaining about politics," she says. "I said, 'Wait a minute. I didn't vote this year. I shouldn't say a word.' And then next election, I made it a point to get out there and do it."

Many of the band's six members have personal connections to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Guitarist Christian Bland has a close friend serving in Iraq, and Raines' cousin served in the first Persian Gulf War. When asked if her cousin has heard The Black Angels' music, Raines is quick to respond: "Oh yeah, he likes it a lot."

Sonically, The Black Angels have a lot in common with bands such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Jesus & Mary Chain, as well as the droning psychedelia of bands from the '60s and '70s such as The Doors and The Velvet Underground.

"We're very much influenced by The Velvet Underground," Raines says, copping to the charge that the band pulled its name from a VU song called "The Black Angel's Death Song." "They did something that no one else was doing at the time. They showed that you could play one note for an entire song and it didn't have to be a bad thing. It could be beautiful as well. It was brilliant."

Some accuse The Black Angels of musical hackery, arguing that the band does nothing more than rip off an old sound. But those folks miss a key point -- by using the sound of a bygone era, The Black Angels have set fire to the controversial issues of their own time. They have sounded an alarm, rung out by death-march drums and low-down, heavy guitar riffs and punctuated by lessons from American history that tumble out in anxiety-riddled, fearful shrieks to remember our history, lest we be doomed to repeat it.

It's exactly the same thing that George Crumb tried to do more than 30 years ago in a composition titled -- ironically -- "Black Angels." Crumb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Classical composer, first began work on his avant-garde composition in late 1969 -- in tempore belli, during the height of the Vietnam War.

"Things were turned upside down," he wrote in his liner notes. "There were terrifying things in the air ... they found their way into 'Black Angels.' "

The roughly 20-minute piece, composed for a modern electric quartet featured three movements and was subtitled "Thirteen Images From the Dark Land." Shouts, chants, whistles, whispers, gongs, maracas and crystal glasses ring out through the work, creating a cacophonous mélange of dissonant, challenging sounds not usually associated with traditional Classical music. Crumb's work -- much like that of The Black Angels -- was a reflection on the upheaval that conflict over war wreaks on American society.

"Black Angels' was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary times," Crumb continued in his liner notes. "The ... allusions in the work are therefore symbolic, although the essential polarity -- God versus Devil -- implies more than a purely metaphysical reality."

Indeed, religious imagery often goes hand in hand with war, and Passover is no different. In songs such as "Sniper at the Gates of Heaven," Maas trips through a fiery version of Armageddon, screaming "Wake up! Wake up!" for anyone brave -- or naive -- enough to listen. The tumbling toms and the ritualistic drone of Maas' voice provide a link to the American Indian heritage that many of the band's members claim -- but there's no Homer Simpson-friendly fox to guide you on this vision quest through Hell.

So does it get wearisome lugging around the apocalyptic tendencies night after night?

"When we tour, the songs are always fresh because we're playing in new cities for new people who've never heard us play those songs live before," Raines said. "And I never really get tired of playing any of them."

THE BLACK ANGELS perform Thursday at Covington's Madison Theater with The Black Keys.


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