The Black Angels’ music often sounds as if the world is coming to an end, which is just how singer Alex Maas likes it.
“I think the world is a very scary place,” Maas says by cellphone from the band’s latest tour stop in Washington, D.C. “It’s obviously a beautiful place, too. Maybe this is our outlet to emit this underlying warning about how things would be if everybody lost faith and hope.”
The Austin, Texas-bred band has been spreading its ominous, reverb-drenched drones for more than five years now, along the way converting a flock of passionate followers who likewise believe that 1966 was popular music’s creative apex. The Angels’ latest collection of songs for the recently resurrected Blue Horizon label, Phosphene Dream, continues the fivesome’s interest in all things Psychedelic, while at the same time tweaking its trippy formula — if only slightly.
Take album-opener “Bad Vibrations,” which kicks off with the band’s trademark death-march drums, echoing guitars and Maas’ deadpan, Grace Slick-informed croon before, three-fourths in, blowing things up with a schizoid segue in which the tempo is tripled and Maas yelps with impressive glee. The effect is both disorienting and deeply satisfying, transporting the listener to a completely different headspace within a matter of seconds.
Like most everything the band does, “Bad Vibrations” is rife with moody, cinematic evocation: If Jim Jarmusch remade Michelanglo Antonioni’s metaphysical mind-fuck Blow-Up, he’d cast The Black Angels as his Yardbirds.
“In that song we kind of looked at it like a movie: We’re in the jungle and we’re going to take the listener to the top of a pyramid,” Maas says in a clear, inviting voice that sometimes belies the content of his words. “And at the very top of the pyramid, what are you going to say? What’s going to happen? Some sort of grandiose thing? That’s how we felt about that song. We don’t feel that way about every song, but that was the approach for that one. We wanted to take the listener on a journey.
“In the very beginning (of the process), whenever I hear a sound or I hear a guitar or a bass line, I think of images and a theme or geographical location: ‘OK, it sounds like Tanzania in 1943,’ ” Maas says of his creative approach.
“It’s kind of an easy thing to do — it’s describing the feeling and emotion that’s coming through the music. That’s how a lot of the songs get written.”
Phosphene Dream burns through 10 songs in just over 30 minutes, quite a contrast from its predecessor, Directions to See a Ghost, which was nearly twice as long and lacked the stylistic diversity of the new one. “River of Blood” is as heavy and sinister as its title, riding on a thunderous guitar riff, tribal drumming and, ultimately, sonic chaos. “Telephone,” meanwhile, is probably the biggest departure, both in terms of its brevity and buoyant, British Invasion simplicity.
The band enlisted an outside producer for the first time for Phosphene Dream, recruiting Dave Sardy, who has worked with everyone from Oasis, LCD Soundsystem and Rufus Wainwright to more Angels-like acts Black Mountain, Wolfmother and Autolux.
“We definitely wanted growth in the new record,” Maas says. “We didn’t want to keep putting out the same exact types of songs. We came to Dave with about 40 songs and refined them down to the ones we thought would reach the most people, which was a conscious decision.”
In addition to his skills as a producer and mixer — Maas calls him a “George Martin type of individual” — Sardy surprised the band with a unique quirk that no doubt had an impact on the group and its songs.
“He did a lot of the mixing in the studio naked — like, no clothes on,” Maas says. “The first day he did that we were caught off guard. Obviously he wasn’t that way all the time, but he just didn’t like to have any clothes on while he was mixing. I thought he was kidding the first time he did it, but then he kept doing it over and over. I guess he was trying to be completely free in front of the speakers or something. He had some theory about it. He’s an interesting guy.”
Another way in which the band altered its approach to reach more people was to write a song for last year’s The Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack. Maas dismisses those who might criticize the decision to partake in such a blatantly mainstream endeavor.
“You’re getting people to listen to your music that never would have before and we’re able to sustain ourselves as a band,” he says. “You know how many bands are breaking up right now because of money, or have to get a part-time job washing toilets? Quite frankly, I’d rather be a musician than a janitor.”
Yet some things remain the same. The Black Angels’ three full-length recordings and numerous one-off projects all possess a certain religious element, whether it’s overtly perceptible (as in “True Believers” from the new album) or not.
“Yes,” Maas says when asked if music can be seen as a form of religion. “Music is my religion right now. It makes feel close to whatever god might exist. It’s escapist. It’s opium. Religion is the opium of the masses, but so is music.
“Music is the new religion,” he continues, noticeably unable to fully articulate his feelings as he reverts to the same stream-of-consciousness approach he brings to his often cryptic lyrics. “It’s therapy. It’s all-encompassing. Maybe we’ve evolved beyond the need for religion. Maybe you call it something else. Music is therapy, and that’s all you call it. The religion aspect is taken out of it. It’s definitely a religious experience for me when I play music.”
Whatever it is, Maas is grateful for the gift he and his band have been given.“I never would have dreamed that I would play with The Black Keys, Queens of the Stone Age, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Raveonettes,” he says. “It’s so unbelievable. It’s so dreamy. I know how lucky I am. I know that our band isn’t the best band, either, and I know there are bands out there that can play circles around our band. For us to be in the situation we’re in is very, very fortunate. All of us feel very lucky.”
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