The Black Angels go to rock ‘n’ roll heaven

It’s tempting to say the entire performance was other-worldly, but this would be misleading, for its true merit lay in how carnal and earthly it felt.

By Colin Bradley

They say Jim Morrison is dead. They say rock ‘n’ roll has died, burnt out, been replaced by skinny jeans, affected eccentricities, and “this Amazonian wind instrument you’ve probably never heard of.”  It exists now merely to provide an airy soundtrack to Where the Wild Things Are, and to make stickers you can put on your Macbook.

But Dead Meadow and the Black Angels have a scene. And as Dead Meadow bassist Steve Kille said, “with the scene, everything blossoms.” The scene Kille is talking about is the burgeoning, self-described “Native American drone ‘n’ roll” —better known as psych rock. But this is no Flower Power psychedelia; this is the half-remembered, half-invented steamy side of things.

Joining forces with Spindrift, Dead Meadow and the Black Angels are bringing their ghoulish gospel to the road this year hoping to build on what Kille calls a “grassroots movement in music.” The stage backdrop at the Metro displayed a warped video of the moon landing that slowly morphed into a face, which then faded into an ironic waving of the Lone Star flag (the Black Angels hail from Austin, Texas), and finally revealed a dream-world version of what was happening on stage (like what Frodo sees when he dons the ring of power). While these images revolved, and Alex Maas’ vocals echoed off every spike-bracelet and pierced lip in the audience, wailing “Fire for the hills, pick up your feet and let’s go,” I witnessed the seed taking root in Chicago.

The Angels could not have chosen a more perfect venue to embrace their message. Metro’s décor brings to mind a half-planned collaboration between Tim Curry and Timothy Leary. Neo-classical moldings and columns threaten dereliction; psychedelic lights and images portend a valediction to your typical state of mind.

Spindrift kicked off the set with all five members sporting studded cowboy hats, and the music followed suit. They sound like what you might expect to hear if you dropped acid at the Joshua Tree but accidentally wandered onto the filming of the final showdown scene of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Ass-kicking rockabilly guitar hooks punctuated long stretches of drifting, ethereal counter-melodies. But as much as I love that movie, the thing about the last scene is that it goes on…and on…and on.

Enter Dead Meadow to save the day. Formed in the suburbs of D.C. in 1998, DM has been at the forefront of this scene since its infancy. As they took the stage, every member of the three-person band looked like that guy from your high school who didn’t really seem to want to graduate. Corduroy and flannel galore. But what they may have lacked in flair, they made up for with plenty of psychedelia.

Dead Meadow was a little slow to start. Vocalist and guitarist Jason Smith’s rainbow collection of Telecasters did most of the singing (if Kille’s bass let it get a word in). But they have no bread and butter without the jam. Featuring songs almost all over five minutes in length, it was during the last few minutes of every song, when they let go of  “music making” and just start playing, that they truly impressed.

They were also quite impressive when their road-companion furry muppet monster took the stage to shake a leg for a few minutes. Seriously. Resembling the love child of Ludo (from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth) and Alf, this somewhat gimmicky dancer reinvigorated a slipping crowd as it grooved out to one of DM’s longer medleys.

And then a blood-curdling scream tore through the gut of every man, woman, and child in the room (though I don’t think there were any children). We looked around. Did that come from inside me? Was it behind me? Beneath me? Over there? Over here?

It was Alex Maas channeling his best “Live in Detroit” Jim Morrison. The Black Angels had risen. Before the wah-wah on the second chord had faded, it became crystal clear that The Black Angels were the true torchbearers of this movement. Former tenants of a haunted house outside Austin (memorialized in their hit “Haunting at 1300 McKinley”) and founders of the annual Austin Psych Fest (it’s like SXSW but better), these guys are the real thing. A phrase thrown around that night: “So fucking cool.”

Covering the psychedelic spectrum from the darker, bass-heavy songs off their debut album Passover to the more pop-inspired danceable hits from their latest effort, Phosphene Dream, The Black Angels showed true versatility marked by consistent quality.

Perhaps more sensational was the overall effect produced by the combination of their extraordinarily body-filling sound with the best damned light show this side of the Mississippi. The visceral imagery playing behind them was periodically punctuated by a pulse of blinding white light, often coinciding with a deep “Phoo!” from Maas. Somewhat paradoxically, the visual of the performance was so powerful that it managed to permeate closed eyelids. You heard the music with your sternum. You felt the sights with your whole face. It’s tempting to say the entire performance was other-worldly, but this would be misleading, for its true merit lay in how carnal and earthly it felt.

It’s said that the Velvet Underground (from whose track “Black Angel Death Song” the Black Angels get their name) only sold a few thousand records during their career, but everyone who bought one started a band. The Black Angels honor that legacy by continuing to inspire side projects, developing the grassroots movement Kille so hopes for, and that music today so badly needs.

The scene is set.