Full disclosure: psychedelic music isn’t my thing. No offense to the genre, but my appreciation is closer to respect than enjoyment. Something about freeform, meandering soundscapes clashes with my drum line, percussion ensemble upbringing. In the correct headspace, it can be beautiful, but it’s not something I blast in my car during my evening commute.
Or so I thought. By taking the evocative expressiveness of traditional psychedelic music and trapping it in a barbed wire cage of aggressive hard rock, Austin’s The Black Angels have created a unique sound. Their May 23 taping for the 43rd season of Austin City Limits on KLRU-TV was a celebration of a new record and 13 years of rocking out.
The majority of the band’s ACL taping was dedicated to their latest record, “Death Song.” Like the album, the set opened with “Currency.” The Moody Theater transformed into a dark and foreboding graveyard of southern rock guitar growl and hi-fi cymbals. Slow and persistent at the start, “Currency” grows into giant drums and matching guitar/bass leads.
During their 16-song set, The Black Angels played all 11 tracks from the new record. Highlights included the haunting slow burn “Half Believing,” and “Comanche Moon,” an exceptional blend of sublime harmonies and ear-piercing hard rock scream. “I Dreamt,” a personal favorite, ups the tempo with a slick funk backbeat that slips underneath echoing guitars and synth harmonies. Lead singer Alex Mass’ desperate cries to an unnamed love of “live inside your dream, come inside with me” resonates with feeling.
Much of “Death Song” smacks of dreams and nightmares, all bound together with driving drums, howling guitar fuzz, and keyboard trickery. Behind the band during the taping, a towering screen played everything from eye candy colorscapes to abstract images. “Medicine” kept things simple with static fuzz, a stark contrast to the song’s driving, quarter-note thump, danceable bass line, and sing-a-long hook.
Bringing Back the Classics
But the set didn’t end with the new record. After the opening, The Black Angels launched into a handful of well-known songs. “The Prodigal Sun” and “Better Off Alone” from their first album, “Passover” (2006), showcased what the band does best: combine 70’s-era head music with evocative lyrics and pounding rhythm.
The third song in the opening trifecta was “Entrance Song” off “Phosphene Dream” (2010). Packed with Austin highway references and Southern rock guitar drawl, the song paints the picture of a moonlit cruise down I-35 towards an uncertain and potentially destructive destination. The band also performed the urgent and musically varied “Bloodhounds On My Trail” to the delight of the well-attended ACL crowd.
Closing Out a Sensational Set
After closing the main set with “Life Song,” a spacey, haunting piece pulsing with meandering imagery and keyboard swells, the band retuned for a three-song encore. Backed by the bizarre image of a backflipping high diver, “Estimate” flooded the crowd with militant drum smacks and political commentary, while “Death March” gracefully rode the line between spacey jam and “Sons of Anarchy” snarl.
The Black Angels closed with fan favorite, “Young Man Dead.” Up until then, the crowd was grooving yet subdued. When the song’s opening bass line hit their ears, they exploded. Framed like a forgotten Doors song, “Young Man Dead” finished the taping by filling the Moody with an immense wall of sound.
Before the set, I chatted with a pair of old school fans. They raved about past ACL performances, Austin Psych Fest (now named Levitation), and the beauty of The Black Angels’ music. When I told them this was my first live experience, the couple flashed me a smile that said, “You’re in for a treat.”
Indeed, I was. By combining the expressiveness of psychedelic music with hard rock aggression, The Black Angels made me a believer in a genre I’ve often ignored. Maybe the next time I’m cruising down I-35 in the middle of the night, I’ll flip on “Entrance Song” and let the music speed me towards my destination. Congrats, fellas. You’ve created a new fan.
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
What has been your favorite Austin City Limits taping?