Groove is in the heart 

The brain-bending Black Angels dive into death and distant eras

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Black Angels

with Black Mountain
9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13
The Social, 407-246-1419
www.thesocial.org
$15

When it comes to the art on the Black Angels’ full-length records, one can, it turns out, judge a book by its cover. Endlessly reverberating fragments of letters turn the front of Passover, the Austin, Tex., psych rockers’ 2006 debut, into a trippy, impossibly thick black and white maze. Directions to See a Ghost, the band’s 2008 release, depicts five expanding green rings set against a red background with the band name and album title almost hidden in the blocks of green. The image on last September’s release, Phosphene Dream, shows blue lines curving in convex patterns over another red canvas with the resulting center resembling a hot air balloon. Like the music contained within, each optical illusion is unmistakably psychedelic.

The aesthetic union between art and music was intentional on the part of the Black Angels. “You pick up the record and you would understand what is inside,” says vocalist Alex Maas. “If you’d listen to the record, the outside will reflect the inside, too.” At a time when music thrives in digital form, it’s an affectionately old-school approach to album art.

Then again, the Black Angels have always been smitten with bygone eras. Maas talks about ’60s and ’70s music with the excitement of someone who witnessed psychedelic rock’s rise as it happened, even though he is too young for that. The Beatles, the Zombies and the 13th Floor Elevators are his touchstones. He and Angels’ guitarist Christian Bland grew up in Houston with “a great oldies station” that played psychedelic music. “We were pretty lucky to live there for that reason,” says Maas. Most revered is the Velvet Underground, whom the Angels hold in lofty regard. The Velvets wrote a song that inspired the Angels’ moniker (“The Black Angel’s Death Song”), collaborated with a vocalist whose visage sits in the Angels’ logo (Nico) and, as Maas recalls, they served as the primary sonic inspiration for his band.

Stylistically, the Black Angels also share much with the Doors, with both bands utilizing ominous, mystical vocals and song structures that swing between looming and fiery. Lyrically, both have spent a lot of time breaking on through to the other side (or at least trying to). The Angels’ sinister name represents their infatuation with mortality; in a telling detail, their most-played song on Last.fm, the listening aggregation site, is called “Young Men Dead.” Of the subject’s appeal, Maas says, “Death is always surrounding everybody. It’s the unknown. No matter how hard you try to explain it, you’re never going to get close to the truth.”

Phosphene Dream delves into this idea at several key moments, with “River of Blood” serving as its most spectacular display. Anchored in anxious amounts of distortion, a grim buildup loosens into a storm of menacing guitars and warped organs. It’s a war narrative and a foreboding metaphor for both the inevitability of death and mankind’s taste for self-destruction. “Superkilling rings headed for me / You’re too damn human, darlin’,” Maas warns, with a halo of hopelessness cloaking his voice.

“A lot of political, religious problems happening in the world all lead to a river of blood,” says Maas. “When I was writing this song, I pictured people sitting on this river waiting for help. In reality, they’re just sitting ducks waiting to get demolished by the enemy.”

Although not every Phosphene track is concerned with death (“Entrance Song” is about hitting the highways), the Angels inevitably return to this idea. The lyrical hook of “Telephone,” the record’s most promoted song, signifies its mundane concerns (“You never call my name on the telephone”), but even that closes in morbid fashion. “You make me sick inside / You make me wanna die,” Maas sings. Death is always lurking in the Black Angels’ psychedelic underworld.

Like punk for others, psychedelic is more than just a genre for the band. Maas frequently expounds on the nebulous idea of psychedelia and its importance. Despite his vocal love for many baby boomer bands, the psychedelic spirit didn’t die with the past. His praise for contemporary psych groups like Clinic, Psychic Ills and the Brian Jonestown Massacre symbolizes the vitality that still exists in an old thread.

“Those bands are totally just as good as any band back then. I don’t think that you have to be from the ’60s to make badass psychedelic music,” says Maas. “You don’t have to do drugs. You just have to understand the concept.”

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