When I turned on the radio last winter and first heard the Black Angels' song "Manipulation" from their eponymous 2005 EP, I was convinced that KEXP DJ Cheryl Waters had just unearthed some previously unreleased B-sides from Spiritualized's sessions for their 1992 masterwork Lazer Guided Melodies. The otherworldly guitar tones and drugged-out drone echoed that record's sensual, ghostly appeal, but with a grittier, Velvet Underground–like edge and dustier psychedelic undertones that made it sound like a raw-throated Jason Pierce channeling Lou Reed and Jim Morrison on a peyote-fueled road trip—complete with the dichotomies and conflicts that would come with such an unholy union. When Waters came back on air and announced that the song was by an Austin, Texas–based band who took their name from the Velvet Underground's "Black Angel's Death Song," she predicted that their forthcoming full-length record, which was due out on Seattle's Light in the Attic Records in spring 2006, had the potential to "make them seriously huge."
"Huge" might be too strong an adjective to describe the Black Angels' current status, but judging by their meteoric rise since Passover dropped in April, that description could be apt in mere months. Tickets for Monday's Chop Suey show have been sold out for weeks (those of you without tickets, fear not—they'll return July 29 to play the Capitol Hill Block Party), and the reviews for the band's proper debut were almost uniformly frothy—from Village Voice to Spin. For a band that's a mere 2 years old, vocalist Alex Maas, singer/guitarist Christian Bland, drummer Stephanie Bailey, "drone manipulator" Jennifer Raines, bassist/guitarist Nate Ryan, and multitasking member (and Passover coengineer) Kyle Hunt (keyboards, percussion, bass, guitar) are enjoying an extraordinary level of success. What's more, though they've all played briefly in a handful of other projects around Houston and Austin, this is for all intents and purposes, their first working band.
The Black Angels' rapid development is based both on the sheer weight of the band's material and the risk-taking endeavors of Light in the Attic, a label known primarily for its reissues of eclectic pop, funk, and psychedelic artists from years gone by—not new rock bands. "A good friend gave [the label] a three-song demo, which included 'Black Grease,' 'Manipulation,' and a track called 'Black Angels' Exit,' which really intrigued us, but has never been released," explains label co-owner Matt Sullivan. "We enjoyed what we heard, flew down to Austin, and ended up seeing them play live. We didn't want to jump into anything—this was going to be our first new rock band signing—but it was something we enjoyed from the get-go, so we did it. And we're very happy we did so; it's off to a great start."
Chatting via cell phone while the band's tour van is crossing the Canadian border for a show in Montreal, Hunt describes the recording process at Austin's Cacophony analog studio—no small factor in the album's warm, full sound. "We did it all on two-inch tape and mixed it down to half-inch," he explains. "We also played around a lot with old equipment there—vintage Farfisa organs, old Fender and Sun amps... As far as preproduction, the band pretty much had their shit together—you can basically say it was a live record."
Fittingly enough, it's in a live setting that the band truly comes alive. Projections of eerie, grainy black-and-white film footage provide the backdrop for the band's frenzied and frequent instrument swapping. The sheer volume the Black Angels generate onstage means the audience is essentially surrounded by the whole swirling, sexually sinister vibe. Trance inducing? Sure, but even more importantly, intensely unpredictable and full of contradictions, both in tone and vision: There's plenty of dread in their dirge, but it's not without a sense of humanity and melody. This degree of contrast could easily get messy or misguided in less disciplined hands; so much of the grounding force is in the music's simplicity. Stripped down to their individual tracks, the songs are of minimalist design—it's the meticulous layering that creates that seductive wall of sound. "It's true," says Hunt. "Each of those tracks by themselves is a different song—it's not until it's all layered up that you get that texture."firstname.lastname@example.org