Apr 11, 2013

On the scene: Black Angels, Webster Hall, NYC, April 8 by Liz Maher

On a stage sprayed with galactic swirling lights, the Black Angels opened their Webster Hall 4/8/13 gig with the heralding humming vocals of Vikings from Directions To See A Ghost. “Gonna bommmb you tiiillll Tuuuessday” Was this a clarion call to psych the hoi polloi, or just an attempt to persuade NYU Carlyle Court sophomores to buy fanboy merchandise? Maybe both. All those distortion devices cost money, and the BAs have tons of them. God knows how they move about onstage without tripping on a Maestro Fuzz fuzz pedal, Big Muff or something-they do look like so many mousetraps after a few shots. The paradox is it now takes high-tech digital processors to recreate low tech psycho grunge – like playing in a $5 million garage.

BAs are psych rockers hailing from Austin, Texas. Forget Portlandia, Austin is America’s permanent college town; so no wonder they prefer everything distorted. Predictably, our little Bad Asses met in college about ten years ago, probably in a Sabine Equation study group, and parodying the old joke about a second date, a U-Haul and a 40 oz., all moved into the same house. The result was their own mini-psych cult/band which reincarnates the less frightening elements of those other Texas psych band of yore, the 13th Floor Elevators, and Billy Gibbons' old band, Moving Sidewalks, who in some quantum magic afterlife, actually have been reincarnated. This new jangle fuzz (I invented this genre: main guitar is a Rick!) group are hosting Psych Festival - Year 6 in Austin at the end of April just in time to be bombed into obliteration by North Korea’s Kim Jong Un where everyone can look up and like really dig those cool missiles and the sense of temporality they portend. How ironic this makes all their anti-war songs: After the last t-shirt is sold there will be eternal peace. Continued after the jump.

Vikings was followed by a set heavily peppered with songs off their latest release, Indigo Meadow. Hearing the new tracks live renders them more engaging: Here they condense the songs to avoid a Fish-like endless jam – like bad sex, feedback gets overwhelming after some point. Live the BAs twist, bend and layer sound in a helix around Stephanie Bailey’s ominous drum line – I can almost hear echoes of Mo Tucker’s sonarist percussion behind Nico’s hypnotic drone asking "vat kostumes shall ze pooor gurl wear." Don’t Play With Guns is pleasantly silly and Evil (a palindrome of live) less dull live (or played backwards). Telephone rings with 60's pop sentiment, very similar to their She's Not There Zombies' cover. Maas should cover Tom Jones’ Evil - just 'cause.

Pitchfork panned Indigo Meadow criticizing BAs for taking themselves too seriously and droning on and on. Not all bands can live up to Birthday Party’s Release the Bats and isn’t droning a BA branded sound? Droning makes the BAs the BAs. Maybe they just don’t fit into one of Bitchfork’s approved indie niches (until I, Elizabeth, invented jangle-fuzz).

Seriously, their new album grows on you like paisley moss on a stump vibrating with rot and
sprouting bioluminescent mushrooms. Indigo may not be BA's best album, but it serves BA’s need of creating an excuse to tour. As the sage said, sometimes you are the dog and sometimes you are the hydrant. You may be disappointed that Indigo Meadow is less ragga (there are several pedals for this as well as the old roach clips attached to the strings trick) and more rock/pop and think if they continue on this path, they will be the Vaccines in two-years time. The Vaccines are ok but one dose is enough, thank you. BAs are not quite there yet and now sound somewhat like Creed absent humbuckers. A darker Creed. Maybe the problem is Maas looking back to The Beatles (Love Me Doinstead of Helter Skelter?) for inspiration. Oh well, it’s not as if they’ve completely turned their backs on pysch and are touring with Florence and the Machine or anything.

Some complain psych bands “all work off the same template and become boring.” Yes, they do. It’s all part of the plan. Audiences need to be manipulated into submissive oblivion so the music is all the think or feel. BAs are a lot better at it than most though.

So what sets the BAs apart from your average acid bar band? Maas’ enormously rich voice, which he employs with precision to create tone and texture. He could sing psycho-babble (and according to B/Pitchfolk does) and sound profound. It’s not what you say but how you say it. There’s more to Maas than his huge voice. He is able to simultaneously play a tambourine, maracas, bass guitar and sing all warbelly-like, while coaxing sense-altering noises from a Farisa organ. Maas usually gets compared to Jim Morrison, which plays into his use of vibrato techniques as heard in Sniper at the Gates of Heaven and Better off Alone. To a degree Maas is similar disturbing hollow tone to Morrison but Maas’s voice has a distinct voice from the hills twang to it that is not as shrill as Neil Young's. This is unexpected and interesting in a psych band. He could just as easily be crooning Country Western in Memphis.

All other BAs play multiple instruments to a reasonable level of competency (all master tambourine players), meaning they don’t have to rely on speed, throbbing percussion or absurdity to be listenable. The angular Christian Bland stands out for his guitar work, constantly alternating between a Rickenbacker, Gretch Country Gentleman and a 12-string archtop hollowbody-All of which are linked up to a dashboard of pedals and vintage warping devices. Bland is also a pretty good singer, not as much range as Maas, but still reverberating with a dark undertone. His mic, of course, contributes to the trippy sound.

BAs excel at song progression, keeping tension dripping off the air and whirling toward hypnosis; however, lots of their newer songs sound similar to each other, especially live. Mindless monotony could be part of their intention to pull you in and force a disconcerting relaxation, an effect similar to smoking indica through a gas-mask bong. True, the drums do sometimes just pound. Bailey could be replaced by a drum machine. Couldn't we all?

The show lacked sitar. I was really hoping for sitar, having missed Jivamukti class to attend the show. BAs music is perfect for yoga, especially an inversion class. Much better than MC Yogi. To make up for it, Webster blew a stingy amount of fog from the balcony.

The audience seemed entranced by the BA’s trance-y, dance-y show, cheering the new songs and requesting old favorites. There were lots of long hairs sporting Maas inspired facial hair, some even going into ZZ Top territory.

I Hear Colors did not make me hear colors but Bad Vibrations with its heavy reverb foreboding drum and vocals accompanied by the light show made me shiver.

Highlights included Vikings (though a little too cut), Entrance Song, Indigo Meadow, You On the Run, Yellow Elevator #2 and Bad Vibrations.

Elephant Stone and Allah Las opened for the BAs.

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