Two years ago, I was given a spectacular gift. You see, another Treble writer had written up the Black Angels’ debut album for another magazine. Instead of reviewing the same album twice, when once can sometimes be hard enough, he recommended that I take a listen. The resulting experience I had with Passover was beyond comprehension. Most music writers and critics will tell you that the best part of the job is being introduced to great new music. The problem is, once you find yourself in the middle of a vast ocean of records vying for your attention, it’s hard to know where the shore of newfound greatness really is. That’s why the recommendation was so valuable to me. I was handed this exciting new band on a platter, and I consumed it with an all-encompassing glee.
Two years later, here we are with the sophomore release from Austin, Texas’ Black Angels, a name that sounds more like a biker gang than a band, and they’re just as menacing. The Black Angels are no longer in the territory that elicits words and phrases like `debut album,’ `newcomers,’ or `best new band.’ The honeymoon is over, and now the ’60s throwback sludge band is faced with the dreaded alliteration of the `sophomore slump.’ Bands can avoid that fate in one of two ways. They can take cues from Radiohead and experiment with every successive album while still holding onto a core of solid songwriting, or they can, like Primus, just follow the same blueprint that got you noticed in the first place. The Black Angels fall squarely into the latter camp as Directions to See a Ghost, while not necessarily an exact carbon copy of their debut, is at least grounded in the same swampy psychedelic miasma.
To be fair, there are subtle differences in repeated listens. Alex Maas’ voice is even more pronouncedly Grace Slick-like, which can be a bit eerie. Guitars sometimes break out of the droning slurry to great effect, as in the near-epic “Never / Ever.” And, is that an electric jug I hear in the song? Has someone been influenced by the 13th Floor Elevators? Well, of course they have. How can you be an up and coming band in Austin and not be influenced by Roky Erickson or Tommy Hall’s electric jug? I mention that “Never / Ever” is `near-epic’ due in large part to the sixteen minute plus closer, “Snake in the Grass,” an intensely long psych-freak-out that is more likely to send you over the edge with the aid of hallucinogens than to be enhanced by them. Some of those final songs are the most interesting and slightly more experimental, such as “The Return,” sounding like it might be a different vocalist while guitars take more solo turns, and sitars join in.
The Black Angels have never tried to skirt their influences the way some bands usually do. That’s part of their charm. Then again, it’s pretty tough to avoid the Velvet Underground comparisons when the band’s name is taken from one of their songs, and their stylized logo is a picture of Nico. But, they shouldn’t have to avoid the comparisons. Their point, well taken, is that bands like VU, Jefferson Airplane and the 13th Floor Elevators, though now relatively famous, are still somewhat underappreciated, and that genre of music can still be mined. One listen to “Mission District” and you’re transported to that place and time without taking off your headphones. Yes, Directions to See a Ghost does exactly what its title suggests, it’s a map, or possibly a time machine, into a realm where the specters of psychedelic rock still jam on a daily basis. It appears that the Black Angels really did hear what the dormouse said…
The 13th Floor Elevators – The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
Jefferson Airplane – Live at the Fillmore East