Things that jump out at you after roughly 80 minutes of tuneful squall and fuzz, courtesy of Austin psych rockers The Black Angels: They like to write about death, suffering and dying. A lot.
It’s no great revelation that the darker side of life and the afterlife make up a large piece of the quintet’s subject matter, especially since we’re more than a decade and six albums into their career. But piecing back through lyrics scribbles in a notebook during the band’s “Austin City Limits” taping on Tuesday, it’s startling to see the many and varied ways singer Alex Maas explores the macabre.
Sentiments such as “killing my children,” or being “too afraid to die” marry up to Maas telling a lover they “always let me down,” but he’d “kill for her,” or a protagonist who “goes looking for a fight” nestled in the band’s fields of reverb and distortion and rather amazingly have helped them build a frothy international fan base. So much so that they’ve become something of a flagpole band for the 21st century pysch revival that saw them launch the Austin Psych/Levitation Fest and spawn sibling events overseas.
So how do they do it? At Tuesday’s taping one got the effect of soundscapes that were at times powerful enough to potentially induce vertigo, with guitarists Christian Bland and Jake Garcia creating sonic phase shifts by layering patterns that never managed to quite mimic each other, with the new “Comanche Moon” standing out as a great example. Over the course of the show the band created the aural equivalent of floating above a chasm and then plummeting downward, or having large objects racing forward and stopping a second before impact.
A note needs to be made about the importance of the band’s background visuals on a pair of video screens – lots of color shifting, bubbling, warped test patterns and such — to contribute to this effect, with sight and sound melding without overshadowing the players on the stage.
And credit also to Maas for finding the spots where his vocals work best as withdrawn incantations over waves of drone, and then adding punch to get the point across when the lyrics need to take center stage. This was clear with set opener and recent single “Currency,” where Maas pilloried our capitalism-above-all-else society with lines like “Print and print the money that you spend; spend and spend the money that you print then.”
Smart changes of pace came on songs like “Half Believing,” which saw Garcia alone on guitar and Bland on a vintage keyboard for a comparatively stripped-down sound, or the encore-opening march that gave drummer Stephanie Bailey one of her biggest spotlights of the night.
It was in those moments when the band let flashes of color and a little light and love escape from the darkness that they’ve become so adept at crafting.