In 2004, just as Austin, Texas emerged as the mecca of indie music, a new band formed that would change the landscape. Taking their name from Velvet Underground’s underrated classic hit, “The Black Angels’ Death Song”, The Black Angels built a cult reputation for their stoner-heavy, ’70s-inspired, psychedelic-garage rock before breaking through in 2010 with Phosphene Dream. Pulverizing is the best way to describe their music.
As the five-piece enter their second decade, they have earned the recognition as one of the genre’s most influential bands. Each of their EPs and LPs are mind-blowing epics, often taking us to delirium and back. Now with their latest record, they have come full circle and then some. Death Song, The Black Angels’ fifth full-length album, is their most epic and complete compilation, and one that takes them to the lofty levels of the legends they idolized.
Death Song is first and foremost a protest album, but unlike any previously recorded. It is a bleak, foreboding, immensely dense effort. While some tracks have the straightforward style of the protest songs of the ’60s and ’70s, much of The Black Angels’ messages are enshrouded in allegory. As such, Death Song is not merely a return to the band’s sonic beginnings, but the pinnacle of their songwriting craft, highlighted by the holy trinity of songs that kick off the album.
The opener “Currency” is a heavy, dark, and hypnotic number with some menacing guitar work. The song takes on the establishment and its emphasis on greed, wealth, and individualism. Currency, however, isn’t limited to print money, but also human capital – where we are slaves of the 9-to-5 routine. “I’d Kill for Her” is psych-rock perfection of trippy, hazy, and filled with fiery guitars, a surging rhythm section and frontman Alex Maas’ whirling vocals. The song’s doom-and-gloom vibe perfectly complements the story. At first, the track comes across as telling the tale of a man who proclaims he won’t kill for the woman he loves. Listen closely, however, and The Black Angels have written a protest song that perfectly fits this time when some wish to wage a war on innocent people.
The album’s centerpiece, though, is “Half Believing”, which is unlike anything the band has delivered. The Black Angels slow things down considerably and offer a darkly suspenseful number. It’s not so much a face melter as it is a spell-binding, psychological experience. The first four lines of the song just grab you and hold your attention:
I will die for things that mean so much to me.
If you take them, you better watch out.
So when she came to me, I was so in love that
I’m half believing, half suspicious.
Whether this song is about the disintegration of a relationship or even the decaying trust between people and their government, The Black Angels won’t say. One thing, however, is clear – “Half Believing” is the band’s masterpiece and one of the best songs of the year.
Beyond the opening trio are tracks that would be among the very best of any other album. “Comanche Moon” is a bone-crushing, sonic delight that ebbs and flows like a roller coaster. The scorching ending is mind-blowing, reflecting the damage done to Native Americans for centuries, including today with what has occurred at Standing Rock in North Dakota. The hypnotic, percussion-driven “Estimate” takes a similar thematic approach, telling of how the water has become poisoned and the children have been taken away. These are stories that must be heard.
The encroachment upon our private lives is the focus of the head-throbbing, Zeppelin-esque “Hunt Me Down.” The whirling “Medicine”, meanwhile, speaks to the rise of pharmaceuticals and our dependence on drugs, and it provides the perfect segue to “Death March”. The latter is a slow-building tune that is pure psychedelic delirium, making you feel like you have fallen deep into the rabbit hole. However, this place offers no second chances, as we’re paraded to our final resting place by the puppet master.
The finale, “Life Song”, sounds like the beautiful daughter of Radiohead’s “Let Down” and David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity”. This six-plus minute epic is dazzling and even breathtaking. Instead of taking us deep inside our psyche, The Black Angels transport us to the cosmos – or maybe this is the afterlife. Wherever we are, the psych-garage masters have guided us to a place that is unrecognizable, where everything has been lost, and we only stand alone. Just like Major Tom, we are floating away to our final destination.
For The Black Angels, though, Death Song feels like a new chapter and the start of something remarkable. It is their The Velvet Underground & Nico, OK Computer, and Joshua Tree. In other words, Death Song is their grand achievement, a pulverizing work of grand art. It is unquestionably one of the best albums of the year so far.
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