The Upstairs room of the Middle East in Cambridge, MA packs 194 people into a cavernous, knotty space. Nuance is probably wishful thinking; those caverns and angular wall partitions usually mean unforgiving acoustics and a half-day’s worth of tinnitus for those without earplugs.
But when the Black Angels headlined there this past April, the room served almost as a seventh band member: enhancement for that lurking guitar drone that turns their songs into blissfully psychedelic sensory overload, gauzy blues, and industrial-edgy shoegaze. What about all that critical posturing about the Black Angels turning “drone into an art form”? It’s one hundred percent accurate.
The Black Angels’ 2006 album Passover is already one of the great psychedelic albums of the era, and at the Middle East–and some weeks later at Dan’s Silver Leaf in Denton, TX, closer to their Austin homebase, on an off night from a business trip—I happily drank the proverbial kool-aid.
Six months later, the images and sounds are still fresh: lead vocalist Alex Maas front-and-center under low lighting, torturing his vowels; a request from onstage for the lighting tech to bathe the band in moody reds; that tidal wave of guitars, sometimes two, sometimes three; the synergy of rumbling bass and Stephanie Bailey’s impassioned drumwork; restless howlers like “Black Grease” and “The First Vietnamese War” that sprawled and clawed until they either collapsed into oblivion or phased toward a more natural conclusion; and a take on “I Wanna Be Your Dog” sung by bassist Nate Ryan, which I thought sounded phlegmy at the time but woke up the next morning thinking was a perfect choice.
“The vision for the band had always been a gang taking over the stage,” Ryan said in a recent interview. “Lots of simple parts that open up and create this landscape of sound. Most people in the band play lots of instruments, and who does what varies from song to song. The center of our band is the rhythm—those driving, primal rhythms.”
Infectious, undoubtedly, and if the band finally landed in 2006, it’s shored up that critical acclaim with an expanding fanbase in 2007, and is already preparing for a bigger 2008.
The group began in May 2004 as a union of guitarist Christian Bland and vocalist Maas, who soon found their anchor in drummer/percussionist Bailey. They remain unabashed about their Velvet Underground influence—their name, for one, and that stylized, extrapolated image of Nico in their band logo—and Ryan doesn’t seem to bristle at mention of the 13th Floor Elevators, Spacemen 3, or any other psyche-rock forebear.
Keyboardist Jennifer Raines, who also mans the drone machine, came next, and Ryan was aboard shortly after seeing the band toward the end of their inaugural year, at a show at Beerland, a rock club in Austin.
“I like the dirty, simple landscapes of sound, and lots of symbolism in the music, and with them it seemed like this perfect matching of ideas,” Ryan said of his initial collaborations with Maas and Bland. “The sound overall was something we arrived on. It’s a simple sound, really, and doesn’t have to be flashy or complicated as long as it feels good.”
The last addition was multi-instrumentalist Kyle Hunt, to Ryan the band’s “utility man,” who plays keyboards, percussion, bass, and guitar. Hunt had assisted the band with recordings already, and live, especially, the Angels needed to make sure all parts were fleshed out with everyone switching instruments so often.
Among the band’s recent highlights are a string of dates opening for Queens of the Stone Age, followed by spot headlining shows in many of the rooms to which it’s is already accustomed, including both the Middle East in Boston and New York’s Bowery Ballroom, this past November.
“I’m not exactly sure of the details—our manager had a little bit to do with that—but I know there was interest expressed when they needed an opening touring act,” Ryan said of the QOTSA pairing. “I’m happy about it—it’s a good opportunity for us.”
“Opening act slots are admittedly a mixed blessing,” Ryan says. “On one hand, the exposure is great, especially with the low-to-mid-thousands capacities they’ll get through Queens of the Stone Age. But so much of the Black Angels’ mojo depends on being unhurried and giving the music space to breathe heavily and spread as long as it needs to—obviously, a work aesthetic that can’t be wrapped tidily into a 30-45 minute set.”
“We definitely play a different set than a headlining show would get,” Ryan admits. “We stick to the shorter Passover songs and try to get enough in there to leave an impression with people, because for many [in this crowd], we get one chance at it.”
Outside of the U.S. tours, the band is busy cultivating its presence in Europe. “The bounceback of influence between Europe and the States was big in the 60s, and thee’s definitely some of that alive, still,” Ryan says. “Just the fact that there’s people out there wearing our shirts and singing our lyrics so far from home is pretty amazing.”
And yes, a new album, that Ryan promised is coming within the year. There might be an EP, too—he reports the band has enough new material for two discs.
“We spent more time, this time, and I’d say we’re experimenting with different sounds,” he offers. “We got the basic live tracks down, but then we wanted to spend more time making space and different effects. There are going to be longer songs—we’ve got one that’s 15 minutes long and a few that are 10 minutes—though we’re staying with certain other sounds [we have already] as well.”