The song "Half Believing" off The Black Angels' new album Death Song sounds like a love song, sung to someone you want to trust but can't. But it's not exactly being sung to another person. "World, you make me nervous," lead vocalist Alex Maas sings, turning the rack into something stranger, almost a hymn, hovering between the gnostic and agnostic. Speaking over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas, Maas explains it's both, and more.
"It is a love song. It's a love song between us and the world, and our relationships in between, and the fear of the unknown and how that correlates and translates with relationships and other phenomena. It is a love song about the love of humanity and where we're headed," he says with a faint Texas accent. He says it's also, more simply, "questioning what the fuck is going on[...] In my mind it's all intertwined."
By "what the fuck is going on," Maas means a lot of different things. Death Song, the band's sixth album, is in many ways their most political record since their 2006 debut LP Passover. Some of the songs deal with very specific questions about what, indeed, is going on, but almost always with an eye on a bigger, historical picture, with a darkly spiritual tinge. "Currency," for example, is specifically about the US monetary system, which Maas describes as a "mirage."
"It's a bunch of smoke and mirrors between the Treasury and the Fed and the people putting money into this kind of Ponzi scheme," he says. Maas compares the song to The Beatles's "Taxman," and, to be sure, he is building on a sturdy tradition of rock 'n' roll songs about the yoke and facade of money. Still, when Maas wails "Someday, it will all be gone," the drama of the moment conveys a sense that he is getting at something deeper than our estrangement from the gold standard.
A lot of Death Song is like that. There are tracks, like "Half Believing" or "I'd Kill for Her," with simple stories, like power dynamics between two people, but they could also be about something larger and murkier. "I'd Kill for Her" could be about a relationship, but it could also be about the horror of blindly following orders and the atrocity of war—or both of those things at the same time. Maas describes this layered, quantum meaning in the songs as "double or triple speak"—a kind of semantic reverb. The soft-spoken vocalist doesn't relish discussing the lyrics to his songs. He's affable and verbose on the phone, but sometimes it seems like it's only because that's the most polite way to avoid giving definitive answers.
If it's a dodge, he may be right to do so. Explaining too much could ruin things. Part of the trip of listening to The Black Angels is that, while you can understand generally where they are coming from, there is always something that slips through your fingers, some part of the song that fades like an apparition if you try to pin it down. That much isn't new for them on Death Song and neither are its main themes: fear, violence, the intimate connections between the two, and the mystery of what comes after this life. Along with the album's secondary themes of greed and corruption, violence, from police brutality to hate crimes to sexual assault and mass shootings, is very much in the news, but our interview doesn't broach specific events. Maas doesn't refer to Syria, the DAPL pipeline, or even Donald Trump. He's determinedly fixed on underlying causes.
There is a wisdom in that long view, and it contributes to the feeling of a circle completing itself on Death Song, something that ties back to their body of work at large. It goes beyond the origins of the psych band's name, taken from The Velvet Underground's "The Black Angel's Death Song." It's also because this album, their first since passing the ten-year mark as a band, is their most in-depth treatment of the themes they've been best at since the beginning. Death Song isn't just about violence—it's about much of what gives rise to it: love, home, family, and anything we fight and kill for.
When The Black Angels debuted in 2005 with their self-titled EP, the United States was three years deep into the fog of the Iraq War, and the death toll for U.S. troops had passed 1,500. The following year, they would release Passover, a full-length of grimy, bluesy rock conveying a war-weary spirit through bloodshot-eyed, anti-war songs like "Second Vietnam War." Everything on the record sounds shrouded in black soot. Their subsequent three records slowly expanded that feel into a broader array of themes and colors, but they never abandoned grim social commentary. "Broken Soldier," off 2013's Indigo Meadow, is about the terrible physical and mental toll that war takes on veterans lives, but then there's "I Hear Colors (Chromaesthesia)," off the same release, which is about what you think it's about.
After Passover, the band explored some of the lighter avenues in psychedelia, 2010's Phosphene Dream even had some moments that leaned toward the tunefulness of the Beatles, and, as the title suggests, took inspiration from the colorful visuals that are sometimes part of an experience with psychedelic drugs. Death Song, by contrast, feels colored in stark blacks and whites, cold as an old photo and ethereal as the smoke of a funeral pyre. Maas acknowledges a return to the dark, dangerous sound of Passover, to "flashes of chaos" on the record, and a feeling of "something being very wrong in the world," but he says it wasn't intentional. It was something he noticed once he had time to step back from the record.
Album cut "Comanche Moon" takes a risky leap—one that Maas acknowledges. The track re-examines the historical image of the ruthless Comanche warriors, inhabiting the perspective of a member of the Comanche tribe from the time of the Indian Wars when the Comanches gained their reputation for incredible violence by fiercely resisting the U.S. Army, Texas Rangers and the encroachment of white settlers on the great plains. Maas could be faulted for speaking for the experience of another group of people, but his purpose is to humanize a figure who has often been dehumanized in tellings of US history. The protagonist in the song is desperate and exhausted. He has lost everything. "People do wild things to protect their land and protect their ideas and home and family," Maas says.
It's not the first time the band has referenced Native American history in their songs and there are parallels to Native American music in drummer Stephanie Bailey's thumping back beats and Maas's wailing vocal lines, the group's droney tendencies owing as much to pow pow music as they do to John Cale. Maas confesses to an "infatuation" with Native American cultures, something else that there is a longstanding tradition of in rock 'n' roll. It's a tradition that has often walked a line between real respect for indigenous people and a misguided identification with the romantic image of the "noble savage."
Maas's intention in approaching Native American themes is one of respect and is at least firmly rooted in an awareness of the tragedy of Native American genocide. "I think this follows the same thematic line of something that continues to happen. When territories are being drawn and lines are being drawn and walls are being put up and people's land is being taken from them. This is a theme throughout history, that has been a problem since the dawn of mankind. We're relating to it on a more current level," he says of "Comanche Moon."
"It wasn't so long ago, you know, Western Expansion," he continues. "It wasn't that long ago that these insane atrocities happened to the people that used to live here and now we live on their land and just sent them off to live on a reservation and just kind of shoved them to the side and it's really fucked up and sad. I'm not saying anything new here but it's an issue and it always will be an issue because of our willingness to exploit and take over in our search for power. Again, it's all intertwined with what's happening in the world."
Maas writes most of the lyrics, and so has a strong influence on the overt themes in The Black Angels' music, but guitarist Christian Bland is the quintet's poet of reverb. The instrumentalist is more laconic than Maas, with a more pronounced Texan accent. He's most forthcoming when it comes to concrete subjects, such as the album's sonics. He is plainly delighted to share that some of the album's eerie quality and complex texture comes from his recently acquired Mellotron. The vintage synthesizer plays a major role in the experience, with its quavering, decidedly analog sound all over the album. "I think Mellotron is one of the spookiest sounding instruments, so I think it added a haunted feel to the record," he says.
This new album is another mile marker in the friendship between Maas and Bland that stretches back to their childhoods growing up outside Houston. Bland's father was a pastor, while Maas's parents ran a nursery, 12 verdant acres crowded with curios from around the world and home to a wallaby, among other animals. They reconnected after college, as young men living in Austin, and decided to get a band together. Bland had come to Austin chiefly to seek out fellow musicians and, almost unbelievably, with the intention to continue the legacy of psychedelic rock in Austin. It's unbelievable because that's exactly what they have done. The band's ensuing success includes a gig as the touring band for Austin psych legend Roky Erickson (one of their great inspirations), founding the acclaimed Austin Psych Fest (now named Levitation), and a break out moment when they hit the top 50 on the Billboard charts and Late Night with David Letterman with Phosphene Dream. (Their subsequent albums have charted as well.)
Today, The Black Angels are local fixtures in Austin, part of the last bulwark keeping Austin weird and on their way to becoming legends themselves. They're also prime movers in the modern psych scene, for which Levitation Festival has provided a global focal point. More than 10,000 people attended the festival in 2015, which was headlined by The 13th Floor Elevators, The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. It's a source of great pride for Bland. "We've seen the growth of the festival and the band together," he says.
A latter-day psych rock underground has been growing with it, with festivals dedicated to mind-altering music blooming like mushrooms from Liverpool to Santiago de Chile. Bland comments on the flowing of the current scene by saying with wonder, "I think things are kind of cyclical. In the '60s a lot of rebellion was what was going on. I think it's come full circle and that kind of situation is going on again. I think there's a lot of creativity that comes out of rebellious times. And this kind of scene is all about that. And over the past few years it's been growing and growing. Hopefully, it keeps growing at a steady rate." Levitation is on hiatus right now due to safety concerns related to flooding, but it is scheduled to return in 2018.
Though Death Song is the Angels' most politically outspoken album since Passover, all the songs were written before this election cycle. "It's not like this was written just because Trump came into power or anything," Bland says, pointing out that they started writing the songs in 2014. That their most protest oriented album in ten years should come out at this moment Bland guesses is "just good timing."
Maas is characteristically mystical on the subject of the album's timing: "This is going to sound really silly, but I don't always know who is in control of art, or the arts. Is it the person making the art; is the art in control; is it the world? What's actually the catalyst for this art? I rarely know." This suggestion, that he and his bandmates were essentially responding to heavy clouds that have been gathering in the atmosphere for some time, is as close as admission as you'll get from Maas that the band is commenting on current events, such as, say, a crypto-fascist coming to power in the United States.
Both musicians describe a fluid and intuitive style of writing music together, a process they don't try too hard to control. "I guess it just kind of comes out," Bland say of their music. "We channel something and that's what comes through us when the five of us get together. There's really no explanation. All the Black Angels, I think we're all relatively happy people. I guess the music is our catharsis of evil, maybe." Just happy people plucking dark visions from the ether. That's their story, and they're sticking to it.
Beverly Bryan is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.