Upon listening to Austin, Texas’ the Black Angels for the first time, I was reminded of when ‘Chef’ (Frederic Forrest) went foraging for mangoes in the jungle and came across a charging tiger in the film Apocalypse Now. He goes running back to his fellow soldiers, repeating, “Never get out of the boat.” So who is who in this scenario? Am I ‘Chef,’ shocked, scared and surprised by the tiger, who in this case is the Black Angels, left to mutter to myself in retreat? Are the Black Angels the living manifestation of the jungle, with their music masquerading as a primal animal? Are they the soldiers on the boat, there to enlighten, terrify and ultimately comfort me while telling tales of the jungle and its environs? The ultimate answer is that it is all of these scenarios and more. Maybe once a year a band so captivates its audience that they can almost talk of nothing else for weeks on end. For some in 2005, that band was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. This year, that honor goes to their tourmates, the Black Angels, and their spectacular debut album, Passover.
It should be no surprise that the Black Angels share something sonically with the Velvet Underground. After all, they took their name from the VU song, “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” So too would it be easy to then tack on mentions of various bands that also worship at the altar of Reed and Cale, bands like the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The problem with these comparisons is that they don’t even come close to capturing the competing sensations of nearly blinding vertigo and outright overwhelming menace that come from the music of the Black Angels. Alex Maas’ vocals can sound as if Ian Curtis were fronting the Cult, covering songs by Jefferson Airplane. Stephanie Bailey, playing the part of Mo Tucker, absolutely dominates her drum set, pounding out primordial rhythms to accompany Jennifer Raines’ murky and atmospheric droning keys. Alex, Christian Bland and Nate Ryan share guitar and bass duties, with the guitars alternately swirling in a dizzyingly psychedelic manner and buzzing with kinetic energy while the bass has an identity crisis, thinking it is one of the guitars, and to great effect.
This sludgy and swampy album is absolutely intense. First of all, the name of the album is taken from Exodus 12:12-13, in which God claims that he’ll kill every first born son of Egypt save those who put the blood of a sacrificed lamb on their doorways. Of course, that’s where the Jewish holiday was born, but the image is stark and terrifying. But the Angels, unlike God, spare no one from their fantastic aural assault. Quite a few of the songs have to do with war, with the ’60s feel emphasizing the correlation and repeat of history between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. The Angels go so far as to call a track, one of the most compelling on the album, “The First Vietnamese War.” Through their politically charged lyrics, they also provide ample fodder to the reason that the Vietnamese call the event, “The American War,” and frankly the idea that not many of us would argue that mayhap the Iraqis are using the same term. As such, it becomes one of the most straightforward and powerful anti-war messages in song, encapsulating not only the folly of war, but also the boggy feel of a quagmire in its substance:
“You gave a gift to me, in my young age
You sent me overseas, and put the fear in me
And I ask what for now, why me? Why war?”
“Young Men Dead” kicks off the album with the same feel as Zep’s “When the Levee Breaks,” building the same requisite pressure that mirror each song’s meaning. Throughout the album, they speak truths like, “We can’t live if we’re afraid to die.” “The Sniper at the Gates of Dawn” features Maas shouting and grunting between verses like either Jim Morrison in “The End” or Bono in “Bullet the Blue Sky.” “Black Grease,” one of three holdovers from the original EP release, and currently receiving the most airplay, makes the repeated word `kill’ as memorable as Rocket from the Crypt once did. The darkly played sitar sound in “Manipulation,” as well as the backward tracking and the lyrical color palette make it sound as if the Beatles put their nightmares to music. “Bloodhounds On My Trail” finds Maas sounding not a bit unlike Shaun Ryder vocally. The hidden track at the end of “Call to Arms” is one of the most captivating, finding the Angels doing an acoustic Springsteen meets Stills like story-song about a friend killed in Iraq. It’s a comparatively quiet and haunting close to an otherworldly and confrontational album that leaves you wanting to play it again and again.
There’s more than just a chance that the Black Angels will create a bit of noise for themselves as they just blew the doors off of the SXSW music conference, both announcing themselves to the world and marking their backyard territory. I can’t stop listening to this album, talking about this album, and thinking about this album. It’s extremely rare, as I mentioned before, that a record will captivate me like this, even rarer a first album being so sonically dense and lyrically revelatory. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) echoed `Chef’ in saying, “Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right.” If the Black Angels are the jungle, and the tiger their music, then the adrenalin rush caused by their presence is something I would venture into the jungle for again and again. If the Black Angels are the soldiers, playing me their music and telling me their tales, you can goddamn bet that I too would never want to get out of the boat.