I was pretty pumped for the Black Angels show, having stumbled upon and becoming endeared to their 2 albums in the summer leading up to their Oct 26thshow; opening up for The Raveonettes, at The Metro in Wrigelyville. They started off their set with You On The Run off their album Directions to See a Ghost. Quickly they fell into their own music; with the lead singer’s eyes closed as he sang his, at times, indiscernible lyrics in a quite passionate manner. Their composition lends itself to one “getting lost” as they play an aggressive type of psychedelic rock that pivots around the throbbing, unceasing drum patterns of Stephanie Bailey (and yes, you gotta love female rock-drummers). This song in particular has a simple, yet genius, tambourine line which I was interested to find was played by one of the guitarists and not by a dedicated player (as other tambourine-happy bands do, such as The Brian Jonestown Massacre). It takes a little bit of talent to have both of those responsibilities in one live performance, don’t let the simplicity of the tambourine make you think otherwise.
Next, the Angels moved into the head-nodding track, Manipulation, of off their first album Passover. This is a killer song that has a driving bass line that takes on the majority of the low-end expression. I did find that the background vocals seemed to be a little flat compared to what I was used to from the album and I could have used slightly more guitar (and I rarely say that). But I could see that the band was in constant talk with the sound guys, so it seemed they were aware of the needed adjustments.
As I took in the beginning of their set, it occurred to me that the Black Angels take on a somewhat atypical philosophy to their music; most bands use a steady background (usually the traditional rhythm section) and then use the more upfront sounds (of say vocals and guitar) to be the expressive aspect. Yet The Black Angels have no qualms in having their steady, repeating sounds be placed prominently in the foreground and letting the more dynamic, and expressive sounds, lie subtly in the background. That helps explain how they suck you into their pulsating beats and get you lost in both their rhythm section, and their wailing and wide guitar sounds. For lack of a better comparison it is almost like taking a card out of hip-hop by letting a strong beat and a repeating riff (or “hook”) be the meat and anchor of the song, and then working creatively around that. Yet the Black Angels do it in a psychedelic manner, which is what sets them positively apart in my mind.
The third song of the evening, Young Men Dead, carried with it the biggest announcement of the band’s yet, as the song started off with simple guitar picking and then in comes a groovy, gut-shaking, and grisly bass line that carries on for the remainder of the song. The slow buildup was executed well. I did feel that the drumming lacked a little bit as I was left wanting a little more kick and snare to cut through the substantial bass, even though the drummer was obviously working her hardest. Yet almost as soon as I had written down that observation in my notes they moved into their next track, Science Killer, and one of the guitar players went over to play on another low-tom and snare that was on stage to add that extra kick of drums I was left wanting on the previous song (well played Black Angels…).
I was then excited to hear a new track from the Angels. I can’t tell you what is it called, but it definitely showed they have tricks up their sleeves for their future tunes. Instead of their loud, sound-scape-like, guitar sounds they used what could be described as an early rock n’ roll, walking-blues, riff; which they made a little grittier and noisier as the song went on (think Chuck Berry on acid…).
The band went on to play two more songs from their already released albums before ending again with two new songs (of which they did not say the names), resulting in a total of nine for their set. I have to say the new songs have made me quite desirous to hear the upcoming material, of which they gave no hint of when it would be out. But both of the songs on which they ended upon used more bluesy, slightly more minimalist, beats; with more of a sense of finesse then one is used to with the Angels. The song they ended upon was the most unique as it used a kind of call and response style of vocals between two of the members (which I haven’t heard before from them). It also transitioned between a clean sound and a highly reverb’ed sound before ending in a very cool and extended 60’s style slowdown. And it wasn’t just influenced by the 60’s, as all there music is, it was wholeheartedly retro and pulled off with class.
Needless to say I was very impressed by my first live encounter with The Black Angels. They played the material of which I was already familiar with gusto and in an interesting way, and played new material that only left me wanting more. Yes I could have used better drum and guitar presence, and maybe more discernable lyrics here and there (like they are on the albums), and even a couple more songs. Yet those things happen sometimes when you are opening for other acts. But you can be sure I will be at the Black Angels next show in Chicago, and if you like psychedelic-rock, you should be also.
By Sean Poynton Brna
As originally posted and written for Chicago.com/music