Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Black Angels' "Indigo Meadow": Music Review

While this talented band's last album, Phosphene Dream, drifted into Revolver-era references, Indigo Meadow opts for acid pop. In an age when (perhaps ironically) many of us hear music on speakers in our phones or computers not much advanced from the transistor radios or boomboxes of youth, this album alters its treble tones for digital media states. It's classic, thickened, crunchy rock lightened for earbuds.

The title track features this spirited approach, with Kyle Hunt's keyboards and Christian Bland's guitars churn. But the chorus and background vocals lift the tune rather than compress it into density, as their earlier albums Passover and Directions to See a Ghost did so memorably. It moves swiftly and channels an accessible delivery that aims at concision.

"Evil Things" continues this style, which has grown more pronounced after the band signed with Blue Horizon. The mix buries the psychedelic intricacy of the busier instrumentation, elevating the tap and the echo. A more spacious production enhances the slightly raga-rock pattern that shifts that song, finally, into an overdriven riff above the keys. By now in their career, The Black Angels figure out how to balance their formative years--full of overwhelming power on their Light in the Attic label discography--with a streamlined, fuzz-driven, airier delivery.

"Don't Play With Guns" reminds me of the first years of FM-radio, an underground one-off from a tape sent by a local garage band. That is, it's catchy, direct, yet almost modest in its experimental but, chart-friendly blend. "Holland" slows the pace wisely, into more lysergic terrain, before "The Day" recalls Elf Power's use of horns and synthetic effects for a peppier, demented marching-band pace.

Similarly, "Love Me Forever" echoes in its measured, somber mood the efforts of Outrageous Cherry, who have followed a parallel trajectory of darker, lo-fi, late-1960s-inspired explorations before integrating bubblegum and Top 40 AM-radio vintage stylings from a slightly later era, when the 1970s ushered in groups aiming less at countercultural credibility than K-Tel compilation hits. In that direction, "War on Holiday" (as many tracks on Indigo Meadow) feels ripped from a Nuggets compilation. Its punchy swirl reminds me of XTC's affectionate alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear.

I miss the band's swaggering, sinister presence. The Black Angels have stopped crushing me by their relentless assault, and choose to tease and jangle into blissful submission. It's more psychedelic than neo-psychedelic, this phase. I'd apply their first singles and those first two albums to the latter category: they immersed elements of The Gun Club, Native American and Indian beats, and post-punk's bitterness into a brew that bettered The Doors and rivaled The 13th Floor Elevators from their Austin hometown. Indigo Meadow feels more grounded than The Black Angels' third full-length release. Phosphene Dream wandered along paths the Beatles, The Grateful Dead, and the British Invasion trod, making for a journey more pleasant than terrifying. Promisingly, their fourth album boosts aggression, their finest quality, while it tempers the menace of what for me remain nearly unparalleled presentations of a bold update of venerable Sixties sounds on their first albums.

As with Darker My Love, from Los Angeles (where the Angels now fittingly live) or Dead Meadow, carrying the heft of their stratified approaches may have wearied these young musicians, or perhaps they deliberately craft an aerodynamic model to reach a wider audience. The band is a quartet rather than a quintet as before, and this may account for this momentum. Yet, "Always Maybe" edges back to their determined, implacable pose; "Broken Soldier" keeps the thumping, martial, anti-war themes of Passover alive--as sadly these never appear to be dated.

The sonic template, all the same, keeps this album less intense, and far less thundering. It shimmers in a light rain interspersed with sunshine. Still, haziness persists. "I Hear Colors (Chromosthesia)" evokes woozily the dawn of acid rock, when Sixties pop melted into distended studio (and often personal by chemical) dissolution.

"Twisted Light" steps into the Gothic shadows, and as on Directions to See a Ghost or the best parts of the Phosphene Nightmare e.p., the guitars kick into overdrive and the layers of sound keep building momentum. The Jim Morrison or Jeffrey Lee Pierce vocal resemblance has faded, all the same. Bassist-singer Alex Maas changes to a clearer, less affected pitch. It may invite more listeners, but it lacks the incantatory allure of his earlier incarnation. Stephanie Bailey's drums hold steady in "You're Mine." On "Black Isn't Black" she slows the band to channel their masterful claustrophobia down a spooky, dead-end corridor.

Notably, that closing track is the one that turns back--or redirects--best the band's admirable intensity. The Black Angels, when they choose to accentuate this attitude, stand out among contenders who look to the past to revive our hope in present-day rock. Let's hope that Indigo Meadow signals a booster stage in the band's ascent, as they harness mighty engines on these delicate flights. (4-4-13 to PopMatters; 4-16-13 to Amazon US)

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