A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 23, 2008
Thick, inspired psychedelic sludge that sometimes rumbles, sometimes screams.
That might be the best way to describe Directions to See a Ghost, the new album from Austin’s psychedelic hum masters, The Black Angels. In fact the band’s slogan is “Turn on, tune in, drone out.”
This record, released earlier this month, comes just a while after I became aware of The Black Angels. I saw them at Roky Erickson’s Ice Cream Social during the South by Southwest music festival in Austin in March. As I noted then, being that the Angels are on the same bill as “Zombie-walker” Roky, it’s tempting to call them the grandchildren of first-generation psychedelic rockers the 13th Floor Elevators.
But there are also weird echoes of The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Electric Prunes, and Spacemen 3 and odd psychic references to Bo Diddley. And don’t forget The Velvet Underground. After all, The BAs named themselves after “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” the Velvet’s faux folk tune that is most memorable for John Cale’s screechy viola.
It’s not a stretch to put The Black Angels in the same dark dimension as other contemporary psyche-space bands like The Warlocks or, to a lesser extent, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Lenny Kaye (of Patti Smith Group) called The Black Angels’ sound “New Age apocalypso.”
The BAs, which formed in Austin earlier this decade, are true psychedelic rangers. Check their Web-site bio, written by Tommy Hall (The 13th Floor Elevators’ electric-jug man).
It starts off talking about Aristotle, goes into mankind organizing “his knowledge vertically in separate and unrelated groups,” and concludes with: “It is possible for Man to alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view (that is, his own basic relation with the outside world which determines how he stores his information). He then can restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, therefore approaching them more sanely. It is this quest for pure sanity that forms the basis of The Black Angels.”
Yeah, and they also play some bitchen fuzz-tone guitars.
Virtually every track on Directions to See a Ghost is a journey to the center of what’s left of your mind, culminating in the 16-minute “Snake in the Grass,” which features oooga boooga drums, layers of feedback, some snaky maracas, and recurring Mideastern or East Indian motifs. At the end, I can almost hear bagpipes, but it’s probably just distorted guitar.
There are also some much-shorter treats (although the shortest song is four and a half minutes). “Vikings” is an ominous tune that starts out with slow death-march drums and a weird organ. “Doves” is another slow burner with the drums out front.
“Deer-Ree-Shee” is one of the most fast-paced tunes here and features some crazy sitar by singer Alex Maas. “You in Color” starts out with a burst of feedback and a kind of Peter Gunn guitar riff and quickly builds up to a full-fledged rocker.
If I’ve got one complaint about this album it’s that there just aren’t enough of these hard stompers. Sometimes it’s cool to just space out and ponder whatever it is that Maas is singing (I’m never quite sure, but I bet a lot of it has to do with restructuring your thinking and questing for pure sanity). But after awhile you want to move.
But when you need to space out and let music guide you deep into the Forbidden Cavern, there’s not much better these days than The Black Angels.
* Head by Simon Stokes. Stokes not only looks like the toughest man in show business, his music makes that case even more. And talk about psychedelic, this guy started out in the ’60s with bands like Heathen Angels, and in the ’90s he actually recorded a duet album with Timothy Leary. (Songs like “100 Naked Kangaroos in Blue Canoes” aren’t as silly as you might think.)
One of my very favorite albums of this wretched century so far is Honky, an undeservedly obscure, country-flavored, biker-rock masterpiece by Stokes with tasty guest appearances by Wayne Kramer, The BellRays’ Lisa Kekaula, and the incomparable Texas Terri (who came up with one of the greatest album titles of all time: Your Lips ... My Ass.)
By comparison, Head is a more homemade, more folksy kind of affair. The song “Tongue-Tied,” for instance, features an acoustic guitar and a Dylanish harmonica.
But there are some gritty rockers here too. “No One’s Goin’ Nowhere” is a threat put to music. Put this one on at night and you might be scared to leave the room.
The minor-key “Get Happy” starts out acoustically with guitar and later features some harmonica. But it’s also got a growling electric guitar and some sinister organ and chimes of doom. It doesn’t sound very happy.
Undoubtedly the weirdest song here — even more so than the 13-minute untitled sound-collage freakout hidden track — is the fuzzed out “Bob,” which could almost be about the creepy guy on Twin Peaks. (“I live in Bob’s head too/Friends call me Stew.”)
Stokes has a couple of cover tunes on Head. He sings a decent version of “Long Black Veil,” but it won’t make anyone want to throw away their copy of The Band’s Music From Big Pink. More impressive is his gruff take on Woody Guthrie’s “Hard Travelin’.” You’ll believe Stokes has gone every mile.
On the Radio: I’ll play some Simon Stokes on this week’s Santa Fe Opry, 10 p.m. to midnight on Friday on KSFR-FM 101.1. And then I’ll play some Stokes and Black Angels on Terrell’s Sound World, same time, same station on Sunday.
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