Watch an exclusive live performance of the Black Angels recorded at Austin’s Zilker Botanical Garden on July 26, 2022.
The Black Angels’ first album in five years will be released on September 16.
By Jeff McCord
From the first moments of their 2006 debut album, Austin’s Black Angels made their worldview clear. It was a foreboding and dark vision, and not much light has crept in since. In a sense, the world of political turmoil, environmental ravaging, and a global pandemic have caught up to them in the last couple of years.
Yet as Black Angels vocalist Alex Maas explains, much of the new album was written before the pandemic. “All those things were possibilities in our minds. I think our whole lyrical approach was holding up the mirror to society, that’s the whole point of art, right? Our lyrics have always been kind of doomy, kind of dark. We tend to write in a paranoid kind of way. And I think that a lot of that kind of prepared us for what happened.”
At least, as much as anyone could be prepared. Maas had already experienced the hardships of pandemic touring behind his 2020 solo album Luca, yet none of the band was quite prepared for getting not one, but two tours canceled.
But now their tour is kicking off on August 20th, and the Angels’ sixth album, Wilderness of Mirrors, is finally about to see the light of day. It’s a full ride.
“So yeah, 15 songs,” laughs Maas. “We’ve been joking that it’s been this long and if we only put like a nine-song album, our fans would be like, ‘What are these? These guys are so lazy.’ If it was up to us, it would probably be closer to 20 [songs]. But someone had to bring us back down to reality.”
The long layoff left the band desirous to deliver more than usual. And the album is loaded up with the band’s vintage sound. Lurking beneath Alex’s haunting vocals, sonorous basslines ooze, fuzzed-out guitars buzz like an army of locusts, and pounding drums echo off in the distance. Wilderness wastes no time getting the blood flowing.
The core band – Alex on vocals and bass, Christian Bland on guitars, Stephanie Bailey on drums – have been intact for a long time. Joining them are the band’s newest members, Jake Garcia on guitars and multi-instrumentalist Ramiro Verdooren. So eighteen years and six albums into a career, do they still go about things the same way? Yes and no.
“The music comes first. We’ve always kind of been this way where we’ll have this music foundation and as a lyric writer, I’ll close my eyes and listen to the music. But I think we’re more open to exploring sounds. You don’t have to have a fuzz guitar on every single song, right? The new ingredient of Ramiro being in the band changed a lot of things. It’s nice to have two really good musicians in the band, Ramiro and Jake. Not that the rest of the band is on the bus, but no one else really knows what the heck’s going on musically. It’s great to have two people that can get in there and play whatever we’re hearing. As far as the song process, I think it’s the same. We still make music and that comes first and we talk about how scary the world is.”
Does the band ever feel boxed in by the ‘psychedelic’ moniker?
“We always want to evolve as a band,” says Maas, “and as people, because evolution is real. Psychedelic music is music from your spirit. We believe that it has been around since the dawn of humanity. I don’t think that I use the word as often. I almost feel like it’s getting played out. I’m not saying that we’re steering away from psychedelic music. I think if someone’s trying to understand what kind of music you’re playing, they do understand what ballpark you’re in. It’s not hip hop, it’s not, you know, country music. It’s in our musical DNA and the idea that psychedelic music can have different arrangements and different sounds and doesn’t have to have a guitar at all. I think our parameters opened up. Listening to this record, there’s some heavy stuff, and there’s some stuff that’s a little softer and not as heavy.”
Wilderness does have its curveballs. The record features a lot of mellotron, an instrument Maas explored on Luca.
“Having [mellotron] all over the solo record did help us just, ‘Let’s try that. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’ I think “Firefly” was the closest one on this record that was like that.”
“Firefly” begins as a playful pop excursion, with help from Austin-based Thievery Corporation singer LouLou Ghelichkhani. But it doesn’t stay that way for long.
There are others. “I think “Here and Now” is one that easily could have been on Luca,” says Maas. “And if you hear the original version of “Icon”, it is just an acoustic guitar and a different approach. Christian asked me if I would save it for Wilderness. So I saved it and brought it to the band and it has this kind of Black Angels meets Depeche Mode “Personal Jesus” type thing happening. That’s what happened when we brought that song to the Black Angels.”
Black Angels have stayed locked into their roots. “Icon” is about the Velvet Underground’s Nico, the same band that initially gave the band their namesake. And they recently contributed to Bill Bentley’s second Roky Erickson tribute, May the Circle Remain Unbroken.
Maas references Luca often. Making the solo record was a formative experience for him, and he already has a second solo album in the works. Both he and Bland have participated in numerous side projects over the years. Is this the classic case of band members wanting to escape the democratic decision-making that comes in a long-established band? Not according to Maas.
“I think every person in our band thinks that any time we bring a new song idea to the table, we’re like, ‘Okay, well, this is probably going to sound better than my original idea’.
Maas is a nature lover; he grew up playing in his parent’s nursery in Seabrook, Texas. When asked about the Black Angels’ recent stripped-down show at Zilker Park’s Botanical Gardens, he seems wistful about the band’s approach.
“Honestly, if I had it my way, our entire tour would be like that; this broken down, tribal, well thought out instrumentation with the harmonium. You have this rock and roll music and then you take a 15-minute intermission and you come out and you do more of like a, you know, spiritual, ceremonial kind of set. Or maybe open with a chilled-out one. For me, that music, that sound, and being in that element, it’s magical.”
Follow The Black Angels
Credits for Zilker Park Performance
- Set List
- El Jardín
- Without A Trace
- The River
- The Prodigal Sun
- Empires Falling
Producer: Deidre Gott
Cameras: Gabriel C. Pérez, Michael Minasi, Patricia Lim, Renee Dominguez, Karina Lujan
Edit: Renee Dominguez
Audio Engineers: Jake Perlman; Rene Chavez; Juan C. Alvarez