How the Black Angels wrote the ideal 'Death Song' for the Trump era, without meaning to
If the 90 or so days we've spent in the volatile President Donald Trump era have offered up any hard and fast truths yet, it's that history can be a brutal schoolmaster. This is how authoritarian leaders rise: Elect a lying candidate and you'll get a lying president. Greed, corruption, vanity — we've seen the vices that have come to define this administration in leaders before, and we'll see them again, because time is a flat circle.
These disturbing truths lie at the heart of Black Angels' Death Song, the latest album in the legendary psych rock band's storied catalog, out through Partisan Records. Musically, it marks a return to the doom-laden psychedelia of their debut Passover, following a brief detour into the dream pop of their last EP Clear Lake Forest. The new record comes with some of the band's darkest lyrical content to date. Yet while it rings with some of the same warnings that preceded Trump, none of that was intentional.
They started writing it in 2014, before Trump was a blip on the scene and returned to their roots organically, creating a disconcerting full circle.
"It felt like our worst nightmare was coming true," singer and guitarist Alex Maas said of Trump's election in a recent phone conversation, discussing how their record resonates with some of today's similar fears. "I had a complete 'Oh shit' moment, like 'I can't believe this is happening.'"
The cosmic, coincidental nature of this return feels appropriate for the Black Angels. They've long used mythic and cultic imagery to help give their music this portentous, transcendental edge, styling themselves as soothsayers speaking in riffs rather than tongues. They've been standard bearers in the modern psych rock movement since 2004, predating Tame Impala, Ty Segall, the Oh Sees and of course of Lady Gaga, Rihanna or other pop stars' fascination with psych rock. They've been one of the genre's most dedicated advocates, creating a haven for it in Levitation Festival, formerly Austin Psych Fest, a curated, artist-run music festival supporting genre-pushing psychedelia that's since spawned offshoots in France and Chicago. Dangerous weather forced the band to cancel the Austin festival in 2016, and the hit they took will keep the festival closed in 2017 too. That fact should illustrate how tenuous the financial support systems for niche scenes can be.
Yet, the Black Angels' new record will serve as a revitalizing shot for fans. It offers a perfect portrait of all the dark, contemplative beauty this genre captures better than any other.
The name of the new album suggests a similar return to the band's beginnings. As the band has long explained for curious fans, their name comes from the Velvet Underground's "The Black Angels Death Song," a song Lou Reed wrote "to string words together for the sheer fun of their sound, not any particular meaning." Naming their album Death Song, serves to close the loop on that origin story, in a way. However, it holds an additional meaning for Maas that points to the fascination the band has long held for Native American culture.
"In Native American cultures people were encouraged to write something called a death song, which was a chant you'd sing over and over again in tumultuous, dangerous times — if you were scared or thought you were about to die or thought the world was coming to an end," he said. "They would write them, something that would be personal to them. That's kind of the second part of the idea of Death Song — these songs that we're singing in times of peril and toxicity."
They've paid homage to Native American culture before, and do so again on "Comanche Moon." The song makes frequent allusions to the shady deals the United States government has cut with the Native American people, which, as the #NoDAPL struggle proves, have yet to stop. Alex sings on the track:
"Pale faces of death and destruction,
"What their music was and the place it had in their society was storytelling, used to pass from generation to generation methods of survival," Maas said, discussing his appreciation for the country's indigenous cultures. "We've kind of embraced that ideology. It's one of things you have to make sure people don't forget, so it doesn't happen again. But of course it's going to happen again. It's currently happening right now, here, and in other countries."
Many of the new songs feel like they could settle into the now decade-old Passover without issue. "I'd Kill for Her" paints pictures of a weary hero declaring he "will not kill again" over the band's familiar lurching blues. The discordant, syncopated bass-work on "I Dreamt" lulls the listener into a similar trance to those their first record conjured so effectively.
Yet many of the tracks push into completely unknown territory. "Half Believing" is one of the band's most elegant ballads to date, weaving a stirring chorus out of a minimal instrumental. "Estimate" makes earnest promises to protect a loved one from an unknown "they" over a plodding symphonic march.
"For me, it's like a manual for life. You give our record to somebody, it's like, 'This is what you might expect while you're here on Earth."'
Alex credits much of the experimentation to the band's new member, guitarist Jake Garcia, who wrote the album's final track, "Life Song." It contains some of the most ambitious chord changes and instrumentation the band has ever attempted.
"It challenged us to step up the bar," Maas said of Garcia's addition to the band. "Hands down he's the most talented natural musician. You know he can play guitar upside-down. He can play right-handed and left-handed. Having something like that encouraged us to step our game up, and embrace that bar for everything, lyrically and sonically."
The fact the band has been able to maintain such a relatively consistent line-up throughout their 10-year history is impressive. "A lot of bands today aren't around really long," guitarist Christian Bland noted in a phone conversation, something he credits to some extra-musical decisions they made early on. They've kept their decision-making process democratic, putting all songs to a vote and retaining some freedom to explain and relate to their records differently.
Bland also praises "Life Song," digging into the inherent contradictions between the uplifting title and its dark lyrical content: "I'm dying to say, I love you any way," Alex sings on the cut. "Even though, you sent me off to die."
It's a microcosm of the album's attempts to search for meaning and beauty in a world that continually proves itself full of strife.
"For me, it's like a manual for life," Bland said. "You give our record to somebody, it's like, 'This is what you might expect while you're here on Earth. Here's what you're going to need to deal with.' I think that if you always have the idea in your mind that death is around the corner, you're going to live life more fully."
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