With strobe lights blaring and the drone physically pushing the crowd away from the stage, The Black Angels owned the room at the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, DC two Tuesdays ago. Invoking the meandering psychosis that seems present in the last half of Apocalypse Now, The Black Angels’ music takes on something bigger than itself and almost makes losing your mind seem like a good idea for times throughout a show.
I had never been to the Rock and Roll Hotel prior to this night and, man, was this show a good introduction. A great little room that was packed to the gills for the Austin quintet, the Rock and Roll Hotel is definitely the torchbearer for smaller venues in DC. A good friend and I unfortunately arrived at the venue two songs into the show but could immediately feel the energy coursing through the walls of the place. We opened the swinging double doors of the club and were hit with a wall of sound; distortion, drones, and drums — three D’s that would dominate the night.
The Black Angels really put on a great psychedelic rock show, mind bending visuals and all. Personally I am more fond of their first album, Passover, but there were definitely a few songs from Directions to See a Ghost that stood out. On top of that, I finally realized who Alex Maas’ vocals remind me of, something that has been bothering me for over a year.
The best part about The Black Angels sound is that the music is powerful hard rock without having to use the speed that metal and other such genres rely. In the live setting it creates a more sincere melancholic mood that I think loses its conveyance through the rapid repetition of power chords. The band combines hypnotic drums with this slowed style and it just draws you in and doesn’t let go until the band feels they should.
The show got going for me when The Black Angels roared into “Black Grease”, the song that originally got me into this band. This track riled the crowd and Maas’ chorus of “kill, kill, kill, kill” sent chills down my spine. His voice is definitely the backbone of the group’s sound and he channels the darkest parts of Jim Morrison and Grace Slick’s vocals. He had a Jim James a la I’m Not There thing going on with a big floppy brimmed hat; the look, which darkened his face, only added to the evasiveness in his voice.
The Black Angels are unabashedly rooted in the music of The Velvet Underground and The 13th Floor Elevators but with a more modern sound that wasn’t evident back in ’68. “First Vietnam War”, which stood out as highlight, shows this with heavy pitch bending wahs towards the end of the chorus, something that isn’t as present in their predecessors music. All the while the lyrics draw allegories from the Vietnam War to today.
The band played a somewhat short set, part our fault — we were late — part theirs. What was played was great hard rock and looking back the music was almost better kept short. The strongest song of the night was from the new album; “Doves” has one of the best song structures and builds really, really well. It allows the band to explore space without wandering.
The highlight for me was an extended sequence that can only be described as “Kung”-like. The drone was so loud thinking was impossible and a strobe light only fueled the trance. Thankfully it took place during the encore because I forgot to bring earplugs and I think my ears were bleeding after they finished. If you like heavier music then take a chance on The Black Angels if they ever stop through your town; I promise you won’t be disappointed.