The Black Angels
The Vacant Lots
Brooklyn Bowl Nashville
925 3rd Avenue North
Nashville, Tennessee 37201
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The Black Angels
Says vocalist/bassist Alex Maas, “a big focal point of this record is just the overallinsanity that’s happening. What’s true? What’s not?” Adds guitarist Christian Bland, “We leave our music open to interpretation, but our topics are always universal themes–problems mankind has had since the beginning of time. You can relate them to anyperiod.”
Indeed, in the five years since the release of the band’sprior album,Death Song, andthe two-plus years spent working onWilderness of Mirrors, pandemics, political tumultand the ongoing devastation of the environment have provided ample fodder for the Black Angels’ signature sonic approach. If the group’s members were terrified as theyhoned new music heading into an election year, they realized they didn’t even know how scary things could still get.
So, they looked inward, focusing on both their ongoing creative and musicaldevelopment as well as their ownstruggles amid the external chaos.Wilderness ofMirrorshits even closer to home, as the group recorded solely in the friendly confines of Austin for the first time in more than a decade and entrusted co-production duties to itslongtime front-of-house engineer, Brett Orrison.
“It was a really great experience, because Brett understands us a lot on a musical level.We’ve grown together,” Maas says. “We worked on this record for over a year in thestudio in Austin. I don’t know any other situation where we’d have been able to do thatin a 9-to-5 way.” Adds Bland, “Doing it in Austin allowed for open creativity and tookaway the stress of rushing to get something done. We used our time wisely.”
That methodical modus operandi can be heard throughoutWilderness of Mirrors, whichexpertly refines the Black Angels’ psychedelic rock attack alongside a host of intriguingsounds and textures. “History of the Future” and opener “Without a Trace” are classicblasts of fuzzed-out guitars that simultaneously perk up the ears and jumpstart the mind(“Is it still possible to be invincible when everyone else is expendable?” Maas wondersaloud on the latter), while a fast, thumping bass line and an allusion to a world leader hiding in his bunker propel “Empires Falling” into an ominous decree: “Every time youwake, I want to end you.”
“I came in with a riff that was kind of slow and mid-tempo-y,” Bland says of the song.“When I showed it to the band, [drummer] Stephanie [Bailey] started playing a quickerbeat over it, [guitarist]Jake [Garcia] added this cool mercurial lead guitar line, and[multi-instrumentalist]Ramiro [Verdooren]laid down a heavy driving bass,and all thesudden it had some rock’n’roll gasoline behind it. That’s the beauty of being with thesefolks. Everybody brings their creativity to the table and a song could become somethingyou never had envisioned before.
”Elsewhere, The Black Angels revel in newfound experiments like the melancholy,acoustic guitar-driven “100 Flowers of Paracusia” and “Here and Now,” two highlights ofthe album’s back half. “We would have never put songs like that on records before, justbecause we weren’t in that world,” Maas says. “I’m proud that we pushed ourselves.”There’s also the ‘60s French pop homage “Firefly,’ which features the sultry intonationsof Thievery Corporation’s LouLouGhelichkhani. “We don’t ever really bring people in tosing, but I thought it would be cool to have someone singing in French here–a backand forth, playful thing,” Maas says of “Firefly.” “Itmade the harmony more complete.”
Mellotron, strings and other keyboards are more prominent onWilderness of Mirrorsthan ever before, and the album also benefits from the versatile contributions of newmulti-instrumentalist Ramiro Verdooren, formerly of Austin band the Rotten Mangos.“Having that fresh perspective of a young person who’s a fucking incredible musician, itwas a whole different ingredient,” enthuses Maas, who says Verdooren would often takein-progress songs home with him at night to experiment with tape loops and otheraccoutrements. Adds Bland, “If you think of something you want to add, Jake or Ramirocan do it immediately on whatever instrument.”
Another new addition to the team this time around was longtime Dinosaur Jr engineerJohn Agnello, who stepped in to mixWilderness of Mirrorswhen The Black Angels werein need of a fresh set of ears. “When you self-produce your own record and do everysingle tiny little move yourself, you lose perspective,” Maas says. Adds Bland, “John’soutsideperspective on it is what made the album shine. It became 3-D.”
But for all the experimentation, The Black Angels remain masterfully true to psych-rockforebears such as Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, Arthur Lee and the members of theVelvet Underground, all of whom are namechecked on “The River.” The legacy of thoseartists is also at the core of the group’s beloved, long-running Levitation Festival, theveritable ground zero for the genre’s past, present and future. Says Bland, “Sitting down and channelingthese spirits is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a little crypticand spooky, almost like reincarnation. The river of knowledge keeps flowing, no matterwhat.
“The Velvet Underground song ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’–that’s what every Black Angelsalbum has been about,” he continues. “You can’t work out your struggles unless youbring them to the forefront and think about them. If we can all think about them, maybewe can help save ourselves.”