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Music

The Black Angels at The Urban Lounge

The Black Angels have a love-hate relationship with psychedelia.

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Between South by Southwest and an abundance of bands perpetually hustling within its city limits, Austin has long been an indisputable music hub. Texas’ capital has flourished into an especially fertile locale for psychedelic rock, a genre that The 13th Floor Elevators prominently linked to Austin in the mid-’60s. Young bands like The Strange Boys, Woven Bones and The Tunnels carry on the delay pedal-driven tradition, as does the annual Austin Psych Fest.

The contemporary scene’s pre-eminent band is The Black Angels, and with good reason. The act embodies psych’s traditional traits: slinking instrumentation prone to zone-outs, looming vocals typically filled with abstract, big-picture imagery and a gloomy je ne sais quoi. They don’t break much new ground, but they skillfully come off as an authentic-feeling, zeitgeist-evoking take-off on a dusty sound instead of a pandering retread.

Vocalist Alex Maas and guitarist Christian Bland, the chief Angels, first grew smitten with psych-rock as teens, even if they didn’t wholly get the style at first. The pair grew up in Houston near a radio station that pumped out loads of old psych, and their largest influence overall came from The Velvet Underground, a band that he says had “elements of psychedelia, but was a little bit more minimalist,” Maas says.

Despite their devotion, the Angels initially just wanted to create something broader and toss in a few references to the style. “I don’t think that [being psych-rock] was the initial goal,” says Maas, “but as people started calling the music ‘psychedelic,’ we went from there.”

Phosphene Dream, the band’s third and latest record, is an unashamedly psychedelic experience, as exemplified by opener “Bad Vibrations” blasting off with hazy waves of delayed guitar. Bland has characterized this LP as “not as freaky” as the group’s others, while Maas called it “more melodic.” Even though the Angels don’t totally devolve into navel-gazing, Phosphene is more about soaking up its vibe than keeping up with a motivated sense of pace. Take particular note of the group’s continued interest in death, a theme explored on tracks like “River of Blood” and “The Sniper.” Maas explains that this fascination with mortality stems from the sense of mystery it provides. “The idea of death is the unknown,” he says. “It’s unexplainable.”

While the Angels have long established themselves as psychedelic (all their LP covers even offer optical illusions), Maas has mixed feelings on how their ties to the genre will ultimately affect the band.

“I think people are turned off by the word, honestly, especially a lot of listeners that don’t understand the idea of psychedelic music. Someone who might listen to Christian music all the time might not listen to our music just because it’s ‘psychedelic,’” he says. “Maybe five years from now, I might wish that [our connection to psychedelic] was different, but it’s hard to tell if it’s going to be good or bad for us.”

THE BLACK ANGELS
w/Spell Talk, Holy Water Buffalo
The Urban Lounge
241S. 500 East
Sunday, Dec. 5, 9 p.m.
$12 advance/$14 day of show