Review: The Black Angels at Workplay

The Black Angels recently performed at Workplay. Photo by Jon Lebkowsky.

The Black Angels recently performed at Workplay. Photo by Jon Lebkowsky.

When I was 16 years old, I used to religiously listen to a Podcast called Indie Feed for all of my obscure, teenage music needs.  That’s where I first heard the hard and hazy single, “Black Grease” by The Black Angels from their album, Passover.  From that day forward, I was hooked.  In the years following, The Black Angels served as an ambassador to my growing interest in Austin’s psych scene.  This past Friday, the psychedelic revivalists came to Workplay Theater in support of their latest album, Indigo Meadow, released this past April on Blue Horizon.  After their less than great album review on Pitchfork (They were given a 4.9 for taking their lyrics too seriously and alluding to the Newton, Conneticut shootings: “Bullshit is fine if you can sell it, but the Black Angels have finally laid it on too thick.”), I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I arrived at Workplay right after Wall of Death finished their set.  Hanni El Khatib played shortly after to a pretty small and inattentive crowd, most of them lingering in the back booths.  Khatib displayed a mighty amount of energy, however, with earth-shattering guitar solos and soulful melodies.  If that didn’t get the apathetic patrons residing in the back of the room, I’m not sure what would.  Khatib vocalized his opinions of the low energy in the room, claiming that the audience “wasn’t drunk enough.”  He should be well aware that there’s always that one person in the crowd that’s most definitely drunk enough, and when he said that, she let out a blood curdling squeal that echoed throughout the space.  Khatib chuckled at her and continued playing, and fumbling up the words a bit in “You Rascal You,” but it was still just as bluesy and raw as I expected nonetheless.

Although this was my fifth time seeing the band, The Black Angels hadn’t played in Birmingham in three years.  Their last show in our state was in November of 2010 at Bottletree, where there were no more than thirty in attendance.  After a friend of mine working at the venue told me that there were only forty tickets sold in presales, I was afraid that the band would encounter the same problem again, and possibly never return.  I was still feeling anxious about it up until the band actually took the stage.  The audience had only begun to swell around ten o’clock.

The venue had the entire Velvet Underground & Nico album playing on a loop between sets, which was fitting since the band got their name from “The Black Angel’s Death Song.”  When the Black Angels took the stage, they were accompanied by a kaleidoscopic light show with retro, hallucinogenic projections of colors, designs, and even naked chicks.  They opened with “Vikings,” allowing lead singer, Alex Maas, to showcase his vocal talent with a saturated drum beat.  However, I was disappointed to see guitarist, Christian Bland, struggle with his instrumental setup.  He periodically walked back and forth from his pedals to his amp, adjusting and readjusting with a worried look on his face.  He unfortunately experienced a good bit of screeching feedback in his mic as well.

The band played a few songs of their new record, including a sultry track called “Evil Things,” and their single, “Don’t Play with Guns.”  They also played older tunes such as the acidic crowd favorite, “Bad Vibrations,” the lyrically stimulating “Doves,” the droning, “Young Men Dead,” the darkly toned “Entrance Song,” “Telephone,” a more blatant throwback to The Doors, and of course, “Black Grease.”  One thing about attending a Black Angels show is that the crowd can be pretty unpredictable.  At these shows, I’ve been sexually harassed, pushed, shoved, offered acid, and punched in the jaw.  However, the Birmingham crowd was pretty calm.  It could have been all the lights hypnotizing them into a trance, but needless to say, I was quite relieved.

I had always accepted The Black Angels as extremely aloof, with minimal to no crowd interaction.  Insidious Maas always has his signature newsboy cap covering his eyes, (my friend jokingly turned around and said “I’ll bet you a beer that the singer’s gonna be wearing a hat” before the show started) and seems to be in a perpetual trance led by powerhouse drummer, Stephanie Bailey.  Perhaps Bland was humbled by his malfunctioning sound setup though, but he was joking and laughing with the crowd, taking a request to play “Manipulation” for the encore, and it was another side of the band members that I hadn’t seen.

The Black Angels formed in 2004 in Austin, Texas.  Like the psychedelic bands that they draw inspiration from, the Black Angels proudly insert their progressive political views in their music.  I don’t believe that politically driven lyrics should be crucified by a music blog.  In the sixties, musicians lyrically protested the Vietnam War.  Now, The Black Angels have displayed their enthusiasm for gun reform.  From their website: “Our music has always tried to shed light on issues that may be hard to deal with or confront,” says Maas. “If people think they can ignore the issues, they are wrong.”

About Amber Morgan Ritchie

Amber Morgan Ritchie is a contributing writer for You Hear This.