You may be surprised to hear this, but no drugs were used during the making of the Black Angels' Phosphene Dream, one of 2010's druggiest albums.
According to singer Alex Maas, the kaleidoscopic swirls of reverb-soaked guitar, the psychedelic haze hovering over the foggy production, and the deliberate drawl of his vocals are substance-free creations, inspired and shaped by the band's natural artistic instincts. "I'm not an advocate of drug use," he says. "I think it's ridiculous to think you have to take psychedelics to make psychedelic records."
Of course, Maas is more than aware that the majority of the Black Angels' fans are baked to the gills when they listen to his music. Songs like "Bad Vibrations," "Haunting at 1300 McKinley," and "Yellow Elevator #2" practically shout ... or actually they muster a mumbled ... "Hey, man, why don't you smoke, snort, or drop some of this, and take me for a spin?" Just look at Phosphene Dream's cover, with its mind-blowing squiggles expanding like a massive bong hit.
"There are so many inputs that go into art," says Maas. "You don't need to have drugs or alcohol as an ingredient. I'm not a square at all, but there are so many things that go into a record. I try to put as many influences into the music as I can."
Either way, the Black Angels are one of the best bands making psychedelic music these days. They trip back to the late '60s, when groups with names like the Electric Prunes and the Chocolate Watchband were turning on a bunch of burned-out kids. The Angels' songs are spacious yet oddly claustrophobic; there's a sense of calmness that gives way to a bad feeling that shit's about ready to cave in any second now.
Maas says Phosphene Dream, their third and most tuneful album, is just the beginning of the sonic explorations they plan to mine over the next few years. "We wanted to try different sounds and influences this time," he says. "It leaves the door open for the next record. We can do whatever we want on the next record."
The Black Angels formed seven years ago in Austin, home of one of the premier psychedelic bands, the 13th Floor Elevators. (The group backed the Elevators' mind-wrecked frontman Roky Erickson on a 2008 tour.) The Angels' debut album, 2006's Passover, is filled with muddy dirges that never quite find momentum in the cloudy mix. Things sharpen a bit on 2008's Directions to See a Ghost. But last year's Phosphene Dream is where the band finally sounds committed to making music that not only sounds great when you're high, but also if you're stuck in traffic or even working out.
"There's still a paranoid kinda thing happening," says Maas. "But it's also about finding hope when things aren't so hopeful. You're reaching a paranoid level, but you come to a hopeful ending. The overall theme of the record is seeing light when light isn't present. I like evil music with happy lyrics."
Phosphene Dream is the first Black Angels album recorded outside of Austin with someone other than the band producing: It was made in Los Angeles with Dave Sardy, who's worked with stoner-rockers Wolfmother. Maas says Sardy's input was crucial to the band's growth. He pushed them, offered ideas, and vetoed songs he thought sounded too much like cuts on their other two albums. "We wanted to challenge ourselves," he says. "It's great to have another mind in there to get you out of your comfort zone. We were all working for the songs."
And now that they're moving forward, the Black Angels' nostalgic mind-warps (which evoke everyone from Black Sabbath to the Doors to the Velvet Underground) should get even more crazily complex and wide open. That's the plan anyway. "I don't think we'll ever make a hip-hop record, but I would like to continue researching all kinds of music," says Maas. "I want to fill my mind with music and good vibrations. We're moving into a healthy marriage between getting lost in the spiritual part of our music and bringing it to the audience and then letting them trip on it."
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