Some time in late November, I’ll be wandering my way through the Showbox, lost like a child in wonder at a carnival or some theme park. I’ll be drunk on guitar effects and effectively wild vocal harmonizing. It’ll be the Black on Black Tour, featuring The Black Angels and Black Mountain, two mainstays of contemporary Psychedelic Rock. But what’s weird, after spending some time with their respective new platters, they have both steered decidedly away from their more druggy psychedelic roots and tendencies.
Phosphene Dream is the new Black Angels offering. This is a group I have associated with 3-day peyote journeys into the Texas brush and desert or long nights puffing opium clouds into the stratosphere of dark rooms in the entrails of mostly abandoned buildings. Their sound had a drone style to it that carried you through the trip on a consistent vibration. They were certainly out there. Directions to See A Ghost is one long flight through the inner reaches of the brain and universe. Trippy, to say the least, but without being a mess. On Phosphene Dream, the kids from Austin have largely left that template behind.
First of all, this record is half as long as the previous disc. That’s a big cut. But it is primarily due to the fact that the Angels have tightened it all up, writing succinct, compact songs, which still contain all the psychedelic elements of their previous material, but without focusing on them in the forefront. Through the first couple of listens, my reaction was that they’d spent a bunch of time in California watching Annette Funicello movies and decided to write an Acid-Surf record. Yes, there are much more predominant echoes of the 50s and straight-ahead Rock song stylings. Yes, there is more focus on the singing as a centerpiece rather than a nasal accompaniment of droney sort-of-words and utterances. The vocals are also utilized to make haunting, screaming interjections. But this is not Funicello’s kind of party record.
The psychedelic elements that initially seem cast aside, have just been sublimated to accentuate their power. Echo box guitar remnants flutter and dance around the foundation of the song, but are no longer the foundation. This album is much tighter, even in production values. Sounds are connected, together, but also separated enough that they can speak their own tones in the greater pastiche of sound. While on the surface, this album may seem ‘straighter’ than their previous work, I believe this is just the illusion created by much more mature songwriting and instrumentation. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the drug haze marathon of Directions to See A Ghost, but I am feeling less and less, with every listen, like Phosphene Dream is some kind of sell-out record or drastic trashing of what had made them already great. As I have grown up and listened to millions of albums (slight hyperbole??), I have come to believe that some of the most effective approaches to being psychedelic in music is not to over-present the more classic, stereotypical sounds and stylings. In their ability to tone it down, I’ll refer to the most psychedelic song on the album. “Phosphene Dream”, the title track, employs much craftier production touches. For example, Alex Maas’ vocals start out the song with just a touch of reverbed-out distortion, but this effect doesn’t impede the power and distinctiveness of his voice. Also, a Leslie Speaker cabinet twirls and churns through some fine feedback and crust that, again, doesn’t deter the listener from hearing the actual notes. This displays, to me, a much more discerned set of ears in the writing process and in the studio.
To be subtle is to be sublime.
Even the poppiest tune on the record, “Telephone”, kicks my ass. Sure, they performed it on Letterman, but are we really so fucking cynical these days as to proffer that every drop of success is so horrible? Maybe the angry, late-20s version of myself is becoming soft around the middle in more than one way, but I’m gonna reply to my own query with a resounding fuck no!
Is this a great record? The jury is still out on that one, but so far, it is gaining momentum and accolade, rather than sputtering to the finish line.
Part II will focus on B lack Mountain’s Wilderness Heart