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The Black Angels chant their ‘Death Song’ to navigate troubled times

Local psych-rock quintet honors convention while updating sound on fifth LP


On a cold, dreary May afternoon in Boston, the Black Angels’ frontman Alex Maas pines for the sun-kissed food truck courtyards of Austin that will elude him and his bandmates until their hometown gig at Stubb’s on May 20. The psych-rock quintet embarked on a U.S. trek at the end of April, kicking off a hefty tour cycle in support of “Death Song,” their fifth full-length and first release since 2014’s “Clear Lake Forest” EP.

The band — which derives its name and new album title from the Velvet Underground’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song” — let no moss grow under its feet during the three-year gap. Guitarist Christian Bland released a full-length and split EP with his solo band, Christian Bland and the Revelators, flexing his affinity for jangly, psychedelic folk. Maas composed the score for Sam Wainwright Douglas’ 2017 documentary, “Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film.” Both musicians help produce Austin’s annual psych-rock extravaganza, Levitation, which scaled down this year in the wake of 2016’s cancellation.

“Doing a bunch of different things has made us better musicians,” Maas says. “I feel like we’ve evolved a lot, and are definitely a lot more open in terms of what we’re willing to do with our music. I feel like our options are endless, and that’s a really good feeling.”

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Musically, “Death Song” bears all the requisite psych-rock hallmarks: ethereal vocals, reverberant slabs of guitar feedback, militant marching tempos that owe themselves at least peripherally to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Yet it also gently pushes the subgenre’s boundaries via blistering guitar leads on “Currency,” the forceful waltz of “Comanche Moon” and the seductive space-grooves of “I Dreamt.”

“I think part of being an artist is being free to do whatever you want,” Maas says. “I look at bands like Radiohead, where it’s like, I have no idea what they’re gonna do next. But I’m gonna eat whatever dinner they prepare me. I’m not picky when I go see Radiohead. I’m not gonna complain if they prepare something I haven’t had before.”

Lyrically, “Death Song” offers vicious, paranoid ruminations on greed and corruption, as evidenced by the lyrics to “Currency”: “I can see currency, how it always sanctions us / All these paper lives you’ve sold / there’s no God in who you trust.”

Amidst a tempestuous political climate, it’s easy to read the record as a reaction to current events. But Maas says the band began working on some of these songs as early as 2012, and their themes are evergreen.

“I feel like these themes have been an issue since the dawn of man: greed, corruption, power, the idea of a monetary unit that has some form of value, how we communicate with each other, how terrible we are at it,” the singer says. “Maybe people wouldn’t have paid attention to it if we had released it two years, three years ago. Maybe it’s just the right place at the right time. I’m not sure. But all these songs speak on issues that I think will be problematic 15 years from now, and were problematic 15, 20, 50 years before.”

The record’s vitriolic first side gives way to melancholy closer “Life Song,” a swirling, six-minute ballad that finds the band grappling with its headlong spiral through the universe, unsure of where in the cosmos they’ll wind up or who will accompany them. It’s a somber resignation, a vast loneliness tinged with hopeful longing, best expressed by Maas’ final words: “I’m dying to say I owe you, I’ll see you on the other side.”

The 11 tracks on “Death Song” present several questions and critiques of society while hesitating to draw any conclusions. Maas likens the songwriting process to the Native American tradition of creating a “death song” to chant courageously in the face of peril.

“We’re chanting these songs to get us through these times,” he says. “We’re just as nervous and scared — and at the same time, have to be hopeful — as everybody else. That’s what these are. These are our death songs that we’re chanting every night.”



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