The Black Angels


(Light in the Attic; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 26 April 2006

On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. - Exodus 12:12-13

A dictum in the sky: with a drop of love, you will take them out for me." - The Black Angels, "Young Men Dead"

Are these guys black? - Iggy Pop

I sleep with a drone machine every night (or morning, depending on what day it is). It's commonplace nowadays for others to be lulled by a motor fan, or Music for Airports, or some other non-taxing circular whirr. We're soothed by it; my friend hypothesizes that it reminds us of the regular, steady gurgle of the warm uterine sac. Me, I sleep with the FM radio set to static. Not because I'm such a badass that I sleep to piercing noise, but rather the structure of radio static is such that it's better suited for little old me. Ambient music gives me too many mental pictures; there's too many things to pull from the ether and follow into oblivion. Static, rather, sounds like every sound in the world all trying to speak at once. The sheer excess of notes makes it impossible to unravel, so I don't bother. It's insulating: it builds up a wall against the outside world; it overpowers the noises of the street, or my neighbors watching the television. It also drowns out the tinnitus.

I mention all of this because the liner notes to Passover, The Black Angels' excellent first record, credits a drone machine player, one Jennifer Raines. It's hard to tell whether they need her, though, because the sound they create throughout is just goddamn massive. Entire songs rely on one chord, or, at the most, blues-riffs with all swing sapped from them, two bars maximum. Maybe you get a bridge, or a chorus here and there, but not likely. The whole thing is hypnotic and monolithic, a drone in and of itself. Raines is there, though, you just need to look for her; she's the one providing the appropriate narcotic sheen (although her drone machine sounds suspiciously like a Farifsa organ)*.

Clearly, the Velvet Underground are a key influence – one only needs to look at the two tone artwork to gather that (though I think biblical undertones throughout perhaps inform the band's moniker more than "Black Angels Death Song"). One is left with the distinct impression that if Lou Reed had, somehow, tried to do Black Sabbath, it would sound like this. Actually, the one name I have underlined in my notes repeatedly is Gun Club, the Los Angeles punk band whose Fire of Love is one of the under appreciated records of the 1980s. Like the Black Angels, Gun Club took Robert Johnson's visions of red-eyed dogs and ghosts on the highway (to say nothing of a few riffs) and fused them with nihilistic, cavalier punk sensibility. The difference is that Gun Club were spastic, even spry, and sex obsessed. The Black Angels are lumbering and heavy. I balk at saying "unsexy," because it's still rock n' roll and therefore sexy, but it's the kind of sexy where impending death somehow stirs something in you that wants to feel alive and vital.

The color scheme is a bit of a feint, though. Sure, black is a spooky color, and this is one spooked record, but black and white implies a strictly binary world view, though. What I hear on Passover is better suited for shadows, where things take on sinister or unknown properties in the absence of clear light. "Young Man Dead" is molten lava rolling down the mountain, throwing up rocks on the chorus but leaving the town submerged by smoke. Napalm drips from the trees and defoliates the side during "The First Vietnamese War." Alex Maas sings lyrics of war ("Run for the hills, pick up steel on your way/and when you find a piece of him in your sights/fire at will, don't waste any time") that are alternately paranoid, violent and bloodthirsty. "We did our jobs," he sings, as if one of the Angels of Death, proud of work well done.

There are two dates in the insert of the album: August 1, 1966 and August 9, 1969. The first is the date Charles Whitman climbed a University of Texas clock tower and shot 46 people, killing thirteen. Perhaps it is an inspiration for their song, "Sniper at the Gates of Heaven," but as far as I can tell, no. The latter date is Sharon Tate's murder at the hands of Charles Manson's family. These events are bloody, grisly, and above all nonsensical. These are our deepest fears realized, a deep violation of safety, and it's something the band feeds on. See "A Call to Arms," the album's denouement: "You came in on your own, and you will leave all alone," a subtle reminder of the basic lack of justice inherent in the world; if anyone's guiding this ship, he's a sadist, killing swaddling babes without proof of blood sacrifice.

Passover is a drone machine for the wakeful; its eyes are too open to wanton depravity to be lulling. Indeed, this is insomniac music, a record with which the paranoid, the tongue speakers and streetwalkers will wait for Armageddon. As crushing and gargantuan as it is, it will not be hid behind, like my security blanket of white noise. Their press bio mentions a mantra of "Tune in, turn on and drone out,' but that's not likely either. It's an Indian ritual, a rite of initiation; it's an ominous, portentous warning of the danger's outside, and it's something that can be made only by someone used to the outside. And my God, I love it.

*author's note: The perils of composing reviews sans Press Kit, example #87. Raines is in fact playing a keyboard that she calls a "drone machine."