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Courtesy of the artist
The Black Angels: Death Song
Courtesy of the artist
Looking back at The Black Angels' 13-year career, it's a wonder it took the group so long to name an album Death Song. The Austin-based collective originally took its name from The Velvet Underground classic "The Black Angel's Death Song," as befits its dark, droning take on hard-edged psychedelia. The Black Angels' Death Song, however, is far from some kind of VU tribute. While continuing to evolve the seething, hypnotic tradition laid down by Lou Reed, John Cale, and company in the 1960s, The Black Angels have delivered an enormous and frighteningly timely fifth album full of uniquely trippy anthems to oblivion.
Being a band that goes for such a timeless sound, The Black Angels have rarely gotten too topical in their music. That's changed with Death Song. Composed primarily during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, the album dwells on the toxicity of the current political climate. It doesn't offer any easy answers. "One day it'll all be over," sings frontman Alex Maas on "Currency," Death Song's paint-stripping opener — and beneath the corrosive, mind-numbing riffs is an eerie meditation on extinction and how it ties into our transactional view of life. Similarly, "Grab As Much (As You Can)" dives headlong into the existential conundrum of self-worth on a metaphysical scale: "Now I'm thinking there's no use for me," deadpans Maas as the band gyrates kaleidoscopically around him.
Things get more emotional, in an equally harrowing sense, on "I'd Kill For Her." A classic tale of romantic, death-obsessed doom, its snarling leads and stomping rhythm hints at a more haunting notion: How far would any of us go, either personally or nationalistically, for the sake of loyalty and devotion? The dire psychic undertow of the album adds heft to an already heavy collection of songs. "Comanche Moon" gallops along on a blackening wave of "death and destruction," citing the United States' history of genocide against Native Americans. At the same time, the song's disorienting melody and headphone-friendly swirl of distortion is downright enchanting. And on "Medicine," a throbbing pulse dissolves into a swooning chorus that's the closest Death Song comes to pure pop.
The album concludes with two tracks that bookend each other: "Death March" and "Life Song." The former, aptly enough, lurches along on a martial beat, letting Maas' ghostly, multi-tracked vocals echo like a choir of lost souls. But where "Death March" feels like an inexorable onrush toward the cliff, "Life Song" is drifting and spacious. So much so, in fact, that it bears a clear — and surely reverent — similarity to David Bowie's "Space Oddity," right down to its first-person narrative about an astronaut lost in space. Suffused with queasy effects and glistening strums of the guitar, it also nods toward A Saucerful Of Secrets-era Pink Floyd. "I'm traveling upside down / Into a world of the unknown," chants Maas; fittingly, Death Song, ends on a note of sci-fi escapism that actually taps into the real-life anxieties of isolation, alienation, and paralyzing helplessness in the face of upheaval and uncertainty. It may not be the lightest listen, but in these chaotic times, it's a cathartic one.