Austin’s The Black Angels launch their latest tour run at Tower Theatre 

click to enlarge The Black Angels Photo Alexandra Valenti / provided
  • The Black Angels Photo Alexandra Valenti / provided

The Black Angels’ death march has come to a halt, and the Austin psych-rock quintet now turns to Oklahoma City to launch its next campaign.

The band spent a good portion of 2017 on its Death March Tour promoting its fifth full-length studio album Death Song, released April 21.

If these references are starting to sound familiar, it’s because the band’s name and album title are both direct references to Velvet Underground’s song “The Black Angel’s Death Song.”

The Black Angels’ Death March Tour has technically concluded, but the band is still high on its recent LP and ready to launch a new, highly anticipated co-headlining tour with Atlanta “flower punk” garage rockers Black Lips.

The Birds and the Bees Tour actually begins its run of shows in OKC with its first gig 8:30 p.m. March 20 at Tower Theatre, 425 NW 23rd St.

Black Angels’ vocalist, bassist, guitarist and keyboardist Alex Maas managed to fit an interview with Oklahoma Gazette into a busy schedule that, in addition to promoting the band’s latest album, includes balancing duties with his newly formed band MIEN, a super group that includes The Horrors’ Tom Furse, Elephant Stone’s Rishi Dhir and The Earlies’ John Mark Lapham.

Maas said he is raring to go at the start of every tour run.

“Usually, it’s like, ‘Oh, shit! Here we go,’” Maas said. “There’s only way to do it, and that’s just dive in. If you start looking at how long the tour is or whatever, you get to be like, ‘Oh, man.’ But you just have to get in there and take it one show at a time.”

In addition to the band’s entrancing psych-rock sounds, The Black Angels are known for songs addressing political issues and questioning longstanding conventions of society. Its debut LP Passover was released in the fog of the Iraq War in 2006 and includes an 18-minute restyled cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam” titled “Call to Arms.”

Death Song carries a similar social conscience, with songs warning of blind nationalism and greed. The album feels relevant to the modern political climate, but Maas said many of its songs were actually written in 2014, two years ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

“I felt like they were kind of current then, and I still feel like they’re current now,” he said. “At the end of the day, we just want to make music that encourages people to think for themselves and challenges them in new ways.”

Maas said the lyrics’ unchanged timeliness is a reminder that the world did not just recently plunge into corruption or darkness. There is an odd comfort in knowing that mankind has almost always been a mess yet still trudges onward.

“It’s not some new, fresh thing,” Maas said. “Our world has been mental and nutty for the past 2,000 years.”

Cultural connections

At a young age, Maas would make frequent trips to his grandfather’s ranch in Lampasas, Texas, about 70 miles northeast of Austin and more than 200 miles from his original hometown of Houston. Though he was not Native American himself, his grandfather would tell him stories of the area’s great Native history. He remembers finding old arrowheads all over the ranch property.

The Black Angels have paid frequent homage to Native culture and music throughout the band’s history. For Maas, the bond is highly personal and deeply related to his family’s longstanding respect for the people who first inhabited the continent.

Maas’ parents owned a plant nursery in Houston and frequently played Native music in it. The musician’s father was a collector of ancient artifacts and pottery from a wide variety of cultures, including many Native items from pre-Columbian eras. His dad would buy arrowheads in bulk at auctions, and the two of them would go through the collection one by one, identifying each type of arrowhead and which tribe made it and talking about the tribe’s cultural traditions.

Maas has long been fascinated with Native music as well. He relates to the kind of Native musicians who are not classically trained but have learned through their ancestral heritage and take inspiration from the world around them.

“They’re singing about the Earth,” he said. “They’re storytelling about how to survive and how to live and how to die.”

Death Song includes the track “Comanche Moon,” which is told from the perspective of a Native warrior fighting for survival against colonialists. There are other points in the album where different rhythms feel like they were inspired by Native music. Because of the way white European settlers treated and killed off many of the continent’s native inhabitants, Maas said he feels almost obligated to pay homage to Native culture in some way.

“It’s more of a fascination with their history and their demise, which is unbearably hard to comprehend and fascinating in the saddest way,” he said.

While direct genocide against Native people no longer exists in this country, Maas said many powers still refuse to accept some cultural traditions as valid.

“It’s still happening,” he said. “The Native American culture is still getting stepped on, and they’re not being acknowledged. There’s upward trends, but it’s still a travesty.”

click to enlarge Death Song | Image provided

Other levels

Most of The Black Angels’ music comes layered, not just lyrically, but musically. Maas said the band intentionally packs a lot into its songs because those are the types of songs the members enjoy themselves.

“Those are some of my favorite records whenever you’re discovering new stuff about the record all the time,” he said.

Maas enjoys crafting songs that can be taken to mean different things when thought of from different perspectives.

“If you’re writing in archetypes,” he said, “a lot of time, you’re writing in double, triple, even quadruple speak where you’re thinking about multiple things at once.”

On a tune like “Comanche Moon,” for example, there is the historical significance on the song’s surface level and deeper undertones about power’s general lack of respect for different kinds of people. By writing on multiple levels, The Black Angels underscore the universality of a lot of society’s ills and the idea that many of the planet’s problems come from longstanding flaws encoded in human nature.

Maas said just about every detail in the band’s songs has some kind of identifiable purpose, either to the track’s narrative or to its musical structure.

“That’s the goal for me and our band, to really think about every little thing,” he said. “You’re not just throwing a bass line on there; you’re thinking about it, comparing the tones, asking, ‘Does this sound better with that?’”

Paying tribute

The Black Angels have never been shy about their influences, be it The Velvet Underground, Native culture or anything else. The group is more open than some other bands would ever be.

“Some bands want to keep their influences in their pocket because they’re secret to them and they think that no one can find out who they are, like [their influences] come from a magical box they found in the desert,” Maas said.

It might seem like Native music and culture would have a hard time jelling with electric psych-rock, but Maas said his style of music is a direct derivative of what was played by others centuries ago.

“My whole thing is psychedelic music has always been around,” he said. “If you go by my definition, it’s been there since the dawn of man.”


Print Headline: Taking Flight, Austin’s The Black Angels launch their latest tour run at Tower Theatre.

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