The Black Angels at Fitzgerald's, 5/24/2013
Photos by Nicholas Zalud
The Black Angels Fitzgerald's May 24, 2013
Every once in a blue moon, a concert experience is so confusing and outside of the norm that it almost doesn't make sense. Friday night's Black Angels show at Fitzgerald's was one of those times.
The Austin retro-psych band is a dry-martini-and-cigarette kind of group, the antithesis of anything high-energy or anthem-heavy. The sound borders on redundant, but in a dense and haunting kind of way, a musical abyss full of dark undercurrents, thumping bass lines, screeching guitar riffs, eerie organ notes, and heavily pounded drums.
The Angels have become notable not only for that narcotic sound, but also for their capability to put on one hell of a live show, despite being the opposite of what one would consider high-energy. There are no gimmicks or tricks; the only aspect of a "show" the band incorporates into their concerts -- apart from their musicianship -- is a myriad of visual stimulation courtesy of some trippy projections.
Friday was no exception. As soon as the band launched into their opening number, a quiet crash of sound came down around us, and the crazy projections and mirror tricks swirling and dancing around us began to create quite a hypnotic sensation.
Given the right circumstances, this could make for quite an intense concert experience, but Friday the combination quickly became overwhelming. After two or three songs, the drone-heavy sound and those never-ending visuals created this deeply mellowed state where everything began to blur together, even without the help of mind-altering substances.
That blur, as trippy and trance-inducing as it is, is also quite unfortunate, really. Front man Alex Maas has an interesting, raw yet ethereal quality to his voice that is reminiscent of Grace Slick (really), but it can get overwhelmed among the show's other components, leaving it difficult to discern where the music ended and his vocals began.
The monotony of the Angels' psych-induced trance was only broken when Maas would scream inexplicably into the microphone at just the right moment to crack the spell, if only briefly. The vocal ebb and flow from the alternate moments of screaming and singing made for quite an interesting ride; we'd fall deeply under the spell of the band's drawn-out, enchanting sound, and then Maas would launch us back into reality at his will.
He used that power carefully, though, breaking the lull at precisely the right moments. He was never jarring or overwhelming, but his moan had just enough of a human quality to remind us that we were not on another planet (or in another dimension, for that matter).
Maas wasn't the only surreal player on that stage, either. Guitarist Christian Bland is quite an interesting character to watch. As he plays, he seems to be an extension of his instrument, or it simply another one of his appendages. Either way, Bland seemed enmeshed with his instrument in a way one can only be if he or she has become a master of the art and playing becomes second nature.
Drummer Stephanie Bailey -- this tough, rad, chick drummer -- is responsible for pulling together the sound. Her thunderous backbeat cradles the rest of the band, making way for Rishi Dhir's rubbery bass and those strange organ notes. It was like being in a loud, haunted hotel at points, and the people onstage were providing the soundtrack to the shadows and other shapes that crept up out of the corners.
The sound was so enmeshed that there was no break or banter among the band members. No one made small talk, no one offered a "Hello, Hooooouuuuuston!" to settle the crowd's nerves. The Angels just played in this collectively gorgeous manner, without intentional theatrics while somehow being heavily theatrical.
Perhaps it was merely the opiate-heavy music emitting from their respective instruments, but as the set played out, I realized that the Angels' mind-bending drone had no delineation from one song to the next. Although I knew that logically the band had indeed ended one song to begin another, I truly didn't know where they'd stopped and started, or what they'd even played. I'd been so mesmerized by the eeriness of the projections and their sinewy yet hollow sound that I'd completely lost track of what I was there to do.
I'd been standing there for hours, and had written down nothing. I had no idea what the set list was, or which albums the songs were pulled from. I was pretty stunned; generally I'm annoying the folks around me with an overabundance of scribbles about the goings-on, but not this time. Nada. Zilch. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that's what a Black Angels concert should be.
Unlike many bands, this one doesn't have a staunch change in sound from one song to the next, but that's not necessarily a negative. As on their albums, their concerts are a collective cache of sound, one best taken in as an experience, just as I'd done.
I had not only listened to the Black Angels play a concert, but I'd experienced it, lights, screams, and all, and I'd done so sans notes. It had been a while since I'd done that at a concert, and to be honest, it was refreshing.
Personal Bias: The guy next to me was having a bit of trouble standing without the help of the wall or my shoulder, so I was slightly distracted by that whole debacle.
The Crowd: Ass-to-elbows packed, and most seemed a little bit zoned out, if you catch my drift.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I'm think I'm freakin' out, dude. Like seriously think I'm freakin' out."
Random Notebook Dump: I'm quite sure I've kept Fitz's Strongbow supply on low since I've begun reviewing shows there on the regular. Perhaps I should step off of the cider and let someone else have their chance.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.