Last Night: The Black Angels Remain The True Psychedelic Revivalists of Texas

With a noise-heavy approach that expands the classic sounds of the 1960s, The Black Angels have ushered in a new era of psych rock.
With a noise-heavy approach that expands the classic sounds of the 1960s, The Black Angels have ushered in a new era of psych rock. Photo by Connor Fields
Anyone familiar with the musical lineage of Texas knows there’s plenty of pride for Texan music fans to hold onto. Whether it’s the state’s reputation for country (from Bob Willis to Willie Nelson), blues (from Blind Lemon Jefferson to SRV), hip-hop (from DJ Screw to UGK), or rock & roll (from Buddy Holly to Roy Orbison), Texas’ influence on the modern music landscape cannot be overstated. Yet, often overshadowed (or rather completely unknown) is the state’s role in the world of psychedelic rock—a world that is currently amid a statewide revival.

Rather than the many oft-cited groups out of the West-Coast counterculture scene, it was Austin’s own Roky Erickson and his band the 13th Floor Elevators, who in 1965, became the first band to refer to their music as “psychedelic rock.” In doing so, they pioneered a movement of rock & roll that used music itself as a means to further the exploration of the outer limits of human consciousness (certainly aided by the use of mind-altering substances like LSD). This form of rock & roll was one that used reverb-drenched guitar and vocal sounds, experiential lyricism, and distorted production styles to ultimately establish a new angle of garage-rock that relied on creativity and exploration as opposed to what might land radio play.

Before making its way to soon-to-be-mainstream acts like Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, this creative explosion furthered its imprint in the state of Texas with further Austin bands like Shiva’s Headband and the Golden Dawn, San Antonio’s Bubble Puppy, Corpus Christi’s Corpus, and influential Houston groups like Moving Sidewalks and the Red Krayola.

Whether it’s the fault of a counterculture-adverse Nixon administration, the debacle that was 1969’s Altamont Festival, or a sea of change in Texas politics, this statewide explosion of musical freedom quickly dissipated once the 1970s rolled around, never quite reaching the highs of those classic psychedelic sounds established in early Austin rock clubs like the Vulcan Gas Company. That is until the Black Angels emerged out of the I-35 corridor at the turn of the millennium.
click to enlarge
Given the blend of both past and present influences, El Paso's Holy Wave are a prime example of a modern-day psych band.
Photo by Connor Fields
Inspired by bands like The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who began keying in on Erickson’s 1960s style of garage and psych rock a decade prior, The Black Angels launched a new era of psych-infused rock & roll with their 2006 debut, Passover. With it, the band not only established their darkened, noise-heavy approach to the genre, but further created a movement for psych-loving Texans to jump onto. By the time of their third (and most-acclaimed) release in 2010’s Phosphene Dream, the band (with the help of a must-see live show) had created a blueprint for other acts who may have also been inspired by this somewhat-untapped era of rock & roll.

Keying in on this movement, the Angels went on to create the internationally-acclaimed Austin Psych Fest in 2008 (which was later renamed to Levitation in honor of the true psych pioneers, the 13th Floor Elevators). For anyone questioning the recent explosion of the genre, look no further than Levitation—a festival that started out as a single day/single venue event to preserve Austin’s psych rock heritage that has now grown into an international event worthy of weekends in Chicago, France, and Vancouver (including everyone from Brian Wilson to Tame Impala to Slowdive).

What The Black Angels have done with their own music, their festival, and their psych-exclusive record label (The Reverberation Appreciation Society), is leave an imprint on the musical makeup of the state of Texas not unlike that what was left by Roky Erickson over 50 years ago—an imprint that is only continuing to grow deeper and wider with the emergence of psych rock bands throughout the state.

Nothing better emphasizes this point than what Houston psych fans experienced Thursday night at White Oak Music Hall—a night that showcased both the 1960s influences that have formed the sound of the band over last 14 years, as well as the influence that the band has had on the current scene.
click to enlarge
Galveston's-own El Lago proved their worth up against psych rock heavy hitters with an impressively captivating live show.
Photo by Connor Fields
In true form, the Angels chose El Paso-bred Holy Wave as a tourmate, as well as a different up-and-coming Texas band to kick things off for each of the four nights. Lucky for us, Thursday night’s pick was Galveston's-own El Lago, who quickly proved their worth alongside such a stacked bill. Taking a more lighthearted/hook-driven approach to the genre, the band used their 30 minute slot to impressively blend shoegaze sounds of guitar and synth with the infectious vocals of Lauren Eddy, which together had the audience in a dreamlike state by set’s end—an ideal state of mind to be in for Holy Wave.

Given Holy Wave’s stature as a Levitation Fest regular, as well as their international success, those in attendance knew this is far from a band to be ignored in anticipation of the headliner. Instead, the audience was dialed in throughout the band’s nearly hour-long set. Though the band’s upbeat fashion of crowd-favorites like “Western Playland” and “She Put a Seed in My Ear,” are more reminiscent of the classic surf sounds that dominated early psych offerings, it was impossible not to hear certain aspects of The Black Angels throughout the latter parts of the set. Given the outright amount of reverb and echo emanating from all instruments on stage (which were consistently layered over hypnotic drum patterns), songs like “Adult Fear,” filled the room with just enough Angels-like haunt to keep the crowd entranced—a tactic that The Black Angels would soon show off in full force.

Thursday night’s performances from El Lago and Holy Wave were plenty to satisfy any psych rock fan in attendance (and alone showed off both the versatility and excitement surrounding Texas’ current psych rock scene). However, the pure power of a Black Angels live set, and the overall effect it has on its audience is an entirely separate experience of its own.

From the first note on, the Angels made it clear why many consider them the true psych revivalists of the 21st century—that is their ability to create done-like soundscapes while further maintaining pleasurable harmonies that constantly compel anyone in its way. No song better emphasized this ability than “Bad Vibrations.” Though the tune is as simple as any in their catalog, the live presentation fused the song’s classic guitar lick with layers of humming synth tones to form a captivating wall of sound that was everything but simple.
click to enlarge
With an assortment of droning synths, Alex Maas and The Black Angels unleashed their wall of sound on the White Oak Music Hall audience.
Photo by Connor Fields
Another highly notable aspect to the live reputation of The Black Angels (and psychedelic music in general) is their way of blending light with sound to create a completely immersive experience that goes far beyond whatever an audience member may be used to hearing on record. Thursday night’s visual experience consisted of none other than the band’s personal artist, The Mustachio Light Show, who draped projected shapes and color sequences over the band and back wall to further the experience of the night.

For instance, when the band launched into the always-effective “Currency,” off their latest release (2017’s “Death Song”), Mustachio’s light sequences synced with each build of the song to create a pulsating sensory effect that reverberated throughout the room.

By the time the band reached “The Entrance Song” toward the end of the set, the Angels had their audience at its highest point of the night despite the sensory beating they had already taken. Aside from the attractively dangerous vibe that the song’s rhythmic sequence gives off, it was the lyrical choice of lead-singer Alex Maas that won over its crowd. With lines that alternate between Texas highway references (“Rolling fast down I-35,” to “Rolling fast down I-45”), the song possessed something that lifted up everyone in attendance—that is a reminder that this band, despite seeming so otherworldly, is in fact ours.

Yet in essence, this is the exact appeal of psychedelic rock in the first place. Though it has undergone its fair share of highs and lows since the release of The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, this is a niche world of music that has managed to survive off its own ecosystem of fans, labels, and festivals for more than 50 years. With that comes a sense of pride for everyone involved, whether you’re a musician, a visual light artist, or merely a fan attending a Thursday night psych show in Houston. However, what also comes with this is a sense of responsibility for keeping things moving forward. Given the infrastructure put in place by bands like The Black Angels, and the current flooding of young bands taking advantage of this infrastructure, it’s safe to say that this strange world of reverb, echo, and noise is doing just that—especially in the state where it all began.
click to enlarge
Thanks to revivalists like The Black Angels, the world of psych rock is alive and well.
Photo by Connor Fields
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.