By screwing vintage 13th Floor Elevators riffs down to trip-hop tempos, the Black Angels struck psych-rock pay dirt. The Austin, Texas-based quintet’s 2006 debut, Passover, and its follow-up, Directions to See a Ghost, were sufficiently fuzzy-headed to win over a few record-store nerds, but also possessed enough head-bobbing grooves to keep college dudes from getting bored. The Black Angels’ third album, Phosphene Dream, is groovier still. Recorded in Los Angeles with producer D. Sardy (Black Mountain, Holy Fuck), it finds the band peeling back the psychedelic murk and tempering its bad vibes with a hint of flower-power homage. It’s about time, too. After two records of hazy drones and mid-tempo grind, the Black Angels desperately needed to hit the defog button and get some perspective.
It helps that the group has flushed out its Rolodex of Acceptable Psychedelic Influences. On “True Believers”, frontman Alex Mass bends his voice into a spooky and near-perfect approximation of Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick. “Haunting at 1300 McKinley” borrows some bluesy shuffle from the Animals. “Yellow Elevator #2” slips from a spiky Pink Floyd-inspired organ hook to an eerie Odessey and Oracle-worthy outro. These are welcome additions to the band’s sonic palate, but the past doesn’t hold all the answers for the Black Angels. Their eerie vibe doesn’t mesh very well with the hippie decade’s perkier moments. “Sunday Afternoon” brings those 13th Floor Elevators riffs back up to speed, but lacks that band’s cult-ish quirks. “Telephone”, the album’s up-tempo tambourine-fueled first single, comes off as an underdeveloped British Invasion pastiche. Or maybe it’s just out of place, sandwiched between haunted-head-shop fare like “The Sniper”.
Instead, the record works best when the band simply reigns in the sludgy brew th at defined its sound early on. Whether pushed by Sardy or entirely of their own volition, the Black Angels have tightened up their songwriting. It’s the subtle things that make a difference– laying off the atmospherics, incorporating sudden shifts, and clamping down on the meandering jams. Album opener “Bad Vibrations” starts pretty much where Directions to See a Ghost left off, but it gets an adrenaline shot for a noise-addled final minute. The album’s heaviest track, “River of Blood”, cycles from steady groove to free-form freak-out to precision-wound fuzz riffage in just four minutes.
The Black Angels had some great songs on Passover and Directions to See a Ghost, but after a few tracks, they all began to sound the same. Phosphene Dream is a step up, if only for the little bit of variety that the tighter arrangements and genre-hopping provide. You can take it a piece at a time or swallow it in one big dose.
— Aaron Leitko, September 24, 2010