The Black Angels have gotten clean. Their latest release, “Indigo Meadow,” completes the Austin band’s transition—which began on 2010’s “Phosphene Dream”—from the druggy, slow-burning psych-rock of their earlier releases to a tightened, more riff-centric style that oscillates in the sonic space between the Black Keys and the Doors. Funnily enough, “Indigo Meadow” is at its most vibrant and fun during its forays into brazenly unoriginal pastiche, but it sounds stale when the Black Angels try to pull off sophisticated riff-rock.
It used to be an accomplishment to make it through an entire Black Angels album in a single sitting. The band’s 2006 debut “Passover” and 2008 follow-up “Directions to See a Ghost” were characterized by sludgy, reverberating walls of sound that made for an engrossing but exhausting listen. However, “Indigo Meadow” continues the work of its predecessor, “Phosphene Dream,” in stripping away this production in favor of a clear and classic style. Lead singer Alex Maas’s vocals are mostly center-panned and rarely drown under the surrounding instruments, as they often did in the past.
In addition to their evolving production, “Indigo Meadow” also represents a musical shift for the Black Angels. For much of the first half of the album, the band makes an earnest but impotent attempt at stomping, bluesy rock. “Evil Things” and “Don’t Play With Guns” kick off with tight, chromatic riffs from lead guitarist Christian Bland, repeat those riffs through verses, and double down on them in the choruses with headphone-filling overdrive. As characteristically repetitive and well-worn as this style is, making it work demands a convincing aggressiveness and sexual urgency that the Black Angels aren’t up to providing on “Indigo Meadow.” Maas’s vocals are passive rather than swaggering or seductive, and the other members of the band sound as if they’re simply going through the motions. What these songs really need is a dose of chaos—a level of unpredictability to keep them interesting. Instead, they sound canned and sterilized, condemned to fade into the background without putting up a fight.
On “Indigo Meadow,” the Black Angels are best when they set aside any pretense of originality or modernity and dive headfirst into ‘60s nostalgia. This is mostly because they’re superb at evoking the sounds of the bands they imitate. “I Hear Colors (Chromaesthesia)” is an outstanding mix of Jefferson Airplane and the Who. Maas eerily matches Grace Slick’s unique vocal stresses and phrasing while singing some lyrics that wouldn’t sound out of place on “Tommy”: “I hear colors running thru my mind / I can feel them dripping in my eyes.” Elsewhere, “Broken Soldier” and “Always Maybe” work off short, descending melodic phrases and organ riffs pulled straight from the Doors. Both songs also show a significant surf rock influence, kicking off with guitar lines laden with the kind of wet string reverb for which Dick Dale was famous. However, it never feels as if the Black Angels are merely covering or copying these bands—their astonishing skill for imitation makes their appropriations always feel sophisticated and well-formed, rather than forced and stale.
In 1850, Herman Melville claimed that “it is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.” On “Indigo Meadow,” the Black Angels may have proven him wrong. The band’s most derivative songs are the most enjoyable, possibly because its identity in its more original ones feels so lacking. Even if “Indigo Meadow” is a little uneven in that respect, the album has some great highlights, and the parts that aren’t so great are listenable, if not compelling. And hey—if you don’t like it, you can always buy a copy for your dad. He’ll love it.
—Staff writer Will Holub-Moorman can be reached at email@example.com
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