From the bleak, muddy drones of their 2006 debut to the Beatles-on-DMT of 2010’s Phosphene Dream, The Black Angels have explored many different modes in psychedelia over the past 10 years. Death Song, their fifth full-length, is both unlike anything they’ve done before and also the most purely Black Angels album they have released. It’s as if the Texas psych-garage mainstays have now fully mapped the edges of their sound and that this process has allowed them to return with an extreme vengeance to the dead center of what they are. From the opener “Currency,” there is a feeling of something falling into place and clicking.
The song is a big smoking all-American machine, with deep engine rumble on the low end and prophesying lyrics about the US monetary system, of all things: “One day this will all be over/One day you will all be gone.” It sets the tone for a dark, mysterious and sweeping record that returns to the combination of politics and mysticism that made their gritty anti-war themed first album Passover so fascinating.
In some ways, Death Song is a return to basics: The reverb-shrouded blues riffs of guitarist Christian Bland, frontman Alex Maas’s effects-treated tribal wail and Stephanie Bailey’s thundering drums. In other ways, it’s their most truly progressive work yet, characterized by bold, complex, even labyrinthine compositions. It’s inspired by ‘60s psychedelia but without glancing backward too much. Adroit production work by Phil Ek, who has worked similar magic for Fleet Foxes and Father John Misty, certainly helped realize this vision.
Lyrically and thematically, there are layers, and a bit of sleight of hand, to match the sound. Some songs like “Currency” and “Comanche Moon,” which is sung from the perspective of Native Americans fighting for their lives, are relatively straightforward. Others are trickier to parse. “I’d Kill for Her” seems to be a simple rock ‘n’ roll song about a bad woman at first, but when you hear about the things “she” does and hear Maas sing “I will not kill for her again,” it reveals itself to be a song about a country that the protagonist has decided to love a little less blindly.
Death Song is an album about fear, and the violence it engenders; love and the lengths we’ll go to to protect the things we love. The clean production and the twisty smoke and mirrors of the songwriting creates a certain distancing from these most mortal of things, as though we have already crossed over and are seeing this world from the other side.