The Black Angels - Passover
Tim Miller 28/08/2006
Using an interesting term to describe their own music, The Black Angels, an American 6-piece from Austin (Texas presumably, from the sound), see themselves as 'Native American Drone 'n' Roll'. Droning, in my opinion, is rarely a good thing. Things become apparent, though, as the album goes on. Also interesting is how the complementary press quotes from the lead singer mentions the band's “six members”, yet only five names appear in the release itself, and only five are credited in the album sleeve.
Strange. To the music, in any case. A country and western riff opens Passover, which repeats through the song. The vocals come across with a confident, southern US drawl, though at a cumbersome pace, the song begins to drawl on a bit itself at 5 and a half minutes long. The Western (as in the film genre) and blues feel to their sound, with pounding, plodding drums to emphasis each beat, becomes the signature to each track, as does the reason to why they describe themselves as drone 'n' roll. The press release depicts The Black Angels as a soundtrack to a journey through the searing heat of the desert, and the songs, like the ruthless, inescapable sun, do start to wear your resolve.
They seem, indeed, are, based around one motif, sometimes (The Sniper at the gates of Heaven, The Prodigal Sun, Empire) just the one droning note. Admittedly, this '60s rhythm 'n' blues influenced formula does have a raw power, which is no doubt helped by a constant droning organ sound in each song. It's hard to hear, however, what there is for five people to be doing within the music, never mind the phantom sixth member. Imagine being the organ player.
Attacking the motives behind the US war in Iraq on Young Men Dead and The First Vietnamese War particularly, lyrically The Black Angels believes they have a message that (still) needs to be heard. A lot of killing and dying, and no one seems to care . They have a point, though, as if the title of the latter track doesn't give it away. Vocalist Christian says: “We're taught history in school so we can learn from our past mistakes”. The Black Angels, however, don't learn from theirs. Black Grease slips by uninterestingly, about the slowest song on the LP, guitars playing the now standard blues scales in and around the droning note. At times, this formula visits Joy Division territory, with the low end verses and sotto voice vocals on Manipulation. But mainly, more country and blues scale twiddling on Better Off Alone and Bloodhounds on my Trail continue to soundtrack this searing desert road trip. While the latter is the album's most uptempo song, it still refuses yet again to leave the solid droning base note.
Each track, in fact, lumbers towards you from the horizon like a dark, distant, unknown threat, daring you to stay in its path. But the threat never quite arrives: it's just a buffalo, rumbling harmlessly by without so much as a minor skirmish. With the shadows lengthening, the marching drums and guitars of Call to Arms, the final song, similar to the pure rock of Stone Roses or James, struts along for nearly 6 minutes, before going twanging off into the sunset.
Or not? That, apparently, was not the end in sight, but a mirage: back come the drums, the guitars; the sun rises again slightly to accommodate this change of plan, and the dust finally settles at the post-10 minute mark. The Black Angels have trotted rather than galloped through their sun-drenched red rock soundscapes, having pillaged -
BUT WHAT'S THIS! EGADS! Suddenly, down the now-shadowy valley for a final parting shot, comes an acoustic guitar charge and more slander on the US foreign policy; He's fighting in the Iraq war/what for?. Employing a safe two-chords again, though sans the 'drone machine' as it's called, this secret song does finally see out the album for good.
Back to that brilliant cowboy analogy. Passover, the debut from The Black Angels, really does create a sound like that of a dusty trail through the stark landscapes of Cowboys and Indians lore. But it's slow progress, there's no confrontation, just a constant stand-off. After a promising start, eventually the album as a whole passes without incident, and by the end has become worryingly monotonous. Though they began this journey purposely, The Black Angels become disorientated, lost in a landscape where everything looks and sounds remarkably similar, and with the sound copy and pasted rather than recreated, and their tendency to fall back into the comfort drone, Passover simply wagons on by.