Ask Alex Maas to define “psychedelic,” and he’s got an answer ready.
“Eighteen grandmothers in a yellow polka-dot bikini, playing banjo onstage,” he says.
It’s a shitty, sarcastic answer, sure. But you gotta figure that, as frontman for the Black Angels, founders of Austin Psych Fest and a band that named itself for a Velvet Underground song and worshipped the cosmic drone back in the early ’00s when rhythm-obsessed bands like Joy Division and Gang of Four were the retro tunes of choice and the phrase “Tame Impala” meant fuck-all to anyone, he’s probably heard that one before.
Turns out this is just one more case where the dictionary is even less helpful than a rock star. “Psychedelic,” says Merriam-Webster, is a noun meaning “a psychedelic drug (such as LSD).” But let’s assume our friends are lame, and scoring Lucy in order to better understand an article just isn’t an option.
We’re back to the grandmothers and the polka-dot bikini, which doesn’t much describe the band’s sound. If it’s any help, Maas names like-minded visual artist Alex Grey as a fellow psychonaut. For the uninitiated, the music of the Black Angels, free from its more complicated antecedents, might be the Platonic ideal for psychedelic music, combining that famous Velvet hum with the self-serious lyrical poetry of Jim Morrison (not hating — somebody has to bring in the wood for carving, as Ezra Pound says). To put it another way, the Black Angels are the only hipster-era band likely to write a war protest song with zero irony. But they aren’t interested in rehashing the Flower Power era, Maas says. It’s more complicated than that.
“If a song sounds good, if it makes us feel good, then we’ll keep playing it,” Maas says. “It might be more hip-hop psychedelic, it might be more traditional ’60s psychedelia, it might be folk psychedelic music or surf or garage. There’s so many different genres, so it’s kind of difficult to just focus on one thing.” Their latest, Indigo Meadow, moves through all of these sub-genres and then some without missing a mind-blowing beat, while baiting hooks with catchy choruses and offering heavy-handed but timely criticism on “Don’t Play With Guns.”
According to an article in LIFE published in 1969, “true ‘acid rock’ goes deeper than just lyrics. It employs a monotonous, harshly amplified drone sound which can act as a psychedelic stimulus,” and that seems fair. Without Owsley Stanley’s kitchen-sink acid, there’d be no USA, circa 1967, and without 50 years of drug-abusing rock stars, there’d be no Black Angels. Even if they can’t define it, the Black Angels are the standard-bearers for modern psych-rock, and if you ever do get ahold of those drugs, you’ll be goddamn glad they’re here.
7pm Sunday, May 26
The White Rabbit
2410 N St. Mary’s
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