Last night at Boulder's Fox Theatre, as Austin's Black Angels shrieked, stomped, thrashed and pounded, my mind kept curiously dragging me back to the old-school AC/DC anthem, "Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be." Yes, the Devil's music is still very much alive. The Black Angels are nice guys (and a fierce drummer gal) who happen to play sinister, explosive music that simultaneously makes you smile and worry a few evil notes might actually rip your heart out Temple of Doom-style.
The co-ed psych-rockers' walk-on music was the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," which made their opener, Phosphene Dream's "Bad Vibrations," even more pleasing to the celebratory audience, high on Cinco de Mayo partying and pre-graduation exhilaration (guitarist/singer Christian Bland was sure to mention both).
"What a cool town you guys live in," scruffy singer Alex Maas told the capacity crowd before his group broke into "Young Men Dead," from the Black Angels' sizzling 2006 debut album, Passover. The tribal sludge that made the band famous a few years ago is just getting better with time, juxtaposing the Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath, the 13th Floor Elevators and the Doors.
Songs like "Prodigal Son" energize fans of heavy music while setting the bodies of young psychedelia lovers in frantic motion; they also somehow make sense of Maas' comment to me an interview three years ago that his biggest creative inspiration is "the unknown." In a town like Boulder it's always good to be shaken awake by lyrics that don't just tell you everything's gonna be alright.
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Phosphene Dream, the quintet's latest LP, marks a low point in its career, with only a few highlights, including the title track and "Bad Vibrations." The lyrics often seem drugged-out rather than enlightened and cutting; even the aforementioned standouts are just too derivative at times -- occasionally parroting "Not to Touch the Earth" and "The End" -- and mixing almost whimsical '60s surf music with the dark stuff is hit-or-miss. But in concert, although the Cinco de Mayo performance was the least impressive of the three Colorado Black Angels shows I've seen since 2008, barely a moment was dull.
The new songs made it obvious that, like Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire, everyone in the Black Angels can -- and often does -- play any instrument on the stage, which brings a sense of togetherness off of which delighted audiences hungrily feed.
Plus, the whimsy of Phosphene numbers like "Yellow Elevator #2" seemed to make sense in the razor-sharp wilderness of mischievous bombast that makes Black Angels concerts special; and the focused violence of Stephanie Bailey's Bonham-meets-Moe Tucker drumming kept the Crazy Train snug on the rails -- even when a fan hit her square in the chest with a full water bottle.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Sleepy Sun, whose frontman Bret Constantino told me after the Fox show that talented co-lead-singer Rachel Williams quit the band recently because "she was sick of being in a band with a bunch of dudes," played a gig with my old group The Love X Nowhere in Los Angeles about five years ago. Back then they were a smattering of UC Santa Cruz kids known as Mania. Random Detail: Judging from the Fox's concert calendar for the rest of May, it looks like sparse times for rock shows if you're actually spending the summer in Boulder like I am. By The Way: The Black Angels' encore -- "Bloodhounds On My Trail," "You On the Run" and "Phosphene Dream" -- was a flawless mini-set to itself, showcasing menacing Southern Rock with a hint of the Stooges, a swirling ceremonial dirge for 21st Century paranoids, and a truly inventive, dynamic existential buildup that, in my humble opinion, probably rivaled anything the Doors ever played. The long encore boasted some of the best material from the group's three albums -- here's hoping someone recorded it. Where's the "Taper's Section" at non-jamband concerts anyway?