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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #9

The Black Angels
Directions to See a Ghost

The self-proclaimed weirdest town in America, Austin, Texas, makes its second mark in a row on the list with psychadelic stoner rock quintet, The Black Angels. Their sophomore release, Directions to See a Ghost, is, with its fuzzed-out guitars, tribal beats, and wandering sitar lines, the kind of album that envelopes you with its sound and hits the ninth place among my best albums of the year.

The only way to listen to this album, especially its opening track and single, "You on the Run," is to turn it up as loud as your stereo can manage and let it roll over you, feeling the vibrations of the thumping toms and rumbling bass lines buzz through your skin, the hair on the back of your neck and up your arms standing on end. Every detail in the production here is paid deft attention to, allowing the album to come off dirty and loose while not losing an ounce of quality, no instruments going overlooked as Alex Maas' delayed vocals swoop in and out of the speakers. My my, those vocals: they're what holds it all together, the perfect compliment to the sludgy beats with their creepy, echoing, mid-range howls. There is a timeless quality in them and their production that hearkens back, utterly fittingly so, to The Velvet Underground, to the point that if I didn't know that the Angels were a current band, I might peg them on sound alone as one of VU's contemporaries back in the late Sixties.

The Angels themselves even blur that line with their logo, a super-high contrast photo of Nico caught in a circle, the band's name running along the inside circumference. I think it is this self-recognized tie to pop music that sets The Black Angels apart from their peers like J. Mascis' Witch who also released their sophomore effort, Paralyzed, this year. As fuzzy and noisy as they get, the Angels know and understand what makes a pop song, and they use it even in the constraints of their genre to produce a brand of psychadelica that wouldn't feel out of place in the halls of modern, classic, or indie rock. With these finely tuned sensibilites at work, you might even find yourself shaking your booty to some of these jams if you aren't so fucked on acid as you listen that you can't move more than your eyelids.

Pulling influences from Lou Reed instead of Ozzy Osbourne gives the Angels a wider palate to work from and more room to adventure (though it is done subtley enough here, in choice of chord progression and production approach, instead of other aspects that might make the album come off as shallow or forced--think Axl Rose's foray into industrial rock with Chinese Democracy's track "Shackler's Revenge"). With this freedom, the entire album feels fresh and new, while still retaining a sense of purpose--quite an achievement for a band working in such a specific genre.

Directions to See a Ghost is just that. Turn it on at midnight, as high as it can go (and as high as you can go, too, if that's your style), and see all kinds of scary-ass shit. That's what stoner rock does, and this is stoner rock at its finest.

The Black Angels - You in Color

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