Calling the Black Angels a “’60s throwback” barely begins to describe the band’s indebtedness to all those groovy records that baby boomers wore out sometime during the Nixon administration. It’s like saying Chris Martin might have listened to one or two U2 songs over the years. The Black Angels are named after a Velvet Underground song after all, and frontman Alex Maas’s vocals have always come startlingly close to sounding just like Jim Morrison’s. It makes his decision to write a dead-serious anti-Vietnam War protest song, 2006’s “The First Vietnamese War,” 40 years after the fact almost make sense.
That said, the stoner-friendly psych-rock groove that the Austin-based five piece is capable of working up is absolutely massive. For this and several other reasons, they deserve to be taken seriously and not reflexively laughed off as derivative hacks. For one, they’ve toured with Roky Erickson of 13th Floor Elevators fame, meaning at least one ’60s legend has accepted the band’s shtick as authentic enough. And for another, they’ve managed to amass a respectable collection of strong original hooks and riffs, if not sounds, over the last nine years. Their debut, Passover, was an immersive exercise in VU-style drone rock, delivered with nearly Sabbath-level heaviness. But when that formula turned turgid on 2008’s Directions to See a Ghost, the Angels shifted their approach to incorporate a brighter, swinging-’60s vibe that’s more redolent of the Whiskey A Go-Go than Max’s Kansas City, without compromising the mysterious, druggy overtones of their sound.
This trend continues on the Black Angels’ new EP, Clear Lake Forest, which first appeared on vinyl back in April. All the expected ’60s touchstones are present here: wah-wah guitar straight off the first Stooges album, a woozy descending chord progression that was probably lifted from Jefferson Airplane, some Ray Manzarek-like organ, a ginned-up blues progression one could easily imagine Eric Burdon singing over. These aren’t pale pastiches either; they almost feel like the real thing. “Sunday Evening” crams in enough tempo changes and dippy joint-circle profundity (“What if I told you that everything you know isn’t even really true?”) to truly evoke a time when young Gibson SG-toting dudes from California with a distaste for draft cards were bursting with musical ideas that they could barely contain them within three-minute songs. One can easily imagine the organ-driven rave-up “The Flop” pumping through the speakers at a swinging L.A. club in 1967 as a line of girls in beehive hair and sparkling skirts did the Twist. And in addition to both serving as testaments to the band’s seemingly unending desire to tether the human eye to poetic descriptors, “Tired Eyes” and “Diamond Eyes” both come across splendidly with their spot-on close harmonies and pleasingly varied guitar tones.
Unfortunately, the Black Angels can only keep up the illusion for about 20 minutes, at which point the god-awful six-and-a-half-minute “Linda’s Gone” comes along and shatters it. A pallid simulation of early Velvet Underground, complete with fake viola drone, counterfeit amateur string-swatting guitar solos, and Maas doing the world’s most obvious Lou Reed impression, it’s a baffling way to close out the EP, considering how convincingly retro everything that came before it was. The previous six songs sounded like they were made by a group of guys who’d spent years absorbing the rock music of the ’60s deeply into their bones. “Linda’s Gone” feels like it was made for stoned 16 year olds who just discovered The Velvet Underground & Nico for the first time. But then again, that’s probably where the Angels themselves started out anyway.