The Black Angels at the Varsity Theater, 10/26/10
October 26, 2010
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
As a wholly out of control storm raged outside, a tightly controlled one erupted from the stage at the Varsity Tuesday night. With the stage bathed in eerie red and blue lights--lights that on occasion turned white and shone into the crowd, which made it look like we all might meet our maker a la the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark--Austin, TX five-piece drone/psychedelic rockers the Black Angels put forth a set that, while not exceptionally animated, was certainly impressive.
Unlike most bands who work in and around this genre of late, two things set them far, far apart from the pack:
1.) The Black Angels' songs are all distinct from one another. Despite the use of an instrument they have dubbed "The Drone Machine," the show didn't seem like a non-stop barrage of indistinguishable, aimless noise (it was definitely noisy, but there was a clear direction in all of it) and the songs were actually fairly catchy.
2.) You do not have to be on drugs to listen to and enjoy this band.
That might sound like a cheap shot but nearly every other band of this genre has been met with this reaction from me: "Do I not get this because I don't do drugs?" The Black Angels are psych-rock for the non-stoner set, maybe. So many of the neo-psychedelica bands seem to think they can just throw and handful of fuzzboxes, some reverb and and truckload of feedback into the water like so much chum and the stoners will come swimming in, and to a degree that might be true, but the Black Angels seem to have realized that was a zero-sum game and, as they displayed Tuesday, have begun to reach for the brass ring.
Overall, the show looked almost exactly how you'd picture it in your head: backlit, smoky haze wafting into the crowd, sometimes obscuring the band so much that it seemed like much of the music was simply churning out of the ether. The band was also surprisingly average-looking (when visible), there were no outrageous outfits or creative facial hair to be found and I guess that was only startling because on record (their new Phosphene Dream in particular) it seems like they may, in fact, be steampunk robots. However, they're normal-looking human beings just like the rest of us and, for some reason, that's extraordinarily comforting.
Nothing overly spectacular happened at this show, no surprise guests or mind-blowing covers, but somehow if things like that had happened they would have seemed forced or tacked on and showy. Does something above and beyond have to occur to make a show great? Some may argue that it does but I'm not in that camp. There shouldn't have to be a checklist of things that need to happen to make a show memorable, sometimes you just know and the better bands can do it with minimal outside help. In this case, the absence of glitz and glitter made for a near-perfect set. Maybe "stripped down" is the new "everything and the kitchen sink."
Critic's bias: In the past few weeks I've found that coffee and Phosphene Dream are the prefect combination to wake me up in the mornings.
The Crowd: Far fewer neo-hippies than anticipated.
Overheard in the crowd: [regarding the Varsity's new bathroom sinks] "They turn on just like the ones in elementary school!"
Random Notebook Dump: Forget Pantera, these are the real cowboys from hell.