Dark Stars


October 27, 2006


"Illness, insanity and death are the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life," said Edvard Munch, the famously dark impressionist painter who gave us "The Scream." The members of the Austin, Texas, band the Black Angels didn't discover that quote until after they'd come together, but they loved it and thoughtfully included it in the cover art for their first full album, "Passover."

"It seemed to work perfectly for the entire vibe of the album," guitarist-vocalist Christian Bland says. "But the name originally came from the Velvet Underground, 'The Black Angel's Death Song.' That is one of Alex's and my favorite songs from their first album ['The Velvet Underground and Nico]."

Bland and bassist-vocalist Alex Maas grew up together outside Houston. "He and I always liked to do music together, but after high school, we went our separate ways: I went off to Florida State, and he went to Texas State," Bland says. "When we were all done, in 2002, we met up again in Austin. I decided to move back to go to graduate school at the University of Texas -- as far as my parents knew! My real reason was to actually play music, so Alex and I met back up and we almost immediately formed a band."

The duo cycled through several groups before the Black Angels finally came together about two years ago. The current lineup is completed by Stephanie Bailey on drums, Jennifer Raines on organ, Nathan Ryan on bass and Kyle Hunt on a number of instruments. Indeed, at any given time, the group may be incorporating two drummers, two bassists, three or four members banging on percussion, or two or three members coaxing weird sounds from an array of analog synthesizers. All of this combines to create a massive, swirling, deliciously dark and moody noise.

"No one plays anything too complicated, because it's all about the layering process of each instrument," Bland says. "From the beginning, that was our goal: To make a wall of sound. A lot of our favorite bands have that" -- in addition to the Velvets, other heroes include Spacemen 3, Spiritualized and early Pink Floyd (one song is called "The Sniper at the Gates of Heaven") -- "so we sort of drew on that inspiration."

More than an exercise in hero worship, "Passover" and the self-titled EP that preceded it offer a fresh take on a familiar sound, thanks to the group's evocative lyrics, layered arrangements, a strong sense of melody that runs through every hypnotizing drone and a seemingly intuitive connection between the musicians.

"When we were making the album, we tried to be in the same room together to capture the live experience, because that's the way it feels best to us," Maas says. "We recorded in a space called Cacophony Recorders here in Austin, and it's just a big open room with three mikes, so you can get everyone in the same room for a live recording session."

"More like 'White Light/White Heat' than 'The Velvet Underground and Nico,'" Bland adds, referencing the group's primary inspirations once more.

The ominous sounds of "Passover" aren't simply an effort to creep listeners out (though the group is an especially fitting booking at Halloween). From the opening tracks "Young Men Dead" and "The First Vietnamese War" through the concluding "Call to Arms" and a hidden acoustic track about a friend fighting in Iraq, the themes of death and warfare run throughout the album.

"Alex and I grew up watching 'Apocalypse Now,' 'Full Metal Jacket' and all those Vietnam War movies," Bland says. "I became obsessed with them; I'll just watch them over and over. And studying history, both of our parents grew up during the Cold War, so there was this fear looming over them.

"Things are sort of similar today. People aren't aware, and no one has got any more knowledge about what's really going on than people had during the Vietnam War. It's the blind leading the blind -- totally a parallel. And if you think about the album title, Passover is the story of the Angel of Death that came around to everyone's houses, and anyone who didn't slaughter the finest lamb and put it on their doorstep was killed. We're not directly talking about that, but indirectly, I think that a lot of people feel that sort of paranoia and fear these days. So it just seemed to fit."