Album Reviews

The Black Angels – Phosphene Dream

(Blue Horizon) UK release date: 13 September 2010


Some bands – a scant few – have a sound that goes beyond mere music, their very name a byword for whole moods. For Portishead the shadowy half-light of 3am melancholy; Arcade Fire the sunset tinge of childhood years, whilst Boards Of Canada have the twitching fade of an old transistor radio, the batteries slowly dying.

The Black Angels, though – they’re a whole landscape, arid and airless, the light a dirty mustard and every breath the choke of dust. We’ve been there in the most hallucinatory sequences of Natural Born Killers and The Lost Highway, in the clipped, spare prose of Cormac McCarthy, deserts receding away from ruler-straight tarmac roads melting in the heat. It’s a dead landscape, exhausted and pitiless and unchanging.

It’s one that the Texan band have been exporting since 2004, their three albums a geology of droning riffs and seismic drumming, Andrew Maas’ vocals practically a voiceover to a fever-dream of claustrophobia. It’s a sound immediately and inescapably theirs and, like all wildernesses, it’s fatally alluring.

Opener Bad Vibrations sets the tone: dark and filmic, guitar lines menacing over a dirge of ceaseless reverb and ritualistic beats. It’s the most immediate of the 10 tracks, an inroad laden with portent and, at its close, panic, the tempo accelerating nightmarishly and ceasing just as abruptly.

Haunting At 1300 McKinley might soften it slightly, its basslines almost – almost – danceable, but the fever-dream soon returns with the seasick shifts of Yellow Elevator and the psychedelica of Sunday Afternoon. And from that point onwards the album closes in; River Of Blood a violent mesh of power chords, disembodied howls and final, cacophonous swells of noise. The nursery-rhyme vocals of True Believers might add some life to the album’s latter half, although Phosphene Dream overall, like its title track, still remains a deeply tense, unsettling listen, given to sudden shifts and fits of white noise.

This is a world hermetically-sealed, at times cloyingly so, and in the wrong mood it’s suffocating. Those hunting choruses or classic riffs, or even any memorable hooks or lines will leave wanting: the 36 minutes here seem purpose-made to defy recall, whether an hour or even a minute later. But Phosphene Dream is not a release to sing along to so much as lie helpless with whilst narratives spawn and play out in your imagination, invariably twisted and terrifying but always interesting. Psychological trauma might not necessarily be what you what you want from an album, but at least it provokes a response.


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