The Black Angels
Light in the Attic
un for the hills, pick up your feet and let's go.”
Heavy drumming, riffs that the kids today would probably think of as looped, somebody playing a “drone machine,” a bearded singer with enough echo to credibly play sepulchral when occasion demands; the result is something like a more assertive Unintended on a bender, or the Brian Jonestown Massacre if they weren't busily trying to disappear up Anton Newcombe's ass and were seriously concerned with The Fear. Garage rock with the frenzy replaced by dread, teenage kicks aborted by conscription.
The Black Angels don't take their name from a biker gang or some sort of recombinant colour and noun device, but from an Edvard Munch quote, handily included: “Illness, insanity, and death are the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” And the band sure seem to be trying to follow in his footsteps. Sure, they're trying to drag a vibe from the '60s straight into the present, but on songs like “Young Men Dead” or “The First Vietnam War” it doesn't feel like homage or practiced cool so much as a bunch of kids so caught up in the myths of American history that they risk being consumed by its ghosts. Maybe I've been reading too much Grant Morrison recently, but there's a pervasive feeling of creeping unease throughout Passover, like the world went subtly wrong decades ago and we're only slowly awakening to the horror of the taint now. The best songs here exist at that strange intersection where history folds in on itself, where singing “Don't stop moving, they're right behind you” could apply to just about any terror from the present or the past or the future, not because they're all bad but because they're all the same—the Empire never ended, and it never will, at least not by our hands.
You gave a gift to me, in my young ageAlthough this is certainly big, brawling Fuck-Off Rock, there's a sense of powerlessness coursing throughout these songs. The bigger the sound gets, the more Alex Maas sounds trapped by it, and the more trouble our nameless protagonist in the jungle or desert or city is in. Just as the best anti-death penalty movies never actually rail against the electric chair, Passover skips hippy-dippy “like, war is bad” arguments for sheer crippling psychosis, shell shock in excelsis deo. By the time the thickly twanging sitar(?) of “Manipulation” kicks in and Maas is singing about a woman instead of killing and dying (well, for a verse at least), it feels like light relief.
You send me overseas
Naturally enough, directly after that, the drum starts hammering again at the beginning of “Empire” and we're back in the claustrophobic caverns of history's bad places, the ones that haven't really touched middle (North) America for a long time. The ones people have only started thinking of again (albeit in a muddled, confused, unhelpful way) in the last five years or so. If the pulverizing anxiety of Passover is “about” anything, it's about being cut loose from what we now think of as civilization, lost in the field and never finding your way back; about being bleached clean of the ability to lead a normal life by our standards. When an exhausted Maas croaks out what sounds like “I'm better off with war” near the end of the album the fact that this album is ultimately a narrative of defeat is clear.
But he's preaching to the choirOf course, some people won't want to listen to 50 minutes of intense deathdrone psych-rock, and the ten minutes of the oddly triumphal “Call to Arms” (where the vocals finally retreat fully behind the music and sit comfortably in inscrutability) is probably where they'll give up, but not only will they be missing a great album, they'll also miss the telling, fairly psychosis-free acoustic coda. Hidden behind minutes of silence (always a bad choice) the band finally succumbs to those trite peacenik clichés they've been avoiding. But it works, somehow; as fraught as the experience is from the inside, all you get back home is a telegram telling you your son is dead and a bunch of onlookers with nothing to do but say “somebody please stop that war.” Passover won't accomplish that, of course, and a very real part of its power is the fact that the Black Angels know that and use the helplessness on the part of rank and file soldier and overseas observer to ratchet up the tension. This album could have been made at any time and still retained most of its impact, due to the sheer force of the music and the eternal certainty that somewhere people's lives are being turned to shit by conflict. The Black Angels are just “lucky” enough that we live in times where this music hits closer to home than ever.
And that choir is death and noise
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2006-04-12