Words by Tommy Johnson
Continuously incorporating themes that almost everyone can find a correlation with themselves in, The Black Angels have ultimately mastered the art of lyrical ambiguity. Followed by their cerebral craftsmanship of modern psych-rock, the band’s music has captured a deeply personal connection with those who listen.
Wildnerness Of Mirrors (out now via Partisan) fittingly emerges when people want to find a common bond with their thoughts and emotions during these distressful times. Centering on universal themes that include the effects of the pandemic, political turbulence, and the escalating deconstruction of the environment, The Black Angels’ approach to the new album is felt from start to finish.
Laying the foundation of Wildnerness Of Mirrors in their home in Austin, The Black Angels looked to local engineer Brett Orrison along with longtime Dinosaur Jr engineer John Agnello to help create the album’s mystique qualities. The album’s opener, “Without a Trace,” slinks into the fold with haunting keys then blasts fuzzed-out guitars and howling vocals. “Empires Falling” is a rolling rocker that slams various hypnotizing guitar riffs. “El Jardin” is a standalone rocker with lead singer Alex Maas’ pleading vocals.
Off Shelf: Since the band’s formation back in 2004, the city of Austin has transformed considerably. With so much change, what would you say is the status of the music scene in your eyes?
Alex Maas: I think Austin has a powerful music scene, but I fear that the cost of living is driving musicians out like most others. Musicians are getting paid pre-pandemic rates to play while the world has inflated, leaving us in a pickle.
OS: There has been so much that has transpired since Death Song was released. When did the backdrop for Wilderness of Mirrors start to crystalize lyrically?
AM: It started right after the release of Death Song and was wrapped up before the pandemic. So this isn’t our “pandemic record,” so to speak. That one has not been released yet!
OS: With all that’s unfolded over the past few years, how therapeutic was working on new music for you?
AM: I think creating music was a huge part of my sanity system. It always has been. Making music is our way of trying to understand the world; it’s cathartic in many ways. I personally wasn’t surprised when the pandemic happened or when Russia invaded Ukraine. Haven’t we always been on the brink of a third World War? Our music and themes prepared me personally for all of this in many ways. I was more like, “Okay, I kinda saw that coming,” although I would never have dreamed its impact would take live touring away for nearly two years. The human race got lucky on this one, and I hope we all learned the severity of the situation and how a small fire can quickly turn into a global fireball. The next pandemic could be a deal breaker for humans. Maybe it’s already here. [laughs]
OS: The duration of putting together the new album was rather lengthy. Would you go about the same process in future albums?
AM: It wasn’t. It takes time to book tours, time to tour, time to put a team together and a plan, and it takes time to make a record. If you think about the average record cycle for our band is roughly two and a half years. We are playing the long game here so I’m not too focused on speed: Tortoise and the Hare.
OS: I love seeing the communal approach with the new album. Did it feel like the band was starting fresh coming back to Austin and working with hometown people?
AM: Yes! It always feels like we are starting fresh when we begin a new cycle! When I had my first child in 2018, I thought I was revived and looking at life in a super fresh way. I thought then that I was starting over in terms of being a musician/artist. Everything was so new and beautiful. I hold that feeling very close to my heart and it’s something I needed after all these years.
OS: Tracks like “100 Flowers of Paracusia” and “Firefly” were mentioned as tracks that wouldn’t be on previous efforts. Having pushed yourselves now, do you still feel like there’s a part of you still holding back?
AM: I’m never satisfied. I don’t know if we are still holding back or more so that we are just at the beginning of this band’s career.
OS: Ramiro Verdooren was added into the fold to inject a more expansive sound into the group. Tell me what he did for the band with his inclusion.
AM: He has put time into perspective for us. He has a great outlook on pushing boundaries and motivating us to look at songs in a different way. It’s wonderful
OS: Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, Arthur Lee, and the members of the Velvet Underground are all mentioned in the track “The River.” What was it about these artists that have spoken to you so dramatically?
AM: I mean we named some of the best ones pulled from a river of creativity that we only hope to be able to dip our toes into.
OS: While trying to keep the lyrics open for interpretation, it had to be tricky not to throw everything about yourself in. Where do you find that balance when writing?
AM: It’s important to question everything. In that questioning, sometimes you can find that your original idea isn’t the most solid or the most understood. We keep an open mind and ask ourselves and others if what we say makes sense. Outside opinions are there for a reason.
OS: Did the pandemic change the way you think about how you go about your work, writing-wise?
AM: It put us all in a weird place. Many people wrote about that experience and it’s interesting to see people’s time capsules in music and art in general.
OS: Has it changed you in general?
AM: Here is a second chance. The fear of it and the late trauma still lingers in many. Undoubtedly, it has put things into perspective, such as what you want to be doing with your life for real.
OS: You had a brief run supporting Primus. Tell me what that was like.
AM: It’s likely everything we imagine it would be. They were such wonderful folks! Super professional and very supportive of us. They went above and beyond to make us feel comfortable on tour with them.
OS: Being on the road again, though, has to be outstanding after all this time, right?
AM: Yes, but it doesn’t come without a smidge of guilt about the idea of performing live again. On top of everything we all went through as a people, all of a sudden playing live is kind of coming back, especially with our fans—most of which believe in science in some part of their brain.