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The Black Angels / Sarabeth Tucek / The Flowers Of Hell – 26th Februart 2007, The Legion

Tonight’s extra-curricular Sonic Cathedral (shoe-gazing on a Monday??) comes with added light-show (the classic torch in a colander op-art look, plus some blistering little numbers for the headliners) and some hard-core drone-rock DJ-ing (e.g. Loop’s extended version of ‘Mother Sky’ complete with wasp trapped in bottle guitar sound) preparing the way for some serious Texan space-rockin’ from The Black Angels and their eagerly anticipated inaugural UK headline show. The faithful gather…

To begin, a lone trumpeter plays a solitary reverbed-to-the-max Reveille as his Flowers Of Hell band-mates stand solemnly poised. You keep expecting them to join him to flesh out the song, but this is the song. As ‘The Sunrise Retreat’ curls eerily out across the heads of the crowd, I have the wild idea that maybe The Flowers Of Hell are going to be trés avant garde and their entire set will consist of a solo trumpet, with the rest of the band staying motionless behind their instruments. No sooner have I thought this though, then the soothing waves of ‘Sympathy For Vengeance’ billow forth, ebbing and flowing through some superior space-rock, including a section that is indebted to Spiritualized’s ‘Run’.

The Flowers Of Hell
Violin and warped phasing sounds (“They’ve got a Spacemen 3 machine!” notes Kate next to me) flutter around ‘Opt Out’ which sounds like its going to crumble into ‘Transparent Radiation’ at any moment. Then there are the plaintive ‘Walkin’ With Jesus’ organ tremors. The sound is nothing new, in fact it’s all very ‘The Perfect Prescription’ (Sonic Boom contributed to the Flowers’ LP), but it’s done with style and grace and layers of intriguing instrumentation. There’s the aforementioned trumpet and violin as well as flute and a massive fuck-off saxophone adding a rumbling note of deep grooved uneasiness. Drums are hit with mallets (the drumstick kind) for a big echoy boom, songs are allowed space to blossom, bloom and fade. Factor in the experimental facial hair, the androgynous bass player and a paisley guitar and The Flowers Of Hell create one big blissed garden of delights.
Sarabeth Tucek

Next up, Sarabeth Tucek struggles to make herself heard above the rudely chattering crowd. Her wistful, whispery voice and acoustic accompaniment are buffeted by graceless self-regarding yacking. Those of us who do listen are rewarded with a touching set of country folk songs, not least thanks to Tucek’s partner-in-guitar, Luther Russell, who wrests some truly beautiful sounds from his acoustic; the kind of sounds that squeeze your heart and make your brain dip and swerve with pleasure. The songs sound like they got caught in a soft night breeze over Topanga Canyon in 1967 and have been drifting through the stratosphere ever since, before coming back to earth in this crammed Old Street bar. Sarabeth herself, clad in a very cool pair of scuffed boots and a large hat, looks like she’d be happier strumming her guitar under a pine tree in the Canyon. The set ends with Sonic Cathedral top pop single, the sweetly delicate ‘Something For You’, sending shivers down spines.

The Black Angels make music that references the point when the ‘60s trip skewed and slid into darkness. The MC5 being hounded for their political involvement; the National Guard opening fire on Berkley students; hordes of young men getting conscripted, shorn and sent off to Vietnam. Their music resonates with paranoia and claustrophobia and roars into the room underpinned by a colossal, filthy bass sound. The whole lot is driven by Stephanie Bailey’s relentless drumming coupled with dual rhythms that come crashing in courtesy of an extra floor-tom played stand-up style by other members of the band. This is primal rock ‘n’ roll built from mighty onyx slabs of thick sound. The songs are designed to drag you into their orbit by the sheer force of their mesmeric rhythms. Black Angels

I especially love ‘Black Grease’ because it reminds me of shaking my hair to Loop, inescapably clamped into a ferocious circular groove. You want drone-rock? The Black Angels’ keyboard player is cited on their album as playing ‘drone machine’. This actually turns out to be a keyboard hooked up to a laptop which maybe doesn’t look so cool, but sonically does the trick, adding a dense, warped undertow to the songs. When they’re not hypnotising you with strobing sound and vision, The Black Angels lock into dirty, ritualistic rock ‘n’ roll like The Doors without the shit shamanism. ‘Sniper At The Gates Of Heaven’ in particular features some hair-raising yelps and animalistic shrieks from singer Alex Maas.

Jennifer Raines, the aforementioned drone mistress, rocks the perfect snooty Zia McCabe keyboard/percussion queen stance. She seems to be a bit of a Mancophile, clad in a Stone Roses tee-shirt with The Smiths as her laptop desktop background; and is that a hint of Manchester groove we detect in The Black Angels sound? A certain tripped out funkiness, no? Check the way Alex shakes the maracas… Then there’s the way that every now and then the spirit of Will Sergeant can be detected, as a twelve-string gets jangled in a certain psychedelic direction. So you’ve got this essentially Velvets inspired (it’s all there in the band’s name after all) Texas-fried (see: Thirteenth Floor Elevators) luxuriantly heavy drone-rock shot through with silvery seams of British psychedelia. What’s not to like?

Black Angels Death Song Behind the band ‘Apocalypse Now’ is raging across the background screen, albeit almost obscured by amps and light-shows (The Flowers Of Hell got ‘The Trip’). It’s the perfect accompaniment for The Black Angels. At one point helicopter blades on the screen chop in time to the music, whilst above the stage there’s a ceiling fan just like the one circling Martin Sheen’s head. Then comes the scene with helicopters strafing villagers with gunfire and I start thinking about the idea of Viet-porn – using the imagery of that war as stylistic short-hand, revelling in its iconography. This is where The Black Angels’ politics come in. A guitar pedal-board displays a sticker reading ‘Halliburton is making a killing in Iraq’. The snarling, pulsing ‘The First Vietnam War’ compares then and now, "60,000 men died/While you all hid/... And you ask for more now/For this new war". Obviously, fearsome rock ‘n’ roll is a limited arena for reasoned political debate, but the band’s sentiments, though painted in broad brush-strokes, can only be lauded, at least for the fact that they’re Americans with a viewpoint.
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