IN 2008, Austin psychedelic band the Black Angels landed a dream gig—backing up their hometown's most notoriously damaged son, Roky Erickson, on a batch of vintage 13th Floor Elevators songs. The Angels have said that playing with one of the pioneering songwriters of psychedelia was a pinnacle of their career. And for a band as transparently steeped in their influences as the Black Angels, it was no doubt a vindication for their obsessive cultivation of a precisely honed sound, drawing from the acid-dipped era of the late '60s.
Perhaps due to their experience with Erickson, it seemed like the Black Angels arrived at a destination point. For the first time, they've felt comfortable easing up on their very particular sound; as a result, they've begun writing better songs than ever. The new album, Phosphene Dream, is full of tightly compacted nuggets, boiling down the Angels' essence to three-minute firecrackers. Gone are the one-chord epic vamps, the massive "When the Levee Breaks" drumbeats, the trance-inducing drone-jams—to be replaced with something better: pop songs carved out of blues progressions, swathed in all the psychedelic flourishes and swirling echoes you'd expect from the Black Angels, but delivered with a newfound sense of purpose. There are even a couple dance-worthy rave-ups: "Telephone" and the album's shape-shifting standout, "Yellow Elevator #2." As a result, Phosphene Dream is a near-perfect album, its 10 songs summoning memories of the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle, the Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow, and Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Those three touchstones were each recorded around the same time at EMI Studios (now better known as Abbey Road) in the wake of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, and Phosphene Dream shows a shift in the Black Angels' reference point from America's acid frontier to Swingin' London—they've shed the gloomy West Coast influences of the Doors and the druggy East Coast shadow of the Velvet Underground for a crisper, more whimsical sound. Fittingly, Phosphene Dream has been released on the newly resurrected Blue Horizon label, the legendary one-time home of classic British blues acts like Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. Perhaps the Erickson gig was a graduation of sorts: Now the Black Angels sound ready to take on the mantle of a whole new wealth of influences.