In some regard, it’s honorable that even after moving to a major label-distributed Blue Horizon, Austin’s Black Angels feel no pressure at all to change up their sound in the least. Because their third album, Phosphene Dream, could have easily been their first: It’s all impossibly hazy psych-drone stoner-scuzz that is ready-made to soundtrack Sam Peckinpah opening credits. In fact, there are no surprises at all on Phosphene: There are songs titled things like “Bad Vibrations,” “River of Blood,” “Haunting At 1300 McKinley” and “The Sniper,” and lead singer Alex Maas still hisses his vocals like he’s in the process of being choked. But where Passover, the band’s solid 2006 debut, succeeded thanks to Black Angels’ ability to make old material seem fresh — “Young Men Dead” will soundtrack movie trailers from here to eternity — Phosephene Dream suffers from a dearth of ideas, instead floating by on paint-by-numbers psych-rock.
The best thing you can say for Phosphene is that the songs are pretty short. The band has mostly abandoned the instrumental drone passages that marked their earlier work. So songs like the title track, the Question Mark-esque “Sunday Afternoon,” and the Greenhornes-ripping “Telephone” are at least over shortly, when in the past, the band might have rode those songs’ worn-out grooves into the ground. But mostly, the songs here just sound like the third rewrite of the band’s original rewrites of material from 13th Floor Elevators and the Velvet Underground.
Phosphene Dream’s real achievement is that it takes the band’s earlier murderous attitude and makes it impossibly bland. It might be the first time you fall asleep during an album with copious references to toxic gas, hauntings, death, blood, and killing. Nothing here shakes the album, or the Black Angels, out of the miasma they’ve built for themselves (though “Entrance Song” gets the closest) as each song passes without harshing your buzz or raising your blood pressure. Though that could be the point. The Black Angels can forever continue to pump out albums just like this with very little effort.