The Few Blacks That I Like
Now that the headline above has managed to offend some readers who’ve turned their noses up in disgust and gone over to the next page, I can start my bigoted rant. Only, it’s neither bigoted nor is it a rant. It’s a rave actually, about bands that have the word “Black” in their names. How many of them have you come across? Countless, right? I sure have. Beginning with Black Sabbath (sorry, I promise that I shall not mention their name again; okay, maybe once more towards the end and that’s all) and moving to The Black Keys, Black Mountain, Black Crowes, Black Angels, Black Eyed Peas, Black Lips, or even simply Black. I did a search for bands with Black in their names and came up with a list that could possibly fill up several pages of tightly printed text. What is it, really, with bands and the word Black?
It all began with a recent obsession with The Black Keys, an American blues-rock duo, whose music I love so much that I put all of the five albums of theirs that I have (they’ve released three more) on a loop and when that marathon listening session ended, I was ready to repeat the process. Here’s a confession: I did do that. But then I realised that my obsession with The Black Keys—although they are a great band (think raw guitar, great drums and an overall gritty sound)—was turning unhealthy. So I turned to my music collection and, on a whim, started looking at all of the bands that I like with ‘Black’ in their names.
Out popped The Black Angels, a psychedelic rock band from Austin, Texas, who play rock with a tinge of metal (throbbing bass, drone machines, big drums) and deadpan vocals. They make music that seems to say, “Hey, all of you wimps, get out of the way; here’s some serious rock.” The Black Angels have three albums out but I’d recommend giving this year’s Phosphene Dream a spin. There’s a hint of Velvet Underground in their sound and their music is not exactly joyous but what I liked about their sound is the tightness that is often lacking from bands that are labeled “psychedelic”.
It probably isn’t surprising that most of the bands that I have with Black in their names make music that is no-nonsense noir rock. Black Mountain, formed in Canada, serves up rock that draws on vintage, classic sounds and Led Zeppelin-like falsetto vocals, backed by harmonies. They can sound a bit derivative—and count on their influences, besides Led Zep, bands such as Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and even the Rolling Stones—but then how many bands don’t?
Well, one that certainly doesn’t and never did was called Black Flag. Far from being derivative, Black Flag, formed in 1977 in Los Angeles, were pioneers in what is often labeled as hardcore punk. Some bands define a turning point in rock. Black Flag is certainly one of them. Their unique music—with its raw sound and non-conformist, angry lyrics–has influenced legions of punk and post-punk bands. The band was formed by Greg Ginn in 1977 and in 1981, Henry Rollins, an American spoken word artist, singer, actor and a man with various other talents, signed up as vocalist. Black Flag were short-lived. The band broke up before the 1980s ended but their influence is still strong on any hardcore band worth its salt. If you don’t have a Black Flag album in your collection, I’d suggest getting one or two or maybe all of their six studio albums.
Not all the “Black” bands that I like serve up hard, angry rock. Neither are they indie and obscure. The Black Crowes have sold more than 30 million records and make music that is as mainstream as it gets. But they’re a typical rock and roll band that you can pop into your car stereo and not be left unsatisfied. Incredibly, I discovered the band’s first studio album, Shake Your Money Maker (1990), in a discount bin in a Mumbai record store and the album grew on me. I’ve heard quite a few of their later albums, including the more recent ones, Lions (2001) and Warpaint (2008), and I think a new album has just dropped from the band, but those have all been underwhelming.
There are a few other bands with “black” in their names that occasionally feature on my playlists. Black Lips, rockers from Atlanta, have a southern tinge to their mostly garage-y sound; and there’s a new, meaty band called Black Pyramid, some of whose tracks I have downloaded and am beginning to enjoy but I’m still not clear about their provenance. Oh, yes, there’s a solo project by a Belgian musician, Stef Heeren, called (and I’m really sorry, if this offends you), Kiss the Anus of a Black Cat, that plays music inspired by shamanistic rituals.
And, as promised, here’s the mention of Black Sabbath, the most influential (and, probably, pioneering) heavy metal band from Britain: I don’t like them. Unless, that is, you play for me the version of Psycho Man, remixed by Danny Saber.