Everything changed for Alex Maas in 2018. That was the year his first child was born—a happy and healthy baby boy—sending The Black Angels’ vocalist and multi-instrumentalist into a flurry of emotions he hadn’t felt before. There was the joy, of course, and the sheer awe that comes with creating new life. But to a lesser degree, there was also the fear: What world is his son going to grow up into, exactly? And how can Maas protect him from the dangers within it?
“The world is definitely messed up,” says Maas, a Texas native who’s lived in Austin for decades. “But there’s a lot of good in it too, and that’s why the whole world isn’t on fire—parts of it are. I do believe that there’s more good than evil.”
Maas and his wife named their son Luca, which means “bringer of light,” and when it came time for Maas to title his debut solo album, he knew there was only one choice. A swirl of meditative thoughts about the cosmic interplay of the universe, Luca is an album informally dedicated to its creator’s son, and directly inspired by the humbling reveries that were brought out by him.
It’s also just a powerful work of gentle psychedelia, and a notable sonic departure from the heavy, pulse-raising sound that Maas has become renowned for. For more than 15 years, The Black Angels have served as one of rock’s preeminent purveyors of blissful walls of fuzz and intensity. They’ve also served as ringleaders of a larger psych-rock scene, particularly through their Levitation music festival, which inspires a pilgrimage of kindred spirits from around the world to the Austin area year after year. But Luca scratches a new itch for Maas.
“It’s a whole different part of my brain,” Maas says of the album, which finds him putting aside his Jesus and Mary Chain LPs and instead looking for inspiration in acts varying from The Everly Brothers to Portishead. Opener “Slip Into” delivers extraterrestrial themes over a funky beat and an eerie synth line, while “American Conquest” is a trance-inducing journey that focuses on issues much closer to home, like the horrific shootings ravaging the country in recent years. “The City” is a woozy campfire song reckoning with the larger cycle of human violence, and “Been Struggling” is a dreamy waltz that takes a winking look at memory and fate. Songs like “Special” and “500 Dreams” are lullabies for Luca inspired by thoughts about all of this and more.
“I wanted to go someplace musically that I’ve never gone before,” Maas considers. “Wu-Tang meets Leonard Cohen.”
The project was a long time coming: Some of the songs date back almost a decade, when the idea of a solo album was still just a star in the sky—before the time was right. But once Maas realized that this was something he needed to do, he started putting it together piece by piece over the course of a couple years, enlisting an all-star list of collaborators to record at Spaceflight Studios in Austin: Luca was co-produced with Maas by Jack White’s front of house engineer Brett Orrison, and features contributions from Widespread Panic drummer Duane Trucks, The Sword bassist Bryan Ritchie (on mellotron and bass), Jack White keys player Quincy McCrary (on strings and piano), vocalist Jazz Mills, Eels drummer Derek Brown, Golden Dawn Arkestra drummer Robb Kidd, and The Black Angels’ own Christian Bland and Jake Garcia. Former Black Angels member Nate Ryan also plays on the album.
The music quickly became even more than just the sum of its parts: “Once I started playing with other people,” Maas says, “I realized that these songs were much bigger than I had anticipated.”
Being released into a world that only seems to be getting scarier, Luca is a balm for the weary, partially because it doesn’t shy away from confronting tough subjects. But like Maas says, it’s not all bad. Not even close. And there will be a way forward, one way or another.
“We’re all navigating weird waters right now,” Maas says. “I’m trying to just go wherever the flow of the water is going.”