A debut album is a very important thing these days. Gone is the time where listeners had the patience to see potential in an artist’s early releases and support them through their growth pangs. In our time, a first statement must be definitive, meticulously crafted, and whole. Enter Destroying Angel, a collective from the urban dregs of Philadelphia with a penchant for psychedelic genre-bending, masterful song writing, and a touch of something more. Their debut full-length, Conversations with Their Holy Guardian Angel, presents a fully realized band who at the same time avoid many of the modern clichés and pitfalls of groups in this scene.
Destroying Angel entered the post-industrial milieu with 2015’s Mother Is Dead 7-inch. This three-song EP was a short introduction to Tony Cesa’s soaring voice and strumming 12-string guitar, Lindsay Baukert’s droning yet melodic violin lines, Mario Lima’s snapping bass, and Joey Patrone’s pounding use of the full drum kit (a rarity in a genre that loves to rely on floor-toms) that form the backbone of the band. This album also sees Melissa Santangelo adding female vocals, accordion, and a variety of other instruments, plus piano provided by none other than everyone’s favorite water-fowl advocate, David E. Williams (who is now a full-time member). The EP immediately showed that Destroying Angel would bring something fresh to the genre, but exactly what form it would take in its full maturity was still to be seen.
Post-industrial music, or more specifically neofolk, if you prefer, undeniably has a problem with repetition and unoriginality. I won’t go on another tirade about Death in June clones but to say Destroying Angel is not one. They have successfully taken the playbook of those early bands (simple chord structures, evocative lyrics, and a pounding rhythm) and added sonic influence from the golden age of sixties and seventies rock, especially darker psych and progressive bands like Amon Düül II, and even shades of freak-folk like Comus. They also like to add samples and noise in a way comparable to a contemporary band like Rome. Often, the samples are snippets of bizarre Christian activities like exorcisms, glossolalia, or other American protestant religious ephemera.
Like singers of the best bands of yore, Tony Cesa has a voice that is instantly recognizable. Oh, and is it ever a voice. The man often rises to a fever-pitch shout while elongating the note he’s singing. It’s boisterous; it’s powerful; it’s just great. In a conversation I overheard after Destroying Angel performed in Vermont, Cesa related how his Italian grandmother would chastise his volume by saying, “Tony! Your mouth goes BLAH BLAH BLAH!” It’s to all of our benefit that it does just that!
Conversations with Their Holy Guardian Angel was released last summer by T. J. Cowgill’s Seattle-based label, Not Just Religious Music—a stable that includes some of North America’s current best, like King Dude and Night Profound.
Lyrically, the band doesn’t revolve around a single theme. Destroying Angel doesn’t rely on a heavily crafted aesthetic as much as some modern groups do. It’s still apparent that they are a band in the classic style. The golden thread that could be said to run through their work is disdain and frustration with modernity and an attempt to deal with the personal problems it creates. For example, the album’s closer, ‘The Drowning Man’, is a song that beautifully relays the problems of cutting the perpetrators of selfish emotional use and abuse from your life. ‘Pigs in the End’ laments the betrayal of friends. ‘Stumbled Through the Years’, another standout track, speaks of distancing oneself from programmed consensus reality (‘Soon you will change / and you’ll rearrange all those symbols they burned in your brain’). But the personal nature of the lyrics, and even the album’s title itself, reveals an underlying spiritual current, albeit one that is understated and not obviously an expression of any one given tradition. ‘Paralyzed’ seems to reference magickal experimentation, as does the album’s hazy photos featuring the band members in ritual garb surrounded by their tools. This is indeed music that the listener can feel is deeper than mere entertainment.
However, Destroying Angel doesn’t have the hard-line humourless approach to spirituality that anyone involved in alternative paths will invariably come across. The music video released for ‘Stumbled Through the Years’ provides a great example for some tongue-in-cheek humour that often gets overlooked in the genre. It features the band going for a very gothic afternoon stroll, Cesa running slow-motion through a field, and giving some very cheeky looks to the camera. One is reminded of Douglas P., Albin Julius, and Boyd Rice’s silliest moments on the album covers of their collaborative records. I’ve always seen this kind of humour as strength. Today’s world demands a little absurdity, even as a survival mechanism. After all, those who can’t bend a little will invariably break.
The band has just finished recording their second album, which I await with great anticipation. Having heard some of the songs live this summer, it seems to me that the follow-up may well surpass the debut. This is saying something, as Conversations with Their Holy Guardian Angel has successfully established Destroying Angel as a band I’ll be following with top priority in the future. The thought of hearing more from them really does excite me—something that comes less and less as time marches on and we think we’ve heard it all. Bands like Destroying Angel come along every once in a while and reinvigorate us to the possibilities that there’s more out there waiting to be discovered, laying just beyond what we can see in front of us.
A1) Oil Town
A3) Lindsay’s Song (Red Sea)
A4) Kill Age Boys
A5) Wall of Ice
B1) Pigs in the End
B2) Idle Hands
B3) Stumbled Through the Years
B4) Drowning Man