Digital Release: 6/13
Physical Release: 7/3
I love when I receive an album for review that challenges my descriptive abilities. My initial encounter with Beak's latest effort: >> was such a thrilling sonic experience that I had absolutely no idea how to encapsulate the sound. I'm a dedicated Portishead fan, so I'll admittedly check out anything Geoff Barrows does artistic. That band had the same effect on me years ago, when terms like "trip hop" were the catch phrases of the day. I didn't know what to make of their gloomy, pounding basslines and Beth Gibbons sumptuous yet desperate lyrical delivery but it grabbed me so deeply I must have listened to Dummy (their universally recognized classic) over a hundred times within the first week of purchasing that damn album. Now I'm not saying >> (a smartly chosen non-search engine-able album title by the way) is groundbreaking like Dummy, but I'm mesmerized by this album.
When I brought it down to Dave Clark's place (my fearless editor and dear friend) I noticed a post he threw up later in the blogosphere saying something like "the new Beak album is very interesting". Simple, but he sure nailed it. I don't think there's a known musical classification for Beak's latest sonic signature, and I believe that bests any masturbatory essay I can offer as an album review; though I'll try. Of course the term "experimental" could apply, but I also think some of the best art defies attempts to describe what makes it great. I also think, like with all art (the visual, auditory, and others) that it's all in the eyes and ears of the beholder. That said, I think it's necessary to share that as I type these words my wife is in the living room shouting "what the hell are you listening to"? "It's so repetitive and annoying". While I find Beak's music to be both evocative and soothing, I'm sure plenty will think it simple and trite. We like what we like, and I love this LP.
However, I see how the introductory track might send some listeners running for cover. It begins with these strange horn-like synths (possible samples of various horn sounds or even the awful wail of car alarms) that amass and weave in and out of this simple clicky drum pattern. Upon first listen I didn't get even through the entire track. It doesn't sound good does it? Well, it got better, fast. The strange thing is the formula didn't: Rhythmically simple sounds by way of guitar, bass, or synths are followed by clicky drum patterns, with the occasional vocal. There's always a subtle build, an enhanced feeling as the tracks progress, but musically the songs are sparse. This reminds me of trying to explain the allure of house music to somebody who has never been to a night club and danced to music that just hit them; pounded them in the middle of their chest and the bottom of their feet, causing them to let go and move. House music is an experience, and I believe the sounds of Beak are of the same vein. On paper, at least here, it may read like a modern-day Steve Reich rip off, but I assure you it does not sound like that. At least I hope to God that isn't their master plan and I've fallen for their trickery. Either way, the music entrances me and I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit that.
"Yatton", the album's second track, kicks off with a guitar lick reminiscent of The Cars that modulates and twists into a constant, one-note bassline that percolates throughout the song. The vocals are cavernous and Thom Yorke-like, dropped deeply into the stereo mix. The bassline and kick drum start to blend, sounding more mono than stereo, with occasionally equal gain and velocity across the soundstage, while the the hi hat and snare are spread out, reminding you that this is in fact a stereo recording. The effect is hypnotic and I'm not kidding when I say that while I was driving and listening to this track I found myself in this meditative state (not the best for highway driving) and I had to skip ahead in order to keep my focus on the road. I don't mean this negatively, quite the contrary actually: I think any piece of music that draws you in that deeply is a grand thing: Pure and simple. "Spinning Top" is also very Radiohead with this heavy, rhythmic sway created by the drum and bass. The vocals are buried so deep in the mix again you can barely hear them. They become more a part of the melodic structure of the track rather than the leading element. The beginning of "Ladies Mile" is creepy as hell. These electronic whale cries rise out of this white noise (or at least that's what I thought about when I heard it) and trail off into this heavy bass pad that sounds like a large string being plucked. The energy builds slowly and steadily. "Wulfstan II" keeps the energy building, this time with an in your face guitar rift and more vocals sounding like they're emanating from the basement.
It's eerie, like something you'd hear during the emotional build-up of a scene in a horror flick, but like that scene, once you're caught up in the story of the film and you've made an emotional connection to the characters you want to see what becomes of them and the story. The same holds true here when I listen to Beak's latest album (Michael reviewed their earlier album here). The record has this metronomic pulse that just grabs a hold of me. I'm not sure why exactly, to be brutally honest, but I love it. If this sounds like something that peaks your interest I recommend finding a sample and checking it out. Their first album wasn't nearly as cerebral as this, though it was certainly dark. If you're a fan of later Portishead releases I recommend that record as well. After experiencing Beak as a studio band I'm eager to hear what they can do in-person. If their live performance can put me in a trance like their records do I'll be in sonic heaven. Keep em comin' Mr. Barrows, keep em comin'.