Portishead. Ok, now that that’s out of the way let’s talk about Geoff Barrow’s new record with what has been described as his krautrock side project, Beak>, but which, on listening to this, its fuck-you-stupidly-titled second effort, sounds like an immensely reductive way to describe such a focused and cohesive unit. The best way to describe them is, however, as elusive as the ever-revolving sound carousel from which each of these songs hop, occasionally crashing to the ground in broke-kneed horror, sometimes landing with perfect grace, tip-toed, and, at their best, both at the same time.
To dismiss the influence of Can and their ilk entirely would obviously be purposely obtuse too but while you can hear that insistent, repeated throb running through the veins of many of the songs here it acts more as the fluid that carries the musical DNA than the DNA itself.
Opener ‘The Gaol’, for instance – a swirl of dissociated siren wails, unnervingly insistent bass rhythms from Billy Fuller, tonal shifts and at-odds splashy, crashy drum sounds – could be drawn as much from the soundtrack of ‘The Lathe Of Heaven’ as anything by Damo Suzuki. As its motifs roll away, their own agendas hidden from the rest of its constituent parts, the song excites sonically but also grates – a pleasurable test.
Unnerving is a key word here and on a track like ‘Spinning Top’ – a grind of miles-away beats, one note honks from Matt Williams and scrappy, crumpled paper, crumpled throat poetry that allows itself a hint of a chorus before Barrow gives a grin and slams it back into the underground with the stamp of a kick drum pedal – you can practically see the white outlines of bedsheet-wearing musical ghosts as they dance ominously into the roar of a surprising and furious post rock guitar.
Same goes for ‘Egg Dog’ a whirling waltz of League Of Gentlemen circus hoots that moulds itself into a disaster portent, a Christmas song for fucked up robot fans of ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. It’s horror music.
Speaking of horror, on ‘Yatton’ we draw from the same musical palette which Barrow allowed The Horrors to exploit while on production duties for them, in the process turning them from screaming stalk ‘n’ slash caricatures into post-krautrock horsemen of the apocalypse. The song shares the elemental pulse of ‘Sea Within A Sea’ but refuses to provide the easy answers of anthemic, or even decipherable, vocals – it slips and buzzes, echoes and reverberates to an unsure climax of dueling string plucks and keystrokes before allowing itself to be deconstructed to the sound of the last breaths of a clunky sequencer.
Obviously it’s all been done before – Barrow likes to have a clear idea of what genre he’s tampering with, real or imagined, before he commits to it – but it never feels like he’s purposely working within potentially dulling parameters. It’s always strange, never entirely predictable despite the drone and repetition that form its foundations and, ultimately, it affects the listener in a series of unexpected ways with its unusual tones and from-out-of-nowhere instrumentation.
Yet there are low, or perhaps unnecessary points here such as ‘Wulfstan II’ in which monkish glossolalia succumbs to day one alt-rock geetar before building to a near parody of post rock atonal quiet/loud aesthetics; or ‘Elevator’ which rumbles, squawks and flits from sound to sound, settling on none.
Obviously when you’re playing with drone you risk boredom but when it all clicks together it can be endlessly exciting as on the hemorrhaging ‘Liar’ which allows a spoonful of Minutemen before forcing you through a mill of pushy, pacey notes that drive into the brain while conjuring images of the bleakest and most wonderful ‘70s sci-fi.
These are the space songs, and ‘Ladies Mile’ is probably the best of them: a post-nuclear squall that cries out like a failing, desperate beacon. Despite its huge, interplanetary sadness it’s also remarkably, sweetly tuneful in some accidental fashion. It may well be the most affecting thing the band have done to date.
Its companion piece is the In Utero roar and majesty of ‘Deserters’, a madly memorable mercury rev of a song that binds vocalese to detuned guitar then throws it through a partition of Chapel Hill racket, all the while evoking the sounds of otherness, of the beyond, of space and of horror. It’s where the two key moods of the record meld and it’s an awe-inspiring moment.
This is all no great departure for Barrow and co: he chances upon true brilliance once in a while in whatever musical set up he’s a part of, it’s just something he does. Beak> are creating music that is for the most part wonderful, wonderfully fucked up and definitely not addressed in any way by the term “side project”.
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