We could all stand to commit to following our muses like Geoff Barrow.
We could all stand to commit to following our muses like Geoff Barrow. From being a pioneer of trip-hop with Portishead, exploring the weirder boundaries of hip-hop with Quakers or even scoring the Alex Garland films Ex-Machina and Annihilation, he’s an artist whose presence means you’re in for something that wasn’t slapped together for the sake of vanity. Beak>, his exploration of krautrock with bassist Billy Fuller and Will Young manning electronics, could easily be a repetitive failure in the hands of a lesser artist. But with both of the band’s albums – 2009’s > and 2012’s >> – the band delivered an engaging take on the form. Six years later, Beak> is back with >>>, a sharper and more perfected exploration.
Over the course of 10 songs, the band tightens an already stellar brand of krautrock-worship while also exploring a few new directions. And it’s a showcase for how stinkin’ talented these musicians are. These aren’t flashy songs, built simply on drum, bass, guitar and synth without ever extending into arena-style showboating. But each track is entirely atmosphere driven, conveying a level of patience and willingness to find and explore a solid groove. Even the sparse vocals come off more as an additional instrument than an actual focus, although they are frequently gorgeous, as with the grim, defeated global warming-themed “When We Fall” (“With the smoke becomes faded and all we can see/ Is the flames of the fading fall/ We return to the naked, won’t we plead/ With our bed still never warm”).
The album’s atmosphere-building isn’t overly complicated, but it’s executed flawlessly, and often somewhat menacing. Opener “The Brazilian” never strays too far from where it starts, but a grungy bassline mixed with Young’s siren-like synth wailing leads the song into a foreboding place. Similarly, the hypnotic high-mark “Allé Sauvage” pairs wobbly high-note synth jabs with a constant flurry of rapid-fire hi-hats, both used as a complement for the darker bass tones. Once it gets going, doesn’t sound too far off from the score for a really intense video game battle. Penultimate track “Abbots Leigh” ratchets the menace up as far as it can by artistically rendering a rumination on the theme of “Halloween Sounds And Music CD You Bought At Target” (which sounds infinitely better than it otherwise could – before transitioning into a slow-burning nocturnal groove. It’s only fitting that the cover – a drawing of guys in biohazard suits – itself feels unsettling, especially in contrast with the black-and-white aesthetics of > and >>.
Elsewhere, the weird, ‘90s alt-rock chaos of “Brean Down” tossing off weird one-liners (“You don’t like our music cuz it ain’t up on the radio,” “The future’s kinda sketchy”) while a grimy guitar line snake their way through the buried vocal track. Other times, they wander into jangly pop numbers, like the short and sweet “King of the Castle,” or Rubber Soul-era Beatles territory with “Harvester” (arguably the weakest song here). “Harvester” artfully sets us up for closer “When We Fall,” which maintains a similar pace for four minutes before switching tracks completely and sprinting to the finish line, the entire song bursting into a groove as propulsive and hypnotic as “Allé Sauvage.”
Beak> is talented enough to have made perfectly serviceable but unmemorable albums without even trying. It’s a blessing, then, that its members see fit to pour themselves into the project as much as they do. The band is capable of not just making stellar music, but of growing past its tried-and-true strengths to get weird and satisfying in brand new ways. Lesser artists would have run out of things to say with this music long before now, but if >>> is any indication, Beak> won’t be at that point for a long time.