FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT
Subterranean bass throbs, some cod-ghostly wailing and vaguely arabesque improvisations on a rusty sounding organ … ’Backwell’ is the opener of the self-titled debut album by Beak>, a new band including Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. With its slighty nauseating retro synths fanning out mechanically over chugging motorik, ‘Blackwell’ signposts an album of happy homage. The reference points range from the familiar (e.g., Can, NEU!, Joy Division) to the more esoteric (Silver Apples, early proponents of electronica-infused psych who resurfaced on the critical radar after being named as an influence for Portishead’s ‘Third’).
While Geoff Barrow and co.’s 2008 comeback was characterised by rockier, notably more Kraut textures than the trip hop torch songs with which they made their name in the 90s, Beak> sees Barrow teaming up with fellow Bristolians Billy Fuller and Matt Williams to explore this musical terrain untethered to the song-form constraints of Portishead proper.
The results are mixed. Recorded over a two week period, with little post-production trickery, it has the air of a jam and sometimes feels unfinished or at least rough around at the edges. The textures employed by Beak> are not dissimilar to those rendered by Broadcast’s antiquated studio equipment, but whereas Broadcast sculpted these textures into a beguiling retro-futuristic pop, Beak>’s insistence on evoking a certain authenticity is not so much impressionistic as orthodox.
‘Pill’ begins with some arabesque violin that sounds as if heard from the meagre air shaft of some underground cell. Thereafter the track evolves into a Krautrock dirge as played by some po-faced BBC workskop technicians from the 1970s with rather too much creative freedom. Thus we have the kind of haunted house prog folly that might have scored one of that period’s spooky children’s tv plays that have been a rich source of inspiration to electronica and, of late, Hauntology artists.
‘I know’ begins with a buzzing synth that sounds like a mobile phone interfering with your stereo – you know, as if there were a bee stuck in your speakers, before developing into the album’s most satisfyingly complete Krautrock number – a linear Teutonic pulse embellished by some subtly emotive bass playing that infuses the track with an understated melancholy.
‘Battery Point’ is less defined by the strictures of motorik, but is a rather graceful cloud of shimmering guitar reverb that washes back and forth for some six minutes or more, underlined by some grinding, low-slung bass and peaking with a Mogwai-style, high-end crescendo.
‘Iron Action’ returns to more propulsive territory, the sighing, semi-decipherable vocal utterances instantly redolent of Ian Curtis’s bleak vocals. Finally a wiggling synth frequency unlooses itself from the rigid discipline of the rhythm section, presumably at the turn of a dial, to pleasing effect.
‘Ears Have Ears’ is cavernous, unhinged dub while ‘Blagdon Lake’ is informed by ominous, blacker-than-black goth-tinged early 80s post punk, and reaches a climax with impressively metallic stabs of synthesised guitar that could score a drama about a radiation accident or toxic spill.
Thereafter the album loses its focus a bit, the metallic screeches of ‘Barrow Gurney’ recalling Broadcast’s occasional moments of wilful anarchy, while ‘Dundry Hill’ and the Can-on-a-bad-day of ‘The Cornubia’ are unrelenting industrial dirge-core that trundle along oppressively under slate-grey skies.
Beak>, with its Edgar Allan Poe-like moniker, is the result of Barrow’s unchecked obsession with a certain period of (mostly bleak) music. But its aesthetic of distilled misery – only half sincere – will test some listeners’ patience: Beak> is faithful to its influences but isn’t often more interesting than a work of pastiche.