BEAK> (Invada Records, 2009)
For: Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk
Byline: Geoff Barrow doing straight krautrock? Where do I sign? Originally posted on www.inyourspeakers.com. Used by permission from In Your Speakers, LLC.
BEAK>! Sorry, I just love saying that. BEAK>! BEAK>! BEAK>! It’s short, simple, abrupt, stark, hungry, dry, triangular, pointy, quick, and sharp. As these are all adjectives I’d also use to describe the group’s sound, it is thus the perfect name for this, the off-shoot krautrock camp of Geoff Barrow (also of a little band called Portishead... heard of ‘em?). BEAK>’s music comes from a bleak, dark, hollow space governed by a predetermined push-pull relationship between the opposing forces of structured rules and abandoned improvisation. The band’s self-described “strict guidelines” have primarily to do with the recording process. BEAK>’s framework is refreshingly simple: Three members, three basic instruments: drums, synth, and bass. Vocals appear on about half of the material throughout these tracks but when they do, they come in dreadful (that is, “full of dread”), anguished moans of unintelligible lyrics, functioning on a largely instrumental level. All of the music was recorded live in a single room over a 12-day session with no overdubs allowed. Arrangements were then created through cut and paste editing, but on the whole, what you hear in BEAK> is essentially what happened.
You can literally hear the band’s creative space within the album. Firstly, there are some ambient room noises that were kept sunken within the mix - a door closing, a light chat between bandmates, etc. Also, between the bareness of the bass, crystal clear mix of wetted-drums and constantly warping and evolving synth tones are wide voids of open space. It’s a sound that spreads itself across a vast range that is easy to find yourself inside of, walking around, feeling and exploring the sonic area’s breadth. It’s an altogether enticing, inviting feel that draws the listener into the band’s own world.
Another byproduct of the band’s self-imposed limitations is that a sort of kraut-combo whose basic foundational structure might be likened to a jazz trio is created. The two types of organizations similarly focus on specialized roles of performance, and rely on these individual roles to guide instantaneous compositions through fleeting improvisations and gut-feel development. Songs often succeed into pitch-bending, atonally-stabbing “solos,” or embellishments of an originally stated theme in a post-everything sort of way. The band’s intensity rises and falls with the direction of the songs, and before you know it the next track has arrived, the previous five minutes’ events passing almost like a trick of the senses with a surprisingly urgent efficiency.
BEAK>’s songs fall into two basic categories on this record, that of either slow, lurching meditations, sometimes disguised as ballads, or more up-tempo, punchy rockers. The latter style finds the band combining the steady straight eighth-note feel and psychedelic, modal harmonic centers of Neu! with the windswept nihilism of Joy Division. Album standout “Iron Action,” is a pretty clear-cut example of this formula. The drums roll out with a steady groove centered around an anchored backbeat with bass drum hits on the up-beats, a trick ripped right out of Can’s playbook. The feel plows forward underneath an awesome exercise in knob twisting, synthesized acrobatics. The keyboard tone bounces and skips along with an octave-jumping nervousness, sometimes falling into place with triplets, sometimes more random, like a spinning oblong-shaped wheel. All of this is accompanied by that lone, submerged wail of a voice, drenched in effects and shrouded in catharsis. The overall feel of pieces like this one, as well as “Backwell,” “I Know,” and “Blagdon Lake,” (an amazing song - think Kraut-meets-shoegaze glory) seem to follow in line with some of the more kraut-leaning tendencies of Portishead’s latest album (as in “The Rip”), however sacrificing pop accessibility for noisy experimentalism.
It is within the slower tunes that the band’s emotional depth and pure range of volume is expressed. Aside from being one of the record’s creepiest songs, by the time “Ham Green” arrives three tracks into the album, it’s also a fervent release of energy that comes as a relief. An austere bass line has a building inertia that leads to a sleeping-dragon climax, slow and epic and huge with its crash cymbal and distorted crunch, yet also very subdued and controlled.
In the storied lexicon of krautrock, BEAK> remains one of the more difficult albums of perhaps the genre’s entire history. While Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk all represented the style as complimentary (however simultaneously reactionary) to the sensibilities and popular forms of the time (see: disco, punk, and even classic rock), BEAK> seems less concerned about its place within the current musical landscape and more exists as its own weird anomaly - an unfailing challenge that is tireless in its intrigue and mystery, yet stone-faced in its refusal to be fashionable, hip, or even remotely accessible. It’s a music’s music, and while its exclusion from any year-end “best of” lists is damn-near guaranteed, it is nevertheless an enjoyable learning experience and a very valuable listen.