Bristol trio BEAK> undertook huge European and US tours in the wake of the success of their 2009 debut album. But when they returned and retired to the studio they claim to have found themselves in a nightmare scenario: the magic had gone. The road had somehow turned them into an ‘awful-sounding pub prog band’. Of course, one man’s awful prog band is another man’s new favourite, especially around these parts, where thresholds for musical indulgence are tested daily.
Fortunately for everyone though, BEAK> retreated from pot-holing through their own posteriors, scrapped that effort and went back to the drawing board. The result is a second album that trims away the fat to create a beguiling, hypnotic work that ebbs and flows, then ebbs again.
Progressive in the very best possible way then, >> is a series of musical mantras that burrow deep into your skull, and stay there long after each has ended. This is an atmospheric album that occupies a twilight hinterland, each note lost in the gloaming, each song a coronary pulse-beat throbbing in the shadows.
With its church organs and ever-decreasing cycle of doom riffs Spinning Top is utterly funereal, an asphyxiating six minutes of sound that slowly tightens around your throat like the fingers of a killer, while Yatton recalls the electro-throb of The Horrors’ Neu!-inspired 2009 single Sea Within A Sea. This is perhaps no coincidence given that BEAK> mainman Geoff Barrow’s production work and schooling almost single-handedly saved the music press darlings’ then-flagging career.
Accompanied here by bassist Billy Fuller and keyboardist Matt Williams, Barrow has of course previously forged an era-defining sound with Portishead. But where that trio melded hip-hop, jazz and electronic experimentations, this one draws more on the motorik rhythms of Dieter Moebius and Conny Plank’s influential 70s collective Cluster and their various offshoots, collaborators and acolytes. Brian Eno, Harmonia and Can all also serve as signposts here.
But this is no backwards-looking work. Atmospherics and emotions are what BEAK> deal in, and aided by 21st century technology – with the synths pushed to the forefront – they have recorded an album almost largely live that manages not to sound like the product of a long autumn and winter chained to the mixing desk.
It’s not; >> is much more organic than that. It sounds human. It sounds like a living, breathing entity that unfurls and grows before withering and shrivelling back in upon itself. It sounds like the cycle of life itself. It is a remarkable record.