Release Date: July 17, 2012
Bristol, England, is a town that must collectively ask, “What did we do last night?” every single morning and twice on weekends before lighting the morning spliff and drinking its breakfast. This is the city that gave us Banksy, the town in which the teenagers in Skins take a ton of E and have loads of sex, the burg that belched forth of some of the druggiest music of recent times.
Indie types should recall bands such as Movietone and Crescent who orbited the magnificent, oddly underrated Flying Saucer Attack, whose passive shoegaze clouds made My Bloody Valentine sound like James Brown. And then there’s the “Bristol sound” exemplified by Nellee Hooper and his Wild Bunch through trip-hop’s holy trinity: Massive Attack (the father), Tricky (the son), and Portishead (the holy spirit). It is this final outfit that spawned 2009’s remarkable Beak> and the still-more-excellent >>, an album that could eventually end up in the Bristol pantheon-of-high with Portishead’s Dummy or Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, the spare, driving superego to those bands’ opulent id. The album is the machine in the ghost, the tick-tock of good musicians and studio rats submitting themselves to restrictions in hopes of finding a new freedom.
Beak> fell together in 2009, with Portishead mainman Geoff Barrow teaming up with bassist Billy Fuller and Matt Williams, both known quantities in Bristol from the groups Fuzz Against Junk and Team Brick, respectively. The idea was ruled composition: live recordings of improvisations, no overdubs, which are then edited into songs (which are then learned for live performance). Needless to say, this riffage-and-discipline approach was a bit of a 180 from the world-is-our-palette vibe of the sampledelic Portishead. The second Beak> album, both smoother and more openly rock than the crunchy, post-punky, synth-heavy debut, still reflects Barrow’s interests: krautrock, sounding heavy without using heavy tropes, and the creepy clouds of vintage horror-movie soundtracks.
Like any artist who understands his craft on a molecular level, Barrow and crew knows that restriction often unlocks creativity far better than possessing a zillion options. It’s the same way that only knowing a few chords can enable good hardcore bands to sound like the big bang or the way the guy in “Losing My Edge” talks about buying “a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and…throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real.” The songs on >> are pure assemblage, but feel mighty real.
Opener “The Gaol” brings these pieces together: a queasy synth like an orchestra tuning up, spare fuzz-bass patterning away, drums that roll and groove, all before they become truly disconcerting. Here, songs change directions without sacrificing pulse, retaining the chug and ovid shape krautrock, but rarely ending at exactly the same place they start. Given Portishead’s comparatively straightforward songcraft, worked-over sonics, and intense popularity, >> is like hearing Kanye West go into his “Yoo Doo Right” phase.
Tones and motifs repeat: Barrow’s voice lurks in this stuff, a mumbling shadow on the wall, reluctant to bring attention to itself, as synth clouds roll in like that blimp in Blade Runner. Guitars are guests, oddballs at the party, coloring songs with sublime awkwardness (“Kidney,” “Spinning Top”), or in one weird instance, leaping clean into Jandekian string-abuse (“Wulfstan”). The loopy paradox of >>, and what makes it so addictive, is the forward momentum that sounds both like spacing out and working hard. For all of the tension in the music, Barrow and his cohorts couldn’t sound more relaxed, natural, and at home weird home.