Beak> Approach the Limits of Their Steely Minimalism on >>>
Until recently, Beak> have pretty much done one thing. The Bristol-based trio, led by drummer Geoff Barrow of Portishead, make music like a head trip in a sensory deprivation chamber: dark, watery, somehow cramped and spacious at once, with very few distractions competing for your attention. Their compositions—generally consisting only of bass, drums, voice, and drippy analog synth—are more like extended grooves than songs per se. They move with the relentless propulsion implied by the arrow at the end of Beak>’s name, more likely to send you nodding into a deep rhythmic trance than singing along to a killer chorus. This monochromatic approach has worked well for Beak> so far. Their beloved second album, 2012’s >>, has purpose and originality that far surpass countless other contemporary albums similarly indebted to ‘70s krautrock.
On >>>, six years and a handful of non-album projects later, they’re reaching for a few more colors. Even its album art, a vaguely unsettling illustration of three men in hazmat gear, marks a clear break from the stark black-and-white iconography of their first two. (Let’s hope they get to at least >>>>>>>>> before changing the naming convention, though.) Their churning instrumental interplay hasn’t changed much, despite the addition of keyboardist Will Young in place of the departed Matt Williams. It’s just that now they’re using it as a framework for proper songcraft, rather than an end unto itself. >>> succeeds about half the time, but too often the band sounds conflicted between marching forward as the old Beak> and committing to a new direction.
“Brean Down” strikes the right balance, coming off like the rightful heir to Can’s occasional experiments with something like pop song form at their early ‘70s peak—Beak>’s very own “Mushroom” or “Vitamin C.” The band is lithe and menacing, and Barrow overcomes a curmudgeonly lyrical perspective (“The future’s kinda sketchy,” “You don’t like our music ‘cause it ain’t up on the radio,”) to deliver the strongest vocal performance and catchiest melodies of the Beak> catalog so far.
“Harvester” is a shakier departure, a wistful midtempo tune that swaps out the synth for brittle clean guitar arpeggios borrowed from a sock-hop slow dance. It would be unrecognizable as Beak> if not for Barrow’s contributions, which stick to the playbook, for better and worse. As a drummer, he adds cascading fills that lend the song an otherworldly lightness. As a singer, he sounds muffled and distant, like a slightly nervous alien. On earlier Beak> songs, like >>’s hurtling “Yatton,” Barrow’s remove from the action was an asset, creating a deliberately eerie gap between the assured music and the tentative voice. But a straightforward song like this one requires more presence than he offers here.
Aside from the thrilling seven-minute journey “Allé Sauvage,” which reimagines the band’s sound as luminous live-band techno, the more traditionally Beak-y rhythmic tracks feel somewhat obligatory. It’s as if they’re keeping one foot in familiar territory while exploring fitfully with the other. Fortunately, there’s fruitful ground out there, even if they haven’t fully arrived yet. Closer “When We Fall,” easily read as a warning or elegy about climate change, achieves the substance and tenderness attempted with “Harvester,” fusing them to the relentless drive of Beak>’s earlier work. The song’s swirling strings and guitar gather momentum as they progress, and Barrow sings mournfully of leaving children behind and falling into the sea. The tension rises to a breaking point, then Barrow smacks his snare drum like a starter pistol. From there, Beak> takee off running, and they don’t look back.