Beak>, Bristol’s ungoogleable krautrock trio-du-jour, have returned after three years with a great new album in tow. Billy Fuller, Matt Williams, and Geoff Barrow (of Portishead; though Barrow has been clear that Beak> is not a Portishead side-project) have refined the menacing beat-driven jams of their 2009 debut and released a collection of songs whose consistency, songwriting, and level of professional quality should be a template for any band of a similar nature.
Krautrock is a loose term at its root. Some bands like Cluster and Faust are known for their lengthy, avant-garde, pseudo-noise pieces, while bands like Can and NEU! have employed more rhythmic songwriting methods. I suppose that in this perspective, Beak> is to krautrock what Battles is to math rock. That is, they make it an accessible, almost radio-friendly genre. They prefer to keep things short, rhythmic, and friendly instead of lengthy, noisy, and inaccessible, and it pays off handsomely for them.
On », Beak> have perfected their art. On tracks like “Yatton” and “Eggdog,” the noticeable melodic elements become memorable components of the overall rhythmic structure. In layman’s terms, it’s more interesting and enjoyable than any krautrock I’ve heard for quite some time, even more so than Beak>’s own debut album. Of course, the single best thing about » is the return of the band’s standalone single “Wulfstan” as a revamped, perfected “Wulfstan II.” This song is the best on the album by far, showcasing the band’s monolithic, dark rhythm in all its glory; washed out vocals drone over the top of chugging guitar riffs, stark and repetitious drum beats, and flourishes of feedback and dissonant synth stabs.
It’s these moments that make » such a standout album, both in relationship to their debut and to other albums of similar type. So, why just the B rating? Beak> are an exceptional, professional band, but they work best with a formula. Many songs like the aforementioned “Yatton” and “Wulfstan II” are great pieces, but the album fails to deliver on some of the more avant-garde songs like opener “The Gaol” and the drum-less “Ladies’ Mile.” Beak> makes a good attempt at making these songs work, but they actually end up disrupting the flow of the album and falling short of the expectations set by the other songs on the album. It’s a bittersweet notion. On one hand, it means that their music is formulaic, but on the other hand it’s really great music. In theory, krautrock is a rather formulaic genre, and a near dead one at that. In my opinion, it’s heartening to know that bands like Beak> still continue that legacy.
It’s difficult to find iconic talent in a genre popular for spawning Feist-wannabes; however, Steffaloo approaches this problem by not channeling her influences, but rather taking example of them by channeling herself. Thus, she gains an audience willing to listen to her heart.
“Meet Me In Montauk“‘s simple strumming begins the intimate relationship between the listener and Steffaloo. The song arouses nostalgia when her imaginative wordplay articulates plans for a much needed reunion. As the minimal melody continues, her blithe backing-vocal accents come in as promising whispers of closure or perhaps new beginnings while prolonging the imminent seperation. Staying true to the singer/songwriter legacy, she bares all for the sake of her art. The rawness in her sound has a warm sophistication to it: laid back yet devastatingly honest, lyrically leaving no emotional stone unturned.
While the topic is sometimes painfully saturated with stories of heartbreak, Steffaloo’s songs play like parts of conversations you overhear in a cafe. There’s almost something connecting over witnessing the disconnect between what could have been. “Just Strangers” begins with soft reassurances over the relationship until the drum beat strides in, giving an embodiment to the intended audience in the conversation. As the harmonic exploration of her quietly dying affair comes to a unclear resolution, Steffaloo gives the common on-and-off relationship a well-suited theme.
The listlessness experienced after a long-term relationship can be crippling when the silence of your environment begins to settle in. Though mourning is part of the process, getting over a broken heart requires activity. When Steffaloo found none, she wrote about it in “When The Sun Goes Down”; her muted frustration against the well-intentioned comforts of friends and family is best articulated in the line “no matter how I try/the unknown still remains/like how there’s so much beauty in the pain”. She doesn’t concentrate on just one facet of heartbreak, instead opting to paint a general scene: it’s easy to see yourself in her place, attempting to find relief for when the absence of something significant becomes too much to bear.
And as love dies and grows again, the latter stage also gets a tribute in “Next Time I See You”. This flirtatious little ditty finds new connections over past disappointments and rallies her new interest to greener pastures through dulcet ukulele tones. Accompanied by snaps and vocal overlays, it’s not hard to see that Steffaloo’s charm comes from her simplcity. This charm further extends to the handfuls of collaborations she has done with other artists that have recognized that some of their tracks cannot be without her element— my personal favorites, Blackbird Blackbird’s “Starlight” and Sun Glitters’ “Cosmic Oceans”: