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.
The clunks and clanks of the interior of a steel ship coming to life start “A Different Ship” with resounding howls. Is someone trapped? Is something happening that we aren’t supposed to see? Those questions, among others, crop up throughout Brooklyn quintet Here We Go Magic’s third album. They are searching for the right stride, unsure as they side-step from Paul Simon-like vocals on “Hard to Be Close” to the guitar driven single “Make Up Your Mind”. It’s as if frontman Luke Temple is picking genres from a metaphorical grab bag, going with anything that comes out. As the song title suggests, he didn’t quite make up his mind on anything.
Most of the buzz about this album has been centered around producer Nigel Godrich, who has been involved in some of the most seminal albums of the last 15 years, most notedly with Radiohead and Beck. His presence seems to overshadow what is really happening here. While the music is great, it’s hard to follow. The only thing that is clear is the clean production. Every sound seems to be placed perfectly, and sonically it’s the band’s best effort, which brings me to my next question: what was cut?
In the charming arrangements of “A Different Ship”’s predecessor, “Pigeons”, every thought that Temple brought to the table had its place in the final product. Every track seemed like chaos, referencing some obvious influences as Kraftwerk and Neu!. The randomness of new tracks “Alone But Moving” and “Made To Be Old” throw off some other tracks that might have allowed the band to develop some progression. It’s only on “I Believe in Action” that the album takes a shape that is reminiscent of the logical direction I felt that band was going.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the album. My only concern is that there isn’t anything that sets it apart from the rest of the pack, giving it a personality of its own. With so many different directions to choose from, it was easy to see how Temple does “believe in action”, to the point where you can’t quite keep up what is happening. There are moments were I feel the band could have stayed on a particular path, particularly on “Miracle of Mary”, where I felt that the band could do more in the space they had. Even the title track, which stretches for over eight minutes, seems stunted; I want to blame nerves. There was an article in Stereogum earlier this year about the recording process of this album where Temple explained his early nervousness, and how he couldn’t quite write with the pressure of having Godrich producing that album. I’m not saying that it’s completely nerves, they certainly have an effect on the general flow of this release.
My strongest feeling is that it might be a transitional album, leading up to something more consistent in the future. As far as substance and content are concerned, they’ve given us a lot to work with here, allowing us to see what they are really capable of. Its penchant for inconsistency helps more than it harms as far as talent, but as a whole unit it tends to cloud the overall landscape of the release. It’s a balancing act, navigating through the album’s influences and aspirations, trying to decide which way to go. Like Talking Heads’ “Remains In Light”, it’s a recording that can leave its audience with more questions than answers. One answer is certain: there is more to come. I just hope it’s slightly more linear.