Bristol has a deep-rooted history of acts that innovate and experiment in blending past genres and forming new. Beak>‘s own history is entwined within this, with ties to two of the city’s biggest success stories. Geoff Barrow is more prominently known as the producer and founding member of seminal trip-hop act Portishead, and it’s of little surprise that the other tie, albeit loose, is with the eponymous Massive Attack.
Now, any avid Portishead fan may be forgiven for not so much as flinching with mention of a Barrow side project, what with Portishead’s 2008 LP, the aptly titled Third taking 11 years to complete. However, as if by way of some self-imposed challenge to exorcise past demons, Beak> was recorded under a very strict process of writing and recording, all completed live in one recording studio over 12 days with no overdubs or repairs. The album stands on this fact as a test to the age-old saying that you get out what you put in.
The first track, “Backwell”, not so much takes influence from krautrock as it reproduces an updated brand of Neu!’s bizarre technical wizardry, following a strict set-up of guitar, bass, drum, and synthesizer recorded predominantly in a 4/4 pattern. The album does instantly intrigue, the music suggesting that something, and quite possibly anything, might happen next. Second track “Pill” holds a nice progression, yet feels like it should build to a form bigger than it becomes, and I suspect if it wasn’t for the limitations set upon the record, it quite possibly would. However, to question this is to question the entire creative concept behind the record. That said, I do suspect that without those limits the track would have been nearer to the ten-minute mark, with a far grander crescendo to its progression. One signal is when the track begins to turn into a much darker beast around the four-minute mark—unfortunately, just in time to close.
The album properly introduces itself when the inaudible warbling on “Ham Green” gives way to a distorted riff that Sunn O))) would take pride in. Each track sits around the same mathematical structure, and suddenly the symbol in the Beak> name makes immediate sense, a direct reference to the precise make up of the recordings. The pitch shifts early on in “I Know” are reminiscent of a Kid A Radiohead with a Neu! kick, but certainly not a Radiohead that would ever make it onto record, with the vocals often reminiscent of Ian Curtis in the way he somehow seems to be speaking his pain behind the music.
At this stage of the record, I began to start asking myself a question. Is it possible to make a truly experimental record of progressive sound with tracks that average around the five-minute mark? After several listens, the Beak> recordings really have put a question mark over this in my mind, yet it’s something I still haven’t managed to answer, and for the sake of my own sanity have decided it may not be possible to do so.
“Battery Point” wanders along a little more than any other track on the record, feeling far more assured than other parts with its reverberating echoes manifesting themselves within the delicately built, beautiful harmonies. This feels like the first time the album truly settles, or as much as it will settle at any rate, a point we will visit later. This all comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, on a track just over the seven-minute mark, food for thought if ever I’ve heard it. After “Battery Point” the album transgresses back in time, as “Iron Acton”‘s post-punk riff makes for a recording that could be lifted straight from an A Certain Ratio LP. Its subtle pitch shifts make for one of the record’s most accomplished sections, but again, the track just seems to tail off without ever really capitalizing on what is there.
“Blagdon Lake” is certainly the stand-out moment of the record, using a simple guitar loop that builds with a mathematical abandon, by its close having transformed with driving synths that pound along like some kind of industrial rave. This is unfortunately followed by “Barrow Gurney”, which isn’t so much a song, or even a tune for that matter, but more a collection of interference that I imagine is like listening to a fax machine in outer space. I’m unsure this can be critiqued as music, as I’m not entirely sure it is music—in fact, no, it isn’t. But I kind of feel as if that’s the point, as if the distortion is brought in to destroy any proposition that Beak> may settle into a more conventionally-structured modern day LP. Rather, it’s staying true to Beak> being the collection of experiments held on one record that it is, and drives home the initial concept of the recordings.
The album is certainly a grower, and through time the initially infuriating elements begin to manifest themselves within the progression. At times, the record bears the same qualities as a film score, where, amidst highly accomplished sections, there is a distinct feeling of a larger force driving it—and in this case there is, yet instead of a movie’s scene progression it is the constraints the trio placed upon writing and recording it. This is certainly no bad thing, but you can’t argue that it hasn’t affected the final product.
“The Cornubia” is the moment that the recordings bear the most similarity to Portishead. Elements of the outfit’s Third record are littered throughout, but “The Cornubia”‘s dull, fuzzy bass line and sombre keyboard strokes result in the sound of a male fronted Portishead—but a track in edit rather than the glossy final product that comes from the perfectionism of an 11-year writing and recording process.
“Dundry Hill” is another great example of the recurring theme through a large proportion of the Beak> recordings. There are some nice touches, with its bass treated to a squelching effect throughout, and the seemingly drunken ramblings all creating a distinctly eerie atmosphere, but in real terms the track leads very much back to the same place with a distinct lack of statement, and by this stage I really wonder what the end product would have sounded like given, say, 24 days in the Bristol studio instead of 12, as this stands out as a work in progress—albeit a very promissing one.
Beak> can at times be a frustrating listen, but a frustrating listen that is certainly not without its fruits, and these fruits can far outweigh the frustration. I wouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination call Beak> a “bad record”—if at times it’s hard to consider it as an album at all in the common sense—but isn’t that all beginning to wear a little thin now anyway ? The recordings wholly succeed in what I perceive as their intended purpose—discovering what three musicians can come up with under vastly different constraints than the parties involved are used to operating under—but whether these form enough to be classified as a fully finalised LP, or whether in fact they are supposed to, are two further questions that remain with me following further listens of Beak>.
Even knowing the history behind the trio, there is obviously an abundance of creative ability within the band, as there are some truly great moments. The hook on “Blagdon Lake” is a killer, and the haunting resonance on “Dundry Hill” is as good as any drone act you might find. To gain comparisons to the list of artists within this article is no mean feat, never mind in a 12-day period with a minimal level of post-production, yet for all its krautrock references, it seems to lack the ingenuity that set Neu! apart from everything else that came before it. Many tracks do sound incomplete, more like an early demo of an outfit’s work, which I suppose in honesty, they are.
“Battery Point” is the moment where the ideas all seem to come together; with its driving synths and great dirgy riff, it progresses through its seven minutes in a very accomplished manner. On the flipside of this, after “Ham Green” ambles along in its quite surreal way, it suddenly becomes dark—but that’s just it: suddenly. There is no interim point where the track develops, and had it been given more time to do this, at the risk of repeating myself, it would have been a more progressive change in a track twice as long as is on the record. Just as it threatens to go to its strongest point, it finishes, and leaves another sense of what might have been. But as the age old saying goes, you do get out what you put in. Was 12 days enough? I’m not sure. Have the trio proved a point most pertinently to themselves, but also to the saturated indie market? Definitely.
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