Like their last album, the Besnard Lakes’ new album cover features a good amount of flames. Where before the fire rose around the dark horse, here it is off in the distance, with a huge expanse of water—perhaps Saskatchewan’s Besnard Lake itself—between us and all the burning. But there’s something unnerving about it. There’s the possible town that’s burning to the ground, sure. But it’s something else, and it took me looking at it a few dozen times to figure it out.
You get the feeling you’re moving towards the fire in this painting. Not away.
It’s an important thing to note, because that is very much the feeling of The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night. These sounds are big and cool and atmospheric, but they’re not firm blocks. Every moment moves closer to that heat, the edges melting a little and joining the expanse around them. Everything—each note, each verse, each song—melds slowly into an all-encompassing whole.
The Besnard Lakes prove here that, in fact, they are no dark horse. They’re not going to sneak up and surprise anybody. This is rock music writ huge, but it’s also built with enough subtlety to make it work. The movement that opens the record, “Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent”, is split into two parts. Part one, subtitled “The Ocean”, eases us into this chilling world. Distant distortion glides along at a glacial pace, while blips and bizarre field recordings set up a record haunted on all sides, as if in all that space even the echo of your own shout could startle you. Part two, “The Innocent”, initially keeps this going for a while, but the tension builds, if achingly slowly. Those field recordings get more strident, more like distress signals, and Jace Lasek’s falsetto is strained to breaking.
At its biggest, though, the song doesn’t overinflate. Instead, it crests and flows into the chorus, where Lasek and Olga Goreas sing a bracing call and response. All that haunting noise never quite relents, but the churning guitars and pounding drums, the chest-rattling bass and thick solos, overwhelm it and bring us fully into that roaring night, flames burning even as you can see your breath in the cold air.
Nowhere is their sound better, and that slight but insistent shift from cold to singed more apparent, than on “Albatross”. Goreas takes the vocal lead, belting out each line over a watery bed of guitar. Behind her, the rest of the band pull out their beautiful vocal melodies, cooing each note at Wilson-ian heights. Eventually, the song cracks into a crash-and-fuzz maelstrom that only parts for a cool interplay between Goreas’s vocals and buzzing synth lines. “And I scream for you”, Goreas insists as the song closes, “There goes my man”. But who can blame her for not being heard over all that ruckus around her?
It’s hard to call “Albatross” a pinnacle here, though, because the whole record stays at that height. Each song is an exercise in both staggering size and sturdy composition. And in all of them, the muses of the Wilson brothers and Phil Spector are apparent. But the Besnard Lakes aren’t ones to borrow. These sounds are there own. Where their muses would hide the dark center of their songs in all that size, in all that sun-kissed melody, the Besnard Lakes drag all those sounds down into the fray with them. Take “And This Is What We Call Progress”. At its base, it’s a lean rock song, with that one Stones-like guitar riff. But these folks don’t play anything lean, so while you see the base elements, you also see the carefully placed layers on top of them. The controlled pull on the vocals, the jangling of chords, the slow-spreading hum of keys—they all play their role well. And when it all comes together, it’s an impressive heft these guys deliver.
The moments between these wonderfully huge rock songs, where they try to pull out the tension in scant atmosphere, can drag on a bit as the record moves, if only because we know the size that follows them will be so damned engaging. That, however, is a minor setback in an album that shines, first with that heavy coat of ice and then with slick, rising heat. Even as the temperature rises, as those flames get nearer and nearer, the music pulls you in. The Dark Horse Are the Roaring Night feels like a much more fitting album title for these guys. The humility of The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse was nice and all, but let’s be honest: this stuff is too big and too beautiful to ignore. So stop fighting it and give this Montreal band your attention for a minute. Odds are, you won’t ask for it back any time soon.