What Becomes Before by London outfit Billy Mahonie is a terrific fucking album, to put it bluntly. If PopMatters was into capsulized reviews, we’d leave it at that, but as this is not the case, further elaboration shall be exacted. This is the group’s follow-up to their debut album, The Big Dig. Having not heard that album, there is no room for me to make any comparisons, but honestly, What Becomes Before stands on its own original merits without need for backtracking.
Comprised of members Kevin Penney on bass, Howard Monk on drums, Hywell Dinsdale on bass and guitar, and Gavin Baker on guitar, Billy Mahonie is an all-instrumental group that plays music that ranges from primitive, simple chord excursions to full-blown freaked-out jazz paranoia, often within the structures of one song. And their balancing act between these two extremes, and all of the musical possibilities that lie between the two are immediately captivating.
In 1999, Billy Mahonie debuted on Too Pure Records with The Big Dig and three extraneous singles, toured with such groups as Rothko and The Clientele, and enjoyed a John Peel session as well. After playing on a supporting tour for Hefner, and a gig with Laika and Bows, the band cut ties with Too Pure and landed on the Southern label. Now, with What Becomes Before, Billy Mahonie deconstructs—and reconstructs—previous notions of what all this so-called “post rock” is all about.
Frankly, this isn’t post-rock at all, but just an amalgam of persuasive, intense, and alternately perplexing and strikingly complex music. It is like a soundtrack without a film. What kind of film? How about one that deals with the mechanics of things. Listen to the sounds of Billy Mahonie and see images of gears spinning, or giant bridges being built, or rushes through the heart of the city and it sprawling landscape engulfing your complete being. This is the electric charge that the sounds of Billy Mahonie.
It might not be all-too apparent as the opening strains of “Fishing with a Man for a Shark” appear, with its slow bass line, languid guitar phrasings echoing Pink Floyd circa Wish You Were Here and jazzy trumpet. But as this concoction slowly builds, repeating and morphing its main theme, the song suddenly breaks free, as the bass turns into a wild, rabid and tough beast, sounding not unlike the late Mark Sandman when he would unleash his sleazy bass fury within Morphine. The band continues to build higher, the guitars crying out, their strings screeching with pick scrapes—Miles Davis meets the Velvet Underground? It’s not such a strange idea when listening to this amazing track.
The band plays a good mix of moderate, short, and lengthy-paced pieces, and this is a true plus. At times, such groups have a tendency to play on too long, or freak out abstractly when they should just keep quiet. On “Nacho Steals from Work”, Billy Mahonie revisits the stomp of primal Velvet Underground, while applying their own transfixing touches to the jagged riffs. This is the underground for the new generations. At once both angry, and funky in an unnerving sexy kind of way, “Nacho Steals from Work” gets in and out of the spotlight fast, leaving no traces.
The ghost of the Velvet Underground disappears for the kinetic “Dusseldorf” which plays with another intricate main theme before giving way to a more sinister, tightly wound and hypnotic bridge, which then mixes it up with the first part of the song and then leans into a jazzy pile of freakishness, the one guitar keeping the main theme going as the other sprawls about in a wah-wah strangle. How best to describe this stuff? Jazz for rock-inclined music freaks? Works for me.
But Billy Mahonie can work it the other way as well, as the driving, smooth, elegant “Kepper’s Dive” makes abundantly clear. Encapsulating the fever of New Wave syncopated tendencies with an almost Police-like groove (think the instrumental cuts on Zenyatta Mondatta) and a bit of the old Kraftwerk Autobahn thrown in, this is some fascinating, cerebral listening. For once, an instrumental group capable of rock and jazz sculptures that doesn’t slip into fey noodling or goofing off. For all the tracks on What Becomes Before sound well-rehearsed but not so much that they don’t also sound splendidly spontaneous to a degree.
And the band continues this perplexing formula, of slow-motion tapestries of pretty exposition (“The Day Without End”), tight-knit propulsion (“A Warning to the Curious”), and even have time for an acoustic number, complete with banjo (“I, Heston”), that floats along as if it were a lazy summer’s day. But the band gives it all up one last time for the closing “Bres Lore” that fuses all their transfixing tendencies into a final heated nine-minute rush of structured chaos.
That the members of Billy Mahonie are so adept at what they do adds to the brilliance of this album. There’s no denying their talents for controlling their every move, their knack for reigning in the more freakish tendencies at just the right moment. Being careful to not drive what makes their sound so explorative and fascinating into the dirt. If this is truly What Becomes Before, then finding out what the band can turn into the after will surely be just as captivating. Billy Mahonie is instrumental modern music making at its best.