Photo: Courtesy of Fat Cat Records

The Epic ‘The Besnard Lakes Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings’ Sustains Its Emotional Payoff

With their first album in five years, the Besnard Lakes capture the journey from the primordial origins of life to the unknown that awaits us after death.

The Besnard Lakes Are The Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings
The Besnard Lakes
Fat Cat
29 January 2021

Judging from the pacing of their albums, if the Besnard Lakes made films, they’d make the type of films that hover at a uniform pace, devoid of flashy explosions or even conventional dramatic escalations. This is to say that the Quebec-based quintet’s albums unfold slowly. Listeners who require music that delivers frequent and pronounced emotional payoffs will no doubt walk away from The Besnard Lakes Are The Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings, the band’s first full-length in five years, with the impression that they just sat through 70-plus minutes of non-action. The fact is, however, that if one adopts something like a “tantric” approach to listening (for lack of a more accurate term), one recognizes that the Besnard Lakes are capable of diffusing the feeling of emotional payoff so that it stretches over long passages, multiple songs, and even entire albums. 

With the ripples of organ and quarter-speed James Bond Theme-meets-surf rock guitar lick that introduces opening track “Blackstrap,” The Besnard Lakes Are The Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings reveals its basic formula right at the outset. Once again, the band combines the aural detail of shoegaze, the density and aggression of psychedelic rock, and Beach Boys-inspired melodies—the same vocabulary it’s been building on since its 2003 debut Volume 1.

That isn’t to suggest that the Besnard Lakes haven’t evolved. On the contrary, if one listens to the band for any length of time, one’s ear reflexively begins to distinguish variations in tone and timbre. In fact, comparing Besnard Lakes records to one another parallels the experience of going to a fabric store and comparing swathes of fine silk, where subtle differences in the threads are immediately apparent to the touch and a world of tactile information opens up to the fingertips. 

To say the least, The Besnard Lakes are not a band that punches you in the gut or rocket-blasts you into the stratosphere. You do end up in the stratosphere by the end of The Besnard Lakes Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings but, more than ever before, the new album induces a sense of gradual, almost imperceptible incline towards its conclusion. Alongside the perpetual midtempo stride of these new songs, back-catalog numbers like “People of the Sticks” and “Golden Lion”—highly restrained songs in their own right—now resemble indie-punk bangers. That said, appearances can be deceiving and, while even longtime fans can expect to have their endurance tested by this album, it stands as a prime example of the vast difference between consistency and featurelessness. 

It’s an obvious analogy, but it’s impossible to resist thinking of The Besnard Lakes Are The Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings in terms of a long-distance drive. Here, the ride is smooth enough that you never quite feel the acceleration of the vehicle. Nevertheless, there’s an undeniable satisfaction in becoming one with the forward momentum, the slight dips, the way your body tilts as you hug turns, the morphing topography out the window… And sure, songs like the molasses-paced “Raindrops” and the largely beat-less, 8-minute “Christmas Can Wait” will have you zoning-out at times, but that’s not the same as being bored. 

That the music lends itself to phasing in and out of active consciousness makes sense when you consider that, lyrically, Thunderstorm Warnings functions as a meditation on dying, with the songs sequenced as “a journey through death and a passing over to the other end, whatever that may be.” If it seems like an audacious decision to press on for an additional half hour after a natural set-closer like the gripping 9-minute epic “The Dark Side of Paradise,” the marathon-like quality of the music befits the subject matter. At various points throughout the album, time seems to stand completely still while the band uses its high-resolution snapshots of reverbs, echoes and chiming notes to simulate the feeling of being in an endless space. 

And sure enough, when frontwoman/bassist Olga Goreas and frontman/guitarist Jace Lasek chant “With love, there is no death” over and over toward the crescendo of “The Father of Time Wakes Up,” the words resound as simultaneously eerie and reassuring, uncertain and triumphant, mournful and exultant. Rays of hope shine through that complex web of feelings, but it’s only fitting that the listener travels a long way to reach them—just as one does when one processes loss in real life. The album-closing title track kicks off on a distinctly resolute note, with its (relatively) lively drumbeat, bright splashes of guitar, and sunny power-pop chorus hook. 

Once the traditional “song” section of the track concludes at about the seven-minute mark, though, a single atmospheric drone resounds for another 11 minutes, supported by a wind-like sound effect. At this point, looking back at the way the instruments slowly came to life at the very beginning of the album, it’s clear that the band is attempting to encompass the progression between the emergence of life out of a primordial state and the return to eternity once the individual passes on. Such musical devices may read as stagey and contrived on paper, but the band pulls them off rather tastefully. In a sense, by ending the album this way, The Besnard Lakes come forward and acknowledge that they’ve always been something of a drone act in disguise as a psychedelic shoegaze band. 

In concert, the Besnard Lakes turn the intensity up a notch and summon a thunderous low-end boom, even as they capture the fidelity of their recordings. Like all their other albums, The Besnard Lakes Are The Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings doesn’t reveal the horsepower of the band’s internal motor quite as much as seeing them in person does, but listeners can get close via a series of live-streamed concerts tied to the new album’s release, with the next two shows scheduled for March 6th and April 3rd. The shows will feature the band’s full stage complement of fog, strobe lights, and lasers. Details and tickets here.

RATING 7 / 10