Music

Entering the Void: A Reflection on Beardfish

Beardfish

Beardfish may've broken up, but they left us with one of the most humorous, colorful, intricate, and distinctive discographies in all of progressive rock.

As clichéd as it may be to say, there has never been, and will never be, another band like Beardfish. Sure, the Swedish progressive rock quartet (which formed 15 years ago) certainly possessed a bit of the compositional density and textural vibrancy of homeland peers like The Flower Kings, Karmakanic, and Kaipa, as well as shades of the rhythmic intricacies and vocal eccentricities of Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Yes, and especially Frank Zappa; nevertheless, the foursome’s eight studio LPs exhibited an exclusive blend of catchy melodies, complex and adventurous instrumentation (that often incorporated other genres, like funk, jazz, folk, classical, and metal), matchless singing, and perhaps most inimitably, a steady sense of tongue-in-cheek humor and jovial energy.

As reliable as their output remained, so too did their line-up, which consisted of Rikard Sjöblom (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Magnus Östgren (drums), David Zackrisson (guitars), and Robert Hansen (bass) on every release (although 2003’s debut full-length, Från en plats du ej kan se, also included keyboardist/guitarist/flautist Stefan Aronsson). Because of these stabilities, it seemed like the troupe would continue crafting masterful records for a long time (fans had been anticipating the follow-up to last year’s superb +4626-COMFORTZONE for months). Instead, Beardfish announced its official breakup on 11 July 2016. Specifically, the group issued the following statement on its website:

After a longer hiatus and some disagreements and various difficulties within the band we have decided to call it quits. This was not an easy choice to make. Beardfish has always been our main musical outlet -- a proper garage band -- the kind that meet up in the rehearsal studio and try out new material together for long, massive sessions at a time. Some of the best times of our lives have been spent together on the road, in the studio and just hanging out. Growing up, having families and all that has made that particular way of working very difficult, leading to long periods where we haven’t been able to rehearse. And we LIKE to play.

We’ve had a very good run though; eight albums in fifteen years, nine if you include “The early years” (ten if you count “The Sane Day” double album as two!). We’ve toured with some great bands. We’ve met amazing people and found friends in places we’d never been before. We want to thank everyone who has supported us throughout the years, you guys are fantastic and the prog community is a very special place to be a part of.

We spent our youth and our early adulthood as Beardfish and we grew up within the band.. Individually we will now venture out into other musical projects. No matter what, Beardfish has been very special and we will all hold it close to our hearts, but right now it’s time for new adventures.[sic]

There’s no doubt that this news is devastating to Beardfish devotees, as the group’s absence will leave a palpable void (pun intended) in the current progressive rock landscape (although, to be fair, Sjöblom’s promising solo career, coupled with his recent joining of Big Big Train, should help assuage the loss). That said, Beardfish left an indelible mark on the genre, as the majority of their work ranks amongst the best progressive rock records of all time. While it’d take far too long to analyze each crucial selection, the following handful of tracks demonstrate easily what made Beardfish such a one-of-a-kind act.

“Sleeping in Traffic” (from Sleeping in Traffic: Part Two, 2008)

(Seeing as how I’ve already waxed poetic about this one in my “The 10 Progressive Rock Epics You Need to Hear Now” feature from 2013, it makes sense to paste that excerpt here, with some revisions, including a new opening paragraph.)

Beardfish’s first two outings -- the aforesaid debut and 2006’s The Sane Day -- were filled with wonderful material that showcased how good the band was at crafting both wildly sophisticated instrumentation (“A Psychic Amplifier”) and playful narratives (“The Gooberville Ballroom Dancer”). Unsurprisingly, their third and fourth discs -- the two-part Sleeping in Traffic -- refined this balance expertly while also continuing The Sane Day’s penchant for conceptual continuity. Whereas 2007’s Part One is probably the most stripped-down entry in their discography overall, 2008’s Part Two ups the technicality and intensity greatly. It makes sense, then, that its penultimate piece (followed only by the brief “Sunrise Again” return) is the gargantuan “Sleeping in Traffic”, a 36-minute monster bursting with trademark catchiness, friskiness, and bold adventurousness. The group may’ve produced many equally ambitious suites to date (especially The Void’s sublime “The Note”), but “Sleeping in Traffic” remains Beardfish’s greatest (and lengthiest) epic.

According to Sjöblom (in our 2012 interview for Examiner), it was inspired by “a pretty vivid and crazy dream I had back when I was younger. It was written in 2002 and we didn’t put it on an album until 2008; that’s just because of its length. It was tough to place on an album with other songs so that’s why we decided to build a theme around it and then it turned out as two albums.” As for how the two records join, he says:

The concept was thought out after many of the songs were already finished and recorded. We basically thought it was time to release the song, and since it was quite an important one in our catalog, we decided to build not one, but two albums around it. We managed to create a somewhat vague storyline about this guy who ends up in a whole lot of crazy situations and everything happens during 24 hours in his life. Of course, it ends with the suite on SIT2, which is basically a dream.

“Sleeping in Traffic” begins simply enough, with a strong bass note and an awesome guitar riff (which recurs throughout it). Soon Gentle Giant-esque counterpoints and charming bursts of technique take the spotlight, demonstrating how complex and varied Beardfish’s music can be. As things quiet down, Sjöblom sings an introductory melody that’s urgent yet peaceful. Behind him, keyboard and guitar flourishes decorate the auditory space. A new section begins a quarter of the way in, and it’s highlighted by eccentric effects and a very commanding chorus. Halfway through, the group channels the chord progression of Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” for an instrumental break, which transitions into a funky, almost Vaudevillian bit of liveliness, complete with drunken pirate voiceovers. Next, Sjöblom narrates his thoughts before adding some heaviness to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive”. It’s here that Beardfish truly displays its carefree, warm attitude; these drastic changes would feel out of place if it weren’t for how ingeniously integrated they are.

Of course, the song recalls its opening (though modified) near the end, allowing its central motifs to come full circle. Throughout the piece, Sjöblom exemplifies why he’s one of the best singers the genre has ever seen, as he alternates between singing softly and forcefully with idiosyncratic character. The most remarkable thing about the song, however, is how assorted it is; in addition to the aforementioned genres, it incorporates hard rock, psychedelia, and jazz into its vibrant palette, making it thoroughly surprising. For sure, “Sleeping in Traffic” is among the best prog opuses ever created.

“Abigail's Questions (In An Infinite Universe)” (from Destined Solitaire, 2009)

As mentioned earlier, there are hints of Frank Zappa’s trademark chaotic rhythmic shifts and peculiar storytelling throughout Beardfish’s catalog, with sophomore collection The Sane Day being the most overt of the first four entries. However, fifth LP Destined Solitaire takes the reigns from its predecessor by not only being more transparently Zappa-ish, but by feeling like an homage to a specific album, 1975’s One Size Fits All. The entire sequence bursts with the quirky hues and virtuosic flair of Zappa’s mid-‘70s gem, and while there are many standout picks from it, the second to last one, “Abigail’s Questions (In an Infinite Universe)”, is the most emblematic of these parallels, as its similarities to “Inca Roads” are undeniable.

When I asked Sjöblom about this connection, he admitted that it was a subconscious coincidence, clarifying: “I didn’t think of it at the time, but listening back, it’s quite clear that I was heavily influenced by ‘Inca Roads’, and Frank in general, at that time.” Although it’s not uncommon for artists to unwittingly take from their inspirations, nor does doing so undermine their newer creations (if it did, King Crimson’s repertoire would delegitimize a considerable amount of Steven Wilson’s ingenious output), there’s no denying that “Abagail’s Question”, as remarkable as it is, owes a lot to Zappa’s aforesaid album starter.

For one thing, there’s a cosmic vibe to both tracks tunefully and lyrically, with Beardfish’s opening line -- “In an infinite universe / My first breath seems very close to my last” -- feeling as otherworldly as when George Duke sings, “Did a vehicle come from somewhere out there / Just to land in the Andes?” Still, Sjöblom’s narrative is quite touching throughout the duration, with one particular melody/lyric combo (“Abigail, take my hand / Follow me, let's run down the milky way / Stay with me, Abigail, my crazy source of joy / Don't ever let go”) placed at the top of Beardfish’s most charmingly romantic moments.

In-between its wondrously colorful and laid-back, almost jazzy majority, Zappa’s tendency to have tricky instrumental flourishes mimicked by the singer is present, too, such as when Sjöblom asks, “What lures around the bend / Of the continuous expanding infinity ... but if it's infinite / That means it all has to go at the same time / right?” Surely the strongest connection between the two, though, comes five minutes in, when a percussive break pulled directly from “Inca Roads” gives way to one of the most complex passages in Beardfish’s arsenal, as another simultaneous musical/vocal outburst -- “In my infinite loneliness / Her first kiss is all I can think of now” -- is incessantly hypnotic.

So, if “Abigail’s Question” takes so much from another source, how can it also be one of the quartet’s best pieces? Simple: it manages to filter its Zappa elements within a quintessentially Beardfish foundation; in other words, the foursome’s distinctive timbres, dynamics, wordplay, and sense of playfulness are still a crucial part of the journey. Really, it showcases Beardfish at the apex of its fun-yet-deeply-challenging compositional prowess and provides a clear example of how modern progressive rock bands can draw on the past while doing something fresh and relevant as well.

“Without Saying Anything” (from Mammoth, 2011)

Commonly cited as the best of the bunch, Beardfish’s 2011 follow-up to Destined Solitaire maintained that record’s vivacity and density while also delivering a less sardonic and slightly more focused ride. Furthermore, songs like “And The Stone Said: If I Could Speak” and “Green Waves” found the band evoking a Mastodon-level of heaviness. As impeccable as Mammoth’s first six tracks are (especially “The Platform” and “Tightrope”), it’s album closer “Without Saying Anything (feat. Ventriloquist)” that steals the show. With its relentless momentum and magnetic singing, the selection is arguably Beardfish’s most infectious piece.

According to Sjöblom, “Without Saying Anything” is “about telling it like it is, just getting to the point. Speak your mind and do it fast!” It’s fitting, then, that the track bursts open with a celebratory piano chord ascension, matching guitar riffs, and pounding rhythms. From there, a more pensive arrangement comes in as he whimsically reflects, “This pitiful pettiness is not for me / I don’t need any of this in order to feel free”. After a romantic pre-chorus, a funky bass line paves the way for what’s likely Beardfish’s most alluring melody: “I dare you to say what you’re thinking / I just don’t see the point / Of living without feeling / Of talking without saying anything / I want the fire in my soul / The rhythm of life should shake my bones / Make me feel alive right here, right now”. It’s damn near impossible not to be sucked into the sheer celebratory catchiness of it all.

In contrast to that jovial first half, the “Ventriloquist” part near the end (“which, lyrically, deals with following someone’s orders blindly without questioning them”) is, despite flashes of zany intricacy, cautionary and incendiary. Mournful piano notes and guitar chords introduce Sjöblom’s outraged assessment: “Were we born to blindly follow? / To never, ever ask why? / It seems dangerous to indoctrinate a daily dose of hate / Who's your prophet when you're marching off to war? / Don't believe you're doing it for him / Think about where the orders came from”. His final screams and angsty hums are complemented by an intense variation on the piano/guitar combo, which dissolves into a lone piano progression for the final seconds. All in all, it’s a very powerful song in multiple ways, and it illustrates how masterfully Beardfish fused apt social commentary and incredibly inviting music.

“Ludvig & Sverker” (from The Void, 2012)

Likely the most common criticism of progressive rock is that it prioritizes fanciful concepts, self-indulgent instrumentation, and unnecessarily lengthy durations above everything else. While all of that is true at times (and a major selling point for aficionados), there are countless examples of top-notch, heartfelt songwriting and lyricism within the genre as well. Naturally, Beardfish is no exception, as the majority of their songs would still work without any complex embellishments. The standout example of this (by far) is “Ludvig & Sverker” from the mostly bleak, aggressive, and colorless The Void (a distinction that shouldn’t be too surprising; just look at how its cover compares to the others). Overwhelmingly emotional and meticulously composed, it’s easily the most beautiful song Beardfish ever wrote.

A mesmerizing guitar pattern melds with sharp chord strums and steady percussion to decorate a dramatic landscape; soon after, a guitar lead suggests the chorus to come before arpeggios move around Sjöblom’s pained paternal offering: “Cry / I'll hold you as we fall / Feels like we've done this once before / Come now / let’s cry ourselves to sleep / A dreamless sleep / Sheltered in the deep”. Whereas Beardfish is often so boisterous musically and vocally, here they pour tender restraint into each moment. True, the structure picks up steam following that first verse (and even alludes to a melody still to come, which shows how cleverly composed the track is), and Sjöblom eventually rebels against the conceptual injustice (“They will never know how we long to take them in our arms / To hold them and to love them as only a mother and father can”), but there’s an underlining sense of subdued depression and defeat here that’s relatively unmatched by anything else in the band’s catalog.

Of course, all of that is just providing a foundation for the chorus, which is remarkably humble yet haunting: “Sleep tight, my little ones / I will love you forever / Sleep in the woods, my little ones / I will miss you always”. Here, Sjöblom achieves the kind of superficial subtly with profound implications that made Porcupine Tree’s “Heartattack in a Layby” so crushing. Subsequently, several measures venture into trickier territory before returning to the heart of the piece, never letting the chorus’ downtrodden melody out of sight. It builds to a heart-wrenching crescendo as Sjöblom screams, “Sleep in the woods!” like a father who knows he’ll never see his children again.

While it’s far from the most musically sophisticated and imaginative piece the quartet ever wrote, its somewhat atypical commitment to gorgeous sorrow makes it standout. Put another way, when it comes to pure, poignant songwriting “Ludvig & Sverker” is undoubtedly Beardfish’s greatest achievement. (There’s even a “Solo Piano Version” bonus track that cements this distinction even more, although the official take is all-around superior).

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