The second album from Montreal band the Besnard Lakes is really good — a huge whirl of epic rock that rewards patience with melodies of equal grandeur. The band has been a second-string player in the prominent Montreal music scene over the past few years, but with this, The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse, the band’s making a strong claim to greater recognition.
It’s had to believe the core of the Besnard Lakes is a husband-wife pair, and certainly there’s none of the Mates of State/the Submarines cuteness. And the band gets some help in crafting their large-swathe layers of sound and full orchestral arrangements by a predictably diverse array of Canadian musicians, including members of Stars, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and the Dears. The guests aren’t distracting. Instead, they provide the instrumentation to justify the core members’ big ideas.
The best of the Besnard Lakes’ songs defy expectations despite their expansive, patient song structures. On “Disaster”, something wonderful happens half way in. Instead of the predictable crescendo to post-rock explosion, we get a side-step along the way: percussion hangs back, the vocals are pitched at falsetto range for a further verse. As with a number of other tracks on the album, “Disaster” milks its relatively simple melodic idea to the end, dressing it up with a fancy orchestral arrangement, and playing with arrangements and textures. “Devastation” buries its loudspeaker-distorted Besnard Lakes melody beneath an epic riff and space-rock, apocalyptic swirl. And the seven-minute “Because Tonight” rewards us, eventually. After opening with a radio-signal with an unfamiliar language — I thought I heard some Hungarian inflection, who knows — and a wonderful, slow-played strings-and-outer-space-effects them, the song shifts to a glorious, triumphantly wide climax of escape: “because tonight, when everyone’s home we’ll set off on a journey”.
The band likes to state its subject early; on “And You Lied to Me” (characteristically), the echoing guitar strums provide atmospheric background for the first series of repetitions of the melodic theme. That song, along with a couple others, cloak its close-to-conventional verse/chorus structure in effects (a duck-call, and counter-melodies with complex rhythms pattered out in the background). It’s an effective and interesting combination, and serves the group well throughout Are the Dark Horse.
If all these depressing song titles seem an indication of some larger worry, it’s played out in the album’s somber, associative lyrics and oppressive atmospheres. But however acute this pall of disaster, it never pulls the music down into stagnation. Instead, songs seem to thrill with power. And probably it’s just me, but in everything on Are the Dark Horse, even the “it’s a fucking pile of shit” line in “Devastation”, there seemed somehow a ray of hope.
This meandering rock isn’t for everyone; impatient listeners may perceive the stubborn adherence to a small range of notes in the middle section of “For Agent 13” frustrating. And the homage to Williamsburg “On Bedford and Grand” plods a little too determinedly; the payoff (“you live in the city, get out”) is hardly revelatory. Throughout, interest is held with dynamic and textural changes, more than an inherently riveting musical idea. But the album’s much more than just stoned jams. Even if you’re not paying attention, the gleaming moments are more than obvious. Relax, and enjoy them.