By Jim Merrett
As the name suggests, Beak — or BEAK> — don’t like to make it easy on themselves. Or sub-editors, search engines and, indeed, listeners, and that’s before they’ve even listened (although through the act of listening, their particular lot does improve). Or rather they’ve made it too easy for themselves. Despite his less-than-prolific rate of output with Portishead (three albums in close to two decades), this second album by Geoff Barrow and a couple of his Bristolian muso mates was knocked out in an afternoon.
It would’ve been an afternoon well spent, if not, you would suspect, a barrel of laughs. This is one brooding album, as black and stripped-back as the rolling asphalt of the nighttime autobahn that it might as well soundtrack. There’s the constant wallowing throb of bass, the hurtling percussion that consumes all — even the vocals are human voices in name only, twisted and distorted and dragged along the smooth surface of a ferociously brisk road.
This is route that connects the whirling hum of proto-dance, Italian synths and stoner metal is a well-worn groove, and Beak make no apology for their magpie-like cherrypicking of ideas. Sonic Youth, Joy Division and more recently PVT and even in snatches Cliff Martinez’s Drive soundtrack have all travelled down this speedway, and the industry of Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk are at the core of this venture. But as the no-frills artwork suggests, this is to what has gone before it what XX was to r’n’b, dubstep and even Barrow’s own Portishead: pared down until it becomes something new. Better, even.
Opening gambit ‘The Gaol’ wails like a siren being pulled apart: a warning of things to come. But it’s the beats that grab you, throw you in the back of the van and beat the crap out of you. And, like an abductee with Stockholm syndrome, for that you are grateful.
Immediately displaying stop-what-you’re-doing levels of engrossment, the album is only just warming up. The momentum picks up and the scenery changes, from the turbo rock of ‘Yatton’, through the Krautfunk pounding of ‘Spinning Top’ and the sludgy, treacle-thick doom of seven-minute centrepiece ‘Wulfstan II’ and back again towards the tail end for ‘Elevator’.
>> isn’t built for comfort, but it is absorbing, overwhelming and hypnotic, like rumble strips to a nocturnal motorist in serious need of a caffeine fix. It’s also at times a fierce cacophony of clattering rhythm and is always an impressive display of what can happen when three human machines are perfectly synced.