By Stuart Berman
June 5, 2012
Geoff Barrow doesn’t do anything half-assed. His primary band, Portishead, are notorious for taking an average of seven years between albums to acheive that perfect shade of noir. But each of the items in Barrow’s bursting dossier of extracurricular assignments bears his meticulous touch. When he feels like making a hip-hop record, he assembles one with 41 tracks and 30-plus guest MCs. When he wants to sign a rock band to his Invada imprint, he goes for one built from a Paul’s Boutique-level of sample-based bricolage. When he scores a production gig for an NME-endorsed group of garage-punk pin-ups, he refashions them as widescreen-visioned psychedelic goths. And when he’s in the mood to hear some Krautrock, rather than just dust off his well-worn copy of Tago Mago, he makes a BEAK> record.
Krautrock, of course, has become as much of a default mode for experimental indie bands as the blues was for a previous generation of classic-rockers. And in BEAK>’s case, the sonic resemblances to their 70s forbears can be, well, unCanny: even more so than the band’s self-titled 2009 debut, >> sounds like it was recorded inside of Jaki Liebezeit’s kick drum, all hypno-bass throb, heavy percussive grooves, and buzzing analog synths. Krautrock is synonymous with a certain rhythmic precision and propulsion, but BEAK> don’t just lock into a motorik beat and activate the cruise control. Rather, they see the music as part of a broader continuum, digging up its roots in the frazzled psychedelia of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, funk, and musique concrete, while emphasizing its influence on everything from electro and post-punk to Italian horror-movie soundtracks and stoner-metal.
As the lone keystroke difference between the first and second album titles suggest, this is a band that progresses in increments. BEAK>> retains the same eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere as its predecessor– after all, its opening track is a sludgy, slow-motion swirl of police-siren effects called “The Gaol”– and the ominously indecipherable vocals sound like they were recorded by the mouth-less dummies seen in their press shots. But the new album also boasts a brisker pace– spurred by the excitable synth-rock thrust of “Yatton” and “Elevator”, and the mushroom-heady funk of “Spinning Top”– tauter arrangements, and a more purposeful sequence: All roads lead to side two’s seven-minute colossus “Wulfstan II”, an Earth-quaking jolt of brown-acid rock whose unrelenting, fuzz-bomb stomp is periodically interrupted by well-timed, organ-guided breakdowns, only to reemerge more nasty and unforgiving than before. (Though its Richter-scale reading is almost matched by the slow-creeping closer “Kidney”, which begins as a Young Marble Giants murmur before erupting into a Slintian roar.) Barrow recently quipped to Rolling Stone that it could be another “fucking 10 years” before we see a new Portishead record; whether he was joking or not, the wait will feel a little less interminable so long as this band continues to put their best > forward.