Beak are a U.K.-based trio consisting of Geoff Barrow (of Portishead) with Billy Fuller and Matt Williams. The proper stylization of Beak is Beak >, utilizing the “greater than” or “angle bracket” sign. I think it is meant to visually represent a bird beak, but the “greater than” signification is kind of cool too. In any case, their newly released second album is titled >>, or II (whichever one prefers). Greater than the first? Perhaps. Or maybe just a talking point for reviewers like myself who enjoy a bit of play with punctuation.
The album opens with “The Gaul,” 3:10 of melodic dissonance. The contradiction in terms is an extremely effective way of preparing the listener for just about anything. It is sort of a tabula rasa, a cleansing of the palette if you will, and opens the ears up for virtually anything. The following track, “Yatton” is the key. While I thought that the band may have taken the “arty” cacophonous route, “Yatton” emphasizes the melodic, at least up to a point. As the 5:17 track deepens, a repetitive, and irresistible loop takes over.
Just at the moment when I have finally decided I have a handle on what Beak’s second album is all about, “Spinning Top” throws me again. At the 4:06 mark, all of my planned comparisons to Cabaret Voltaire circa 1979 are thrown out thanks to an unexpectedly jarring guitar break. I am faced with a 6:13 track that leaves more questions than answers. With the exquisite drone of “Egg Dog,” I give up, and just let the music wash over me.
Beak II reminds me of a period in music when all things were truly possible. Not 1977, which appeared to wipe the slate clean of all things ’60s – to replace it with the rigid strictures of punk. No, Beak seem to have found inspiration in what I consider the real revolution, the era we now refer to as “post-punk.“
PiL are often credited with opening this door, with John Lydon finally free to indulge himself in what he really was into musically. Bands like Can and Van der Graaf Generator, Bowie’s “Berlin” period, and even lesser known acts such as Brainticket were of major importance. So were Cabaret Voltaire, Crispy Ambulance, Suicide, In Camera … there were so many.
Beak’s music hearkens back to that period in many ways. It sounds brilliantly fresh today, because this was always a musical form with no boundaries at all. Word has it that after touring behind their first album, the trio returned to the studio only to have become (in their words) “a truly awful-sounding pub prog-rock band. The magic had gone … [u]ntil [o]ne rainy afternoon in Bristol after many tortured, terrible recording sessions, something changed.”
It certainly did. Picking up from the fourth track on Beak II, “Egg Dog,” we move to the 2:20 “Liar.” This relatively concise instrumental break holds the captive listener in a strange “no man’s land” somewhere between Gary Numan and Psychic TV. “Ladies’ Mile” is a mother, pulling out her still-beating Atom Heart, while “Wulfstan II” militantly checks the saucer for Syd Barrett’s secrets.
“Elevator” is such an obvious nod to Berlin’s “Metro” that I hope others get the joke, or so it (again) seems. Everything on this album is not as it initially appears. “Deserters” is the most avowedly psychedelic tune, and it comes as a breath of fresh air, perversely enough.
Finally, we come to “Kidney,” and it is time to dispense with all of the cutesy rock references and call it what it is: a dense shadow of gloom which both fascinates and repels in truly unhinged glory. When the album winds up, I’ll do what I have done around a dozen times already, and play it again.