It's safe to say we all wonder, at times, what our favourite and fondest of artists get up to in-between releases. Portishead - while not entirely the most manic and rushed of groups to get their music out to the masses - certainly have their fair share of side-projects for the odd member or two to keep them busy in the meantime. This is exactly the case with the Bristol trio's Geoff Barrow, who recently, established himself in a sort of experimentally-minded unconventionally put-forward notion of a super-group, forming BEAK>. Krautrock is a tag that's more melded and melted its way into the thinking process of many of today's generation, than it is boldly mentioned or referenced. Sure the influence is there, but it's not pushed in to the point that you find yourselves more likely whisking back to a 70's Can or Amon Düül session, than you are standing before another 2012 outfit. Barrow, and BEAK> on the other-hand are fond of showing their love and admiration for the German sound, without coming across as self-indulgent fanboys eagerly awaiting the opportunity to gloat. Their sound here on >> - the follow-up to 2009's self-titled debut - isn't entirely one-trick in its confinement, but the influence and enjoyment felt throughout is clearly self-evident.
'The Gaol' while coming off at the start as an improvisational swirl of quirky electronics is quick to flow into a hefty pacing of dry percussion playing that takes over the rhythm of the piece, leading the continuing of muddy siren-like wails into something less apocalyptic, but certainly more tense and abruptively concerning. While the majority of this album is instrumental - thus, laying sole importance on the way these repeating sounds convey a sense of both movement and mood - the album isn't entirely emotive in its drive. 'Yatton' reads perfectly like a Neu! car-drive ballad; jagged guitars laying atop a monotonous drum beat. There are lyrics here, but aren't presented in a way that implies any importance or need to bear it as something needing attention. The words, if they are words in the first place, merely become part of what's going on, hushing and murmuring in equal part to the slight chord changes in strings, alike. The instrumentation may not be, at all unique to anyone who has a fair bulk of their library dedicated to the 70s sound, but it's the landscaping and musical architecture to these sounds that bears a lot more focus than the choice of instruments themselves.
This is certainly the case with 'Spinning Top' which stands as more of the jam-session type deliverances than purely an abridged production as a lot of their tracks come across as. Progression is something that comes in very faint and humble quantities here, but the way each hit of a cymbal or throb of a guitar string seems to ripple and throb across the waves of sound adds a lot more to the album than the instruments themselves contribute straight from the off. It's pleasing then, to see that Barrow is a man who has not simply come to this record as a musician merely a fan of another genre's ideals. Instead, BEAK> feel right in their comfort zone and know what it takes to make this sound work - a sound which, especially in this age, may come off as stubborn and old-fashioned. It makes littler difference that the guitars are limited as to how they're placed (likewise for the drums) - as compared with records that try and hope to sound more contemporary than they actually are - it's the process and pattern to which they are portrayed that carries the hollowness of the song and it's a carriage that only emphasizes this band's heightening awareness.
'Ladies' Mile' reiterates the band's admiration of non-traditional sounds - here, throbbing spring-like synths and sine-waves of electronics - on a track that is less about the journey and more on the testing of how such sounds can come across as. Ditch the experimental duo/quartet/quintet collective and replace it with the ambient pooling of the likes of Cluster and Harmonia and you're well on your way to discovering just what motives may lay in a track like this. The motives, in question, certainly come across as daring to tread - as if, judging by the analog tuning of these sounds, like an alien marsh - expecting something a lot more sinister and abrupt to appear before us. The unveiling never really does emerge from out beneath its feet, which is actually somewhat disheartening given the mood we become submerged in, but it adds quite a surreal leading into 'Wulfstan II' which by now feels less like the avant-garde rock marching, some may see it as, and more of a testing of nerves and admiration for the voyage of sound before us. As the track leads its way through swooning trails of guitars and light percussion, the scenery switches from something more akin with a western wasteland to that of a continental enclosure.
I can't imagine this is the exact same scenario Barrow and the band set out making here, but I for one am intrigued by BEAK>'s balancing act of charm and charge on both spectrums of the traditional and the electronic scale. But not all these tracks share the same traversing and adventurous foray of scope, and while this could be classed as charming in their foray of buzzing instrumentation and optimistic song-playing, there's very little to suggest BEAK> are going beyond the marker set by the bands of thirty/forty years previous. 'Deserters' while incorporating more electric guitars and deeper textures in its strumming, finds itself almost bossed about by the steady rhythm - getting quite heavy and tired-sounding in its execution the more the track progresses. Even with the addition of guitars and muddled vocals, the way the mixing has been both handled and layered makes it almost impossible to escape the steady pacing the drums dictate constantly throughout.
Krautrock has, and always will, remain one of the true defining sounds of western music for as long as it can survive. It's motives, reasoning, philosophy and techniques for deliverance are evident in almost every alternate or experimental rock group formed from the 80's onwards. BEAK> I feel will not be the last to shy away from mentioning its influence in their sound, but a band like this still hold some interesting notion of how this sound might read from one group's or one figurehead's perspective, so far as choice in sound and choice in delivering that sound goes. >> - like the debut that preceded it - will be one of the highlights of this year that undermines how far we have come as a culture, but also how far back we are willing to go in truly identifying what iconography we hope to replicate in today's field of music and creative freedom.