For some mortals, including yours truly, to see Beak> live at the time helped understand the bold move that was “Third” (2008) in the career of half-gods Portishead. With his side project, Geoff Barrow freely exercised his passion for Kraut-rock and other elegant German experimentation. As Barrow said recently - in an article in The Guardian, where he went over the songs that marked his life - Can was one of the bands that helped him mature and change his outlook on music, during the long sabbatical that followed Portishead's second album. Summing up, for those who just got here: “Beak>”, the album, came about after twelve days of improvisation, released in 2009 with artwork worthy of Neu!, and presented with some hypnotic live shows, where the simplicity and cleanliness of “Tin Cans & Twine” and “Magnet Pulls Through” by Tortoise was the standard. According to the press release for this second full-length, after those gigs in the spring of 2009, Barrow, Matt Williams, and Billy Fuller returned to the studio and found that their time on the road had taken its toll on their “delicately sensitive and creative nature”. “The magic was gone” and the band entered a zombie-like state. Fortunately, after a few disastrous sessions, one rainy morning in Bristol, Beak> found their rhythm again, just when Barrow was going through a hyperactive phase: in the space of just a few months, he released records with the side projects he uses for his other passions – hip-hop (Quakers), and dystopian and dark science fiction soundtrack music (Drokk) - alongside this second Beak> album. He has also been rehearsing and playing with Portishead, here's hoping his muses will stay with him for a long time.
The return to life has been aptly titled “>>”, symbolising the move forward, and continuing the simple and familiar yet avant-garde iconography, and it's been released on Barrow's own label, Invada Records. Again, improvisation and a lack of overdubs have been important during recording, as was the addition of synthesisers, which puts the band in the direction of the German rock of the 70s, closer to a revival sound than to the noir experimentation of the first album. This is no bad thing. We're talking about an album that knows very well where it's going and avoids any confusion. The track that served as an appetiser, “Yatton”, already showed a few months ago that Beak> were back on track with a smoking motorik rhythm, pumping bass lines, hard to decipher and repetitive lyrics, alongside somewhat timid synths. The latter are most present on the more atmospheric songs on the album, such as the nightmarish “The Gaol”, and the cosmic “Ladies’ Mile” (where they seem to pay tribute to Vangelis), though they're also prominently featured on the not less notable “Eggdog”, “Elevator”, and the up-tempo “Liar”.
But the synthesisers aren't the only change on “>>”, which reaches its full potential when it goes beyond the Can references and extends to 70s acid rock in general, with compositions in which the heavy repetition draws the listener in, like a mantra. It's these modern tribal temples, that way of sounding ancestral and terribly sophisticated at the same time, which makes this record part of its tradition. The deep and mysterious “Wulfstan II”, the sandy “Deserters”, the majestically psychedelic closing track “Kidney”, and, of course, “Spinning Top” - with the echoes of Damo Suzuki bouncing off the roof and walls - are the sky-high pillars “>>” should be judged by. It’s a notable and honest LP that should keep us from mentioning Portishead when talking about Beak> once and for all. And if it were up to me, it should also be the last time we mention Can.