It’s pretty fitting that Geoff Barrow would go on to form a krautrock band. As one of the founding members of Portishead, Barrow helped set the tempo for Beth Gibbons’s airy vocals, adding a jazzy backbeat that always made the band seem more important and substantial than many of their trip-hop peers. With BEAK>, Barrow indulges his rhythmic obsession, sometimes to the point of tedium, but it feels like the audience is the least of the group’s worries. They’re chasing the beat down a dark rabbit hole; if there are spectators, then the more the merrier.
Barrow is joined by Billy Fuller and Matt Williams, two fellow Englishmen with extensive jazz backgrounds. The trio’s self-titled debut was recorded as live improvisation with a few edits here and there, and BEAK>> continues that trend. It should be said that the extra arrow in the title is fitting. After touring for months on end, BEAK> have turned into a focused group. They seem to instinctively know where to take their largely-instrumental meditations, building off each member’s instrumental prowess.
But don’t expect any pop songs. As he did in Portishead, Barrow revels in pure atmosphere and mood; songs bubble along in the shadows with a subtle change here and there. At times, like on the throbbing “Yatton,” BEAK> sound like a warped, parallel-universe Radiohead if that band was consumed by its arty tendencies. Most of the record is purely mechanical, built on cold synths and Barrow’s distinctive drum beats. When a voice emerges from the mist, it’s detached and disembodied, like a machine spitting out formulas. The band creates some pretty frightening soundscapes—“Ladies Mile,” “The Gaol,” and the back half of album closer “Kidney”—by deploying almost overwhelming dissonance. Only “Wulfstan” comes closest to being hummable, though the grimy, vaguely psychedelic guitars keep the song at arm’s length.
Ultimately, BEAK> are only interested in that quasi-mysticism that endless jamming affords. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, as Barrow has found another group of musicians he can connect to on that interstellar level. For the rest of us, though, we’re left in the cold, watching the group as if through a glass partition.