Given Barrow's perfectionist streak, you might expect Beak>, his new, goth-tinged trio with fellow Bristolians Billy Fuller and Matt Williams, to be pretty half-assed under those limited creative circumstances. But if Portishead's Third was produced to within an inch of its life, and worked magnificently for that reason, Beak> is reduced the same way—and that's what lends the album its power. This is haunted-house music—an imaginary soundtrack to a cult horror movie that derives its dread entirely from its atmosphere. No wonder it came out in England right before Halloween.
"Backwell" kicks the album off with needling organ, an EKG bass pulse and far-away "awoo"s—a black-and-white nightmare whose reduced budget and one-take ethos give it an extra jolt. Even when things lighten up, they stay ominous. A couple tracks make overt nods to rock classics—"Pill" leads with a bass pattern reminiscent of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," and "Iron Action" rides a pulse straight out of Neu!'s "Hallogallo"—but take them in more sinister directions: "Pill" dwells on its repetition until it gets under your skin, while "Iron Action" crosses its krautrock beat with dubby echo and skinny analog synth meddling that recall the severest of circa-'80 dark-sider prototypes. Even that corniest of traditional-prettiness sonic signifiers—tweeting birds, or at least their approximation via electronic means—is the bed for the twisting and winding guitar-and-delay explorations of "Ears Have Ears." "Barrow Guerny" is two minutes of guitar buzz and howl and squall as reminiscent of Pan Sonic as Sonic Youth.
While Beak>'s debt to krautrock and goth are obvious, it's less overly beholden to any one area than it might seem. Its thrills are gaunt and hollowed out, just like the last Portishead album, only without the comfort of layered production or Gibbons' maladjusted croon. But it sounds more coherent every time I play it, just like the albums of Barrow's other group. And maybe this one's no-frills approach will bleed into the work-rate of that one. There's hope in an album so seemingly drained of it.