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Live review: Beak> at the Troubadour

September 12, 2010 |  8:48 pm

Groove ruled above all else Friday night at the Troubadour, where the English trio Beak> played the final show of a brief U.S. tour that also included an appearance alongside Sonic Youth and Iggy and the Stooges at New York’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.

Beak> was formed last year by Geoff Barrow, a founding member of the pioneering trip-hop outfit Portishead; with Barrow on drums and vocals, the new band is rounded out by Billy Fuller on bass and Matt Williams on guitar and keyboards. 

In 2008 Portishead ended a decade-long recording hiatus with “Third,” which presented a dramatically -- and hauntingly -- pared-down version of that group’s once-lush sound. Yet the retrenchment must not have satisfied Barrow: For Beak>’s straightforwardly titled debut, “Recordings 05/01/09 > 17/01/09,” he and his bandmates forbade overdubs, limiting themselves to what they could do together in real time. The music is strenuously minimal -- angular riffs laid over business-oriented beats, splashed with the occasional bit of unintelligible vocal color -- but summons a remarkable amount of forward motion. Beak>’s songs are always going somewhere, even if the destination is indistinguishable from the origin.

The trio emphasized that rhythmic intensity Friday, with Barrow and Fuller locking into a kind of joint consciousness that recalled the hipster-beloved work of such early-’70s German acts as Neu! and Can. (Somewhat less stylishly, the sound also shared much with Iron Butterfly’s 1968 FM-radio staple “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.”) In “Pill,” Fuller’s bass line had a twangy surf-rock quality, while Williams contributed harsh Morse-code synth patterns to “I Know.”

After an appealingly rickety doom-funk take on “Ears Have Ears,” one audience member asked the band to turn it up, to which Barrow replied, “We’re not Metallica.” And that was true enough: The closest thing Beak> offered to a melodic hook was its interpolation into “Battery Point” of a phrase from “Let the Sun Shine In,” from the musical “Hair”; moreover, it’s difficult to imagine James Hetfield introducing a song, as Williams did, by saying it’s about ensuring that one is properly attired for winter weather.

Yet in the same way that a recent unauthorized Justin Bieber remix explored the gleaming surfaces of Bieber’s music by slowing his song “U Smile” to a zero-gravity crawl, Beak>’s performance at the Troubadour served as an investigation of heavy metal’s raw materials. Stripping away everything but the essentials, Barrow and his bandmates allowed (or perhaps forced) you to think about why certain tones connote dread, or how propulsion can function as a force of both liberation and restraint.

The less they played, somehow, the fuller they sounded.

--  Mikael Wood

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