I have been listening to Bethany Curve for several
years now. In fact, I have reviewed two of their previous albums,
and 2001's You
Brought Us Here, both of which were good albums
that seemed to tread a border between goth and shoegazer.
Flaxen is their fifth album (although i am loathe to
call a release of merely 26 minutes an "album"), and I think
it might be the best thing they have released to date. I mean
that as a serious compliment, coming from somebody who really
liked their album Gold.
Still, both Gold
and You Brought
Us Here had a certain sameness to them, as if in
each of the intervening three years, the band had not really
grown or added to their sound. That was somewhat disappointing,
but really, both of those albums were fine.
Flaxen, on the other hand, is an album produced
by a band that has changed and matured in the three years since
their previous release. In music, maturity tends to mean "playing
slowly" and, indeed, this is a slower-paced release than their
previous ones. It is also, i have found, far more complex, and
Bethany Curve have always played their guitars through loads
of effects pedals, creating a wall of distorted sound. All good
and well, but even though i can listen to that sort of thing
all day, i know that other people get bored with it. In contrast,
the guitars here seem fuller, more complete, and more experimental.
Part of it is the lineup changes the band has been through.
Basically, vocalist/guitarist Richard Millang and drummer David
MacWha are the only common elements across all of their albums.
Brought Us Here the band has lost long-standing
guitarist Ray Lake and added both a new guitarist, Nathan Guevara,
and an actual bassist (previously they were a three guitar band)
by the name of Daved Lockhart. I think that this explains the
increased depth of their sound.
Another change is in the drumming of David MacWha. Although
he is the only drummer they have ever had, his work on this
disc sounds very different. It is subtle and understated, but
not muted or insignificant. It really sounds to me like Mr.
MacWha has spent some time studying the drumming techniques
of the West Coast Cool Jazz movement of the 60's. Perhaps he
has, or perhaps it is just a sonic coincidence. Either way i
find that i really enjoy his drum work on this album.
But enough overall comments. Let me examine each of the six
songs on Flaxen.
The album starts out with a light trill of echoed guitar and
MacWha tapping the high-hat calmly. The song is called Automatic
and, after a minute or so, Millang's voice comes in, buried
in the mix and only half-heard. This part of the song is very
Slowdive-ish. However, after another three minutes, the music
fades out fully, and the song is reborn more forcefully with
insistent drumming and loud guitar echo. Disaffected (still
distant, but clearer now) vocals reminiscent of early Chameleons
come in. This is very nice, but i am unclear as to why this
is "the same song". It might be the same track number, but it
seems like there are two entirely different songs here. Whatever.
Automatic fades into Jettison, which features
e-bowed guitar and a general guitar haze that moves along very
slowly. This is a nice little poppy tune, with a toe-tapping
drumbeat carrying it along it's languid pace.
Up next is Omaha Beach, which is a short interlude of
droning ambience. It's kind of eerie, but mostly just pleasant.
Bethany Curve do this sort of ambient music very well for a
bunch of guys with guitars. Normally i would expect this type
of stuff to be produced by some guy with a laptop. So this difference
makes the tune interesting and well done.
The next tune is more energetic. Ironically it is called Sleep,
and it features another wonderfully toe-tapping rhythm with
lovely guitar work that just chimes and echoes. The guitarwork
just builds and builds, and MacWha plays his cool jazziest rhythms.
Also, Lockhart's basswork really shines here. I think this is
my favorite tune on the disc.
The next track, The Means, comes in with fuzzy overdriven
guitar and strong vocals. This song, in all honesty, sounds
like a lost Verve classic, and i do not use that comparison
lightly. It really reminds me of A Storm In Heaven.
This is not to say that it is derivative in any way, but rather
i simply mean that the way the guitars grind and fuzz, combined
with the half-heard vocals, calls to mind that classic album.
However, when the chorus hits, and Millang and Guevara stomp
on their overdrive pedals, the song becomes a transcendent wall
of noise. Every time i listen to this one, i stop whatever i
am doing in order to fully listen to the chorus, and i think
"I bet this song utterly rules in concert".
After the guitar fury, it is back to an instrumental with Utah
Beach. This is a bit of dark ambience to end the album on
a moody note. However, this time MacWha's drumming has been
looped and slightly scuffed. Eventually, this is joined by a
trilling guitar riff, and then the song and the album just fades
...And i am left wanting more, which is a good thing for an
album to do. Bethany Curve manage to pack a lot of depth into
a mere 26 minutes, and i am quite impressed. Their sound has
grown and become much deeper since i last heard from them. Now
i am really looking forward to their next release. Unfortunately,
on their schedule that will be in 2006 or 2007.
Still, this is a masterful release, and fans of distorted guitar
work, shoegazing, dreampop, and/or atmospheric music need to
track down a copy of this. Really.