As Portishead's sonic architect, Geoff Barrow helped to define that genre to which no artist will admit to belonging: triphop. But there's no fighting the name now; it's too entrenched in music history. And Bristol, England's Portishead—along with Massive Attack and Tricky—represent the pinnacle of the style of down-tempo, cinematic funk that remains to this day the de facto soundtrack of chic bistros and upscale hair salons.
It would be understandable if Barrow decided to coast on his accolades—huge commercial success, deep critical respect, a 33 1/3 book about Dummy, etc.—but the producer/multi-instrumentalist is one of those restless souls who refuse to restrict themselves to one outlet, no matter how important that outlet has been. Barrow realized there's more to life than alchemizing esoteric soul, funk, jazz, and psych-rock samples into tracks that pierce the heart and console the inconsolable.
For instance, Barrow has maintained a busy side hustle over the last six years composing for film (Drokk, Annihilation) and television (Black Mirror) with Ben Salisbury. Their music for these mediums leans toward the John Carpenter/Goblin/Gil Mellé school of harrowing tension, chilling suspense, and dystopian atmospheres. During his non-Portishead time, Geoff has also produced Nico-esque dub diva Anika. And, of course, Barrow—from behind his drum kit—has been helping the trio Beak> (including bassist Billy Fuller and keyboardist Will Young) keep krautrock motoring along in rude health. Weirdly, the British are sometimes the most accomplished burnishers of Teutonic rock's legacy.
Part of what makes Beak> so interesting is that few people saw Barrow going in this direction—although parts of Portishead's Third album hint at an admiration for German avant-rock textures and dynamics. But with Beak>, the music homes in on krautrock's predilection for aerodynamic, repetitive propulsion with an intense linearity that would make Neu!'s Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger proud.
Check out "Backwell," the first song on Beak>'s first album, which stands as a mission statement for the group's dedication to autobahn-zooming hypnosis. "Liar," off Beak>'s second album, sounds like CAN's motorik masterpiece "Mother Sky" condensed to 145 seconds of chase-scene nail-biting. That said, just to change things up a bit, Beak> appropriated the menacing riff from Link Wray's "Rumble" (see "Ham Green") to stunning effect.
Beak> rarely deploy vocals, instead relying on improvisational telepathy to convey moods of apprehension, duress, and triumph. Barrow's experience in the soundtrack world surely has boosted his ability to stir emotions without lyrics. Which represents a change from Portishead's output, with its emphasis on singer Beth Gibbons's fraught plotlines and evocative theatrics.
Beak>'s new LP, >>>, finds them striving to shake off the krautrock comparisons. It actually features a song that could garner radio play: "Brean Down," a Broadcast-like brooder with lyrics about how "the future's kind of sketchy, so the people gotta get along," before ending with a shattering climax. There are even sentimental ballads ("Birthday Suit," "When We Fall").
Beak> are diversifying and angling for broader acceptance. It's almost as if Barrow is trying to make you forget Portishead... even if Asian-fusion restaurants aren't.