ALBUM REVIEW: The Besnard Lakes – ‘ … Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings’

WHEN they first burst onto the scene way back in 2003 with Volume 1, The Besnard Lakes were dealing with a genre which was still very much a dirty word in mainstream critique: shoegaze, or at least a particularly hazed, darker-edged psych blend of it, which particular waters very few other bands were sailing – maybe Spiritualized.

Unfairly forgotten fellow Canadians Southpacific and Icelandic guitarist Stafrænn Hákon were also doing beautifully shoegazey things, albeit instrumentally, round about the same time, and didn’t get anywhere near the attention they warranted; but there wasn’t a huge amount of room for this sort of thing; or so we were told.

Even the obvious parallels between say, the guitar signatures of Robin Guthrie and Neil Halstead and the sounds Jónsi was producing on Ágætis byrjun were being met with derision by those who had bought into the British music press’s grunge revisionism, after they’d dropped the Thames Valley sound like a stone years before.

Even so, that first album, which emerged on the band’s own Breakglass imprint before being picked up by British experimental label Earworm, caused enough of a buzz – deservedly – to lead to a deal with Illinois’ Jagjaguwar, in whose care the band released a string of strong records: a brace on which the band placed themselves as the object of the title: The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse, The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night; a brace with the sprawling sort of titles you’d usually find over at Montreal’s Constellation: Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO; A Coliseum Complex Museum.

They’ve never been swayed by the vagaries of wider trends – in fact, with the reassessment of shoegaze not just to be half-decent after all but, since the reemergence of some of the first wave’s major players as strong as ever, but to be as damn hot as we true believers knew it to be all along – The Besnard Lakes have remained equally brave, anthemic, bringing the expanses of the land north of the 49th parallel into the sweep and fuzz of their aesthetic to a fan base that, once bitten, forever smitten, kinda vibe.

There was a bit of a change for their last album, 2016’s A Coliseum Complex Museum: they were attempting, at least, to cram things down into the short form. Tracks like “The Plain Moon” were great, even suggested that maybe they had their compass set for a trippier Midlake kinda vibe; but there was an absence of the slow burn, the investigations of unravelling psychedelia, the joy in seeing how six-string ripples could spread across the sonic pond. It was succinct.

Well, turns out there may have been a little prodding, a little nudging from without the band to step a little towards a more – what? conventional structuring and song length. At the very least we can divine that after a relationship of a decade, band and label parted, with Jagjaguwar being referred into that non-specific yet edgy way in communiques as “a certain midwestern American indie record company”.

It’s been a darker time for the band’s Jace Lasek too; one of those horrible yet inevitable life events came last year with the death of his father – who, the singer reveals, surfaced from a morphine dream on his deathbed to talk about “a window” on his blanket, with “a carpenter inside, making intricate objects.”

Such an experience can only inform one’s creative process, so deep does it strike; and their new album, The Besnard Lakes Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings is a double album, with each (vinyl) side themed as follows: “Near Death”, “Death,” “After Death,” and “Life”; for if we abide we have to still live. You’ll find autobiographical references, and a tributes to Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, as well as Prince.

So where they headed now? Well, after the slight sidestep of A Coliseum Complex Museum the answer is: right where they’ve always been headed. If it needs complex and digressive approach, if the song needs to breathe well: then hell, it shall. They’ve struck up a new relationship with Full Time Hobby, which can count Viva Voce, Tunng, White Denim, and Malcolm Middleton among its alumni, and which label is happy to let The Besnard Lakes be who they really are. Good news.

And what they are right now is a deep-diving band with an eye for a song cycle and sonic catharsis, as …Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings sets out to show.

Some of its songs are old, resurrected from demos cast aside years ago. Others were literally woodshedded into being at Jace and Olga’s Rigaud Ranch.

The Besnard Lakes, photographed by Joseph Yarmush

“Blackstrap” opens the “Before Death” quarter in cosmic winds and glimmering, ringing synths that gain company in a riff of crisp twang, which knuckles down into arpeggio as Jace begins to lazily unspool a tune with an undercurrent of retro synths. There’s foreboding; the synths squiggle and mess; then it all shifts up in grandeur with drums and guitars. The intermittent phone tone – the call Jace hoped against, never wanted to receive? – will catch you out and have you darting about the room looking to see who’s ringing. It gets bigger and bigger, psych guitars unspooling, synths chattering out there on the proggy, near-symphonic edge that the Flaming Lips and occasionally Grandaddy have charted. But with that phone trilling through. It sets out a stall that’s pure Besnard Lakes and an audacious bite back at the notion of a three-minute ditty.

There’s but a second’s pause before “Raindrops”, which keeps us well aloft on valedictory fuzz chords, the rhythm section chugging away in simplicity, the better for the voices to climb into falsetto refrain on wings of synth and guitar. We’re only minutes in, but this feels, in absolutely the best possible way, like the sorta song a more mainstream contemporary alt.psych band might drop at song no. 7. But of such stuff are Besnard Lakes made.

“Christmas Can Wait”; that’s raw. It’s a slowly unfolding and impressionistic elegy, with tones arising like warning horns through fog, on which I think you can legitimately say Jace actually keens. There’s a dislocated, otherly beauty – you sort you get at the height of emotion, the trippy edge of rationalising your circumstances and surroundings. Round the midpoint it resolves into a sustain-drone with little wavering textures that just has to break to resolve the tension; and break it does, thankfully, into an Ulrich Schnauss-like ‘tronicascape. It’s left to Jace’s wife Olga to pour a little soothing vocal oil on waters, finding a path forward in a more meditative coda.

“Our Heads, Our Hearts On Fire Again” sees Olga once more the priestess of catharsis to the fore, on a tune which scumbles the late Sixties’ soaring pop thing into one gorgeous, endless, shoegaze-via-California hook. It looks simple, which means you know it just so isn’t. A cracking tune which any number of bands from down the decades would’ve wished to have in their armoury, it finds that moment of impressionistic heavenliness and cycles through its ecstasy.

Despite its totin’ title, “Feuds With Guns” stays in a place of dreampop bliss and performs an excellent one-two harmonic haymaker with “Our Heads, Our Hearts …” Again, it has actual pop classicism on pretty open display, strings adding a stateliness in much the same way, for me, they did to The Jam’s “The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)“; which sounds a pretty abstruse connotative connection, granted, but it’s there. And if that wasn’t halcyon enough there’s a flute trilling in response. That there should be more flutes is pretty much a golden rule round these parts.

“The Dark Side Of Paradise” revisits the dronesome state of “Christmas Can Wait” in a more blissful sense; it’s sleepy-headed in the best way, in that squinty, muzzy haired and big-grinning way, and makes use of every second of its nine minutes in which to transport you in a textured flow. There’s caressing vocals from Olga; shimmering guitars with, if anything, an out-west grandeur; a microtonal build in the middle that so gradually accelerates you skyward; hazed-out synths and back tones like silhouettes of melody. The closing passage is all wavering synth and meandering guitar, and it would be just perfect to tangle limbs with your loved one during.

“The New Revolution” takes some of the directions that have been whispered in the recent few tracks and gives it the full shoegaze-gospel-soul thing last achieved with this degree of acuity somewhere roundabout Let It Come Down. There’s a crisp pound of a break that sounds looped up, over which Olga sings up, bluesgaze riffs chiming and whirring the whole cavalcade of a song along just perfectly. There’s an off-kilter guitar break of pure acid that just preludes a cinematic layering in of guitars, other rushes of pure phase.

“The Father Of Time Wakes Up” is otherwordly, out in orbit, has this curious little interspersed hook that seems to have wandered in from someone like A Lily, from the regions of ambient IDM; before a simple two-note chime begins to pulse and opens the song up to a shifting mantra that, with discipline, refuses the urge to go full bore but instead resolves to steam steady, inviting you instead to sink into that riff and be caressed as some rock-god guitar fuzzes up to blanket you.

Never afraid of the grand gesture, the closer and title track “Last Of The Great Thunderstorm Warnings” nudges the 18-minute mark and grows straight from the falling leaves of the preceding track. I mean, of course it’s an odyssey at that length, an odyssey of massive guitars on the downstroke, fluid flutes, big brass, climactic and exultant. It codas in drone and hum, coming full circle in that eerie wind of the opening track, sonically way, way back. There’s gonna be a storm; The Besnard Lakes at least are ready.

Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings is the sound of a band set free, wings spread; big, theatrical, but not self-indulgent. They know exactly what these songs demand and are prepared to give them everything they need. In terms of scope, file next to Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space and The Soft Bulletin; it’s that kind of cathartic odyssey. There’s widescreen moments, darker, more progressive passages; some really timeless, impressionistic shoegaze pop. A lot going on, in short.

Trust in their vision; they’ve got this.

The Besnard Lakes’ Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings will be released by Full Time Hobby on January 29th on digital, CD, clear vinyl 2xLP and Dinked edition orange and red vinyl splatter vinyl with bonus flexi; you can pre-order yours here.

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