Bare Beats






Disclaimer: Over the months, I had to reject many review-related requests. And believe me, I didn't make my decision halfheartedly or in a hurry. Sometimes I was perplex and bemused about the offerings that reached me via email, as the genres Rap and Folk (!) cannot be linked all too easily to the Ambient niche. I even had to decline the opportunities to review Rave and Synth Pop music, both genres which are also quite close to my heart. But I had to take a stand. If I wrote about all the genres I like, the scope would be much too broad for a one-man project like this, and both Ambient and Exotica fans would shake their heads in disdain. This review you are hopefully about to read is one of the exceptions I make, and I feel great and content about my choice. It would be sad if the following sentence were to drive the lover of Dark Ambient away from Bare Beat's aka Rob Farnham's debut album, but I have to stress the most important stylistic particularity nonetheless: Strangeways is no strict Ambient album in the classic sense. Dubstep and Trip Hop beats flow through the vast majority of its nine tracks. However, if that doesn't put you off and you like the apocalyptic neo-cyberspace depictions of albums such as Future Sound Of London's Dead Cities of 1996 or the menacing club-compatible string orchestra drones of Gas' 1997 opus Zauberberg, the album provides a fascinating vignette of, as Farnham points out on his Bandcamp page, "a raw sound scape of a desolate land where the world has been stripped of all materialism and the human race have to start over again." This is surely not the easiest topic at summer parties and barbecues, because the album haunts you and crushes your good mood in no time, making it a very interesting entry both from an aesthetic viewpoint and a stylistic angle. Guest vocalists like Rosie Greenwood and Iona Roisin aka Stray Dog – who also came up with the disturbing cover artwork – sing in all timbres, and even if you are put off by the whole concept because you prefer the mellifluous mellowness of Pop Ambient compositions, you should consider a certain string of tracks off Strangeways that is astonishing due to its pitch-perfect symbiosis of several moods and genres. More about this bunch of tracks can be found in the third paragraph. In short: read on to enter a dark world with surprising twists … and if you're a big fan of sinister compositions, you won't be disappointed!

Never Sleep is the opening track, and it launches Strangeways in the most glaring and threatening way. A dark siren and vinyl pops traverse through the introductory section, with cold vibraphone-esque synth strings pulsating in the background. Static noise scratches and quirky sparkles float above a Dub bass line. Even though this is just the opener and less than two minutes long, it already depicts the local flavor of the album, merging beats and sustained bass drones with oxymoronic synth sweeps of mellow iciness. The title track Strangeways is the first proper track. Its mood and ingredients remain the same, but both are fueled and nurtured by the gloomy majesty of dark multitextured synth stabs, a pumping Trip Hop beat and the permanent repetition of a spiraling, oscillating pulse. A warped vocoded male voice toasts aggressively over the deep atmosphere. If you know the synthscapes of Leftfield's Rhythm & Stealth of 1999, you can relate to the atmosphere with ease. Naturally, Strangeways is no genuine Ambient track, as its mood is more related to Dubstep and Trip Hop skits, but the hazy pops, filtered swirls and the interplay between beats and synths make it distantly familiar to Detroit-flavored takes on that genre. Lost Nowhere builds once again on the established mood and re-uses the fragmented melodies of Strangeways, but here they're played on a sadness-evoking space violin with gurgling pulses. A nocturnal synth harpsichord evokes a crestfallen feeling of increasing horror, and as a mid-tempo shuffle beat sets in, the creepy mood is further boosted by synth strings that are played in high regions. A surprisingly warm element is attached as well, namely crystalline shatters that are dropped rhythmically. However, they never succeed in beating the creepy aura that Farnham depicts so masterfully. Only the last 40 seconds sans beats introduce a moment of fragile tranquility with galactic glints and related droplets. Since the permanent moiré in form of the vinyl crackles is still at work, the quality of this rapturous moment is deliberately minimized by Bare Beats in order to keep the disconsolate mood.

The middle section of
Strangeways is unexpectedly bright in contrast to its dusky beginning. Perfect features Rosie Greenwood's vocals and embeds them in a resplendently lavish melancholia with actual moments of overfoaming happiness as shown by both the upbeat, entrancing pulses and the sumptuously doleful backing synth strings. Her heavily reverberated voice towers over the Trip Hop beats and the warm acoustic guitar twangs. It's that entanglement of Greenwood's voice with the reduced but beautiful synth washes that impresses me most, and all the quirky curlicues provide the best ornamental base frame of all the takes on this debut album. A dreamy track that is yet dynamic and friendly enough to break the spell of endemic gloom for a moment. I See You is a collaborative track with Stray Dog, and it is another surprising maelstrom of whirling iridescent bit-crushed glitters, lofty synth underlinings, silkened cymbals and quavering Space-Age theremin waves. The mood is yet again brightened up boldly despite this contradictory concoction, and the ambience factor is very high. It is only late in the second half of the track that Trip Hop beats are introduced which are fully immersed with the background. Lost In The Oceans reunites Farnham with Rosie Greenwood in a song of classic Pop structures, and this could well be the signature track. Starting with a rising seraphic four-note ethereality that is rounded off with rhythmic hand claps and fuzzy cymbals, Greenwood's vocals are put to the forefront, providing both plasticity and power, thus creating a counterpoint to the spectral glaciers and multiple airy textures that glow and gleam throughout the composition. The chorus and the bridges are loaded with thin 80's synth pads played in higher regions whose inclusion maintain the focus of the song, preventing it from drifting away due to the heavy synth washes. This is a poppy Trip Hop anthem which – dare I say it? – successfully counteracts against the darkness of the album. While the previous two tracks Perfect and I See You slowly poured saccharine liquids into the ears of the listener, the phantasmagoric mood erupts in Lost In The Oceans. Synesthetes will think of the color blue, regardless of the titular ocean. A terrific piece in which Bare Beats merges the three genres of Pop, Trip Hop and Ambient smoothly.

The final three tracks of the album bring back the heavy darkness, and the track
Want Love, another collaborative effort with Stray Dog, does so with a similar blast than the siren-loaded opener Never Sleep did: vibrating sawtooth buzzes, dark matter swooshes, rustic beats and Stray Dog's gorgeously filtered Oriental chants à la Future Sound Of London make this a baneful track full of arcane mysteries. The dark synth pads are literally gruesome and pernicious, and we are farther away from the Ambient genre than ever, although certain sustained notes remind of Dark Ambient drones. The six and a half minutes long Ballad Box is the centerpiece of the album even though it is featured near the end. Bare Beats relies a third time on synth structures that are very similar to the first two tracks, but adds tremendously soothing and playful synth scintillae that shift in their tonality. These coruscating devices are accompanied by doleful violin strings and gentle shakers, all the while gloomy synth sweeps float along. This track is weathered and rusty, but here the brighter ingredients can make a distance and are able to fend off an overly creepy mood efficiently. The final Won't Be Long is the third collaboration with tense lyrics Stray Dog, and it is a superb closing track with elevated Italo piano chords, spacey bleeps and another strong scent of Middle Eastern flute notes, reminding on the glaring-red organic cyberspace landscapes of Future Sound Of London's Lifeforms EP. It's a stunning closer that merges quirky bits with eschatological post-apocalyptic sceneries and finishes them off with a Dubstep/Trip Hop rhythm. 

Strangeways is a strong debut. It is heavy. And it isn't focused on Ambient structures. But I considered this beat-heavy release nonetheless, for its synths contain lots of textures and ever-changing patterns. It furthermore has strong similarities to the eschatological gloom of various Future Sound Of London records which I've admittedly mentioned one too many times in this review – it's just that the scope of both records is so resemblant. As it is usual with such heavy monsters, you have to be in the right mood, and the time has to be apposite. This applies to several Ambient releases, but here it is all the more satisfying when the day- or rather nighttime meshes with the local mood of the depicted world of Strangeways. Maybe it is just me, but I really feel that the album can be split into three distinctive parts. The first three tracks start with a blast and are largely built on heavy synth stabs and pumping beats. The atmosphere is heavy and hopeless. The second part of the album is much brighter, almost cheerful in comparison to the beginning. Each track shimmers more vivaciously than the other while the heavy mood remains, but changes from depression to revelation. Lost In The Ocean is the culmination point, the celestial hallmark and relies only coincidentally on a Pop formula. The final three tracks return into the dark wastelands, and it seems that Farnham turns the aggressive approach up a notch with dry sawtooth-like bursts and raw warbled synth pads, but allows strikingly Oriental bits to enter. Of particular success is Never Sleep thanks to Stray Dog's alienating chants that remind of Elizabeth Fraser who came up with related energetic chants of pain and devotion on the Lifeforms EP by that band I've mentioned before. I advise every Dark Ambient fan to listen to Bare Beats' debut. Don't let his emphasis on Dubstep and Trip Hop be an aesthetic obstacle! The grey, shady mood is maintained all the time, even the middle section is only slightly brighter. The intermixture of pulses, beeps and sparkles with baleful synth washes could well meet your demands. As an Ambient afficionado, don't mind the beats too much, you'd miss a great opportunity to submerge into agony, melancholia and threatening perils.



Further reading:

Bare Beat's Twitter account is @itsBareBeats




Ambient Review 086: Bare Beats – Strangeways (2012). Originally published on Jun. 20, 2012 at