Behemoth Brewing Company – ‘Tasty Beverage’

IMAG3296Summer is winding down. And the summer of 2014-15 for New Zealand craft beer has proven to be, as many predicted, the summer of “sessionable” pale ales.

A number of diverse factors combined to put pale and hoppy beers with a low(ish) alcohol level onto (and flying off of) taps and shelves all over the country. Lower drink-driving limits, socialising in the hot summer weather that pushes drinkers towards refreshing beverages that won’t get you too drunk too quickly, and a maturing market that has seen more drinkers than ever looking for something tasty, something hoppy, but not necessarily too complex or challenging.

The signposts were clear enough that most every brewer saw what the demand coming, and nearly all – established, expanding or just starting to produce for sale – put out a beer that fitted within a general model. Less than 5% abv (often less than 4.5%), pale in colour and with a light malt for ease of drinking, and a good whack of hops bringing forth fruity citrus flavours. A range of styles were printed on the tap badges (“pale ale”, “session ale”, “table ale”, “session IPA” – just to pick a few from the top of my head), but they all were of a similar type.

This caused me a bit of a problem, a problem that contributed to me taking a bit of a hiatus from beer blogging over the summer months. And it’s my problem, one for me to address. Because ever since my fascination with the wide and wonderful world of craft beer arose, I’ve had a habit of always buying beer I haven’t had before when I visit a bar. More than a habit, almost a rule.

But this summer that habit has collided with a seemingly endless stream of lower alcohol pale ales. And the truth is, that’s not a style I’m greatly enamoured of. And, by mid January, I was finding myself beginning to become something I’ve dreaded becoming – jaded. Tired of craft beer, almost. And with that malaise, my joy in finding an interesting new beer became more and more fleeting, and my desire to write about the beer I’d been drinking had faded too.

However, once I realised why I was struggling to feel excited about new beer, I realised that I wasn’t becoming jaded of good beer. I was becoming tired of identikit pale ale after pale ale. Now, there weren’t too many bad ales amongst the summer of pale ale, but very few jumped out at me, excited me. They did what they did adequately enough – refreshing, moderately boozy, fruity hops. But “ok” is just ok, it doesn’t get me raving about it on Twitter, Untappd, or on this blog.

It’s a very personal problem, however. A problem about how I approach beer, and how a particular style that I’m not a huge fan of becoming popular and ever-present has created a problem for me. The market wasn’t going to change back to what it was overnight, so the change was mine to make. And change I did; most obviously in how I pick a beer from a bar’s list. No longer will I compulsively try something new just because it’s new – if I look down the list and see a bunch of new lowish alcohol pale ales I won’t pick one of them, instead I’ll simply order myself something I know I love.

It might seem obvious; after all it’s how most everyone else chooses a beer. But it’s never been my style, with beer or music – I’m someone who loves to seek out the new, the novel, the further horizon. But of late that habit’s drained me of a bit of enjoyment of beer, so that habit has had to be tweaked.

I’m still trying new beers, of course I am. New beers of styles other than the ever-present pale ales – and I will try new pale ales that come highly recommended, or that come from a brewer who I trust to do good work. Which is why my return to blogging after this summer of moderate abv vibrantly hopped pale ales is concluding with a beer that sits squarely within that style – ‘Tasty Beverage’, by Behemoth Brewing Company.

Tasty Beverage, styled as an “extra pale ale” ticks all the summer’s boxes. It’s 4.5%, clear, fizzy and a lovely pale bronze colour. As soon as it pours from the Pulp Fiction themed bottle into the glass there’s a lovely waft of citrus fruit, mandarin tinged with ruby grapefruit hinting at the refreshing deliciousness that lies within.

In the mouth the fruit flavours are superbly balanced by a smooth, easy drinking body, with a nice little bit of chewy maltiness that makes me think that this beer might, in another life or another market, perhaps be labelled as a bitter rather than a pale ale. The delicious creamy lemon aftertaste cements that opinion more firmly in my mind, it’s not the great big rasping bitterness that can be left by an IPA, but a sweet lemon, lime and bitters tinge, lip smacking and more-ish.

It’s the body, though, that really keeps me coming back to this beer. The hops are certainly all present and accounted for, but Behemoth’s Andrew Childs clearly realises that you need a decent base to lay those hops on. Poorly balanced pale ales have been unfortunately common amongst this summer’s crops; leaving beers that end up being astringent rather than refreshing. But Tasty Beverage is wonderfully balanced, the bitter fruit nestled on a sweetly nutty base.

It’s quite delicious, and a fitting bookend to the end of summer on this blog, a summer that really began with a beer of a similar style and quality – Epic’s IMP. I’d take those two beers, the IMP and the Tasty Beverage, as being the best two of the style of the summer. Both were, however, produced in relatively small batches and, as summer ends, will become harder to get hold of. I’d recommend you try, however. And I’d also recommend Epic and Behemoth should brew more!

 

Epic – ‘Carolina’

IMAG2659_1About the same time that Epic Brewing’s ‘IMP’ with its attractive peacock-blue label appeared on the shelves, so did bottles of another new beer from the company. The ‘Carolina’ amber ale came with a pretty brick red label, and the tag-line “Putting Out The Fire”.

I immediately recognised where those words were from – David Bowie’s ‘Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)’, the title song from Paul Schrader’s 1981 creep-fest staring Nastassja Kinski. While I was far too young at the time to see the film, I was utterly obsessed with the oddly atmospheric-yet-poppy Giorgio Moroder-produced song and the video that accompanied it; it became one of the first singles I owned in my own right.

But what was meant by these words on a beer label? On the side came the clue – the Carolina had originally been brewed as a one-off for a release of the ‘Carolina Reaper’ hot sauce by Auckland-based creator of all things spicy and hot, Culley’s.

A brief search on-line found Luke Nicholas’ blog from the time of the original batch was served to accompany a hot-wing eating competition. But Carolina is not a chilli beer, rather it’s a big bitter and malty amber ale made to compete with big chilli flavours. However, as Luke notes, beer is not always the best drink to have with the hottest of foods or sauces, because rather than fixing and rinsing away the chilli oils (like milk or yoghurt does), beer instead spreads the oils around the mouth, emphasising the burn even more.

Putting out the fire with gasoline, indeed!

While with the IMP Epic has created what may be for me the nicest moderate-alcohol pale ale produced in New Zealand yet, if it was in the running for my favourite beer to be released in 2014 it’s now been pipped by another from the same company, the Carolina. Because this has even more going on, and combines flavours in such a manner that I find utterly delicious.

On the nose there’s a big sticky toffee aroma from the malt, but it carries with it a massive resinous scent indicative of a robust dry-hopping. The initial hit on the tongue is also all about the hops, the Centennial and Chinnook hops swirling around with a sharp grapefruit and pine flavour, but as those hop characters fade this beer’s real charm shines through.

Underneath lies a rich, warm, solid malt; caramel sweetness spreading the warmth of the booze throughout your mouth. Unlike the 4.7% IMP, Carolina clocks in at a far more cautionary 7.2%, but, also unlike the IMP, you’re not going to want to scull this down quickly. The very style and complexity of the ale forces you to slow down.

Because as the first punch of citrus hops fades to allow the warm sweetness of the malt and alcohol, galloping along in the rear arrives a fascinating aftertaste of the hops – sharp, bright, very very full of bitter orange flavours, it brings to mind a desert laced with caramel and a dash of Cointreau. It slowed me down, made me want to savour the beer, savour each sip.

Delicious, from the first waft of aroma through to the last swallow. And, coming with such a robust malt to balance the massive hop flavours, as the Carolina warms it becomes even more fascinating, layers of sweetness and bitterness, dried fruit and almost brandy-like alcohol hints floating in and out.

Another great beer from Epic. Cheers, Luke!

Scott Walker + Sunn O))) – Soused (2014)

SousedWhat might one expect from Soused, a collaboration between Scott Walker and Sunn O)))? That all depends, I guess, on what one knows of either of those artists.

Some, if they know of Scott Walker at all, know of him as the chiselled-cheeked bassist and baritone voiced singer of ‘60s heartthrobs The Walker Brothers, or some of his baroque-pop solo albums. People who only know of Scott Walker’s past musical career probably have never heard of Seattle drone-metal band Sunn 0))).

Others, however, will know that since then Walker’s moved on his own path. Through an idiosyncratic exploration of sonic exploration and avant-garde noise, to return from relative obscurity to being an iconic figure in cult music. If you don’t know of his musical journey, then take some time and watch 30th Century Man on YouTube – it’s fascinating stuff. But, until then, know that Walker’s most recent solo album, Bish Bosch, was critically acclaimed but also at times derided for being a chaotic, shocking soup of noise, psychotic nursery rhymes, found-sound rhythms, and vocals of great pathos and utter ridiculousness.

Sunn O))) are likely to be at least known to, and likely well-enjoyed, by people who also find themselves drawn to Scott Walker’s contemporary musical expressionism. This band, based around the core duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, have pummelled their way with massive walls of sound and droning guitars to be held in the highest esteem amongst those who enjoy droning, ambient, harsh-yet-gorgeous metal.

Together, this means a collaboration between Walker and Sunn O))) is surely going to be something unusual. But how unusual? Will Soused fall towards the baroque, looped-rhythm and sometime pomposity of Walker or towards the wall-of-noise drone and fade of Sunn O)))?

The first clue comes on the album’s cover; and black-and-gray with a splash of expressionist white, with the artists’ names on the upper right corner. It’s not “Sunn O))) with Scott Walker”. It’s “scott walker + sunn O)))”, lower case, striking, but Walker’s name clearly first. Within, that all the tracks are written by Walker further reinforce that this is a Scott Walker album with Sunn O))) along to provide their own musical flavour to his avant-garde epics.

But, turn the CD album (yes, CD, it’s how I still buy a lot of music, on mail order as directly from the artists as I can) and there, under the album’s title and track listing is a small-font but all-caps instruction: “MAXIMUM VOLUME YEILDS MAXIMUM RESULTS”. That’d be the modus operandi of Sunn O))), if ever there would be one.

This credo; mixing the from sublime-to-ridiculous-and-back-again of Walker’s percussive found-sound loops and surreal, disturbing baritone-barked vocals with huge walls of droning guitars from Anderson and O’Malley is clearly communicated within the album’s centrepiece, ‘Bull’. Beginning with an ominous drone, it soon expands with a metallic crashing beat clanging behind roaring, screaming guitars crashing into a low-tone drone, while Walker barks nonsensical words “fire-ant necklace, bump the beaky, bilaut-besotted, bump the beaky, bump the beaky!”

Then, when Walker falls silent, the tracks throbs and moans with Sunn O)))’s guitars droning, looming, menacing beneath, before the metallic backdrop and jerking, ragged guitar returns. It’s intense, somewhat scary and, frankly, a bit silly. But, with the lights low and the stereo loud (or on a good pair of headphones) it’s almost five minutes of the most compelling noise I’ve heard this year that wasn’t on Swans To Be Kind.

But it’s not over, because just over half-way through ‘Bull’s nine-minute length, Walker’s voice disappears and we’re left with a huge, ominous drone of moog and guitar, over which creeps in a robotic, unsettling clanging sound. As subtly the guitar shift and whine around the constantly held moog note, we know we’re in Sunn O))) territory here, little notes of feedback hinting at a crescendo that doesn’t – quite – come.

The listener is almost expecting Walker to return at any moment with his baritone voice yelping some more surreal profundity to bring the track to a close, but with ‘Bull’ he stays clear, allowing the tracks to drone on, enigmatically, threateningly, until eventually it fades. But elsewhere on Soused, Walker’s the driving force, his combination of near-operatic vocals and bizarre repeated phrases the core of his songs, under which Sunn O))) plays a supporting role, providing a bottom end and edge that unsettles as much as it binds together the Walker’s songs.

Comparing Soused with the previous releases of both artists, you can sense that Walker being the songwriter has returned shape to the mostly shapeless noise that Sunn O))) released on Terrestrials (also a collaboration, with Norwegian experimentalists Ulver), while Sunn O))) adds a more constant bottom-end and ominous drone to what Walker did on Bish Bosch, perhaps pulling him back from that albums long-periods of silence punctuated by nearly ludicrous percussive effects.

But it is, without a doubt, a Scott Walker album, and one’s tolerance for Soused will depend not just on one’s tolerance for avant-garde noise but also for Walker’s playfulness and cruelty, his joy of contrasting his pretty voice with ugly, mechanical sounds.

Much as I hate to say it, there’s no denying that Soused is very post-modern, not just post-rock, but post-modern – coming back to noise and avant-garde music with a knowledge and awareness that is both ridiculous yet compelling. And, if you can make it through the album’s drones and yelps, long, looming near-silences and sudden eruptions of cacophony, you’ll finally get to ‘Lullaby’, the last of the album’s five long tracks.

With ‘Lullaby’ Walker is making clear that he’s aware of the knowingness of it all, the deliberate deconstruction of rock music while still trying to create something that will be understandable and sale-able to a public. With a nod to William Byrd, over a soundscape of drones, he declares “the most intimate personal choices and requests, central to your personal dignity will be sung.”

“Why don’t minstrels go from house to house, howling songs the way they used to?” he asks. Providing, of course, his own answer by this album, this collaboration, this noise. Modern music, he seems to be saying, has fragmented. With ‘Lullaby’ he and Sunn O))) send their assistant amongst the crowd, cap in hand, to seek income and approval, in a world where the most intimate and personal music seems to be rejected, while the most impersonal is that which does the most well.

‘Lullaby’ seemingly asks the question, too, of why Walker’s become what he’s become, from heartthrob crooner to enigmatic, nearly-unknown purveyor of noise and discord. It doesn’t propose an answer, beyond its own existence – that when an artist tries to make music for themselves and their muse, sometimes no one wants to hear. “His cap will be empty”, he sings, knowing full well that if his cap is empty, it’s by the musical choices he and Sunn O))) have made and will make to continue producing the music that compels them.

There’s a lot going on here, in Soused. But “easy-listening” it isn’t. Enter with caution, with open ears, and listen.

Beer match: Yeah, you’re not going to want to fuck around with this one. You’re going to want to ponder this album with a dark ale, a complex ale, strong enough to last the entire time so you won’t have to get out of your seat. Something a bit confronting, a beer that many won’t like but those who do, love. So, if you can get it, pour yourself a ‘Red Rocks Reserve’ by Garage Project. This is nominally a strong, dark, hoppy red ale. But it’s flash-boiled over volcanic red rocks, creating a sticky, toffee-like character that you’ll either love or hate. It forces you to slow down and savour, however, which is exactly what you need to do with this album.

Kererū Brewing– Karengose

Karengose

When I first encountered Kererū’s ‘Karengose’, back in February at the 2014 X-Ale beer-geekathon, I remarked that I’d love to try this salty, tangy beer again on a summer’s day. Fortunately, we’re all now able to (distribution and supply pending), as Kererū have now produced more of this unusual beer, which was brewed initially just for X-Ale. And it’s becoming readily more available, in 500ml bottles and, maybe, off tap? I’m not sure, but fingers crossed, because the reappearance of this beer is perfectly timed for the onset of summer.

The Karengose is worthy of a second post on this blog, with a whole bottle giving me a chance to fully explore the flavours, far more than the small tasting at X-Ale allowed me. And so, on a sunny late-November day, I opened a bottle of this ale and went out to the deck.

A Gose, the internet tells me, is a style of wheat beer from central Germany, brewed with salted water and and spiced for flavour, often with a bit of lactic acid bacteria inoculation for sourness. With the Karengose, Chris Mills from Kererū has added in karengo, an edible deep red / purple seaweed from the Kaikoura coast, as well as some other spices (coriander would be one, I suspect).

It’s the scent of the sea that wafts aloft from the glass as the pale and very cloudy wheat beer pours thickly into the glass. The air fills with the tangy aroma of brine, and maybe a little pungent sweat and seashore decay – but not unpleasantly, just the merest hint (as you might smell on the beach on a dry summer’s day). It’s almost sticky, settling slowly to a level in the glass, hinting at a glutinous element to the beer, maybe from the seaweed, the thick salted water, or both.

Taking the first sip, it’s striking how light and fluffy the beer feels in the mouth compared to how thick it looked in the glass. A flavour of sweet lemon is the first sensation coating the tongue. Gently the sweetness fades to a more tart, tangy lemon flavour, the carbonation escaping the beer in the mouth to leave a smooth velvety sensation, leaving the entire inside of the mouth coated with a refreshing sour, slightly-salted finish.

Enjoying a full bottle of the Karengose out on the deck in the sunshine reinforced to me that the notion I had in the crowded, dark, sweaty basement of Hashigo Zake on a rainy February day was spot on. This beer is a superb summer drink. Through the magic of brewing, the combination of salted water, malted wheat and barely, hops, seaweed, spices and yeast, Kererū have managed to bottle the scent and taste of a summer’s afternoon at the beach.

It’s all there – the brine and sunshine, the sour tang of the sea air, a little touch of the funky aroma of decaying seaweed, and a smooth, easy drinking, fulsome beer. And, at just 4% abv, it won’t knock you on your arse and send you to sleep as the sun beats down. And, with the lemony, fruity flavour carried by the hops and spices, it’ll be a perfect match with some battered and fried fish and a salad (or chips, of course), with a splash of tartare sauce.

Don’t forget your sunscreen!

 

 

 

Darren Watson – Introducing Darren Watson

Introducing Darren WatsonFull disclosure – I don’t really know a lot about the blues. While it’s a style of music that clearly pervades so much of what I choose to listen to, I’ve rarely dug into the genre proper beyond a few of, I guess, “the classics”. And that’s despite having played in a blues band for a number of years in my late teens.

That was when I first met Darren Watson, one of New Zealand’s blues greats. Though he really was just a few years older than us, his exemplary talent and relative success with Smokeshop was an inspiration, and he was always available as a mentor, with encouragement, and slinging a few support gigs our way here and there.

Watson’s never gone away, always working, producing an album every few years, each better than the last (2010’s Saint Hilda’s Faithless Boy was one of my favourite albums of that year, a real highlight of Watson’s career up to that point). But you’d likely be hard pressed to find that many people who were aware of or had heard his music; especially outside of Wellington. A living musical treasure who, for the most part, never troubled the average Kiwi.

Until ‘Planet Key’. Watson’s never been politically silent; he’s a passionate lefty, and the last six years of this National government have seen him more and more outspoken on issues he cares about. So, in the lead up to this year’s election he released ‘Planet Key’, a satirical song poking fun at the Prime Minister, accompanied by a scything video.

Suddenly, Watson’s name was back in the media, on the radio and television. Comment, discussion, a “quite professionally done” review from John Key himself. Then a complaint to the Electoral Commission, a decision that the song was an election advertisement that required a promoter statement, a subsequent ban on airplay, leading to even more discussion and debate. Until eventually a day in court. “I fought the law… and the judge reserved their decision”, as Watson himself says.

All the while Watson was putting the finishing touches on his latest album, the crowd-funded, home-recorded, Introducing Darren Watson. The title itself a little joke, surely. A welcome to all the people who’ve either forgotten about Watson or never heard of him at all over the three decades he’s been slinging his guitar and singing the blues until ‘Planet Key’ thrust his name, face and voice back into their awareness.

But the title also fits, because if you’ve never heard Watson’s brand of versatile, grooving blues then Introducing… is a damn fine place to start. Because on this latest album Watson’s continued his growth as a musician and songwriter to produce what is surely his best album yet.

It almost goes without saying that Watson’s an excellent guitar player, whether locking down a slow blues jam on an acoustic, or bending the notes with a sexy shimmer while soloing on the electric. Yet on Introducing… he’s slinging that axe better than ever, accompanied by a sympathetic, not-too-clean production that lets you hear the bends, the pick hitting the strings, the rattle and hum on the frets; intimate nuanced, exciting, and very bluesy.

Even more than the guitar playing, however, is the singing. Watson’s voice is finer than I’ve ever heard it before, across this album’s ten songs. Age continues to mellow and roughen his voice, a sultry timbre slinking into tenor voice, adding a soulful turn to the little tremolos and lifts that mark the singing of a fine blues vocalist.

And the songs – ten of them, eight self-penned by Watson with two more from the great Bill Lake. Funny and smart, with a lot of sexy sass – ‘Slow Cooker’, in particular, does that sultry thing of taking a song about food and making it just shy of being obscenely, hilariously filthy – “oh, please, baby spread the salt on the fish, you know I like to taste that thing.” But also, happy; apart from the two gorgeous, slower Lake songs (‘Thought I’d Seen It All’ and ‘I Wanna Be With You’) the songs on Introducing Darren Watson are mostly sweet, fun and uplifting. I suspect Darren’s in love, and it’s showing…

His band on the album is great too; just as much as Watson’s guitar it feels impossible to imagine this album sounding so superb without the rambunctious piano playing or soulful Hammond of Alan Norman. Or, perhaps even more so, the shuffle and groove bought along by Richard Te One’s drumming – a particular stylistic flourish of Watson is a blues grove that shuffles and almost stumbles, drawing your body with the beat until you’re dancing almost unconsciously, and that just wouldn’t happen without the drummer finding a groove to lock it all in and move the beat forwards while the song sways above.

Introducing Darren Watson is a great album, a fun, fantastically produced and performed blues album that will provide a great summer accompaniment, for listening to in the ‘Southern Sunshine’, as Watson himself celebrates on one of the album’s most upbeat tracks.

And it’s available now, from Watson’s bandcamp page. Get it. And head there now to check out how it sounds – normally at this point I’d embed a video; but so far none have come out for any of the songs on Introducing…, so I’ll leave it up to your own ears.

Beer Match: A groovy, fun blues album needs a fun, easy-drinking beer; something to enjoy on the deck on a summer’s afternoon as it pumps out of the stereo. And something local, too – a Wellington beer for a Wellington musician. I’d take this album out on the deck with a glass of ParrotDog’s ‘FlaxenFeather’, a smooth, easy-drinking, 4.7% golden ale, with just enough fruity hop flavours to keep the taste buds tingling while you put your feet up and soak in the blues with a smile.

Epic ‘Imp’

Epic Imp

Session beers have certainly become ‘a thing’. Indeed, in the year since professional wrestling connoisseur, incorrigible Tory and future Beer Writer of the Year Neil Miller predicted that “balance and sessionability could well be the new black” the supermarket shelves and craft beer taps of Wellington have seen appearances from an increasing number of sub-5% abv flavoursome beers.

The first push came last summer with a number of hoppy golden ales making their mark, and since then lower-alcohol yet fragrantly hopped session IPAs and pale ales have surged onto the market – often in four or six packs, making them great accompaniments for the upcoming summer of barbecues.

And, into that fray surges Luke Nicholas of Epic Brewing Company. Being the brewer who broke open New Zealand taste buds with his highly-hopped, high-alcohol ‘Armageddon IPA’, ‘Mayhem’, and the infamous ‘Hop Zombie’, one wouldn’t necessarily have expected he’d feel the need to play in the session IPA field that’s been populated by the likes of Liberty’s ‘Oh Brother’ or Panhead’s ‘Quickchange’.

Yet into the field he’s charged, with the ‘Imp’ session IPA. As the tagline on the bottle says, “careful what you wish for”. And, with the Imp, Luke Nicholas has, to use the vernacular, “nailed it.”

The Imp pours a gorgeous burnished bronze colour; clear and sparkling, catching the light adorably. From the top of the glass lifts a invigorating aroma of grapefruit and creamy peach, underlined with a sweet toffee scent.

With the first sip I’m struck by how “soft” it feels; gentle and full, before the carbonation releases wonderfully in the mouth leaving a fizzy, full and creamy sensation.

Imp is a very fruity flavoured beer; the hops playing superbly off the gentle malt to provide a rounded, balanced, sweet and easy-drinking mouthful. Flavours of sweet lemon curd and mature stone fruit predominate at first, but a warm, bitter sensation floods the mouth as I swallow, leaving a lingering, lip-smacking grapefruit flavour.

Very fruity, very tasty.

And all that beautifully balanced fruity sweetness, lingering bitterness and easy-drinking joy comes it at a very sessionable 4.7%! “Small and Mischievous”, as it says on the label, “causing trouble, but in a playful way”. Now, that could be about the beer or about Luke ‘The Beer Imp’ Nicholas himself. But, either way, it’s an apt description. Fun to drink, fun to be around, won’t necessarily get you in trouble. Maybe.

Imp’s not quite a perfect as a session beer, however. While the flavours and sensations of the beer itself are excellent, at the moment I’ve only found this beer (with its eye-catching peacock-blue label) in 500ml bottles, and at a moderately high price point. This is a beer I’d love to see in four- or six-packs of 330ml bottles (like Epic’s Lager or Pale Ale); that’d really put this beer into place as one of my go-to sessionable beers for a summer afternoon.

But, in the meantime, it’s good to see Epic giving the lower alcohol, highly-flavoured IPA a go. Even better to see the end result being so delicious. More, please!

Jakob – Sines (2014)

12 Jacket (Gatefold - Two Pocket) [GD30OB2-N]

It’s been a long laborious journey, a tale of failed record labels, broken equipment and broken hands but finally, Hawkes Bay post-rock band Jakob have returned with their fourth full-length album, Sines.

And it’s a return I welcome. Their three prior albums are amongst my favourite albums, both post-rock and of New Zealand artists, but not having heard anything from them for so long had me wondering if this band had quietly faded away, like some of their epic soundscapes can fade away with a shimmer of echoing guitar.

But no, they’re back. Rumours began to swirl mid-year, early copies of the album were released to some media and influencers, and the day the album went onto pre-sale I ordered my copy. Then, a few weeks ago, it arrived in the letterbox, and since then I’ve been listening to it frequently, letting it seep in, letting it reveal its full beauty.

Because this is a beautiful album; full of the emotional intensity, tension and release that has marked the sound of this trio over the last decade or so. The songs build from subtle beginnings, washes of trebly guitar accompanied by rolling drums and looming bass, before exploding into layers of distortion and noise.

The album’s opening track, ‘Blind Them With Science’, sits well within the style that Jakob most commonly inhabit, and from within which they produce some of the best music of their genre. Building slowly with Jeff Boyle’s layered, swooping guitars before Jason Johnston’s drums and and Maurice Beckett’s bass lurch in, like a looming behemoth lumbering in through the mist. Then, Boyle’s guitar opens up, digital delay drenching a percussive, trebly sound, rising from under the rhythm until it expands and soars. The guitar flying free as Johnston starts to bring the cymbals into the mix.

But from as early as the album’s second track, ‘Emergent’, it becomes apparent that on Sines Jakob are spreading their musical wings, finding new musical words to express their post-rock language. Here gorgeous strings arranged by Rhian Sheehan provide the core. Boyle’s guitar and Beckett’s bass simply circle around a repetitive, hypnotic motif, as the strings creep in, gently at first, then swelling, soaring, letting the musical landscape bask as if under a rising sun.

The strings also make a heart-wrenching reappearance on ‘Harmonia’, the song concluding with their aching sadness where, in the past, Jakob would’ve let the guitar spiral down to bring the song to a fade. It’s a maturing of their sound, a grasping of other colours within the sonic palate that allow them to paint their musical soundscapes with colours both brighter and darker than ever before.

Still, I can’t quite grasp the album with as much adoration as some others have. It’s great; and a great ‘next-step’ for this band that’s been a long time coming. However, I somehow get a sense that it could’ve perhaps been even more. Hearing about the equipment failures that occurred during recording at Roundhouse, and the insufficient time allowed for both the initial recording and mixing makes me wonder if this album is really all that it could be.

Or perhaps that’s just the lingering feeling I’m left with after the album ends with the title track, a five-minute drone of guitar swoops and swoons that feels formless, unshaped. While it’s moving, and moody, it makes me wonder if the song ‘Sines’ – and the album itself – could’ve been even more.

And that leaves me with hope. I’m not frustrated that Sines leaves me wanting more; rather I’m excited. I hope that this album’s long-awaited release indicates that we will both see and hear more from Jakob in the near future. Boyle’s indicated he wants to get back into the studio soon, and with with what Sines has shown Jakob are now pointing themselves towards I’m going to be very eager to here what they do next.

But, in the meantime, if Sines may not be the finest album Jakob have yet done (for me, that’s still 2008’s Solace), with ‘Resolve’ they’ve presented what may be their finest nine minutes of music ever. Because, after three minutes of build this song explodes into a massive wall of sound with Boyle’s guitar hitting a percussive, sharp tone he’s never achieved before. And as his guitar clatters along, lurching drunkenly, prettily above the rumbling drums and bass, I throw my head back, bask in the sound. Vast; massive; the beauty of the sound of open spaces and darkness complete.

Beer match: I’d pair this album with the ‘Freyja’, a “California Common” or “Steam Ale” from Christchurch’s Valkyrie Brewing. This beer is rich, deeply dark, but with a generous hop profile that arrives in the mouth with a crisp snap, before leaving a long, lingering, beautiful aftertaste. It matches the build; the release and fade of Jakob’s instrumental songs well.