Beach House Inhabit the Elusive Space Between Light and Dark on ‘7’

Baltimore duo Beach House consists of vocalist and keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist, keyboardist and backing vocalist Alex Scally. The two have spoken of how the duo format allows them to streamline ideas for quicker materialization. For their seventh album, “7,” the band built a home studio, and used it to indulge freely in ideas for songs while the inspirations were still fresh. The result is a set of songs that captures a more nuanced sound and a more thoroughly realized vision than ever before.

A lot of genre labels are preposterous, at once too broad for the type of music they are typically used to describe, and too specific to do justice to the same music. A case in point, is the “dream pop” descriptor as if virtually anything couldn’t somehow be described as such. Still, it’s a particularly well-suited term for Beach House’s new album.  The songs are crafted in such a way as to register immediately and linger indefinitely, justifying the “pop” component. Yet, it’s a consistently visceral affair, with all evocations several levels removed, all associations suspended in the ether, cloaked in layers of mist, and seeming to affect the mind and heart as only a dream would. Everything is hazy and fuzzy. It’s arguably the most “shoegaze” that Beach House has ever been, although “stargaze,” would be equally, or perhaps even more, appropriate. The title of the first song, “Dark Spring,” draws attention to this seemingly contradictory duality, and it is a recurring sonic theme throughout the record. The expanded sound palette from which the band draws on the new record makes for darker, denser noise, but the architecture is often decidedly bright. This is what gives the music much of its remarkable weight and pull; it lies in the elusive space between detectable emotions, and taps into all the mysterious wonder that lies therein.

“Pay No Mind” achieves much of its poignancy to the practice of playing drums ever so slightly behind the anticipated beat. It gives the sensation of being grounded in the here and now, yet slightly disoriented. It’s a feeling captured effectively by many of the new songs the sense of going through the motions, trudging along, but only half yielding to mechanical determinism, always remaining in a state of wonder. This is just one of the tricks that Beach House apply to several of the new songs to create the overall mood. Raked chords and high pitched notes that twinkle, swell and burst give a “space rock” feel, although that descriptor is no less subject to ridicule than any other. Legrand’ svocals are, as always, hushed, half-whispered, deep and sonorous, giving the music a rich texture, and lifting it above the realm of the tangible and immediate. The droney, distorted guitar tones are, at times, Sunn O)))-level heavy, but juxtaposed with ethereal vocals that make for a delightfully confounding emotional mashup.         

“Lemon Glow” begins with one of the album’s catchiest moments. It’s a guitar riff of hypnotic bends, fully psychedelic fare, but clipped and repeated, instead of being allowed to veer off into free, unstructured indulgence. Again, the result is music that is both distant and immediate. It’s difficult not to detect the feeling of open space in the sound. Moreover, it often feels pixelated. The jarring, sputtering, quivering guitar tones create a granular soundscape. The opening moments of “L’Inconnue” are reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine,” with it’s spacey chanting. Legrand’s voice is able to jut from cloudy and amorphous to crystalline and crisp. Parts of the song recall both Stereolab and Air and this is not merely because of the French vocals. Anyone harboring doubts need only give Stereolab’s “Sound-Dust” a listen, and then revel in the brilliant recapturing of spirit. There is also a guitar bit reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets.” It’s the same distinctive tone, a well-crafted homage to a sound way ahead of its time.

“Drunk In LA” assembles a neon circus, of sorts. The sounds come in patches, and are assembled angularly. Think Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” The album’s monochrome cover art also fits well. The songs all blend seamlessly into one another, even when one song ends abruptly in a whirlwind of discordance, as several do. The mood still flows. The single “Dive” features more quivering guitar tones, and languid, spacious chords. The lazy comparisons to Nico that have been constantly leveled at Legrand seem, for once, to have a trace of validity, as she assumes the lower register with brash, cinematic grandeur. The triplet time of the guitars is disorienting, establishing a sense of unease, and suddenly, the pace picks up, entirely out of the blue, with drums chugging away at a pace atypical of Beach House, along a one-note gritty, brittle. guitar riff that swells and bursts. It’s reminiscent of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow’s side project BEAK>.

“Black Car” finds Beach House more overtly electronic than usual, lending a novel variety to their sound. Treated vocals make the experience even more surreal, with Legrand’s utterances bouncing and levitating in the mix. The harmonies are blended into homogenous wholes, but individual lines sporadically seep out of the mix, making for a dynamic, unpredictable soundscape. It’s all carried out over a shifting sea of soaring notes, and drums that are loosely guarded, pushing forward with just enough force to establish a framework. “Lose Your Smile” is an effective encapsulation of the album’s time-warp having both the breezy, swaying ‘60s feel, and the brooding, “shoegazing” ‘90s overlay. “Woo” is built around a flangey synth, and features hiccuping snippets of the titular phrase. At moments, the beat can sound a bit too crisp for the hazy settings, but it nevertheless makes for an interesting variation. By the end of the track, everything is once again in low resolution, and the term “dream pop” seems more apt than ever. “Lost Ride” brings the record to closure with a plaintive piano figure, buzzing guitars that envelop themselves in feedback, honey-soaked chainsaw timbres, and vocals that emerge as if scrawled over frosted windows.

Bands often set off with little more than a cryptic vision of an aesthetic that inches its way towards full realization one album at a time, with plenty peaks and troughs along the way. “7” marks a monumental leap for Beach House, allowing the duo to take on an unprecedented panorama. While the density of the music may catch some fans used to the more breezy output by surprise, a careful listen will quite surely make this an album that surpasses any predecessors.

7” is available May 11 on Apple Music.