My first exposure to Bark Psychosis’ music came a few years ago, courtesy of a mixtape from an Internet acquaintance. I’d seen Bark Psychosis mentioned before then on various e-mail lists, usually in the same sentence as Slowdive’s Pygmalion, an album with which I’d been long enamored. My friend put the first 3 songs from the band’s (then) swansong, 1994’s Hex, and simply put, I was floored, and quickly forgot about the rest of the tape.
In particular, it was the 8-minute “Absent Friend” that cemented things for me. Although the song didn’t necessarily contain unfamiliar elements — being a longtime fan of shoegazer, I was well-acquainted with breathy vocals and ethereal guitar lines — the manner in which Bark Psychosis combined them felt wholly fresh and invigorating. (Trivia: Noted music critic Simon Reynolds ended up coining the phrase “post-rock” to describe the band’s unique sound.)
Sadly, Hex became out-of-print and the band dissolved following its release. Aside from a couple of compilations — Independency and the unsanctioned Game Over and Replay — Bark Psychosis just faded away, relegated to being namedropped by reviewers writing about one of the band’s myriad followers (e.g., Hood, Piano Magic, Empress, Coldharbourstores, No-Man).
So imagine my surprise when, while perusing the All Music Guide last year, I stumbled across an entry for a new Bark Psychosis album entitled Codename: Dustsucker. At first I thought it was just a glitch in the AMG database, but further research seemed to indicate that Bark Psychosis (now just reduced to frontman Graham Sutton) was, indeed, putting out a brand new album. Needless to say, a good deal of trepidation followed on my part. After all, it had been 10 years since the release of Hex and let’s face it, that’s a heckuva long time to go between albums. Musical climates have changed, expectations are huge, and the possibility for letdown practically immeasurable.
And besides, this was Bark Psychosis we were talking about here.
Two very promising tracks — “Shapeshifting” and “Rose” — appeared on the Fire Records website earlier this year, and my anxieties lessened somewhat. Then my roommate, also a fan of the group, downloaded a purportedly unmastered version of the album from one of those infernal file-sharing systems, and hated it. So it was with no small amount of anxiety that I finally put the CD into my computer at work, slipped on the headphones, and clicked “Play”.
I suppose Codename: Dustsucker might be disappointing to those expecting something new and radical from Sutton. However, rather than try to make up for the 10-year absence by attempting something “revolutionary” or taking the band’s sound in radical new directions (à la la Boymerang, his drum n’ bass side project), I suspect Sutton took a wiser, more prudent course: he simply decided to pretend as if those 10 years since Hex never took place, and instead, picked up where that album left off. As a result, the new album may feel incredibly familiar at times if you’ve heard Hex. But considering that Hex was such a mercurial album, that basically ensures Codename: Dustsucker cuts its own unique “post-rock” swath — quite a feat considering how glutted the field has become today.
My particular concerns practically dissolved within the first 30 seconds of “From What Is Said To When It’s Read”. A glacially-paced 5 1/2 minute track that’s nearly all one long slow burn, it sets the stage perfectly for getting back into Bark Psychosis’ sound. Again, the familiar elements — sparse, cavernous percussion, glistening guitars, and Sutton’s breathy vocals — might perhaps be a bit too familiar, but there’s still an incredible freshness and newness to it all here.
However, if any concerns remained following the first track, they were obliterated by the second. “The Black Meat” is easily one of the album’s finest tracks (though in truth, there’s not really a weak one to be found). The song starts off with some gentle Rhodes before spiralling guitar lines explode for the skies to meet up with Lee Harris’ (Talk Talk, O’Rang) scattered drumming, some sparse piano, and Sutton’s breathy croon. The song never remains static, and Sutton layers in drones and haunting trumpet, evoking shades of Patrick Phelan’s atmospheric pop. And about halfway through, the song completely reformulates itself. This time, the trumpet takes the lead, followed by lush organ and percussion, as the song takes its sweet time winding down in a lovely dénouement.
After this solid opening, the album settles down a bit. The slightly more ominous “Miss Abuse” creeps from the speakers, with elegiac guitar chimes descending all around Sutton as he intones veiled warnings (“You better act your age”) amidst dark bass undercurrents. And song becomes only moreso, taking on an inexorable pace as if marching towards its doom, growing thicker and denser with squirming electronics and metallic squalls. “400 Winters” is another dense track, though this time it swims amidst aquatic vibes and Harris’ percussion, and rather than Sutton’s breathy croon, we’re treated to Anja Beuchele’s similarly ephemeral vocals.
Although the new album at times feels like Hex v2.0, there are certain elements that do distance Codename: Dustsucker from its predecessor. There is a certain rawness that manifests itself throughout the album. Metallic clamor, feedback, and drones suddenly erupt and threaten to rip songs like “The Black Meat” or “Dr. Innocuous/Ketamoid” asunder. And the album winds down with “Rose”, possibly the sparsest track Bark Psychosis has ever committed to tape, but one that also hints at some intriguing possibilities for (hopefully) future efforts.
Taking a page from David Sylvian’s discography, the song begins with a stark, dusty acoustic guitar meandering about. Slowly, shimmering pools of moonlit synth begin coalescing around it. As the two sounds grow out of sync with eachother, an organ begins filtering in, bringing with it more shimmering synths and brief, cut-up vocal snippets. The track has a nocturnal quality about it, evoking the onset of night — the sun’s sinking, the darkening of the skies, and the slow rise and appearance of the moon and stars’ silvery light. And just as the track gets going, it fades away, leaving only a yearning for more in its place.
So was the album worth the 10 years? If you have to ask that, you obviously need to go back and re-read this review. Codename: Dustsucker represents a stunning return to form for the band. As with Hex, there is nothing unfamiliar or particular groundbreaking in the sounds that Bark Psychosis employs. Truth be told, much of what I hear on Codename: Dustsucker I’ve heard countless times before. However, it rarely sounds as fresh and invigorating as this.
Not bad for a band that got their start with Napalm Death covers.