Perfect Sound Forever

Bark Psychosis

Photo courtesy of Bark Psychosis homepage

by Jeffrey Thiessen
(December 2009)

The vast majority of good rock n' roll albums are not very difficult to understand. They rely on steady references to adolescent yearnings for some sort of collective rebellion (target mostly unknown, or too spread around to actually hone in on one specific representative authority group), communal fear of every-day neurosis most of us experience on one level or another, and most ultimately, freeing your mind and letting your ass follow. Something like that anyways.

Using this criterion, it's always been pretty apparent to me that Bark Psychosis released some pretty straight forward rock albums, but everyone I've talked to seems to think this band is more abstract and convoluted than they actually are.

Nobody is saying they're the boisterous life of the party, but it's not a stretch to think of these guys at a party- they've just graduated past the thrill of playing quarters with Rush fans. That still doesn't mean they wouldn't find a way onto the dance floor if someone started spinning a copy of The Sun Sessions.

Bark Psychosis was established around 1986, and to present date, has exactly two full-length studio albums. The principle architect in the group is Graham Sutton, with various other collaborators filling in at various times (much like Watts-Russell in This Mortal Coil).

In 1994, Simon Reynolds used them as one of the main shorthand examples of "post-rock" and that brings me to why I felt the above introduction was necessary when discussing a group like this. Their style lends itself to hip rock-speak like Reynolds, but I loathe such terminology. "Post-rock" implies it has surpassed the innate nature of rock music, and has become something else more advanced altogether- something more transcendent in a way that previous rock n roll had no hopes of achieving.

If you're familiar with the group, do me a favor and feel free to acknowledge the fact you understand why someone might be compelled to label Bark Psychosis in such a way, but don't actually start buying into any of that trendy nonsense as a way of extolling the virtues of a group simply trying something different from nearly all angles. The problem with such a description, is we begin to see it as a genetically superior alien life-form, whereas any great accomplishment in this world, no matter how obscure it might initially seem, can only be examined as a logical progression from something else that came before it.

Basically, Bark Psychosis' music is fairly weird, but by no means is it metaphysically weird. Post-rock might be the only convenient label we have for the group, but the grass roots here are simply augmented, not abandoned completely as they wave to us from some distant future.

What must be understood here, is even though Bark Psychosis is frequently described as 'experimental', Sutton is a master of allowing these experiments to infiltrate the music as a welcome guest, not a thick-headed intrusion. It seems like it's tremendously difficult to be a good songwriter in the traditional sense of the term (Cobain, Nick Drake, etc) while also indulging in some fairly fucked up sonic experimentation that not only fits in within the somewhat rigid structures of a pop-music sensibility, but also somehow enhances it.

Sure it's possible. Radiohead admirably went for broke on Amnesiac with this intent in mind, but ended up alternating strangeness and melody on every odd track, respectively. The aforementioned This Mortal Coil would like to think they assimilate bizzarro ideas with ethereal ones, but truth be told there's not a whole lot of brazen territory to wade through on any of their releases.

So what I'm trying to say is, Bark Psychosis is perpetually fascinating, and beautiful. There isn't a dull moment on either of their two albums, and there isn't a sterile one on them either.

Logic indicates someone new to the group would want to start with their first album, and there is no reason to suggest otherwise. For the most of Hex (1994), Bark Psychosis contemplates action vs reason, and when no easy answers are found, a ten minute mediation on uncertainty and wayward thinking ends the album. Indeed, "Pendulum Man" stands as the crowning contribution on Hex. More than anything, this is simply a case of music doing so much, by trying so little. This is alchemy by instinct, not by design. As strong as the closing track is in its understated glory (and probably the best example of Bark Psychosis creating complex emotions and reactions to fairly unassuming backdrops), this tends to be the theme throughout. "A Street Scene" almost lets itself gets pushed into a claustrophobic nightmare as the chaos of the chorus consistently threatens to take the music into dark, bewildering places, but of course control is asserted soon enough, and we are placed in the capable hands of music that not only knows where it's going, but how it's going to get there.

Perhaps some fans of the group will read this as an insult, but as much as there is to think about on Hex. The languid nature of it ensures we let the waves carry us wherever they want, and these days when I listen to the album, I find myself considering the music less and less, instead surrendering to the enormity of it all, that still seems like we can grasp in the palm of our hand.

Things aren't quite so simple on their 2004 follow-up, Codename:Dustsucker. It starts out familiarly enough with "From What is Said to When It's Read," a gorgeous sound-scape whose fragility is eclipsed only by its announcement that Bark Psychosis isn't afraid to burn the city walls down. The lush arrangements and topsy-turvy time signatures found on Hex are still here, but now everything seems to be drawn up with a dull pencil, it's tough to think of a moment as precise or as concentrated as the entirety of their first effort was. By and large, this is still a direct offshoot of Sutton trying as he may, to explain to us why he seems to care, about not caring. Dustsucker doesn't indulge madcap notions, but it is certainly less overtly assertive in its intentions than Hex, and it's extremely compelling to see the music take more unexpected turns into some pretty ugly territory.

"INQB8TR" is the immediate example that jumps to mind. The words are deeply hidden under an artillery barrage of sounds that come and go as they please, a melody exists, but is a complete afterthought. The innocence might be gone here, but Bark Psychosis backs it up with promises, not threats. The distortion in the bridge isn't nails on a chalk-board, it's the deafening roar of everyday ennui, too much too bear, especially when all one wants to do is hear their own thoughts. "400 Winters" and the brilliant "Black Meat" offer more in the way of resolution, but just listen to the clattering of everything around those pledges.

There may be relief in sight, but no more are we privileged to moon-leap our way there. The way out is still through, but now when we get to the end, there is a sense of defiance, not serenity like the first time around.

At their best moments here, the music both pushes us away and pulls us in. Fortunately for us, decisions are left to the experts, and throughout the course of the album, we really don't have much say about which way it takes us, but the essence of this struggle actually does become life-affirming, albeit in a twisted tug-o-war of grandiose declarations and demonic mimicry.

In the song "Good Bye Irene," Leadbelly once sang the words. "Sometimes, I get a great notion to jump in the river and drown." Bark Psychosis feels this too, but they ain't got no use for the blues. After all, if it's too late to stop now, it probably wasn't worth starting in the first place. Remember, the hard thing and the right thing to do, are usually the same thing.

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