Having recently reviewed and shared “Staring Down the Night,” the latest eighties-sounding single from retro-rockers Oscar Tango, I must confess that the itch to find more new music inspired by the sounds of decades past was one that I just had to scratch. Somebody, somewhere, somehow, must have been mind-reading at this particular moment, as I was presented with “Ego Death,” the upcoming album from Toronto psychedelic folk-rock band, Beams. How quickly I recalled “Born to Win,” the first single to promote this album released back in January, and how their seventies pop-rock sounds fused with some stunning folk harmonies and thundering hard-rock guitar riffs. Yes, this timely arrival quickly earned several spins here at GDW HQ over the last few days, and believe me, this is an album that you cannot afford to miss when it drops on your favorite platforms this Friday.
Comprised of co-vocalists Anna Mernieks-Duffield (banjo/guitar) and Heather Mazhar, and rounded out by Keith Hamilton (vibraphone/vocals), Martin Crawford (guitars), Craig Moffatt (bass), and Mike Duffield (drums), their beguiling sound pairs the stunning harmonization of female voices with the shimmering textures of banjo and vibraphone, and has frequently drawn comparisons to artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Wilco, and Kate Bush. No surprises here, with such comparisons reinforced by both their 2013 offering of the Portishead hit, “Glory Box,” and their amazing 2015 cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” Yet with “Ego Death,” their third full-length album to date, Beams move in a bold, new sonic direction, where loud guitars taking center-stage, while leaving enough room for the airy acoustic instrumentation that has defined their signature sound since forming back in 2011.
Recorded by Alex Gamble (Alvvays, Sarah Harmer) at Union Sound Co. in Toronto, mixed by Josh Bowman, and mastered by Sarah Register, and captured mostly live off the floor, the evolution of this new sound resulted from Anna choosing to move from banjo to electric guitar – a move that was fully supported by her bandmates. Instantly noticeable during “Born to Win,” the distinct late-seventies, Pat Benatar sounding vibe is accentuated by those punching, heavy-rock guitar rings. Anna and Heather’s harmonies remain at the heart of their sound, with the psychedelic textures blending with irresistible melodies to transport listeners to a higher plane. If “Born to Win” delighted your senses back in January, then you are certainly going to be positively giddy this coming Friday.
“Ego Death” possesses a deliberate song-cycle narrative, with lyrics that take you on the archetypal heroic adventure in which the protagonist goes on a journey from which they come back forever changed. This concept resonated with Anna, who sought to chronicle her own challenges with mental health that had previously threatened her own personal relationship with drummer/partner, Mike. “I had a rough childhood. My trust issues made me break off our first engagement,” she shares. “And then, in the aftermath, I decided to start getting therapy. Ego Death is a collection of songs about working through different stages of my life.” With this album, Beams seek to shed past ideas of self, and embrace instead the joy of transformation.
Spinning all ten tracks on repeat for a while, the concept of transformation is found not only within the lyrical aspects of the album, but also within the sonic soundscape itself, where the immediate intensity and tonality of “Born to Win” gradually softens as each track progresses. The second track, “Break Glass,” for instance, offers a similar guitar-centric focus, but is a little easier on the ears, retaining the same seventies rock-radio swagger whilst enticing those who prefer the airy acoustic sounds back into the fold once more. Which leads towards “Find Me,” the third track, and a pivotal point for winning over fans old and new alike. Soothing vocals set against minimalist backing percussion open, before the guitars and drums gradually blend in to provide a softer, slower traditional indie-folk pace. Hints of Kate Bush from Anna, and hints of The Sisters of Mercy from the band are offered up here long before the chorus arrives: “Courage will be your friend / Bravery / Cunning / And my wish for you / Is for your strength / And that you will find me.” The chilling, purposeful beat is downright atmospheric – we’re talking almost Anik Jean eerie – the guitar dominant, but not overwhelming, at least until the ascent into the bridge, where those amped-up rings pitch perfectly against some of Anna’s raised (and finest) vocal moments.
Once recovering from these amazing opening pieces, prepare to expect the unexpected, as Beams hop back and forth between their current and previous personas, teasing you at each and every turn with some additional percussion pieces, and the re-emergence of the banjo. Jump ahead to “Sweet Tea,” where Anna’s opening banjo licks and vocals leave me asking, “What would we encounter if Pat Benatar woke up in Appalachia?” A few moments ago, we were rocking out to heavy guitar riffs, but suddenly our six musicians appear heading all-out towards the heart of Roots-Americana country – at least for a moment, until those signature new sounds bring us promptly back to the diverse Toronto scene. “Stop the van, I want to get out / It feels wrong to be speeding through / Stop the van, we’re in the heartland / And I need a moment / I want to feel the dry grass crumble / Between my fingers in to dust so fine / Feel the wind that leave the corpse bare / Brittle bones, brittle heart, brittle mind,” Anna recites, joined by a pool of pounding drums and ringing six-strings that steer you now towards U2 and Deni Gauthier territory. “Cresting the Ozark Mountains and there’s no time to stop by / We’re making a beeline for Austin / A few weeks drifting / Stay lifted / Can’t take the comedown.”
As much as I could happily discuss each and every song found on “Ego Death,” and believe me, all ten tracks are simply stunning, I am quickly running out of editorial space. I really must give “See the Light” an honorable mention, however, as this ‘current’ favorite is an absolute gem that earned many repeat plays as I gathered my thoughts for this review. Opening once again with some gentle, soothing banjo licks, accompanied by some equally appropriate bass notes, the introduction quickly draws comparisons to Brandi Carlile’s “Every Time I Hear That Song,” for me (must I admit to slight rings of Abba’s “Fernando” in there too? No, probably not.). “Oh baby, why don’t you sleep? / The blanket of the night has been tucked in / Fire flies up to your chin / Animal lullabies soft in the wind,” recites Heather, so gently, so calm, so lovingly. “But the wild thing should not bring you fear / A brave dog dreams at your bedside near / Hush little darling, I am here / Your nightmare is not real.”
And right on cue, the band accompanies the chorus with some calming instrumentation. Just listen to the gentle brushes against the snare, the melodic notes of the vibraphone (maybe even a xylophone), and some heart-warming strings, all providing a serene oasis as Keith Hamilton takes the lead vocals for the second verse: “When you were born, I swore to be / The best biggest person that I am / To live out carefully laid plans / And though life sometimes blows so hard I can barely stand / Stand I will, here I am / Your nightmare is not real.” Another chorus follows, and those harmonies return for the third, before Anna’s closing lines bring the message home: “My nightmare is not real / My nightmare is not real / Whoa, sometimes I can’t see the light / Whoa, sometimes I can’t see the light / Whoa, sometimes I can’t see the light.”
“Ego Death” is available across your favorite platforms on this Friday, with CD and vinyl options available on Bandcamp. I had little familiarity with Beams prior to hearing this album; one that very quickly exceeded any and all expectations that I had, and one that has earned them my full attention. I anticipate finding “Ego Death” on many year-end lists later this year, and it’s pretty much a lock for mine. Go ahead and pick up a copy, give it several spins, and try to convince me that I’m wrong.
Photo Credit: Artist Website