An image of a burning horse could be a symbol of many things, but with those self-devouring flames it’s a perfect metaphor for the combustible world of husband-and-wife collaborations. One musical couple, the duo at the core of Montreal collective the Besnard Lakes, invokes this visceral image again and again; it adorned the cover of their sophomore effort, Are the Dark Horse, and reappears on their latest release, The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night, printed on the CD itself.
“For me the image is very powerful,” remarks Olga Goreas, one half of the pair that founded the group (the other being her husband, Jace Lasek). “The horse is an impressive animal that has carried the weight of civilization, both symbolically and literally. Its being on fire signifies something supernatural as well, and it can represent something very good or something very bad. There is no middle ground with this image.”
The same could be said for the Besnard Lakes’ music, which—centered on the soaring arc of reverby guitars, hypnotic keyboards, bottomless drones, and Lasek’s falsetto vocals—always seems to be on the brink of ignition. Shimmering sparks hover low and soft and then suddenly explode with the intensity of a 10-alarm fire, all within a minute’s time. In theory anyone can produce this kind of incendiary sound, but adding the sexual tension and occasionally competing visions that come with being a romantic couple certainly doesn’t hurt.
“Jace and I knew when we met that we would be creative partners,” Goreas says, “and certainly there have been both benefits and challenges to the situation. We are brutally honest in that we let each other know if something is not working when we write a song. Of course, that can be pretty difficult sometimes, but we always seem to end up on the same page, whether it be for what kind of instrumentation we want to use, or whether there’s too much or too little reverb on a vocal, or whether a lyric or harmony does not fit in the context of the song. We keep each other busy.”
Goreas and Lasek formed the Besnard Lakes as a full band, with Lasek on lead vocals and guitar and Goreas contributing bass and backing vocals. But their first album, Volume I, ended up being recorded almost entirely by the two after the other members of the group departed; it was self-released in 2003 in a limited run of a thousand. In 2007, Jagjaguwar issued the group’s sophomore effort, The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse, and although Pitchfork gave the release a rating of 8.2, mentioning Besnard Lakes in most circles still produces a quizzical “Huh?” more often than not. The group’s moniker, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, is much more familiar as the name of a lake in the province of Saskatchewan that is fabled for its fishing, and known as “the lake of many islands.” Lasek and Goreas themselves are better known as the owners of Breakglass Studio, where Lasek has produced and engineered albums by many notable Canadian indie acts including Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, and Islands. But this month’s release of The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night might change that.
Recorded at Breakglass, this time with the help of Kevin Laing on drums, Richard White on guitar, and one very special piece of equipment—a 1968 Neve mixing console purported to be the one used on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti—Roaring Night picks up where Dark Horse left off. Indeed the two albums pair well together, almost as if Roaring Night could be the second side to Dark Horse, or as though Dark Horse were a preamble of sorts to the new release. A key element in the Besnard Lakes’ sound is expansion—just when you think that there’s no possible way a song can become any more grandiose, the walls of exploding sound shatter the ceiling once more. And where Dark Horse succeeded at pulling this off, Roaring Night excels at it. Though the group’s musical vision tends to be epic in scope, the Besnard Lakes know how to keep it tight, with both albums clocking in at under 50 minutes—remember, we’re dealing with someone who produces and mixes, that is to say edits, other people’s music for a living. But it’s clear that Lasek hones his ears working with his own band. Rather than let grand ideas hyperinflate into an exercise in bombast, Lasek is masterful at reining them in so that the music always stays explosive but never becomes overblown. On Roaring Night, as on Horse, Lasek’s eerie dream-state falsetto enters right from the start, and the entire album is heavy with decadent vamps, deep pools of drone, orbital, noisy guitar hooks, and many moments of unbridled triumph. If Dark Horse was the work of a gifted teenager still honing her craft, Roaring Night is the result of that teenager coming into her own.
The pair of tracks that open the disc, “Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent (Parts 1 and 2),” set the sonorously dystopian tone. The full minute and 39 seconds of “Part 1” consists of a high-pitched, reverberating echo hovering above a tangled noise-scratch from a single guitar. Building slowly and quietly, the track transitions seamlessly into “Part 2.” Keys join in, with one chord played per measure, to frame Lasek as he croons, floating like a feather, in falsetto. Then, two minutes in, the arrangement fills out with full-on drums, bass, and guitar, and the intense ebbs and flows continue for another five minutes.
“I felt very strongly about putting ‘Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent (Parts 1 and 2)’ first on the album,” Goreas says. “I think it sets the tone really well.” And indeed, these tracks set the mood perfectly for what is to come, which is at once a burning horse and a roaring night, and where everything that can be ignited will be.
Although the Besnard Lakes play a raucous live show, they’re really a studio band, with an emphasis on process. “We are big into studio experimentation and manipulation,” Goreas confirms. “That is where our ideas come to life.” Of the tracks on Roaring Night, she remembers sketching out “Albatross” and “Glass Printer” first. The former sees Goreas on lead vocals with a triumphant, shining chorus ooh-ing behind her, and Lasek’s hazy shoegazer guitar building triumphantly. Though the link may not be obvious, “Albatross” somehow brings to mind Fleetwood Mac, if only because the song relays that same rosy, mellow vibe. And, when asked about her earliest musical memory, sure enough Goreas mentions the band. “I remember playing Fleetwood Mac songs on the jukebox at my dad’s restaurant,” she says. “I think I was about eight years old.”
“Glass Printer” follows “Albatross,” and builds on the previous track’s momentum. Here everything is cranked up several notches, with guitar lines bursting like firecrackers against concrete walls and vocal harmonies given full prominence. The pairing and placement of the two tracks, situated at the four and five spot, works just right. Together they form the euphoric vertex of the album’s arc, with all tracks previous and after serving as an intricate frame.
Goreas is particularly attached to “Land of Living Skies (Parts 1 and 2).” These two particularly vampy tracks revolve around her father’s birthplace in Greece, where her parents and all of her family currently reside (although Goreas herself was born in Canada). “This came from an old song idea, and is built around the bass line, on which I played organ bass pedals.” And here the flame references return.
“I sing about the ‘burned-down countryside,’” Goreas continues, “and fire indeed does play some kind of role—more specifically, forest fires, which have ravaged some areas of Greece as well as some areas in British Columbia, where I come from. When I sing about ‘drowning in a sea of glory,’ there is a sense of extinguishing a fire from which there will be a rebirth of sorts.”
While the Besnard Lakes may make use of easily tagged elements for their sound—the Brian Wilsonesque falsetto, the effects-pedal-and-reverb shoegazer, the euphoric arena-rock anthems, the minimalist drones, the Roy Orbison vamp—they meld the recognizable into something entirely new. In other words, this is not derivative stuff. The Besnard Lakes’ particular mix of styles is not unlike that well-chosen image of a burning horse, with a sound that comes off as both highly cultivated and archaic. Within Roaring Night there’s a symbiosis of raw and refined, of moderation and excess, of retro and future. This is a journey to both the high heavens and the earthly mortal soil.