Review: PAK – “Bestial”

I once wrote that Ron Anderson is the best kind of madman. Today, with Bestial, his trio PAK’s fourth LP, he again proves he’s worth all the breathless, rave reviews – and then some.

Bestial is a very distant cousin of 2011’s Secret Curve, the mind-bending Tzadik Records release that led me to hail Anderson’s unique genius in The Brooklyn Rail in the first place. Where Secret Curve toyed, sometimes quite manipulatively, with listeners’ sense of time and expectation of rock phrasings, the guitar-less outing was, at its heart, a mighty document of avant-jazz explosiveness. On Bestial, Anderson borrows a page from his ear-shredding, between-PAK project Oblique Quartet, switching to guitar and instead offering mountainous piles of grungy, dirge-guitar riffage and slow-burn, post-punk lumbering. It’s as if the Zornian devotee of Secret Curve spent a year in hiding doing nothing but studying the framework of Tool, Pelican and Mastodon compositions. And it is mighty good when the stereo speakers, turned up to their maximum levels of saturation, start shaking.

The largely instrumental outing occasionally flirts with meltdown territory (the thunderous closing portions of “Prophesies of the Sybil;” the shreddage solos of “Sub Specie Aeternitatis”) but, for the most part, Anderson and his crew play the role of catholic prog-punk disciples, offering their own studied (but incredibly engaging) versions of sludge-rock statuary. There is still an attention to warping time signatures and inverting, sometimes even truncating, certain expected guitar phrasings but the technique is largely sublimated in benefit of generating heat through repetition. Think of it as a study in scale. Rather than Secret Curve’s 68-second opening salvo, you get the 13-minute-long “Triskaidekophobia,” which pounds the ears not only with its peculiar angularity but also is sense of scope and the dark behemoth shadow it casts. Anderson here isn’t interested in condensing and hyper-pressurizing everything; he’s getting the same sense of aural satisfaction slowly slowly slowly drawing down the needle.

There are between-song asides, of course – breaks of pause, if you will. “Chiaroscuro,” at nearly six minutes, is a lengthy intermission that dwells largely in whispered texture, and the four-minute opener, “Attrition,” sounds like the anticipatory chanting before a ritual sacrifice. You don’t hear the screams; but you can smell the blood that’s about to pour.

Elsewhere, as on the excellent “Repent Recoil” or the anti-capitalist “Reflection Consumer,” Anderson and company cop antithetical and ominous poses and spew bile over plodding, HEAVY bass and guitar lines that call to mind Big Business-era Melvins. Even then, the trio has tricks up its sleeves; after four minutes on “Consumer,” the doom yields to caterwaul guitar-solo theatrics and a heightened sense of anxiety about the process of consuming it all. Here, and elsewhere, you practically can smell the sweat and darkness. The bleak tones and dirgy refrains Anderson uses to paint sound on Bestial are certainly a departure but the mark of a genius, it could be argued, is that they can speak in many languages but still convey grandiose messages. Anderson does just that on PAK’s masterful new record, leaving us to wonder what bizarre foreign tongue he’ll adopt next. – Justin Vellucci, MusicTAP, May 8, 2019

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