Spirit of the Beehive – ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH (2021)

Spirit of the Beehive’s ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is not psychedelic music in the normal sense of the term, although like most psychedelic music it does make for a disorientating listening experience. Unlike traditional psyche-rock, which tends to draw its ‘weirdness’ from otherworldly realms, and an appeal to humankind’s connection with nature and the deeper rhythms of the earth, this Philadelphia-based trio turn their filters to the detritus of late 20th Century pop culture ephemera. Their kaleidoscopic music reconfigures different elements – snatches of FM radio, TV commercials, 80s synth pop, 90s slacker indie rock – into new patterns with every turn. The effect is just as hallucinatory as any straight-up psyche band, but rather than tripping the light fantastic, we’re tripping the flickering blue light of television screens, neon lights, and primitive computer graphics.

The term for this kind of mining of the upper layers of pop culture sediment – specifically, the layer that coincides with the 1980s – is ‘hypnagogic pop’. A genre of inevitably questionable origins, given it was coined by a music journalist, describing artists who utilise retro sounds and aesthetics to distort your sense of time and evoke nostalgia for an exaggerated dream of the past that never was. Many acts tagged with the term reject the label, but Spirit of the Beehive seem to play up to it. For one thing, they named their previous album ‘Hypnic Jerks’; hypnagogic referring to the state immediately before falling asleep and hypnic jerks being those involuntary muscle spasms the body sometimes produces in that state. And for another, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is littered with references to falling asleep or waking, evoking that hyper-lucid state one experiences between dreams and reality.

Depending on your tolerance for a very knowing kind of fourth wall breaking, and for Spirit of the Beehive’s generally hyperactive approach, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH will be an album you either love or hate (most likely both).  It’s a confounding, confusing and at times dazzling experience, and despite having played it numerous times, I’m still not sure which it is for me. Like being trapped in a car while someone continually fiddles with the radio dial, the music never settles still for more than a minute or two, alternating between bursts of electronic noise, slacker pop, lo-fi indie, punk, and much else besides. The lyrics are disjointed and not always audible, but when they are they mix the absurd with the profound, implying someone on the verge of some kind of breakdown, “what if I don’t pull through?” asks RAPID AND COMPLETE RECOVERY, “If I’m not careful now, I won’t be long for this world” warns GIVE UP YOUR LIFE.

Reviewing ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is as difficult as listening to it, so to ward off confusion let’s first look at the pros. Every time I listen to it, it sounds like a different album, with whole interludes and transitions that I could swear I’d never heard before. So in this sense at least, it represents great value for money. Not to mention that in a little under 40 minutes, the band gallop through dozens of genres, sound-checking countless other bands – everything from Pavement to Toro y Moi. Thirdly, there’s no denying that ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is a stunning feat of musicianship and production. I’m not in love with each and every outburst of noise or meandering detour contained here, but just the fact that the band managed to stitch this hectic patchwork quilt together is kind of mind-blowing. All the more so, given the album was initially written remotely, with the three members sending files back and forth via email, and is the first the band recorded and produced entirely themselves.

So what of the cons? Firstly, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is demanding – it requires your full attention and preferably a decent set of headphones. I’ve tried playing it on speakers and it just doesn’t work; it’s like releasing a swarm of bees into a room – everything just flies off in multiple directions. The music is so restless and busy, that unless you’re able to give it your full attention and keep up with the constant transitions it’s liable to become an irritant. And while the production is impressive, with the band managing to unite all these disparate elements into a cohesive warm and fuzzy sound, at times it feels like the production is too warm and fuzzy. To the point where it becomes cloying, and the hum of analogue warmth smothers the individual instruments. More than likely this was intentional, and the band’s technique of wielding the whole mix as one instrument allows them to turn on a dime, from power electronics, to sun-drenched slacker-rock, to gloopy chillwave in the space of a few bars.

But it can make for a damn frustrating experience to listen to. There are so many moments of brilliance, the sunny dreampop of ENTERTAINMENT, the self-titled era Blur-sounding dirge of GIVE UP YOUR LIFE, the rubbery tropical swing of RAPID & COMPLETE RECOVERY (the intro of which inexplicably reminds me of Tears for Fears’ Everybody wants to Rule the World) – but none of them lasts more than a minute or so. Although it is worth mentioning that this frustration is lessened when watching the videos the band released for three tracks, THE SERVER IS IMMERSED, THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN’T DO, and the provocatively titled, I SUCK THE DEVIL’S COCK. All three are excellent – THE SERVER IS IMMERSED in particular – evoking the work of Adam Curtis, using a mixture of library footage, computer graphics and original scenes to embody the music’s sense of apathy, nihilism and personal dislocation in the face of technological development. Which may all sound very doom laden, but on its surface, this is a very sunny and upbeat record – albeit one shot through with irony.

The ‘hypnagogic pop’ tag rapidly fell out of favour in the mid 00s, prompting an inevitable backlash, so by leaning into its most pronounced qualities Spirit of the Beehive are ironically winking to the camera. But then a stance of insincere irony may be the only logical standpoint, for a generation born at ‘the end of history’ and raised on the promise of a utopia awaiting in the next millennium only to find…all this. When Zach Schwartz mournfully sings, ‘entertainment only remains’, on the opening track you wonder if that’s all life is, when you reduce it down? The constant barrage of content we’re confronted with 24/7 – politics, relationships, work, news, sport, commercials, reality TV, social media – is everything just entertainment when all’s said and done?

In light of which, I’m minded to read ‘ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH’ as a super-condensed summary of existence – you’re entertained, then you die. Absurd or profound? I’m not really sure. Love it or hate it? I’m not sure. All I know is, it’s deathly entertaining.

This review originally appears in Still Listening Magazine.

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