Michael Beach – ‘Dream Violence’ review: existential dread exorcised through heady guitar rockers and intimate ballads

Melbourne-based songwriter’s latest is set against the backdrop of bureaucratic red tape and pandemic anxiety

Dislocation and anxiety course through Michael Beach’s fourth solo album, endowing both his woolly guitar rockers and thoughtful piano ballads with an undercurrent of dread. While that’s a relatively familiar feeling in light of the past year, those doomy vibes lend thematic heft to the Melbourne-based songwriter’s cathartic approach.

Right from the opening ‘Irregardless’, which announces its clanging tunefulness for nearly two and a half minutes before Beach finally begins to sing, he seems to be circling the idea of our hopes being unceremoniously dashed. He sings about “dreaming of an imaginary past” and “oblivion calling you by your name”, while advising the subject to “walk with the pride of the dispossessed”.

Beach knows a thing or two about fighting to belong. After discovering Melbourne’s bountiful music scene while on exchange during his final year of uni, the American expat split his time between Australia and San Francisco. Even after deciding that he wanted to make Melbourne his home, he had to string together a long series of visas; at one point, it looked like he might not ever be able to come back Down Under. Beach has since attained citizenship, allowing him to pursue his solo work as well as his bands Brain Drugs and Shovels – not to mention touring stints in Thigh Master and an Aussie incarnation of Nebraska singer/guitarist David Nance’s backing band.

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That intense busyness – and the background noise of bureaucratic red tape – might explain why it’s been four years since Beach’s previous solo album, 2017’s ‘Gravity/Repulsion’. Recorded in both Melbourne and the San Francisco area, the new record taps backing players on either side of that geographical divide, from Thigh Master’s Matthew Ford and Innez Tulloch to US songwriter/producer Kelley Stoltz and Melbourne guitarist Chris Smith. Meanwhile, Beach’s longtime collaborator Peter Warden shares drumming duties with Utrillo Kushner from Californian heavy-psych act Comets On Fire.

‘Dream Violence’ continues Beach’s split between performing on guitar and piano, a dichotomy that has long generated comparisons to Neil Young. Though that remains an accurate touchstone here, Beach and band edge closer to the galloping heartland rush of Bruce Springsteen by the end of ‘Irregardless’, sounding romantic and spontaneous despite the dark clouds bearing down. ‘Spring’ reaches back further to the dirge-y drag and jangle of ‘Heroin’-era Velvet Underground as Beach cites existential dread and “my own meaninglessness”.

Rather than serve as a downer, those brooding themes reflect a wider frustration many are feeling at the moment, especially since the pandemic’s potential reset of priorities (from individual wealth, say, to collective welfare) has yet to materialise. “We’ve got the modern existentialism / Lying on the factory floor,” sings Beach on the capitalism-skewering ‘De Facto Blues’. He singles out the phrase “Roma Invicta” (“unconquered Rome”) as a rallying cry for those propping up ailing imperialism, while the song charges on with an impassioned forward thrust.

On the piano front, ‘You Found Me Out’ echoes the last album’s suite-like closer ‘Freddie Dreams Of Mars’ but remains intimate and skeletal instead of reaching for rock-opera scope. ‘Sometimes I Get That Cold Feeling’ is even more haunting, with Beach’s voice floating airy and almost disembodied against a hum of peripheral feedback. Those piano tracks, along with a pair of instrumentals, help to break up the heady intensity of the guitar-driven entries here.

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Beach sounds loosest and most at ease on ‘Curtain Of Night’, first released as a standalone single in mid-2019. Even though he sings of “doomsday predictions” while rattling off foreboding astrological phenomena, he appears to be sloughing off some of the preoccupations that dog him elsewhere, leading a satisfying slow burn that’s catchy enough to linger in the head long after. Against so much churning turmoil on Beach’s part, it peeks out from the album’s midsection like a beacon of hope.

Details

Michael Beach new album Dream Violence review
  • Release date: March 19
  • Record label: Poison City Records
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