The legends of rock are doomed to stand in the shadows of their best work, and Pixies are a perfect example. Towering giants of late-1980s indie rock, Pixies’ influence on underground bands of the ’90s and ’00s is perhaps unparalleled for combining raw punk impetus, unconventionally catchy choruses, and high-art aspirations. Nearly 30 years after the close of Pixies’ golden era, loyal fans are challenged to reconcile the mystery of those early recordings with the reality of the band’s latest incarnation.
On Beneath The Eyrie, their sixth full-length album, the band returns with the same lineup as 2016’s lean and fiery Head Carrier and a darker set of morbid, searching tunes. It doesn’t careen wildly like their early records, as the band shoots for a more atmospheric and unnerving essence. Song titles like “Graveyard Hill” and “Los Surfers Muertos” are strong hints as to where frontman Frank Black’s mind is on this album.
On the strong opener “In The Arms Of Mrs. Mark Of Cain,” Black lays it all out. “My memories are all fables/ So I’m trying to get at the truth,” he sings. He recals the Pixies’ tradition of drawing parallels between biblical parables, obscure legends and present-day issues.
The lyrics twist around a quaint double-entendre and Black’s warped sophistry, while guitarist Joey Santiago arpeggiates a witchy melodic theme. Black clears his throat at the start of single “Graveyard Hill,” a tale of black magic seduction, and the band pulls off a fine example of its style of propulsive dark pop. The song features a monstrous chorus, a deft call-and-response verse between Santiago’s guitar and Black’s vocals, and a few signature throat-shredding screams.
Pixies took a controlled approach to the process of creating Beneath The Eyrie, documented in the band’s podcast. The album’s production creates a curiously somber atmosphere, insulating the record within a womb of silence. Considering it was recorded in a supposedly haunted church during the dead of winter in snowy Woodstock, New York, perhaps this is not surprising.
Unfortunately, it casts a murkiness over the album. Some songs are simply unable to power through. Much of this set consists of gloomy mid-tempo songs rolling by half-unnoticed. Other passages feel underdeveloped for the sake of brevity. The longest track, “Daniel Boone,” climbs from a misty-eyed reminiscence to an expressive instrumental bridge that could have been extended to greater effect. Instead it ends with 40 seconds of noisy drones that dissipates the song’s emotive impact.
The strong energy of the first three songs hits a sudden lull with the Waitsian lurch of “This Is My Fate,” and the album never fully recovers. On “Death Horizon,” Black explores a leaden, ominous train of thought over bright, tropical chord changes. Bassist-vocalist Paz Lenchantin provides some much needed chutzpah on “Long Rider” and its sizzling companion piece “Los Surfers Muertos”—a tribute to an aquatic-hearted friend of hers since departed to surfers’ Valhalla. Pixies achieve a comfortable groove on the spooky “Silver Bullet,” while “Ready For Love” meanders in a lost forest of melancholy balladry.
Basic lyrics like, “Last night I was driving around/ Nothing to do, thinking of you,” from “Daniel Boone,” surprise with their obviousness. Black was always at his best on songs like “Hey” and “River Euphrates,” where his experiential words hint at deeper interpretations. On “Beneath The Eyrie” this strength is intermittent, and he often sounds like just another guy trying to figure himself out.
Original Pixies drummer David Lovering’s powerful drumming provides one source of consistency. On the SoCal surf-punk number “St. Nazaire,” he drives some neat rhythmic surprises as Pixies boogie hard for a tough moment. On folk heroine tale “Catfish Kate,” an album highlight, the band truly soars. Black steals hearts again with storytelling lyrics and a chorus that rings with fist-pumping sincerity. It provides a rare triumphant moment in a set heavy on grim, slow-churning numbers that ponder mortality and the occult.
Nevertheless, “Beneath The Eyrie” marks a heavy step forward for these rock musicians, who sound like they’re still relearning how to be a band. There’s a lot to like about how Pixies go about their business in 2019. Beyond the coherent and deliberate nature of Beneath The Eyrie, the band has made an exclusive deal with independent record stores to carry the colored vinyl edition of the album. With Lenchantin rounding out an apparently solidified lineup, Pixies do not sound like a band that’s finished, but rather like a band in the process of finding a way to translate their former resonance to a modern audience.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.