One of the singles off Cold Beat’s latest, War Garden, is called “Mandelbrot Fall,” and it might be their best song yet. Somewhere around my 50th time listening to it, I realized I had no idea what a “Mandelbrot” was, so I went to Wikipedia because I hate not knowing things. The page for the “Mandelbrot Set” had a lot of words on it that seemed to pertain to advanced mathematics. There were also some pretty pictures of some psychedelic circles and spirals, which apparently are what the Mandelbrot set looks like, because I guess math functions can look like something. I still wasn’t smart enough to understand much of this, but one paragraph on the page was in words I kind of understood and thus caught my attention:
One of the staples of this blog has been me gushing about Cold Beat but not really being able to put my finger on why I love them so much. Posts about them would often be me trying to think of different ways to write “I like this song because it sounds good.” But seeing this paragraph about the Mandelbrot set, it all clicked for me: this is what Cold Beat is. Their music is complex intellectually, but also made of these simple elements; it’s definitely brainy and analytical, but also at times beautiful. The songs on War Garden, more than any others they’ve recorded, reflect this perfect balance of attributes that seem like they would be incongruous — kind of like an equation, though I guess that is branching into chemistry instead of geometry.
Cold Beat is even more firmly on the synth pop path here, and I’ve been recently learning more about some of their influences for these albums, including The Human League and (more obscurely) Oppenheimer Analysis. Certainly there is an 80s vibe going on in the sound, but I still find this to be an original band — there’s a very specific yet intangible mood to a Cold Beat song that I haven’t really found in anything else. “Mandelbrot Fall” is a quintessential example, with the wistful feeling from the nostalgic synths, Hannah Lew’s warm vocals, and the swirling melodies all colliding into this pop song that feels familiar and futuristic all at once. Another highlight, “Weeds,” is similarly constructed, with some indie rock guitar joining the synth, creating a song that is an addictive mix of these different influences and moods. A lot of bands simply replicate old sounds they like; Cold Beat uses ideas from the past to make something completely new.
Befitting this retro-futuristic sound, War Garden feels like it is simultaneously looking backwards and forwards. A lot of it deals with the pandemic, and mid-album songs like “See You Again” (probably the most straight-forward thing they’ve written) and “Year Without a Shadow” deal with the now-familiar themes of isolation and missing your friends. There’s the nostalgia in those songs for better days, but on “See You Again” especially, there are also feelings of resolve and faith — the idea that “I will see you again,” which Lew sings like she’s holding onto something that will keep her going through tough times. The final song on the album, “New World,” has an even more optimistic tone, with a more upbeat danceable pop style. Cold Beat songs tend to be vague and malleable by design, but I feel a clear progression in the sound on War Garden from the darker days of the pandemic to the possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s a tricky thing to be optimistic these days without it coming off as dopey or naïve, but it’s pulled off here in typical nuanced fashion. It’s less “things are gonna be great!” or “nothing bad is happening” and more about holding onto dreams and a belief that there are still good days ahead. It sounds like one of Lew’s pandemic activities was gardening, and accordingly the band gave out flower seeds with each vinyl order of War Garden, with the idea that it would bloom into a flower while it shipped. This nod towards growth and rejuvenation is a big part of the album, and the flower represents the way I’m thinking of War Garden as something beautiful and hopeful amidst darkness and chaos. Cold Beat has been on a run of great albums, but this one feels particularly special. It’s their most human and accessible work so far, and it captures the complicated pandemic feelings better than anything I’ve heard.