Cold Beat’s “War Garden” is a Pandemic-Era Triumph

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:

The Mandelbrot set has become popular outside mathematics both for its aesthetic appeal and as an example of a complex structure arising from the application of simple rules. It is one of the best-known examples of mathematical visualizationmathematical beauty, and motif.

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.

I Like These New Songs (Pt. 1)

I had a music slump earlier in the year and didn’t feel like writing, so I’m going to catch up on all the stuff I’ve been listening to with a couple quick posts.

The Weather Station – “Robber”

One of my lifelong hobbies is making fun of folk music, since I find almost all of it boring and it’s hard not to poke at the reverence its’s often held in by the snobbier types of listeners. The Weather Station’s Ignorance is the folkiest album I’ve liked in a long time because of songs like “Robber”: this is musically interesting, with creative rhythms, a dense saxophone-heavy arrangement, and lyrics that are thought-provoking instead of the usual woe-is-me stuff that often passes for depth because it’s sad (which equals good, as we all know). Tamara Lindeman’s vocals are the finishing touch — I think they channel Sarah McLachlan, adding to my ongoing thesis that she is a quietly influential figure in acclaimed indie music right now.

Cassandra Jenkins – “Hard Drive”

Along with “Robber,” Cassandra Jenkins’ “Hard Drive” is part of why 2021 is the year of women in their late 30s making saxophone-heavy folk. This song is kind of the oddball on her album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, as it goes with a primarily spoken-word delivery that plays over the saxophone and a repeating piano part, eventually growing into a stirring crescendo over the course of five minutes. The understated vocals allow the lyrics to shine; there is maximum wordplay from the phrase “hard drive” that refers both to the mind and her experiences of literally having a hard time driving (relatable).

Lia Ices – “Earthy”

Lia Ices’ Family Album rounds out this trio of folky albums I’ve been into, and I might actually like it the most of them all even though it slid under the radar with a zero hype January release. After a move to California, Ices went for the classic Laurel Canyon sound, adding a slight tinge of psychedelia (the perfect amount, really) to her piano-heavy arrangements in part thanks to production from the late JR White of Girls. The lyrics are often about her experiences as a new mother, as the title suggests, which is part of what gives this album a sense of warmth and optimism that is refreshing in this field. Given how successful Weyes Blood was with a similar sound a couple years ago, I’m a little disappointed that this album hasn’t reached more listeners.

Chelsea Wolfe – “Diana”

I haven’t been a participant in society’s superhero obsession and largely consider the DC and Marvel movies to be mindless military propaganda that is used to make hordes of viewers obedient slaves of the U.S. government, the Walt Disney Corporation, and Warner Brothers. At risk of sounding like a snob, I believe not enjoying these films makes me superior to others in matters of taste and intellect. That said, Chelsea Wolfe’s “Diana” is inspired by Wonder Woman as part of a DC Comics metal collaboration, and it actually makes the character sound interesting compared to the celebrity cosplay version on screen. I like Wolfe in this more aggressive mode, and she brings her usual tension between light and darkness here, presenting Wonder Woman as a more conflicted and ambiguous personality.

Cold Beat – “See You Again”

I feel like I’ve said all I can about Cold Beat over the years. They’re the best band and “See You Again” is the first single from another new album from them that will surely be great. It’s a slower, shimmering ballad, similar to “In Motion” from Chaos By Invitation, but this time Hannah Lew’s lyrics are the most simple and easily relatable they’ve ever been, a sad but hopeful reflection on drifting away from people that rings particularly true in COVID times.

Cold Beat Finds Humanity in the Chaos on “Mother”

Cold Beat never make it easy, which is why I’m obsessed with them and probably why they seem to appeal to a tiny sliver of an audience. Their latest album, Mother, has so much going on that nothing feels right except to hurl a bunch of contradictory adjectives at it: it’s eerie, comforting, warm, icy, catchy, and also near-impossible to fully figure out. After the more spare Chaos By Invitation, songwriter Hannah Lew went for more of a collaborative approach on this album, which is their densest, most experimental effort yet, while also being their most human.

This is another album by the band that defies categorization, but it lands somewhere in the synth-pop realm, with clear inspiration from bands like The Eurythmics (who were the subject of a Cold Beat covers EP). Lew surrounds herself with a variety of synths and tightly wound rhythms, which give the band a clarity and purpose even with the undecipherable or vague lyrics. It is hard to gather meaning from the songs, but it is easy to tell they do mean something, or they wouldn’t be played with this conviction. The standout second track, “Prism,” has only a few lyrics about shapes, yet it is defined by its non-stop piling on of sounds and its driving motorik beat, which lend it a bracing sense of urgency.

All through the album, Cold Beat experiment with their sound with ten tracks that all sound different from each other while clearly being the result of a single-minded effort. “Paper” is loaded with a saxophone part and something that sounds like a theremin, while “Through” has the band’s most pulsing, danceable rhythms to date with tight repetitive synths. Holding all of this madness together is Lew’s understated melodies and vocal performances, which are what allow the band to merge humanity and electronics so well. Her strongest effort is on the shimmering ballad “Double Sided Mirror,” a definitive Cold Beat song that is strange, intangible and psychedelic, yet also heartfelt.

Lew wrote Mother while she was pregnant, with the goal of describing earth to a newborn. That’s probably why this album feels like it’s trying to capture so much, and mostly succeeding: it’s a portrayal of the world, with all of its weirdness, chaos, and randomness, but also those little human moments that give people hope. The structure of Cold Beat’s music allows listeners to be intrigued by the sound, then to latch onto those moments, whether it’s a simple lyric that jumps out, a catchy hook, or a distinct instrumental aside like that saxophone part in “Paper.” For some listeners, I’m sure it will all be too abstract and those moments will never come. Those who let this album work its magic on them will find it to be one of the most thoughtful and addictive albums of the year.