Among the most striking aspects of the 2012 self-titled Golden Void debut (review here), was just how distinct it was in personality from Earthless despite the presence of Isaiah Mitchell on vocals and guitar. Known for the blow-the-roof-off sprawl and classic rocking righteousness of the latter instrumental outfit, Golden Void‘s Golden Void was by and large a humbler affair, and as their second album for Thrill Jockey, Berkana follows suit on a stylistic level. The lineup of Mitchell, keyboardist Camilla Saufley-Mitchell (also of The Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound), bassist Aaron Morgan and drummer Justin Pinkerton returns, and though the core of Golden Void‘s sound remains intact, it’s not as though they’re mere continuing along the same lines.
At seven tracks/41 minutes, Berkana is the same number of songs but a full six minutes longer than its predecessor, and one can find the extra time in the spacey wanderings of “Astral Plane” and “I’ve Been Down,” both casting a wide berth sonically still without sounding overblown or needlessly grandiose. Saufley-Mitchell adds backing vocals on “Silent Season” and the aforementioned “Astral Plane,” and the hooks are all the more resonant for it, the Bay Area four-piece finding a comfortable place between catchy craftsmanship and hypnotic instrumental meandering that gives Berkana a flow distinct from the debut and a sense of the progression the band has undertaken over the last three years. Recorded by Tim Green (The Fucking Champs) at his Louder Studios, the album retains a natural, live-sounding vibe that rests well alongside its overarching pastoral feel.
There is a deceptive amount of movement throughout. Across its span, Berkana stays relatively fluid — that is, there isn’t much to pull the listener out of the front-to-back experience, even with a side split between “Astral Plane” and “I’ve Been Down” — but the ways in which it keeps its momentum shift almost song by song. True to the album’s title, which derives from a rune of growth and fertility (also represented by birch trees as seen on the cover), it expands and branches out as it moves forward from the opening bounce and swing of “Burbank’s Dream,” weaving memorable impressions of itself along the way, whether it’s in a chorus or exploratory-feeling progression. It seems fair to call it a more patient record than the debut, but neither was in any rush, and as Morgan‘s air-pushing low-end fuzz begins “Silent Season,” soon topped by dreamy wisps of guitar and keys with some underlying tension in Pinkerton‘s drums, it’s pretty clear Berkana is constructed for headphones and tilted-head/closed-eye hearing.
“Silent Season” provides one of the more immediate choruses, building as it pushes through its five minutes but ultimately guided by Mitchell with a casual prog atmosphere. As happens throughout, that atmosphere sets up the jump into the quicker “Dervishing,” a song that conjures whirl in lyric and instrument alike, dizzying but undizzied, a mix providing enough depth to give a spiral impression without the band getting lost in the process. There are moments, as in the change from “Silent Season” to “Dervishing” and “Dervishing” to the following “Astral Plane,” where their holding it together seems miraculous when you step back and look at the ground they’ve covered, but the truth is they very deftly keep a foot in heavy psychedelia throughout, so that as far as the material seems to range, it’s never so far as to completely untie itself from its surroundings.
In that way, Berkana feels more like a complete album than Golden Void, but it’s more of a symptom of the progress of the band overall than the end-result. At nearly seven minutes, “Astral Plane” leads the way toward Berkana‘s immersive back half, side B opening with a companion-piece in “I’ve Been Down” as the two tracks provide, in a linear format (CD or digital), the record’s most satisfying chillout. That’s not to say either is a languish. “Astral Plane” strikes in both its chorus and the interplay of keys and flute in its midsection jam, and “I’ve Been Down” echoes the bounce of “Burbank’s Dream” without repeating it and breaks down after the three-minute mark to launch a singularly engaging ground-up build, patient, progressive and still drippingly psychedelic. At first “The Beacon” seems to echo its otherworldly vibe, but turns toward its own earthy, fuzzier vibe, more forward rhythmically and in Pinkerton‘s insistent snare.
One could almost call Mitchell‘s bombastic solo at the end snuck in, but there’s nothing sneaky about it, comprising the better part of the song’s final two minutes, teasing an end then kicking back in for another go and giving Berkana a due apex before “Storm and Feather” closes the album on a more subdued but not at all sour note. The slowest inclusion, it’s also arguably the most spacious, with what feels like an extra layer of echo on the vocals and a loose-head tom sound in Pinkerton‘s drums, expansive guitar and bass tones and a gradual swirl that gets brought to bear with a late arrival of overlaid Floydian acoustics near the finish. I don’t know whether it was Golden Void‘s intent to cap Berkana as far as possible away from the opening crashes of “Burbank’s Dream,” but they would seem to have come pretty close to that either way, showing on the journey between the two that the identity of the band is not only individualized but on its own creative path in ethereal space rock, more drift than thrust but still explosive when it sees fit to be so.