For a show whose key components included a smoke machine and a guy singing soprano, there was nothing cheesy about The Besnard Lakes‘ May 12 performance at the Casbah. Over the course of three albums, the Montreal four-piece has made its name playing loud, epic art-rock with a sugary Beach Boys center. Their cinematic compositions could have sounded sloppy or unruly in a live setting, but the band proved that they needn’t rely on recording studio trickery.
The Besnard Lakes set the mood with a tape recording of Carl Sagan and the billowing puffs from their afore-mentioned smoke machine, plunging the crowd firmly into the ether. They opened with the nine-minute opus “Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent,” off their excellent new album, The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night. Richard White wrung the first of the night’s many other-worldly notes from his guitar, his e-bow glowing a steely blue in the dark. Like most Besnard Lakes tracks, the song began softly and built to an intense explosion of sound, with drummer Kevin Laing spattering machine-gun fills over the chorus’s thick, distorted guitar riff.
With his Western snap-down shirt and J Mascis head of gunmetal hair, singer Jace Lasek was a bizarre, intriguing sight, but what really set him apart from other front men was his voice. Lasek sang in a stratospheric falsetto, and the notes he hit were higher than Snoop Dogg at a Grateful Dead concert. His voice was so untethered by any normal human limitation that, whenever bassist Olga Goreas would join him in ghostly, mournful harmony, she took the low part. Their vocals were lush and beautiful, floating in blissful, detached contrast over the heavy percussion and crunchy guitars.
Roaring Night single “Albatross” was one of the evening’s highlights. Goreas took the lead with her Mazzy Star voice as Lasek and company cooed “Good Vibrations”-style backups behind her. The band maintained complete control over the song’s mood swings, alternately revving their engines and applying the brakes during its tempestuous middle section. The steamy, Twin Peaks-evoking “Disaster” — off their classic 2007 album The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse — was just as impressive, and lost none of its intensity despite the absence of the recorded version’s strings and horns.
It’s not uncommon for a Besnard Lakes song to last an ADD-unfriendly ten minutes, but their meticulous arrangements and assured execution kept the crowd ensnared. Oftentimes, when bands let a song grow quiet or ring out, audience members prematurely applaud, assuming that it’s over. But that didn’t happen once during The Besnard Lakes’ set — their songs went on exactly as long as they needed to, and the crowd, sensing this, never clapped out of turn. That type of synchronicity between performer and audience was a tribute to the band’s mastery over their ambitious material.
When it finally did come time to clap, the applause was as thunderous as a Besnard Lakes song. “This is our first time in San Diego,” Lasek beamed, his thick Canadian accent dripping with maple syrup, “but it definitely won’t be our last.”