The fourth studio album from Philly psych–rockers Spirit of the Beehive spells out its concerns in caps–lock, boldface, neon lettering: ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH. It has the inescapable feeling of a good trip that goes very bad, and the comma in the title contains every moment along that journey. There are glimpses of lush orchestration and placid ambience, disembodied advertisements and hellish soundscapes, but they’re all absorbed into the band’s warped totality.
No single track here is given room to breathe or relax into a groove. Instead, the record’s varied sonic components are constantly deconstructed and rebuilt into new shapes. This is apparent from the very first song, “ENTERTAINMENT,” which opens with discordant static and metallic clangs before dipping into a tranquil passage that gives way to orchestral–acoustic folk. It would be easy for the album’s mix to become muddled and murky, but stellar engineering keeps each instrument or sound effect distinguishable in the mix—even amidst all the chaos. Particularly impressive are the overblown drums, a clear callback to Dave Fridmann’s production work for The Flaming Lips on The Soft Bulletin.
Spirit of the Beehive keep their references cleverly hidden in plain sight by letting them obscure each other. Alternatively, they disappear before you can get a finger on their pulse. The songs at the core of this album could come from VSCO girl favorites like Mac DeMarco or Tame Impala. However, they consistently tip over from psychedelic into hallucinogenic, with a heavy dose of Animal Collective. The artist closest to what Spirit of the Beehive accomplish here is Yves Tumor, who moved from sound collagist to alt–rock maverick on Safe In The Hands of Love. The singles on that record are fleeting pop purity on the edge of abrasive, haunting noise. As Jayson Greene put it in his review for Pitchfork, “you almost fear for them,” and the same is true on ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH.
Vaporwave is also a clear aesthetic influence on Spirit of the Beehive’s approach. Sampled commercials crop up throughout, and the album was mastered on tape after recording. Hearing the traces of ’80s and ’90s digital culture, it’s unsurprising to learn that Beehive frontman Zack Schwartz spent his adolescence in Miami, working a job at the mall. This novel genre of vaporwave indie is best exemplified on “WRONG CIRCLE,” which manages to stay beautiful for its entire runtime—a rare feat on this album. The production on this song exists at the intersection of commercial new age and video game soundtracks, capped off by Schwartz and bandmate Rivka Ravede’s effervescent harmonies. “WRONG CIRCLE” approaches euphoria, but it isn’t lacking in surprises. In a dazzling bit of retro homage, the song cuts out and reboots like a CRT television being turned off and on.
ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is full of so many of these twists and turns that it would be futile and, frankly, would defeat the purpose to list them all here. But none of these shifts ever feel forced; they’re integrated fluidly and serve a twofold purpose on the album. Firstly, they are intentionally destabilizing. They also keep the material on the record feeling novel and re–listenable. Some of these deviations take the listener down a path of transcendent beauty, like when “BAD SON” erupts into shimmering dream pop at the two–minute mark. However, there is plenty of room for abject horror in the album’s world. This is made clear from the absurdly distorted outro of “THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN’T DO,” whose screams of “I’ll be your friend” sound suspiciously like “I’ll be afraid.”
“WAKE UP (IN ROTATION)” is jarring as well, but not in turning towards abstraction or pure sound. Rather, the song opens as straightforward, propulsive indie rock with a British Invasion. It’s still mutated with vocoders, filters and electronic accents, but maintains a consistent tempo and bright, summery tone. That said, listen closely to the hook of “I want to wake up,” and see that the next song is almost 7 minutes long and called “I SUCK THE DEVIL’S COCK,” and suddenly “WAKE UP” doesn’t feel like a break. It’s the flicker of beauty you fear for.
If ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH chronicles the arc of a hallucination, “I SUCK THE DEVIL’S COCK” shows things going south very quickly. What begins with a dissonant guitar riff and vicious spoken word vocals is suddenly plunged into an underworld of grinding industrial machinery, frightened whispers, and notes that ring out into the void. It’s not unlike Bobby Krlic's vision of the underworld as The Haxan Cloak on Excavation. Of course, as with everything on this album, it can’t last for too long—but even amidst the gorgeous acoustic guitar and firework percussion on “DEATH,” you can’t quite shake what came before. That’s why ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH should be listened to all at once. Taken together, these songs create tension even in moments of peace. And yet, even if it’s not completely reassuring, this closing track feels like a light at the end of the tunnel. Somewhat morbidly, for Spirit of the Beehive, Death proves much more peaceful than Entertainment.