Progress is a bold record. That’s audible within the first ten seconds of the first track, as a 12-string acoustic plucks complex, dissonant melodies, before being overcome by the ominous screech of several overdubbed violins. It’s not often that a record makes such a statement so quickly. A question which is presented by the opener, “Hydra,” is simple: what exactly is this? After all, one of the first things a listener does to acquaint themselves with a new piece of music is identify the genre, influences, etc. Fragments of these are identifiable in Progress: the succulent-yet-ominous whisper of Nick Drake, the gorgeous jazz harmony of Robert Glasper, the detailed, lush arrangements of Vivaldi. But then again, none of these descriptors really capture Beard’s essence. The only way to understand Progress is to listen.
Listening, though, can sometimes be a daunting task; the tracks on Progress have a tendency to evolve at a constant pace. It seems that with each new section, instruments are being added, the mix has changed its focus, and a new aspect is at its forefront. The forms of these songs are not standard in any sense of the word. Under another band’s control, this quality might confuse or intimidate the less musically-trained listener, but that is not the case here. Every transition is incredibly fluid, thanks to some remarkable dynamic control and production. For example, on “Safer Apathy,” the guitar gradually increases its presence during the verse, before quickly rising to the top of the mix with a light harmonic rhythm. These moments are beautiful, of course, but they also complement the structure in a really unique way.
The attention to dynamics is present not just in the transitions, but in the composition of these songs, as well. At their peak moments, some of these tracks can have 9 or 10 different components firing simultaneously. Fortunately, these textures are expended with great care, as each section builds gradually. Some of the finest instances on Progress are also the most intimate. The first half of the closing title track is a spacious chordal groove with minimal instrumentation and soft swells. It’s striking, to say the least, and the listener can sense any slight alteration to the atmosphere. This eventually dissolves into rapid arpeggios and furious plucking.
One thing that surely must be noted about this record is the prodigiousness of the players. These young musicians have skill far beyond their years. If you’re paying attention, you can hear it in a lot of the nooks and crannies of Progress, but it’s most evident during the solo sections of the record. There are times when an individual in the band is given a passing opportunity to emote, most memorably on “Shine” as violinist Julian Pinelli glides with swagger through the post-refrain. However, some of the most unforgettable moments on Progress are the three longer form solos. They’ve got distinct personalities: John Blanda shows off his jagged swing touch on “Hydra,” and Ariel Loud delivers an epic performance on “Safer Apathy.” I was most impressed, though, by Mariana Secca’s vocals on “We’ll Make It.” This solo isn’t flashy, nor is it convoluted. Really, it’s just beautiful. Secca’s full and even tone provides a strong base for her to elaborate over, and she is able to craft some breathtaking melodies. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything quite like it before.
All of this individual skill certainly plays an important role on Progress. Without it, the forms wouldn’t function nearly as well. However, what’s both more audible and more important are the melodies. Isaiah Beard, the namesake of the band, is always at the front of Progress. The familiar rasp of his voice recalls the legends of American folk, even if the complexities in the music may not. He also manages, through a great deal of rare tastefulness, to make these songs catchy as hell. To me, this balance between ability and feeling is at the heart of the album. Few displays of instrumental proficiency seem unnecessary, especially when considered with the songwriting.
The melodies and atmosphere work closely not only with the production, but with the lyricism, something that Beard pays close attention to. Many of the themes found on this record are dark or taboo, but Progress finds an elegant way of examining these uncomfortable realities. One of the most universal ideas, that several tracks approach, is a perceived lack of human empathy, and as a result, selfishness. “In this way I am poor/ I give less and take more,” Beard croons on “Generosity”. This public display of self-awareness is at once impressive, friendly, and disconcerting; it can be difficult not to turn that lens inward. For better or for worse, that can certainly wear on you over the course of Progress.
Beard has accomplished, on their debut, what most artists spend years chasing. The musicians are tasteful and visceral, the songs are well-written and memorable, whilst the lyrics are uncharacteristically thought provoking. It’s so rare that an album like Progress is conceived while the band is still so young, but I suppose that’s the glory of it, anyway. Perhaps the most remarkable part of it all is that Beard has already carved out their own sound, in a musical climate of reminiscence and “borrowing”. Mark my words, this band will not remain undiscovered; not if they keep playing like this.
Progress is available through all major streaming services. You can also listen to the full album here, via Soundcloud.
Written by Preston Fulks