The term “Kmart realism” was first coined in the 1980s to describe a trend in literary fiction defined by sparse sentences, fast food joints, and the hyper-acceleration of capitalism and commercialization in primarily suburban spaces. Kmart realists like Mary Robison, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and, to some extent, Don DeLillo, wrote about the eerie feeling of walking through a shopping mall at night, of relaxing in front of the TV only to be greeted by endless advertisements for personal injury lawyers and small-town waterparks, of sending your brain into oblivion with synthetic drugs. The term could also be applied to Spirit of the Beehive, the project of psychotropic Philly punks Zack Schwartz, Rivka Ravede, and Corey Wichlin, whose excellent fourth album, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, is lit by that same, terrifying, phosphorescent glow.
If you were to try to hold a conversation while listening to ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, you would forget what you were saying as the words spilled out of your mouth. It is an inherently destabilizing album, one that doesn’t adhere to any concrete narrative. Instead, it’s fragmented, sewn together with bits of old commercials, blasts of noise, and guitar breakdowns. Opener “Entertainment” starts off sounding like an auto demolition, then shakes itself up, taking on the quality of a rotted-out yé-yé song. A string section rises out of the dirt; the lyrics are hazy and distorted. “Heading east towards KSMO/16-wheelers passing too close/Dust picks up and swallows us whole,” sings Schwartz, as if just waking up from a nap.
Spirit of the Beehive aren’t peerless, but they just don’t sound quite like anyone else in their home scene. They come from the world of Philadelphia DIY, of punk basements without proper plumbing and houses with big front porches. They hang out with people in bands like Palm and Body Meat. Frank Ocean’s a fan. If anything, their sound is less sympatico with Philly DIY and closer to the kind of music released by London’s Warp. In their talent for fermenting chintzy pop music into something rabid and noisy, they evoke something a bit like electro chanson freaks Jockstrap.
ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH isn’t significantly different from anything this band has made before, it’s just better, more refined. It’s no less weird or haunting than, say, 2018’s Hypnic Jerks; if anything it’s even creepier and stranger. A song like the muscular “Wrong Circle” feels like experiencing a bad high all over your body, one where your eyes twitch and the pressure builds in your chest. Singing birds are juxtaposed against hyper-vivid synthesizers, oceanic percussion, and modulated vocals. The music flickers and clicks, like an old TV on a channel-search setting, or flies buzzing beneath a yellowed street light.
Schwartz spent much of his youth in Miami taking acid, playing music in a storage locker, and then heading to his job in a mall, as he’s told Pitchfork. He compared his experiences to the Jonah Hill skater flick Mid90s; ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is similar to Hill’s movie, too. It feels listless, like a summer of drinking Robitussin and skateboarding, or maybe spray painting a pentagram on the side of an old lady’s house. “I Suck the Devil’s Cock” best underscores this feeling of a summer wasted idling inside the mall, dreaming of being anywhere else. At nearly seven minutes, it’s the record’s longest track. There is a burst of noise that sounds almost melodic, as well as multiple lines of guitars. “Scared of needles but not of everything,” sings Schwartz, “Another middle-class dumb American, falling asleep. He don’t appreciate constructive criticism.” Spirit of the Beehive’s surreal lyrics reflect the kind of malaise that’s superabundant in the writing of Kmart realists: visceral, hallucinatory vignettes that evoke an entire landscape of feeling in very few words.
ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is an intensely beautiful, intensely difficult record. It is reclusive, cryptic, late-night paranoia music, so unsettling and loud that at times it’s almost too intimate, even in the absence of any real identifying details. The feeling it evokes is like listening to a close friend recounting the details of their night terror: You see the sweat, the enlarged pupils, the general sensation of acute discomfort. “Rapid & Complete Recovery,” however, provides a moment at the eye of the storm. The song is meandering, peaceful. Layers of synthesizers suggest watching the world retreat below you as you ride an elevator to the top of a skyscraper. “Spanning lifetimes compressed in a vacuum/No limitations, you know what comes after,” Ravede and Schwartz harmonize, their voices perfectly calm. What it is that they’re after isn’t clear; Spirit of the Beehive is an unknowable band. At any given point in time, they’re a whole galaxy away.
Buy: Rough Trade
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