Cold Beat

War Garden

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War Garden Review

by Heather Phares

2020 should've been Cold Beat's year. That February, they released Mother, an acclaimed set of thought-provoking, danceable synth pop that seemed poised to take Hannah Lew and company to the next level -- until the COVID-19 global pandemic grounded tours and left musicians stuck at home. However, the situation had a tiny silver lining for Cold Beat, since separation and survival have been major themes in Lew's music since the beginning. The project's 2014 debut album, Over Me, was largely inspired by the loss of her father, and Mother itself seemed eerily prescient of the events and state of mind that unfolded later in the year. As hinted at by the title War Garden -- an allusion to the World War II victory gardens U.S. civilians planted to supplement their rations -- Cold Beat's fifth album muses on humankind's ability to both grieve and thrive during difficult times. After a couple of largely solo releases, with Mother Lew relaunched Cold Beat as a full-fledged group, and even though they recorded much of this album over Zoom, the connection with her bandmates remains strong on War Garden. This is particularly true on the hopeful yet uncertain highlight "See You Again," where their voices join over rippling synths that call to mind Yaz's "Only You." Cold Beat have always excelled at expressing complex emotional states, and on War Garden, the ways they capture the dreamy insularity of lockdown life are often exquisite. "I am losing count of days," Lew sings on "Mandelbrot Fall," but the sparkling electronics behind her suggest that might not be an entirely bad thing. Here and on "Tumescent Decoy," Cold Beat revisit the epic, kinetic approach of Mother. More often, War Garden's songs seem ready to dissolve into vapor, reflecting the lost and altered routines and sense of self during the time when the album was created. Buried in blankets of echo and harmonies, Lew's voice is at once near and far on songs like "Weeds," evoking a liminal space between absence and presence, while "Part the Sea" rivals anything on Ghost Box when it comes to uncanny synth atmospheres. Though War Garden often strikes an ambivalent note -- "New World" juxtaposes destruction and renewal in resolutely unsentimental terms -- it's never tentative, and this kind of complexity attests to Cold Beat's growing musical and emotional eloquence.

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