Midlake: This Way To Bethel Woods

With a stunning new album, the band narrows the divide between the emotional and the ethereal 

Portrait on the cover of the new Midlake record For the Sake of Bethel Woods (Image: ATO Records)

It’s been nearly nine years since the release of Midlake’s last full length opus, and although they’ve released the occasional single and EP in the interim, fans had reason to believe the band had somehow gotten lost in the hinterlands.

Happily, nothing could be further from the truth, and given the band’s relatively scant output over the years — a mere four albums from 2004’s Bamnan and Silvercork and 2013’s Antiphon — not to mention various personnel changes in the interim, the long wait for For the Sake of Bethel Woods might seem less an anomaly and more a part of their regular routine.

“We’ve been active in other things, like doing other musical projects,” guitarist Eric Pulido unapologetically insists while making mention of collaborations with the likes of John Grant and Rufus Wainwright as well as the indie supergroup of sorts called BNQT (featuring members of Granddaddy,  Band of Horses, Franz Ferdinand and Travis). “A lot of us started families. So we’ve been involved in various activities in other way., We actually started the conversation about making another Midlake record in 2019, but it was the better part of 2020 when we actually started saying, ‘Okay, we’re gonna make this record.’”

Midlake (Image: Big Hassle)

The band’s first effort with an outside producer behind the boards — that being John Congleton, who was also responsible for engineering the project — For the Sake of Bethel Woods finds them channeling their penchant for prog and psychedelia while still keeping their melodic instincts intact. “That’s an element that we haven’t really had in the past,”Pulido muses about bringing Congleton on board. “It was really, really cool to be able to just play our instruments in a room and have somebody else twisting the knobs and making some executive decisions. And also, even though it might sound trite, for the health of the band, it’s easier to have, for lack of a better term, someone else be the bad guy.”

“Feast of Carrion” is the most obvious example of Midlake’s shimmering yet stirring delivery, the guitar strum that propels the song forward sounding like it was lifted from Yes, without  diminishing its warmth and resolve. The sprawling sound of “Exile,” the steady stomp of  “Gone” and the pulsating delivery given the aptly-titled “Glistening” further confirm the band’s willingness to experiment with tones and textures while taking the music to a higher plain. 

“There’s a base of people out there that we’re fortunate to have, and that are eager to hear what we do,”Pulido declares. “I appreciate that, and I don’t take that for granted.”

Happily then, the accessibility factor remains intact. “Meanwhile,” “The End” and “Dawning” share a sort of celestial nu-folk feel, the ambitious arrangements allowing for both a sound that’s both cosmic and compelling.

Midlake For the Sake of Bethel Woods, ATO Records 2022

While atmospheric ambiance sometimes results in an aloof attitude and a decided disconnect, the opposite occurs here. There’s a personal perspective present in the artful cover photo of keyboardist/flautist Jesse Chandler’s father, who passed away in 2018. Taken at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, it lends the album its title, being that Bethel Woods was the actual site of that magical gathering. 

“Jesse said his dad came to him in a dream and told him, ‘You should get the band back together,’” Pulido notes. “That brought us back to that that video still, and it basically became the inspiration for the song ‘Bethel Woods,’ and then that ultimately became the title for the album.” 

Likewise, the ethereal ballad  “Noble” was named after drummer McKenzie Smith’s infant son Noble, who was born with a rare brain disease. 

“It’s a very personal song,” Pulido acknowledges. “I think that in some ways, it’s probably the most transparent we’ve ever been.  Midlake has always been a bit coy with our lyrics and such. But I think ‘Noble’ was one song that allowed us to be more expressive. When I wrote the song, I went to McKenzie first and said, ‘Hey, are you cool with this being considered for a Midlake record? It’s kind of personal.’ After all, I wrote it for him and his son. And he said, yes, and I’m so glad he did, because it not only has it given a more personal glimpse into the band, but it’s also an opportunity to humanize things. Which I think, is special to do.”

Pulido notes that the band has never been afraid to follow its own instincts and explore whatever ideas and environs present themselves at any given time. 

 

VIDEO: Midlake “Bethel Woods”

“I actually love the fact that we don’t have to be confined,” Pulido says. “It’s kind of become, I think, an aspect of the band. I want to have that opportunity for expression. And I think more now than ever, we have done that. And I think that that’s a cool thing to me, where it’s like this organic thing that we’re going to do. That’s an aspect of making music that we love.”

There is, he says, a bigger purpose to making music.

“I think we kind of have embraced that more over the years,” he observes. “We’re not prolific. We obviously take the time to try to make things right, maybe sometimes to a fault where the law of diminishing returns can start to happen, or you start to lose the essence of a feeling in a song. I don’t want to say that it’s the way that we validate, but it is validating in a sense. If someone’s moved by something you’ve created, then it’s really a gift to hear that from them. That’s what we want, because at some point, the album becomes not just our own, but somebody else’s.”

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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