Toronto-based duo Honey Beard’s debut full-length album Dreamless Sleep combines 80s new wave synth-pop with darkly moody vocals. Formed in 2014, Honey Beard consists of Irish expat Gary J. Conlon on vocals and synths, and Montreal native Tom Bell on synths and guitar. Normally I’m skeptical of albums that aren’t released by a label (since it’s always good to have a second, or third, set of ears listen to the recording), but Dreamless Sleep has a mature sound and is quite well produced.
The title track “Dreamless Sleep” opens the album with a warm, driving, cinematic synth riff. The sci-fi soundtrack continues in “Celestial Bodies,” but this time an upbeat tempo and very catchy melody combine for an atmosphere that, according to the band, is more “about partying and general debauchery” than the other tracks on the album.
Although dreamy synth melodies are the backbone of Honey Beard’s sound, it’s the moody and melancholic lyrics, which they say are inspired by Jim Morrison’s dark poetry, that stand out on the album. It’s a depressingly bleak style, but in the tradition of writers from Conlon’s homeland, it’s also poetic and deep. Conlon, like Morrison, sings about dark themes such as death, but his nihilism is disguised with what the band calls “happy sounds and beats.” While most dance music producers make music that’s annoyingly positive, Honey Beard’s dark, atmospheric dance music is more in the vein of early-80s British electro-pop like Depeche Mode.
Retro 80s dance music has, of course, had more than one revival, and contemporary bands like Montreal’s Essaie Pas borrowed extensively from Kraftwork’s dystopian, computer-driven world. Dreamless Sleep is more soulful though, again because of Conlon’s unique lyrics and vocal style. My pick of the album is the driving, guitar-heavy “Through the Dancefloor.” It’s appropriately titled as it’s the most dance-floor-friendly track on the album thanks to an orchestral, early techno beat, and powerfully moody vocals that recall the late, great Ian Curtis.
Dreamless Sleep will no doubt appeal to the melancholic post-raver crowd, but the beats were often too down-tempo and built very slowly. On most tracks I felt like I was waiting in vain for a peak, banging moment. I’m reminded of Underworld’s classic “Born Slippy,” a dark techno number that, like much of Dreamless Sleep, begins with a simple synth rhythm. Underworld’s tune starts slow, but builds to a relentlessly pounding beat that’s missing in Dreamless Sleep. Underworld, obviously, made a different style of dance music than Honey Beard, but listening to Dreamless Sleep I still felt teased by a beat that never came.
Written by Rob Coles
*edited by Kate Erickson