Saturday, February 09, 2008

Human Bell

It should come as no surprise that this great band hails from Baltimore, MD (the place that spawned Jackie-o Motherfucker). Both bands share an overall openness and jammy-ness. Like Baltimore, Human Bell is a crossroad not fully southern, yet definitely south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The band draws on diverse influences, from the Bluegrass that originally sprung forth from Appalachia, to the more cerebral and calculated post-rock of their Chicago cousins to the northwest.

Human Bell is comprised of Dave Heumann & Nathan Bell, the band’s moniker a play on their last names. Both members have exceptional pedigree -- Nathan who played bass for Lungfish, and Dave who has played with the bonnie one, Will Oldham. In fact they conscripted Will’s brother Paul to record the majority of the album (Antony West recorded a song at Nathan Bell’s house). The album was mixed by the masterful hand of John McEntire @ Soma EMS in Chicago.

”A Change in Fortunes” opens the disc. Simple guitar lines are traded back and forth. Slowly and carefully more complexity is added with what sounds like xylophone and drums. The pace quickens with the addition of new sounds. While sticking with the basic guitar structure of the opening, new complexities are added until one guitar chugs, while the other nimbly climbs. It then opens up to a high plateau where once again the skeletal structure of the jam is revealed. It oh so very slowly fades out.

”Splendor and Concealment” definitely has the feel of an Ennio Marconi song. This would not be out of place on a spaghetti western soundtrack. The high lonesome wails of a reverbed guitar and carefully placed counterpoint of the second guitar lets the tension builds until it forms a full on hoe-down. The influence of bluegrass is clearly heard on this track; like dueling banjos, these guitarists trade licks and stabs with each other. You cannot help but tap your feet even if you can resist the urge to doesy-doe.

”Hymn Amerika” tells the musicians’ feelings towards faux patriotism with the simple insertion of a k into America. The song itself is the best of the disc. It shares the dueling banjos feeling of the previous song, but this time the joust is not for play and the blood is for real. The war drum pounds as the amplifier sings with distortion and feedback until it stops on a dime. “Outpost of Oblivion” certainly feels forlorn with the bowed banjo of Matt Riley. The drumming of Peter Townshend is more pronounced, with the drums providing the structure for the various guitar garlands to hang. “Hanging from the Rafters” almost feels like the Dirty Three’s sparser guitar-focused work. When the drums come in it changes feel again to a more deep American southern stomp

”Ephatha” was recorded at Nathan Bell’s home by Antony West. A horn blares plaintive wails while the guitar seems throatier than on the other tracks. It feels both other-worldly and very earthy at the same time. With the addition of Michael Turner on guitar for the last track “The Singing Trees,” it almost has a Crazy Horse vibe to it. The guitars are crunchier and the drumming is fiercer. The harmonics of the amps sing as lead upon lead are piled on. Slow and methodical, it wills the listener into submission. Just when you think it is all over the coda comes. The song leaves as grandly as it entered.

This entire album is a triumph. This hillbilly post-rock finds a middle ground between the austereness of Post Rock and the complexity of Bluegrass. While creating multifaceted structure it never loses the sense of play. It is as much a joy to listen to as it must have been to have played. (Thrill Jockey) (Dan Cohoon)