Eight Bells is a mostly instrumental (or, as Invisible Oranges recently described them, “instrumental-when-they-want-to-be”) trio hailing from Portland, Oregon that rose from the ashes of guitarist Melynda Jackson and drummer Christopher Van Huffel’s former band, SubArachnoid Space. The band is rounded out by classically-trained six-string bassist Haley Westeiner. Their debut album, due out February 19 from Seventh Rule records, takes its name from a nautical euphemism for the cat o’ nine tails. The album was produced by Billy Anderson, who is probably best known for his work with Sleep, Neurosis, and Agalloch. There’s a song on it called “Yellowed Wallpaper,” inspired by the Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Thus ends the easy part of this review.
See, here’s the thing about Eight Bells—I’ve given this album about ten spins now and I’m no closer to wrapping my head around it than I was the first time I listened to it. I have no idea what the fuck is going on in pretty much any of the album’s four songs, and I absolutely love each and every one of them for it. It’s a lot like Radiohead’s OK Computer in that respect—the first few times I heard it I didn’t totally ‘get’ it, but I knew it was a fucking masterpiece. On the band’s Facebook page, they describe their genre as “Blackened Experimental – We do what the songs ask,” and I fucking love them for that, too. I mean, I’ve referred to other albums as ‘genre-fuck’ albums, but this album manages to be a genre-fuck and a mind-fuck all at the same time. And I figure I’ve probably maxed out my number of allowed uses of the word ‘fuck’ in a single review, so I should at least try to describe what’s going on musically on this album. And while I’m generally not a fan of track-by-track reviews, I’ll make an exception here since the album is only four tracks long and there’s so much going on in each track that I could probably write a TL;DR review of each of them individually. Don’t worry, I won’t—but the sheer majesty of this album demands something more in-depth than the usual sort of 500 word pieces I usually write even for albums I totally adore.
Things start off innocuously enough with “Tributaries,” the album’s shortest and probably most ‘accessible’ track. The opening riff sounds a lot like the kind of riff one would expect from an instrumental metal band—kind of post-rock a la Pelican, but with a bit of a cacophonous black metal twist—it’s energetic and doesn’t prepare the listener at all for what’s about to come. Then at about the 50 second mark things switch up completely and the drums fall back and the guitar and either an overdubbed second guitar or more likely the bass do this interesting and quite lovely melody/counter-melody thing that lasts for about a minute, and then all hell breaks loose and changes start coming so quickly it would be folly to try to catalog them all. All totaled. The song is less than four minutes long and covers more territory than most bands do on an entire album, and that’s just the opener.
The next track, “Fate and Technology,” is the one people are likely already familiar with since it debuted on Invisible Oranges a week or so ago. The entire question of genre is rendered kind of moot from the very first seconds of the song—a kind of blackened post-sludge (see how dumb that sounds? genre is moot) that resolves into a cascade of shimmering guitar noise and feedback that reminds me a lot of Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Then comes the album’s biggest surprise: an ethereal guest vocal from Kris Force of Amber Asylum. Fragile-sounding and occasionally verging on the off-key, the vocal is a perfect complement for the slithering, post-rock sounding guitar lines that wrap around Force’s voice and build in intensity until everything explodes in the song’s last 90 seconds or so, which are full-on, throat-shredding, tremolo-picking black metal—easily the heaviest moments on the album. This song is an absolute tour-de-force.
Track three is the album’s title track, and it’s the longest and most dynamic song on the album. The opening riffs remind me of the kind of post-metal played by bands like National Sunday Law or Intronaut, but that only lasts for about the first two minutes of the song’s nearly 13-minutes. Then comes another section that reminds me of one of those ‘everything falls apart’ sections that made early Sonic Youth so exciting to listen to that eventually resolves itself into something more melodic, anchored by Van Huffel’s drumming. Then the song takes a totally unexpected turn. After what might be a ‘fake-out’ ending, the song starts back up as a gorgeous duet between guitar and bass that almost sounds like a whale song. Then the drums coming back in, and eventually a ghostly female voice starts keening over the top of it all, instantly shifting the song’s closing section from lovely to unsettling.
The album’s final track, ‘Yellowed Wallpaper,” is almost a welcome respite after unsettling ending to the previous track, which is kind of odd if you’ve ever read the story that inspired it. It opens with clean guitars and chunky chords before transitioning into more post- sounding sections that change so frequently it gets difficult to try to keep track of them. Then at the 4:00 mark, things start to get noisy, with a slightly atonal, effects-laden guitar solo being played over increasingly urgent drums, before the song goes back to the previous post- section. Then the ending minute or so starts off sounding like black metal but then goes so many other places before finally coming to and end that it’s almost as exhausting to listen to as I’m guessing it was to actually play.
Here’s the thing about this album, though—the next time I listen to it, I may hear something completely different. The music is so complex, and there’s so much going on in terms of the song structures and the interplay of the musicians that it not only holds up to repeated listens, it demands them. I know this is an album that will be on heavy rotation for quite some time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up near the top of my year-end best of list for 2013 (and yes, I know it’s still really early in the year and there are still hundreds of albums I’ll listen to between now and December, but remember this—Pallbearer’s Sorrow and Extinction came out on February 21 last year, which was essentially the same week that this album will be coming out). It’s a masterpiece that I think will only get better with repeated listens.
Final Grade: A+