It’s hard to gauge the consensus of sentiment on Bell X1 at times. They have a loyal and devout cult following (of which this reviewer is proudly one), and people who will have remembered the likes of Rocky, Velcro and most recently The End Is Nigh as passing moments in an otherwise vague career.
Its ten years since it has been said that Bell X1’s music is “as Radiohead should sound now,” a thought which will be at the forefront of many listeners’ mind as they absorb the sixth studio album of their enduring career. ‘Chop Chop’ was recorded in two short weeks in early 2013 at Tarquin Studios, Bridgeport, Connecticut. It boasted a production team of Peter Katis and Thomas Bartlett, the former bringing the profile of working with the National and Interpol while Bartlett has worked with artists ranging from Glen Hansard to Antony And the Johnsons.
From the outse,t fans will be familiar with four tracks off the album given the bands continuation from ‘Bloodless Coup’ of releasing tracks before the album release date. It’s difficult to describe this latest installment as anything other than a revisit to the more organic sound demonstrated in particular on ‘Neither Am I.’ The extensive use of piano and the freedom given to vocals over multiple layers of music generated from more intricate instruments is striking throughout the album. It’s as if Bell X1 has visited every corner of coupling their sound and realised that their origins worked best for them.
There are stark differences, mind you, from ‘Neither Am I’ which make their home-bound journey to a reduced armoury all the more impressive. They have accumulated imaginative momentum and a grip on the everyday that has cemented them as one of Ireland’s most enduring bands. We are often left exposed by the depiction of the panic of trying to separate a plastic bag or the bad humour that can reside when hungover. While this momentum has built over time, it has slowed somewhat and we are greeted with less and less of such caricatures. That is not to discount the affection derived from hearing lyrics such as “I’m not making fun/ People cry at the strangest things /Mine is the Venezuelan national anthem,” on tracks such as Motorcades.
However, the big surprise is not these moments in music supplied by striking musings on the habitual made grand, but the distinct lack of them on this album. The top has come off and Jack has stayed where he is in the box, for the most part. An absolute standout is the pre-released (via soundcloud) of Careful What You Wish For, which delights with lyrics such as “these bulbs are the florescent kind/No one looks good in this light.” And as experience has always told, Bell X1 song’s need time to ferment before they taste best, before you really ‘get’ them. Perhaps this collection has gems and moments so understated and well hidden that it cannot be discovered on initial listens. There will also be diamonds unveiled in land undiscovered as of yet with six remaining songs demoed yet not included. So hope prevails!
Overall we have less of the vibrant banjo solos that made Bell X1 the most exciting band to come out of Ireland in forever. But we are left with a more cultured, intimate and bittersweet composition which is not how anyone should sound now, except Bell X1.