Sunday, March 16, 2008

Human Bell - Human Bell

The Wire?

I won't be able to see Season 5 of that show, on TV at least, until the summer; but in the meantime, here's something else seriously good out of Baltimore: Human Bell is a two piece instrumental guitar group compromised of David Heumann of Arboreteum and Nathan Bell of Lungfish. The album was Road Records' Album of the Month for February, and their description was enticing to say the least:

"human bell is a new collaboration between dave heuman from arbouretum and nathan bell from lungfish. the album was recorded by paul oldham and mixed by john mcentire. the album features seven very very beautiful guitar driven blues like instrumentals with little touches of meandering post rock thrown in for good measure. imagine if slint were more influenced by early blues music meets a bit of the explosive post rock of mogwai. heuman has the most beautiful laid back style of guitar picking perfectly suiting the almost dirty three like brushed drum style. fans of the works of dave pajo and his papa m project will simply adore this one. february 2008"

I think the "imagine if slint were more influenced by early blues music" part caught my attention the most. The comparisons to be made with this record aren't really endless, but they are numerous and most importantly, they are all pretty sharp (at least in my estimation). Spiderland-style Slint, The For Carnation, Chulahoma-era Black Keys, post-rock of the Mogwai variety and unsuprisingly, Lungfish...

Human Bell, the group's first full-length after the release of a CDR EP in 2006, may not (yet) be an absolute masterpiece, but it certainly skirts greatness. The way the album works is fascinating, switching between genres in each instrumental passage, covering the wide spread of sounds described above and avoiding slipping too much into repetition. That said, there is a continuity throughout the record, and a consistency that makes these duetting guitar players identifiable and recognizable. The description from Thrill Jockey Records helps (kind of) to make this combination clear:

"The Aramaic language had an expression – Ephphatha, to be opened, as a portal. That ability to be open, to listen completely and communicate purely is at the heart of Human Bell. David Heumann and Nathan Bell’s gorgeous guitar duets form instrumental canvas painted in the warm colored hues of folk and rock music, and simultaneously a blank canvas for the listeners themselves to paint. Their songs are delicately crafted with an immaculate clarity, expressiveness, and most of all, openness.

....David Heumann and Nathan Bell’s work together began as each of the Baltimore natives had been working individually on instrumental pieces for banjo and guitar. For both, the experience of collaborating on the creation of instrumental music is a liberating process. The open pastoral structures allow their natural musical tendencies to shine. Nathan Bell’s songwriting, as his work with Lungfish, tends to be linear, as moving along a path through a progression of passages, while Heumann’s, as with his work in Arbouretum, is more cyclical. The intersection of those two approaches and the mutual understanding that brings them together is the essence of Human Bell."

I'd hesitate in general to use the phrase 'dynamic interplay', but it is essentially what Human Bell is. (If it wasn't, they would be static separation - yeah!) Obviously Nathan Bell absorbed the hypnotically repetive bass sound from his stint in Lungfish - or he had it in the first place - while Dave Heumann, whose other work I haven't heard, clearly complements his guitar style.

However, if you look at the insert reproduced below, you can see that the instrumentation is not entirely kept to basics: Bell brings out a trumpet on the semi-eponymous 'Ephaphatha (Be Opened)' which sounds closer to Han Shan than it does to Abilene or the Boom, and which Pitchfork misguidedly calls 'ghastly'. All the way through, Human Bell experiments with a variety of grooves, and a variety of minimalist approaches to music. If the combination of richness and minimalism isn't a glaring paradox, then that's what it means to toll the human bell:

(album cover)

(Inset: click to see large)

The LP of Human Bell comes, very positively, with a free download code. If you want to hear the album, you can hear a selection of the songs on their Myspace (; or you can stream, individually, all the tracks (both of this album and of the EP) on the Thrill Jockey site (

All in all, heartily recommended.

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