Band: Eight Bells
Album: Landless (2016)
Where to buy: Bandcamp
Landless is one of those albums that haunts you. Coming out of Portland’s ambient and doom metal scene, Eight Bells’s second album is a dark struggle against the elements. The lyrical performance evokes waves and water, wind and storms, the overwhelming possession of fear and love, marrying simple verses with ethereal drones to produce something hypnotic. There are only a few sonic brushstrokes used here: the guitars are distorted save for the clean lead, used to buffet the choruses with punchy one-note lines; the drums power behind the full guitar and bass sound; the vocals layer in ghostly surrender on top of and through the other instruments. Judicious reverb and delay complete the tone. There is serious economy here, an impressive production that creates just the right amount of bleakness and doom, without sounding like something’s missing from the mix.
The album opens with a featureless drone that fades in from the silence, bringing with it distorted guitar chords with only a vague time signature. This unsettling beginning gives way to the slow beat of “Hating,” and though this is doom metal, there’s jazz underneath. The main riff here is two bars of 3/4, a bar of 2/4, two more bars of 3/4, a bar of 5/4, two more bars of 3/4, and a final bar of 2/4. Recalculated, that’s 8 beats, 9 beats, and 8 beats again – it’s like if the middle movement of Blue Rondo a la Turk were given new life as doom metal. It’s wonderful and deceptive because it all feels so effortless, which is a tidy contrast to the lyrics reminding us of the speaker’s unwinnable struggle with emotions. “Hating” finishes up with an otherworldly ambient breakdown that is more structured that the opening. It’s a great and thoughtful lead-in to the rest of the album. The next track, “Landless,” is nearly thirteen minutes of alternating movements, weird and atmospheric string explorations, changes in tempo and timbre, and more of the airy vocals that guitarist Melynda Jackson and bassist Haley Westeiner do so well.
Instrumentally, I was most impressed by Rae Amitay’s drumming. She adds so much to Landless‘s recipe, and she does it subtly. Some moments are so sublime they take several listens to catch. Her double bass accentuates the driving rhythm of “Hating,” a perfectly understated bit of rhythmic color to round out the main progression. (Seriously, when can you describe double bass as “understated” and mean it?) She and Westeiner pair nicely as the main forces underlying the verses in “Hold My Breath” (another jazzy piece – listen to the counterpoint of drums and guitar in the middle breakdown). The toms are tight and quick and the cymbals satisfactorily atmospheric. Amitay’s talent really shines when she gets to bring a breakdown back home, such as on the back half of “Landless” and “Hold My Breath.”
In the final calculus, Landless took my breath away. The album is inexorable: the breathy vocals captivated me while the drums and guitars pounded away at my brain until it was all I could do to figure out how to describe Eight Bells’s tremendous sound. It’s beautiful and clever and compelling and worth a listen if doom is your jam.