Over a decade ago I had the rare chance to see Stereolab play a church in Oberlin, Ohio once. It was one of those uplifting experiences you realized you’d never have the chance to ever replicate. I haven’t been back to Oberlin since then, but the residue of those memories still remains. I’m pretty fascinated with how a place like Oberlin (see somewhat middle of nowhere) still manages to sprout musical anomalies. And I’m sure the music conservatory has something to do with the fertile landscape – as the work that comes from there is either extremely reactionary to form (i.e. highly experimental) or virtuosic with hints of the future (i.e. highly experimental). Berkley it ain’t, more like the Dharma Initiative for trained musicians.
Let’s suppose that’s where Like Bells fits in – the latter half of my theory. Here we have a trio of accomplished students of the conservatory, bored with conventional instrumental music. Like local instru-heroes Brainbow, Like Bells are indebted to the quiet/loud dynamics of Mogwai as much as they are the cinematic lull of Explosions in the Sky, but manage to stave off comparisons to either by pushing forward. And if Brainbow sit heavy on the rockist end of that spectrum, Like Bells rarely sit still on their jazzbo--idm--slo-core side. Listening over their debut album you can hear the influence of fifteen years of geeking in Chicago from the Tortoise/Gastr del Sol/Sea and Cake sphere as well as the electronic tampering of micro-identities like Oval or Pole. Among these light and airy meditations on the old model – the tension/release, the underlying intricacies – songs such as “Yeti” and especially “The Streets Themselves” operate with a great deal of emotional heft. And that’s the mark of a stellar instrumental band, correct? The amount of voyage one can take with said music? With Like Bells, I can travel from the hum-drum, hear stories untold, and wallow or float depending on the mood. They don’t overuse their apparent chops, or underuse their gift of craft. The closest relative might just be the Dirty Three, with half the depression, but going beyond is obviously a goal for them. While I can’t exactly sign-on that this album will be in heavy rotation for months to come, there’s intrigue in these folds, there’s enough mystery and grave architecture to jump on for a ride to wherever they’re travelling.