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Artist: Human Bell

Album: Human Bell

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jan. 25, 2008


Human Bell - "Splendor and Concealment" (Human Bell)


Human Bell, as a name, is made up of its two principals’ surnames: Arboretum frontman Dave Heumann and Lungfish bass player Nathan Bell. And yet it’s also curiously apt in describing the music: a wordless interplay of two guitars that’s as clear and luminous as a bell, but also deeply, spiritually human.

Human Bell is quite different from Heumann’s work in Arbouretum, on the surface because it eliminates vocals, but more intrinsically because it hails from earlier, folk blues antecedents. Arbouretum deftly intercuts the hoary glories of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison with intervals of post-folky picking. Human Bell is more rooted in Takoma simplicity, radiant acoustic tones that are untouched by the fuzz of distortion.

All seven cuts are, at bottom, meandering conversations between Heumann and Bell, though other players step in at times for eerie bowed sounds and pristine clinks of glockenspiel. It’s hard to say which one is which at any given time, yet there is a consistent interplay between one guitar’s stately forward motion and the other’s playful embellishments. “Splendor and Concealment” begins with one player picking out meditative cascades of notes, the other joining in splayed chords at the end of each phrase. Then the pack quickens, one musician’s rhythmic strumming becomes more urgent, and the other turns frolicsome above it. It sounds very much like one guitarist is moving steadily forward, straight ahead, businesslike as a trading caravan, while the other flits and flirts and kicks his heels in between.

The album gains density as it moves forward, incorporating amplification, feedback and drone into the later tracks. “Ephaphatha (Be Opened)” emerges out of long mysterious murky tones, a dissonant, trumpet-ish overlay on top of subtle slack-paced picking. The piece is more about mute sensation than any conventional melody or motif, its tones stretching out into arresting shapes and shadows. The final cut, “The Singing Trees” is even more electrified, sounding more like a rock band (more, in fact, like Dead Meadow) than anything else on the disc. You could put lyrics on top of this eight-minute opus, slot it into a stoner rock festival, and no one would blink an eye. It’s a nice change, but also a bit of letdown from “Ephaphatha’s” untethered explorations.

This is a wonderful album, easily as good, though perhaps less immediately accessible, than last year’s Rites of Uncovering. Side project, schmide project. Human Bell is worth uncovering on its own terms.

By Jennifer Kelly

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