Review: Bells≥ performs at the Rock and Roll Hotel

Bells≥ in performance. (Photo courtesy of the band.)
Bells≥ in performance. (Photo courtesy of the band.)

WASHINGTON, August 13, 2014 – If someone were to look at any promotional material for the band named Bells≥, or even take a cursory glance at their website, it wouldn’t be hard to notice their connection to Jawbox, former D.C. and Dischord luminaries.

The other key R&D component you need when writing about the Bells≥ experience is how exactly to type their band’s name. Fortunately, they’re very helpful on this. They fully understand – and this seems intentional – just how esoteric the band is in general.

Still, Bells≥ doesn’t shy away from their connection to Jawbox, fully embracing it, which is on the surface more than a bit odd. For one, they aren’t really even a D.C. band in the strictest sense. They seem to be adamant about hailing from Brooklyn.

Second, their connection to Jawbox is probably the most tenuous of all the post-Jawbox connections considering that Zach Barocas, their best-known member, is probably the least-known member of that D.C. band.

Whatever the case, it’s not unusual to see Bells≥ associated with Jawbox every time they play in D.C., as occurred again this summer at the Rock and Roll Hotel when they opened for J. Robbins Channels.

The association did seem like an obvious promo tactic, considering Jawbox still has a lot of cachet in the DC Metro area. Yet the connection doesn’t quite ring true when Bells≥ actually starts playing. If they cared about being a bigger deal than they are – and it should be noted that they have no qualms playing free house shows – they’d likely make a few stylistic changes to their basic set up.

Similar to the quirky spelling of their name, Bells≥, up close and personal, is a dramatically esoteric band. It takes a little bit of effort getting used to listening to them during their half hour set, something that mainly has to do with the preconceived notions common to the scene they populate. That’s a roundabout way of explaining that Bells≥ is entirely instrumental band.

Joining Barocas in Bells≥ and rounding out the group are guitarists Chris Ernst and Stephen Shodin. But before exploring their music any further, there are a couple of important things one needs to understand when listening to the way they play. That’s because, in some respects, it flies in the face of what many people might currently expect from an instrumental band.

This ensemble is an extremely meticulous band. Everything about their sound and set is tight, and performed with attention to the minutest detail. They make a specific point that there is no improvisation whatever in the way they play, and that’s precisely how their set comes across.

Theirs is a measured performance to the point where it almost functions like clockwork. Bells≥ is still very much indie rock in the way they perform, although one obvious difference it that they have no lyrical hooks to hang on to. Yet, because their sound is so measured, the audience remains continuously engaged.

Much of the fascination has to do with the shifting dynamics in Bells≥’ music. They absolutely have to concentrate on being avant-garde. Otherwise, they would feel like another mid-‘90s emo band that forget to add in the lyrics. At the same time, they have feel organic while putting across both sound and image, which is actually the biggest trick they pull off during their set.

Each of their songs doesn’t build through a verse/chorus/verse structure since there are no words. Instead rely on crafting mini sonic narratives within each song. When they do a specific repeat of a section that occurred earlier in a song, it’s not necessarily because they’re following a specific chart. Instead, they’re going for a noticeable dramatic effect in an attempt to draw the audience even further into the wormhole, a term that best describes each song.

Even more fascinating is that each number never exceeds roughly five minutes in run time. In spite of this, one constantly experiences the sensation that each song lasts much longer than that. Where jam band instrumentals feel endless, Bells≥ grabs hold of the audience and makes them feel as if they’re going on a journey. Bells≥ makes it quite clear that each song will have an ending. The beauty of each, however, is riding allow to see exactly how they’re going to get there.

Bells≥ is a band that will likely never have a wide audience. Their style seems specifically tailored to cultivate a limited following. And that realization is also a part of the reason why, when they play at the Rock and Roll Hotel, the connection to Barocas’ D.C past is played up. It’s important as a tool for getting people in the door.

While Bells≥ may not speak to everyone, they will become quite a distinct presence for anyone who’s been successfully initiated by experiencing the band’s twisting journey of a set.

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  • Dan T.

    Huh? Do better homework, pal. This is a bizarre review and the Jawbox insults are pretty lame, and more importantly, totally unnecessary. If you’d bothered to talk to the dudes, you’d have totally different insight into what’s important to them. Hint: “promo tactics” ain’t one of ’em.

    • Terry Ponick

      Where are the Jawbox “insults?”