Originally written by K. Scott Ross.
It’s almost a truism of heavy metal that we have lost the loudness wars. Too often modern music gets compressed to Hell and back again before being laminated with a perfect shiny Teflon coating to make it all sparkle, resulting in music devoid of soul and heft where there should be power. Any number of random modern death metal albums could serve as an example of why this technique is flawed. Eight Bell’s Landless, on the other hand, should serve as a master class on the use of dynamics, both in composition and recording.
Eight Bells is an exciting band to be aware of because there’s no simple answer to the question “who do they sound like?” They’re a post-black metal trio, and although that sounds trendy, you won’t find much to remind you of Deafheaven here. Eight Bells sounds more like Those Who Tell The Truth-era Explosions in the Sky, with a unique dual-layered vocal approach and a couple decades of listening to Neurosis and Amebix. It’s a particular mix that nobody else comes close to approaching, and it’s Melynda Jackson and Haley Westeiner’s harmonized vocal approach that really puts the seal on it. Jackson handles layers of guitars while Westeiner provides delightfully dynamic bass playing that goes from smooth bottom to gritty walls of fuzz in a moment. Rae Amitay (of Immortal Bird fame) has replaced Chris Van Huffel on drums since 2013’s The Captain’s Daughter, and her cymbal work in particular adds to the rich feeling of Landless.
The album opens with the slow climb of “Hating.” Guitar harmonics ring out, vocals form ethereal clouds, and build in intensity. About halfway through the song, you realize that the music is now twice as loud as when it began, and there’s still a mile of headspace left to go. This is how you do dynamics. The song ends with ambience and the title track smashes in with deliciously organic guitar tones. “Landless” is nearly thirteen minutes long, but carries the listener so seamlessly that you don’t even realize. Tremolo guitars and blast beats transition into chords and high-speed movement with a yelp of “landless!” like the sun burning away a cloud of fog. This is only three minutes into the song, and there’s so much more left to explore.
There are only five songs, and Landless is only forty minutes long. “The Mortal Suite” runs only three minutes, keeping the average song length at eight minutes. The amount of capital-M Moments that Eight Bells have managed to pack into such a tight package is astonishing. The chanting of “darkness forth” in “Landless.” The crescendo at the end of “Hold My Breath.” The first distorted chord in “Touch Me.” But looking for highlights here is like looking for sparkles in a bucket full of crystals. Why not just take the whole thing?
Compare album closer “Touch Me” to “Yellowed Wallpaper,” the album closer from Eight Bell’s debut. Both songs open with a nearly identical arpeggio and similar tempo, yet take completely different turns. “Yellowed Wallpaper” is an instrumental track; “Touch Me” is built around the vocals. The Captain’s Daughter was harsher, drier. It was, perhaps, more traditionally “metal.” But Landless takes the seeds planted there and adds depth, lushness, and incredible emotion to make an album that you must hear, hear again, and share with everyone who will listen. Astonishingly good.