Though active since 2000 and back with its sixth album, Chop Chop, I’d not heard much of Irish triumvirate Bell X1 before, so the temptation to read X1 as 11 put me in mind of cricket. Bell X1 in fact references an experimental supersonic plane, though the quirkily sinister man-beast characters on the new record’s cover are hardly suggestive of sound barriers being broken. Rather, that artwork prepares you for a quieter, whimsical look back on life in all its strange and funny ways. A sense of world-weariness pervades the album, lightened by wistful moments of knowing.
Several songs owe their genesis to doodling by a piano. Opener “Starlings Over Brighton Pier” blends a loop of tumbling piano notes with skittish percussion to echo the acrobatic movements of a great mass of birds, filling the sky as the lyrics ponder whether “there is a bigger thing going on they play their part in.” It’s a contemplative start for a band more associated with layered electronics on its last two albums. The pace picks up for the dazzling “A Thousand Little Downers”, a song reminiscent in feel of Genesis-era Peter Gabriel, elevated by bursts of atonal horns, anthemic guitar and choral vocals as it reaches its finale.
Lyrics frequently defy the laws of scansion but reveal gems like “People cry at the strangest things/ Mine is the Venezuelan national anthem” in the gently pensive “Motorcades”. Blessed with a beautiful organic melody, “Diorama” is stamped with a delicately arching vocal from David Geraghty and stately brass. Elsewhere frontman Paul Noonan covers most lead vocal work with a slight rasp tempering his clear, high diction. The record is very much an ensemble piece without clear distinctions about who is doing what as Noonan, multi-instrumentalist Geraghty, and bassist Dominic Philips are bolstered by co-producer Thomas Bartlett’s piano work and nicely meshed backing vocals from Hannah Cohen. She is mostly just there in the background but cuts through in moments of pure longing, as in the climax to album closer “The End Is Nigh”; itself far more of a tour-de-force proper with a Springsteen-like end-of-show structure.
As the album title hints, the songs were recorded in quick, live takes and condensed rather than stretched unnecessarily. This all works to the greater good and marks Chop Chop as a triumph of substance over sophistication. There really is no need to over-embellish, even if you can buy the record inside a limited edition wooden chopping board.
Essential Tracks: “A Thousand Little Downers”, “Diorama”, and “The End Is Nigh”