- 20 Jun 23
Bell X1 are back with their first new album in seven years and it's the sound of a band at their creative and collaborative peak.
Any fears that Bell X1 had lost their sense of adventure after a quarter of a century of making music together are quashed seconds into their new album, Merciful Hour. Opening track 'Skipping Without A Rope' is all skittery rhythms, pulsing bass and infectious melody, a dance-floor friendly stomper that possibly heralds a future in Europe's club-scene.
"It was a somewhat contentious song for a long time," admits frontman Paul Noonan with a laugh. "Our records are stylistically disparate but even with that said, this felt like a bit of an outlier. So I had a moment where I was like, 'Lads, I don't think this should be on the record. I think it's a step too far and it will just confuse people.'
"It was our manager, Foy, who suggested that it could open the record and initially we thought 'Nah, that's just willfully fucking odd'. But we came around to the idea because it is a bit of a statement. The spirit of the song is about change and metamorphosis, I suppose, and about feeling a bit vulnerable and exposed with that, like skipping without a rope. It'll be a fun one to play live."
Some of the songs on Merciful Hour will be very familiar to anyone who has seen Bell X1 live in recent years, where the likes of 'Haint Blue', 'The Lobster', 'As The Demons Have Their Say' and 'Whisper In The Night' have been extensively road-tested.
"We've always spoken about the fact that the way things are done is kind of arseways," smiles Dave Geraghty (vocals, guitars, piano). "You write and then you record and then you tour. Sometimes you need to write the album and then tour it and then record it. Because there is a peak point to capture songs at that sweet spot when the band are really cooking."
We're chatting on the day of the album's release, the first time in years where a Bell X1 album launch hasn't been accompanied by a gig.
"Things have changed even in the seven years since we last put out a record," Paul muses. "We're not doing a CD run this time, which makes it even more like, 'At midnight, the record is now on your phone with your Lidl Plus app and your parking app'. It's amazing that we have access to all the music ever made on our phones and it's really empowering as independent artists to be able to do that. But thinking of release dates past, there would have been a bigger hoo-ha; we would have probably done a show or at least an in-store."
Having self-produced in the past, the band made a deliberate decision to "bring someone on board to make sense of it." They settled on John 'Spud' Murphy (Lankum, Ye Vagabonds, Black Midi), who became "the guardian of the sessions" according to Paul, so "the record would live on his computer and everything we did would have to go through him because sometimes in the past, things have tended to spiral out of control."
Since the last Bell X1 album, 2016's Arms, both Paul and Dave have been experimenting with other musical projects, Dave with Join Me In The Pines and Paul with solo releases and HousePlants, his collaboration with Daithí.
"After the touring with Arms, I definitely felt a bit spent and wanted to do different things for a bit," Paul acknowledges. "To mangle a metaphor, it takes a while for the water table to come to the surface, I think with the band. It feels like it happens with some kind of synchronicity in terms of Dave and I working away and then starting to share things and getting those flutters of excitement about where we might go with the body of work."
"There are frustrations when we come together, personal and creative," Dave admits on the realities of working collaboratively with other talented musicians. "That's part of what a collaboration is; it's compromise and it's push and pull. As great as you think your ideas are, they're not always the fucking greatest idea. So there is that sense of appreciating each other. And after all these years, we kind of know how each other tick."
Dave believes that Merciful Hour is the sound of a meeting of minds, moreso than any of their previous albums.
"I felt like before I was sometimes trying to crowbar my vibe into the Bell X1 vibe," he smiles. "But this time around, it felt like invention happening rather than cloth being cut in order to fit."
Creatively and personally, the band are in a great place, Dave insists, partly due to their comfort around each other and partly down to the very human process of ageing.
"We all worry that we'll become desensitised grumpy old cunts, but I find the older I've gotten, I've become much more compassionate," he admits. "And I've seen it in other men my age, like my bandmates, just being much more emotionally in tune. There's a lot more compassion and consideration for each other, more patience and understanding. The human element of what we've been doing all along has been highlighted more, I feel, on this album, the shared endeavour and the appreciation of each other. It's quite beautiful."
Merciful Hour by Bell X1 is out now. Bell X1 play a number of shows this summer, including: Stendhal Festival, Derry (July 8); Iveagh Gardens, Dublin (21); Forest Fest, Co. Laois (22); Galway International Arts Festival (28); and Revival Music Festival, Listowel (August 12). For the full list of dates see bellx1.com