Bell Monks wrote a series of 14 short, quiet tunes for guitar and Rhodes in spring 2012 to perform at an art opening in Milwaukee. After recording the tracks later that year, they invited friends Ben Willis (contrabass) and Matt Sintchak (saxophone) to play on top of them. After adding a few more layers to flesh them out, they had a finished album, though it seemed incomplete. They invited Gregory Taylor to help out, and he did, brilliantly transforming each of the individual tunes using custom computer processing techniques on the various instrumental stems. From what had grown to more than 100 minutes of material, Lars Graugaard from clang helped to cull a selection for an album that reflects the spirit and tone of the original Bell Monks tracks, while slanting the sonic imprint more to Taylor’s re-imagined versions.
Eric Sheffield – guitar
Jeff Herriott – Rhodes and programming
Ben Willis – contrabass
Matt Sintchak – saxophone
Gregory Taylor – reworkings of tracks 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, and 9
Mastering by Jeff Herriott
Cover photos by Ellie Schemenauer
Copyright © 2016 by Bell Monks
Bell Monks are part of the Wren & Shark Record Collective
EFFORT AND REWARD
Brocades + Palimpsests releases August 19 on clang and is a provisional quintessence curated by label head Lars Graugaard from over 100 minutes of material that sprung from the collaboration between Bell Monks and Gregory Taylor, the latter an electroacoustic musician and visual artist engaged in procedural art. The band proposed, for Gregory Taylor to elaborate. It isn’t obvious why the well merited Bell Monks did not trust their initial material without further elaboration. But the result emphasizes in any case an almost undisturbed harmony, sprinkled with the occasional dark atmosphere and appropriate depth.
Jeff Herriott and Eric Sheffield are the driving forces behind Bell Monks and they convincingly combine their tendency towards floating ambience with a scientific and theoretical background, set in a convincing electronic production. You can certainly appreciate Gregory Taylor as both their academic and artistic peer. All the more surprising is it that the intellectual amalgam of Brocades + Palimpsests does not materialise in any way as overly intellectualized.
The album unfolds as a lush and well-tempered Enoized ambient music that invites to pleasurable contemplation without abuse nor falling into a standstill. This may seem a rather poor result considering the effort invested, but it just actually thwarts the usual assumption of the balance between effort and reward. It is therefore ultimately up to oneself to analyze and appreciate Herriott, Sheffield and Taylor’s wisely clad creative processes. It can however also just be based on pure enjoyment. For sure.
Sometimes a few elements are enough to make music that can speak to listener’s soul. Bell Monks, the bicephalous project by Jeff Herriott and Eric Sheffield, mostly based on the reprise and the morphing around seemingly useless and unused musical sketches by Jeff, whose music has been aptly described as “colorful… darkly atmospheric” by New York Times, “incredibly softly, beautiful, and delicate” by Computer Music Journal and as a combination of “the minimalism of Brian Eno’s ambient work with the gloomy songwriting of Low” by The Onion’s AV Club, seems to be a clear evidence about such an assertion. The sonic strategy by which Bell Monks filled many albums and EPs over a decade ranging from ambient, post-rock, and pure computer music and grabbed the attention of many listeners.
The description by the media as mentioned earlier voices could be applied to this release, whose primary input was based on 14 short and extremely peaceful tunes for guitar and Rhodes they composed in spring 2012 for an art event in Milwaukee. Some lines of contrabass and saxophone were furtherly added respectively by Ben Willis and Matt Sintchak, but even if this first make-up was good enough for an official release, they decided to forward these tunes to Gregory Taylor, who transformed instrumental parts using a series of computational techniques. This release is the result of the final cut by Lars Graugaard, the man behind clang’s curtains, who decided to select the tracks which mostly reflected the original tracks by Bell Monks over more than 100 minutes of sonic material.
The quality of selected items is extremely high. Sometimes you could have the impression that melodic lines of different tracks are very similar or almost identical – you could notice some resemblances between the lines of the lovely Whirling Halves and Beacon E23 for instance – and many moments could sound like melancholic lullabies, but listeners will get instantaneously immersed by the slow catchy and wisely processed guitar chords, the sparse melodies whose sonic grasps got mirrored by the eloquent cover artwork that has been chosen for this selection. The compositional process is undoubtedly similar to the way by which Brian Eno and some similar artists in the dawn of ambient music followed, but you could find some similarities to other contemporary stuff (primarily Tor Lundvall – check tracks like Electric Light or the entrancing Ether Limning – or some artists in the roster of 12k singing interesting crossovers between field recordings and ambient – particularly in the last part of the album -) dealing with isolationist and meditative electronic music. Recommended for swimming in private mental or emotional pool.
Already the first introductory notes on the opening track Brittle Evenings come across as a distillation of desert sands, like a foto of Labradford 20 years ago. The whole album was already described as a meeting between Brian Eno and The Low: minimalist structures build and remove layers of sound. Bell Monks is the decade-long collaboration of Eric Sheffield (guitars) and Jeff Herriott (rhodes, programming). For the recording they were joined by Ben Willis (contrabass) and Matt Sintchak (saxophone), after which Gregory Taylor plunged the sessions into a bath of analog filters. VISIONS FROM THE DESERT
“This is my second collaboration with Bell Monks – I had previously sliced/diced/chopped/channeled two of their songs for the second disc on their “Let The Waves Carry Us.” In that case, I was lucky enough with that material to have recourse to the audio reworker’s First Trick: “Remove or mangle the vocals, since they’re what everyone is paying attention to (or waiting for).” After that, everything else fell right into place (I even did a little recombinant DNA work and produced a refined guitar solo from Eric’s bass line on one of the pieces, which I’m still proud of).
When Jeff and Eric approached me about doing some work on a set of intimate little instrumental pieces, I was scared to death. First, the pieces were simple and beautifully constructed in the way that I think of the work of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. My first thought was that there was really nothing I could do to improve them). In addition, my usual starting point wasn’t going to be much help – there were no vocals to mangle and no drums to chop up and toss around with delay lines and filters.
Instead, I took the pieces apart and spent some time listening to the individual tracks. I was so impressed by the simplicity and economy of the separate tracks that I flirted with the notion of taking only one single voice from each piece and using that as the sole material for reworking. That approach led me to what I finally wound up with as my working method: there would be something from the original material presented somewhere in the mix with absolutely minimal processing (or none at all). That starting point focused things beautifully – I started by identifying the bit from each original recording that would remain, sat down with my usual Max/MSP box of tricks for weeks of enjoyable fun, and then started collecting and interleaving the results with an ear toward creating a new ecosystem where the “remnant” voice from the original could live and move freely.”
MUSIK AN SICH
The duo Bell Monks was formed in 2005 by Eric Sheffield and Jeff Herriott. Eric Sheffield is an electronic musician and visual artist, and the composer Jeff Herriott often combines his electronic compositions with live instruments. As a duo they collaborate with other artists for their albums and EPs, and the visual and sound artist Gregory Taylor joined in for this new album.
Brocades + Palimpsests started out as several small compositions that Bell Monks recorded in 2012 for a gallery opening. These miniatures were extended with Ben Willies and Matt Sintchak and then further elaborated by Gregory Taylor. This resulted in over 100 minutes of music which was subsequently curated by Lars Graugaard into an album of just over 40 minutes duration.
The music is very ambient and is characterised by electronic soundscapes of saxophone, bass, guitars and various additional programming. Gentle sounds of bass, pearly piano sounds, strings and much space, reverb and circling sounds throughout. The music has great depth that allows the listener to explore its many exciting sounds. Or just dive in and disconnect.
Brocades + Palimpsests offers a finely crafted world of sounds to dream and relax by, without becoming shallow.
A note hangs in the air, sustaining, resonating, slowly decaying. Just before silence encroaches, the next note is struck. It hovers, hangs and gradually fades. A slow, oscillating drone crawls beneath. There is movement, but it’s evolutionary.
Brittle Evenings is led by an unfurling picked guitar line, deliberate, ponderous, reminiscent of the later Earth albums. Ghostly tones remain, sonic erasures which correspond with the idea of the palimpsest, and offer clues to the way the pieces formed. 14 short, quiet guitar pieces penned by Bell Monks for an art opening in 2012 provided the basis for the work. Later, they invited Ben Willis and Matt Sintchack (contrabass and saxophone respectively) to play over the tracks. Despite the addition of these new layers, they still felt the work seemed incomplete, and so called upon Gregory Taylor to rework the tracks digitally. Finally, with over 100 minutes of audio, it was Lars Graugaard’s editing which shaped the ten pieces which comprise the final track-listing. As such, the album is the result of near-infinite layering, relayering, additions and deletions.
But as to where one individual’s contribution ends and another’s begins is impossible to determine, and the beauty of the album is the way in which the parts blend, smudge, and blur together, folding into and over one another, obscuring, reshaping and remoulding to accommodate or obliterate previous layers and edits.
Each piece is also formed around shifting tones and sounds, the shapes and structures indistinct, fluid. Indeed, very little of the original guitar work is in evidence on listening to these pieces. Warm tones and an organic feel permeate the album’s fabric, although this is touched by a counterpoint of mechanical sounds, whirring, grating, rumbling. As one layer of sound fades, another emerges, leaving the shadows of the one before. Long, mournful strings quaver over rippling electronics and dulcimer-like chimes flicker in soft washes of sound. On _..Et Tremblant Feuilles, perhaps the album’s most linear piece, a sonorous bass with gothic overtones builds a darkly ominous atmosphere.
The semi-industrial dark ambience of Caress of Sun is constructed of layers of sound, heavy drones and interminably elongated scrapes, growing denser, deeper and more abstract as it progresses, emerging in a dazzlingly kaleidoscopic world. It isn’t until the album’s eighth track, Sublimation Residue, that the guitar becomes prominent once again, and once again, it gradually fades out to be engulfed by a soft sonic cloud.