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Music For Use

Human Bell Tolls For Thee

Sam Holden
STRINGS OF LIFE: dave heumann (left) and nathan bell carry on a guitar-based conversation as human bell.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 1/30/2008

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His partner in the local outfit quickly agrees. "I'll second that," Dave Heumann says.

It's a grand ideal and one that pretty much describes any so-called furniture music. It's the stuff that's so ethereal and noninvasive-and instrumental or, at least, lyricless-it's supposed to hang out in the room with you, maybe adding another color to the walls or, in the finest of cases, an entirely new dimension: turning the room inside-out via soundtrack, giving it its own little temporary dramas and chills.

As if to hammer the point home, we can hear the muted thumps and shouts of a punk band three floors down-furniture music if only that furniture is in the process of being burgled. Leaving the interview, we pass through a thick throng in the Ottobar downstairs mesmerized-or captured-by crashing, ricocheting drums and barked vocals. Both Heumann and Bell are as introverted as their music and they look like they've just been plunked in the midst of a Baghdad market.

After the club quiets a couple of hours later, Human Bell starts in on its set, playing an odd, sort of last-minute midnight album release show in Ottobar's not-usually-for-live-music upstairs bar. Some people look surprised. They've just come in for a drink or, judging by the metal studs and black leather floating around the room, are lurking about after the show downstairs. In any case, they're not terribly concerned that a concert's about to start: people mill about the bar, play pool, recline around tables. No matter that Bell tunes a massive double-necked guitar in the front of the room, they're doing what people do at a bar, not a show. The passivity is at least partially apt.

Soundtrack music is a big place, and Human Bell doesn't fit quite well with the drifts of Colleen, the drones of Eluvium, or much else in the wandering world of sit and stare music-or, in this case, chat and smoke cigarettes music. Human Bell's sound is immediate, if not rock 'n' roll aggressive: heavy builds, loud drums, wandering, lyrical melodies, and songs you just want to stomp your foot to, courtesy of rural Virginia native Bell's indelible twang.

It'd be hard not to get distracted in the checkout line even just thinking about the music of Human Bell. The guitar on guitar build-to-almost-collapse of "Hymn Amerika," off the new album, is one of those perfect instrumental post-Godspeed You! Black Emperor songs that feel like charging up the backside of a minor-key quarry and, rather than tumbling into the pit on the other side, finding a gentle slope to run back down. But, still, if this is furniture music, then that piece of furniture is a falling chandelier.

Or take the wonderful "Hanging From the Rafters," a song that starts in a narcotic delay swirl and picks up into rolling, crashing swells of folk/blues, each one a unique riff on the same melody. After nine minutes it ends in a languid pool of distortion and fading guitar notes.

But by most standards, Human Bell wanders more than it charges. One part Southern folk music, one part blues, one part ambient drift, one part postrock, and several shades of the color blue, the music is a not terribly subtle, not terribly freaky no man's land of wonderful, lovely songcraft.

Human Bell's craft runs deep into Baltimore music history. Heumann is the frontman of the considerably more popular-for now-Arbouretum and a former backing musician for Cass McCombs, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and legendary Slint dude David Pajo's Papa M. Bell is a much in-demand banjo player-he swore us to secrecy on a few upcoming collaborations-and former bassist for the revered extra-dimensional Lungfish. Many in town have similar pedigrees in "old weird Baltimore," yes-the city likes to hold on to its own-but few have such a lovely summation as Human Bell. The combination of Heumann's ambient, droning guitar and Bell's Southern-bred twang is as sublime as old-school supergroups come.

The band started like so many music projects do, or at least should: through fucking around. "It was just sort of an experiment," Bell says. "Just see what we could do with just a couple of guitars, what kind of melodies, what kind of rhythms. Just take it in small pieces.

"It was his idea," Heumann says in his rustic growl of a voice. The partnership went on like that for the next two years-neither can pinpoint exactly when the band started-playing coffeehouse-type shows and not thinking much about it.

Then Bell left town for the next three and a half years for Seattle and, eventually, Portland, Maine. He doesn't get into why he left, but through half-sentences it sounds like the usual wanderlust with some romantic and money entanglements on the way. In the meantime, Heumann developed Arbouretum-which featured another Lungfish alumnus, Mitchell Feldstein-and released that band's debut, Long Live the Well-Doer, in 2004.

For probably the same vague reasons-both Bell and Heumann inherited some of Lungfish's evasiveness-Bell returned to Baltimore in 2006, to what he describes as "a whole new city." And Human Bell re-formed in a new electric incarnation. It was the "mood of the day when we got back together," Bell says.

"The whole world's gotten louder," Heumann adds.

In 2007, U-Sound Archive, the basement label of Jackie-O Motherfucker frontman Tom Greenwood, released the duo's first album, Human Bell, in a characteristically small batch. That disc-a brief taste of the pair's collaborative potential-is probably a collector's item by now, but almost everything on U-Sound is. In any case, the band reissued the disc themselves in CD-R form shortly thereafter.

About four or five months later, the pair took off on a Northwest-centric tour with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, an experience that was both a highlight of the band's existence and a turning point. "Every night was just awesome," Bell gushes.

The shows would start off as simple duets. While Human Bell's music feels like it could fall into an extended tangent at every moment-it's almost disappointing when guitar lines don't start really roaming, or the minor hits of cathartic crash don't keep burning-it's highly composed, relying on tight guitar interplays and craftily recycled melodic ideas.

At the end of those shows, however, Billy and members of his band would begin to crowd the stage and join in for extended, and reportedly loud, extended meltdowns. "It was a nice taste of what it could sound like with other instruments," Bell says. As such, the album is packed with a new diversity of sounds-kalimba, bowed banjo, vibraphone, trumpet, a quartz singing bowl-and ideas that can't be achieved by two guys dueling with acoustic guitars.

And those sounds make for that many more places for the "listener to imagine the lyrics," as Bell puts it, grinning, totally in love with the idea that every one of these sounds put forth by Human Bell can lead anywhere for the listener. Proudly, he adds, "some people tell us they hear home, and, to me, that's one of the greatest compliments."

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