Bell X1 Blue Lights on the Runway(Yep Roc Records) Buy it from Insound
In music as it is in life, failure is often the first step towards fortune. Such is the case for critically-acclaimed folk artist Damien Rice, whose breakup with the now-defunct 90’s Irish rock band Juniper served as a career-defining springboard. Yet there are lingering questions as to whether said success will follow Rice’s former bandmates, who – despite the struggle to be taken seriously in a brave new world of experimental rock – have swallowed their lumps with dignity and toiled up the proverbial indie mountain.
These Rice-less fragments of Juniper are now known as Bell X1, and their flirtations with celebrity have been slow but substantial: 2005’s Flock garnered acclaim far outside the Emerald Isle, with chiming single Rocky Took a Lover enjoying the kind of generous airplay Juniper never achieved.
Yet in retrospect, Flock serves merely as inhaled breath – a short, preparatory gasp heralding the expulsion of sound that is Blue Lights on the Runway, Bell X1’s fourth album in nine years. Runway is a quiet, flittering record, expertly layered but calmly lingering, and introspective in ways to which the brazen Flock could never technically aspire. It is, perhaps, the oddest musical declarative ever attempted, where pen and aura are mightier than sword and volume, and whose ultimate success is marred only by its overly-patient tendencies.
Undeniably, there is a mark of familiarity in Paul Noonan’s sensitively-strained vocals, with gentle, observant invectives peppered about quite generously. Yet despite Runway’s inclination to conjure up the hushed familiarity of Rice’s pop/folk expertise, there is much that sets it apart, least of which is the electronic polish. If Flock was testament to Bell X1’s experimentation, then Runway must be proof of their mad scientist playfulness, churning with ease from a prickly flutter of synths to the organic brazenness of a traditional horn section and then back again. The trio spans genres just as easily, reveling in bayou blues on The Curtains Are Twitchin before taking a turn at pub-stomping sing-along pop in The Great Defector.
The ping pong antics are rarely breathless, however, serving more as evolution than revolution and filling tracks with slow purpose. This is a boon in some places – the wonderful, tingling romp of The Ribs of a Broken Umbrella is persistent fun – but a detriment in others, such as the directionless, meandering Breastfed. It is just one example of the double-edged swords that dog Runway, where Bell X1 often prefers leisurely ambling to sonic urgency. The trickling, up-and-down rhyme of One Stringed Harp drags on perhaps a minute too far, while the strange discotheque wobbling in A Better Band dabbles in so many arts, it can hardly bring itself to screech out at the six-minute mark.
Such is the agony and ecstasy of Runway’s offerings, where the crime-tinged epic Amelia can engage long after it has exhausted its sparse guitar-and-piano arrangement. Here Bell X1 has found an absorbing but unshaven sound, set apart by ease and experimentation and yet inevitably spoiled by them. Thus, much like Flock, the final verdict on Blue Lights on the Runway is dependent on Bell X1’s journey: is the album an endpoint, or merely another step towards perfecting their modern-but-gentle sound? If the latter, then it is certainly a rung in the right direction, and ultimately towards a place where the plight of Juniper (as it relates to Bell X1) is wholly forgotten.