Bell X1 is done being the “other Irish band”, that much is clear on “Starlings Over Brighton Pier”, the cascading Terrence Malick dream that opens up their sixth studio effort Chop Chop. After the electro-based nonsense of 2011’s Bloodless Coup, an album that was well received but tonally overwrought, this is U2’s only competition crashing back to earth, stripping skyward swelling anthems for spare parts, and cutting out all the bullshit. This is Justin Vernon’s cabin; it’s music as atmosphere.
Chop Chop is built around little piano hooks and subtle drumlines that expand into complete thoughts, like small pebbles thrown into a lake, making waves and waves of ripples as they hit. It’s less formula than clever escalation, successfully drawing every emotion out of singer Paul Noonan’s previously withholding (or underutilized) vocals. Noonan (no relation, by the way) is also a confidently malleable singer, moving between the soaring anthem of “The End is Nigh” and concrete dwelling in “I Will Follow You” with ease. It makes you wonder why he’s never been given this much to do before, and, then, how much more he might still have to offer.
Most of this vocal expansiveness can probably be attributed to co-producers Peter Katis and Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett. Katis is best known for helping The National become every indie band’s favorite indie band by helping them ditch their strummy roots and build the unconventional melodies that fill breakout albums Alligator and Boxer. Bartlett has also spent some time with The National, but a better point of reference might be Sam Amidon’s Bright Sunny South, an album Bartlett produced in 2012 that sounds as organic as a Portland menu. Both of these producers understand the architecture in their singer’s voice, understand the different levels they can reach, and Noonan might just be the most capable singer they’ve worked with.
This isn’t just a showcase for Noonan, though. It’s an impeccably organized work. The whole album is circular, opening with a dream made up of apocalyptic imagery and closing with that prophecy’s fulfillment with “The End Is Nigh”, a bloated anthem that doesn’t seem to fit upon first listen. It’s a stadium-sized song on a basement-built album, a hint at the scale of what waits outside the beautiful dream Chop Chop turned out to be. It’s the end of the world, to be sure, but for Bell X1, the apocalypse is a U2 song.