Simplified but Not Simple
Eight Bells is the incestuous offspring of San Francisco-based psychedelic-improvisational hard rock band, SubArachnoid Space. SAS’s last album, released in 2009, was titled Eight Bells, and former members Melynda Jackson (guitars, vocals) and Christopher VanHuffel (drums) started their own outfit, recruiting bassist Haley Westeiner along the way. Eight Bells’ debut release, The Captain’s Daughter, shows that the mission of the offshoot is to offer a simpler, yet no less experimental, version of the original.
The Captain’s Daughter opens with “Tributaries,” a short instrumental that functions as a Cliff Notes introduction to the band. Heavily delayed and just-muddy-enough guitars and slightly-off beats take the listener through about a half-dozen musical ideas. Eight Bells makes this work, though, by maintaining a Primus-like precision and seamless consistency. At under four minutes, it’s a bite-sized sampler of what is to follow. “Fate and Technology” benefits from VanHuffel’s thunderous drumming (and the raw production contributes to this success), and again riffs weave in and out unnoticeably, until it fades to a stop a couple minutes in. At this point, Jackson’s vocals join the fray, moaning flatly along the random sludge provided by the rest of the band. She sounds like a placeholder for a better singer, one whose voice would function more as an instrument than a distraction.
Fortunately, that’s the only time on The Captain’s Daughter where that offense is committed. The album is mostly instrumental, with some faux-operatic (but effective) chanting in “Yellowed Wallpaper” and some impressive screaming at the end of “Fate and Technology.” Eight Bells’ brand of experimental rock works best when it appears random but is more likely well thought out. In the middle of the thirteen-minute title track, the action halts, and Westeiner repeats a single bass note over and over, like a gong, with foreboding guitars on top. Later in the song, the motif returns, though with a variety of notes, sounding like a sad and distant church, along with (again) faux-operatic chanting. One can imagine the captain’s daughter weeping as she watches for him from the lighthouse. This is messy, but it is art, and as Eight Bells continues in its journey, it may eventually outshine its older brother/parent.