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Definitive Albums: Rachel's 'The Sea and the Bells' (1996)

The Sea (I Heard It)

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Definitive Albums: Rachel's 'The Sea and the Bells'

Definitive Albums: Rachel's 'The Sea and the Bells'

Quarterstick

I Prefer the Sound of the Sea

Where Rachel's second record, 1996's Music for Egon Schiele, was an actual score —the musical accompaniment to a theatrical production retelling the life of the eponymous Austrian painter— their third, The Sea and the Bells, would have to settle for that familiar trope of post-rockers everywhere: the imaginary soundtrack.

Rachel's founder Jason Noble was obsessed enough with nautical imagery to call another, contemporaneous project the Shipping News; and, as its title suggests, The Sea and the Bells is an album of oceanic splendor. The seafaring suite summons vast and vivid seascapes of different roll and pitch. Fogs roll across dark horizons, swallowing anchored ships in a shroud of mystery and unease. The open ocean beckons, and the wind blows fair. And the waves die, and the breeze stops, and the journey slowly to a deathly drift.

These are environments, images, and emotions that the ink-press artwork summons as much as the instruments themselves. Taken out of context, away from its suggestive song-titles ("Tea Merchants," "The Sirens," "Night at Sea" et al), The Sea and the Bells could conjure entirely different visions in listeners; imaginary soundtracks begetting an infinite array of imagined movies (never made). The record doesn't have to be taken as the score for a voyaging vessel of yore, but, do so, and the images become specific, the narrative near palpable; which is quite the trick for instrumental music.

A Suite for The Sea and The Bells (We Are One, One, All in One)

Noble began Rachel's as an isolationist side-project, back when those things were kind of rare. He played guitar in post-hardcore, proto-post-rock outfit Rodan; who applied compositional experimentalism to their alt-rock, veering wildly from plaintive melancholy to ferocious noise; sounding for all the world like a band taking Slint's lessons to heart. With Rachel's, he wanted to take the experimentalism —and the non-rocking— even further; leaving his project as a place to explore sounds influenced by modern composition, avant-garde music, and film soundtracks.

Yet, Rachel Grimes' piano soon became the band's defining instrument; well, at least on Music for Egon Schiele, when it was the sound through which everything ran. With the more expansive The Sea and the Bells, songs are less driven by the piano. The tenor, here, is set more by the strings; by the tactility of the horsehair scrape, by the tendency towards slow-burning drones, by Christian Frederickson's weeping viola.

Like any good soundtrack, as much time is spelt creating daubs of light and shadow around the edges as anything else; there's far more 'incidental' and/or 'experimental' sequences here than on either Songs for Egon Schiele or 1994's Handwriting. Yet, here, the collective also sounds quite a bit like a band; and on the virtuous overture "Rhine and Courtesan" and the dramatic, shape-shifting saga "Lloyd's Merchant," they occasionally sound genuinely rockin'; the smash, splattering drums driving the songs forward in a pleasing fashion.

The Sea and the Bells isn't Rachel's most coherent or singular study (that would be Music for Egon Schiele) nor its most disjointed and experimental (that would be 2003's Systems/Layers), but it's, without doubt, the album on which they most sound like themselves. It's the literal centerpoint of their discography —the third of five albums— but also the figurative one, too; the place where their soundtrackism sounded its most devoted, together, and true.

Record Label: Quarterstick
Release Date: October 22, 1996

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