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Rachel's - The Sea And The Bells


Louisville, KY is an interesting place for a few reasons. It’s the birthplace of the Louisville Slugger, for one thing, making it pretty much a household item so you should think twice before doing any burgling around those parts. It is also home of the Lebowski Fest, which alone puts it on my list of ten places to visit before I end up in an empty coffee can from Ralph’s. Most importantly though, it has one of the most interesting and diverse music scenes out there, as I’ve had a chance to discover over the years. 

Interestingly, I’ve never set out to check out the “Louisville sound”, but rather I noticed time and again that I’d discover a band or a musician, get obsessed with their music, start researching and discover that they’re from Louisville. The city doesn’t even have a particular “sound”, as much as its musicians tend to be linked by unusual levels of creativity. Take bands like Slint, Rodan, Rachel’s, Shipping News, June of 44, King Kong, Young Widows; musicians like Will Oldham and David Pajo and you’ll see that what connects them isn’t a similarity in sound, but rather that each of them has a unique style worked out through fearless experimentation and genuine need for expression. In words of Jason Noble, ‘It seemed every time a breadcrumb was dropped by a Louisville resident, the spores of the city would settle on it, and a band would grow. But it would be in some new mutation. Past style was rarely a guarantee of future direction.’(Jeanette Leech Fearless. The Making of Post-Rock (Jawbone Press, 2017))

Said Jason Noble took part in some of the city’s most interesting musical projects, but the one I want to take a closer look at today is called Rachel’s and was co-founded with Rachel Grimes, a classically trained composer, and pianist. Coincidentally, the project wasn’t named after her, but after Rachel’s Halo (the name itself taken from Sean Young’s character in Blade Runner), the title of a cassette gifted to Grimes which contained some of Noble’s earliest recordings. The two got to work and after meeting Christian Frederickson, a classically trained violist, Rachel’s was born.

Being a brainchild of people from such musically diverse backgrounds, it doesn’t come as a surprise how many different influences one can hear in their work. The general mood of their music could be described as dark neo-classicism with a clear inspiration taken from Dead Can Dance, but one can also hear ways of mood-building akin to the film music of Phillip Glass, Ennio Morricone, Michael Nyman, and an exploration of silence as much as the sound found on late Talk Talk’s work. Each of their albums explores different themes and could be talked about at lengths, but today I want to focus on one of them in particular. 

The Sea and the Bells, released in 1996, was the band’s third full length and a first attempt at creating a concept album. Taking its name from one of the last works by Pablo Neruda, the album could be interpreted as a depiction of a nautical journey and as such, it explores a range of emotions that might be going through a sailor’s head while at sea: exaltation in anticipation of an adventure in Rhine and Courtesan; anguish from the dangers that await at sea in Cypress Branches; longing for a loved one in Letters Home; quiet solitude and contemplation in the face of a force of nature in All Is Calm. What makes the tracks stand out from regular chamber music is the aforementioned addition of instruments from the rock music context, one of the best examples being Lloyd’s Register. It’s a beautifully complex representation of a storm brewing up at sea, followed by the inevitable calm and also a great display of the quiet-loud dynamics so often associated with early post-rock. Another highlight is how the group shows interest in and employs many experimental genres such as field recordings of flocking birds in Cypress Branches, drone and ambient soundscapes in With More Air Than Words and Night At Sea, minimal composition in Tea Merchants and even noise in Sirens

Now, I can’t talk about Rachel’s without mentioning the packaging of their records too. As someone who still buys physical media with a particularly soft spot for records, I generally think that the artwork, inserts, and everything else that comes with the music are an important part of the album experience. In case of Rachel’s it feels doubly special, as the cover is printed on textured, thin cardboard and includes a booklet of images and prose written by Noble, all of which makes you feel like you’re holding something special, a complete, personal piece of art and not just a package.

When realising how unlikely the existence of a band like that seemed in the early 90s, considering how they successfully attempted at blending two seemingly opposing worlds of music and went on to release their work on a label predominantly known for punk and noise rock, I can only be grateful that they’ve had the perseverance to do so and do such a fine job out of it. Not only did they leave a beautiful legacy that will last, but they also paved the way for future projects with similar ambitions, the first to come to mind being the Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Do yourself a favour and let them invite you into their nautical world, gently rocked by the waves at sea, with the distant toll of the bells and I promise you won’t be disappointed.