Thirteen years since the genesis of Bell X1, six or seven since their arena-headlining successes, and two since Bloodless Coup’s foray in to light electronica, Paul Noonan’s band have opted for a more understated approach for a sixth studio album. Clocking in at a concise 37 minutes, the boys from Celbridge have with Chop Chop produced a wistful and stripped-back slow-burner.
Assembled in a mere two weeks in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the album title not only relates to a swift recording process, but cannily implies the disposal of extraneous bells and whistles. Indeed, the free-form style and five minute duration of enigmatic album opener 'Starlings Over Brighton Pier' is some way from the engaging hooks of the Bell X1 of old, and it is instantly apparent that Chop Chop rejects the radio-friendly elements in favour of gentle melodies and fastidious songwriting. This is borne out through repeated piano-led phrases, patterns which form the framework on 'A Thousand Little Downers' or the delicately hypnotic 'Careful What You Wish For'. Lead guitarist David Geraghty takes the microphone for 'Diorama', a plaintive ballad which swells with subtle brass.
Noonan's clever lyrics remain a focal point; broad commentary is avoided as he strikes a balance between light-hearted, idiosyncratic observation and achingly sincere, articulate insight. Lyrics likely to be excessively kooky in less capable hands are deftly employed to express intangible sentiments (on 'Motorcades', Noonan ponders the Venezuelan national anthem as a tear-jerking stimulus).
The latter portion of Chop Chop showcases a soulful sound ('Feint Praise' being a standout), while the album culminates with a tune approximating vintage Bell X1. With 'The End is Nigh', and over familiar pulsing rhythms, Noonan speculates on what might ensue when one’s hand is forced during the apocalypse, all in a suitably ascending, life-affirming and upbeat manner likely to ensure the track’s future as a live staple.
Though it is not without its flaws ('Starlings...' is unconvincing as an opening track and 'Drive-By Summer' a forgettable contribution), Chop Chop's achievement is commendable. In some ways, the shift away from catchy flourishes or electronic tinkering is a pity, as Bell X1 are a band with an instinctive knack for infectious hooks. But although the brevity of the album gives it the feel of a stopgap, a bridge to something more heavyweight, Chop Chop is evidence of a band relishing the freedoms permitted by operating via their own label (Belly-Up Records). There is continuity; several songs hark back to earlier work, but in general this is the mature sound of one of Ireland’s premier groups discontent to rest on their laurels, and consciously seeking to evolve.
Review by Killian Barry