October 14, 1947, the Bell X-1, shaped like a .50 caliber bullet, became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound, and it reached the highest recorded altitude of any aircraft of that time. Sixty-odd years on, Irish rockers Bell X1 prepare to break some barriers and records of their own. Originally released in Ireland in October 2005, Flock has sold more than five million copies since its UK release last spring. One listen and it’s obvious why. It is part “Supersonic”, part “Sail to the Moon”, and — not just to sew up this series of similitude — part “Speed of Sound”.
Comparisons to these songs and their creators might seem slightly incongruous with five guys who used to be in a band with Damien Rice, but over the course of three post-Juniper albums, Paul Noonan (lead vocals, guitar), Dave Geraghty (guitar), Brian Crosby (guitar), Dominic Phillips (bass) and Tim O’Donovan (drums) have developed a monumental sound that is about as far as can be from Rice’s signature style of sensitive delicacy.
That’s not to say Bell X1 is all churning guitars and churlish shout-alongs for hooligans. Noonan has quite the talent for putting romantic ideals and starry-eyed imagery to song (in fact, his lyrical idylls are positively bursting with meteoric metaphors and ardent declarations of devotion). Clever and caustic, broad and brash, often insular, and infinitely Irish, the lyrics reveal a wit and a depth usually lacking in such unapologetically populist music. But the band also has the enviable ability to turn the poetic into the epic. Simple, even somewhat formulaic songs become those stadium-shaking anthems that captivate crowds on the summer festival circuits.
Opening with “Rocky Took a Lover “, Flock immediately sends out the sort of generational, this-is-a-moment-in-a-much-grander-scheme signal that millions of listeners heard as one in Oasis in 1994, in Radiohead in 1997, in Coldplay in 2000, and in Franz Ferdinand in 2004. The clarion call continues on “Flame”, an irresistible hook with the catchiest chorus to ever mention marshmallows!
“My First Born for a Song”, about the struggle to achieve an undeniable classic, is exactly that. It’s an unshakeable melody that will slink into minds and sink into memories as though it has always belonged. “Bigger Than Me” could be referring to its own unmistakable, unstoppable sound, as it is indebted as much to Franz Ferdinand as to Talking Heads. In what might be the prettiest song about acne and angst ever written, “Bad Skin Day” comes on like early Radiohead, both in its hopeful sad-sack lyrical content (“Someday we’ll have an open top bus parade / Someday we’ll do the whole sorry charade”) and its shimmering guitar work.
“Reacharound” is another shockingly affecting track, and yes, it too raises Radiohead and Franz comparisons with its persistent paranoia and equally insistent rhythms. “He Said She Said” bears the most resemblance to Radiohead, sounding a bit like “2+2=5” with flashes of “Street Spirit”. That’s not to imply that Bell X1 is parroting anyone — the band simply takes its influences very seriously, and then makes a seriously massive musical statement. Whether conscious or not, it just happens that Noonan shares vocal qualities with Thom Yorke, Alex Kapranos, and Chris Martin, and owes a lot to David Byrne’s yelp and phrasing. The affinity is attractive.
Small similarities, however many, only carry so far, though. It’s the grand gestures on Flock that really hit their marks. At more than seven minutes, Flock‘s parting song, “Lamposts”, encompasses all the attributes ascribed to earlier tracks. It’s got the lush, uplifting melody, the classic chiming guitars, a big open chorus with catchy, yet darkly romantic lyrics: “I’ve been walking you / Into those lamp posts again / But I’d rather do that than / Let go of your hand / I feel you from me / Braithim uaim tú / I feel you from me”. It would be hard to find a gesture grander than this, and Bell X1 knows it.
“History is written by the winners / And I want my say”, sings Noonan on the track “Natalie”, and he’s going to get it. Bell X1 has set its aim high, the sky’s the limit, and Flock is right on target.