After building a reputation through years of touring, not MySpace, Bellafea finally release their debut album, one of the most surprising and brilliant rock records of 2008.
If Carolina three-piece Bellafea sounds like they hail from the '90s, it is more in their approach than their sound. Sure they have the ragged wall of guitars, the songs appear to be hung on loose, slack structures, and Heather McIntire shouts out lyrics that are far from the self-conscious, genre-aware stuff they're piling under the huge and amorphous umbrella of indie rock these days.
But what really makes them a throwback to those halcyon days of indie rock, when alternative rock was actually that -- an alternative -- is the way they've come up. Bellafea were not rubberstamped in an interview by some "It band". They weren't hyped on the dubious strength of demos posted on their MySpace page. No, Bellafea came up the old fashioned way. They released a seven-inch split with fellow North Carolinians Des Ark in 2003, and an EP entitled Family Tree in 2004, then spent years building a name locally on their floorboard-shuddering live show. Those small early releases showed the band putting their best foot forward -- this was something bands used to do on seven-inches and EPs, they weren't always home to cast-off tracks -- and honing their strengths. And now, with their debut full-length finally coming out on Southern Records, their patience has paid off with one of the most interesting and surprising rock records of 2008.
What hits first about Cavalcade is how the band has sanded down the hard divisions built into its sound. The duplicity of the band's name -- bella meaning beautiful, fea meaning ugly -- made for songs with sharp turns from the sublime to the cacophonous. The moments of beauty were quiet and melodic, McIntire's voice threadbare and bittersweet. But they often gave way to distorted squalls of noise -- the ugly -- and throughout Family Tree they showed a fresh take on the old quiet-to-loud indie rock movement.
But now the band has meshed the two sides of their sound to a much greater effect. They seem to have given in wholeheartedly to their rocking side, making Cavalcade a loud burst of frustration and hurt enmeshed in songs that are often a call to arms, a demand for people to come together in spite of all the bad around them. Right off the bat, on "Depart (I Never Knew You)", McIntire snarls over a heavy track, daring someone -- maybe us -- asking "Do you have what it takes?" It is the first of many challenges posed on the record. The song builds to a shaking frenzy, and McIntire, backed by the banshee howl of the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, seems to start the album with its pinnacle. It's a track so full of inventive turns, noisy hooks, and pure infectious energy, that it seems impossible that the rest of the record could rock this damn hard.
And yet it does. Nearly all of the record from that first track on is just as loud, constantly pulling a visceral reaction from the listener. It also shows the staggering breadth of the band's abilities. McIntire's voice alone is something to be reckoned with. She can bark her frustration in your face, letting the spittle froth and fly, or she can bay long and lonesome at the moon. And with her band, the music itself goes in all directions. When they bring the tempo down some, like on "Thorn Bird II", all its keening strings and clean guitar can't soothe the band, can't keep them from busting it all down, crumbling the song down to a distorted mess, even dragging the strings down into the mire, staggering their once flowing notes. The song is broken beyond repair, never recovers from the onslaught. But it does set a brilliant transition for the next hard-driving song.
The band deconstructs its sound a few times here. "Geography" constantly pulls itself apart only to reassemble again as the darkest bit of rock on Cavalcade. "Stranger" closes the album with a static-laced grumble, burying the melody, challenging us one more time, slowing down and drawing out all the fuzzy guitar and hard-hit rhythms of the rest of the record. It feels like the churning crest the album leaves in its wake, until it breaks out into its own hard-hitting breakdown, closing the album with the same chills it started with.
To say the record is a punch in the gut does it no justice. It is nothing so quickly thrown and easily recovered from. Cavalcade, as an album, is a stoning. It pelts you over and over with rocks, some rounded with age, some sharp with the edge of a fresh break, leaving marks that go deep under the surface and last long after the record has ended.
But it is also more than just a rock record. It is representative of a sect of musicians that are doing things the right way, building reputations slowly and strongly, refusing to cash in on the quick but fleeting returns of a digital culture. Bellafea is also a strong member of a music scene in North Carolina that has not only sustained for years, but grown and thrived organically. There's something to investing in your community, in building a scene on the influences around you. You don't have to move to Brooklyn and revive an old sound, inventing a scene on postures and pretensions. Instead, you can find your own sounds and make them in your own back yard. And sometimes that can yield a band as exciting as Bellafea, and a record as vital as Cavalcade.