Broken Bells Bring Me Back To My Roots
Broken Bells are an unlikely group. It consists of James Mercer, former lead singer of The Shins, and underground DJ, producer, and Hip Hop artist, Danger Mouse. Given their backgrounds and musical range, Broken Bells albums don’t follow a defined modern style. Previous albums have explored 80s sounds, especially late-stage new wave. The latest album, Into the Blue, is completely different. Listening to Into the Blue, I’m immediately transported back to my teen years listening to progressive rock, it’s predecessors and variants. Even the name seems like a callback to ELO’s (arguably a pop progressive band) Out of the Blue.
That’s no surprise, many songs on Into the Blue feature ELO type orchestrations layered on top of pop songs. For example, the song “Love on the Run” starts with solo piano, then blossoms into full 70’s style orchestration. So, it’s a pop song with orchestrations layered over it. As the song progresses, we hear sweet tenor vocals and high harmonies. What’s this? Is it an ELO album? No, it’s the Broken Bells. If James Mercer sounded more like Jeff Lynne, one could be fooled.
The album begins with shimmering guitars, drenched in reverb. Lead off and title track “Into the Blue” is a slow mix of sonic layers, often heard in dream pop but especially progressive rock bands such as Yes. Distorted and distant sounding vocals remind me of some of the production tricks used on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The bell ringing at the end is pure Pink Floyd. “Into the Blue” is followed by “We’re Not in Orbit Yet”. Or are we? Musically at least we seem to be. A mid-tempo pop progressive tune, it reminds me very much of Kansas. The guitar work at the end, however, was so reminiscent of Robert Fripp that it’s like Kansas and King Crimson had a collaboration (they didn’t) and this was it. King Crimson influences pop up later in the slow beat and dramatic tone of “The Chase”.
Into the Blue doesn’t just sit in 1973, though. It moves forward and back in time, mostly within the progressive music arena. “Saturdays”, for example, sounds like 60s proto progressive psychedelia. Sitar-like strings are reminiscent of Family, Strawbs, and especially Kaleidoscope’s “Keep Your Mind Open”. “One Night” sounds more pop than much of what’s on the album, but with 80s progressive flairs. Just like Asia. Just – Like – Asia.
Taken as a whole, Into the Blue is a prog rock album. There are some deviations from the progressive space though. “Invisible Exit” is more like a Beatles ballad or the Beatlesque Shins than what’s on the rest of the album. “Forgotten Boy” reminds me a little of CSNY while “Fade Away” sounds like an 80s song, especially the synths and guitar. It’s more 80s goth, mostly like The Cure, than new wave or 80s pop or dance.
All of these songs have one thing in common – they are at the edge of the mainstream genres, just like progressive rock was in the 70s. This is what makes “Into the Blue” so special. It looks to styles just outside of the conventional. These are songs that are interesting enough and familiar enough to be enjoyed by music lovers. You stretch a little but not too much. Into the Blue is a wonderfully crafted homage to a nearly forgotten type of music. Like progressive rock, it flirts with the mainstream but refuses the compromises that conventional indie or pop insists on. Listen to this album for the nostalgia and for the innovation.