Writing about bands in the Washington, D.C. hardcore orbit generally requires a scholarly tone or, better yet, a thesis that goes past the actual music. It makes sense as it’s the home of great thinkers, savants and kids who had as good of an education as they had angst. (Remember that part because it’s going to be relevant later.) Not every piece of music from D.C. needs to be contextualized, dissected or given some imaginary historical relevance though—especially true when you swap your wool beanie for a flipped brim painters cap like a band of suburban skaters playing hardcore.
The band of note is BELLS OF, founded by Lawrence McDonald in 1985, and their recently released EP, 00/85, issued by Jason Farrell (Swiz, Bluetip, Retisonic, Red Hare) and artist Rich Jacobs has a deep backstory. “I fucking love these songs, have for 30 years,” Farrell says. “It was definitely inspired by [emo forebears] Rites Of Spring on a conceptual level: using minor/major switching to express conflict/resolution, but not too much musically.”
Farrell briefly played in the band’s live incarnation and witnessed the demo’s recording session by McDonald and rest of the Bells Of personnel—including Peter Wilborn and Bleu Kopperl. It’s not that these tracks being pressed on 12-inch vinyl and distributed for the first time aren’t highbrow—the songs themselves are quite imaginative for a group of teenagers—it’s just that they’re rooted in the impulse of youth. The songs are often delivered in a style closer to the manic melancholy of their contemporaries, more Rites Of Spring than Minor Threat. The short blasts and brooding mantras are emblematic of the actual pace of life for hormonal boys.
Bells Of would later morph into a much darker band, zig-zagging both genres and sounds. But in 1985, during the Revolution Summer, bands were transitioning and intentionally exploring new corners of music, as a reaction to the codification and ritual violence prevalent in hardcore. That sound would later be defined under what we now know as emo. “This was before emo had a name,” Farrell says. “People were actually trying to come up with a way to distinguish it from hardcore. Lawrence wanted something that spoke to the heart—how this is from the heart—and I jokingly said, ‘Why don't you call it heart-core or love-core?’ Love-core kinda stuck, though he modified it to ‘love at the core’ and came up with the heart/circle-c symbol that is featured on the back and label of the record.”
(pictured: Lawrence McDonald)
Gray Matter, Beefeater, Rites Of Spring, Dag Nasty and Embrace all commingled in D.C., making the powerful statement in their own unique voices that change had come in an array of bright, new colors. What the hell does all this mean and why should you rejoice that Bells Of’s demo is getting a proper release 30 years later? In this age of hardcore rarities surfacing online via YouTube, Soundcloud or the other myriad ways music travels the ‘net, it’s rare to find something new to most fans. It’s an experience worth having. There’s also the fact that Bells Of is the only band standing from the Revolution Summer, continuing as McDonald’s solo musical vehicle since the crew bashing it out on this demo departed. And like most hardcore artifacts, the session was captured by Don Zientara at the legendary Inner Ear Studios, where a nice chunk of history was once made. And finally, Bells Of are an important bridge band in D.C. hardcore history, as they originally featured Alec MacKaye (formerly of the Faith) on vocals. MacKaye’s only contribution to the demo was screaming his way through the backing vocal of “Live As You Please,” later forming Ignition after he left.
There’s as much youthful spunk and bite in these tunes as there is a visceral dive past the normal tempos and earmarks of early hardcore. But there are also rippers (“Live as You Please”) that hint at the sound Swiz would harness shortly after Farrell departed the band. Conversely, you have “In Stone,” which churns and trots, with brittle guitar lines that recall Empire and vocals that alternate between meditative rants and rippling call-outs. At times, Bells Of’s songs have the same pensive feel and presentation as Warsaw, the early incarnation of Joy Division, only planted in the Capital City instead of a U.K. factory town. It’s frantic, at times unpolished and shoots sparks that hint at another life where Bells Of burn with the intensity Rites exuded. Of course this never happened and Bells Of went through many face-lifts. But for today, the lineup on 00/85 gets to make a thrilling first impression again.
You can catch more information on the band's website, BellsOf.com.
Photo Credit: Mark McDonald