Music/Features

Bells Atlas explain every track on their new album, the mystic

“This is about a mind inundated by expectations of how to exist in this world, and woven into that is a pool of fear, memory and fantasy.”

April 19, 2019

Right from the beginning the mystic sets its agenda. The sophomore album by the Oakland band anchors its exploration of universal concepts with a galactic narrative: a sci-fi fantasy of two first-generation Nigerian-American women who examine their mental health diagnosis, while also embarking on a comprehensive exploration of how we understand of reality. Frontwoman Sandra Lawson-Ndu describes the album as both a reckoning and an awakening. “It’s about a truth seeker and a skeptic trying to make sense of what’s mystical and what’s clinical.”

Landing in the incongruous space of many sonic interests, the mystic liquifies the infrastructure of the two genres they’ve aligned themselves alongside — psychedelia and R&B. Instead, they allow ample room for self-definition and infinite interpretation. Album opener “Hazelwood” gravitates towards the dream pop magnetism of Broadcast or Stereolab. Elsewhere, “First Gen Pieces” mirrors the unyielding spirit of bands retrofitting the boundaries of avant garde post-punk like Ava Luna.

While a musical landscape this sprawling and decadent might connote an absence of hard edges and firm intentions, the mystic is precise and angular by design, often punctuating  deliciously grating riffs with a rose-coloured synth and assured pulse, or ensuring that Lawson-Ndu’s wildly adaptable vocals remain the album’s towering binder and provider of kinetic energy.

For an album with ambitions this vast the mystic is rooted in a singular, broadly-articulated vision: getting to the pulp of a world just beyond our immediate recognition, and gazing skyward to perform a deep dive of the self. Because when you decide to explore the emancipatory potential of giving yourself unrestricted access to interrogating your reality, you can also decide on the methodology; like using humour to navigate trauma, wrapping grand declarations in a puzzle, or by rousing an audience into awareness through the sheer power of intimacy.

On the mystic, Bells Atlas are a reminder that architecting a dynamic sonic framework affords complete agency to decide its limits, and can set dazzling new benchmarks in the process.  In an effort to figure out how they got there, we asked Bells Atlas to break down the inspiration behind every track on the album.  

Hazelwood

“This is about pulling back in a relationship because the ease of sinking into its familiarity, sometimes shades the fact that neither of you are growing in it.”

Rogue Dream

“The song is about trying to pull a loved one out of a dark place. You want to acknowledge their own strength while you try to somehow help them through, realizing that it’s not always in your power to shift things. It’s framed as a dreamlike quest that fluctuates between levitating from small victories and being pulled down by the harshness of feeling powerless.”

The Khamsa

“The word Khamsa translates to five” or “five fingers” in Arabic — it’s a symbol that you’ve probably seen many times, of an open right hand often with an eye in the center. In many faiths this symbol is seen to bring about happiness and peace while protecting from the evil eye/ negative influence

The song is about making space for each other’s beliefs and being open to varied lenses of experience. It drifts between images of dreams, spirituality, and imagination, and the space they share in connection with the intangible. I’m reminded of a quote by the Nigerian poet, ‘People like you enrich the dreams of the world, and it is dreams that create history. People like you are the unknowing transformers of things.’”

We’ve Been Here Before

“It’s about habitually returning to the same, sometimes destructive, patterns and not knowing what to shift to get out of them. In a subtle nod to sci-fi, this is framed as two people being observed in a time loop where little bits of their story shift each time. Neither entirely remember the time before but both gravitate to each other. The outcome thus far is always dissonance. It becomes a strange experiment that asks ‘what has to change for a different outcome?’” Will it make a difference if one or both of them becomes aware of their patterns or sees the shift in their circumstance?

Downpour

“This track is about at first getting used to living in a secret, but then facing a growing unease of having to continue to tuck yourself away. Growing up it seemed like it was important to hold so many things as secrets, some of which are at this point laughable, some still heavier.

These secrets often gave the sense that there was something wrong and unusual about me or that part of my life. They also gave the sense that if there was actually something difficult it wasn’t necessary to let anyone outside of it know. Eventually I started to ask  ‘what would be the consequence of sharing versus the weight of holding?’”

The Mystic

“Similar to ‘Rogue Dream,’ this is about wanting to know that the people in your life will be OK and wanting to somehow be supported in that hope. The words highlight the idea of prayer. Here, unattached to any specific idea of spirituality, it’s framed as a casting out of hope to something that exists outside of one person. There’s a peace in being able to lean into something and feel supported, whether it’s the collective good of community or the universe.”

Belly

“Belly is about giving into the fullness of a moment and a connection with someone new, and how sometimes even in the midst of that hazy, comfortable, yum and instantaneous attraction, you realize you’ve made yourself vulnerable to someone you barely know. Or maybe, you start creating stories about who the other person is or what they could be thinking.”

First Gen Pisces

“In short, this is about a mind inundated by expectations of how to exist in this world, and woven into that is a pool of fear, memory and fantasy. And then there’s sleep, a temporary path to peace of mind.”

Na Change/See Clear

“Somewhat tied to ‘First Gen Pisces,’ this is about giving in to feeling tired and wondering what it would be like to observe rather than participate for a moment. Similar to ‘FGP’ it goes back and forth between the hectic and the calm, except here the calm is more of a resistance to being  judged for wanting to disconnect.”

Final Ceiling

“This song is about the way we take care of each other, including the memory and imprints of all of the loved ones that have passed. It’s about the simple acts, rituals, and traditions we have to continue to show this care. Lastly it’s about the motions of spending time, making space and saying thank you for existing.”

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