“You must relax.” It’s the kind of instruction that strives to inspire comfort and ease. But… it’s just not quite the best way to go about it, right? Demanding it? C’mon now, that’s something that’s really only ever said to someone in a panic, someone incapable of being reasonable. There’s a distinctively captor/hostage relationship to this phrase, maybe even a serial killer-y flavor in this command. It’s with this perversion of intent that Bellrope deliver YOU MUST RELAX (extra points for the soothing appeal of all caps on the album cover), a debut that evokes the exact range of emotions a phrase like that would hope to assuage. You Must Relax is tense, unsettling, and borderline anxiety-inducing in a masochistic kind of way.
Featuring members of German amp-worshippers Black Shape of Nexus, Bellrope continue down a similar path of teeth-rattling, amp-crumbling riff rock. This project, however, is consciously tilted toward the caustic bite of noise rock rather than the meditative sludge and introspective atmosphere. If you aren’t ready to inundate yourself with droves of sadistically punishing riffs, unforgiving barbs of feedback and salt-in-the-wound howls, you will not have a good time with this record. There’s really no good way to be “prepared” for something like this, and thus the opening feedback squeals and maniacal screams on “Hollywood 2001 / Rollrost” will hit your ears like a blinding light upon dilated pupils. This introductory track is certain to winnow less-curious listeners, but those who are able to weather the track will find that it serves as a twisted tone setter, akin to an out-of-context cold open. It’s not a “intro track” in the traditional sense, but the shock-and-awe function is certainly attention grabbing and is becoming as the album develops.
Notably, the group’s dual bass approach makes for an ever-heavy listen. It’s the kind of self-indulgent move that everybody jokes about doing, but Bellrope have a good grip on the reigns and prevent it from becoming too gimmicky or stale. Needless to say, there’s a ton of low end to be heard and felt across the record. Additionally, this setup enchrenches them in a riffy approach, though they remain surprisingly un-fatiguing. The bass tones contrast well enough that one doesn’t become an idle mimic and the songwriting truly delivers, slowly trickling out enough shifts with healthy dynamism to keep listeners on the hook. This is especially important as the tracks grow longer and longer, testing listeners’ patience. The seismic grooves of “Old Overholt” phase into meltier iterations, increasingly stomach-churning and layered with swaths of noise. The album’s title track continues down this path of gradually snowballing unease, this time with a stoner metal angle that feels like some twisted version of Beastwars with the post-metal and noise sensibilities of Old Man Gloom. Again, “TD200” maintains this violent plod, but not without introducing eerie melody into the fold with a stacked vocal approach which cools down the unruly violence to a despair-laden discomfort. Throw in some introverted noise breaks, unnerving samples, and punctuating drum fills to offset the hell-bent focus of the riffing, and Bellrope has suddenly become markedly deeper than what was revealed on the opening half of the record. The journey of You Must Relax begins to reveal itself as a pursuit of merging ridiculously heavy, patient, and punishing riffs with a variety of disturbing auditory malcontents.
Closer “CBD / Hereinunder” continues to turn the screws, closing out the record with a nearly 18-minute jammy leviathan that coaxes the guitar work out to the forefront where noisy solos carve through consecutive droney riff after riff. It’s in this realm that Bellrope seem to be fully formed, culminating into a climax owes a serious debt to Sleep and Sonic Youth alike, with a more direct, D.I.Y. feel than the psychedelic offerings of Boris. The evolution of You Must Relax is what becomes its most rewarding aspect. At first listen, the brutal repetition and groove can feel a bit burdensome and overwhelming, especially as every proper song is at least ten minutes long (and they only get bigger…). There’s little doubt about the sonic weight of what’s on tape here, but it’s not until the album wraps up does the full scope of Bellrope’s wit come to fruition. The intensity develops, their songwriting becomes further complicated and layered, and their sonic palette grows as the runtimes increase. This record doesn’t attempt to be a welcoming foray, but riff addicts will soak this up with a smile. I can only hope that the next effort picks up where this leaves off, because You Must Relax is giving me Stockholm Syndrome. I cannot relax.