If you were to ask me at any given moment what my favorite album of all time is and I don’t answer Bent’s Ariels right away, well, then you’ll just have to sleep easy knowing that at the very least it’s absolutely in my top five. And what I find the most crazy about having Ariels as my favorite album of all time is not how much I love it, (I do, I really do love it) but how few people are actually familiar with this record, even among those already familiar with Bent. It sometimes feels like it’s a pretty obscure album, especially over here in the States, and it’s become one of my life’s goal to change that. If you downloaded all of my mixtapes then you’ve probably noticed that Bent songs pop up pretty frequently. If you’d like to know why I love Bent so much, then you have to go back to 2004 and my obsession with Ariels.
Ariels was and is an unique album for Bent in their overall discography. Bent had created their own individual style in 2000 with Programmed to Love by generously sampling their own record collections, (which they themselves described as “dodgy”), thus creating beautiful musical collages that mixed pre- rock-and-roll recordings with modern electronic sounds to breathe new quirky life into post-War sounds. What made their third album Ariels so different from their others was that while it kept the same overall sound that they were known for, for the first (and it turns out, only) time they recorded nearly everything you hear in the studio with live vocal performances and lots of acoustic instrumentation instead of the usual sampling. It was immediately obvious that this was a much more mature album, missing some of the quirky humorous charm of their other work, but making up for that with a lot more complex, emotional substance.
Listening to Ariels is a bit like being in love. The album is magical, gentle, dreamlike, warm and fuzzy and geared towards late night relaxation. I’ve always said that the ideal place to listen to this album is in your car late at night on a warm summer evening with the sunroof down and a bright full moon out above your head. But it’s more than just a chillout album. It’s about Love in all its splendor and euphoria while dealing with the depression and agony that comes from being away from someone you love.
The album opens with the bouncy and energetic “Comin’ Back”, a song that bursts with life and joy through bright brass horn blasts and an overly-enthusiastic rhythm section, and it’s only after you really start listening to the lyrics of the song that you realize that there’s a lot of complex emotions boiling under the surface here. At second glance this song is not as bright and cheerful as you might have originally been led to believe. Here’s the chorus to the song:
Feeling so alone
Along a lonely road
Feeling so alone
Well I’m comin’ back
Rachel Foster’s weighty voice drives these words right under your skin. Even if you didn’t originally pay attention to the words of this song, subconsciously you’re aware right away that there is something about this that makes it a really interesting song. As you’ll discover, the whole album plays with these feelings of joy and melancholy in a way that’s completely subversive and unlike most anything you’re used to hearing.
If you hadn’t picked up on those themes of loneliness in the first song, it’s made pretty obvious that loneliness is a common theme in the album by the time the second song, “Sunday 29th” starts off with the lines,
Here in my room all alone
with a love that I can’t see
These walls are so bare
And I close my eyes to see you
When I’m lonely
But before you pull out the straight razor this isn’t at all an album about being alone or depression, even though it deals with those feelings quite often. It’s really an album about being in love and all the positive and negative things that go along with being in love. Katty Heath is singing here about missing the love of her life and the deep longing she feels for them. There’s a real sweetness and romanticism to the song that’s not immediately apparent if you were to just read the lyrics as if they were a poem. It takes complex layers of pedal steel and the flute in this song to deliver the songs full impact.
While the first track is about turning around from bad decisions and going back to something good and decent in your life, and the second track is about the romantic longing for someone dear who is far away, you can probably tell by the title that “I Can’t Believe It’s Over” is absolutely a breakup song. Sian Evans of Kosheen pours her heart out and really sells the emotional devastation one feels after a breakup, but again the focus of the song isn’t on the pain of the breakup, but the shock that the love isn’t there anymore. Again there’s a longing to go back to those deep, positive emotional feelings.
Probably my favorite song on the whole album is “Now I Must Remember”, featuring vocals by the amazing Katty Heath, who is for me one of the real shining stars of this album. I actually don’t really have a clue as to what half of the lyrics to this song mean, but you don’t have to be a genius to get the general gist that the themes of this song are memory and nostalgia. One of the most amazing aspects of our memories is how quickly, richly and deeply nostalgia can take us back to another time and place and instantly flood us with intense feelings of emotion.
As if they know “Now I Must Remember” couldn’t be topped, it’s followed by “You Are The Oscillator”, the perfect cool down track after that rich emotional tour de force, featuring vocals by Katty Heath and Rachel Foster. There’s that fantastic magical dreamlike bit of harp at the beginning, drawing you back into this musical journey, with the deep, warm tones of the upright bass lulling you into sleep as the pedal steel and piano wraps their notes around the pleasure centers of your brain with a tight embrace. I can’t really think of anything else that reminds me of what Bent’s doing on this album.
There’s so much here to love with this album. It’s a record that works well both as a cohesive whole and as independent singles. It manages to be fun and playful while still hitting your hard right in the gut. I haven’t even had a chance to discuss “Exercise 4”, a gorgeous, mischievous instrumental, or the album closer, “The Waters Deep”, a song which exemplifies as much as, if not more so than any other song what it is that ties together all of the common themes and tones of the album, a sort of beautiful, joyful yet melancholy, dreamlike feeling of pure nostalgia. This album has such a unique ability to put a smile on your face while at the same time a tear emerges in your eyes.
To me great art is something that can work you over on multiple layers. “Silent Life” has such a dopey, bouncy beat to it and yet there’s just something about the song that gets under your skin and hits you deep in the gut. It pushes buttons in you that you didn’t even know you had. You’re not really sure why, you aren’t really aware of what’s happening to you emotionally. You start to feel sad when you hear this song, like many of the songs on this album, but in a strange way you’re happy you feel that depth of emotion. It’s extremely cathartic in that sense, a pure cleanse of your emotional baggage that melts away any of the troubles of your day and places you firmly in the moment, while at the same time digging up emotional memories you’d long thought you’d forgotten and kinda wished you hadn’t.
Bent haven’t put out a new album as a band since their Best Of album in 2009, but Neil “Nail” Tolliday and Simon Mills are still making new music in their own side projects. I was inspired to write this post after noticing that Napoleon, a solo act by Simon Mills, was giving away their self-titled debut album for free this weekend until midnight GMT Sunday. Do yourself a big favor and pick that up while you still can. While your at it, check out and buy Napoleon’s second album, Magpies. And for the love of God, if you don’t already own it, go to Amazon and buy yourself a copy of Ariels. I promise you that you won’t regret it. At only $5.99 right now for the mp3 album it’s a steal!
This is the second installment in Influential Media, a semi-regular column where I explore the various forms of media that have made the biggest impact on me over the years.
Pingback: An Interview with Simon Mills | C'est Non Un Blog
‘Ariels’ soundtracked a perfect camping holiday in Cornwall in 2005 with (my then) fiancee…so what did we use during our wedding ceremony in 2006? And, via Facebook a few years later, to be able to let Bent know about it, made it all the more brilliant! Bent have become one of my favourite all-time bands. Although Napoleon’s stuff is somewhat incredible, too…Magpies was a favourite last year…