For LA-based Australian post-punk outfit Death Bells, their sophomore album New Signs of Life represents both an act of rebirth and a reaffirmation of purpose.
Three years on from their well-received debut LP, 2017’s Standing at the Edge of the World, the internal dynamic of the band has changed in stark and contrasting ways. After decamping to the US in 2018 from the suburbs of their native Sydney, the former sextet now operates as a formidable partnership, with only vocalist Will Canning and guitarist Remy Veselis remaining. Yet, rather than dwell on external factors—elements which, in a year as tumultuous as 2020, continually impinge on the willingness to create art—New Signs of Life is a decisively inward-facing album: a brooding meditation on life’s ephemeral moments, and how these fleeting instances shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Lead singles like the record’s title track offer subtle hints at this newfound trajectory, with an exuberant, grandiose quality that wasn’t present on the band’s debut. Veselis’ guitar melodies sound like a tightly coiled spring, alternately hesitant and locked-in before suddenly becoming dazzlingly electric. On the other hand, Canning’s lyrical phrases are rather simple and repetitive (“New signs of life approaching/ Can’t unlearn everything”), coming off like the utterances of a stream-of-consciousness coming to terms with its own neuroses. This unhinged subjectivity is then contrasted by warm brass and percussion, which acts as the calm, rhythmic counterpoint to Canning’s hypnotic vocal display.
Album opener “Heavenly Bodies” kicks off with a penetrating lead riff, instantly evoking the mid-00s indie rock of Interpol and Bloc Party, as the band is carried along by steady percussion and Canning’s deep, accented croon. The track wrestles with ideas of transience and human mortality (“Our day will come/ And our bones will turn to dust”), as Canning adds notes of resignation and acceptance in the chorus, spelling out a fate that patiently waits for all of us: “We all vanish anyway.”
Elsewhere on New Signs of Life, Death Bells finds ways to both refine their post-punk revivalism and inject fresh ideas. “Two Thousand and Twenty” finds Canning making a reverb-soaked formal address, skewering the dissociative state of cultural affairs that we find ourselves in (“Gotta stomach all this intricate fiction/ A mess of truth, larger than yourself”). “The Sun That Shines Forever” takes the record’s more existential quandaries in a decisively spiritual direction, suffused with bright power chords and scattered hi-hats.
But it’s on Side B of the album where the real heavy-hitters come out. The blissfully optimistic “A Different Side of Life” casts the unknowns of love and heartbreak in a warm and uplifting light, with a surprise sax solo that’s guaranteed to prompt smiles all round. “Alison” and “Sacred” find Death Bells mastering the intricate pairing of synth and brass sounds, commanded at all times by Veselis’ quietly confident riff work.
Across the record, Canning’s vocals effortlessly move between nostalgic registers, switching from the gruffness of Jim Morrison to the cold, implacable timbre of Ian Curtis, a zone that perfectly complements the band’s instrumental pallete. It’s this unity that makes New Signs of Life an album that truly encapsulates the blooming evolution of Death Bells: familiar, self-assured, and undeniable.
Purchase New Signs of Life here.