Sometimes on the wide champaign of the music industry one comes across records that seem to have some really obscure, abandoned feel to them. They’re full-fledged albums with proper artworks and photos, with record company logo and the band members names indicated somewhere on the cover, but they inevitably make an impression of being composed long ago by people who for some reasons are no longer there and released by a label no one can even find the traces of today. In fact, such records leave somewhat mysterious impression on me, as if they were documents left by some time travellers from another dimension, and we can only judge about the place they had come from by their music.
And still, the people who wrote and recorded the album I’d like to tell you about live in the real world which is called New York City and hardly stand out from the crowd in that world of theirs. The name of the main man behind the record is Jeff Hogan, the singer whose voice strongly resembles Kurt Cobain’s; Bela is based around his music and lyrics. The other person in the band you might know is the cello player Julia Kent – a long-time friend and collaborator of Antony Hegarty and some other underground American outfits revolving around gothic, dark-folk and suchlike genres (now also active as a solo artist). All the other people involved, it seems to me, are hardly known outside the underground circles of New York (or outside US in any case).
I would describe Bela’s style as dark-rock; it seems a good idea to me as the term “post-punk” is associated with Joy Division in the first place, and Bela’s music is not nearly as depressively loaded and despairingly driving as Ian Curtis’ songs. Bela is much more into calmer, contemplative sort of sorrow, the opener “13” with Jeff’s ghostly vocals and thick cello sound being one of the best examples of this. The shades of Bela’s melancholy vary from sweet sadness (“Love Lane”) to anxious, disturbing, intoxicating yearning, which is but introversive, whirling hectically into the inside of one’s psyche and not spilling outside in aggression. In such moments, like in “Heaven’s Slow” or the brilliant “Dope”, Bela evoke images of musicians dressed in black playing in a dark and empty solitary basement with eerie shadows all around them, and these are the shadows that stem from the subconscious. Not only the overall seeming nakedness of the rawer tracks on the album makes for their sharp-edged efficiency, but also slight unapparent effects: among the instruments used by the musicians are theremin, melodica and recorder. I also can’t help but emphasize the work of the drummer Fred Pisciotta, who is playing his drums as if he were drawing the sharpest, thinnest lines in the ringing air with his drumsticks. And – Bela is a quartet, but obviously not a traditional one: the second, solo-guitar is replaced by the cello, with all the consequences for the sound entailed. And the consequences are: deep, atmospheric, flowing passages, creating unique mood in combination with the other instruments and contributing some wired madness to faster and darker tracks. Outstanding in its way is Julia’s solo number “Graduation Day”: overdubbed layers of cello sound shifting along and flowing by in an ethereal cloud of shimmering beauty – a great contribution to the atmosphere of the album.
Actually, the songs can be roughly broken up into these two categories: uneasy, minimalistic, gloomy post-punk-mooded tracks, among which the aforementioned “Dope” is a true gem, and the more poetic songs, imbued with warm and nostalgic feelings. The important part of this collection of songs is lyrics, which on some numbers I would unhesitatingly call poetry. The lyrics also are what makes one think of “’Til Summer Ends” as a concept album. Apart from the splendid “For Those In Need”, songs like “Love Lane”, “’Til Summer Ends”, “Daybender” or the light “Popparossa” are like sepia-tone pictures of seaside promenades, bicycles in quiet streets on a hot and sunny day, some rain clouds on the horizon now and again, but these are the pictures masterfully taken, filled with life to the brim, and also with vivid memories, stirring experiences, unembittered happiness and heartaches. The beautiful desolate ballad “Hart’s Island” placed amidst them adds another kind of regretful nostalgia, but still with a light hint of hope. This really is a summer album, but it shows the summer in black and white and has that special feel like an old movie - even if there’s no other colours except black and white on the screen you still can see the sun shining brightly, don’t you? More than that, you can distinguish whether it’s baking dust on the dry leaves at noon or heading mildly towards sunset. The same with this album, impressionistic in its way – it beautifully shades different moments of summer coming to an end.
The album’s title implies that things here are taking place most likely in August – closer to the calendar end of the summer, which is confirmed by Bela’s poetically best song, “Summer Bells”. The whole idea of what summer might mean for a person is conveyed here: from the viewpoint of a child standing on the threshold of school-beginning as well as more philosophically, as the ever changing circle of things (“let it come and let it go”). Similar thoughts of major and minor keys in life being tightly interweaved were earlier brilliantly expressed in “For Those In Need”:
So come and join me, it’s not bad,
Without the sadness there’s no glad.
What good is sunshine without rain?
Who needs the laughter if it’s fake?
On “Summer Bells” Jeff sings:
If you blink it’s almost gone,
Let the warming in just one more time
Before the winter comes.
– and Bela really managed to capture this very transition the size of a blink in the arrangements and the music of this song. Just try and think of all the things encompassed in this familiar school bells sound. These people have put this whole ineffable wave of pinching vague sensations perfectly into one piece of music. It makes “Summer Bells” sort of a conceptual centerpiece of the record, its logical conclusion and, in a way, the album’s most important song.
“’Til Summer Ends” was released in 2000, which makes this year its anniversary. It is in no way a revolutionary or essential album for some music style or generation – there are absolutely different reasons that make me write about it and think it’s worth recommending; it is, in my opinion, a record of a peculiar charm, atmosphere and poetry, which has remained strangely unnoticed and therefore underrated. But obscurity hasn’t done it no harm – these songs are good to keep them for yourself as a little secret.