Instrumental rock bands are bound to get compared to each other, sometimes unfairly. If there are elements of jazz, a group suddenly sounds like Tortoise. If metal is referenced, it's Pelican. If things get heavy yet feel cinematic: Explosions in the Sky. Brothers Jared and Michael Bell have been through this repeatedly with their band, Lymbyc Systym, which exacerbates the problem by rarely staying put. On 2007's Love Your Abuser and the new Shutter Release, the siblings travel through alien terrain but also past familiar signposts as itchy electronics merge with lush instrumentation. And, of course, there are no vocals.
"It's weird that people think of instrumental music as a category, because it's so vague," Jared laments. "It's like calling all music with vocals a category. Classical music doesn't sound anything like jazz, which doesn't sound anything like IDM, which doesn't sound anything like instrumental rock. I don't understand how Tortoise and Explosions in the Sky get lumped into the same category."
Having been compared to both of those bands, Jared admits that the former is a definite influence, but not so much the latter. One thing instrumental musicians do have in common, though, is a certain flexibility. You can hear it throughout Shutter Release, in the way found sounds and synths naturally give way to banjo and horns. There's no telling what's around each corner, but the Bells can be relied upon to nail whatever they try. Anchored by drums, Shutter Release features increased emphasis on guitar, violin, and cello, whereas Love Your Abuser was defined more by a glitchy, folk-tinged ambience.
Perhaps it's the result of the brothers playing backing band to more pop-oriented acts Her Space Holiday and the One AM Radio. Either way, they believe Lymbyc Systym can be nearly as universal as pop. "It's only limited in the sense that a lot of people connect easily with lyrics," Jared says. "They want to be told a story. But for those willing to listen, instrumental music is much more open-ended. It's more about an emotion."
The Bells hail from Arizona, but Jared lives in Brooklyn and Michael lives in Austin, so Shutter Release was fleshed out with the aid of files exchanged online. Basic tracks were recorded in Philadelphia and the album was mixed in Dallas, but all of the demos were first completed long-distance. Not that there's anything disjointed about the end product; the songs inform one another like chapters in a novel, complete with an inherent momentum. The experience is by turns tense, calming, and cathartic. And despite the lack of lyrics, song titles like "Interiors," "Late Night Classic," and "Bedroom Anthem" speak to the album's introspective tone. "Kubrick," meanwhile, betrays some cinematic influence.
If the image of two brothers swapping music files doesn't sound like an engaging stage performance, don't underestimate Lymbyc Systym. The last thing the Bells want is a laptop- and sample-driven re-creation of their albums. Instead, they often employ a violinist and sometimes a trumpeter as well as playing live synths, drums, and glockenspiel. "Instead of overusing sequencing, we'd rather simplify arrangements," Michael says. "Our records are really dense, but a lot of it is texture."
Jared adds that the idea isn't to match every last sound from the record. "It's more important that it looks like we're a band playing for people," he says. "We love to geek out on the records, but live, we really want to make it a personal experience."