Morning Bells to play Monstercade
It makes a certain kind of moody, poetic sense that one of the friendships at the core of the Raleigh band Morning Bells was formed over the passing mention of Peter Murphy. Someone overheard a stranger discussing an upcoming show by the dark and suave Bauhaus frontman. Soon Ric Denton and Laura Weislo were talking. This was back in the ‘90s. A shared fondness for those gloomy proto-goth sensibilities signaled deeper aesthetic and temperamental connections. They’ve been friends for over 20 years now. When asked two years ago by one of his co-workers about forming a band, Denton, who was at that point 44 or so, and had never performed in a group, decided to see if Weislo, a veteran bassist of several Triangle area bands (including Mitch Easter’s Shalini), would like to enlist.
In that special x-degrees-of-separation logic that theoretically links almost every musician to almost every other musician, Weislo asked frequent collaborator Emory Ball, who’d played in Snatches of Pink, among others, if he’d like to contribute guitar. And Ball and Weislo asked Peele Wimberley, who’d played drums in the Connells, but who also works as a recording engineer and producer, and who now plays keyboards with Morning Bells.
Special credit has to be given to Morning Bells drummer Bryan Fransman, who initially asked Denton if he’d like to front a band, after having only heard him sing some karaoke. “I was like, he’s got an awesome voice, how is it he’s not doing something with it?” said Fransman of his effort to get Denton involved in the project.
Making the move to front a band in your 40s is fairly bold, particularly if you’ve never stood before an expectant crowd. Or written a song. Those are not talents that everyone has.
But Denton has what sounds like a naturally rich and expressive tenor, a comfort and confidence with vocal phrasing, a warm half-spoken delivery, and a talent for teasing out melodies. He has a mix of maturity in having lived a bit of life, an openness and candor about revealing emotions and a beginner’s energy.
Denton said he doesn’t think he was ready in his 20s to do what he’s doing musically now.
“I think for me to be an effective singer and songwriter, I needed experience to pull from,” he said. “I needed something to say. I needed stories to tell.“
The combination of seasoned experience and genuine newness is one of the appealing things about Morning Bells.
The quintet has released three songs on its Bandcamp page, and they’re closing in on the one-year anniversary of their first live show. Morning Bells play their first Winston-Salem show on Dec. 21 at Monstercade. I spoke with four of the five band members by phone last week.
Listen to “Through the Dark,” one of the band’s three released singles. There are chiming bell-like keyboard sounds, bright rippling guitar lines, and subdued, workmanlike playing from the rhythm section. You might think of Head On The Door-era Cure in the vaguely “Asian” mode of the music. Echo and the Bunnymen might come to mind, too, with that enigmatic mix of brittle and somber. And Denton’s singing might prompt a comparison to the suavity of ‘80s Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry.
Morning Bells harken back to a pre-grunge age when brooding emotion, dark poetry and melodicism weren’t necessarily coupled with simmering rage, chest-pounding volume or abrasive sonic textures.
Darkness is a recurring feature in Morning Bells songs. Not a metaphorical or sonic darkness, but the absence of light, as a condition, night, limited vision. “Through the Dark” involves nighttime drives, trying to return to a now-remote love. Another song, “Ghost,” is partly about a kind of conjuring, at night, an effort to give voice to a spirit, the struggle and responsibility to get a story right.
The songs feel like love songs, but they’re love songs about regret and loss and separation. They’re dark love songs that are haunted by solitude and isolation.
An unreleased song, “The Truth Is,” explores the ways that resentment can hobble us: “dragging bodies too long dead.”
The song “I Belong With You” is about long-form heartache, about making an interpersonal calculating error, losing someone and watching them build another relationship while you spend your life longing for them. It’s romantic, but it’s tragic, too.
As a lyricist, Denton dove into the challenge of telling stories and revealing candid truths as a way of connecting with others.
Some songwriters adopt a stance of strength, defiance and indifference, a pose that is easy for many listeners to embrace as a fantasy of an ideal imperturbability. But others — like Morrissey of the Smiths or Robert Smith of the Cure, say — view a delicate sensitivity as a more meaningful reflection of our predicament in the world.
“I do believe there’s a great power in vulnerability,” Denton said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.