Kalbells is the resulting passion of Kalmia Traver and her touring band-turned bandmates Angelica Bess, Zoë Becher and Sarah Pedinotti. The vibrant quartet sets out to “practice both listening and accountability, rejoicing in their queerness, and promoting each other to be their most genuine selves.”
Their sophomore album Max Heart is ten tracks drifting between the realms of sharp psychedelic synths and surreal dreamy pop. They harness their strengths with playful and vivid lyricism creating a unique story within each track. This album is also special as it is Traver’s first time mixing an album herself, a skill learned courtesy of the initial COVID-19 lockdown. The album is buoyant and vulnerable, clearly packed with the intermingled creative expertise of Traver, Bess, Becher and Pedinotti.
The album opens with “Red Marker”. The track is a beautiful ethereal song and a good representation of the artistic, synth-pop sound Kalbells translates into their music. This album opener has an interesting layering of vocal oooh’s and ahhh’s. Multiple layers and echoes of Traver’s voice flow apart and together, adding to the ebb and flow of the song. The song is heavy with synths, and the vocals are used like a synth instrument themselves. The mix has robust low notes dancing along with sharp-edged highs. The tune is soothing with an ever-so-slightly threatening mysterious undertone.
“Red Marker” is followed by “Flute Windows Open in the Rain”. This second track is noticeably more upbeat in tone and energy. A drum line and bassline are much more distinct as they throw themselves into the mix, along with a sax towards the second half. The bassline Bess creates brings a particularly effective grooviness to the tune, giving the synth-pop a bit of an indie alternative flair. Intertwining vocal parts give the ambiance of a lyrical conversation, with the sax jumping in as another part, another echo in this conversation. Overall, the song is funky and optimistic.
“Purplepink” opens with the sharp cut of the synth jolting along until the vocals begin, to smooth over the melody. The colourful name alludes to the vivid imagery created by the sounds of the song describing the purple-pink coloured skies, recalling images of a setting sun. Lines such as “a flower takes a drink of me,” and “nothing’s ever what you think” parallels the psychedelic-sounding synths trailing through the melody and harmony. The buzzy bassline contrasts the reverbed vocals with a twang of hollowness. An ’80s influenced synth solo brings the song full circle into the ending with cool-toned warped vocal runs.
“Poppy Tree” is a dreamy softer sounding tune, offering a welcoming embrace after the sharpness of the preceding track. The melody is comprised of soft bell sounds, and the vocals are kept in her lower register adding to the soothing ambiance. Kalbells are remarkable at painting a picture through their lyrics, with support from the intertwining harmonies, and “Poppy Tree” is no exception. Simple editions from talking about the breeze to saying, “there’s apples in the grass,” give the song the feeling of the crisp air of spring. The outro continues to sail through the dreamy feeling, with a backing choir, sighing out the finale.
Reaching the midpoint of the album, a monotonous back and forth, back and forth beat remains rhythmically throughout the entire song. Becher brings a steady comforting drum feeling like a heartbeat. It emphasises the back and forth of the synth, like a ticking clock. The vocals begin quickly and steadily gliding over the instrumentals with lines like “every seven seconds feels like an eternity.” There is mild desperation at the quickness of the tune. The second half of the song sees verses in French, and a nice sax gives it a jazzy feel, all in the backdrop of the steady beat.
“Pickles” is yes, a song about pickles, with a side of sexual undertones. This song is the start of the second half of the album and is trying to do a lot at once. The beginning starts with drums, and a melody with indie rock influences, the beat is great, and the lyrics interesting as Traver sings “when your pickle got away.” The overall feeling is upbeat, even if the lyrics have a touch of melancholy feels. The vocals glide up and down a scale and the ambient sounds of laughter brighten the tune. But an awkward transition in the middle brings about a slower and sadder tonal shift. The song begins to emphasise feelings of longing. Then the drums begin again and a rap and whistling swoop in before returning a final verse mirroring the beginning of the song. Miss Eaves hops on the track to lend her witty wordplay in the rap section, which is well done, gliding back into the heavy drum and bass section. The song is interesting, but the direction is lost slightly with the number of different places and moods the song travels in just over three minutes.
The beginning of “Bubbles” is refreshing, with a synth melody reminiscent of a piano, and a groovy clapping, tapping drumbeat. Familiar low vocals swoop in singing “I want nothing to do,” which is potentially the most relatable line of the entire album. A nice interlude breaks the song into sections, and the overall interlacing of melody, drums, and harmony create something with a lot of dimensions that entices even the most stubborn of feet to enter a foot-tapping. “Big Lake” sports an interesting chord progression with waspy synths echoing in the distance. The backing ah’s and rising harmony lift the track into a beautiful pre-chorus melody.
“Diagram of Me Sleeping” is one of the singles off the album, and for a good reason. One of the most enticing songs of the album, it is simple in emotion, but complex in sound, creating a personal symphony for your ears. The song is gently optimistic. It’s cheery, but not in an intense, in-your-face kind of way. The addition of a sax part is on all the best tracks of the album and “Diagram of Me Sleeping” is most definitely on that list.
The album concludes with title track “Max Heart”. Cheery and grand, it’s a summation of all the good parts of the album and none of the bad. The bubbly underwater-sounding synths mingle with the drums crashing to the front. A choir of voices brings in the chorus and drops out for a more personal verse with a single vocal describing the minute details of life. There is a beautiful and joyous piano interlude continuing into the grand outro. “Max Heart” is a delightful and strong finale to an equally delightful and strong record.