Southern discomfort

When a band can jump the deeply rutted paths of mainstream music to make something their own, it causes a spasm of pure pleasure in the rock-’n’-roll universe. Chapel Hill-based three-piece Bellafea is the cause of some recent gallactic quivering. Nurtured in the bosom of the upright, Baptist-saturated South, bassist Eddie Sanchez, drummer Nathan Buchanan, and guitarist-vox Heather McEntire have crafted a singular sound that honors their punchy-punk roots as much as it presses forward into fresh territory.

The tension between the religiosity of their home base and secular outside life manifests itself throughout Bellafea’s debut full-length, Cavalcade (Southern Records). Beautifully articulating that dissonance, Bellafea is an amalgam of contradiction and brooding energy, whose tendencies are reminiscent of Team Dresch, Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead, and Polvo: diverse vocals; somber, strong bass; dark, serrated guitars; and Buchanan’s encompassing drums.

Buchanan and McEntire, who met as undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, have been “pigeonholed as a duo” since 2001, when they started playing together. Eighteen months ago they shook up that formula by inviting Sanchez to compose bass lines for some of the songs.

“I feel like he textured `our music` and still gave it space,” McEntire explains.

Bellafea considered recording Cavalcade live, but instead opted to showcase strings, piano, and a unified team of backing vocalists. The result is an album layered with discordant melodies and lustrous candor that begets vulnerability and, ultimately, healing. The band manipulates McEntire’s voice so artfully that it becomes one of the most unique instruments, distinctly emotive while traveling between a sepulchral bay and a penitent murmur. The band’s synergistic songwriting process bolsters this effect. Buchanan and Sanchez infuse McEntire’s song fragments with an energy that makes their material fully bloom, McEntire says.

Appearances by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats and classically trained violinist Daniel Hart, among other talented guests, maintain what McEntire calls a “sense of plurality” that’s convincing, smooth, and highlights her knack for raw immediacy. The perfect instrument accent at crucial moments elevates the songs to new levels, as on the tragically lovely “Thornbird II.” Yoking Hart’s ominous violin to McEntire’s haunting voice suggests clandestine brutality exposed, as she woefully opines, “What is erotic about eradication?” Ben Davis’s accompanying bass and Buchanan’s marching drums lead listeners through those delicately contoured last moments in slow motion, and we feel the pulse of Hart’s shrieking violin convey both urgency and resignation in those final beats.

“Depart (I Never Knew You)” and “Run Rabbit Run” posit honesty as a mechanism for confrontation and the betrayal that often follows, forcing us to face the dark realities that we try to avoid. “If we are going to grieve then we’re going to do it right now/Hold back your hair so I can make sure you’re crying too,” keens McEntire through abrasive peels in “Depart.” “Arctic” is anthemic and balances Sanchez’s yawning bass with expansive vocals that usurp the power of abandonment, because, it reminds us, we’ll always fall from pedestals we have no business standing on. The melancholic “Stranger” embodies the album’s title in its melody, exposing the pathos of just being human.

“I’ve devoted myself to the theory of genuinely trying to articulate and document exactly what I’m going through,” says McEntire of her clean lyrical tropes.

“Bones to Pick” is Bellafea’s call to arms, tracing the disintegration of a relationship through powerful charges — “When did this fornication become some competition?” — and treading into hairy, awkward territory as chasms form between once-close people. Buchanan’s sturdy drums support the combative guitar and sharp, accusing vocals: “This ship is sinking/And you’re all out of favors/from rubbing your elbows and dropping anchors.”

To identify the multiple plates from which Bellafea feasts, listeners must bring an adventurous palate. They focus on what’s important: honoring the malleability of people and things, places, and time in order to heal. McEntire says of her strict upbringing, that, because her parents didn’t have a record player, she was steeped in “choir and hymnal influences,” influences that peek through the fibers that comprise Cavalcade. Listen without expectation, and the through lines will reveal themselves, immediately shift, and ultimately force you to abandon the urge to categorize.

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